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The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife

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Budapest is fun.

Budapest is a four-way Mexican Standoff with Clint as a secret fifth participant, hiding in the rafters with a useless comm, thanks to Villainous Organization N° 1 and their signal jammer. He’d been sent here to take out the Black Widow, a mission he apparently shares with three different crime mobs. Clint’s probably supposed to sit back and watch them annihilate her, but he’s never been able to stand impossibly uneven fights. Then Natalia Romanova, the Red Room’s most terrifying weapon, looks directly up at Clint.

And winks.

Clint makes his decision, and the leader of Villainous Organization N° 3 falls with an arrow in his throat.

Budapest then becomes seventy-two hours of the most batshit car-chase/gunfight/train-ride Clint’s ever been a part of. By Hour Four, he’s calling her Natasha and making fun of her hair. By Hour Twenty-One, Clint has taken a bullet graze to the shoulder and gets patched up in a metro station bathroom. At Hour Thirty-Three, they fall into bed together, laughing as they scramble with their clothes. By Hour Fifty-Four, Clint has jumped off three buildings and a moving train and earned himself the name kuznechik. It’s probably insulting.

At Hour Seventy, they collapse into a safe house in Kiev. By Hour Seventy-One, Clint has convinced Natasha to join SHIELD.

Coulson shows up at Hour Seventy-Two.

Clint answers the door to the small apartment. “Hey, boss,” he says, and he can feel his shoulders relax at some Pavlovian response to Coulson’s face. “I see you got my message.”

Coulson is wearing a perfectly pressed suit and a slightly irritated expression. “Give me three reasons why I shouldn’t shoot her in the head and carry you off over my shoulder.”

“Well, I guess we’re done with small talk,” Clint grumbles, as his overactive brain eagerly supplies that visual and down boy, this is not the time, oh jesus.

Clint steps aside, and Coulson strides into the apartment. The place is a small studio, and Clint places himself in front to watch Coulson’s eyes as they sweep from Natasha, leaning against the counter in the kitchen, to the far wall, where, oops, the sofa bed is pulled out and the sheets are rumpled in a totally obvious kind of way. Coulson’s stare returns to Clint, and he breathes deeply. “Coulson, this is Natalia Romanova. The Black Widow. Natasha, this is Phil Coulson, the greatest agent SHIELD has.” Natasha gives a lazy wave.

Coulson steps away like he’s surveying the kitchen. “Didn’t they tell you in basic training not to bring home strays?”

Clint shrugs. “Last time I brought one home, they gave me a promotion,” he says, moving until he’s once again between Natasha and Coulson. “I can’t be expected to keep track of all these mixed signals.”

Natasha huffs quietly. “This game is boring.” She pushes off the counter and crosses to the bed, in clear view of both Clint and Coulson. “Tell me when you’ve reached a decision, will you?”

Coulson turns towards Clint. “I mean it, Agent Barton. Three reasons why I don’t shoot her in the face.”

Clint’s throat is dry. “Because seventy-two hour ago, she would’ve wanted you to.” Coulson blinks, slow and considering. Clint takes it as permission to press forward. “I assumed the warehouse was a trap. Three heavily-armed and nefarious groups against one person? There was no way she was getting out of that alive. But I was seeing it all wrong. She was the one who laid the trap. She knew she could never outrun them, so she set up the game to take out as many of them as possible.”

“Then that trap was for you, too, Barton. You were in the warehouse just like the rest of them.”

Clint shakes his head. “She warned me. She figured out I was in the ceiling way before any of the others did. She tried to get me to stay out of it, to leave before the bloodbath began. And that’s, that’s reason number two. Because even when she about to die, she was trying to minimize the collateral damage.”

Coulson gives Clint a hard look. “And the third reason?”

Clint takes a deep breath. “Because, if life had gone just a little differently, it could have been me in SHIELD’s scopes.” It’s true, and sometimes Clint wakes up from nightmares where he had ignored his conscience and shot the kid, or he had failed to escape from his employer, or the people he’d pissed off had found him before Fury did. But that’s not why Clint had said it. He knew Natasha was listening intently; he’d basically handed his vulnerabilities to her on a silver platter. He trusts her, and this is the quickest way of showing Coulson that trust. He stands patiently and wills Coulson to make the connections.

After a long silence, Coulson sighs. He turns and addresses Natasha for the first time. “Agent Barton has convinced me, Ms. Romanova. It will be your job to convince Director Fury.”

So, whoo. Good job, Clint.

***

Clint waits outside the soundproof room where Natasha and Fury are staging the world’s most incredibly high-stakes job interview. He sits on the floor, back pressed against the wall, and he’ll keep sitting there until Natasha walks out the conference room.

146 minutes later, Coulson walks up with two cups of steaming coffee from the hipster place down the block. He hands one to Clint and settles down on the floor next to him. Clint takes a sip: hazelnut and chocolate, just like he likes it. “Thanks, boss,” he says, not really talking about the coffee. Coulson just nods. They sit together, shoulders barely touching, for 78 more minutes.

After almost four hours in superspy show-and-tell, Natasha and Fury walk out. Clint scrambles to his feet, and can hear Coulson stand more gracefully behind him. Fury gives them a nod. “Agents Coulson, Barton, I’d like you to meet Agent Natasha Romanov.”

Clint grins stupidly and resists the urge to let out a shout. Fury gives him a look. “I think everybody would agree with me when I say it’s been a long day. Agent Romanov has been assigned quarters on the third floor. Agent Barton, if you could show her?”

Clint doesn’t need to be told twice. He takes off, Natasha at his heels. He knows Natasha is tense behind him, but his brain’s constant ohmygoditworkedohmygod is drowning out anything else. He keeps quiet until they reach her quarters. “Here you are,” he says, turning towards her, “is there anything I --”

Natasha opens the door, hauls Clint inside, and slams him against the wall. “Uh,” he says, trying to speak around the arm at his throat, because this is not actually one of his kinks.

“Am I here to make Coulson jealous?” She says forcefully, glaring into Clint’s eyes.

Clint’s brain just...stops. “What?”

“Am I?” She shakes him. “I don’t know what kind of fucked-up situation you’ve got going, but I’m not going to play eye candy so your fuckbuddy gets all hot and bothered.”

“What the fuck?” Clint squeaks, his heart beating so quickly, because what the actual fuck, oh my god oh my god. “No! No, just...no. To all of it. No, fuck no, jesus christ, NO.”

Tasha doesn’t move her arm. “What is between the two of you, then?”

“Misplaced loyalty on his part and helpless pining on mine?” Clint says without thinking. He sighs. “Seriously, Natasha. No. Coulson doesn’t even think of me like that, I swear to god.”

Natasha looks in his eyes for a long time. Finally, she releases Clint. He sags against the wall. “So. Now that we’ve cleared that up. Can we have sex now?”

The look Tasha sends him is pitying. “Oh, kuznechik. Definitely not.”

***

Team Barton-Coulson-Romanov kicks so much ass. Their mission success rate is terrifyingly high. It evens makes up for the, uh, unorthodox, methods Clint and Tasha sometimes employ. Every once in a while, however, the dream team is broken up, and they are led by Sitwell or Hill or go off on solo missions. Which is why Coulson’s not around when Hydra kidnaps them and performs their incredibly painful but ultimately pointless interrogations. Coulson rescues them anyway, because he's awesome and partly an octopus. Natasha will have to be cooped up in medical for a couple weeks, but they're alive and nothing can beat that feeling.

Two days after, Clint gets banished from Natasha's hospital bed. Coulson says that he can come back when he's had a shower and a nap, and Clint only puts up a token protest before leaving. He feels like he's in a daze, yawning when he opens the door to his quarters and –

There’s art hanging on his wall. Clint guesses it’s a painting, but this is not his area. Anyway, there’s art, old and Japanese by the look of it, and it’s been blown up and framed and hung on his wall like he owns it. In it, there's a woman. A completely naked woman. Who is having some serious sexytimes with two octopuses. And she seems to, uh, really enjoy it? So there's that? But seriously, there are tentacles wrapped around some decidedly personal places, and Clint can't even imagine what it must feel like to –

He runs all the way to medical.

Clint bursts through the door to Natasha’s room. “Hi, boss,” he says breathlessly to Coulson, who’s seated next to the bed. “I need to speak to Natasha.”

Coulson stands. “Barton, I thought I’d told you--”

“Sorry, sir, but this can’t wait.” He glares at Tasha. She innocently stares back, the asshole.

After glancing between them, Coulson raises an eyebrow and leaves the room. Clint waits until his footsteps fade away, before: “What the everloving fuck, Natasha?”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” she says mildly.

“I'm talking about the giant piece of tentacle porn that's hanging in my room!”

Natasha smiles, a predatory grin that bears her teeth. “Do you like it?”

“No. That’s a definite no on the liking part. How did you even do it? You haven't left this room since your surgery!”

Natasha's grin grows wider. “It's taken me forever to figure you two out, you know. Professionally, it's an embarrassment. I won't be too hard on myself, however, because I didn't have all the information until a few days ago.”

“That still doesn't explain the tentacle porn.”

“Oh, kuznechik. Yes it does.”

Clint turns his chair around. “I'm ignoring you,” he says to the wall. It’d be more effective to storm out of the room, but that would leave Natasha alone in medical. Clint may hate her at the moment, but he's not a dick.

***

Clint burns the image in his trash can. He keeps the frame, though, because Natasha doesn’t skimp on quality, and eventually finds an Octopussy movie poster to fit in it. Natasha is released from the hospital, and everything goes back to normal.

Until one day, when he opens his bow case on the range and lets out a little yelp.

“Everything alright, Clint?” Pham drawls from where she’s sitting, disassembling her rifle with ease.

“Yeah,” Clint says, coughing. “I just remembered I was supposed to meet Natasha. So. If you’ll excuse me, Tori.”

She gives him a wave as he runs away.

Tasha’s on the roof. Clint makes it there in under three minutes, which is some sort of record. He’s clutching his bow case to his chest, because there’s no way he’s letting it out of his sight while that is still in there. She turns when he sees him, and flashes a shit-eating grin he knows for a fact she learned from him. “Natasha. Why is there anime tentacle porn glued to the inside of my bow case?”

“It’s hentai, Clint. Not anime. And you know exactly why.”

“I don’t need this in my life, Natasha. She has creepy Sailor Moon eyes and there are hearts everywhere and I don’t need this.” Natasha just looks at him. Clint’s head hurts. “You glued it on. How do I even get it off?”

Natasha runs a hand through his hair. “I’m going to let that one pass, and just say: an art eraser.”

Clint wants to cry.

***

Clint’s in a mission briefing, not really paying attention. Coulson’s not leading the meeting, so nothing really important is being said. They have an actual packet to study, in hard copy, because this idiot hasn’t heard of digital yet. Clint flips through it idly, glancing at the maps and floor plans --

Godammit.

He closes the pamphlet and stares resolutely ahead.

***

The next one comes folded into the Sunshine Gardens takeout menu. It’s actually pretty striking: a naked woman embraces a deep-blue octopus in her sleep. The colors contrast sharply with her pink blankets, and you’d almost think it was sweet, except for -- yup. That’s happening.

Natasha is unmoved. “It’s highbrow, I thought you’d like it.”

“There’s a tentacle where the sun don’t shine, Natasha. How is that highbrow?”

“It’s Zak Smith. He has an MFA from Yale.”

“I found this in my Chinese food.”

“That’s hardly Mr. Smith’s fault.”

Clint throws a container of chow mein at her.

***

Eight months after the appearance of the first Emotionally Scarring Erotica, Team Badass is sent to the Arctic Circle. (Within five minutes, the name “Team Badass” gets banned forever.) A crazy Canadian had tried to create an army of the creepy frost people from A Song of Fire and Ice. He was surprisingly successful, but apparently you can’t control the Others, and they killed him dead. The three of them are sent to wipe the fuckers out and sabotage the facility.

Clint is enjoying himself. “Eat dragonglass, govak!” He cries, sinking an obsidian arrow into the last White Walker’s chest. “That’s the last of them, boss,” he says into his comm, sitting back in his tree.

“Good job, Barton. Widow, status?”

“Files downloaded and wiped from the target’s computers. I’ve just laid the last charge. Permission to blow this to bits?”

“Granted.”

Moments later, Clint hears a satisfying boom. He kicks back until he hears Tasha roll up on her snowmobile. “M'athchomaroon!”

Natasha smirks. “Get your ass down here, Daenerys. There’s a storm coming.”

Clint swings effortlessly down to sit behind Natasha. “Please,” he says, winding his arms around her waist. “Everybody knows you’d be the dragon lady.”

Coulson beats them to the safehouse, so there’s a second snowmobile parked outside their tiny cabin. “Honey, we’re home,” Clint calls out as they open the door. The cabin is just a room, really, with four twin beds cramped in the space. There’s a kitchenette off to the left and a bathroom to the right, and Clint’s stayed in places a whole lot worse.

Coulson is sitting on one of the beds, radio in hand. “We’ve got some bad news. The storm will hit sometime in the next few hours, and won’t let up until tomorrow evening. And no, Barton,” he says sternly, “you can’t fly us through it.”

Clint throws up his hands. “I didn’t say anything!”

Coulson just looks at him. “The earliest we can take off is the morning after next, depending on what the snow does to us. We’ve got enough food in the kitchen to last us, and as long as no one flushes the toilet paper, we’ll be fine.”

The next few hours are pleasant, luring Clint into a false sense of security. It’s not until Coulson’s in the bathroom and Clint and Tasha are getting ready for bed that he finds it, right on top of his ready bag: a glossy photo of a real-life man and his real-life penis, complete with what Clint can only assume is a real-life octopus.

“Natasha,” he hisses, running over to her. “I cannot find words to express what I’m feeling right now.”

“You can start with ‘Thank you, Natasha, for the wonderful tentacle porn,’” she says, continuing to make her bed. She doesn’t even bother to lower her voice.

“No. ‘Fuck you, Natasha,’ is more along the lines of what I was thinking. Coulson is right there.” Clint gestures wildly at the bathroom.

“And that’s supposed to make me feel what, exactly?”

Clint rubs his eyes. “Why are you doing this, Natasha? Why are you making my life a living hell by filling it with tentacle porn everywhere I go?”

Natasha looks up again. “I’ve told you before,” she says kindly. “You know why.”

“No, I don’t, and I really don’t appreciate –”

The bathroom door opens, and Clint shuts his mouth with an audible click. He rushes back to his bed, shielding his ready-bag from view. “So yeah, I call next,” Clint says, stiltedly, decidedly not looking at Coulson. He tries to gather his things quickly, but he can’t take the photo in with him to the bathroom, and he can’t leave the goddamned thing here with Natasha, so he ends up hauling his entire bag to the restroom like an idiot. He shuts the door behind him, leaning his head on the doorframe.

After a while, he takes the photo out of his bag and examines it. The quickest way to dispose of the photo would be to simply tear it up and flush the pieces down the toilet. But thanks to the cabin’s fragile plumbing, that’s not really an option. Clint considers taking the risk, but should the toilet overflow, there’d be no way to hide soggy, pornographic evidence. The same thing goes with the trashcan. Clint briefly considers other various solutions – burning it, feeding it to a wandering polar bear, etc. – but in the end, there’s nothing to do except hide it in the lining of his duffel and wait this storm out.

When Clint reemerges from the bathroom, Coulson looks at him questioningly, but Clint deflects it with a dirty joke about caribou, and all is well.

***

Clint always wakes up first in the morning. Natasha, through her mystical superspy training, sleeps for exactly seven and a half hours, which means she won’t be up for another forty-five minutes. Coulson can only slide on his composed persona after two cups of coffee, so Clint goes into the kitchen to start a pot.

The photo is stuck to the fridge with a smiley-face magnet.

Which, of course, is when Clint hears footsteps in the other room. Flailing, he tears the offending image off the fridge and turns around, trapping the photo between his back and the fridge door.

Coulson shuffles into the room, hair still ruffled from sleep. He’s wearing sweats and an old SSR t-shirt and he looks really fucking adorable, which is a not a thought Clint should be having while a picture of a naked man is pressing into his shirt. “Top of the morning, boss,” he calls brightly.

Coulson stares at him bleary-eyed. “Coffee?”

“Not yet,” Clint says, trying to hide how hard his heart is pounding. “I’ll go bring you a mug when it’s ready.”

Coulson nods, apparently finding this acceptable. He turns to leave, and Clint is so close, almost there…

Coulson turns back around. His gaze is clearer now, and he looks at Clint closely. “Is everything alright, Barton?”

“Peachy keen, sir,” Clint says, faking one of his cocky smiles.

After a moment, Coulson says, “okay,” and walks out of the kitchen. Clint sags to the floor, the porn fluttering behind him.

***

After a few hours, the snow lets up, and Clint goes for a walk, citing early onset cabin fever. He’s got the photo stuffed into the lining of his coat, and he’s going to find a discrete place to bury it. Bury it deep.

Clint hears a noise and he’s got his bow drawn and aimed before you can say “hypervigilant.” It’s Natasha, standing a few feet away with the goddamned picture in her hand. “You can’t have imagined it’d be that easy.”

Clint relaxes the string. “Jesus fucking christ, Natasha,” he sighs. “I can’t take much more of this.”

“Good,” she says, so seriously Clint stares at her. That is decidedly not the reaction he was expecting.

“Good?” he echoes, voice incredulous.

Natasha sighs. “Right now, you value the status quo over talking with Coulson. I’m changing the stakes.”

Clint laughs, he can’t help it. “So, what? You’re trying to make me so uncomfortable I confess?”

“Yes.”

Clint smiles ruefully. “Try all you want, Tasha. It’s not going to work. No amount of tentacle porn is going to make Coulson want me.”

She tilts her head. “That’s really what you believe, isn’t it?”

“Uh, yes?” Clint says, confused. Because seriously, where is Natasha going with this?

“I’ll take that under advisement.” She hands him the photo. “You get a head start.”

Clint spends the walk back alternating between what the fuck, Tasha? and considering different disposal methods. When he arrives, Coulson is sitting on his bed, reading a book. “Hello, Barton,” he says, setting it aside.

“What’s up, boss?” Clint asks, hanging his coat up while subtly checking for the hidden photo.

“Do you have a moment to talk?”

“Have a moment for pretty much anything, thanks to the storm.” He sits down next to Coulson, mind running the gauntlet of Bad Things this conversation could be about.

Coulson looks him in the eyes. “I’ve noticed some tension from you and Agent Romanov recently.” Clint opens his mouth, and Coulson shuts him down. “Don’t deny it. I wanted to ask if everything was okay between you two. Intimate relationships between agents can be difficult to navigate –”

What?” Clint yelps, but he’s not going to be ashamed about it, because what.

Coulson’s face grows confused, and Clint will gloat later about getting the man to emote once he’s no longer hyperventilating. “I’m sorry, I thought you and Romanov were in a sexual relationship.”

“Natasha doesn’t want to have sex with me,” Clint blurts, for the unfortunate reason that it’s the truth.

Coulson’s expression grows sadder, but still doesn’t lose that emotion thing it keeps doing. “I’m sorry, Barton. That has to be a rough –”

“I don’t want to have sex with Natasha either!” Clint practically yells. And jesus christ, it’s not even a lie. Clint never knew it, but it turns out that having a relationship not defined by sex is pretty fucking necessary to his mental health. “No. Natasha and I, we were like that once, but not anymore. Not even close.”

Coulson nods, his eyes gentle. “I’m sorry I assumed that about you. Will you tell me what’s going on?”

Clint sighs, because he cannot handle this conversation twice in one day. “Honestly, no. I don’t want to talk about it. Yeah, my life got a little weird, but it’s a weirdness that will pass without anyone doing anything about it. Everything you’ve been seeing is because Tasha keeps making me talk about it, but I am seriously of the opinion that burying my head in the sand is the healthiest option for me to take right now.” And, breathe.

Coulson smiles, a new smile Clint’s never seen before: small, a little wry, and very very kind. Clint files it away in his Mental Catalogue of Phil Coulson Facial Expressions. “Okay, Clint. If that’s what you want, we won’t talk about it.”

Clint breathes out, relieved, and they spend the next few minutes sitting in silence, close but not quite touching.

***

When they get back to New York, Clint fucks off to his quarters as soon as possible to finally, finally destroy that damn picture. He digs out a dirty sock, pulls out the packet of smokes inside (always carry tobacco, even if you don’t partake), and carefully unrolls the photo nestled among the cigarettes.

It is no longer porn. Instead, there’s just a sheet of paper, with Natasha’s practiced handwriting: I misjudged again. This will be fixed.

Clint has no idea what this means. He spends the next few weeks on high alert, but no more pornography ever comes. He’d count this as a good thing, except that his main argument against the Great Porn Flood was that the situation was hopeless. If Natasha Romanov, the world’s most stubborn woman, has given up…Well. Clint had known he is pathetic, but having it confirmed by an outside party still stings.

And so Clint’s life continues, eight months completely free of porn bombs. And if Clint slowly despairs of ever being able to move past Phil Coulson and his kind smile, he doesn’t acknowledge it.

Then, on an ordinary November afternoon, an experimental explosive malfunctions in R&D, Coulson ruins his favorite shirt with octopus ink, and Clint’s life is absurdly and irrevocably changed.

***

Clint smirks against Phil’s lips. “Gonna open this door anytime soon, sir?” he says, pressing Phil into the apartment door. Clint has whittled Phil’s “five to seven dates” down to three and apparently, now to two.

“Mmm,” Phil mutters (and he’s Phil again, like he was in the aquarium, Clint’s unlikely salvation), “need your hands out of my pockets first.”

Clint laughs brightly, and they reluctantly separate while Phil fumbles with his keys. The door swings open, and Clint’s about to fucking pounce when a sight stops him. “What is that?” he blurts, stepping past Phil into the living room.

That is a life-size marble statue of an incredibly proportioned and extremely naked man, standing in the middle of the living room. The workmanship is truly exquisite, and Clint notices upon closer inspection that he has a bow slung across his shoulders.

Phil steps forward to stand beside Clint. They both stare at the statue for a long moment. “I have never seen that before,” Phil says, looking pained, “but based on previous experience, he is the god Apollo.”

Clint thinks he knows where this is going, and it is heading straight towards fucking hilarious. He turns his face towards Phil, the better to watch his reaction. “This has happened before,” he prompts.

Phil nods slowly. “They’ve been, uh, gifts, from Natasha.” He speaks slowly but deliberately, like he’s standing in front of a tribunal. “There’s been quite a variety of era and media – Renaissance paintings, classical vases, even a couple of romance novel covers from the 1980s. They have all had themes in common however: Apollo was always pictured with his bow, and he was always…naked.”

Clint does his best to school his reaction. “You’ve been getting them since Winterfell.”

Phil turns towards him in surprise. “They’ve been happening since Canada, yes. How did you know?”

Clint finds himself remembering that day in Budapest, all those years ago. He thinks about Natalia Romanova, who thought the world would be better off if she weren’t living in it. He thinks about the newly renamed Agent Natasha Romanov, heartbreakingly suspicious. And finally, he thinks about Tasha, his best friend, taking ridiculous measures to push them into something she claims not to believe in. Clint looks into Phil’s eyes and gives him his very best shit-eating grin. “Well, you see, it all started when this fisherman's wife had a dream..."