The whole thing's Jasper's fault.
The man's a terrible drunk.
He and Phil and Melinda May only have the chance to go out about once a month, when the stars align and down time or medical leave for all three of them coincides - the perils of working for an underground government agency, of being three of the most senior agents in the organization.
Unfortunately, that also means that when they do it they do it right, that when they go they go hard. At this point they don't even pretend that it's anything other than what it is – just three apparent accountant types, mid to late thirties, out on a Friday night to get shitfaced.
Tonight they start with apps and a pint a piece; buffalo wings and potato skins and dark, frothy beers, but it doesn't take long for them to move on to rounds of shots and their own personal go-to drinks. Jasper has a broken ankle and a thick, white bandage wrapped around his head, two black eyes, and looks more like some kind of tragic war hero instead of the victim of a car accident that he is. High-speed chase, gun-battle style car accident, but still. The little weasel is working his injured charm on the waitress and has convinced her to bring them three shots of cinnamon-thick Fireball on the house, because for some ungodly reason he likes reliving his college days with the vile stuff.
Less than an hour later all three of them are warm and loose and happy, even Melinda, who, despite all appearances to the contrary, does know when and how to let her hair down. They're getting a little bit loud, a little rambunctious, rocking into each other and lopping arms around each other's shoulders as they roar with laughter. It's a good night, surrounded by the best of good friends, but all too soon those good friends steer the conversation toward one of their favorite topics: Phil's lack of love life.
Phil hasn't bothered dating in a long time. He's thirty-four and already married to his work, the nature of which makes relationships difficult. He answers a lot of questions with 'that's classified' and is susceptible to being called out of the country for weeks at a time, at a moment's notice, and more often than not he goes home to his little brownstone exhausted and aching and irritable. His schedule and his emotional distance tend to make women emotional and weepy and hurt, to make men irritable and pushy and annoyed. Audrey had waited him out the longest, only because half the time their relationship had been long-distance, with her spending every other week in Portland with her orchestra.
Jasper and Melinda blame these things on him.
Apparently, if they can make a relationship work on SHEILD time, he should be able to do the same.
Phil would argue the definition of 'relationship' in this instance – May, sexually aggressive and not particularly romantic, owns what she wants and enjoys supremely satisfying one-night stands on her terms, and Jasper is a serial-dater, never getting past the two-month mark before his strange and disconcerting infatuation with Maria Hill raises its unfortunate and ugly head.
Still, somehow it's Phil's love life that keeps getting targeted, something he finds extremely unfair.
"It wouldn't be so bad if you weren't such a sad lil' snuggle-bug," Jasper bemoans, leaning heavily against Phil's side and nuzzling his shoulder with his face.
Across the table, May snickers her agreement into her drink.
"Sad face," Jasper pouts, reaching up to poke Phil's mouth into a reasonable facsimile of a smile. "You deserve someone to cuddle with too!"
"Thank you, for that rousing commendation," Phil scoffs, rolling his eyes.
He hates these talks, they hit too close to home. No, he doesn't want a spouse, or even really a serious relationship – that wouldn't be fair to him or to the other party involved. He's gone too often, works too late, has too few emotional resources to devote to another individual, but sometimes, sometimes, on those rare nights when he does go back to his apartment instead of just crashing in the barracks, he thinks it would be nice.
Someone there to hold and to touch, to cuddle with or sleep with – really sleep, not sex. Sex is the easy part, the casual part, the part Phil has no particular problem with. Closeness though, the kind of emotional intimacy that comes from sleeping curled up next to someone, that's a fight sometimes. A hearty dose of mistrust and paranoia are standard issue for all SHIELD agents – it's not surprising Phil has this issue. Just... makes it a little harder.
"He's got a point Phil," May smirks, raising her eyebrow pointedly, and it says something that he hadn't even realized how closely he and Jasper were sitting. His arm was stretched out along the back of the booth and his friend was tucked in snugly beneath his, nearly facing the ceiling as he turns to prop up his casted ankle and pillow his head on Phil's ribs. "You really are a cuddly bastard – you should probably accept it."
"If either of you orders me one of those cuddle-escorts I will bury you so deep in paperwork you'll never see the light of day again," Phil grumbles.
Looking back he shouldn't have said it.
It does no good to give them ideas.
Still, the wince and the glimmer of nervousness from each of them nearly makes it worth it. Phil's become known as something of a paperwork ninja and doesn't make idle threats.
"Mel, Phil needs a cuddle-buddy!" Jasper declares, throwing up his arms. He's sunk down below the edge of the table now, lying on the padded bench with his head on Phil's thigh. "We should help!"
"I think you've got him covered Sitwell," Melinda sniffs, rolling her eyes and taking a long, slow sip of her gin and tonic.
"We should get him a puppy," Jasper mumbles thoughtfully, then again, louder, as though he's realized what a good idea this is - "Mel, we should get Phil a puppy!"
Phil's eyes widen and he frantically mimes silence – he knows what Jasper's like when he gets an idea in his head, especially when he's drunk – but May's mouth just curls into a considering, wicked smirk.
"Not a half-bad idea Coulson," she muses, biting down on the lime wedge from her drink. "Never met a dog I didn't trust. Man's best friend and all that."
"What would I do with a puppy?" Phil asks, taking a gulp of his beer and settling back in the booth, swatting at Jasper who's suddenly fishing in the pocket of Phil's jeans for his phone.
"Cuddle!" he says firmly, coming up triumphant and keying in Phil's password without a moment's hesitation. "Play fetch! Go for runs. Hell, train it in personal protection and bring it to work."
Phil looks to May for help but she's pursed her lips in consideration, is actually nodding along.
"What?" she asks when Phil glares, shrugging her shoulders. "He's making a good argument."
Yes, a good argument, one of the very regrettable characteristics of an intoxicated Sitwell. A few shots and the man's tongue went to silver – he could convince you of nearly anything when he put his mind to it.
"I'm gone all the time," he points out, quite sensibly he thinks. "What then?"
"You're up for a promotion to handler in two weeks and your sister lives like, three blocks away," May points out. "Nice try Coulson. Like your niece and nephew wouldn't die for the chance to babysit a puppy once in a while."
"I'm telling Beth you said that," he warns.
"And anyway," Melinda continues, ignoring the threat. "You might actually go home to that nice apartment you bought every once in a while if you had a pet waiting for you."
"Yeah, an apartment that's been chewed to hell and pissed all over by a puppy that's been locked up all day."
"Pfft, that's easy," Jasper mumbles from Phil's lap, where he's been tapping away quietly on his phone. "Just find one that's a little older, already house-trained. There's lots of older puppies out there that need a home.
Phil scowls at him and then at May when she laughs – sneaky bastard, tugging at his heartstrings like that. May's right, he makes a damned good argument, and really the idea doesn't sound terrible. He'd had pets growing up, a dog or two in his childhood. It's been a while, but he remembers the way a puppy can make you feel, like you're the best and only thing in the world.
It's not something he would mind coming home to.
Mel's looking at him smugly as he muses, but before he can throw up the next token denial Jasper is poking him in the ribs, pushing his phone back into his hand. Phil takes it with a questioning look, tapping the screen to wake it up. He'd thought Jasper had been playing Angry Birds, but as the screen comes to life he finds himself looking at a profile page for a local online want ads, a slightly more exclusive and slightly less shady Craigslist. It's open to the editing box of a search ad and Jasper's clearly been paying more attention to the conversation than he thought, because it's actually pretty succinct.
Wanted: well-behaved pup for relatively inexperienced pet owner. Middle-aged man seeking a companion for cuddles and play. Looking for a young, energetic, independent pup who's in need of a furever home. Tough, hearty breed preferred, house-trained and up-to-date on shots. No small children or other pets in the home.
Makes him sound like an old man who wants a tabby cat to keep him company on the couch while he watches The Price is Right...
"Nuh-uh," Jasper denies, shaking his head as he takes the phone back. "Tha's how you spell it for puppies."
"Why do you know that?"
"He volunteers at the animal shelter ever since he and Clarissa split," May supplies. "Apparently adoptions have gone up forty-five percent since he came on."
"Don't worry Phil," Jasper says, patting his thigh. "I'll find you a cuddle-puppy. We can look at the shelter tomorrow. If there's nobody there that likes you then you'll have this."
Tapping at the phone's touch screen, he keys in the final submission with a flourish before handing it back.
"Thanks buddy," Phil says, more resignation than anything as he takes the phone and tucks it back into his pocket.
He supposes that this way at least he doesn't actually have to commit to anything.
"Anything for you buddy!"
May snorts, gets up from her side of the booth and comes around to haul Jasper to his feet.
"Come on Sitwell," she says gruffly as Phil reaches for his wallet and throws some bills down on the table. "I think you've had enough for one night."
Jasper snorts, then bursts into giggles as Melinda gets him propped up against her shoulder, supporting more of his weight than his crutches. Phil follows them toward the exit as Jazz starts singing a song about the Cavalry off key and out of rhythm, a sure sign of his having had too much to drink. He snickers and snorts and makes terrible jokes all the way back to May's apartment, forfeiting his credit card to tip the cabbie on the way out, and passes out on the bed before they can even get him out of his shoes. Phil strips them both down to their SHIELD-issued underwear while Melinda finds something to wear, daring him to laugh when she returns in a pink, over-sized Tweety Bird t-shirt.
It probably says something about the theme of the night's discussion when it only takes him a minute to fall asleep in a tangle of limbs and quiet breathing, bracketed by the two people he trusts most to have his back.
Fluff. Just... utter fluff and silliness. Cuddles and cavity-sweet cuteness. I don't even know.
Phil wakes up the next morning with a headache, a taste in his mouth like something died, and someone's knee poking at his kidneys. Rolling over with a groan, he detangles himself from Sitwell's octopus arms, climbs carefully over a still-slumbering Melinda and makes his way silently to the bathroom. By the time he's relieved his aching bladder and gargled three capfuls of Listerene Jasper's slithered across the bed and started spooning the other agent, his arm wrapped tightly around her waist and his face buried in her hair.
Phil grins and sends up a prayer – Sitwell better hope he wakes up first if he doesn't want to be pushed off the edge of the mattress.
Rules dictate that while May supplies the California King and the kitchen she absolutely will not be responsible for breakfast, so Phil finds his jeans and makes his way downstairs. Her apartment is the approximate twin of his own, New York's brownstones all fairly cookie-cutter, so it's easy for him to feel comfortable moving about without making much noise. That and the fact that he's familiar with Melinda and her home after years of intimate friendship means that there's no clanging of pots and pans, no searching through the cabinets for what he's looking for. His own hangover is relatively mild and May likely won't have one at all, but Jasper's will be a killer, so grease, OJ, and Advil it will be.
By the time his friends appear, Jasper hobbling along like he's half dead, he's got bacon in the oven, a quick hash on the stove, and eggs ready to fry. The potatoes, onions, and peppers go into three bowls, topped with a squeeze of sriracha and over-easy eggs ready to be split, spicy and savory and just heavy enough to settle a queasy stomach. Breakfast is silent in deference to throbbing heads, but by the time the dishes go into the washer they're all three feeling much better.
"So, wanna meet me at the shelter at two?" Jasper asks, a safe estimate given that it's already ten-thirty.
Phil groans, dropping his head into his hands and scrubbing them down over his face.
"Hoped you'd forget about that," he mutters, and beside him May snorts a laugh.
"Nah, you're not getting out of it that easy Coulson," Jasper grins, coming around to clap him hard on the shoulder. "Wanna come Mel?"
Melinda shakes her head, sips her coffee.
"I have errands to run," she answers. "But be sure you text me pictures. Especially if he ends up with a kitten instead."
"NO," Phil insists vehemently, grinding his teeth.
He'd had the misfortune of having a twenty-pound Persian attach itself to his face once – kind of soured him to the species.
He is not a cat person.
"Don't worry buddy," Jasper reassured him. "I promised you a puppy and I'm gonna find you one."
This declaration leads to a slow flurry of movement as all three of them trundle off to find the rest of their clothes, to get themselves into some semblance of order for the rest of the day. Mel bids them both goodbye with a kiss on the cheek, a rare show of affection, and he and Jasper slip into separate cabs to head home for a shower and a shave. By the time two o'clock rolls around he's feeling infinitely better and not even the rough, somewhat imposing blonde brick that makes up the local animal shelter can lessen the mood.
"Ready?" Jasper asks as Phil steps up to meet him on the sidewalk.
Phil frowns, stuffs his hands into his pockets.
"I don't know Jazz," he says, allowing just a little bit of his uncertainty to leak out in his voice. "I mean, I've had dogs before but I was a kid. What do I really know about taking care of something?"
"Phil, your goldfish lasted seven years," Jasper points out, putting a hand flat between Phil's shoulder blades and pushing him inside. "You've been with SHIELD for eleven and you haven't lost a junior yet. You'll be fine, I promise."
"Besides," he shrugs as he leads them toward the front desk, "It's not like you have to pick a dog today, or even at all. We're a no-kill shelter so you don't have to feel obligated or guilty or anything."
"Good to know," Phil murmurs as Jasper signs them in, flirts with the girl behind the desk and explains that Phil's here to check out the dogs.
He had been worried to be honest – he didn't want to feel like a dick walking out of here empty handed knowing that some poor creature was going to be euthanized just because Phil was too chicken-shit to make a commitment. It feels like a weight of his shoulders knowing that's not going to happen, takes the pressure off of the whole thing.
"Come on," Jasper says, giving him a nudge to get him moving in the right direction. "Sarah said I can take you back."
"Didn't know you were spending so much time down here," Phil says casually, following him into a back hallway where he's assaulted by a cacophony of barks and clanging gates.
Jasper shrugs, turns a little pink.
"I got into the whole charity work thing when I was seeing Clare," he admits. "She volunteers down at the soup kitchen on twenty-third? When we broke up I didn't want to quit helping out but I wasn't sure it would be a good idea to show up down there."
"Yeah. Anyway, that's how I ended up over here. This ended up being more fun so I guess the joke's on her."
"You gonna ask Hill out then?" Phil queries casually.
This time Jasper goes dark red.
"Shut up," he mutters, then makes a sweeping gesture down a long hallway lined on either side with small kennels. "Well? Wanna do a quick run-through? I know everybody back here so I can tell you about anybody who catches your eye."
Phil nods and starts slowly down the aisle, still a little uncomfortable. It seems kind of terrible to bypass these animals, cast aside through no fault of their own, to decide no, not the Chihuahua because it's tiny and fragile and trembling, no, not the Jack Russell because it's bat shit insane, bouncing off the walls and yapping its fool head off. There's a black and white speckled mutt with sharp, upright ears that is lying down calmly and comfortably, but he's grey in the muzzle and wobbly when he stands, looks like he needs a home where he can curl up in a soft bed in front of a fireplace and nap.
Opposite him is a kennel of four puppies, Beagles by all accounts, that Phil falls in love with immediately, and he stops to sit down in the bottom of the cage and let them crawl all over him. They're pudgy and wiggly and silky-soft, with sweet, milky puppy-breath and floppy ears, squeak and yip and woof and tumble around in his lap and Jasper takes about a hundred pictures before Phil gets back up and dusts off his hands, leaves them behind reluctantly.
"Too little?" he asks, and Phil nods.
"They're adorable," he says, "I am not immune to that. But I'm not an idiot either. High energy, loud... and they're just babies."
"Yeah, not exactly what you're looking for."
Kennel after kennel passes by, scruffy mutts with big sad eyes until he gets to the end, where there's a gorgeous, butter-colored Golden Retriever sitting at strict attention, watching Phil with big brown eyes. He steps closer to the fence, tilts his head, but the dog makes a long, low, rumbly sound that Phil doesn't like at all.
"Yeah, maybe not this one," Jasper warns, and Phil arches an eyebrow.
"Aren't Retrievers supposed to be the classic American good dog?" he asks.
"Yeah, but this one's got some issues to work through," Jasper replies. "He's not super friendly. The behavior analyst is working with him but he definitely needs a more... experienced handler."
"So not me," Phil sighs, surprised that he's so disappointed.
"You ok Coulson?" Jasper asks, picking up on his change of mood immediately.
"Fine," he shrugged, brushing away his concern. "Just, it wasn't a good idea until I got here you know? I wasn't really..."
"And now you're disappointed."
Phil narrows his eyes suspiciously, scowls.
"Are you still hung over?" he mumbles sulkily, defensively, but Jasper just laughs.
"Nah, but you're easy to read when your walls are down," he says, slinging his arm around Phil's shoulders and walking him back down the aisle to stand in front of the pen of Beagle puppies. Neither of these things makes Phil feel any better, but he crouches down to stick his fingers through the chain link all the same.
"Honestly, I'm glad you're being... discerning about this," Jasper admits, his hands in his pockets as he rocks back and forth on his heels. "It kinda sucks when somebody brings one back. Better to wait, find one that's right for you."
"A pet rock would be right for me Jazz," Phil huffs, getting back to his feet. "Something that can take care of itself."
"Hey listen, I know I kinda pushed you into this," he says, suddenly apologetic. "If you really don't want..."
Phil barks a melancholy laugh.
"That's the shitty part," he complains, rising smoothly to his feet. "Now I kinda do. Be nice to have somebody to cuddle, somebody to come home to."
"Aw don't worry," Jasper says bumping him chummily with his shoulder as he turns him toward the door. "If this is something you really want you can find a way to make it work. You're Phil Coulson. You just need to find somebody that's right for you. And hey, it's not like this means you never have to date again. A dog isn't a replacement for a partner Phil. It's the same deal – you're just waiting for the right one to come along. Besides, puppies are total chick magnets!"
Phil laughs, and this time it's lighter and happier and less resigned. He was being silly – he had a great job and good friends and close family, spent his days doing what he loves. It's never bothered him all that much that he wasn't dating, or that he didn't have a pet. If he takes some time in the next few weeks to think about this, to poke around the internet and decide if this is actually something that he wants, that he can commit to, then that's just fine. There's no pressure here, and Jasper's right. If it's something he wants, he can make it happen.
After all, the whole point of a pet is that it's something that makes you happy right?
That realization is a weight off his shoulders and it's easy for him to follow Jasper down to the kitten cages, to pose for pictures that they send off to Melinda for fear of denying her the request. Phil holds the tiny mewling balls of fluff carefully but isn't swayed to the dark side, leaves the shelter with a grin and a spring in his step and a promise from Jasper to call him if a dog comes in that he thinks Phil will get along with. He's able to thank him honestly for the effort now that they've come to an agreement of sorts, and Phil feels like somehow he's gotten some personal growth out of this.
Strange, given that it started as a weird drunken conversation pushing a hypothetical pet on him that he didn't want, and ended with him feeling more hopeful than not about prospects he's yet to have.
He goes back to work, back to his routine, and in general forgets about the thing. He goes on a two-day milk run for SHIELD, conducts a team of juniors through a simple sweep-and-clear, comes back to finish the after-action reports and finds the official papers for his promotion on his desk. It's what he's been working toward for some time – he'll still be a field agent, still be a pair of boots on ground, but as a handler he'll get to mold young people into the types of agents SHIELD is proud of, have a hand in shaping the future. It's new and exciting and he's not at all surprised to find Fury's got him on recruitment as well.
He's been angling for that for ages.
SHIELD is still relatively young in the world of alphabet agencies and he wants that, wants to have a hand in finding the best of the best, investigating the rumors of individuals with incredible talents that could make a difference in the world. Phil's always been told he could sell ice to an Alaskan, and on some subconscious level he's been practicing his recruitment speech for years.
He's ready for this.
His sister, well, she's just happy that he'll be around more often, a little closer to home, a little safer.
When he gives her the good news Beth shrieks down the phone line and he can hear her jumping up and down on the hardwood. She's happier for him than she is that he's going to be out of harm's way – she's come to terms with what he does for a living, but she's excited about the prospect of more family holidays spent together – herself, Phil, and her two kids.
He can't deny that he's looking forward to that part of it too; Nathan and Julia are growing far too fast between visits.
When his eardrums have stopped ringing he makes plans to treat them all to a day in the park to celebrate before hanging up and going back to his list of SHIELD prospects. Twenty minutes later he's called down to Mission Central to start planning the infiltration of a Cincinnati drug ring that's been cutting its heroin with elephant tranquilizers.
With all the excitement, he figures he's allowed the brief flash of confusion he experiences when, nearly two weeks after this whole thing started, his phone pings with a text from an unknown number.
HELLO MR. COULSON. I WAS WONDERING IF YOU'RE STILL LOOKING FOR A PUPPY TO PLAY WITH.
Seriously guys - elephant tranquilizers. That's actually a thing that's happening.
Also, PLEASE visit your local shelters. Volunteer, donate, go play, adopt! You'd be surprised the precious pets you can find there :)
He agrees to meet Clint at a local park, the same one he plans to take Nate and Julie to next week. He'd spoken to him briefly on the phone and the man sounds young and shy and a little nervous, and Phil is intrigued despite himself, not only because of the pup he claims to feel will be a good match for Phil. For whatever reason the guy had sent him a selfie after hanging up, and wow, ok, he kind of gets what Jasper meant when he said puppies were chick magnets.
Barton's not a chick, that much is painfully obvious, but the sentiment is the same.
SO YOU KNOW WHO TO LOOK FOR - the caption reads, and yes, he'll be awfully hard to miss. He's tall, thickly built with great shoulders, sunny blonde and smiling, if a little bashfully as he looks up at the camera through criminally long eyelashes, and Phil tries to remember which problem he's heading out to address Saturday afternoon – his new interest in acquiring a pet or his very new interest in acquiring a date.
He knows not to expect the dog – when he'd asked if Clint would bring it the man had chuckled and said no somewhat nervously, stating that he'd want to make sure Phil could provide a good home first. He'd thought that slightly odd but it sounded like Clint cared for the pup a good deal and he supposed it was only fair that he wanted to make sure before handing over the leash.
He actually felt a bit nervous about that – he wanted to make a good impression on this man, for more than one reason. They'd only traded a handful of texts, shared the one phone call, but Phil had been charmed by the voice on other end of the line. He's a little ashamed to admit that he spent some time on his appearance before heading out, making sure his hair is as neat as possible and wearing a nice, dark grey button down with his best jeans. Silly – Clint's not looking for anything more than to interview him as a prospective new owner for his dog Lucky – but it is what it is.
He's a convincing guy, and there's a great food truck at the far end of the park that serves sweet treats – he can probably work in a coffee proposal in there somewhere.
Phil spies the man from halfway across the park, sitting on a bench with his face tipped up to the sky. There's a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth and he looks so content sitting there in the sunshine that he's almost reluctant to approach him, but he thinks staring at him from a distance like a creepy stalker-type might worsen his chances – for getting to know Lucky or his current handler.
The man jerks a little as he lurches upright, clearly startle by Phil's gentle query. He's on his feet in a second, somehow both graceful and gangly in the same movement, and his eyes work Phil over from top to bottom before he meets his gaze.
"Phil?" he asks, and it's nervous and hopeful and shy all tangled up together as his cheeks pink and he bites his lower lip.
Phil just grins, offers his hand to shake.
"That's me," he nods, pleasantly surprised by the firm strength of Clint's grip, the drag of calluses against his fingers. "Nice to meet you."
"Yeah, it's uh..." Clint stumbles, eyeing Phil again as his blush deepens. "Wow, it's really nice to meet you too."
Phil's eyebrows skyrocket and he takes a step back, surprised.
That... wasn't what he was expecting.
"Um, thank you?" he replies, and when it comes out more like a question than anything else, Clint laughs.
It's a great sound and it lights him up beautifully, and Phil feels the world tilt a little beneath his feet.
"I mean, I got a little nervous when you didn't send me a selfie back," he admits. "You know how the internet can be. But you seemed nice on the phone and then you wanted to meet and well... I hoped, you know?"
"That I'd be hot?"
Phil isn't sure what bearing his physical appearance has on his ability to raise a canine, but he has no intention of looking a gift horse in the mouth. If this young, fit, very attractive man is attracted to him in return he's not going to argue it.
"Let's just say that thus far I haven't been disappointed," Clint says with a sly little smirk, and Phil feels a flush of heat run through him.
"Well, would you like to take a walk then?" he asks, swallowing a swell of unexpected emotion. "Maybe grab a cup of coffee? There's a food truck on the other side of the park; it's... quiet. We can talk."
Something in Clint's bearing relaxes and it's only then that Phil realizes he'd been a little tense in the first place. It's kind of endearing but it also breaks his heart a little bit. Obviously this guy cares about his pup – makes Phil wonder why he's parting with him.
"Sounds good," he says easily, tucking his hands into the pockets of his jeans and falling into step when Phil turns them down one of the paths. "I mean I hope you don't mind, that I have a few questions..."
"Of course not," Phil assures, "That's perfectly understandable. I have to admit, I'm not a very... experienced pet owner but... it is something I'm interested in. Very much in fact. Ask away, and I'll do my best to answer."
Clint looks... almost astonished by his words, like Phil's promised him a gift instead of a few simple answers, and he rubs at the back of his neck bashfully as they approach the truck. Phil waves him off when he reaches for his wallet, buys them both an iced coffee in deference to the early summer heat, topped off with a pump of hazelnut flavoring. Clint chases the straw with his tongue, hums with pleasure at his first sip and smiles.
"Man, I'm a sucker for good coffee," he grins as Phil leads them toward the little coin fountain at the back of the park. "You're off to a hell of a good start Mr. Coulson."
Phil blushes at the way Clint purrs his name, but suspects that this might be a bit of a test.
"Puppies aren't supposed to have coffee," he replies, and Clint arches an eyebrow, a smile still tugging at his mouth.
"Not even cute ones?" he asks slyly.
"Especially not cute ones. Why, you think Lucky's cute enough to wiggle past my defenses?"
"You tell me."
Phil pauses, turns and looks at Clint in confusion. He's ducking his head again, blushing, looking young and she and somehow eager, and Phil is almost overcome by the urge to reach out and brush his hair back from his forehead.
"I guess we'll just have to wait and see," he says softly, and Clint's head snaps up to meet his gaze, eyes bright with emotions Phil can't name.
"Getting ahead of ourselves?" he asks, hoping he's interpreting it right.
Clint licks his lips, watches him, then shrugs.
"Maybe a little," he says a bit sheepishly, looking away, and this time Phil does cave to the urge to touch, reaching out to rest his fingers lightly on Clint's wrist.
"Hey, it's fine," he says, suddenly struck by a feeling similar to one he'd felt in the shelter, something like pained sadness and fear of an uncertain future. What was it about this man, this bond he had with a pup he was clearly close to?
"Clint," he urges, "I told you I'd answer your questions as best I could. I meant that. I can't claim to understand your side of this, but... I'm sure it must be hard."
Silence passes for a moment before Clint speaks, his voice quiet and small and hesitant.
"A little. It's just... I've met with people before. They weren't... good. They shouldn't have had puppies, ever. I've... I've made mistakes before, trusted people I shouldn't. I'm trying not to do that again."
He's nearly collapsed in on himself by the end, the emotion so strong Phil can taste it, the saltwater and sourness of hard, painful tears. Jesus, what had happened to this man, what had had such an effect on him?
Phil moves automatically to hug him, to take some of that away, but he thinks the better of it and asks first, surprised at himself.
"Clint, would you like a hug?"
A whimpering sound escapes the man, almost to high and small to have come from such a deep chest, but then all of a sudden he surges forward into Phil's arms and he has to stagger a bit to keep his balance. Clint is warm and solid in his arms and tucks his face into the curve of Phil's throat, and there's little he can do but hug him back, let him hold on until he's caught his breath again and pulls back, sniffs and clears his throat.
"Thanks," he mumbles, hunching his shoulders and slumping down on the edge of the fountain, kicking his feet out. "Needed that. This is a lot harder than I thought it was gonna be."
"You're welcome," Phil says warmly. Taking a seat beside him, he rocks their shoulders together, leans forward a little to rest his elbows on his knees and put his coffee cup on the sidewalk between his feet. "But I feel like there's more going on here than I thought. Come on Barton, talk to me."
Maybe it's the casual gruffness, the joking command, the tone the better fits two old friends, but whatever it is it seems to work because suddenly Clint's gesturing widely with his hands and speaking with even more passion than he's shown thus far.
"It's just I haven't done this in so long," he says in a wobbly voice. "After what happened last time I didn't think I'd ever... But then I read your ad and it just seemed so good and right and... and perfect. You seemed so nice. And then I actually meet you and you're gorgeous and polite and kind, and I know you said you don't have a lot of experience with this but..."
"I've had a few puppies before," Phil says soothingly, surprised and a little concerned about the rush of heated emotion Clint just came out with. "Two or three. But I was young then, a teenager. They were my mom's more than mine."
Clint sits up and pushes away from Phil along the edge of the fountain, turns to face him with a pale face and narrow eyes and a sharp, harsh frown.
"Well yes. She took care of them more than I did, but again, I was a teenager. The spaniel, absolutely – we only adopted that one six months before I went into the Army..."
Clint sucks in a sharp breath and drops his head, freezes and stares at his shoes, and Phil wonders what he said wrong, more confused by the minute as Clint starts to shake his head, muttering rapidly under his breath.
"Ohhh... no no no no no. Oh my god. He's looking for a dog, you're looking for a... Oh my god. I need to go."
He's on his feet almost before Phil can blink, getting up and heading back the way they came, but Phil's beside him within ten yards and catching his wrist, jumping in front of him when he snatches it back.
"Clint, wait!" he demands, more fearful of the state the man's suddenly in than offended that he's just been dropped like a hot potato. "What's wrong? What did I say?"
"Please, just let go," he whines, even though Phil's already released him. He's painfully red and won't meet Phil's eyes, but at least he's standing still again and not actively trying to run anymore.
"Clint please? Just tell me. Did I..."
"You're here for a puppy!" Clint yelps, setting Phil back on his heels. "Oh my god, you're here for an actual puppy, and I... just please, let go so I can go die of embarrassment somewhere else!!"
"Hey, hey," Phil hushes, his alarm spiking as Clint drops his face into his hands, his shoulders hitching up around his ears. "Come on. Obviously there's been a misunderstanding here but it's nothing we can't work out ok? Take it easy."
Carefully, unsure of his welcome, Phil edges back in and wraps Clint up in his arms, keeping the embrace loose and light. The younger man is stiff and unresponsive but he doesn't pull away, and eventually he relaxes a little, catches his breath. Phil lets go and steps back but keeps one hand on Clint's bicep, hoping to keep him from running.
"You alright?" he asks and Clint sobs a half-hysterical little laugh, shakes his head. "Is this about Lucky?"
Clint just looks miserable, won't meet his eyes.
"Hey come on. You'll find him a good home Clint. If you don't think I'll be a good owner for him..."
Clint admits it with a wail, a miserable cry that he immediately flinches from, as though he'd bite the words back if he could. He jerks away from Phil and takes a step back, wraps his arms around himself tightly and stares at the ground, scowling.
"He's me, ok? I don't have some cocker spaniel I'm trying to get rid of, I..."
Clint sighs, scrubs his hands through his hair and re-folds his arms, defensive this time.
"I thought you were looking for something else."
For a minute Phil's not really sure if his brain has stopped or if it's just going so fast he isn't recognizing the spin of it. Some scrap of information picked up long ago like bits of trivia confetti provide the term 'puppy play,' the phrase rising up out of a scramble of information like a joke meant to mock him. Clint's flirtations suddenly make a lot more sense and once he manages to grab on to coherent thought some of their conversation takes on a whole new meaning, and he feels almost as foolish as Clint seems to.
The man is still a harsh, lobster red, his shoulders hiked up around his ears and a defensive scowl on his face, and Phil has no idea what to say. He can't imagine what he looks like, standing there gaping like a stunned fish, but he doubts it's a pretty picture.
"Why would you think..."
It slips out before he even knows he's going to think it, but thankfully, instead of sneering and stalking off, Clint snorts.
"Seriously?" he asks, cocking an eyebrow and looking entirely unimpressed.
It's too fast, too flippant, so he clears his throat and tries again.
"I'm sorry. I didn't... mean that the way it sounded. It's just that I thought the ad was fairly clear..."
"It was," Clint insists, frowning. "It was... Jesus Phil, I thought I'd hit the jackpot with you."
Eyeing him up and down, Clint sighs and steps off the path, sits down in the grass beneath a shade tree. Phil watches him go, then, when Clint holds his gaze and waits, he follows.
"I'm guessing you meant to post it under Pets, not Personals then," he says, and Phil freezes where he's been crossing his legs, looks up with eyes that have gone the size of dinner plates.
Clint rolls his eyes, fishes his phone out of his pocket and taps at it for a minute before handing it over. Phil feels a ball of ice form in his stomach as he looks at the ad that Jasper had drafted in the bar, posted neat as you please between an ad looking for a weekend threesome and another for dirty massages.
Aw, Jasper, no.
"Oh, May is gonna have a field day with this," he mutters.
Across from him Clint twitches and Phil realizes what he's said.
"No, not..." he begins before shaking his head and handing back the phone. "Not like that. Just, my friends, Jasper and Melinda... They posted the ad for me. We were drinking, and... well, you see the mix up."
Clint drops his eyes, looks so disappointed that Phil's mouth runs away with him again.
"Wrong section aside, would you mind telling me why..."
He stops swallows.
Christ, he's never had this problem.
This stranger has him all kinds of tangled and tied.
"Sorry. I shouldn't... I mean, I'm not trying to be rude. Failing, obviously, but you don't have to tell me. I just... I'm still not sure how that could be misconstrued..."
"You're kidding right?" Clint asks, picking his head up, and there's actually a little bit of a smile on his face, even if it is a disbelieving one. "Every line of that could have been misconstrued. It's... really well written actually."
"Yeah. I mean there's a reason I thought we'd get along. Seemed like we were looking for the same thing."
Phil knows there's confusion on his face – yes, he knows the proper name for what he thinks this is, but he doesn't really know much more than that. He doesn't really know what it means, certainly not what it means to Clint, and he doesn't want to guess or try to picture it for fear of being horribly, stereotypically wrong.
"Hell, what were you looking for Phil?"
It's an unexpected question – to be honest he's surprised Clint hasn't just gotten up and walked off. He gets the feeling that this is a deeply private, personal matter, and he thinks he's right in assuming that his own embarrassment at having posted the ad in the wrong section is the only thing counteracting the blushing shame Clint had expressed only moments ago.
"I don't even know," he sighs, scrubbing his hands down over his face. "Just, we were at a bar, and my friends are terrible, and they hate me because I haven't been dating. Jasper works at a shelter and he thought maybe a dog would help or maybe cheer me up because I... I like to cuddle."
Phil pauses, risks a glance at Clint, but his face and his posture have both softened and he looks like he's actually listening, actually interested in what Phil's trying to say.
"The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea," he continues. "Someone to play with, someone to talk to, someone to... someone to come home to. Then you texted me, and you were sweet and shy and cute, and I thought maybe I could have both, and..."
Phil pauses, barks a laugh.
"And it turns out I could, quite literally."
"Well you don't have to be a dick about it," Clint mutters and then he's trying to push to his feet again, but Phil reaches out to rest his fingertips against Clint's arm and he stills.
"I didn't mean it like that," he explains and Clint frowns, hesitates. "Clint I promise. I'm not laughing at you ok, just... myself. Seems I can't stop getting in my own way."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
He says it harshly, demands to know, but he's sunk back down onto his butt so Phil will take the win.
"I work a lot," he says, choosing to leave the government agent bit out. "Sometimes I have to travel last minute. I was worried about committing to a puppy, or even an older dog. It's why I said I was looking for something tough, trained, well-behaved. Independent. I was worried about what would happen when I had to leave, if I would be able to provide enough time and attention to a pet."
Phil huffs, a smile touching the corners of his mouth.
"You're kind of a ridiculously simple solution to that."
Clint frowns at him, narrows his eyes.
"You're taking this awfully well," he says suspiciously.
"I think I'm in some kind of shock," he replies very seriously, but he thinks Clint bites his lip against a smile. "I wasn't expecting... you."
"Most people aren't ok with this," Clint mumbles, shifting uncomfortably. "They wouldn't have tried to keep me back, make sure I was all right. Most people are... disgusted. Freaked."
"I'm not, I promise. Just a little surprised, now that the confusion's cleared up."
"But it's weird," the blonde insists forlornly, hanging his head.
"What's weird?" Phil shrugs. Distantly he wonders if he's not being too magnanimous about this, but in the moment he doesn't care. "Clint, people are into all kinds of 'weird' stuff."
The finger quotes he uses to bracket the words get a little bit of a laugh out of him, totally worth their use.
"I know weird," he says, thinking back on some of his more memorable cases. "You can't even imagine some of the things I've seen. Classified, so don't ask, but believe me, I know weird."
"This is different," he mutters, and ok, fair. "This is... people think it's about fucked up sex and about animals, and, and bestiality, and it's not I swear..."
"Clint I wouldn't be here if I thought that," he says gently. "You're not doing anything illegal, and you're not doing anything wrong. As long as it's two consenting adults, as far as I'm concerned, it's just role play, like anything else. If it's not sex then it's just letting off steam, de-stressing, and in that case it's not even close to the craziest thing I've seen. Or even the craziest thing I've done."
Clint looks up at him hopefully, raises a questioning brow but Phil just grins and shakes his head.
"Classified," he says smugly. "But seriously Clint. I don't know exactly what this means to you or how you do it or what it's like, but you seem like a good guy..."
He whispers it hoarsely and Phil immediately snaps his mouth shut, feels heat flood his cheeks. He hadn't meant to go on like that, had no idea what he was talking about really, and it clearly wasn't helping.
"Just... Phil, please? I can't... Just stop talking ok? Don't wanna get my hopes up again."
Phil licks his lips and swallows, feels the shame even more acutely.
He gets it, he does. He obviously has no experience with this, is stumbling all over himself, and that's apparently a deal-breaker for Clint. He understands that – it's a pretty serious thing to jump into feet first without knowing how to swim – but it still kind of sucks. He finds that he's... surprisingly ok with this turn of events, even if he ends up changing his opinion a little bit later on, but Clint had made it clear before (at least now it's clear) that he's had bad experiences in the past, that he's looking for someone to take care of Lucky, to give him a good home.
Phil's obviously failed his interview.
"I'm sorry it turned out this way," he says quietly, feeling the truth of the statement. "I'm sorry I... I wasn't what you were hoping for."
Clint stares so quietly, so sadly that for a minute he wonders if he's said the wrong thing, if he's made another mistake, made it worse.
"Yeah," he murmurs, heartbreakingly melancholic. "Me too."
It seems to be the natural ending to things and not nearly as bad as Phil would've expected given the start, so he supposes he can't be too bitter about it. He wants to be, especially when Clint sighs and tries to put up a good front, put on a good face. The smile he pulls makes Phil want to draw him close and kiss his cheek, and he's only known him for a few days, what amounts to an hour, a phone call, and a couple of texts. It's so reminiscent of what he'd felt with Jasper after walking through the shelter, of only realizing he'd wanted something after he's found out that he can't have it, that he nearly lets it show.
Instead he tries to draw on Clint's example, tries to put on a good show for his sake at least. He feels like he's slighted the other man, taken something away from him, disappointed him, cracked him open and peeled back his armor and poked at his soft, tender insides. It's not fair, cruel somehow, and his regret must show on his face because this time Clint reaches out, touches Phil's shoulder hesitantly.
"Hey thanks," he says softly, chewing his lower lip. "You didn't have to do this. You're a good guy Phil."
Shrugging, he grins, goes for something lighter and only half succeeds.
"And you know, for the coffee."
"Of course," Phil replies, and then, because how can he not... "Maybe we could do it again sometime?"
Clint smiles sadly and Phil can tell that he thinks it's a brush-off, but he nods anyway.
"Yeah, sure. I mean you've got my number, in more ways than one I guess..."
Phil thinks maybe he does.
"Take care Clint," he says, and it sucks and he hates himself a little bit for those words because if they're the last ones he'll ever speak to this man they're hardly everything he wants to say.
"You too Phil."
Twelve days later he's still thinking about it.
He's been on mission, shutting down the Cincinnati drug ring, been home to visit with Beth and Nathan and Julia in that same stupid park, been out to dinner sans alcohol with Jasper and Melinda, and still he can't get Clint out of his mind.
It only took twelve hours for him to realize he had a problem, for his curiosity to get the better of him. He'd locked his office by nine thirty every night for the express purpose of going home to access his own private wifi, diving into the internet with more gusto and less caution than he should have had. The world of pet play and puppy play in particular had spread out before him like some strange board game he was meant to navigate without rhyme, reason, or rules, and he had tumbled down the rabbit hole so fast it had made him dizzy.
For every reputable site and source he located there were three more that made him shiver, that put a squirmy feeling in the pit of his belly. Once, early on, he'd shut the computer down and walked away from it, more uncomfortable than he could reconcile with this strange, insistent urge to explore, to learn, to take a chance. It was the memory of Clint – shy, cautious, hopeful – that prompted him to go back. Once he started treating it like recon it was easier; swift analysis and a heavy reliance on gut feeling had him narrowing things down to those sites that were actually helpful, most commonly written by people who had been brought up in this particular world by a supportive community and who knew what they were doing.
It was reassuring to know that they were out there – pets and handlers alike – who kept to safe, sane, and consensual practices, who were able to explain things easily and eloquently in a manner that suggested intimate familiarity with the topic at hand. Phil found a site that laid out the basics for new handlers, offered tips and advice, a set of rules that struck Phil with an immense respect for their author.
Simple terms, and likely too simple in the end, but at its most basic, what more did any relationship really need?
After leaving Clint in the park that day, some of his calm dissipated. He was a little shaken, a little unsettled by the interaction, not because of disgust but because of the sheer ridiculousness of the entire thing. Never in his wildest thoughts would Phil's brain have summoned something like puppy play as a viable option to anything, never would he have expected to encounter it the way he had.
At the same time, it fits.
It's silly, serendipity, too coincidental, and if there's anything Phil's learned from working at SHIELD, it's that there's no such thing as coincidence.
Is he really willing to try this, to take a chance on something so entirely foreign to him?
The question almost makes Phil laugh.
Hell, of course he is – his entire life is taking risks, trying new things, dealing with the weird.
He hadn't been lying – this isn't even close to the weirdest.
Phil's started his new job as handler and has been assigned three new juniors; two men and a woman, one of whom won't make it past probie status. They're young, cocky, obnoxious, and he absolutely loves driving them into the mats, showing them what an 'old man' can do, but by the time a full week has passed he's tired and sore and wants a break, wants a quiet Saturday with something that isn't so life-and-death, even if it's only in the juniors' minds.
He's still thinking about it.
It's Tuesday, and it's late, but he has tomorrow afternoon off and he wants this.
Lying in bed, showered, shaved, and ready for a good night's sleep, Phil grabs his phone off the charging station and finds Clint's number, the one he hadn't been able to delete. He debates, wonders how to approach the thing, but decides straightforward and honest is probably best.
If he were a handler or an owner looking to adopt a pup, how would he approach it?
It's a mindset he's not familiar with, one that takes a moment for him to square himself up to, and while he does it he sends off a quick message, just to make sure he hasn't been blocked.
CLINT? IT'S PHIL.
He doesn't have to wait long for a reply.
Well, that's not incredibly receptive, but there's that little ellipses bubble going on underneath so maybe there's still a chance?
DIDN'T THINK I WAS GOING TO HEAR FROM YOU.
Yeah, Probably should have gotten on that coffee date a little sooner, just in case this doesn't work out.
I'M SORRY. DIDN'T MEAN TO GO DARK ON YOU, I WAS OUT OF STATE FOR A BIT. - he replies.
A pause, a beat, and then a bite of the bullet.
I WAS WONDERING IF LUCKY WAS STILL LOOKING FOR A FRIEND?
He had to admit that he was surprised when the phone started ringing half a minute later. He fumbled it so badly he almost dropped it on his face where he was lying flat on his back. Catching it at the last minute and saving himself the world's most embarrassing black eye, he thumbed the slide on the screen and brought it to his ear.
"What the hell Phil?"
He thinks it's supposed to be a hiss or an angry demand, but it comes out more like a miserable, wanting whine and it makes him wish he'd asked in person so that he could pull Clint in against his chest and hold on, hold him together. He's so hurt, so hesitant, so ill-used, Phil just wants to wrap him up and keep him safe.
He's always had thing for strays.
"Why are you doing this?" Clint asks, his voice strained. "Why are you..."
"I like you," Phil blurts, once again shocked by the forwardness that this man brings out in him, the self-control he takes away. "I meant it when I said I'd like to have coffee again. But this is a part of you and it's... it's a part I'm ok with."
Silence on the other end and Phil softens his voice, coaxing instead of insistent.
"I don't have any experience with this, you know that. But I've been reading, I've been... trying to learn what this is about. I don't know exactly what it means to you or the kinds of things you like, but I'm willing to learn. To try, if you want. I just thought..."
More silence, and Phil starts to think maybe he waited too long or messed something up or that Clint just plain and simply wasn't interested. He takes a breath, swallows hard, dragging a hand down over his face.
"Sorry," he mumbles. "I shouldn't have texted you. That wasn't fair – it's your decision, I should have...."
Phil blinks, surprised by the command, the vehemence of it.
"Just... just shut up Phil! You're an ass, you know that? A stupid, perfect, hot piece of ass that I can't stop thinking about cause you're just so freaking nice and I'm over here hating myself for it cause I know it can't work! Cause I have this stupid thing I like to do, and now you're calling me telling me it could work, that... that you're not only ok with it but that you actually wanna try for me and..."
Clint trails off and Phil's more than a little taken aback, more than a little startled by the speech, fired at him hot and fast and so full of emotion he's floored, despite being tucked into bed.
"And what?" he asks.
"And nobody's ever tried for me before."
Well. That wasn't what he'd been expecting. He feels his heart tighten up in his chest and if he'd been unsure before he wasn't now. Unsure for a different reason anyway – maybe a little unsure that he would be good at this, about the logistics of it, but not unsure about Clint.
"Do you want me to Clint? Do you want me to try for you?"
On the other end of the line, Clint whimpers.
"You'll be disappointed," he whispers, so quietly Phil can hardly hear. "I can't... Phil I can't do this if you aren't sure, if you're gonna... if you're gonna change your mind."
"I don't want to change my mind Clint," he says quietly. "I can't promise you forever and I can't promise you I won't make mistakes but... but I can promise to give you the very best I know how to give. If that's enough..."
"More than I've ever had before."
They stay on the phone for another hour or so, Clint doing most of the talking and Phil doing most of the listening. He alludes to past relationships that didn't work out, hints at some that may have been abusive, all things that seem to touch on or hover around the concept of puppy play. He talks about having found the headspace a few years ago, how it helps relieve stress, tension, and the depressive symptoms that plague him every once in a while ever since his time in the service, explains the calming, cared for feeling he gets and why it's important to him.
His voice is soft and low and sweet and Phil is lulled by the gentle cadence of his words, even if they're tender and bruised. He doesn't murmur any more promises or platitudes – it's not that kind of complaining and he thinks Clint will appreciate him listening more. He doesn't go much into the details, just tells Phil that no, it's not a sex thing, that Lucky's... well, Lucky's a good boy.
He says it shyly, earnestly, and Phil can hear the plea in the statement, the need to be validated. He wants more than anything to give Clint what he wants, to tell him that yes, Lucky is a good boy, but he doesn't think that's right or fair to either of them. Instead he says that they'll have to see, that he hopes it will be soon. Tomorrow feels like too much, but they make tentative plans for the following week and when Phil asks how it works, where Clint would be most comfortable he surprises him.
"You'll have to meet Natasha," he says, almost as though he's just realizing it himself. "She's... Lucky's handler I guess. She tries to be anyway. It's just... not her thing."
"More of a cat person?" Phil asks, and Clint laughs, that light, happy laugh that had lit up his face that day in the park.
"Something like that. I could maybe have her call you? You guys can set something up, to... meet him. He's not supposed to be left alone."
"That's fine Clint," he says, though he's suddenly suspicious of this Natasha character. It's silly jealousy – she could be Clint's sister for all he knew – and really it was nice to know that there was someone out there taking care of him. "Whatever you need. I want you to feel comfortable. Safe."
"Christ you really are perfect."
Phil hums, feels warm.
"You're not so bad yourself Lucky Boy."
He doesn't plan to use the nickname, doesn't know where it came from, but Clint sucks in a sharp breath between his teeth and Phil thinks it's a great sound, wishes he could see his face. The whimper that follows makes him feel bad, since there's nothing he can do about it now, but suddenly he has far more hope than he'd had before.
"Time for pups to be in bed," he says after a glance at the alarm on the bedside table. "Give your friend my number and tell her to call me. I'll be free tomorrow afternoon, if she has time."
"I will. Hey, um, Phil?"
"Thanks. I know that's weird but... felt like I should say it. I'm... I'm glad you texted me."
"So am I. Have a good night Clint. I hope I'll see you soon."
"Yeah," Clint sighs happily. "Me too."
Natasha intimidates him right from the start, even before he meets her in person. She calls him the next day at three pm on the dot, and speaks with a thick Russian accent though her English is flawless. She's not rude or demanding but extremely formal, insistent with her questions and pensive in her silence. He respects her immensely by the time they conclude their conversation, and isn't surprised in the least when, several days later, a pale, petite woman with fiery red hair opens the door of a run-down Bed Stuy apartment.
He feels it suits her terribly well.
"You must be Phillip Coulson."
She's leaning casually against the jam, blocking the way into the apartment, but Phil doesn't try to look beyond her, despite the fact that he can hear muffled whimpers and woofs coming from somewhere deep inside. Her face is impressively blank as she looks him up and down, her eyes giving nothing away, and even when the corner of her mouth twitches in a smirk Phil can't quite get a read on her.
He is rather surprised when she offers him her hand.
"I am," he confirms, assessing the firm, strong grip she employs to shake his hand. "But please, call me Phil. It's a pleasure to meet you Ms. Romanov."
"You may yet change your mind," she warns, turning and gesturing him into the apartment ahead of her. "But you should call me Natasha I suppose. If Clint has his way we will be seeing much more of each other."
Phil can't help a smile; he and Clint have spoken several times since that fisrt phone call, texted near constantly, and now he's here, in Clint's apartment finally ready to meet Lucky, but it's still nice to hear from a secondary source that things are going well.
"I can't say I would mind" he replies, but the woman doesn't respond but for to lead him into a living room dominated by a long, well-loved couch in an impressive shade of purple.
"Can I get you anything to drink?" she asks, and this time Phil bites his smile back because even as she does she's sitting elegantly in the lone arm chair, tucking her feet up beneath her.
"No thank you."
Taking his own seat in the corner of the couch, he rests one ankle on his knee, the picture of casual relaxation despite the minor case of nerves he is experiencing. She leaves him in silence for a moment, looking him over carefully, and he has to admit that he's impressed with her technique even if the effect is somewhat ruined by the scrabbling and quiet whines he can hear coming from behind some closed door.
"Laundry room?" he asks, thinking from the opening scene from Lady and the Tramp.
"Bathroom," she corrects, settling back into her chair and folding her hands in her lap. "Lucky gets a little... enthusiastic about visitors."
"Is he alright in there for a few minutes? I'd like to ask you some questions if you don't mind."
Natasha arches an eyebrow, looks begrudgingly acquiescent.
"He'll be fine. But I am surprised you haven't asked these questions of Clint."
"I did," Phil replies, glad that he can have this one up on her at least. "I also asked if he would be comfortable with me speaking to you. Sometimes we see better from a distance."
Natasha narrows her eyes, goes abruptly still and suspicious, and Phil wonders if he's done something wrong, a bit taken aback by the sudden dangerous vibe he's getting off her. It's gone as soon as it comes, evaporating like it was never there, and she makes a sweeping gesture to indicate he should continue. Taking a breath, he asks the most important one he has.
"I've never done this before," he says. "I want to do it right. Is there anything I need to watch out for? Anything I shouldn't do or need to avoid?"
Natasha is still before nodding once perfunctorily.
"I like you, Phillip Coulson," she declares. "You appear to be a perceptive man."
Phil gives her a hard look, knows she's aware that he's been taking her measure too.
Natasha smiles at him, wide and cold and full of teeth, before settling back.
"I've been handling Lucky for a few years now," she says, and Phil's surprised that she seems to be ready to tell him the whole story. Clint had been... a little reticent on the phone, a little unsure about how to explain what he liked, what he needed. "Clint's had a hard life, been treated badly. Lucky is his way of letting off steam. For him this is about fun, being able to play, to let his guard down. It is something that is... very difficult for him, but also very important."
Natasha pauses, looks him in the eye.
"He has judged badly in the past. Abusive owners have made him wary, suspicious. I've done the best I can by him, but I am a pragmatic woman Mr. Coulson. In this I am not an ideal partner."
"You've given him a safe outlet," Phil says, before he can think the better of it. "And now you protect him."
"I do," she nods. "I've told him that he should get to know you outside of this first."
"Outside of play scenes? Of course. I've asked him for coffee already; he hasn't answered me yet."
"No I don't suppose he would. As I've said, he's wary, made cautious by experience even if he's friendly by nature. It's not just any man who would understand or accept him as he is, let alone join him in it."
"I like him," Phil admits, even though it came so fast that it had caught him by surprise. "He's sweet and funny and smart. This is just another part of him."
Natasha's smile softens at the edges and she nods.
"Yes, I do like you Phil Coulson. Perceptive and intelligent."
"Clint said that Lucky isn't supposed to be left alone?"
"One of my rules," she admits, crossing her legs and sitting more comfortably in her chair. "He's not helpless in his puppy headspace, but it takes him a bit to switch from one to the other and coming up too fast has consequences."
"Nothing too serious, but he doesn't feel well after if he's rushed or jolted out of it. I prefer he doesn't transition alone – one of the reasons I'm here today."
"Is there anything I can do to make that easier?" Phil asks, already unsettled by the thought of Clint trying to pull himself up out of a simpler mindset, making himself sick fighting it. "How do I know when..."
"He proposed fostering correct?"
"He did," Phil nods, something Clint had explained briefly over the phone.
"That will help," Natasha says declaratively. "Give you more time to acclimate to each other, decide if this is something you're both truly interested in. I'll help him transition here in the apartment at first, stay a bit to make sure you have everything under control. If your play dates go well enough that the two of you decide to get serious I'll teach you what to do. It's not all that difficult – he usually asks for a scene, but you'll learn to read him too."
"Any triggers I should be aware of?"
"Don't shout at him," she says immediately, and Phil can tell it's not something she has to think about. She knows what Clint's triggers are, and there's a reason.
"Don't hit him or kick him," she continues. "He says you are a good man – that you wouldn't hurt a pup, biological or no. Treat him the way you would any other. He needs a firm hand sometimes, but above all things Clint wants to know he's good."
Phil nods slowly, doesn't miss the fact that she says Clint, not Lucky.
"Be gentle with him," she warns. "Pay attention to his body language. He tends to go non-verbal unless he needs to safeword for any reason. He told you?"
"Beetlejuice," Phil says with a smirk.
"No one ever said his sense of humor wasn't lacking," she huffs, but to hell with that. It's funny, and kind of to the point – he should never have to say it three times.
"Anything else I should know?"
This time when she smirks, he gets the distinct feeling he's being laughed at.
"There's going to be a lot of skin on display once I let him out. He doesn't like his movement hindered, and he craves physical contact even if he'll deny it to his dying day. I may see him as a brother, but I know what he looks like - it only seems fair to warn you."
"I think I can handle it," he replies dryly, determined not to squirm in front of her. It's an idea he likes, sure, but Clint said this wasn't sexual for him and he knows how to be impersonal about a little nudity.
"Did you bring what I asked you for?"
"I did," he nods, taking the package of peanut-butter stuffed pretzels out of his pocket. "Pup treats I assume?"
"You assume correctly - his favorite but for pizza," she says. "He's a beggar, and those puppy dog eyes are a killer. I've seen kings and countries fall for them. They should help you make a good impression."
Rising smoothly to her feet, she dusts off her knees and puts her hands on her hips, frowns.
"Don't be offended if he's a little standoffish at first," she says. "He can be shy sometimes. Lucky's not aggressive but he can be... territorial. Non-threatening might be a good look on you."
Phil licks his lips, suddenly nervous all over again, but more than anything he's both eager and excited. Putting both feet on the floor, he scooches forward so that he's sitting forward on the edge of the couch, then thinks the better of it because he feels like he's about to spring up at any moment. Instead he slides to the floor, leans back against the couch and folds his legs criss-cross, flat on his butt. He's wearing dark jeans and another loose button-down, so he's easy and comfortable – he can wait this out.
Natasha seems to approve of his change in position because she nods in that way she does, the way that tells Phil her mind is working a mile a minute behind her pretty face.
"Excited?" she asks.
"Yes," he answers simply.
"Good. If it didn't matter you wouldn't be. So. Are you ready to meet him?"
Phil feels a grin spread across his face.
Coming up - Phil and Lucky finally meet, and we get to see things from Clint's POV!!
Somebody here, somebody here, somebody here!
Lucky whimpers and woofs excitedly, scratches at the bathroom door with his paws. He loves visitors, like Miss Natasha's friend Bucky and his boyfriend Steve. They bring him treats and Bucky gets down on the floor and wrestles with him and Steve knows all the best spots to scratch behind his ears.
Snuffling at the crack beneath the door, Lucky whines with frustration; all he can smell is the sharp, lemon cleaner somebody used on the tile that morning. He can hear Miss Natasha's voice though, calm and cool, and someone else – a man, someone new.
Growling low in his chest, he attacks the door with new vigor – Miss Natasha shouldn't be out there alone, not with somebody new. He should be out there, to protect her, to make sure this man knew who was in charge, whose home he was in.
The door doesn't budge.
Huffing forlornly, Lucky lies down on his belly and stares out from under the door, strains his ears. He can hear Miss Natasha and the new man talking, and he sounds a little familiar, like maybe someone Lucky had passed on a walk one day. They're talking though, and that seems ok. Miss Natasha is strict about the rules – she won't let anyone do anything bad in their home, like get on the good furniture or sneak food off the counter.
He just wishes he wasn't stuck in the bathroom.
There's nothing fun to do in here, especially not when there's a new person in the living room.
He's already nosed into the cabinets, batted a roll of toilet paper around the floor until it's unfurled all over the place.
Wouldn't be so bad if he hadn't been stuck in here forever. Minutes, hours, days – he didn't know. Time wasn't Lucky's strong suit. He just knew it had been ages and who even knew if Miss Natasha was ever coming back at all? He could be locked up in here for the rest of his life and then what would he do, what would he...
Hey, that's feet, he hears feet! That's Miss Natasha, she's coming back, she's outside, she's outside, she's outside!
Lucky leaps to his feet and starts jumping against the door, barking and yipping and going crazy. He's getting out, he's getting out, he gets to come out and play!
"Lucky sit," Miss Natasha says sternly, and he knows what that means, he's a good boy, but he's so excited she has to say it again before he does. His bottom hits the floor and he whines long and high, his whole body wriggling as he holds himself back.
He's not allowed to jump on people, that's another rule.
The door clicks and slowly inches open, like Miss Natasha thinks he'll come lunging out at her, but Lucky's a good boy, good boy, good boy!!
Lucky stamps his front feet eagerly, his rear end wagging back and forth, and Miss Natasha smiles at him.
"There's a good boy," she praises and Lucky's mouth lolls open in a grin, panting.
Miss Natasha reaches down and scritches him between the ears, but then she's looking at the mess he's made of the bathroom and he's squeezing out past her legs, dashing away before she can catch him up by the scruff of his neck. She's calls after him and Lucky barks, hopes to distract her with a game of chase as he bolts for the living room – he's got a rope toy in there under the couch somewhere – but he's too fast for her.
He's so excited, so ecstatic about being out and free and ready to play that he forgets there's someone here, just long enough to round the stairs and come skidding to a stop when he finds a stranger sitting there waiting.
He doesn't know what he was expecting. Some floppy ears maybe, a collar or a tail. There's none of that, and so much more, but his first thought is colored sadly by the thought that maybe Clint hasn't really allowed himself to indulge in this very much.
His second thought is hot damn.
Natasha's warning suddenly seems incredibly understated. It's hard not to see Clint's body instead of Lucky's, even as he carefully shuffles sideways on all fours, tilts his head in a remarkably canine gesture. He's miles of tanned, golden skin and heavy, shifting muscles - huge, round shoulders and biceps flexing as he carries half his weight on his arms. He's wearing what looks to be a pair of tight black booty shorts and very little else, just a pair of black knee-pads and a pair of fingerless gloves with matching pads under the heels of his palms that keep the strain off his wrists. He's got a purple bandana tied around his neck which is unfairly adorable and perfectly fitting for him, and as soon as he's gotten over the initial rush of attraction Phil's heart goes right out to him.
Unfortunately it looks like Lucky doesn't quite feel the same – he's staring at Phil with wary, suspicious eyes and leaning away, skirting around the edges of the room and sniffing at the air. Phil' can practically see his hackles rising, the hair on his back standing straight up, and he feels a bit of his excitement wilt.
Ok, this looks bad.
"Lucky," Natasha scolds, reappearing from the hallway and taking her seat, easy and casual. "Be nice."
Lucky makes a grumbly sound and slinks past Phil to creep up beside Natasha's chair, sits down on his haunches and leans against her legs. Natasha catches Phil's gaze and rolls her eyes before leaning forward to scratch the top of Lucky's head.
"Looks like he's gonna be a chicken today," she teases, directing the comment toward Phil but still scrubbing at Lucky's head roughly. "Told you he was shy sometimes."
"That's ok," Phil says, keeping his voice calm and smooth and warm. It's his everything's under control voice, the one he uses when the inevitable happens and a junior agent experiences their first FUBAR op, and it seems to work just fine on Lucky. His ears perk up and he cocks his head, whines.
"New person, new smells," he continues, looking in Natasha's direction but keeping track of the pup from the corner of his eye. "It's a lot to learn."
Lucky's back up again, shifting his weight on his front paws, stretching forward to sniff at him but refusing to come any closer just yet. Still, it's more interest than he'd shown before, more ease, and Phil finally lets himself look, hopes his gaze won't be a challenge to the pup anymore.
And oh, the brat, he's definitely paying attention, because he gets the smuggest look on his face and sits up at attention with his chest thrown out like the proudest little shit in the world and Phil thinks he's in love.
When Natasha told him that Clint often went nonverbal during his play scenes Phil had wondered how deep into a puppy headspace he went (hence his concern about being able to recognize and aid his transitions), but it was clear from the look on his face that Lucky was, at the very least, still able to process what was being spoken by others. Phil's got his arm stretched out to his side, his hand resting palm-down on the floor, and curiosity seems to slowly be getting the better of the pup, because after a few false starts he's back on his feet again, positively prancing around the edges of the room as he watches Phil with interest.
"Hm, yes," Natasha says demurely, and Phil lifts his eyes because she's saying a lot more with that than she's actually said. "Well behaved too, when he wants to be."
Lucky chuffs, an indignant sound, and Phil chuckles.
"He's a good boy."
Well those seem to be the magic words because Lucky barks happily, jumps a little and stamps his feet, lowers himself on his front legs in classic play position. Phil doesn't have time to react before the pup goes springing away, dashing off across the room and looping around behind the couch. He leans back, turns a little, tries to see where he went, but all he can hear is nails scrabbling at the hardwood, feels the couch jolting behind his back.
"He hides his toy under there," Natasha comments when Phil moves forward a bit, away from the battering of the furniture. "He thinks he's sneaky, like I haven't noticed."
The couch stops budging around and Lucky gives another yip, clearly disturbed by this revelation. A minute later he reappears with a soft rope toy between his teeth, not a knotted-floss dog's toy but something softer, woven cotton that's safer for human teeth. Lucky shakes his head violently from side to side, whipping the toy back and forth before tossing it into the air and pouncing on it, and Phil gets the distinct impression that he's showing off.
Chuckling warmly, he unfolds his legs out straight and trills his fingers against the hardwood, makes a knocking sound that has the pup snapping to attention. His lifts his head, sniffs at the air and sidles closer, and Phil holds his hand out, loose and close to the floor. He can feel Natasha watching them even though she's tapping away at her phone pretending not to, but he's only got eyes for Lucky, the cautious pup creeping closer one paw at a time.
"You're all right," Phil murmurs softly, "Aren't you good boy? Come on, come see me."
Lucky lowers himself to the floor, crawls closer on his belly, sniffs carefully at Phil's feet and up to his knee. Phil wants to reach out, to touch, to feel the warmth of his body and his silky fur but knows it's better to wait, to let the skittish puppy come to him. Better to hold back and let Lucky come to him than to move a little too fast and spook him.
And hell, he's just so...
It's a little weird - he can't help thinking that.
This is new and different and not like anything he's ever done, and it's Clint, it's still Clint, and he doesn't even know him that well. It's Lucky, yes, that's easy to see, easy to feel, but... it's still Clint, and he likes them both.
Maybe that's the point, and he thinks it's fair. This is his first time after all – no one can expect him to be perfect at this just yet, not even himself. He'll work at it, learn what makes this easier, more fun, what makes it feel right, learn how to get into the swing of things. Figure out what Lucky likes and learn what Clint needs.
It's weird but...
But it's easy too.
Feels so stupid good.
He's sitting here ready to smile, to laugh, feeling younger than he's felt in a very, very long time. He doesn't want anything more right now, in this moment, than to play with puppy Clint, to roll a ball across the floor or play a gentle game of tug-o-war or give him a belly rub.
Leaning back against the couch, a crackle of plastic reminds Phil that he's brought treats for Lucky and it's the work of a moment to reach behind him and grab the package off the cushions, to tear the top open. Lucky immediately goes on high alert, makes a quiet woofing sound before whining long and high, scooching right up to him, eyes locked on the bag of pretzels in his hand. Phil can see his nose quivering, his rump wiggling like he's trying hard to sit still but his wagging tail won't let him, and he can't help a laugh as he fishes a crunchy pup treat out of the bag.
"There, that's a good boy," he praises as Lucky sniffs closer, holding the treat out on the flat of his palm. "Come on, you know you want it."
It happens so quick Phil almost doesn't see it – Lucky darts forward and swipes the pretzel right out of his hand, a swipe of tongue and an edge of teeth and then he's sitting back again, snapping it down like he's never been fed at all. This time Phil does laugh a little and Lucky cocks his head, makes a little rowrf-ing sound and jumps forward, landing his front paws on Phil's thigh to give him a good push.
"Oh, is that right?" he asks, grinning. "Demanding now. Break out the treats and suddenly I'm one of the good guys?"
Lucky grumbles but sits down beside Phil's knee, whimpers and waits as his rump wags. Phil offers him another treat and this time he takes it politely, and while he's chomping away Phil risks reaching up to scratch him behind the ear. His fur is short and blonde and just as silky as it looks but Phil doesn't have long to consider it because suddenly Lucky is chuffing and tossing his head, pushing into his hand and finally, finally encouraging some contact.
It comes with an immense sense of relief and he knows Natasha is rolling her eyes again, at him this time, but he doesn't care, because it's relief and happiness and who cares about any of the rest because he's leaning forward now scrubbing his hand over the top of Lucky's head and the pup is panting happily, tongue flicking out to sneak a lick at Phil's bare wrist.
"There, that's a good pup," he encourages. "Aren't you Lucky Boy?"
Hey lovelies - might be a while before the next update. Dad's in the hospital for a bit (he's ok now!) so things are a little hectic. Send heart-warming, distracting reviews my way :)
When Natasha closes the door firmly on Phil's retreating back, she feels a remarkable sense of relief sweep through her, a physical weight off her shoulders.
As well as their little play date had gone, she felt pale and drained, and had seen the afternoon starting to wear on Lucky as well. She had no doubt Clint would be exhausted when he came back up, half the reason she had shooed Phil Coulson out the door.
She'd been wary when Clint had told her about him, uncomfortable with how fast things had moved, especially when she found out that their meeting had been a mistake, that this man had no experience or understanding of puppy play or Clint at all. She'd been harsh on the phone and sharp when she'd first let him in, worried about each and every way that this could go, good or bad. As hard and as ruthless as Clint could be, as Hawkeye and Ronin could be, he was also sensitive and easily hurt, his heart too big to be worn on his sleeve the way he did. She's had to deal with breaks before, sweeping up the pieces and gluing them together. After that it was easier just to make sure it wasn't broken again in the first place.
Stepping back into the living room, she finds Lucky curled up in the middle of the couch cushions, sniffing at the corner where Phil Coulson had sat. When she comes in he immediately slinks down, follows on her heels and sits at her feet when she sinks into her arm chair. His paws press against her shins and he leans his forehead against her knees, hiding his face. Reaching down, she scratches him behind the ears, then settles in to wait.
It takes some time - it always does. Clint's often reluctant to come back to a more complicated world, but he's good and he tries his best. Slowly, fingers uncurl and wrap around her legs, hold tight, and a shudder ripples down the man's spine as he sighs forlornly.
"Are you ready to take it off?" she asks quietly.
Clint hesitates, thinks about it, then nods, and it is Clint now, kneeling at her feet.
Moving slowly, she leans forward and unknots the bandana around his neck, folds it neatly in her lap. This, this scrap of fabric in a silly purple color is as important to Clint as his bow is, the thing that allows him to slip back and forth from person to puppy so completely. When he wants to play he brings it to her, goes to his knees and holds it up in both hands, begs her silently. She doesn't deserve the trust he puts in her, the way he gives her his everything. The square of cotton is heavier than it has any right to be, and a part of her wonders if she won't be happy to put it into someone else's hands.
It would have to be someone worthy of course. Someone strong enough to bear the weight of it and yet careful enough, reverent enough to hold something so fragile.
She doesn't know yet if Phil Coulson is that person, but she has hope that one day Clint will find a man that deserves him.
"Tasha?" Clint whispers hoarsely, still clinging to her calves. "Talk to me? Please."
"Alright," she murmurs in Russian, stroking her hand through his hair.
It's a common request – it takes time for Clint to fully come back to himself when he's doing it right. He goes deep when he lets Lucky out to play, and he once told her that he feels safer near the floor when he first comes up than if he stands. They make a little routine of it – she Doms him just a bit, tugs his hair sharply, keeps him down on the floor, tells him what to do. It's not all that different from how they work together, the jobs they still pull every once in a while, except Clint doesn't bitch and moan as much when she gives him an order. Mostly he just likes to have a voice in his ear, so she does as he asks and talks.
"He is an interesting man, I'll give him that," she says, ignoring Clint's puppy-ish whine. "Not many would be so casual about this. But he took to it easily, didn't fight it. And he did well. He treated Lucky just as he should, when care and respect. I was impressed."
"Hard to do," Clint huffs, his voice still rough as he keeps his face pressed against her knees.
"Yes," she agrees.
But it does worry her some – how smoothly the man had acclimated to Clint's puppy play, especially when he'd never taken part in it before.
"He's sharp," she says, more to herself than anything as she remembers the way he assessed the apartment, then her, then Clint. "What did you say he does for a living?"
"Dunno," Clint mumbles, sitting back on his heels with a sigh and rubbing his eyes, swoling when he realizes he's still wearing the custom pads on his wrists. "Didn't ask."
Natasha watches as Clint uses his teeth to undo the velcro with a harsh, scraping sound, tugging off his wrist pads before rolling onto his ass to do the ones on his knees. When he had first come to her with this that had been her only stipulation – that for the sake of health and safety he find good pads that would keep his knees working past fifty and protect the delicate bones and tendons in his wrists. There was a lot more stuff out there for puppy play – beds and bowls, tails and toys, leather masks and full-body fur suits – but Clint had never asked her for more than her time and his purple bandana. It's something she'll have to speak with Coulson about eventually if this goes anywhere, and she knows that he noticed, that he was surprised.
She doesn't know if that reassures her or makes her even more uncertain.
"Did you like him though?" Clint asks, finally rolling upright again and propping his elbows on his knees, a very human assembly of his limbs. His tone is earnest, hopeful, like a child looking for parental permission, and she wishes she could give him what he wanted, but, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
"I think you're moving awfully fast little bird," she says honestly, and then watches Clint's face fall. "You've only just met him."
"No buts," she scolds. "If it weren't for Lucky, would you move this fast?"
"Yes," Clint scowls, and Natasha chuckles.
"Exactly," she says gently. "And how has that worked for you?"
Clint frowns, turns his head away.
"You are a good man, Clint Barton," she says, touching his chin with her fingertips, turning him back again. "You deserve happiness, for as long as you can have it. This Coulson, he says he would like to know you as well as Lucky – this is what I find impressive. Date him, get to know him as a person and as a partner. Lucky is a part of you, not the other way around. Do not forget that just because you have found someone who is comfortable with both."
"So be Phil and Clint before Phil and Lucky?" he asks grumpily, in that tone he uses when he knows she's right.
"Yes. Ask him to dinner, or coffee. I told him you would call, to talk about today. Date him, and we'll work on the rest together. Take it slow. If I feel he will make a good owner for Lucky I'll allow him to foster you – a trial period without my involvement."
"And then what?"
"And then, if that goes well, and you both wish to continue the relationship, both sides of it... well, then perhaps it will be time for Lucky to have a new owner."
Clint whimpers, bites down hard on his lower lip, eyes far away as he one wrist so hard his knuckles go white.
It's what he wants, she knows it, and maybe it's not fair to lay it all out in front of him like that, but he has a bad habit of sabotaging himself at the last minute, when he's so close he could reach out and grab that stupid brass ring.
It's too bad really.
"I'm getting ahead of myself aren't I?" he asks quietly, pitiful and melancholy.
Natasha sighs, ruffles his hair before getting to her feet and tugging him up after her.
"Just promise me you won't rush into this," she says, pressing a light kiss to his cheek. "I don't like seeing you hurt."
"Yes'm," he murmurs, standing still with his head ducked.
It's a holdover, one he'll probably let himself wallow in for the rest of the evening. This is one of the reasons why it's so hard for her to do this for him, why they aren't a very good romantic match. They'd tried it once, in the beginning, but it hadn't lasted. She can't let herself go the way he can, doesn't enjoy play the way he does.
It amazes her sometimes that he managed to hold on to that after all he's been through – other times it makes perfect sense. He never got the chance to be a child, to play or have a pet of his own.
Now he does.
Everyone relaxes in their own way; she sharpens her knives, Clint rolls around on the floor pretending to be a puppy for a few hours.
Neither of them are hurting anyone.
So it might be a bit of an annoyance to spend the entire evening coddling him – it's hardly the worst thing she's ever done.
Besides, she owes him far more than that.
She spends the rest of the afternoon and evening taking care of him and pretending that she's doing something else – ordering them both a metric ton of Thai food (their go-to comfort cuisine), getting them into their pajama sweats, and cueing up the second season of Dog Cops. Clint's quiet, not melancholy, just... thinking the way he does when he's fighting with himself and knows the answer to what's troubling him but doesn't like it.
By the time the sun has gone down and Lucky's bandana has been carefully tucked away in its hiding place he seems alright, a little more relaxed – the result he was looking for all along. He follows her to the door when she gets up to leave, kisses her on the cheek and thanks her shyly the way he always does. It means something, that he allows her to see him like this, she knows that. It's an honor, a privilege to hold the Amazing Hawkeye's heart in her hands, to see the deadly Ronin at his most vulnerable, to know that Clint Barton, as abused as he has been, trusts her.
It's too much, and that's why she distances herself from it as best she can.
She's been good for Clint over the years, good for Hawkeye and Ronin too, but in this she can't help him, and that's something she needs to keep in mind.
She won't allow that to influence her, to soften her analytical skills or her opinions.
No, Phil Coulson will be tested to the best of her ability to do so before she entrusts him with this man – her brother, her friend.
He will be judged, and he will be found either adequate or wanting.
For today she's done her part – the rest, well, the rest will be up to Clint and to Coulson.
She can only hope that they'll be right for each other.
Thank you so much for all the well wishes guys. Things went pretty well - no "solution" but dad got the all clear and is doing much better. Seriously though, to all my readers on all my pieces - you're fantastic people for reading, reviewing, leaving kudos, and generally making me a better writer. Mwah! <3
It's another full week before Clint calls.
Phil starts panicking on day three.
It's three days right, the appropriate amount of time to return a call after a date?
But that hadn't been just any date.
That had been a super scary, super intimate, super amazing 'meet the puppy' date.
And a 'meet the parent' date, if you counted Natasha.
Talk about moving fast.
Cracking his knuckles over his keyboard, Phil shakes his head and tries to focus. He's been fortunate this week – there hasn't been much action around the world (a sure sign of an impending apacolypse) and his primary task has been creating curricula for the two new agents he's brought in, the first of his recruits, and to begin shepherding them through the evaluation process. Lance Hunter and Bobbi Morse are young and hungry, eager and dedicated, and they'll both make fine agents one day, but at present they're all rough edges and sharp corners, unpolished - a bit of a gamble for SHIELD but Phil rarely loses a bet.
Far more problematic is Jasper, who's been eyeing him suspiciously in his distraction as the week has gone by. He, Phil, and Melinda haven't been out since their drunken night at the bar nearly a month back, but Jasper's latest mission wrapped approximately four days ago. He's been lurking around HQ ever since, cornering Phil in the break rooms whenever possible and flooding his inbox with adoption ads the rest of the time.
Confronted with miserable pooches of every shape, size, and color every time he checked his emails, Phil had finally cracked and let Jasper drag him out for coffee at a local diner over lunch, admitting that he'd met someone, yes a very cute someone, and that he was actually considering pup-sitting for him as well as dating him.
Naturally Jasper was full of questions and Phil answered as many of them as he could as vaguely as he could while silently counting down the seconds before work would drag him back to the office and save him the third degree. To be fair he couldn't really tell the truth of all the questions his friend was firing at him – no he doesn't know the dog's breed but he's big and golden-colored and playful, if a little shy, and no, he doesn't know if this is going to work out – but he likes Clint and hopes for a second date.
His friend doesn't give up when SHIELD reclaims their attention and Phil does his best to satisfy his curiosity while still putting him off. Jasper keeps at him, his curiosity inherent to his nature, not meant to drive Phil slowly but certainly towards insanity. He has no doubt that Melinda will know everything by the end of the day, or that within a week his presence will be requested at a summit where he'll be slowly and mercilessly interrogated and teased. Normally he wouldn't mind – he knows his friends are happy for him – but it drives home the unique nature of the relationship he's hoping to build and his inability to be entirely honest on that front.
Something to consider when the inevitable arrives – for now he tries to focus.
More than anything, Jasper's pestering, the regular texts and emails only serve to highlight the fact that Phil hasn't heard from the one person he wants to hear from.
He's starting to fret over what he's done wrong.
It's... strange, to realize just how bad that makes him feel. He's oddly attached already, too much too quickly, especially when he doesn't know all that much about this – about Clint or Lucky. To be fair he's doing best; studying up on puppy play and filling online shopping carts before emptying them out again, but really what he wants is a date. That's ok right, that's just as fair? He likes Clint, he's allowed to like him, separately and together with Lucky. So what if he wants to wine and dine the man, kiss him and maybe get his hands on that incredible ass before taking him home to play?
It doesn't matter.
Clint hasn't called, or texted, and while Phil could certainly call him first, Natasha had told him to wait.
Now, sitting at his desk trying to focus on his work and ignore the slowly sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he wonders if she'd been trying to warn him. Clint had certainly hinted at a past that made it perfectly understandable for him to be skittish.
He just wishes...
His phone chimes and startles him out of his reverie, the cursor of his computer blinking against his blank, unfinished paperwork.
Phil sighs, drags his hand over his face as his shoulders slump and he leans back in his chair. Jasper, surely, with another unanswerable question. He almost ignores it, just to avoid the disappointment, but the man's disgustingly determined sometimes and there won't be any escaping the inquisition. Best to get it over with promptly, limit the backlash. Drawing his phone from the inner pocket of his suit jacket, he's a bit embarrassed to admit that his heart gives on good, hard thump against his ribs before taking off running.
It's not Jasper.
HI PHIL. IT'S CLINT. I WAS WONDERING IF YOU'D WANT TO GET COFFEE TOMORROW?
When he's got himself under control again, made sure he hasn't squealed out loud like some kind of teenage girl, Phil bites his lip against a smile. The text is neat, clean, but he can hear Clint stammering over the sentence in his head, cheeks pink and head ducked.
Hi... Phil. It's um... it's Clint?
Abruptly struck by the intensely strong desire to speak to the man in person, maybe to have bumped into him on the sidewalk so he could see him rub the nape of his neck, see him blush, Phil reads the message a second time.
Probably a good thing they're doing this by text.
Gives him a moment to compose himself, to tamp down on the childish fist pump tingling in his fingertips and the yes, yes, yes! building up in his chest.
Puffing out a slow breath, he steadies himself, shoots his cuffs, and opens a response.
HELLO CLINT. I'D LIKE THAT VERY MUCH. I HAVE A BREAK AT ELEVEN – WOULD THAT BE ALRIGHT?
It takes less than a minute to get a response, and that's incredibly reassuring somehow, as is Clint's response.
ELEVEN'S GOOD. THERE'S A PLACE ON TWELFTH THAT'S PRETTY GREAT. IF YOU WANT TO MEET ME AT THE CORNER BY THE FOUNTAIN WE COULD WALK THERE?
He knows the corner but not the place, so that works just fine, and he'll get the chance to take another nice walk with the man. He'd enjoyed their time in the park, at least before emotions and miscommunication got in the way.
THAT SOUNDS PERFECT. I...
Phil pauses, nervous.
He wonders if perhaps it wouldn't be better not to mention anything, not to let on that he had been worrying at all. There was a strangely delicate line to walk between opposite ends of the spectrum, between coming across as too flippant, uninterested, or as the clingy, desperate mess of a man who hasn't dated in ages and isn't sure he knows how anymore.
Aw, to hell with it.
THAT SOUNDS PERFECT. I'M GLAD YOU TEXTED ME – I WAS... HOPING I'D HEAR FROM YOU.
Phil holds his breath, places his phone carefully in the center of his desk and dares it to chime. That elipses, those three dots, to him signify a great deal, how hesitant, how earnest he is, but he's not sure how Clint will take it.
He doesn't want to spook him.
It feels like forever before he hears back, before the screen of his cell lights up and he pounces on the thing.
SORRY. THINGS GOT A LITTLE CRAZY. AT WORK.
Something tells Phil that's not quite the whole truth, but he's willing to let it go, for now at least. He'd very much like to talk about their puppy play date, get a little feedback, but again, he doesn't want to push. Easy enough to let things lie while still pushing the fact that he really does want to keep this up.
UNDERSTANDABLE. I CERTAINLY KNOW WHAT THAT'S LIKE. BUT I'M FREE AND CLEAR TOMORROW, AND I TRULY AM LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING YOU AGAIN CLINT.
More silence, more waiting, and it's painful, but eventually one last text comes through, two words that relax his muscles and put a smile on his face.
Then of course everything goes to hell and SHIELD makes Phil eat his own words.
By eight the next morning he knows for certain that he won't be able to make his coffee date. It kills him, and he knows it won't look good, but he sends Clint another text to let him know that he won't be able to get away from the office to see him. It's a lot more complicated than that – he's already caught a jet down to San Salvador to take over an operation gone FUBAR – but it's the best explanation he's legally allowed to give.
He's wearing full tac gear when he sends the message, and that's the only reason he's not tucked up in a miserable little ball in the corner, shoulders hunched in self-flagellation. He feels like an absolute heel, but there's a calm bit of badassery at his core when things go wrong like this, when he's called in to fix a problem no one else can. The leather and the Kevlar always make him feel just a little bit braver, armor to face down more than just a barrage of bullets, and he knows it looks good on him too.
Kind of wishes he could send a selfie, but that seems like a bit much.
A moment later, when Clint's response comes through, he decides that nothing is too much.
OH. I MEAN NO, I GET IT, IT'S... A LOT. PROBABLY WAITED TOO LONG RIGHT? IT'S FINE.
That... shit that hurt.
God knows what Clint must be feeling, but that one stupid, flippant line was like a jolt of electricity, and not the good kind. More like the kind you get when you're strapped to a chair in a filthy basement and the car battery's made an appearance.
Really all he wants is to hug him – he thinks they'd both feel better.
CLINT NO he types, on insistent statement before starting another line of text. THIS IS ME, NOT YOU.
Phil snorts, disgusted with his own use of such a cliché.
SORRY, THAT SOUNDS HORRIBLE, I KNOW. BUT I PROMISE CLINT, THIS IS JUST A WORK EMERGENCY.
He hesitates, knows he shouldn't, but he does anyway. Sitting alone in the back of the jet, he holds the phone out just slightly, turns the camera and offers Clint his best puppy dog pout. You can just see the straps of his tac vest, the thin arm of the microphone the curves down along the line of his jaw from his earpiece. His collar is open at his throat and there's just a little bit of weariness showing around his eyes, determination at the corners of his mouth, and it feels... honest.
He hasn't told Clint what he does for a living. He makes sure that there's no errant SHIELD logos visible before sending the photo off with a swoosh, but generally leaves it ambiguous. If asked he can always say he's a government agent, or just tell him that it's a classified position.
In the end he's surprised by the response he garners, and doesn't really need to worry about it.
FUCK PHIL. THAT'S ONE HELL OF A TEASE IF YOU REALLY ARE BLOWING ME OFF.
REALLY NOT he promises, body flushing hot as his brain supplies a less mature response about something else he could blow. LET ME MAKE IT UP TO YOU?
YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO THAT Clint replies, and that pretty much tells Phil everything he needs to know.
I WANT TO he responds, glancing up when the jet banks sharply left and he realizes they're coming in for their landing. He doesn't have the time to cozen Clint into the idea and wishes he did, but in approximately two minutes he needs to be on ground, focused and in control. LET ME TAKE YOU TO DINNER he types, ignoring the way that his inner monologue suddenly sounds like it's begging. It's not even a question, he wants this, but he's already on his feet, his aviators in place ready to start barking orders. PLEASE?
It's too long before Clint replies, too much silence, but he does, just before Phil's boots hit the cracked, shoddy tarmac.
WILL YOU BE BACK BY SATURDAY?
Phil doesn't ask how he knows that he's gone, out of town, out of state, out of the country, just lets relief sap the wire-tension anxiety from his muscles.
WITH A HOT DATE WAITING FOR ME? ABSOLUTELY. PICK YOU UP AT SEVEN?
LOOKING FORWARD TO IT.
Grinning at his phone, Phil types out one last message before tucking it back into his pocket and striding up to meet the Agent in Charge who's waiting for him, eyes black and one arm tied up in a sling.
ME TOO CLINT. SEE YOU SATURDAY.
He gets back to New York late Friday afternoon.
He burned down a villa on his way out of San Salvador, but he would've done a lot worse to make it back on time, so Fury will just have to be happy that he'd limited the collateral damage as much as he had.
He achieved his objective anyway, got the information, neutralized the terrorist cell, and got one hundred percent of the original strike team back walking, talking, and breathing loud enough to get on his last nerve. He's irritable and exhausted and his ribs ache a little where a goon got in a few lucky shots, but he makes it through his debrief before handing in his after-action report and going the hell home.
Fifteen hours of sleep later, he wakes up mid-day Saturday eager and excited and feeling a lot better than he has all week. He's got reservations at a really nice Italian place across town courtesy of one Jasper Sitwell, self-appointed local-cuisine connoisseur, who had gone above and beyond when Phil had asked for a simple recommendation; nothing too formal or flashy but a step up from fast food or buffet chains. The one and only text he'd been able to get off to Clint had informed him of the dress code and reiterated their seven o'clock pick-up time, and the man had somehow managed to seem both surprised and relieved when he responded.
More than anything Phil is eager to show him that this is real, that in spite of his job and it's crazy, unpredictable demands on him they can make this work, that he wants this.
Clint told him straight out that no one has ever really tried for him before.
Phil wants him to see that he's different, more than that he wants Clint to know that he's worth the effort, that he deserves it.
He knows it's too much too soon. If he's honest he's surprised at himself. Half the reason he hasn’t dated all that much, half the reason those few dates didn't work out might be because in the past he hasn't really tried all that hard. It hasn't seemed worth the hassle, the difficulty of trying to explain or excuse himself. If this had happened a month ago, a year ago, Phil would have taken the latest SHIELD disaster as a sign, decided Clint's too good for him and deserves better or not interesting enough to fight for and walked away. He's pleased that he's taken such a shine to Clint but it surprises and confuses him too.
He hopes this isn't something that burns bright and fast before burning out.
He spends the day getting his chores done – taking care of what little laundry's piled up and what little dusting there is to do since SHIELD's cleaning services made their last run-through. As senior agents, he, Jasper, and May all live off base, each of them maintaining nice little apartments that are near replicas of each other. The best bit about the set-up is that a lot of the perks of base life followed them. Someone comes through to sweep and mop and pick up his suits for the cleaners, and if he leaves on mission he has the option to choose what services are kept up while he's gone.
It's nice to come home after months of being out of the country to fresh sheets and green, living plants and a fridge full of fresh, non-fuzzy food.
Of course he hasn't been gone that long this time, but the sentiment is still there.
He's certainly not planning on bringing Clint home tonight, not for any reason, but if they do somehow end up back here, at least the place will be clean.
It's a nice idea though, one he muses on while he eats a light lunch and loads the dishes into the washer. Getting to a place where he and Clint are close enough, intimate enough that Phil might even give him a key, might be able to come home from a long day at SHIELD to find Clint cooking at the stove or reading on the couch, or even to Lucky dancing eagerly around the front door, happy simply to have him back. That's the ultimate goal, isn't it, what he's working toward? That kind of a relationship, that kind of closeness? It's a long ways off, but not out of reach.
They could do it.
At a quarter to six he jumps in and out of the shower and starts getting ready, forcing himself to put on the outfit he'd picked out earlier in the afternoon and not spend thirty minutes on ten changes of clothes. He wears dark wash jeans that he knows do great things for his ass and a navy button-down that May says brings out his eyes, and on strict instruction from Jasper rolls his sleeves to his elbows and slips on his back-up glasses. He shaves carefully, adds a touch of cologne, finds black leather shoes and a light blazer and grabs his keys before heading down to the garage.
He's going all-out tonight; taking Lola.
He is groveling after all.
The corvette comes to life with a smooth, aggressive snarl and Phil can't stop a grin as he hits the street. It's warm enough to ride with the top down, the engine's purr soothing on his nerves. Mid-life crisis jokes aside, this car is his pride and joy, a project he started at the tender age of sixteen and didn't finish until some years later. A lot of good memories are tied to this car, particularly all the time he spent side by side with his father bent over beneath the hood, rebuilding a broken-down piece of scrap into the gorgeous red sportster she is today.
Not to mention she's a great ride to bring along on a date.
He pulls up in front of Clint's building three minutes to seven, and he's barely out of the car before Clint comes bounding out. Phil gets the distinct impression that he was waiting for him just inside the door, and that he'd been expecting to be let down. There's really no other explanation for the relief, the sheer surprised happiness that radiates from his as he dances down the steps onto the sidewalk, coming to a stop just as Phil rounds the hood of the car.
"Hi," he says goofily, his eyes sparkling, and Phil can't help a matching smile of his own.
"Hi," he answers back, reaching out to meet Clint's hand when he lifts it, twining their fingers together. "You look incredible."
Incredible doesn't quite begin to cut it – Clint is wearing dark jeans quite similar to his own, but that are certainly filled out much better. He's paired them with a light, charcoal grey, v-necked sweater that does amazing things for his shoulders and his eyes, and really for Phil too. He looks good enough to eat and more, and Phil's struck by a brief moment of self-conscious worry, but Clint's grinning and biting his lip, blushing a little and it's worth it.
"Really?" he asks bashfully. "You too. I mean... thanks. You look..."
Phil cocks an eyebrow, waits while Clint slowly traces his eyes up from Phil's feet, taking in every inch of him.
Phil doesn't have time to feel relieved before mischief suddenly sparks across Clint's face and he takes a slow, sauntering step closer, looking Phil over one more time in a manner that makes his throat go dry.
"I love the glasses," he purrs, his fingers sliding slowly up Phil's forearm. "And the jeans. And the... everything."
Phil chuckles; a little nervous, a little amused, and suddenly wondering if cocky and confident and flirtatious might be Clint's way of going on the defensive when he's a little nervous himself.
"Glad you approve," he smiles lightly, squeezing Clint's hand before taking a step back and opening Lola's passenger door. "Ready to go?"
"Speaking of wow..." Clint says, stepping lightly into the car and ghosting his fingers carefully over the dashboard as Phil jogs around to the other side and climbs in. "Nice 'Vette. 62?"
"I like a man who knows his classic cars," Phil hums with a nod, flicking Clint a glance. "You've got a good eye."
"Like you wouldn't believe," Clint mutters, and Phil turns to ask, but the blonde just grins and then he's off and running, chattering happily about how he's always wanted a classic 70's Charger. He's obviously not a gear head but he knows what he's talking about, and the discussion lasts them all the way to the restaurant.
Though it had been Jasper who suggested the venue, Phil's known of the place for a while. He's never dined in, but the owner (along with half the neighborhood) owes Phil a favor, so there's parking and a table waiting for them when they arrive. It's nice inside, warm and cozy but not so fancy as to be uncomfortable, which is good because Clint looks a tiny bit nervous when they first walk in. He seems grateful for Phil's hand at the small of his back and blushes prettily when he pulls his chair out for him before seating himself. Phil orders wine and a fresh bruschetta plate for the table while they peruse the menu, and is pleasantly surprised when, after the waiter has returned with the appetizer, Clint orders grilled salmon over a bacon and sweet pea risotto in perfect Italian.
A lively discussion is sparked, one that carries on in three different foreign languages when Clint admits that it's one of a few things he's good at. He doesn't go into detail but mentions that his education wasn't exactly formal, and that once he actually devoted some time to studying he found that languages were something he both picked up easily and enjoyed very much. Phil admitted easily that they were something he struggled with, but necessary to his job. Clint pauses when he says this, plants his elbow on the table and leans his cheek on his fist, a silly grin on his face.
"And what exactly is it that you do, Phillip Coulson?" he asks, leaning forward curiously. "Or is that classified?"
Phil gets the distinct feeling that he's being teased so he takes another bite of his lamb ragu before he answers.
"Largely classified, yes," he says. "Glorified law enforcement. I lead special teams."
"Hostage negotiations? Retrieval?"
"Sometimes," he answers with a smile.
It's close enough, and he's actually pretty impressed by the questions but it does make him wonder exactly how Clint knows to ask them. Clint, surprisingly, seems satisfied with his vague answer and grins as he leans back, lifting his wine glass in a toast.
"Well whatever it is, you look good doing it," he says, trailing his eyes slowly over Phil's chest and shoulders. "I kinda have a thing for competent badasses."
Turns out he was in the military, Marines when he was younger, and between that and Phil's history with the Rangers it's a little easier to talk or not about what he does. It's easier, it's always easier with someone who's been there too, who's seen war and understands that world, and Phil finds himself relaxing with Clint the same way he does with some of his old Army buddies. They talk about sports for a few minutes before realizing that neither of them really care and switch topics to music and television, finding a common love of Dog Cops which Phil finds endearing given the circumstances and which makes Clint duck his head with a secret little smile.
They linger over dinner until the waiter discreetly delivers the bill, and Phil's a bit surprised that the evening's gone so well, that the conversation has never stalled or felt stilted and forced. Clint watches him reach for the leather folder blatantly biting back a grin and Phil cocks an eyebrow as he flips it open.
"Are you one of those guys who's going to insist on paying?" he asks, and he bites down on a smile of his own.
"Are you one of those guy who's going to insist on arguing?" he fires back.
Clint barks a laugh then quickly sobers, licking his lips nervously.
"If I promise not to argue..." he begins hesitantly, "If I promise not to argue, will you promise to let me pay next time?"
"Next time," Phil parrots, slipping his credit card into the folder and handing it off to the waiter who ducks quickly away. "Very smooth."
Clint pinks, looks a little anxious like he thinks Phil is going to turn him down even though the night has gone so well and he moves quickly to reassure him, reaching across the table to touch his hand.
"I like the sound of that."
Clint's head snaps up, all the light back as he stares incredulously, and really Phil cannot understand how this man has been rejected so often he's come to expect it.
"But you're going to have to wait," he says accepting his card back and slipping it into his wallet as he signs the bill. "Night's not over yet."
Dusk was just starting to fall as they left the restaurant, the sky full of brilliant pinks and oranges and purples in the west where the sun was setting between the buildings, throwing them into dark relief. It was rare to see a sunset like that in New York, where skyscrapers so often blocked out the horizon-line. It was pleasantly warm and the air was clean from a recent rain, perfect for what Phil had in mind, and he spared a moment to be thankful that the apocalypse wasn't raining down ash and fire on their heads.
"We're headed about three blocks over," he says as they stand on the sidewalk out front, their hands casually in their pockets. "Take a walk with me?"
"Sure," Clint says with a soft smile. "It's a nice night."
Neither of them seem particularly eager to interrupt the silence so they walk quietly for a while, their shoulders brushing lightly as Clint follows at Phil's side. He leads them further into town, closer to the small shops and boutiques, but despite the beautiful evening the sidewalks aren't too crowded, making for easy going and an enjoyable stroll together. It all seems a bit too perfect but Phil can't be bothered to examine things too closely – if this is a dream he's happy to let it play on for just a little while longer.
They detour through a little sidewalk market, browsing the homemade crafts and chachki, chuckling at the messy jabber of Russian and German and what Phil thinks is Polish passing back and forth between the vendors. Clint's face lights up so easily, his grin and his laughter so free that he can't help the warm feelings swelling up in his chest, can't help watching the man with a smile that's probably too sappy. He gets caught, of course, he does, but the way Clint blushes and ducks his head makes him think that maybe it's not unwelcome. He finds himself making up little excuses to touch him – a hand on his shoulder to turn him toward some small treasure, his fingertips light on the small of his back to guide him between the stalls – and he wonders how long it's been since Clint had this, a simple date, someone to pay attention to him and dote on him.
He's reminded of how Lucky doesn't even seem to have any toys or props, nothing that screams indulgence, and wonders if it hasn't come from or translated to his everyday life as well.
By the time they wander around the corner and find their street Phil's even more determined to... well, not spoil the man – that seems like too much too soon – but absolutely make sure that he knows, always knows exactly how much he's worth, anyone else be damned.
"Is that the Mystery Machine?"
Clint's delighted, eager exclamation distracts Phil from his heavy thoughts, brings him back to the here and now.
The young man is nearly bouncing on the balls of his feet as they head toward Phil's favorite food truck, a huge smile on his face, eyes sparkling, and Phil can feel an answering excitement spark in the pit of his belly.
"Thought you might like some dessert," he chuckles, Clint's nearly-childlike glee infectious.
Plus he kind of secretly finds the pun hilarious – a Scooby Snack for his Lucky Boy.
It's a little presumptuous, pushing the boundaries, but he wants Clint to know that he really is ok with the whole puppy play thing, with Lucky. It doesn't have to be blatant or obvious, doesn't have to be all of their relationship or none of it, and he's hoping that maybe this might be a way of showing Clint that they can do both, be both. The blonde is looking at him with narrowed eyes but there's a smile playing around the corners of his mouth so Phil doesn't feel too terribly anxious.
"You're laughing," Clint accuses, and Phil does indeed bark a laugh.
"I wasn't," he snarks back, "But it is a little funny, isn't it?"
Clint just smiles and shakes his head.
They get in line together, the popular truck always busy no matter where it's parked, and peruse the menu painted on the side as they wait. The truck's exclusive 'Scooby Snacks' come in a wide variety of flavors, crazy little concoctions based loosely around the humble ice-cream sandwich, all of them delicious and served in old-fashioned paper cones. Phil decides on the Su'mmore Snak, bite-sized graham cracker churro cookies sandwiching toasted marshmallow ice cream and a hot, fudgey sauce while Clint goes for something a little more daring with the After-School Snak, chunky peanut butter cookies and banana ice cream with a chunky strawberry jam.
Desserts in hand they turn back the way they came, strolling along slowly discussing the pros and cons of food served from rolling vehicles. Clint is strongly encamped in the field of thought that the risks and potential for dire gastric consequences are actually half the fun of eating out of the back of a van, something Phil strongly contests with a heavily edited version of some of the horror stories he's witnessed over the years. It earns him a laugh and a story in response, and it's easy, so easy just to walk with Clint and know in the back of his mind that this man is intensely bright, well-traveled, read-in to the military and para-military governmental underground and not care. It's a blip on his radar, there and gone, hardly even registers beneath the low buzz of sheer contentment he's experiencing that it doesn't even throw him off his stride.
A moment later, when he points out that Clint has a speck of jam at the corner of his mouth, he nearly faceplants.
It's stupid, too presumptuous and horribly cliché, but Phil's reached out before he can think the better of it to smudge the sticky red substance away. There's a napkin held idle in his other hand that he reaches for next, but Clint catches his wrist and pulls it back up to his mouth with inexorable slowness, firm yet gentle as he flicks a warm, pink tongue out over the pad of Phil's thumb and sucks the sweetness gone. Want slams into him like a freight train and Clint is staring at him with eyes that have blown black and wide, and one or the other of them whines low in the back of their throat, but Phil can't be bothered to puzzle out who.
" 'S good," Clint says, low and rough in a way that only tightens Phil's arousal. "Wanna try?"
He wants a kiss, Phil knows he does. His pupils are dilated and his lips are parted and he's leaning forward into Phil's space, staring intently at his mouth, and yes, he wants. God how he wants. But something holds him back, some small part of him, some flashing red light that warns him this is a pattern for Clint, an expectation. Worry, that the younger man retreats into flirtation and sexual overtures as a way of keeping someone, of proving his worth.
He can't exploit that, doesn't want to.
Besides, he'd kind of liked the idea of an old-fashioned goodnight kiss.
"Trade you," he says, his own voice full of gravel, and for a minute Clint leans forward before the words register the way Phil had meant them to.
The light dims in his eyes and his shoulders hitch minutely, and Phil knows dejection when he sees it. He knew that might happen, was exactly what concerned him, and for a moment he wishes he didn't read people so well, or maybe weren't so principled. If he'd just kissed Clint like he'd wanted to...
That wasn't fair, nor did it sit well with Phil's sense of right and wrong.
Besides, he could compromise right?
With his free hand, he reaches out and traces the very tips of his fingers along Clint's jaw from ear to chin, can feel the tension and resistance locking him up, but he's firm and gentle and insistent, turning Clint back to face him again. Fishing the last Scooby Snack from his paper cone, he arches an eyebrow in question, lifts it to Clint's lips. The man looks startled, almost frightened, but it's masked quickly again with a cocky smirk, confirming Phil's suspicions and reassuring him that he's done the right thing. Clint waggles his eyebrows as Phil slips the treat into his mouth, and he can't help but cup his jaw in his hand as he finishes it, running his thumb along the man's plush lower lip.
He hadn't meant to do that, hadn't meant to say that.
Really, he had no idea where it had even come from.
Clint's eyes widen and he licks his lips, whines high and quiet in the back of his throat. For the space of a breath they're trapped in the moment, staring, unmoving, heartbeats pounding in their ears and Phil has no idea where they're going, what happens next but he doesn't care. It's too much too fast, always too much too fast with Clint. He feels like a damn teenager again, falling in love like a fool and he doesn't know how to catch himself.
In some kind of strange bid to save himself, his body reacts without prompting from his brain. His hand snaps out and snatches Clint's last snack, retreating before the man can yip in protest and then he's dancing away up the sidewalk, immeasurably pleased that the man is laughing, loud and happy and carefree as he jogs after him. He bumps Phil's shoulder companionably as they slow back to an idle stroll, pausing to toss their papers in the trash, and then, in one quick surge of boldness, grabs on to Phil's hand and laces their fingers together.
"Um," he mumbles, cheeks pink and head ducked, "This ok? I mean if you don't want..."
Phil just smiles, squeezes his hand and doesn't let go until they've arrived back at the restaurant and collected Lola. The drive back to Clint's apartment is quick and pleasant, made all the more interesting by the way Clint watches him intently, eyes following his hands on the wheel and the stick as he shifts gears. It's getting a little uncomfortable (the good kind of uncomfortable) when Clint finally opens his mouth, surprising Phil into a happy chuckle with his words.
"So. Cloth napkins and street food huh?"
"Thought I'd hedge my bets," he replies with a smile and a shrug, chancing a look at his passenger before going back to the road. "Play it safe. But I hoped you would enjoy both."
"I did," Clint nods. "Just gonna be tough to beat you know, since it's my turn next time. I mean if..."
Pulling up to the curb in front of Clint's building, Phil puts the 'Vette in park and turns in his seat to look at the blonde, who's staring determinedly away and worrying his lower lip. He isn't sure there's any way he can truly convince the man just how much he's enjoyed his company, the evening they've spent together, but he's about to try when Clint pipes up again, voice a little surer but just a little cooler too.
"Wanna come up?"
Phil blinks, doesn't think too hard about what he's being invited for, because yes, damn it, he wants. He wants any and all of it, but what he doesn't want is exactly what he's afraid he's being offered.
"I'd like to walk you up, yes," he says, purposefully vague, and then Clint's nodding and unbuckled and out the door before he can get another word out.
He has to scramble to get out and around the car but he catches him at the door of the building, his hand light on the man's wrist and he fiddles with getting the key into the lock.
"Clint," he says quietly, and it sounds more like a question than he's comfortable with, but the man stills, settles, turns to face him with a look almost like resignation on his face, a look that Phil promptly sets about banishing.
"I had an incredible time tonight," he murmurs quietly, watching the way the colors change in the other man's eyes as his thumb sweeps back and forth across his forearm. "I can't remember the last time I enjoyed an evening more."
"I..." he begins, but he can't seem to find any words so Phil just smiles, keeps going.
"Thank you, for joining me. For giving me a chance to make up for... for missing our coffee date. I hope I..."
"More than made up for it," Clint says, finally finding his words even if he sounds a little hoarse. "I get it, we all have to work..."
"True," Phil nods, "But I never want you to feel like you don't matter. Like you're just a blow-off."
"Well if this is the way you apologize I don't think I'll mind too much," Clint purrs, his hands suddenly fisting in Phil's shirt just over his hips and pulling him in close. "Besides, I can think of a few things I wouldn't mind having blown."
Phil nearly chokes on a snort, shakes his head laughing.
"That was absolutely terrible," he says flatly.
The kiss isn't.
In fact, the kiss is pretty fucking spectacular.
It starts out soft, a little surprised on Clint's part, but he melts into it like hot butter, and it's sweet and smooth and all kinds of perfect, just the warm, gentle goodnight kiss Phil had intended to lay on him.
It doesn't stay that way.
All the innuendos and playful suggestions, the trickles of tension and heavy weight of attraction that's been building all night quickly crashes the party, and Clint's keeping Phil so close by his grip on his hips that it seems the next logical thing to grab on in return and holy hell, the man has biceps for days, hard and round and perfect for sinking his nails into. Once again one of them whines, or maybe both, and then Phil's tongue is sliding along Clint's lower lip and everything is ten times hotter. He ends up leaning him gently back against the door, pressing as close as he can and forgetting all about his plans for leaving him on the step like a gentleman, but Clint is pressing back just as hard and doesn't seem at all perturbed by this change in plans.
" 'M not supposed to invite you in," he pants when they finally pull back for air. Phil's forehead is pressed against the cool wood of the door over his shoulder, his palms flat against it as he cages Clint in, and there's a sudden flash of brilliant red hair behind his eyelids that does wonders to cool his libido. "Supposed to wait."
"Do you want to?" He asks, his voice a low growl. "Do you want to wait?"
"What do you think?" Clint snarks, rolling their hips together, and Phil chuckles.
Yeah that's what he figured.
Good to know for sure though.
As long as he knows that Clint does want him just as much as Phil wants Clint, waiting's not exactly a hardship.
He's worth it.
"Good enough for me," Phil breathes.
It takes another three seconds, but he manages to pull himself back, to smooth his hands down Clint's sides soothingly and press another quick kiss to his lips. The man looks dumbfounded when he steps away and trots back down the steps towards his car, but Phil just tosses him a wink over his shoulder.
"I had a good time tonight Clint," he calls back. "I hope you did too. You should call me some time; I sure as hell wouldn't turn down a second date."
Clint's still grinning in his rearview when he pulls away a few minutes later.
Clint's staring at the ceiling with a stupid grin on his face when Natasha slips silently through his bedroom window two hours later. He's still wearing his sweater and his jeans, sprawled out across the sheets with his hands tucked behind his head, exactly where he's been since he'd wandered up there intent on a nice, long, leisurely session of self-pleasure. Being kissed up against the door, watching Phil drive off with a quip and an unbearably smart-assed smirk had had him primed and ready to go, but the urgency and the tightly coiled arousal settled low in his belly had slowly faded, replaced by a warm feeling of safety and contentment that he couldn't remember feeling in a long time.
Nat takes one look at his face in the dark and slips onto the bed beside him, tucking herself in against his side with one arm slung around his waist and her head resting in the hollow of his shoulder, as close as she can be without climbing on top of him. Minutes pass in silence and he's fine with that – he's a cuddly bastard on a bad day let alone a good one – and he's a little hesitant to break the spell the evening's cast.
But as they say, all good things...
"You look pleased," Natasha murmurs, and it sounds a tiny bit accusing, making him laugh.
"Really, really am," he replies in the dark. "It was a good night Nat. Very good night. No one's ever dated me before, not like that."
"And yet here you are alone."
"Hey!" he protested, giving her a jostle. "That was your rule."
"One you could have broken."
"Wanted to," Clint admitted, his cheeks warm. "Probably would have."
"How did Coulson take it?"
Clint snorted, turned a bit so they were more comfortably situated on the bed.
"Like a champ," he said, thinking back to the way the man had gentled him down from the edge with a long, lingering touch and a quick kiss before taking off. "Seemed happy enough knowing I wanted to. Told me to call him, so we could do it again."
There's no change in Tasha's tone, no hint at all that she's approving or warning him against it, and Clint bites his lip in the dark, suddenly nervous and unsure again.
"You want to," she answers for him, propping herself up on one elbow to stare down at him in the pale light creeping in from the window. "What's wrong?"
Clint sighs, lets his eyes fall shut.
"Nobody's this perfect Tash," he mumbles, remembering all the short time he's known Phil Coulson. "He's nice and funny and sweet and he... he's ok with this. With me and... with Lucky. He didn't know anything about it but he accepted it just like that and..."
"And what? What did he say about meeting our Lucky hmm?"
"Nothing. We didn't even... huh."
They hadn't even talked about Lucky.
Half the reason Clint had been so nervous about seeing Phil again was because he was worried about how their playdate had gone, about how Phil had reacted to meeting Lucky and then promptly canceled their coffee date. He hadn't been all that surprised, only disappointed – it had happened before after all – and then when Phil had offered to take him to dinner half of him had expected it was for the sole purpose of breaking up with him.
Phil seemed like the kind of guy who would want to let you down easy, do it face to face.
While waiting for him to arrive Clint had spent half his time freaking out and the other half preparing himself to hear about everything that had been weird and wrong the last time, that it had all just been too much.
And yet it hadn't really come up at all.
"We talked about languages," Clint murmurs, transported back to the warm, intimate little restaurant where they'd eaten. "Cars and music and... and he liked my bad jokes and loves Dog Cops. Had a really nice dinner and walked to the park. Got dessert from The Mystery Machine. Never even talked about Lucky."
Natasha allows the quiet to pass for a moment, allows him to linger in the memories. He doesn't tell her about how Phil had fed him a treat from his fingers, doesn't tell her how he'd been far too forward sucking Phil's thumb into his mouth and had still been rewarded with more soft, drawn-out touches and a murmured 'good boy' that had made Clint want to melt to his knees and wag his tail right there on the sidewalk in front of god and everybody. That's not what she meant, not what she wants to know about, and besides, it's kind of his.
He wants to keep that moment.
"So," she finally says softly, her fingers tugging at his hair, "Clint and Phil then."
"Yeah. And Clint likes Phil."
Beside him Natasha sighs and the fact that he can hear it at all tells him that he's meant to.
"You'll have to talk about it eventually. Sooner, rather than later most likely."
"I know," he mumbles, turning to nuzzle against her neck, to bury his face in her hair. "I'm not... hiding from it. He said I could pick... the next date you know? I thought maybe something like the park, or the aquarium, somewhere we could..."
"Be a little more private."
"Yeah. Thing is though I kinda... don't wanna. I do, and I know I have to, but you were right Tash. I like being just Clint and Phil, before Lucky and Phil. That was never really a thing before."
"This is a good thing, yes? You did not like the men you saw before," she hums. "I did not either."
"You like Phil?"
It sounds painfully young, vulnerable, but Clint is sure Natasha knows just how much her opinion means to him and he doesn't really mind showing it.
"I'm beginning to," she hedges, but he can sense there's a 'but' coming. "He seems to handle surprises well."
Clint bites his lip, his heart suddenly pounding in his chest.
He should tell her, he knows he should tell her, but she'll freak out and he knows that's fair too. He should be freaking out.
"Think he's some kind of secret agent," he finally admits, barely a whisper against the skin of her throat, but she hears him and goes as stiff as a board beside him. "You saw the picture, and he uses the word 'classified' a lot. When I asked about hostage negotiations or retrieval he said sometimes."
"I know Tash," he sighs, abruptly cold and forlorn and miserable as he rolls away from her, turns his back. "But they're not looking for us anymore. We made sure Hawkeye and Widow were last seen in Stalingrad, not New York. And nobody knows I..."
Crossing his arms, Clint squeezes his eyes shut against a sudden burn.
"Nobody knows about Lucky," he growls. "I contacted him; there's no way this is a sting."
"I never thought it was."
He doesn't thaw, not quite. No, he's defensive, he's always defensive when it comes to this. It's weird and messed up and not... not normal, and that makes it unique, makes it significant. The world of puppy play might be larger than most people would think but it's still pretty small; Hawkeye can't afford to be connected with that world.
He's careful, he's always been careful.
Fuck, he wants this.
"I do not think you are falling for a trap Little Bird," Natasha murmurs softly in Russian, her small hand firm and gentle between his shoulder blades. "You're right; we've laid low, made ourselves scarce. The FBI and Interpol are no longer focused on Hawkeye or the Black Widow, but you must still be careful. You asked if he was in Hostage Negotiations or Retrieval – these are not civilian questions."
"Hush," she scolds him softly, tugging him back into her arms and stroking his hair, pressing a kiss to his temple. "Be more careful next time. If he asks, you watch too much crime television."
"You're going to look him up aren't you?"
"What kind of friend would I be if I didn't?"
"Not a very good one," Clint mutters, letting himself be soothed. She's not saying no. "And you're the best kind of friend."
"Don't speak too soon," she warns. "You still have a conversation coming, and I am eager to see how he handles a more exuberant Lucky. You were not so very friendly last time."
"We'll talk about that too."
"But not tonight," she hums, and Clint knows that tone too, the tension leaking out of his muscles as the warm, contented happiness seeps back into him like a sigh. "Tonight you had a wonderful date, for the first time in a long time, with a man who seems to appreciate you."
Slipping out of the bed, she leans over and presses a kiss to his forehead before heading back to the window.
"Take it and run Little Bird," she says, silhouetted by the silver gleam of the moon against the glass. "Just watch where you're laying your feet."
It's been a long time since Phil's clicked with someone like that.
Not just physically, but overall.
Heaving a sigh, Phil allows himself a dopey grin.
This had been the best evening he's had in months, maybe years, the best date he's had in a lifetime. Things had been so smooth, so easy, it was like Phil'd never left the field at all, like Clint had been handpicked for him.
Physically of course he'd gorgeous and ticks all of Phil's boxes; broad chest, great shoulders, amazing arms, nothing twinky or feminine about him, and all that to say nothing of his ass.
So he looked – sue him.
It's more than that though, so much more, and the few hours he had been privileged to spend with him tonight had only served to emphasize that.
The man is charming and funny and sweet, a little bit bashful and shy, his blushes and stammers far more endearing than they have any right to be. He has good taste in cars and television and food trucks and he spars with Phil as easy as breathing, intelligent and flirtatious and teasing, even if he seems unsure of himself sometimes. There's something else there, something that tickles at his senses, whispers at the back of his mind but he puts it off as the whole puppy play thing, and that's another matter entirely.
He's still doing research, still exploring, still entirely new to this, but it doesn't bother him. He's not uneasy at all, something he had tried to prepare himself against in the beginning, more curious and eager than anything. It means more time with Clint, learning about him, another side of him, and somehow it manages to feel even more intimate than the date they've just shared. As wonderful as it was, as exciting and thrilling and breath-catching as it had been, there was something about Lucky, something incredibly humbling about being allowed to witness another man be so vulnerable, so entirely himself in the face of possible rejection or ridicule.
He feels like he's falling, and it's stupid and it's unwise and it's too soon, but when Phil goes to bed a few moments later, he realizes with a start that this is what happy feels like.
It's been a while, but the experience is pretty unmistakable.
Happy New Years (a little early)! Hope you're all having a lovely holiday season and are ready to welcome 2017 - I know I am!
A week later Clint is still floating but the threat of reality is lingering at the back of his mind. He knows Natasha is looking into Phil and he's ok with that – he expects to learn that the man's some kind of cop, or even an agent for some alphabet corp – but she's not having any luck at all and that's a little concerning. In fact there's no real record of Phillip Coulson at all. Sure, he's got a birth certificate and a driver's license and his name is on a lease and an auto insurance policy, but all in all it looks like a clean, simple, glossy false identity.
Makes him nervous.
Not for the reason he should be, and wouldn't Natasha be disappointed in him for that.
No, he's just nervous because he's really, really hoping Phil hadn't given him a fake name because of the whole puppy play thing, or even the dating thing.
Be a shitty way to get dumped, but pretty smart if you're the one doing the dumping.
If Clint wasn't who he was, if he didn't have Nat, Phil could just up and walk away and that would be that.
But on a Monday he texts Phil and asks if he'd like to do lunch or something on Wednesday, and apparently he has the afternoon off just like he'd had before, and he sounds as happy as one can sound over text to be invited.
"This doesn't count," Clint says as Phil approaches him on the sidewalk outside of Clint's favorite diner, then promptly facepalms. "I mean, hi."
Phil just smiles, chuckles and leans in to press a quick kiss to his cheek.
"Hi," he responds, even as Clint feels his cheeks heat and ducks his head shyly. "Doesn't count as what?"
"Our date," he mumbles a minute later, rubbing the back of his neck. "I just... I mean I thought maybe this could just be lunch? Since we need to talk and I still wanna do it right, you know? If you want."
He's babbling, fast and messy, but his nerves are getting the better of him after he'd barked that out at Phil before even saying hello. The man's listening quietly, his head tilted a bit to the side, and it warms something in his belly that he's letting Clint talk, letting him get it all out without laughing at him or brushing him off, without getting upset by his blunt, inelegant gushing. There's even a gentle smile tipping at the corners of his mouth, and when he reaches out to squeeze Clint's forearm relief is the primary emotion that loosens the nervous ache in his chest.
"Clint, following up 'we need to talk' with a request for another date is nothing but reassuring," he says with amusement dancing in his eyes. "I might be a little nervous otherwise."
"What?" Clint asks, before the meaning clicks. "No! I mean, that's not what I..."
"I didn't think it was," Phil says gently, sliding his hand down Clint's arm to thread their fingers together and squeeze. "But it's still nice to hear. Want to head inside?"
Nodding dumbly, Clint follows him through the door and over to a corner booth, sliding in across from him. Phil looks him over for a minute and he feels like he's being looked right through, like the man is seeing more than he should, but then he leans back and settles into the bench seat and his shoulders ease.
"You're nervous," he says, not cruel just mildly curious.
Clint blushes again, painfully this time, and looks up at him from beneath his lashes.
"You make me nervous."
Phil blinks, tips his head.
"Good nervous or bad nervous?"
"Both?" Clint guesses, and Phil's about to open his mouth but the waiter is suddenly appearing beside the table, setting down cups of coffee and scribbling notes on a pad when they both rattle off their orders without even glancing at a menu.
Apparently it's one of Phil's favorite diners too.
"I don't mind the good nervous," Phil says slowly, quietly after she's gone again, and Clint can't bring himself to look up, instead playing with his silverware intently. "The bad nervous I kind of wish I could fix."
Clint licks his lips, tries to reply, but can't seem to get any words out around the rock in his chest.
Clint sucks in a breath but then Phil is reaching across the table, covering Clint's fingers with his own, warm and strong and rough, pistol calluses and a smudge of ink.
"Talk to me Barton," he cajoles gently. "Come on, not panicking over there are you?"
This time his tone is teasing and playful and manages to draw Clint out as well as anything. When he meets Phil's gaze the other man grins, takes his hand back and sits up a little straighter.
"There you are," he murmurs softly. "Hey, relax, huh? I told you when this started that I was willing to talk, to answer your questions, remember? I'm ok with that. And I am more than ok with having lunch with you, and with going on another date if you still want to go."
The relief is nearly overwhelming, washes through him like warm water, and suddenly he can breathe again. Phil's words thrust nearly all the fear and uncertainty away, hope and happiness quickly taking their place, but there's a little bit of shame there too. Clearing his throat, Clint forces himself to lift his head and meet the other man's gaze, to keep his hands loose on his knees beneath the formica table.
" 'M sorry," he says, clean and neat, even though he wants to duck and blush and mumble.
"What for?" Phil asks, his brow furrowing.
"For being nervous. For... doubting this. Doubting you."
Shaking his head, Clint looks away out the window.
" 'M not very good at relationships," he admits. "I get stupid. Self-confidence is pretty much shot to hell so I have a hard time believing somebody like you would want... somebody like me."
For a moment Phil is quiet and Clint thinks that maybe this is it, that maybe the breakup he'd unintentionally brought up was happening.
"I thought I was pretty clear the other night," he says softly, and Clint hunches his shoulders, folds in on himself. "But if I wasn't let me be clear now."
Clint's head snaps up and Phil is staring at him, staring at him intently and waiting to make sure he's listening before finishing his declaration.
"I do like you Clint," he states, simply and firmly as though it's plain, irrefutable fact. "Very much. You're clever and funny and sweet, and... incredibly good-looking. If anything it's you that's out of my league."
Sitting forward, he rests his elbows on the table, leaning in as close as he can.
"But I'm not going to let it bother me," he states. "I'm going to take what I can get for as long as I can, and I am going to enjoy every possible minute of it. I'm going to take you out and I'm going to listen to you and I'm going to laugh with you and I'm going to enjoy spending time with someone that I genuinely find interesting and likeable and attractive. I'm going to treat you and I'm going to tease you and I'm going to kiss you if you let me, and yes, I'm probably going to be a little smug about it. You're not a trophy to be shown off but you can't blame me for being a little bit proud that I managed to wind up a good enough catch myself to bring you around."
Sitting back, Phil appears to take a minute to catch his breath, the tips of his ears pinking up just a little bit, and Clint's just sitting there dumbfounded, stunned by the man's speech and pretty sure he just fell in love.
Who knows what would have come out of his mouth if their waitress hadn't reappeared in just that moment – he's going to have to tip big just for her timing alone. Phil spins his plate while Clint stares – a short stack with a side of bacon and house potatoes, doctors it with butter and maple syrup, picks up his knife and fork and twiddles the in his fingers before he opens his mouth again.
"I'm happy dating you Clint," he repeats. "More than I have been in... a long time. I'm happy talking to you, about whatever you want. And if you're feeling bad nervous I'm happy to talk about that and do the best I can to make sure those nerves go away."
Looking contemplative, he taps his knife against the side of his plate, cuts a bite of pancake before looking up at Clint with a wink and a smirk.
"And as for the good nervous, I'm happy to make that worse."
The laugh that chokes up Clint's throat is full and honest and unexpected, and he's practically wheezing by the time he spits it out. Phil's suddenly looking a bit haughty and snooty as he concentrates on carefully cutting and eating his pancakes but Clint just slides his boots forward underneath the table to tap them against the man's ankles.
"You sure know how to give a guy the warm and fuzzies Coulson," he murmurs when he finally looks up, cocking a sardonic eyebrow. His words do wonders in softening the man's expression, and Clint's glad he can return a little of what Phil's just given him. "Thanks. And uh, same, you know? I'm... really happy too."
Phil's mouth tips up in a half smile and an easy quiet falls over the table, all the tension between them bleeding away as they tuck into their lunch, Phil with his pancakes and Clint with a barbecue burger and fries. The silence is simple and unstrained and they both relax into it with pleasure and relief, the conversation slowly picking back up and sticking to light, casual topics this time. It harkens back to their first date, just getting to know each other, their taste in music and outdoor activities, their favorite holidays. It's nice and it's simple and by the time they're both done eating and have split the bill, Clint's feeling much more at ease and has recovered from his jerk move and subsequent panic out on the sidewalk.
"So hey, um, I was thinking maybe we could take a walk," he says as they step back outside into the sunshine. "Maybe troll the Met or head to the park or something?"
"I'd like that," Phil agrees, surprising him by immediately catching his hand and threading their fingers together, falling into step so close that their shoulders brush. "Do you mind?"
"Really really don't," Clint grins, squeezing tight and pointing them toward one of the nicest nearby parks, only a block or two away.
They wander, take their time, enjoying the bright, warm, summer day, and once they reach the entrance to the park it's Phil's turn to lead. He tugs Clint down one of the less travelled paths through a small flower garden, grinning back at him over his shoulder, and when they've danced their way back into the privacy of the bushes and the climbing vines, he pulls Clint in close and presses a long, lingering kiss to his lips. It's nice, a little heated, but when Clint eventually pulls back for air, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth, Phil just presses in for more.
Maybe it's his turn to be uncertain, a little insecure.
"I'm kind of a hot mess Phil," he mumbles against Phil's lips as he tries to tug Clint closer by his belt loops, an impossible feat given that they're already touching from knees to nose. "And you're... shit. You're cool and you're confident and more put together than I've ever been. You're smokin' hot. Dunno what you're doing with a walking disaster like me but I'm gonna enjoy it while I can. You're more than I deserve, and I'm... I'm gonna hang on to you."
Phil finally draws back, looks at him with something dark and wondering in his eyes before he presses one more short, chaste kiss to his mouth.
"I'm ok with that," he breathes, and Clint believes him.
Together the two of them heave a sigh, and then flick quick glances at each other that end up with them both laughing full and loud and happy. Strolling a little further into the garden hand in hand, they pass a small fountain and find a bench to sit on, curl up next to each other close enough that their thighs press together.
"You wanted to talk?" Phil cajoles eventually, when Clint's enjoyed the companionable silence just a little too long. "About..."
"Lucky?" he offers with a tentative smile. "If that's ok."
Phil huffs a breathy chuckle and grins.
"I'd really like that actually," he confesses. "I've wanted to. I thought I did alright but it would be nice to hear from you."
Bumping Clint's knee with his own, he winks.
"I've been told I thrive on performance reviews."
"Jesus you're perfect," Clint blurts, and Phil's eyes go wide, all teasing gone and replaced with shock and pleased surprise. "You just, you don't get it, do you? Anybody else would've gotten right into it; telling me what I did wrong or what was weird or what they didn't like. It wouldn't be about me, what I liked or didn't like."
"Of course it's about you," Phil insists immediately. "A relationship is about all parties involved, the both of us."
"I know that's how it's supposed to be," Clint agrees, slouching a little bit and leaning into Phil's side, pleased when the man stretches his arm out hesitantly along the back of the bench and holds him close. "Doesn't mean that's how it always is. But it is with you and that... that's really really awesome Phil."
Clint gets a gentle squeeze and it encourages him to keep talking.
"It was good," he says, a smile stealing over his face as he thinks back to Phil and Lucky's first playdate. "Lucky's a little nervous with new people, but you were really good with him. You didn't force it, you know?"
Phil hums an affirmative and Clint snuggles closer.
"My brain doesn't go totally offline when I play," he explains, thinking carefully about how to explain his pupspace. "I get... fuzzy, I guess. Kinda like being a little drunk maybe? Human things don't seem as important, like, say if the phone would ring. I recognize the sound and know what it is and what it means but I don't feel like I need to answer it."
"That makes sense," Phil agrees. "I wondered, how deep you went when you played. If you understood what I said."
"I remember you said I was handsome," Clint grins, and Phil's cheeks pink. "You called me good boy."
"Was that ok?"
Clint feels his heartbeat pick up and his jeans tighten a little, licks his lips as he stares at Phil's mouth.
"That was way more than ok."
Phil swallows, his throat bobbing before he nods.
"I'm glad," he murmurs, pupils widening. "Because you are Clint. You, Lucky, both of you, all of you. You're a good, good boy."
They probably talk for another hour or so after that, Phil asking questions, Clint answering them, and really just lounging in the warm, happy memory of Lucky's playdate with Phil. He tells him again and again how well he'd done, partly to really drive the point home and partly because that's just how he remembers the event, just so, so good. They discuss his headspace a little more, Phil concerned with his safewords, the traffic light system, his ability to use them when he's Lucky. They're good questions – intelligent, conscientious – and it's reassuring that he's taking this seriously.
Clint tells him a little bit about his relationship with Natasha and how she takes care of him, no matter where his head's at. He tells him about some of the things that Lucky likes to do, and some of the things he doesn't. He kind of skirts the fact that he hasn't actually tried a lot of things, that there's a lot of puppy play that he's curious about but hasn't had the courage or the trust to try, and that he thinks maybe he would with Phil. He tells him a little bit about how he goes down and how he comes back up, tells him about the importance and the symbolism of the purple bandana, and he can tell that Phil is thinking and contemplating and maybe even plotting, but he won't share anything more than a wink and a smile.
It puts a small knot of anticipation in his belly, of eagerness.
For the first time in a really long time he's actually looking forward to spending a few hours in pup-space. It's not just something he's scheduling in to keep himself sane and level this time, it's something he's doing for fun, something he's... exploring with someone else.
He thinks the excitement shows on his face when he asks Phil if they could schedule a play date, even through the shyness and the little bit of nerves that manage to linger.
The smile he gets in return banishes those nerves, long enough that they stay gone until he and Phil have set a tentative date, settled a couple more questions, kissed goodbye and gone their separate ways. When he looks back over his shoulder at the corner he catches Phil watching him walk away, eyes decidedly lower than his own. It's nice, knowing that Phil likes him like that too, because Clint can't deny that he's looked too. Phil's got a great ass of his own, nice shoulders, smile and gaze that are warm and friendly and welcoming. Clint's attracted to him, and he'd enjoyed their date and their little lunch interlude more than he can say.
It's been years since he's been young and hopeful and naive enough to think that he might find someone who could be everything he liked, everything he needed; kind and strong, a partner as well as an owner for Lucky.
It scares him that he's thinking that way about Phil now.
It could've been worse if Natasha hadn't dragged him out on a job. He works the playdate in casually as they're deboarding a plane, grabbing their luggage off the carousel. She doesn't reply, just snags her duffel and jerks her chin toward his, and then they're crossing Ankara checking into a tiny little motel that's surprisingly opulent for having just walked in off the street. As they change into their tac suits and look over their weapons - amazing what you can still smuggle through airports these days – Clint thinks perhaps she's mad at him, but she kisses his cheek on the way back out the door and tells him she's happy for him, and it's like the sun rising in his chest for the rest of the job.
It drives him to near distraction as a matter of fact, and while he and Natasha get the job done and get it done well, they have a close call on the way out. It's his fault, he's not paying attention, instead riding high on the adrenaline and pride of having taking out a high ranking opium peddler and having a hot date waiting for him. He should have seen the signs, should've felt the trap closing around them, but his system was too flooded by the sheer happiness of things finally going his way. He doesn't recognize the danger until it's almost too late.
They only just barely manage to evade their potential captors, to give their tails the slip and head back to the States. Natasha's pissed, he can tell, just from the way she sits beside him in the get-away car, the set of her jaw and shoulders, the way she doesn't speak. He knows what it is – it's that they hadn't seen that coming, hadn't been prepared. It's the unknown that's freaking her out, freaking him out. That wasn't the FBI closing in on them back there, wasn't the CIA, not DHS or NSA or any of the other alphabet corps they've ever run across. Any of them, Clint and Nat would've been dodging a hail of bullets, not just playing a careful cat and mouse game of keep-away.
No, this was someone else, someone with an apparent vested interest in keeping them alive and (maybe) whole.
That's scarier than it probably should be.
No one particularly wants to keep Hawkeye and the Black Widow alive and well, and once again that unknown factor rears its head, threatens them.
What could they possibly want them for?
Doubling back, they manage to catch a glimpse of their pursuers, standard suited agents all scrambling around, loading into cars marked with some sort of eagle on the side, and Clint's alarmed by the strange jolt of kinship he immediately feels on sight of it. His breath catches and it's weird and it doesn't make sense, but Nat elbows him hard in the ribs and helps him focus.
"Strategic Homeland..." she reads slowly, squinting hard.
"SHIELD," Clint breathes as he reads off the last of the logo, his eyes wide and his heart suddenly pounding in his chest. "But they're not..."
"They're a myth," Natasha says, stunned as she leans out over the edge of the roof they're perched on, trying to get a better look. "A bad guy's boogeyman. What..."
Clint senses more than sees eyes on them, feels more than knows that they're being watched, and a great whoosh of panic has him grabbing Nat by the arm and jerking her backward beneath the edge of the roof where he's sure they can't be detected, breathes through two, hard, painful heartbeats then yanks her to her feet and gets them both hauling ass across the tar paper. They abandon the car and hoof it all the way back to the airport, board a plane in silence, and don't really speak again until they get back to his apartment in Bed Stuy.
There they lock the doors, double check the windows, and take turns keeping watch while the other takes a long, hot shower. By the time Chinese food is delivered they've both climbed into sweats and hoodies and curled up together on the couch as close as they can get, reassuring themselves that they're home and they're safe and they're together as they tell all the ghost stories they can remember about the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. It's almost like some kind of sick game of one-upsmanship – Well I heard...
It puts a shiver down Clint's spine.
People disappear when SHIELD comes after them – what could they possibly want with Hawkeye and the Widow?
It scares him, and he can tell it scares Nat too, even if she doesn't say it. She sits too close, holds on too tight, even when they finally run out of whispered rumors to repeat and turn on a rerun of Dog Cops in a useless effort to wind down before bed. She stays that night and Clint's grateful, sleep elusive and full of restless dreams.
It's rare that he loses his temper, whether while on base at HQ or on ground during a mission, but this last one had sapped both his energy and his patience.
Damn it, he was so close!
When Fury had given him the go-ahead to start recruiting he'd known exactly who he wanted to start with and he knew it would be the most difficult task he'd ever set himself. No one had ever been able to touch Hawkeye and the Widow – archer extraordinaire and world's greatest spy. He wasn't stupid or naïve - he'd known what he was signing up for and hadn't expected it to be quick or simple in any way.
But to get so very near and then have them slip away...
Phil's fist tightens around the pen he's using to write up his after-action report and he feels the plastic creak under the pressure, threatening to shatter. Across from him, Ramirez and the rest of his team are strapped onto the bench seat of the Quinjet, eyes either on their own reports or on the floor. The young Level Three is avoiding him as best he can while confined to the belly of the jet – making a pretty impressive job of it actually - and Phil knows he was too hard on him, knows he over reacted. He'll have to apologize to him when they get back, hold a sort of extended debrief for just the two of them, and it will be painful and embarrassing but he'll do it because he should.
The anger and the irritation, both with himself and with the whole damned op will combat the shame and get him through it, and really more than anything Ramirez deserves a personal, face-to-face apology. Phil had had no right to chew him out the way he did, to take out all his frustration on the younger agent. He still believes absolutely that it was him that blew their tail and alerted their targets to their presence, his mistake that resulted in their rabbiting before Phil could close his trap around them, but while he was rising fast through SHIELD's ranks he'd never gone after anyone like who they'd gone after today. He'd done well all things considered, and it would be nothing to put his pride aside long enough to make sure the younger agent knew that.
He's still pissed.
Any element of surprise he'd been working with was blown now. No way that either Hawkeye or the Widow had failed to discover the team's identity, even if SHIELD had maintained a somewhat myth-like existence over the years. They'll know they're being hunted now, know that SHIELD is after them, and he'll count himself lucky if they only run. If they actually go to ground, or god-forbid retaliate...
Well then their recruitment status might change to elimination status.
If they start interfering in SHIELD ops, start taking out their agents, there won't be anything Phil can do to keep them safe.
So he needs a strategy, needs a plan, and good thing for him, plans are his forte. He'll come up with something, find a way to get the word out. Hell, last resort he intends to put himself out there on Darknet, offer them a job, meet them at a drop, and offer them another one. He thinks they may be amenable – at the very least leave him alive when it's over. There are rumors the pair have gone soft of the years but Phil's kept tabs on them, on their work. It's not softness – that much is plainly evident from the massacre they'd left behind in Turkey – but they reserve their cunning, their brutality, their vengeance for those that well and truly deserve it, those that have already found themselves on SHIELD's black list.
He wants them.
He wants them more than anything he's wanted in a very long time.
So he goes back stateside, and he debriefs his team, and he takes Ramirez into his office and apologizes honestly and sincerely. He drafts a report to Fury, drafts another to Maria Hill, and then settles himself at his desk to sketch out his next plan of attack. It's nearly midnight when his eyes go so blurry he can't blink it away anymore, when his brain's too fuzzy to hold a coherent thread of thought for more than three minutes. Shutting down his computer, he locks up his office and commandeers a Level One to drive him home to his brownstone where he forces himself to choke down a sandwich and scrub off the grime and disappointment of a mission unsuccessful.
Crawling beneath the sheets, he's out before he knows it, never once resurfacing until his phone chimes at four am, the light illuminating the small space around the bed in a wash of pale blue.
It's from Clint, who he hasn't had the time or energy to think about since this all started, two simple words.
Two words, that's all, two words and all the aches and all the anger and all the frustration fades away.
He falls back to sleep with a smile on his face and his phone clutched in his hand.
He spends more time than he typically finds conscionable dressing for his next playdate with Lucky.'
Only two days after his terribly disappointing chase after Hawkeye and the Widow, Phil thinks he might need the release, the relaxation as much as Clint claims to. He's pleased that the man had worked up the courage to ask for this, so open and vulnerable, when he'd finally been coherent and calm enough to respond to his text messages, but now the nerves and the performance anxiety are starting to creep back in just a little bit.
He dithers over his choice of sweaters and makes sure his jeans still fit the way they should and fiddles with his hair before scoffing at himself, slipping on his glasses and his shoes and his jacket and heading out an hour or so earlier than necessary.
He has a few stops to make.
The first is the convenience store on the corner. There he picks up a bulk package of Lucky treats, the peanut-butter filled pretzels that the pup was so fond of, and that Phil doesn't mind himself but probably won't be able to enjoy the same way again. Next comes the florist, to find a small token for Natasha, which seems presumptuous but is heartfelt and sincere. She's clearly important to Clint, more than he understands yet, and she's helped the both of them with this already. Clint says that to day she's promised to show him a bit more, teach him a bit more about the transition and the headspace and the things involved with puppy play that Clint himself can't quite explain. He doesn't know anything about flower language so he picks out a little frame of pale succulents – blues and greens and purples – that won't need much care but still look pretty.
And then the last stop...
It's strange, standing in front of a PetSmart knowing that he doesn't really own a pet, thinking about going in to find a toy for a grown man. To be stuck on the sidewalk, staring up at the storefront daydreaming about maybe walking in one day with Lucky beside him, maybe halfway down in his headspace, not enough that he would give himself away but enough to maybe enjoy picking something out that he would like. It hasn't escaped Phil's notice that he has almost nothing, no props or playthings, and he finds that both curious and incredibly sad.
It takes him a strange amount of courage to go inside, even more to actually pick something out. There's the practical of course – he doesn't want anything that will actually harm Clint's very human jaw and teeth, so half the toys are eliminated right off the bat. On top of that he's still not sure exactly how much of Clint's senses Lucky retains – he doesn't want anything that will be too unpalatable on the man's human taste buds either. More than anything though, more than anything he wants to pick out something both Clint and Lucky will like.
When a stuffed football made of purple silk catches his eye, he thinks just maybe it'll do the trick.
With everything packaged up and plenty of time to get across town, Phil cabs it to Bed Stuy and takes the stairs up to Clint's apartment at a bound, suddenly eager and excited all over again. He's grinning stupidly when Natasha opens the door, the sound of Lucky's yips and scrabblings coming from the bathroom just like last time. She lifts an eyebrow when he presents her with the colorful little plants but accepts them graciously when he explains, her gaze softening, and if he reads approval into that it's no one's business but his own.
"I brought Lucky a ball," he says, suddenly self-conscious as he follows her into the living room and takes a seat on the couch, the same place as last time. "I don't know if he likes toys all that much..."
"He may not know that either," Natasha replies after a moment's consideration, looking thoughtful. "Clint's never asked for any, so Lucky's never had much by way of props and things. There's a lot out there, we know, but you have to understand this Coulson. Clint's never... been indulged by anyone in his life, never been spoiled. Even this, what I do for him he thinks is too much."
"Yes, I..." Phil begins, swallowing hard. "I think I've seen some of that already. Sometimes... it seems that the way he thinks of himself is something he's learned from others."
"Unfortunately yes. As loud and obnoxious and cocky as he can be, he has problems with his self-esteem, with believing in his own worth in the eyes of others. If you stay with him, this is something you will have to face."
There's a tension and dull, low anger suddenly simmering in the pit of his belly – he's seen a bit of this in Clint already, but the picture Natasha brushes lightly over hints at far more than a bad break up, possibly even child abuse or neglect. It's heart-wrenching and infuriating, that this man who has already shown Phil so much bravery and cheer, so much good-faith has been made to feel any less than the incredible, kind-hearted, trusting man he is, and he thinks his quiet inner rage must show on his face, but this time Natasha's approval is easy written plainly across her face.
"He's worth this," Phil declares quietly, looking off up the hallway when the bathroom door shudders in its frame. "He's worth so much more than a few treats, a few cheap toys."
"On this we both agree," Natasha replies, watching him with careful eyes. "But Clint is not accustomed to receiving gifts, and Lucky is not familiar with much more than what he has, that silly rope I made for him. And that only out of desperation, to get him out of my hair one afternoon."
"So it was a bad idea," Phil concludes, a bit mournfully to be truthful until Natasha vehemently shakes her head.
"Not at all," she argues, sliding smoothly to her feet. "He may only be wary at first, like he was with you. He'll agonize over it, later, when he's himself again, but Lucky, Lucky will love it."
She smiles at him, honest to god smiles before she saunters off down the hall to release the pup, and very suddenly Phil feels like he's been accepted by this woman who is so clearly important to Clint and Lucky both. Her accent has softened, both from the first time he was here and from the time he stepped through the door into the apartment, and he wonders if perhaps that is her way of letting down her walls, of showing a little faith of her own.
He doesn't have much time to contemplate it – he's too busy sliding down onto the floor again, steeling himself with a deep breath as Lucky comes bounding out to greet him. It's still odd, still a little jolting when he first comes barreling up out of the hallway because Phil is still relatively new to this, because it is still Clint and still a hell of a lot of skin and muscle to be hit with, especially now that he knows the heat of the man's mouth against his own, the plush velveteen of his full lower lip.
Lucky seems to have no qualms about Phil's presence this time around, comes skidding into the living room and bounds right up to him, yapping and jumping and making all kinds of noise, his rump wiggling ninety miles an hour like his tail's about to wag right off. Phil can't do anything but laugh as the pup nearly climbs into his lap, pawing wildly at his chest and sniffing all up and down his throat and his jaw, breath tickling his neck. Grinning, happy, Phil scrubs roughly at the sides of his head, scritching behind his ears and ruffling the thick, silky blonde fur between them.
"Hey Lucky-boy," he chuckles, pushing the eager pup out of his lap before anything sensitive gets stepped on. "You miss me buddy? Yeah, you're a good boy."
Lucky chuffs and rowrfs and pants, his mouth hanging open in a big doggy grin and he shoves up against Phil's side, pushes his way beneath his arm and leans heavily against him for a bit, enjoying his pets like any pup. Phil strokes his neck and shoulders, down his spine, cataloguing the surprising number and variety of scars his fingers encounter but pushing the anger to the back of his mind. He hadn't really noticed them before but with the touching, the conversation he and Natasha had had they're hard to ignore – whip, knife, cigarette...
He keeps the anger off his face, out of his hands.
Clint's here now, safe and incredibly silly as Lucky, slumping down onto his side and offering Phil his belly with a dopey expression of doggy contentment on his face.
Who is Phil to question that?
Plus, he kinds of needs to focus, because he has no idea what to do with himself now that Clint – shit, Lucky – is lying there on his back expecting belly rubs.
From the corner of his eye he can see Natasha trying not to watch him, the corner of her mouth tucked in as though she's trying not to smirk, and it adds to the heat rushing beneath his skin, shyness and embarrassment. Lucky may be all blonde fur and innocence but Clint is still hot, bronzed skin over muscle, naked but for a purple bandana and a pair of boxer-briefs.
Very suddenly Phil comes up against a brick wall, his first real disconnect with this game they're playing. He's dating Clint, Clint is gorgeous and fit as fuck, this is still Clint's body even if he's Lucky in his head. Clint's told him there's no part of this that's really about sex, but here Phil is, trying not to get hard and fighting the urge to trace his fingertips along the cut of the man's abdominals offered up to him so prettily.
And it's silly.
Clint's been so open about all this, so brave, so willing to... well, to show his belly. He's in this right beside Phil playing both sides of the coin, has shown he's just as attracted to Phil as Phil is to him. He wouldn't fault him for feeling the way he feels. He's been so kind about this, so considerate of Phil's relative inexperience in puppy play – it's not surprising he's having a bit of a conflict right? As long as he doesn't let it affect him, doesn't take advantage or push for something off limits.
Lucky whines, long and high and sweet, bats at him with one heavy paw and tilts his head, tongue still hanging out in a big puppy smile, but there's a shine in his eyes that's a little more human, a little more understanding, and Phil gets the distinct impression that he's laughing at him fondly.
Ah, what the hell.
This is just for fun anyway, and if Phil's lucky (hah, Lucky) they'll have plenty of time to have more of the other kind.
And well that's about one more euphemism than he's willing to wrestle with right now.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," he huffs with a grin when Lucky nudges him impatiently, dropping his hand to the pup's belly and giving him a rough, playful rub. It's not nearly as difficult as he worried it would be – it's not like he doesn't have any self-control after all – and suddenly it just seems ridiculous to have been so anxious.
It doesn't even last that long.
Lucky's got too much energy, is too excited about relatively new people come to play to sit still for long. He's up and racing around the living room before Phil's even fully shaken off his little panic. It helps him get rid of the rest, watching the pup romp around, rollicking back and forth, skidding around to sniff at Phil's pants before darting behind the couch again. Natasha's reading quietly in her chair, seemingly immune to Lucky's antics even when he sneaks up between the end table and the arm, slobbery tongue sneaking out to lick her elbow before he bolts. It's cute, even with the woman cursing at him fondly in Russian.
They end up rough housing a little, wrestling on the floor, and it's not as awkward as it should be, even if Phil kind of hopes he can do this kind of thing with Clint too. Lucky barks and grrs and shows his teeth, gnaws playfully on his wrist and forearms, careful not to leave any marks, and by the time they break Phil's laughing and panting and can't get the grin off his face, even as Natasha watches on with a kind of bemused exasperation on hers, book closed around her finger.
Sitting back with a huff, just a little winded given the slight bruising around his ribs leftover from his failed op, Phil chuckles as Lucky thumps down on his haunches and runs his paw over his nose, shaking out his fur. He's pretty cute, that can't be denied, especially with his eyes shining so bright and cheerful, and Phil feels a flush of pride that he did that, helped make that happen. As good a time as any, he reaches for the paper bag he's brought with him and Lucky immediately perks up, sniffs curiously, no doubt hoping for treats. Instead Phil comes up with the football, squeezes hard to make it squeak, and Lucky startles, just a tiny bit.
"Oh, what's that Lucky?" he asks, spinning the ball between his fingers and squeaking it again. "Huh? What have I got for you?"
Lucky cocks his head, looks quickly and comically between Phil's face and the purple football in his hands and whines.
"What is that? Is that a ball? Huh? Is that a ball?"
The pup looks curious but perplexed, his tail starting to wag without his permission as he gets slowly to his feet, steps forward cautiously. Enticed by Phil's cajoling and teasing tone, Lucky starts to whimper and shift on his paws, eyes now locked on the ball in his hands, and when Phil squeaks it one more time and gives it a toss, goes barreling after it with abandon.
They play a rough equivalent of fetch for about twenty minutes before Lucky shows any sign of getting bored. The pup goes chasing after the little purple football with abandon every time Phil gives it a toss, his knees thundering across the floor, and he would flinch if not for the thick, protective pads strapped to the man's knees. Because they are a man's knees after all, even if Lucky barks and woofs and wags his tail like any excited pup might.
Eventually though the game does seem to lose a bit of its interest; Lucky's interest – or maybe just his energy – starting to flag. They play a couple of rounds of tug-o-war, Phil gentle and careful, ever mindful of a man's teeth in a puppy's mouth, but he thinks he can be forgiven for not sinking into the game quite that far. If it's only to make sure that there's no injury, no lasting damage, he thinks it's fair, understandable. For his part Lucky paws at him, tugs and gnaws at the football and Phil's sleeves, rolling and flopping across his outstretched legs, his eyes bright and happy as he rumbles and grrs and makes all kinds of adorable puppy noises.
When he's thoroughly worn himself out he clambers up onto the couch with the football in his mouth, turns a circle or too, and flops down behind him, snuffling a bit at the top of his head before rolling half onto his side. His paws are sticking straight up in the air, his head hanging a bit over the edge of the couch, stuffed toy tucked halfway beneath his body, and it looks like he's settling in for a nice nap. Phil reaches up slowly and rubs the silky fur behind his ears, pleased beyond measure when the pup whines happily and leans into the touch. It takes only a moment for a quiet snore to start up.
"He sleeps sometimes," Natasha says quietly, turning the page of her book delicately and not bothering to look up. "He'll either wake up Lucky or wake up himself."
"No telling?" Phil asks.
"No telling. He seems fine either way, isn't bothered by it. You've worn him out, Phil Coulson."
Phil makes a noncommittal sound, watches the pup sleep. There are the palest shadows beneath his eyes, the faint bruising that speaks of stress and poor sleep, healing scrapes across the knuckles of the hand, paw dangling over the cushions beside him. He frowns, wonders – not for the first time – what Clint does for a living, what kind of life he leads. He can feel Natasha watching him but takes the opportunity anyway to look around, to examine what he can of the apartment for clues from his place in the living room.
There are remarkably good sightlines through the place for a civilian home.
Comfortable, he thinks. Well lived in, nothing pretentious. A home, more than his own is. The furniture is all worn, but neat and clean, pillows and a throw blanket scattered about. The television is nice, a flatscreen, perhaps the one indulgence in the place, an entertainment system below it and several DVD's stacked neatly on the shelves. He can't read the titles from his spot on the floor, but he knows that he and Clint have similar tastes in television.
There aren't many examples of art or design in the place. No woman's touch he thinks, though he can see the little planter of succulents he'd brought Natasha growing happily in the window across the room, suggesting she spends a lot of time in the apartment though Clint had told him she had a home of her own. It's nothing like Phil's either, the cool, fake homey-ness created by the SHIELD team that had set the place up. There are pegs in the wall behind him, tape and tacks on the one at the end between the windows that lead out to the fire escape, and he wonders idly if some embarrassing posters had been taken down.
He knows he'll probably pack away a few of his Captain America memorabilia before Clint comes over.
Behind him, Lucky snuffles a bit and sits up, rolls over sleepily. His bright eyes blink at him, then over at Natasha, and there's a very dopey human smile on his face as he allows himself to slide slowly over the edge of the couch and off the cushions onto his hands and knees. He pushes into Phil's side once, twice, his head ducked as Phil strokes his spine and rubs his ears, then he drags himself slowly over to Natasha's feet.
Phil watches closely, silent and curious as Lucky sits down on his rump, leans hard against the woman's shins. She runs her fingers gently through the fur on the top of his head, murmurs something too low for him to hear, then sits quietly for a bit, never taking her hand from Clint's head.
And it is Clint, or at least, almost Clint now. Phil can see him swimming slowly back up, can see his paws loosen until it's fingers wrapped lightly around Natasha's ankles. The no-longer-pup heaves a sigh, a shudder rippling down his spine, and then he lifts his head enough to rest his cheek on the woman's knee, looking across at Phil with a sleepy, contented expression on his face, a smile tipping at the edges of his mouth.
"Are you ready to take it off now Little Bird?" Natasha asks quietly, and Clint nods, lifts his head.
Reaching forward slowly, she deftly loosens the bandana and removes it from his neck, and Phil isn't at all surprised when he sees her smooth it over her lap, fold it carefully before setting it aside on the coffee table, safe. Clint blinks a few times, yawns, then lifts his arms over his head and stretches. No longer in his Lucky headspace, Phil feels like less of a lech for tracing the curve of his spine with his eyes, the shift and swell of all the ample muscle on display.
Clint catches him looking and winks.
"And this is my cue to leave," Natasha says, rolling her eyes and ruffling Clint's hair as she rises elegantly to her feet. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do matroyshka."
Clint snorts, rolls his eyes and starts tugging at the straps of his wrist braces as Phil's cheeks burn.
"Cause that narrows it down," he mutters, and Natasha laughs, tossing Phil a wave before sauntering out of the room and leaving with a deliberate click of the front door.
Phil blinks, looks over to where Clint is deliberately keeping his eyes on his task, dragging his knee pads down his legs now that he's free of the ones on his wrists. "I'm gonna go put on some pants but um... do you maybe wanna order a pizza? Watch some Dog Cops?"
Phil blinks, watches Clint climb to his feet and fidget with the waistband of his boxers so he doesn't have to look him in the eye, the crests of his cheeks pink. He's surprised, though he isn't really sure why, stunned that Clint is feeling up to doing anything more than nothing and that he wants to do that nothing with Phil.
"I'd like that."
He says it so quickly that it's easy to recognize the surprise Clint himself feels, and Phil almost chuckles at the whole thing, the utter silliness of the two of them expecting anything out of each other, from each other. They've managed to surprise each other, throw each other off balance from the very beginning, to stay calm and collected in the face of shock and miscommunication and misunderstanding and come out on the other side still willing to talk to each other.
This is nothing.
"Yeah," he says sincerely. "I think that'd be... really, really nice."
Clint blushes, beams.
"Cool," he mumbles, biting his lower lip shyly even as he speaks. "I'll uh... I'll be right back."
He practically scampers up the stairs to the loft, light on his feet and cheerful and it seems like more energy than he should have, but Phil is happy enough to watch him go, tight, round ass bouncing. He licks his lips – he's slightly ashamed of that – but he's only human after all. He can hear him shuffling around upstairs and takes the opportunity to heave himself up to his feet, to stretch out his spine and pop out all the kinks before he resettles on the couch. Before he has the time to even look around for a magazine or a book Clint's back, clad in a pair of men's running shorts and very little else.
" 'S this um... this ok?" he asks, playing with the string on the shorts and blushing again. " 'S just... I like the contact. If... if that's ok. I mean if not I can put on a shirt or..."
"It's fine Clint," Phil murmurs, dragging his gaze slowly up the man's chest, purposefully, obviously so that Clint can see it before he meets his gaze. "It's no hardship, believe me. I told you I like to cuddle."
Clint's face breaks into an easy grin and he laughs, crossing the rest of the floor and flopping down onto the couch beside him, close enough that when Phil lifts his arm up along the back of it he can tuck himself in against his side.
"You did tell me that," he says, fishing his cell phone from his pocket and bringing up a delivery app. "What do you like?
Phil bites down on a mushy answer, something about pretty, muscley blonde pups that might give away too much and gives him the answer he was after in the first place.
"Anything but olives or anchovies."
"No pineapple," Clint replies in a scolding tone and Phil chuckles, watching him place an order for a large pizza with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, and onions along with an order of garlic knots.
The next thing he knows the man is flipping the phone around, opening the camera, and snapping a selfie of the two of them side-by-side, smiling broadly.
Shit, he's in deeper than he'd thought isn't he?
Before he can get too nervous about it Phil feels his phone buzz in his pocket, finds a copy of the picture blinking at him on the lock screen. Grinning, he drops his arm to Clint's bare shoulder, pulls him in close and busses his temple. He snuggles in closer, his hand wrapping around Phil's knee – not sexual at all – and picks up the remote from... somewhere.
"This doesn't count either," he says as he clicks on the television, pulling up his TiVo recordings.
Phil arches an eyebrow, bites the inside of his cheek to stop an indulgent, amused grin.
"Seems like you're taking advantage of your turn," he muses, an attempt at his signature deadpan that fails miserably, fondness fading through at the edges.
"Right," Clint hums. "So listen, I wanted to ask... are you um, are you busy, Friday?"
He needs to finish the Jefferson briefs that will be coming in, but there's no way in hell he's going to open his mouth and say that, no way in hell he's going to turn down the chance at a date now that Clint's finally, finally offering.
"Yeah," he says, waiting until he feels Clint tense up beside him before he grins, runs his fingers through his hair. "I think I've got a hot date."
There's a full beat's silence, stillness, and then suddenly Clint is barking a laugh and jostling him and slumping lower into the couch so that he can snuggle more fully in Phil's lap, head pillowed on his ribs, arm hooked over his thigh. Phil strokes a hand down the man's spine, the long supine curve of it, skin hot and smooth beneath his fingertips. Smooth – because he's avoiding the scars that litter his body, the backs of his shoulder blades and his ribs. Whip, knife, cigarette burn; he's named them all before but hasn't focused on them like this. So many of them are old, he can only imagine the childhood this man must have led, but there are others too.
New, fresh, years, months maybe.
And he wonders.
"I was eleven."
Phil goes terribly still, tries not to flinch at the sound of Clint's voice, the realization that he's been tracing a long, thin scar along Clint's ribs with his thumb.
"I grew up in some... unconventional places."
"With unconventional people," he adds unnecessarily.
"You could say that."
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to," he murmured, moving his hand up to Clint's arm so he can pet at a patch of unmarred skin. "Don't get me wrong, I... I appreciate that you are. It... it means a lot Clint."
For a moment he leaves it at that and Phil thinks it's all he'll get, but then Clint heaves a sigh, resettles himself, fingers flexing around his knee.
"Just... for both you know?"
Phil hums, squeezes him close.
They stuff themselves on cheesy Italian goodness, soft, hot garlic bites, and Phil laughs at the way Clint picks the pepperoni off the top of his and eats it separately. He drops one, either by accident or design and it lands on his belly, flat and taught and he picks it off and pops it into his mouth like it's nothing, like they're just two guys hanging together, pigging out and eating like slobs. Like there isn't an air of teasing about it, sexual tension so thick he could feel it sitting heavy in his lap, like he doesn't want to roll Clint over and stretch him out down the length of the couch and lick the grease from his skin till there's nothing left but the taste of him...
Ok, maybe it's not just the sexual tension that's making his pants feel a little too tight.
Or... maybe it is.
"I really want to blow you right now."
Phil startles, chokes, even though they'd demolished the pizza nearly ten minutes ago, hands wiped on paper towels. He and Clint are sitting up side by side, pressed together shoulder-to-shoulder, thigh-to-thigh, and his cock pretty much goes rock hard in his jeans right then and there.
"Are you surprised?"
Clint sounds surprised that he's surprised, but he's not looking at Phil, he's staring straight ahead at the TV, at Sergeant Whiskers saving a kitten from a tree.
"You've always been sexy as shit Phil. But fuck, you brought me a toy, a ball... 've never had anything before. Not really."
"You don't owe me..."
"That's not what this is about."
He says it quickly enough, sharply enough that Phil doesn't have long to let the guilt go deep and dark, and the fact that Clint grabs his hand and presses it to his own crotch, the warm, stiff bulge beneath the thin, silky material of his shorts, is more than enough to distract him.
" 'S... 's not about that," he pants, rolling his hips once, one time, up into the curve of Phil's fingers before letting him go. "You're hot, ok, yeah, I'm attracted to you. But you're a good guy Phil. You're sweet and you're kind and you're thoughtful and you like Lucky. You care about him. That's gonna be a turn on for me so you're just gonna have to get over it."
Phil licks his lips, clears his throat twice as he flexes his fingers, fights not to put his hand back between Clint's legs.
"Just so we're clear," he clarifies, hoarse and rough, and Clint finally looks at him, meets his eyes warily and nods.
"Just so we're clear," Clint confirms. "I said this didn't count as my date, but... maybe it could count as our second one?"
"Why, so your date would count as the third?" Phil asks, his heart refusing to slow down at the thought of what that could mean for them.
"Yeah. Cause I mean I... I want to." He blushes, makes a vague gesture towards Phil's lap. "But I feel like maybe we..."
"Maybe we should wait?"
Phil frowns, remembering the Clint from before, the Clint who was eager and deflected from anything awkward or uncomfortable with sexual innuendo and pushing.
"I think you're right," he agrees, "But... but do you mind if I ask why?"
Clint looks away, chews his lip before he finally manages to drag the answer up out of whatever place he's stashed it in.
"This is nice," he says quietly, and Phil thinks he means more than just Lucky, thinks he also means the two of them together, like this, nice and easy. "Don't wanna fuck it up."
Looping his arm around behind the younger man again, he runs his fingers through his hair, pets him until the wire of tension in his shoulders loosens.
A week later Phil has finally bitten the bullet and officially told his friends that he's seeing someone, if a couple of dates can be called that. He'd been expecting them to jump all over that dry scrap of information, demand the juicy details, so he'd memorized a lie that's actually very close to the truth; he'd gone to look at a puppy he'd been messaged about and ended up meeting a guy instead. Jasper is delighted by the fact that his idea worked, and somehow still completely oblivious that he'd posted the want ad in the wrong section, while Melinda is suspiciously quiet. They're supportive enough, and don't rib him too badly when he declines to do the whole 'meet-the-friends' thing just yet.
It's not that he's worried about them scaring Clint off, or about Clint learning a little bit more about what he does.
He's not ashamed, not nervous.
He's just selfish.
He's remarkably accepting of that trait in himself at this time. It's never been a large part of his character – he works hard to help others, to help the world – so he thinks he's earned the right to a bit of self-centeredness, a bit of jealous guarding of this new thing he loves so much.
Loves, shit, likes.
Just... just likes.
Love would be ridiculous, love would be way too soon.
Still, he's not dumb enough not to realize that he's falling just a little bit.
It only gets worse.
Clint takes him paintballing on a sunny Saturday afternoon; shows up in a battered pick-up dressed in black cargoes and a tight, v-neck t-shirt that makes Phil's mouth water. He drives them thirty minutes outside of the city and pays their way into the arena looking a little shy and unsure, like maybe he thinks Phil will find it childish or not much fun, but he couldn't be more wrong. As they head inside Phil's already buzzing with an excited energy, and his smile seems to go a long way in reassuring Clint that he'd made a good choice.
As he follows the blonde through to the equipment room, he marvels over the self-assurance that has suddenly come into his step, the sheer confidence and familiarity. He greets every employee by name, knows the layout of the building like Phil knows SHIELD HQ, and when they reach the rental counter he gets handed a gun and munitions without having to make a request, very obviously a much-loved regular.
"Got a new one in for you Barton," the weapons master says after giving him a friendly scolding about not having visited for a while. "DAM Assault Matrix. Try it out, let us know what you think."
"Can do," Clint agrees with a grin, taking the matte black gun in reverent hands. "Got one more?"
The guy gives Phil a calculating once-over, crosses his arms over his chest and scowls.
"Got any experience with one of these?" he demands.
"Paintball gun?" Phil inquires coolly, cocking an eyebrow. "No."
"Ease off Hutch," Clint chuckles, still checking over the gun in his hands, fingers nimble as he learns its weight, its corners. "Coulson was an Army Ranger; he's cool."
"Coulson hmm?" the man grumbles, still looking him over. "Hmph!"
Phil watches him go with an arch look, unsure why he's been found wanting but not terribly disturbed by it. Clint's very obviously trying to hide a grin as he slips into a flak vest, tossing another in Phil's direction.
"They always have me test the new stuff before they put it out for the other renters," he explains, kneeling to tighten his boot laces. "I write reviews for their magazine."
"Really? You must be pretty good."
"Oh, like you wouldn't believe," Clint fires back with a wink, and Phil thinks he remembers hearing that before from him.
Before he can puzzle it out Hutch comes back and hands Phil another paintball gun, along with a canister of bright pink munitions. He gets the impression he's being punished for something, but Clint gets handed a canister of bright purple, so maybe not. They buckle up their vests, tug on gloves and goggle-masks, and then they've being buzzed through a heavy fire-door and stepping back out into the sunlight.
Phil actually stumbles in the doorway.
The arena is massive, stretching across acres of land and varied terrain, and it hits him all at once that this isn't your average paintball court. It's too big, too nice, the gun in his hands well-crafted and exquisitely balanced, an enthusiasts tool, not a toy...
"Where are we?"
Clint barks a laugh, his eyes hidden by the heavy, shaded goggles he wears, but he's grinning brightly as he shoulders his weapon.
"Hutch's," he says, an answer and no answer at all, though it might explain a bit of the surliness displayed by the weapons master (and owner). "He runs a nice place"
Raising his hand as if to shade his eyes, Clint is quiet a moment, then shrugs.
"There's a couple other guys out there messing around," he says, jerking his chin toward the field that spreads out below them, the building sitting at the top of a long, sloping hill. "But I thought maybe you would want to try out the obstacle courses?"
Phil feels a sharp grin spread across his face, nods eagerly, and to his great delight Clint's answering smile meets that intensity.
They spend the next hour tearing up the advanced courses that get harder and harder the deeper they get into them; moving targets of continuously increasing difficulty, obstacles and inclines that get bigger and steeper the further they go. Phil has an absolute blast, running and jumping and leaping around, climbing the walls and scrabbling across the nets, wriggling under ropes and firing off rounds that bloom into bright pink splatters across the swiveling, swinging targets. He has even more fun watching Clint run the courses, appreciative of his form and athletic ability, impressed with his aim.
It's nice to play when it's a game, with no one shooting back at you, nothing serious on the line. He comes out the other side of the final course with his blood pumping fast and hard in his veins, excitement and happiness tingling in his fingertips. He's laughing at his own giddiness when Clint drops into a neat somersault coming off the last obstacle and rolls neatly back onto his feet at Phil's side. There's something hot and sharp burning in his bright, clever eyes, his broad chest heaving, and his tongue flicks out to wet his lips as he stares Phil down hard.
"What?" he asks, wondering what he'd done, if he'd missed the last target or done something else similarly ridiculous, but Clint can't seem to find his words, opening and closing his mouth a couple of times before he shakes his head.
"I... I did not think this through," he says finally, and Phil blinks, surprised. "Just... that was really frickin' hot."
Phil can't help himself – he flicks a glance downward toward Clint's belt buckle and well... if he'd needed any more evidence that Clint was into this than his statement and his blatant eye-fucking, there it was. A bolt of lust hits him low in the belly; he gets it, he really does. He appreciates a man that can handle himself and handle a weapon, and Clint has proven himself more than capable today, not to mention incredibly flexible.
He's not the only one whose pants are a little tight.
"Hey, so, do you wanna grab a burger?"
"Yeah," Phil agrees, shouldering his weapon and failing to hide a grin. "I could eat."
They return their gear to the rental counter and Phil earns himself a death-glare when Clint blows Hutch off with little more than a 'yeah, it's nice,' grabbing Phil by the wrist and dragging him out to the parking lot. They climb into the battered truck and hit the highway, cruising back toward the city with the windows down, a warm breeze blowing in. Phil listens happily as Clint chatters, half passion for shooting sports and half an obvious nervous cover of his earlier lustful comment. He doesn't mind – he enjoys Clint's voice and Clint's intelligence, and their animated conversation takes them all the way to the small, hole-in-the-wall bar Clint's chosen only a few blocks from his apartment in Bed Stuy.
Once again he sees Clint greeted like an old friend by the bouncer, a round-bellied Russian with a thick mustache wearing a velour track suit, who claps Phil heavily across the shoulders after he and Clint share a brief conversation in what he can only assume is the man's mother tongue. The man – Boris – is laughing heartily and Phil almost feels on the outs of an inside joke, but the guy is so affable it hardly matters. He slings one arm around Phil's waist, uses the other to pat him roughly on the shoulder, and guides him into the back corner where he's sat down in a small booth across from the man he'd originally entered with, but who had heartlessly abandoned him to his fate for a handful of minutes that had lasted too long.
"Sorry about that," he chuckles passing Phil one of two dark longnecks he's returned with. "Boris can be a little... exuberant?"
Phil barks a laugh, takes a pull of the bright, citrusy beer.
"That's putting it lightly," he teases. "How do you two know each other?"
"Helped him out of a tight spot a while back," Clint says with a shrug, sipping from his own bottle. "He got attached."
"Now that I can understand," Phil says quietly, and Clint's cheeks go a very becoming shade of pink as a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth and he ducks his head shyly.
A waiter comes by and they both order the barbecue-bacon burger along with a basket of fries, laughing ten minutes later when they catch each other trying to figure out how to eat the thing without making a total mess. Giving up on any pretense – they've both got a couple of paint splatters on them anyway – they dig into their meal and spend the next half hour chattering away about a dozen different things, everything really except the low-level arousal simmering between them.
It starts ratcheting up when they start in on their second beer and the toe of Clint's boot starts rubbing along the inside of Phil's left ankle. He doesn't acknowledge it but for a long, heated look, and he finds himself incredibly turned on by the fact that Clint meets that look head-on, eyes so bright and blue and grey and green he could fall into them. Warmth flushes through him, heavy in the pit of his belly, and they both finish off their beers in one go as if by silent agreement.
Dropping some bills onto the table, Clint grabs Phil by the wrist and pulls him back out onto the sidewalk, into the warm evening air. Dusk is just starting to fall, the sky going pink and pale violet, and he's surprised when they pass right by the truck parked next to the curb and instead wander slowly up the street toward Clint's apartment. It's a nice night, so he certainly doesn't mind, and the fact that Clint's thumb is making small circles against the sensitive skin of his wrist just...
He doesn't mind.
They climb the steps slowly and when they reach the front door Clint turns to face him, presses his shoulders back against the wood with his hips thrust forward. It's a blatant invitation, his boots planted wide, and Phil's never been one to back down from a challenge, so he steps in between them and leans in close, presses a long, lingering kiss to his lips.
They've kissed before, a few times, but this time is different as it slowly builds from soft and sweet to something much more carnal, much more hungry. Clint's hands fist in his shirt and haul him closer, friction sparking where their hips meet, and Phil runs his tongue lightly along his bottom lip before taking it between his teeth, nipping sharply.
Clint practically purrs.
"Am I allowed to come up this time?" he asks, teasing, but Clint just hums, rolls his hips slinkily.
"Why, you hoping to get lucky?" he fires back with a grin.
Phil pulls back, blinks, unsure if it's a pun or not but he can practically hear the fingerquotes, and...
"I'm going home."
Clint barks a laugh, loud and happy, jumps forward to grab Phil by the elbow and swing him around, kiss him again.
"Sorry," he chuckles, lips still pressed to Phil's, "Couldn't help myself. No more puns though, alright? Promise."
"You sure?" Phil queries, stepping back and arching an eyebrow playfully, crossing his arms over his chest. "Nothing about liking it 'ruff' or doing it doggy style or..."
"Well it's no fun when you use 'em all up before I can," Clint huffs, but that pouty lower lip is just asking for it and he seems perfectly satisfied with the kiss Phil plants on him in apology.
"That was my plan," he points out, and Clint snickers, mouth curling into a smirk that's a little more wicked than Phil is used to seeing on him, sending a hot shiver of arousal down his spine.
"Well," Clint murmurs darkly, stepping closer and ducking his head to scrape his teeth against the tendon in Phil's neck. "That's nice an' all, but I've got some plans of my own."
Stepping back again, he turns to unlock the door to the apartment and slip inside, casting a come-hither wink over his shoulder.
What kind of man would Phil be if he didn't follow?
Clint drags Phil upstairs to his apartment with all the giggly excitement of a teenager. For the first time in a long time he isn't feeling the heavy guilt of a one-night-stand, the trepidation of worrying about the state of his apartment or if his sheets are clean or any of the usual things.
To be fair, he'd cleaned up before he'd taken Phil out. He'd washed and scrubbed and swept and dusted and maybe gone a little bit obsessive-compulsive given that he'd been there before, but it was totally worth it.
This is awesome.
Phil's kissing him as they stumble through the kitchen toward the stairs that lead to the loft. They're deep kisses, hungry kisses, and it's blatantly obvious that he's as into this as Clint, his hands fisting tight in the soft material of his t-shirt. A part of him, a very small part, hadn't been sure before – Phil was so quietly calm, so contained, and Clint liked that, he did – but it's good to know he's not the only one who's turned on.
And yeah, they're definitely both turned on.
Clint's not actually sure how he manages to get Phil upstairs to his bedroom without breaking or bruising anything but he does, and once he's there he kinda stops thinking about it. Nobody could blame him; as soon as the door swings shut Phil shoves him up against it and presses into him hard, their bodies rubbing from toes to tongues, and fire courses through him, warm flames licking and curling around him. He hums into the kiss with pleasure, enjoys the way Phil's thigh presses between his own, then gasps and thunks his head back against the wall as the man nips lightly at the curve of his throat.
"Payback?" he whimpers as Phil's tongue sweeps out to soothe the skin his teeth have been worrying.
Phil doesn't answer, just makes a low rumbling sound deep in his chest and presses closer, ducking his head to tuck his face into Clint's neck and breathe deep.
Clint chuckles – it's something he would do himself, half himself and maybe just a little bit Lucky – but he likes that instinctive behavior, likes the way Phil rubs against him, smells him, tastes him...
He wants a turn too.
Sliding his hands down Phil's chest, he slips them around his waist and drops them to get a nice handful of his ass, give it a squeeze. Phil growls against his throat and rolls his hips, cock thick and hot against Clint's hip through his jeans, and yeah, that's nice, but he wants more.
Call him greedy, but he's got a gorgeous man in front of him that is wearing far too many clothes.
It's probably showing off a little to pick Phil up, carry him three steps to the bed, and toss him down onto the sheets. Probably, just a little. He's seen the way Phil's eyes trace his shoulders and the muscles in his biceps though, and the way the air huffs out of his chest and pink dusts his cheeks tells him it was well worth it. He can't help a grin as he crawls onto the mattress and up Phil's body, straddles his hips and leans down to press kisses to his mouth.
"Fuck you're gorgeous," Phil breathes against his lips, and Clint's mouth curves into a smile, even as he presses kisses lower – behind Phil's ear, against the underside of his jaw, down across his throat.
His hands wander lower too, slip beneath the hem of Phil's t-shirt and skim slowly up his flat, toned belly toward his chest, skin warm beneath his palms. When he shoves at the cotton Phil lifts his arms obligingly and Clint pulls it over his head, tossing it away before sinking his fingers into the dark, crisp hair he hadn't been expecting but is stupidly delighted by. Phil makes a purring sound when he tugs on it, then sucks in a sharp breath when Clint's fingers skim over his nipples, and this time it's a wicked sort of grin that spreads across Clint's face as he ducks his head.
The first flick of his tongue over the little pink bud elicits a high-pitched whine and a sharp buck of Phil's hips, which Clint rides out with significant pleasure. His head is tipped back against the cushions, his eyes tightly closed, so Clint snugs his ass back against the bulge in Phil's jeans and leans down to do it again. Flicking his tongue over the tightened peak, he rolls the other between his finger and thumb and relishes the sound it pulls from the man beneath him.
"Feel so good," Phil pants, his chest pressing up into Clint's hands, his hips rolling beneath him. "So... such a good boy..."
Clint blinks, his cock jerking hard against his zipper as his breath catches in his throat, skin flushing hot, but Phil doesn't seem to have the same reaction to his own words. He goes steely-tense and wide-eyed, freezes underneath him, staring up at Clint with a look of utter guilt and crushing nervousness.
"I'm sorry," he says hard and fast like he needs to get it out, his fingers flexing around Clint's hips like he doesn't want to let him go but doesn't want to hold him back either. "Clint, I didn't..."
Clint growls low in his throat, takes his face between his hands and kisses him hard, bites at his lower lip to make him whine.
"You know who I am," he insists quietly against Phil's ear, sliding his knees down the bed so he can bring their hips together and rut against him. "You know who I am, right now."
He feels Phil nod and there's something almost desperate in that one, small gesture, so he slows his rhythm, gentles his touch as he strokes his hands down Phil's arm, snuggles against him before murmuring in his ear.
"Clint's a good boy too."
He means it to come out confidant, to come out sexy, but instead it comes out kind of small and kind of soft and kind of vulnerable. He's not really into the bondage and the whips and the kinky stuff, but a little bit of dominance and submission is inherent to his puppy play, and it bleeds over. He knew it would – it's been a long time since he's slept with someone who actually knew about Lucky, so he's been expecting it – but clearly Phil hadn't been. He still looks nervous, like he thinks he did something wrong by calling Clint 'good boy,' but that's just the thing isn't it?
He'd called Clint 'good boy,' not Lucky.
To be honest he's never really had any interest in sex when he's in his puppy headspace. When he plays, that's what he wants it to be – play. Sex is just too complicated, too full of anxieties and expectations to be relaxing, too be that same kind of fun. Makes sense then that he's not in his Lucky headspace. For now he's just Clint, but it's not like Lucky's gone entirely. He's just... put him away for a while.
Sleeping with Phil for the first time; it's important, he wants to be here for that.
Unfortunately, Phil is staring up at him looking miserable and just a little bit pale, licking his lips nervously as his hands rest lightly on Clint's thighs.
Sighing, Clint leans in and nuzzles him, cheek-to-cheek, enjoying the rasp of his own stubble against Phil's smooth jaw.
"It carries, I know," he murmurs, his eyes closed as he presses his lips to whatever skin he can reach. "I'm not... there, but you know that, and I know that you know that, so... it's fine, right? I mean, it's ok?"
He feels like an idiot, babbling, trying to explain something that he hasn't got quite figured out yet himself, but Phil's hands come up and start petting him, stroking through his hair and down his back. Maybe it's not the best word – petting – given what they're trying to sort out, but it feels great and it seems to calm them both. Clint melts against the body beneath him and thinks he can feel Phil's heart pounding right alongside his own.
"We're ok," he says quietly, chuckling a moment later because he doesn't think he's ever been the one doing the reassuring in situations like this before.
He doesn't care.
"Loved watching you out there today," he murmurs, running his hands down Phil's sides to his waistband and starting up a slow roll of his hips again, hoping to get back to where they'd been before, at least get them moving in the same direction. "Christ, the way you move. Like you know exactly what you're doing..."
"Is that a hint that I should be putting those skills to good use?" Phil asks, his voice deep and rough.
"You read it however you want babe," Clint replies, an attempt at cheekiness, but he can't help the shiver that runs down his spine.
That wasn't what he'd meant, but far be it from him to object to...
He doesn't have time to finish the thought before Phil is tightening his grip on Clint's hips, hooking an ankle behind his knee and flipping them over easy-as-you-please, reversing their positions and landing in Clint's lap to grin down at him with a wicked little gleam in his eyes, all traces of remorse disappeared. The air whoofs out of his lungs and all that heat and hardness he'd lost during their little moment comes rushing back in again, and yeah, that was...
"Well that was hot."
Above him Phil snorts a laugh, rolls his eyes, then leans back and starts tugging at Clint's shirt. He maybe shows off a little bit by crunching his abdominals, sitting up on the power of his stomach alone before slowly shrugging his shirt up over his head. He barely gets it tossed onto the floor when Phil gets his hands on his skin, and he collapses flat onto the mattress when the man proves his competence by finding all the good spots immediately.
He loses himself for a little bit after that. Phil proves as good at this as he is at everything, lips and fingers all over him as he explores the breadth of Clint's shoulders, the heavy straps of muscle in his chest. His teeth test Clint's collarbones, his tongue traces old scars, and Clint's gasping and wriggling against the sheets before he even knows what's happening. Soft lips press kisses down his belly toward the edge of his jeans, and Clint can't help a plaintive whine when there's a distinct pause over his zipper.
"Aw come on," he breathes, wiggling like... well, like a puppy. "After all that, you really gonna make me sit up and beg?"
He says it because he thinks it will make Phil laugh, because it's light and teasing and because it gives his mouth something to do other than just that – beg.
Phil chuckles darkly and the sound goes straight to Clint's cock, and there's nothing he could do to stop himself from looking down, from looking at the man who's staring back up at him along the length of his body, pupils blown, eyes bright.
With Clint watching, Phil slowly ducks his head, holding his gaze as he mouths softly over the bulge in Clint's jeans.
Then, with a ridiculous wink, he pops the button with his teeth.
He knows that Clint is doing it on purpose, trying to make him laugh after his earlier faux-pas, but he doesn't mind.
They need it, to get the happy back.
As it is he's already gotten a bit of his confidence back again. Clint's praise had sounded genuine, his hands insistent on Phil's body and his mouth hungry, and if the hard, flushed erection tenting his purple boxer-briefs is anything to go by he's being honest in his enjoyment of what they're doing. If honesty is the game, Phil's enjoying it as well, enjoying the smooth, warm skin and hard muscle beneath his fingers. Clint's all golden silk and rough scars, hard and soft, and he loves the sharp dichotomy of the man beneath him, the quiet vulnerability and the strong, determined self-assurance.
He also loves the groan that tears itself from Clint's throat when he frees his cock and runs the flat of his tongue from the base to the tip.
"Ho... shit, Phil!" Clint gasps, throwing his head back against the pillows. "You..."
Phil nuzzles his balls, hums inquisitively, but he doesn't finish his thought with anything more than a high-pitched whine. Because he'd been so delighted with the way Clint had picked him up and thrown him onto the bed earlier, he decides to get a bit of his own back and fists his hands in the denim bunched around Clint's hips, jerks them roughly down to his ankles and off.
"Please," Clint breathes, begging despite his earlier complaints, and Phil's own dick throbs inside his pants. "Phil please..."
Sliding his palms up Clint's powerful thighs, Phil spreads his legs and settles down between them, hooking Clint's knees over his shoulders before he can question it and swallowing him right down. The man yelps, bucks hard in surprise, but Phil's forearm across his hips keeps him down on the bed and mostly still as he reacquaints himself with the delicate art of deep-throating.
It's good to lose himself in this, in doing something for his partner. Viewed by many as a selfless act, Phil actually quite enjoys giving head, and he's damned good at it even if he does say so himself. He likes the power of it, the control, and that probably says something about him as a man but with Clint's cock sitting thick and hot on his tongue, he really can't bring himself to care. He licks and suckles and pulls out all his tricks because he can, and because it really is a very nice cock. He's fleetingly glad that he and Clint had been brave enough to weather the awkward condom-conversation; they'd both produced clean tests and confessed an enjoyment of good old-fashioned skin-on-skin for all but the most intimate of acts.
Now, with the heat of him, the taste of him in his mouth, Phil's glad they'd managed it like responsible adults.
When Clint starts squirming a little too much for the back of Phil's throat to take, he pulls off with an obscene slurp, props his chin on Clint's hip and stares up at him while he catches his breath. He watches Clint's chest heave, stares at the pink blush dusting the crests of his cheeks and feels a pleasant smugness suffuse his chest, a primal pride at having elicited such a reaction.
"Nice," Clint huffs, and Phil chuckles because he knows he's being teased for his expression, not praised for his blowjob skills.
"You seemed like you were enjoying it," he defends, a smile in his voice, and Clint gathers himself enough to lift his head, to look down at him. There's something tender in his eyes and his hand touches Phil's cheek softly, traces the curve of his jaw.
"I enjoy you," he murmurs, and that distinction means more to Phil than he thinks it probably should, sends a warm tingle rushing down to his toes.
Pressing a kiss to Clint's inner thighs, he slips out from between them and stands from the bed, slowly shedding his clothes under a watchful eye. He may not be nearly as fit as the man spread out before him, but he works hard to stay fit and is incredibly proud of the physique he maintains. He has nothing to be ashamed of, especially for a man for his years, and Clint's gaze burns as it travels slowly down his body, lingering on... certain features.
He plays to it, smirks and gives himself a few long, slow strokes, sensitive enough that he has to bite down on his lower lip to stop himself from making some rather undignified sounds. Clint's eyes sparkle in the low light of the loft, the sun setting through the windows, and he licks his own lips before reaching out and making grabby hands in Phil's direction.
Smiling, happy, he crawls back onto the bed and tumbles them together with a kiss.
This is all the sexy you're getting for the moment so I hope you enjoyed it ;)
Clint wakes up the next morning warm and happy and sated, lying on his belly hugging his pillow. It's so comfortable and easy that it takes him a minute to remember why he feels so good, why his muscles are loose and relaxed and his shoulder stings with a love bite.
Clint breathes in deep, realizes that the heat blazing along his side is bare skin, the weight across his thigh and his lower back another man's limbs. It's nice too – he doesn't feel trapped or pinned down, unusual for him – and he snuggles back into the heat with a happy murmur.
He must at least halfway wake up his bedmate in doing so, because Phil makes a similar happy hum and rolls even further into Clint's space, his arm tightening to pull him back against Phil's chest, until he turns just a little and suddenly they're lying spooned together under the covers and sleepy, open-mouthed kisses are being pressed along his shoulders.
"Good morning," Phil murmurs, nuzzling Clint's ear, and he can't help the sappy grin that spreads across his face.
"Morning," he parrots back, turning around in Phil's arms to pepper his chin and the corners of his mouth with little smooches.
He looks a bit put-out and snakes his hand up to curl it around the back of Clint's neck, no doubt to pull him into a deeper kiss, but Clint grabs it and brings it back down, kisses his knuckles before rolling out of bed.
"Sorry," he says with a grin, tossing Phil a wink. "Puppy breath."
"Don't care," Phil whines, turning over and burying his head under the pillow. "Come back."
"In a minute," Clint promises, taking his time bending over to retrieve his briefs from the floor, because he can see Phil peering at him sneakily from beneath the pillow. "I'm gonna brush, then I'll start the coffee."
This earns him a pleased little grumble and he smiles to himself as he steps quietly out of the bedroom and heads down the stairs. It's adorable and kind of endearing that Phil's not a morning person, as much as it is weird that Clint is, no matter how much he's looking forward to crawling back into bed.
His upbeat mood lasts through his trip to the bathroom, something it doesn't normally do. Usually the guilt and the misery hit right about the time he has to face himself in the mirror, but this time all he sees staring back at him as he brushes his teeth are bright, happy eyes and a dark hickey low on his shoulder. Phil had asked if that was ok, if he could leave marks before he did it, and something about him asking permission had lit up all kinds of hot, joyful things in the pit of his belly, leading him to eagerly agree.
He may have left a few love bites of his own after that.
Yeah, the sex had been good.
Good, heck, good was the understatement of the century, but he's trying not to feel to smug about it.
No reason to jinx a good thing is there?
Leaving an extra toothbrush out on the counter, Clint heads into the kitchen and sets up the coffee machine, giving the carafe a quick scrub in the sink because he's pretty sure he remembers drinking straight from the pot yesterday. He can bring Phil coffee in bed, and then maybe they can make out a little before breakfast, and...
It's not that he thinks Phil might not like breakfast right? After all, who doesn't like breakfast? It's just, he's never really done this part of a relationship before, the breakfast and the coffee and the pleasant morning-after. Usually it's a walk of shame or waking up alone, and he's only ever really cooked for Natasha before. He doesn't think he's ever gotten this far in a relationship before, cause it feels like a lot farther than just, you know...
He doesn't know what SOP for something like this is.
Nat would know, and suddenly he's wishing he'd pulled on more than just his underwear because he's pretty sure his phone is still in the pocket of his tactical pants upstairs on his bedroom floor.
He bites his lip, but before he can work himself up too much, a pair of arms slide around his waist and someone cuddles up to his back, all rough denim and soft, worn cotton against his skin.
"What are you thinking about?" Phil asks, his chin hooked over Clint's shoulder so he can kiss his cheek, breath minty fresh.
"Breakfast," he answers, because it's the truth even if it's not the whole truth. "You got dressed."
"I was informed that brushing was a prerequisite for morning kisses," he explains, smirking as Clint turns in his arms, "And I wasn't going to wander out naked when I didn't know if Natasha was here or not."
Clint feels his cheeks heat – to be honest he was surprised himself that she wasn't here, but he hadn't realized...
"I'm sorry," Phil apologizes suddenly, dropping his arms and backing up a step. "I shouldn't have said that. I just... it seems like you two are that kind of close, and I didn't want you to think I had a problem with..."
Clint's kissing Phil before he even realizes he's going to, hands cupping his face and holding him close as he crushes their mouths together. No one has ever understood him and Nat, no one he's ever tried to have something with has ever been ok with how they are, and yet here's Phil Coulson, who doesn't really know him or Nat, but still lets them be them without resentment...
"God you're perfect," Clint murmurs against his mouth, loving the way Phil's thumbs stroke the insides of his wrists where he's hanging on. "No one ever..."
"You love her," Phil says quietly, looking him in the eye where they've got their foreheads pressed together. "And she loves you. I may not know exactly what you are to each other, but I wouldn't ask you to give that up for me."
"See?" Clint murmurs, throat tight as his eyes start to sting. "Perfect."
The beep of the coffee machine keeps him from doing anything silly, like bursting into tears right there in his kitchen. Instead it gives him a minute to step back and collect himself, clear his throat and sniff back the threat still burning his eyes. There are clean mugs in the cabinet – something else he can thank Nat for – so he takes two down and pours them full, passing one to Phil before leaning back against the counter, mirroring his position against the breakfast bar.
"We're not in love you know," he says quietly as Phil sips his drink, lifts his eyebrows curiously. "A lot of people think we are. I mean, I get it. It looks like we are most of the time. Just, we've... we've been through a lot together, me and Nat. She saved my life a couple times. She's..."
"She's your person," Phil says simply, with great understanding, and Clint nods.
"I want you to be my person."
Phil blinks at him over the rim of his mug, looks surprised, and Clint thinks maybe he's revealed too much too soon, but then he smiles a small, self-satisfied sort of smile that warms Clint up all the way down to his toes with how pleased it is.
"It doesn't have to be either-or Clint," he says, putting down his mug and slipping back into Clint's arms. "I get it. You're allowed to care about more than one person, and really, I'm just happy knowing there's someone else out there who cares about you."
He traces one of Clint's scars as he says this, low on his belly, and it kind of breaks his heart a little.
Not because of the sentiment really, but because Clint is pretty sure Phil thinks that scar is from his childhood, from the abusive past Clint has talked around before.
It's not, not even close – it's actually from a knife-fight he'd gotten into with some drug smugglers about two years back. A lucky strike, they'd caught him under his tac vest and he'd bled like a stuck pig, and Nat had had to put in stitches at their safehouse that night to get him to stop.
Very, very suddenly, Clint is struck by the overwhelming urge to share his secrets, to spill his guts to this man, this perfect man that he can see himself falling in love with. It's a stupid urge, a self-destructive urge, because Clint knows he's some kind of law enforcement and that's just a prison sentence waiting to happen, but it's there and it's terrifying and he doesn't know what to do with it.
Phil is looking up at him and there's ridiculous, wonderful, endless patience on his face, and Clint can't help himself when he kisses him again, slow and deep and tender this time.
There are probably way too many feelings in that kiss for how few dates they've been on, how long they've known each other, but Phil doesn't seem to mind.
"I wanna tell him."
"Excuse me?" Natasha says flatly, her eyes glinting as her hands still on the knife she's been sharpening at her dining room table.
Clint flinches a little, ducks his head, fidgets with the arrow head he's holding delicately between his fingertips.
"I know it's stupid," he mutters under his breath, spinning the broad head so that the three gleaming blades catch the light. "I know I can't. But I want to."
Natasha is quiet a moment, then the rasp of the whetstone starts up and again and Clint foolishly allows himself to relax.
"Was the sex that good?"
"Bitch," he snips, flinging a ball of useless, crumpled-up paper tape at her head. "It's not about that."
Nat just cocks an eyebrow.
"Ok," he amends with a groan, "It's not completely about that."
"I just... I like him Nat," he mumbles, shamefaced though he doesn't exactly know why. "I..."
Natasha is looking at him, her head tilted and her face as soft as it ever gets, and he's scared of that all of a sudden. Phil was willing to share him with her, he'd said so that morning before breakfast at the little diner down the street, the one with the good pancakes, but was Nat willing to share too?
He'd never thought about it, never questioned their bond before, but now he is, and he knows it's stupid and doesn't make sense, but he is and...
"Are you... do you want a normal life with him Clint?" Natasha asks, and she sounds as stunned silly as he feels. "Are you in love with him?"
Clint blinks, takes stock of the strange feelings rolling around in his chest, in the pit of his stomach. They're at war, the two of them, what his heart wants and what his gut is telling him is true, and he doesn't know how to reconcile those two things.
"I think I could be," he says at last, carefully. "I think if I... if we keep... I think I could be."
"But I'm not stupid," he says gruffly, shrugging and trying to dispel the weird mood hanging over the table, breaking down the limbs of his bow and tucking it carefully into his travel case. The table is covered with weaponry and small electronics, all the bits and pieces of their next job. "I know what could happen if I told him."
Natasha doesn't respond.
"I know, ok?" he says a minute later, louder than he should given the fact that she hasn't pushed him, hasn't pressed him. "If I tell him who I am it's a good guess I'm going to jail."
"And if you don't."
"If I don't then I'm building a relationship on a lie," he spits, because he knows that's not what she means. "Already off to a great start with that."
"So what, you want to go straight?" she asks, very deliberately keeping any derision out of her tone, though even with his shitty ears Clint can hear it.
Maybe it's just in his head.
"You could do it," she muses, just to torture him. "You have identities to play with, or you could make a new one. You could get a nine-to-five, set up a white picket fence and play house-husband."
"I'd go crazy within a month," he sighs miserably, his shoulders sagging.
"You're not helping," he grumbles, folding his arms on the table and sinking down in his chair to bury his head in the crook of his elbow.
"And what would you like me to do about this problem?" she asks, thickening her Russian accent around her words. "I have respected your privacy and your judgment thus far – I have not followed your new pet home."
"I wear the tail in this relationship," he mumbles petulantly, stupidly possessive of his role.
"I cannot help you if I do not know what you want Little Bird," Nat says simply.
Sighing, Clint sits back up again, scrubs his hands over his face and starts packing his stuff neatly into his go-bag.
"I wanna get this job done," he says, zipping the bag shut. "Marakesh, it'll be what, two days, most? I can put it away until then."
Famous last words.
It's not fair.
Don’t get him wrong, he knows life at SHIELD isn't fair, but getting sent out on a clusterfuck of a mission the day after he and Clint are intimate for the first time is just wrong.
At least he left it on a good note – he consoles himself with that. They had both fallen asleep more than satisfied sexually, and had had a deep and meaningful conversation the next morning without things getting too awkward. He'd made his feelings known as much as he understood them, and Clint had kissed him so deep it felt like a love confession, and then they had both walked up the street to a little hole-in-the-wall diner that served the best pancakes Phil had ever eaten in his life.
They'd kissed in the street before going their separate ways, and it had tasted like a possible future and maple syrup.
Two hours later he's being briefed on the Moroccan op that's managed to go spectacularly sideways at the last minute, Jasper and three of his agents taken hostage and being held for leverage by a human trafficking ring that also dabbles in coke muling.
That was four days ago.
Well, six really, but Clint had told him he would be out of town for work for a couple of days before then, so those don't count.
At least, that's what he keeps telling himself.
'It doesn't mean anything,' he promises himself as he lies on a starchy motel blanket, trying to catch a couple hours sleep. 'You've gone dark; it doesn't mean he hasn't called.'
It's a stupid thing to be worried about, he knows that, and he feels guilty about it the next morning when he wakes up. There are more important things to deal with – getting Jasper and the rest of the team out alive, taking down the third biggest drug runner in the country. He shouldn't be distracted by his personal life. Cracking down, he gets to work with Melinda May and the rest of his team zeroing in on the abandoned warehouse where the coke is stored, and where they believe Alpha Team is also temporarily being held.
By nightfall they have a plan.
It's not a great one – as evidenced by the four back-up plans necessary to account for all the things that could go wrong – but it's a plan.
Phil can feel the hair on the back of his neck standing up as he straps himself into his tactical gear – something isn't right. They don't have the men to spare for this one so he'll be going in alongside the stealth team, but there's a feeling in the pit of his stomach like everything's about to go wrong. They'll be infiltrating the building quietly as far as they can, but every agent on the ground has been equipped with flashbangs, assault rifles, and any other assortment of big, bright, and noisy that they can carry. It's a carefully planned mess – that's all he'll allow it, and he can only hope that Jaz and his team are still alive when they get to them and in not-to-terrible shape.
"Ready?" Mel asks in her quiet, steady way, and Phil grins at her with his rifle hoisted onto his shoulder, already settled into the confidant bravado of a Ranger that he wears into the field.
"Locked, cocked, and ready to rock," he smirks, and Mel rolls her eyes, but she bumps him with her shoulder as she heads past, so he knows she understands.
They all have their little rituals.
Phil steps up to the door, ready to call the room to attention when his Missions Phone chimes in his pocket – lucky, since he's forgotten to turn it off. That's not like him at all, and as he pulls it from the inner pocket of his Kevlar vest a shiver ripples down his spine, because it's that type of mistake that tells him something is off about this one, something is threatening to go very, very badly.
It's a SHIELD phone calling another SHIELD phone, and he recognizes the number as the cell Jasper checked out before his team took off more than a week ago.
"Quiet on the floor!" he barks, swiping across the screen and lifting the phone to his ear as the room falls dead silent. "Coulson."
There's a gasping intake of breath, a heartbeat of silence.
The job does not go well.
Like, that's an understatement – the job does not go well at all.
They're late getting to Marrakesh because they have to fly coach with all the puds, then the hourly rent-a-room they'd scoped beforehand is nowhere to be found, like it had never existed at all. There's some kind of stupid festival going on which means there are a shit ton of tourists all over the place, and by the time they get into position and are ready to rock and roll, their original two-day deadline has passed and Clint is cursing himself for an idiot for jinxing them.
At least they're not the only one having troubles.
Arif Bakkar, head Bossman of the third largest cocaine trafficking ring in Northern Africa, seems to be experiencing some dissention in the ranks.
Clint knew he should have brushed up on his Arabic.
Separated from Natasha by half the dilapidated warehouse, Clint does his best to muddle through the translation, watching with growing curiosity as a fight breaks out amongst the smugglers, four eventually being taken into bad-guy custody and tied to wooden chairs in the middle of the open floor, like ducks in a row for questioning.
Or is it trussed up like turkeys?
He can practically hear Nat rolling her eyes at him over the comms, even though he hasn't said anything, so he mutters at her to shut up and changes position, telling her to meet him at the rendezvous point. This is unknown nonsense going down and they don't need to get in the middle of it, so they decide to wait to see if the bad guys do their jobs for them.
Days later all four of their friends are still tied up, experiencing the full gamut of Moroccan Drug Runner hospitality, and Clint's had just about enough. He's grumpy and wants this shit done, pissed that he's been gone so long without being able to contact Phil after they'd spent the night together, and the godforsaken heat and dust is killing him.
If he has to hang around in these air ducts much longer he's going to break out in a rash.
In the end there's nothing for it.
Nat can see him losing his patience and shrugs it off with Russian indifference, just as ready as he is to get the thing done and over with, so they strap up and head in, a two-man Strike Team, deadly efficient, to do what they do best.
They wait until evening starts to fall, until the last shipment of cocaine has cleared the property and everyone has settled down, their jobs done. Bakkar is in his little makeshift office, no doubt deciding what to do with his prisoners as he smokes a cigarette, and he goes down with Clint's arrow in his throat, choking wetly on his own blood.
He works his way through his side of the building methodically after that, taking out Bakkar's personal guards first, then moving on to the rest. If it had just been the drugs he and Nat might have let a few of the lower-level pushers go with a pointed warning, but they had been trafficking in women and young girls as well, and everyone had had a hand in that.
The Widow shows them no mercy, and neither does he.
Collecting up the last of his arrows, he steps out onto the catwalk and somersaults over the railing, landing loudly on the steel floor below. The nearest prisoner, older than the rest by a bit and obviously the ringleader, startles then goes wide-eyed at the sight of him, burbles a question into the rag stuffed in his mouth.
Clint lifts an eyebrow, but before he can take a step closer, Nat appears silently at his side, her tac suit spattered with blood.
"Building's clear," she reports, tucking a slippery throwing knife back into its hiding place. "Just these four left."
"Should we kill em?" Clint asks, ignoring the way the three younger men all start yelping into their gags.
Natasha frowns, tilts her head, and for Clint that's enough uncertainty to let them all go, but the leader of the four, the quiet one with the chrome dome, hollers something that sounds suspiciously like his name.
Clint blinks, looks back and forth between him and Natasha, confused.
"You two know each other?" she asks flatly, painfully unimpressed.
"Not that I know of," Clint says helplessly.
Nat shrugs, and Clint hates how good she is at controlling her curiosity, because that means he's the one who has to walk over and slip his knife under the knotted gag, cut it free from the guy's mouth.
He pants a minute, gasps, then smacks his lips and spits onto the steel floor.
"Hawkeye," he huffs heavily, sitting up and visibly gathering himself, collecting dignity around him like a cloak. "My name is Jaspwer Sitwell; I'm a Level Six Agent of SHIELD, and I am authorized by Director Nicholas R Fury to offer both you and the Black Widow a position within our organization."
He's spit it all out so fast Clint thinks he must have misheard the guy.
SHIELD wants to offer them a job?
That can't be right, seems incredibly unlikely in fact.
Sounds much more like the desperate, last-ditch attempts of a man who knows his time is up.
"So you have been following us," Natasha hisses, her eyes narrowed, and Clint steps back so that he can see the both of them, his friend who has his back and the SHIELD agent. "I knew it couldn't be coincidence that you kept showing up after that op in Turkey."
"What?" Clint bleats, dumbfounded. "They've been following us?"
Nat casts him a look that calls him all kinds of names, most of them not so nice. He knows she's been taking jobs without him, that's nothing new, but that she wouldn't tell him, that he hadn't noticed himself when he had been out with her – that's not a good thing.
"You're on our Recruitment list," Jasper Sitwell, Level Six Agent of SHIELD says. "We want you to come and work for us. You have both have a unique skill set that would be in high demand within our organization."
"And if we're not interested?" Nat asks menacingly, taking a step forward.
To his credit, Jasper Sitwell doesn't flinch, not like the rest of his agents do.
"We're not a Join-or-Die club, Ms. Widow," he says politely. "Although, fair warning, the Director's not likely to take a 'no' lying down. There are several agents who are very eager to negotiate your recruitment."
Nat stares at him for a long moment, then turns around and strides several yards away, stands there waiting for Clint to join her. He does, only after his own moment of watching their newly acquired prisoners carefully, none of whom are stupid enough to start immediately squirming at their bonds.
So, you know, there's that.
"What?" he demands quietly when he reaches her side, unnerved by her silence.
"This is what you wanted," she says suddenly, looking him directly in the eye in a way that she rarely does.
"What I... what?"
"Clint," she murmurs, "Think. This is the best chance you're going to get."
He stares at her, stupid, until his brain finally kicks into gear and he gets it, really gets what she's telling him, and god damn her for always being right. This is the best chance he's going to get, the best out he'll be offered from the life he leads, and maybe it won't be shiny and perfect and understood the way being in the FBI or the CIA might be, but he could do it. He could join SHIELD, be an agent, do the work he already does with the law on his side, without being a criminal or a fugitive, and he would...
He would have a chance.
Clint's heart thunders in his ears, slams against the walls of his chest, because it's too much, it's too much all at once without being prepared, without knowing it's coming. It's been less than a week since he'd considered changing his life for someone else, and now he's got the opportunity in front of him and he's panicking.
"You could do it," Natasha says, breaking him out of his racing thoughts, her hand warm on his cheek. "You could do it for yourself, no more running, plenty of good health insurance..."
Clint's face screws up without his permission – it's an old argument between them; how reckless he can be, how accident prone – but she's looking at him full on and he doesn't know what to do.
"What about you?" he whispers, his throat aching, and she smiles at him soft and wounded and as vulnerable as she ever is.
"You know I go wherever you go Little Bird," she murmurs in Russian. "What do you want Clint?"
"I don't know," he whines, stamping his foot because it's too much to expect of him too fast. "I don't... I want you Nat. And I want us and I want... I want to keep being Hawkeye and keep kicking ass with the Widow. But I want Phil too and I..."
Clint jerks, his whole body going cold as he turns back to the SHIELD agent waiting patiently in his chair, his nerves tingling.
"Phil Coulson?" the man asks with disbelief, except screw him cause there's no way he's feeling more of that right now than Clint is.
"How do you know Phil Coulson?" he snarls, and it comes out so low and deadly that even Natasha will be proud of him for it later.
"And you're Clint," Sitwell says slowly in lieu of an answer, a look of horror slowly taking over his face. "Oh no..."
"What?!" Clint demands, stomping over to stand in front of the guy with a knife suddenly clutched in his hand, but before he even makes it halfway there, the guy is busting up laughing like he's cracked, a loud, full, happy sound that echoes off the walls of the empty warehouse like pipe music.
"Oh no, no, no," the man chortles, shaking his head vehemently. "There's no way... I mean, you're Clint... and you're Hawkeye! And all this time you've..."
The giggles overtake him and Clint feels his blood boil as he watches a grown man and a Level Six Agent laugh until he cries, tears streaming down his cheeks as his knees bounce, like he's trying to stamp his feet with mirth despite his bindings. Clint's never felt more like the butt of a joke in his life and that's certainly saying something because it is him, but there's a thrum of fear still rippling through him that stops him from socking the guy in the belly just to shut him up.
"Oh, it's just too good," Sitwell gasps as he attempts to catch his breath, "This is the best thing that's ever happened. He's never going to live this down..."
"You're not going to live if you do not explain yourself," Natasha says coolly, but the agent just shakes his head and smiles, more to himself than anything.
"No, no please, it's too much," he chuckles, jerking his chin down toward the long, steel table behind them. "I can't anymore with this. The phone, get the phone."
Clint arches an eyebrow at Natasha, who looks cautiously interested now underneath the deadly irritation, then stalks over and grabs the phone off the table.
"Call him," Sitwell orders, his head bobbing in the lights, "Just, just call him. Make the idiot explain himself."
"I don't have his number memorized," Clint lies stupidly, because he doesn't understand what's going on and isn't sure he wants to. "What the hell does Phil..."
"Speed dial one," Sitwell instructs, "Star five-eight-seven, then wait three seconds and dial one."
He doesn't want to.
Dread sits heavy and hard in the pit of his stomach and he doesn't want to, because this is it, this is the part where it all comes crashing down on him. He doesn't get to have nice things, he knows that, but for a minute he had believed, and he thinks the fallout from this might actually kill him.
He's frozen, he must be, because the next thing he knows Natasha is taking the phone from him dialing the numbers, the sound of the buttons being pressed loud and sharp in the silence before she presses it back into his hand. He hardly has a moment to get his head together, to get his thoughts under control before it connects with a near silent click, the voice that answers painfully familiar, even under the harsh bark of command.
Clint sucks in a gasp, hard, hurting, like he's swallowed a baseball, then, because he has no real sense of self-preservation whatsoever...
He drops the phone.
It lands on the steel floor with a shotgun clatter, harsh in the sudden silence wrapping itself up around him. He can't breathe, and all he can hear is his own heartbeat pounding in his ears, and his skin feels hypersensitized like it did that time in Brazil, too tight.
Natasha is scowling at him, punches him hard in the bicep, but he can't actually comprehend the words she's mouthing at him, and when she leans down to pick the squawking cell phone up off the floor, he takes his chance and bolts.
He doesn't go far, of course he doesn't. He wouldn't leave her here, not outnumbered, not in uncertain circumstances. He just needs to get some space, some perspective, and he can't do it there on the floor in the thick of things, so he swings himself back up onto the catwalk and from there acrobats his way into the rafters.
Thank you, Carson's - he always did see better from a distance.
Nat knows that, so he expects her to be at least a little sympathetic toward his situation. From the way she glares up at his shadowy hiding place she's not. Shaking her head, rolling her eyes – which seems a bit unfair in Clint's opinion – she taps at the surface of the phone in her hand and turns it on speaker.
"Agent Phil Coulson of SHIELD," she says calmly, interrupting the litany of Clint's coming from the phone. Her accent comes through thick and cold, all Russian threat, and it shuts Phil right up on the other end, because it is Phil calling out his name above the poor reception.
"Your team is available for retrieval at your convenience," she says by way of answer, "All hostiles neutralized."
There's silence for a moment, as Phil apparently catches his breath and remembers that he's an Agent, a god damned SHEILD Agent right now, not Clint's...
"Understood," he says, and his voice has smoothed out, suddenly all cool, competent professionalism, and hell, that shouldn't get Clint's dick thick, but it totally does. "Is Agent Sitwell available for a report?"
Natasha doesn't reply, just takes a step closer to Sitwell and holds the phone out in his direction.
"God damn it Phil!" the man snaps, "When I said I wanted to meet your new boyfriend this is not what I meant!"
"No, you hush!" he interrupts, and Clint's actually starting to like this guy despite himself. "I have been tied to this shitty chair for nearly three days, listening to Bakkar run his mouth and thinking up ways to punish intel for failing to mention the man's ability to speak fluent Spanish, and where the hell were you? I say to myself, I'll bet you that bastard is finally out getting himself laid when it's least convenient for everyone else on the planet, and I'm actually feeling pretty good for you, but then who do you think comes waltzing in to save the day? None other than the man's favorite new boy toy himself."
Clint blinks, surprised by the man's fervor, and even Natasha looks properly impressed. He's nearly worked himself up into a froth, all righteous indignation, the shiny top of his bald head flushed, and it's... well, it's easier to think about that than anything else.
"If you're quite finished Agent Sitwell," Phil says over the phone, dry as dust, "Bravo Team would like an immediate sitrep."
"Oh screw your immediate sitrep," Sitwell huffs. "We're all fine and dandy here, no thanks to you. Still strapped to chairs, but the building's clear, all hostiles neutralized, just like the lady says. And don't even think about getting any smart ideas Coulson – if Hawkeye and the Widow come in they're going on my recruitment record, not yours. I don't care if you're banging the both of them."
Natasha actually snort-laughs.
Sitwell just glares.
A very pointed silence comes from the phone, and it hits Clint like a truck because very suddenly he feels a visceral understanding of the fact that Phil didn't know who he was.
That was his fear, he realizes.
That Phil had known this whole time, that it was all an unorthodox recruitment method, that the agent had intentionally hidden who he was and what he wanted and had seduced Clint into an amazing relationship just to get him to sign on with SHIELD.
That was where the panic had come from, the pounding heart and the racing thoughts and the ache, but it's pretty damned obvious, both from what Sitwell is saying and from what Phil is not saying, that that hadn't been the case.
Flicking a glance up toward him, a disbelieving sort of amusement on her face, Natasha shakes her head and taps at the phone, taking it off speaker and bringing it to her ear.
"Agent Coulson," she begins - before pausing because apparently the fucker's got the balls to interrupt the Black Widow - "Right, Phil then."
"Yes, I understand we're both being offered a position within SHIELD," Nat continues, and Sitwell starts cursing in response, hissing all sorts of unpleasant things about friends who scoop other friends' recruitments, renewing his minor efforts to free himself from his chair.
Clint watches silently from above, feeling calm and secure enough to let the man struggle. He's pretty sure that even if Sitwell gets loose, him and Nat won't be in any real danger – not with Phil on the phone and Sitwell apparently bound and determined (hah – bound) to recruit them himself.
He's actually feeling pretty ok in fact.
That surprises him.
It's just, he feels light. Kind of... giddy maybe?
It's stupid, he knows it's stupid, but it's...
Phil likes him. Like, really likes him, as just Clint and Phil. He's pretty sure of that after all the conversation being tossed around, all the stunned silences, and that's super reassuring.
On the other hand, him and Nat are both being offered something he'd never thought they would be. A real job, one with a salary and benefits and security, one that's on the right side of the law. Those things, all those things would let them live a far more stable life than they do now, and where that hadn't been something he'd really thought about before this past month, now that it's in front of him it actually sounds pretty nice. He won't be young enough to pull this vigilante crap forever, and to be honest, it's a risk.
Sure, that's always been a part of it, that rush of adrenaline, but having a team to come after you, people you trust to bring you home, a retirement plan?
Sounds like something he could get behind.
Plus now there's the chance...
Nat said she would come with him, so there's nothing stopping him, nothing really holding him back. Sure, they haven't heard all the details yet, but no gig could be all that much worse than freelancing right?
He's pretty sure between Sitwell and the Black Widow they'll get a good deal anyway.
Clint realizes with a bit of a start that Nat's hung up the phone. She's cut Sitwell loose and dragged the table closer to his chair, perching on top of it so they can both sit comfortably and discuss benefits. The lead agent is calmly providing a concise job description and laying out salary plus hazard pay, totally ignoring the three other agents behind him, all of whom are still bound and gagged and watching the whole think with wide, wary eyes.
Yeah, Hawkeye and the Widow know how to make an impression, don't they?
Besides, all four agents are fine – Clint's been keeping watch. A little banged up, a little bruised, probably a little dehydrated, but they had been mostly well taken care of, fed and watered often enough by Bakkar's men, even if they had been a little roughed up. He's got protein bars in his pocket that he could offer them, but that seems like taking it a little too far when he and Nat have yet to sign anything officially placing them on the same team as SHIELD, and besides, he has other things to be mildly anxious about.
Like the fact that Nat's hung up on Phil, but his personal cell hasn't buzzed once.
He doesn't know if he likes what that could mean.
He doesn't have much time to contemplate it though; not five minutes later he hears banging and shouting and nonsense, and then a SHIELD team is sweeping into the building, flooding out along the perimeter and securing the warehouse.
Natasha appears unphased, as cool as a Russian cucumber, sitting primly on the edge of the table with one knee crossed jauntily over the other.
The good Agent Sitwell just looks exasperated.
Building cleared, six agents break off in pairs and head for their comrades still bound in place, knives flashing as they cut them loose, and one more, who had led the charge into the building, takes a hesitant step toward the center of the floor, where Nat and Sitwell wait.
Holy shit, it's Phil.
Clint shifts silently, subconsciously sitting up and leaning forward, a hound come to attention.
If he'd thought the man was hot before, it's got nothing on this, this man in black-out assault gear. He'd thought about it before ok, fantasized, especially after that one picture Phil had sent him, but the reality of it standing in front of him nearly has him toppling from his perch.
Phil is all coiled strength and sure movements, a panther's confidant prowl. The heavy Kevlar bulks out his chest and serves to illustrate the breadth of his shoulders, and Clint had already known he had a thing for the man holding a gun. He's struck by the sudden and nearly overwhelming urge to bite, and it's got nothing to do with Lucky.
No, it's all lust and want and claiming, maybe a little bit of anger, maybe a little bit of punishment.
He can practically hear Nat rolling her eyes at him, like she knows exactly what he's thinking, but she must love him at least a little bit because she doesn't give him away.
"Phil," she says coolly, sizing him up with the elegant arch of an eyebrow.
"Natasha," he says carefully, but even to Clint all the way up in the rafters he sounds bewildered, like he has no idea how any of this could have happened.
Clint doesn't blame him – he thinks it's pretty crazy himself.
"The Black Widow," he corrects himself quietly, very obviously making his own assessments. "It's a pleasure to truly meet you. I've wanted to for some time."
"Back off," Sitwell hisses, narrowing his eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses. "You had your chances, and I will not lose another two hundred dollars to Maria Hill in the pools."
Phil levels his fellow agent with an utterly unimpressed look, preparing for what no doubt will be a scathing retort, and Clint catches himself smirking.
"No, don't you dare," Sitwell threatens, even as two other agents - a young man and woman branded with medic's crosses - start to fuss over him. "Go deal with your boyfriend, you asshole. Christ Phil, you're the one who's always preaching situational awareness around HQ..."
Phil seems to have tuned out his friend's bitching.
Clint knows he has at this point.
He's too busy staring, and wanting, and waiting, for no good reason that he can really think of, and he knows Natasha's going to hurt him if he doesn't get his ass down there soon, so he tucks his bow safely into a Y-beam and executes a neat, forward triple-flip down onto the floor, sticking the landing like a pro.
Phil doesn't startle, just blinks, and Clint finds that pretty hot, tilts his hips and smirks cockily, only to be treated to a long, slow once-over that practically sets his blood on fire.
"Hey Phil," he finally manages, pleasantly surprised when the words come out saucy instead of hoarse and horny. "Fancy meeting you here."
Phil opens his mouth a time or two, a bit like a guppy fish, and he's staring at Clint's bare arms in a very flattering way, but seems a bit pressed to find words.
To be honest, Clint's having the same problem himself.
The man looks damn fine in a tac-suit.
"Ugh, it's even worse than I thought," Sitwell groans somewhere off to Clint's right before raising his voice. "Alright people, let's pack it in. I want this place swept clean in twenty; I'm sick of looking at it. Ms. Widow?"
Clint tears himself away from his staring, cause that sounds important, and as much as he wants to tear Phil out of his body armor with his teeth right now, they are still technically wanted assassins in a room full of law enforcement.
Squaring up, he drops his shoulders and widens his stance, a 'body guard' pose he pulls for Nat all the time. Sitwell doesn't react, and just beside him Phil smirks, like he knows exactly what Clint's doing – and with what he'd said about him and Nat before, maybe he does.
"It's been an honor to meet you," Sitwell says, and Clint scolds himself for getting distracted again. "I truly hope you and Hawkeye will come work for SHIELD. We leave for HQ at o' eight hundred tomorrow morning – we'd be happy to transport you back to New York."
"As tempting as a private ride sounds," Natasha says smoothly, "I'm not sure these two will have sorted themselves out by tomorrow morning."
Clint yelps in protest at the exact same time Phil does, and their gazes snap back to each other's like magnets, causing Clint to blush and duck his head, Phil to roll his lips together in a frown.
"I see what you mean," Sitwell grumbles. "Perhaps I can give you my personal contact information then? You can join us at your convenience, should you have questions or choose to accept."
Natasha hums, turns a speculative look on the two of them, then much to Clint's surprise, transfers it back to Agent Sitwell, looking him over from head to toe. The man swallows hard but straightens his shoulders, lifts his chin and waits her judgement, and damn, do all SHIELD agents have balls of brass?
"Why don't you allow me to buy you dinner Agent Sitwell," she suggests, and it's more of a command than an offer. "This will give these two a chance to talk, and you can tell me more about this job offer."
Sitwell's eyebrows make for his non-existent hairline, which is actually kind of hilarious, then he nods, blushing pink across his cheeks.
"It would be my genuine pleasure," he agrees, and then before Clint knows what's happening Nat is kissing his cheek, whispering in his ear to be good, and threading her hand through the crook of Sitwell's offered elbow, allowing him to lead her back out of the warehouse.
"She's going to eat him alive, isn't she?" Phil asks quietly beside him, and Clint smirks.
"If she does he'll love every minute of it," he says honestly. "Don't worry about it Sir. She'll play nice with your friend."
The honorific slips out before he means it to.
To be honest it's mostly just a part of his headspace, who he is when he's on a job, but a part of it too is just Phil. There's a little bit of D and s inherent to puppy play, and that's who Phil's been to Clint for a while now, a strong, steady, stable place of safety and authority.
It's fine, it doesn't bother him, but Phil seems surprised, so he forces out an apology.
"Sorry. I shouldn't have..."
"Not here," Phil growls, low and gravelly, and his tone hits Clint low in the gut, heavy and hot.
Grabbing Clint's wrist, Phil hands off his rifle to a nearby agent and hauls him outside into the cool Moroccan night, the sky indigo above them and the wind damp with threatening rain.
The heat has finally broken.
Good thing too because Clint feels like he's about to combust, has less than a minute to get his feet under him before he's pulled around the corner of the building and thrown up against the wall, his hard, leather vest thudding dully against the sheet metal. Then Phil's mouth is on his and it's plundering, taking, taking, taking and Clint's happy to give it up. The kiss is deep, hungry like it hasn't been before, all teeth and tongue and pull, and by the time Phil lets him up for air he's panting and hard and bucking forward into the hot cradle of Phil's hips.
"Just so you know," he growls in Clint's ear, a filthy playback of Clint's own words, "I really want to blow you right now."
Clint makes a glurk-ing sound and drops his head back, slamming it against the wall as Phil's mouth assaults him, teeth nipping at the cords of his neck, tongue laving at the base of his throat.
"And not just because you're Hawkeye."
"Why then?" Clint gasps, staring up at the night sky as his hands scrabble helplessly at the smooth steel behind him.
"Because you're all the things that Hawkeye is," Phil says darkly, pulling back to look Clint in the eye, his hands fisted around the straps of his vest. "Intelligent, deadly, slick – I knew you were an amazing man already but this just seals it. The shots you've made Clint, christ; makes me want to go to my knees and suck you off right here."
"Wouldn't solve anything," Clint croaks, mostly to stop himself from going off in his pants right then and there.
"Would solve something," Phil rumbles, rolling his hips forward, and damn, ok, at least Clint isn't the only one enjoying this. "But you're right, we should... probably talk about this."
"Fucking tease," Clint scolds without too much heat, because Phil has somehow managed to sound like he's pouting and unsure at the same time. "You don't think Nat and your buddy Sitwell will do enough talking for all of us?"
"It's just... you're taking all this remarkably well," Phil frowns, pulling back a little more to look him over, like the answer will be written there on his chest.
"What, you're the only one that can roll with some punches?" he scoffs gently. "I knew you were Alphabet Soup Phil, just didn't know which letters. Besides, this... kinda works out for me."
Clint blushes in the dark, bites his lip.
"I mean, we talked about it," he says, making no sense at all. "Me and Nat. About maybe... going straight."
Phil stares at him, searching, his hands gentled so that one is resting lightly over Clint's heart.
"You know why," Clint murmurs, because it's too early to say it, too early to even be feeling it, but then Phil's hands are sliding up and cupping his face and pulling him in to a kiss that's as soft and gentle and slow as the other had been hard and fast and harsh, and yeah, Clint's definitely feeling it.
"That enough talking for you?" he breathes quietly against Phil's mouth, their foreheads pressed together and their eyes closed. "Cause um, I got a hotel room, and I don't think Nat's coming back any time soon."
"Let me finish inside," he says, "Ten minutes tops. Go get your bow, and I'll meet you at the doors."
Clint's breath catches, because of course, of course Phil knows about his bow, has guessed that he had stashed it somewhere inside. It means something that he knows that, that he's sent Clint back to get it, he's just... not sure what yet.
"Ten minutes," he agrees, and then Phil's stepping back and nodding once, all cool-and-collected Agent Coulson, and if Clint smacks his ass as they turn to head back inside who can blame him?
It’s almost two in the morning before they finally walk out of the warehouse side by side. Clint doesn’t mind – it had been one hell of a turn-on to watch Phil head back in and take over the scene in the meantime, command it into order as easy as anything. He toys with his phone a bit while he waits, texting Nat and not getting anything back, which either means that negotiations aren’t going well at all or that they went very, very well and she’s already enjoying the fruits of her labor. In the end it’s probably a good thing that Phil drives them both to a diner downtown instead of turning north toward the cheap hotel he and Nat were staying in – he’s willing to bet money that the door to their room would be a locked with a Do Not Disturb sign hanging from the knob.
He waits next to the SUV and watches heatedly while Phil strips out of his bullet proof vest and tie, rolls up his sleeves. It’s an interesting transformation – badass agent to weary, faceless businessman – but both looks put equal hunger in the pit of his belly. He’d feel bad for staring if Phil wasn’t staring right back, his gaze tracing the muscles in Clint’s upper arms, bared by the tank top he’d been wearing beneath his own tac vest. He’d been staring at him like that back in the warehouse, his eyes following Clint into the rafters and down again, lingering on him in the car, and Clint is hit by the sudden, overwhelming desire to push his bow into Phil’s hands, just so he can watch them stroke over the limbs.
A shiver ripples down his spine and it’s got nothing to do with the light breeze that’s kicked up, the promise of rain in the air.
Phil smirks and steps inside, holding the door with one arm so Clint’s forced to brush past him on the way through. It’s a power move and he likes it, even though it puts a dozen conflicting ideas into his head all at once. Top or bottom, Dom or sub, Clint or Lucky – he wants it all, and for the very first time it seems like maybe he can get away with being greedy.
He picks a booth in the back, one with good sightlines in either direction, so that when they slide onto the benches facing each other, one of them is facing the door and the other is facing the bank of windows. It’s another play of sorts – shows Phil that Clint trusts him to have his back – and when Phil sits down across from him without hesitation, shows Clint that he feels the same way. It’s a warm, soft feeling that banks the arousal, smoothing everything out enough that Clint can let go of a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
“So,” he says finally, when they’ve both been given a cup of strong black coffee and placed their orders for pancakes and bacon, eggs on the side. “SHIELD huh?”
“Army Rangers, then SHIELD,” Phil corrects, and he smirks when Clint instinctively licks his lips. “The Director is a good friend; I’ve known him since the beginning.”
“Yes, because I know what we are,” he says seriously, putting his cup down and looking Clint in the eye. “You’d be good for us. Hawkeye would be good for us, and the Widow, but...”
“But?” Clint asks, a nervous flutter kicking up in the pit of his belly.
“But I think we’d be good for you too.”
Clint stares, a little bit stunned, because somehow he wasn’t expecting that. Even with all of the mess and confusion, the crisscrossed wires and double-sided intentions, he hadn’t been expecting that.
Phil doesn’t press him, doesn’t push information or ask for answers, which Clint appreciates. The food is dropped off by a bored-looking waitress, and he watches with his hands in his lap while Phil doctors his short stack with butter and maple-syrup. He’s got the first bite in his mouth before Clint can make a decision, reach for the peanut butter and jelly packets and organize what he wants to say.
“Would I be working with you?”
That was not what he’d wanted to say.
“Possibly,” Phil says, very, very slowly after a pause. “Fury - that’s the Director - he's been talking about giving me a strike team for a while. Never found the agents to fit, but...”
“You’re saying that a lot,” Clint points out, painfully casual, even though his heart is thumping in his chest.
“I don’t usually,” he says. “But I...”
He curses under his breath when Clint snorts into his coffee cup, flicks a piece of bacon across the table at him.
“I’d like to work with you,” he says finally. “I told you, I... I’m attracted to Hawkeye. Professionally, I mean. It’s just a bonus that I’m attracted to Clint too, in... different ways. There are no frat rules at SHIELD; everyone’s expected to behave like adults, but I wouldn’t want you to feel pressured in any way. If you’re not comfortable with my being your handler you can request another one, or if you...”
He trails off, dropping his eyes to the sticky, formica tabletop, and a wave of sadness settles so heavily around his shoulders Clint can practically feel the backsplash.
“God you’re a good man,” he hears himself say softly, and Phil’s head snaps up, forehead crinkled as he stares.
That’s it, he realizes.
That’s why this is all so stunning, all so unexpected.
He’s spent his whole life around bad people, who didn’t care about him even when they should have. People who hurt him and abused him, neglected him or manipulated him, and yet here is this man who, despite it all, has remained calm and steadfast, sweet and open and curious and willing.
Clint kind of wants to marry him and keep him forever.
“You are a good man,” Phil argues insistently, holding his gaze. “You deserve this – to do what you’re good at with a team behind you, a safety net. I don’t want you to give that up if...”
“Hey, stop,” Clint says, cause god he doesn’t even want to think that maybe Phil’s reconsidering this, for any reason. “I told you, Nat and me were already thinking about coming in. We’re ready to do it, yeah, and you’re right, it would be really nice to have someone we trust watching our six, but Phil, I trust you.”
He pauses, swallows hard, running his fingers around the rim of his coffee cup.
“I can’t pretend,” he mumbles. “Can’t lie about it. I thought... I thought maybe it was really going somewhere with us, and I didn’t want to start building something amazing like that on a lie. So. Yeah.”
He puts his mug down, sits back a little, unable to meet Phil’s eyes.
“I want to kiss you.”
Clint’s mouth snaps shut so hard his teeth click. Phil is staring at him hard, a softness around the corners of his mouth that’s scary. He puts down his silverware and deliberately reaches across the table, brushes his fingers over Clint’s knuckles.
“I want to kiss you,” he says again, “And to sleep with you, and to wake up with you the next day. I want to keep dating you and doing that other thing, and I want to work with you.”
Clint chuckles, and it feels a little watery, but the relief is like a sunburst in his chest and he turns his hand over in Phil’s, lacing their fingers together and squeezing tight.
“Me too,” he says dopily, and then they’re both laughing softly to themselves and going back to their pancakes, trading sneaky, blushing looks across the table.
They do this, Clint realizes. He thinks of them as a possibility, as something that could happen, that could be good, and somehow forgets that they already are, that he’s living what he wants. He’s in a relationship with Phil, they talk about what they like and what they want and sometimes they even get around to doing those things. It’s not a potential or a possibility – it's reality, and he could be taking way more advantage of it.
‘Yeah,’ he thinks as he tests the tines of his fork with his teeth.
He wants that.
“Let’s go back mine,” he says, more abruptly than he means to, but very, very suddenly he’s all full up of this hot, crackling energy that wants to work itself out in half a dozen ways, most of them skin on skin.
Phil looks up from his plate with less shock than Clint expected, and far more anticipation, a wry smirk around the corners of his mouth.
“I’m still on-duty,” he says regretfully. “I have to recon with Sitwell and the rest of the team, organize the pull-out...”
“If you think your buddy Sitwell’s actually giving Natasha a recruitment speech right now I’ve got some sad news for you,” Clint chuckles, getting to his getting to his feet and tossing some bills down onto the table.
“He’s on duty too,” Phil blurts, and from the way his cheeks go pink Clint thinks he’s shocked.
Laughing, he presses a quickly kiss to his lips, tastes bacon and maple syrup, then grabs his hand and pulls him toward the doors.
“Come on,” he grumbles, pretending to be put-out. “I guess if one of the two of you’s gotta be the boss right now, I’m gonna have to give the pass to Nat. She’s got a head start on us anyway and I want to take my time with you.”
Phil just blinks at him and follows him back to the car.
The drive back to Clint’s hotel is quiet, but Phil keeps hold of his hand across the console, brushing his thumb across the back of Clint’s knuckles.
“I’m coming up,” he says when Nat answers his call, the reception crackly as the ride the elevator to the tenth floor. “I’m not waiting in the lobby.”
“We’re done anyway,” Natasha replies, smug tone softening her words. “Agent Sitwell provided me with some very satisfactory proposals.”
He hangs up before she can laugh at him, but not before he hears Sitwell yelp in the background.
Phil cocks an eyebrow but doesn’t ask, just follows Clint down the hall, apparently intent on dropping him off at the door. He can tell the guy still doesn’t believe that Nat had seduced his friend and fellow agent over briefings, which just makes his blank expression that much more hilarious when the door to their room opens before Clint can reach for the knob and Sitwell comes stumbling out, looking flushed as he adjusts his tie and tucks his shirt back into his waistband.
His shoes are both untied.
“Agent Sitwell,” Phil says, completely flat and without a hint of emotion.
“Agent Coulson,” Sitwell returns, and then he’s striding off down the hall toward the elevators like this was all planned and nothing crazy had happened at all.
Clint’s got to admire that in a man – Natasha usually leaves them unable to walk or form a coherent sentence when she’s done.
“I’m gonna say goodnight,” he says softly, turning to face Phil and running his fingertips down his arms from elbows to wrists. “I’ll start being a bad influence after I’ve signed my contract.”
Phil licks his lips, nods.
“I’ll be looking forward to it,” he says finally, turning his hands to lace their fingers together. “Are you heading back to New York or...”
“We’ll meet you at SHIELD headquarters tomorrow afternoon Agent Coulson,” Natasha murmurs, suddenly beside them in the doorway. “I’m looking forward to working with you, and with Agent Sitwell.”
“As am I,” Phil replies, gamely ignoring the fact that she’s standing there in nothing but a white hotel-robe, her hair wet. “Good night Clint. Natasha.”
And then he’s gone, striding off down the hallway after Sitwell, his shoulders squared like the agent that he is, already on the phone.
Clint smiles, and watches him go until he disappears into the elevators.
“Get in here Barton,” Natasha huffs, turning back into the apartment when he makes no move to leave the hallway on his own. “We have a lot to talk about.”
Locking down his computer, Phil glances at the clock and congratulates himself on getting the hell out of his office by two pm on a Saturday. It was supposed to be his weekend off, but the Paraguay thing went belly-up and he’d been called in to shuffle a few things while the Agent in Charge focused on getting his people into position for Plan C. Given how it could have gone two pm is gold-star material, but he’s still a bit miffed he’d been called in at all.
He’d had plans for this weekend, so Fury’s just going to have to accept the fact that he’s marked both Clint and himself as being on Level II downtime for the next three days.
Flagging down one of the junior agents assigned to the motorcade, he climbs into the backseat of the SUV that pulls up to collect him and digs out his phone, sending Clint a home-in-twenty text. They’d never really stopped seeing each other after that op in Marrakesh, but Phil had slowed things down a lot while he and Natasha had acclimated to SHIELD. To his pride and relief, it had only taken the two of them four months to test out of nearly every course Fury put them through, to pass every test. They’d been assigned to Phil’s direct supervision straight after, and Strike Team Delta had been unleashed and active ever since.
Still, he’d meant what he’d said to Clint that night when he’d finally learned who he really was. He didn’t want him to feel pressured or manipulated, didn’t want him to lose out on something that could be amazing for him just because of Phil.
So he’d waited.
Kind of anyway – they were still seeing each other, still kissing and touching and going for coffee, but...
But he’d wanted more, and so two months ago he’d decided to bite the bullet and asked Clint to move in with him. He’d been enthusiastic and eager in his agreement, but Phil’s chest still fills up with all kinds of warm and fuzzy feelings knowing that they share an apartment now, that they’re living together and officially dating.
He hasn’t said it yet, but he can’t fool himself into believing he’s not in love.
The junior agent drops him off and pulls away without a word, well trained in the discretionary practices of the motor-pool drivers. A love-sappy Agent Coulson will hardly be the worst they’ve seen if they’ve been on the job any amount of time, and besides, he’s still got a pretty good poker face even if Clint has managed to blow his ice-man front to smithereens.
He’s saved the necessity of reaching for his keys when Natasha lets herself out the front door, leaving it open for him behind her.
“Phil,” she greets, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek.
They’re a lot closer now than they were, and he’s thankful for that every day.
“Natasha,” he replies warmly, surprised but pleased to see her. “Been keeping Barton company?”
“Not exactly,” she says with a sly smirk, before flicking some imaginary dust from her knee. “But you’ve got good timing, as always – I need to get home and change. Agent Sitwell agreed to show me that new Indian place he discovered last week.”
Phil bites back a smile; Jasper and Natasha aren’t fooling anyone with their Agent Sitwell this and Agent Romanov that – they've been disappearing on little outings together ever since Clint and Natasha had signed their names to Sitwell’s recruitment roster. He’s happy for them, both of them, because they seem to be happy and to get what they need from each other, even if that means less facetime than Phil himself needs from a relationship.
“Have fun,” he says as she drops down the steps to the sidewalk. “Come for lunch tomorrow.”
“No promises,” she smirks, tossing him a sly grin over her shoulder.
A little thrill runs up Phil’s spine – what is she...
Somewhere inside the house he hears a muffled woof, and a smile breaks across his face, his whole body going relaxed and happy. So that’s what Natasha who Natasha had been hanging out with this afternoon. Stepping inside and closing the front door, he moves quickly through the house, taking off his shoes, hanging his jacket, and stashing his weapon and briefcase as he goes. He makes plenty of noise as he approaches the second bedroom that he still uses for a home-office, but Lucky is already whining and pawing at the door for him to open it.
The eager pup nearly tackles him to the floor.
“Hey Lucky,” Phil greets, scrubbing his hands over the pup’s sides, pushing and buffeting him affectionately as he gambols around Phil’s knees. “How’s my good boy?”
Lucky woofs, doggy-grin on his face, and Phil ruffles his fur, already feeling happier and more at-ease. The pup follows him into the hall and down to the bedroom, snuffling at the sheets while Phil changes clothes and batting his discarded socks across the floor. Shooing him back toward the kitchen, he grabs a bowl of popcorn and a bag of pup treats and installs them in the living room, turning on an old episode of Forensic Files so that he can focus on playing with his pup.
They wrestle and roughhouse around the floor for a while, the coffee table pushed safely out of the way, then play a game of fetch with Lucky’s favorite toy, the purple football Phil had first given him. They even practice some of the tricks Lucky’s learning, like rolling over, playing dead, and balancing a treat on his nose. Nearly two hours pass before he wears his pup out, and then Lucky clambers up onto the couch to flop down beside him with his head on Phil’s knee, panting and happy.
They’ve come a long way from where they’d first started, Phil muses, even further from where Clint had started on his own. He’s got a pair of ears now; soft, silky hound-style ears that flap like propeller blades when he shakes his head, and after a little conversation Phil had purchased a huge purple dog bed that sits next to his desk. Lucky likes to sack out on it when he’s doing his paperwork sometimes, and now he’s got plenty of toys to keep him occupied as well – balls and tug ropes and more stuffed animals than any pup should own.
What can he say, he likes to spoil Lucky as much as he likes to spoil Clint.
Tugging Lucky’s ear, which makes him whine and nuzzle into his hand for pets, Phil smiles and relaxes back onto the couch. Maybe in a few months he’ll think about getting Lucky a collar, something purple with a tag with his name on it. If he likes it, if he takes to it well then who knows, maybe in a few more he’ll think about getting Clint a ring.
Well... I didn't want it to end here. I didn't plan it to end here. But Clint, Phil, and Lucky all decided that this was the right place to end this chapter of their story. I may visit them again in the future, but for now they lived happily ever after <3