Tony didn't even bother holding back his groan when the first words out of Coulson's mouth when the team sat down at the conference table were, "May I remind you that some of you still owe me your field reports from the event last week?"
"Seriously?" Tony asked, leaning back in his chair. Natasha rolled her eyes as Steve and Bruce sheepishly passed flash drives around the table to Coulson. Thor handed over a stack of paper like he always did; he was perfectly capable of using a computer, but he'd picked up one of Tony's fountain pens not long after his return to Earth and fallen in love with them. He took every opportunity to use them. Tony still wished he'd introduced Thor to the fountain pen on purpose, because the crinkle in Coulson's brow whenever he accepted a stack of forms filled out in copperplate script--beautiful, but hard to read--never stopped being funny.
"Yes, seriously," Coulson said. He flipped through Thor's report. "Thor, you do realize SHIELD has addendum sheets? The last two pages of this are written on loose leaf."
"I am sorry, Son of Coul," Thor said. "I did not have these sheets at home, and I did not wish my report to be late."
"Not to worry," Coulson smiled at Thor as he tapped the stack of paper on the table to neaten the edges. "I'll have Darcy retype those pages for me." Thor winced; Darcy also filtered requests for PR apperances. Tony anticipated many more of Thor’s requests making it through for a while. Coulson turned to Tony. "Mr. Stark?"
"Yeah, yeah, keep your panties on." Tony pulled his own flash drive out of his pocket and slid it across the table. "I don't know why you always pick on me; Barton hasn't even done his." Clint looked up from the briefing package he'd opened while the rest of them coughed up their paperwork and smirked at Tony.
"On the contrary," Coulson drawled, "Agent Barton submitted his field report, both the electronic version and the hard copy in duplicate, within 48 hours of the incident, as outlined in the official guidelines." He cast a glance around the table. "Meetings like this are not, in fact, the actual deadline for these reports. They're just my best opportunity to insist they be delivered."
Tony frowned. "Oh, come on, what kind of report can anyone write in less than 48 hours?"
"An accurate and complete one," Coulson said dryly. "Memory deteriorates rapidly. I know you regard this documentation as an inconvenient hoop to jump through, but our analysts do actually use these to develop intel for both ongoing and future operations. To borrow a programming term, Mr. Stark, garbage in means garbage out."
A twinge went through Tony. He covered it with an exaggerated wounded expression. "Agent! Are you saying my reports are garbage?"
Coulson sighed. "No, Mr. Stark, your reports are fine. All of your reports are fine, addendum sheets aside. I was saying that Agent Barton's reports are better, but don't take that personally; he writes the best reports I've ever seen from any SHIELD asset."
Tony's eyebrows went up and he shot a look across the table. Clint had his eyes back on his briefing package, but the tips of his ears had gone a little red.
Tony didn't have to wait long to gather additional data. The meeting at which his interest had been piqued had been in preparation for a new mission, after all. Happily, it went smoothly, for once--SHIELD had been tracking the target for a while and the Avengers had engaged him mostly as a preventative measure. He and his genetically engineered giant locusts went down without loss of life or property, not counting the guy's own lab, which was conveniently isolated.
Of course, reports still had to be written. Armed with the 48 hour deadline and JARVIS, finding Barton while he was working on his report was easy. To Tony's surprise, he was set up in the conference room, rather than the kitchen or living room, where the rest of them tended to plug away at their paperwork. As he got closer, Tony realized why: Clint was using the smart surface of the table to display several other documents whilehe filled in the newest form.
"Please tell me you aren't cross-referencing," Tony said, a little horrified. He dropped into one of the other chairs and slid over next to Clint, leaning in to peer at the report.
"Sorry, Stark, no can do," Clint said easily. He typed a few things, then closed one of the other documents.
He wasn't just cross-referencing, Tony realized as he skimmed the text, he was including quotes and report numbers and page citations. While Tony watched, he tapped a couple of options on the report interface that Tony had never paid much attention to and inserted a god damned hot link to the referenced report, too. "But why? This was a cake walk."
Clint kept working as he spoke. "Sure, but we fought giant snakes a month ago and giant ants a couple months before that. Maybe there's a connection. It's worth mentioning, anyway."
"Isn't identifying stuff like that the analysts’ job?" Clint was working on page three, so Tony tapped the table and brought up pages one and two. Not only had Clint filled in his own identification number and details, he'd used the additional personnel box to fill in the names and IDs for everyone else on the team. "I thought this box was for contractors and unaffiliated super-assistance."
"It is, but you guys forget to put in your ID numbers all the time. It saves Coulson some trouble if I list them on mine. ” Clint shrugged. “And the SHIELD analysts are great, nine times out of ten they'd think of everything I do and more, but there is that tenth time. Better for something to be noted twice than not at all."
Tony sat back in his chair and watched Clint methodically working his way through the field report. "I don't buy it," he announced. "There's something else going on here."
Clint's shoulders tightened. "I can't be good at my job?" he asked sharply.
"You are awesome at your job." That startled Clint enough to look up and make eye contact. "But no one enjoys paperwork so much that they'll put this much extra effort into it, especially since you know from watching the rest of us that you could get away with a lot less."
Clint dropped his eyes. "Coulson handles a lot of bullshit so that the team can operate the way we like to," he muttered. "It wouldn't hurt you to spend a little time making his life easier." Clint's ears had gone pink at the tips again.
It wasn't easy to plant a bug--two bugs, actually, so he could get all the angles--in Coulson's office, and they would certainly be discovered before the day was out, but Tony didn't need it to last any longer. He just wanted to catch Clint handing in his report; the agent had finished it the night before, so Tony knew he'd be delivering it sometime today. Coulson would tear Tony a new one when he found the bugs, but Tony had a theory and if this little venture proved it correct, it would be easy to derail Coulson's anger.
JARVIS, glorious accomplice that he was, gave Tony the heads up when Clint was approaching Coulson's office. Tony booked it to his lab and pulled up both video feeds.
Coulson was at his desk, focused on his computer but typing only occasionally. He picked up a pen and made some notes on a legal pad at his elbow. There was a little wrinkle between his eyes. It deepened when the knock sounded on his door, but he called out, "Come in," anyway.
Clint stuck his head in the door. "Hey," he said. "You got a minute?"
The wrinkle between Coulson's eyebrows smoothed out. "Of course."
'Of course,' wasn't Coulson's usual answer when Tony asked for a minute...which Tony chalked up as evidence in favor of his theory.
Clint stepped into the office, closing the door behind himself, and dropped into the chair in front of Coulson's desk. He leaned forward and put a manila file folder on the desk, pushing it towards Coulson with his fingertips. "My report on The Colossal Cicada Caper," he said, the corner of his mouth twitching.
Coulson laughed. And when he was done laughing, he kept smiling at Clint. Tony had never seen the agent smile like that. Little smirks, a small, amused curve, even a subtle quirk of relief, but there was nothing subdued about this smile. It made his eyes crinkle around the edges. Tony looked over at Clint, who was slouching back in his chair. He was practically basking in Coulson's grin.
"Thank you," Coulson said, before flipping open the folder and looking over the first page. Tony knew he wasn't checking to see if it was complete--not if Clint had a history of this--so what was he doing? Coulson let out a small, satisfied sigh. "Sometimes," he said, skimming over the pages, "your reports are the best part of my day. It's so nice to see them done right."
Coulson didn't see, since he was still reading, but Clint's blush and the look on his face made it pretty obvious that handing in his reports was always the highlight of his day. He swallowed visibly. "I, uh, remembered that this wasn't the first giant animal kind of incident we've had. Not the second, either. Page three. Thought it might be worth a follow up."
Coulson flipped to the appropriate page and read rather than skimmed this time. He hummed thoughtfully before looking up. "Thursday afternoon? I'll bring the analysts' summaries."
"I'll bring coffee," Clint grinned.
"It's a date," Coulson said. Clint rolled his eyes, but he stole another glance at Coulson over his shoulder on his way out of the office.
"Not yet it isn't," Tony said, snickering. Proving a hypothesis right was awesome.
If Tony was a discreet person, he'd use his own report as an excuse to ask oblique questions about the Thursday afternoon 'date'.
Tony wasn’t a discreet person. He strode into Coulson's office, closed the door behind himself, and hitched one hip up on the corner of Coulson's desk. "I get why Clint hasn't jumped you," he said. "God knows I'm never quite sure what you're thinking. But I can't figure out why you haven't made a move on him." Tony smirked. "Worried about abusing your authority? Some guys like that, you know."
Coulson finished the sentence he'd been writing on his pad of paper and set down the pen. He folded his hands on the desk and looked up at Tony, completely deadpan. "Are you one of those guys, Mr. Stark? Shall I take you over my knee?"
"Nice try," Tony said, pointing at Coulson, "but I will not be diverted. Seriously, what's the hold up? Barton's practically putting on a mating display."
"I know you find baiting me amusing," Coulson said, "but I have actual work to do."
Tony frowned. "I'm not baiting you, I'm baffled. The paperwork, Coulson. The paperwork."
Coulson just looked puzzled. "What has Agent Barton’s paperwork got to do with anything?"
"Jesus, if I had any doubt about you two, it'd be gone now." Tony shook his head. "It is only possible to be this clueless about something you want so badly it makes you nuts." Tony leaned forward. "Clint doesn't spend hours crafting perfect reports for you because he's a professional, Coulson. He does it because he's crazy in love with you, and he wants you to smile at him and tell him he makes you happy."
Coulson opened his mouth, but no words came out. He dropped his eyes to the pad of paper and lined up the pen with the edge. "That's a big conclusion to draw from a bit of paperwork."
"It's not just a bit of paperwork," Tony said. "It's the best paperwork you've ever seen from any SHIELD asset." He hopped off Coulson's desk and sauntered back to the door. "Have fun on Thursday."
On Thursday, at four o'clock, JARVIS interrupted Tony in the lab. "Sir," he said, "given your previous investment in the subject, I thought you might be interested in the video feed of Agent Coulson's meeting with Agent Barton."
Tony's eyebrows went up. He honestly hadn’t expected the cameras to still be there. He'd installed them on Tuesday and dropped a gigantic hint that they were there on Wednesday afternoon. They should have been disabled ages ago. But since they hadn’t been…He pushed up the goggles he was wearing and set down the soldering iron. "Sure, give it to me on the center screen," he said, tossing his work gloves on the counter and settling down on his couch.
Of course, the two idiots proceeded to actually talk shop for the next hour. After the first ten minutes, Tony rolled his eyes and went back to work, glancing up every now and then to check that they weren't playing footsie under the desk or something. They finished the meeting and Clint got all the way to the door before Coulson spoke up. "Barton. Clint."
Tony paused, stepped away from his work bench to give the screens his full attention.
Clint stepped away from the door and turned back to Coulson. "Yes, sir?"
Coulson stood up and came out from behind his desk. "I..." he trailed off and cast about for words.
"Sir?" Clint stepped in closer, face creased with concern.
Coulson looked at him, swallowed. "You make me happy," he said quietly.
Clint's eyes went wide. Then his expression softened. He took another step towards Coulson, almost inside his personal space. "I do?"
Coulson licked his lips. "Yes."
Clint closed the last gap between them and kissed him.
"Score!" Tony shouted, throwing up his hands. On the screens, Coulson wrapped one arm around Clint, pulling him close, and reached back over his desk with the other, tapping his keyboard--
The screens went blank.
Tony blinked, then laughed. "Fair enough," he told the absent agents. "And you're welcome."