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Words May Fail (The Body Remains)

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Anyone who knows Agent Coulson knows three things.

1. He is incapable of saying no when presented with dessert of any kind.
2. He’s got a collection of antique Captain America memorabilia that could make even the most manly of men drop to their knees and cry like a little girl.
3. He’s a bona fide ex-military badass, and can and will end you at any time, for anything.

That isn’t to say that Agent Coulson’s entire personality revolves around those three things, or that those three things somehow make the man, because that’s not true at all. Coulson is also extremely private, so the fact of the matter is, the reason people know about the dessert and the Cap crap and all the rest is because Phil has let it become general knowledge. It’ll take Clint an embarrassing amount of time before he figures out the difference.

Clint learns about the pastry thing the first time he meets the man. Alright, that’s a lie, Clint was bleeding the first time they met, but it counts because it’s in the same general time frame. He’d been bleeding because he’d had the shit beaten out of him, and then on top of everything he’d been shot. It’s only later, drugged to his eyeballs while a gruff, balding doctor roots around in his chest with a pair of glorified pliers, that he’d learn Coulson’s aim is so good he can shoot someone in the meaty part of the shoulder without damaging anything. Actually, it’d be number 5 on the list, but the only person currently employed at SHIELD who’s had the misfortune of being on the opposite side of Coulson’s piece is Clint.

He spends two weeks handcuffed to a bedrail, a solid month at the tender mercies of the rehab team, and then he’s escorted to Coulson’s office by the ex Navy Seal who’d been part of the team who’d snatched him to begin with.

(He’d carried Clint, master marksman and all-around scrappy fighter, into their G-Man van by the back of his shirt not unlike one might carry a screeching, furious kitten. Not a good day. Clint would later learn that his name is Dave, he’s got three kids, a grandbaby, and makes a mean peppercorn steak. Also, the only time Clint ever sees Dave get his ass handed to him is when they’re ankle-deep in New Mexico rain, trying to stop a Swede hopped up on righteous fury from reaching what no one is calling Excalihammer.)

Coulson takes him down to the commissary which is just matter-of-fact insulting, because Coulson taking him for food means he doesn’t see him as a threat. He is so a threat, and the part of him that’s sulking like a kid wants to prove it, wants to swipe a gun or a knife or something and do threatening fucking things with it just to see what will happen.

He’s putting together his plan, a really good one thank you very much, when Coulson slaps a tray down in front of him hard enough to make the cutlery sing. “Food.”

“I’m not hungry,” Clint says. The food they’ve got looks like pretty standard cafeteria fare – there’s just so much of it. They could have fed the carnies for two weeks with this spread, and it smells so good his stomach growls.

“Uh huh,” Coulson says, and pushes him in front.

They’re serving some kind of beef square thing, and though Clint is pretty sure he’s never had beef square thing he takes two helpings of it. There’s mashed potatoes, and green beans, and other stuff that Clint isn’t sure he can identify, but now that there’s food he can’t actually stop himself from asking for a little bit of everything. Coulson doesn’t even mind when Clint commandeers part of his tray for a second plate, but that’s probably because once they’re through the line they stop in front of a counter covered in what must be every dessert in creation. There’s what looks like wedding cake, and every kind of cookie imaginable -- the ones with the chunks of chocolate look like they belong in a magazine they’re so fucking gorgeous. There’s flaky, golden pie, and custard, and a soft-serve machine that blurts out ropes of icy-cold creamy goodness. Clint’s brain goes temporarily offline, and somehow, by the time they finally sit down, they’ve got a third tray.

Coulson talks, but Clint can’t actually pay attention when there’s this much food in front of him. He can’t help it, and he knows he’s probably going to make himself sick, but it doesn’t stop him from eating what must be his body weight in beef square thing and potatoes. It feels a little like the first few weeks with the circus, when he and Charlie hadn’t been able to stop shoving food in their mouths.

At some point, once his stomach begins to feel pleasantly full, he realizes that Coulson hasn’t actually touched his supper. In fact, he’s made his way steadily through four of Clint’s desserts, and is working on a piece of peach cobbler that makes Clint hate him a little. “Sweet tooth?”

“Something like that,” Coulson replies. “Good?”

It’s the best beef square thing he’s ever had. “It’s alright.”

It’ll take Clint another six months to figure out that Coulson’s expression, which looks like an aborted sneeze, is his attempt at not laughing. He does it a lot, especially when Clint says something particularly inspired. Clint must be some kind of masochist, or maybe he took more than years of hunger and pain from the circus, because he goes out of his way to see it.

 

.

Clint joins SHIELD for five reasons.

1. There are people who wouldn’t mind if he were six feet under and that isn’t cool, because one of them is his crazy ex-mentor and the other is his brother. Alright, no, that last bit is kind of a stretch, Charlie doesn’t actually want to kill him; slap him around a little, yeah, especially once he’d found out Clint had followed in Buck’s footsteps and gone the route of petty crime. Trickshot just really wants to kill him, because Clint’s a little shit when he wants to be. Clint’s pretty certain he’s going to kill him first if Coulson has anything to say about it.
2. There’s the matter of the thievery and burglaring on his record. It’s SHIELD or prison, and Clint is far, far too pretty for prison.
3. There’s always food. There’s also a roof over his head, and clean clothes, and a warm bed he doesn’t use as much as he should, but mostly, food. Always. Doesn’t matter where they are, what they’re doing, or who he’s with, they feed him. Clint doesn’t actually realize how much healthier he is now until he looks at himself in the mirror one day and almost doesn’t recognize the person looking back at him.
4. They dig his skills. It’s nice to be appreciated, especially when, four months after they drag him into SHIELD by the shirt collar, Directory Fury strolls in, hands him a (really shitty) bow, and says, “The kids tell me you’re good. Amaze me.”

It’s that last one that shakes the leaves from the trees. Clint’s never been a part of something like this, what with the circus and the thieving and not being such a great human being. He’s pretty sure it’s all a big misunderstanding until they outfit him with a communications thingy, a bow that probably costs as much as a small car, and—

5. Coulson.

They work together alright. Coulson’s a dick, but he’s the kind of dick that Clint flat-out adores. He’s got a mean streak a mile wide and won’t hesitate to put Clint on crap detail if he fucks up, and his snark is so dry that half the time people leave conversations with him wondering if they’ve just been insulted. Clint comes to learn that’s just the way Coulson likes it. He’s an alright guy, and for all that he’s one hundred percent Asshole, there’s something about him that sets Clint at ease right away. His mama always said there were two types of people, and you always knew what side someone fell on by the look of their eyes.

Coulson’s got the kindest eyes Clint’s ever seen.

He’s dedicated himself to teaching Clint the ropes, setting the groundwork with effortless ease that tells Clint he should have been a schoolteacher instead of a G-man. Clint says so, once, and Coulson gets him back by shoving him out of a tree like a mama bird. If ‘shove’ means ‘kick’ and ‘out of a tree’ means ‘into the super secret hideout of a suspected smuggling ring’. Clint hasn’t had so much fun in years. He thinks he hears a smile in Coulson’s sigh when Clint swings back to base crooning Free Bird.

Clint likes the way Coulson handles his shit. He’s tough, tough as nails, but he’s also fair, and considerate to Clint’s stockpile of hard-core issues, like he knows Clint and doesn’t mind what a whack-job he is. He trusts Clint to do what needs doing, and Clint starts to – well, not trust, he’s learned that lesson, Clint doesn’t trust. He’s just less wary, less likely to say no if he hears something he doesn’t like. Coulson, he’s learned, will never ask him to do something he himself wouldn’t do. It makes being asked to work for SHIELD easier to handle, knowing that the boss-man has his back.

Things continue on in that vein, through summer and fall and into a blisteringly cold New York winter. The cafeteria serves all kinds of holiday food, but there aren’t that many people there to enjoy it, just the die-hards and the skeleton crew assigned over the holidays. Dave tries to get him to come home with him for Christmas, but Clint isn’t what anybody would call the holiday type. He spends the days leading up to Christmas at the range, trying out new arrows that the R&D guys gave him (they explode, it’d be awesome if Clint wasn’t also aware that he’s carrying around bombs strapped to his back).

One night, he feels familiar eyes between his shoulder blades as he draws the string back. “Thought you’d be halfway to Boston by now.”

“Boston?” Coulson asks, coming around his left.

Headquarters is near to deserted, but the man can’t dress down to save his life. He tries to imagine Coulson in one of the obnoxious holiday sweaters Sitwell wore all month just to piss everyone off and nearly bursts out laughing.

“Something funny?”

“Always sir,” Clint says, and lets the arrow fly. It explodes merrily. “Boston. You know. Family. Parents. White Christmas, all that bullshit.”

“My parents live in Portland,” Coulson replies, amused, and comes up behind him to adjust the strap digging into Clint’s shoulder blade. Clint pretends that he doesn’t feel a little shiver up his spine at the contact, because that’s a whole thing he is Not Thinking About. “Also, Jewish.”

It brings back a little flash – Lady Matilda, beard thrown daintily over her shoulder while she fried latkes by the hundred and he peeled a million pounds of potatoes. She made him potato soup that first Christmas, and kissed his forehead like his mama used to do.

Coulson studies him as he moves, and it’s just as weird as it’s always been. It isn’t bad, just makes him feel kind of strange, like when Coulson called him an asset and it sounded less like ‘something to guard’ and more like ‘someone to be protected’. He works through the arrows, one after the other, until his quiver is empty and his arms are pleasantly burning.

He lowers the bow, props it on a boot-toe and starts to dismantle it. “Portland isn’t so far away.”

In true Coulson fashion, he totally ignores him. “You aren’t one to miss a meal.”

“Got busy.”

“I can see that,” Coulson says, voice flat and inflectionless, but Clint’s been around him enough now that he can still hear the laugh in it. “Food, Barton.”

“It’s like, one in the morning,” he replies, but Coulson is already walking away, and dammit, his handler knows him too well because Clint calls, “Hey, did you hear what I said?”, and follows him anyway.

The city is pretty dead, just like Clint had expected. Even the last-minute Christmas shopping is mostly winding down. There are a few corner stores open, a Thai place (Clint, or rather Clint’s digestive tract, does not do Asian food), a handful of coffee shops. Instead, Coulson drives them through midtown and down into a parking garage under an apartment building, which is when Clint buys a damn clue.

He’s lived lots of places, that’s the honest truth. His childhood had been in a double-wide, old and worn but neat as a pin. After his mama died and his father was put away he and Charlie had gone to the state orphanage, where they’d shared a bed and a chester drawers filled with threadbare t-shirts and a picture album. Then there’d been the circus and the couch in Lady Matilda’s sitting room, and now most recently it’s been SHIELD. But those were all places that he’s lived, and when Clint steps into Coulson’s place and sees the bookshelves, the cool posters on the walls and the cozy furniture, he recognizes this place as a home. It’s an old, familiar sorrow, a pang low down in Clint’s chest, because he’s old enough now to know things like this aren’t in his cards.

Coulson disappears as soon as he opens the door. Clint can just see him in the kitchen, shedding his jacket and pulling beers out of the fridge, so Clint does what he does and pokes around, mostly because he can’t not. There’s a collection of records on a shelf, and sitting on the lid of an antique wooden turntable is a copy of Ring-a-Ding-Ding!. There’s a huge collection of bluray’s below an impressively-sized television, and photos of his family everywhere, including one of his twin (holy shit) brother, a heavy-set man with the same beautiful blue eyes and a kippa, and what must be their younger sister, a petite woman with a kind face and strawberry blond hair.

But what really gets to Clint, what makes him bite down on his tongue so he won’t laugh, is the ludicrous amount of Captain America memorabilia Coulson has. There’s framed artwork on the walls, and a film reel tin of one of Cap’s first movies. He’s got an ancient-looking pillow on a side chair of Cap’s shield in needlepoint, and even a tiny replica of Cap’s dog, Major Max.

“I’ve got some stuff for omelets,” Coulson says as he comes out of the kitchen. He’s rolled up his sleeves, even, and Clint realizes that – that maybe in the spirit of the holiday or some shit, Coulson is inviting him to relax. In his house. With food and beer and his Cap crap.

Clint accepts the offered beer but he’s a smartass, born and bred, and he blurts, “If you suddenly grow a goatee, I’m out of here.”

Coulson smirks, one corner of his mouth curled up. His beautiful eyes fucking sparkle, it’s gorgeous and Clint Is Not Thinking About This, Clint is steadfastly ignoring It as hard as he fucking can because holy shit, he can see that end game coming from a mile away and it ain’t nothing but heartbreak and getting booted out on his ass.

He turns away, stomach jumping, because there’s a reason Clint doesn’t do this holiday shit, dammit. He doesn’t look at Coulson, but he’s a sniper and his peripheral vision is spectacular. Coulson’s smirk has softened into something as close to real as Clint is ever liable to get, and it just makes shit worse. He nods at the poster over the small dining set to distract them both. “I’ve never seen that one before.”

“Vintage 1942 recruitment poster. I found it in Seattle a few years ago,” Coulson says. He looks so at home, here – not that the guy is awkward or anything, ‘awkward’ and ‘Coulson’ are polar opposites. He’s just. At ease, comfortable, shoulders loose and fingers wrapped almost gently around the neck of his beer. He has long, slender fingers. Artist’s fingers. “Surprised?”

“You don’t seem like the geek type, no offence sir,” he says, and takes a sip of the beer. It’s good, has an earthy tang to it. “Worth anything?”

“Probably. Don’t really care.” Coulson’s lips curve up into one of the first real smiles he’s seen from the man, and That Feeling jackknifes down low between Clint’s legs. It’s Stockholm Syndrome, or comfort born of familiarity, or god knows what, but holy shit it’s the worst kind of disaster imaginable if Clint lets himself go that way, if he does that to himself, and Clint, Clint is not that kind of idiot.

 

.

(He thinks maybe Coulson must be joking about the Cap fetish, because he wouldn’t put it past him, but no, the man really does have a shitload of Captain America stuff, including Boxing Cap, which Clint can remember wanting with all his heart as a kid, and a wheat penny issued by the U.S. Mint in 1945, which has the American flag on one side and Captain America in profile on the other.

Apparently, Coulson’s obsession is common knowledge, because once SHIELD comes back into full swing after the holidays Jasper is like, “Dude, how did you not know this? Phil is the ultimate Captain America fanboy. I’ve seen the man haggle on old Cap figurines whilst bleeding from various bullet-made orifices. You’ve been here how long?”

Long enough, but Clint scowls. “How the fuck should I know, I’m the asset remember?”

Jasper gives him a pitying look, and Clint would punch him in the face if the pity wasn’t kind of deserved.)

 

.

They’re in a little country town that spring for something or other (some kind of drug trafficking thing, mostly Clint just stands around looking threatening), when he comes across the trading card. It’s kind of by accident – they’re shooting, then they’re not shooting, the police come in and the FBI is pretty pissed because SHIELD accidently solved a related case for them, blah blah bureaucracy blah. He leaves the suits to deal with it and finds a Mom’n’Pop diner down the street, where he enjoys one of the most awesome burgers he’s ever had. The mom, Patty on her nametag, is so overjoyed by his enthusiasm that she gives him extra home fries and a milkshake the size of his arm and doesn’t even mention how he’s a little splattered with blood. (Clint hasn’t broken someone’s nose in a long time but fuck if it hadn’t been really, really gratifying.)

She tells him about her grandkids, and how she always suspected something was going on down at the Laurence place. “They never leave a tip,” she says, and Clint’s worked in enough of these places to be pissed off on her behalf. “Always on their cellular phones, and Mr. Laurence came in with brand new Italian leather loafers one day, like he wouldn’t step on a cow patty or three before getting home.” She wipes at the counter with a sigh. “It’s a good thing you boys came in when you did.”

“It’s our job,” Clint replies, and slurps at his milkshake. “We’re glad to have been of help, ma’am.”

It’s the right thing to say. Patty beams at him, pats his arm, and disappears into the back to get him, “The best slice of peach pie you’re ever going to eat sweetheart, just wait and see.”

That’s when he notices it. There’s a corkboard behind the cash register, full of announcements – Beth and Lou Riverson had a baby last week, Connie Mae and Mike are finally getting married – and tucked into the corner, forgotten, is a Captain America trading card.

They’re driving across the Midwest that night when Clint says, “You collect the cards, right sir?”

Coulson glances across at him. Darkness suits him, throws his features into stark relief. Sometimes it’s easy to be taken in by the suit and forget to notice he’s a good-looking guy. Clint, or rather Clint’s traitor cock, has started to notice all the time, but Clint’s certain it’s attached to some other part of his brain, the hindbrain or the idiot brain or something, convinced Coulson would hand out satisfying orgasms if Clint just asked. “1946 set,” Coulson says, and Clint realizes he’d been staring at his mouth. Fuck. “Not the red foil from the eighties.”

“Oh.” He’s pretty sure the card is one of the older ones, but he isn’t sure. He reaches back into the backseat for his vest, rifles through it for a second. “Why not the ones from the eighties?”

“I’ve got the whole set,” Coulson replies, curious now, but moves an arm out of the way for Clint to wriggle over the center consol.”

Clint finally opens the right pocket and tugs out the card. It smells a little like the diner, and there’s a crease in one corner, but.

Coulson actually stops on the side of the road. When he takes the card, it’s reverent and so fucking dorky Clint would laugh, if it didn’t also kind of fill him up with something warm from his toes to his chin.

After a few moments, Coulson says, “I’ve already got this one.”

Disappointment ponies after the warmth. “Oh.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s not worth five grand, though.”

Oh,” Clint says, and laughs out loud. “You’re the Antiques Roadshow of Captain America shit, you know this right?”

“I do know this,” Coulson says, and Clint can tell he’s amused. “Hang onto it. I’ll take you to someone when we get back to New York, get it appraised.”

“Nah.” Clint presses it back. “Just in case you need to make a trade or something.” It’s funny, it’s hilarious, but all Clint feels is warmth, especially when Coulson gives him the Not a Sneeze that isn’t so much laughing at him as laughing with him.

 

.

Clint’s second year at SHIELD is kind of the same as the first, only now that they know he isn’t going to run they give him more freedom. They offer him an apartment outside of SHIELD that he doesn’t want, and a clothing allowance that lets him buy jeans and t-shirts and stuff he hadn’t realized he’d missed until they’d put him in a uniform for sixteen months.

When he starts feeling cooped up, all but clawing at the curtains like a cat in heat, he hits the city, walks around and sees the sights and pretends he’s a tourist. It’s kind of fun, and Coulson only looks surprised the first time he shows up at his place with food. He doesn’t make it a habit – there’s danger down that road, because Coulson is always Sir, even off the clock – but when he wants company, when he’s desperate for it, that door is always open to him. Coulson never seems to mind, which is why it hurts so fucking much when they go on an op in Smolensk and Clint defects.

It’s because of a woman. It’s stupid, Jesus it’s the dumbest shit he’s ever done, but Clint isn’t a fucking contract killer, some mindless drone who puts arrows and bullets into people just because someone tells him to. Well, okay, no, he does that, but only when it’s right, when he knows the people he’s killing are bad people who have done bad things. It doesn’t make it okay, but it makes getting them off the street okay enough that Clint can mostly sleep at night.

It’s the first time Coulson has said, “Take the shot,” in his ear and he hasn’t agreed with it.

She’s beautiful in a way Clint can’t even explain. She’s got the long red hair and enormous green eyes, and that body, but that’s not even what Clint is about. She’s beautiful in that way broken things can be, exhausted like Clint can remember being once. She hasn’t been caught, she’s given up, and she’s going to use Clint to end whatever struggle she’s fighting.

Clint’s swung the bow over his shoulder before he knows what he’s doing. He grew up in the fucking circus, just because nobody remembers that doesn’t mean Clint’s forgotten how to monkey down three hundred feet in under five seconds. He’s on the ground before anyone knows what’s happening, grabbing the woman by the arm and running so fast and so hard across the warehouse that it’s a miracle they don’t go sprawling. Coulson shouts in his ear, “Agent Barton!”, and there are bullets, a lot of them, but then he’s throwing them both out of a window and down into the river below so it doesn’t really matter.

They hole up together twenty miles outside of Smolensk, in a hunter’s shack in the woods. Or at least that’s what Clint thinks it is, prays it is, because there are far too many dead animal carcasses to be otherwise. The woman says, “You should have killed me,” and well, she isn’t wrong.

“Maybe I didn’t feel like it,” he says – gasps – because the woman’s got her belt around his thigh and fuck all if he isn’t bleeding all over the place. He has the passing thought, Smith and Robbins need more practice on the shooting range before he remembers he’s given up SHIELD for this woman’s life, and it doesn’t matter who needs what anymore. “What’s your name?”

“Keep your mouth shut,” she says with a flawless American accent, tightening the tourniquet and digging into her pack. She comes out with a prepackaged needle, and wow, Clint’s really out of it because he doesn’t even mind when she sticks it in his leg.

Some of the pain edges off, right until the woman starts wrapping his thigh in torn strips made from the thick lining of her jacket. He only screams a little – manly screaming, of the recently shot, because Smith and Robbins have shit aim. He refuses to consider that the bullet in his leg belongs to Coulson.

“They’ll be here soon,” she says, and he must have heard wrong only – shit, there’s a chopper somewhere, and he has no idea how the fuck SHIELD found them, Clint ditched all of his equipment around the time he realized he was going to bleed to death.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t buy you more time,” he tells her, and fuck it hurts, holy Christ he’s going to pass out, any minute now he’s going to pass out and that’s good, that’s great even because he doesn’t want to be conscious when Coulson puts a bullet in his brain – and he will, it’s the least he deserves for this shit, he can’t believe he’s –

“Why?” she demands, grabbing his chin and forcing him to look at her. “Why did you do that?”

“Couldn’t shoot you,” he says – he’s checking out here, his ears are full of bees and there are dark spots dancing in his vision. “You’re like me.”

“I’m nothing like you.”

He laughs, rolls his head to the side. “Honey, we’re cut from the same cloth.”

She stands, pack tight across her shoulders. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t expect the boot to the face.

After that, there’s pain – so much of it so quickly that he sobs like a kid, broken and ugly like he’s never done before, and Clint’s broken most of the bones in his body. There are voices he can’t understand and he doesn’t know why, and ants biting his leg, nibbling at the nerves and poisoning his blood. He drifts like that for years it seems, caught in an endless loop of pain that grows steadily worse before getting lost under a haze of thick cotton.

When he finally comes up from it, Coulson is sitting next to him.

“We caught her,” is the first thing he says. He has his fingers laced, resting on a crossed knee. The window behind him is dark, but even so Clint can see the New York skyline. Somehow, that alone makes the fact that he’s handcuffed to the bedrail a little easier to bear. “What you did was very, very stupid.”

“Sorry sir,” Clint says, voice so hoarse it sounds like he’s been chewing on gravel. He wants water, badly, but he doesn’t dare ask for it, not when the man sitting next to him doesn’t even look like the same man he’s gotten to know.

Coulson studies him with that thousand yard stare of his, unflinching. “What you did was stupid,” he reiterates, his beautiful eyes narrowed. “Want to tell me why?”

“Why it was stupid, sir?” Clint asks, because he’s preprogrammed to be a smartass.

“Oh, I know why it was stupid,” Coulson replies calmly. “Everyone knows why it was stupid. Larry the janitor knows why it was stupid.”

Clint leans back into the pillow. His leg is numb and still, somehow, throbbing like a motherfucker. He can hear someone speaking in the hall that sounds a whole hell of a lot like Director Fury, living up to his surname. “Sorry sir,” he says again, and coughs. It makes his throat ache, fills his mouth with the flavor of his own blood.

“You’re really not.”

“No,” he admits. Then, “I didn’t want to kill her.”

“Why? Why her?”

“I don’t know.” He’s angry now, or as angry as he can get when he’s fading this fast. It doesn’t matter, none of it matters anymore. “She wanted to die. SHIELD’s been chasing her for almost a year. She’s good, she’s better than good, no way she would have been caught out in a warehouse, especially not with the junior agents you were dragging with us. She led us there to orchestrate her death.”

“Did she.”

“Yeah. Don’t you fucking trust me?”

“Yes, I do.”

It’s like a knife in the guts, as awesome as it is awful. Clint is so stupid to have gotten this deep, Charlie always said it was one of his biggest faults. He looks away because he can’t not, because Coulson is giving Clint the benefit of the doubt and he doesn’t deserve it. He can’t look at the man, not when he feels this much hot, cloying shame. He tries to lick his lower lip, mouth like the desert. “What now?”

“Now you’re busted back down to probationary agent,” Coulson says. There’s a sound from a machine somewhere, and Coulson arches a brow, and Clint realizes they just heard the sound of his heart kicking in his chest. “You’re confined to base until your next review, which won’t be for another six months. Your bow will be returned to you if and when I feel that you aren’t being an idiot anymore. That isn’t going to be for a while. Do you understand?”

“Yeah. Yes sir,” Clint says. He can feel the suspicion rolling off his handler, but the thing is, though the temptation to get out is there, he’s tired of being tired, of being hungry, of not knowing where he’s going to sleep. He can’t help kicking a gift-horse in the mouth, though – it’s his fucked-up nature – so he asks, “Is she dead?”

Long, strong fingers slide under his head. Clint opens his eyes enough to see a cup with a straw. He takes a long drink, best water he’s ever tasted, and when Coulson helps him lie back down it feels like forgiveness. “‘Probationary agent’ means you don’t get that information anymore,” Coulson says. “Go to sleep.”

 

.

Director Fury is, in fact, furious.

No, scratch that, Fury is so pissed that Clint thinks his other eye is going to spontaneously explode. He glares at Clint when he comes to ask just what the fuck were you thinking Barton, and Clint tries not to glare back; the man’s the director of SHIELD, and fucking up what he has here would be a bad choice in a long, sad history of bad choices.

He keeps his head down and plays Good Little Probie, which is embarrassing on a whole new level of embarrassment. His leg is shot to shit, he’s lost his bow, and Director Fury is going to kill him slowly with the unholy power of his glare. Clint can deal with it, because those things can and will get better in time (except Fury, the man is always trying to kill him with his glare). Coulson’s not talking to him beyond barked commands, and that’s a whole other fishpond.

He hadn’t actually realized how far Coulson had let him in until he doesn’t anymore. His office is always closed, and when Clint tries to email him, he gets terse, two-sentence replies that list his office hours, pertinent information on when he’s going to be off-base, and Clint’s new duties, which basically boils down to ‘sit down and shut up’. It’s mostly copy-pasted, Clint realizes, so he stops emailing because fuck that shit.

There are a lot of hours to fill in the day. He works out as much as possible to get back some of the muscle he’d lost while laid up with his busted leg, but there’s only so many weights any one person can do before it gets old. Everyone’s been informed about his new status and won’t tell him anything, not even when Clint wheedles, then heckles, then sulks loudly. Nothing to do, nothing to shoot, nothing to see and no one to talk to, and Clint’s world narrows down until it’s only him. He’s been here before; nothing new.

He doesn’t know why he does it, is the thing. He’s always been athletic – Sister Lucy at the state home once said he would have made an incredible gymnast, small and strong like he’d been. Could have made something of himself. Could have trained and worked and maybe, if he’d been good enough, he could have gone to the Olympics. But that path hadn’t been open to him, not then, not ever. There’d only been the circus, the world’s biggest jungle gym.

He gathers supplies – a grapple hook he nicks off one of the returning teams (and that they leave their shit just laying around after an op is tantamount to sacrilege, Coulson would hand them their asses if he knew about it), a tac vest from the armory supply (Rosemary likes him but doesn’t even give him a pocket knife to go with it), and a coil of decent rope from down in the garage (Harris tries to call Coulson about it and Clint tells him, “I knows who’s been eating all the peach cobbler in the cafeteria, do you really want to meet your maker today Agent?”).

SHIELD, for being a government-agency-slash-super-secret-spy-base, is fairly unsecure when it comes to basic infrastructure. It’s almost as if everyone was so worried about hackers and online security that they forgot to check out the building – which, in this particular case, once belonged to those assholes, the FBI. The entire building is webbed with service ramps high overhead, ventilation shafts so large a man could crawl through, and maintenance bridges for electrical and wiring.

Clint hasn’t done this in years, and his body is a little bigger now, but even so it’s pretty quick work getting himself up even with his half-healed leg, supplies stashed back in his vest, and cover replaced without anyone being the wiser.

He means to do it just once, a little adventure to blow off some steam – see how far he can get into HQ. Once becomes twice, becomes every day, becomes forgetting to come down.

No one notices, and Clint’s not one for self-pity but damn.

He learns the layout of the base quickly enough; the way the elevators roar when he’s crawling through the vents, the smell of the kitchen down below when he makes his way down the maintenance bridge over the Mess, the sound of arguing and laughing and yelling. He feels a little like a voyeur, so at first he tries to be respectful of people, of their secrets and the PTSD, so much fucking PTSD it’s a wonder that SHIELD functions at all.

It’s not his fault that SHIELD is basically a telenovella.

It starts with Jasper and the cute probie he’s been working with (straight out of college with legs up to her ears), and then to Cute Probie’s new friend in accounting, and before he knows it he’s completely embroiled in the subculture of SHIELD’s risqué office romances.

This is what he learns.

1. Agent Larabey and Agent Murrow are involved in what has to be the sweetest goddamn courtship he’s ever seen. Larabey’s clueless, so Murrow’s making Engagement Chicken this weekend. Dude has no hope in hell of escaping that one.
2. Agent Hudson and Agent Smith have a love/hate thing going. Hudson comes in to work on a Monday with a pulled groin muscle so severe he’s off rotation for a month. Every time Smith sees him she smirks like a cat who got the canary.
3. Agent Sun and Agent Sun are proud parents to a pair of the most beautiful babies Clint’s ever seen. It’s very likely they were conceived on-base, judging by the hilarious amount of kinky public sex their parents get up to.
4. Agent Villarreal and Agent Prohnt spend a good portion of their time pining longingly for one another. Clint would knock their heads together, but he’s pretty sure both of them could snap every bone in his body with the sheer force of their female guile, so he doesn’t try.

Days of Our Super Secret Lives keeps him pretty entertained, so he doesn’t go to Coulson’s office often. There’s only one grate – his office is on the small side, just enough space for a desk and some chairs, a tiny sofa they’ve both slept on more than once. When Coulson is there he’s hunched over his computer, typing away. From up high Clint can see where his hair is thinning, the tension he carries in his shoulders. Mostly, though, his office is dark.

The problem with Clint’s stupid ass is that he gets comfortable, just like he always does. Nobody’s noticed where he is or what he’s doing, so Clint finds a cross-section in the wiring walkway halfway through level eight that’s pretty wide actually, pretty spacious. It’s easy getting a blanket up there, some snacks, a book.

Other people would be claustrophobic. Other people are idiots.

It’s only a matter of time before he starts sleeping there. Sleeping becomes living, and Clint’s a little worried about his state of mind, just not worried enough to come down. He goes to rehab and eats in the cafeteria, shows his face, but no one asks where he’s spending the rest of his time and Clint doesn’t volunteer the information.

Weeks, then months, pass, though Clint’s not really keeping track. Jasper’s got his ugly-ass holiday sweaters on rotation again – this time of year they’re a weird mix of turkeys and pilgrims -- and Agent Gomez has finally grown a pair and asked Agent Pullman on a date.

He comes down for his last appointment with rehab, the bullet wound nothing more than a sensitive, pitted scar now. “You’ve got full range of motion back,” Doc says, putting pressure on his hip and asking him to move his leg out, then in. “And you’re further along in getting the muscle tone back than I thought. Have you been exercising?”

Clint thinks about crawling across the fourth floor vent shaft last week. “Trying to. The PT nurse said that’s okay.”

“Of course it’s okay, just surprised,” Doc says, and chuckles. “Well, maybe not that surprised. You’re done with us, Agent Barton.”

Clint gets his golden ticket (“I’ll email Agent Coulson a copy now,” Doc says, and Clint wants to laugh in his face but decides that wouldn’t go very far in convincing everyone he’s not touched in the head) before swinging by the chow line. He eats his weight in turkey burgers, and Ms. Gladys gives him extra helpings of coleslaw.

When he gets back up to what he is never calling his nest, a SHIELD issue tablet is sitting on top of his neatly folded blanket. There’s a blue post-it stuck to the top.

Answer your emails.

Fuck,” Clint breathes, glancing over his shoulder, to the left around the corner. He instantly recognizes the handwriting, because most people don’t write in longhand anymore, and because there are exactly two people on the good Earth who could possibly know about this and Charlie isn’t here.

The tablet comes awake with a swipe of his finger, and sure enough there’s something like two hundred emails waiting for him. He opens the first one.

from: njfury@shld.mil.gov
to: cfbarton@ shld.mil.gov
date: Tue, Nov 19 at 3:12 PM
subject: I don’t have the time or the energy for your bullshit.

I have sent you two priority emails in the last two days. If you don’t answer them in the next fifteen minutes I’m sending you to Antarctica.

Director Nicholas Fury
Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.)

That was yesterday.

There are, in fact, three priority emails, all flagged with a little mocking red check. One of the emails is from Fury’s terrifying secretary, scheduling a meeting with the Director two days ago.

He doesn’t scramble – Clint is not a scrambler. He does, however, move with quick and efficient purpose, because four of the emails he’d received yesterday had been warnings of varying degree from Jasper, and then finally one from Coulson. He doesn’t read it, because Coulson can go fuck himself.

The waiting room outside of Fury’s office gives him the heebiest of jeebies, always has. Maybe it’s Mrs. Marshall, who at any point in the day looks like she’s planning a homicide. Or maybe it’s the almost surreal stack of magazines on a small side table. Jessica Alba beams up at him from the cover of Health and Clint’s sure he’s stepped into the Twilight Zone. More likely, though, it’s the whole part where Clint feels like he’s in the principal’s office, waiting for his father to come get him. His father never waited to whoop his ass until they left school.

Mrs. Marshall directs a look at him that could have probably peeled the hide from his bones if he’d caught the full brunt of it. He’s a professional. He doesn’t cringe. He’s also a smartass, so his tongue’s moving before he can stop himself. “I didn’t mean to miss curfew, Dad mad at me?”

“Good afternoon, Probationary Agent Barton,” Mrs. Marshall says, and damn, Clint should be dead from the look she gives him.

“We ran out of gas, I had to walk two miles to the nearest gas station,” Clint continues, throwing himself into a really nice leather armchair. “Hope I’m not going to get grounded.”

“You’re already grounded,” comes from behind him, and Clint cranes his head around to see Fury in the doorway to his office, looking like he’s going to flay Clint with the knife in his boot and cook him over the heat of his rage. “Now you’re pushing it.”

Fury’s office is hilariously normal. There’s an antique encyclopedia on a bookshelf behind the desk, which Clint suspects is completely hollowed out and holds either an automatic rifle or the skulls of the people who have pissed him off over the years. Regular bureaucratic shit covers his desk – half-empty cup of coffee, photos of his sons when they were little, two computer screens, and a gray folder which has Clint’s name and rank on it.

“I didn’t see your emails,” Clint opens with.

“Uh huh.” Fury’s not wearing the trench. This does not make Clint feel any better, because Clint’s one-hundred-percent certain it’s made from the hides of the agents Fury has ‘relocated’. “Want to tell me what’s going on?”

“Sir?”

“Have you been sneaking off-base, Agent?”

“No,” Clint says immediately, because – “No sir, I’ve been here the whole time.”

“Have you now. Want to tell me where ‘here’ is? Because last I checked – and I did, Agent Barton, I took time out of my incredibly busy schedule to track your sorry ass down – no one’s seen you outside of the cafeteria in the better part of two months.”

“I’ve been around,” Clint says, and now he’s pissed because he has been here, the entire damn time. Just not necessarily where people can see him.

Fury picks up his extension. “He’s here,” he says after a moment, and hangs up. “You’ve missed two check-ins, six mandatory appointments with Dr. Alvarez, and a staggering fourteen probationary agent meetings.” He stabs him with a look. Clint often wonders if Fury lost an eye to rebalance the universe, because he’s pretty sure the man could have probably killed him if there’d been two eyes doing that at him. “Things aren’t looking good for you son, you understand this right?”

The door opens behind him and Clint doesn’t have to turn to know Coulson has just stepped in. He’d recognize that footfall anywhere. He crosses his arms and sprawls lower in his chair. “I’ve been going to the doctor for my checkups.”

“Yeah, Ames CCed me on those emails,” Fury says, opening the file and flicking through the pages. “Says here that you’re healed enough to be put back on normal rotation. Also says you’ve got bruises that suggest you’ve been fairly physical.” Fury looks over the file at him. “You fighting?”

“No,” Clint says, with more force than he probably should, but he doesn’t like how he’s been cornered. Makes him want to mouth off, fight, escape. “I’ve kept my head down like a good little probie. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Wanted? Oh no, we are not going to talk about what I wanted, because what I wanted was for the best marksmen I’ve ever met to complete his damn assignment,” Fury snaps. “Instead you put a whole new collection of problems on my plate. Do I look like I want more problems? Do I seem bored to you?”

“No, sir,” Clint says automatically, because he’s still got some semblance of a brain between his ears.

“You’re damn right I’m not, I’ve got enough shit to deal with.” He looks over Clint’s shoulder. “Has he been on base?”

“Technically.”

“Technically?”

“Yes, Boss.”

Fury bores his eyeball into Clint’s soul again. “That right?”

He is not saying he was up in the ceiling. He’d rather peel off his own skin than admit that, though he’s pretty sure both of them already know. “You told me not to leave.”

“That not an answer.”

“That’s the only one you’re going to get,” Clint finally snaps. “This isn’t prison. You don’t fucking own me.”

There’s a beat of silence, two, and then Fury bangs his elbow onto his desk, pinches his nose. “Jesus Christ, I am too old for this shit. Get him out of here.”

Clint is immediately collected, which pisses him off even worse, but he has the good sense not to say so until the door to Fury’s office is closed behind them. “What the fuck was that about?” Clint demands. “Let me go.”

“You’re acting like a child, you do know this,” Coulson says, escorting him out of Marshall’s office and out into the hall.

Clint is furious, and when he’s furious sometimes his brain and his body stop communicating, so he isn’t surprised when he tries to elbow Coulson in the face. Coulson gets an embarrassingly fast hold on him, arm twisted up behind his back, and pushes Clint’s face into the plaster. “Hey!” he snarls, but Coulson just wrenches him off the wall, pulling him down the corridor and all but tossing him into his office.

No sooner is the door closed that Clint swings, because why the hell not, that’s where this is going anyway and he might as well give them the excuse. Coulson ducks, gets him in the ribs, then body-checks him so fast and with such force that Clint doesn’t know what’s actually happened until he’s belly-down on the floor. Coulson gets Clint’s wrist twisted between his shoulder blades and his forearm braced over Clint’s neck, holding him down with his bodyweight. He doesn’t even sound out of breath when he says, “Stop.”

“Fuck you,” Clint snarls, struggling. Dammit, his ribs hurt. “‘Tuesday and Thursday, nine to noon. Probationary Agents assigned to Agent Coulson will be expected to keep up with paperwork and other duties as assigned. All disciplinary actions will be documented by Agent Sitwell and addressed upon Agent Coulson’s return to headquarters.’”

Coulson goes still above him. “That’s what this is about?” He sounds stunned. “Are you kidding me right now?”

It’s kind of like an out of body experience – he can see himself, red-faced and furious like a cornered cat, and Coulson riding him like he’s a damn boogie board. No matter how much he bucks, Coulson doesn’t let up. “Let me go.”

“No,” Coulson says. “Barton, this hasn’t been punishment.”

Fuck you,” Clint snarls. “Let me go.”

“No,” Coulson says again. “I should have spoken to you sooner. I didn’t handle this well. I’m sorry.”

“Fuck you and your sorry, you don’t give a shit,” Clint says, panting against the carpet. He knows Coulson is ex-military nut he doesn’t know how ex-military, and as pissed off as he is at the guy he doesn’t – would never – hurt him, even to get free. Also, Clint’s man enough to admit that he isn’t entirely sure if he can get free, and the thought makes something strange and hot settle down in the base of his spine, connected like a live wire to his dick. “I fucked up and you shut me out, but I don’t need you or anyone, I don’t need any of this, I’m leaving, I’m done. Let me up.”

“That’s not going to happen until you hear what I have to say,” Coulson says calmly. His forearm is digging into Clint’s neck. “I was waiting until you were off of doctor supervision, Barton. I just forgot you have a whole multitude of abandonment issues. That’s my fault.”

Get off of me.”

Coulson doesn’t so much as budge. “You were an idiot in Smolensk and I was pretty angry with you. Not because of what you did, but by the way you did it. At what point in our relationship have you ever thought I wouldn’t listen to you about a mark?”

Clint turns his face a little so his nose isn’t squashed into the carpet, and ignores the first hot rush of shame. “Fuck you.”

“Fuck you,” Coulson replies smartly. “If there was a problem you should have told me. You nearly bled to death before we got to you. That’s not how I operate.”

“You wouldn’t have listened.”

“You don’t believe that. I’ve always listened to you.”

It’s true. It’s true, and it’s awful and Clint feels like a total asshole. “You left.”

“Assignment,” Coulson replies, finally easing up. “You haven’t been told anything?”

“Probationary Agent, remember? I don’t get information anymore.”

Coulson prides himself on being a stone-cold badass, but if he knows it or not, Clint’s worked right down under his skin. He sees the prickle of irritation, the bone-deep weariness, even under the blank mask Coulson’s face is schooled in. “There was an incident. A scientist used himself as a guinea pig, had some unforeseen side effects.”

“Oh.” Clint twists his neck a little. “Can I get up now?”

Coulson eases back off of him and Clint squirms up to sit against the wall. Coulson does the same across from him, leaning into the side of his desk. He looks strained around the edges, tired. His suit is rumpled, but the wrinkles don’t hide that Coulson either has his gun in his pocket, or he’s just as hard as Clint is.

It’s wrong. It’s wrong on so many levels, because Coulson is his supervisor and Clint’s gotten a taste of what it’s like to be frozen out. Doesn’t mean he can stop staring at the way Coulson’s face is still flushed from exertion, or at his eyes, which are so deep and so blue it’s like looking into the ocean. They’ve been headed in this direction for so long -- as long as they’ve known each other it seems like – but it’s never been this personal. Clint decides from one second to the next that he likes personal, that he wants personal all the time. He’s never tried the guy thing, it’s never even really crossed his mind outside of gas-station blows for money, but he knows if Coulson asks him to he’ll lay back right here in the middle of his office and spread his legs.

“We should talk,” Coulson says into the silence, like neither of them can hear the strain in his voice.

He licks his lower lip. “About?”

“A lot of things,” Coulson says. “But mostly about the woman down on level eight.”

Suddenly Clint’s back in Russia, blood and the cloying smell of death in his nose, pain lighting him up from his knee to his hip. Her green eyes seem to fill up her whole face. “She’s here?”

“She’s been less than forthcoming. Director Fury thinks she might have a connection with you.”

“She saved my life.”

“Which is why she’s been given some amenities that other captured enemy combatants don’t usually receive,” Coulson tells him, looking at him like he can see all the way to the bottom of him. “I need to know if you can handle this.”

Clint ignores the question. “When?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

Something hot and tingling licks down his body, settles into the cradle of his hips. “And tonight?”

It’s the first time he’s ever seen Coulson look uncomfortable. “No.”

“You’re lying to yourself,” Clint replies and climbs to his feet. He offers a hand down and Coulson takes it after a beat, letting himself get pulled up. Wrong move, because Clint’s thrown caution to the wind, he’s jumped off the acrobat’s launch without a net, he has nothing left to lose.

Clint’s never kissed another man before. Coulson’s taller than him, just a little. There’s the barest hint of stubble under his lips, no lip gloss, no perfume, just soap and aftershave and dry, warm lips falling open with surprise. Clint’s never kissed another man before but as soon as he does he’s addicted, completely, without mercy, and he wonders if he’s never kissed another man because there’s never been a man worth kissing until now. Coulson has a grip on his arm that’s going to leave a bruise, his body tense, and Clint is fucked, he is so fucked but that doesn’t stop him from licking into Coulson’s mouth, sucking on that full lower lip.

Coulson’s control snaps and he grips him hard, fists his fingers in the short spikes of hair at the back of Clint’s head, and kisses the ever-living hell out of him. Clint’s never been kissed like this, not by anyone, like he’s being devoured, and the noise he makes is probably really embarrassing except Coulson’s taking that too, all of it, all of him, until Clint’s broken open, cleaved right to the heart. Coulson breaks away violently, setting his teeth into Clint’s neck. It makes him thrash, so sensitive he swears he can feel it in every nerve of his body. “Yes,” he chokes out, scared shitless and wanting more. “Yes, God.”

“No,” Coulson mutters, licking abused skin, then biting at his earlobe like he can’t help himself. Clint twitches, full-body, and he wants more, he wants all of it, he wants to pull Coulson down and strip him to the skin and see where all that strength comes from. The twitch becomes a thrust and suddenly they’re fucking one another through their clothes, Jesus Christ that’s Coulson’s dick, and oh God he can never think of the man as ‘Coulson’ again, it implies distance and chain of command and this, what they’re doing, is neither of those things.

Which is, of course, the very second Phil takes three steps back.

His mouth is wet, red, bruised. His eyes are wild. Clint wants to drag him down to the floor and fuck the ever-living hell out of him. Doesn’t matter that he doesn’t know the specifics, he’s a quick learner. He hears someone making a noise, realizes it’s him and grinds his teeth until it stops. “Come back.”

“We can’t.” Phil drags his fingers through his hair, flushed to the collar and glassy-eyed with arousal. It’s the most beautiful thing Clint’s ever seen. Clint’s so hard he’s lightheaded, so turned on he can barely speak. He tries to take a step forward but Phil steps back again, pulling Coulson back on like it’s one of his suits. “You should go.”

“Don’t do this,” Clint says, and Christ almighty he’s not one to shy away from his mistakes, even when this feels nothing like one. “Don’t freeze me out.”

“I shouldn’t have done that,” Phil replies. “I apologize.”

“Don’t,” Clint says, and hears the note of pleading in his voice.

He knows exactly two seconds after it comes out of his mouth that it was the wrong thing to say. Phil goes still, meets his gaze, and there’s nothing of the man who’d just shifted Clint’s entire world view, who’d kissed him like Clint was something precious and valued and so fucking wanted. It’s just Agent Coulson, and Clint, unwillingly shoved back into a box he doesn’t fit in anymore. “You’re expected on level eight at nine tomorrow morning. Agent Angstrum will be waiting to escort you to our prisoner’s cell.”

He knows a dismissal when he hears it. It breaks his fucking heart. “That’s it?”

He nods. “That’s it.”

Clint’s nostrils flare. “You’re wrong.”

“Maybe.”

“This changes everything.”

“I know.” At least Phil gives him the respect of acknowledging it. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not.” He surprises himself, but he’s not. In fact, for the first time in his life he feels like everything is right, like this is where all the bullshit he’s been through has been leading.

“Agent Barton, please leave.”

“I want this.” Clint says; he needs the man to understand. Phil’s so still he’s nearly part of the wall. “I need you to be okay with that.”

“I’m not,” he replies automatically.

“You’re a fucking liar.”

“This isn’t appropriate, Agent Barton,” Phil says, staring at his mouth. “We can’t do this.”

“Why not?” he asks, because seriously, what the fuck. “Who’s stopping you?”

“Fraternization rules exist for a reason. In this line of work, we can’t take that chance. I shouldn’t have – I’m sorry.” And he is, Clint can tell, as a cold, hard ball settles in his stomach. “I need you to please leave.”

He’s having a hard time swallowing. He wishes he could say that he’s never felt this kind of ache before, the kind that opens up in his guts and pulls and pulls until he’s unraveled. It hurts, in that place deep and undefined and so hungry.

He thought he was lost. Nothing holds a candle to what he feels when he steps out of Phil’s office and closes the door behind him.

He wanders the base for a long time. There’s no pull to go anywhere, no need to do anything. It’s so late it’s almost early, and Clint won’t be able to sleep, not with the way he’s feeling, that burn inside that nothing and no one can reach.

He’d kept himself from breaking into the range since Smolensk, because he respected Phil’s decision to keep him away from the weaponry until he was cleared. It seems like a stupid reason now.

Betty is gorgeous, lean and pretty like a girl in the first flush of womanhood. All the shit R&D had outfitted her with doesn’t take away from how fucking beautiful she is.

There’s an orange post-it stuck to the sight window.

Wait until I sign off.

“Fuck,” Clint barks, slams his palms down on the countertop and drops his head low.

He fights with himself for ten minutes.

In the end, he closes the lid and latches it locked.

 

.

He misses his appointment with the Woman Downstairs, because appointments – and Agent Angstrum – are not Clint’s style.

Clint’s has no problem using the service ways to get down to the cell block on level eleven. Granted, he doesn’t think anyone normal could do it, considering how many acrobatics are involved (and shit, he needs to work on his quads), but someone with the right skillset who really, really wanted to get into SHIELD could manage, no problem.

It takes him three hours to find her, and two minutes to rappel down.

She’s staring at him, face unreadable from between the bars. Maybe she sees something. Maybe it’s the slouch of his shoulders, or the way he winds the rope around his arm. Or maybe it’s none of those things. He’ll never know, because though they’ll be teammates for the better part of three decades, they never, ever talk about this.

“You look like shit.”

“Yeah well, you don’t look much better,” Clint tells her, because she doesn’t. She’s too thin, face waxy and pale, hair up in a messy ponytail. The gray jumpsuit saps all the light from her face, leaves her looking worn and tired. “Didn’t know you were here, or I’d have come and said hello before now.”

The woman studies him, like she’s waiting for him to try something – hurt her, kiss her, kill her. Clint tries his best not to look like a bow-wielding assassin. Slowly, carefully, she sinks down to the ground, sitting on her heels before him from the other side of the bars. “I’m surprised you’re here.”

“You and me both. After that shit I pulled I thought for sure they’d toss me out on my ear.”

“I meant your leg.”

“Oh.” Clint flexes it slowly, feels a small burn in his thigh. “Yeah, I’m fine. Bullet missed the artery, just kind of messy.”

He hears something behind him, and when he glances over his shoulder Agent Furlong actually yelps when he sees Clint is sitting in his top-of-the-line, impenetrable jail. Christ, he can’t help it; he gives the kid a sassy two-finger salute. “Hey, you hungry?”

She stares at him. “What?”

“Hungry. Food? If I take you to the cafeteria will you strangle me with a sausage link?”

Those huge, beautiful eyes of hers bore right down through skin and bone to the center of his soul. It’s terrifying -- and kind of awesome -- because the only other person who can do that is Phil. “Not today,” she finally settles on, and well, that’s something.

Furlong and Angstrum barge in and what follows is a really impressive amount of shouting. While Clint is waiting for them to figure out their shit he pushes the (unlocked, hah) cell door open -- really, it’s hilarious that anyone thought a few bars of iron would hold this chick. There’s even more shouting then, and a call to Director Fury, which Angstrum puts on speakerphone to share the love. Clint swears they’re a step above mall cops, wonders if Fury recruits them from Mall Cop College. ”Just what the fuck is going on down there?” Fury demands.

“We’re going for chow, sir, with your permission.”

“I am way too busy for this shit,” Fury barks. “Angstrum, let him take the woman for food.”

Angstrum’s face twists like he’s just swallowed crushed glass. It’s pretty much worth the price of admission.

The cafeteria is deserted when they get there. It has nothing at all to do with the time of day – in fact, the pre-lunch rush should have been hitting already. Clint’s kind of happy about it, he likes eating and he likes solitude, this is the best of both worlds. The woman doesn’t get anything for herself so Clint gives her the push Phil gave him, loads two trays up with as much as they can reasonably carry.

She’s slender and petite and so fucking guarded across the table from him, just because he’s kind to her, just because they’re sharing a meal together. He sees it, and understands it, and accepts it, because everyone’s got their demons. “Why?” she asks. Quiet as it’d been her voice still echoes in the quiet of the cafeteria, bounces off chairs and tables.

“Why not?”

She stares at him like he’s stupid. “I’m a spy. An assassin.”

“So am I,” Clint says with a shrug. “Well, mostly the last part. I’m no good with the spy stuff, way too much of a hick for that. They put me in the field once and I accidently broke the government of Grenada.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Not many people do,” Clint assures her, and pushes a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs at her. “I’d been sent to kill you. You could have let me bleed out. In fact, you could have let me drown.”

She inclines her head. Her hands are flat on the table, fingernails broken and uneven. That small detail bothers him, almost more than the lank hair, the hooded eyes. He remembers being thin and hungry, remembers fear and handcuffs and not knowing if this was it, if his luck had finally run out. Phil had seen something, and had reached down into the pit and grabbed him tight and pulled him free.

(He owes the man everything, but that’s just like Clint – always wanting more.)

He says, “Director Fury hasn’t killed you, and that means he sees something in you that’s worth saving. All of us here understand atonement.”

“Is that what you think this is? Atonement?”

“Yeah. What’re you atoning for?”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Not usually, no,” he agrees, and takes a slurp from his iced tea. “Clint.”

“What?”

“That’s my name. Well, Clinton, but that was my mama for you.”

He doesn’t think his gamble’s going to pay off. He’s aware of the agents around them, aware that they’ve probably closed off the entire floor. Not that something like that would stop her, of course; Clint knows her history, he knows she could take them all down without mussing her hair. He watches her eat, picking at first and then with more attention. The spaghetti is fucking amazing, though, so he isn’t sure if it’s because she’s hungry or if it’s all Ms. Gladys. Probably a little bit of both.

She finishes off the bowl, and he gives her one of his. When she finishes that too, Ms. Gladys brings them the country fried steaks she’s serving for supper, with thick country gravy on the side. It’s delicious.

At some point in their second helping of pie, the woman says, “Natasha.”

Well. Awesome. “Natasha,” he repeats, and nods. “Pretty.”

She glares at him. “Really?”

“Sorry.” He holds up his hands. “Deadly? Fierce? Ass kicking?”

That satisfies her, he can tell. There’s some color in her face again at least, which is probably the hilarious amount of sugar they’ve both just eaten. Clint’s going to be hanging off the ceiling before too long. “Feel better?”

“Tell me about Fury.”

“Tall, badass,” he says without missing a beat. “He could cut you with the power of his glare. Very frightening.”

“I’m sure he’d appreciate that, Agent Barton,” comes from behind them.

It’s Coulson, with his steady gate and his suit, but Clint looks at him and all he can see is a pink mouth, flushed cheeks, trembling hands. All he can see is Phil, and how’d he’d look in Clint’s bed.

Natasha tenses up like she’s going to bolt, and Clint hooks a foot around her ankle, steadying her. He’s under the distinct impression she’s thinking about breaking his leg – not to get free, but to teach him a lesson – when Phil walks past the dessert counter, takes a look at the selection. “Anything good?”

“The apple pie is awesome,” Clint says, keeping his eyes on Natasha. The woman is made of steel.

“Gladys made it, of course it is,” Phil strolls over to them like he’s got all the time in the world, takes a seat at the table next to theirs with a plate and fork. His shirt is the palest blue today, and his tie has thin turquoise lines. Clint wants to grab him by it and pull him into his lap. “Angstrum’s put in a complaint against you, Barton.”

“Angstrum is a tool.”

“Well, yeah,” Phil says, and takes a bite of pie.

Clint’s all about body language, but he can’t read a single thing in Natasha’s expression. She might as well be made of a pane of glass. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Kill you?” Phil blinks, fork halfway to his mouth. “We don’t kill people like you.”

“Like me?”

“One of a kind. Unique. Your ledger reads like a summer blockbuster.”

She leans forward, and Clint gets the sudden image of a jungle cat, all lean lines and barely restrained violence. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“I know everything about you, Ms. Romanov,” Phil replies. “That’s why I’ve been authorized to offer you a job.”

He doesn’t think he could have surprised her any more if he’d said he was the President of the United States. She stares at him like he’s grown a second head.

“Yeah,” Clint says, taking a bite of pie. “You get used to it.”

 

.

This is what Clint will learn about Natasha in the first three months he knows her.

1. She’s got mad skills. Literally. Chick it straight up nuts.
2. She’s got a shitty history to rival Clint’s. She doesn’t talk about it, but she’ll say things sometimes and Clint’s entire view of her will shift. It happens enough that he comes to expect the unexpected.
3. She’s a stone cold assassin. Clint thought he was pretty good. Clint has since been schooled.
4. She can be so damn girly. Frankly, he’s waiting for her to bling the handle of her favorite machete any day now. Her bunk at headquarters looks like a spread out of fucking Pottery Barn, and everything smells faintly of lavender.

Director Fury seems to think they have some sort of connection, which may be something he picks up from the long, long talks he and Natasha have several times a week (over coffee and pie, she tells him -- the Director loves his pie), or because Clint is still numero uno on his shit list. Either way, Fury pairs them up and assigns them both permanently to Phil. It’s both awesome and awful for a whole host of reasons, the first of course being that Clint’s never had a partner, because Clint does not work well with people who are not Phil. Still, he likes Natasha, loves how well they get along, and respects her skills, but the fact remains he’s never worked with someone who could and would kill him if the need ever arose. It’s kind of awesome. Mostly, though, it’s scary as shit.

They learn each other, impossible not to when they’re in such close company. Their entire relationship consists of kicking each other’s asses (or, rather, Natasha kicking his ass all over the gym and waiting for him to get off the floor. The first time he’d told her, “Don’t hold back,” she almost took out his knee. He limps away from that fight black and blue and completely exhilarated), and practicing with all kinds of guns and rifles, including some Clint’s never seen before.

Natasha is awesome. She’s strong and tough and weirdly ultra feminine, but then again they don’t call her Black Widow for nothing. She can mop the floor with any of them (he knows, they’ve tried – Jasper is never going to forgive him), and she’s an expert in almost all types of weaponry. She’s charmed by his bow (which he shows off like a six year old bragging about his Schwinn), and pinches his cheek when he fires it from a hundred and fifty yards away and hits the bull’s-eye on the far side of the range.

So, he and Nat work well together. He and Phil, not so much. He can’t actually look at Phil and not remember how pink his mouth looked when he’d finally pulled himself away from fucking Clint against the wall of his office. This is not a good thing, because Phil can’t look at him either for exactly the same reason. Any other time, with any other person, Clint would have pursued the fuck out of that, would have wined and dined and won his prize and handed out satisfying (mind-blowing) orgasms, case closed. The reason he hasn’t is because A, Phil has made it very clear he’s not interested in pursuing anything with him, B, Phil is his boss, and C, Phil is a man, which makes the entire situation even more difficult.

Most of the base has cleared out for Christmas crap, and Clint thought for sure his handler would leave this year to see his folks, but instead he spends most of every day walking around Clint, tapping his elbow to get him to arch it a few centimeters up or down (as if Clint’s aim is anything less than absolutely perfect), or throwing him on the treadmill even though they both know treadmills should be listed in the Geneva convention as cruel and unusual punishment. Phil doesn’t touch Natasha, ever, but he goes out of his way to talk to her, ask her about her style, how she works, what he can do to help her improve. She’s visibly off-balance by his kindness, which is kind of funny because Phil is not a kind man, except in all the ways that count.

Natasha catches on quickly of course; Clint’s surprised the entire world doesn’t realize what’s going on. One late night, after kicking his ass and making him ache with muscles Clint didn’t know he had, she says, “We go to Belarus on Tuesday. Fix this before then.”

“What?” Clint asks from the floor. He’s good at playing stupid. “What are you talking about?”

She graces him with that haughty, female look of irritation Clint’s been on the receiving end from all of his life. Even upside down it has the ability to make him squirm uncomfortably in a way that has nothing to do with the way she’s got her boot on his shoulder. “We’re infiltrating the Russian mob. A moment’s hesitation could cost both our lives. Fix this, or I’ll fix it for you.”

She means it. He’s kind of mortified, and on the tail end of that pretty angry. “Look, I don’t know how things work where you come from, but I can’t just go up to our boss and ask for that.”

Natasha pierces him with that look, and he’s been made before he ever has a chance to defend himself, and hauls him up to his feet. “Things work the same everywhere, Clint. You want him to fuck you – get him to fuck you.”

“It’s not like that,” Clint says, and hates himself for letting this become an issue. If there was a way to control it, to stop it from happening, he would dammit.

“You’ve tried.” It’s not a question, except it is.

“Look, I just need to deal with it, alright?” Clint says, and scrubs his face. “Get it out of my system.”

“And how do you propose to do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, figure it out,” Natasha says with a poke to his chest. She flattens her hand over his heart, turning it from a rebuke to something gentler. “Don’t let this become a regret.”

He presses his palm over her hand. “I didn’t think you cared about stuff like this.”

“I don’t,” she says with an irritated huff. “But I recognize some people do. You do.”

“You’re a closet romantic, Tasha,” he answers, and fully expects the way she takes his knees out from under him and sends him, laughing, to the mat.

 

.

That night, full and comfortable and pleasantly warm in his bunk, he unearths his notebook from the bottom of his chester drawers and the fountain-tip pen Lady Matilda gave him when he was sixteen, the nicest thing he owns. The list thing he usually does in his head, but in this circumstance, Clint doesn’t think he can figure this shit out on anything but paper.

And besides, he’s a big believer in writing-it-down-out-of-my-head.

When he’s settled and cozy, his tv on low, he stares down at the creamy yellow page and experiences a moment of euphoric terror he’s only ever had one other time, when Dave had shoved him, screeching, into the G-man van and Phil had turned in his chair to arch a brow at him, like he knew everything there ever would be to know about Clint F. Barton.

He’s here again. Because of Phil.

“I like men,” he says out loud, just to get a feel for it. Seems right, words matching what’s been in his heart for a long time, words he’s never let himself say before now. Words that could have gotten him killed, or shoved over a horse trough, or pushed down to his knees in a back-woods truck stop.

He looks down at the page again, pen poised. He loves this fucking pen, and it seems right that it’s Lady Matilda’s pen, that the words he writes down come from her heart. She’d be proud, he thinks.

1. He doesnt take shit from anyone.

He blows softly on the words, at the curl of his ‘H’, the period at the end. “He doesn’t take shit from anyone,” he says, and feels so fucking safe.

2. He always does whats right even when it sucks.

It makes him laugh, because seriously, what the fuck is that even about. Phil’s hot for him, he knows it, he knows it in the deep, primitive, knowing-it way of knowing. Phil wants in his pants, in his body. He wants his hands on Clint’s skin and his mouth following right after. He wants Clint’s cock, and his ass, and to kiss and kiss until they’re both gasping, panting. Clint knows because all Phil has to do is look at him and they’re both right back there in his office, pressed so close together Clint’s buttons had made an impression in his skin, tongues in each other’s mouths and Phil’s fingers clamped on Clint’s wrists, holding him still, holding him tight.

3. Hes an amazing kisser.

Clint doesn’t want to think about it too much, not when he’s feeling like this – not when this shit still stings. He’s comfortable enough to admit that it’s more than his vanity that’s hurt, and now that he’s on that vein he can’t quite seem to stop. He touches the spot on his neck where the hickey had come up; he’d been bruised for weeks, and every time Phil saw it his entire face shut down.

4. Hes strong, knows what he’s doing.

Clint likes competence and Phil’s got that in spades, which is how he gets away with appearing, for all intents and purposes, like a paper pusher. No one would ever believe that this guy, with his Dolce & Gabana and silk tie and three hundred dollar shoes, is capable of violence, let alone the way he can and will end you with the most exquisite finesse. He’s just as terrifying as Natasha is, but at least Natasha looks like a master assassin. With Phil, that comes after he’s taken out a room of terrorists armed to the teeth with nothing but a tiny Swiss Army knife.

5. I want him to touch me.

He pauses, pen on paper, and thinks about what Natasha had said.

6. I want him to fuck me.

He’s never – never. But he would. He’d let Phil do whatever he wanted. And he wants that, he wants it really, really badly – it’s foreign and strange and insane, but now that he’s thought about it he knows that’s right where they’re headed like a fucking train on a track. Phil can say ‘no’ and ‘rules’ and ‘can’t’ until the cows come home, but they both know that Clint’s going to be an asshole, even if he doesn’t mean to be, and it’s going to push Phil to his breaking point. When that happens, when Phil’s control snaps, they’re going to destroy whatever is in their path.

He’s hard. All the sticky emotions were in the way before, but now that Clint’s cleared it up in his head, now that he realizes there’s no way for this to end but with a solid fucking, it’s obvious how hot he is for his handler. Jesus, how did he go so many years without knowing this about himself?

What would have happened if Phil had pressed Clint down to his knees, that day in his office? And that he would have isn’t up for debate; Clint’s known him for two years, and in that time he’s learned that Phil is the most self-assured man he’s ever met. He knows what he wants and how to get it. It’s almost bizarre thinking about Coulson like this, except Phil is what’s wrapped up safe inside of the suit, and Clint can only imagine the way his eyes would look when he – when he –

And there arises the main problem. Clint’s no slouch in the sex department – in fact, he’s been having it for most of his adult life. He’s just never – that. He’s never done anything with a man; not because he’s a homophobe or anything, he isn’t, but he’d thought he was on Team Vagina. Women are amazing – they smell good, they’re soft in all the right places, they make the most incredible noises. Clint likes women.

But -- and now that he’s gotten his head around it, he can admit it -- he also likes Phil. The amused little tilt to his mouth, the way he can shut Clint down in five seconds flat if he’s being an idiot. His hands are big, big enough to push and shove Clint just the way he wants him. He knows what that mouth can do now. He knows what that body can do, and he’s angry, furious even, because fuck that shit, Clint’s never been one to be meek and nice and wait patiently for someone else to make a move. Phil’s self-assured but Clint’s scrappy – he knows how to take care of himself and get what he wants.

And what he wants is Phil.

SHIELD is pretty empty, pretty quiet. It’s the pre-season dead-zone, the time of year that makes being alone the worst. Clint’s dealt with it before, years of it, but in the before-time he’d had Lady Matilda and Charlie, whatever can be said about him. This, SHIELD, is the loneliness of his childhood, and stings like a cut in a bad spot, reopening at the slightest irritation.

Phil’s still here. Ask the probies and they’ve got all kinds of theories: he’s an android, he’s a mythical creature, he’s a pod person. But they don’t see what Clint sees – the dark circles under his eyes, the lines of stress that fan out from the corners, the downward tilt to his mouth.

He taps a knuckle against the open door, and when those beautiful, beautiful eyes lift, meet his, Clint knows he’s fucking done for. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Phil replies, tilting his head just slightly in that way he had, like a golden retriever, thoughtful. He motioned him in. “It’s late. You should be asleep.”

“We’ve got a few hours,” he replies, and watches Phil’s eyebrow go up when Clint closes the door behind him. “We need to talk.”

Phil goes back to his computer, mouse clicking, but Clint can read his tells – the tick of his cheek, the twitch of his forefinger on the keyboard. “The mission parameters should have been delivered to your quarters at 1900.”

“They were,” Clint says. “But that’s not why I’m here.”

“And why are you here, Agent Barton?”

He gets closer, and closer, and Phil’s watching his every move without saying a single word, and Clint wants with such fierceness it’s a physical ache deep down in his bones. “I want to suck your cock.”

Phil’s eyes get impossibly wide and Clint realizes with a pang of hot, thick lust that he’s surprised him. Him, Clint Barton, has surprised the Head G-Man. It makes him almost want to laugh, giddy with delight, except anything that comes out of his mouth at this point is probably going to be a groan. He’s so hard he’s lightheaded, so hard it makes stepping around Phil’s desk, getting close, almost painful.

Phil’s staring at Clint’s mouth and Clint wants to open him like a present and gobble him up. Jesus, how did he not know this, how did he miss this for so long. “Barton—”

“I want to,” Clint says, because this isn’t fucking Striptease, this is real life – awkward and self-conscious and Phil staring at him like he’s lost his mind and Clint with a truly embarrassing hard-on. He tries to lower himself to his knees but Phil catches his arm, stops him. “Clint,” he says quietly, firmly. “We’ve already talked about this.”

“No, as I seem to recall, you talked about it,” Clint says, because he’s a stubborn bastard. He only keeps himself from chucking his chin up through sheer willpower. “Rules and regulations and stupid, pointless shit that makes no sense in the long run.”

“Those rules and regulations govern our time here,” Phil answers, and stands too so they’re eye to eye. Phil looks thin and worn, and beneath all of that there’s a fine, razor-edge hint of sadness which strikes Clint right in his guts. Phil squeezes his shoulder tightly. “I appreciate what you’re doing, and I’m flattered. But this, it can’t continue.” His face colors, just a touch, from his collar to his ears. “I’ve apologized for my inappropriate behavior. It was a mistake on my part, one I now see is having a detrimental effect on our relationship. If you can’t continue to work with me, I need to reassign you to someone you’re comfortable with.”

Clint recoils, he can’t help it, because fuck, fuck, he’s been turned down before but never – never been threatened like that, to be kicked out of someone’s life. He takes a step back. “You can’t do that.”

“I can and will,” Phil answers, and there’s the sadness again, pronounced deep in the lines of his face. “I don’t want to. But emotions can’t get in the way of our objective here.”

“Emotions can’t – are you fucking kidding me?” Clint asks, furious and hurt and so goddamn humiliated. “You want me. I saw it, I felt it. That wasn’t some hallucination, that was you, and me, in this office, fucking one another. That was you, kissing me. You’re telling me that didn’t mean anything to you? That you didn’t feel anything?”

Clint thought that the first time Phil said no was as bad as it could hurt. Nothing could prepare him for the way Phil meets his eyes and says, “It was a mistake. I’m not interested in pursuing a relationship with you, not now and not later. You are my subordinate, nothing more. Is that understood?”

He’s cold all over. He’s been here, time and time and time again. Nothing new. “You’re wrong,” Clint hears himself say.

Phil steps away. Turns away. “You’re dismissed. Flight leaves at 0800 tomorrow morning. Be on time.”

Phil’s shoulder’s are tense, his face set, and there’s no talking to him anymore. That’s it. Clint fucked up the one steady relationship in his life, just like that, and now there’s really nothing to lose.

He stops at the door, stares hard at the grain. “By the way,” he says, and glances back just in time to see Phil’s mouth press into a thin line. “That little speech would have been a lot more convincing if your cock wasn’t as hard as mine.”

He isn’t a child anymore, he doesn’t slam the door. It closes behind him with a quiet, smooth click.

 

.

They go to Belarus on Tuesday.

Clint’s a fucking professional. He’s not some goddamn wilting wallflower; Phil doesn’t want him and that hurts, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an adult. He behaves like the over-qualified, highly trained sniper he is. Everything is Agent Coulson and Agent Romanoff, and he stays off the line like he’s supposed to, and he takes out the target without back-talking or questioning or opening his fucking mouth.

In return they get shot at, and nearly accidently break the Belarusian government (it’s actually kind of embarrassing just how bad Clint is at this spy shit), and find the equivalent of five hundred thousand dollars in crack cocaine. Also, they stop an assassination attempt on the Pope, who’s in town visiting his people. Added bonus, lambs of God, etc etc.

When they get back to the hotel they’re using as a base of operations, Sitwell is on the sofa with a towel over his eyes, muttering, “I can’t deal with this shit, I’m never going on an op with you people ever again.”

They arrive in New York three days later, where Director Fury proceeds to glare for what feels like a full hour. By the end of it Clint wants to go play in traffic. Natasha just smirks, and Fury finally throws up his hands. “Get your reports in by 1800. Dismissed.”

He and Phil don’t say a single word to one another. Clint gets his report in on time, typed out on the computer and everything. He learns that ‘machete’ doesn’t have two ee’s at the end like he’d always assumed, among a host of other embarrassing bullshit. That’s what happens when someone has a sixth-grade education, though, so he isn’t too hard on himself. Life’s too short for that.

By the end of the month they end up in Cincinnati on another drug bust, a city Clint does not particularly like, because it’s in Cincinnati fifteen years ago that Clint walked in on a guy trying to rape Lady Matilda. It was the first time he broke a man’s jaw, and worth every day of the two months he spent in juvie.

Clint does not like Cincinnati, but he deals with it. Additionally, Clint puts an arrow in a guy’s eye for selling heroin to eight year olds on their school playground. Always looking for the positives in life.

They have seven back-to-back ops in as many weeks. Prague, Sydney, the Ivory Coast, then back to the States. Houston, New Orleans, Miami, and then slipping into Cuba, where Clint finds out Natasha can speak fluent Spanish with a hilarious Russian accent. After that it’s down the South American coast and finally breaking up a global slave-trade network. It’s awful, the worst, but Clint’s all about putting arrows into people who deserve it, and he takes extreme pleasure in handing out death to the very bad men who’ve gotten rich on the suffering of thousands of innocent people.

After that it’s back overseas, and their assignments get progressively murkier the more comfortable Fury becomes with Natasha being involved in what they do. Clint’s never been big fan of murk – in fact he outright despises it – but there comes a point where he and Natasha don’t actually have to know the full picture to do their job. SHIELD always lets them know enough, and when Clint’s skirting too close to the line he’s drawn in the sand he says so. Natasha has no such line, but she respects him enough to understand where he’s coming from. It’s one of the fundamental differences between them, but it’s also why they make such a great team. He’s a grounding force that keeps her from slipping too far into the role she’s been asked to play, and she pushes him to do what’s needed for the greater good. Without any effort at all she becomes his best friend, his ally, his partner.

She doesn’t ask about Phil. Doesn’t have to, really, because they’re Mark, Barton and Yes sir, and Target eliminated, sir. It’s cold and calculated and Clint hates every goddamn moment of it, and the worst part is that he has no one to blame but himself.

Natasha lets him get drunk in Seville, and it helps. She kisses him, touches him, and that helps too, right until it doesn’t, right until Clint’s broken fucking heart tells him no. But Natasha – she’s as broken as he is, and she doesn’t know what to do, or how to help, not really. It’s enough, though, that she cares enough to call him an idiot, to hold him through the night even though he smells like the bottom of a bottle.

Then, there’s Budapest.

 

.

Budapest is torture and exploding cars and double agents and shady government organizations shadier than SHIELD, if that’s somehow possible. It’s Patrick Cole and Cliff Benson getting sold out by their informant, and Jasper getting kidnapped, and Clint not-so-accidently ruining Budapest, but that’s what they get. The fall of the Iron Curtain was thirty fucking years ago, these extremist groups have lost their damn minds if they think their crazy shit is going to fly, he will shoot all of these motherfuckers in exactly one heartbeat.

Budapest is freezing. Clint’s been numb for three days, and to be perfectly honest he wishes he was parked on some ice-covered roof somewhere freezing his balls off while he waited for the mark to show up. That was what he was good at, not – not this spy shit, and not sitting in the car of a supply train, and not—

“Agent Barton,” Phil murmurs, but Clint’s ignoring him, he’s really, really ignoring him, because if he looks down at the man in his lap again he’s going to start gibbering like an idiot. His hands are warm for the first time in two days because they’re pressed against the blood pouring out of Phil’s body, hot blood he still needs, because Phil is still alive and blood is a big part of that, of being alive, with the pumping and the beating heart.

Natasha is muttering steadily under her breath, and Clint knows enough Russian to know what she’s saying can’t be repeated in polite company. For some reason it makes him want to laugh, except that this has been a shit day and he’s had just about as much as he can take, and if he starts to laugh now it isn’t going to end pretty for anybody.

Natasha uses her knife to tear the hole in Phil’s coat wider instead of trying to manhandle him out of it. She doesn’t say what they all know – there isn’t a choice, they have to do something because they’re a hundred miles from their extraction point.

Phil, for having been shot, is exceptionally composed. He’s staring up at Clint, but Clint can’t look down, he can’t, he can’t, until he does. “You’re a fucking idiot, sir,” he says, sounding a little like he’s been chewing on glass.

“Easy decision,” Phil replies calmly.

Easy decision to push Clint out of the way, to take a bullet not meant for him. To save Clint’s fucking life, like it meant anything to begin with. “No offence, but it was a really, really stupid decision.” The train rattles under them, rough on his tailbone, but he doesn’t move, doesn’t so much as budge. Natasha opens another syringe of morphine from their emergency pack and injects it, no-nonsense, and Phil doesn’t even notice, which sets the ice crawling up Clint’s arms and neck. She shucks her jacket and starts pulling the lining out with quick, efficient tugs. He can remember her doing it when he was on the other side of the bullet, leg on fire. “What the hell. Taking on those dudes was some serious kamikaze bullshit.”

Phil’s lips quirk into a quick, helpless grin that tells Clint just how well the morphine is working. “Fun.”

“I’ll bet.” Natasha pulls his hand away and blood pumps up out of the wound in steady gushes, with each beat of Phil’s heart.

Natasha catches Phil’s eye. “This is going to hurt.”

“Yeah,” Phil agrees, and well, fuck.

He isn’t expecting the way Phil tenses, the way he breaks out into a cold sweat, the helpless noises he makes as Natasha starts to clean the wound as best as she can, packing it with the cotton from their emergency pack, and when that isn’t nearly enough, her coat lining. It’s messy and awful and there’s blood everywhere, and Clint suddenly gets what Natasha had meant when she said no regrets, because Phil’s life is spilling all over the place, red down to the grain.

Natasha does something and Phil shudders, an awful noise low in his throat that Clint never, ever wants to hear again. Clint’s got words crowded in his throat, a thousand words each waiting to tumble out of his mouth. It’s nothing but the snow-covered gray countryside rolling by, the chain link fences and the endless noise of the train rattling on the tracks. It’s Phil, his beautiful eyes gone glassy and distant, face as white as Clint’s coat sleeve. It’s red, so much red, and Natasha’s steady, sure fingers working with efficient purpose. Clint’s been here, he’s been here so many fucking times, he’s seen what happens when the light goes out of someone’s eyes, he knows the pain that follows. Phil can’t die, not here, not now, in the godforsaken sticks of fucking Russia, on a train that smells like cow shit, and so much left undone and unsaid between them.

SHIELD is waiting for them at their extraction point, and within an hour Phil is in surgery. Fifteen minutes after they find out Phil is going to live, Clint’s vision coats in red.

He and Natasha disappear. No one’s happy about it, Clint finds out later, but too bad for them, they’ve got a mission to complete.

In three days, they retrieve Jasper (two broken ribs, one fractured pinky finger, not bad), dismantle a black-market human organ supply chain (Phil’s moved out of the country once they realize what the fuck, and Jasper’s put under a CAT scan for an all-clear), bust the teeth of the shithead who sold them out, and not-so-accidently ruin Budapest -- or at least Budapest’s shady underground, comprised of government officials and heads of state.

Maria shows up to extract them once they’re done. She looks impressed despite herself (Clint can tell, it’s all about the eyes), and when she asks them for a debrief, Natasha bares her teeth in a way that is at once terrifying and freaking hilarious. Clint’s never seen Hill go that quiet that quick.

Phil’s alive, Maria tells them, but Clint’s just not prepared for what’s keeping him alive – the machines, the tubes down his throat, the needles. People romanticized it sometimes, Clint thinks, especially the young probies. Real life isn’t a fucking daytime soap opera, with the hero stretched out attractively in a hospital smock. Real life was the smell of piss and sweat, the cold, clammy feel of someone’s skin when they’ve nearly bled out. Real life was black bruises at the IV ports, puckered skin around chest tubes, crusted eyes and skin rusted brown with dried blood.

The probies didn’t know what it was like to see someone you care about reduced to a shell. Clint knows. Clint’s lived this, Clint’s seen black stitches and black bruises and white, white skin.

They give Phil transfusions, three of them, and he spends a week in a medically-induced coma. Clint doesn’t budge from his side until he wakes up, and because this is SHIELD and they’re all of them fucked up, they don’t ask him to leave. In thank you, he doesn’t growl when someone comes in check on the cut on his neck, the multicolored bruises on his arms from his bow string.

Phil doesn’t die, but Budapest still sucks.

“We’re off rotation for another six weeks,” Phil tells him apologetically one afternoon when Clint comes by to see him, like Clint is a guest, like Clint didn’t spend a solid week sleeping in the chair beside Phil’s bed, counting the beeps of his heart. Phil’s shoulder and part of his chest are buried under enough bandaging to create a decent Halloween costume, and he’s got huge bruises under his eyes which only makes the near-translucent pallor of his skin that much worse. He’s so beautiful Clint can barely stand it.

“You look like shit,” Clint says, and offers him a bag from a bakery on the upper east side that made angel food donuts.

Phil shares, because he’s a nice guy like that. Clint watches him chew, the slope of his jaw and the rise of his cheekbone and the line of his shoulders under the hospital smock. Phil watches him watch him, he’s the master of the thousand yard stare, but he doesn’t see what Clint sees – blood all over everything and the helpless tears that had caught in Phil’s lashes every time Natasha touched his wound, the way he’d gone distant with shock, blue eyes staring at a spot just over Clint’s shoulder. Clint can’t remember a time when he’d been so scared, and he’d watched his father kill his mama.

“Anything you needed, Agent Barton?” Phil finally asks, and there’s sun coming in from the window, just a little, just enough to highlight the stubble on Phil’s jaw, the gold in his slowly receding hairline. His face does a thing Clint’s never seen before, but if he was a betting man he’d have said it was just this side of sheepish. “There’s not much I can help you with from here, I’m afraid.”

“No,” Clint says. He knows the language of Phil’s fingers, the tick at the corner of his mouth, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes. He’s like a book written in invisible ink, but Clint’s learned how to make those words appear, with blood and sweat and so many goddamn tears. “You get out of here this week,” Clint hears himself say as if from far away. “Friday, Doc said.”

“Something like that,” Phil agrees, and leans back into the pillow behind him. He’s not one for showing weakness, but they’ve been dancing around like this for too long.

Clint helps him out, adjusts the pillow under the arm strapped to his chest. His fingers linger and his eyes are drawn to the joint of Phil’s wrist, the fine smattering of hair. “You don’t get to say.”

“What?”

Clint swallows, and swallows, and tries to make the words come. “You nearly died.”

“I did,” Phil agrees, because he’s an ornery asshole, but there’s something to be said about being blunt. “As I recall, you do that every other week.”

Phil is not getting this. Clint licks his lower lip, mouth dry. “You nearly died. I’m not okay with that.”

“I can say for certain that I’m not okay with that either,” Phil says. He has such kind eyes. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for those eyes.

“You don’t get it. We were on that fucking train and you were dying, it was just blood and Natasha and the goddamn countryside rolling by.” He’d held Phil for six hours, arm crooked under his neck and fingers firm on his pulse. He can’t sleep at night, because every time he starts to slip he jerks awake, certain if he falls asleep Phil’s pulse will stop.

“Barton,” Phil says, a measure of compassion, of understanding in his voice, and Clint cannot deal with that, he just can’t.

“No,” he says, shaking with anger or rage, or maybe just shaking. “You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to try and push this into a neat little box you can put away.”

“I don’t want to put you away,” Phil says, and his voice is so kind, so un-Coulson, so devastated. “It’s against regulations. You know that.”

“We are way beyond ‘against regulations’ at this point. ‘Against regulations’ was three months ago when you made me leave your office with my neck still wet from your mouth.” Clint swallows, a dry click in his throat. “I’m not pushing you about this. I’m not trying to give you an ultimatum. But it’s beyond regulations now, and I can’t keep on going like nothing is wrong, like there’s this huge thing unfinished between us.” It kills him, it fucking murders him to say it, but say it he does. “Maybe if I wasn’t your subordinate anymore. If I asked for a transfer—”

“No,” Phil says automatically. He’s got that look about him that Clint’s only seen a few times, but that he recognizes from his own reflection in the mirror. It’s a little bit reckless. It’s a little bit dangerous. “That’s never going to happen,” he adds, pale now even under the pallor of his injury. “I’m sorry I said it to begin with.”

“I want us to mean something.” He doesn’t say how scared he is, how many ways this could backfire, how badly shit could go down if they didn’t work out. He doesn’t say it because Clint’s been living on the acrobat’s ledge his entire life, and sometimes choices had to be made, paths had to be taken, that left sanity and good sense by the wayside. “You felt it.”

“Clint.”

“You did.”

Phil closes his eyes briefly. “It was wrong,” he tells him, struggling, struggling, and Clint doesn’t know what else to do, what else to say to make him understand.

“It wasn’t. It was good, it was so good, you felt – you tasted—” Phil flushes to the roots of his hair, and it’s a good look for him, the best, and Clint says, “Phil. It was the best thing you and I have ever done together, and we shoot bad guys for a living.”

“You’re my subordinate.”

“When we’re at work.”

“We’re always at work.”

“Not always.” Clint looks down at Phil’s fingers, knotted into his blanket. “Doc said you can’t be alone over the weekend, if you’re going to be released on Friday.”

Phil says, after a beat, “No, I can’t.”

“Maybe I can – take you to your place. Make sure there’s food, give you a hand with the dust bunnies.”

They stare at one another like this isn’t a paradigm shift, like Phil’s answer won’t rewrite everything they thought they knew about one another. Clint’s never given anyone this much power over him and he’s scared as shit, even though he recognizes that this is personal growth, right here. Phil would be proud, if Phil wasn’t sitting in a hospital bed across from him looking like he’s about to stroke out.

“Maybe,” Phil finally says; he clears his throat and tries again. “I do need some help.”

“I know.”

“Can’t move much yet.”

“Didn’t ask you to,” Clint says quickly, feeling like his heart is going to come out of his chest. “I’ll make you my famous apple pie.”

Phil slowly relaxes into his pillows. He isn’t smiling, except that he is. “Pretty sure there aren’t eggs in the house, but if there are you’re going to need a hazmat team to remove them.”

“I’ll buy eggs. And milk, and coffee, that coffee you like,” Clint says, though he has no idea which coffee Phil likes, he will buy all the coffee if that’s what it takes. “So. Okay, then.”

“Okay then,” Phil answers, and it’s so warm and private that something shudders clear down to Clint’s toes.

“Friday?”

“Friday.”

“Okay,” Clint says, trying not to grin too much, and escapes before he can say something and make Phil regret ever tossing his lot in with his.