It took three missions working together for Clint to decide that he wanted Coulson as his handler on a permanent basis.
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t because the rest of the handlers had refused to work with him again— they were professionals and so was he, and they all took the assignments they were given. The fact that Coulson had requested Clint for that third mission had been a contributing factor, but what had really made it an easy decision was the mission itself, and the way he saw that Coulson took care of the things he was given.
You could tell a lot about a person from the way they treated other people’s stuff. Clint had learned that pretty early on, from the moment the smiling woman in the neat floral dress from Child Services had handed him a black plastic trash bag to hold everything he owned. Most people were really only careful with their own things, especially if the other things were standard issue or easily replaced. It was a way of thinking that Clint could understand, but as an asset at SHIELD, he often felt like one of the ‘things’ a handler was supposed to maintain. He just felt safer working with someone who didn’t regularly total government vehicles, or return weapons to the armory missing half their parts.
And Coulson was very, very careful with the things he was assigned.
It was the suits that Clint noticed first. He wasn’t called Hawkeye for nothing— those suits might have looked identical to anyone else, but he could tell the difference. There were ten of them altogether, all of them subtle shades of black, except for one that was actually a deep, deep navy blue, and each time a suit appeared, it was clean and pressed, no matter what had happened to it the last time Coulson had been wearing it.
Of course, even the best dry cleaners couldn’t fix everything. Coulson’s second-darkest suit had a nasty run-in with a collapsing building, which left huge rips in both the pants and jacket, not to mention some scratches to the agent inside, and Clint never saw it again.
Their second mission together was long enough for Clint to see how Coulson cared for his weapons. Holed up in a crappy hotel until nightfall, when they could take up their positions outside the target’s house, Coulson spread a towel over the tiny desk/luggage stand and disassembled his handgun, cleaning and reassembling the pieces even as he went over the plan with Clint.
And later, when the plan had gone to hell, Coulson sat on the transport plane and carefully cleaned each of the weapons he’d taken from the men he killed.
Coulson took care of the things he was assigned like they were his own, maintaining them until they were no longer usable, and Clint signed his handler request paperwork without a single doubt that if it was approved and he was assigned to Coulson, he’d be in good hands as long as he could keep shooting.
It had never occurred to Clint, until he actually got permanently assigned to him, that he should watch what Coulson did with his own things.
He knew about Lola, of course. One of the rumors the old agents like to use to scare the new recruits was what happened to people who even went near Coulson’s car. As far as Clint could tell, he just snapped, “Don’t touch Lola,” at them, and kept her in the high-security garage when he was on-base. But it was also clear that Lola wasn’t some kind of midlife crisis— not that Clint even thought of Coulson as middle-aged— and that Coulson had had her for a long time, had probably restored her from a junker, long before he’d joined SHIELD.
But the thing that really got Clint wondering was a knock-off Captain America mug.
Clint had found it on the way back from an operation in China. For once, everything had gone to plan and Clint was walking to the pick-up point under his own power, so he’d taken a detour through the market and used the last of his paper yen to buy a mug emblazoned with a figure that was vaguely human and even more vaguely Captain America.
Coulson accepted it with a genuine smile and added it to the Rangers mug sitting beside his tiny office coffee pot. He used it, frequently, a shadow of that smile lurking around his mouth whenever he handed Clint the Rangers mug and kept fake-Cap for himself. At least, he did until the coffee cabinet had an unfortunate run-in with Sitwell’s elbow.
The pot was almost empty, so it sloshed without spilling, but the Captain America mug hit the ground at just the wrong angle, knocking the handle off and putting a deep crack in the cup.
“Aw, mug, no,” said Clint. Sitwell had already, wisely, left Coulson’s office with the file he’d come in for, so Clint crouched and swept the broken pieces into his hand. “I’ll get rid of this, sir.”
“No, I’ve got some glue in my desk,” said Coulson, and held out his hands until Clint carefully transferred the pieces to him. “Finish your paperwork, Barton.”
But Clint had a hard time focusing on mission reports when he kept sneaking glances at Coulson. He’d put a clean sheet of paper in the center of his desk and set the mug on it, using a tissue to smooth some glue along the crack on the inside of the mug, then pressing the edges together until it started to set. He was even more careful reattaching the handle, wiping away excess glue with the tissue. When it was firm enough, he moved the mug out of the way for the glue to set.
“Yes, Barton?” asked Coulson, without looking up.
“Why fix it?” Clint blurted. “It doesn’t work anymore.”
“It might not hold liquid,” said Coulson. “But it can still hold other things. Pens, for instance.”
And the next morning, when Clint delivered his finished report, he found the fake-Cap mug sitting front-and-center on Coulson’s desk, filled with red-white-and-blue lollipops. Clint took one, grinning.
If most of the rumors about Coulson— that he was a robot, that he never went home, that he’d once killed six men with a pen and a doughnut (it had only been four men, Clint had asked)— were exaggerations, at least one that Clint had heard about himself was true. He hated being stuck in the infirmary and he tried to get himself out as soon as possible. It was the only downside to working for Coulson, that he took care of his things even they didn’t particularly want to be taken care of.
Not that Clint didn’t want to be looked after, a little, sometimes. But hospitals held a lot of bad memories for him, and just lying around made him feel vulnerable and useless.
“You wouldn’t be thinking of leaving without authorization, would you?” asked Coulson, from the doorway of his infirmary room.
Clint didn’t bother denying it. “C’mon, sir, it’s only a sprained ankle.”
The older man ignored him and continued, “Because I have your discharge papers right here.”
“You what?” Clint asked.
“If I leave you here,” said Coulson, “you’ll annoy the staff and likely injure yourself further during your escape. So, you’re coming with me. Put some pants on, Barton.”
Clint caught the sweatpants he was thrown automatically and pulled them on. “Coming with you where?”
Coulson held out his discharge papers and Clint signed them without really looking. It was a ridiculously trusting thing to do, but so far, the only thing Coulson had done to abuse the privilege was get Clint to sign up for a class on emergency field equipment repairs, which had been surprisingly fun.
“My place,” said Coulson.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea, sir?” Clint asked. He tried for a roguish smile and almost succeeded. “I mean, we’ve barely known each other a year.”
“Barton, I’ve kept your internal organs from being external with my bare hands,” the other man said, mildly. “I think that entitles you to sleep on my couch for a few days.”
“Oh,” Clint said, sheepish. “Okay. So, do I get crutches, or what?”
Coulson’s apartment wasn’t really set up for crutches, so he parked Clint on the couch with strict instructions not to move. Between the long mission and the pain meds that Coulson insisted he take, Clint barely had the energy to turn on the TV for background noise before he was out like a light.
Clint woke slowly, hours later, every bruise and ache he’d accumulated making themselves known, now that his painkillers had worn off.
“Nice of you to finally join me,” said Coulson, from the armchair in the corner. He set a bundle of material on the coffee table and moved to sit on the other end of the couch, snagging a glass of water and two pills as he went. “Drink all of it.”
Clint took the pills, then dutifully drained the glass and handed it back. “How long have I been out?”
“About twelve hours,” said Coulson.
It had been the middle of the night when they left SHIELD, which made it early afternoon. Coulson was wearing worn blue jeans, the sleeves of his button-down shirt rolled to his elbows, and Clint looked away quickly, glancing back at the fabric on the table.
“Boss, were you sewing?”
“Technically, it’s mending,” Coulson said, settling back in his chair and picking it up again. “And I haven’t had much time for it lately.”
“You didn’t have to sit with me, sir,” Clint protested, but Coulson waved the hand that wasn’t unfolding the bundle in his lap.
“I got eight solid hours of sleep in my own bed,” he said. “You hungry?”
Clint shook his head. “Too tired.”
“Then sleep some more. We’re not due back in for three more days.”
“Due or allowed?” Clint asked, smirking.
“Whichever will get you to actually rest,” said Coulson.
Clint gave a hum of agreement and slumped back down on the couch. The blanket that had been folded over the back was now spread across his lap, warm but light. It was some kind of knitted thing, an afghan, maybe, made of big brown stitches. Whatever Coulson was working on was knitted, too, and Clint watched his deft fingers draw the needle into clearly-perfect stitches in what looked like a sleeve.
“Is that a sweater?” Clint asked.
Coulson looked up. “Yes. I put a hole in it while I was assembling a new bookcase last week.”
“And you’re fixing it?”
“It’ll probably unravel if I don’t,” said Coulson, like it wasn’t a stupid question. “And I like this sweater.”
“Oh,” said Clint, as he fell asleep.
And when he woke again later that night and went for a shower, Clint found the neatly-mended sweater folded on top of the clean clothes from his go-bag sitting on the countertop.
Sometimes, when a mission went south, it went south fast.
One moment, Clint was crouched on a quiet rooftop, waiting for Natasha to lure their target out of a party and into range of his arrows – and the next, his perch was crawling with hired muscle, clearly having been tipped off about a threat – and the next, all of the mooks were dead and Clint had a bullet lodged somewhere in the vicinity of his liver.
“Coulson, I’ve lost contact with Hawkeye,” said Natasha, over their comms, and he was breathing hard enough that she should have been able to hear him, so something must have damaged his mic.
“I’m heading to his position now,” said Coulson.
Clint let out a shaky breath of relief, because Coulson would take care of everything.
He was starting to feel a bit fuzzy, though, unknown minutes later, when the door to the roof burst open. Clint’s fingers twitched toward his bow, knowing he couldn’t have lifted it, let alone drawn it, but he slumped back when he recognized the person racing toward him.
“Barton!” said Coulson, as he skidded to a stop, then knelt beside him. “Clint, where…?”
His hands, deftly checking for injuries, found the gunshot wound in Clint’s side and the archer gasped, trying to roll away from him. Coulson caught his shoulder, shifting hands so that he could shrug out of his suit jacket and press it against Clint’s ribs.
“Through and through?” he asked, hopefully.
Clint shook his head. “Sorry, boss.”
“Don’t you be sorry,” Coulson snapped.
He increased the pressure, and Clint’s world went fuzzy again. He could hear Coulson talking, shouting, over the comm, but he couldn’t focus long enough to make out any of the words. He didn’t realize he’d closed his eyes until Coulson said, sharply, “Look at me, Clint.”
Clint blinked. “Hey, sir.”
“The med-team will be here in five minutes,” said Coulson, and his voice sounded different. Worried. “You just have to hang on a little longer.”
“Okay…” Clint had been feeling cold a moment ago, but now he felt quite warm— Coulson had rearranged them while he wasn’t paying attention, pulling Clint half into his lap, bare shoulder resting against the soft fabric of Coulson’s shirt. It was nice.
“Clint,” said Coulson, and his eyes snapped open.
“Yessir?” he slurred.
“I want you to appreciate what I’m about to say, Barton, because I don’t usually give you this kind of blanket permission, but… talk to me. Please.”
“’S a dangerous request, boss,” said Clint. “Talk your ear off.”
“As long as you stay awake,” Coulson told him. “You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
Clint glanced down at the wadded-up jacket, slowly staining darker. “Think your suit’s a loss,” he said. “Shame. I like this suit.”
“All my suits are identical,” Coulson said and Clint snorted, even though it hurt.
“Are not,” he said. “The blue one is my favorite.”
Coulson huffed out a laugh and Clint smiled back for a moment before he eyes started to slide shut again.
“Clint,” said Coulson, and the archer blinked at him— why was he so worried? “Stay awake. The medics will be here any minute. You’re going to be fine.”
“Course I am,” said Clint. “’M yours, aren’t I?”
“Your things,” the archer explained. “You always take care of ‘em. Guns and suits and agents. You look after ‘em real good, s’long as they keep workin’. Carefuler with your own stuff, ‘course, but I don’ mind. S’long as I c’n shoot, know you won’ let ‘nything bad happen t’me.”
“What?” Coulson said again. “That isn’t—”
“S’okay,” said Clint. “S’your job an’ you’re good at it. More’n I deserve, pro’lly.”
“How can you say that?” Coulson demanded. “How can— You deserve more, Clint, you deserve better and I—”
A light appeared suddenly above them, a SHIELD-issue helicopter that dropped a SHIELD-issue medical team. They had Clint transferred to a stretcher before he even registered the extra pain of being moved.
And just before their drugs took hold and the darkness claimed him, Clint could have sworn he felt a gentle kiss pressed against his temple.
Clint woke up in the SHIELD infirmary. After the flurry of doctors and nurses and beeping machinery that greeted him had left, he found Coulson standing next to his bed. He was wearing a fresh suit, but looked like he hadn’t slept in a couple of days. Coulson took a deep breath, fingers curling around the bedrail.
“You are not a thing,” he said.
“I don’t think you’re using that phrase correctly, boss,” said Clint. His voice was a little rough, but better than it usually was after surgery, which meant it must have gone well enough that they hadn’t intubated him. “It’s hard keeping up with the kids these days.”
Coulson tightened his grip on the bedrail until his knuckles turned white. “You said that you were something assigned to me, and that you didn’t mind because I always take care of my things.”
“What?” said Clint. “No, yes, I said that, but I meant it was a good thing! I’ve seen you take care of your weapons, sir, is it so crazy that I might enjoy that kind of attention while I can get it?”
He hadn’t meant to say all of that quite that way, but they still had Clint on the good drugs, and he couldn’t manage to care.
Coulson’s jaw twitched, the way it did sometimes when he was angry or upset and trying not to show it.
“Boss?” Clint asked, hesitant, and Coulson took another deep breath.
“You think of yourself as a weapon,” he said, slowly. “And that you wouldn’t deserve my attention if you couldn’t shoot.”
“I…” said Clint, because that was clearly a trick question, even if it didn’t sound like a question at all. “I don’t think you’d just stop talking to me cold turkey, if I lost my field status. But I wouldn’t expect you to waste time on… Are you okay, sir? You, um, you look like you want to punch someone.”
“No one currently alive,” said Coulson. “You are never a waste of time, Clint. You’re not a job or an assignment, I care about you and I do things for you because I want you to be happy.”
“Oh.” Clint could feel his ears going pink. “I… well, I was kind of hoping. Because your things, you keep fixing even after they’re broken and I’m, you know, pretty broken.”
“Clint,” said Coulson, and the archer looked up sharply, because he’d never heard Coulson sound so tired— not just exhausted, but sad, too.
Before Clint could ask again if he was all right, Coulson had lowered the bedrail and leaned over to take Clint’s free hand, the one not connected to all the hospital equipment, in both of his own.
“You’re not a thing,” he said. “You’re a person. An aggravating, stubborn, amazing, beautiful person. You deserve to have someone who loves you for who you are, not what you can do for them.”
There was a long, expectant silence. Then, Clint said, “’Loves’?”
“I—” said Coulson— no, Phil, because Agent Coulson never admitted anything he didn’t mean to, but Phil sometimes did. Then, his chin came up, a move that before now had always signaled, I’ve got an insane and potentially-dangerous plan but I know it’s going to work. Maybe it still did. “Yes, loves,” he said, firmly. “It doesn’t have to change anything about… about us, if you don’t want it to, when you’re not on very strong pain medications.”
“You mean…” Clint said, slowly, because there was an obvious conclusion to this and he didn’t see how that could be happening. “You want to date me? Like, going for drinks or coffee or dinner or—”
“Those sound like a good start,” said Phil, smiling, and Clint smiled back.
There was a paper chart on the wall of Phil’s kitchen, counting down the days until Clint could stop taking the prescription-strength painkillers. He marked off the last square with a flourish, the one that marked not his last dose but a full twenty-four hours for it to have left his system, and pulled Phil into a searing kiss.
“You want to get dinner sometime?” Clint asked, and Phil laughed.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I would love to have dinner with you.”
Clint grinned. “It’s a date.”
It turned out, Phil did take really good care of his things. But he took even better care of Clint.