Nick Fury didn't trust in electronic files.
Oh, sure, he used them, he used them because he had no choice, some things had to be placed in a computer, it was just impractical to assume otherwise. But personnel files, the real ones, the hard core accounting of an agent's lifeblood with SHIELD, that was a paper file. That was always a paper file.
Clint Barton's file filled half a dozen folders.
Assistant Director Maria Hill unloaded them onto her desk top one after another, letting each one fall with an impressive, solid thump. Clint studied them, arching an eyebrow, just a little, somewhere between amused and annoyed by the display. He sat back, letting her go through the motions.
Finally, surrounded by the stacks, Maria took a seat behind her desk. “So, Specialist.”
She said nothing else, and Clint let his other eyebrow rise to join the first one. “Yes, ma'am?” he responded, the reply pitch perfect. Not a word, or a tone, or a facial expression out of line, nothing she could possibly take offense at.
She took offense anyway, because she was super fun that way.
“You've been hanging on by a thread for years now,” she said, never one to mince words. “A very fine thread. You're insubordinate, you're stubborn, you're problematic on site and an unrelenting pain in the ass on base. You fight with your superiors, you insist upon picking your own perches and won't work with half of the agents we've got to support you. You cannot be trusted to follow medical protocols, you lie flat out to handlers and med personnel alike about your status. You've been written up a record nine times for using your fellow agents for target practice. You alter official equipment without permission, you go into the field with unapproved devices.” She sat back, arms folded in front of her on the desktop, her expression blank. “In short, you're a living nightmare of a special operative, Barton.”
He considered that. “Thank you, ma'am.”
Her lips twitched. “You're holding on by a thread. And that thread has a name, Barton. It's Phil Coulson.”
Any humor he was feeling about this situation died a swift and brutal death. “Is that so, ma'am.”
“It is, as a matter of fact.” She tipped her head to the side. “Are you aware, Specialist, that Agent Coulson has been offered seven different promotions and upward transfers since becoming your handler? He has declined all of them. That has caused no end of consternation on the part of certain parties. Parties who would like to see Coulson in the sort of job that only he can handle.”
She stood, started walking around the room. “He is, after all, one of our most trusted field operatives. Fast. Smart. Unflappable under pressure. Unflinchingly loyal, and the feeling is reciprocated. Agents may not like him, Barton, but they trust him. They trust him to make the right call, to make it fast and make it stick.”
“I'm aware of Agent Coulson's reputation,” Clint said, sick of this already. “Also the rumor that he's actually an android. Or grown in a lab. Or the one where he's secretly Director Fury's half-brother.” He paused. “I don't see the resemblance, myself.”
Hill's lips quirked, just for a second. “You forgot the one where he's an immortal alien.”
“Well, that one's just stupid,” Clint said.
Hill nodded. “The point being, Specialist, is that Coulson could be forging policy. He could be overseeing hundreds of agents, choosing where and how SHIELD's resources are being deployed. He is the logical choice, the best choice. And he won't take the job. Do you know why, Barton?”
“Because he actually despises paperwork?” Clint said, which was true. Sure, the man was good at it, but that didn't mean he liked it. “And would prefer to be in the field, getting the job done?”
“Which he could still do, if he took the promotion. What he could not continue to do at that pay grade, Agent Barton, is continue being your handler.” She took a seat on the edge of the desk, letting her hand fall, ever so delicately, on the most recent of his files. Her fingers stroked over the cover. “He would be forced to hand you off to another handler, and to be honest, Specialist? There is no one else who will willingly take you.”
He'd known that. He'd been aware, he wasn't stupid, but having it spoken aloud was a physical body blow. He kept his face still, he'd played this game for a long, long time, he'd been trained to deal with torture far more invasive, far more painful than this. He didn't say a word, didn't flinch.
She kept going. “If Phil Coulson continues to decline the promotions that are offered him, Specialist, they will cease to be voluntary, they will be move up or move out. At that point, that thin, microscopic thread keeping you employed and useful will cease to be, and you will be on your own. In all terms of the word.” She sighed. “We suspect that it is to protect you that Coulson is staying in his current job. There's no confirmation of that, of course, but he is, as I pointed out, unflinchingly loyal. For some reason, he feels a responsibility to you, and has been fighting, tooth and nail and form after form, to keep you in the field.”
Hill leaned forward. “He has protected you. To his own detriment. For years.
“So the question you need to ask yourself, Specialist, is how you plan on repaying that loyalty.” Hill let her lips curl up, just a tiny bit. “You're dismissed.”
There was a finality to that statement that should've bothered Clint. It didn't. Instead, he stood and gave her a crisp nod before striding from the office, leaving her to her piles of paper and her little plots and plans and gambits.
Some part of him wondered if Fury knew about their meeting. Another part of him didn't give a damn.
It didn't take very long to reach his decision.
He'd been surprised, really, that he'd survived this long. Hill was right about one thing; Coulson was the only reason he still had a job. Coulson was the only reason SHIELD hadn't pitched him onto the garbage pile, and the only reason why Clint hadn't put an arrow through a blowhard supervisor's shoulder in a very unforgettable act of resignation.
Of course, there was more than one occasion where his very survival had been based on Coulson's willingness to come after him, no matter what upper management had to say about it. Clint had always strongly suspected that there were a couple of pages marked 'Asset Expendable' that Coulson had run through a shredder a couple of times. Before, you know, lighting the remains on fire.
Because Coulson was good that way. Coulson always came for him, no matter how bad the situation. No matter what the odds. He'd always been sure, no matter how long he'd had to wait, or what he'd had to sustain in the meantime, that Coulson was coming for him. Would always come for him.
He'd miss that. More than he was really comfortable thinking about.
He'd also miss Natasha. She was going to be royally pissed. If he was lucky, he'd manage to put a few states, or possibly a few countries, between them before she found out. She'd transitioned from an opponent, to colleague, to lover, back to possible opponent, and settled on being the closest thing he had to a best friend in the world. If he was inclined to maudlin thoughts, which, let's face it, he was after a couple of beers, he'd be willing to say that Natasha was his soul mate.
At least when she wasn't beating the snot out of him. Okay, maybe even then; he had ISSUES.
It wasn't like he had much to pack. He'd never been much of one to acquire things, and most of the stuff in his SHIELD assigned quarters was actually SHIELD property. Not that he had any compunction about taking what he'd like to keep, but for the most part, he didn't want to keep any of it.
He packed his bags with clothing and necessities, and buried, deep inside the rucksack, a dumbass t-shirt that Coulson had brought back from some bizarre mission that he refused to talk about it. It was from, of all things, a Renaissance faire somewhere in Georgia and declared the wearer to be “One of Robin Hood's Merriest Men.” Clint had laughed so hard when Coulson had handed it over that he'd nearly fallen out of his chair.
Coulson had quirked a smile at his reaction. Or maybe it was a particularly good cup of coffee.
Clint's resignation letter was straightforward and unmistakably him: “Screw you guys, I'm out of here. Also, I'm keeping the bow as severance pay. Sincerely, Clinton Francis Barton.”
He thought that sounded classy. It'd look good rolled around an arrow shaft and fired through Fury's window, but that wasn't particularly subtle. In the end, he'd taken his bags, broken into Fury's office, stabbed the letter through with an arrow, pinning it to Fury's desk, and slipped out of the building.
He left behind most of his gear, his cell phone, just about everything that was SHIELD issue. All of it would be covered in trackers, and he didn't have the time or the inclination to dig the damn things out. He had his own escape plan. He'd been at this a long time.
There was a subtle, unremarkable, late model sedan parked in a long term garage a couple of boroughs over, the trunk filled with everything he needed to disappear, clothes and money and weapons and half a dozen license plates to swap out, a burner cell phone and papers that would get him over the boarder to Canada or Mexico, and from there, it would only be a quick stop at a bank or two, to retrieve plans and cash that had been waiting for him since long before he joined SHIELD.
Clint Barton had been planning to disappear since long before he was visible to anyone at all. When he'd started putting things in place, when he'd started making his plans and his connections, he'd assumed that no one would be looking for him.
Be interesting to see how they'd hold up if someone actually did.
Less then forty-eight hours later, he woke up, eyes snapping open in the cheap motel somewhere in some dead end town, completely aware that someone was in the room with him. He rolled, going for the weapon he always left in reach, and he was an instant too late, a body coming down on his, a hand closing over his mouth to stifle any sound he might make, and he felt the prick of a needle on the side of his throat.
Clint struggled, twisting against the knees that had landed on either side of his hips, against the weight of the elbow pinning him down on his breastbone, against the hand pressing down on his mouth hard enough to bruise, but the drugs were already kicking in, his hands unable to get a grip, or build up any force as he tried to swing a fist at his attackers face.
The man dodged, and leaned in, his pale face swimming in front of Clint's rapidly clouding vision. “Changes in mission parameters require a debrief with your handler, Barton,” Phil Coulson said, and he sounded just as pleasant and calm as he always did, only the faintest note of annoyance threading through the words. “I am sick of your lack of proper adherence to protocol.”
Everything went black.
It wasn't the first time that Clint woke up handcuffed to a cheap metal chair. Every time it happened, he really hoped it was the last, but hey, that was life. That was HIS life, at least.
It was, however, the first time he'd woken up with a drug hangover headache and Phil Coulson seated across the plain metal table from him. Clint coughed, his throat aching. “So, I take it you disagree with my decision,” he croaked out.
Coulson flipped a page in the file in front of him. He didn't look up. “Oh, was there a decision involved? The whole situation smacked of a petulant child taking his ball and stomping away from the playground.”
“Now, that just hurts,” Clint said, trying to shift his arms enough to relieve the pressure of his shoulders. “I don't suppose you'd consider unlocking the cuffs?”
“You suppose correctly.” Coulson made a notation on the file in front of him. “You are not in a position to be asking for favors.”
“Yeah, I got that.” Clint sighed. “I sense a certain amount of anger here, sir, and I'm not sure it's justified.”
“I feel that it is, since both Natasha and I had to take leave to hunt your dumb ass down and I hate wasting my time. I just know that when I manage to get back to my office, it will be knee deep in other people's problems. Problems that somehow only I can solve.” He slapped the file shut, looking up to meet Clint's eyes for the first time since the archer had woken up. “I hate other people's problems.”
Clint arched his eyebrows. “Yeah, I can see that. Of course, you keep taking on other people's problems, sir, so it could be argued that this is your own goddamn fault.”
“I don't do it willingly, Barton.” He stood. “Unless you're referring to yourself. In which case, you're laboring under a false assumption. You, Agent, are my problem. Which is why Director Fury was so quick to let me know that paperwork intended for me had been mistakenly routed to his office. Heads will roll in the mail room, I'm sure.”
He slapped Clint's letter of resignation down on the metal table. Clint looked down at it. “I thought I showed some serious style,” he explained, grinning at Coulson.
“Style is unnecessary for an official document, Barton.” He leaned one hip up on the edge of the table, letting one leg rest on the surface, bracing his weight with the other. He crossed his arms over his chest, his face unreadable.
“Sir, if you've gotta do something, you might as well do it with style,” Clint said, giving him a tight smile.
“But you didn't need to do this particular thing.” Coulson tapped a finger on Clint's letter of resignation. “Explain this to me.”
Clint shrugged. “What's to explain? I'm done. I'm out.” He held Coulson's gaze without flinching, without blinking. “Last I checked, I was allowed to quit.” He smirked up at Coulson, rattling the handcuffs behind his back. “Unless that employment contract you had me sign when I was bleeding out from the bullet you put in me had a couple of not quite legal clauses.”
“If you really want to quit, Barton, you're free to do so.” Coulson picked up the letter, studying it with hooded eyes. “However, I don't believe you want to.”
“I want to,” Clint said, heaving a melodramatic sigh. “If that's all you wanted, you could've just knocked on the motel room door, you know.”
“You would've been out the bathroom window and into the woods before I could've rapped twice,” Coulson said, still staring down at the page. “You are nothing if not light on your feet.”
Something about compliments from Coulson always hit him right in the pleasure center of his brain. It was a rush, and he knew it was pathetic, but he had to fight to keep his posture relaxed, his face set in faintly amused lines. It was probably that Coulson never said anything he didn't mean. He didn't do ego boosts or coddling. If one of his agents screwed up, that agent was going to hear about it.
But Coulson praised in public and slapped agents down in private. He was fair. He listened, and he watched carefully. He saw everything, and he understood far more than he'd usually admit. He solved problems, he patched wounds, he provided sanctuary and he corrected weaknesses before they could get anyone killed. He lead from the front, and he cared about his agents as people, not as assets or commodities. He'd go toe to toe with Nick Fury or the devil himself to protect his agents. It was widely agreed that Nick Fury presented the greater challenge.
And Clint had been in love with him for more than a year.
It was hard to pinpoint the exact moment when trust, affection, lust and warmth had coalesced into something more, something greater than the sum of its parts. He was pretty sure it was during the damn mission in Burma, when a false move had resulted in an almost fatal snake bite. Even with Coulson getting the antidote into him, his survival hadn't been assured.
The following ten hours was the worst of his goddamn life, and that was saying something.
Hovering between hallucinations, agonizing stomach cramps and vomiting, low level seizures and occasional threats of heart failure, Clint had held on to his sanity by his fingernails, and he'd held on to Coulson with everything else. It was humiliating to remember, at least what little he could remember, of trying to crawl into Coulson's skin, burying his face in Coulson's shoulder and chest and stomach as he'd choked and sobbed and struggled to breathe.
For ten hours, his world had shrunk down into Coulson's hands and voice and smell, the steady, strong flex of his body and the sound of his heart and his breath. Words that didn't make sense and hands that held him down and dragged him up and forced liquids into him when he was conscious enough to drink without drowning. He had only the vaguest recollection of the sound of Coulson's voice, as soft and even and controlled as ever, never panicking, never getting angry or stressed or fearful.
He couldn't understand the words, but for ten hours, the only thing that he had was the sound of Coulson's voice. The steady touch of fingers smoothing his hair and stroking his back and rubbing his neck were a lifeline he could cling to, sometimes in the most literal sense. There were other things, hazy and half-remembered, things he may have imagined or exaggerated, but he couldn't dwell on those, if he wanted to stay sane.
When it was all over, Clint had woken up, exhausted and afraid and confused and in pain, but none of that had compared with the fact that he'd woken up curled on top of Phil Coulson, his face buried in his handler's neck, their legs tangled together, Phil's arms cradling him close. He'd been afraid to breathe for a second or two, afraid that he'd break the spell of Phil's cheek against his filthy hair, Phil's hand resting light and careful on the back of his neck.
He'd lain there for as long as he could bear, as still as he could manage, and that had been his mistake. Coulson's eyes had flown open, jerking awake with something approaching panic in his face. It was gone again an instant later, and in his foggy state of mind, Clint had been so disappointed by the way that Coulson was pulling away that he didn't really register it.
It wasn't until later that he realized that holding his breath had caught him out; even in his sleep, Coulson had registered when Clint had stopped breathing.
SHIELD had shown up with an emergency evac less than an hour later. An hour too late to save Clint's savaged pride or his heart. An hour too late, as usual. And it was fine, everything was the same, Coulson was exactly the same; he'd snuck Clint in a bag of fast food, checked his medical file, and and bitched out the medical staff for missing the damage Clint'd done to his ankle.
Coulson was unchanged by the whole thing, and Clint would never be the same.
Most people managed to fall in love without ending up drugged, kidnapped, and handcuffed to a fucking chair by the object of their affection, but Clint had never done anything the easy way.
Coulson shifted his hip on the edge of the table, drawing Clint's attention back to the present. As well as the line of Coulson's leg in his impeccably tailored slacks. “Did you wear Dolce to kidnap me?” Clint asked, arching an eyebrow. “I feel special. Or I would if you didn't dress up for a trip to the 7-11.”
“Yes, but I did put on your favorite tie. And since you are in sweatpants and a t-shirt, I'm not taking fashion advice from you.”
“You kidnapped me. From bed. And you're insulting my fashion sense? Next time, give me time to change. And, I don't know, put on shoes?”
“That would be counter-productive, Barton.” Coulson picked up a nearby file and snapped it open. His head down, he flipped through the pages of what was clearly Clint's most recent file. “Who was the meeting with?”
Clint's heart stuttered to a stop, but he kept his face blank “Excuse me?”
“Who was the meeting with?” Coulson glanced up. “You met with someone, Barton. It's on your schedule. Or it was. Oddly enough, it disappeared soon after you reported for it. The only reason I know is that I was checking on your range time, and you're over for the week again, don't make me change your access codes, so I was in your file when the meeting notation was deleted.”
He closed the folder. “Of course, I was curious. Any meeting with you should've included me, or at the very least, I should've been notified. Any legitimate meeting, that is. I was concerned when it disappeared from your schedule. That's breaking all sorts of protocols.
“Natasha and I both did our best. Didn't manage to track down the file, or who removed it.” He set the folder down, leaving his fingers resting lightly on top. “Which is a tad worrying, I'll admit.” Phil looked up at him. “And a few hours after that meeting, you simply vanished. We made the logical leap. Who was the meeting with?”
“What does it matter?” Clint asked, mentally swearing. He kept his face still, and it took more effort than it should.
“You've been compromised. It matters a great deal.”
“Getting sick of putting up with SHIELD's bureaucratic bullshit is not the same as being compromised, Coulson. I'm done. I'm out.” Clint gave him a tight smile. “Didn't realize my letter of resignation would met with such resistance.”
“Who was the meeting with?” Coulson repeated, calm and controlled. Not a hair out of place. Not a wrinkle in his suit jacket, or his forehead. Just as steady as a rock.
The thought that Clint was never going to hear that voice in his ear again, never have that to steady himself, never have that as a lifeline out of a collapsing op brought a pain that was almost physical, almost like taking a gut shot at close range. He gritted his teeth and kept his face blank with a force of will. His skin felt too tight, like sunburn or windburn or as if it was cracking in the cold.
“I'm done here,” Clint said, shifting forward. “Cuffs off. Now.”
“Who was the meeting with?”
“I don't know what you expect me to say here, Coulson. I'm done. I'm exercising my right to cut my losses and get the hell out before SHIELD uses me as canon fodder. I'm finished.” He met Coulson's eyes, level and sharp. “I am done, so take the cuffs off of me and let me go.”
Coulson moved in front of him, crouching down, something unfamiliar in his eyes. Clint steeled himself a sudden spike of anxiety, hating himself for the chinks in his armor where Coulson was concerned. “What happened,” Coulson said, and his voice was kind now, soft and gentle, almost coaxing, “between lunch and dinner that sent you in full flight?”
Clint gritted his teeth, locking his jaw against the urge to say something he'd regret later. Instead, he just focused on Hill's words. “So the question you need to ask yourself, Specialist, is how you plan on repaying that loyalty.” Loyalty. By the time Clint had met Coulson, he'd long since forgotten what the word even met, it was a laughable concept, pathetic and painful in equal parts.
Coulson had a way of digging up a lot of long forgotten things and making them real again. Things that most of the time Clint would prefer to stay dead and buried, because trying to readjust to them was painful and awkward. It was so much easier, not trusting anyone, it required no effort and no thought and no risk.
And there was something in Coulson's eyes that he still could not understand. After all this time, he was still confusing the hell out of Clint, and Clint resented that. He focused on the resentment, because he could work with that, that didn't hurt, that didn't gut him like the thought of loss and betrayal and fear.
“I've been considering it for a long time. Made up my mind a while back. I was just waiting for the right time.”
“And that was now?” Coulson asked.
“No better time,” Clint said.
Coulson studied him, his eyes flicking, tracing every inch of Clint's face like a physical touch, and that was one thing they never did, really, they did not touch. Not unless one of them was injured or they were sparring, and they didn't do the latter often. Not lately.
Coulson heaved a soft, breathy sigh, and straightened up. “This would go so much faster,” he said, flicking a hand over the crisp fabric of his jacket, “if you'd refrain from lying to me.”
That stung, and it shouldn't, but he'd never been logical, not when it came to Coulson. “I find if difficult to open up when I'm handcuffed to a chair,” Clint gritted out. “Let me get up and we can have a long chat about our feeeeeeeeelings.” The last word was sing-song and breathy, and Clint fluttered his eyelashes like a Southern Belle.
Coulson's lips twitched. “No, thank you for the suggestion, but we won't be doing that.”
Clint jerked against the handcuffs. “How long will we be doing this? This little farce of an op?” His voice cold, he canted his body forward, as far as he could go against the pressure on his wrists. He managed to get into Coulson's space, just a little, just enough to make Coulson's body tense. “You're not bringing me back, Coulson. That's not how this is going to go down. So let me up, and go back to your office, complete your reports, stamp my file closed and end this.”
“That's not going to happen.” Coulson, crazy bastard that he was, actually took a step forward, his knees almost brushing Clint's within range if Clint decided to lash out with a kick or a stomp of his foot. “Talk to me, Clint.”
“There is nothing to talk about. I'm not going back.”
“And I promised, on the day I became your handler, that I would always bring you back, so you can understand my frustration. We're at a stalemate.”
The words hit like a body blow, and Clint resisted the urge to burst out laughing. It should not be possible to hurt this much when Coulson hadn't laid so much as a finger on him. “I release you from your promise.”
“It's not really a choice you get to make.” Coulson's eyes were hooded, hidden. “Someone got to you, and I want to know who.”
“No one got to me.”
A faint smile creased Coulson's face. “I know you, Clint. I know this wasn't your choice.”
“Yeah, well, even you make mistakes,” Clint gritted out.
Coulson arched an eyebrow. “Such as?”
“Such as assuming Natasha's actually on your side.” Clint saw Coulson's eyes widen, a fraction of a twitch, his face flexing, and that was all the reaction he got as he lunged up, spinning the chair out from under him, hard into Coulson's legs. Coulson dodged without a problem, light and assured on his feet, but Clint was moving in the other direction, handcuffs swinging from one wrist, as he dodged past the table and shot for the door.
He knew it was a dumbass mistake the moment he did it, but everything in him rebelled against the idea of attacking Coulson, of hurting the one person who had always worked to shield him, who had always-
Coulson slammed into him, catching him from the side, from behind, spinning him around, pinning him to the wall, and Clint lashed out, the sweep of his elbow, the twist of his hips instinct. But Coulson had trained him, had trained with him, had watched him on the range, had watched him on innumerable ops, and he countered every move without even blinking.
Clint's back slammed against the wall, Coulson's body hard against his, feet braced, forearm pressed against Clint's throat, his heavy fist brushing against Clint's ear. “Trust me.” The words were gentle, intoxicating, so at odds with the physical struggle that they made Clint dizzy. “I will fix this. Trust me to make this right. Who went after you?” Clint twisted, lashing out, the whiplash of an arm and the sharp, hard blunt force of a foot. His breathing was hard as Coulson pressed his advantage, pressed the steady, solid angle of his body into Clint's. Clint's attacks were like the struggle of a child, and he resented it, he hated it.
Mostly because his body was more than happy to stay right here, and it wasn't subtle about what it wanted.
Coulson's cheek brushed his, his voice steady and calm. “Barton, I need to hear your voice right now.” The whisper in his ear was a throwback to every op they'd worked where Clint had dropped from sight, disappeared or gone silent. Those words, calling him through his earpiece, had drawn him back over and over again.
Clint gritted his teeth against the urge to give him a full status report. Because the earpiece was gone, and SHIELD was gone, and this was a memory that would soon pass. Faster than usual, if he could get a damn bottle of booze in his hands. He closed his eyes and let the silence stretch.
The faint, unmistakable sound of a clip being snapped into place made them both freeze.
“Okay, boys, that's enough.”
Coulson flicked a glance to the side. “I am not pleased with you right now,” he said, his voice calm.
“Sir, if you think I wasn't going to give him the key, you haven't been paying attention to our relationship up until this point,” Natasha said, her voice silky smooth. She shifted her weight, the heels of her boots striking light and low on the floor. “Let's all just take a step back and pretend to be civilized human beings, shall we?”
“Why start now?” Clint asked, teeth gritted, but he held Coulson's gaze as the other man took a step back, then another, giving Clint enough room to push away from the wall.
It wasn't quite far enough, and Clint brushed against him as he stepped around Coulson. He tried not to think about the passing brush of cotton and warm skin and familiar high-end suit. Natasha gave him a sharp look, clearly not in the mood to deal with any more nonsense from either of them.
“Let's go,” she said, tipping her head towards the door. She kept the pistol aimed between Clint's eyes. “You do not want to annoy me right now, Barton. You do understand that, don't you?”
She gave him a look. “The only reason I am not letting him clean your clock right now is because I don't want to explain to Fury how you both ended up in medical, and still didn't get anything resolved.” Another sharp, clear nod towards the door. “Let's go. Right now.”
“Romanov,” Coulson started, and a knife thudded into the floor between his feet. He sighed.
“I'm done with this,” Clint said, and she turned arctic eyes on him.
“You're done with this when I say you're done with this,” Natasha said, calm and precise. “We have a couple of hotel rooms. At this point, you're slightly less likely to be strangled in your sleep by me.” She paused. “Slightly. Very, very slightly.”
And if he had to share a hotel room with Coulson right now, he was going to crawl out of his skin. A hotel room with Coulson and handcuffs and he was going to end up saying something very unfortunate and very undignified and yeah. Natasha, right now, was the lesser of two evils.
“You want to tell me what that was all about?” Natasha said, tossing her emergency bag onto the floor just inside the hotel room door. She set the lock and settled down to remove her shoes, never once glancing in Clint's direction. Her fingers moved down the laces of her boots, swift and efficient, her eyes half closed over her work, her long lashes a sweep against creamy cheeks. Clint had seen her strip so many times, but he would never be immune to those fingers, efficient and sharp and as deadly as an unsheathed blade, slowly peeling away the protective layers of her clothing.
The act of her removing her clothing was somehow so much more intimate than the sex. Sex was an act of pleasure, a weapon, a biological necessity to her, but this, this was Natasha at her most vulnerable, unguarded. With only her bare feet brushing the rug of a rented room.
From his slumped position on the bed, Clint rolled onto his stomach, bracing his chin on his folded arms. “Are we having sex?” he asked, because he really did not know what she was doing here.
“Clint, if we're having sex, you'll know it. There will be screaming.”
He thought about that. “The good kind of screaming, or the not so good kind?”
“With us? Usually both. However, I don't think that sex with me is what you actually want right now.”
“I don't know where you're getting this impression, but it is not correct.”
She glanced in his direction, long red curls sweeping across her cheek, her neck, her shoulder, and he loved her, he knew he loved her. She reached out with one hand, stroking his short hair, her nails just scraping his scalp to remove any thought of the caress being a gentle one. “What is going on in your head right now?”
“Is this the good cop, bad cop thing?” he asked, rolling onto his back and away from her fingers. Because her fingers riled up emotions, and it was easier to focus on something other than goddamn feelings, he had no use for that. Nothing good came of that. That was why they worked so well, why they had meshed, why they had stayed, and why they had broken; because neither one of them was working on an emotional level. It was just sex. It was just work.
It was just the only woman in the world he trusted. And in the end, that had been worth more than any amount of sex, no matter how hot and how sweet, and he'd preferred the sweep of her eyes in the darkness of a flaming building, he'd preferred the thrust of her knife under the sweep of his arm into someone else's heart, he'd preferred the vision of her down the length of his scope as he picked off an attacker that she hadn't spotted yet. The trust was bone deep, it was in his marrow, and if he lost that, he'd probably shatter.
He wasn't sure when he'd placed his life in those deadly fingers, allowed her to cradle the weight of his scarred heart, and yet, this was her, the love of his life, and he couldn't love her the way he needed to. Or perhaps, it was a little closer to the truth, that inescapable variable that he'd never fully been comfortable with, to say that he loved her the way she wanted to be loved.
And that wasn't enough, and it was still everything.
“SHIELD doesn't employ any good cops,” Natasha said, coming to her feet with lazy, languid grace, her hips leading the way as she sank down to the bed, to drape herself across his stomach, his chest, to fold her arms there above his breastbone and trace a sharp tipped finger over his heart. The red of her nail was stark against his black shirt, and he put his hand over hers, big and broad and calloused, too rough for her delicate skin, and yet she'd never complained.
She always knew just where his bones, his muscles and tendons ached after a long day of drawing the bow, how to soothe the twitching pain there beneath his skin.
Natasha and Coulson were the only ones who could.
She flicked a finger against his forehead. “What's going on in this head of yours, dummy?” she asked, amusement lacing the words. “You scared us. There are rules to this little thing of ours. You are not allowed to panic us unless there's SHIELD paperwork making it an official op.”
“Oh, is that the rule?” he asked, feeling her breath ghost against his neck. “You forgot to tell me that one.”
She gave a faint little shrug, unconcerned by trivialities. “You know better, Clint. You are responsible for knowing the rules, I am not responsible for telling you what they are.”
“This seems unfair.”
“Life is pain, princess,” she said, lips curling up. “Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
“Princess Bride,” he said, grinning. “C'mon, pick a harder one.”
“I can't be bothered. I'm angry with you,” she said, her eyes sliding shut. “Clint, what was happening in that head of yours?”
He sighed, and her weight pressed him back into the bed, and it was comforting and right and he tried not to think of himself being lonely and pathetic. It was very hard. “It's time to go,” he said, and it was stark and empty, even to his own ears, there was no conviction to the words.
“Try again.” Her eyes flickered open, and it was like being pinned with a sniper's red dot, those eyes, brilliant and sharp and alight with life and rage that was hidden in the core of her languid, relaxed body, in the easy sweep of her smile. “Even if you could leave me? Which, by the way, I doubt, how exposed did you feel, walking away? Without anyone at your back, knowing there was no backup? How much did your skin crawl when you realized that you were alone, that you were throwing away the people who depend on you?”
“I've been alone my entire life,” he said, and it was the truth. Even those short years, clinging to Barney's hand and begging his parents for protection, begging for protection from his parents, he'd been alone. That had been so obvious in retrospect, but he'd never wanted to acknowledge it.
“And you're not cut out for it,” she said, her voice a whisper against his skin. “You play this lone wolf, but it's a mask, Clint. You're like one of those little birds. The ones that have to stay with their colonies, because if they don't, they'll die of the cold as soon as they fall asleep.”
He rolled his eyes. “I think you're taking your bird metaphor a little too far.” Still, he smoothed a hand up her back, grateful for the solid weight of her against him, of the familiar pressure of her breasts, her hips, the way her feet slid against the inside of his ankle as she shifted. “Sometimes it's just time to move on.”
She blinked, slow and deliberate. “Not like this,” she said, and she rolled away from him. “You want out, you tell us. You don't walk out on us, you don't leave us guessing, you don't leave us terrified that you've got a gun to your chin, that you're bleeding out in some back alley somewhere from some deal gone wrong. Not now, not ever. You owe us more than that.”
Clint stared at the ceiling, inexplicably cold without her body against his. “I knew you'd try to talk me out of it,” and the words were cold comfort, even to him. Because, yeah, he'd been a coward, and he knew it, but this, this very conversation was exactly what he was trying to avoid.
“Talk you out of it?” She gave a short, sharp laugh, and he winced, because that was not a good sound, not coming from her, not in the mood that she was currently in. “No, no, Clint. Be honest, I know you're lousy at it, but still.” Her eyes narrowed, she gave him a smile. “You weren't afraid we'd talk you out of it. You were afraid we'd go with you.”
“No, you wouldn't,” he said on a sigh.
“Yes, we would,” she said, hooking her ankle around his. “I'd take alone in the wilderness with you rather than risk SHIELD without you. You brought me in, you son-of-a-bitch, you don't get to dump me here and then wander off. It's unprofessional.”
“Oh, and that's always been our first priority.” He sighed as she slid off the bed and wandered away. Watching the slow sway of her hips, he smiled. “I figured you'd be pissed enough to write me off.”
“It's not me you have to worry about. Coulson will throw his life away trying to find you, you moron,” she said, curling into the armchair, tucking her legs under her with characteristic grace. “That's not supposition. That's not a guess. That is hard fact. We know this. I mean, the last time you went off grid, he ended up on administrative leave.”
Clint froze. “What?”
Natasha's eyes narrowed. “After that mess in Burma? He was placed on leave for a week. Don't you-” Her face cleared, her lips forming a perfect little 'oh.' “You don't know, do you? You don't remember. You were in medical, of course you don't know. They had you doped up to the gills. I remember, that was the longest you'd ever stayed in medical, you were such a mess. I thought you would've heard, or that Coulson would've told you...” She braced one elbow on the arm of the chair and let her chin rest on it. “Well, that is an interesting development. I feel less like breaking both your kneecaps now.”
“What are you talking about?” Clint shoved down, hard, on a feeling of panic. “There was no reason to put him on leave after Burma, none of it was his fault. I'm the one-”
“Oh, of course there was. Do you even remember what happened in Burma?” she asked, cutting him off with a flick of her wrist. “Clint, who was your handler on that op?”
“What? I only have one handler, Natasha. Coulson's the only one who'll deal with me.”
Her eyes narrowed into sharp slits. “No,” she said at last. “No, that's-” Her body canted forward. “Who. Was. Your handler?”
“Agent Phil Coulson,” he gritted out, annoyed with this already.
“No, he wasn't.” Natasha's head tipped to the side. “Coulson was the team leader, but he was not your handler. Your handler was Agent Shawn Adams. Do you remember?”
Clint opened his mouth to dispute that, but there was a feeling in the back of his head, a faint sense of something... He frowned. “I don't...”
“Your handler was Agent Adams,” she repeated. “And when the whole op flatlined, he got out and left you behind.” Her eyebrows arched. “He wrote you off and made the rendezvous point without you.”
Something was there, but it was hazy. “That doesn't make sense. Coulson was the one who was with me. I remember him, I remember him injecting me with the antidote.”
Natasha was studying him, her face a blank mask. She leaned back, just a little, index finger tapping against her pursed lips. “I don't know what happened,” she said at last. “No one does, except Coulson, and maybe Fury. I have supposition and some information I've gathered, but I don't know the whole story.”
“Something happened at SHIELD that you don't know?” Clint said, trying to sound mocking, or even disinterested, but his heart was pounding. He didn't know why, and he didn't want to think about it.
“Shocking, isn't it?” Her lips curled up in a slight smile. “Here's what I do know. You and three other agents went out with Coulson in charge of the Op and Adams acting as your handler. The information we received as compromised, and the contact point was a trap. Coulson got the three juniors out, and left you with Adams. According to the reports, you were adamant that you could still complete the mission, and Adams supported you.”
Clint considered that. “Sounds like me.”
“It does, doesn't it?” She rolled her eyes. “The drop point was agreed upon, and Coulson evaced the juniors, one of whom had two broken legs. At the appointed time, Adams showed up alone, and stated you'd been lost in the course of completing your task.”
She paused. “Coulson shot him with his own gun.”
Clint blinked at her. “Wait, what?”
Her lips twitched. “That's not on any official report, of course, but what is? Adams disappeared. He's never been seen at SHIELD again. So he was either let go, he quit, or he's dead in a shallow grave in Burma. There was a medical report, however, that has since disappeared, that matched his leg wound with a bullet from his own gun. I suppose it's possible that he's incompetent enough to have shot himself, but it's far more likely that Coulson, being Coulson, handled that unpleasant task himself.”
She rolled to her feet, waving a hand in the air as she started to pace. “The juniors and the unfortunate soon-to-be-ex-handler were pulled, and Coulson went back after your useless ass. Got it out, too, more or less intact. He remained in medical until you woke up, and then he went into Fury's office. No one knows what was said on either part, but according to the admin department? The yelling went on for quite some time. Coulson left, and was gone for a week. Administrative leave, or so it's said, and that might not be true, but Coulson tells us when he's going on vacation and he wasn't on an op, and so as unlikely as it would seem?
“It would seem that Phil Coulson got himself written up. Most likely for shooting your handler and threatening to do the same to Fury.”
Clint stared at her. She stared back. “The last time you didn't come back,” she said, and her voice was very gentle, “Coulson went after you. And since then, you have never been assigned to anyone else.”
“No one else would have me,” Clint said, and the words sounded like they were coming from a long way off. “She said-”
“She.” Natasha's grin broke, wide and sharp and bright. “It was Hill. I knew Fury would pass this off to her, I knew he wouldn't be dumb enough to do it personally.”
“Fuck,” Clint gritted out as Natasha pulled her phone out. “Don't you dare,” he snapped, rolling off the bed. “Don't- This isn't-” He made a grab for the phone, but he'd never been a match for her in hand to hand, never had any real chance against her at this level, and she dodged him easily.
“You only have two pressure points, Clint; me, and Coulson. If they were going after me, it would've been Fury who got you alone. So it was Hill. And she threatened Coulson. How? What did she tell you, Clint? That it was either you or him? That one of you had to go? Did she imply that his attachment to you was going to get him disciplined? Reassure you that he'd be let go provided you continued?”
“Attachment? What the fuck are you talking about?” Clint made another lunge for the phone and she slammed an elbow into his chin, knocking him back a step and making him see stars.
“No,” she said, as he staggered and tried to get his vision to clear. “No. You'd never fall for that. They'd hit you low. Hard. Where your armor's weakest.” He lunged, and she spun around him,blocking his blow and kicking the back of his knee. “They told you that you were dragging him down.”
He flinched, and she saw it, and pushed hard, fist just skimming his ear as he dodged, foot coming down hard on the foot he'd braced to keep himself upright. He went down, hard, and Natasha kicked at his skull. He rolled away, catching her foot and flipping her back.
“'She said,'” Natasha quoted. “You said that she said no one else would have you. You fell for that? You're a fucking moron, Barton, you really are. For all your quirks-” He had her on her back, his weight giving him a slight advantage, and she backhanded him hard, her fist cracking against his ear hard enough to make his head snap around, and he caught her wrist, twisted.
“You are a fucking excellent agent, and the best marksman in the world,” Natasha said, and he was proud of himself because she was breathing hard, he was making her fight hard enough so that her breath was ragged and uneven around her words, and then he was flipping onto his back and she rolled free. He tried to follow and the heel of her hand hit his chin, right in the spot that was already sore from her first hit, and followed it with a knee to his kidney, and man, that was going to hurt tomorrow. Hell, it hurt NOW. “Any handler SHIELD has could work with you, if you would let them, but you cannot be assigned another handler.”
His face slammed into the carpet, and Natasha was straddling him from behind, her knee braced hard in the small of his back, his arm wrenched back, twisted to the point of being out of the socket, her hand bending his thumb back towards his wrist with a brutal grip. She leaned over and her lips brushed his ear, her hair forming a curtain around their faces. “Because Phil Coulson will not permit you to be assigned to anyone but him. Because the last time he did, you were half dead and mostly out of your mind when he found you. He will not take that risk, not ever again.”
He was panting into the carpet, his cheek burning, and her lips were gentle. “He won't take any risks with you,” she whispered. “And if you pull a disappearing act, you jackass, we will find you. Not because you don't have the right to leave, but because we have the right to know you're safe. Do you understand?”
“Nat-” he started, and she yanked, hard, and he yelped.
“Yes or no, Barton, it's not fucking difficult. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Jesus, Nat!” Risking a dislocated thumb, he twisted hard underneath her, throwing her to the side and rolling free. She hit and collapsed back, so he risked a minute to catch his breath. “Why are you such a psycho?” he managed, slumped back on the carpet.
“Because you piss me off, Barton. Never more so as when you pull this poor self-esteem shit.” She sat up, grinning as she wiped a hand over her mouth. Her fingers came away red with blood from a split lip. “Nice move.”
“I stole it from you.” He grinned back, exhausted.
“I know.” She collapsed next to him. “So. Hill told you what?”
He sighed, and gave in before she started breaking his fingers. “That no other handler would have me, and Coulson had been protecting me.”
“The first part is a blatant lie and you're an idiot for believing it, the second part is true.” She rolled her towards him, nestling her cheek against his shoulder. “Because you deserve to be protected.” She glanced up, her eyes catching the light beneath her lashes. “What was Hill's play? Did she actually tell you to quit?”
“It was implied. Said that Coulson should've been promoted, but he'd turned them down. Because it would've meant leaving me behind like the broken tool I am,” he said, and she punched him in the ribs, hard and sharp. “You are just mean,” he said, laughing about it.
You are an idiot,” she said, and her voice was fierce. “You are an absolute idiot. Next time someone, especially someone in the SHIELD chain of command, starts going after you? You come to me.”
“No,” Coulson said from the doorway, his phone at his ear. “You come to me.”
Clint let out a string of low, sharp swears as Natasha held up her own phone and disconnected the call with a flick of her finger. “You bitch,” he said, through gritted teeth. “You double-crossing, untrustworthy blood sucker.”
“Oh, it's too late to try sweet talking me,” Natasha said, rolling away from him. She padded to the door, scooping up her boots with one delicate hand. “You'll take it from here, sir?” she asked as she passed Coulson.
Coulson's eyes didn't even flicker away from Clint. “Yes. Thank you, Agent.”
Grinning, Natasha blew Clint a kiss and slid out the door. Clint slumped back onto the carpet. “You knew she was going to call you?” he asked.
“But you didn't know that she was going to give me the handcuff key.”
“That, we did not discuss.”
“I love that woman,” Clint said.
“I think we can agree that we should not make her angry,” Coulson agreed. “I think we need to have a discussion, Clint.”
Clint pushed himself to his feet. “Yeah. That seems about right.”
Coulson folded his arms, his posture solid and grounded as he blocked Clint's path to the door. It was something he usually avoided doing, so Clint took that as a sign that he really, really was in trouble right now. “You want to tell me how we're going to fix this?” he asked, his voice calm and controlled.
“I'm not sure there's anything to fix,” Clint said, wondering if he could get past Coulson and through the door before he ended up handcuffed again.
“You can't. And I think we need to fix it.” Exercising extreme care, his every movement telegraphed, Coulson sank into the armchair next to the door. Clint's eyes slid to it, and Coulson chuckled. “You're still not going to make it, Agent. I lost you once this week, twice would be stretching my patience.”
Clint couldn't help but smile. Just a little. Because it was so familiar, the faint annoyance, and the even fainter note of amusement in Coulson's voice. It was like he was laughing at a joke that the rest of SHIELD hadn't yet figured out. “Hill said-”
“Let me handle AD Hill. And Director Fury. This is a power play that, whether you believe it or not, has nothing to do with you. Not really.” Coulson held his gaze. “This is between me, and them, and I will correct it. However, I reiterate, Agent, if you ever are ever approached in this manner again, your first act, as soon as you are safe, is to contact me.”
“I can handle myself,” Clint felt obligated to say, and Coulson sighed.
“It has nothing to do with if you can handle it, Barton, it's my job to handle it. You are attempting to do my job, and I've seen the way you fill out paperwork. Please. Don't attempt to help me.”
He'd been afraid of this. That all it took was a handful of almost off-hand words on Coulson's part, and Clint couldn't remember why he'd been trying to handle this alone.
This was the danger of letting Coulson talk to him; at some point he'd lost any semblance of self-control. Coulson could talk him into just about anything. The stupidest, worst planned op ended up almost making sense when Coulson was the one talking him through it.
That was why he had to let Coulson go. He'd lost his distance. Something about Coulson had precluded professionalism on Clint's part. He didn't bother pretending. Snarking at Coulson was always one of his favorite pastimes.
“What is your objective here?” Clint asked him, watching. Always watching. “What's your goal, sir?”
“For you to take your resignation letter back, and return with us to SHIELD,” Coulson said, without a beat of pause.
“And if I don't want to go?”
“I'll let Natasha persuade you.”
“If that doesn't work?”
Coulson's lips twitched. “We have these rooms for a week. Our leave is currently listed as being indefinite.” He leaned forward, bracing his arms on his knees. “Natasha and I are in this for the long haul. I don't doubt we'll bring you around to our way of thinking eventually.”
Yeah, that was pretty much Clint's definition of hell. “What if I don't want to drag it out that far?” Clint asked, his words carefully chosen.
“Then you need to tell me what your demands are.” Coulson's shoulders relaxed. “And let me fix things.”
Clint took a deep breath, wondering if this was one risk too many. “And if I want another handler?” he asked. It was only the fact that he was watching Coulson with the sharpest eyes in SHIELD's roster that allowed him to spot the flicker of emotion that rolled across the other man's face, there and gone in a blink of an eye.
“Fine,” Coulson said, but the flinch had been there, the sharp lines at the corners of his eyes like blades pointing out his weak spots. Invisible to anyone who wasn't Clint. But Clint had watched that face. He had watched that face in every light, at any given minute of the day or night, he had seen Coulson's face through driving rain and snow so heavy that he could barely see his own bow at the ends of his arms. He'd learned to read the slightest twitch, the smallest flicker of an eyelash, to take his orders when the words couldn't be said, to read every muscle movement, every pupil dilation, every change in breathing and blinking.
Clint Barton knew Phil Coulson's face.
“Bullshit,” he said, and that was it, that was what he'd been missing, that thing that had kept him on edge for months.
“You want another handler, I'll find one for you,” Coulson said, his voice calm and even. Vaguely tired. As if this was another annoyance he had to handle before he could go back to his paperwork.
A month ago, it would've worked. Clint would've given in to the spike of panic that came with thinking about putting his life and safety in someone else's hands, and backed off. But the lines were there, slicing into Coulson's cover story, and Clint grinned.
“Fuck that,” he said, cheerfully.. “I can find my own.”
“I doubt that'll go well. And besides, agents aren't allowed to choose their handlers.”
“Not officially,” Clint agreed. “But if I had your help, I'm sure it could be arranged.”
Coulson shifted in his seat, leaning forward to brace his folded hands between his knees. The line of his back was like a recursive bow, long and taut. “Barton...”
“What do you think? Smithson? No, he can't adapt his plans on the fly, it would make me nuts. Wiggman? Maybe, but I think I make him nervous.” Clint mused, stretching his legs out in front of him. “You know what? Sitwell. I get along okay with Sitwell, and he's a friend of yours, right? You trust him.”
The flicker of lashes against Coulson's cheeks was as loud as a shout. “He is, and I do.”
“Sounds like a good place to start.” Clint didn't have to focus on anything in particular, after all. He saw best from a distance, he could take in the way that Coulson's knuckles went white as his fingers gripped tight without another muscle moving in his arms or hands. “Can't say you don't think he's up for the task.”
“He's an excellent agent.” His lips were a shade lighter than they should've been, pressed tight without showing in the angle of his jaw or the lines of his cheeks. “You'd work well with him.”
“And you're okay with that?” Clint asked, leaning back on his elbows, his body a lithe slump of tightly leashed energy.
“If it's what you need, of course.”
Clint felt his lips twitch. “You are a fucking horrible liar.”
Coulson heaved a faint sigh, one hand coming up to rub at the bridge of his nose. “Clint, I've had a difficult day. You are the cause of that difficulty. If you have something to say, feel free. Otherwise...” He stood, smoothed his suit out. “I'd like to get some sleep.”
“Understood, sir,” Clint said, not moving. “I won't be your problem anymore. One less thing to worry about.” The flex of Coulson's shoulder beneath his suitjacket was just enough to push the lines his clothes out of place. “God knows I've caused you some problems through the years. Remember Portland? When you ended up with the dislocated shoulder and we almost froze to death?”
Not trusting the safehouse, Coulson had insisted they drive until they were well out of town, and Clint had dragged him into the back seat in the dead of a winter blizzard. They'd curled together under a single blanket as Coulson had conjugated verbs in a stuttered, mumbling voice, and Clint had watched the snow, his eyes barely blinking until morning.
“It was Bangor, and the shoulder wasn't the problem, the temporary deafness in my left ear was.”
“Saltzberg?” Clint asked, his lips quirking. “You nearly got shot.”
“You nearly drowned. I lost a perfectly good pair of shoes instead of a perfectly good agent. I am still not certain I made the correct choice.” There'd been a gun to Coulson's temple, and the only shot that Clint could manage had been in freefall, his arrow released precisely a second after he'd shouted, bringing the gunman's attention to him. He hadn't missed; neither had the HYDRA agent, who got off a lucky shot that went into the flesh of Clint's arm before he crashed into the half-frozen lake.
The HYDRA agent hadn't come back up from the arrow through his neck; Coulson had fished Clint out of the water, bleeding and cursing as Coulson dragged him to shore.
“There's paperwork if I die,” Clint said.
“They were very expensive shoes. And there was even more paperwork trying to get a reimbursement for them,” Coulson said.
“Nothing happened in Carcassonne.” Coulson's eyes flickered, and Clint grinned.
“I learned how to make tarte au citron,” Clint said. For once, the safe house had been exactly what and where it was supposed to be, a cozy and pleasantly worn apartment, but extraction had been delayed by a week. Laying low, it had been Coulson who prowled the local markets; his accent was head and shoulders above Clint's in French. Clint had cooked and had stalked the roof tops to maintain his sanity and waistline.
They'd spent their nights eating lemon tart with fresh milk on the roof. One of their neighbors had practiced the violin at night, the haunting run of notes the only sound as they stared at the stars in silence, Coulson's shoulder almost but not quite touching his. Clint liked France.
“Cardiff?” Clint said, staring at the ceiling. Cardiff, where he'd gone missing for thirty-six hours, trapped in the rafters of an abandoned building. During a routine recon mission, he'd strayed from his assigned perch, only to realize too late that the SHEILD International liaison was working both sides of the fence. The spot he'd chosen was the last place the double agent would've wanted him; Clint had a knack for being in exactly the wrong place at exactly the right time. When the human smuggling ring had taken up residence under him, he'd had no choice but to sit it out and wait for Coulson to figure out where in the city he could've gone.
It took Coulson less than a day to discover and quarantine the double agent, find Clint, set up a perimeter, and send in a response team. Clint had come out of hiding firing, and Coulson's first words to him had been, “Where is your earpiece, Agent?”
Coulson rubbed a hand over his face, his jaw tense. “Not even the worst disappearing act you've pulled. This one was worse.”
Clint looked away. “I didn't think you'd-”
“What?” Coulson stared at him, eyes shadowed. “Didn't think I'd notice? Didn't think I'd realize you'd stopped answering your phone? That you'd vacated your apartment? Wallet, phone, clothing, everything, you left everything behind, and you think that wouldn't cause a certain amount of panic?” His voice was very low, and very tight, a hard, cutting note in the words.
Clint's smile died. “I always intended to leave. Some day.” Admittedly, 'some day' had ended up being farther and farther away every day. His intent bleeding away, plans that had once been solid and concrete becoming just a faint memory. “It was just a job, Coulson.”
Coulson's lips twitched, not a smile, not anything even approaching a smile. It was a bitter twist. “It was your life, Barton. It was my-” His teeth snapped together, and his throat worked, as if he was physically swallowing the words. “It is your life, because you will be coming back with us.”
“How about Burma?” Clint said, and the question surprised him.
“Also not my favorite op,” Coulson gritted out.
“Did you shoot Adams?” Clint asked, making Coulson arch an eyebrow.
“Ah, Natasha's been telling tales out of school again.” Coulson sighed, his eyes focused inward, blank and hard as marble. “I followed SHIELD protocols for interrogating an individual withholding vital information.”
“Really?” Clint said,
Clint's lips twitched. “And what part of SHIELD protocol involves shooting one of your subordinates?”
Coulson's face tightened. “He met us at the rendezvous point and said you were dead. Since you were currently making up very creative swear words on our private comm line, I was fairly certain that Adams wasn't being honest. From that point on, he was not treated as a SHIELD operative, but as a double agent.
“I disarmed him, asked him where you were. I didn't like the answer, so I fired a warning shot.”
“Across his bow?” Clint asked, his lips twitching.
“Into his knee.”
Clint burst out laughing. “Only you would consider that a warning shot.”
“He had one job. To get you to you target, and bring you back. He failed at it. He's lucky he made it home alive.” Coulson's jaw was tight. “I don't have pity to spare for handlers who desert the agents under their protection.”
“I knew you'd-” Clint stopped, sucked in a breath. “One last question. Don't lie to me, and I'll let you bring me in.”
Coulson's feet shifted against the carpet, bracing against the possibility of having to move fast and hard. “All right.” No promises, no reassurances, just a basic agreement that he understood.
Something had been bothering Clint since he'd woken up in medical, a niggling memory that wouldn't quite come clear and refused to be forgotten. He'd finally buried it, not willing to ask, and not able to remember if he was just fooling himself. “When I was, well, dying, for the lack of a better word, did you kiss me?”
He had a memory, blurred and spotty, stretched out with pain and tight with struggle, of begging Coulson to kiss him. Which was pretty damn humiliating. Except, well, he was pretty sure Coulson had done it. Not the polite little peck he'd been expecting, but the real deal, hot and hard and open mouthed.
Of course, he was also hallucinating so badly that he could've sworn Barney was in the room with them too, at one point. So either Coulson had in fact stuck his tongue into Clint's mouth, or Clint just wanted it so badly that he'd made that up.
Coulson looked at him, eyes steady. “No.” And the lines were there, tight and hard and visible only because Clint was waiting for them, for the lie they signaled.
“Really?” he asked, and he stretched out on the bed, kicking his legs out, reaching above him to grip the top of the bedframe. “I remember asking you. Begging, actually. I was dying, and all I wanted from you, all I asked, after all our time together, was a kiss.”
“You weren't going to die,” Coulson said, his voice tense.
“I don't know. I thought I was damn well going to die,” Clint said. “And I begged you. My last request. And you're telling me you said no.”
“You weren't going to remember either way,” Coulson said. But his hand came up, rubbing his eyes with fingers flexed tense. He dropped it almost as soon as it touched his skin, but the cracks in his armor were so big now that he might as well have been bleeding. “There was no point-”
“I begged you,” Clint said, and he didn't remember, it was all a blur, but he remembered the need, the desperation, and there was no way that hadn't translated to words, garbled and helpless. “All that time. All those ops. I've never asked anything of you. Hell, most of the time I've fought against everything you've tried to force on me.” Help and orders and medical care and control, always the control with them, as if they were wrestling over something neither of them wanted to admit.
Coulson was still, silent, and Clint threw himself off the bed. “You've been working with Fury too long, sir. He's made quite the effective liar out of you.”
His feet hit the ground, and Coulson hit him. Together, they tumbled back onto the bed and Clint froze, Coulson's weight pinning him down. Coulson braced a forearm across his chest, his hand twisted into a fist against Clint's collarbone. “You really, really do like to push your luck, don't you, Barton?” Coulson asked, his voice a snarl.
“Every fucking chance I get, sir,” Clint shot back, and twisted, just enough to throw Coulson off balance, his broken control not working in his favor as Clint put him on his back. For an instant, they just stayed there, Clint straddling Coulson's hips, his hands clamped on Coulson's wrists, both of them breathing hard. “Why didn't you, then?”
“Because it's not appropriate.” There was nothing but the truth there, in his face and his voice and the way he let Clint bear down on him, pinning him, pushing him into the mattress.
“How many times did you have to tell yourself that before you could say it with a straight face?” Clint asked, grinning down at him, because, hey, Coulson hadn't broken any of his bones or put him on his ass, and they both knew he could, if he wanted to.
The idea that he might not want to, that was a little bit confusing to Clint, but he was one to push his luck. Coulson knew that better than anyone.
“What do you want,” Coulson said, and it wasn't a question, it was an agonized whisper.
“You know what I want,” Clint said, and he could actually feel Coulson breathe.
“I really don't, agent, you are-” Coulson's teeth snapped together. “Let me up, and we'll discuss this.”
“I like discussing it right here.” Clint watched Coulson's mouth. “Did you kiss me?”
Clint leaned in, close enough to see the flecks of gold that floated in Coulson's eyes. “Did you kiss me?”
They were both as tense as a drawn bowstring, the vibration of one resonating in the other, as Clint lowered his mouth to within reach of Coulson's. He resisted the urge to flick his tongue against Coulson's lips. “Did you,” he whispered, the words carried with his breath to brush Coulson's mouth like a second hand kiss, “deny me my dying wish?”
It wasn't so much that Clint kissed Coulson as he fell into him.
Coulson flipped him onto his back even as he deepened the kiss, his mouth opening to swallow the moan that slipped past Clint's defenses. His fingers digging into the solid muscle of Coulson's back, Clint arched up into the kiss, the touch, the heat of the contact. Somehow, he wasn't sure how and he wasn't about to question it, he managed to get a hand on Coulson's tie, his fingers wrapping in the silk and pulling him down, holding him captive even as Coulson pinned him to the bed.
When the kiss finally broke, they were both gasping for breath. Clint shoved at Coulson's jacket, Coulson yanked Clint's shirt over his head, and Clint had to shift his grip and adjust his body to get rid of the damn thing.. “This isn't going to solve anything,” Coulson managed, his mouth on Clint's neck, the words buried against his hot skin.
“Fuck, I'd say it solves everything.” Clint arched his hips off the bed, groaning as his erection found friction against the solid length of Coulson's thigh. “You weren't going to let me take another handler, anyway.”
“Of course I was.”
“Oh, yeah, no.” Clint shoved his hand under the hem of Coulson's jacket, finding the solid curve of his ass. “Any possibility of that died when I brought up Portland. I could almost see you imagining me in that backseat with Sitwell curled in my lap.” He grinned against Coulson's throat, his tongue stroking the skin and learning just what Coulson tasted like. “You were jealous.”
“It was Bangor, and I was jealous when you talked to Fromm on the range last week. The idea of you with another handler was infuriating.” Coulson's hands were on his waistband, stripping the sweatpants down his legs. Clint raised his hips to make the act easier, but it wasn't really necessary. Coulson was a focused bastard when he had a goal. “I would've found a way out of it.”
“Probably,” Clint agreed, yanking him back around for a kiss. The distraction worked, and he managed to get half a dozen of Coulson's buttons undone.
“Definitely,” Coulson said, and he shrugged his jacket off and threw it across the room with a flick of one arm.
Clint's head snapped to the side to stare as the jacket almost seemed to float to the ground. “Did you just throw your clothes on the floor?” he managed. “You hang up your jacket before letting yourself be treated for a gunshot wound, I've seen it.”
Coulson cupped his chin and jerked his head back so he could meet Clint's gaze. “I don't fucking care about the jacket,” he said, each word precisely enunciated, and Clint almost came just from that.
“Fuck,” he managed through gritted teeth. “You can't just say things like that, it's just not-” He squeezed his eyes shut and from a distance, he heard the low, warm sound of Coulson laughing.
“Just so we're clear,” Clint managed as Coulson kissed his way down his chest, the silk of his tie sliding across Clint's bare skin in his wake, “I'm calling you Phil when we do this.”
“That's probably for the best, Clint.”
Fury didn't even look up as the door to his office opened. He arched an eyebrow, his focus still on his paperwork. “Did we get our house in order, Phil?”
“With all due respect, sir, do not ever interfere with the way I handle my agents again.”
He waved a hand in the air, brushing away the objection with a flick of his fingers. “That was less interference, and more a nudge in the right direction.”
“I see. In that case, resist the urge to nudge. As much as you might feel it necessary.”
Fury's lips twitched in amusement. “Is your sidearm out right now, Phil?”
“Does it need to be, sir?”
“No, just checking to see if I need to draw mine.” Fury flicked his pen across the page, signing with a flourish and slapping the folder closed. He looked up as he tossed his pen aside. “Handle your agents correctly, Phil, and I wouldn't HAVE got get involved. You think I like this? It's like I'm running a daycare here, a violent, emotionally repressed daycare, and that? That was not on my list of life choices. I am deeply, deeply annoyed right now.”
Coulson tipped his head to the side. “Imagine my shock, sir.”
“Yeah, and matchmaking? Not my specialty.” He paused, giving Coulson a narrow eyed look. “How'd that go, by the way?”
“That is none of your business.”
“Hey, cool. Glad it worked out for you.” Fury scooped up the file folders from his desk and held them out. “Get your paperwork updated by the end of the day. Not much, I'll admit, you've been Barton's medical proxy for a while now, and he made you his life insurance beneficiary six months ago-” Phil's head snapped up, and Fury did his best not to smirk. “But any changes in information access and living quarters needs to be listed with the HR department by the end of the week to stay in compliance with policy.”
He paused. “Then again, maybe you can convince Barton to stop sleeping on your couch one of these days, huh? I mean, that's gotta be annoying, getting home and finding him crashed out on your sofa.”
“If I had a problem with that situation, sir, I never would've given him a key.” Phil flicked through the files. “Just out of curiosity, sir, what exactly would you have done if this had all gone South on you? You could've lost all three of us in one fell swoop.”
“I had faith in your professional abilities with the agents under your command. That wasn't going to happen; it would've been the worst possible thing for both of them. And you.”
“Why did you get involved, if you had such faith in my abilities?” Coulson asked, tucking the folders under his arm.
“I have faith in your professional abilities, Phil. You were doing just fine on the professional side of things. However, you can't seem to get a date to save your damn life, and one of my best agents was following you around like a lovesick puppy, sleeping on your couch, living in the air ducts above your office and generally making a damn nuisance of himself, and you were doing squat all about it.” Fury stabbed a finger in his direction. “Mostly because, despite your keen powers of observation, you hadn't figured it out.”
“At what point in this conversation is it acceptable to shoot you?” Phil asked, calm about it, and Fury burst out laughing.
“If it was me in your shoes, Phil, I woulda entered the room with my sidearm drawn. See, that is why you're my go-to guy.” He stood, bracing his hands on the top of his desk. “The next couple of years, of months even, are going to be real fun,” he said, wielding his sarcasm like a blunt instrument. “I need your head in the game, and the first two of the Avengers Initiative firmly in hand.”
Coulson glanced down at the files in his hands. “Hawkeye and the Black Widow.”
“You think this'll work, sir?”
“I think it had better.” Fury dropped back into his chair. “Anything else, Agent?”
“Dismissed.” Fury reached for his pen. “And Phil?”
“Congratulations. On finally getting a date.”
“Sir, you haven't had a date since the Reagan administration. I do not have to take that from you.”
Fury leaned back, hands spread wide as he grinned up at Coulson. “Get your flat ass out of my damn office, you insubordinate prick.”
“Thank you, sir.” Phil paused, his hand on the door. “Sir? Don't ever threaten Barton again.”
“I'll leave that up to you from now on,” Fury agreed. His fingers found the slice that the arrowhead had made in the polished surface of his desk. “He's a dangerous man to get on a hook. And you've managed it twice.” He paused. “Don't know how you managed that, and I don't much want to know.” He glanced up. “He's your responsibility from now on.”
“He always was.” Phil opened the door. “You do have a habit of meddling in things that are none of your concern, sir. You should work on that.” He pulled the door shut behind him with a faint click, and Fury leaned back in his chair, chuckling.
The door opened again. “Barton,” Phil said, eyes flicking up at the ceiling. “My office. Now.”
There was a beat of a pause. “Yes, sir,” the air vent responded.
“Goddamn fuckin'-” Fury reached for his holster. “Gonna shoot you both, swear to God, I am.”
There was a warm roll of laughter from the vents. “Good luck with that, Director.”
“He's very hard to hit,” Coulson said from the doorway, sounding almost apologetic. “Very fast for a man of his size. Barton, move. Now.”
And just like that, they were both gone, and Fury opened the top drawer of his desk, looking for either an aspirin or a flask or both; at this point, he wasn't sure he cared. In the end, he tossed back a couple of pills and washed it down with a swallow of brandy.
“Running a goddamn dating service here,” Fury muttered to himself with a shake of his head. Just like that, he dropped the flask back in his desk and went back to his files.
There was always paperwork to be done, and his right hand man was probably going to be otherwise occupied for a while.