Any experienced SHIELD agent quickly learned that information about the nutritional vices of one’s co-workers was incredibly valuable. Rumor had it that even Fury kept a drawer filled with licorice, although no one tested the intel; Phil had once bribed the head of medical with green tea mochi to get himself out of the infirmary early. But Phil had been sure that no one knew about his weakness for McDonald’s apple pies.
At least, until he was ambushed by a team of HYDRA agents at a McDonald’s in downtown New York. It was not the finest moment of his career.
Phil took out the first man before he realized what was happening. He’d been leaning over the counter, trying to see where the cashier had disappeared to in the kitchen, when there was a flicker of movement in the metal surface of the fryer. He dodged the blow and slammed the man’s face into a cash register on pure instinct. Pulling his gun, Phil spun into the second man and crushed his windpipe with the side of his left fist. Someone rammed into him from behind and his gun skittered away on the floor; Phil glimpsed two more men among the booths and tables before his attacker smacked his head into the edge of the counter and the world went black.
When he came around, two of remaining goons had pinned him to the linoleum face first, and pressed their weight down until he fought to breathe. The security gate had been pulled down over the front of the store while he was out, and it was past midnight, now. No one was going to interrupt.
“Get the sedative,” the third man ordered breathlessly. As one of the men released him and fumbled in his pockets, Phil blinked blood out of his eyes and watched a fourth man come around the corner from the restrooms. He bent to retrieve Phil’s dropped gun, silhouetted against the fluorescent lights. Of course they’d had backup. It was almost flattering, to have a six-man team sent after him. He’d probably appreciate it more once SHIELD had killed them all and rescued him.
Phil was flipped roughly onto his back and his sight blurred as they jerked his head back to expose his neck for the syringe. He bucked hard, trying to twist away from the needle and still cling to consciousness -- and two gunshots rang out.
He froze reflexively, but there was no fresh pain. His captors fell away from him, diving for their holsters and screaming in German. Four more shots cracked out in quick succession, and it took a moment for Phil to parse what he was seeing.
A stranger was standing to Phil’s right, a gun leveled carefully at Phil’s attackers - the fourth man. On the tiles, spun out of reach, three guns lay twisted and dented. Two of the men were shot cleanly through the knee, and the third was still clutching a syringe in one hand and cradling his wrist to his chest with the other. Six shots, and six precise hits.
“Don’t move,” the stranger said, his voice harsh with intensity. “I’ve got four bullets left, which is more than I need to shoot each of you in the head.”
No one moved. Phil tried to decide if that meant he was a potential shooting victim, but his head hurt too much, so he stayed still just in case.
“You, with the needle, dose the others. I can see the extras in your pocket, use one on each of them, then yourself. NOT him,” he snapped as the agent moved towards Phil, who was closest. Phil breathed relief - this was a genuine rescue, then, not a competing kidnapper. Good.
The man with the sedatives shuffled awkwardly on his knees between his two comrades, and their moaning died away into silence as the drugs took hold. “Now you,” ordered the stranger, and the agent sank the final needle into his neck and passed out on the floor.
When the last man finally slumped into unconsciousness, the stranger lowered the gun to point at the floor, flicked the safety on, and took a deep breath. He started coughing almost instantly, rough wet hacks that left him trembling. Phil struggled into a sitting position, and the man snapped the gun halfway up to firing position before he stopped himself, muffling another cough in the crook of his elbow.
“Sorry,” he rasped, meeting Phil’s eyes for the first time. His pupils were blown wide with adrenaline, but his hands were unusually steady as he bent to lay the gun on the floor. “Just... holy shit. Who were those guys?”
“Not sure,” Phil said, which was mostly true. Between the German and the tiny gold hydra pin in one man’s lapel, he knew who they worked for; he just didn’t recognize any of the agents specifically. He reached up a hand to wipe at his eyes, which were still blurry, but only managed to smear blood onto his fingers as well. Fucking concussions.
“Shit,” the guy said again, kneeling next to him, “that looks bad.” He leaned over Phil to reach the counter, and came back with a handful of cheap napkins and pressed them against the cut along his hairline. Phil hissed.
“Um, it’s okay, scalp wounds bleed a lot,” the man said, sounding more like he was reassuring himself than Phil.
“I know,” Phil said wryly. He gently replaced the man’s hand with his own, peeling a napkin off the wad to wipe some blood out of his eyes, and examined his rescuer.
The man was stocky and not too tall, dressed in a ragged hoodie and jeans with a backpack slung over his shoulder -- like a college student, almost. The look was a little too young for him, though, and underneath the scent of cordite was the distinctive smell of someone who’d been living in his clothes. He’d come from the direction of the employee restroom, Phil recalled as the man sat back on his heels; the wrists and neck of his hoodie were damp, the hair around his face was still drying, and he looked freshly shaven.
So, Phil’d just been rescued from three HYDRA agents by a homeless Good Samaritan with exquisite aim who bathed at McDonald’s. This day was getting downright surreal, even for him.
The silence was starting to turn awkward, and Phil tried to focus. He hated concussions: they made even the most basic functions difficult. So inefficient.
“That was some impressive shooting,” he offered at last. “Are you a veteran?” Phil didn’t really think he was military, or law enforcement - the man didn’t seem comfortable with Phil’s injury, and he carried himself all wrong - but it was a pretty neutral place to start.
Or maybe not. The man’s face shut down at the question, and he said, “No. Just picked it up as a kid.”
“Lucky for me,” Phil said mildly, watching the tense line of his shoulders. “Thank you, by the way.”
Bizarrely, that made the man’s shoulders hunch even higher. “It was no big deal,” he mumbled.
“Right,” Phil said, suspicion cutting through the dizzy wash of his concussion. He held out his hand and smiled. “Phil Coulson.” He waited until the man took his hand - roughly calloused, cracked and dry from the winter air - and added, “Agent of SHIELD.”
The stranger yanked his hand out of Phil’s grasp and leapt to his feet in one smooth movement. “You’re a cop,” he breathed, backing away with a horrified expression on his face. “Oh, god. Stupid, stupid....”
“Wait!” Phil called out, and tried to stand up. He stopped when the man started escaping in multiple directions at once, and squeezed his eyes shut until the world settled back into place. Jesus, that was a stronger reaction than he’d expected. Most people hadn’t even heard of SHIELD - though clearly this guy hadn’t heard very accurate information. “Look, I’m not a cop, exactly. But you’re obviously in trouble, and I might be able to help.”
The man hesitated, and Phil held his breath.
Then, in the distance, a siren began to wail, and Phil lost him. The stranger shook his head and laughed bitterly. “Maybe if I was innocent,” he said, self-loathing in his voice, “but I’m not.” He vaulted the counter and darted through the kitchen. Phil heard a door slam, and the sound of his footsteps fading away was drowned out by a chorus of sirens.
Phil was head-down in a pile of red tape that he desperately wanted to dump into a shredder -- SHIELD Interrogation had been thrilled about the three live agents, NYPD had been equally cranky about the dead bodies, and he’d been flooded with paperwork from both directions -- when a tentative knock came at his office door. He looked up.
“Alice,” he said in surprise, “come in. I wasn’t expecting you so soon.” Dr. Alice Feldman sidled through the doorway. She was an extraordinary forensic scientist, but he’d never seen her look truly comfortable outside of the lab or a crime scene; however, on a crime scene, she was fiercely competent, and had once shouted at Fury when he almost trampled some evidence, instantly winning the admiration of every agent on site. Phil had spent three weeks and four stakeouts discovering her weakness for Ben & Jerry’s Pumpkin Cheesecake ice cream (limited batch), but the investment had more than paid off.
“Those fingerprints results you wanted,” she said, sliding them on his desk.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling at her. “I think that might have been a record turnaround for you.”
“It’s a lot easier when the prints aren’t covered in unidentified slime or dissolved in battery acid,” she shot back. “Besides, the guy was already in AFIS. I recognized the local coroner’s name on the BOLO, so I called and got you a copy of the police file. Figured it’d be worth an extra pint.”
“Sure, I’ll bring it by tomorrow,” he said absently, pulling the file towards him. Coroner? That was unexpected. Who was this guy?
He was so distracted by the answer to that question that he barely noticed Alice leave.
Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, the World’s Greatest Marksman. Phil’d been rescued by a homeless Good Samaritan ex-circus performer with perfect aim -- currently wanted for grand larceny and the murder of a security guard at a jewelry store in Missouri.
Maybe if I was innocent, Barton had said, and the look on his face....
Phil wasn’t good with people, exactly - not in the sense of being charming, or persuasive, or particularly memorable. But he was smart about people, and a trained investigator, and something about this didn’t make sense. He frowned, and flipped back to the coroner’s report.
It seemed like a straightforward case: security guard found killed by an arrow, of all things, and the next day the circus was missing its star performer, an archer with a juvie record that had never been sealed because he’d run away from foster care to join the goddamn circus. The local cops had drawn the obvious conclusion, issued a warrant for Barton’s arrest, and that was the end of it. At least, until this supposed murderer had blown his cover and risked everything to save a complete stranger’s life, halfway across the country.
Phil was not convinced. Maybe he was biased, and he hadn’t turned over a cold case in ages, but he was going to find answers if he had to fly out to Missouri himself. Resigning himself to a long night, he pushed aside the NYPD forms and settled in to read.
Four days later, he had his answers.
Unfortunately, he was still missing the man in question, and his most promising lead was proving... obstinate. It turned out to be very hard to argue with someone who was wearing a grocery bag over her grey hair and looked like Phil’s seventh grade algebra teacher. He showed her the picture again.
“Don’t know who that is!” she snapped. “Go away!”
“Ma’am, I don’t mean him any harm,” Phil said soothingly, for the fifth time. The woman gripped her shopping cart and glared unwaveringly at him. He hesitated, then decided that the truth might actually be the best option in this case. “Clint saved my life a few days ago; I’d like to return the favor, if I can.”
Her glare flickered slightly at the name, and Phil pressed the advantage. “He looked sick. I think he could probably use some help right now.”
Unconsciously, her eyes darted to the side, in the direction of a narrow side alley. Phil carefully didn’t follow her gaze. Instead, he pulled out a business card and handed it to her. “If you see Clint, give him this for me, ok?” he said. The woman pursed her lips noncommittally, but took the card. She shuffled her cart around and departed, looking backwards suspiciously as he pretended to wander towards another group of people for information.
As soon as she turned the corner, he headed straight for the alley.
The alley was a dead end: both literally and, by virtue of being completely empty, figuratively. Phil sighed. Damn. It had been a long shot, but he didn’t want this search dragging out any longer than it already had. He remembered the panic in Barton's eyes when he fled, and knew the mindset of a fugitive trapped between fear and illness; he’d heard the dangerous edge to his cough, which would only get worse with exposure.
Phil closed his eyes in frustration, and, like he’d conjured it up, the sound of a cough drifted faintly down from above. His eyes snapped open, and up. About two stories up in the right direction, there was an old concrete balcony: rectangular and ugly, with a sheltering overhang and part of the near side crumbled away. Access into the building had been boarded up, but as he traced his eyes over the surface of the wall, he could pick out a path of handholds in the dim light, leading up to the ledge. The balcony was protected from the weather, had good sight lines to the alley entrance, and was safe from anyone who didn’t have specialized training. Very clever.
Moving quietly, Phil started up the wall. The ascent was easier than he’d hoped, the handholds well-placed and clearly improved by repeated use. In very little time, he drew level with the balcony, and stopped.
Barton was asleep, curled into the far corner of his shelter with a thin, dirty blanket wrapped around him. He looked half-dead, and Phil hesitated, shifting his weight.
A piece of mortar crumbled off under his fingers, rattling down the wall, and Barton jerked awake so fast that Phil could hardly track the movement, a throwing knife at the ready. He was shivering slightly - probably feverish - but his hand was rock steady, the knife perfectly balanced between his fingers. If he threw it at this range, Phil would be hard-pressed to avoid a fatal wound.
Instead, he froze, his face shifting into shocked recognition.
Slowly, Phil slid onto the balcony. He arranged himself comfortably against the wall, letting his suit jacket fall open. Barton’s eyes dropped to the empty gun holster under his arm, and his face wavered between relief and, intriguingly, guilt.
“Hello again,” Phil said, smiling blandly. “This is cozy.”
An answering smile twitched the corner of Barton’s mouth, though it was tinged with bitterness. After a moment, his hands fell back to his sides, and the knife vanished under the blanket. His hands re-emerged, and were laid carefully flat on his legs. Phil could still see a dozen ways that a circus-trained fighter like Barton could escape, but only one of them involved serious injury to himself. It was a nicely calculated gesture of truce.
“I’m usually better at hiding than this,” Barton rasped. The words sent him into a new bout of coughing, deep and painful to hear. He collapsed back against the brick afterward, and closed his eyes.
“I’m usually better at finding people than this,” Phil said dryly, taking the opportunity to look him over. “I’d say you did fine, Mr. Barton.” He was pale and unshaven, with dark circles under his eyes. From this close, Phil could see faint laugh lines, too, which surprised him: the man’s history was not happy reading.
“So what now?” Barton asked, his voice flat. His head was still tipped back, baring his throat. “You found me, you must have found my warrant.”
“I did,” Phil said. “Took a look at the police report, too. I was curious what kind of man you were.”
Barton flinched. “Sorry to disappoint,” he said, aiming for the same level tone as Phil, and failing.
“Why’d you do it?” Phil asked, testing. “The robbery, I mean.”
“Bullshit reasons,” Barton said, after a while. “Tired of being poor. Sure that w- that I could get away with it. Carla’s daughter was sick again. I don’t even remember anymore.” Carla was the name of the bearded lady, if Phil remembered correctly. Barton opened his mouth to say more, then stopped, ducking his head.
“I didn’t mean to kill him,” Barton blurted, shame and misery tightening his features. His hands fisted in the blanket. “I thought - I don’t miss. One arrow just below the shoulder, but not low enough to hit his lungs. The guy should have been fine. He was fine when...when I left. I must have hit an artery or something.” He covered his face with a hand and laughed shortly, with no amusement. “Didn’t even know until I saw the paper the next day.”
And with that, Phil had all the answers he needed.
“Funny thing about murder investigations,” Phil said mildly, “they don’t usually tell the press all the details. For example, that the official cause of death was a penetrating wound to the neck, with a non-fatal antemortem injury to the right shoulder.”
Barton looked up sharply, his lips parting in surprise. Phil caught his gaze, and held it.
“So far in our acquaintance, your aim has been extraordinary, and you were using an unfamiliar weapon, under duress. If you were the only person who shot that guard, he’d have a single arrow in his throat, or he’d be alive. You didn’t miss.” Phil tilted his head. “But, neither did someone else.”
“I didn’t kill him?” Barton said softly.
“I may have suggested the idea to the Missouri police,” Phil admitted. He left out the covert blackmail part of that conversation - so difficult to explain to someone without training. “Imagine their surprise when they found traces of saliva on the shaft of the other arrow. Very embarrassing that they hadn’t checked before. The DNA matched an ex-con named Buck Chisholm, who also happens to be a professional archer in your circus, and coincidentally supplied the testimony that made you the prime suspect.”
“Trickshot,” Barton murmured, rubbing his forehead. “He must have gone back, after.”
“And went to the police the next day,” Phil agreed. Barton looked upset, but not surprised. “You never suspected?”
Barton said, “I figured he ratted me out to the cops when they came asking. Just self-preservation. I’d have done it, too.” Phil raised a doubtful eyebrow, remembering the way Barton had caught himself before saying ‘we’ earlier, and his careful use of ‘I’ after, but didn’t interrupt. “I didn’t think he set me up for it, though.”
Phil shrugged. “Not very well, as it turns out. Without any physical evidence on you, they were willing to drop the charges, as a favor from one law enforcement agency to another.”
Barton’s shoulders slumped in relief, and he scrubbed his hands over his face. “I can’t believe you did that. I can’t... I’m going to have to owe you one, man.”
“You saved my life, Mr. Barton. I just took care of some faulty paperwork for you. By my calculation, I think I still owe you one.”
That got a laugh out of Barton - a little rusty, but bright and relieved. “Yeah, ok, sure. I’d love a pony.”
“Fresh out, sorry.”
“That’s a shame,” he said, grinning a little. “They’re good eatin’. How about some pizza?”
Phil smiled back, a little smugly. “How about a job?”
Barton laughed again, harder, which turned into a coughing fit. Phil just raised an eyebrow and waited. When he could breathe again, Barton met his eyes, and blinked. “What, seriously?”
“But I’m....I didn’t kill that guy, but I still broke in. It...it wasn’t the first time, either. I’m not one of the good guys.”
“Do you want to be?” Phil asked. Barton looked away, shaking his head - not a ‘no’, he judged, just confused.
Phil sighed. “Barton, I’m going to say this once and I will never repeat myself, so listen up. When you found yourself in the middle of an assault -- unarmed, seriously outnumbered and not knowing who the hell I was -- you got involved and did the right thing. Despite your lack of training, you were precise and calm.” Phil smiled slowly. “And that’s exactly the sort of crazy my employer likes.”
Barton met his eyes again, looking slightly more convinced, and Phil relaxed infinitesimally. Apparently, appealing to his skills was more believable than telling him he wasn’t a bad person, though in Phil’s opinion, both were equally true. Getting this kid past his psych eval was going to be fun.
“Look, you don’t have to decide right now. My car’s parked nearby. I can show you the canceled warrant, and you can go somewhere and lie down in an actual bed.”
Barton looked torn. Phil smiled calmly, and added, “Some antibiotics might not be a bad idea, either. My treat.”
Barton chewed on his lip. “You better not be fucking with me,” he warned.
Ah, empty threats, Phil thought with satisfaction. He had him.
“I’m a man of my word,” Phil said; then, unable to resist, “Well, I did lie about one thing.” Barton eyed him warily. Phil let the silence drag, then said plaintively, “It’s really uncomfortable up here.”
Barton snorted a laugh and stood up, bundling his blanket into the worn backpack Phil remembered from the McDonald’s. “Well, I’m going down first, asshole. I don’t think you want me to fall on you by accident.”
“I have a rappelling line, if you’d prefer,” Phil offered, and held up the anchor he’d silently set into the concrete while they talked. It had been Escape Plan B.
Barton blinked at him. “When did you...?” he trailed off in astonishment. Phil smirked.
“Welcome to SHIELD,” he said.