Clint slumps forward on the smooth pine bench in the tiny, windowless room and forces himself to concentrate. The op is done now, three traffickers in custody at the small Hampton Roads, Virginia S.H.I.E.L.D. office near the Norfolk Navy base. Thanks to Clint, the greasy psychopath who was a pathetic excuse for an enforcer is in the hospital. Not a bad day in the salt mines, Barney would have said.
But it’s not time to stand down. Clint still has to be alert, still has to keep his emotions in check and his eyes wide open. He’s somehow backed himself into a corner with no decent escape route, and he can’t panic. Must not panic.
Coulson has taken him to the beach.
For a picnic.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It’s practically a hostage situation.
He thumbs at his phone. Tasha’s refusing to answer voicemail or texts. She helped load his and Coulson’s duffles and weapons into Coulson’s car an hour ago, then took her own gear and waved goodbye. Claimed she had to get back to New York on personal business. Liar. As if she has anything resembling a personal life.
Clint remembers with a pang of shame that he had actually panicked for a second and run after the gorgeous, lipstick-red convertible she’d rented. He’d begged her to let him ride home with her, or at least to stick around to offer some backup support, while he tried to get out of this thing on his own.
“Man up, Barton. You can take care of your own pretty ass this time—or just let Coulson take care of it for you,” she’d said. Then she'd revved the Mustang and looked at him sternly, without a trace of sympathy. "It's been four years, and I'm sick of both of you. Just kiss him already."
Before Clint could open his mouth to protest, she'd driven away, radio blaring some Kelly Clarkson girl power shit, laughing at him in the rearview mirror.
It’s really not funny. And teasing him about his whatever--his situation --with Coulson is just cruel. He's not saying the word Tasha uses because men don't have crushes after they graduate from junior high, damn it.
But here he is in the stifling, humid changing room next to the vending machines, thirty yards from the ocean. Naked. And he’s got to handle it.
Clint is well-trained enough to ignore the voice in his head that’s telling him to run, to get the hell out of Dodge by any means necessary. So he'll face this horror. This picnic. But he still can’t mute the other voice, the one that tells him he has no business trying to be friends or anything more with a man like Phil Coulson. The voice that says Clint doesn't deserve Coulson. Clint's a dropout and a hick and on a regular basis, the world’s biggest fuckup. He doesn’t belong among the elite S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives.
He’s not completely blind to his own talents. He knows he’s the best sniper they have with a bow or a rifle. Numbers don’t lie. And he's got enough crazy going for him that he's one of the bravest too. (Coulson would say reckless, headstrong, authority issues.) But it takes more than bravery to be part of this band of brothers and sisters, and so far he and Tasha are still the damaged foster kids who don’t quite fit into the family, and maybe never will.
Most of the others are carrying around fancy diplomas and years of combat experience. And they’re also sophisticated about the world in ways Clint is pretty sure he will never be. They understand the history and culture of cities like Budapest, Islamabad, and Shanghai. They see architecture, religion, ancient empires, where Clint just sees targets and timelines. He can shoot with them, train with them, leave them bruised and bloody on the mats, but he can’t really talk to the other field operatives. And they’ve given up trying to talk to him, which suits Clint just fine.
He can talk to Tasha. When she's not being a bitch about the Coulson thing. They’ve got the same brand of dark history, invisible and unhealed wounds, and a similar restlessness. No use having more than one friend anyway. Too complicated. Too many demands. Tasha’s enough.
Except that now, apparently, Coulson thinks they should be friends. What the hell is that about? Coulson is his handler, his boss, and the one other person at S.H.I.E.L.D. that Clint can tolerate for more than ten minutes. But the idea that they could be friends is seriously fucked up, and he’s going to explain that to Mr. Phil Coulson, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. as soon as he can get his shit together enough to look a him.
Clint takes a couple of very deep, very slow breaths. Finds the center of the hurricane pinwheeling in his head. Steadies himself. Tries not to think about the fact that in a minute, he’s going to see Coulson half naked. He’s seen the man completely naked in his dreams dozens (let’s get real, hundreds) of times. But that is absolutely not the same. Fantasies are fantasies, and real is real. And the two should, in Clint’s opinion, never meet.
He sighs and slips into the ridiculous orange swim trunks he just bought half an hour ago at Target. The only color left this late in the summer. UVA Cavaliers insignia down the side. What kind of lame mascot is a Cavalier anyway, he thinks, as he pulls on his own black t-shirt and tugs it down to cover as much of the swimsuit as possible.
He is going to open the door and tell Coulson to his face that this is a mistake. Thanks a lot, but he does not want to go on a fucking picnic at the beach with his handler. This is just seriously not going to happen, so we should get on the road and see if we can get to DC by dinner time. If Coulson asks why--why Clint is not going to do this picnic thing? The answer is: Because Clint is a trained warrior, not a thirteen-year-old girl.
And because Clint can tread water okay in a pool or a lake, but the Atlantic goddamn Ocean is a whole other story. He’s from Iowa, for god’s sake. Oceans of corn there, not oceans of ocean.
Coulson knocks on the door of the changing room. “You coming out sometime this century, Barton? I’ve got the cooler and the blanket. We don’t have that much time before sunset.”
“Yeah. Uh huh. Y-Yeah, I’m ready,” Clint hears himself stuttering. Shit.
He walks out into the sun and sees the weathered gray wooden walkway that leads towards the dunes and the shimmering strip of blue Atlantic beyond. Hears a few gulls and smells salt and coconut-scented lotion and orange soda. He thinks for a moment he can maintain the calm, he can get through this op alive. Then Phil steps in front of him.
“Barton, you look like a Halloween party. Take off that stupid t-shirt—it’s 90 degrees—you’ll broil in it.”
“I’m fine, sir.” Clint snaps. He is not taking fashion tips from a man who owns twelve identical black suits and one pair of jeans. Which he irons before wearing, for fuck’s sake. And he is not going to get caught staring. Phil Coulson looks like a goddamn Ralph Lauren underwear ad all of a sudden, with his red board shorts and clear blue eyes. His perfect broad shoulders and sculpted calves. Clint is not thinking at this moment about the way the hair on those calves might feel against his cheek or about taking a bite out of his handler’s ass. He may have some self-esteem problems, but he’s not suicidal.
“Let’s go.” Clint drops his sunglasses from his forehead to his eyes, grabs the cooler of drinks and snacks from Coulson, and marches to the water. He’s remembering Tasha’s words: “Man up, Barton.” If he can handle North Korean assassins, he can handle three or four hours at the beach with Phil Coulson.
* * * * *
Clint is now reluctantly pulling off his t-shirt because Coulson is right, as usual. It's broiling. Once he puts his feet into the cool water, it's better, though. And now he's glancing back at the beach where Coulson's setting up their camp and can’t help grinning. Coulson is obviously in heaven. He grew up in California—somewhere around San Diego, Clint thinks. So this is probably how he spent his childhood. Clint only remembers seeing one family picture in Coulson’s spartan office—but now that he thinks about it, it was of a teenage Coulson—with a whole hell of a lot more blonde hair—with Dad and two sisters. Smiling. Big blue ocean in the background. Clint doesn’t know if Mom was taking the picture or gone entirely. He wishes he knew, but doesn’t know why he wishes that.
In his usual efficient, neatnik style, Coulson is crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. He chooses a spot to the south, away from the few families and singles scattered nearby. He spreads their cheap cotton blanket on the sand and anchors it at each corner with one of their flip-flops, Cooler with the makeshift dinner at twelve-o’clock, towels folded neatly and stacked at six o'clock. Identical Nemo and Dory blue beach towels. Again, the only ones left at the store this late in the summer. It was either Nemo or Hello Kitty, and Clint and Coulson were on the same page on that choice, thank goodness.
Within about four minutes, the encampment is complete and Coulson is sprinting into the waves. Clint has never, in the four years they’ve worked together, seen the man laugh out loud like this. It makes his pulse beat faster. Makes him want to laugh too, but he doesn’t. He feels too much like an outsider, like maybe Coulson ought to be out here on his own, not stuck with one of the guys he babysits on a regular basis.
Still, when is Clint going to get the chance to hear that laugh again? Might as well enjoy it.
He stands in the water, watching Coulson swim out beyond the breaking waves into calmer swells, diving down and then bobbing back up. He’s motioning for Clint to come in and swim too, and Clint just shakes his head, content to feel the splashes against his ankles for awhile, enjoying the breeze coming off the water.
When Coulson starts coming towards him after about twenty minutes—riding a wave on his belly most of the way—Clint can feel panic rising, along with his cock. Jesus, the man’s skin is just practically glistening, and he’s pink already from the sun, and the muscles in his arms and chest look lean and hard. Fuck. This is trouble.
Coulson yells out, “Ready to eat?”
Clint yells back quickly, before Coulson can get close enough to see him flushed and shaking. Before he can make out the outline of an erection in his stupid orange swimsuit. “I’m gonna take a run. You go ahead. I’ll be back in a little while.” And he turns and starts jogging at a good clip, putting some distance between himself and his desire.
He keeps running until he’s gone three or four miles, and his cock is flaccid, and he's too exhausted to entertain the urgent fantasies about getting Coulson out of his shorts. He turns around and thinks if he walks back at a leisurely pace, it’ll be about time to leave—about sunset—when he reaches their spot. They’ll pack up and drive north and things will be normal again. One of them might even sleep while the other drives. Or Clint will pretend to sleep, but he’ll watch Coulson’s face lit up by headlights in the dark all night.
But before he reaches their spot—about fifty yards away—he sees an empty lifeguard tower with a dark blue umbrella and a broad platform around the chair, and he can’t resist. He’s at the top in a quick couple of leaps and suddenly, predictably so much more at ease. He loves being able to keep watch over everything going on up and down the beach. In other words, keep watch over Coulson.
From this perch he can see Coulson treading water and occasionally swimming crossways against the pull of the tide. Looks like he’s had a couple of the beers. Clint can see the empty bottles leaning against the cooler. The sun is starting to burnish the sky a beautiful, rich orange with purple streaks. Clint leans back in his nest and closes his eyes. It feels so good to relax after the long run, after feeling so keyed up and nervous around Coulson all day. Good to be alone.
When Clint wakes up a half hour later, Coulson is tapping a cold bottle of beer against Clint’s leg.
“Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.”
Phil is climbing up to the platform and before Clint can really gather his wits and regain consciousness, Coulson is balancing on a small ledge behind the lifeguard chair, legs spread wide, around Clint's shoulders. If Clint leans back six inches, the back of his head will be in Coulson’s crotch. Jesus H. Christ. His arms are brushing lightly against Coulson’s legs. There's a ticklish friction. Clint can feel the arousal returning. And the panic. What. The. Actual. Fuck?
Clint starts to move forward in the chair, getting ready to climb down, but Coulson won’t allow it. He grips Clint’s left shoulder, settles him back into the chair and puts a cold Corona in his hand.
“Relax, Barton. You’ve got a great view up here. Let’s sit for awhile and enjoy it. I want to talk to you, anyway.”
Even when Clint leans back and grunts a reluctant okay, Coulson’s hand doesn’t leave his shoulder. It’s just there, resting. Cold and wet from carrying the icey bottles.
Clint knows he’s trembling a little, so he says quickly. “Starting to cool off now, huh?”
And now there’s this almost imperceptible pressure from Coulson’s knee against Clint’s other shoulder. And Clint feels as though he’s trapped by those two sensations. And like he will maybe, for real die if he moves away from them. Or if he acknowledges this is happening. Whatever this is. He swallows down half the Corona in one gulp, and waits what seems like hours for Coulson to speak.
But he doesn’t speak. Instead he removes his hand from Clint’s shoulder (and Clint basically has to bite his lip to stop himself whimpering when that happens) but starts running fingertips through Clint’s hair, moving slowly up from the back of his neck to the top of his head. Smooth, firm strokes. And Clint just has no choice but to drop his head forward and moan a little when Coulson stops to massage the knot at the top of Clint’s spine.
He now is pretty sure this is not happening. He still can’t find a place in his brain to process it, make it fit. So as he does in the field, when he’s lost or anxious or confused, he starts talking to Coulson, his voice wavering slightly at first.
“So you like the ocean, huh? Spent a lot of time on the beach when you were a kid?”
Coulson puts his empty bottle down and lays both hands on Clint now, kneading his shoulders and gently caressing his neck and throat. His voice is quiet, without its usual tinge of sarcasm. “Yeah. I love it. It feels like home to me. When I’ve got my feet planted exactly where the waves are coming in, meeting the sand and washing it clean—that’s when I feel really okay, peaceful—you know?”
Clint doesn’t know. He doesn’t have a place like that, has never had a place where he felt like that, that he can remember. So he shrugs a little shrug and hopes Coulson will just keep talking.
And he does.
“In college, I started out in the sciences, to make my Dad happy. He was a biology teacher. But I never had the heart for it. I was always better with people than in labs. I took this ethics class for science majors—environmental ethics, it was called, and I liked it. We read about humans and nature. The way people love certain landscapes. Topophilia they call it. You know what I mean?”
Clint shakes his head. He has no idea what the man is talking about, and normally he'd start an argument--just for the sake of sparring. But right now his brain isn’t actually functioning at full capacity, seeing as how all the blood in his body is in his cock.
Coulson is cupping Clint’s jaw and chin and pulling him back so he’s nestled more snuglybetween Coulson’s thighs. Hands traveling down to massage his chest and biceps now. Clint is a hundred percent sure that this is a hallucination. Like maybe they didn't really complete the op, and maybe he is unconscious right now in an alley and this is one hell of a gorgeous dream. Or maybe he's in a coma. He decides he should try to talk--to see if people can talk while in a coma.
“Sorry, Coulson. I don’t get it,” whispers Clint. “Like, love of tops?”
Coulson snorts and tugs Clint's hair. “No, not exactly. Just a feeling of attachment to a landscape, same as you’d have for a person. For me it’s coastlines, beaches. Any place where the ocean seems to go on forever—where that’s all you see on the horizon.. Make sense now?”
Clint can see the idea in theory, but it’s still weird. There is no place on Earth he has any more attachment to than his bunk back at SHIELD headquarters—and that’s a cramped, ugly cubicle that hasn’t gotten new rugs or wallpaper since the Berlin Wall came down. The closest Clint can come to the feeling Coulson is talking about is maybe the hayloft in his uncle’s barn in Iowa. He would go up there when he was little—right after his folks died, but before the round robin of foster homes started—and look out over the corn fields and gravel roads toward the horizon. Up high like that, he could see possibilities, escape routes. But he doesn’t think that’s going to make a lot of sense to Coulson, so he keeps his mouth shut.
Coulson rests his hands softly in Clint’s hair for a few minutes, then starts pulling his fingers through again.
“I think I like the vastness of it. The sea. It’s like the work we do. I like knowing there’s something huge out there, something a whole lot bigger and more important than I am. But that I’m hovering around the edges of it, watching. And if I dip my toe in or swim around for awhile—I have an effect, but not much of an effect—in the big scheme of things . . . Same with S.H.I.E.L.D. Mostly I just watch what you guys do—you and Romanov and the rest—and I’m really amazed. Feel lucky every time I walk out the door with you guys.”
What in the name of heaven? Clint thinks, willing his brain to engage again. Clint wants to turn around and call Coulson on this bullshit, but he can’t yet move. So he grumbles into his chest, “What the hell are you talking about? You’re like the most important guy at S.H.I.E.L.D. You plan the logistics, you implement, you handle the diva personalities, including Fury's, you pull everyone’s ass out of the fire on a regular basis, and you’re almost as good as Tasha with a handgun. And now you’re out of your mind. Jesus, you are S.H.I.E.L.D. as far as that goes. I wouldn’t stick around for five minutes if you weren’t there.”
Coulson laughs and clears his throat. "I guess I think of you as the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D, Clint. The kind of hero I've always admired--ever since I was a kid. You were dealt a very bad hand, but you've played it better than anyone else could." There is a long pause, and he seems to be on the verge of saying something else. Clint feels his own pulse pounding at his temples and his heartbeat speeding. He is warm, despite the breeze. The sun is almost completely down now, behind them to the west. Color is draining from the sky.
Coulson awkwardly and abruptly moves off his perch behind Clint and sits down on the platform beside him. Puts a hand on Clint’s knee. “I’ve wanted to ask you something for awhile Clint, but I never, ever want to put our working partnership at risk, so . . .”
Clint does not want to hear this. Those voices in his head are at war and drowning out everything else. He doesn't belong here, can never belong here. Next to Phil Coulson. But it feels like something's changing between them, and the badass take-no-prisoners voice is telling him to climb on top of Coulson and seize the target. But part of him still wants to climb down from this fucking tower and get away. This seems like it has to be a joke his warped, mindfucked brain is playing on him, and he cannot let himself entertain any other possibility. Every muscle in his body tenses again. "When in doubt," the voice of experience breaks through, "listen to Coulson." So he listens.
“I want you to tell me if I’m way out of line here, Clint. I think you see where I’m headed, even though I’m not saying it well. Or saying it at all, I guess.” Coulson is blushing and rubbing the knuckles of Clint’s right hand.
“You have permission to treat me like a colleague—a friend—not your superior right now. Okay? Say the word, Clint, and I swear on the patron saint of crossbows and Nick Fury’s good eye that I won’t ever mention it—or try to touch you—again. Clint, are you listening to me?”
Clint doesn't have a chance to answer or think after that, except to lean into the kisses that Coulson is pressing to his jaw, his neck, his lips. Coulson’s hands are all over him again, and Clint’s mouth is opening and everything is wet, slick, and warm between them now. Everything is yes and more and harder. The friction of his own stubble against Coulson’s smooth cheek. The slide of his hands across Coulson’s ribs and up over the broad planes of his shoulder blades.
For awhile it’s just all gasping and touching every place Clint’s wanted to touch for maybe a thousand years. They’re both desperate as their hands move near the waistbands of their swimsuits. "People," Coulson manages to hiss into Clint's ear as he stops Clint from reaching in to grasp his cock. Christ, Clint realizes, there are still toddlers and golden retrievers twenty yards away. They both sit still for a moment, holding on, breathing. They shouldn't really do anything more than PG kissing here, Clint thinks. Jesus, they are thirteen-year-old girls. But they don’t want to go anywhere else yet, don’t want break contact.
Clint is cursing and Coulson is laughing again. Finally, the handler pulls away, gasping, and says, in perfect deadpan Coulsonspeak, “So you’re okay with this?”
Clint wants to toss him off the tower and fuck him into next year right there on the beach in front of the dogs and the old ladies and their weird floppy hats.
But he doesn’t. Barely manages not to. He just buries his head in the crook of Coulson’s neck and sucks a little purple souvenir. “Yeah. Good. I’m good with this, if you are.”
And he realizes that in the last few minutes, Coulson has started calling him “Clint.” So he swallows and presses his lips to Coulson’s ear and says. “I’m okay with this, Phil.” And Phil takes that as a signal to climb inside Clint's mouth and set up a new outpost.
* * * * *
When they finally stagger back to the car, aching hard and dizzy, they use as few words as possible to agree on the Motel 6 they saw just off the interstate about twelve miles away. Clint thinks he can go into mission mode and get his mind and body in control faster than Phil can, so he takes the keys and shoves Phil into the passenger seat.
Clint decides maybe he should say something before they get to the motel and his mouth is too busy to talk for the rest of the night. He should say something other than the curses he can’t seem to stop repreating every time Phil touches him.
Clint keeps his eyes on the road, but holds Phil’s left hand while he’s driving. Trigger finger callous. Yep. Blister on the palm. Clint doesn’t know what that’s from. Needs to know. Soon. Scar—a long one, on his thumb. Clint knows that scar. It’s from their second mission together. Barbed wire. He wants to run his tongue over that scar, wants to take Coulson’s fingers into his mouth one by one, and see if he can make him come just sucking them. He'll taste briney, like the Atlantic.
But first he thinks, yeah, maybe he should say something.
“Phil,” that name coming out of his mouth still makes Clint's stomach flip. “I was thinking about what you were talking about before. I know it's not the right way to think of it--like, you're not a landscape, or a place, really . . . " He fumbles for the right words, and Phil squeezes his hand tight. "But basically anywhere you are—you and Tasha—that’s the place that’s home to me. The only place that's home. As long as I can hear you breathing on the comms. As long as I know at the end of the day we're gonna be standing in the same place--you and me and Tasha--I'm good. I'm happy."
Phil is smiling when Clint glances over at him, but doesn't respond. They drive in silence for a minute or two, and then Phil unlocks the glove compartment and pulls out a package of mini chocolate doughnuts. He tears open the package and offers Clint one, sliding it into his mouth. It's warm from sitting in the car all day, and the chocolate melts on contact with Clint's tongue. Phil drags a chocolate-covered finger across Clint's lips, bringing back his hard-on instantly. And now there's a new glint in Phil's eye.
“I hear you, Clint. You're happy as long as we're together. And as long as I let your paperwork slide, let you take a shot whenever you damn well please, give you all the time in the shooting range you want, requisition the most expensive new arrows on the market, keep Tasha off your back about your coffee habit, and . . .”
“And let me fuck you through the mattress on a regular basis,” Clint interrupts, deadly serious.
“I’ll sign off on that,” says Phil, shoving another doughnut in Clint’s mouth.
Clint realizes he's not panicking anymore, he's got his shit together now, ready to engage the target. He pulls into the parking lot and stops the car. Turns to look at Phil, who has a chocolate stripe on his lower lip too, and Clint thinks that'll be a good place to start.
"I have to admit, I'm a little nervous," says Phil, sliding a palm up Clint's arm.
Clint nods and smiles. "Relax, Agent Coulson. You're in good hands."