One: the old ‘catching up’ ploy
Clint approached Coulson with polite deference. Coulson had been one of the first SHIELD personnel that Clint had met after his recruitment. He was also, as far as Clint was concerned, awe-inducing and more than a little crush-worthy. “Agent Coulson, sir?”
Agent Coulson didn’t look up for the clipboard he was scribbling on. “What is it, Barton?”
“Well, I was thinking that, since I completed your training module last month, we haven’t really had a chance to hang out.”
“And what a tragedy that’s been,” Coulson replied without missing a beat, that dry bluntness that Clint had tried to convince several other new recruits was actually a sense of humour.
“Right!” Clint aimed his most charming smile at Coulson, who still hadn’t looked up from his paperwork. “So I was thinking we should catch up. Grab something to eat.”
Clint kept his smile firmly in place. “Or a drink?”
“Or maybe-?” But Coulson had already handed the clipboard back to Clint’s handler, and turned away without another word. Clint watched him walk across the hot asphalt, a figure of sharp lines and deep black against the summer landscape.
“Smooth, kid,” Agent Sandler said, punching Clint in the arm. Clint finally allowed his smile to slip. Still, it could have been worse.
Two: the ‘we should celebrate!’ excuse
“Well,” Natasha said as she hauled herself to her feet. “That went better than I expected.”
“How?” Clint asked, sprawled out amongst the debris beside her. “What could you possibly expect that this is better?”
Natasha hauled him up by the front of his shirt, and held him steady as he got his feet under him. “Well, for one thing, you still haven’t gotten around to assassinating me. And neither of us has lost a leg. Yet.”
Clint groaned, wiping blood out of one eye with the palm of his hand and only succeeding in adding gravel to the situation. “You just had to go there, didn’t you? If you’ve freaking jinxed us...”
Five hours later and Natasha had a dislocated shoulder. Clint had torn muscle and bone from the ligament in his ankle. One of them had ripped an important-sounding muscle in their abdomen, but by that point the painkillers were kicking in and Clint figured that keeping tally of injuries was kind of childish, really.
“I hope you’re happy with yourselves,” Coulson said. He had his arms crossed over his chest. He was still, and calm, and spoke with a light, non-threatening voice. Which meant that he was really, really pissed.
“Very happy, sir,” ‘Tasha said from the other bed. “Practically chipper, sir.”
“Definitely feeling peppy, sir,” Clint added, trying to find a comfortable position on the cot and only finding increasingly uncomfortable ones.
“This mission has been a fiasco. I am personally ashamed to be associated with you. You not only failed to achieve both the alpha and the beta objectives, you disrupted a UN summit, set fire to an art gallery, decimated the stare library, and shot a children’s television host.”
“With all due respect sir, that last one was probably for the greater good.”
“Hawk-face is right. Children’s television just isn’t what it used to be.”
“You’re lucky that you didn’t get each other killed, though that would have at least taken care of the beta objective.” Clint could understand Coulson’s annoyance. Clint was usually a lot better at killing people. In his defence, the surprise Nazi robot attack had really messed with his schedule. “I am going to make it my personal mission to ensure that you both regret escaping this debacle with your lives.”
“That’s great, sir, really,” Clint said, waving a hand at his boss. “But we didn’t ruin the whole city or anything.”
“I’m sure I saw at least one nightclub opening as we were carried back to base,” Natasha added.
“See? We could go clubbing. In fact, since we’re lucky to be alive and all, we really should be celebrating.”
Coulson gave Clint a cold look. “You want to celebrate your single-handed destruction of Budapest?”
“Technically, sir, there were two of us.”
“She’s right. That makes it four hands.”
“Four hands at least.”
“So what about that drink, sir? Can I call you ‘Coulson’?”
“Fine. We can go a few rounds with me calling you ‘sir’. It’s kinda kinky.”
“Or maybe even just a coffee?”
Clint paused, stumped, until Natasha chimed in. “You could feed us ice chips? Keep us hydrated. Make us heal up faster for whatever punishment you come up with.”
“I think you might go into holding?” Clint said, rolling his head to one side to look at her with his good eye.
“I’m okay with that,” Natasha replied. “I could use the vacation. Just remember to keep slipping these painkillers under the door. You Americans are always so good at patching people back up.”
Coulson levelled a glare at her. “In all honesty, if the two of you were to die quietly here? That would make my life so much easier.” And then, Coulson turned sharply on his heel and left.
“... You know what?” Clint called after him. “Forget the drink. We can do a brunch date later.”
Natasha settled back into her cot. “Don’t worry,” she said, her Russian accent already smoothing out into something pan-Atlantic. “He finds us funny.”
“You think so?”
She nodded. “At the very least, he’d miss us if we were dead.”
Three: the ‘at least buy me a drink first’ card
“I hate to break it to you, boss, but you’ve got a choice of either me or death.”
“Shoot me now,” Coulson mumbled in response. His words were starting to slur together. His pupils were blown, and while Clint had been a big fan of Coulson’s eyes for several years (a wonderful sea-grey iris, with fascinating flecks of brown that Clint could stare into and map out happily for days on end) he was appreciating the new take on the theme. It was arousal. Full-bodied, directionless arousal.
It turned out that a) sex-pollen existed, b) the R and D technical pool had been pushing for a raise, and c) had sought to speed along negotiations by c.1) spiking several key coffee stocks with the ends of c.2) upping the stakes. Then someone had died of heart failure caused by cytokine saturation bringing on muscular burnout. Clint suspected that the negotiations would not end in the technicians’ favour.
They stood staring at one another – Coulson pressed back against the wall of his office, Clint standing in the middle of the room. Coulson didn’t even look dishevelled. Clint had seen Agent Sitwell on the way in, and the man had been half-naked and sweating like a bull. Coulson wasn’t his usual calm self, was glancing away sharply at sudden noises and breathing deeply through parted lips, but his suit was immaculate and the knot of his tie sat neatly in place. Clint’s fingers itched with the urge to reach out and mess him up a little, to unbutton him and let loose the flood of whatever lay inside.
“Natasha found the notes. It said that all you need is a controlled burn-off of the hormones.” Coulson stared at him, lust fighting scepticism, and Clint could just feel in his bones how desperately Coulson wanted to hide this vulnerability away behind a pair of sunglasses. “It specifically mentioned using sex to help clear the system. Or orgasms, really.”
Coulson licked his lips. Clint tracked the movement with his eyes. The temperature in the room went up by several degrees. “And I need you for this, because?”
“While I am confident that you know the basics of this kind of thing,” Clint said with a smirk, “as with most sex acts, testing showed that greater intensity was achieved while with a partner. And face it, I’m going to have to stand here watching to make sure you don’t die first anyway.”
“They warned me,” Coulson said absently.
Clint stepped closer, putting a hand on Coulson’s chest. The man’s eyes fluttered closed at the contact, and Clint could feel Phil’s skin burning through the rich cotton of his shirt. “Warned you?”
“When I joined SHIELD. They warned me that there would be days like this.”
“Days where you feel like you have to fuck or you’ll die? Just think of it as puberty all over again.”
Coulson snorted a laugh, a delightfully inelegant sound that Clint felt ridiculously proud of setting free. “Days when you miss a normal life, normal problems.” Coulson’s fingers tangled themselves in the straps of Clint’s field uniform, and Clint shivered at the touch of knuckles resting against his side, his thigh. Coulson was apparently distracted by the line of Clint’s neck, then the curve of a bicep, tracing it with fever-hot fingertips. “Always wondered,” he said softly, and Clint had no idea if that was a sentence fragment or a whole concept being put before him.
He’d be lying if he said he had no problems with this, if he would ever want this thing handed to him this way. But it was life or death, and it was Coulson. And Clint was more than familiar with meaningless sex by that stage of his life. He could handle the situation.
“Look at it this way,” Clint said, because for some reason shooting his mouth off had always been a comfort to him, “there’s one normal-life problem that you’re side stepping right now.”
“Mm?” Coulson leaned in, pressed his nose to the underside of Clint’s jaw. Clint could feel Coulson’s breath against his throat, could feel his grip tightening and his hardness pressing against Clint’s thigh.
“Yeah,” Clint replied, his voice a little hoarse. “Usually I’d be asking for dinner and movie first.”
Coulson laughed, a low and throaty rumble at the absurdity of the idea, and Clint focussed on that sound, repeated it in his mind to distract him from the way his heart sank.
Four: a ‘group event’ that turns out to be a group of two
“For future reference, dinner and a movie does not count as an appropriate team building exercise,” Coulson said, his hands shoved deep in the pants pockets of his suit. It was the most casual posture Clint had ever seen him in. “Especially when the team doesn’t attend.”
“Look, I invited everyone. I was super organized,” Clint said stubbornly. And he had been. It had taken a lot of organisation to situate himself as the secretary of the field division social club. And more organisation and some quite persuasive arguments to convince the social club that allowing twenty field agents to enter a cinema at once and then occupy a nearby restaurant afterwards was a good idea. In fact, it had probably been the best example of hostile negotiations that Clint had ever been involved in.
And then, of course, it had taken an awful lot of organisation to spread conflicting messages about the date, and the time, and the location, and the movie involved (the key was to never put anything in writing for people to refer back to). Finally, it had been near impossible to give the supervising field agent food poisoning (though Natasha had pulled through on that one) and then ensure that Coulson was given the responsibility of babysitting a bunch of grown adults who killed and exploded things for a living. Thankfully, he had been in Agent Hill’s bad books at the time, and it had only taken one mention that Coulson had refused to be involved in any of the social club’s activities for her to thrust him into the thick of it.
All in all, it had taken weeks of work for Clint to get Phil to be in the same place, at the same time as him, without any good excuse for the other agent to disappear. It had taken a lot of planning and a lot of cunning (and had been, largely, Natasha’s idea).
“I hope you had no aspirations to be a handler,” Coulson said as he idly watched the crowd of civilians milling through the cinema foyer. “Because this is not filling me with hope for you.”
“And wind up like you?” Clint shot back. “No thanks.”
Because Clint, he had... they had... Clint, as it turned out, wasn’t as good at meaningless sex as he had hoped. And while Coulson had always generally avoided being sociable with the vast majority of SHIELD staff, Clint couldn’t help but take that personally now. He had expected that naked bodies and grinding hips and Phil’s goddamned desk and the way Phil had groaned “Clint, Clint,” into his ear might have maybe changed the game a little. He’d kind of expected a conversation about it, at least. The world’s most awkward debriefing (and oh, considering that Phil’s hand had been inside Clint’s pants? Had grasped him and stroked him through his underwear? Had shoved it down with a wet gasp and a hot press of skin against skin? Clint was no longer able to hear Coulson say ‘debriefing’ without getting mildly, shamefully aroused).
Clint hadn’t expected Coulson to act like nothing had happened, to treat him with the same tolerant sarcasm and that impenetrable air of professionalism. If Coulson had decided that nothing had changed between them, then Clint could play that game. He would stick to his plan of courting Coulson with the power of persistence like he always had.
Coulson pulled a hand out of his pocket, checked his watch, and stepped away from the wall. “That’s half an hour. I’m done.”
“No one’s turned up,” Coulson explained. “Event cancelled.”
“I turned up!” Clint protested.
“You organised it. You don’t count.”
“There’s two of us. We could still see the movie,” Clint insisted. That had, in fact, been the plan.
“Enjoy your film,” Coulson replied. “I’m going home.”
Five: ‘It’ll be good for the workplace environment’
“You two can sit the hell down and listen, or you can both pack up and go home.” Fury glared at them both from where he stood behind his desk. How he glared at two people with only one eye was beyond Clint. He supposed it was that kind of skill that got Fury the top job. Opening a meeting with a scary level of aggression probably also helped. Clint had no idea what he’d done wrong this time. Coulson was already seated in one of the two chairs in front of Fury’s desk. Clint flopped down into the other one with a petulant sigh.
“Lose the attitude, Barton. In fact, both of you can drop whatever it is that’s fucking things up right now.”
There was a pause. Coulson broke it. “I was unaware there was a problem, sir.”
“I doubt that,” Fury replied. “Your mission success rate has gone to hell. You,” he pointed at Clint, “have apparently forgotten over the past year how to follow orders. And you,” he jabbed a finger at Coulson, “let him get away with it.”
Ah. Fury had probably gotten the bill for that fuck up out in Delaware. Phil kept his mouth shut and Clint followed suit.
Fury leaned forwards, resting his knuckles on the matte surface of his desk. “You have both been very, very promising agents,” he said in a low, intent voice. “And I do not want to see you both get thrown to the curb because for some reason things have stopped working.”
Clint hadn’t been told off like this before, with the suffocating weight of disappointment and concern stealing his words and pressing him down. He stared at his boots. He wondered if having actual parents who gave a shit felt like this. He stole a glance over at Coulson, who seemed as unaffected as ever. Coulson, who was looking at Fury thoughtfully.
It became apparent that Fury was waiting for one of them to speak.
“I will admit,” Clint said slowly as he returned his gaze to his own boots, “that there has been a... loss of respect towards Agent Coulson.” That seemed to be an adequate euphemism, and not one entirely lacking in accuracy. When Clint had been new to SHIELD, had first been placed under Coulson’s guidance, he’d been ecstatic. Coulson who was smart about people instead of just smart about shooting at them. Coulson who had been unruffled even when Clint had been convinced that he was dying, and had a sense of humour so sly that he seemed legitimately surprised whenever someone noticed that he’d made a joke. Coulson with the soft hair, and the designer suits, and those fucking incredible eyes that never (only once) gave away any uncontrolled trace of emotion.
Clint had been smitten, and he’d fallen into the old pattern of earning attention through disobedience, proving his worth by going his own way. Coulson told him to use a gun, Clint used a bow. Coulson told him to stand down, Clint would take down the target if he saw the chance. He hadn’t seen the harm because they still got things done. Coulson had never stopped trying to explain to Clint that the success of a mission was judged on more than just objectives achieved.
“It’s very easy to forget, while Agent Coulson is sitting in a nice, air-conditioned control room in a nice, safe environment, that he actually knows what he’s talking about.” The words hung in the room, and Clint hoped that they stung.
He could feel the weight of Fury staring at him, and the absence of Phil’s gaze as he watched Fury in turn. “If I recall,” Fury said quietly, “you specifically requested to work with Agent Coulson.”
“I did,” Clint replied. “I had a lot of respect for him as a teacher. I still think he has a lot that he could teach me if we were given the opportunity.” He didn’t hold his breath, because it would be foolish to do so in a room filled with people who were very well trained in body language. Clint was working on the assumption that Fury wanted a fix, and would follow the lead to the simplest solution: put the two of them through training, get some more planning sessions before a mission. Something along those lines. As far as Clint was concerned, his crush on Coulson wasn’t more important than his career. If they spent enough time around each other, if Clint forced his mind to stay on topic, things would go back to normal eventually.
“I’m sure that if I threw the two of you out in the desert and made you walk back, you’d damn well learn a lot from each other.”
Clint grinned. “I’ve always liked camping.”
“Or we could save everyone a lot of time,” Coulson said, in that smooth, quiet voice of his, “and just process a reassignment.”
Clint’s heart clenched in his chest.
“Barton worked very well with Agent Sandler, and while that work is well below Barton’s skill grade now, Agent Sandler could perhaps be persuaded to step up.”
Clint frowned. “I get chewed out for not following orders, and then you want me to train up my next handler? No way. Not even I think that’s a good idea.”
“Agent Miano is always keen to work with new agents,” Coulson informed Fury.
“Uh, yeah. That’s because she keeps breaking all of her old ones. She rides them hard and puts them away wet.”
Coulson didn’t even look at him, just directed a small nod at Fury. “Agent Barton has always been a very tenacious and versatile operative.” And what a complete lack of emotion saturated that assessment. Clint felt the back of his neck burn. He was sure that, despite his best efforts, his face was pulled into what Natasha classed as one of his scarier neutral expressions.
“So that’s it? You’d rather ship me off than hash out whatever’s going on?” Because Clint knew that it had already been decided, he knew it from the way Fury had taken one long look at Coulson and then slid into the chair behind his desk.
“I don’t see the point in wasting any more time,” Coulson replied.
Zero: The easy way is always the hardest
“I don’t see the point in wasting any more vodka,” Natasha said firmly.
“Yes, you do,” Clint replied. His voice was hoarse and his face was morose. “You always see the point in wasting vodka with me. I am the perfect person to waste things on.”
“You’re too drunk for me to beat some sense into, and too senseless for me to drink with,” she replied as she steered Clint out of the bar and into the humid night air beyond. As far as Clint was concerned, Miami was a nice stop over but he’d go crazy if he had to live there.
“Who else is going to put up with me?” Clint asked, his eyes closed, enjoying the feel of the night air on his face.
It wasn’t Natasha who replied. “Of all the things to get dragged into on my night off.”
Clint kept his eyes closed, not willing to see the reaction to the incredibly pained look he knew crossed his face like a blatant sign. He felt sick. He felt drunk, and silly, and small, and useless. He felt an awful lot like kicking Natasha’s ass for setting him up, though not stupid enough to follow that impulse.
“I thought that Agent Coulson didn’t take nights off,” Clint replied. His mouth felt dry, his voice didn’t sound right to his own ears.
“Aren’t we both lucky that I decided to buck the trend?” Coulson replied dryly. Clint didn’t smile. He opened his eyes and saw that Natasha had already left them. He patted his pockets and learned that she’d liberated his wallet in the process. He sighed deeply, and didn’t feel much better for the experience.
“I can walk home.”
“Good. If you can walk the twelve-hundred miles back to your quarters-” because, right, Miami, “-then you can make it two blocks.” Coulson stared at him patiently, and Clint caved like he always had. Coulson had a special kind of patience that was so foreign to Clint, one that was still and quiet and full of promise.
“Where are we going?” Clint asked as he fell into step behind Coulson.
“The nearest SHIELD safe house.”
“Is it nice?”
“It’s nice enough.”
“And you’re going to dump me and run?”
“Because I currently live there.”
Clint stopped dead, and Coulson looked back at him with bland calmness. So Coulson had his game face on. Interesting. “Sorry,” Clint said, starting forwards again. “If I knew that all it needed to get an invite back to your place was getting drunk and mopey, I would have skipped straight to that instead of asking you out all the time.”
“I’m sure that would have taken the fun out of the game,” Coulson replied.
Clint snorted. “I’m not sure how you do dating, but the fun part is usually when the other person takes you up on an offer and you, you know, have fun.”
“I don’t see a lot of fun in setting myself up for failure,” Coulson returned mildly. If Coulson wasn’t so persistent in saying things that cut so deeply, Clint would happily listen to his voice all night. On past occasions, he had listened to Phil’s voice all night. He’d mouthed off just so he could hear the quiet instructions to shut up, tinted with the kind of soft irritation that could so easily be mistaken for fondness.
“Right,” he said. “Of course. What are you doing in Miami, anyway?”
“That’s classified,” Phil returned predictably. “You?”
Phil nodded. “This is why no one in SHIELD dates the home team.”
“I thought it was just because all of those other government agencies had hotter uniforms.” It was the first time that Clint had been in casual clothes around Coulson without it being part of a cover. He was glad that he’d worn his good jeans, and hated that he even cared.
Phil glanced over at Clint. “The SHIELD dress code carries a certain charm,” he said at last.
“You just say that because you never get out of those fucking suits,” Clint replied, even though he knew the statement to be wildly inaccurate. For starters, he’d seen Coulson in the field uniform more than once, and in conclusion, Coulson was at that moment walking beside him in a polo shirt and slacks. It was the first time Clint had ever seen Coulson in casual clothes, and that included the one time that Clint had followed Coulson home and watched him through the windows. Clint’s crush had, in retrospect, been quite creepy in its youth.
“It takes a lot to get me out of a suit,” Coulson agreed, and Clint had to literally bite his tongue because it was cruel, cruel for Coulson to be saying such things around him.
“How come-” Clint cut himself off, considered his options, and decided to barrel ahead regardless. He was less than sober, the night was hot and sweaty, and Clint was seeing Coulson’s forearms for maybe the third time in his life. “Home come you never just tell anyone that you’re just not interested?”
“What do you mean?” And of course he would ask for clarification. Of course he would drag it all out to get every gritty, awful grain of truth.
“When people ask you out. You always say ‘no’, but you never say ‘no, fuck off’, or ‘no, stop asking, or ‘no, you have no hope, leave this place’.”
Coulson was silent as they walked, though when Clint looked over he saw that the man was considering his answer. Clint could read that from the lines by his mouth, the way he took note of harmless things in their environment.
“For whatever reason, a lot of junior agents take an interest in me. Miano tells me it’s because I don’t yell enough.”
“Miano is a psychopath.”
“But, in the majority of cases, all it takes is a ‘no’ and they go away.”
Clint kicked at a can that lay on the footpath. “What about the ones who aren’t so smart? Why don’t you ever just spell it out?” Because this was important, Clint realised. He could live with the knowledge that he wasn’t good enough, or wasn’t Coulson’s type, or the right gender. Whatever. But he couldn’t understand why Coulson had let Clint make a fool of himself for years.
“If their interest continues to the point where it's annoying, I taze them,” Coulson replied. Coulson was indeed quick with a taser. Coulson was quite an advocate of non-lethal force, and had ended conflicts with anything from a library book to a teddy bear. When Agent Coulson wanted you out of his space, he made sure that you’d have a nice long time to think about what you’d done.
“You never tased me,” Clint replied sullenly.
“No,” Coulson agreed. “I did not.”
“Why?” Clint wondered if that little amount of energy could have been more than Coulson was willing to give him. Maybe Clint was an extra kind of pathetic, and Coulson got some amusement out of watching him beg.
And then Clint looked over, ready to start yelling and kicking up a fuss, and Coulson was giving him that look. Clint had fallen for it right back in his first days at SHIELD, going through induction and training and selection. And when he’d asked Coulson a question because he had been too lazy to figure out the answer on his own, Coulson had given him that look. The clear, unimpressed, ‘you’re smarter than this’ look. Coulson hadn’t tazed him. Because Coulson hadn’t...
Clint gaped at him. “Really?”
“You like me?”
“But it would have been foolish to accept the advances of a junior agent, and then it would have been a violation of my position as your handler to engage in any unprofessional conduct with you.”
Clint felt like he had stepped into a parallel universe. He tried to remember his training for that. He couldn’t see any incriminating portals anywhere. “Um.”
“This is us,” Coulson said as he pulled a swipe card from his pocket and beeped the door of the building open. It was nice, a professional apartment block designed for professionals who needed to change cities every few months.
“Wait, so, when you went and got me reassigned?”
Coulson looked over his shoulder at Clint, and smiled. It was a sweet, mild, non-threatening smile, and Clint could see right past it to the dark humour Coulson found in the situation. “I was sick of us wasting our time.” And by that, Clint realised, Coulson meant that he was sick of wanting and not having, he was sick of pursuit and being unable to respond. Clint closed his eyes, feeling sick, and dizzy, and still drunk, and a little bit too angry to see the funny side just yet. Because he had been reassigned months ago and he had been moping like he was on his death bed ever since.
“I am seriously thinking about killing you right now,” he said. “Really. Inflicting harm on you has just become a priority for me.”
“It’s nice to have goals,” Coulson replied.
“Seriously. We need to have some fucking words about communication right here. And you owe me for letting me fucking wallow in misery for months.”
“I apologise for assuming that you had read the handbook and would recognise my recent actions-”
“You owe me at least three blowjobs for this.”
“Our first domestic. Cute.” Coulson gave Clint an exasperated look. Well, exasperated for Coulson. “Are you coming up or not?”
It was the first time that Coulson had ever asked Clint a question outside of their work together. Clint damn well said ‘yes’.