Everyone believed that Phil Coulson was always in control, never angry, temper ever in check. The man appeared to be calm in even the most upsetting situations, quietly handling whatever life threw at him. And it was a decent assumption given the fact that Phil was always pulled together, his voice level and measured even when Tony was destroying his Malibu beach house or Thor was drinking his way through bars in Manhattan or the Hulk decided that the swings in the park looked like fun. It was part of his persona, this quietly competent man who could, and did, deal with almost everything. So, the reasoning went, Phil must always be like that, when provoked or challenged or even when pushed to his limits by a significant other who could be, at times, completely oblivious to the way his actions might look to everyone else.
So it came as a big surprise to the other Avengers when Phil and Clint stopped talking to each other, Clint moving back into his empty single room with nothing but the clothes on his back and a new toothbrush he'd left in the bathroom drawer. Oh, it was all so civilized – Phil never so much as blinked at Clint during briefings or missed a movie night – they just sat on opposite sides of the couch and steadfastly ignored each other; Phil was, of course, much more successful at being his normal self despite the sudden loss of half his identity. Clint was more of a pouter, slinking into this corner and pretending Phil wasn't there; all the banter and jokes couldn't hide that they were both hurting, however, and everyone walked on eggshells around them until Natasha decided to take matters into her own hands.
Natasha, it seemed, had started to believe that there could be happy endings after Clint and Phil had risen to the occasion, decided to face up to their feeling and make a stab at this relationship thing. When they'd clicked so beautifully, just fallen into place as is they'd always been halves of a whole, so much stronger and better and fulfilled as a unit instead of singles, well, that had been the final piece of evidence for her that it was possible to make a life for herself beyond SHIELD and ops and a constant level of distrust. So this bump in the road – that's what Steve called it and Bruce had agreed – needed to be fixed, in her estimation, and she was the best woman for the job, the only one capable of knocking their heads together to get them to see reason.
First step was to backtrack and learn what had gone wrong; it didn't take long for her to find the same evidence Phil had seen of Clint having lunch with Martin from HR, meeting him in the cafeteria, going to his office in the middle of the afternoon when Phil was in meetings with Fury, even inviting the young, very handsome agent to spar with him in the Tower gym. It wouldn't take much, she realized, for Phil to believe that Clint was interested in the other man. Despite not being a field agent, Martin maintained his body well, a lean chest and tight abs often on display when he swam laps in the pool; he had a wicked sense of humor, loved to watch really bad science fiction movies, and had read all of George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice and would wax poetic about Jon Snow's parentage for hours without taking a break. In other words, he was certainly someone Clint would be attracted to. Phil couldn't help but notice that Clint was clearly spending more time in the younger man's company, and therein lay the problem. Clint, Natasha knew, was so damn attached to Phil that there was no way he'd cheat on the man; she'd never seen anyone so in love. Clint actually wore Phil's shirts when he was away, drank Phil's favorite tea, even started keeping those nasty processed donuts around the kitchen for Phil. No, Clint might find Martin entertaining, maybe even call him a friend – and Clint damn well deserved to have more friends in his life – but there had to be more to the meetings than that, otherwise Clint would have invited Phil or Tony or Steve or Bruce to join them, maybe even have asked Martin over to the Tower for movies-so-bad-they're-funny night.
But Phil? Well, if there was one Achilles' heel of Philip J. Coulson, it was his worry that Clint would wise up and leave him for a younger model. For some reason, Phil thought he wasn't a great catch, that his male patterned baldness, his desk job, and his age meant he wasn't attractive; Natasha had never figured this one out because she considered Phil's lethal competence, his ability to take care of everyone around him, and his unstinting loyalty to his people the most admirable traits in a mate. And, she knew that Clint found Phil beyond sexy, that her friend adored Phil's body to a point of distraction. But somehow, Phil, badass trained in lethal use of over 100 weapons, who had once killed a man with a pencil before the scum could hurt a little girl (through the eye, straight to the brain), black belt in four different marital arts and familiar with over 20 others, couldn't see that Clint would gladly fall on a grenade for him.
It took all of two days to find the answer and another day to make sure that Phil 'accidentally' ran across the information and one more to get Clint and Phil in the same location under a pretense that worked for both of them. She certainly hoped that Phil felt suitably chastised about his lack of belief in himself, and she personally knew that Clint was going to get a smack up the side of his head for his stupidity in not reassuring Phil. Then, she left it all up to them … although she reserved the right to kick their asses if they didn't work it out to her liking.
Phil looked at the paperwork, each line meticulously filled out in Clint's cramped handwriting, paragraphs typed on a computer (Clint hated the new Windows 8, but he'd used it) and the obvious editing that had gone into what he'd supplied. All of those things Clint detested, the worst part of SHIELD, he'd say, and Phil knew he was an idiot, an aging man full of self-doubt and worry, who had almost lost the best thing in his life because of his own lack of faith. He'd read it all a dozen times, thought long and hard about the time and effort Clint had gone to in order to surprise him, replayed the conversation they'd had where Phil had all but given Clint his blessing to leave him. All he could see in his mind's eye was the way Clint's face shuttered closed, his eyes hardening to hide the hurt, the firm press of his lips to keep from speaking, and the tension that froze in his shoulders. No, idiot didn't do it justice; Phil had been an ass and a half, a bastard for shoving the one thing he knew would hurt Clint right into his heart – the suggestion that Phil didn't want him anymore.
"Listen, Clint, we agreed that if either of us wanted to … you know … move on, we'd handle this like adults and not let it destroy our working relationship ….."
What a stupid ass way to say that he believed Clint was in love with someone else; only after he saw the pain flash in Clint's eyes did he realize that Clint thought Phil was the one leaving. And even then, Phil had taken the coward's way out and not set him straight.
"Sure, yeah, no problem. I'll just take my stuff and go. You have a good life, okay?"
That was the last thing Clint had said to him as he'd walked out of their apartment, and Phil had let him go, so sure Clint would feel relieved that he had an out, that he could go be with Martin now without worrying about Phil being alone. That would be better, right?
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Clint stood in the doorway, stiff and formal, as if he was unwilling to step any further into the room than he had to, but not wanting to make an issue of how uncomfortable he was in Phil's presence. "Tasha says there's a mission briefing?"
For a split second, Phil was at a lost for what to say, his thoughts tumbling into an avalanche of emotion, his need to go back to the way they'd been first and foremost. Then the words registered, the weight seemed to lift, just a little, and he made a mental note to remind himself to buy her season tickets to the ballet next year.
"Close the door, come in and sit down, Clint." He was damn well not going to mess this up a second time, not after Natasha had done this for him. Clint kept his defenses up as he sat, spine straight, hand resting lightly on his knees, ready to bolt at any moment; Phil hadn't seen him like this for years, not since their early times together, when no one else had trusted Clint or wanted to work with him. His heart contracted at the thought that he was the reason for Clint's angst.
"Sir?" Clint asked when Phil didn't immediately begin, a hint of caring in his voice that let Phil know the harsh distance was an act, let him know he had a chance.
"A week ago last Tuesday, I had my one year physical evaluation." Best to start there, let Clint know what his mindset was, treat this like a sitrep. "Afterwards, I went to the Tower to talk to you and saw you and Martin Henderson sparring. In the days that followed, I noted the number of times you met with him, both in his office and at various places around the base. As you know, medical takes up to a week to process tests; on Wednesday of this week, I received the results. That afternoon, I saw you and Martin in the cafeteria for mac & cheese day, laughing about something, and I made the assumption that you were interested in perusing a relationship with him, that you were going to tell me soon and that it would be best if I let you go so you could be with him."
"Phil." Clint's whole demeanor changed; he leaned forward, blue-grey eyes filled with concern, no longer Hawkeye reporting for duty to his handler, but Clint, Phil's lover, worried and upset. "What did they say? About your fitness for field duty?"
And just like that, it was all behind them. Clint knew, had figured it out in seconds, Phil's greatest fear was that he'd end up stranded behind this damn desk as others, younger, more agile, smarter, took his place. In a blink, Clint was up and sitting on the desk, trapping Phil against the back of his chair with muscular arms.
"You think I don't worry about it? That you'll end up having to take care of me? 'Cause one of these days I'm going to take the fall and, if I'm lucky, I'll blow out my knee or knock my brain around enough to throw off my aim; if I'm not, I could end up in a bed somewhere, feeding tubes and ventilators or a paraplegic and I won't even know who you are." Clint stroked his fingers down the side of Phil's face. "I'm not like the others and neither are you. We're plain old human, and we're going to grow old and have to stop playing hero one day. Maybe tomorrow. I just know that when I think about the future, I imagine the two of us, one of those couples that finishes each other sentences and talks about everything we can't eat anymore. You'll be arguing in Washington or working on top secret SHIELD plans, I'll be training new recruits, giving them a hard time, and they'll spread rumors that we're robots who are never going to die and leave them alone."
Phil kissed him then, dragging Clint's face down to his with both hands, reminded once again just how amazing he was, how he was so much more than a trigger finger and perfect aim, how much he could see right into the heart of the matter and make it all seem so simple. And it was simple, just lips across lips, a light touch that was slow and easy, but it was also the most complex thing Phil had ever done, this sharing with another every nook and cranny of himself, all the strength and the caring and the doubts and the idiocy that tumbled through his mind on a daily basis. He was laid bare, the ultimate risk with the greatest payoff ever, the unconditional love of another human being.
"I'm never going to be Director," was the first think Phil said when the kiss ended. "That's a shit job."
"They won't offer it to you. The Council's scared you'll kill them in their sleep." Clint grinned back. "And, just for your information, I plan to let Tony fund our retirement by buying us an island in the South Seas compete with personal jet and servants."
"I can live with that." Phil leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. "I may never be 100% again. They think the trauma to the lung will mean diminished stamina and the scarring leaves me with a slight loss of mobility. I'm cleared only for minor field duty, nothing above a level three."
"Well, I know they're wrong about the stamina," Clint wiggled his eyebrows and got a smile out of the joke. "And you know Tony won't stop until he's consulted all the top doctors in the field and Thor will want to drag you to Asgard to drink some mead, both of which are okay with me, but if Bruce asks you to be a guinea pig for a science experiment, I think we draw the line there, don't you?"
"I think, maybe, we need to realistically accept that I might be doing this," he spread his hands out to encompass the paperwork on his desk, "for the foreseeable future."
"Have I mentioned that long paragraphs of saying nothing at all turns me on? How sexy I find men who can, in triplicate, fill in blanks with tiny little letters? Or that I use the thought of you writing all over my body with your honest-to-god ink pen to jack off to when I'm away on long missions?" Clint's voice grew huskier as he spoke, his eyes darkening with passion. "Philip J. Coulson, I don't care about your job or your hairline or how old you are. I love you. That is all. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you and no one … no one … who will take me away from you unless they drag me kicking and screaming, and then I know you'll come get me. Period."
"Clint. This is why I love you so damn much that it hurts." Phil's heart was settling into the sweetest spot of contentment, a place that made everything look possible. He tugged Clint off the desk and onto his lap so he could take his time kissing him senseless and following every curve of his body with his hands. "Screw the rules. We're doing this here."
"Yes, sir." Clint agreed, tilting his head down to deepen the kiss.
Phil signed the paperwork that very afternoon, noting that Martin had been Coulson approved thorough, the legality ironclad, and Pepper, who'd been involved all along, filed it for them the next day. Clint had given Phil the most precious thing he could – complete legal rights to Clint Francis Barton. No matter where in the world they were or what the local laws, Philip J. Coulson had the power of attorney to act as Clint's legal voice. Gay married couples could still cross state or country borders and suddenly be unable to have a say at a hospital or in court; now, they were assured that Phil could make any and all decisions regarding Clint and, when Phil completed his own set of paperwork, Clint could do the same for him. If Clint went down in Peru and needed medical care, there would be no arguments to keep Phil away from his bedside. Marriage was something they'd think about later, both of them still too new to the "being in a long term relationship that was working" thing. If Phil had any remaining doubts about Clint's feelings for him, the trust he was placing in Phil blew them all away. Come hell or high water, old age or monster of the week, they were committed. Of course, they always had been. They were just too stubborn to notice.
Tony didn't say a word when Phil ordered old fashioned ink and pens to be delivered to the Tower. Hell, the man still used paper, so it made perfect sense that Phil would use an old-fashioned writing implement. And if Clint sometimes had smudges on his skin, well, that came from have a lover who was a paper pusher. Didn't it?