Retirement parties are extremely rare. Most S.H.I.E.L.D. employees exit the premises in a blaze of glory or petulance or betrayal, or they’re shuffled out of sight with soothing voices and sympathetic expressions, and these are invariably premature ends.
Mabel is different, though. Mabel is the tea-lady who’s been at S.H.I.E.L.D. since before it was S.H.I.E.L.D. and who still remembers how Howard Stark took his coffee and who’s the only person who can walk in to Fury’s office when he’s teleconferencing with the World Security Council and walk out unscathed. Mabel is going to be replaced by a robot built by Howard Stark’s son because no one makes women like Mabel anymore.
Mabel has blue-rinse in her hair and she speaks like a 1950s newscaster and everyone loves her. They’re glad she made it.
It’s a party and Coulson is a wallflower. He’s wallflowering like a motherfucker, like it’s his job and maybe it is, sometimes, when there are Avengers avenging and he’s got to coordinate attacks and retreats but it’s a fucking retirement party and Clint’s going to make sure Coulson enjoys himself.
He walks; he stalks over to where Coulson is sitting, at a small, round table where a candle is sputtering its last. There’s a white plate in front of him, S.H.I.E.L.D. issue, covered with crumbs from the retirement cake and Coulson’s nursing a drink.
“You’re allowed have fun, Coulson,” says Clint, pulling up a chair and straddling it, resting his chin on his arms and his arms on the back of the chair. “You’re off-duty.”
Coulson’s smile is wry. “No such thing as off-duty,” he says.
“You guys have a rota,” says Clint. “I’ve seen it. Sitwell’s on call tonight.” He jerks his head towards the dancefloor. “And even he was tearing it up out there.”
“I would, too, if I’d been an under-fifteen ballroom dance champion.” Coulson sips his drink. Clint would bet that it’s the only drink Coulson’s had all evening and it’s only half-empty.
“You’re shitting me.” Clint cranes his neck, looking for Sitwell. “No way-”
Coulson shrugs. It’s a beautifully fluid gesture. “It could be classified information,” he says.
“Then you definitely wouldn’t tell me,” says Clint, with the sort of certainty that comes with an innate knowledge of Coulson and regulations. “No, you’re totally shitting me. Though he’s got some moves, I’ll give him that.”
“S.H.I.E.L.D. values all skillsets,” says Coulson. He looks comfortable here, in his corner, unseen and out of the way and it makes Clint unfeasibly angry.
“Why haven’t you danced, sir?” asks Clint. “Everyone else has.” It’s true. Nick Fury and Natasha had embarked on some frightening tango-inspired dance and Tony managed to drag Steve onto the dancefloor, despite Steve’s protests that he couldn’t dance. Steve really can’t dance, though it was probably unnecessary for Tony to complain quite so loudly when Steve stepped on his toes. (“You’re kissing every one of those better, Cap.”)
Coulson looks tired. He shrugs again. “I’m not really big into dancing,” he says and Clint wonders if there’s more to it than that. He’s been here for too long, he decides; he’s seeing conspiracies and deeper fucking meanings everywhere and it’s not like there has to be a deeper meaning to Coulson not wanting to be the centre of attention. Coulson never wants to be the centre of attention. Most people in S.H.I.E.L.D. have no idea where his office is and at least one in four employees think that he works in the stationery department.
Coulson’s kind of staring into space and Clint frowns. “You okay, sir?” he asks. His tone is gentler than he intends.
“You know me,” says Coulson, as though it’s a truth. “I don’t really - parties aren’t really my kind of thing.”
“You do understand that a retirement party doesn’t exactly constitute a wild social scene, don’t you?”
“I spend my day picking up after superheroes,” says Coulson and, somehow, there’s not a shred of resentment in his words. “My world view is skewed.”
Clint barks out a laugh.
“It’s okay, Barton.” Coulson gestures. “You can go.” He smiles; it’s gentle and heartbreaking and Clint wonders how long Coulson’s felt so marginalised. He’s on the periphery of S.H.I.E.L.D., or he’s an enigma, or the post boy, or something so misrepresented that it makes Clint clench his hands into fists. He’s not an Avenger but he is the man assigned to nag them and herd them and sign their hospital release forms.
“You’re dismissing me from the party, sir?”
Coulson looks surprised. “No, I just mean -” He gestures again. “You don’t have to stay and talk to me. You’ve done your part.”
Clint opens his mouth and closes it again. He should probably count to ten but he is not patient enough to curb his anger. “I’ve done my part? Seriously?” He runs one hand through his hair. “Why d’you think I came over here?”
Coulson is silent. Clint feels like a dick. “We’ve worked together for how long?”
“Five years?” offers Coulson. “Give or take.”
“Five years of you putting up with my bullshit and dragging my injured ass out of combat zones and signing fucking medical waivers on my behalf and letting me sleep on your couch when my place had that infestation and helping me the fuck out when I got Steve in that fucking Secret Santa and you think I came to talk to you out of pity?”
“I don’t know.” Coulson looks and sounds resigned. He closes his eyes but his tone is sharp and dry when he speaks. “There used to be a divide between work and the rest of my life but - “ His eyes snap open and Clint sucks in a breath. “It got fuzzy. Around the time of New Mexico.”
“This isn’t work, sir - “
“That assertion might work better if you didn’t call me sir.”
“Fine. Coul-” Clint takes a breath. “Phil. This isn’t work. This is a party. Attended by everyone we work with, sure, but it’s still a party. You get to unwind.” He holds up a finger. “And loosening your tie and undoing your top button doesn’t count as unwinding.”
He’s gratified that Coulson hasn’t looked away once but maybe this is payback for all the times Hawkeye has watched Coulson through his scope.
“I have alcohol,” says Coulson and, at last, he sounds a little light-hearted.
“It’s a start,” says Clint and he feels his lips stretch into a smile, unfamiliar because it is sincere. Coulson - Phil - smiles back. “Knock it back, Phil. We’re going dancing.”
Phil does down the rest of his drink, wincing a little delicately. “That’s not how to drink good scotch,” he says, a little mournfully, and he wipes his mouth with the palm of his hand and Clint wants to grab it and press his nose to Phil’s palm and these stray thoughts will get him into trouble one day (and it might be today). “And I don’t dance, Clint.”
“You’ll dance with me.” Clint stands up and nearly sends his chair flying but he doesn’t pay any attention because he’s holding his hand out to Phil and Phil’s looking at it a little doubtfully, but he takes it and then Clint is struck by how close they’re standing, and Phil’s a shade shorter than him and Clint wonders why Stark never gives Phil any grief about being short but then he reminds himself that that’s a good thing because Phil gets enough grief in his line of work, like smartass archers demanding to dance with him.
The music slows as soon as they touch and Phil’s nose wrinkles and Clint swears blind that the change in tempo has nothing to do with him because fuck knows he’s never that premeditated. “But, yeah, they’re playing our song, sir.”
Phil laughs and, after a brief hesitation, he puts his hand on Clint’s shoulder and his other hand settles on Clint’s hip. Clint slips one of his hands around to the small of Phil’s back, under his jacket, and the cotton of Phil’s shirt is warm and smooth. Phil lets out a stuttering breath and Clint can feel it against his cheek and Phil whispers that this is probably a bad idea.
Clint thinks it’s the best idea he’s ever had. He knows it when Phil glides his hand around to bury in Clint’s hair and it’s not dancing so much as swaying and it’s in the corner of the room, like wallflowers do it, and Clint wants to say something, about how it’s gotten hot or how they should have done this a long time ago, but he’s a little mesmerised by the feel of Phil’s stubble on his cheek and he has no recollection of getting so close. He has no complaints though his breath catches a bit and he closes his eyes so it’s just him and Phil and that’s sort of perfect and there’s something about faith and selflessness and it’s a fucking Mariah Carey song but that’s okay, too, and Phil’s humming along.
Clint takes a deep breath. Phil’s lips are surprisingly soft. There is not a whisper of air between their bodies. They fit, like puzzle pieces, and this is a puzzled sort of peace and Clint thinks he could be happy. When Phil pulls back, breathing deeply and eyes closed, he’s smiling.
“So this isn’t work, Clint?”
“‘s definitely play, sir. Phil. ‘m willing to provide demonstrations whenever-” Clint’s cut off by Phil’s hand, fisting the fabric of his shirt and pulling him close.
“Less talk, Clint,” says Phil. “More demonstration.”
Clint never had Phil down for exhibitionism but it’s something to explore further. Mabel pats him on the cheek when she leaves and tells him to be good to that nice Mr Coulson. He takes his tea with one sugar, she tells him.
Clint’s really glad she made it.