"I have an idea," Clint said.
The terrorists had been yelling for two hours about Captain America by the time he said it. For those two hours, SHIELD had been prepping a special incursion squad and bargaining for time to find Captain America. The problem was that Captain America had gone camping somewhere in the southwest, and four states is a large area to search. Tony had put a tracker on his bike, but apparently Cap found it somewhere west of Dallas and destroyed it.
Sitwell was given to understand that Steve had been having some issues.
He'd come if he could, Sitwell was positive of that; Steve liked his privacy but he'd never abandon the shield or turn his back on a mission with civilian lives at stake. Before he left, he spoke to the others about filling in for him, because he'd be out of contact.
Nobody imagined that he'd be needed, not with half a dozen other superheroes around, but then a group of home-brewed terrorists took over the Lincoln Monument and started threatening a whole lot of death unless Cap showed up. Why they wanted Captain America had not yet been made clear, despite Sitwell's best attempts to get something coherent out of them. A statement, a manifesto, crayon on a paper bag, something. He suspected they were high, or at least their mouthpiece was.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Am I going to like this idea?" he asked Clint.
"Are you enjoying not having any ideas?" Clint asked back. "Because the brain trust over there -- " he waved to Banner and Stark, who had their heads together but were not exactly experts in defusing tense situations, " -- is coming up empty when it comes to finding Cap, nobody wants Tony Stark doing hostage negotiations, and the DC police are looking a little trigger-happy."
"Point," Sitwell said. "Share."
"We send in a double. Hear me out," Clint said, before Sitwell could object. "We have access to a plausible non-civilian double who's familiar with Steve and has a reasonable level of skill with the shield. We slap the spare uniform on him, throw a decoy shield on his back, and send him in. The whole point of the cowl is to protect his identity anyway."
"Who exactly are you thinking has the physique of Captain America and the ability to pull off that attitude?" Sitwell asked.
Clint lifted his chin. It was a regal gesture, eyes gazing into the distance, spine straightening a little, muscles flexing. Slowly, majestically, he saluted.
Sitwell rubbed his eyes.
"I'm not that much smaller, except in the chest, and his uniform's pretty tight. If I can get a reliable prop shield, I can end this," Clint said. "Send me in, come on. Worst case scenario, they take me hostage too and you've got a guy on the inside."
Sitwell made a call. It might have been a terrible call, but you never knew.
"You have half an hour to get a suit and shield," he said. "If you aren't suited up by then, I'm sending the incursion team in."
"I'm on it," Clint said. He jogged off, phone to his ear. Sitwell called the negotiator over.
"Tell them we've got Captain America on the way," he said. "He'll be here in half an hour."
"You found him?" the negotiator asked, obviously relieved.
"Yes," Sitwell lied. "We definitely found him."
Clint, with the resources of a seasoned SHIELD agent, managed to get his hands on Cap's spare uniform and a realistic-looking shield in a little under 29 minutes. Even Sitwell was sort of impressed. And he did look the part, strutting towards the mobile HQ, cowl snug over his head, jaw squared.
"Where's the belt?" Sitwell asked. He'd helped Coulson design the uniform, and the utility belt had been a bone of contention. Sitwell wasn't fond of pouches.
"Gesture of trust," Clint said, his voice a little deeper than normal, or at least it seemed that way. "Nowhere to hide any weapons, this way. Tony, you got that earwig for me?"
"This is creepy, like dressing up as your mom for Halloween," Stark said, producing a tiny device and pulling back the cowl's ear-guard to insert it with tweezers. "Which I haven't done, by the way, that's not a personal anecdote. I knew a guy at boarding school."
"Will they be able to detect this?" Sitwell asked.
"Not unless they work for Stark Industries, and I'm pretty sure we screen rigorously for Crazy Fundamentalist Off-Gridders," Stark replied.
"How do I look?" Clint asked, facing front.
"Convincing," Sitwell said.
After the Avengers found out about Phil Coulson's mysterious and miraculous revival, and after that particular temper tantrum blew over, Coulson sat down with Sitwell and Hill and established a Handler protocol for the Avengers. Hill or Sitwell could supervise the Avengers in the field or handle cleanup; Sitwell generally did because Hill was higher up the food chain and didn't have to if she didn't want to (and she definitely didn't want to). But if the Avengers were actively being fielded, Coulson was to be notified, and joining them in the field was to take precedence over any of his own non-emergency responsibilities.
He arrived at mobile HQ about forty minutes after Clint went in as Cap, and he hadn't been briefed. Sitwell realized that either he was going to have to get off the radio and do it, or he'd have to let Tony Stark do it, and he didn't want to be responsible for any murdered billionaires today. Besides, Bruce and the hostage negotiator were both on the line helping Clint talk down a very strung-out militia leader who had been positive Captain America would join their fight once he heard their party line.
Given their party line was two-fifths fertilizer bombs to three-fifths "a return to the conservative values of your time, Captain, when people knew their place," Sitwell doubted strongly that Steve Rogers would have approved. Clint Barton certainly didn't, but he was keeping his cool.
"He's in character," Natasha said, sitting next to him with a headphone held to one ear. "If he'd gone in as Clint he'd already be swinging. He's asking what Steve would do and doing it. I think he has some kind of plan."
That was when Sitwell had looked up and seen Phil Coulson climbing out of a SHIELD car, heading for their table. He got up and intercepted him before anyone else could, leaving Natasha to ride herd on the others.
"Who's in the field?" Coulson asked. "What is the field, exactly? Nobody briefed me, but it's not like I don't get television on the Bus. Did they seriously think they were going to hold the Lincoln Monument?"
"They're a little crazy. You come far?"
"Rhode Island. Not important. What can I do?"
"We've only got Clint out there right now."
Coulson's lips thinned. "You have Clint in a blind over the Lincoln Monument?"
"No, he's in with the terrorists."
"You sent Clint Barton in as a hostage negotiator?"
"Not...quite," Sitwell said tactfully, and was going to explain, he really was, when there was a loud boom, and a cloud of smoke emerged from the Monument. A faint rolling shockwave blew past them, and both men took off running.
Phil Coulson had already had a long day by the time the Avengers priority alert came through, and he left his team in Rhode Island to do clean-up under May's watchful eye while he took a Quinjet back to DC. He was tired, and he wasn't prepared for explosives.
Well, he was always prepared for explosives, of course, but not specifically prepared for this particular one.
He and Sitwell, with hard-coded instincts, both took off in the direction of the dust cloud as soon as they pinpointed it. There were others running in the opposite direction, lit by floodlights on the scopes of a SHIELD incursion team. Phil let the team deal with them, because they knew the bad guys from the good guys; he was headed towards the Monument. One of the team threw him a respirator as he passed, and he pulled it on; Sitwell was doing the same. Natasha, already wearing one, passed them easily.
About ten feet into the worst of the smoke, Captain America emerged, carrying a kid on either arm.
"There's two more wounded, one child, one adult," he called, shoving a kid each at Phil and Sitwell. His voice sounded strange, and wasn't Steve supposed to be camping? "I'll get them out. Everyone else is a bad guy, feel free to shoot at whoever isn't me."
Phil ripped off his respirator and tossed it to him, then headed back towards HQ with the kid. He was setting the boy down and allowing emergency services to swoop in when he realized what he'd just seen. He was coughing too hard to ask, but when his throat cleared a little he turned back to the expanding dust cloud and saw --
Clint Barton was struggling out of the smoke, dressed in Captain America's uniform, Cap's shield on his back, a child in his arms and a woman with one arm slung over his shoulders, limping out with his support. It had to be Clint; he recognized him under the cowl and respirator, and only Clint would be damn fool enough to dress up like Captain America and face down a surly crowd of terrorists.
Well, Steve would too, but Steve actually was Captain America, that was a different category of damn-fool.
Clint let paramedics take the woman from his shoulder and the child from his arms, pulled off the respirator mask, then turned and looked back, as if deciding whether he should go back in. The twist of his body was pure Steve; with a startle, Phil realized Clint was in-character.
A spike of consuming and wholly inappropriate lust ripped through him for a split second. It wasn't unfamiliar; attraction was just something that happened around Clint, regardless of time or place. The intense surge of it was a little surprising, but then it was the man he'd been inappropriately attracted to for years dressed in the costume -- in the character -- of Phil's childhood hero and first crush object.
It took his breath away for a second.
"Remember to blink," Sitwell murmured to him as he passed. Phil startled and reminded himself that he was a professional; someone had just partially blown up the Lincoln Monument.
"Barton!" he barked. Clint turned back. "Brief the incursion team."
"Done!" Clint replied, and just like that, the Cap-persona fell away and he was Clint in Cap's uniform, which did not really make it better. "The civilians are out, anyone left in the Monument is definitely evil and possibly dead."
"Good, then get over here," Phil said, and Clint jogged over.
"Good to see you, sir, where ya been?" he asked, as Phil picked up a first-aid kit from the mobile HQ shelving and unpacked it.
"I could ask the same. Nice costume."
"Thanks, I know the guy who designed it," Clint said with a smirk, pulling the cowl back. He had abrasions on his neck and left cheek; Phil set about cleaning them with alcohol. "Little tight in the general pelvic area, boss." He cocked his head as if listening to something. "Iron Man's in the Monument helping stabilize it. Shouldn't be any major structural damage."
"Someone set us up the bomb," Clint informed him soberly.
"You are unforgivable," Phil said, dabbing at his cheek with a swab.
"They had the bombs on one side of the building and the civs on the other. Didn't take a rocket scientist to see that if I could set off one of the bombs, the hostages could run."
"Oh, just one, huh?"
"Part of one. I am not unfamiliar with the workings of a fertilizer bomb," Clint said. "It's amazing what people will let you do when you wear the white star, by the way. If I were Steve I'd be getting away with murder left and right. I was like, hey, can I get a closer look at this bomb? and they were all, sure Cap, whatever you want. I did a little rewiring, set a fuse…" he shrugged unapologetically.
"Well, it has the advantage of novelty," Phil said, fixing butterfly bandages to the worst of the cuts. Clint, with the slightly dilated pupils of someone still in the throes of an adrenaline rush, was watching him closely. Phil carefully wiped the dust away from under his eyes, where the Cap cowl hadn't protected him.
"Nice to see you, sir. If I knew all it took was nearly getting blown up, we'd do it more often," Clint said.
"You're not, really," Clint replied. "I know, you have your team and whatever, mid-life crisis, finding yourself, blah blah -- "
"Finding myself? Who said -- "
" -- but we miss you. We only ever see you when something's blowing up." Clint cocked his head again. "Tony says he doesn't miss you, but he's a liar."
Phil leaned back against the table. "Trust me, a SHIELD investigation team, especially this SHIELD investigation team, is definitely not where anyone goes to find themselves. We all have jobs outside of the Initiative, or we'd just sit around all day watching the rest of you do sit-ups and sharpen your knives."
"Sure," Clint said easily, but he looked a little dubious. "Anyway, are we done? I should probably head back in and look heroic as long as I'm in the uniform."
"You always look heroic," Phil said. That got a more genuine smile. "Keep out of the media, though. Someone's going to notice Cap's jawline changed, even with the cowl up."
"Gotcha. Hey, were those kids okay?"
"They're fine, paramedics have them."
"Great. Seeya round, boss," Clint said, and pulled the cowl up, tugging the respirator mask back on as he ran back towards the monument.
By the time the Avengers and their attendant agents were done at the site, Steve Rogers had been located; he called just as they were disembarking on the Helicarrier for a debrief.
"I'm so sorry," he said. "I had no idea something like this would happen. Why would they want me?"
Phil tamped down on the obvious reply. "Well, deranged people do strange things."
"Tell Clint how sorry I am."
"Captain America is upset you dressed up like him," Phil said to Clint.
"Tell him how sorry I am the crotch of his uniform tells everyone what religion he is," Clint replied.
"He says it's fine," Phil said into the phone.
"I can come back, if you think I should. I was going to reach my pickup point tomorrow anyway."
"Right now, there's no need. Finish your hike."
"Are you sure?"
"Steve," Phil said gently. "You took the trip for a reason."
"Yeah, but -- "
"Is it helping?"
"Well, it was, up until I found out someone wants to murder a bunch of people in my name."
"Hey, hang on," Clint said, and plucked Phil's phone out of his hand. "Steve, hold on a second," he said, and then held the phone up, opening the camera feature. "Smile!"
Before Phil could do more than glance at Clint, there was a flash and the photo came up. Clint yanked the phone away, tapped with both thumbs, and then put the phone to his ear. "Sent you a photo. I make an awesome you. How you doing?"
Phil listened as they walked; Clint mostly made sympathetic noises and said, "No, I get it. Nah, man, I got it covered. I make this look hot. Uh huh. Okay, handing you back to Phil."
"Sorry about that," Phil said into the phone.
"Don't be. Clint's a good fella to have in a pinch. Listen, they're giving me this little doodad for my phone, so if you do need me, you can call me now."
"I'll bear that in mind. Convey my thanks to the agents who found you."
"Will do. See you in the funnies."
Phil smiled and hung up.
He switched his phone off for the debrief; anyone who could possibly need him either was in the debriefing room or would call the SHIELD switchboard first. Though admittedly he found it hard to pay attention to the play-by-play because Clint was still wearing the goddamned uniform.
"Agent Coulson," the lead agent called, and Phil looked up from his silent contemplation of his own heinous folly and personal misfortune.
"I arrived late," he said, answering a half-listened-to question. "Agent Sitwell was briefing me on Agent Barton's…"
"Incursion," Sitwell said.
"Incursion? Was it more of an undercover mission?" Phil asked. This, at least, was familiar; he and Sitwell had mastered the art of the Abbot and Costello Debrief a long time ago. It always broke the tension; people stopped worrying they were going to be dressed down for any mistakes and started loosening up a little.
"Well, I mean, you might as well call it trick-or-treating," Sitwell said.
"He did have a uniform ready suspiciously fast, I understand."
"I wouldn't say suspiciously."
"Yes, I'd say distressingly," Sitwell agreed.
"I am sitting right here," Clint announced.
"And you look very fetching," Natasha said. Phil almost bit through his tongue. "Brings out your eyes."
"It's the giant A," Clint remarked.
"I don't know," Sitwell mused. "I think maybe the little wings really pull the whole thing together -- "
"At any rate, are we calling it an incursion? Infiltration?" Phil said, trying desperately to get back on track now.
"Let's call it a field action," Clint said loudly.
"Agent Sitwell was briefing me on Agent Barton's field action when we witnessed an explosion from the site," Coulson said. "We ran towards the site, along with the incursion team. About -- twenty yards?"
"About that," Sitwell agreed.
" -- twenty yards from mobile HQ, we encountered Agent Barton carrying civilians from the site. We intercepted, and I provided him with my respirator. He went back towards the bomb site. We returned to mobile HQ and surrendered the civilians to medical. Agent Barton joined us with two more civilians, and after surrendering them to medical I provided him with emergency first aid." Phil gave a half-shrug. "Not much action from me, I'm afraid. I miss all the good stuff when I'm in Rhode Island."
"All right, we'll debrief the incursion team separately, and we have Iron Man and Dr. Banner incoming. You're free to go."
Clint caught up to Phil in the hallway outside the debriefing room. "Hey, can you do me a huge favor, boss?"
"I think you get a free pass on favors for the rest of the day," Phil replied.
"I gotta get out of this monkey suit before I head back down. Can you rustle up some civs for me?" Clint looked pleading. "I'll be in the locker room on deck H."
"Of course. I'll meet you there," Phil replied evenly. "Watch the bandages when you wash."
"Ain't my first rodeo," Clint said with smile and a mock-salute. He walked off, the Captain America uniform trousers just as snug on him as they regularly were on Steve.
Clint would have enjoyed a longer shower if the Helicarrier's hot water supply didn't suck; as it was, he turned on the water as hot as it would go, got under for as long as it stayed that way, and then hastily scrubbed off the last of the soap and got out just as it was turning from lukewarm to chilly. Being clean alone made him feel about a million times better; the bomb hadn't precisely touched him, but the blast had thrown him off his feet for a minute, and bruises always felt worse when you were covered in grime.
Though it had been fun to swap costumes for a little while, he reflected as he dried off. There was something about putting on the stars and stripes that made you swagger a little, stand a little taller, feel like a better person than maybe you were. Being Captain America for a day had its perks.
He reached his locker and found a set of SHIELD fatigues on the bench in front of it; the uniform was folded up in the concave of the fake shield. No Coulson. Well, Coulson did like to be discreet.
He bundled up the uniform and shield under one arm and went looking for a ride home; he found it in the quinjet hangar, where Tony was doing preflight for the Iron Man armor, Natasha was watching him like a cat with a particularly amusing mouse, and Bruce was looking like he'd rather chop off a hand than ride shotgun on the armor again. They'd all done it at one time or another, but Bruce got vertigo pretty easily. Ironic, when you thought about it.
"Clint, please say you're flying down," Bruce called, when he saw Clint approaching.
"Please say you kept the uniform," Tony added. "Shit-hot, Captain Assmerica."
"You're a creep, Stark," Clint informed him.
"You act like this wasn't evident," Tony replied.
"Keeps you humble," Natasha said, following Clint as he tossed the uniform and shield in the back of a Quinjet.
"It's not ego if you can back it up," Tony said. "Hey, did Agent Agent bolt or what?"
"He's got a team," Clint said with a shrug, though he had to admit he was a little stung. He and Natasha had been Coulson's team first, and the Avengers had been his second team, and Clint didn't even know who half the punks on this new team were. He didn't much care for sharing. "Come on, let's get back to the tower, I'm starved."
One of these days he was going to find something that would actually impress that man. On the day he did, he'd probably be in real trouble.
They'd finished cleanup in Rhode Island by the time Melinda got the text that Coulson was done with his Avengers business. She texted back that he might as well hold on the Carrier; they would be en route themselves within a few minutes.
He took a while responding.
Good. Park the Bus at ground HQ and put everyone on a two-day leave. We're owed down time. Meet airstrip 1300 on Monday, barring emergencies.
Melinda looked at the message, said "Huh," in a thoughtful voice, and then finished her preflight checks. She tuned into the mics in the main cabin in time to hear Simmons say, " -- think he's dreamy."
"You aren't even American," Fitz said.
"You don't have to be American to appreciate Captain America," Simmons replied. "Oh, I just want to sequence his DNA…"
"That's...kinky," Skye observed.
"He's the only successful super-soldier! I want to see everything that makes him tick," Simmons said.
"He's not that great," Ward put in. Melinda smiled to herself.
"Have you met him?" Skye asked.
"No, but -- "
"So how do you know he's not that great?"
"It's not like he worked for it," Ward said. "I mean, you know, I'm sure he works with it, but he didn't earn that body. It came out of a bottle."
"Wow," Skye said. Melinda mouthed it along with her. "Envious much? I mean, I'm as anti-establishment as they come and I still get a little, you know, a little stir of something for Captain America."
"I'm just saying, I have more respect for agents like Romanoff and Barton. You want the real pinnacle of human perfection? Clint Barton. Guy's got guns like, out to here, and it's all him."
"Your crush is adorable, but I'll stick with the amazing miracle of modern science," Simmons said.
"It's not a crush!" Ward protested.
"Coulson collects Captain America memorabilia," Fitz said.
"Coulson collects tons of old stuff," Skye pointed out.
"No, but Captain America is special, like. I heard from Agent Dandachi who heard it from Agent Smith -- the tall one, you know, not the one with the hair," he said, clearly to Simmons, who made an agreeing noise. "He was in California and he bought this old Captain America poster in a shop as a joke, right, and when Coulson heard he offered him twice what he'd paid for it. Apparently he's got a whole bunch of old posters and cards and such. I wouldn't tell Coulson you think Captain America's not so great."
"If you're nice he might set you up with Agent Barton, though," Simmons said, and everyone snickered over Ward's protests.
Melinda smiled and flew onward, towards New York and the intriguing new mystery of Phil Coulson's sudden two-day pass. She took out her phone once they were cruising easily and sent an email.
Poker night tomorrow night, your place. I'll bring snacks and questions.
The reply came back almost immediately.
I'll bring drinks and gossip!
Natasha Romanoff and Melinda May had long since been banned from most standard SHIELD floating poker games. It wasn't that they were women (actually Melinda was pretty sure that was a part of it) and it wasn't that they were at a higher security level than most of SHIELD. It was that it just wasn't fair to their opponents.
There was no official buy-in for the Romanoff-May poker game, though a few fools had asked (some of them clearly assuming "poker game" was code for "athletic lesbian sex"). The standard response was that the buy-in required the body of one of SHIELD's enemies and a pair of Fury's underwear taken without his knowledge. Both should still be warm.
In reality, admission to the game was invite-based, but everyone invited knew how to be discreet: Clint Barton, Maria Hill, Jimmy Woo, James Rhodes, a few others. A select elite who could actually keep up.
Which was why Melinda was a little surprised when she arrived at Natasha's snug apartment in Brooklyn to find two strangers there. She'd been expecting Clint, and probably Jimmy.
"Steve Rogers, ma'am," one man said, unfolding from a chair and offering her his hand. He was deeply tanned, with a shock of gold blond hair, a perfect white-toothed smile, and an astonishing waist-to-shoulder ratio. She could see why Coulson had a thing.
"Melinda May," she replied. "Pleasure to meet you."
"And you, ma'am. I hear great things about you on the SHIELD grapevine. I understand you're Agent Coulson's second in command."
"Well, I drive the Bus," she said with a smile. He matched it, looking a little like a giant twelve year old who was just happy to be in the club.
"This is Dr. Bruce Banner," Steve added, as the other man came forward to greet her. "He's a friend."
"He's an Avenger," Melinda said, shaking his hand. "Nice to meet you, Dr. Banner."
"Told you she'd have clearance," Banner said to Steve. "It's a pleasure, Agent May. Which is not something I often say to SHIELD agents."
"Noted," she replied, as Natasha brought her a cocktail and smiled hello. "I assume this is more than just a poker night at this point."
"We have a Coulson problem to address," Natasha said, tossing an unopened pack of cards down on her poker table. "No reason not to bet as we go, though."
"Is it really fair to these two?" Melinda asked.
"Oh, I think you'll find they can keep up," Natasha replied. "But take a handicap if you feel like it."
"I suppose it's not too indiscreet to ask how Agent Coulson's doing," Steve said as he seated himself. Melinda cracked the pack of cards and began shuffling.
"He's all right. Handling his new team well," she answered.
"His old team misses him," Banner put in.
"Agent Coulson has...a certain charisma," she said carefully. "The people under his supervision tend to be very loyal."
"And somewhat conspiratorial," Banner replied. Melinda tilted her head. "That is why you're here, isn't it? It's why we're here."
"I have concerns," she said.
"About?" Natasha asked.
"Coulson calling a two-day leave for his team directly after pulling Avengers field duty. I know what I've seen on the news, but the file is unusually highly classified," Melinda continued. "I need to know if something happened in the field that his team should be aware of."
"We are his team," Steve said.
"You are one of his teams," she replied, letting a little edge creep in.
Steve glanced at Natasha, who nodded. He took his phone out of his pocket and flicked it on, unlocking it and setting it on the table. There was an image on the screen, of Captain America taking a selfie. Coulson was in the frame, head turned to look at him, something difficult but obvious on his face.
"That's not me," Steve said, pointing to Captain America.
"Who is it?"
"Barton, in my spare uniform."
She blinked at him. "Why?"
"That's a long story from a classified file," Natasha said. "I'll read you in later."
"I'm a little perplexed about what to do with it," Steve admitted.
Melinda lifted the phone, studying the photo. She could see Barton's jawline now, looking closely, and the way the costume didn't fit quite like it should.
It was Coulson's face that was arresting, though, turned to look at Barton. Barton had an arm around his shoulders and was pulling him into the photo, and the expression on Coulson's face was foreign to her, at least coming from him. Fond affection, barely harnessed restraint, badly hidden regret. The face of a man in love and trying desperately to hide it.
"I actually am Captain America, and he never looks at me like that when I'm in uniform," Steve said quietly. "I don't think Clint noticed when he took the picture, but he wants me to send him a copy and I'm not really…" his face contorted. "It's very awkward."
"I'm not sure how this explains the recent leave," Natasha said. "It's been going on a long time. But I imagine there's some connection."
"Coulson and Barton?" Melinda asked, a little surprised. "I've never seen any evidence of it before."
"He's very good at concealing it," Natasha said. "Plus Clint's a little tone-deaf when it comes to these things."
"Nobody is tone-deaf enough to miss this," Steve said. "I'm seeing it and I haven't had a date in seventy years."
"Why bother?" Banner asked. "Hiding it, I mean."
"Clint's his subordinate officer," Melinda said. "It's not exactly code."
"The point is," Natasha said, "Clearly this is going to upset the status quo if Steve sends Clint the photo. On the other hand, there's something to be said for honesty. I don't think…" she glanced at Melinda. "I don't think Coulson's actually very happy right now. Personally."
"He's struggling," she said quietly.
"Clint could be good for him. Or, if he wasn't interested, he could be very bad for him," Natasha said.
"You don't know?" Banner asked. "Don't you specialize in knowing this kind of thing?"
"About ordinary people, yes. Neither of these two are ordinary."
Steve made a noise. They'd been playing five card stud while they spoke, hitting, calling, raising without bothering to vocalize any of it, and Bruce had just bluffed Steve to pieces. Bruce gave him a grin.
"So do I send it or what?" Steve asked, as Bruce collected his winnings. "I don't like lying, but I like stirring things up even less, if it's to no good purpose."
"I think you should send it," Melinda said. "And let me know when you do, so I can have some small arms ready. Just in case."
"Small arms?" Steve asked.
"It's Clint Barton and Phil Coulson. Even if it ends happily, there may be shots fired," Natasha said.
Sorry, took me a while to find it. Here ya go, read the text message, when Clint's phone beeped at six in the morning. Clint, at the tail end of an early-morning run, slowed to cool-down pace and flicked open the message screen from Steve. The little thumbnail of the photo popped up underneath the text.
He smiled; Steve picked up the twenty-first century fast, but he still sometimes had trouble visualizing the way computers worked -- icon to program to content could elude him if it got complicated enough. It was like him to randomly lose photos.
Still, he finally had the photo, which was what mattered. Should have sent it to himself when he sent it to Steve, but the elation of a good mission and the approving look on Coulson's face, combined with the excitement of wearing the uniform, had all gone to his head a little. On the one hand, the fact that SHIELD had blithely substituted one man for another in the Cap uniform was classified -- that kind of thing couldn't get out, for PR purposes and a myriad of other reasons as well -- but on the other hand, Phil Coulson's office was in a very well-protected area of HQ and Clint felt Coulson needed a framed copy of this. It was possible he would make this his Christmas card for his highest-clearance-level SHIELD colleagues.
(Maybe it would be creepy sending a selfie with Coulson as a Christmas card. He supposed he could gauge by Coulson's reaction to the framed copy. Or crop Coulson out, though he really didn't want to do that.)
He stretched, shaking out the cramp in his hamstring, and then went back to the phone, tapping the thumbnail. Might as well make it his lock page while he was --
He dropped the phone.
"Shit!" he muttered, snatching it back up again and tapping the screen. Still functional. He called up the photo again and stood there in the middle of the sidewalk, in the chill and mist, staring at his phone.
There he was, looking elated and a little goofy in a uniform that was just slightly too broad in the shoulders, the white star on his chest gleaming, one arm around Coulson's shoulders. He looked like a frat boy taking a photo at a costume party. And there was Coulson, smears of grime on his neck and cheeks, suit not quite as impeccable as usual, hair dusted lightly with powder from the explosion --
Looking at Clint Barton like he hung the moon and lit it.
It must have been a trick of the light, but the smile on his face and the lift of his eyebrows, the way he was leaning in --
Clint sat down heavily on a bus-stop bench, then got up again, backing away when a bus wheezed up and swung its doors wide. The driver shot him a dirty look, closed the door, and screeched onwards.
This was -- this wasn't supposed to --
It was probably just because of the uniform, he reasoned, as sanity reasserted itself. Everyone knew Coulson had a thing for the idea of Captain America. He was pretty sure Coulson wasn't that into Steve -- well, everyone was a little into Steve, Steve was a great guy and even straight dudes would stop for a second look at that ass, if only for self-comparison purposes -- but Coulson was definitely into Captain America the concept, not Captain America the man.
So it was probably just the fact that Clint was in the uniform. His mega-competent, ultra-professional boss who Clint had personally seen seduce people both on and off the job before, men and women who themselves would have proclaimed they were infinitely out of Phil Coulson's league -- his famously reserved boss who had been dating the smokingest-hot cellist Clint had ever seen (and had never even implied an attraction to Clint) was definitely not staring at Clint Barton, Professional Meatball, like he wanted to eat him alive.
Had to be the uniform.
Although...even if it was just the uniform, this might be material he could work with.
It wasn't like Clint hadn't ever thought about Coulson that way. He didn't usually date men but that was mainly because it was hard to find someone who fit his fairly exacting standards, which had been influenced by Coulson himself in no small part. Clint wasn't quite kinky enough to want a Daddy, but he wasn't quite vanilla enough to pick up some random twink in a bar. He wanted a competent older man with a reasonably firm grasp of command, when he wanted a dude at all, and the line between "commanding" and "asshole" was so very thin.
So yeah, he'd thought about it, he'd possibly had a few special moments in the shower over it, and if it was just the costume it might be fun to tease him a little over his infatuation with a comic book character.
Plus, a small voice said in the very back of his mind, if it isn't just the costume, here's a hell of a way to find out.
Besides, Coulson needed to be reminded that of his three teams, Clint was on two of them, and thus was not to be neglected lightly.