Everybody knew that you knew that you knew when you were eight. Sure, sometimes it took a few years later than that- if your partner was six when you were eight, you had to wait around a bit. Sometimes it was even more than that; Phil knew one girl in middle school who had to wait until she was 13, which everybody had gotten a good laugh out of.
They sent Phil to a doctor when he was fifteen, who found nothing wrong with him.
At sixteen, Phil accepted the worst: his partner hadn't made it to hir eighth birthday. Everyone had long since stopped thinking it was funny, because now it was just heartbreaking.
At eighteen, he went to college. Everybody was a lot less worried about it there, gossip more about who was fucking and how much they drank before they did it. As long as Phil didn't mention it, everybody just thought that his bond was incomplete, that he hadn't actually met his partner and sealed it.
He was barely halfway through his first semester when the migraines started. He went to the doctor and got a whole bag of pills, but they didn't seem to work particularly well. He was still making it to classes, but that was about all he was doing, spending the rest of his time in his darkened dorm room hoping that his roommate would stay away.
As he walked to Calc B, he was hit by the very worst of it, bad enough that he thought he was going to throw up from the pain. His friend caught him by the arm, leading him to a bench, where he pressed his hands to the sides of his head, trying anything to keep his brain from feeling like it was going to explode.
"Hey man, are you okay?" Jeff asked, a hand on his shoulder.
Phil couldn't manage to talk, the feeling swelling; and then all of a sudden it was gone, just evaporated, relief rushing in to replace the horrible, horrible tension.
Hey, a little kid's voice said, coming from nowhere.
"Oh for shit's sake," Phil moaned. He couldn't describe how he felt; he was incredibly relieved, so grateful that his partner had survived. At the same time, now he was going to have this kid riding around in his head. Jesus Christ, what was the kid going to be able to hear? Was Phil even going to be able to masturbate?
"What's wrong?" Susanna asked.
"Um," Phil said.
Heeeeeeeeeeeeey, the kid said. Hey! What's your name?
"There's nothing wrong," Phil lied. "I just-"
Can you hear me? the kid said. I'm Clint. Say something if you can hear me! I want to know your name!
My name is Phil, he thought, not realizing that he'd said it out loud.
His friends looked at him in confusion, but he could see the moment he was doomed, the moment that Jen caught on. "Holy shit," she said, her eyes getting big. "Did you just-" Phil pursed his lips. "You did! You just did! Shit, I didn't even know you were unpartnered!"
Phil put his hand over his eyes, wanting the headache back.
So that's how Phil spent four years as "Cradle Robber" Coulson. He was intensely relieved to join the Army and, after a series of bizarre circumstances, just be "Cheese" instead.
Clint was actually in school that year, for the first time in a while. It was a good year to be there, mostly because everybody was finding out who their partners were, which was way more interesting than the actual work they were doing. It got even better when Clint turned eight, because almost immediately he knew.
"I just met my partner," Clint told his teacher proudly.
"That's fantastic," his teacher said, smiling. "You can talk about them at share time."
Clint told them all about Phil, about how he was so smart and so funny and Clint couldn't wait to meet him. He told them about how Phil was in college, about how he was majoring in foreign relations. Phil was kind of a jerk sometimes, but he was a funny jerk, and never a jerk to Clint.
At recess, his teacher took him aside and very gently explained to him the difference between a partner and an imaginary friend.
It didn't matter. The next month they left again, but Phil never did.
Clint lost his virginity when he was sixteen.
Ask Phil how he knew that.
Here Phil was, afraid to look at himself in the mirror for too long for fear of corrupting Clint, and Clint was busy putting the filthiest things into Phil's brain- granted, Phil was twenty-six, but that didn't mean Phil needed the play by play on a sixteen-year-old boy's sex life, not even his partner's.
Tonight was the worst, though, by miles. Phil had been up since 0300, and it was presently nearing tomorrow. But instead of sleeping like a normal fucking person, Clint was in some guy's car, twisted up in a weird position as he got the daylights fucked out of him, just like he'd done for the last five nights. It was like having really, really loud neighbors, except there was no amount of loud music or banging on walls that would stop them.
So Phil lay back and did what any sensible person would do.
He thought about Bea Arthur.
He thought about Bea Arthur in stunning, full-color, loving detail. He thought about Bea Arthur on horseback, riding through a meadow. He thought about Bea Arthur at a candlelight dinner. He tried to think about Bea Arthur naked, but his own brain revolted on that one.
"Fuck me," Clint was telling the guy. "Yeah, fuck me harder, fuck- oh fuck me. Fuck you, Phil." There was a pause. "No, no, wait, shit, he's my partner." Another pause. "No, fuck no, we haven't met, he's just being a fucking dick because I won't let him sleep." Nice fucking work, Phil, Clint thought.
My pleasure, Phil returned, settling in and falling immediately to sleep.
And sometimes Phil would reach out, across whatever, across the the distance and the oceans and oceans of people that separated them, across time zones and borders, and for a brief and shining moment he'd brush against Clint's mind, like a kiss, like holding hands.
He always seemed to know when Clint needed it.
Clint did eventually figure out how not to bleed into Phil's thoughts when he was having sex, after, of course, it made a difference. Clint was well, well over the age of majority by now, and while Phil wasn't into voyeurism, it was much more palatable to hear Clint doing it.
Well, maybe it was kind of misleading to say that Phil wasn't into voyeurism; on the bright side of TMI was the fact that he could hear Clint thinking of him as he stroked his cock, imagining Phil there with him.
I bet you're listening, Clint thought, and Phil didn't mind being caught at all. I hope you are. I want you to do this all for you.
When we get face to face, I'm going to make you, Phil thought back. I'm going to fuck you for days.
Clint laughed. Sounds like a plan. We've got too much time to make up for.
Phil worked his cock out of his pants, wrapping his hand around it. I'll make sure we cover every second.
We're so close, Clint thought. I can feel it, Phil. We're so close now. Nothing's going to stop us. There was nothing for a long while except Clint concentrating on the feel of his hand, how much he wanted this.
I want you to give it up for me, Phil thought. Come on, Clint, let me feel you come.
Phil certainly felt it, moving all through his body, drawing his orgasm out of him. He panted, completely spent, gone on the feeling. Love you, Clint thought. God I love you, Phil.
Me, too, Phil thought. Always.
There was some shit that went down in Ecuador.
Afterwards, Clint didn't like to think about it. He really didn't like to think about it at the time. The point is, that was the official moment when he stopped flying under the radar.
"This is the the target," Fury said, sliding the folder across the table to Phil. "Bring him in. If he won't come, neutralize him." Phil picked up the folder, looking at the mugshot clipped to the papers inside.
It was the first time he ever saw Clint. He didn't look like Phil imagined. For some reason, Phil had picked up the idea that he had red hair, and it got stuck in his head.
A lot of things clicked into place all at once; he'd known Clint did something dangerous, something that made him keep strange hours, and Phil got the feeling he moved a lot. Phil had assumed that Clint was black ops, that they'd meet through their professions. In a strange way, he'd been exactly right.
"Something you need to share?" Fury asked, frowning.
Phil closed the folder. "No, sir."
Clint paced; he didn't know where the fuck he was, just that he was in deep, deep shit. His arm still hurt like fuck from where the bullet had caught him, even though they'd patched him up- that was his first clue about the deep shit, that these people had their own medical facilities.
Now this big one-eyed dude had given him this whole speech about how they wanted to take him into the fold and make all his problems disappear, which sounded pretty fucking nice except for the part where they wanted him to be their assassin now, which was really just another set of problems.
"Let me introduce you to the agent you'll be working with," the big guy- who said his name was Fury, what the fuck kind of a name was Fury- said to him. "Then you can decide if you'd like to accept our offer."
Clint didn't ask what would happen if he didn't. It was going to end in him getting his brains scrambled; only the method was in doubt.
Fury hit a button on the desk, and his buzzer sounded; moments later, the door opened, and a man in an expensive black suit and black leather gloves stepped through. Shit, those were definitely killer gloves. For fuck's sake, had they gone through this entire song and dance just to have some suit snap his neck? That was un-fucking-fair.
"Clint Barton," Fury said, and it was still real fucking unnerving that they knew his real name, "meet Agent Phil Coulson."
Clint didn't pass out, but it was a near thing.
"You fucking, fucking asshole," he snarled. "You didn't fucking tell him we were partners?"
Fury stared at Phil. "What the fuck, Coulson?"
"I'm not required to report that when we're not fully bonded," Phil said shiftily. "And I didn't think it was going to be an issue."
It suddenly dawned on him. "You were going to fucking kill me!" Clint said, and Phil didn't respond. "You were going to kill your fucking partner for a job? What the fuck is wrong with you? Do you not want a life?"
"This job is my life," Phil said, and he only sounded a little like he was lying.
"It's sure as fuck not mine," Clint snapped. "I'll take that brainwash now, thanks."
"Shut the fuck up, both of you," Fury said, looking, well. Infuriated. "Coulson, you've got a lot of fucking explaining to do. Barton, go with Coulson. I don't want to see either of you until you get your shit together. Then we'll talk about how to proceed." Clint tried to speak again, but Fury held up a hand. "So help me God, if you say another word I will shoot you where you stand. Get out."
Clint stomped into the hallway, Phil following. Clint would have stormed off, but he had no idea where he actually was, so that was out. Clint got the gloves now; their bond wouldn't be complete until they actually touched, skin to skin. Phil had very accurately guessed that Clint wouldn't exactly be in the best mood for it.
"Come with me," Phil said, leading him away. There were curious looks in the hallways, and Clint glared back at them. It wasn't a time to go making enemies, but he was so fucking pissed off that it hardly mattered.
Phil seemed to be leading him forever, but they finally reached a quiet hallway; Phil stopped in front of a door, punching in a code on the keypad and stepping inside. Clint followed him into a generic bedroom, what must have been his quarters. After the door shut, Phil turned, looking at him.
"So," Phil said.
"What the fuck, Phil?" Clint demanded.
"I didn't actually want you to die," he said apologetically. "I just thought we'd kill you."
Clint rubbed his forehead. "For the love of Christ." He suddenly felt exhausted. "How the fuck long did you know?"
"I didn't know we were even going after you until a few days ago," Phil told him. "We have a very strict definition of Need To Know around here."
"Fuck me," Clint said. "You were really going to kill me, weren't you?"
"I wouldn't have felt good about it," Phil told him. "You didn't die because you're just that good, and you made a good choice. If you weren't, you wouldn't be on this base now. You're here because you're good enough, Clint."
"I guess if I managed to get myself killed while you were actively trying to kill me, then I wasn't good enough for you?" he asked. Phil didn't respond, looking a little sheepish. "Wow, okay, I didn't know your standards were that high."
"I'm sorry," Phil told him. "I'll understand if you don't want to stay."
"You'll also brainwash me if I don't want to stay," Clint reminded him.
"Yes, but I'd understand," Phil said.
Clint laughed, shaking his head. "I think most people meet in coffee shops."
"Most people are boring," Phil told him, giving him a half-smile. "Clint, I'd understand if you didn't want to complete the bond. It would be a little difficult not ever touching, but-"
"Hey, you're not getting away from me now," Clint said. "Besides, I have to do it before you try and kill me again. Mutually assured destruction."
"You're so cheerful," Phil said.
"Take your gloves off," Clint told him.