Thankfully, soon after Clint and Natasha's things were delivered, the Chinese came--with the promised chopsticks, luckily. Coulson had always enjoyed the memory of the time when, due to the sheer amount of Chinese takeout he had consumed over his years as an agent, he had been called in to instruct the newest Chinese ambassador on how to properly handle chopsticks. There was pride in cheap takeout, dammit.
They ate quietly in the living room, the television doing most of the talking for them. Coulson raised an eyebrow, observing. Barton ate like a lot of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents; desperate, ravenous, as if he was worried he wouldn't eat for another week. However, on the flip side, Natasha ate like she was worried every bite was poisoned.
"Clint, you're going to choke on your mai fun if you keep that up." He scolded him lightly. It slowed the inhalation of the noodles and shrimp, but did not entirely stop it. Coulson counted that as enough of a victory. Now to try to win over Natasha...
"Natasha?" He said gently. "The food's fine. We know everyone who works there, in and out. It's a S.H.I.E.L.D. approved take-away. Don't worry."
"It is not where the food came from that worries me." Natasha said, licking her lips nervously. "I just...feel uncomfortable with it."
"...All right," Coulson began, keeping his voice neutral, "so what's wrong with it?"
"Nothing's wrong. It's particularly good, in fact." Natasha said, twirling a strand of lo mein around her chopstick. "I have no real problem with the food. It just reminded me of a story."
"Oh, that's fine." Coulson relaxed. "Uhm. You can share the story, if it would help?" He offered. "I'd rather you didn't starve."
"Nothing major." Natasha said. "An incident with a butterfly knife. Mishap. In the middle of the fight, things became complicated." She frowned. "He leaned forward. I tore." She lifted up the noodle in her hand, considering.
"It was wet." She remarked. "Hot. Wet and hot and the squelching..." She shook her head. "Unpleasant, really."
Coulson and Clint both stared at her.
"Did you know there are approximately ten feet of intestinal organs within the human body?" Natasha remarked. "Fortunately, I didn't slip. But they were everywhere."
"...Natasha, why don't you have some of the sesame chicken." Coulson said quietly, taking the plate from her and piling on some sesame chicken and white rice, scraping the noodles off. Natasha accepted it without a word.
For awhile, they continued to eat quietly, Coulson and Clint shooting each other concerned looks from across the small part of the living room floor they had designated as the table.
"Intestines have a very distinctive smell." Natasha said. "Most organs do."
"Natasha," Coulson said sternly, "enough."
"I don't understand..." Natasha tilted her head. "You are agents. Surely you have seen spilled organs before?"
"Yes, but..." Coulson sighed. "You don't talk about it when you're eating, Natasha. This is a peaceful time. You think about other stuff. Like how to apologize to your new partner that you spilled his carefully-organized, immaculately-maintained records." He shot a look at Clint, who stuffed an eggroll in his mouth and pouted.
"It was an accident." He mumbled.
Natasha just blinked.
"I have nothing else to think about." She said.
Coulson sighed internally, keeping his slowly-creeping despair to himself. Sure, Fury said he had a knack for people, but this--this was a bit much.
"Well, how about I ask you a few things?" He mused. "Hm. Do you read, Natasha?"
"On occasion," she said, "when it's pertinent to the mission."
"Do you read anything for pleasure?" Coulson asked. She shrugged.
"There's pleasure in my work." She replied. "So in a sense, yes. I read for pleasure."
Oh yes, he had his work cut out for him.
"Natasha, that's not pleasure--that's the job. We do the job because someone has to, but if we start to take enjoyment from it, we usually end up becoming as bad as the people we're fighting." Coulson murmured. "Do you read any novels? Romance?"
"Useless," she responded, "full of negative stereotypes and unrealistic expectations."
"Science fiction?" Coulson asked. She shrugged.
"I work for a government facility that thinks digging a man out of the ice and reviving him isn't entirely far-fetched." She replied. "I am science fiction."
"...Anything?" Coulson said, trying not to get frustrated and halfway failing. She shrugged.
"No." She responded. "Is that a problem?"
"Well, not particularly...but it would help you take your mind off of things." Coulson told her. "Look, I don't have a lot of books on me right now, but how about I get my record player? Do you listen to music?"
"If Clint leaves the radio on." Natasha replied. "But I don't like his music."
Coulson chuckled. Clint puffed up, offended.
"Hey, not everyone has to be all high-brow and jazzy." He defended himself. "Sometimes, you just wanna listen to some Queen and go drinking, all right?"
"Yes, but not both at the same time. At least, not when you're driving." Natasha told him.
"So, I take I'm going to be chauffering everyone." Coulson remarked. "All right, then. I'll go get the records. Hang on a minute..."
He left the two behind to go upstairs and fetch everything. It only took him a minute or two, after which he was downstairs again with the record player and a record. He put it nearer towards the wall and watched with amusement as both of them scootched over to be nearer to it, like five year olds eager for circle time.
"I didn't know those things existed anymore." Clint remarked. "You should sell it to a museum."
"It was my grandmother's." Coulson replied. "Don't care if it's the last one in America. I'm keeping it."
"Yeah, but it's kind of...y'know, dated." Clint said. "Does it still work?"
"Fine talk from a man who uses weapons made popular sometime back in the sixteenth century." Natasha remarked quietly.
Coulson issued a sudden snort of laughter as Clint shot a murderous look at Natasha. She just tucked a strand of hair away from her face.
"Natasha, don't be mean." Coulson scolded her, despite the fact that he was still clearly trying not to burst out laughing. "Clint, I promise it works. Just wait and watch."
Clint nodded, the insult to his arrows forgotten, putting his chin in his palms and watching as Coulson set it up.
He took the record out, set it gently on the record player, and adjusted the needle. It took him a minute to start it up, but once he had, the player began to allow music to flow freely through the room.
It was a soft tune; sad and sweet, with a touch of violin among the brassy saxophone and trumpets. The song wound its way throughout the house like a wisp of mist, touching everything it saw yet leaving no trace of its presence.
A minute into the song, both Coulson and Clint stole a quick look at Natasha. She was crying. The tears flowed freely down her cheeks, but she betrayed no gasp or shudder of pain or sorrow. They let her be until the song had wound its way down, the mist of music dissipating from the house.
Coulson lifted the needle from the player and turned it off.
"Natasha," he said gently, "why are you crying?"
"I've never heard anything like that." Natasha replied. "It doesn't seem fair. How could I go through my entire life and never hear something that beautiful?"
"I don't know." Coulson responded honestly. "But better late than never, right?" He gestured to the player. "I could leave it on for awhile longer, if you wanted."
"Please." She whispered, nodding eagerly. Coulson nodded in agreement.
Then, some stroke of fancy--or insanity, he wasn't quite sure which--overtook his reflexes, and he reached out to stroke away the loose curl that had fallen into her face yet again.
"I'll leave the record playing." He promised.
The three of them continued the meal in silence. Even after it was cleaned up and thrown away, things remained quiet. Coulson scratched out a list of basic amenities they would need for the coming few weeks, used to the music.
Clint and Natasha, however, were reclined on the couch, completely silent, side by side. They did not speak. The music filled the silence for them, giving voice to words they didn't quite know how to express. It was enough.
As the night waned, Coulson checked the clock and frowned.
"Okay, first rule of the household," he said, "if I'm here to...de-agentify you, then that means you're not going to have the sleep schedule of agents. You have to go to bed by midnight. Don't care what you're doing."
"But I don't wanna." Clint whined. Coulson shot him a look.
"Doesn't matter." He said sternly. "No more of staying up until eight in the morning and sleeping until nine at night. You go to bed at midnight, and we'll adjust waking up schedules as needed. Understood?"
"Not fair." Clint grumbled, but his resolve was cracking. The desire for a good night's sleep outweighed the psychological compulsion to argue with his superiors. Coulson couldn't help but smile at his efforts.
"Will we all go to bed at once?" Natasha asked. Coulson nodded.
"Yes." He agreed. "Fair's fair. I won't stay up any later than midnight either." He shrugged. "I don't have to do much anyway; just file continuous reports on your progression of mental stability, or lack thereof."
"All right." Natasha replied. "So we should get ready for bed?"
"Yes, it seems so..." Coulson pointed to the clock mounted on the wall. "It's already twelve-thirty. I let you stay up a little later."
"Very well, then." Natasha remarked, her voice quiet. Without another word, she unzipped her top.
Before Coulson could even find the words to protest, she had stripped of it, tossed it aside, and was halfway through ridding herself of her pants before Coulson managed to snap, "Natasha! Stop it!"
"...What?" She asked, looking up at him, clearly befuddled. "Coulson, what's the matter?"
"You--you don't have to--" He didn't know what to say. Now they were both giving them that weird look, like he was the crazy one. "Natasha, we're in the living room, and--and Clint and I--"
"Clint has seen me either naked or close to being so on a number of missions," Natasha replied, "it is not a big deal." She frowned. "Besides, I have to, don't I? One should not sleep in leather."
"Yes, but--but, Natasha, don't you need privacy?" Coulson asked, feeling more like he was begging. He briefly reflected on the irony inherent in the fact that he was possibly one of the only men in the history of the world to ever attempt to convince the Black Widow to keep her pants on.
"Not in particular." She responded. "My body is nothing to be ashamed of. It is another weapon, and if you wish to keep your enemies on edge, you display all the weapons at your disposal."
"It isn't a weapon," Coulson said gently, "it's your body. You have a right to privacy, and Clint and I shouldn't be allowed to intrude on you when you dress or undress."
"I don't mind." Natasha said, clearly confused. "Is this concern for teammates? It seems to be more trouble than it's worth."
"Not concern so much as respect." Coulson explained. "You should have a chance to at least undress in private--at least, when we're home, and not on a mission."
"If I'm not on a mission, then I should be preparing for one." Natasha told him. "Therefore, it doesn't matter. I should act as if I am always either on a mission, or about to undertake in one."
"No, you shouldn't," Coulson said sternly, "because the whole point of not being on a mission constantly is so you can handle whatever you had to do on the mission you just dealt with. You are here, in this house, with Clint and I, with the express purpose of dealing with a previous mission and its effects. You are going to relax, damn it, and you are going to deal with this mindset, because it isn't healthy!" Coulson snapped.
Natasha stared at him for a long minute. Her expression was unreadable.
Without warning, she grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him close, so close he could smell her breath--like cinnamon and the wet honey of crushed flowers.
"I don't know how." She hissed, and there was so much desperation and pain in her voice that, for a second, Coulson despaired as well, realizing he was utterly out of his league. Fixing her would be like trying to repair a giant, five hundred piece toy with nothing but gum and a set of instructions in Sumerian.
But he had to try.
"Ssh, ssh, ssh..." he soothed her, "you'll learn. I promise, it's really easy to learn how to relax." He murmured, keeping his tone light. "Go upstairs, Natasha. Go get changed for bed. Clint and I will be up in five minutes. Just go."
"But then I'll be alone." She murmured. "If you're on a mission with your partner, you should never be alone."
"This isn't a mission," Coulson reminded her, "but you're not alone. I promise. We'll be right down here."
Natasha stared at them for a minute more, her expression inscrutable. Then she nodded solemnly, still betraying nothing across her face, before making her way upstairs, as quiet as snow.
Clint and Coulson waited until she was gone, the click of the door signifying that she was beyond earshot, to sigh and sag against each other on the couch.
"She's been like this for as long as I can remember." Clint murmured. "Coulson?"
"Yes, Clint?" He replied.
Clint laid his head on the agent's shoulder and closed his eyes.
"You're a pretty good man." He remarked. "S'funny. I never thought I would meet one who worked for S.H.I.E.L.D."
"You're not so bad yourself." Coulson replied. "You took care of her, didn't you?"
"...Yeah." He agreed. "But I needed someone else to fix her."
"Understandable." Coulson said. "One broken person can't fix another."
"M'not broken," Clint protested, "the suits just think so, so I got kicked off active duty, and--and sent here--"
"You're not broken," Coulson agreed, "at least, not on the outside." He tsked and shook his head. "You've done enough, Clint. But trying to hold up a cracking vase on a crumbling pedestal is just going to leave both of them in ruins." He sighed.
"I don't know what I'm doing," he confessed, "but I'm going to fix you both. I promise."
"You and five other people before you." Clint muttered. "Maybe more."
"Maybe," Coulson agreed, "but I have something the other five people before me didn't."
"...A nice ass?" Clint ventured. Coulson resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
He took Clint's hand in his and squeezed it. It was gentle; a minimum of physical contact, but he still looked surprised.
"No," Coulson replied, "I have compassion. And concern for my teammates."
"...Huh." Clint said after a minute of slow consideration. "Yeah. That'll do it."
They stayed downstairs, at peace with each other, until Natasha called up for them. With that, they split up; Clint went upstairs, tossing Coulson's pajamas down before getting dressed in the bathroom, and Coulson got dressed downstairs, bringing his suit upstairs and hanging it in the closet before finally joining them both in the bedroom.
He had to resist the urge to chuckle at Natasha's pajamas; what the famously sensuous Black Widow wore to bed had been a hot point of contention among the various agents, and...well, it looked like no one was going to win that bet.
The big, baggy black shirt shifted around her when she moved. The loose flannel pants with cartoon kittens on them looked like they would have fit Clint better. And yet, coupled with her tousled hair and mildly bemused expression, it was oddly adorable.
"So, Nat sleeps in the middle, 'cause she's tiny as hell compared to us two, and we'll crush her if she doesn't," Clint said, nudging her into place as he clambered onto the bed, continuing, "if I sleep on the right, I hog the blankets less. You get the left, Coulson."
"Fine by me." He said, getting into bed. "Night, Clint. Night, Natasha."
"Night, Phil." Natasha said softly. When Coulson raised an eyebrow, a bit bemused by her using his first name, she actually smiled at him--just a little.
"You said this was not a mission." She reminded him. "Besides, you use our first names."
"...Goodnight, Barton. Goodnight, Romanov." Coulson said, sinking down beneath the blankets. Clint laughed. Natasha just nudged him gently before getting into bed beside them both, throwing her arms around them.
"...Natasha?" Coulson asked, acutely aware of the last time a woman had been so intimate with him, (which was, of course, never.)
"I don't dream if I get held by a man." Natasha remarked quietly. "Suppose you're like a cage. Holding me in and keeping the nightmares out." She closed her eyes. "Everything has its price."
"...All right." Coulson said. "Just give me some warning first, all right?" He rolled over in bed so that he faced her. "Might as well make sure you're comfortable..."
Clint clearly had experience with the routine. Coulson just went with what felt right. Before a minute had passed, all three of them were entangled in a unique blend of limbs that made Coulson's flesh crawl in an oddly pleasurable way. He sighed and yawned, grateful that Clint had had the foresight to turn the light off before they turned into a human piece of chainlink.
"Night, Natasha." Coulson said. "Sweet dreams."
She didn't answer. She was already asleep.
Soon after, both men followed suit.