fics_by_maple: (Avengers)
[personal profile] fics_by_maple
To Say His Name by [livejournal.com profile] maple_mahogany
(15112 words)
Fandom: The Avengers (2012), Marvel Avengers Movies Universe
Rating: Mature
Relationships: Clint Barton/Phil Coulson

Summary:

Phil recruits Clint Barton to SHIELD and falls for him.
Professionalism is more a nice ideal than a reality with SHIELD agents.
Barton lets out a tense laugh. “You've got all the toys, don't you?”
“I try not to brag.”





He hasn’t even met Clint Barton yet, and while Phil’s face doesn’t show it, he’s deeply impressed. He can’t hear them over the roar of the crowd, but Barton and Logan look like they’re talking while they fight in the cage. Barton fights with extraordinary skill and Phil thinks Logan looks a little sorry when he delivers the final blow that keeps Barton down.

Only instead of Barton’s body being dragged out of the cage and dumped in the back alley, Logan half carries him, an arm around his back, and deposits Barton into a booth, shoving a bucket of ice and a drink at him.

Phil feels positive about his objective as he approaches, knowing full well how much he stands out among the flannel shirts and trucker hats in his black suit.

Tension firms across Logan's face when he sees Phil and he stands. It's an impressively intimidating look.

“You. Pretty sure I told you to fuck off a couple years ago,” Logan snarls. He puffs up tall and glowers but he doesn't advance or make any threat with his hands, either his fists or the retracted blades.

“You did,” Phil answers with a little unconcerned shrug. Phil maintains eye contact and keeps his chin up, but he lets his body shift and sway at ease as he speaks. “But I’m not here to speak with you, Mr. Logan.” Phil glances around him. “I'd like to speak with Mr. Barton.”

Phil likes to open with information that people don't expect him to have. It usually buys him an audience for a few minutes if nothing else. Barton had been announced in the cage as Ronin, not even as Hawkeye, so Phil's use of his name catches their notice.

Phil figures Logan must have a pretty accurate guess as to what SHIELD might want with Barton since Phil approached him a couple years ago. Logan grunts with what sounds like interest. He raises a questioning eyebrow at Barton, who has a bar towel of ice held to his right eye. He assesses Phil and then shrugs.

“Good luck with that,” Logan says, and it's not clear whether he's speaking to Phil or to Barton, or even if he's being sarcastic or sincere, but Phil chooses to take it as encouragement.

“Glad to see you're well, Mr. Logan!” Phil calls as he walks away, a path clearing ahead of him as he goes.

Phil turns then and introduces himself to Barton, name, title and all six words of the agency. He offers a business card but doesn't extend a handshake.

Barton gives him a wary but amused look, takes the card and nods for Phil to sit across from him. “I’m not sure I caught all of that, Mister, but I hope you’re not here talk to me about my taxes. I filed for an extension, I swear.” The over-the-top look of innocence Barton puts on is ridiculous.

Phil smiles, rolling with the wisecrack and it's only partly in an effort to be disarming, he is genuinely amused. Clint Barton is beaten and bruised after a grueling fight with Wolverine but he's still got a sense of humor. Phil respects that.

“With your history of tax evasion, Mr. Barton, I wouldn't recommend you ever take a meeting with the IRS. That was an impressive match, by the way.”

“You sure you saw the whole thing?” Barton laughs and squints at him through his left eye, keeping the ice held to his right.

“You went a full twelve minutes in a cage match with Wolverine.” Phil says the name softly. “That's pretty impressive in my book. Though considering you knew who he was going into it, maybe not the best judgment.”

Barton chuckles, an easy going 'heh heh' kind of laugh that's unexpected from such a rugged looking guy. Case profiles never include the little details like what a person's laugh sounds like. Phil loves discovering the details for himself.

“Good judgment isn't my strong suit, for sure.” Barton wipes at his mouth with the corner of the towel and looks at the blood smeared on it. “Yeah, I've known Logan since I was a kid, so.”

Barton doesn't say that they're friends. Phil tries to connect the dots, wonders if they met at the circus. The so-called freaks there are often just people with true mutations and not human deformities at all. The circus would be a good place for mutants like Logan to blend, to be around others.

“And I'll guess that with Logan's ability to regenerate you can practice hand to hand combat knowing that you won't actually hurt your opponent. That's smart.” After a beat he adds, “shows compassion.”

Barton's shy smile and the way he looks across the bar confirms it for Phil. Here he's an assassin for hire and yet he's embarrassed at being caught out about not wanting to hurt a practice partner. Phil is so fucking charmed, he didn't expect that at all.

“Okay, you obviously know who I am. And Logan, too, which isn't easy. I suppose it's too much to hope that you just wanted to buy me a drink?”

Phil knows Barton's flirting is just an angle, a cut to the chase, but Phil lets himself blush and darts his eyes to the side for a second before looking back up at him.

“Actually, I'm here to offer you a position.”

“Oh, well now if you want to talk positions already...” He flips over Phil's contact card. “...Agent Phil Coulson. You're definitely going to have to buy me a drink first.”

Phil doesn't take the bait a second time. Barton thinks flirting is a way to throw Phil off his game, and unfortunately it's too close to working. There's something comfortable and almost sweet about the way he says those things that makes Phil want to believe he might actually mean it.

“Mr. Barton, I'm here to offer you a job.”

“Yeah? What, the strategic home thingy of yours wants to put a hit out on someone?”

“SHIELD. And no, we don't want to arrange a contract with you. We're offering you employment. A long term arrangement.”

Phil tries to prattle off a short list of SHIELD's assets, resources and technology, things that might entice him, before he loses Barton's interest.

“Coulson. I'll tell ya, you do a good job making it sound good, but I never was one for the Boy Scouts.” Barton shakes his head and looks like he's going to bolt. Phil chides himself, wondering if mention of SHIELD's assets sounded like a threat.

“You were offered a contract on The Black Widow,” Phil says quickly. “Am I right?”

Barton settles in his seat, expression harder now, but more interested. “What do you know about that?”

“Just that your client has been shopping for someone who could do it for awhile.”

He looks at Phil, assessing him, trying to figure out if Phil is putting on an act or if he’s for real. Phil sits still for it, letting him look. He is putting on a little bit of an act, but it’s no less real.

“Do you have any reason I shouldn't do it?”

“No,” Phil tells him honestly. “She's posed a threat to our organization more than once. Occasionally she's been an unwitting ally. She's completely unpredictable, she’s got no affiliation. We'd approach her, but we've never been able to locate her.”

Barton's expression changes then, one side of his mouth and cheek indicating the slightest smirk. It’s smugness is what it is.

“So you've found her then?” Phil says.

Barton presses the back of his hand along his jaw, testing the swelling and taking a moment to consider what he wants to say. Phil doesn't rush him.

“You seem like a nice guy Coulson. Like you know the business.”

For the first time, Phil honestly doesn't know where this is going so he says nothing.

“Guess you know I only accept certain contracts?”

“No one is questioning your motives, Barton. You have a reputation. Human traffickers, arms runners, serial psychopaths. It's a specific kind of hit list.”

“Right? I don't take pleasure in it. Well, okay, I do. Because they're fuckbags who deserve it and I'm not sorry. But if you find your way into my crosshairs, you've done something to deserve it.”

Phil has no idea why he's suddenly the recipient of this confession but he feels almost honored by it. “That's what I understand about you, yes.”

“Black Widow's history is pretty bad, I get that. I can't find any reason why she doesn't belong in my crosshairs. And yet...”

“Have you ever met her?” Phil asks, because reports are conflicting on that, but people in their line of work would likely meet.

“We know each other." It's the most ambiguous thing Barton has said yet but Phil feels like it's hiding the most meaning.

Phil wishes he had something useful to offer. All the resources he has at his disposal and he's got nothing that can help Barton. Phil had expected arrogance and conceit. Instead Barton's turned out to be an assassin with a heart. Phil has the quiet realization that he’s got more than professional respect for this guy and will be reevaluating everything he thought was his 'type' later.

“I wish I could help you. I really do. But we have to trust our instincts sometimes.”

“All the time,” Barton amends. Phil knows fake smiles and the one Barton gives him is anything but. He slides out of the booth with grace, in spite of the protective hand he has pressed to his ribs. “It's been a pleasure, Coulson.”

“Barton, wait.” Phil tells himself it's the hunch of being a good recruiter and nothing to do with Barton's big sad eyes and pouty-lipped smile that has him pulling a pen out of his jacket's inside pocket (he's never fallen for a pouty-lipped smile in all his life!) and writes his direct number on the back of his card. The card that Barton was about to leave on the table.

“With the Widow and everything, it might get difficult. So just in case. Any phone, anywhere in the world, you can reach me with that number.”

Barton looks at the card, and then at Phil, and pockets the card as he turns away. To no one in particular he says, “didn't buy me a drink, but I got digits.”

Cocky bastard.

Barton disappears entirely after that. Phil feels responsible because he spooked Barton, showing up like that, knowing his name, knowing about Black Widow. He replays the encounter wondering if he should have played it differently but never comes up with a satisfactory answer. He just hopes that Barton isn't putting himself at greater risk by going so far off the grid.

Phil's also certain that whatever attraction he thought he had for Barton was just a result of the energy of the cage match. The thrill of the job. It's not the kind of thing that will stick.

Two hours into a mind-numbing meeting with the Director and Hill, his mobile alerts with an unknown caller. Fury glares him but he takes the call anyway.

“This is Coulson.”

“Damn, you said any phone, anywhere in the world. You weren't kidding, were you?”

Barton's voice is playful but he's obviously covering the strain of adrenaline, maybe pain.

“Where are you, Barton?”

“Hungary.” Barton sounds relieved. “Kind of in a tight spot here.”

“Keep the line open.” Phil approaches a communications agent's console and tells him to trace the call. “I'm tracking your location now.”

Barton lets out a tense laugh. “You've got all the toys, don't you?”

“I try not to brag.” The tracking indicator bounces around the screen and then begins blink. “I’ve got a lock on you. Barton, I want to be sure, is this - do you want to come in?” Phil asks.

“Thing is, Coulson, I was wondering if your club gave a signing bonus if you bring a friend to join up, too? You know, like a fruit basket or a free iPod?”

Phil takes a second to parse the meaning. “Is... is Black Widow with you?”

“She doesn't belong on my list.”

“You sure about that?”

Barton pauses. “No. But I'm going with my instinct.”

That's good enough for Phil, because he's going with his instinct too.

~

Phil had told Barton they had to stay alive for another six hours and that he would be there to collect them. Barton had given a weak laugh, sounded worried and definitely desperate when he said, “sure, no problem, Coulson.”

The Quinjet lands right in the middle of the street outside the building they're pinned down in. The thermal images of dozens of combatants on the monitor screen scatter just before the hatch opens. Phil puts on his sunglasses and walks down the plank with a squad of fully armed agents in tactical gear taking up defensive positions in a wide circle around him. It was a big, shiny show of force and Phil hoped everyone was watching.

There's almost a full minute of eerie shootout-at-high-noon silence in the street, before a door opens. Slowly Barton and a woman Phil has only seen in reports as Black Widow, emerge. He has a knife and she has a handgun and Phil can't tell who is holding who up as they both limp towards him, arm in arm, tattered and bloodied. Phil's instinct is to help them, carry them if he has to, but he knows it's not wise to rush affection on the feral.

“Jesus, Coulson, I didn't know you were bringing a parade,” Barton jokes, but his voice is wrecked and his eyes are glassy. Both of them are sending nervous looks around them, at the well armed agents and beyond.

“Barton.” Phil nods to him and takes off his sunglasses. “Ms. Romanov, my name is Phil Coulson. On behalf of SHIELD I would like to offer you both safe transport and medical as you require. I guarantee that none of our operatives will attempt to disarm you or detain you against your will. I would like to ask, however, that you not harm any of our personnel. Unless it's Agent Sitwell.” Phil nods over his left shoulder where he knows Sitwell is standing. “He's not that valuable.”

A flicker of surprise and amusement registers on both of their tired faces and Phil is pleased to see that neither appear to be irreparably injured.

“I can work with that, Phil. Call me Natasha,” she says. Her voice is strong and deep but too measured and steady for how beat up she looks. Phil doesn’t know the woman, but he thinks maybe establishing first name familiarity between them is like making a pact.

“Do we have to sell our souls to SHIELD now?” Barton asks. “Sign in blood, spit-handshake or something?”

“We'll discuss the conditions of your employment after you're rested and well. And then just a lock of hair for the ritual.”

Their dual expressionless blinks are enough to make the snark worth it for Phil, that and Sitwell's disapproving huff. A slight tilt of his head and a raised eyebrow are all he gives them to figure out that he's kidding.

Phil drops the attitude then. They look like they're about to pass out and he is actually worried about them. As gently and respectfully as he can, he says, “if you'd like to follow me, please?”

Barton, Natasha, and the entire extraction team file behind him up the plank into the belly of the jet, and just before the hatch closes Phil puts on his sunglasses against the wind of the engines and stands tall, letting everyone who is hiding out of sight see him. Phil looks around at the buildings and windows and wills the world to know they're with me now.

~

Phil keeps his promise. They keep their weapons and they’re invited, always with a clear option to refuse. They’re never even separated from each other. Phil sits next to them as an undeclared guard when they fall asleep propped against each other on the flight back to base. He keeps a discreet distance but accompanies them through medical and answers every one of their questions honestly. He makes it clear that while they work for SHIELD, Barton will never be made to kill against his conscience, and Natasha will never be expected to use sex as a means to accomplish a mission. Phil has brought a lot of people into SHIELD, not just agents, but scientists, diplomats, and specialists of unimaginable ilk and he’s never felt as proud or protective of new recruits as he does about these two.

“Do we go to some kind of boot camp now?” Natasha asks.

“Yeah. Are you our drill sergeant?” Barton asks. “You want to see how many push-ups I can do?”

They both look surprisingly eager at the idea. Phil almost laughs, they’d chew right through any boot camp in the world, already outclassing the Navy Seals, SAS or any special force in existence. He’s a little sorry to disappoint them.

And he’s sorry he can’t take Barton up on his offer to show off those push-ups. Phil has no doubt he does them spectacularly.

“No, no. You two are far beyond anything like that. You’ll have several weeks of orientation with SHIELD’s technology, communications, weaponry and the laws that we work within.”

“And the laws that we work around?” Natasha asks.

Yeah, she gets it. “There are a few perks of the job,” Phil agrees. “We also have excellent coffee and doughnuts.”

Barton lets out that quiet ‘heh-heh’ chuckle that Phil likes so much and says “well, hell, you could have just told us that right up front. Saved some time.”



~

Phil puts off all meetings and assignments to stay at division while they begin SHIELD training. Fury gives him a long hard look in the video conference when he tells him so.

“Well that’s sweet, Coulson,” he says. “I have a dentist appointment next week, will you come and hold my hand, too?”

“I’ll send you a teddy bear, sir.”

Fury lets out a single bark of a laugh and shakes his head. “Just get them in the field soon. We need them.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Anything else?”

“Can we transfer Sitwell to Greenland?”

Probably no one else could tell, but Phil knows there’s a smirk there. “See you soon, Phil.”

“Good night, sir.” He swipes the window on his touch screen closed and then proceeds to lose hours to catching up on a backlog of memos and files until he realizes the letters he’s reading are beginning to reverse and jump out of place. He tosses his reading glasses on his desk and rubs his eyes and stretches and finally realizes that he needs a break.

The mess hall is dark at this time of night with a few low lights along the wall near the coffee machines but otherwise it has that hollow feeling of a large empty place intended for many people. There’s a single light shining down on Barton from above where he sits alone at the end of a long table. He's bent low over the white-blue glow of a tablet with hard copy case files stacked around him. Barton's shoulders are hunched and he has an elbow on the table cupping his forehead as he reads. The unmistakable projection of discomfort makes a dormant nurturing urge in Phil spring to life. He always looks after his staff, everyone under his command, if not directly by him then through delegation. He never forgets that people (particularly the people who have dedicated their lives and careers to SHIELD) need time in their life to rest, play, even love, but it's an academic acknowledgment for him. He thinks of it like a checklist of what agents need to get their job done:

-Reliable intel
-Proper training
-Adequate supplies
-Mental, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment ...Check.

He sometimes forgets to apply to the checklist to his own needs. Yet here and now Phil can imagine himself walking over and squeezing the tension out of Barton's shoulders. Whose emotional fulfillment that would apply to, he couldn’t say.

He lets his footfalls slap loudly on the floor to announce his presence and Barton shifts in his seat. He doesn’t turn to look at Phil, just resettles, like he knows who it is.

Phil bypasses the coffee machines and finds the things to prepare a pot of tea in the kitchen.

“Is... is that an actual teapot?” Barton says, when Phil sets the tray on the table. “I don’t have to wear a tie for this, do I?” Barton jokes but he sounds drained.

“Not at all. But you have to extend your pinkie finger while you hold your teacup.”

Barton gives him a tired look but it slowly shifts into a smile. There are dark circles under his eyes, and the subtle lines of age and hard life are in strong relief in this light. Phil smiles back at him for a moment or two longer than he means to before he remembers himself. He doesn’t ask if Barton wants, or even if he likes tea, but he makes them both a cup. Barton watches him stir in sugar and milk before sliding it over to him.

“Tea, huh?” Barton says. He yawns, sets down the file he’s been reading and scrubs both hands over his face and up through his hair.

“You look like you could probably use something stronger but I think there’s something about having a late night cup of tea, uh, with a friend.” Phil adds the last bit quietly, cautiously, so Barton can ignore it if he wants to.

“And good tea by the smell of it.”

Phil shrugs a shoulder. “We end up giving most of our lives to this place. There’s no allowance for nights, weekends or holidays. I think it’s worthwhile to have quality things when you can.”

“Yeah, I can see why,” Barton says, closing the file he’s been looking at and reaching for his tea.

Phil looks at the case number. “Ah, that one is on-going. We add to it and cross reference with the digital file as needed.”

“This is just, I mean all of it is...” Barton cradles his teacup with both hands and slides down in his chair. “I’ve known mutants and what they can do is already amazing, a gift, I think. But some of this, it’s like magic, right? It’s not me being stupid to think that?”

“You’re not even a little bit stupid. That information is for real.”

“And the other stuff, actual aliens?”

“There’s some speculation there, but yes. Apparently.”

“It’s just, it’s a lot to take in, you know?” Barton sips his tea almost unconsciously and then raises eyebrows in surprise. Phil nods and raises his cup in a toast. He’s far more pleased that Barton likes his tea than prudence calls for.

“It is. But there’s no rush. You’re getting a crash course here, give it time.” Director Fury is maybe in a little bit of a rush, but Phil isn’t going to mention that.

“And then there’s these fucks.” Barton sets his tea down and pulls a stack of files towards him. “Who don’t deserve oxygen.”

“Unfortunately that stack of files is always endless.”

“Is that my job then? To kill them?” Barton keeps his face neutral, doesn’t indicate how he feels about that.

Phil sets his cup down. “That order does come down sometimes. But we don’t make a habit of that sort of thing and I don’t take it lightly.”

Barton nods. “If you tell me to, I will.”

“I know you will.” He appreciates the declaration even if it sounds a bit more like a personal allegiance to him rather than to the agency, but Phil doesn’t think this is an inappropriate time to address it.

They don’t talk for a few minutes. It’s quiet, nothing but the sound of distant hum of machinery and their breathing. It’s not an awkward silence though. Phil stares into middle space, feeling worn out but not tired enough to sleep. The kind of weariness that tons of paperwork and not enough physical exertion creates. He wonders if Barton would crack on the innuendo of physical exertion if he could hear Phil’s inner monologue.

He finds himself watching Barton’s fingertips as they move over the files, the way he frowns as he reads. Phil could easily prop his chin on his hand and watch Barton do anything. For hours. He’s finding he’s less affronted by this torch he’s carrying for Barton and more intrigued by it. Barton’s attractive, sure, but there’s no shortage of attractive men working around Phil. Even considering Barton’s physique (his arms, his ass, seriously) there’s something more about him that has captured Phil’s attention. Barton makes him laugh, even if he doesn’t actually laugh, he makes Phil feel lighter, better. He just wants to be around him. Like a friend.

“Is there more tea?” Barton asks. If he noticed Phil looking at him, he doesn’t show it.

“Yes.” He takes Barton’s cup and pours him another. It may not be a shoulder rub, a notion he will take to the grave, but making tea for him will suffice.

“I’ve never had tea like this before. Where’d you learn to make it?”

“My parents drank tea. But I didn’t appreciate when I was younger. The first time I travelled abroad I had tea with this old woman who had been a spy for MI6,” Phil begins, and tells Barton stories about his life he hasn’t thought about for years.

~

“Coulson!”

Phil can not stand the way Sitwell’s tone of haughty accusation makes him hate the sound of his own name. It’s not that Jasper isn’t a good agent, he’s brilliant at statistics, at analysis, and he means well, but he’s terrible at parsing the subtle dynamics of human interaction. Phil works almost exclusively in the subtle dynamics of human interaction so he has little tolerance for a grown man who whines.

Phil exhales through his nose and keeps walking, just pretends he didn’t hear.

“Coulson!” Sitwell catches up actually stands directly in Phil’s path. “Security sensors have been showing someone moving through the vents.”

Phil just stares at him for a second and hopes he disappears.

He doesn’t.

“Are you suggesting we’re being infiltrated, Agent Sitwell? Are we under attack? Dear god, man, you have the authority to sound the alarm.”

Sitwell barely prevents himself from rolling his eyes. Phil is impressed, he’ll have to try harder.

“You know who it is, one of your new pet agents.”

“Do you mean one of SHIELD’s highly trained special operatives, both of whom will outrank our security clearance, or definitely yours anyway, in a matter of weeks? What exactly is your concern, Agent Sitwell?”

“It’s... well it’s unauthorized, for one”

“Is there even a protocol for permission to access the vents? Should we draft an official memo for access to the vents? Feel free to do so if you’re inclined, I have actual work to do.”

“Coulson,” Sitwell drops his voice and angles himself a little closer, like convincing Phil they share some camaraderie will make Phil forget he thinks Sitwell is a dolt. “It’s suspicious, don’t you think? I mean come on, it’s just weird. Why would anyone do that?”

“Weird? Are you paying attention at all to what goes on around here? We operate in weird. If Agent Barton wants to fire grapes off your head from the nearest air vent using his bow string while wearing a tutu, he has my blessing.”

“Why are you letting them get away with everything?”

“Because they’ve given us everything.” Phil lets Sitwell gawp for a second then sharpens his glare a little until Sitwell steps aside.

When Phil rounds the corner at the end of the hall, the loud chatter of the control room hub fades. It should have dawned on him sooner, in light of the conversation he just had, but it’s not until he thumbs over the security scan to his office that he realizes he’s being watched from above.

“Come on in if you want,” he says, leaving his door open.

He hears an impact of feet and a slight grunt, and when he turns around Barton is standing up from a crouched position on the floor. He strolls into Phil’s office, more like prowling really, and he’s wet with perspiration, his hair sticking in dark threads to his forehead, wearing a sleeveless shirt and - Phil’s swallows hard before speaking.

“What can I do for you, Agent Barton?”

“Boss. Can I acquisition some grapes. Maybe a tutu?”

Phil smiles and he tosses the files in his hand onto the stack already on his desk. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Hey, Coulson. For real though...” Barton looks like he’s trying to control a fidget, kind of nods towards to the open door. “Are you catching grief about me and Nat being here?”

“Not at all.” Phil stops smiling then and waits until Barton looks up from where he’s eyeing the floor. “Agent Sitwell has been a pain in my ass since he promoted. That had nothing to do with you and more because he’s still learning how to be a supervisor.” Phil appreciates the pretense that Barton’s asking after his feelings, but Phil’s concerned about Sitwell undermining Barton’s confidence. “SHIELD is very fortunate to have you and Agent Romanov. You both have the agency’s complete support, I hope you know that.”

Barton opens his mouth, but reconsiders and says nothing. His whole body loosens, he kind of wriggles all over like he’s shaking off tension and then he starts touching and flicking at everything lined on the edge of Phil’s desk. He knocks around the pens standing in their cup, taps on a stapler head and fans the loose edge of a stack of sticky notes, and then his eyes slide up to Phil’s, giving him the smallest smile.

Phil drops into his chair behind the desk, still fixed on Barton’s eyes and ah hell. He is a goddamn professional adult, he reminds himself, a leader of a clandestine international espionage and intelligence bureau, he should not be affected by the puppy eyes of a world class assassin.

No, he remembers, the only thing that grieves Phil about Barton and Natasha is the fact that he sleeps in her quarters. Phil knows that won’t last forever, can’t, once they begin going on assignments. The truth is, regardless of what Phil’s frustrated libido thinks, the two of them are perfect together, and as much as it eats at Phil’s heart that he won’t get to have that part of Barton’s life, he won’t begrudge Barton sharing it with someone who’s earned it.

“So.” Phil changes the subject. “Do we have good vents here?”

Barton beams and sets a pen spinning on its side like a top on Phil’s desk. “Coulson, you have great vents.”

~

Director Fury makes his rounds at SHIELD installations across the country like he usually does, only this time Phil knows he’s gone out of his way to check in with Phil on his current extended detail.

“Hope you don’t mind me crashing your little vacation here, Coulson.”

Phil snorts. Vacation indeed. Being swamped in eighteen month’s worth of unclosed case files, overseeing the advanced training of a dozen promoting agents and incoming specialists has been a self-imposed punishment and Fury knows it.

“Not at all, sir. Can I offer you a mai tai?”

Fury grins and strolls down the corridor. His stride is longer than Phil’s but he keeps pace easily.

“How are the new people working out?”

“Very well. There are four junior agents promoting, the rest are transfers from Naval Intelligence, CIA, STRIKE and then the two special operatives.”

“And how about those two? They haven’t killed anyone?”

“Not yet. Though I did give them open season on Sitwell.”

“Of course you did. I like Jasper. Someone around here has to give you shit.”

Phil makes an undignified snort, mainly for Fury’s amusement. He wouldn’t want to deprive the Director his joy at needling Phil.

“Are they assimilating to regulation life?”

“As well as can be assessed, I believe so, sir. But they are spies, so they’re experts at fitting in --you wouldn’t know anything about that.”

Fury tilts his head to give Phil a long one-eyed glare. Even when Phil knows it comes with a sarcastic edge, he’s glad he’s on Nick Fury’s good side.

“Don’t give me that shit.” He makes a pointed glance at Phil’s suit. “How many of them just think you’re a paper-pushing, office-guy?”

Phil resolutely doesn’t smile, just flexes his shoulder a little like it’s no big deal. “All of them, as far as I can tell.” He hasn’t done any training since he’s been here, hasn’t discussed that part of his past with Barton. Natasha though, she might guess. It’s not that he wants to misrepresent himself but he never wanted to be a drill sergeant either. His teams need to obey the commands that come across the comm line because they trust his decisions not because they’re intimidated by his combat skill.

“You’re a sneaky son of a bitch, Phil Coulson.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I just wish I could be there when they find out what you really are. That’s my favorite part.”

“Sir, how’s the progress on the Helicarrier?” It’s a project they’ve waited years to see finally come to fruition and Phil can’t wait to see it.

“I just left Hill there to oversee the final stages. It is big and bad and beautiful. You’re gonna dig it.”

Phil pumps a triumphant fist and hisses “yes!” under his breath, something he only allows himself to do because he’s known Fury for years. He wants to ask more questions but as they enter the physical training center, they find all activity has suspended and all agents are huddled outside the locker room door.

Fury sends Phil a questioning look but Phil shakes his head. Little happens that he is uninformed of but something about this set up doesn’t look very official to him anyway.

Natasha spots their approach and quickly steps aside, distancing herself from the rest, only a second before Fury speaks, his voice commanding and loud.

“Is there a problem here, agents?”

The group startles apart with gasps and muttered swears of “oh shit!” and “the Director!” and shifts into a pathetic resemblance of attention.

Barton is the only that doesn’t look thoroughly terrified and even makes eye contact with both of them, looking mildly abashed. Shameless is what he is. Phil is certain he’s at fault for whatever is happening.

“Agent Barton?” Fury says, using his big voice that Phil so dearly wishes he had. “Do you have something to report?”

“Uh, don’t be alarmed, sir?”

“Alarmed?”

Just then an alarm sounds, a code red attack signal blaring on and off but it appears to be localized to inside the locker room where a red light begins to glow in the frosted glass of the door.

There’s a shout inside, a few clangs of metal lockers and then a man bursts out of the door, skidding to a halt amid the group. Phil recognizes the CIA transfer, Agent Briggs. He’s dripping wet, clad in only skivvies and untied boots, fully armed and wide-eyed.

The gathered agents are in various stages of eye-watering, purple-faced contortion trying not to laugh.

“What?” Agent Briggs splutters, wipes water from his eyes, and as the reality that he’s just been pranked by his fellows dawns on him, he lowers his weapon and straightens his posture into attention. “Director Fury. Agent Coulson,” he says, fixing his gaze on a point on the wall behind them.

Fury crosses one arm to support his elbow while he covers his mouth with the other hand. The pose makes him look deep in contemplation but Phil knows he’s just covering a laugh. The jerk.

Phil sighs and takes a step forward.

Agent Briggs is a good-hearted man, Phil believes. An excellent medic and team player but also arrogant in the way young men who excel can often be, so Phil’s not surprised that the rest of the squad found it necessary to take him down a peg. Even if they probably didn’t expect it to play out so spectacularly in front of himself and Director Fury.

“Agent Briggs,” Phil says. “Aren’t you on weapons inventory this shift?”

Briggs nods. “Yes, sir. In five minutes.”

“What are you waiting for then, Agent? Carry on.”

“I. But-” Agent Briggs eyes widen for a second, before he gathers himself an impressive amount of dignity. Well done, Phil thinks. “Yes, sir,” Briggs says.

He walks past them, squelching in his boots, head held high, reaching back to pull his wet and clinging skivvies into more comfortable arrangement. Phil figures Agent Briggs will have learned his lesson in humility after this.

The team will have learned to be more sneaky.

“Agent Coulson,” Fury says after scrubbing over his mouth a few times. “I think these people have too much time on their hands. Lets put them to work.”

“Agreed, sir.”

He and Fury turn to leave and Phil catches sight of Barton grinning like he’s gotten away with something. Phil glares and Barton hangs his head but then casts his eyes back up to look at Phil through his eyelashes, this time with something that might pass for apology.

And just, fuck everything, Phil thinks. He’ll never admit it, but he still finds the man infuriatingly cute.

~

Fury lays out an inarguable logic for why Barton’s first assignment should be to accompany Phil on what he calls a ‘business trip’. And really, he is only going to make first contact with the software developer, leave his card, and try to be as unassuming ‘Agent Phil Coulson’ as he can be.

Barton positions himself high on the building across the street to observe and Phil hears him chuckle into the comm as Phil allows himself to be jostled by crowds and acts effusive with his apologies and “excuse me”s.

Phil arrives at the software complex to find his contact already dead, and out the window he sees several figures running past with assault weapons. Their intel on this one has been a colossal failure.

“Coulson, go,” Barton says, his voice low and serious. Phil bolts.

By the time he reaches the lobby, Barton is already there.

“Barton, I was going to meet you at the pick up point. Why are you even here?”

“Just thought I'd keep you company, sir.”

“Keep me company?” Phil snaps, but is interrupted when the fountain begins exploding in a hail of shrapnel. Barton tackles Phil sideways and literally covers Phil with his body while they’re under fire. Phil blinks, stunned for a second, tries to say “what the hell are you doing?” but his words are muffled. Then Barton is up on one bent knee firing back.

“You okay, sir?” Barton says, and heads for the corridor. “Gonna get you out of here, just follow me.”

Phil sits up and honest to god snorts but is clearly left no choice but to follow.

A side door opens and two armed goons in balaclavas walk out. Barton disarms them in a matter of seconds. Not that Phil doesn’t appreciate the effort, but Phil could have easily handled one of them.

Barton then leads them down the hall and turns the corridor running right into three more of the infiltrators. This time Barton literally puts himself between Phil and the closest one. Phil hears a breathless “stand back, sir!” so he does.

There’s blur of action and in no more than six precise movements Barton has disabled all three.

“I was going to... whatever,” Phil says, stepping over the unconscious bodies.

“You doing okay, sir?” Barton asks, stepping forward and putting his hand on Phil’s arm.

“I'm fine, Barton.” He laughs over his annoyance. “I am actually a field agent. You know that, right?”

“I understand that, sir. You’re very good at what you do.”

“I was not fishing for your praise, Barton.” He knows he shouldn’t be wasting time just at the moment, what with being pursued and all, but he’s pretty sure Barton is, is rescuing him.

Barton kind of scratches at his temple, color rising in his cheeks and he gives Phil a pinched look like Phil is the one being weird here.

“Um, just watching out for you, sir? Like I would if I were up top. Ah. Except I'm down here.”

Phil tilts his head and gives Barton a long hard look, trying to figure him out. Barton holds up under the scrutiny but nearly squirms, when a slight sound of movement alerts Phil. Another infiltrator comes around the corner and Phil grabs his arm, rotates his body and with two strikes the man is down.

“I... Oh,” Barton says. “I thought you -well, but Fury said...” Barton rubs at his neck looking chagrined and Phil isn’t in any particular hurry to alleviate that for him.

“What did the Director say?”

“Well. That it was my job to do the heavy lifting, so you could do your job. I’ve just never seen you training and you wear a...” Barton gestures at his own chest but is ostensibly referring to Phil’s suit. “I didn’t realize.”

There’s a shout far off in another part of the building.

“Right. Now we’ve got that sorted. Shall we then?”

Barton nods. “Of course. After you, sir?”

When they return to HQ, Phil and Barton debrief the Director and Agents Hill and Sitwell about the mission failure and they outline a plan to secure the software facility. However, after the agents leave, Phil turns to his boss and tells him about Barton’s mysterious rescue attempts.

Fury is still laughing when Phil walks out of his office.

~

Phil is usually aware that he’s dreaming when he dreams. He usually watches it play out like he does on operational support, watching the action go down on a screen from his agent’s point of view camera feed, hearing in it through his agent’s mic. It’s a first person perspective once removed.

The vantage point is analytical and calming when the dreams help him sew together a mystery or put a nagging memory to rest, but on the rare occasion his psyche produces a sex dream he very much does not want to be removed from it. He has very little time or interest to bother with sex in his day to day life, so experiencing it in a dream would at least be helpful. Particularly when he’s sitting in his office chair and Clint is straddling his lap, the gathered fabric and pockets of his tactical pants don’t hide the strength of muscle he can see shifting through Clint’s thighs. His tie gets tugged loose, his buttons undone and he knows that Clint is touching him, kissing him, and Phil arches into the touch but can’t feel any of it. He can see it and hear it, knows that Clint’s hand is pulling at the waistband of his underwear and holds his breath in anticipation of feeling the warmth wrap around his cock …but Phil feels none of it. It’s maddening. He reaches to put a hand behind Clint’s neck to bite into the kiss harder but as he does the light dims, the image flits in and out like satellite fade in a storm and then Phil is staring up at the ceiling above his bed.

He breathes slowly, realizing he must have really been holding his breath and tries to cling to the last tendrils of the dream as it disperses into the unreachable parts of his subconscious. Phil slides his hand inside his boxers and squeezes, at least his own all too familiar grip is still capable of getting him off.

~

“Barton?” Phil calls into his comm, not shouting, but in a voice loud enough to carry over the beating sound of the helicopter’s propeller and engine in flight. “Agent Barton, report.”

The signal isn’t dead though. It would be greater comfort if it is, but the line is alive. Barton just isn’t replying.

“Go around again,” Phil tells Agent Stratton who is piloting the chopper.

“Sir, with all the-” she begins, but halts in her objection. The five city blocks below them are under siege. The danger of continuing to fly above the erupting battle is obvious but there isn’t any SHIELD operative that wants to leave another agent behind, particularly when it’s Hawkeye. “On it, sir.”

The chopper sweeps back down the block, Stratton flying by the gauge panel alone as the billowing black smoke below obscures visibility. Phil can catch brief glimpses as their propeller gusts cut through the smoke.

“Barton? Where the hell are you?” Phil calls again. He hopes that sounding annoyed covers sounding nervous. “Get to the rendezvous. Now.”

A dull thunk at the nose of the chopper draws their attention.

“Are we hit?” Phil asks, but Stratton shakes her head, scanning all gauges for indication.

“Don’t think so, sir..”

“Actually,” Phil says, leaning closer to the windshield to see through the glass over the Stratton’s shoulder. “We were. By an arrow.”

She smirks, pulls on the control stick bringing the helicopter back around again.

Another explosion rocks the city below them, the dark gray smoke tinting a pale orange for a moment. Phil slides open the side door and peers down.

In the flash of white gunfire Phil can briefly see human movement climbing over the collapsed rubble of the building that had been the helipad pick up point. It was only a glance but Phil knows it was him. “He’s there!” Phil shouts to Stratton. “Barton? We’re coming,” he says, not at all sure if Barton can hear him.

“I can’t land, sir,” Stratton shouts into the comm. There’s a loud sound of popping metal as bullets strafe the underside of the helicopter. “I can’t even slow down.”

“Get me as low as you can.”

Phil drops to his knees, squinting against the rush of wind and smoke in his eyes, then goes flat onto his stomach, holding onto the lip of the floor panel with one hand while hanging half outside of the chopper as it banks in a steep circle. Phil reaches out blindly, on hope and hunch and held breath, and in the next moment Barton has clasped onto Phil’s outstretched arm. He hoists Barton upwards and momentum swings him up and over so that he lands heavily on top of Phil’s chest.

“I have him!” Phil calls into his comm.. “We’re clear!” Phil takes a breath, and wills himself to unclench his hand where he’s holding tightly to Barton. “I have him,” he whispers at last, nearly into Barton’s mouth.

“Thanks for the lift, sir,” Barton says, his breath coming quick. His face is filthy but smiling down at Phil. The chopper side-door seals shut next to them, muting a little of the noise.

Phil feels a swoop in his gut and it’s just from the helicopter climbing elevation and not for any other reason at all, he thinks to himself.

“Lost communication with you,” Phil says, going for on-topic debrief but it comes out sounding a lot like worry.

“Just the one way,” Barton says and looks amused by Phil’s concern. “Had you in my ear the whole time, sir. You got my message though, I take it?” Barton tilts his head toward the front of the helicopter.

“We got it. Thanks for not piercing the gas tank with that arrow.” Like Barton ever would. “How about your objective?”

“Mission accomplished,” Barton answers with a single quick nod. “I got the files in my pocket.”

“Excellent. Agent Barton, you aren’t injured, are you?” Phil asks.

Barton’s eyes slide to the side, a look of contemplation on his face. He shrugs his shoulders and then wiggles his torso all the way down to his knees, creating the smallest friction between his groin and Phil’s. Phil remains still and the noise that escapes deep in his throat isn’t audible inside the helicopter but Barton smiles like he feels the rumble against his chest.

“Nah. I feel good, sir,” he answers evenly, leaving the double entendre available for the taking.

“Glad to hear it, agent. Would you mind then, maybe getting off of me?” Phil asks politely and with little inflection.

“Anything you want, sir,” Barton says, grin shameless as he hops to his feet like it wouldn’t have occurred to him to ever move at all if Phil hadn’t suggested it.

Phil takes Barton’s offered hand, stands up, and then steadies himself by grabbing a nearby gear strap.

He and Barton keep eyes fixed on each other, the energy between them still charged with heat and adrenaline. Phil turns his head slightly to speak into his comm..

“Director? Personnel and data has been cleared from the site. We’re en route.” He takes the tiny data drive Barton hands him and slides it into the helicopter’s mainframe. The monitor fills with lines of encrypted information as it uploads.

Barton can’t hear Director Fury’s praise in Phil’s earpiece, but Phil smiles at him as he listens and Barton gets it. He nods acknowledgment, blinking slowly, with humble pride set in his jaw as he turns away.

“ETA HQ 03:00, sir,” Phil says. He listens as Fury gives him intel updates on the case, but he watches Barton as he secures his weapon, removes his arm guards, and takes off the shell of his outer tactical gear. When he reaches back and pulls off his undershirt he winces. There’s a small but deep cut just under the edge where his armored vest ends at the shoulder.

Phil takes down the med kit from the wall panel which clarifies his intent without speaking it. Barton rolls his eyes and huffs but sits on the bench-seat with a put upon sigh and allows Phil to dress the wound.

Fury, meanwhile, keeps talking in Phil’s earpiece.

“I agree, sir. We anticipated this,” Phil says to the director, and then aside to Barton in a gentler voice, “you need a few stitches here. Three, minimum.”

“Nah, it’ll be fine,” Barton says and shrugs, making a line of blood run down his side.

“No. Really.” Phil’s tone expresses more than his actual words do, that he really is sorry, but he must insist. He meets Barton’s eyes and they deadpan each other for a moment. Phil wipes at the blood that continues to run while the other hand rests on Barton’s tricep.

Barton frowns, huffs and rolls his head on his shoulders. He takes several seconds to silently swear and snarl about it and then he opens his eyes, takes a breath, and nods. No one likes a field dressing but this won’t be the first one Phil’s done.

Phil cleans his hands as best as he can, and then the wound, while Barton threads the needle. When he passes it back and they look at each other for a just moment while their fingers touch.

“Do it fucking quick,” Barton says through gritted teeth.

“Yeah,” Phil says, and then, “I think Plan B makes more sense with this op,” to Fury as he grips the needle clamp and administers the first suture.

Barton inhales a sharp breath but keeps his eyes forward, trying not to create any tension against the needle.

“Thank you, sir. I’ll tell him. I am, too. Very proud,” Phil says and the line disconnects. “One more,” he tells Barton quietly, putting a steady hand at the middle of Barton’s back, and applies the last suture.

Damn it,” Barton hisses and looks over his shoulder as Phil ties off the thread. “That bites worse than what caused it.”

“I know. Sorry.”

“You’re so not.”

“Okay, I’m not. It’ll heal faster this way though.”

Phil tapes a rectangle bandage over the stitches, the gouge already stopped bleeding, and then without thinking about it, he rubs his fingers along the outer edge of the medical tape. It’s a soothing gesture, tender and caring and he stops suddenly when Barton looks back at him and Phil realizes what he’s doing. Barton’s eyes are round and inquisitive, heavy lidded with exhaustion and pain, all varying emotions that Phil feels responsible for. Both as his handler and his …friend? Whatever they are.

“Here,” he says, handing Barton a clean SHIELD t-shirt. He refrains from helping him put it on though it’s in his mind to do so.

“Coulson?” Barton says, his name phrased in question, but Phil doesn’t have an answer of any kind for him at the moment.

“Eat an MRE, Agent Barton. Get some sleep. You did excellent out there. Director Fury and I are-”

“Hey. Cut it out.” Barton reaches for him.

“I have a report to write,” Phil says, moving back and glances up at Agent Stratton in the pilot’s seat. She can’t hear them, isn’t even watching them, but they’re definitely not alone.

Barton nods. “Yeah. Okay.” He doesn’t look angry, but just tired as the adrenaline drop begins to settle.

They both eat their MREs and serve one to the pilot, beef teriyaki, way better stuff than the dehydrated crap they issued when Phil first joined service. Then Barton wraps himself up in a puffy thermal sleeping bag and lays on the floor next to Phil’s chair.

“Coulson,” he says, touching Phil’s ankle.

“Yes, Barton?”

“Thanks again, for the hand.”

Phil nods down at him, and watches Barton close his eyes and fall immediately into sleep.

Once they get back to base they barely have twelve hours before Phil has to take off again. Barton has his feet on Phil’s desk, holding an aluminum take-out carton at his chest while he eats. Phil ticks off memo approvals on his tablet and issues orders to his teams in the field. It’s busy-work but being the excellent multi tasker that he is, he manages to enjoy watching Barton sleepy-eating, yawning and scratching at the few day’s stubble growth on his jaw.

“Coulson. You’re still here?” Fury says, standing in the doorway. “Barton,” he adds upon seeing him and nods.

“Sir.” Barton shifts to pull his booted feet off the desk and sit up, but he’s slow moving.

“At ease,” Fury says, which Barton looks grateful for, slumping back into his seat.

It's 1:30 in the morning, there's little personnel in this part of the building so late. It creates a quieter more intimate feeling among those still working. Everyone speaks in softer voices like they might disrupt the darkness.

“There's plenty, if you haven't eaten yet, sir,” Phil offers. He didn’t even realize Fury was at this Division but then again, he doesn’t usually concern himself with the director’s whereabouts. That’s generally a one way street. All friendship aside, Phil gets told what he needs to know, which is plenty enough.

“Is that Donofrio's?” Fury steps closer to look over the food.

“Have you tried their bruschetta?” Phil asks.

Fury looks at it with longing, hums an appreciative sound but then he puts both hands around his middle, pats, and appears to decide against the late night meal. Phil understands. Haphazard eating habits do catch up to a guy after so many years.

“Any new developments on Buenos Aires?” Fury asks.

Phil shakes his head. “I don't really expect it to before I hit ground.”

“Taking Barton,” Fury says. It's not even a question. He's just stating it like an assumed fact that he's acknowledging.

“Actually,” Phil says, avoiding eye contact with Barton. “I haven’t assigned that yet.”

“No?” Nick's eyebrow goes up and he glances at Barton like maybe he's done something wrong. “What’s the holdup?” Fury's usually pretty cool with Phil but there's a definite tone of annoyance now.

“I've been waiting to see how things play out. Adjust the field as needed. Keep all resources available.”

Fury shifts his stance and cocks his head. “Available for what?”

“For whatever the situation calls for.”

“As far as I can tell, what with you being second only to me, Agent Coulson, you're going on the ground into a potential hostile information transfer and the situation requires you to have the best back up we have.”

Barton stays stock still where he's sitting, hasn't said a word. Phil wonders if he's been around long enough to see the difference between Fury actually dressing down an inferior and him giving a long time colleague a hard time.

“I think you’re overestimating my worth, sir, but, understood.”

“I think the question is, Phil, do you want Agent Barton or not?”

Phil clenches his jaw and meets Fury's hard look with one of his own. He phrased that question exactly the way he meant to, damn him.

“Yes, sir. Yes, I do,” he answers evenly. He tilts his head, there, you happy now?

The only sign of amusement Fury gives away is a twitch in his eye before he sweeps towards the door. “Then get on it, Coulson.”

Phil’s boss is an asshole.

He has no time to figure out how to explain away the obvious implication of Fury’s commentary before Barton is on his feet, gesturing at Fury's departing shadow.

“Hey, what? Coulson, have you been dissatisfied with my job performance?”

“What?” Phil is completely surprised by that. He was ready to flounder his way through an apology for the sexual harassment their boss just implied, not answer questions about job performance.

“Well, then, excuse me – but what the hell? Director Fury thinks you don’t want me on your team now.”

“That is definitely not what he is thinking, I assure you.” Phil rubs at the bridge of nose where a stress headache is beginning to bloom.

“Then what?” Phil glances up and watches Barton deflate, the hurt and pissed off expression on his face give way to confusion. He's pretty quick on the uptake and he trusts Phil, in the grand scheme of things. He knows Phil always has reasons for what he does. “Okay, wait a sec. What was that about then? Why didn't you just assign me?”

Phil sighs, feeling caught out, but he squares his shoulders and sets down the file he’s been slowly crumpling in his hand. He tries to meet Barton's eyes but knows he keeps drifting his gaze off to the side. “Barton, you’re one of SHIELD’s very best assets. I didn’t want to be selfish by taking you away from a directive elsewhere just because I assigned you to my detail.”

Barton maintains his stony expression. “But Coulson, I like being assigned to your tail.”

Phil almost blushes.

Detail. You can’t do that anymore, remember? Workplace ethics. Professionalism...”

He wishes he could tell Barton to stop flirting with him because it wears him out, to play along and and pretend it doesn’t mean anything when he wishes that it meant everything. The moment is here, Fury made sure of that. It’s not convenient or even romantic but if Phil knew more about these things, it could happen now. If he knew how to let Barton know that he worries about Barton’s well-being, even when he’s not on a dangerous mission, how much he respects him as a good man, not just an asset, how he looks forward to telling Barton about his day and sharing a laugh or getting his perspective. Phil’s pretty sure that’s how relationships work. It sounds good when the feelings flit through his mind but none of it translates into utterable words that could make that happen.

“Sorry, boss,” Barton says, shifting to lean against the desk and situating himself so his arm nearly brushes Phil’s. “You getting one of those headaches?” Barton’s voice is gentler than Phil expected, like he sometime talks to Natasha. Phil expected more teasing banter. Instead he’s frowning, mirroring Phil’s expression points at own forehead. “Is that my fault?”

Phil shakes his head. It is maybe his fault, but not like he thinks.

“We leave in four hours, can sleep on the flight. It’s chilly in Argentina this time of year. You go pack, I don’t know, something with sleeves, maybe?”

Barton nods and glances down at his own arm, intentionally drawing Phil’s attention to his bicep and flexes it. Phil huffs and Barton chuckles on his way out, knowing that Phil looked and knowing that Phil knows that Barton is flirting with him.

~

Part 2
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