1. Bathing Together
It’s sleeting as Clint jogs away from his nest. He dismantles as he goes, dropping the bits and pieces into trashcans and gutters for seventeen blocks before tossing the stock into the river as he crosses a bridge. Nine more blocks, and he’s at the safehouse. His fingers are tingling, and he shivers as he takes off his coat and gets sleet down his collar for his trouble.
“Shower’s running,” Coulson says in greeting, removing Clint’s hat and scarf when Clint pauses to stretch his hands.
“Four hours in the cold, and it starts to come down when I’m leaving? Where’s the fairness in that?”
Coulson takes Clint’s hands in his, rubbing warmth back into them for a moment before letting go and pointing towards the minuscule bathroom. “Shower’s running hot as it’ll go. Check yourself for frost bite.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Clint mutters, still shivering as he turns away. The bathroom’s overheated and steamy. Clint sighs with relief as he peels out of his uniform and boots and ducks under the spray. His teeth start to chatter as soon as he gets under, and he swears because he knows his body and if his teeth are chattering, he’s about to curl into a ball of cold muscles and agony.
“Coming in,” Coulson says, and he slips behind Clint, thumbs immediately pressing into the spot just to the left of Clint’s spine where his tension always starts. Clint opens his mouth to say he’s fine, and doesn’t Coulson understand the concept of personal space, but Coulson hits Clint’s tension knot just right, and it’s all Clint can do to keep his knees from buckling.
He presses his hands against the wall under the showerhead and let’s Coulson work him over like a show horse, massaging his back and his legs, and then turning Clint around to work on his arms and shoulders from the front, finishing by working Clint’s neck back and forth and checking his ears for frost bite as Clint sinks into a pleasant half-sleep state, eyes unfocused and half-closed as Coulson presses his fingers into the base of Clint’s neck and takes half a step closer to share the spray.
“You do this for all your agents?” Clint asks.
“No,” Coulson replies like it’s a completely normal conversation.
Clint wonders if it means something. Coulson is totally the stick-in-the-ass agent who thinks this is a necessary part of making sure Clint keeps himself together on the op, but Clint’s also been on the end of Coulson’s perfunctory treatment before, and the way his hands are moving feels different. It feels good.
“Better?” Coulson asks, taking away his hands and ducking under the spray to wet down his hair.
“Yeah,” Clint replies, snapping out of his stupor and stretching. “Full-service treatment tonight, huh?”
“It was necessary.” Coulson steps out of the shower and closes the curtain behind him. “Stay in another five minutes. Don’t undo all my hard work.”
“Yes, Sir,” Clint replies, closing his eyes under the spray.
2. Feeding/Cooking for One Another
There are sweats and thick woolen socks on the toilet when Clint steps out of the shower. He dries off as fast as he can and pulls everything on, sighing in relief when the heat still radiating from the shower gets trapped under his clothes. When he steps out of the bathroom, Coulson is waiting with a warm cup of something that smells like booze.
“Hot Toddy,” Coulson says before he can ask. “Medicinal.”
“Sure,” Clint agrees. He knows a victory drink when it’s steaming in his hand. He takes a slow sip, raising his eyebrows when the taste of really good brandy slides into his mouth. “You pack this in yourself?”
“Yeah,” Coulson says.
Clint waits for more. “Do I get more than one?”
Clint laughs at that. “All right.” He takes another sip of his toddy and walks into the kitchen. It’s marginally larger than the bathroom and almost as warm, courtesy of the stove and oven being on. “The bread go in?”
“An hour ago, like you said to.”
“Great.” Clint puts down his drink and lifts the lid on the pot. The stew is simmering, fragrant with spices. Clint picks up the wooden spoon on the stovetop and stirs the stew before tasting the broth. “You like more pepper or less pepper?”
“Good answer.” Clint adds another teaspoon of pepper, stirs the stew again, and replaces the lid. “Give it half an hour, let the pepper settle.”
“Whatever you think works best. I’m not much of a cook.” Coulson shrugs when Clint gives him an incredulous look. “I had to be bad at something.”
Clint grins. He appreciates the cockiness. Not just because he knows he’s just as bad, but because he knows Coulson is exactly as good as he thinks he is. “We got cards or something?”
Clint follows him into the living room. There’s a scarred wooden table in the corner, flanked by two worn, comfortable armchairs. Clint takes the one nearest the door while Coulson pulls out the board. It’s handmade, the squares painted on slightly crooked, and the pieces differentiated with an etched X on half of them. Clint wonders, as Coulson lays out the pieces, who this house belonged to before S.H.I.E.L.D. took it over.
“Someone at the last of their line,” Coulson says, though Clint knows he didn’t actually ask. “Purchased through a shell realtor by an agent posing as a genealogy nut. Wanted to have a place in the home country to get in touch with his roots.”
“No way.” Coulson doesn’t look up at him. “Did you make a convincing genealogy nut?” Clint asks.
“I make a convincing everything,” Coulson replies. “Except dinner.”
“Lucky we’re in this op together, then.”
“I’d have gotten by.”
“On MREs and sadness,” Clint scoffs. He catches a grin at the corner of Coulson’s mouth, and it makes him feel good.
“X or no X?” Coulson asks.
“Whichever. You’ll kick my ass anyway.”
Coulson’s grin says more than any bragging.
3. Cuddling Together
The house only has one bed. It’s a double piled high with quilts and blankets and down pillows. There’s no space heater or fireplace in the room, and Clint doesn’t even bother to pretend like he’s tougher than a cold bedroom, just climbs under the covers in his sweats and socks and burrows down until only his nose and eyes are poking out.
Coulson climbs in on the other side, facing Clint and burying himself under the blankets in a similar fashion. “It’s going to get colder overnight,” he says.
“Course it is.” Clint shifts and turns away from Coulson, then pushes back until his back is lined up against Coulson’s chest. Coulson wraps an arm around him with no hesitation, low enough Clint’s still got both arms free if he needs them.
“All right?” Coulson asks.
“Fine,” Clint replies. It’s more than fine. It feels good and comfortable. Clint’s split a bed with plenty of agents, spooned up just like this before any number of times, but he’s noticing the weight of Coulson’s arm along his hips, and it makes him feel safe, like Coulson’s really got his back and is ready to protect him. “Don’t put your cold feet on me.”
“Don’t snore,” Coulson replies. His breath is warm on Clint’s shoulder even through the sweatshirt, and Clint leans towards it a little.
4. Sharing Secrets
“Are you cuddling me?” Coulson asks, voice amused but not shocked.
“A little,” Clint says. “But you’re the guy who put his arm around me.”
“It’s the most comfortable way to hold it.”
“You sure?” Clint cranes his neck when Coulson doesn’t answer right away. “Are you making a move, Sir?”
“Is it because you’re the one in charge?” Coulson doesn’t say anything, and Clint plays a hunch, reaches down and grabs Coulson’s hand with his own. There’s a pause, and then Coulson interlaces their fingers.
“It’s not against regs,” Coulson says. “Fury’s not particularly concerned with fraternization.”
“But it’s definitely unprofessional,” Clint supplies. “And that bugs you.”
“A little.” Coulson shifts and tucks himself tighter against Clint. He’s radiating warmth, and his breath streams over Clint’s ear. “But not enough.”
“Doesn’t bug me at all,” Clint tells him, twisting his head so Coulson’s mouth presses against his temple. “But I won’t tell if you won’t.”
“We’ll see,” Coulson says. “We’ve got a few more days here. Let’s see how it plays.”
Clint thinks that over for a minute. “Earlier, in the shower, how much of that massage was professional?” Coulson is quiet. “I’m not going to tell anyone,” Clint promises. “Sometimes a massage is just a massage.”
“Your ass is spectacular,” Coulson says, and Clint bursts out laughing from the absurdity of it.
“I like your smile,” Clint tells him when he’s calmed down. He turns to face Coulson again and looks at the smile in question. “Game on?” he asks, slipping an arm around Coulson’s waist.
“Game on,” Coulson agrees, and he kisses Clint very softly on the mouth.
5. Taking Care of a Sick/Injured Partner
Clint wakes up the next morning with a headache and the prickly feeling of having sweat through his clothes. When he opens his eyes, he finds Coulson on the edge of the bed. “Feel like shit.”
“You spiked a fever at some point last night,” Coulson tells him. He reaches out and places his hand against Clint’s forehead. His hand feels cool, and Clint leans into it. “Stay put; I’m getting the first aid kit.”
Clint appreciates that Coulson is pretending like Clint can actually get out of bed. He closes his eyes and curls into a ball and grits his teeth when all of his muscles protest. “It was that damned sleet,” he says when he hears Coulson come back in the room. “All that cold, and then the sleet. It must have seriously fucked my immune system.”
“Probably,” Coulson agrees. His weight settles on the bed, and Clint opens his eyes. “Open up,” Coulson says, thermometer ready to go.
Clint takes it and stays huddled. When the thermometer beeps, he opens his mouth and buries his face against the pillow. “I was going to seduce you today,” he mutters.
“You’ve got a temperature of 103,” Coulson replies. “You’re going to lie back and hallucinate for awhile.” He nudges Clint so Clint will sit up and take some aspirin. “But I appreciate the thought.”
“I don’t hallucinate,” Clint says.
“Yes, you do.”
He does, but he didn’t think Coulson knew it. “Is it in my file?”
“That you do it, yes. What it is, no. It’s a possibility that has to be taken into consideration, but the details don’t need to be general knowledge.”
It makes Clint feel better, just a little, and he lies back on the pillows feeling a little less raw. “And you won’t tell anyone?” he can’t help but ask.
“No,” Coulson promises. His hand is cool when he touches Clint’s shoulder. “The op’s completely over save our wait time to not look suspicious. I’ll contact base and tell them you’re sick, so we may be here longer, but unless one of your lungs falls out, they don’t need to know anything else.”
“Thank you,” Clint tells him. He frees one of his hands from the pile of blankets and grabs Coulson’s wrist as he pulls away.
“Get some sleep,” Coulson orders, sliding his hand free but slowly enough Clint knows he’s not freaked out.
6. Crying with/on One Another
The next thing Clint knows, he’s being jerked and pulled tight to Coulson’s chest. He scrabbles for grip, fingers digging into Coulson’s shoulders. “Shit.”
“Think your fever broke,” Coulson says like Clint’s not crying all over him.
“Same fucking thing every time,” Clint hisses against Coulson’s shoulder. “Get a fever, turn into a six-year-old, beg my fucking father not to lay me out.”
“Your fever broke,” Coulson says. “It’s gone now.”
It’s never gone, Clint thinks. He pulls away and sees Coulson’s eyes. Coulson’s eyes are sympathetic and sad at whatever shit Clint was yelling as he tripped balls. Fuck.
7. Sustained Eye Contact
“It’s not fine,” Clint mutters. He pulls away further, and Coulson lets him go. “It’s not—”
“You’re not the first agent to cry on me,” Coulson says. “You’re not the only one to ever hallucinate in front of me, either.”
“Probably the only one with daddy issues,” Clint snaps, staring across the room, resolutely not looking at Coulson.
“Not even close,” Coulson says, and there’s humor in his tone. “Everybody’s got to prove themselves to somebody, and for most people, it’s daddy.”
“He was an asshole,” Clint says. “I didn’t even like him.”
Coulson doesn’t answer, but Clint doesn’t expect him to. Coulson’s not the type to placate. Everything he’s said up to this point is true, and all that’s left to say are the comforting things Clint hates to hear. Clint keeps staring at the wall until Coulson moves and stands in front of him. Clint tries to turn away, but Coulson presses a hand against his neck to keep him still.
“Look at me,” Coulson says. Clint closes his eyes. “Barton, look at me.”
Coulson’s never called him Clint before. He opens his eyes, and Coulson’s right there, just far enough away he’s not blurry. Clint meets his eyes and waits.
“Look,” Coulson says.
Clint does. Coulson’s eyes are clear now, his jaw set, calm radiating off him like nothing has ever gone wrong. In his eyes, Clint sees concern and determination, a flash of something that might be happiness. No pity. No sadness. No anger. Just Coulson waiting him out. “I—” Clint says. He doesn’t know what to do with this. “Last time I hallucinated on an op, the handler wouldn’t look me in the eye the rest of the trip.”
“Last time you were sick on an op was Yemen. Nevins was your handler.”
“That’s sort of creepy,” Clint says, but he wraps a hand around Coulson’s wrist as he says it.
“I’m not going to lose respect for you because you’ve got the same amount of baggage as any other agent. Nevins should have known better.”
It’s as close as Coulson will come to outright insulting the man, Clint thinks. Coulson doesn’t approve of shit-talking other agents unless their behavior is truly awful. “What’s yours?” Clint asks.
Coulson doesn’t look away, but his eyes blank out for a second. “Rwanda.”
Clint doesn’t ask when. He can make an educated guess with the way Coulson’s mouth tightens. He squeezes Coulson’s wrist in a show of support. “I don’t know what I say when I’m hallucinating,” is as close as he can come to asking.
“Nothing you need to hear,” Coulson replies. His eyes are calm again, his fingers warm on the back of Clint’s neck. Clint can’t find it in himself to argue. He just nods and drops his hand, leaning back on the pillow as Coulson leans over him.
“Sleep it off,” Coulson tells him. He doesn’t tuck him in, but he helps Clint settles the blankets.
8. Sharing a Bed
When Clint wakes up again, it’s late afternoon, sun slanting around the curtains and making the whole room glow softly. He flops onto his back as he stretches. Coulson walks in with two cups. “What’s that?” Clint asks as he pushes himself into a sitting position.
“Tea,” Coulson says, holding a mug out to Clint. Clint takes it, and Coulson maneuvers onto the bed.
“Thanks.” Clint takes a drink. It’s sweetened with honey and lemon. “Did you go out?”
“Places around here deliver?”
“The woman who runs the store around the corner helps me with genealogy research when I’m here for cover story.”
“Oh.” Clint tries to picture what Coulson looks like undercover. Probably close to what he looks like right now, in jeans and a thick, knitted sweater, sleeves pushed up to his elbows. He looks relaxed and natural, like he doesn’t spend most of his days in suits with a gun hidden under a specially tailored jacket. “Do you like it here?”
“It’s one of my better covers. I prefer to come in summer.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Clint says, and they grin at one another. Clint takes another sip of his tea and scoots towards Coulson, kicking some of the blankets his way.
“Thanks.” Coulson covers the bottom half of his legs, glances at Clint, and raises his arm. Clint ducks under without hesitation and presses his face to Coulson’s shoulder unashamedly. Coulson hums under his breath and runs his fingers over Clint’s temple. “I was thinking,” he says.
“In eighteen hours, you’ve nearly gotten frost bite, spiked a fever, and had a massive hallucination.”
“And?” Clint prompts when Coulson goes quiet.
“And…” Coulson trails off.
9. Moral Support
Clint cranes his neck to look at Phil’s face. “Are you trying to get me to agree to skip all the awkward stuff and go straight for the relationship?”
“Yes.” Coulson doesn’t sound relieved or embarrassed, just his usual unflappable self.
“I am all for that,” Clint tells him. “I am terrible at the early-stage stuff.”
“Good,” Coulson says. “We’ll do it our way, then.”
10. Listening to Heartbeat or Breathing
Clint wakes in the wee hours. He slept away most of the day, and now his internal clock is screwing with him. He considers getting up, but the bed is warm, and Phil is curled around him like they’ve done this every night for years.
“Quit squirming,” Coulson mutters, though Clint knows the worst he’s done is twitch a little.
“Make me,” Clint replies, and Phil pulls him in tighter. Clint considers fighting back, but Phil is even warmer than the bed, and this close together, Clint can feel him breathing.
“You still need rest.”
“Can’t sleep anymore.”
“Then just be quiet.”
Clint opens his mouth to argue, but Coulson breathes deep, and he’s asleep again. Clint listens to him breathe. Coulson is slack against his back, trusting him without saying a word. Clint wonders if they’ll actually make this work. Before the thought can take root, his eyes are drooping, and he’s pressing back against Coulson, feeling Coulson’s indrawn breath as he goes under.a