As the dust following SHIELD's collapse settled, it was like their once chaotic lives followed suit: Barnes was eventually found and brought back to the tower, Fury went underground with Maria Hill in tow and started to rebuild SHIELD from the ground up, and certain facts that everyone had been lead to believe were true were revealed to have been big fat lies. Namely, the fact that Phil Coulson was alive and well. The first time Natasha saw him, she slapped Phil across the face and then didn't talk to him for weeks.
Clint knew how she felt. For months, he had nightmares where Phil either died or just up and left again. It was a total kick in the nuts to have a nightmare like that and then stumble into the kitchen and see Phil sitting at the table guarding his mug coffee from a zombiefied Tony Stark. He heard all of Phil's explanations many times over, and he could appreciate that each one made an appalling amount of sense, but all the same it was a long time before Clint was pleased to hear that voice back in his ear during a battle.
So it probably wouldn't have surprised anyone to hear that it took weeks, months, before anything even slightly resembling normalcy was back in their lives. Gradually, though, Clint stopped waiting for the axe to fall. He got to know Bucky and realized that the guy had a good sense of humor (poor Steve just looked torn between delight and despair the first time Tony and Bucky started snarking at each other). He forgave Phil. They were all moving on together, as much as that made their collective lives sound like a bad after-school special.
And it was right around that time that Clint noticed something particularly troubling. People were giving him hints again. Pointed hints. But it wasn't until Tony threw himself down onto the couch beside Clint, stuck his feet up on the coffee table, and raised his eyebrows at Clint that he realized he was well and truly fucked. Because if even Tony had noticed - Tony, who had let Steve and Bucky circle him for months like starving puppies gagging to stake their territory before he finally clued in that they actually wanted him - then it meant that Clint had been about as subtle as a repulsor blast to the face.
He ignored the look for as long as he could, because frankly by this point he was sick of people poking their noses into his relationship. He only lasted ten minutes before he couldn't take it anymore and bowed to the inevitable, saying, "Can I help you with something, Stark?"
"Don't last-name me just because you're mad people are bugging you about breaking Agent's heart."
"I'm not breaking anyone's heart," Clint said, turning his head back to the television.
"That's not what Natasha tells me."
"Natasha's a goddamn liar."
"That's true, but I have the feeling she's being honest about this." Tony shifted, pulling his feet onto the couch and tucking his toes under Clint's thigh. Clint shot him a dirty look, which Tony ignored as he said, "So what is it? You think you don't deserve him or you're not interested or something else?"
"You're trying to talk to me about insecurity issues? That's rich."
"Fuck you," Tony said mildly. "I know you're interested because you just about swallowed your own tongue when Natasha tried to introduce Agent to that friend of hers. Jealously is not a good look on you." He stroked his chin in a way that was eerily reminiscent of an evil mastermind straight out of a dorky seventies video.
"Everyone thinks they know how I feel," Clint said. It came out a lot more bitter than he intended.
Something terrifyingly close to understanding slid across Tony's face. "I see."
"No you don't."
"Uh, yeah I do."
"No, you don't," Clint said forcefully. He went to stand up and Tony took a deep breath.
Those two words stopped Clint cold. He turned to look down at Tony and said, "You?" with far more scorn than was appropriate. Tony's eyes went a little dark, his lips thinning out, but he didn't get up and storm away like he probably should have. He met Clint's gaze squarely.
"You're upset, so I'll let that one slide," he said calmly. "And yes. Me. Tony Stark is asexual. Congratulations, you are the seventh person ever to learn this about me."
"Who else knows?" Clint asked, sinking back down.
"Besides you, Pepper, Rhodey, the real Jarvis, my Aunt Peggy, Steve and Bucky."
That made sense. That was basically a list of the most important people in Tony's life. Still. Clint squinted at him. "But you're a slut."
"Now who's last-naming?"
"You just called me a slut," Tony pointed out.
"A slut in the very best way."
Tony's mouth twitched, this time with humor. "I'll have you know that a good portion of my reputation, probably at least 70% of it, is nothing more than unsubstantiated rumors. People come home with me; they expect to be shown a good time. No one wants to leave and end up being known as the only one who didn't." He shrugged one shoulder. "Makes it seem like the fault lies with them, instead of me."
"That's pretty smart," Clint said slowly.
"I do have my moments."
"But you do..." He trailed off and made a limp motion with his hand.
"God, you are so politically incorrect it's no wonder Fury doesn't want you around the press."
Clint glared. "You said 70%! That means the other 30% of the time..."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Yes. The other 30% of the time, I have sex."
"Then how can you be asexual?"
"Not everyone who is ace hates sex," Tony said patiently, sounding like he'd had this conversation before. "Just because I'm not physically attracted to people doesn't mean I can't enjoy sex. Orgasms happen to be fun and pleasurable, but I don't need it. If I never had sex again, I'd be okay." He shrugged again. "When I'm with someone like Bucky and Steve, who really love sex, then I'm okay with that too."
The only thing that Clint could think of to say was, "You're with two super soldiers. I can't believe you're not attracted to them."
"I can tell they're attractive, but I'm not attracted to anyone. It doesn't matter what they look like or how smart they are. It's never going to happen." Tony didn't sound very happy about that. Suddenly, Clint saw those months of Bucky and Steve flirting relentlessly in a new light. How much of that flirting had gone straight over Tony's head? Because Tony loved flirting, but apparently he only meant it like 30% of the time. Those were pretty terrible odds.
He hunched his shoulders. "Thanks for sharing, but I'm not sure what any of this has to do with me and Phil."
"I think you do," Tony said. "Ever heard of aromanticism?"
Clint flinched at the word. "No."
"You're a shit liar. It's amazing SHIELD ever let you go undercover."
"I'll have you know I am a fantastic liar."
"Sure you are," Tony said, rolling his eyes. "Now maybe this is just me, but I'm going to throw a wild guess at you and say you're aromantic so you're not in love with Agent, but you're attracted to him and you love him so much it hurts and you don't know if that's enough, but you don't think it is so you don't want to say anything and get his hopes and your own hopes up only for it to end in a tragedy befitting a soap opera."
"How do you breathe during sentences that long?" Clint asked, trying to keep his voice light to cover the way his heart had started to hammer in his chest.
"Did Natasha tell you?"
Tony shook his head. "She may have alluded to some things, but I came to the conclusion myself. It kinda made sense once I put it all together. She did, however, threaten to trap my head between her thighs until I agreed to come and talk to you."
"Most guys would enjoy that," Clint couldn't resist pointing out.
"Most guys haven't watched Natasha suffocate people to death with just her thighs. That level of fear has nothing to do with me being ace and everything to do with wanting to live to see tomorrow, especially when Bucky's not around to pry her off."
Clint had to give him that one.
"I think you should let Agent decide if that's enough," Tony said, very gently.
"It's not that easy."
"You think?" Tony's tone turned a little sarcastic. "Clearly I have no idea. It must've been easy for me to tell the two hottest men in the world that I wasn't attracted to them. It took weeks before Steve would touch me because he was convinced that I didn't really want it and was forcing myself to be with them. And it was even longer before Bucky would fuck me because - "
Tony smirked. "Point is, these kinds of talks are never easy. But if you don't talk to Agent, sooner or later he's going to find someone who is willing to talk to him. I don't really want to see you standing on the sidelines when that happens." He poked Clint in the thigh with his toes.
"I can't believe you're giving me relationship advice," Clint muttered.
"Would you rather I brought Natasha in? Because I can. She can trap you between her thighs while I get Agent, and then you'll have no choice but to talk to him."
"You're an evil man, Tony Stark."
Clint went quiet for a moment, and surprisingly Tony remained silent too, giving him the chance to think. He'd suspected - known, really, if he was being honest - that he was aromantic for a while now. Growing up, he'd never had a crush on anyone. He'd never felt any of the things that romance movies and books said you were supposed to. He had plenty of one-night stands, sure, but no one he cared about keeping around. And even Phil was different: Clint still didn't feel all gooey or mushy towards him, but Phil was one of his best friends and he was one of the only people Clint could trust and rely on and he was alive, and Clint wanted to be with him in any way that he could. He just didn't know if that counted for enough.
"I'm scared," he said softly, finally. But even in spite of his fear, there was something uncoiling in his chest. Something that had been wound up in a knot for a very, very long time.
Tony sat up, putting his feet down, and wrapped an arm around Clint's shoulders. "I was too. It helped that I told Bucky to sit on me and not let me up until we were done talking. If you don't want Natasha, do you want to borrow him for this conversation?"
Clint couldn't help laughing. "No, I think I'll be okay."
"Just checking. I won't even charge you to borrow him."
"You're an idiot." Clint shoved him away. He was surprised to realize how much lighter he felt now just knowing that Tony was asexual. Thinking that everyone else in the tower was either gay or straight had been kind of lonely. It made him wonder what he wasn't seeing, or what the others were choosing to keep private. And it also made him grasp just how much Tony was trusting him right now.
He glanced sideways at Tony. "Thanks, man. I appreciate it."
"You're welcome. Just keep this little chat between us and all that," Tony said with a wave of his hand. "I would hate for my reputation to suffer a blow." He was smiling, but his jaw had a little tic that belied how hard this had been for him.
"Your secret is safe with me," Clint said, and he meant it. He sighed. "I guess this means I actually have to go talk to Phil now, doesn't it?"
"If you want to. You don't have to. You know that, right? If you don't want to act on this, Katniss, just say the word and I'll get everyone to back off." Tony was completely serious. "Not everyone wants to be with someone. You can love Agent and not want to be with him like that, and that's fine. I know I came in here assuming you did want to be with him, but if you don't -"
"Chill." Clint patted his knee. "I do."
Tony eyed him for a moment, as though trying to suss out whether Clint was serious, before nodding. "And you know that compromise is a thing?"
"Not coming from you I don't, Mr. I-only-drink-coffee-that-costs-$100-a-pound."
"I don't drink substandard coffee," Tony said. "But I do. Compromise, I mean. Not that sex is a compromise for me, but... take off your shirt."
"What?" Clint's eyebrows shot up.
"I want to show you something."
"Something that involves losing my shirt?"
"Just do it."
Clint sighed and stripped off his shirt, because why not? He wasn't sure what he was expecting, but it definitely wasn't Tony's hands on his upper shoulders. He tensed up, but only for a few seconds because it turned out that Tony was capable of giving fantastic massages. He couldn't bite back the groan that escaped when a particularly tense knot in his shoulder gave way under just the right amount of pressure.
"Compromise," Tony said triumphantly, still rubbing. "Bucky, Steve and I all took massage classes. It's a way we can be intimate with each other without, you know."
"Getting covered in fluids?" Clint said, eyes closed in bliss.
"Hey, you're the one who wanted me half naked."
It was Tony's turn to sigh. "I just wanted to prove that there are ways you can make this work for everyone. Not all of the work has to be on your side, that's all." He dug his thumbs into the back of Clint's neck.
"Oh yeah," Clint hissed, the tension rolling out of him. "I hadn't thought about it like that."
"I know. I didn't either," Tony admitted. "But it works. And it helps. Having other things we can do, I mean. Sometimes if I don't feel like having sex, I'll just sit back and watch Bucky and Steve go at each other -"
"For the love of god," Clint said, bolting to his feet. "Stop touching me while talking about your boyfriends having sex!"
Tony smirked up at him. "Fair's fair, but you're tired of me? Fine. I've got you covered. JARVIS," he sang out. "Send Agent in, please."
"What?" Clint squeaked. "Tony! No!"
It was too late. The elevator rumbled to a stop less than twenty seconds later. Phil stepped out just in time to see a half-naked Clint making for the door and Tony literally tackling him the floor. He crossed his arms and watched their tussle for about a minute before he pointedly cleared his throat and raised both eyebrows. Recognizing his 'I am going to punish you with mountains of paperwork face', Tony tripped Clint again and then jumped up.
"Steve's waiting for me bye!" he said in a rush, and ran for the elevator.
"Asshole!" Clint yelled after him. Tony just blew him a kiss right before the doors shut. Clint hoped that this time, Steve sat on him.
"That was appalling," Phil said. "You got beaten by a civilian."
"He used his pointy elbows," Clint whined, dramatically rubbing his stomach.
Phil tried not to smile. "I'll be sure to include pointy elbows as a weapon of mass destruction in my future reports," he said dryly. "JARVIS said you wanted to speak to me?"
"I did. I do." But now that Phil was actually in the room, Clint's mind had gone blank. He slowly got up from the floor, watching as Phil came over and took a seat on the couch. He looked up at Clint calmly, adopting that familiar 'I will wait until you find the words to say what you need to say because I'm awesome like that' face. Phil had a lot of faces, and it was fair to say that Clint had memorized most of them.
He pulled his shirt back on and sat down on the couch beside Phil, suddenly hyper aware of the miniscule amount of space between them. If this were a romantic movie, this would be the moment where he would put an arm around Phil's shoulders or take Phil's hand or do something to let Phil know he was interested. Too bad life wasn't that easy.
Finally, after the silence had dragged on for nearly five minutes, Phil said, "Clint -"
"I don't want you to date anyone," Clint blurted out, and then could have slapped himself for what was quite possibly the least smooth thing he'd ever said. Thank god that Tony was gone, or Clint would never live that down.
Both of Phil's eyebrows rose, but all he said was a very careful, "Okay."
"And it's not because I want to date you. I don't even know if I can date you. But I hate seeing you with other people," Clint confessed to the floor, because he didn't have the nerve to look at Phil's face again. "I'm scared you'll find someone that you like more than me and that I won't be important to you anymore."
There was a pause. Then Phil said, "You'll always be important to me, Clint."
"But I want to be the most important," Clint said, well aware that he was on the verge of whining. "And I know that's stupid and selfish because I can't fulfill your needs, but that's how I feel."
"How do you know?"
Clint frowned, confused. "What do you mean? How do I know what?"
"How do you know you can't fulfill my needs?"
"Because I don't do romance." The word 'aromantic' was at the back of his throat, but he couldn't force it out. Not yet, anyway. "I don't - I don't fall in love with people. I don't get crushes. I'm a freak. I'll never feel that way about anyone. It's just not in me. You deserve better than that."
"Don't tell me what I do or don't deserve," Phil said mildly. "I think I could do a lot worse than a sweet, sexy guy who has been by my side for the past ten years, who was so scared he was crying the first day we met, but who also took my hand and trusted me enough to let me bring him into a whole new world."
"I was crying because you shot me," Clint said, because he felt it needed to be said.
The amused smile on Phil's face suggested he wasn't falling for that, but he did Clint's self esteem a favor by not arguing. "The truth is, I haven't seriously dated anyone in a long time. Being a SHIELD agent, and now the handler for the Avengers, consumed my life. I don't even know what my needs are anymore. So I don't know if you would be able to fill them or not."
Clint nodded, trying to swallow his disappointment. He'd know it would end up like this -
"But I feel like we owe it to ourselves to find out."
"Are you serious?" Clint said, stunned.
"Clint, you're a good person," Phil said, very gently. He set his open hand on the couch between them, silently asking if that was okay. And like every other time in his life that Phil had asked for his hand, Clint gave it to him. Phil's hand was warm and solid and dry, and Clint held on very tightly.
"I can't fall in love with you," he whispered.
"But you love me."
And Clint didn't know how Phil could say that so confidently, but it was the truth. He nodded helplessly.
"I love you too."
"It's not the same."
"It doesn't have to be the same." Phil lifted their hands, holding them to his cheek. He nuzzled the back of Clint's hand and sighed. "Just the fact that you're even here, talking to me, means more than I put into words. Thank you, Clint."
Clint snorted. "I should be the one thanking you," he pointed out. He couldn't believe he was sitting here holding Phil's hand. Like it had been that easy. Like all this time, all he had to do was open up his mouth and ask for what he wanted.
He should have known. Phil had never disappointed him, not once in all the time they'd known each other.
"Hardly," Phil said. "And I don't ever want to hear you call yourself a freak again. There's nothing wrong with you. You love in a different way, that's all, but that doesn't mean I value your love any less."
"How are you so perfect?" Clint asked. He wasn't sure he agreed with Phil's assessment of whether or not he was a freak, but he recognized the stubborn tilt to Phil's mouth. This was not the time or place to start an argument, and that's what it would lead to if Clint tried to say otherwise. Phil could say what he wanted about Steve, but he was every bit as stubborn.
Phil laughed. "If that's what you think of me, prepare to be disillusioned now that we're dating." He paused. "Or whatever you're comfortable calling it."
Clint thought about it. "Dating is okay. But I'm not sure about, like, candlelit dinners and walks in the snow and all that gooey, mushy stuff." His heart rate quickened in a not-so-good way just thinking about it.
"Is this okay?" Phil squeezed his hand.
"What about kissing?"
"Not right now," Clint said, half-afraid he'd be disappointing Phil. "I like it during sex, but I never really saw the point the rest of the time. Is that... okay?"
It was Phil's turn to think about it. "I like kissing, but this is new to both of us. I think it's fair to say we'll put kissing on the back-burner for now and come back to it later. Deal?"
"Deal," Clint said, unable to keep the smile off his face. "Can I, um. Is hugging okay?"
"Always." Phil pulled him, wrapping his arm around Clint, never once letting go of Clint's hand. Clint hugged back as tightly as he dared, setting his forehead on Phil's shoulder. He still couldn't wrap his mind around the fact that he could have this now whenever he wanted. And he didn't have to worry about anyone else taking it away. He squeezed his eyes shut and held on just a little bit tighter.
Being able to openly hold Phil's hand at dinner that night was totally worth the smug looks that Clint got from Tony and Natasha.