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Love in the Three-Ninth Kingdom

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~~~~~~~

 

This is how things should have gone:

Coulson recruits Clint to SHIELD when he's still a field agent. They discover their mutual attraction right away and, years before Natasha ever meets them, resolve their UST into a happy and stable relationship.

If the world were a little more willing to turn Natasha's way, that's exactly what would have happened. Sadly, reality doesn't even come close.

~~~

This is how things could have gone:

Clint is sent to kill Natasha, but ends up making a different call. Coulson, who is no longer a field agent but not yet the one who pulls SHIELD's strings at Fury's side, surprises everyone, including himself, by finding that he's jealous. Since Coulson is a mature adult, he immediately asks Clint on a date. Clint agrees. All goes well. And Natasha never, ever has to deal with their drama.

She's not generally one to sigh and think, if only, but she's willing to make an exception.

~~~

This is how things go:

Coulson takes a vacation. Fury has to call him in the middle of the second week because Fury might be leading SHIELD but Coulson's the one who's running it. The issue is small but important, so Coulson agrees to come in for a few hours to take care of it.

Clint and Natasha have been sparring all morning and are heading out to lunch. They're in the lobby when Coulson strolls in, wearing jeans and a polo shirt and looking cheerfully relaxed, and because Natasha has been trained to notice everything around her she can see the exact moment Clint falls in love.

His steps falter slightly. His eyes widen, his breath catches. Tiny signs, but to her they might as well come with a brass band.

Coulson nods at them as he passes. "Romanoff. Barton."

"Coulson," they both say. Clint's voice is a little hoarse.

They all walk on, and it's not until they're a good distance down the street that Natasha turns to Clint and asks, "Really?"

Clint pulls a face, but nods. "It's... Haven't you ever looked at someone you've known for ages and suddenly they're everything you want?"

"No." Of course she hasn't. Love is a fairy tale. A popular one, it seems.

"Okay." Clint is silent for a moment. Then he offers, "It'll pass soon."

"I really don't care," she says, with a slight smile to take the sting out of her words.

"Yeah, you do." He grins at her and she ducks her head, but the truth is that she doesn't care. Not yet.

But then they haven't even begun to drive her crazy.

~~~

Clint's thing for Coulson doesn't go away.

A month passes, then two, then five, and Clint's thing for Coulson utterly fails to go away. They don't work with Coulson all that much – they don't even see each other all that often – but every time they do, Clint gets a slightly hopeful, slightly doomed look around the edges that's frankly a little disturbing.

"What are you doing?" Natasha finally asks when she finds him stuffing his gear bag with extra socks, extra ammo, and a handful of Captain America comics.

Clint looks down at the comics in his hand.

"He's a fan," he says defensively. "I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about."

"Of course." She flicks a lock of hair over her shoulder. "You're not at all going to ask him for his thoughts about the current storyline."

He deflates. She almost feels sorry for him.

"I want to talk to him," he says miserably. "I know it's stupid."

"It is," she agrees. She shrugs at his dark look. "You need a distraction. I'll ask Fury to assign us somewhere else after this mission."

If Clint gets Coulson out of his head for a few days, he'll get over this... infatuation. He just needs to think about something else for a while.

"You're a real pal," Clint mutters.

"Yes," she agrees again, and decides to burn the comics first chance she gets.

She's a good friend. It's not her fault if he can't see that.

~~~

Budapest is a distraction, and then some. Budapest is bad intel and a compromised safe house. Budapest is losing contact with SHIELD in the middle of a firefight. Budapest is playing dead for two days while they try to get access to a secure line. Budapest is Clint leaning heavily on her because he's got a bullet lodged in his hip and they didn't have the time to get it out.

Budapest is also where Coulson falls in love with Clint.

He's at the extraction point, waiting for them, and Natasha briefly wonders how many things went wrong behind the scenes that Coulson decided to organize their rescue himself. She doesn't have much time to waste on logistics, though. Clint is flagging fast and she herself is running on fumes.

She's so exhausted, she would have missed the moment entirely if it had happened more than a step away from her. Clint stumbles, falls, and she doesn't have the strength to keep him on his feet. Coulson catches him before they both go down, but when she looks up to thank him, the words wither in her throat.

Coulson stands there, Clint hanging in his arms like... well, like a man who's mostly unconscious, and the expression on Coulson's face can only be described as shock. He looks down at Clint, swallows hard, and actually tightens his grip around Clint for a second when the medics try to tug him away.

All Natasha can think is, oh, good.

Because naturally, she assumes that Coulson will ask Clint to dinner because Coulson is a sensible man. Clint will be unbearably smug for a few days. There'll be a lot of eye-rolling in Natasha's future.

She should have remembered that assuming is a foolish, foolish thing to do.

~~~

She's not wrong about the eye-rolling, though.

~~~

Coulson doesn't do anything about Clint.

To be more specific, Coulson doesn't do anything about Clint but pine, because apparently that's what men do these days. He oversees most of Clint's missions. He finds excuses to walk past the shooting range when Clint is practicing. He says, "Good job, Barton," like those are the three most important words in the English language, and utterly fails to notice Clint's happy preening.

Just as Clint utterly fails to notice Coulson's sudden interest. Honestly, for a guy named Hawkeye, that's just embarrassing.

"This wouldn't have happened in Russia," Natasha says in disgust.

"In Soviet Russia, heart breaks you," Hill mutters. Then she blushes. "Uh. Sorry."

Natasha doesn't comment.

~~~

Another three months, and Natasha is ready to do some breaking of her own.

"Court him," she orders.

Clint almost drops his bow. "What? No!" His voice is dangerously high-pitched. If he weren't busy trying to beat his own record of perfect shots made in five minutes, Natasha's sure he'd be flailing.

She rolls her eyes.

"I would call you a chicken, but they have very effective mating rituals," she points out. "You don't. The chicken is your superior."

Clint blinks. "Sometimes, you disturb me."

"Court him," Natasha repeats. "And your five minutes are up."

Clint didn't break his record. He complains about her distracting him, but if he can't concentrate while someone's talking to him he has no place in the field. Natasha tells him this, sweetly, and keeps reminding him until he begs her to stop. She agrees, under one condition.

What follows is so painfully awkward that Natasha wonders if Clint is secretly filming a how-to-crash-and-burn tutorial.

1. Leave a considerate cup of coffee on your crush's desk. Set this up so that either a) someone who drops off a stack of files is sure to spill the coffee all over the desk or b) you deliver the coffee when your crush has just entered an hour-long meeting so it's guaranteed to be cold once your crush returns to his office. Watch your crush dispose of the coffee. Mope.

2. Show off your strengths. Do this by flexing your arms and leaning against walls, doorways, desks, cars, and just about everything else until your crush sets up a medical appointment for you because he's worried about your apparent muscle fatigue. Mope.

3. Demonstrate your common interests. Wear a Captain America t-shirt to work and try to engage your crush in a discussion about the merits of the early comics versus contemporary material. Be tersely informed that the early comics were nothing but propaganda and did nothing to convey Captain America's true character. Discover it's the anniversary of Captain America's death. Mope.

"Now that's just sad," Sitwell says, and takes another bite of his salad. He and Natasha have been watching the miniature drama from their lunch table. "He should have picked the 1976 feature film," Sitwell adds. "It's got a great heroic ending. Coulson loves it. He hates the comics before Bendis took over."

Natasha sighs.

Those two are so very tiresome.

~~~

She accompanies Coulson to a meet-and-greet with another World Security Council subsidiary in Primorye. It's... almost nice to be there, if she ignores the mosquitoes and simply enjoys being immersed in a language that treats its consonants with respect instead of chewing on them. Coulson is a quiet but considerate travel partner who avoids inane small talk in favor of the occasional interesting observation. Natasha approves.

Professional paranoia being what it is, they approach their destination first by plane, then by helicopter, then by train, then by boat, and finally by car. Russia being what it is, the car breaks down between Serjantovo and Dalnegorsk. Their lives being what they are, they don't even have time to call for a tow before they're surrounded by a dozen armed men.

"Don't kill them," Coulson says while Natasha's still analyzing their weak spots. "No one's supposed to know we're here. I want to know who they are."

Which is how they end up right back in Rudnaya Pristan, locked into a tiny room while their captors presumably contact their superiors.

"This is boring," Natasha says after two hours. Coulson has been silent the entire time.

He looks at her now. "You've been holed up with Barton for longer than this. In smaller spaces."

"He talks." She smiles slightly. Clint is infamous for never shutting up, but like so many parts of his reputation that's not quite true. He knows when to entertain her and when to leave her be.

"I can talk," Coulson offers.

And so they talk. About small, inconsequential things, like Coulson's love for fast-paced swing and Natasha's addiction to seedless grapes. They both like to challenge themselves with silly things. Coulson's learning to play the cello from a jazz cellist he's hired for the purpose. Natasha has collected and mastered every Tetris variant ever released for Windows.

"I'd prefer it if you called me Natasha," she says finally. 'Agent Romanoff' is a name she endures only because it's not her own - Clint made it up; he still thinks it's funny - and not even properly Russian.

"I'd prefer it if you called me Agent Coulson," Coulson says.

Natasha laughs. "I can do that."

They're playing word games when Clint bursts in to rescue them a few hours later. He's covered in grime and looking a little wild-eyed as he checks them over.

"I need a condiment starting with d," Natasha tells him before he can ask if they're okay.

"Duck sauce," he says automatically.

Coulson thinks about it. Then he huffs. "I have no condiments starting with e."

"Sorry?" Clint says, utterly confused now. He looks at Natasha, obviously worried about putting Coulson in a difficult position. Coulson in turn clears his throat, obviously worried about losing face in front of Clint for failing at word games.

Natasha takes it back. Maybe the two of them are a little bit cute.

~~~

It's not at all cute when Clint tries to kill her a handful of weeks after that. Natasha's already tired and scared and in the mood to set that entire day on fire. If Clint hadn't been caught by Loki, she wouldn't have had to feel weak for running from the Hulk because Clint would've run right along with her. If Clint hadn't been caught by Loki, she wouldn't have had to play intermediary for Rogers and Stark because Clint would've defused the situation with a joke.

If Clint hadn't been caught by Loki, she wouldn't have had to feel sorry for Coulson's badly concealed panic because Clint would have been there.

So maybe she hits him a little bit harder than she needs to when he's already down. He can complain later.

"Agent Coulson is down," her radio says suddenly, and her breath catches for a moment before she remembers her training, remembers to listen to the voice instead of what the voice is saying.

"They called it," Fury says. It's the truth. She can tell.

She can also tell that that's not all of it. There's a tiny, unspoken 'but' in there. They called it, but.

The truth is always the best way to sell a lie. Natasha unclenches her fists and takes a breath before she turns to follow the guards to Clint's cell.

Anything that makes Stark and Rogers work together, she guesses, and puts it into the back of her mind.

A few hours later, she wishes she had told Clint right away.

"To Phil," Stark says over their shawarma and raises his glass.

"Agent Coulson," Rogers agrees and tries to clink it with his own. They manage on their second attempt, but Natasha's not paying them much attention.

Clint has stopped chewing. "Why?" he asks slowly, around a mouthful of bread.

"He... " Natasha begins, but Thor talks right over her.

"The son of Coul died in an attempt to stop my... to stop Loki," he says mournfully. "I could not help him."

All the color drains from Clint's face. He drops his shawarma and looks like he might spit out what he hasn't swallowed, but Natasha's already out of her chair, falling to her knees in front of him. He reaches out for her and she grabs his wrist with one hand while her other touches the side of his neck without any tenderness.

"Not true," she says firmly. She ignores Starks confused 'what?' and keeps her eyes on Clint. "He got hurt, but he wasn't dead when we left the carrier. Now swallow," she adds. Clint swallows, fingers fumbling to clasp her arm in return. "Good. I don't know how he's doing now, but you know how much of his budget Fury spends on medical."

Clint nods. "Yeah," he says hoarsely. "God, Natasha..."

"I know," she says, even though she doesn't. How could she know? She stopped believing in love when she was five. Clint, though, with his loyalty and his need for company, even if it's just someone within the same square mile or on the other end of a radio. Clint believes. Clint has been in mutually unrequited love with Coulson for almost a year now. If Coulson dies, she doesn't know how to keep Clint from leaving.

"Uh, excuse me," Rogers says, clearly hesitant to interrupt, "but would you please explain what's going on?"

Natasha does, watching Clint relax by increments.

This has to end, she decides. One way or the other.

~~~

Coulson is back with them within the month. Natasha doesn't know – and doesn't ask – how Fury pulled it off, although she knows that Dr. McCoy and a mutant called Logan played a part in it. The other Avengers are keeping well away from SHIELD for now, so she and Clint are the only ones to celebrate Coulson's return. Their lack in numbers is more than made up by Clint's enthusiasm. Coulson even looks a little touched by it.

Natasha waits another week to make sure Coulson didn't have a deathbed epiphany that encouraged him to confess his attachment while he still can. Then she goes to Fury.

"They need a mission together."

Fury looks at her like she's lost her mind. She's not entirely sure he's wrong; after all, here she is, preparing to play matchmaker.

"I'm not running a goddamned dating service," Fury says.

Natasha shrugs. "Good. We'd have lost funding long ago."

"Excuse me?" Fury's voice rises a little, but Natasha's not one to be easily intimidated. Besides, she knows he likes her.

"You sent them to New Mexico together," she says, and then repeats it just to emphasize the idiocy, "New Mexico."

Fury scowls, huffs, and folds his hands on his desk. "A lot of stuff happened in New Mexico."

"Not the stuff everyone's waiting to happen," she shoots back, and he throws up his arms.

"I'm not making up a fucking fake boyfriend mission because my agents can't get their goddamned act together!" he thunders.

Natasha smiles.

"No. You can leave that to me."

~~~

The mission is perfect, if she says so herself. It's undercover, in a remote location, and requires Clint hitting on Phil to the point of their taking a hotel room together. That the room will be conveniently located next to their target's, with a connecting door that's laughably easy to unlock, is merely a secondary benefit.

And it goes well. Clint smiles like Coulson's the best thing he's ever seen. He's suave. He's charming. He makes small talk and buys drinks and has Coulson helplessly wrapped around his little finger.

It's a little annoying.

"What, suddenly you can do this?" Natasha demands on a private channel when Clint's in the men's room, washing his hands.

"This is a mission!" Clint hisses. "It's different!"

"You're an idiot," Natasha tells him.

"You wound me," Clint says dryly, and that's that. He's not going to do anything, not even if Natasha hands him Coulson on a platter with a little bow on top. He's going to pine and act like nothing's wrong and not believe a single word when Natasha tells him that Coulson likes him back, yes, really.

Clearly, this calls for more drastic measures. So once the mission is over and done with, Natasha goes to Coulson.

"You know he has a crush on you, right?" she says, because she's tired of this, tired of the two of them dancing around each other without anyone ever taking a step closer.

"What are you talking about?" Coulson asks pleasantly.

Natasha crosses her arms and glares at him. He's her superior. He's the highest one can get within SHIELD without being Nicholas Fury. He oversees weapons development, evaluates reports from all departments, and gets sent into the field when Fury thinks he's the only one who can handle the situation. He's Fury's one good eye. In turn, Natasha's been trained for interrogation all her life. If she wanted, she could manipulate even him into telling her what she wants to know.

But this? This is a moment for arm-crossing. And glaring.

"He was flirting with you," she says. Awkwardly, she doesn't add because she's been learning a thing or two about loyalty.

Coulson holds her gaze. "That was just the mission," he says. "He does that with everyone."

"No," Natasha says, "he really doesn't."

And if Coulson can't see that, if he accepts Clint's reputation at face value, then she's done. No more matchmaking. Not if Clint will just end up getting hurt.

She leaves and Coulson doesn't stop her, and it's not fair, Natasha thinks. Just when she was starting to wish for Clint to have this.

Just when she was starting to believe.

~~~

The Avengers assemble again – of course they do – and if the battle in New York had been exhausting, this one is excruciating. Rogers breaks his throwing arm in three different places. Iron Man has to be recharged twice by Thor, who ends up nearly crushed by a falling speedboat. Banner's unconscious after the Hulk knocks down everything that doesn't run away fast enough. Natasha has half her hair singed away; she'll have to cut it even shorter now.

Clint falls asleep on Coulson.

It's clearly an unplanned thing. Clint just sat down in the back of the Quinjet to pull off his boots and get the gravel out. He's bleeding from a head wound and several bad scrapes on his arms and face, and Coulson has a med kit in hand as he sits down next to Clint. He's been with them from the beginning; his suit jacket's torn at one arm, frayed edges dark with blood. Clint frowns, but he lets Coulson turn his face, closes his eyes as Coulson starts dabbing at the scrapes with an antiseptic wipe.

And then he lets out a deep breath and lists to the side.

Coulson catches him. Of course Coulson catches him, worried expression fading into bemusement as Clint's next breath comes out as a quiet snore. Coulson's so preoccupied with easing Clint into a more comfortable position – not quite selflessly deciding that the most comfortable Clint will get is by sitting slumped against Coulson's side – that he doesn't notice Natasha watching them. Or maybe he's simply ignoring her; she doesn't know.

All she knows is that the look of helpless affection on Coulson's face as he peers down at Clint makes something within her ache.

~~~

It also makes her want to throw up her arms and shout, "Oh my god, what even, just kiss him already!" but she has better self-control than that.

~~~

In the end, though, she does snap.

She has no idea if Coulson's noticed at last the way Clint keeps trying to flirt with him, or if Natasha's own words niggled at him until he finally decided to buy a clue. However, this? Is not the moment to talk about it.

And yet.

"Barton," Coulson says, shooting at a HYDRA agent who's trying to creep up behind Rogers, "have you been flirting with me?"

He sounds positively mature about it, like he's perfectly willing to engage in a lengthy discussion about feelings if it leads to the desired outcome, and Natasha can't believe him.

"What, they're doing this now?!" Stark's incredulous voice almost manages to drown out Clint's hesitant, "Uh. Yeah?"

"Apparently," Rogers says even as he's throwing his shield at three HYDRA men carrying machine guns, but no. Natasha is not having this.

"Shut up!" she says sharply, and is somewhat gratified to hear Clint's mouth snap shut. She has trained him well.

There's a brief pause that's only interrupted by gunfire before Coulson says, "Later, then."

Seriously, Natasha wonders as she vaults a stack of crates and shoots the soldiers who were taking cover behind it. What did she ever do to deserve this?

~~~

Clint's silent while they do their reports. He pauses every now and then, staring into space like he might find a target to shoot at if he just looks hard enough. He doesn't do anything as obvious as biting his lip, yet his nervousness is so easy to see that Natasha feels embarrassed on his behalf.

"If you don't stop fidgeting, this is going to take forever," she says, tempted to simply snatch the pen from his fingers and finish his report herself. Just like every time they sit at a table like this, she resolves to ask Maria Hill why they have to fill out all this paperwork if it ends up being scanned for electronic storage anyway. Wouldn't it make more sense to set up an electronic form?

"Are you talking about the report or my love life?" Clint grouses, but there's no real bite to his voice.

"Yes," Natasha says.

He snorts, grins at her, and she smiles back.

"I was rooting for you, you know," she tells him.

"Against your better judgment, too," he agrees. His expression is solemn, but there's humor dancing in his eyes.

She's missed that look on him. Just a little.

"So you better be happy," she says, and is rewarded with a real smile.

"Yeah." He looks down at his paperwork, then tilts his head. "You know, I think I will be."

He tears off a corner from the last page - 'Additional Remarks and Observations' - and scribbles something on it. Then he folds the paper and clips it to his report.

"Gonna hand this in to Coulson," he says, and she finds herself wishing him luck.

Even though she knows he doesn't need it.

~~~

She goes to hand in her own report a few minutes after Clint leaves; late enough to give him and Coulson time to reach an understanding, early enough to catch the tail end of it to confirm they finally got their act together.

Clint's already gone, though, and Coulson's calmly tapping away on his computer, so maybe they chickened out again.

If they did, she's going to lock them up and not let them out until they resolved their issues once and for all. It may be juvenile, but it works.

"Agent Coulson," she says, depositing her report on his desk.

"Natasha," he replies, "just the woman I wanted to see."

He holds up a folded-up note she recognizes as Clint's from earlier.

"Please give this to Clint," he says. At her raised eyebrows, he adds, "I wasn't going to do it this way, but you interrupted me."

His voice is mild, but the reprimand is clear. Don't do it again, Agent.

She nods her acquiescence and he hands her the note.

"Thank you."

It's a dismissal and she has no interest in staying, so she nods again and leaves. She makes it all the way down the hall before she stops and looks down at the note.

If Coulson didn't want her to read it, she reasons, he would have taped it shut.

She unfolds it, reads it, and for the first time in months, she laughs. Out loud, because this is just so... perfect. Their entire courting so far has been childish, so it fits that the ending should be as immature as the rest of it.

The note, in Clint's messy scrawl, reads:

Do you like me? Check box for yes.

Coulson has not only checked the box for yes, he's also signed his name and the date. And stamped it with the SHIELD logo. And stamped it again, in Hulk-green ink: Approved. And drew a smiley next to it.

She'll have to get him a glitter pen for their first anniversary, she decides, and goes to find Clint.

~~~

They're disgustingly happy.

Of course they are; it's not like Natasha expected anything else. They're probably doing it just to annoy her.

Coulson's not any more prone to smiling than he has been, but he's more relaxed. Less likely to inspire terror among his staff unless he really wants to. More likely to take a break.

Clint's been learning to play the piano. "To accompany Phil on the cello," he says, and hums Billy Joel's Piano Man until she whacks him over the head. Then he laughs, and she pretends not to enjoy the sound.

Love is a fairy tale.

Thankfully, it's a popular one.