In the beginning, it was the two of them.
"So you're Fury's project," he said, the first time they met, and she looked at him like she was counting the ways she could kill him with his tie, and reaching a number close to infinite.
It was pairings like Romanoff and Coulson that made it clear that Fury had something like a sense of humor lurking behind his impassive expression - agents who had come to the agency too early and too late, respectively, one who was anything but trustworthy, and one who was nothing but.
Officially, he was her handler, there to keep an eye on her and make sure she stayed on the radar. He did it well - too well - and before long, he was following her into situations, crafting their strategy together, and he couldn't help but suspect that it had been Fury's plan all along.
They'd been in the field for four months together when she went off the grid the first time. He was shot twice retrieving her, and she spent his rehab bouncing between partners like a pinball, eventually ending up temporarily off-assignment, lurking the halls of SHIELD and waiting with no patience at all for him to be back on his feet. Her aim got marginally better in the interim, he noticed, and so did his Russian.
They'd been together for twenty-four months and sixteen days when she went off the grid the second time, and it took three more weeks for Fury to put an end to Coulson's attempted retrieval missons, when it became clear that the reason they were failing was that she had no intention of being retrieved.
It became standard rumor in the hallways of SHIELD that Natasha was Fury's great success and Coulson's great failure, until the day she returned and it became clear that neither one of them had ever had any claim of ownership on her at all.
"Go shoot something, Barton."
Clint paused in his methodical pacing of the halls, backtracked four steps, and stuck his head into Coulson's office. "Sorry, sir?"
Coulson waved a hand at him, not looking up from his computer. "I've seen you six times in the past twenty-eight minutes, going the same direction every time. You're making me dizzy. Can't you find something productive to do with yourself?"
"Any word yet?" Clint asked, eyeing the phone, which stubbornly refused to ring on command.
"Half an hour ago," Coulson replied. "I'm keeping you in the dark for my amusement."
"No need to be a bitch, sir," Clint said, leaning against the doorframe and grinning. Coulson raised an eyebrow marginally, and didn't reply. Clint accepted the lack of rebuff, and made his way into the office, flopping bonelessly down into one of the chairs across from the desk, prompting Coulson to actually look up at him.
"Seventeen down is 'lions,'" Clint informed him, and was rewarded with a startled blink. "Trust me," he added. "I've met some." He waited a moment while Coulson looked around the office, then sighed and reached to tilt the framed commendation at the corner of his workspace so it no longer reflected his computer screen. "More to the point, I did that one this morning," Clint admitted. He smirked. "'Find something productive to do,' huh?"
Coulson shrugged. "That was great advice," he pointed out. "Nothing says I actually have to take it."
They both looked at the phone for a few moments.
"I'm giving it another six minutes," Clint decided, "and then I'm going for the scotch you've got hidden in the back of your bottom drawer."
As if on cue, the phone rang.
"I don't care how good a shot he is, sir," Natasha said, crossing her arms. "I've read his file. He's unpredictable."
It was rare to get a real smile out of Coulson, and she hadn't intended to this time, but there it was. "Right," he said, shaking his head. "Because you're in any position to talk about unpredictability."
She frowned at him. "Anyone who couldn't predict what I was up to is just not good enough at what they do," she said flatly, intending it to sting, but he just kept smiling, the bastard.
"Barton," he repeated, nodding as if pleased with himself. "I'm liking this team already. I hear you've met," he added.
"Twice?" he prompted.
"A few times."
"Then you don't need a file to tell you he's unpredictable."
She shrugged. "I don't know, I found him to be pretty easy to read."
"Rumor has it that you might be the reason he made it out of Moscow alive two years ago."
"Rumor also has it that you're reassigning him because you're sleeping together," Natasha replied easily, and his lack of reaction was predictable but disappointing. "Don't believe everything you hear."
"Oh, I don't," he replied. "Just the true things."
"Six weeks," she said.
He raised his eyebrows. "You're not quite in a position to negotiate terms."
"No," she agreed, "but I'm putting a hundred dollars on the fact that he requests a transfer within six weeks."
The corner of Coulson's mouth twitched in a smile. "Easiest money I ever made," he said, and they shook on it.
"It's too bad," she said as she left his office, pausing in the doorway. "I was thinking maybe they'd reassign me to you." She looked around the office pointedly, letting her eyes linger on his suit for just a second too long. "I guess those days are over." She left him sitting there and went in search of Barton.
Six weeks and one day later, she and Barton were called in as backup to a situation in Jersey, and arrived to discover that the advance team had neutralized the threat sometime between making the call and their arrival. The advance team - consisting of one guy in a suit - nodded in their direction from the rubble when they arrived, and her comms crackled with static for a moment before the words, "Pay up," came across loud and clear.
In the end, it was the three of them.
He went to Fury after hours, expecting a negotiation - to have to fight for one or both of them - and was instead handed their files, rubber banded together with four others. "Your team," Fury told him, leaving the don't fuck it up unmentioned but painfully apparent.
He waited until he got back to his office to look closely at the others - a god, a half-beast, a legend, and Tony Stark, who considered himself all of the above - and then he opened his bottom drawer, and went for the scotch.
He stayed there, not quite working, reading files and waiting, until they showed up like clockwork, Clint six minutes ahead of Natasha.
"You're still in?" Coulson asked before the door had entirely closed behind him, and Clint smiled, leaning back against it.
"Only if you're sharing."
He crossed to the desk and poured himself a drink into a coffee mug, then perched at the edge of the desk, hovering over Coulson and reading Thor's file. "I told you I was in," he said, tapping the folder for emphasis. "A while ago."
"It's official now."
"Took them long enough."
He started pouring a drink into a third glass about thirty seconds before Natasha opened the door, and Coulson could only look up at him and shake his head, smiling. Clint stretched out over the desk to offer it to her, and she made a face, waved it away, and went for the filing cabinet, retrieving a small bottle of vodka instead. Coulson was gratified by the lift of Clint's eyebrows.
"You requested us?" Natasha guessed.
Coulson shook his head. "Didn't have to." Clint looked a little surprised at that. "The director had already made up his mind." He thought about it for a moment, and smiled faintly. "Something like six and a half years ago, I think."
Natasha made a thoughtful face, then returned the smile, raising her mug slightly in their direction. "The Avengers Initiative," she toasted.
"Some assembly required," Coulson said wryly, and let Clint clink their glasses together before he swallowed his down.