It never ceased to at least slightly amaze Clint that when he opted for late night range time, no matter what time it was he left, if he went and checked, Coulson would inevitably be still working in his office. Furthermore, everyone knew he was always one of the earliest to arrive in the mornings. Usually before dawn. There was an ongoing betting pool in SHIELD headquarters as to when exactly the man managed to sleep. Last he'd checked, most bets were on 'Lunch hour napping', followed closely by 'He doesn't'.
Amazement notwithstanding, he wasn’t surprised when he chanced by Coulson’s office at one in the morning and saw the light leaking out from under the door. What was surprising was that the light actually turned off while he was standing there. And what was absolutely stunning was that the door then opened, Coulson stepping out into the hall with his laptop bag slung over his shoulder. He looked tired.
"Heading home, bossman?"
Coulson barely even glanced in Clint’s direction, just nodded and started down the hallway.
Clint did not function well on that little acknowledgment. Really, Coulson should have known better. He followed along in the other man’s wake, not entirely unlike a duckling. Or one of those little baby geese. Some kind of waterfowl anyway. "You’re allowed to use your words, you know."
"Yes, Barton, I am going home." Well, it was something, even if Coulson still wasn’t looking at him. Although, really, come to think of it, Coulson had a very bad habit of not looking at him. Well, he would look in his general direction, sure, but very rarely at him. He'd easily give as good as he got when Clint would break radio silence when he wasn't supposed to, but that was, of course, long distance. Eye contact was something else entirely. Not that everyone at SHIELD didn’t have their quirks, but really.
Really, the least Coulson could do was at least look at his ass once or twice. It wasn't as if Clint didn't return the favor. Not that he'd actually let the other man know about that. "Pretty early for you, isn’t it, Coulson?"
Coulson didn’t look back, and he didn’t stop walking. "I’ve... had a long couple of days. I’m tired. Last I checked, going home earlier than three in the morning wasn’t exactly against regs."
"Well, no, I guess not, or pretty much everyone would be in deep trouble, wouldn’t they?"
Well, that wasn’t the eloquent Coulson they all knew and loved. "So when do you sleep, actually?"
"I am not out to help you win the pool, Barton."
Clint grinned. "You know about that?"
"I know about all of them."
"Really? All of them? Including the 'Secrets of the Eyepatch' pool?"
"Yes." Coulson promptly got to the end of the hallway, opened the door for the stairwell, and started hoofing it downward. Clint, of course, followed.
"Do you ever take the elevators?"
"Yes. But there’s nothing wrong with walking."
"You’re not claustrophobic, are you?"
The question actually seemed to amuse Coulson a little, judging by the tone of his voice. "No. I’m not."
"Then why the stairs?"
"Healthier. You don’t intend to follow me all the way home, do you?"
He chuckled, just a bit. "Would you invite me to stay?"
"No, I would not."
"Not much point, then, is there?"
"Why didn’t you take the elevator?"
Clint grinned. "And miss out on this wonderful conversation opportunity?"
"I wasn’t aware that the lack of anyone else in the vicinity would actually stop you from talking."
"Age old question, huh? If there’s a Clint Barton in the forest and no one is around, does he make a noise?"
"Something like that."
They hit the third floor landing. "Why don’t you ever actually look at me?"
Coulson glanced backward briefly. "What are you talking about?"
"Like that right there. You looked back in my direction for about a half a second and I think you were staring directly at my forehead. That doesn’t actually count."
"I’m in the middle of walking down five flights of stairs. You generally want to face forward when you’re doing that."
"Touche. But that’s only an acceptable answer when you’re actually walking down five flights of stairs, you know. Hell, when you’ve got me in the office to chew me out, you’re still usually staring at your paperwork. You know, eye contact usually does wonders in the persuasion department."
Coulson’s exhalation at that point wasn’t exactly a laugh, but it was about as close as he usually came to one. "You have no idea, Barton."
"I mean, I’m not saying you have to stare soulfully into my eyes and declare everlasting devotion or anything--"
"Good, because that’s not happening."
"-- but most people actually look at who they’re having a conversation with."
They were almost to the ground floor. "I’m not most people."
"That is definitely true, and that would be a valid argument except that I haven’t really heard about you doing that with anyone else. It’s just me. So what’s the deal?"
The senior agent opened the door from the stairwell and headed into the lobby. "Good night, Agent Barton. See you in the morning."
"Yeah, unlikely," he muttered under his breath.
Coulson stopped so fast that it was instinct alone that kept Clint from plowing directly into his back. He turned, his expression a mixture of tired and annoyed, and actually looked directly into Clint's eyes. "Barton. Go home. I'll see you tomorrow." He grimaced slightly, spun back around on a heel and pushed his way through the front doors and outside, leaving Clint standing there, feeling somehow as if he'd just barely avoided walking off a cliff.
So he did the only thing that he could. He went home.
It was too close. The assignment is almost a relief. Nevertheless, he could swear that the Director did it on purpose. He could always swear that he did things like that on purpose.
Coulson had lied. Okay, in fairness, it wasn't his fault that Clint didn't see him at all the next day. Turns out Fury had sent him on a mission to Aruba. No snipers needed. Really, how was Coulson lucky enough to get all the fun tropical destinations? Still, day-to-day life wasn't that different. Even if he wasn't handing in his paperwork to Coulson.
Still, it was a relief when it only took a week for him to get back and he spotted him in the hallway almost immediately.
"I am pretty sure you're the only guy in SHIELD who can go to a tropical island and not come back with a tan."
He smoothed down his tie, bordering on self-consciously-- and that was something that Clint was somewhat surprised that he was capable of-- and continued walking towards his office. "There was work to do. Is there anything you needed, agent?"
"Just wanted to say welcome back, sir. Did you pick me up any souvenirs?"
"I repeat. There was work to do." Coulson unlocked the door to his office and stepped inside, going over to the window and snapping the blinds closed. "Was there anything else?"
"Pretty sure nobody's in a window across the street with some binoculars, Coulson." He grinned easily. "Not that I'd blame them."
Coulson sat down at his desk, expression bland as ever. "I'll take that as a no."
"Hey, I have a question."
"Want to get some lunch with me this afternoon?"
Coulson's hand froze halfway to his inbox. He didn't respond.
"I mean, there's that deli down the block. They've got really good sandwiches."
"I have work to catch up on."
The man relaxed, ever so slightly. "Thank you."
"I'll just bring the sandwiches here."
And then he just tensed again. "Barton, the regs--"
"Don't forbid it. You can't hide behind them, Coulson, I actually made sure to look."
He still hadn't moved. And he didn't talk. Clint pulled out the trump card.
"And then I double-checked with Fury."
Coulson's dumbfounded gaze slid up past Clint's eyes to his forehead. Again. "You what?"
"And he said, and I quote, 'Nothing against it, if you can get him to agree with it. But it's on your own head.' Which, you know, in Fury-speak, is practically begging me to inject some normalcy in your life."
"Normalcy is about the last thing you represent, Agent Barton. Ever."
Clint grinned. "Be that as it may, you still haven't done anything but hide behind a couple of very flimsy excuses. Come on, it's just sandwiches."
Coulson glanced back to his paperwork. "I wasn't aware I needed to give you a reason."
"I'm asking for one anyway. Because I have a theory."
"I'm sure I'm champing at the bit to hear it."
"I think you won't look me in the eyes because you like me too much. And it scares you."
"You're a subordinate."
"Checked with Fury."
"Not the point."
"Come on, Phil," and even using Coulson's given name didn't get the man to look anywhere in his direction, "it's exactly the point. Look at me and tell me you don't want to at least try and have lunch and a conversation with me that's not work-related and maybe I'll believe you. Because I know nobody else would put up with the bullshit I feed you over the comms when I should be shutting up."
"It's not a good idea."
Coulson was silent for a long moment. Of course, if he thought it was going to get Clint to leave, he was sorely mistaken. Finally, he grabbed another file folder. He didn't look up, but the three words that he finally said made Clint grin. "Turkey. On rye."
It was all Clint could do not to jump a foot and a half in the air and pump his fist. "Be back at noon, then."
"And we'll have to talk."
"Fair enough." He stepped back into the hallway. "See you in a couple hours." He let Coulson's office door swing closed behind him.
Bad idea didn't even begin to cover it. But dodging the issue obviously didn't work. So he'd have to meet it head-on and let him know just what kind of a bad idea it was. Then he'd know it was in his best interest to stop this.
A plastic bag from the deli in hand, Clint walked back into Coulson's office at noon on the dot (Coulson was, after all, very big on punctuality) and saw that the older man had managed to completely empty his desk of paperwork and was sitting there, completely still, elbows on the desktop, chin propped up on his entwined fingers. His eyes were closed and if Clint didn't know any better, he almost would have thought that Coulson was some kind of statue. "Lunch is served."
"Yeah," said Coulson, simply, not opening his eyes. Clint shrugged, pulled the turkey sandwich out of the bag and set it in front of the other man.
He reached back into the bag. "Got you some chips, too. Hope you like sour cream and onion." He set it down next to the sandwich and pulled up a chair, to sit across from Coulson and eat his own. "You know," he added as he sat down, "it tends to be easier to eat when your eyes are open."
Coulson took a deep breath at that, opening his eyes and almost meticulously opening the paper wrapping on his sandwich. He took a bite, almost mechanically, and thoughtfully chewed.
"Well?" Clint asked before he started in on his own.
"I'll take it. So how was the trip to Aruba?"
"Right, so obviously not the topic of discussion you were aiming for. Got it."
"No. It was not. Finish your sandwich. I don't want to ruin your meal."
"Fair enough, but only if you finish yours too. You don't eat enough, Phil."
Coulson looked up at him, very briefly, before returning his focus to his sandwich. "I eat as often as I need to."
"Right, sure." They continued to eat their respective sandwiches in what Clint would have called companionable silence if it hadn't seemed strangely, well, non-companionable. But he was a sniper. He was very good at waiting. When necessary, anyway. Coulson had something to say, and there was time left to say it.
Clint was well done with his sandwich by the time Coulson had finished with both sandwich and chips. He picked up all the wrappers and put them back in the bag, waiting. "So?"
"We can't do this."
"Barton, I know what you're after. A relationship... it can't work."
Clint tilted his head a bit. "Is it just that you're not interested? Because you've been doing a really good job of pretending otherwise, if that's it."
"That's not-- It's dangerous."
"Oh, come on, if this is about the job--"
"It's not about the job."
"What is it, then? Because I honestly can't think of a danger that we don't share anyw--"
"Barton. I'm a vampire."
Clint blinked. "You're a what?"
"I'm pretty sure you heard what I said."
"And I'm pretty sure I've recently been on an op with you in New Mexico and not watched you either sparkle or burst into flames."
Coulson smoothed his tie out again. At least to appearances. On closer inspection, he was actually running his knuckles against something that was under his shirt. "SHIELD managed to reverse engineer a pendant found on a member of the Mystikos sect some years ago. It diverts certain wavelengths of sunlight and effectively keeps me from doing just that."
"The sparkling or the bursting into flames?" Coulson just leveled him one of his Looks. "So. Vampire. Really."
"Yes. Now do you see why it won't work?"
"You're not a big fan of breakfast in bed?"
"Dammit, Barton, this is not something to joke about."
"Come on, Coulson. We're forming a team with a Norse god, a miracle in makeshift cryogenics, a not-so-jolly green giant, a couple of assassins, one of which is me, might I add, and Tony Stark and you think I'm going to bat an eye at dating Count Chocula?"
"What I think is that if our relationship expands, I won't be able to trust myself around you. And please, take that as a cue to realize that you shouldn't trust me around you."
"So that's why you won't look me in the eye? Because I'm basically the most delicious thing in the building and you just can't resist?"
Coulson's voice sharpened. "Because you're you and I can barely resist it!" He was clutching the edge of his desk tightly. "Because if I look you in the eyes, I'm not sure I'll be able to hold myself back from compelling you to do my bidding. Even if I don't try. I could destroy you, Clint. You deserve better than that."
"Vampire mind control, huh? How do you know you can't hold back? You do realize that you are actually in the dictionary next to 'self-control', right?"
"Barton, I don't think you get it. Anymore, if I look at you, I want to pounce on you."
Clint grinned slyly. "That just means we have something in common."
"You know perfectly well we are not talking about the same thing. I refuse to turn you. And I am not going to turn you into my thrall."
"Well, why don't you try it? An experiment. Try and hold it back. Look at me, tell me to do something, but try to keep back the freaky mind control part. Maybe you're not giving yourself enough credit. Do you really think Fury would have encouraged me if he didn't trust you? Do you think you'd be in the position you're in if he didn't think you could-- Actually, maybe with this team, the mind control would be a plus. Wouldn't put it past him."
"An experiment," Coulson said flatly.
"Yeah. Come on. But don't waste it. Make it something you'd actually want me to do. I mean, you obviously manage to control it with other people, and I'm damn stubborn. Let's see if it balances out."
"Fine. If it doesn't work, you'll drop this?"
"If it does work, you'll at least consider it?"
"Fine." Coulson slowly lifted his gaze to meet Clint's dead on. The hair on the back of Clint's neck rose a bit, on pure instinct. It was simultaneously a bit terrifying and completely thrilling. Like all the best things, really. "Kiss me."
Clint leaned forward in his seat, opened his mouth, closed it again, and leaned back. "Dammit, Coulson, that's not fair."
Knitting his brow just a bit, Coulson asked, "What?"
"Absolutely no fair using this experiment on something I actually want to do anyway."
Coulson's gaze didn't waver. "Not that you should in my office anyway."
Clint narrowed his eyes. "I said to make it something you'd want me to do."
"Oh, believe me, I did."
"And here I was thinking you were going to use it to try and make me leave or something."
And at that, Coulson finally looked away again. "I'll admit, the temptation was there."
"Wouldn't have done that either, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more." Clint grabbed the bag from the deli and stood up. "But hey, I got a win. And that means you said you'd think about it."
"Think about it."
Clint leaned over the desk, reached out, and rested his palm on Coulson's cool cheek. "Right now? I'll take it." With that, he winked and straightened, turning and walking out.
As he closed the office door behind him, he took a deep breath. He knew what the man-- the vampire-- had been talking about now. He'd felt the pull. Even if he had wanted to do it anyway, what he'd felt had came from an entirely different part of his instinct. But he'd been able to resist it. Which means Coulson had been able to hold back enough. In the end, that's what mattered.
He just hoped Coulson would see it the same way.
It was so much more difficult to hold back with Barton than with anyone else. He was still stunned that he'd managed. He wasn't sure he wanted the decision that had been foisted upon him by it. But he'd be damned-- more than he already was, he supposed-- if he would make the wrong one. It needed thought. A lot of thought.
He should have given Coulson a deadline, Clint realized, about two weeks later. No word, no actual communication at all. It was frustrating. Sure, the job was time-consuming, but there was only so much a normal person could manage to stall.
Not that Coulson had ever been normal even before the whole blood-sucking creature of the night revelation.
He'd pretty much resigned himself to being blown off when, upon finishing up at the range one day, he saw a piece of paper sitting on his equipment bag. Written on it in neat, unmistakable handwriting, was a simple, 'My office, at your convenience.'
Funny, he hadn't even heard Coulson enter.
It took more than a bit of willpower not to just run directly there. He showered first and put his supplies away and then, finally, headed to Coulson's office. At a walk, even!
When he stepped inside, clearing his throat, Coulson didn't even glance up from whatever he was working on. "Close the door. And sit down."
He did both, figuring that it was either a bad sign or a very good one. "So?"
"Under no circumstances will I ever bite you."
Clint grinned. He couldn't help it. "Not even if I ask nicely? I mean, there are levels--"
"No. Just... Barton... Clint, I need these ground rules if this is going to work. You're enough temptation as is. Just let me get through them."
He nodded. Coulson was being serious, and Clint was getting what he hoped for, so he could listen.
"Outside of the boundaries of the job and mission strictures, where I am your superior, you are always authorized to tell me no if I ask you to do something you don't feel comfortable with. I'm not-- I have no desire to control you, and it's unsettling to me how simple it would be to do just that."
"All right. But you have to trust yourself and trust me enough to believe that when I say yes, I'm actually just saying yes. I'm stubborn, but vampire mind control isn't actually a requirement for agreement."
Coulson was silent for a moment, but just nodded. "And finally, this can't interfere with the job. The work we do is much too important, and there's enough working to undo it that if this relationship compromises us, it can't continue."
"I thought that went without saying."
"Something that important should never go without saying."
"Fair enough," commented Clint with a smile. "You know, I was almost expecting a huge writeup of ground rules that I'd have to sign three times or something."
Coulson finally looked up at him with a wry smile. "I was tempted. But I managed to pare it down to the essentials. And to trust your ability to adhere to a verbal agreement."
"I'm touched, Coulson, really." He paused thoughtfully. "So can I ask you something?"
"You can ask, but depending on the question, I'm not going to guarantee an answer."
"Fair enough. Again. How long have you been a vampire? Are you like, thousands of years old? And if so, where were you when I was bored as hell in history class?"
The short exhalation that Coulson emitted was close enough to a chuckle that Clint counted it. "Nowhere near that long. As vampires go, I'm the next best thing to a baby. I was turned..." He paused, frowning. "A bit over twenty years ago."
"Way to dash my mental images of Wild West Coulson."
"Yeah, not exactly. I'm reasonably contemporary. Although I'll now always look remarkably young for my age."
"So it basically freezes you when you get vampir-ated?" At Coulson's nod, Clint continued. "So how old are you?"
"I was born in 1940."
Clint whistled under his breath. "You do look good for your age."
Coulson shrugged, glancing back down at the paperwork that he'd been doing when Clint had walked in. "Believe me, I'd trade."
"So how did it happen?"
"I was bitten, I was turned. It's not that complicated. Sorry to cut the conversation short, by the way, but I've got a stack of work that really needs catching up on."
Eyebrows rising at Coulson's suddenly clipped tone, Clint just nodded. "All right. How long do you guess it's going to take?"
"Another few hours, why?"
"You agreed to a relationship, remember? Once you're done? We're going on a date."
Coulson glanced back up at him, a bit poleaxed. Clint just grinned. "Find me when you're done. I'll be around." He knocked twice on the surface of Coulson's desk, stood up, and left.
He denied himself so much. He'd finally decided to allow himself something. With luck, it would not end in disaster.
"You told me to find you. This is taking it a bit far, don't you think?"
Clint moved aside the ceiling tile he'd perched himself in and dropped out and down to where Phil was waiting with his arms crossed. He grinned. "In fairness, I thought you'd be a little longer. So I decided to wait for the next probie."
"You are aware that scaring the living daylights out of recruits is not in the job description, right?"
"I know, it's just a perk. Besides, if they scare that easily, they need to toughen up."
Coulson shook his head. Clint knew he was amused anyway. "So, what did you have in mind for this date?"
"Well, I was originally thinking dinner, but circumstances being what they are, I don't think a nice restaurant would have exactly the same effect for you."
"Not exactly the same, no. I can still reasonably enjoy the taste of regular food, but it doesn't have any real substantive value."
"Exactly. And then I eliminated the old 'movie' idea because that would just be begging for some kind of emergency to happen within the next two hours."
"That is a very valid point."
"I know. So having successfully removed both dinner and a movie from the option pool, that pretty much ruins any chance for a traditional first date."
"I'm fairly sure that traditional was never going to be an option."
Clint grinned. "See? Now it's your turn for the valid point."
"So what did you have in mind?"
"What? It could be fun."
"Eleven thirty at night and you want to go roller skating?"
"Come on, like you never went to the roller rink with your best gal in the fifties?"
"You know, I wasn't expecting cause to rethink this decision this early."
"Again. Could be fun."
"I highly doubt there's a rink open this late. And if there were, odds that it would still be open by the time we get there, and for any appreciable length of time, are negligible."
"So it's not the roller skating itself you're having issues with? It's the logistics?"
"I'm just saying that it's not exactly feasible right now even if I were to agree."
"But if it were feasible, you would?"
"If it were feasible, I'd give it a try, despite not having skated in decades."
Clint grinned. "Perfect. We're going to the roof, then."
"The roof?" The look on Coulson's face wasn't exactly able to be described in any single word in Clint's vocabulary. But there was a strong streak of 'Oh-God-what-did-I-get-myself-into-here?' It just made Clint grin more.
"Yep. While you were working, I sourced a couple of pairs of skates and I stashed them on the roof."
"So basically, you're saying that for a first date, you want to roller skate on the roof of SHIELD headquarters."
"There is no way--"
"I checked. There is nothing in the rules that specifically forbids roller skating on the roof."
"And when one or both of us goes careening off the roof?"
"Oh, come on, we both have better balance than that."
Coulson scrubbed a hand down his face. "Why am I even considering this?"
"Because you secretly think it could be fun, too. Come on, let's go." Clint took off for the stairwell.
Clint hadn't had the reason exactly right. Somewhere, it might have been true, but at the root of it, as with many things Clint Barton, it was a safety line for Phil. A chance for life. And life was something he thought he'd completely lost over twenty years before.
Clint had been completely right. Roller skating on the roof of headquarters was a blast. And seeing Phil Coulson, in the suit, with roller skates, was such a brilliant thing he wished he'd thought of it ages ago. It wasn't too long before he abandoned the suit coat, though, carefully hanging it over the knob of the door leading to the stairwell. It wasn't much longer before the tie joined the coat, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up to the elbows.
The experience of skating hand in hand on the roof with Coulson at midnight was so far beyond the bounds of what Clint had ever dreamed that it wasn't even within spitting distance of his bucket list. The list would obviously need revising.
After about an hour of skating, the two of them were sitting shoulder to shoulder on the edge of the roof, looking out over the city. The skates were still on their feet, dangling more stories above the ground than most people would care to contemplate. But then, Clint had never had a problem with heights.
"So, was it fun?"
"It was... satisfying."
He nudged Coulson a bit with his shoulder. "That's Coulsonese for fun, I know. You know, I don't know if I've ever seen you this casual ever."
"I have an image to maintain. Besides, someone has to be the businesslike one around here."
"I'm pretty sure that's the reason nobody else is. You've got the market well and truly cornered."
"So if I weren't here, you'd be completing your reports on time?"
"Hell, no. Sitwell would just have to take over the stuffed-shirt job."
"Heaven forbid," Phil murmured, glancing over the city.
"Is two weeks long enough past the initial test that you wouldn't count it as residual mind control if I kissed you now?"
Coulson turned to look at him, smiling just a bit. "I think you're safe."
"Good." Clint leaned in and captured the vampire's lips with his own. Coulson's lips were dry and his skin cool, but it didn't prevent a jolt of warmth from running through Clint's body nonetheless. It wasn't long before the kiss deepened.
Now, making out with Coulson on the roof of the building had already been on his bucket list. Chalk one up for aiming high.
When they finally broke away, Clint was more than a little breathless, but he wouldn't give the feeling up for the world. "Wow."
Coulson reached out and brushed a bit of hair back from Clint's forehead. "Are you all right?"
"Oh, believe me. I've never been better."
The vampire was silent for a while, studying Clint's face intently. Apparently whatever he saw made him trust that Clint was being honest, so he simply nodded. "Good. Well, as entertaining as it's been, we should probably finish up the first date here."
"Aw, you sure? We can always take it back to a place with a bed."
Coulson laughed a bit. "I promise, Barton, there will be more than enough time later. The roller skating was fun, yes. But I didn't take out my 'best gal in the fifties' and then sleep with her on the first date, either."
Clint paused. "This is what Tony must have felt like, I swear."
"I wouldn't know." Coulson shot Clint a small smile and then started to unlace his skates. "You know... I'm pretty sure I'm not going to get a rule added to prevent this from happening again."
Reaching for his own skates, Clint just laughed. "Come on now. Second date, we're bungee jumping."
"Sorry, that will be against regs by five."
Clint grinned. "Worth a shot."
Coulson leaned over and gave him one more kiss.
It actually had a chance of working. He was more capable than he thought of keeping the hunger at bay. He had one sure conviction that he would hold onto, however long this ended up lasting. He would destroy himself before harming Clint. That was a promise.