Most people find Specialist Barton so annoying as to be impossible to work with. He's been bounced off so many black ops teams it's probably a record.
Agent Coulson is made of sterner stuff.
This is not to say that he doesn't find Barton annoying. Mother Theresa would find Barton annoying. Barton is an irredeemable asshole who hides in trees and drop ceilings and keeps up a running mission commentary of terrible puns when he gets bored.
Coulson is capable of pretending to ignore all this. He doesn't jump when Barton appears behind him out of absolutely nowhere. He threatens Barton with paperwork to enforce radio silence.
He is the only person anyone has ever seen completely ignore Barton's intensely creepy thousand-yard stare.
Phil Coulson is from upstate New York. He played football in high school and lacrosse in college. He was an Army Ranger. He spent ten years with the NSA.
The spectacular catastrophe that brought him to Director Fury's attention in the first place was, in many ways, not his fault.
Now he wrangles superheroes, alien gods, egomaniacal billionaire geniuses, ninja gymnasts, hundreds of SHIELD agents, and the World Security Council for a living.
He likes bad reality tv about people who can't control their own lives and he's self-reflective enough to see the implications of that fact.
Agent Romanoff doesn’t stomp into his office, because stomping isn’t something that she does, but it’s a near thing.
Coulson doesn’t look up. He’s reading the statement Darcy Lewis gave in the aftermath of New Mexico. It’s pretty colorful.
“Can I help you, Agent Romanoff?”
He likes Natasha Romanoff. She’s terrifying and highly efficient. He appreciates those qualities in a person.
“Barton,” she says with finality.
He looks up at her. She says nothing further.
“Is this a game of word association? Sniper. Annoying.”
“I would classify it more as ‘hazardous,’ perhaps.”
Coulson leans back in his chair a little. This problem is not unanticipated.
“Do you disagree with his placement on this team?”
“No,” she shakes her head minutely. “His attitude and personal habits, yes. His inclusion, no. His aim is…” she trails off. Natasha Romanoff is rarely at a loss for words.
“Yes,” Coulson agrees. “It is.”
"Everything on your TiVo is shitty people crying about their problems," Barton announces from his couch. He's drinking beer that he took from the refrigerator and he has his feet up on the coffee table.
The security system on the wall says everything is green.
Coulson drops his car keys in the dish on the counter, puts his briefcase on the floor and walks around behind the couch. He knows what's on his TiVo, but he looks where Barton is indicating anyway. Hoarders, SuperNanny, Maury Povich, Intervention, The Biggest Loser and Hoarding: Buried Alive (the History Channel knockoff).
"Maybe I like their solvable problems," he says. "It's a nice change of pace. What are you doing in my house?"
Barton rolls his head along the back of the couch to look up at him and his expression is more bared teeth than a smile.
“Stark’s at HQ,” he says, like that’s all the excuse he needs to be off base and breaking into Coulson’s house.
It kind of is. Barton and Stark are not allowed to be together unsupervised in the fear that they’ll get along and SHIELD will never be the same.
He’s tempted to say, oh, alright, and see how long Barton will stay on his couch if he sits down and starts watching, say, Real Housewives. Instead he says, “Specialist, get back on base before I knock you unconscious, put you in the trunk of my car and take you back myself.”
Barton is still looking up at him, his not-smile slowly becoming more amused. “It’s 3am. People will talk,” he says in his Midwest, raised everywhere drawl.
Coulson lifts an eyebrow and doesn’t look away. Many people find the way Barton never seems to blink intimidating. Coulson is not one of them.
“You’re no fun,” Barton says after a protracted silent staring contest that he was never going to win. He’s still smiling.
Coulson doesn’t smile back. “It’s a curse,” he says mildly. “Get back on base.”
Barton moves, smooth as an oiled machine, rolling his weight onto his elbow on the back of the couch and one foot on the metal frame of the coffee table, up and over and standing in front of Coulson. The whole maneuver takes less than a second.
Coulson doesn’t blink, unwilling to be impressed, and Barton’s smile goes back to being a shark-toothed grin of challenge. He takes a step into the negligible gap between Coulson and the couch.
He knows Barton has almost no concept of personal space, but he is way inside Coulson’s. He smells like cordite and desert wind.
Coulson puts that thought firmly aside.
Barton says, “Make me.”
Agent Romanoff gets up from the edge of the mat. The two SHIELD agents she was sparring with drag each other away, groaning and muttering.
"Would you like to go a couple of rounds?" she asks Coulson politely. "I find it very therapeutic."
"I'm sure," he says instead of denying that he could use a little therapeutic pummeling. "No, thank you."
She shows him her teeth. "I'll give you a handicap," she offers.
Coulson smiles, bland, pleasant, politely interested. He practices that smile in the mirror, but he'd never admit it. "If you couldn't annihilate me every time with one hand tied behind your back, SHIELD is paying you too much."
She laughs. "Come in here and see."
The coffee here is terrible. Some day he’s going to be assigned somewhere within a mile of a Peet’s Coffee. Or a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.
Hell, at this point he’d take a Starbucks.
Coulson sips at his over-cooked, over-sweetened Harvest Blend and squints a little into the distance. No sign of anything, yet.
“Give me your binoculars,” he says aloud.
He didn’t hear anything; not the scuff of a combat boot over dry brush, not a whisper of clothing, not the barest suspiration of breath. He couldn’t say how he knows Barton is standing behind him, but he does.
Sixty percent of his job is appearing omniscient.
Barton huffs, annoyed. “I bet sometimes you guess wrong and there’s no one actually behind you,” he says, handing over his field glasses.
Coulson lifts them to his eyes with his free hand. “I’m never wrong,” he says.
There’s nothing on the horizon. Nothing to see.
“Barton,” he says, mission instinct curling in his gut, “go take a walk.”
Six hours go past and nothing happens. Nothing happens and nothing happens and then, suddenly, nothing continues to happen.
His earpiece clicks, signaling a private channel.
“I really don’t think this mission is worth my time. Or your time.”
Phil Coulson grew up with two younger brothers. In light of this experience he stays silent, hoping no response is the best response.
Barton continues after a minute, proving that no god looks out for government agents. “I don’t think it’s worth anyone’s time, really. Which is maybe why the contact isn’t here.”
Light glares sharply off the deserted airstrip baking in the sun. This really isn’t the weather black suits were designed for, but Coulson has never let that stop him.
He very deliberately denies himself the right to an exasperated sigh.
“There isn’t anything on earth small enough to mathematically represent how little I care about your opinion of the worth of your time,” he says into the radio. “Cut the chatter.”
Barton is silent for nearly ten minutes, during which time Coulson stares at the blank horizon and makes deals with himself about exactly when he gets to write this off as a failure.
His radio crackles.
“Is it hot out there? It looks hot.”
He has no idea where Barton’s hidden himself so he doesn’t bother turning around to glare aimlessly. It’s difficult to remain impassive when you know for absolute certain that a sniper is watching you through the best scope known to science, but Coulson has had a great deal of practice in this art.
“It’s hot in the Sudan,” he says. “Which is where I’ll be sending you on your next mission if you can’t learn what ‘radio silence’ is.”
“I’m just saying, it looks hot. You look hot. In that suit.” There’s the faintest hint of a laugh in Barton’s voice, distorted over the transmission.
Coulson grits his teeth. To the end of his days he will swear he wasn’t raising the radio to respond when the explosion went off.
He ducks, automatically calculating the nearest cover from an airstrike, and then realizes there’s no further threat. The nearest corner of the hangar is flaming wreckage. Coulson watches over his shoulder as agents converge with fire extinguishers and handguns. He applauds the forethought of locating all the fire extinguishers, but he wonders what exactly they think they’re going to shoot.
If he’d been standing where the contact had specified the meet, he’d be dead.
The comms are an echoing chorus of clear, clear, clear. Nothing to see. Bomb on a timer, not a trigger, then. A rather clumsy set-up job.
He looks up at the tree line, and then over his shoulder at the row of abandoned buildings. None of them seem structurally sound.
His radio crackles. Nine o’clock.
He readjusts, squinting into the sun. The building at his nine doesn’t look like it could support a family of raccoon, let alone a grown man with a fifty pound rifle. He wonders if Barton’s carrying a bow today.
“See anything?” he asks the radio.
“Then come down. And see someone about getting a tetanus shot.”
There’s a sound over the static that might be Barton flicking his thumb over the TALK button while laughing.
Whatever. Occasionally, being very good at shepherding assets makes you come off as nurturing. People who know Coulson well have been thoroughly disabused of this notion.
“Sir?” There’s an agent at his shoulder whose name he cannot bring instantly to mind. “Sir, the airport officials are becoming a little frantic. May I suggest a cover story?”
There’s the beginnings of a pounding headache from dehydration and annoyance in his temples. "Fine," he tells the junior agent, "fine, just CC me on whatever it takes."
"Sir." The agent quite clearly barely resists saluting him.
Coulson does not allow himself to roll his eyes.
He finds Barton around the corner of a building, leaning against the wall with his legs sprawled out and his bow balanced lightly across his knees.
"How's the clean-up going?" he asks. He's wearing sunglasses, but Coulson's willing to bet that his eyes are still closed.
He considers telling Barton to get up and go help sweep this mess under the radar, simply because he can. He tells himself that's petty. And not Barton's job.
"About as expected," he says instead. He lowers himself lightly to the ground, puts his back against the wall at Barton's side. Barton actually opens his eyes, turns his head and raises his eyebrows, surprised.
Coulson is frankly a little surprised at himself.
He tips his head back against the wall, tilting his face into the sun. No one's scrutiny is quite as palpable as that of a sniper and he can feel Barton looking at him.
He wants to loosen his tie and undo the buttons of his collar.
Coulson, for all that he contrives to look like a government paper-pusher with a nine to five desk job, doesn’t actually spend much time doing paperwork. He has clerks for that.
He does some paperwork, sure, but it’s mostly signing off on things, approving memorandums that his assistants write, mass emails about what does and does not constitute appropriate behavior in the SHIELD breakrooms, that sort of thing.
Field reports are the exception to this. His field reports are exacting, detailed examples of what a field report should be. He writes a version for Director Fury and Deputy Director Hill that leaves nothing out, he goes back, reads everyone else’s field reports, makes notes of the things he can and cannot verify. Then he writes a whitewashed version that gets filed for general access with the World Security Council.
His field reports are legendary.
They are also time consuming, and he’s tired, and he doesn’t want to do it. His desk chair is comfortable, but not comfortingly familiar; he doesn’t actually spend much time in it. He got thrown through a shop window today when the villain of the week set off a car bomb as a distraction. The EMTs say he doesn’t have a concussion, but there’s still glass in the collar of his shirt and he can feel it when he turns his head.
He wants to go home and take a shower and a handful of painkillers and go to bed.
He wonders if Barton will be in his living room when he gets there.
That thought shouldn’t bring the faint hope and the uptick of a slight smile that it does, but he’s too tired to berate himself for it with the appropriate vehemence, so he doesn’t bother.
“Don’t hit me by mistake.”
“Sir, if I ever shoot you, I promise it’ll be on purpose.”
Phil Coulson is 42 years old, and he is just now at this moment learning the difference between faith and trust.
There is a madman pointing some sort of homemade energy weapon at him because he’s standing in front of the people this man wants to kill and he’s refusing to move. He isn’t sure where Barton is, but he knows he has to be somewhere behind him. Coulson hopes he’s not standing exactly between Barton and the armed, dangerous madman, but he might be.
Accustomed to the complaints and preferences of snipers in general and Barton in particular, Coulson stays as still as he can and ruminates on how strangely unconcerned he is.
He doesn’t just trust Barton not to shoot him; it’s different than that. He has faith. An absolute, unshakable certainty that Barton will not miss and hit him by mistake because Barton never misses. His fears in this situation are a) the madman will shoot him before Barton kills him, b) the madman’s homemade energy weapon will accidentally explode, killing all of them, and c) one of the civilians behind him will do something stupid that gets everyone killed. Barton accidentally shooting him isn’t even on the list.
This is the real world and Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton never hits anything he isn’t aiming at.
Coulson takes slow breaths, keeps his eyes on the man before him and does not allow his expression to shift from ‘polite and respectful interest in your ranting manifesto’.
The sort of ringing tension in his shoulders that he gets when Barton is watching him is amped up to eleven now. His instincts are shrieking at him to throw himself to the side and, although that instinct has saved his life more than once, he ignores it now. Holds his faith in Barton like a touchstone and doesn’t move.
It’s impossible, but he thinks he actually hears the arrow. Certainly he feels it, the displacement of air as Barton puts the shot less than an inch from Coulson’s head and into the madman’s eye.
The man crumples to the ground immediately. Several of the civilians scream. Coulson feels like the air around him is vibrating, but maybe that’s his pulse.
He stays absolutely still for another moment, and then walks over and carefully nudges the weapon away from the man’s hand with the toe of his shoe. Only then does he check for a pulse and, not finding one, lifts his hand and says, into the receiver clipped to his shirt cuff, “Nice shot.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
Behind him. Right behind him and Coulson tries valiantly to pretend he wasn’t startled. Didn’t have to strangle the urge to throw himself to the side, wasn’t reaching for his gun. Pretends that he knew Clint was there the whole time because he always knows.
He didn’t know, this time.
Clint takes a careful step backward and watches him, narrowly. Coulson’s eyes are a fraction too wide. He’s got dust on the lapels of his suit and his fingertips on his gun and maybe coming up behind him wasn’t the best idea today but sneaking up on people is, like, Clint’s raison d’etre.
“Maybe,” he says in lieu of an actual apology, “you should sit down.”
Coulson raises his eyebrows a little like he’s trying for an expression of disbelief and suspicion but is too tired to bother going through with it.
Natasha is on the other side of the breakroom, speaking with two agents Clint recognizes, but couldn’t name. She’s watching them sidelong because Coulson being startled is unusual and she doesn’t like unusual things. Clint tries to subtly signal I got this, with a slight hand movement.
She sniffs silently. Doubtful.
Clint makes coffee and listens to Coulson pull one of the chairs out from the table and sit in it. He doesn’t flop or sigh or anything so obvious as that, but he is moving a little more heavily than usual.
Clint puts extra sugar in his cup, figuring he could probably use the energy.
Coulson, he notes, is very careful that their fingers don't touch when he takes the cup. It's not something he's ever noticed before but he realized the other day when... thinking about Coulson, that they've never touched. At all.
Not even a little, not even when they first met because hanging out of a helicopter with a rifle while a company spook crouches beside you with field glasses murmuring completely deadpan things about how he'd hate to inadvertently arrange the assassination of the wrong person is not exactly the best time to shake hands.
That was five or six years, a hundred missions, and a whole lot of slow, strangling sexual tension ago and apparently Coulson is not willing to risk whatever would happen now happening in front of an audience.
Coulson takes a couple slow sips of coffee and visibly wills himself to calm down. Clint lets him take the time, feigning preoccupation with the swirl of creamer in his own cup.
“You had a question?” Coulson’s ability to retain information is kind of frightening. Clint wasn’t even sure he’d heard the words.
“More of an observation, really.”
“Really. You observed something?”
“Oh, I’m a professional observer.”
Coulson smiles into his coffee mug. Clint feels a stupid surge of pleasure at having made him smile, but no one has to know about that.
“I observed today that I’m really glad I’m not you,” he tells him.
Coulson thinks about that. “Sorry,” he says after a moment, “I’m sure there are several dozen punchlines to that, but I can’t come up with any right now.”
“I’m glad I don’t have to go through a field op like that and then write a report.”
“You do have to write a report. After every field op.”
“Yeah, but I’m not gonna do it,” Clint says casually, because they both know it’s true. “Not until the eighth or ninth time you harass me about it. I’d hate to go through a field op, then handle the aftermath, then write a report, then get the smartass sniper to write a report that I know will just say something like, ‘There was a bad guy. I shot him in the head.’ That would suck.”
Coulson’s smile is creeping back. “So, essentially, you’re glad you’re not me, because then you’d have to deal with you.”
“Hey,” Clint says, lifting his cup again, “You found a punchline.”
Clint Barton, when Agent Coulson is on assignment somewhere else, is very difficult for the rest of SHIELD to keep track of.
He has a habit of disappearing for hours at a time and, when questioned, claiming that he was merely keeping in practice. And sometimes that’s what he’s doing. SHIELD personnel may not appreciate his habit of hiding in drop ceilings and on top of cabinets waiting for people to scare, but it’s impossible to argue that the skill isn’t useful to him in the field.
Some of the time he prefers not to account for is spent breaking into Coulson’s house.
Despite the rather sophisticated security system that he keeps escalating and Clint keeps disabling, the house is not a secure or permanent location and Coulson doesn’t keep many personal objects there.
There are eight absolutely identical black suits in his closet. Three of them are in cleaners’ bags and there’s a note attached to one which indicates the management’s sorrow that they were not able to remove the unidentifiable stains and assures Coulson that they appreciate his business.
The pictures on his walls are of landscapes, or cars. He looks at them carefully and determines that while there’s no real pattern to the ones that are there, it’s maybe notable that there are no depictions of farmland or the forests of the northeast, which is where he’s pretty sure Coulson is from.
He lives like he’s constantly in the field, Clint realizes. The thought strikes him with a poignant sadness, though the habit of living like home base is a war zone is not new to him.
Clint runs a finger along the edge of the small dish on the counter that Coulson drops his keys into when he comes through the door. It’s plain glazed and fired ceramic, made in China. He probably bought it at Pottery Barn.
There is nothing of Phil Coulson here.
The first thing Agent Sitwell says to him when he gets back on base is, “Your boyfriend’s in trouble again.”
Coulson glances sideways at him and says, very calmly, “Excuse me?”
Sitwell doesn’t blanch, stammer, blush, or backpedal. This is why he’s Coulson’s favorite subordinate. All the other agent does is settle his face into more serious lines and say, “There was an incident involving Agent Barton.”
This is not Coulson’s surprised face.
“Where is he?”
Sitwell holds the stairwell door for him. “Confined to quarters,” he says.
If Director Fury, Deputy Director Hill, and Coulson are all elsewhere, no one left on base actually has the authority to confine Barton to quarters. But Coulson could write a book, or at least a medium weight article, on Barton’s many and complicated issues with authority and he knows that his quarters are exactly where he’ll be.
He is in fact in quarters when Coulson gets there. He doesn’t jump up and stand to attention when Coulson knocks and walks in because they aren’t soldiers anymore, but he does stop what he’s doing, which appears to be bouncing a coin off the small card table into the wall and then back into his hand. There’s a collection of scratches and dents on the table and wall where he’s hit the exact same spot over and over.
“Coulson,” he says in greeting. His face is calm, but there’s an edge in his voice.
“Barton.” Coulson keeps one hand on the door. “Take a walk with me.”
The day is bright but there’s a knife edge to the wind that speaks of the impending autumn. Barton prowls beside him like a jungle cat deigning to walk like a person, hands shoved in his pockets.
Coulson folds his behind his back. “I’m told you terrified Agent Baum into emergency medical care.”
Barton sighs almost inaudibly. “He dropped his cup of coffee when he saw me, slipped in it, and hit his head on a desk. He’s a slapstick cartoon.”
“He got fourteen stitches.”
“I didn’t touch him.”
“I’m not saying I don’t see your point, I just wonder if anyone’s ever explained the term ‘hostile workplace’ to you.”
Barton squints at the guard tower on the fence and says nothing. His eyesight, Coulson knows, is remarkable. He could probably identify the men in the tower from here.
“You’ve probably gotten this lecture a hundred times,” Coulson says after a minute, “but you’re part of a team. Now, I’m willing to concede that you staying in practice is more important to me than Agent Baum’s well-being, but terrorizing your support staff is not the way to build a working relationship that will keep people alive in the field.”
He lets that sink in for a second before he adds, “I need you to rein it in, Clint.”
“Are we on first name terms, then?” Barton raises one eyebrow.
“Right now we are.”
“Okay, then.” Barton looks at the horizon when he says, “I have to occupy myself with something.” He pauses for emphasis and then adds, “Phil,” with an edge of sarcasm.
There’s a twitch at the corner of Coulson mouth that might be a smile, but he’d deny it if asked.
“I’m working on getting the Avenger Initiative moved out of SHIELD headquarters. Please refrain from injuring anyone until I make that happen.”
“I’ll be honest with you here, Phil,” Barton says, amused now, “I’m not sure that I can do that.”
The move into the Avengers Mansion takes time, considerable effort, some shameless blackmail, and is interrupted no less than three times by the need to deal with supervillians.
Fortunately, Coulson is very good at his job.
When all is said and done, tears shed, homicide narrowly averted, SHIELD agents conscripted to act as movers sent off, he finds Barton on the roof.
It was the first place he looked.
Barton doesn’t turn his head when Coulson steps through the window and walks carefully over to the edge, but he says, “Now that we’re out of there, can I go back to surprising people into injuring themselves?”
Coulson admires the view for a moment. “I’d rather you didn’t,” he says. “But if you think you could really startle Romanoff, or Banner, or Thor into injuring themselves before they injured you, be my guest.”
He hears Clint smile. “You’re staying here, right?” he asks. “Aren’t you in charge of making sure we stick to the party line and eat our vegetables and go to bed on time?”
Coulson is suddenly very tense for no reason he could name. “For my sins,” he says, “yes.”
The silence between them is nothing even close to comfortable.
Clint clears his throat. ”If you fill the DVR with your depressing reality shows…” he threatens.
The joke falls flat because now they’re both thinking about that night. Clint in his house, on his couch, up in his face with a daredevil grin saying make me.
Coulson looks down at the toes of his shoes, inches from the edge. He knows it’s a bad move even as he makes it.
“Try me, Barton,” he says.
A car goes tumbling down the street and takes out a fire hydrant which explodes into a geyser. Thor is hitting robots in the face with his hammer and laughing. Over the comms Hawkeye and Iron Man are making uncanny valley puns and calling each other by their given names instead of code while Captain America fruitlessly tells them to cut the chatter. He has no idea where the Black Widow is.
This is Coulson’s life now. He tilts his head side to side to crack his neck and leans back against the wall of what was once an Apple store and is now a large showroom full of rubble.
“Wrap it up, Avengers,” he says into his comm link. “I want to leave this to the fire department and the NYPD as soon as safely possible.”
Iron Man drolly apologizes for taking too long with the killer robots, Thor is still laughing and calling for more challengers, and he thinks Captain America maybe salutes with the shield.
Hawkeye appears beside him from absolutely nowhere.
Coulson doesn’t so much as twitch. “Barton,” he says. “How goes it?”
Barton shrugs, slings his bow across his chest and folds his arms. “Well in hand,” he says. “We can be out of here as soon as someone convinces Thor the fight is really over.” He’s looking at Coulson with uncharacteristic seriousness.
“I don’t usually talk about these things,” he says. “But I assume you’ll want to.”
They're really gonna do this now, Coulson thinks. Here, in the middle of a mission, was not the place he expected to finally have this conversation. This line in the sand they've been edging over for months.
If Phil were a different sort of man he’d look away, pretend he didn’t know what was happening here. But he can only be himself.
"This is not a good idea," he says. His voice doesn’t fail him, stays calm and even and much more certain than he actually is.
Barton, Clint, braces his hands carefully against the wall on either side of Phil's shoulders and studies his face for a minute.
"Why not," he says. He doesn't say it like a question. He already knows the answer and so does Phil.
SHIELD doesn't actually have very strict fraternization rules, but they're both military men and there are old habits, not just of secrecy, but of concern for field discipline.
I need to keep assets separate in my mind from real people that I know and care about, Phil should say. I can't let anything affect my judgment in the field.
I'm not supposed to get this close.
Instead, he looks Clint in the eye, forces down his rising heartrate, and says, "No. Not here."
For a minute he thinks Clint is going to argue, or grab him. Close the distance between them and prove that Agent Coulson's legendary self control only goes so far. For a minute, he wishes he would.
But Clint only looks at him for a moment, and then gives a short nod. He pushes off the wall with his fingertips and walks away.
Phil stays leaning against the wall for a long time. He doesn't let himself watch Clint leave.
The thing about any black ops organization, let alone one like SHIELD and the Avenger Initiative, which deals solely and routinely in the bizarre and terrifying, is that there’s a tendency to become rather insular.
Everything is classified, so if you want to talk about something work-related (and in this job no one has time for a life, so everything is work-related) you have to talk to someone you work with. The people you work with become the people you talk to become the people you sleep with because there’s no way you can maintain a relationship without a certain level of security clearance. Sooner or later you run out of anecdotes about the weather.
This is why, for several months in 2009, Coulson had a casual, sporadic, and very satisfying relationship with Virginia Potts.
Satisfying because Pepper is an extremely beautiful, intelligent, passionate person and he enjoyed being with her. Sporadic because they had insane, often conflicting schedules, and casual because he knew from the first moment he met her that she was in love with Tony Stark.
They parted amicably, but completely. If she calls him when they happen to be in the same part of the world and they have lunch it’s because Tony Stark is an unfortunately necessary part of the Avenger Initiative and the more managing done before they bring him in on something, the better. Stark will inevitably throw any plan out the window, but Pepper and Coulson try.
He and Pepper worked because he could talk to her. He misses that.
Having that again is… tempting. Very tempting.
He doesn’t want Clint Barton just because the man is rather stupidly attractive, he actually likes Barton. He’s annoying, sure, that’s undeniable. But the spark is likewise undeniable and Coulson does so much lying professionally that he tries very hard not to lie to himself.
Letting Barton get close even once would probably be a terrible mistake, in the long run. But he wants it. He wants it in a way he hasn’t wanted anything in years.
There’s a bruise on the edge of Clint’s forearm from where his arm guard digs in when he draws to full strength.
He says he doesn't mind but R&D is always trying to come up with improvements. So far the models that don't leave a bruise also don't properly protect his arm so the bruise is almost always there.
Coulson isn't sure when he started being hyperacutely aware of it.
He has never let himself watch Clint any more or less than he watches the other members of the Initiative. Doesn’t track the muscle in his arms when he gestures while talking, doesn’t (obviously) notice or admire the way Clint is built like a brick wall but moves like a cat and can hide in plain sight for hours.
But he can’t stop looking at the bruise. He wants, very badly, to press his fingers into the spot until Clint winces, and then not stop.
He isn’t sure what to make of that desire.
There are times, and Coulson is pretty sure Captain Rogers feels the same way, when he laments the lack of military discipline inherent in putting together a unit of extraordinary iconoclasts.
Barton is in the kitchen, making coffee like it’s the only thing keeping him from exploding, while drinking beer. Coulson’s pretty sure he doesn’t actually want coffee, but has been cheated from his only other calming pastime by the snowstorm that’s keeping him from going up on the roof and shooting things.
He isn’t a hundred percent clear on what happened today because he wasn’t on site, but he knows that it somehow involved Stark goading Banner until he transformed, Thor ridiculing Barton for not taking the Hulk down with a tranquilizer soon enough, Barton threatening to shoot both of them, and Romanoff promising all of them that no one would ever find the bodies if they didn’t get their shit together. Her words.
Some days, Coulson thinks as he watches Barton dump half a pound of coffee into the machine, he would like to trade them all for some robotic henchmen of his own.
Well, maybe just most of them.
“Clint,” he says quietly.
Barton puts the coffee pot down with a deliberate care that betrays his urge to smash it with all his strength, and looks over at him. His eyes are too bright and he’s nearly vibrating with restrained violence.
Coulson thinks, very simply, the hell with this.
Funny how he always thought the point of no return would involve more gunfire.
He very deliberately puts his hand on Barton's arm, his thumb over the ever-present bruise, his fingers wrapped around his forearm.
This, Coulson thinks with a detached and sort of amusedly resigned corner of his attention, is why they've never touched. This is what he was afraid of.
Comparing the sensation to an electric shock is an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Every nerve in his body jerks to attention.
Barton stares at him for a minute, locked into stillness. He moves the arm Coulson isn’t holding and, unhurried, but without hesitation, clenches his fist in the front of Coulson’s shirt and pulls him forward.
As first kisses go this is not one for the fairytales. It’s rough and a little mean, and more than a little desperate.
Clint’s stubble scrapes over his mouth and their teeth click and he tastes like adrenaline and the expensive microbrews Tony stocks the refrigerator with. Phil slides his free hand to the back of Clint’s neck and tightens his fingers around his arm, digging his thumb into the bruise and Clint makes a ragged sound of not-quite-protest, muffled against Phil’s mouth.
It’s a long time, maybe a hundred years, subjectively, before they pull apart.
Clint’s pupils are blown wide and he’s breathing in the slow, controlled way he does when he’s lying in wait in the field. Phil scrapes his fingernails down the nape of Clint’s neck and listens to himself pant for breath.
There’s a sort of dull roaring in his ears.
“Oh,” Phil says, rather stupidly, he’ll think later. There are steps, he thinks, he knows. Between here and… where they’re inevitably going. Steps and time and conversations and he doesn’t give a damn.
Clint grins. Sharp and triumphant.
“Yeah,” he says. “Bedroom. Now.”
If he’d thought about it, which he hasn’t (that’s a lie, he’s thought about it a lot), Phil would have guessed Clint was something of a hit and run lover. Fast, hard, a little on the rough side.
He’s pleasantly surprised (for once) to find that he was wrong. Not that he’s necessarily opposed to fast, hard, or rough, but there’s a time to do things right and he supposes this is one of them.
Clint, he discovers, likes to bite. Phil rather enjoys it. That’s a new discovery, too. He’s going to be wearing Clint’s bites and bruises under his clothes tomorrow and he doesn’t care in the slightest.
Clint has a lot of solid muscle and a lot of unexplained scars and more tact than Phil had expected. He traces one bowstring-callused fingertip over the Ranger tattoo on Phil’s arm and says nothing, just slides a hand along his ribs and bends to suck a new bruise/bite into Phil’s collarbone.
He swears with unexpected creativity when Phil wraps a hand around him and the helpless jerk of his hips grinds Phil against his thigh. They both groan and Phil has to stop for a minute, gasping for clarity.
He tips forward a little further and presses their foreheads together, starts to move again.
Clint is still hissing curses into his skin, whimpering a little on the up stroke.
Phil smiles. “I find your creative expletives rather impressive, under the circumstances. And your mastery of Romanian.” His voice is a little breathless, but still mild and mostly level. He spent years honing that skill.
Clint snorts amusement and shifts so he can wrap one broad, callused hand around both of them at once. “I’ll show you impressive,” he grates out between his teeth. He’s panting now as he pushes himself higher with his elbow, shoves them together harder.
Phil buries a moan into the soft skin below Clint’s ear.
Clint is gasping now, rocking up into Phil’s body, out of sync with the frantic movement of his hand, his rhythm gone.
Phil catches himself murmuring ragged endearments that he can’t control, his vision starting to tunnel.
Clint chokes on a groan and shakes against him and Phil…
“None of this,” Clint says like he’s trying for once in his life to be serious, “was inevitable.”
Phil would laugh if he could find the breath. He runs his hand down Clint’s chest because that will never not be new and exciting, muscles tensing under his touch, the undeniable electricity between them.
“Really,” he says. Clint drags his knuckles down the length of Phil’s cock, wraps his free hand around the back of his thigh and squeezes. Phil rocks into him on a gasp. Falls forward and braces himself on one elbow.
Clint grins. “I don’t believe in inevitable things,” he says. And he pulls Phil all the way down.
“I don’t see why this requires an actual meeting,” Stark complains.
Natasha rolls her eyes. “You don’t think your multi-billion dollar company requires meetings. Your opinion is invalid.”
Clint smiles and a shivering flash of sense memory runs up Coulson’s spine. He brushes one hand discreetly across his hip, over the imprint of Clint’s teeth in his skin.
He watches Clint’s eyes drop and his grin widen and Coulson reminds himself firmly that there is a time and a place.
“Okay,” he says, “let’s talk about the Fantastic Four and SHIELD’s policy of mutual assistance.”
There’s a loud chorus of groans. Coulson ignores them.
This is his job.