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Fic: But I Will Hold on Hope (And I Won't Let You Choke)
Author: Perpetual Motion
Fandom: Avengers (movie)
Pairing: Clint/Coulson
Rating: PG-13
Summary: In which Clint is not the emotionally stunted one, plays pretty well with others, and Sitwell is a foul-mouthed matchmaker against his will.

Dis: Lies and bullshit.

Author's Notes: Thanks to [profile] infiniteeight for a fantastic beta job. You did this story a world of good. Also, yes, the title is a Mumford & Sons lyric. Because I can.


But I Will Hold on Hope (And I Won't Let You Choke)
By Perpetual Motion

“You know he killed, like, fourteen guys on an op once, right?”

Clint doesn’t look away from the coaster he’s spinning on the tabletop. “Okay,” he says.

“Well, some say fourteen, but I’ve heard the number go higher. It might be exaggerated for the attention, though.”

“Yeah, because Coulson’s such an attention whore.” Clint sends the coaster flying. It lodges in the cracks between the boards that make up the walls of the battered bar where he’s sitting with the most annoying goddamn handler he has ever had the displeasure of having to answer to.

The handler—named Stevens or Nevins or some shit Clint refuses to remember on general principle—stares at the beer coaster for a solid five seconds. Coulson had only glanced over the first time Clint had done that trick in some other old-wood bar and informed Clint in a very dry tone that it’d have been a lot more impressive if Clint had managed to get it to stick in the dartboard.

But Coulson’s not here. He’s at base with a thigh wound from an op Clint wasn’t on, and Clint isn’t sure what he’s more pissed about, that Coulson isn’t in this shitty little bar with him or that Coulson got hurt because Clint wasn’t there to watch his back.

Clint has made peace with the fact that Coulson is somehow his favorite handler (that's easy to deal with) and also someone he has decided needs his protection (a little harder, as Coulson would probably snap his neck without breaking stride if he said so aloud).

“And they say he was special forces at one point.”

Rangers, Clint corrects in his head, but he’s not supposed to know that. He’s pretty sure he’s the only one, and Clint only knows because he knows a few Ranger tricks of his own and recognized them in Coulson. There are very few people who can hold their breath for more than four minutes, and even fewer who can do it in freezing fucking cold water off the coast of Alaska when there are very few hiding spots and unfriendlies beating a path in your exact direction. Clint learned it from a magician in the circus who had been very fond of death-defying shit like being chained and thrown into tanks of water and sharks. The magician had been a Ranger, too.

“But I’m sure half of it’s bullshit.”

Clint doesn’t ask why maybe-Stevens thinks that. He’s one of those agents who thinks handler is a stepping stone to a comfy office job and not the calling it actually is. Sure, maybe-Stevens can shoot all right and has passable hand-to-hand skills, but his observation skills are shit. Well, not shit, Clint corrects himself as maybe-Stevens (Nevins? Collins?) continues to ramble on, but definitely much lower than he’d prefer them to be. Definitely lower than Coulson.

“You seem pensive,” maybe-Stevens says. His face is all false concern. Clint wonders what tipped him off, considering he’d jammed a fucking beer coaster in the wall a full three minutes ago, and maybe-Stevens (Jenkins?) is only now taking note it might mean something is wrong.

“Gotta piss,” Clint says and pushes off his stool. He checks all the corners as he walks away and is tempted to scale the wall via the thick wooden beams that outline the windows, more than enough to grab onto and climb like going up a tree. The ceiling is all heavy beams as well, each at least a foot across, and Clint knows he could be up in the rafters in seconds, away from maybe-Stevens at least long enough to kill the urge to punch the fucker in his stupid face.

His cell vibrates as he steps into the bathroom. It’s just a toilet and sink with paper towels stacked on the back of the toilet tank. He locks the door and turns to face it as he pulls his cell from his pocket. “Barton,” he answers.

“How’s it going?” Coulson sounds wide-awake. Clint does a quick calculation of the time zones and realizes it’s about noon at base.

“What the fuck is his name?” Clint asks rather than go into a diatribe. Coulson doesn’t need that. Coulson’s got a fucking thigh wound.

“Williams,” Coulson supplies.

“Williams is a dumbass,” Clint says. There’s no laugh or chuckle on the other end, but Clint gets a hum.

“He’s a good handler. Good marks all around.”

“Good,” Clint scoffs. “Pie is good. Beer is good. I don’t want a ‘good’ handler.”

“What do you want?” Coulson asks.

You, Clint thinks, but he doesn’t say it. Right fucking here in this shitty bar that has a certain charm he knows Coulson would appreciate because it has no pretension or ideas of being grander than it is. “He’s trying to gossip about you.”

“Yeah?” Coulson sounds mildly amused. “What have I done this time?”

“Killed fourteen guys, he says. Or maybe it’s more. He’s a fucking handler who doesn’t understand basic research.”

“His research skills are fine,” Coulson says in the flat tone that tells Clint he’s displeased. Coulson doesn’t approve of talking shit about other agents. Clint respects his politeness on the matter, but it’s Williams. Who is totally fucking useless.

“How’s your leg?” Clint asks, leaning against the sink and staring at the door. He’s been in here nearly two minutes. He wonders how long it’ll take Williams to be concerned.

“Drugged. They gave me a cane.”

“You smack anyone with it?”

“Not yet.”

“Considered it?”

“Be foolish not to.” There’s a smile in Coulson’s voice, and Clint is proud of himself, getting Coulson to smile from a half-dozen countries away.

“I miss you,” Clint says, and he drops his head into his hand. Fucking great, he thinks. He’s mentioned—in passing snark-offs with Coulson—that he likes the guy, but he really hadn’t meant to straight up admit to missing him. It’s just…it’s Coulson, and they work well together.

There’s a pause, but it’s not awkward. Coulson is a guy who considers his words, and Clint has learned not to worry about silence. “There’s a curio shop about four blocks from your target,” Coulson says. “They sell reproductions of those little Hummel figures.”

“The creepy, children of the corn porcelain things?”

“Those. Yes. Find the weirdest ones you can.”

Clint’s not quite sure what to do with that. “…okay.” He doesn’t expect Coulson to elaborate, so he goes ahead and asks, “Why?”

“Williams and I had lunch before you left. He happened to mention they creep him out.”

The Coulson translation, Clint figures, is probably closer to, ‘I tricked the man into showing his weakness.’ “ I see,” he says, and he can already picture the many places he can ferret away the things so Williams will find them at the worst possible times. In the shaving kit, for early morning freak out. Tucked into the toe of his shoe when he’s kicked them off to go to the bathroom but needs to go out again. In the pocket of his uniform where he usually keeps his gum.

“Hill says the op is on schedule,” Coulson tells him, pulling Clint away from considering if it’d be possible to rig one to fall out of the showerhead of Williams’ bathroom at the hotel. “You’ll be back on base in 36 hours.” There is the briefest pause. “You’ll probably need about a dozen Hummels.”

It's precisely the number Clint was thinking. And it’s in these very small moments of shared evil-scheming that Clint thinks about what Coulson probably looks like naked. Because, goddamnit, Coulson’s evil-scheming is always very attractive.

“See you in 36,” he says. “Unless my after-action needs to go to Williams.”

“Good researcher, good handler; can’t write a report worth a damn. Stop by my office when you get back.”

“Yes, Sir,” Clint replies.

“Get back out there, Barton. It’s been four minutes. He should have noticed by now.”

“Copy that.” Clint hangs up the phone before Coulson can sign off. He knows Coulson won’t care. He entertains the idea that maybe Williams has been kidnapped, feels bad for about ten seconds, and then considers that Williams has done nothing but gossip for two damned days. If he’s kidnapped, Clint might take a relaxing bath before hunting him down.

Williams, Clint is sad to find out, is still at their table. He’s ordered a second beer (because he apparently understands the basics of how to blend in, which is more credit than Clint has given him), and he’s angled his stool so he’s facing away from the door.

“I keep getting headlights in the eyes,” he says to Clint when Clint raises an eyebrow at the positioning.

“Squint,” Clint replies as he sits down again. Williams gives him a quizzical look, but Clint doesn’t bother to explain that squinting would help keep his eyes semi-adjusted while still allowing him a view of the door. Williams isn’t the first person Clint’s had to teach that trick to, but Williams is already bugging the shit out of him. Unfair? Hell, yes. But Clint just wants to be back at base, sitting on Coulson’s office couch and cleaning his gear while they do the after-action.

And maybe make out with Coulson for a few minutes. If, maybe, Clint can finally just proposition the guy. He hides his grimace behind a swig of beer. Williams is watching two men play darts. He looks genuinely interested in the game, and Clint feels like an ass. Williams isn’t actually a bad guy. It’s just that Clint is sort of lovesick, and it’s actually way easier to deal with when Coulson is in front of him and Clint can keep an eye on him. He doesn’t share any of this with Williams, just finishes his beer and stands with a nod. “Gonna run an errand,” he says. It’s standard S.H.I.E.L.D. language for scouting locations.

“Pick up some snacks?” Williams asks, telling Clint to bring back details so they’ll be on the same page come tomorrow.

“Sure,” Clint says.

“See you in an hour or so,” Williams tells him.

“Sure,” Clint says again, agreeing to the timeframe. Even with his side-errand, he know it won’t take more than that to scout for a good nest

It’s cold outside, not freezing, but close. Clint tugs his scarf tighter around his neck and pops his collar against the wind, pulling his hat out of his pocket as he checks for possible unfriendlies. It’s a quiet street of low-class bars and cheap diners, and everyone around Clint has the air of civilians. He keeps his guard up because it’s just good sense, and starts towards the target, walking fast enough to not draw suspicion, but slow enough he can take in the details.

Four blocks from the target, Clint slows in front of a shop window. The lights are on and there are people inside. In the window, lined up around other tourist tchotchkes, are the reproduction Hummels. Clint feels himself grin as he walks inside and picks out a handful. The man at the counter doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, just rings him up, takes the money, and nods vaguely as Clint walks back outside.

As he reaches the location where they’ll be engaging the target, his phone vibrates. “Yeah?” he answers.

“Building caddy-corner is probably best,” Coulson greets him. “Judging from the wind we’ve been seeing in the region, you probably don’t want to get more than ten or twelve stories up.”

Clint glances around. He’s basically alone on the street, save a few people crossing the street a block down. “You watching me?”

“Up and to the right,” Coulson replies.

Clint follows the order and grins at the security camera when he rotates on its base. “That is legitimately creepy.”

Coulson doesn’t say thank you, but Clint can read it in his silence. “Williams should have gone with you,” he says.

“No, he shouldn’t.” Clint feels more charitable than he did an hour ago. Maybe it’s the Hummels in his coat pocket, but he’s pretty sure it’s probably Coulson. “It’d draw too much attention.”

“Decided to trust the guy?” Coulson asks.

“Give him a decent chance,” Clint corrects. Coulson hums, and Clint is pretty sure he should be embarrassed at how pleased it makes him. The hum goes on a little long, and Clint raises his eyebrows. “What are you on?”

“They won’t tell me.”

Which means it’s probably strong enough to mess with Coulson’s faculties. Medical’s stopped trusting Coulson to dose himself when injured. If he thinks pain meds will get in the way, he won’t take them.

Coulson laughs a little, loose. He’s on the very good drugs, Clint decides. “You all right?”

“You remember Budapest?”

“Which time?”

“The second time.”

*

They’d been on a two-week scouting mission, taking turns with the binoculars and the cameras, Clint occasionally scoping from his rifle when they weren’t quite certain they hadn’t been seen. There’d been a café down the street, serving hot soup and sandwiches on thick cut bread and coffee. Strong coffee, the kind that Clint had always had in the circus.

“Didn’t know you drank coffee,” Coulson said one day when he came back with lunch. They took turns going down, at different points in the day so they wouldn’t attract attention, and living on MREs otherwise. He set the cup next to Clint’s elbow and unpacked the sandwiches and takeaway cartons of soup.

“It’s too weak most of the time,” Clint replied, putting down the binoculars to pop the top on his coffee. “Coffee in the circus was quadruple-strength at least. It makes my hands shake if I have it any other way, and no one else at base can handle it.”

“That’s why you drink tea instead?”

“Yeah. Tea’s single-serve. You’re not gonna give a whole floor of people the shakes because no one expects you to make a full kettle.”

Coulson hummed in understanding, took a long drink of his coffee and then held out his hand so Clint could see it. It was absolutely steady. “I keep a pot in my office,” he said as he took the binoculars from Clint. “Just refill it if you take the last of it.”

“Okay,” Clint agreed. He took a drink of his coffee. “Thanks.”

*

“I remember,” Clint replies after a long moment, wondering why Coulson is thinking about it.

“I liked that mission,” Coulson says, and he sounds almost dreamy.

“You should take a nap,” Clint says before Coulson can keep going. “You’re probably not supposed to be awake.”

“Probably not.” Coulson’s words slur just a little. “Think they slipped—”

“He’s out.” Natasha says. She must have caught the phone before it hit the floor.

“Hey, Tasha.”

“Your hour’s almost up.”

“Good to talk to you, too.”

“Bring me back some tea.” She disconnects the line, and Clint grins at his phone for a moment. When he glances at the security camera again, it swivels completely on its axis so Clint can see where the blind spots are. His job is really, really cool sometimes, he thinks.

I liked that mission, Coulson had said. Clint grips his phone tight as he starts back to the hotel. He’d liked it, too, the two of them comfortable in each other’s silences, the way Coulson had nonchalantly celebrated their return to base by stopping by the canteen and picking up a second mug that now lives by his coffee pot, Clint’s name written on the bottom in Coulson’s half-cursive scrawl that only comes out when he’s not concerned about other people being able to read his handwriting. Clint thinks about how two days after they got back, he showed up to the morning briefing and his collection of bagged teas had been replaced with loose leaf and a tea ball.

“Bagged tea is crap,” Coulson had responded to Clint’s raised eyebrow. It’s the only explanation Clint’s ever gotten. He knows an act of friendship when he sees one.

He walks into the lobby of the hotel and pulls off his hat, running his fingers through his hair and then untying his scarf as he gets on the elevator. He hates elevators; there’s no good strategy for fighting in them, but he and Williams are up on the ninth floor, and anyone coming out of the stairwell at that height looks suspicious. When the elevator gets to nine, he’s the only one to get off, but he still listens for footsteps as he walks down the hall to his room.

When he opens the door, Williams isn’t waiting, but the adjoining door between the rooms is open. “Back,” Clint calls, and he hears the safety snap on Williams’s gun. Coulson would be proud, he thinks as he dumps the bag of Hummels just inside his bathroom door, reaching in to grab one and shove it in the pocket of his jeans before going into the other room.

They both have king rooms. Clint’s looks barely touched, just his go-bag in the corner, his bow under the bed, and the assorted toiletries in the bathroom. Williams’s room is a mini-command center with two laptops, a stack of hard drives, and enough wires to strangle a dozen men if needed. Williams nods when Clint walks into the room. His gun is next to one of the laptops but aimed at the adjoining door.

“Nice,” Clint says, nodding at the gun.

“I know how to pick a tactical weak spot,” Williams replies. It’s not snarky, but it’s slightly dry. Probably learned from Coulson over lunch. “What have you got?”

“A few things. There’s a building caddy-corner to the target area that looks to be right. I didn’t get a chance to get inside, but the twelfth floor looks promising.”

“We set up tomorrow,” Williams says. “I thought you were going to pick a nest.”

“The building was completely dark. I didn’t want to risk exposure getting around by flashlight. We’re getting in early, I can find my spot then.”

“I prefer—”

“I know what I’m doing,” Clint interrupts. He doesn’t mean to snap, but he really, really hates when handlers pull the ‘I prefer’ routine. He’s earned his stripes. He knows when to risk exposure and when to back off. He knows Coulson would agree with him.

“I’m not trying to piss you off,” Williams says. He sighs and rubs his eyes and drops onto the bed. “Your file mentioned you had some authority issues—”

“Stop,” Clint cuts him off. “Trust me when I tell you that starting a sentence with ‘your file mentioned’ is exactly the wrong way to make me respect you, all right? The only thing that makes that sentence worse is adding ‘you had some authority issues.’ You might as well just try to punch me in the face.”

“I’m not going to pretend like I could actually do that.” Williams watches Clint. Clint watches him back. “Do you ever blink?” Williams asks.

“As needed.”

Williams’s mouth turns down into a frown. “You’re actually worse than I was warned. Congratulations.”

“You’re a handler because it’s the next step up the ladder,” Clint retorts, never good at getting jabbed and walking away. “I don’t like that.”

“Well, since your preferred brand of asshole is tied up with a leg wound, you’re stuck. So, how about we both agree to dislike each other a little and just get through this?”

Clint narrows his eyes. “Who are you, and what have you done with Williams?”

“I am Williams. I was trying to be nice-guy handler at the bar, but you blew me off. I’ve been trying to be nice-guy handler for two days, but you’ve either ignored me, grunted at me, or looked like you were about to punch me in the throat. So, fuck it.”

Now that’s a level of pragmatism Clint can respect. He nods once. “Okay,” he says. “Fuck it. Let’s get this done.”

They review schematics and angles. Williams runs them through the plan verbally twice. Just before they say goodnight, Clint ducks into Williams’s bathroom under the guise of a getting a glass of water and balances the Hummel on the top of the showerhead. He can respect the man to a certain extent, but he still owes him one for the ‘read your file’ bullshit.

*

Williams yelps when he gets into the shower the next morning. Clint grins as he shimmies into his cargo pants and reaches for his boots. His phone buzzes as he finishes lacing them, and he grabs for it. The screen reads UNKNOWN. The message is two words and an initial:

SHOOT STRAIGHT

C.

Clint’s eyebrows go up as he looks at it. An encouraging message from Coulson? At what is—Clint does a quick bit of math—shit all in the morning at base?

ARE YOU STILL HIGH?

B.

He’s just pulled his sweater over his head when his phone buzzes again.

SOMEONE (N.) DOSED ME. MY SLEEP SCHEDULE IS OFFICIALLY RUINED.

C.

Clint grins.

THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FORCE THE REST OF US TO MEDICAL.

B.

He’s collapsing his bow for the carrying case when his phone goes off again at the same time Williams gives another yelp. Found the one behind his deodorant, then. Clint had snunk that one in after Williams had nodded off.

I LOVE THAT YOU ALL PUNISH ME FOR MAKING SURE YOU DON’T DIE.

C.

Clint actually laughs at that, hearing Coulson’s voice in his head like he were right there.

WE LOVE THAT WE DON’T DIE BUT WE STILL HATE YOU A LITTLE.

B.

Clint slides on his flat quiver and throws his coat on over it, adjusting it so it falls properly and helps hide the small lump the quiver makes. The rifle is in Williams’ room, and Clint crosses the threshold to retrieve it. Williams is sitting on the bed, fully dressed, the two Hummel knockoffs in his hand.

“Lovely,” he says.

“They’re wretchedly adorable,” Clint agrees as he crouches down to inspect the rifle. It’s in perfect condition, as he was expecting. He breaks it down—barrel and stock snapping off into separate pieces—and tucks it into the intended pouches in his coat.

“Why are you packing in the rifle?”

“Back-up, just in case.”

“Why do you even use a bow?” Williams asks. Last night’s semi-truce is out the window, apparently.

“Because it’s easier to get the ammo back,” Clint says. “And easier to destroy, and easier to create a version of ammo that has an auto-destruct once it’s hit target.”

Williams blinks. “Wait. You have auto-destruct on your arrows?”

“I’ve got more confirmed kills than you’re probably cleared to know about. You think we just left the arrows sticking up in the air like a sign?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Williams says. He scowls when Clint gives him a look. “Let’s just do this.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do.”

They’re in the elevator when Clint’s phone buzzes again. Williams raises an eyebrow. Clint shrugs. “I’m a popular guy.”

Williams’s eyebrow goes higher. Clint is sort of impressed.

YOU DON’T HATE ME.

C.

Clint keeps his face neutral as he closes his phone and tucks it away. He can feel Williams watching him, waiting for Clint to tell him what’s up, but Clint stays silent. If Williams is desperate to know, he can ask. He should know that rule by now.

*

The op goes off without a hitch, Clint using his bow and taking down the target. He and Williams split off when they get back to the hotel. “Wheels up in two hours,” Williams says, and Clint nods an affirmative as he crosses into his own room. They’ll spend the night in a safe house three hours away before heading back to base proper, just to make sure they weren’t found out.

Clint takes a hot shower and changes into his civvies and discovers, as he pulls on his shoes, that Williams has filled them with shaving cream. Well played, he thinks. He hops to the bathroom on one foot and retrieves a spare towel to clean up the mess. When he hops back out, Williams is leaning against the adjoining doorjamb.

“How many more Hummels do you have?” he asks.

“If I tell you, where’s the fun?” Clint replies, sitting back on the bed to wipe out his shoes.

“I have more shaving cream.”

Clint grins at him. “Bring it.”

*

It turns out Williams has more than shaving cream. By the time they leave the safehouse, Clint’s surprised him with another four Hummels (the last one balanced on Williams’s nose in his sleep because he really should be better trained than that), and Williams has slit the seam on one of his pockets, dyed his socks pink, and snuck soap flakes into his cereal.

“You’re all right,” Clint says as he froths at the mouth every time he swishes water to try and get rid of the taste.

“You’re an immense pain in the ass,” Williams replies. There’s a bruise starting on his forehead. He’d flipped out of bed and fallen flat on his face when he’d woken up and seen the figurine. “I don’t know how Coulson puts up with you.”

“There’s a seminar. He has a certificate.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Williams says as he turns away.

*

They get back to base, splitting off to file their separate debriefs. It’s standard protocol, handlers and agents filing separately to allow for any issues to be aired without having to worry someone’s going to throw a punch.

Clint pauses in the doorway of Coulson’s office. Coulson’s at his desk, suit jacket off, cuffs still buttoned, reviewing a file with his left leg propped up on a footstool piled with thin pillows Clint recognizes from medical. There’s a cane leaning against Coulson’s desk, gleaming black with a curved, silver handle. Clint whistles under his breath, and Coulson doesn’t even twitch.

“No, you can’t have it,” he says.

“Should have known you wouldn’t have any old cane from medical,” Clint replies as he walks into the office proper. He reaches for the cane, pausing for Coulson to nod agreement, and then he’s picking it up and looking it over. The weight is weird, and he cocks an eyebrow. “This is a sword cane.”

“Oh?” Coulson asks.

“You can’t get this past me, Coulson. I grew up in the circus. I know a sword cane when I feel one.”

Coulson continues to look unimpressed, but Clint knows the tilt of his smirk. “Old family heirloom,” he says. “You could shave with it.”

“I bet you could.”

“How’d it go?” Coulson asks, rolling his eyes when Clint pulls the sword out and inspects it.

“Hit the target. Didn’t murder Williams.”

“How went the prank war?”

Clint narrows his eyes. “How do you even know about that already?”

“I’m that good,” Coulson says.

Clint really, really wants to kiss the hell out of him. He sheathes the sword and puts the cane back against Coulson’s desk, walks over to the couch and flops onto it to get as much space between them as possible. “I got one of the Hummels to balance on his nose. It was pretty fantastic.”

“You need to requisition any new supplies? Williams tends to respond with personal clothing damage.”

“New pair of socks, but I’m in no hurry.”

“You are, actually.” Coulson holds up a file, and Clint stands up to retrieve it. “You’re heading out with Sitwell in two hours.”

“What about downtime?”

“A brand new civil war just broke out. You’re needed elsewhere.”

Clint skims the information, wincing when he gets to the body count. “Target?”

“Undetermined as of now. It’s partially a fact-finding mission.”

“Finding the person I’m gonna aim for?” Clint guesses.

“Got it in one.”

Clint sighs without meaning to, rubbing the back of his neck as he glances at Coulson from the corner of his eye. “Sitwell’s chatty,” he says. It’s as close as he can come to telling Coulson he’d prefer him. He always does on fact-finding missions. Coulson cuts through the bullshit. Sitwell, as good as he is, doesn’t have the same finesse.

“Hearing you complain about chattiness is always hilarious,” Coulson replies. He places his hands on his desk and levers himself up, balancing on one foot until he’s got the cane settled in his hand.

“How’s the leg?” Clint asks.

“Less numb.”

“Any idea how long it’ll be before you’re in field again?”

Coulson smirks. “Miss me?”

Yes, Clint thinks. More than I should. Way more than I should. “I like you best,” he admits. “You know that.” Something changes about Coulson. Not his stance or the look on his face or anything anyone could actually point at, but something. There’s tension between them now, thin as a spider’s thread. Clint tries to read it, but Coulson’s not giving him any cues to go from.

“Wheels up in an hour and fifty-seven,” Coulson says. “We still need to get through your debrief, and I’m starving. We’ll do it over lunch.”

“Sure,” Clint agrees. He follows Coulson down to the canteen, still trying to get a feel on the tension, but Coulson gives nothing away as they eat and debrief. When they finish debrief, Clint stands to go, giving Coulson a nod as he moves.

“Be careful,” Coulson says in an undertone like he doesn’t want Clint to hear.

Clint looks down from his standing position, ready to quip his way out of the room. Coulson’s eyes are serious, concerned. “You still on the good drugs?” he asks, but his tone is off. It’s a more serious question than he means it to be.

Coulson glances down at his injured leg then back at Clint. “No.” He says it in the same undertone, and something flashes across his face. Something Clint can read but can’t really believe.

“…Sir?”

“Wheels up in ten,” Coulson says. “And you still need a fresh pair of socks.”

Clint stands there for another few seconds, waiting for that flash of something—concern, kindness, warmth—to go across Coulson’s face again. It doesn’t. “I’ll see you post-mission, Sir. Don’t pull your stitches.” He turns and walks away, the spider’s thread of tension thickening with every step.

*

Sitwell chats the entire plane ride. Clint tunes him out and even stops nodding after the first few hours. If Sitwell notices, it doesn’t deter him. When they land, Clint stays a half-step behind him and looks menacing as Sitwell is greeted by the people who’ve called them in.

The civil war is over, they discover. A bloody coup that lasted 37 hours and ended in more dead bodies than Clint’s seen for a while. He’s been mostly on single shot missions, and he misses them a little as he and Sitwell are led down a hallway in a fancy, half-trashed house and towards the room where they’ve been told they’ll be a sit-rep.

“Down,” Clint says, grabbing Sitwell’s shoulder and forcing him to the ground. Shots fire exactly where their heads would have been, and the men behind them drop to the floor dead.

“Well, shit,” Sitwell says, and Clint remembers why he likes the man. Where Coulson would slip into stealth mode, Sitwell gets disappointed and swears. Coulson’s stealth mode is useful, but Sitwell’s swearing is much more Clint’s style.

Clint flexes his wrist, and a collapsible cross bow springs out, auto-loading from the arrows that are also strapped to his arm. He fires one and gets one of the shooters directly in the eye. The other he shoots in his gun arm.

“Fucking assholes,” Sitwell mutters as he waits for secondary fire. When none comes, he stands up, Clint on his heels. “Get on a plane for thirteen hours to come help, and they shoot at me?”

“In their defense, Sir, they did just finish a civil war,” Clint says.

“Fuck their civil war,” Sitwell replies. He stands over the man with the arrow in his shoulder and says, in the local language. “Who the hell are you?”

The man does not respond. Sitwell glances at Clint. Clint shrugs and just happens to look away when Sitwell yanks out the arrow and steps on the man’s wound. It’s not that it’s against regs to get answers the hard way, but Clint knows it helps if the bad guys think they’re breaking the rules.

“You are scum,” the injured man says. “Stupid, imperialist scum.”

“I’m the guy standing on your fucking shoulder wound, asshole.”

The man looks confused. “I don’t think asshole translates properly, Sir,” Clint says.

“I don’t care.” Sitwell removes his foot and crouches next to the man. “Who the hell are you?”

“A fighter,” the man says. There’s a snapping sound, and Clint grabs Sitwell by his jacket, pulling them both into the hallway as the bomb goes off.

“Mother. Fucker.” Sitwell coughs as the building begins to collapse around them.

*

When Clint comes to, he coughs up dust and then lies very still to assess the damage. He’s still thrumming with adrenaline, so he probably wasn’t out long. He listens and can still hear parts of the house collapsing around him. He turns his head slowly, checking for neck injuries and eying his surroundings. Sitwell’s next to him, eyes squeezed shut as he swears in an unstopping streak under his breath. The walls are half-crumbled around them but still standing enough the ceiling didn’t hit them.

“Sir?” Clint says. Sitwell’s eyes snap open, and the cursing stops.

“Report,” Sitwell orders.

“House fell on us, Sir. I’m expecting my feet to curl up any minute.”

“Nice,” Sitwell says. He’s always been appreciative of Clint’s humor. Sitwell turns to look at Clint, and his face pales in the dim light. “Shitfuck,” he says.

“What?” Clint asks. He follows Sitwell’s line of sight. There’s a piece of rebar sticking out of Clint’s leg. “Fuck me,” Clint mutters. He stays conscious for another few seconds, and then he’s out as the pain from the injury starts to make it through his adrenaline rush.

*

When he comes to, he’s in medical, a fuzziness to his head that tells him he’s on the good drugs.

“Missed all the important bits, save the muscle,” Sitwell says. He’s sitting in the chair next to the bed. There’s a sling on his left arm and butterfly bandages on his head. “Lots of drugs. Possibly slightly more than necessary so you don’t try to escape.”

“I don’t do that every time,” Clint says and giggles at the way his words slur.

“Right.” Sitwell obviously doesn’t buy it. He stands and fishes his phone out of his jacket. “I’m calling Coulson.”

“Why?”

“I just had a fucking house fall on me, and I’m going to yell at him until he finally asks you to a goddamn dinner because I know I’m going to have to hear him bitch and moan about how you could have been killed and maybe, possibly, he should say something.”

“Huh?” is all Clint manages before he’s out again.

*

When Clint wakes again, it’s much later. Sitwell is still by his bedside. He’s reading a battered paperback. “Water?” Clint asks.

Sitwell puts down the paperback and gets the water. “Anything else?” he asks. He’s not a comforter, but he’s probably the closest thing SHIELD has to a mother hen.

Clint thinks, still feeling fuzzy from the drugs. “Did you say something about Coulson taking me to dinner?”

“If you two don’t get your shit together, I’m taking away your kneecaps,” Sitwell replies. “This shit is getting ridiculous.”

“What shit?”

“The unrequited shit.”

Clint shakes his head. He feels like his neck is loose from his skull. “There’s not—”

“Bullshit there’s not,” Sitwell says. “And I’m gonna help you out with it: He’s into you. Ta-da. Problem solved.”

“I—” Clint cuts himself off and squints at Sitwell. The drugs are pulling him back under, and his vision is getting blurry. “Really?”

“Jesus Christ,” Sitwell mutters.

Clint falls asleep again before he hears the rest of it.

*

They get back to base the next day. Clint’s on a hospital cane that digs weirdly at the palm of his hand. He makes his way to Coulson’s office and leans against the door to wave the cane at him. “We should switch,” he says.

“No,” Coulson replies. He reaches under his desk and comes up with a long, thin box. He puts it on his desk and waits for Clint to limp over to him.

Clint flips the top of the box and grins. It’s a cane with the same fancy handle as Coulson’s but with a staff that’s a deep purple. He pulls it out of the box and twists the handle. “You got me my very own sword cane?”

“You’d just try to steal mine otherwise.”

“Yup,” Clint agrees, completely unapologetic. He looks the cane over then glances at Coulson, thinking about what Sitwell said, about the weird tension he and Coulson had shared right before he left, about how Coulson’s just given him a gift. “Do you—” he starts.

“Before I forget,” Coulson says over him, “I’m headed out at oh-eight hundred.”

“An assignment?”

“Yes.”

“You’re injured.”

“Negotiations,” Coulson replies. “I can do those standing on my head.”

“I remember you doing it hanging by your ankles,” Clint says.

*

It was supposed to be a simple info drop, Clint going in as Coulson’s back-up, both of them disguised as perfectly average tourists in Brazil, something Coulson played frightfully well, Clint always thought. Two hours in-country, they’d been grabbed and trussed up, drugged to the gills on enough sodium pentothal to ruin both their reputations if they weren’t SHIELD-trained.

“Who do you work for?” The head kidnapper demanded. There were three of them, all gathered around Clint and Coulson, who were hung upside down and swaying slightly.

“Hammer Industries,” Coulson replied. “We’re researchers. Please. We have families. There’s a phone in my bag. My wife’s number is on it. Call her. She’ll agree to whatever you want.”

The head kidnapper smirked in triumph, then turned on his heel, the other two falling into step behind him. They left through a clanging metal door.

“Barton,” Coulson said.

“On it,” Clint replied and got himself swinging until he could bend himself in half and grab the bar they were hanging from, sliding a lock pick from behind his back teeth. “And if they come back?”

“I’ll tell them to try my sister.”

“Yes, Sir,” Clint said and got to work on the locks.

*

“You were really red in the face,” Clint adds when Coulson doesn’t say anything.

“All the blood was in my head,” Coulson replies.

Clint thinks about afterwards, the both of them chafed and sore, Coulson buying some oily lotion off a market cart and rubbing it into Clint’s ankles with efficiency, Clint doing the same for him. When they’d gotten back, Clint had tossed the unused portion into his locker, forgetting about it until one day when his hands were chapped from a long, windy day on a rooftop. It’d done the same wonders, and he’d left the rest on Coulson’s desk when he spotted the windburned spots on his cheeks where Coulson’s scarf hadn’t covered.

“Go get some rest,” Coulson says, breaking into Clint’s thoughts. “You look like hell.”

“A building fell on me.”

“That’s what they all say.”

Clint laughs without meaning to, tossing his hospital cane onto Coulson’s couch as he fits the new cane into his grip. “Sitwell…” he starts to say, but he’s not sure how to go on. They’re comfortable with each other again, the tension from before gone, and Clint doesn’t want to lose it. “He swears better than you.” he says because he needs to say something.

“No, he doesn’t. He’s just louder.”

Clint raises an eyebrow. Coulson raises one in return. “Be safe,” Clint says.

“You, too,” Coulson says.

*

A week goes by. Clint limps down to the range and practices. He limps to medical to get his leg checked. He limps to the pool where they wrap his wound in more plastic than he is certain is necessary, and he does calisthenics to rebuild what the rebar took out. He sees Coulson around, darting from one place to another, faster on the cane than some of the junior agents on two good legs. They nod to one another. A few days later, Clint stops by Coulson’s office. Coulson is on the couch, leg propped up, running his hands over the site of the injury.

“You good, Sir?” he asks in greeting.

“Fine,” Coulson says, but Clint’s eyes are better than that. Coulson looks put together, but he’s paler than usual, there are pain lines around his eyes.

“They cut your dose,” Clint says.

“Yeah.”

Clint limps over, sets his cane by the arm of the couch, and sits, propping his own injured leg on the coffee table. “Need help?”

“I’ve got it.”

Clint watches him work his leg over, no grimace showing, but a certain twitch of his hands telling Clint when he’s really hit a sore spot. He’s probably pain-tired and low-level angry, Clint thinks. He would be in that position. This is not an ideal time, but that’s never stopped Clint before. “Sitwell said you were into me,” he says. “He said he was going to call and yell at you until you invited me to dinner.”

Coulson doesn’t stop moving. Nothing in his movements changes, but Clint can feel the tension between them again, the thread heavier than before, maybe because he’s being direct. They sit there in silence. Coulson stops massaging his leg and lies down fully. His foot just brushes Clint’s leg.

“Sir?” Clint asks.

“My leg hurts,” Coulson states. “And you’re going on a milk run tomorrow.” His tone disallows argument. He is very obviously changing the subject.

“I’m still on reserve, I thought,” Clint replies without thinking.

“You’re going to the Singapore base to pick up some level 3 documents. It’s not anything strenuous.”

“The junior agents usually do the milk runs.”

“Usually, yes.”

Clint watches Coulson. Something about this feels like punishment, like Clint shouldn’t be asking questions about Coulson’s feelings, like maybe Coulson’s been holding onto this milk run just in case Clint asked about Sitwell’s big mouth. “Do you want to get dinner?” he asks because he’s a little angry and hurt, and wonders if it’s possible to make Coulson flinch.

“No.” Coulson pushes off the arm of the couch and stands. “Wheels up in two hours.”

*

He spends the next month on milk runs, hopping SHIELD bases from one end of the Earth to the other. Coulson keeps their debriefs short and to the point. Clint tries to play it cool, tries to not show he’s hurt by the sudden loss of their relationship, but then he comes back one day and Coulson informs him he has to report to Miller because he’s on his way out.

“Since when do you skip a debrief? It’s like porn for you, isn’t it?”

Coulson walks out without responding. Clint considers punching the wall. Instead, he fills out the form, slams it on Coulson’s desk, and storms out of the office in the opposite direction Coulson took. He literally runs into Sitwell, nearly losing his balance except that Sitwell gets him by the shoulders.

“You—” Sitwell’s eyes narrow. “Didn’t you just get back from New Delhi?”

“Yeah.”

Sitwell checks his watch. “Not even Coulson can get through a—that jackrabbiting son of a bitch,” he mutters, letting go of Clint and storming down the hall, muttering obscenities in his wake and not even slowing as he passes Coulson’s office. Clint wonders where Coulson hides when he wants to avoid someone, and he wonders how Sitwell knows. He doesn’t think on it too much. His leg is throbbing with recovery, and all he wants to do is sit down and have a beer, meds or no meds. He points himself towards his quarters and tells himself he’s not moping.

*

Two weeks later, he’s cleared for full field duty. He goes to Coulson’s office on auto-pilot, only realizing once he’s there that showing up without an invite might be a bad thing, given that he’s barely seen the man in the halls, but Coulson is still his reporting agent, and Clint needs a real assignment like he needs air at this point. He knocks on the door, half-fearful Coulson will refuse to answer. Coulson opens the door a few seconds later, face a polite mask.

“Yes?” he asks.

“I’m clear,” Clint says.

“Medical just sent up the file,” Coulson replies.

Clint waits for Coulson to say more. “And?” he prompts, hating that he has to.

“And you’re clear for duty,” Coulson says. “Give it a day; I’m sure something will pop up.”

“Coulson…” Clint wonders what to say. “You clear, too?”

“Last week.”

Makes sense, Clint thinks, seeing as their injuries were about a week apart. “Wanna grab lunch?” he offers, trying to make it sound normal, trying to take the step back from what scared Coulson off in the first place.

“No.”

Clint feels something snap in the back of his mind. “I need a cup of coffee,” he says, managing to keep his voice level. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

Coulson’s face gives nothing away, but the second’s pause before he steps aside to let Clint in says plenty. Clint walks to the coffee pot and pours coffee into his mug. There’s a bit of dust on the handle, speaking to how long it’s been since he’s been in here. “I always think of Budapest when I come get a cup; the second Budapest,” he says because he’s angry at Coulson being a dick and is probably genetically incapable of not poking at a sore spot.

“What about it?” Coulson sounds like he didn’t mean to ask, voice fraying on the last syllable.

“I was there with Natasha once,” Clint says as he turns. There’s something tight around Coulson’s eyes. “Those memories are a little less…relaxed.”

“I remember,” Coulson says. “You lost a lot of blood.”

“Yeah.” Clint watches Coulson walk over to his desk and start gathering files. “Got a meeting?”

“Yes.”

“You liked when we were in Budapest,” Clint says. “You told me when I was on the op with Williams.”

“I remember what I said,” Coulson replies. He drops a file on his desk, picks it back up, puts it down again.

It all clicks into place. Coulson’s mask of professionalism, his flat-out avoidance. “Oh.” Clint says. “You didn’t mean to say it.”

Coulson looks at him. “No.”

“I liked Budapest with you,” Clint says.

“You just said that.”

“No, I—” Clint can’t find the words. “You’re my—”

“Handler,” Coulson interrupts. “Sometimes.”

“That’s not—”

“I have a meeting.” Coulson leaves the office, files under one arm.

Clint considers throwing his coffee cup against the wall. He wipes the dust from the handle instead, drinks down the coffee in measured sips, and leaves, his cup exactly center on Coulson’s desk.

*

Two days later, he’s out with a handler named MacGregor, a quiet, serious woman who responds politely to his attempts at conversation but doesn’t engage him otherwise. Clint spends the two nights on the op alone in his room, flicking through local reality television and thinking about the same sort of nights with Coulson, the both of them quiet but sharing the same bed until one of them was tired enough to sleep.

His phone rings, and Clint grabs for it. “Yeah?” he answers.

“How’s MacGregor?” Coulson asks.

“Smart,” Clint replies. He waits for the usual relaxation Coulson’s voice brings, but it’s not there now.

“I was thinking about Israel today,” Coulson says.

*

Israel was a rarity, one of those missions that was expected to be an absolute slice of hell but turned out, instead, to be mostly down time; a vacation by most standards. They’d wandered the street markets together, Phil in loose-cut linen rather than his suit. Clint refused to give up his jeans but agreed to a billowing linen shirt because he wasn’t so foolish that he thought cotton would help him in the heat.

They’d watched kids play in the market square, waded in a tiny fountain, Clint leaving his cuffs rolled up once they’d gotten out, Coulson teasing him in his dry way, telling him he looked like a reject from a boy band.

They’d sat at tiny street cafes, eating dates and drinking hot, bitter tea, Coulson testing Clint’s language skills by coming up with ridiculous word combinations while Clint laughed and fought to keep up.

Coulson, in the hot desert sun, throat fully exposed and vulnerable in his almost-sheer linen shirt, his grin lighting up his face as Clint goaded him into laughter with a goat-fucking joke in Italian, had been the most beautiful thing Clint had ever seen in his life.

*

Clint closes his eyes as his chest seizes up. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he asks.

“You didn’t like Israel?”

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I’m a Level 7 SHIELD agent. There’s only one way to do that, Barton, and that’s to live the job.”

“Is this how you live the job?” Clint hisses. “Calling me on op and reminding me about places you seem to have liked being with me?” Coulson doesn’t answer, and Clint sees red. “When I come back, are we actually going to have progress, or is this how you have relationships?” Coulson still doesn’t answer, but Clint can hear him breathing. “Fuck you,” Clint growls and disconnects the call. He stares at the opposite wall as he counts his heartbeats until he calms down. MacGregor knocks on the adjoining door then walks in. She holds up the dossier.

“We need to review,” she says, all business.

“On it, Ma’am,” Clint replies woodenly as he stands up and watches her spread the dossier on the desk. His anger is a simmering boil in the pit of his stomach, and he wonders if Coulson is trying to make him snap, testing him to see exactly how loyal he is. It’s an awful, gut-shot of a thought, but Clint can’t shake it. Coulson wants to test him? Fine. Clint’s going to out play that bastard.

*

When he walks into Coulson’s office for the debrief, he finds Sitwell. “Sir?” he asks.

“I’m putting his balls in a vise and squeezing until he remembers how to be a man,” Sitwell replies. “But I need your report first.”

Clint feels vicious. “Don’t worry about his balls, Sir. I’ve got no interest.”

“Bullshit,” Sitwell says. “How was MacGregor?”

“All business, but she needs to have a little fun,” Clint tells him. He throws himself onto the couch and seethes in the back of his mind as he gives Sitwell the rest.

*

After MacGregor, it’s a junior handler named Javensen. He has a slight stutter during prep, but his voice is absolutely smooth once the op is on. On the flight back, he asks Clint, as the stutter comes back, how he pulled duty with someone with Clint’s rank.

“You’re good,” Clint says because Javensen really is, although he suspects it’s more Coulson assigning him handlers at random. He reaches into a pocket of his cargos and pulls out a deck of cards. “Poker?” he offers determined to build a new alliance. Javensen’s a nice guy, and Clint could use a nice guy in his professional life right now. The last one is being a fuck.

“Sure,” Javensen says. They play a dozen hands before Javensen starts to nod off. Clint puts the cards away and digs into his bag for the blank mission reports he never uses. He fills one out to the smallest detail, signs his name, flips the page and gives Javensen high marks for his performance, requests him as his handler again if possible. When they get back to base, he slides the report under Coulson’s door and walks away.

*

He gets sent to Siberia with no handler and no clear orders, just coordinates, a parka, his bow, his quiver, a set of pistols, and a parachute. He lands on the coordinates and finds Natasha. She has a split lip and bruised knuckles. There’s blood under her nails. Her parka is open to the piercing wind. He hasn’t seen her in two months. If circumstances were different, he’d have gotten coded updates from Coulson, but he hasn’t talked to Coulson in a while.

“How’s you?” Clint asks.

“Do you have my guns?” Natasha replies.

He hands over the pistols, and she slants him a thank you grin as she leads him to a bunker. There are two cots, a kettle, and a hot plate, MREs stacked in a corner, enough ammunition (including spare arrows) to keep them entertained for days.

“Did you call me in just to get you new guns?” he asks, only half joking.

“No,” she says. “I need you to kill a man.”

He kills the man. Afterwards, Natasha tells him why. They sit on the cots and drink tea, and she watches him and says, with her head cocked. “You didn’t know you were seeing me.”

“Nope,” he agrees.

“Coulson didn’t tell you?”

“We haven’t talked much.”

She straightens her head. “What happened?”

Clint stares into his tea. It’s deeply brown and smells like wet straw. “You remember when I was out with Williams?”

“Right after he was injured.”

“Yeah. Remember when he called me?”

“Yes.”

“He said some stuff in that conversation…” Clint looks at Natasha. “He didn’t mean to say it.”

“Hrm,” Natasha says. She takes a drink of her tea, tucks her feet under herself and leans on her pillow. “Budapest, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I remember when you and I were in Budapest.”

“You wouldn’t give me your blood,” Clint says.

“You don’t want it,” Natasha replies, and he really doesn’t, but that’s what he remembers the strongest: bleeding out and Natasha informing him that she couldn’t help, that she wouldn’t chance him ending up like her, immortal as far as they knew and with more bodies behind her than any four SHIELD agents.

“We had to shoot our way out; do you remember?” she asks.

“I don’t.” He’s read the report. He’d pulled himself together, and they’d gotten out of there under a hail of bullets and arrows. He’d gotten himself to the evac chopper, the report says, but all he remembers is waking up over the ocean on a cot on a plane and seeing Coulson with his jacket off, his sleeve rolled up, a clear tube full of dark red blood attached to the two of them. He remembers trying to say something clever about being a universal receiver, and he’d wheezed instead, lungs burning and Coulson giving him a look that kept him from trying to be clever again.

“I don’t think Coulson wants any good memories of Budapest,” Natasha says.

“Our Budapest was after you and me in Budapest. Nothing really happened when Coulson and I were in Budapest. And it was long after I’d healed from you and me in Budapest.”

“I think it was one of the worst moments of his life, giving you his blood,” Natasha says. “And I think it scares him because he knows it.”

Clint doesn’t know what to make of that. “He made a point of reminding me that he’s my handler.”

“Of course he did,” she says. She puts her cup on the table between the cots and lies flat, pulling the blanket over her. “I’m taking you to the drop-off point at oh-four hundred,” she says.

“How much longer are you here?” he asks. He wonders if she could talk sense into Coulson.

“Until it’s done,” she says, which is her way of telling him it’s his mess to clean up.

*

The plane that picks him up at the tiny airfield is full of supplies. Natasha touches his face, and he kisses her on the forehead, and then he’s waving goodbye from the open door as the plane lifts off. Her parka whips around her as she lifts a hand in return.

He sleeps most of the ride back to base. When the plane doors open after landing, Fury is waiting for him.

“Quick turn around,” Fury greets. “You’ll debrief with Williams on the way to the new assignment.”

“Williams?” Clint asks. “I thought I was getting a full tour of all the handlers.”

Fury grunts, which is like a laugh from anyone else. “He did a dumbass thing, so we’re pairing him with a smartass to teach him a lesson.”

“Got any Hummels?” Clint asks. He nearly trips over his own feet when Fury pulls three from the pocket of his duster.

“Get me a picture of the nose trick, and I’ll buy you a beer,” Fury offers as he turns into an adjacent corridor.

“I still don’t like you,” Williams says when Clint steps into the plane, his duffel slung over his shoulder.

“I packed extra socks,” Clint says with a grin.

Williams smirks. “Bring it,” he replies.

Clint sits across from him and stretches, muscles still tight from the previous ride. “Fury says you’re getting my debrief on Siberia.”

“Yeah. You and Coulson have a domestic?” Williams asks.

Clint can tell it’s meant to be good-natured, but it still digs between his ribs and kicks him right in the lungs. “Came after me with a rolling pin,” he manages to get out. “And yet, I still love him.”

Williams doesn’t notice that his tone is off, that his hands are pressed flat on the arm rests. He pulls out a blank mission report and nods at Clint to start reporting. Clint reports, and when they’re finished, Clint takes out his phone and sends a text.

YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE.

B.

He doesn’t get a text back before they land, and he pushes the whole thing into a box in the back of his head so he can concentrate on the mission. “What are we up against?” he asks Williams after they’ve dumped their bags and ordered room service.

“Extraction,” Williams says. “One of ours went rogue and is holed up with the enemy. We need him back in one piece with most of his teeth.”

Clint looks over the blueprints and escape routes. “Who is this guy?”

“No one you know. It’s why you’re here. He’s local to the Ottawa office. His clearance level doesn’t even allow for him to know you actually exist.”

“Cool.” Clint shrugs when Williams gives him a look. “You know it’s cool to get to play ghost.”

“I’m really starting to think you have a permanent head injury,” Williams says, but there’s no heat in it. It’s just a statement.

“It’s because you’re not cool,” Clint tells him.

“Yeah, that’s the problem,” Williams says.

*

That night, Clint stays up watching game shows until Williams falls asleep. He gets the Hummel balanced on Williams’ nose, takes the picture, and goes to bed. When he climbs in, he discovers it’s been short-sheeted and filled with itching powder. When he gets out of the shower, he sends another text.

I LIKE WILLIAMS BETTER THAN YOU.

B.

The reply is immediate.

BULLSHIT.

C.

Clint’s chest clenches. “What the shit,” he mutters, wanting to punch the wall or call Coulson and just have it the fuck out. He strips the bed with more force than necessary, pulls the extra blanket from the open air closet, and goes to sleep.

He wakes up to Williams yelping. There a hard thump, a pause, and then Williams’ voice carries through the wall. “You are buying breakfast, or I am shaving off one of your eyebrows.”

“Accepted,” Clint replies and reaches for the phone to order room service. “Eggs?”

“And coffee.”

They eat in comfortable silence, both of them reviewing mission details. They leave at oh-nine hundred sharp, disguised as businessmen, Clint’s bow left behind in favor of a pistol and the crossbow that fits on his wrist.

Going in is too easy for Clint’s liking.

“We’re about to get screwed,” Williams says.

“Roger that,” Clint agrees.

They find the renegade agent. They threaten him appropriately, and they keep him between the two of them as they make for the exit.

Fifty yards from the door, a dozen men drop from the ceiling. Clint takes down two before one gets him in the upper arm with a knife. It’s a slash, straight across his bow-arm bicep and burns like a bastard. Clint pulls his pistol and shoots the man in the knee. He kills two more, gets another in the shoulder, and then it’s him, Williams, and the renegade agent, who looks appropriately terrified at the fact that two men just took out a dozen.

Clint walks over to the man he’d kneecapped. “We want him?” he asks.

“Why not?” Williams replies. There’s the sound of a chopper, and Williams raises his eyebrows. “I didn’t call that in.”

“Sure as hell wasn’t me, Sir,” Clint says. He levels his gun at the door, preparing an escape plan as his comm clicks on.

“If you shoot me, I will demote you to janitor,” Fury says over the line. “Report.”

“All clear, Sir,” Williams says. “We’ve got the renegade plus an inside man.”

“Two, actually,” Clint says. “Depends if you want a shoulder or knee.”

“Bring ‘em both,” Fury orders.

“Barton’s injured,” Williams reports. “We’ll need another set of hands.”

“Coming in,” Fury says, and a second later, the door is kicked open, a half-dozen agents coming in in defensive pattern.

Williams and Clint are cleared to board the chopper, the other agents taking care of the mess inside. Their duffels are strapped down, Clint’s bow case cushioned between them. They’re headed straight out, then.

The medic cleans and wraps Clint’s bicep while Williams briefs Fury. When Williams is done, Fury turns to Clint, eyebrows up. Clint pulls out his phone and brings up the picture of Williams and the Hummel.

“Outstanding,” Fury says.

“You are a dick,” Williams says.

“You sleep too hard,” Clint replies.

Fury throws back his head and laughs.

“Are we debriefing?” Williams grinds out, obviously ready to say some particularly unsavory things about Clint. Clint kind of wants to hear them.

“At base,” Fury answers. “I don’t need you to start throwing punches.”

“Punches if he’s lucky,” Williams mutters, but he lets Clint elbow him in the ribs good naturedly and responds with only a little too much force in return.

*

Sitwell’s waiting for them when they land back at base. He greets Fury and Williams with a nod, holds out a hand so Clint will stop and talk to him. “Tell me you called Coulson about that,” he says, gesturing to Clint’s bandaged arm.

“No,” Clint replies.

Sitwell raises an eyebrow. “Why the hell not?”

Clint raises his eyebrows in return. “He’s informed me he’s a Level 7 because he lives the job. I know a lost cause when I hear one.”

Sitwell goes fantastically red in the face. “God-fucking-damnit.” He turns on his heel. “With me,” he orders.

Clint falls into step without thinking. He follows Sitwell to Coulson’s office, stopping short at the door threshold. “I don’t think—”

But Sitwell isn’t paying him any attention. He is walking across the office, slamming his hands on Coulson’s desk, and saying, in a very deadly hiss, “The fuck is wrong with you, Phil, you lying asshole?”

Coulson looks up, placid, until he catches sight of Clint in the doorway. The mask cracks a tiny bit. Clint sees fear, but it’s not aimed at him. It’s aimed at Sitwell. “This is not—”

“Barton, get your ass in here and shut the damned door,” Sitwell says. Clint does so, but he stays pressed against the door, wondering how quickly things will explode.

Sitwell goes off like the fourth of July. “For fuck’s sake, Phil! He wants you! He’s made it ridiculously fucking clear, and you run off like a goddamn scared kid after telling me you’d fixed—”

“I don’t appreciate—” Phil starts standing and walking around his desk, but Sitwell overrides him.

“Cram it, shithead. I was the one who held your jacket when you yakked over the side of the carrier the first time it went up. Don’t give me that ice cold agent bullshit.”

“I made my decision—”

“Fuck your decision! You moped like a fucking teenager when you ran him off. Don’t think I didn’t notice. And then you fucking lied to me about it which tells me entirely too much—”

“I outrank you, Agent. I suggest you don’t forget it.”

Sitwell pauses at that. He straightens his suit jacket and adjusts his tie. “I haven’t forgotten it. I also haven’t forgotten that I have been on orders for four goddamn years to call you if Barton was reported injured.”

“What?!” Clint yelps. “Four years?”

“Since Budapest,” Sitwell confirms.

“Budapest!” Clint pushes off the door and stalks over to Coulson. Coulson doesn’t give ground, takes the chest-to-chest bump from Clint with the barest waver of his stance. “He means our Budapest, right? Because me and Natasha, that was six years ago. Is that why you don’t like Budapest? Because it made you have feelings?”

“Jasper,” Coulson says, voice deathly even, “get out of my office.”

“Fucking moron,” Sitwell mutters as he leaves. The door closes with a slam, and there’s a beep, signaling Sitwell’s put in a code to keep anyone below a certain clearance level from getting in unless Clint or Coulson opens the door.

They stare at each other, neither backing away from the toe-to-toe stance they have. It’s completely silent, save their breathing.

“Is that what happened?” Clint asks because he knows Coulson won’t ask first. “Did Budapest give you emotions?”

“Not the time we were in Budapest,” Coulson answers. His voice is quiet, almost a whisper. Something is breaking down behind his eyes, but his voice is flawlessly even. “The first Budapest. With you and Natasha. I watched you nearly die, and I gave you my blood. The second Budapest—”

“Our Budapest,” Clint says.

“The second Budapest,” Coulson repeats, “I watched you for two weeks, and then I didn’t want to stop.”

Clint can’t breathe for a second. It’s so honest and matter-of-fact like Coulson’s reading from a mission report. “And you didn’t say anything,” he says when Coulson doesn’t elaborate further.

“There was nothing to say. We have our jobs, and that’s it.”

“Bullshit. I know you better than that. You like jazz and reality television about shitty parenting and ghosthunters. You’ve read every bestseller in the last ten years including the Twilight series. You’ll eat any type of berry someone puts in front of you, and you own bootleg DVDs of all the Captain America newsreels.”

“We still have our jobs.”

“So?” Clint challenges. “You’ve apparently been in love with me for four fucking years without the world collapsing, so why not do something?”

“Because it’d be different,” Coulson says. “Because it’s one thing to ask Sitwell to do me a favor as a friend; it’s another to…” He trails off and the last of his defenses crumble away. He drops his head and breathes hard through his nose. Clint reads the vulnerability in the sharp line of his neck and wants to back him against the wall and kiss him as soft as he can.

“I’ve been in love with you forever,” Clint says. Coulson lifts his head slowly and meets his eyes. “Not forever, but a long fucking time,” he amends. “When you called when I was with Williams the first time, I hoped…and when I came back, and it got strange, I kept hoping, and then you shit all over me, and I stopped hoping, and I still did my job.”

“I know you did.”

“No,” Clint says, because Coulson’s assurance has no conviction behind it. “I did my fucking job. I did it without you at all. I did it with handlers who’ve never worked with me, and I did it exactly right.”

“I know,” Coulson says. “I saw the reports. Nice of you to recommend Javensen.”

“He’s good,” Clint says, distracted for a moment by the familiarity of the conversation. “And you can’t use the job as an excuse, okay? If you’re going to decide not to follow through when you’ve been wanting to for four fucking years, you can’t use the job.”

Coulson is quiet. He adjusts his shoulders and takes a step back. “I can’t do this.”

“The only one who actually believes that’s true is you,” Clint says. “I watched you take down two guys after dislocating your shoulder. Don’t give me that ‘can’t’ bullshit.”

“It’s not the same. There has to be a balance.”

“We have matching scars at this point. Jesus Christ, what else do you want?”

“I want to take a vacation with you,” Coulson says. “I want to sit down to a nice dinner and be able to turn off my phone. I want to be able to give you attention and time and care.”

“I want to sit on the couch in your quarters and watch bad tv,” Clint counters. “I want to order in Chinese and watch the delivery boy freak out when I meet him at the edge of the compound. I want to sit next to you at meetings and know that I get to see you in your pajamas at the end of the day.”

Coulson closes his eyes. “Christ,” he says. There is a fine shiver through his whole body, and Clint gives in and pushes against Coulson until Coulson hits the wall. “Clint,” Coulson breathes out.

“Phil,” Clint responds. He touches Phil’s face. Phil doesn’t flinch. “I’m going to kiss you,” he says. “Tell me I can kiss you.”

“And if I say no?”

“That’s it,” Clint says because no matter what anyone might say, he has learned some self-preservation in his life. “If you say no now, I will walk out of here, and when I come back in, it’s Agent Coulson and Agent Barton, and that’s it.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.” Clint feels fear shudder through him, but he stands his ground, six inches away from Phil, breathing his air and waiting to kiss him. Hoping to kiss him.

“I can’t,” Phil says.

“Either say no or don’t,” Clint tells him. “None of this ‘can’t’ bullshit.”

Phil breathes in. Clint forces himself not to move closer. “No,” Phil says. His eyes are closed.

“Okay,” Clint says. His insides feel like ice. He takes a step back, and suddenly Phil’s hand is on his wrist, pulling so that Clint’s backward momentum gets pushed forward until Clint hits his chest hard enough to push the air out of him.

“Don’t,” Phil says. “Please.”

“What the—”

“I’m taking you to dinner tomorrow night,” Phil says. He opens his eyes, and he stares Clint down until Clint stops trying to escape. “I am taking you to dinner,” he repeats. “A dinner with romantic inclinations.”

“And after?” Clint asks, barely daring to hope but knowing he can because Phil doesn’t make plans he won’t follow through on.

“You can kiss me.”

“How is it possible anyone thinks I’m the emotionally stunted asshole in this relationship?” Clint asks, angry and ecstatic in the same breath. “Why the hell can’t I kiss you now?”

“Because I’m the emotionally stunted one in this relationship,” Phil says. His grip on Clint’s wrist loosens. “And you have to go to medical to get your arm checked. Sitwell should have known better.”

“You feel free to lecture him,” Clint says. He presses his thumb to Phil’s mouth. “Please,” he says. “If I don’t, I think I might burst.”

“It’s a kiss, Clint,” Phil replies, exasperated but smiling against Clint’s thumb.

“I had to get reassurance from Natasha about romantic feelings.”

“And?”

“She thinks you having to give me blood is the worst memory you have.”

“It’s my worst memory of you,” Phil says. His lips brush Clint’s thumb as he talks. “And it’s my best memory of you because Natasha told me how you pulled yourself together with half your guts spilling out and saved yourself. And it’s my scariest memory of you because it’s the first time I looked at you and saw someone I wanted to fall in love with.”

“Fuck,” Clint breathes. “I have to kiss you for that. It’s in the handbook.”

“There’s a handbook?”

“Shut up,” Clint says, and he leans in, his thumb sliding from Phil’s lip down to his neck, his hand curling around the curve of it, and Clint kisses him, soft and hesitant and as careful as he can make it. Phil kisses back just as carefully, and Clint warms up from his toes up, the kiss staying just as soft, just as careful.

“Medical,” Phil murmurs against his mouth.

“In a minute,” Clint replies, still kissing him.

*

The doctor who looks him over in medical gets exasperated when Clint squirms as she starts to unwrap his arm. “How are you a sniper?” she asks.

“Practice,” Clint replies. The curtain flicks back, and Sitwell approaches the bed.

“Well?” he asks.

“It’s a clean, shallow cut. Won’t even need stitches,” the doctor replies as she swipes an iodine pad across Clint’s bicep. “He’ll need to keep it wrapped—”

“I am right here,” Clint interrupts.

“—for a couple of days,” the doctor continues without pausing, “and he shouldn’t be on the range until the scab sets properly. He needs to keep an eye out for inflammation or other signs of infection, and I want him back here in a week to check healing.”

“I am still right here,” Clint says.

The doctor picks up a syringe and pokes him in the arm. “Antibiotic, just in case,” she tells him. “And I’m telling Agent Sitwell because you have one of the worst records of aftercare of any agent on this base.”

“Do I win something?” Clint asks.

“No,” Sitwell says as he scribbles the diagnosis on the form he’s carrying. “Glad it’s not worse, Barton.”

“You and me both, Sir.” Clint waits for Sitwell to look up from the form. “And Sir?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ll let Coulson know the details.”

Sitwell doesn’t grin, but he definitely looks pleased. “I will shatter your kneecaps with a ball peen hammer if I ever have to play go-between again.”

Clint grins. “Yes, Sir.”

The doctor doesn’t even look phased. “If that’s it, Agent Sitwell, I’d like to get him out of here.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Thanks for your time.” Sitwell sees himself out with a wave to Clint. Clint sits still and grins until the doctor lets him go.

Clint walks to Coulson’s office and sticks his head in the door. Coulson’s in a meeting with another agent. He raises an eyebrow at Clint’s entrance. “No stitches. No range time until the scab sets in. Keep an eye out for infection, and Sitwell said something about a ball peen hammer,” he rattles off like he’s reporting mission stats. “When do I debrief?”

“Later,” Coulson says. “I’ll let you know.”

*

Clint spends the afternoon and early evening in his quarters, alternately resting and doing what exercise he can with an injured arm. He considers dropping by Coulson’s office to sit on the couch and chat while Coulson finishes reports, but he holds off. He’s certain Coulson will let him, but he’s not entirely certain he’ll be welcome, even with the agreement to have a ‘dinner with romantic inclinations’ tomorrow night. Coulson doesn’t like being off his game, and Clint knows that, as much as they’ve repaired between them today, Coulson’s probably still feeling the aftereffects.

His phone buzzes.

DEBRIEF IN TEN.

C.

Clint can’t help but grin. He doesn’t try to rein it in as he slips on his shoes and jogs to the elevator. He shares the ride up to Coulson’s office with a couple of junior agents who look terrified at how happy he is. When he gets to Coulson’s office, Coulson is alone and pouring a cup of coffee.

“Your smile is ridiculous,” Coulson says. He holds up the coffee pot.

“I don’t care,” Clint replies as he nods for Coulson to pour him a cup. He shuts the door behind him and sits on the couch, his usual spot for debriefs. Coulson walks over, hands him his coffee, and then sits at his desk.

“Go ahead,” Coulson says, picking up a pen. Clint goes, and Coulson takes down the appropriate information and when they’re finished, Clint stands up and walks across the office and signs his name. It’s like every other debrief right up until Coulson touches Clint’s hand. “Mission just came up. You’re headed out with Tomilson tomorrow. You’re going to help him oversee a new agent.”

Clint’s heart starts to hammer in his chest. “I swear to—” is as far as he gets before Coulson grips his wrist, stands up, and kisses him.

“This is why,” Coulson says, an inch from Clint’s mouth. “Because we’re going to spend a lot of time just missing each other.”

“I don’t know who convinced you it’s impossible to have a relationship on a busy schedule, but keep in mind I’m used to the schedule,” Clint replies, his heart still hammering but in a much better way than before. “Tell me this isn’t a feint. I need you to say it.”

Coulson—Phil—looks him directly in the eyes, everything showing in his eyes. Clint reads determination, a bit of fear, and clear affection. “This isn’t a feint. MacGregor, Javensen, and Williams all recommended you work with handlers with new agents who might have some authority issues, though I have no idea where they might think you’d have opinions on the matter.”

“Williams?” Clint asks, genuinely surprised.

“I told you he was good,” Coulson replies.

Clint grins. He twists his hand in Coulson’s grip so they’re holding hands. “So, I’m off with Tomilson tomorrow, huh?”

“Yeah. Shouldn’t last more than a few hours.”

“Back in time for dinner?” Clint wants to kiss Coulson again for the way his face smiles without his mouth moving at all.

“A late dinner.”

“Good enough for me.”

*

Tomilson informs Clint the next morning that the new agent is named Wilson. He’s a motor-mouth with noticeable scars running down one side of his face. Clint recognizes the shape and depth of them; his dad got him in the side with a broken beer bottle when he was five, and his own scars are still thin, white marks above his hip bone. He doesn’t try to bond with Wilson, but he does laugh when Wilson gives an astounding, filthy commentary on Bea Arthur and her importance as the true sexual center of Golden Girls as they wait for the mark to show.

“I probably shouldn’t have laughed,” Clint says as they wait for Wilson to come back from taking a headshot that Clint is completely impressed by. They’re sitting in a van marked “Flowery Dedications,” the side door wide open and the engine running.

“I think the kid needs it,” Tomilson replies. “He’s got an edge that makes me think he’ll go to the other side if we don’t keep him interested. What do you think?”

“I think he’s always going to have that mouth on him,” Clint tells him, “and he’s probably not going to take to a handler who tries the purely professional, respectful approach.”

Tomilson thinks for a few seconds. “You know Al?” he asks.

Clint grins. “The British woman, right? She’s got a mean streak.”

“Too much for him, you think?”

Wilson comes tumbling into the van, tripping over his feet but somehow landing on the bench seat in a position that looks graceful. “Pancakes?” he asks. “I could fucking murder some pancakes, and for a headshot like that, I think I’ve earned the blueberry syrup. And extra butter. And a beer. And a hooker.”

“No hookers,” Tomilson tells him.

“It doesn’t have to be a classy hooker.”

Clint bites the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. “Debrief, and then we’ll debate rewards for good behavior.”

“Good murder,” Wilson corrects. “Awesome murder.”

“Definitely Al,” Clint tells Tomilson, honestly a little spooked at the feral grin on Wilson’s face. “The sooner the better.”

Tomilson nods. “Agreed.”

Clint’s phone buzzes, and he reaches for it as Wilson tries to goad Tomilson into a round of “Kokomo.”

DEBRIEF WITH SITWELL. MEET ME IN MY QUARTERS AFTER.

C.

The only thing that keeps Clint from leering at his phone is Wilson’s impressively off-key rendition of “Kokomo.” Tomilson isn’t singing along, but he’s grinning and shrugs when Clint slides him a look.

ARE WE SURE WILSON’S PLAYING WITH A FULL DECK?

B.

The response is quick.

ASKS THE MAN WHO USES A BOW.

C.

Clint lets himself laugh at that, shakes his head when Tomilson raises an eyebrow in question, and joins in when Wilson switches to “Help Me, Rhonda.”

*

“Did he shoot him?” Sitwell asks when Clint walks into his office.

“Dead on in the eye. I’m a little jealous.”

“Did he do anything crazy?” Sitwell asks. “Don’t sit down,” he adds when Clint goes to flop on the couch.

“He sang a good portion of the Beach Boys’ discography on the ride back,” Clint says.

“You think he’s going to snap and murder us all?”

Clint considers it for a minute. “Maybe? He’s definitely got some bloodlust. Tomilson and I think Al would be a good fit for him if we want to try and avoid a bloodbath.”

“We do,” Sitwell deadpans. “All right. You’re debriefed. Get out.”

“That’s it?” Clint’s surprised because Sitwell is usually just as detail-oriented as Coulson.

“Coulson locked up his office at four. A couple of junior agents were concerned he’d died or something. I’m not delaying whatever he’s planning more than I have to. Go.”

Clint goes. He stops at his quarters to throw on jeans and a button-down and swap out his boots for dress shoes. There’s a semi-quality bottle of wine in his fridge he picked up on a whim and hasn’t gotten around to drinking. He tucks it under his arm as he takes the stairs down two levels below his own to Coulson’s quarters, pausing outside of Coulson’s door to stare at the numbers stuck on the door and letting himself enjoy, for a moment, the anticipation of what’s about to happen.

He knocks.

Coulson—Phil, Clint reminds himself. He can call him Phil—answers the door. He’s in jeans and a thick-knit sweater, barefoot. He has a dish towel in one hand, and the smell of something spicy wafts around him. “Come in,” he says, stepping to one side.

Clint does. He pauses just inside the door and takes in the space. He’s never been here, but he’s not surprised it’s a similar layout to his own quarters. The living and kitchen area blend into one another, separated by the kitchen island. There’s a short hallway, and Clint knows the bedroom and bathroom are across from one another at the end of it. The couch looks like it will swallow him whole. The entertainment center is insane, and there are books on every surface.

“Look familiar?” Phil asks.

“Just a little. I think you have more books,” Clint answers. He watches Phil walk around him to the kitchen and pick up a wooden spoon stained dark red. “I brought wine,” he says, holding up the bottle. “I don’t know if I have a mission tomorrow, but I figure if we don’t drink it tonight, we can save it.”

“Corkscrew’s in the first drawer here,” Phil says, gesturing with his free hand as he stirs a pot. “You’re off field work until your arm heals up, and I’m off tomorrow, so open it up.”

“I liked the Tomilson gig,” Clint says as he opens the drawer. “Are there more of those coming up?”

“Only as we get new agents.” Phil puts down the spoon, walks over beside Clint, and opens the cupboard to Clint’s left as Clint starts working the corkscrew. “You were the test run.”

“I liked it,” Clint says. “Wilson’s a little unhinged, but I think he’ll be an asset.”

“Good to hear.” Phil puts two wine glasses on the counter, takes the corkscrew from Clint’s hand, and kisses the living hell out of him.

Clint responds the only way he can, by grabbing two handfuls of Phil’s sweater and pulling him in close as he kisses him right back. “So, this is a go?” he asks when Phil pulls away. Clint doesn’t let him get far, keeps his hands on Phil’s sweater to keep him near.

“If you want,” Phil says.

“If I want,” Clint scoffs. “Jesus. You look like you fell out of GQ, and you’re making me dinner for our first date. Yeah, I think I want.” Phil’s smile is soft and pleased, and Clint kisses the edge of it because it is ridiculous what it does to his insides. “Who was it who made you think I wouldn’t want?”

Phil works his mouth back and forth like he’s considering not saying anything. Clint’s not going to push if he doesn’t want to share; he’s curious, not an asshole. “Michael,” Phil says. “You don’t know him.”

“He’s a dick,” Clint declares.

“He’s not,” Phil says. “He’s a teacher.”

“I don’t give a shit if he saves puppies from trees; he messed with you. I don’t like him.”

Phil shakes his head. “That is not—”

“Shut up,” Clint says. “I don’t want to be rational. I want to be crazy ass in love with you.”

Phil goes quiet, the barest flush working its way up his neck. “Isn’t it a little early for those kinds of declarations?” he asks in a deadpan.

“I made that declaration two days ago,” Clint says.

“I haven’t said it back,” Phil points out.

“You didn’t want to stop looking at me,” Clint replies. “That is a lot more telling than a declaration of love. Also, there’s the thing where you’re making me dinner on the first date.”

“Budapest was our first date,” Phil says as he steps away from Clint. He walks over to the stove and stirs the pot again.

“Is that the romantic story we’ll tell the junior agents?” Clint asks. Phil slants him an amused look, and Clint laughs. “I’ll do it,” he promises. “If Budapest was our first, then Brazil was our second, and Israel was our third.”

“Okay,” Phil agrees.

“I loved you in Israel,” Clint says. “You were gorgeous in Israel.” This time, the flush is more noticeable. Clint walks the three steps to be at Phil’s side and watches the flush fade from up close. “I love you right here,” he adds when Phil doesn’t say anything. “I just…goddamnit, Phil, just tell me I can stay right here, and that’s it. I’m in. We’re a go. Just tell me you’re giving this a fair shot, and I won’t leave until you kick me out.”

“If I send you upstairs after dinner, does that count?” Phil asks, but there’s a smirk in his eyes.

“Depends, do I get to make out with you on the couch before I go?”

“I don’t make Bolognese from scratch for anything less.”

“Yeah, that won’t count.”

Phil laughs like he did in Israel, and the last spot of tension in Clint’s chest falls away. “Tell me,” he says.

“I’m not kicking you out,” Phil says. “I’ll try, Clint. I’ll try my best.”

Clint knows Phil’s best. Phil’s best is guaranteed success. “I will, too,” he says. “We’ll do this.” He kisses Phil’s temple and uncorks the wine, and pours them each a glass, and they toast without saying a word.

*

Four months later, Clint’s out with Williams, gets four broken ribs and a shiner like he hasn’t had since Natasha first trained him in hand-to-hand. When he gets back to base, he goes straight to medical and lets them tape him back together, and then he goes to Phil’s office. There’s a note on the door.

DOWNSTAIRS

He goes, letting himself into Phil’s quarters with the key code Phil gave him three months ago. Phil and Sitwell are sitting at the kitchen table, playing chess and swearing at each other.

“Williams called in your ribs while you were asleep on the flight,” Phil says. “You need aspirin?”

“Nah, they gave me the good stuff upstairs,” Clint says. “Hey, Jasper.”

“Clint,” Sitwell replies, swearing as Phil takes his bishop.

Clint walks into the bedroom, steals Phil’s blue flannel pajama bottoms, and pads back into the living room without a shirt. Sitwell’s already gone, and Phil is setting a cup of tea and a mission report form on the coffee table. Clint sits on the couch and lets it swallow him whole as Phil inspects his shiner and kisses him just above the bruise.

“Go ahead,” Phil says as he settles next to Clint. Clint reports, eyes closed. When he finishes, he signs his name, and Phil tucks the report under a walking guide of Portland. He leans over and kisses Clint softly on the mouth. “You need anything?” he asks.

“Just stay here,” Clint says, and Phil does.
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