The honeymoon period ends. It’s abrupt and it’s brutal and, suddenly, Coulson’s at home in his apartment, on his own, and he’s wondering when Barton’s clothes began to outnumber his in the laundry basket. He’s not going to complain about it, though, given that Barton’s clothes usually end up in strange places; under the bed or hanging on the back of a kitchen chair or dangling off a light fixture.
It has been a far-from-hostile takeover.
Coulson’s at home, cooling his heels, because Barton’s undercover in South America and he isn’t due home for another week. While Coulson won’t deny that he misses Barton, he also won’t deny that his productivity has skyrocketed.
“If this is what not having a private life does, Coulson, we’ll have to consider re-assigning Barton more often.”
Coulson thinks that Hill is joking but he can never be sure.
It isn’t unreasonable to expect a few hours’ grace when Coulson arrives at work one morning to learn that Barton has returned, sunburned but smiling. He must have just arrived because he’s a little grubby and very tired-looking and Coulson can see a smudge of dirt on Barton’s cheek, and smudges of shadows under his eyes, as he unfolds himself from the couch in Coulson’s office with offers of debriefing. Within seconds of Coulson laying his hands on Barton’s upper arms, Fury has summoned them to his office.
“I got you a souvenir,” says Barton, as they walk along, hands not-touching, not-touching, not-touching even as they are given a wide berth by the few agents on the premises at this time of morning.
“If it’s a bobblehead, I decline,” says Coulson. He’s smiling.
Barton’s face falls. “Bobbleheads of South American dictators are really hard to come by, sir.”
Coulson raps his knuckles against the back of Barton’s hand. It is sufficient to say I missed you, too but the walk to Fury’s office is never long enough.
“Gentlemen, we have a situation.”
Coulson sits up straighter and Barton opens his mouth, to complain or to ask for an hour’s respite.
“It’s policy for the Avenger Initiative to be based in the same residence.” This is not news. “And yet, we note that Barton, in the past three months, has spent precisely two nights here.”
“I was just in-“
“Discounting those nights when he was in the field.”
Coulson really has no idea how to respond. He and Barton are sort of leaning into one another, mirroring each other’s head tilt and crossing of legs. Fury looks from one to the other and mutters something under his breath that might be this is hopeless.
“Barton, we’re revoking your field status and grounding you-“
Coulson sits forward and puts a restraining hand on Barton’s forearm as Barton, unsurprisingly, objects with forceful and vocal vigour. “I’m not twelve, Director Fury.”
Fury holds up a hand and it’s like he’s found Barton’s mute button. “I hadn’t finished, Specialist. We’re grounding you unless you commit to spending your nights in the Mansion like the rest of your team.”
To Fury’s credit, he doesn’t look like he’s enjoying this even though Coulson feels his own face fall. His fingers clench on Barton’s arm, like a warning, and then he withdraws. “Of course, sir.”
Coulson continues. “And there’ll be no objection if I take up the residence assigned to me within the Mansion?”
“Coulson, that offer was made two years ago.”
“And the rooms are still empty, are they not?” says Coulson and he smiles, knowing his expression is bland and non-threatening (knowing that these two men, at least, can interpret it as stern and unyielding). “In any case, it’ll be useful to be close to my office.” He pauses. “For emergencies, and the like.”
He does not glance at Barton, though the temptation is strong, and he just hopes that Barton understands what he is not saying (don’t make me regret this and it is not our choice to co-habit with superheroes but we are heroes, too).
“What’s the catch?”
Coulson is sure he has misheard. “Catch, sir?”
Fury waves a hand, impatiently. “You were rather vehement in your refusal two years ago.”
“As long as it is understood that Barton will be sharing my residence, there is no catch.” Coulson knows full well that Fury is willing to overlook any irregularities about this arrangement. He knows that the other SHIELD agents assigned to the Avenger Mansion will be delighted; they’ll be dancing in the streets of Manhattan tonight. Coulson knows what is said, and it is true: Phil Coulson is the only agent who can keep the Avengers battened down. They listen to him. Even Tony Stark listens to him (on occasion).
What is more, and what is more valuable, is that the Avengers trust him. He just never wanted to live with them.
“Will that be all, sir?”
Fury smiles. The bastard smiles like this was his intention all along. “If you need help moving in, Coulson, I’m sure Thor would be happy to help.”
They’re walking away, now, and along the corridor to Coulson’s office and he’s seething, just a little, but he’s helped by Barton’s voice in his ear, too quiet for anyone else to hear, that was so hot, sir, and if Coulson didn’t have such strict rules about fucking in his office, there’s no telling where Barton would stop.
He has barely sat down at his desk, having ushered Barton off to take a goddamned shower and have a rest before hitting the range for the day, when Tony Stark strolls in.
“A few ground rules, Coulson.” His grin sets Coulson’s teeth on edge. “Don’t touch the communal TiVo, if you break it, you bought it, no fucking on the goddamned dining room table and we’re never, ever instituting a naughty step.”
He turns on his heel and walks away, leaving Coulson to put his head in his hands and to come to the conclusion that he must love Clint Barton very much indeed.