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The Moral of the Story

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Clint looked at the empty wall.

The wall looked back.

He could hear his pulse thrumming incessantly. After a day of debriefing from the Hydra op and orientation for formally joining SHIELD, Coulson had told him to stay in his SHIELD-assigned quarters and rest, and Clint was trying to obey. He was.

But Clint had never quite gotten the hang of sleeping alone. He and Barney had always shared -- a room, if not a bed -- and by the time Barney left, Clint could usually find pretty girls or men with large, warm hands to keep him for the night. The trick was always to find the ones who gave affection so carelessly that they could spare some for Clint, then leave before casual affection turned into something more dangerous.

If he were on a normal job, he'd visit the nearest bar, gay or straight, and take home the first willing body with a friendly smile. Coulson's schedule hadn't left time for that, though, and the other SHIELD agents he'd run into had seemed like more trouble than Clint wanted to tackle quite yet. (No; that was a lie. Coulson, he suspected, was a hell of a lot more trouble than any of them, and Clint would have taken an offer from him in a heartbeat. None of the other agents looked like they'd be worth the trouble.)

Clint reviewed his escape routes. No drop ceilings or accessible vents, and the entrance to his one-room quarters led to a hallway that would certainly be monitored. That left the window -- no balcony or fire escape, of course, but he could slide it open, shimmy out, and climb on the building's narrow ledges and drainpipes. His room was six floors from the ground and seventeen from the rooftop. He grabbed his sidearm and ID card, made sure no one was outside watching, pulled himself through the window, and started climbing upward.

Seventeen floors later, Clint hauled himself up over the edge of the rooftop, breathing heavily if not entirely winded. The roof was gravel-topped and unfurnished: just a stairwell entrance, a few satellite dishes and antennas, and Phil Coulson standing with his arms crossed.

"Hello, Barton." Clint winced. If the use of his last name weren't enough warning that he was in deep shit, the steely tone of Coulson's voice would have been. Clint considered, but reluctantly rejected, the idea of jumping off and hoping to grab something stable on the way down.

"Were my earlier instructions unclear?" Coulson asked.

Clint shook his head. "No, sir."

"So you chose to disregard them."

"Yes, sir." Coulson's voice was so relentlessly calm that Clint didn't even feel like answering truthfully was an active choice -- just an inevitability.

"Do you have an explanation?"

Clint's jaw tightened, but he'd been through this routine before. Explanations never sufficed to excuse failure. "No, sir."

Coulson closed his eyes for a moment, and the flash of disappointment in them made Clint wish desperately that he knew how to give Coulson the answers he wanted. "Let's try that again, shall we," Coulson said. "Whose are you?"

Clint exhaled slowly. "I'm yours, sir."

"That's right. So what was your reason for resisting my directions?" Coulson's tone of voice sounded like he wanted a real answer, and like he wouldn't stop asking until he got it.

"Don't like going back to an empty room, sir, especially when there's nothing to do, and I'm still too wired from the mission to sleep."

Phil contemplated Clint for a minute, letting the silence stretch just a hair beyond comfort. "I understand that this is new for you, so I won't punish you too harshly. But I need you to stay where I put you. I already told you to tell me if you have a problem with an order, not just turn into a petulant child." He paused again to let his words sink in, then sighed. "You need rest, Clint. You just got back from a lengthy op, and according to your own reports, you've been awake for almost 48 hours. So in the future, you'll be welcome to find someone to warm your bed, but I'll take care of you tonight."

"Thank you, sir," Clint breathed. He hadn't been angling for -- he hadn't been expecting Coulson to give him that. He was a grown-ass adult, and he'd fall asleep in a bare room if he had to. He'd just gotten in the habit of avoiding that empty space for as long as his body allowed.

Coulson shrugged. "I'll always make sure that you have what you need. You're mine, and I take care of what's mine. But you have to communicate with me so I can do it effectively."

"Yes, sir," Clint said. From the half-smile on Coulson's face, he could hear the sincerity in Clint's voice.

"Good. Let's get back to your quarters. The other way down, if you don't mind; I find that the exterior of this building wreaks havoc on Italian wool."

Clint followed him mutely.




When they reached Clint's quarters, Coulson let the door shut behind him before turning to Clint. "We'll need to work out which methods of punishment are most effective for you. I have some ideas, but I also need your feedback." Clint nodded, more out of instinct than understanding. "We'll start light for today. On your hands and knees, right there." Coulson pointed to a spot a foot or two from Clint's one chair.

Clint scrambled to obey. Once he was in place, the position felt strange; he'd had sex like this before (and God, that was not a helpful thought right now), but never had to maintain it fully clothed. He wondered what the punishment would be. Would Coulson have Clint lick his shoes clean? Would he give him a classic spanking? (Neither of those possibilities should have sounded as enticing as they did to Clint's mind.) Or would he be expected to fall asleep in the awkward position? Clint had learned to sleep standing, so he figured that sleeping crawling would be possible, if tricky.

The weight of heels digging into his back dragged Clint out of his train of thought. Coulson had settled down into the chair, then propped up his legs on Clint, using him as a simple footrest. He pulled out a StarkPad and began to tap at it, not sparing a glance for Clint.

"I need you to stay where I put you" echoed in Clint's mind. So this was his punishment: waiting until Coulson said he could move. He was a sniper; he could do patience.

The minutes stretched past. Coulson kept working on his pad, occasionally making quiet hums or exasperated sighs. He shifted position every few points, resting one leg on top of the other; each time he moved, the place where his shoe had been resting made Clint wince as the blood rushed back in. It wasn't the worst pain he'd endured, but it made Clint pay attention every time Coulson's legs twitched.

More time passed. Clint's arms were beginning to tremble slightly with the effort of maintaining position. He'd expected to be bored, but he wasn't, not precisely; it felt more like the intense, tunnel-vision focus that he could sink into on the job. Coulson had put him there, so there he would stay. Clint felt his cock strain against his jeans, and he wasn't even quite sure why.

At last, Coulson clicked off the datapad and stretched in place, digging his heels a few millimeters deeper into Clint's back. He brushed his hand over the base of Clint's neck, where it made Clint's skin shiver. "You're doing well so far," he said. Then he paused again. "Have you heard the story that convinced me to join SHIELD?"

"No, sir," Clint said. He'd heard various ridiculous rumors about Coulson from other SHIELD agents, but nothing worth giving credence.

"Once upon a time," Coulson said, with just a hint of bemused irony at the words, "the government turned a skinny kid named Steve Rogers into Captain America, to help them win the war against Nazi Germany. Using his enhanced abilities, Cap rooted out one Hydra base after another, until all that remained was the most dangerous base at all -- a stronghold so secret that no one knew its location. America's only hope was to capture Doctor Armin Zola, Hydra's top scientist, who knew all their secrets and traveled between locations in a highly armored train."

Coulson's voice gradually took on the quality of an old-time radio narrator, garnished with the slightest sardonic twist. Clint was captivated. "Cap infiltrated the train with the help of his Howling Commandos, including his best friend, Bucky Barnes. They secured car after car with their courageous fighting, working their way to the front of the train, where Doctor Zola would be riding. But as the whims of fate would have it, Zola wasn't in the front car just then; he was further back, tinkering with a piece of equipment. So when a Hydra soldier blasted open the side of the train in his attempt to stop Cap, both Barnes and Zola were caught in the blast, clinging for their lives to the edge of the train. And Cap had a choice.

"He could only rescue one man before they fell off the speeding train. On the one hand, he could save Bucky: Cap's best friend since childhood, his brother in arms, and an American hero who'd saved countless lives with his bravery and skill. A truly good man. On the other hand, he could save Zola: a corrupt war criminal responsible for the deaths of even more soldiers than Bucky had saved. But if Cap let Zola fall, they'd lose the one lead they had to stop Red Skull's plan for global conquest and mass slaughter."

Coulson paused for a minute, letting his words sink in. His quickened breaths belied his calm tone; this was a story that mattered to him, that meant something, and that made it matter to Clint. Finally, Coulson said, soft but distinct, "He let Bucky fall. He rescued a man who represented the worst of humanity and let his best friend die. But because of the intelligence that they extracted from Zola, Red Skull could be located, and the world could be saved.

"Everybody talks about Cap taking down Red Skull's plane as the ultimate act of heroism. They're wrong; it's easy to die for what you think is right. It's a thousand times harder to kill the person you love most in the world, just because it's necessary."

Coulson stopped talking, and silence sank in. Clint had gotten so caught up in the story -- well, to be honest, in Coulson's engaging telling of it -- that his mind had drifted away from his straining muscles, but its end meant that his nerve endings reminded him of how his wrists and knees were aching where they pressed against the floor. "So what's the moral, sir?" he asked.

Coulson's short laugh wasn't particularly happy. "The moral is that not all stories have morals. Sometimes you don't get to do the right thing, because there's no right thing to do. The real heroes are the ones who do what's necessary."

"So you joined SHIELD to be a hero?"

"No," Coulson said. He leaned forward, putting extra weight on the heels digging into Clint's back, and Clint tried not to whimper. "I joined SHIELD because I wanted the privilege of making heroes."

Abruptly, the pressure on Clint's back went away. Coulson stood. "You can get up now," he said. "Get ready for bed. I'll stay here until you're asleep."

"Thank you, sir," Clint said. He pushed himself up, flexing his joints to release the stiffness and dull pain. Readying for bed only took a few minutes; he brushed his teeth at the small sink in his quarters, then tugged off his shirt, shoes, socks, and jeans, trying not to be self-conscious. (He left his boxers on, though he wouldn't normally, and he wasn't sure whether that was for Coulson's sake or his own.) He turned off the lights and slid into bed in the dark.

The soft glow from Coulson's lap told Clint that he was back to working on his StarkPad, which made Clint feel a little less guilty about monopolizing his time. Clint closed his eyes and let his breaths lengthen and relax. Coulson's presence felt like a tangible balm, an extra blanket that wrapped around Clint and told him that it was safe to sleep, that he wasn't alone.

Tendrils of slumber were rapidly dragging Clint downward. He knew he couldn't expect Coulson here every night, let alone in a more intimate capacity, but he let himself imagine what it would be like: strong arms, wrapped around him from behind, and the calm breath of certainty on the back of Clint's neck. He'd wake up still being held, still safe, and he might twist around and --

Clint slept.