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Paperwork and Meringues

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If one asked on which occasion Clint Barton and Melinda May have met, most people at SHIELD would answer that it must have been during a mission. Then, again, most people at SHIELD would be surprised to hear that Barton and May even know each other. Or not so surprised, maybe – we are, after all, talking about one of the most talented specialists SHIELD has ever had and the person who was once known as the Cavalry. When you think about it, it’s only likely that the two of them have worked together in the field, probably more than once. Many of the younger agents would be eager to hear tales of those missions, if only for the sheer level of badassery that must have been involved.

All this just tells you that not many people at SHIELD can be bothered to remember the fact that Clint Barton was recruited later in his life than the average agent and in a not entirely orthodox way, so that, by the time he started operating in the field, Agent May was already working on higher-level operations – too high to allow a freshly recruited sniper with a shady past to take part in any of them, no matter that his skills with a bow could only be described as uncanny.

Which leads us to the fact that Specialist Agent Barton didn’t meet Agent May during a field mission. In fact, Specialist Agent Barton, Level 3, met Melinda May, of SHIELD HR department, about a week after the latter failed to forward a Form 42-97B to the appropriate office. This rather peculiar piece of information is known to no more than three people at SHIELD, beside Barton and May, of course – two now, to be exact, since one of said informed people has recently been killed by a semi-deranged Norse deity.

***

No one had asked May to actually read the 42-97B when Agent Roentgen had dropped it rather unceremoniously on her desk. She was only supposed to check if it had been correctly compiled in all of its parts before filing it. Instead, she’d skimmed through it. Then read it. Then she’d switched her computer on and pulled up the mission reports from Roentgen’s latest op (which, she soon found out, was quickly going to become Roentgen’s last op, if she had any say in the matter). Then she’d rerouted the 42-97B to Agent Coulson’s office.

For those not familiar with the classification system for SHIELD paperwork, form 42-97B is an Asset Termination Agreement – “agreement” being a rather transparent euphemism for something else that would imply a higher degree of responsibility. And sure, Roentgen’s op in Manila had gone FUBAR and led to one agent dying and two more being left in critical conditions, but to Melinda it didn’t look like Barton’s well-known attitude towards insubordination was the cause for that. No, what it looked like was that Roentgen had filed an ATA just to cover for some idiotic (criminal, that’s the adjective you use when agents get killed) mistake of his. A mistake that wasn’t even in Barton’s report, and well, didn’t that say spectacularly bad things about a handler-asset relationship.

Problem was, with Barton’s track record of pulling stupid stunts and questioning orders – in one memorable case, Fury’s own –, it was highly likely that the suggestion to terminate his collaboration with SHIELD would be taken seriously if Melinda filed it.

Terminating an agent’s collaboration with SHIELD is, of course, another rather transparent euphemism for the most common outcome of a 42-97B.

So Melinda did the only sensible thing (or what she would claim was the only sensible thing if anyone ever confronted her with the facts): she didn’t file the 42-97B. Instead, she forwarded it to Agent Coulson’s office. Two hours later, she received a filled Form 157-45 (Asset Reassignment Request), along with a 78-14D (Disciplinary Transfer Procedure). Those, she filed to the correct office. She put the bright orange post-it note (which read Told you you’d make a good handler in a spiky scrawl) away in the top drawer, along with the others. After all, Melinda May knew how to do her job.

(It must be said, for the record, that Barton’s case wasn’t the first time May had “accidentally” misfiled an ATA. It was the second. But no one talks about the first time, nor about Fury’s reaction when he received both Senior Agent Henry’s 42-97B and the 51-866 which had been filed against him just a few hours before – a 51-866 being a Sexual Harassment Complaint. No one knows how the forms got mixed up with the Director’s personal post, but rumor has it that Agent Henry mysteriously disappeared while in deep cover somewhere in Asia a couple of months later. As for the junior agent who’d submitted the 51-866, she isn’t a junior anymore, and she’d be extremely displeased to find out that the rumor has leaked. Getting on Maria Hill’s bad side is about as recommended as getting on Fury’s.)

***

The first time Clint Barton entered Agent Coulson’s office was anything but memorable. Sure, it made him think for the first time about how nice it would be to work with someone who answered his snarky comments with deadpan lines instead of raising his hackles as soon as Clint opened his mouth. He didn’t fool himself into believing it would last, of course. Coulson was, after all, well known for his track record of not keeping agents under his supervision for longer than a few months. After that, they either moved up the ranks fast or got reassigned. Everyone at SHIELD was aware that Agent Coulson wasn’t easily pleased, or a people person in any sense of the word. Some liked to say he wasn’t a person at all, that he was some kind of robot or lab-grown experiment. None of his former assets ever complained about his handling, however, so Clint hadn’t reacted badly to the news that he was being reassigned to him. Honestly, considering how his last mission with Roentgen had gone, he’d been expecting worse. (And if the unexpected change in plans had made him suspicious as hell, it sure wasn’t anyone’s business, at least for now.)

So Clint definitely wasn’t disappointed when Coulson acted nothing but professional during their first meeting, keeping his questions and answers so sparse and dry that it was a wonder they even managed a conversation at all. He wasn’t even surprised when Coulson didn’t as much as rise an eyebrow at some of Clint’s most inappropriate remarks (see under: deadpan). It was too early to be forming an opinion, and anyway, Clint still had no reason to believe he was going to have much time to do that. He’d be working with Coulson for a while, long enough for him to be molded into whatever SHIELD wanted him to be or break, and then he’d be let go either way. That was, according to what everyone knew and said, Agent Coulson’s modus operandi.

Clint was, however, momentarily taken aback when Coulson’s voice stopped him on the threshold right as he was leaving.

“Ah, and Barton.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Agent Melinda May loves meringues.”

Clint definitely didn’t gape at that. His training put him above this kind of things, of course it did. Nor did he let himself show surprise at the fact that Coulson apparently knew about his unlikely talent for baking, or his mostly requited love for the more delicate recipes. He did, however, set himself up for a bit of research about Agent May. He had, after all, been given a name, and it was just fair to assume there was some reason behind that. If said research led him to find out about Agent Roentgen’s “emergency” transfer to an administrative post in Ohio, and to track the movements of a certain form 42-97B, well, it couldn’t be said it was Coulson’s fault. Nor was Coulson in any way responsible for the fact that the following Wednesday saw Agent Barton showing up at the door of a certain office in HR, carrying a plate which held half a dozen crisp and perfectly formed Italian meringues.

***

Melinda May was not the kind of person who easily accepted thanks. Which was good, since apparently Agent Barton was not the kind of person who easily gave them. Still, even though Barton hadn’t said anything as he delicately set the plate on her desk, she found herself knocking at Phil’s office door not an hour later, still battling an irritating sense of uneasiness.

“You sent him to me.”

“I may or may not have dropped a hint about your name, yes.” Phil hadn’t even looked up from his computer. His lips, however, were barely but sensibly twitching up.

“Did he ask for it?”

“I may or may not have taken the initiative.”

“You may or may not be an asshole.” Melinda knew he could see her roll her eyes even though it didn’t look like he was watching.

“Were the meringues good?”

May sighed, her mouth watering at the very memory. “Heavenly.”

“Well, isn’t that interesting.” Coulson quirked an eyebrow at something that definitely didn’t have to do with whatever mission plan was on his screen, no matter how intently he pretended to stare at it.

“You’re planning to keep him, aren’t you.”

“I may or may not.”

“Is this whole conversation a pun on my name? Because if it is, it’s awful.”

Now, that startled Phil into looking up. Satisfying. Coulson – May, 0 – 1. “You know, I don’t think I’ve witnessed such an astounding amount of sass from you since Bahrain, at least.” Never mind, Coulson wins. Again.

“Oh, fuck you, Phil.”

“Yes.”

“Hello, inappropriate answer.”

Phil huffed, and May really had to warn him about how endearing he looked when he did that. Just, maybe not today. “Yes, I’m planning to keep him. Wasn’t that what your whole scheme was about?”

“You’re an idiot.”

“This depends on whether he still wishes to be kept two months from now.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to rub it in your face either way.”

“Thanks, Mel. You’re an angel, Mel. Bye, Mel.”

“Don’t you ever call me that.”

***

Clint Barton hadn’t planned for a repeat of his meringue-giving performance. The fact that he found himself outside the HR department two weeks after that first Wednesday had nothing to do with how Agent May hadn’t said a word when he’d brought the first plate in, or how she’d barely looked at him at all. Whatever his file might say about his personality, Clint isn’t the type who needs constant recognition for his actions. Well, not in the meringue department, at least.

So, the fact that Clint is here, hesitating for a whole thirty seconds before entering the range of the motion sensor for May’s (and a couple of other agents’) office door, has nothing to do with needing recognition and everything to do with Coulson. Rather unlike the first time he came to this place.

It’s not like he’s feeling any sort of special connection to his handler, of course. Three weeks and a mission into their partnership is far too early for that, even if Coulson’s voice was the perfect shade of steady and, on occasion, stern in his earpiece, and he gave Clint full information on the target and the reasons why they’d decided she needed to be taken down before sending him in. That was merely Coulson being good at his job, which is the one thing Clint had been expecting from the start.

And yet.

The fact is that, you see, Coulson likes coffee. A lot. Seriously, the man has a relationship with coffee that borders on inappropriate and then some. And Clint isn’t supposed to pay attention to this kind of things, he really isn’t, but he does – he does it with everyone, really, so it’s not like Coulson’s special. After all, a sniper’s eyes and memory are good for more than one thing, and if Clint likes being kind to the people he works with, even though most of them will still be convinced that he’s just a mouthy asshole, so sue him. All thing considered, it wasn’t really anything unusual for Clint to end up bringing Coulson coffee, and anyway, he did it just one time, one day when it was already dark and he was about to go home for the evening when he noticed that his handler was still working.

Okay, so maybe it was a bit early into their partnership for Clint to do that kind of things. Like noticing that his handler considered coffee a treat after a long day, or worrying about Coulson’s unhealthy definition of working hours. And maybe he’d also made a little extra effort and gone outside to that awfully upscale little coffee shop Coulson liked to buy him a ridiculously posh brew. He’d just wanted to be nice, so sue him again – and besides, the higher level agents had to be used to drinking better stuff than the sludge from the Level 4 break room anyway.

So, Clint was pretty sure that none of his actions had warranted the look in Coulson’s eyes when he’d left the to-go cup on his handler’s desk. But there had definitely been an odd look on his face for a split second, which was more than enough for Clint to see it – again, perks of being sharp-sighted and practiced at noticing fleeting movement, he guessed. Anyway, Coulson had looked surprised, like a person who’d never expected anyone in the world to bring him coffee. There was no other way to understand that face, honestly, and Clint didn’t really want to dwell on how funny it had made his insides feel. Instead, he found himself wondering where he’d seen the same look recently. And the answer, of course, was on Melinda May’s face two weeks before, as she’d picked up a meringue, sniffed it delicately and bit into it, somehow managing not to send feather-light white crumbles flying everywhere.

So Clint had gone home, baked a fresh batch of meringues, and now he was stepping into an office in the HR department and hoping he didn’t look as much like a fish out of water as he felt.

***

“You know, I might just get used to this.” May’s voice was surprisingly nice. A bit flat and rough around the edges, sure, but warm. It reminded him of Coulson. And yes, Clint liked Coulson’s voice. Which was perfectly understandable. The man did have a really nice voice. Clint could bet that everyone who’d had him in his earpiece for a few hours would share his opinion on that. There was nothing inappropriate in thinking about Coulson’s voice. Nothing at all. No reason to suspect that Clint was getting attached.

Anyway, back to the here and now. Conversation. With Melinda May. Easy. “I don’t think I can promise to keep the deliveries on schedule, though.”

“This is the HR department, Agent Barton. Nothing’s ever on schedule here. These are exceptional, by the way.” God, she’s making small talk. Why is she making small talk? Dammit, Clint, get a grip.

“Thanks. Do you bake?”

May cocked a fascinatingly sharp eyebrow at him. “Do I look like I bake?”

“Do I?”

May smiled. Clint guessed it wasn’t supposed to be scary. It was.

“You know,” she said, her tone veering on conversational again, “rumor has it that Coulson has no talent for cooking whatsoever.”

“Rumor?” Not that Clint was interested. Nope.

Melinda’s lips twitched. Another Coulsonesque trait. Not that Clint had noticed the way Coulson’s lips moved. Or, well, he had, but then again, he noticed random things all the time. Good eyes, remember? Nothing unusual here.

“He can burn water. Literally. He did. I was there.”

There had been, of course, a substantial amount of potassium involved. How that had ended up into the salt tin, and where the hell Coulson had gotten the idea that you needed to put that much salt in the water to make pasta, or that said salt was supposed to have such a metallic hue – all those things made for quite an entertaining story, as Clint soon found out.

And if at the end Clint found himself going silently awww over Agent Coulson’s unexpected second nature as a giant dork who couldn’t cook for his dear life, well, that just meant he had a new-found soft spot for giant dorks who couldn’t cook. It didn’t have to mean he had a soft spot for his handler in particular. Not at all.

Of course Clint Barton knew that this kind of denial could only go that far. He was merely opting not to dwell on that thought for the time being. He was, all things considered, doing pretty well.

***

So, not many people at SHIELD are aware that every other Wednesday Specialist Agent Barton, now Level 7, drops by Agent Melinda May’s office in the HR department. Unless he’s out on a mission, of course, which doesn’t happen as often as you might think. Only a third person, beside the two parties involved, knows the contents of the plate that Barton never fails to carry. May’s cubicle is secluded enough from the rest of the room that no one sees the meringues, and she always makes sure to wipe out any remaining evidence, in the form of crumbs or otherwise.

When said third informed person dies at the hand of a Norse sort-of-god with a horned helmet and a frankly disturbing amount of family issues, May doesn’t really expect the tradition to carry on. Phil Coulson’s death has changed many things.

Still, when Clint shows up on the first Wednesday after he’s been cleared from Medical with half a dozen meringues on a platter and an unreadable expression on his face, Melinda doesn’t say anything beside, “The texture’s different.”

“I know. New oven.” Clint’s voice is opaque, just like his face. “I’ve moved recently. It’s good, but – still getting used to it.”

She knows that he’s moved, of course. She filed the paperwork for that. The fact that seeing Coulson’s name beside Barton’s on the old lease brought tears to her eyes, even though she’d known it was going to be there, is not something she needs to share with anyone. “It’s not that I don’t like it. The new texture, I mean. It’s just –”

“Less heavenly than the first time?” A ghost of a smile. They must both look like ghosts, after what happened, she guesses.

I hope you knew what you were doing to us when you chose to play the hero, Phil.

Melinda May is not the kind of person to easily give comfort. Which is good, since Clint Barton is not the kind of person to easily accept it. The meringues get back to their usual, heavenly texture after a couple of experiments.