There’s a pencil-lead thin callous along Clint’s forearm. It’s where the bow just barely slides along the skin when he doesn’t wear his guard, which is more often than it should be. Because he’s supposed to wear his guard at all times.
“Oh, please,” he huffs when Coulson comes down to remind him. “I’ve been shooting my whole damned life, Coulson. I know what I’m doing.”
“Full uniform when practicing,” Coulson replies. “I don’t want your aim off because you slapped on your guard for the first time in a week. Coulson meets Clint’s glare with a raised eyebrow. “Agent manual, page 13, paragraph 5, list item 2. Slap it on, and I won’t disparage your abilities again.”
Clint huffs a laugh. “Bullshit.”
“Not in front of you, at least,” Coulson replies.
“Not behind my back, either,” Clint says, and there’s a depth to it. Something very honest and raw, an absolute truth.
“You’re not that interesting,” Coulson tells him, holding his smile in check from long, long practice. When you’re the one who recruited the famed Hawkeye, you’re the guy who can keep Hawkeye from seeing you’re pleased he trusts you.
“I absolutely am.” Clint fires an arrow, slings his bow over his shoulder, takes the guard Coulson holds out, snaps it on, and then shoots another arrow. It splits the first down the center. It’s the only way to hit the bullseye, considering the first arrow was already dead center. “And you know it,” he adds as he presses the button to reel in the target.
“Sure,” Phil deadpans. He stares, unimpressed, when Clint holds out the target to him. It’s a half-inch of straw with a paper target stapled to the front.
“Put it behind your desk,” Clint offers. “Scare the junior agents.”
From anyone else, it’d be a goof, but Clint doesn’t offer his arrows easily. He’s been known, in fact, to tell certain handlers to fuck themselves sideways and eat a bowl of rancid dicks when they’ve tried to order him away from collecting what he’s used during an op. He never tries to collect if they’re tight on time or retaliation, and Phil’s never tried to stop him. There’s a fishbowl half full of spent casings in Phil’s office. He never finds all of them, but he can usually track down some of what he’s used. Sometimes, if he and Clint had been aiming in the same general direction, Clint will come back with a couple extras Phil knows he’d never have spotted on his own.
“The junior agents are scared enough,” Phil tells him, but he takes the target with both hands and nods at the perfection of it.
“And they’ve never seen you in the field.” Clint grins at Phil, open and comfortable as he loads another arrow and checks his line of sight. “They probably wouldn’t appreciate it.” The arrow goes flying into the new target, and Clint nods at his handiwork.
“You’re a badass.” Clint lets another arrow fly, eyes hard on the target. “Junior agents don’t like being out with badasses. They think they’ve got to prove something besides not being morons.”
Phil leans against the partition between the columns of the range. “What’d you do?” he asks.
“And there’s a bridge you’d love to show me,” Phil deadpans. He raises his eyebrows when he catches Clint watching him from the corner of his eye, his arrow notched, bowstring taut, but he is absolutely still. “Going for a great price,” Phil adds when Clint stays quiet.
“Junior agents are assholes,” Clint tells him. The arrow goes sailing, landing perfectly to complete the half-circle Clint is building into a full one. He’s not going to tell Phil anything, so Phil just shrugs and straightens up.
“Keep the guard on.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Clint grouses behind him. Phil lets the smile escape just a little as he leaves. Clint can’t see through him to catch him.
It takes Coulson twenty minutes and a few well-placed, mild threats (and the fact that two of the agents are genuinely scared of being tazed makes Phil wonder when S.H.I.E.L.D. allowed recruiting requirements to go so lax) to find out exactly why junior agents are assholes. Junior agents are assholes, it turns out, because they are gossipy little bastards.
“And how many people think that that’s how it works?” Coulson asks, voice cool and easy, body relaxed, giving nothing away, but something in his aura is making the agent in front of him have issues cutting his steak.
“I don’t know, Agent Coulson.” The agent has a pretty good poker face, but his steak is getting mangled. “Sir.” He adds.
“Good lord,” Coulson replies, taking the knife from the agent’s hand. He puts it next to his hand, reaches into his boot, pulls out his field knife, and slices the kid’s steak into bite-sized pieces with four quick incisions. He stands, wiping his knife with the agent’s napkin, before re-sheathing it and walking away. “Get some steel in your belly, kid,” he calls over his shoulder. “Before someone else does it for you.”
“It’s bad enough Thor takes them drinking,” Fury greets him, sitting in Coulson’s desk chair. “Now you’re pulling knives on them?”
“Knife. Singular,” Coulson says. “You’re in my chair.”
Fury glances down, feigning surprise. “Would you look at that.” He meets Coulson’s placid look with an annoyed glare. “Don’t. Pull. Knives. On. The. Kids.”
“Knife. Singular,” Coulson repeats.
Fury stands slowly, to prove he’s getting out of the chair because he wants to. “No knives. Ever.”
“You used to be cool.”
Fury cracks a grin at that. “Bad enough we’ve got junior agents who think you’ll shank them, you’re still the same asshole you’ve always been.”
“You promised S.H.I.E.L.D. would love me no matter what.”
“Hell,” Fury says, laughing as he walks around Coulson and pats him on the back. “What even caused it?”
“Scuttlebutt,” Coulson tells him. “Apparently, Barton and I fuck on a regular basis.”
Coulson shrugs. “I don’t care, but Barton made a passing mention. Think someone gave him shit in the field. We don’t need that.”
Fury shakes his head. “You are the weirdest damned combination of ice man and concerned friend.”
“And that grin is damned freaky.” Fury waves as he leaves the office. “No multi-tools, either!” he yells as he walks down the hall.
“One time,” Coulson mutters as he maneuvers to sit behind his desk. “Never live it down.”
Everything goes back to expected levels of not-normal. Coulson doesn’t ask again, but he can tell by the way he gets looks in the hallway that the rumors have stopped. At least, that’s what he assumes until the night Clint gets sent out with a junior handler named Nevins.
“Radio silence, Barton,” Nevins orders. Coulson’s back at base, but he’s listening in from mission control, watching the tiny red dot that is Barton climb upward to a spot Coulson is certain should not hold a man his size. Not that it’s ever stopped Clint before.
“Copy that, sir,” Clint replies, and Coulson waits for the complete fail of that. Clint never shuts up on comms unless radio silence is an absolute necessity. Coulson learned to tune it out years ago, and he can never tell if Clint does it to other handlers as a habit or a hazing.
“Report, Barton,” Nevins orders five minutes later.
“Up a tree, Sir,” Clint replies, and there’s something in his tone, something sharp that makes Coulson furrow his brow and press the headset closer to his ear.
“You’re supposed to be on a building, Barton.”
“’I’m jumping from the tree to the building,” Clint replies in a tone Coulson recognizes very easily. It’s Clint’s, ‘why am I the only one who is not an asshole idiot’ tone.
“I nixed that route,” Nevins replies. “I know you’re used to your boyfriend letting you lead the way with your dick, Barton, but I’m in charge—”
“No, actually, you’re not,” Coulson cuts in, voice as flat as he can make it. There is a long, delicious silence.
“Agent Coulson,” Nevins starts, tone haughty.
“Can it or get shitcanned,” Coulson replies. “You’re off the op.”
“Sir—” Nevins tries.
“Barton, why the hell are you up a damned tree?” Coulson overrides.
“Because I’m not Spider-Man.”
“Spider monkey, maybe,” Coulson mutters.
“Ook, ook,” Clint replies, and there is an enraged sputter. Nevins, it seems, has no survival instinct at all.
“This is completely unprofessional,” he breaks in. “I am in charge of this op—”
“Junior handlers are in charge on ops unless overridden in their decisions by a more senior handler,” Coulson says.
“Handler manual, page 97, paragraph 2, bullet point 3,” Clint chimes in. Coulson wonders when he memorized it. Coulson doesn’t actually use it all that often.
“Everyone knows you’re fucking,” Nevins replies.
“And shitcanned,” Coulson announces, signaling the tech to cut Nevins’ comm. “Barton, report.”
“You got eyes on me?”
“I can see the tiny red dot just fine.”
“Great. Let’s get this finished. I’ve got sand in about four places it doesn’t need to be.”
“And if you’d shut your mouth, you’d keep it out of one of those places.”
Clint doesn’t reply, but Coulson doesn’t expect him to. He watches the dot get higher and higher and taps the tech when he wants to see the 3-D map of the area. On the 3-D, Clint is outlined with thermals, making him a rainbow of color cut through where his quiver strap hangs across his chest.
“Up,” Clint reports. Coulson can hear his feet shuffling, knows he’s brushing a space clear with his feet so he can make his nest.
“Comm’s on,” Coulson tells him. “But keep it quiet.”
“Got it,” Clint replies.
Coulson flips his headset to mute and looks at the tech. “I’ve got to run upstairs, get this feed on a monitor all the way up.”
“Yes, sir,” the tech replies. As Coulson walks out of mission control, the monitor to his left blinks on, showing Clint’s outline. Every ten feet, a monitor changes over to Clint’s infrared image. He’s sitting completely still, looking East, and Coulson nods at the image as he gets on the elevator and checks in again thanks to the monitors built into the walls.
When Coulson walks into his office, the television in the corner is already alive with Clint’s image. Fury is sitting behind his desk again. “Nevins is off the op,” Coulson announces.
“I heard,” Fury replies, tapping the comm in his own ear. “Since when do you let Barton disregard orders from his handler?”
“Since Nevins is an idiot who didn’t do his reading. Barton picks his own route up if he sees a better one. It’s on the top sheet of his file.”
“Hrm,” Fury replies. He steeples his fingers and angles his head back to look at the target Coulson has actually hung behind his desk, the arrows still sticking out of it. “I don’t give a shit about fraternization,” he says. “I’m trying to save the world.”
“We’re not fraternizing.”
“Oh, I know you’re not,” and the way Fury grins at him makes Coulson want to squirm. “But I’ve got thirty bucks in the pool you two finally will sometime in the next week, so do me a solid, huh? I’m happy to split the pot.”
Coulson thinks for a moment, trying to figure out how to explain. “We’re not interested in one another,” he says finally.
“Uh-huh,” Fury says, standing up and glancing at the monitor. Clint is still completely still. “He’s the best we have. He doesn’t have to listen to anyone to get the job done. I could have cut him loose without a handler years ago, but he kept requesting you, and he puts up with the others because those are the rules.”
Coulson knows the rules. Handler manual, page 39, paragraph 7, footnote 2:
All agents who request a handler after it has been decided by the necessary body (see Appendix C, list 4, point 7 for further details on requirements of ‘body’) that a handler is no longer necessary are required by S.H.I.E.L.D. regulations to accept responsibility for all handlers getting adequate field time. No agent may work with only a single handler, though positive handler/agent relationships will be encouraged as long as all parties provide agreed-upon assistance with training handlers in the field.
Coulson doesn’t respond when Fury walks out. He looks at the monitor, watches the outline of Clint shimmer as he breathes. He looks at the target on the wall, the arrows still in place. He thinks as he watches Clint’s outline breathe.
“Got him,” Clint says fourteen hours later. He’s been quiet the whole time, and Coulson’s been watching him on and off as he’s taken care of other work and gotten some food.
“We’re tracking him,” Coulson reminds him, though he knows Clint knows. “Get the dot on him and get out.”
“I know the drill,” Clint replies. There’s a pause, then a twang. Coulson watches on the monitor. It’s a split screen now, Clint’s outline on the left, the intended target on the right. The target flinches when something tweaks the back of his neck, slaps like he thinks it’s an insect.
“Good work,” Coulson says. It’s the same praise he always gives. “We’ll debrief when you get back.” That’s also the same.
“Got enough sand in my ass I could probably shit a castle,” Clint tells him. The overshare is also part of their regular routine, and Coulson, with a new perspective on everything, can suddenly appreciate the rumor mill.
“Don’t track it into my office,” he says. “Bad enough there’s still bow resin on the arm of the couch.”
“Still an accident,” Clint replies. There’s the sound of rushing air, then Clint grunts.
“You just jumped to the tree, didn’t you?”
“Ook, ook,” Coulson says.
Clint huffs a laugh, and Coulson listens to him shimmy to the ground. “Coming home to roost,” Clint says. “Barton out.”
“Copy that.” Coulson removes the earpiece and rubs at his ear, working his jaw back and forth to convince his brain that, yes, the intrusion is gone from his ear canal. It’ll be ten hours before Barton’s back. Enough time for a solid nap, a change of clothes, and a final decision about what to do with Fury’s information about he, Clint, and what people are actually expecting.
He sleeps. He changes suits. He leaves base for the really good coffee, and when he comes back, Clint is on his couch, boots kicked off by the door and feet on the arm where the resin streak lives. His hair is still damp, and the sweats he’s wearing are mostly threadbare. There’s a small, round bandage on the inside of his elbow where the medics took his blood when he had his post-action physical.
“Fury says he’s got thirty bucks on us having sex by the end of the week,” Coulson greets him. “Says he’ll split the pot if we go for it.”
Clint raises his eyebrows, as unsurprised as if Coulson had greeted him with a nod or a grumble about his feet on the couch. “Oh, yeah?” He sits up and scrubs his hand through his hair, making it stick up more than it already does. “Is this your standard ‘kill the betting pool’ scenario, or do you have a nefarious plan beyond that?”
“Not nefarious,” Coulson says. “But a plan.”
“And what’s that?”
Coulson sets his coffee on the edge of his desk and looks at Clint. Clint is watching him, completely relaxed. He yawns and doesn’t try to hide it, and Coulson really, really wants to kiss him. “Get a frame for the target,” he says. “Since I assume it was meant to be your dowry.”
Clint huffs a laugh. “Something like that.” He stands and stretches, his t-shirt riding up his stomach. Coulson, for the first time he’ll actually admit, enjoys the view. “For a guy who catches everything, you were a little slow on the uptake.”
“You’re not life-threatening or world-ending,” Coulson tells him. “It ranks you pretty low on the notice-meter.”
“How low?” Clint asks as he crowds Coulson against his desk. Coulson lets him, standing up straighter to give Clint a reason to get closer.
“About waist-high, I’d say,” Coulson replies, and Clint’s burst of laughter sends away the last of his concerns that maybe this is a bad idea. It is, in fact, a pretty damned good one, he thinks as Clint pecks him on the mouth.
“Let’s call it done, then,” Clint says. “Take Fury’s winnings and go out for steak.”
“Or take the winnings and order in Thai,” Coulson counters. “And let you answer the door naked just to freak someone out.”
“I like the way you think,” Clint tells him, kissing him one more time before backing up.
“But first, we debrief,” Coulson says. Clint’s groan makes him grin.
“Handler manual, page 26, paragraph 4, line 7,” Clint rattles off.
“Somewhere around there,” Coulson agrees, and he smiles as Clint flops back onto the couch and the junior agent who’d been coming in with a file tries to back away inconspicuously. “If you’re going to scuttle backwards,” Coulson calls after the agent, “at least stand up straight.”
“Have a little respect for your work!” Clint adds, and the agent looks absolutely terrified as he sprints down the hall.
“Didn’t even get to taze him,” Coulson mutters, then he picks up his pen, a legal pad, and gives Clint a nod to get started.
“And now,” Clint says hours later, their share of Fury’s winnings on the table by the door for the delivery guy, “We debrief with intent.”
“Don’t think that one’s in the manual,” Coulson tells him as he backs Clint towards his bedroom.
“I do not care.” And this time, Clint kisses him like he means to start something. Coulson kisses back like he means to finish it, thumb pressing into the callus on Clint’s arm that started them off.