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and now i know i put us both through hell; i’m not saying there was nothing wrong, i just didn’t think you’d ever get tired of me, and i’m not saying we ever had the right to hold on, i just didn’t want to let it get away from me.

Clint jumps off a building, firing while in descend. He thinks Hulk will catch him, but he doesn’t know for sure. Through the ear piece, he hears a sharp intake of breath and he spares a brief thought for Coulson, but then he focuses again on the matter at hand.
He thinks Coulson would approve.

They’ve done this, whatever it is, for a few months now; coffee and missions and stolen kisses and rutting against one another late at night, hot and desperate and silently. It’s not a relationship, because Clint doesn’t do those, but it’s something. He knows he’s got a reputation and he wonders, sometimes, what Coulson is doing with him. And then the man touches his shoulder and smiles, eyes soft and crinkling at the corners, and Clint pushes the thoughts away in favour of leaning over to kiss Phil, pushing a hand under the dress shirt. It’s easier than trying to classify things.

“Barton— Clint,” Coulson had sounded tired when he’d said it, a few months after Clint had first pushed him against a wall and put his hands into Coulson’s pants, gotten them both off in a fit of adrenaline and desperation. “What are we doing?”

“What does it matter?” Clint had asked.

He’d gotten them both off, and after that they’d just never stopped. It wasn’t important.

There’s no rhyme and no reason to it; Clint kisses Coulson when he feels like it and sometimes, Coulson is the one who initiates things. There’s a few ground rules, boundaries established by Coulson in a tired voice, face hidden behind one hand as he’d sat on the edge of his bed, naked and beautiful and looking more tired than he had before Clint had shown up on his doorstep and dragged him to bed.

Never during a mission. It doesn’t change anything about how they behave in the field.

“Yeah, sure,” Clint had said. “Whatever.”

The sex is great. For all that Coulson looks unassuming, he’s still a SHIELD agent; he keeps up with the training regiment and there’s a surprisingly beautiful body hidden beneath those suits that make him look more like an ageing paper-pushing than anything else. Clint likes tracing the scars with tongue and teeth and Coulson doesn’t speak about them, not since that first time when he’d started speaking and Clint had leaned up to kiss him.

He wasn’t interested in Coulson’s secrets.

Clint is in medical again, and he isn’t surprised anymore when Coulson comes to see him. It’s almost a tradition, Clint gets hurt and Coulson shows up, worried eyes and frown lines engraved deep into his face, making him seem older than he is. Clint knows later on, there’ll be words like acceptable risk or sometimes recklessness in the report, but the words he can read in the files don’t match up with the expression on Coulson’s face.

Clint doesn’t like the look on Coulson’s face when he’s in medical, not at all. He turns his face away and pretends he’s asleep, even knowing Coulson can see right through the act.

Late one night, Clint watches Coulson; he’s spread out on his back, asleep. If they make it to a bed, it’s only ever Coulson’s. Clint’s never invited Coulson to his place and Coulson’s never asked. The lines in Coulson’s face have smoothed out, his breathing even and his mouth slightly open. Clint’s gaze traces broad shoulders and chest where they’re visible over the covers, the curve of Coulson’s arm.

Coulson looks warm and safe. Those are not words that fit Clint’s life.

He leaves, quietly.

Clint falls. The Hulk catches him, but not before Clint takes a bullet to the shoulder, fired from the very building he just jumped from. The Hulk leaves him with Coulson who stands in the middle of all the destruction, ear piece in place and shooting orders. His voice doesn’t falter and his breath doesn’t hitch when he sees Clint, though he gives the Hulk a nod and a “thank you,” something that is almost a smile.

Coulson doesn’t stop the stream of commands and information even as he kneels by Clint’s side, hands firm over the wound and his eyes holding Clint’s the entire time until the medical personnel arrives.

That night, Coulson shows up in medical and Clint pretends that he’s asleep. Instead of leaving, Coulson settles in the chair by his bed with a heavy sigh. Clint almost flinches when warm fingers wrap around his hand, tangling with his.

“We need to talk about this, Clint,” Coulson says, steady and slow, and Clint turns his head and opens his eyes and lets himself look, just look for a moment. Coulson’s expression doesn’t change, but there’s something hopeful in it, something that Clint can’t quite pinpoint.

He turns away again. “There’s nothing to talk about, sir.”

Coulson doesn’t stop by medical again.

Once the bullet wound’s healed enough that he’s released from the clutches of medical (Clint swears they like to keep him only to torture him), Clint makes his way to Coulson’s place. He leans against the door, hips cocked and hands in his pockets. There’s a low heat pooling in his belly, and he imagines pushing Coulson against the wall next to the door, or maybe kicking the door shut and pulling Coulson against him until he’s the one trapped with his back to the wall, kissing and licking and biting his way into Coulson’s mouth until he can forget the days spent staring at the white ceiling.

Coulson opens the door, holding up a hand when Clint makes to move.

“What do you want, Barton?”

He’s barefoot, a threadbare t-shirt over a pair of cotton training pants. He looks soft and vulnerable, painfully open. He also looks exhausted— and sad. Clint wonders why he never noticed how sad Coulson looks, then he wonders whether he put that look there, and then he stops wondering at all, because that line of thought leads nowhere.

“What do you think,” he lifts his chin, lets his smirk show. It isn’t the first time they’ve done this, after all. His intentions should be pretty clear at this point.

Coulson sighs, rubbing a hand over his face. When he looks back at Clint again, he still looks sad, but there’s a quiet resolve there as well, and Clint suddenly remembers that for all that Agent Phil Coulson is unassuming and seemingly gentle and calm, he’s just as deadly as the rest of them. He just hides it better. (It’s a turn-on.)

“We’re not doing that anymore,” he says, and the finality in his tone comes through, loud and clear, even if the words hadn’t already.

“Oh,” Clint finds himself saying, a little dumbly, because he didn’t expect that, he really didn’t. Old habits and bravado kick in and he grins, wide and careless and free. “Well, that’s fine, then. Sure I’ll find someone else to scratch that itch for me, sir.”

He watches Coulson’s lips thin out, watches his brows draw together, and then he turns to leave before he can see anything else.

He should have, perhaps, seen it coming. It isn’t any consolation.

Clint isn’t sad. He isn’t.

Coulson is unfailingly professional in the field. He is unfailingly distant at any other time, and it’s noticeable even though the contact between him and the Avengers (though not Clint, never Clint) had been limited to begin with.

Looking back, Clint sees the signs, he can pinpoint every moment when he pushed Coulson a little further away when they hadn’t been all that close to begin with.

He tells himself it’s better that way. He doesn’t do relationships and there’s a reason for that (or several, maybe, and he thinks of the circus and of Barney and of the past, and then he shoots arrows at moving targets until he doesn’t think at all) and Coulson, for all that he still looks like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders especially when he sees Clint in the field, Coulson will be fine.

It’s better this way.