Three weeks after the trip to Mexico City, they get a case in Philadelphia. It's a simple fact-finding mission, investigating strange reports at a mid-level hotel on 11th Street. Phil takes Skye and May with him to the attached parking structure, and they spend what feels like hours sitting and waiting for something, anything to happen. Skye passes the time muttering to her laptop and trying to pick fights with May, while Phil fantasizes about gas station donuts. Finally, as it's getting dark, Skye sits back and rubs her face.
"Nothing's gonna happen," she says. "There's nothing on the police scanner, no official reports filed, no blog posts, no Twitter, nothing." She flops back against the passenger seat. "How did you even find out about this?"
Phil and May share a look in the rear-view mirror. She says, "It's best not to ask questions like that," at the same time that Phil says,
"You're welcome to check with the Director."
May frowns at him, and he shakes his head. Her frown gets pointier, and then she shrugs. She taps the steering wheel.
Skye says, "Sure, I'll add it to the list of things I want to ask him. 'How do you find out about weird stuff in random hotels in Philadelphia?' is going right under 'How did you convince a Norse God to fight aliens with you?' and 'How did you lose your eye?'"
Phil says, "I despair for national security." Skye grins at him, and he says, "Just don't mention Roswell."
Skye's eyes go wide and her face lights up -- and really, he shouldn't poke fun. He says, "I saw a bodega down the street that might sell donuts. Anybody want anything?"
May almost smiles. "Are you hoping to stop another robbery?" she asks.
Phil says, "A change is as good as a rest." He smiles back at her, taking care to keep it small. His hands are starting to fidget, and he links his fingers together to stop them.
Skye says, "I have no idea what you two are talking about. Almost ever."
May says, "Ask the senior agents sometime about their Coulson stories."
Oh, no. "May," Phil tries.
She ignores him. "They call it the Coulson Uncertainty Principle."
Skye says, "Oh my god. They do?"
Phil sighs. "They do not."
"Not to your face, because they're scared of you," May tells him. She turns back to Skye, who is almost hopping in her seat. "Coulson used to be famous for his ops going haywire. He made Hydra agents cry."
Phil says, "That was one time, and I just appealed to his better nature."
"While tied to a chair and blindfolded," May says. "The Principle goes, you can either put 100% of your attention directly on him, and maybe you'll come out okay, or you can watch your plan go completely off the rails. Timisoara was particularly memorable, according to Sitwell."
Skye turns back to her laptop. "This is amazing. Why didn't Fitzsimmons tell me?"
Phil has a bad feeling. "What are you doing?" he asks.
"Emailing the science kids and Grant and asking them for Coulson stories."
Oh, lord. Well, at least it will keep her occupied. He says, "Donuts, anybody?"
Skye says, "Jolly Ranchers, please," without looking away from her email. She digs in her pocket and comes up with a five-dollar bill.
Phil starts to reach for it, but his hands are trembling too much, so he puts them back down. "I've got it," he says. "May?"
She frowns at him, eyes narrowed, and shakes her head. "I'm fine," she tells him.
Phil grabs a twenty, and then reaches forward between the seats to drop his wallet in Skye's cup holder. "Watch that for me, would you?" he asks. He holds his breath.
Skye says, "Sure," and fires off her first email. The whooshing sound of the email client seems almost too loud in the still of the car.
May is still frowning at him. He takes a breath, and says, "Ten minutes to get there. Five to purchase. Ten to get back."
May says, "And if you're not back in twenty-five minutes?"
Phil smiles. This attempt is better. "I trust you to come find me," he says.
She looks at him for what feels like a long time, expressionless. Then she nods. "You're on the clock," she says.
Phil feels a burst of gratitude for her, high up in his chest, near his broken heart. She knows what he's planning. She has to know, but she's not stopping him. Phil has always been so lucky in his people.
"Twenty-five minutes," he says. He steps out of the car, shuts the door, and is in the wind.
The parking structure opens onto Arch Street. He can see the bus stop from where he's standing, but instead of going there he walks west. He loses his phone and the tie clip with embedded GPS tracking locator, and then he walks south on 13th to the SEPTA station. It isn't rush hour, but he can hide himself in almost any crowd, and he rides the Media-Elwyn Line to the train station. On the way, he picks a few pockets and grabs a phone off a man in an overpriced suit. His gun, he left on the plane this morning.
Phil makes a stop at the train station bathroom. If there are any security cameras, they can track him this far, but it will take Skye and May at least another fifteen minutes to rule out his escape by bus. They might still be checking traffic cams to see if he's stolen a car and hitched a ride.
Phil throws his tie in the garbage stall near the door, and shucks his suit jacket. Under the jacket his shirt is loose and ill-fitting, with yellow sweat stains under the arms and at the collar. When he pulls it out of his trousers and tugs his waistband up, he looks like an off-duty supermarket manager. He grabs a fistful of paper towels and shoves them into his undershirt, giving himself a slight paunch. If he walks with his shoulders stooped and makes sure to keep his elbows out, he should be all right until he can find a makeup kit.
Phil pays cash for a commuter ticket to Mt Airy. SHIELD should have guards at all interstate trains and buses by now, but they won't have branched out to the suburbs. Each minute he's gone is another minute they have to look for him, and when he tugs his collar and wipes his forehead it's only partly for show.
It's late by the time he reaches Mt Airy. The parking lot near the station is almost deserted, but there's a beige 1993 Taurus sitting in the northwestern corner like a present, and Phil has it hotwired in under three minutes. There's an all-night drug store about a mile away from the train station, and Phil gets some funny looks for his cosmetics purchases. He grimaces and says, "I missed my girlfriend's birthday," and the clerk at the counter smiles in commiseration.
With the makeup Phil bought, he gives himself a port-wine stain on the right side of his face, high up on his cheekbone and spreading out to his forehead and his ear. Once he's done, he lets out a breath and feels himself relax slightly, for the first time since he left May and Skye in the car. Someone could still find him on a traffic cam, but he's still safer than he was. He lets himself shake for five minutes, and then he starts the car and heads north to New York City.
Phil doesn't have an address for Barton. What he does have is a Tumblr post with over 13,000 shares: a small grainy cameraphone snap of a blond man standing outside a weathered apartment building. The man is surrounded by vans and men in tracksuits, and he is holding a longbow and wearing a Santa cap. The caption on the photograph says, "Bed-Stuy represent."
It's still a few hours before dawn when he gets to Brooklyn. If he went out looking now it would be far too obvious. Phil hunkers down in Bickles Jerk Express with a plate of snapper and peas, and pages through the reblogs on the photograph, hoping for more clues.
One person says, "that's a building over on lewis near gates, i've seen it with an arrow sticking out of the satellite tv dish."
Another says, "No, I recognize that graffiti, it's on Throop between Kosciuszko and Dekalb. My girlfriends and I have started walking past on our way back from school, hoping to get a pic of those arms."
Another says, "you people are all stalkers, but that's definitely on thompkins near the 79th precinct."
Several hundred people don't believe it's Hawkeye, and a couple hundred more just comment with, "hot", or, "dat ass". Roughly twenty people reblog specifically to thank him for his service. One person says, "Hawkeye came into my vet clinic when I was on night duty and yelled at my boss. I don't give a shit where he lives."
By the time the sky starts growing lighter, Phil has a headache from wading through the mosh pit of the internet. His fish has gone cold, he can't even rub his face because he'll smear his makeup, and everything feels fucking awful. Whenever he closes his eyes, he is back in that hospital room getting needles stuck into his brain. He remembers his pain and fear and despair, he remembers begging to die. He remembers yelling, Nick, please make it stop and Nick, don't do this to me. He remember that Nick never answered. He remembers --
Phil slaps his hands on the table, making his silverware rattle against his plate, and forces himself to stand up. Anything is better than letting himself think. He'd rather traverse the length and breadth of Brooklyn at dawn o'clock on a Wednesday than let himself think. He leaves, and turns left. It's as good a direction as any.
Phil finds Barton by accident, which is so very New York. He is on his third hour of walking, and the drug dealers are starting to give him funny looks. He passes by the north side of Hattie Carthan Garden and sees a flash of blond hair out of the corner of his eye. He freezes, and then forces himself to keep walking. The blond man in sweats and running shoes turns onto Marcy Ave, and Phil wanders along Lafayette until he reaches Nostrand, and then books it, hoping he isn't too late. He runs all the way to Clifton, hitting the corner going full-out, and almost spears himself on one of Barton's arrows. He stumbles to a stop and meets Barton's wide-eyed look of shock with a nod.
"Barton," Phil says, straightening his sleeves. His play at dignity is spoiled by the way he's gasping for breath.
Barton steps back and tilts his head to the side, but leaves his arrow nocked and ready. "Sir," he says.
"Long time," Phil says, pressing a hand to his racing heart.
Phil hasn't seen him since they worked together at Pegasus, and then it was only in passing in the halls. Sometime in the last two weeks, Barton's had the snot beaten out of him. Sometime since they last laid eyes on each other, Barton's expression has gone hopeless and his posture has crumpled. Phil never knew him well, but they'd worked together periodically. When he learned that Loki had taken Barton, he had mourned the loss of a good agent and a good man. He remembers wishing he and Barton had been closer, had been friends. He hopes Barton can read that in him somewhere. He slowly spreads his hands out, trying to look as nonthreatening as possible, and says, "I'd like to ask a favor."
Barton's head tilts the other way. His arrow stays deadly level.
Phil takes a breath. Here he goes. "I'd like your help contacting Agent Romanov, without SHIELD knowing. I need her to find out how I came back from the dead." he says. The file on his desk on the Bus is laughable. He deserves better.
Phil wants to fidget his hands together, but he keeps them still.
Finally, Barton says, "Oh, is that all."
Phil laughs, surprising himself. It's the first time he's really laughed since he found out the truth about Tahiti. He says, "No, I also need to punch Nick Fury in his goddamn neck."
Barton lowers his bow.
"But I'm a patient man," Phil allows. "That can come later." He clasps his hands together and digs his fingernails into the backs. He isn't sure what he looks like, either the disguise or the desperate edge that's creeping into his manner, but it must be something Barton understands because Barton puts the bow away and then says,
"C'mon, you like pizza? It's all I got back at my place."
Phil sags like his strings have been cut. "I love pizza," he says.
Barton's place is not on Thompkins, Throop or Lewis. But there is, Phil can see, an arrow sticking out of a satellite TV dish on the third floor. Barton slumps up four flights of stairs, his body going looser and slouchier with every step, until he's almost dragging himself to his front door. He swings the door wide and waves Phil in, sweeping his arms as grandly as a ringmaster. Phil steps inside.
"Coffee?" Barton asks, kicking his shoes off.
"Please," Phil says. "And is there somewhere I can wash this off my face?"
Barton says, "Second door on your left. You can shower if you like. I'll grab some sweats for you." He wanders into the kitchen and pulls a pizza box out of the refrigerator.
Phil cannot handle kindness right now, but Barton's manner is matter-of-fact. Of course he would offer a near-stranger the use of his shower. Of course when Phil appears after eighteen months of silence, looking wild and threatening to assault the director of SHIELD, he gets pizza and a change of clothes. "Thank you," Phil says.
Barton waves him off, looking uncomfortable. "Don't worry about it," he says, and takes a huge mouthful of pizza. "Seriously, go get clean. If you wanna lock the door, you can, and I'll leave the clothes just outside."
Phil locks the door.
He spends a long time in the shower running his fingers over the top of his skull, feeling the razor-thin line where his parietal bone was removed and then put back. If he didn't know what to look for, he wouldn't even notice. He's been washing his hair for months without ever realizing.
True to his word, Barton has left a stack with socks, boxers, gray sweatpants and a purple tee shirt outside the door to the bathroom. Phil doesn't fill them out as impressively as he's sure Barton would, but the material is soft and comforting. Barton is nowhere to be found when Phil comes out, so he uses the time wisely and snoops around, getting a sense of the place.
Barton's apartment, once Phil gets a closer look, fits him perfectly. There is a bowl of water and another of dogfood next to the kitchen island, and dog hair on the couch, but no dog. He can see a pair of women's purple high-top Chuck Taylors next to the door, one of them tipped over on its side, but no other evidence that another soul has entered the apartment. He walks into the living room to find a wall filled with newspaper clippings, some of them with circles or X marks or chicken-scratch handwriting. The wall opposite that one has several arrows sticking out of it, one of them split down the middle with another arrow. On the kitchen island, where he should have noticed it earlier, is a small safe covered in a stack of pulp comics. Next to it, he can see a baseball cap with what looks like blood stains across the bill. Phil goes over to the safe and touches a corner of it with the tip of his finger, glances at the hat. Those are definitely blood stains. He wonders at the puzzle box that is Barton's life here.
Phil hears footsteps and turns to see Barton coming out of the door at the end of the hallway. Barton looks him up and down, and nods in approval when he gets to the socks on Phil's feet. He asks, "How long until they find you?"
Phil has been running for almost seventeen hours. They have to be close. "Soon," he says. "Skye will have started searching traffic cam data in all the major cities, and our little show outside was more than obvious. My team has to know I've found you, and if they know, Fury knows."
Barton nods. "Okay, there are two ways we can play this. You can run again, and I'll come with you. Or you can hide out here until they get tired of me and go looking somewhere else."
Phil stares. "I'm sorry?"
Barton says, "You look like dea-- I mean, you look pretty beat, and I already got my run in for the day, so I'm gonna vote for sleep."
Phil shakes his head. "Barton, no, you don't have to, I mean --"
"Coulson," Barton says, "what exactly did you think you were getting when you asked for my help?"
Definitely not this level of loyalty, nor generosity, nor trust. "I asked for help contacting Agent Romanov," Phil says. "I know a place in Jersey City, I can --"
Barton makes a face and waves his hands. "Jersey!"
"If your derision is shared by even a tenth of SHIELD's operatives," Phil starts, but Barton bulldozes right over him.
"How would Tasha find you?" Barton asks.
"I trust her ingenuity," Phil says.
Barton grabs a slice of pizza from the box on the counter and shoves it at Phil. He says, "My plan's better."
"And my plan doesn't involve you putting your job on the line for me," Phil says, exasperated.
Barton looks at him for long minutes, until Phil gets tired of being stared at and takes an angry bite of pizza. Cold pizza is objectively disgusting, but Phil hasn't eaten in nearly twenty-four hours. He finishes the slice and grabs for another one, hand pausing in mid-air when Barton finally speaks. "Sir, you asked for my help. You don't get to dictate the terms."
God damn him. Phil looks up, his hand still stretched toward the pizza box, and says, "трахать свою мать."
Barton laughs, the asshole. "Can't, sir. I'm too busy with your mom."
Phil is going to finish the last slice of pizza and then throw the box at Barton's face. "If you think --" he starts.
Barton turns serious like he's flipped a switch. "No, for real, listen. You're clearly running on fumes, and it's gonna take a while to reach Natasha anyway. Just rest here for a couple hours, please? I promise I won't make a fuss after that."
Phil shoves the slice of pizza in his mouth and bites off the biggest piece he can. He takes his time chewing, and Barton lets him. He looks away, at the hat, the dog food bowl, the arrows in the wall. He says, "I haven't been sleeping so well."
Barton lets out a breath. He says, "I can work with that."
Phil is led to the room at the end of the hall, which is filled with exercise equipment and boxes. Barton goes over to the right-hand wall and touches something, and the wall opens up like they're in a Batman movie. On the other side is a tiny room with a cot, a bedside table with a baby monitor on it, and a bunch of metal pipes lining the walls. Phil raises his eyebrows, impressed. says, "A little paranoid, are we?"
Barton grins. "It's the safest Tasha and I could make it, which is pretty damn safe."
Phil nods, stepping inside. It's much warmer in the little room than in the rest of the apartment. "Heat vision?" he asks.
Barton puffs up with pride. "The pipes were my idea. It's low-tech, but they foil everything from thermal imaging to that weird x-ray thing Tony's started working on. From the outside, it looks like a boiler room for the upper floors -- which it is, really. The only way someone could find the secret is if they had blueprints and a tape measure, and once they found it they'd still need my or Tasha's fingerprints to get in."
Phil settles onto the little cot, and tests the idea of safe in his mind. He asks, "How will I know if someone is coming?"
Barton points to the baby monitor. "I'll give a signal to wake you up. Just try it. If it doesn't work, there's a two-way option on the monitor, just yell and I'll get you out."
Phil lets out a breath, and feels his shoulders droop. This is such a gift. He says, "Thank you, Barton. For trusting me with this. For -- taking care."
Barton says, "You'd do the same, sir."
Phil frowns at him. "We've been on, what? Five ops together over ten years? You don't know that."
Barton says, "Six. And I do know it. Now try to get some sleep."
He leaves Phil inside the warm, dark little room, shutting the door behind him. Phil expects to lie awake, churning through the same thoughts that have kept him up every night for weeks. But either the warmth coming off the pipes, or the quiet certainty in Barton's voice, or simply the man's overwhelming generosity is enough to let him relax. He lies down, curling up on his side like a child, and falls asleep in minutes.
Phil wakes up some unknown time later, feeling soggy with sleep but miles less awful. He rubs his eyes and blinks into the darkness, and hears a man's voice crooning from the baby monitor. It's Barton, he woke up because Barton was singing.
"I've got a heart," Barton sings, "I've got a cabin. The door is open wide. What good is a heart, what good is a cabin, if nobody's inside?"
What good, indeed? Phil thinks about Marianna, about his team, and then gets off the cot. Maybe exercise will help calm his mind. He kneels down to start doing some push-ups.
"Agent May," Bartons voice says, and Phil freezes, one knee on the floor.
"Barton," May says, voice stone cold.
"I didn't hear you come in," Barton says.
There is silence.
"Would you like some coffee?" Barton asks. "I'd offer you a beer, but I drank them all."
"What did he ask you to do?"
"What did who ask me to do?" Barton doesn't miss a beat. "Are you sure you wouldn't like any coffee?"
Phil knows they can't hear him, but he still moves slowly, in complete silence, to sit back on the cot. He wraps his arms around himself, and closes his eyes.
May says, "Whatever it was, he didn't want the Director to know."
"I don't really need to be here for this conversation, do I?" Barton asks.
"He didn't want his team to get in trouble. We can't be punished if we don't know anything. And he didn't want his best friend, the Director of SHIELD, to know where he was going." There's the sound of boots clacking on hardwood. "He's trying to find out what they did to him, how they brought him back."
Barton says, "Now, your imagination is very nice --"
"Shut the fuck up, Barton," May tells him, in the same calm tone.
There is silence. Phil can hear the ragged sound of his breath.
"What I don't understand," May says, "is why he didn't trust us with this. Any one of us would go to the mat for him, have gone to the mat for him, and he knows it."
"Yeah," Barton says, his voice low and gentle. "He knows it."
They're both quiet for a long time, and then May says, "When I make my report to the Director, I'll be sure to note your lack of cooperation in tracking Agent Coulson. He's probably out of the city by now."
Barton says, "Could be, could be." After a minute, he starts singing again. "You made the mountains high, the earth, the sky. So who am I to say you're wrong? But Lord, you made the night too long."
Phil puts one hand to his aching heart. He is so, so lucky in his people.
It's another half an hour before Barton deems it safe enough to let Phil out. They sit at the kitchen island, two mugs of untouched coffee between them, and try to plan. Barton tells him, "I can get a message to Natasha, but it'll take a couple of days to find her."
Phil frowns. "You always know where she is." It had been the bane of Fury's existence. They were never caught communicating, no phone records or messages, but they always knew far too much about each other's classified assignments. Even across the globe from each other -- and many times, they were -- Barton and Romanov were still a team.
Barton scratches the back of his neck and looks away. "I used to. Things change when you try to bring down your own organization."
Phil says, "That's not --"
"But anyway, I can get a message to her. It'll take a couple of days, like I said, and it'll involve some, uh, consultation."
Phil leans back on his barstool. "What consultation?"
Clint looked at him sideways through his eyelashes. "Tony Stark?"
"Look," Barton holds out his hands. "I know you two weren't the best of friends, but -- just trust me on this, all right? He can find Tasha, he can do it without alerting SHIELD, and he'll do it if I tell him it's for you. I mean, and because he's my friend, but he'd definitely do it for you."
Phil blows out a breath, surprised and confused. Things have changed more than he thought. He opens his mouth to say, "All right," and the living room window bursts inward.
Phil reacts without thinking. He throws his mug of cold coffee at the intruder's face. The man bats it out of the air and it shatters on the floor, spilling coffee and ceramic shards among the broken glass. Phil can see that the man's not SHIELD, that he's alone, and that he has three guns and at least as many knives. Phil grabs the barstool out from under him and whips it at the intruder, and when the man knocks that out of the way too Phil is there in his blindspot on the left. Phil grabs the knife out of the side-sheath in the man's belt and slashes across his gun hand. The man shrieks but doesn't drop his gun; he reaches over to point the gun in Phil's face and Phil knocks his hand toward the ceiling. The sound of the gun firing is almost deafening from up close, and Phil is distracted long enough that the intruder manages to clock him on the jaw. Phil lets the momentum carry him down and around, and he kicks his leg at the back of the intruder's knees. The man jumps over his leg, and then screams and jerks backward. When Phil looks up from his crouch on the floor, he sees the man pinned to the living room wall with an arrow in each shoulder. Barton stands next to him, one hand on his neck, looking furious.
Barton asks, "Did you kill my friend?"
The man looks at him and laughs. Barton reaches down to an arrow and jerks it upward. The man screams, the sound trailing off into giggles. "They didn't," he gasps, "tell me this would be so much fun."
"Did you?" Barton asks.
"No, no, not me," the man says, and giggles again.
The intruder, Phil can see, shows signs of an amphetamine high. He is wearing a red and black motley under a leather jacket, and he looks like he belongs in Bedlam. And he may have killed one of Barton's friends.
Phil is clearly operating without all of the relevant information. He gets up off the floor and walks over to put the tip of his borrowed knife against the intruder's eye. The intruder looks away from Barton and focuses on Phil's knife, which is gratifying.
Barton asks, "Who killed him, then? Why?"
The intruder flicks a glance and Barton, and then goes back to staring at Phil. "Best answer him," Phil suggests.
The man licks his lips and says, "I don't know."
"Then what fucking good are you?" Barton says. He jerks the arrow out of the man's shoulder and then shoves it in again, and the man thrashes and yells.
"Really," Phil says, "your lack of cooperation is very frustrating." He makes a very small cut into the skin of the man's cheek, and the man whimpers.
"I don't," the man giggles again, but his high is clearly wearing off. He's starting to look gray around the edges. "He told me he was the man from hell."
"I am the man from hell!" Barton yells, and stabs the intruder with the arrow again. The man sobs and passes out.
Phil stands there, pressed side to side with Barton, crowing around the intruder, and listens to the harsh sound of his breathing. Up close, the man smells unpleasant and slightly sick. Phil says, "That was unexpected."
Barton laughs, a small, awful thing. He scrubs a hand over his face, smearing blood into his hair. "Not if you're me," he says.
Phil leans back, and then hisses. "I think I have glass in my feet."
"Aw, hell, me too," Barton says.
They look at each other, breathing hard and covered in scrapes, and Phil can hear a rushing in his ears. Then Barton says, "You take care of him, and I'll get the first aid kit," and the moment, whatever it was, is broken.
Barton hops around on his heels, saying, "Ouch, ouch," with every footfall, while Phil gets the intruder down off the wall. There isn't anything convenient to tie him with, like duct tape or sailor's twine, so Phil peels off the man's jacket and motley (the smell gets worse, and he ignores it) and uses his borrowed knife to cut the fabric into strips. He doesn't find any identifying information, which is frustrating. But he does find a metal coin with a strange symbol pressed into it, sewn into the lining of the jacket. By the time Barton hops back, Phil has bound the intruder like a rodeo calf and is tipping the coin back and forth in the light from the broken window.
"Aw, window," Barton says, as if he has just now realized the extent of the damage.
Phil figures distraction is in order. He puts the coin down and says, "Let me see your feet."
He and Barton end up sitting on a cleared-up patch of the living room floor, their feet in each other's laps, hissing quietly as they pick out slivers of glass and apply skin glue and bandages. Phil somehow had the worst of it. When he finishes patting down the last of the medical tape, Barton is still picking glass out of Phil's left foot. Barton's eyes are narrowed in concentration, and his hand cradling Phil's ankle is gentle, the skin hot.
Phil clears his throat. He asks, "'I am the man from hell'? Really, Barton?"
Barton's face goes red, but his hands remain gentle on Phil's foot. "Shut up," he says.
"I mean, he seemed very impressed," Phil tells him.
Barton huffs a laugh and ducks his head, and some of the tension goes out of his shoulders.
"Tell me what happened," Phil says.
Barton's hands still and he closes his eyes. "There are people after me," he says.
"I gathered that," Phil says. "Who?"
"Um, the Russian mafia?" Barton squints one eye open to look at Phil, and then closes it again. "And an international group of thieves. And maybe their bosses. And also possibly Madam Masque."
Phil leans back, impressed. "And your friend?"
Barton tightens his hands on Phil's foot, and then he lets go to rub at his eyes. He says, "I don't know. I had -- I mean, I didn't have it under control, of course I didn't. But they were after me. I don't know why they -- I don't know."
Phil waits for several minutes, but Barton doesn't move. "Were you close?"
Barton huffs a breath out. "No, well, kinda. He lived in the building, he was a civilian. I saved him and his dad from a flood once. That kinda thing brings you closer together. But he wasn't part of this life."
Phil waits another few minutes, and then asks, "What are you going to do?"
Barton drops his hands to Phil's ankle and holds on. He blinks wet eyes, and shakes his head. "Fuck," he says. He goes back to wrapping gauze around the ball of Phil's foot. "I was going to lie low, see if it would blow over. But after Grills, I want to light them the fuck up. He had no part in this. He was just a guy."
Phil says, "All right, we'll light them the fuck up."
Barton looks up, his eyes wide, and says, "No, sir, this isn't --"
"Shut up," Phil says. Barton snaps his mouth closed. "This man, this Grills? He was your people and I get that. But you're mine."
The corner of Barton's mouth ticks up. "I'm your people, huh?"
Phil spreads his hands out, taking in the empty pizza box, the glass and bandages, his rumpled dirty suit shoved in a corner of the couch. The borrowed clothes and the secret nest. Phil's presence kept from SHIELD. The soft beauty of Barton's singing, waking Phil from heavy sleep. "If you weren't before, you definitely are now."
Barton ticks up the other corner of his mouth. If you couldn't see his eyes, you'd think he was smiling. "And Phil Coulson always helps his people."
"Fucking right," Phil says. It earns him a laugh.
Barton finishes smoothing the last of the medical tape along Phil's foot, and then presents the foot back to Phil with a ta-daaa gesture. "So what do we do, boss?"
Phil looks at him, surprised. "I thought you'd want to take point on this. He was your friend."
Barton looks away. "I don't, ah. I make shitty decisions, sir. And I've fucked this one up a lot already. I just thought, I mean, you don't have to."
"No, no, I'm happy to -- well, not happy, as such." Phil bites his tongue so he'll shut the hell up for a second. Then he puts his hands together. "All right, we need to call the police for our guest. That should take care of any questions your neighbors have about the gunshots they heard. I wasn't here when he broke in, but you're Hawkeye, you could have subdued him in your sleep. We need to board up that window. If you don't have any plywood, I think I saw some downstairs on the sidewalk. Then we should contact Stark. Have him send a car over, something obvious that says, 'Fuck you, we're alive.' Do you own a suit?"
Barton's eyebrows go up. "It's covered in dog hair, but I think I got all the blood out."
"We'll work with what we've got. Let's get to work."
Barton hops to his feet and winces. "Dammit. C'mon, sir, let me help you up."
Phil accepts the offered hand, testing his injuries as he stands up. His feet hurt something awful, but as long as he doesn't run any marathons, he should be all right. A thought occurs to him. "Barton, is there anyone else you think might be in danger?"
Barton's mouth drops open. "Aw, fuck. Katie."
Phil works on cleaning his fingerprints off the crime scene while Barton makes possibly the most uncomfortable phone call Phil's ever listened to.
"Heya, girlie-girl," Barton starts out, all puffed-up bonhomie. "No, wait, don't hang up. Look, I wouldn't be calling if it wasn't important." There's a pause, and Phil concentrates on scrubbing the leather bindings wrapping their intruder. "Okay, okay, maybe, but this really is important. Do you remember that circus act that was stealing from those rich people? And the tracksuit guys, that time I mailed you my -- yeah, okay, you don't wanna talk about it. But just, that time, and um, and Grills." Another pause, this one longer. Phil moves on to the handle of the knife, and after it's clean he takes care to place it just so. "Yeah. Yeah, I know it's my fault, I screw everything up. Look, that's not the point. The point is, I think you might be in trouble." Phil cleans the bottle of antiseptic and the handle of the broken coffee cup, just in case. He doesn't want to move toward the kitchen, because Barton is there, pacing and wincing. He'll give it just a minute. "No, c'mon, somebody's angry enough to come after me, and the people I care about. Of course I -- I don't want to talk about Penny. Katie, Katie, listen to me. I know you can take care of yourself, I know you can. But it is so, so important to me that you be okay."
The man on the floor groans and opens his eyes. Phil walks over and crouches down by his head. He blinks up at Phil, looking hazy, and then his expression clears and he curls up around his belly and flops over, trying to escape. Phil leans an elbow on the side of his neck. He freezes.
"Do you know your role in all of this?" Phil asks.
The man licks his lips, and says hoarsely, "Sacrificial goat."
Phil tilts his head to the side. "I was thinking shark bait, but that also works."
The man huffs a small laugh. He's sober, and has the animal will to survive, which makes him possibly even more dangerous than before. But Phil is the man behind the curtain, the man in the shadow of government-sanctioned violence, and he is angry. Phil is much, much more dangerous than this small creature on the floor. He lets it show in his smile. The man's eyes roll around as he looks for a way out. There is none.
Phil says, "I would appreciate it -- look at me." The man looks at him. "I could snap your neck right now and it would only cause me the momentary inconvenience of changing our plans."
"Then why don't you?"
Phil says, "Because I believe in mercy."
The man narrows his eyes, searching for something in Phil. He says, "My bosses don't."
Phil says, "And maybe after all of this, you'll have a new boss."
The man frowns at him. "You're offering me a job?"
Behind them, Barton says, "Yeah, it's lonely. I miss the dog."
Phil ignores it. "My organization seeks highly skilled operatives who are calm under pressure and can carry out their objectives with a minimum of collateral damage. You have shown none of that, except for perhaps the skill. But many things can be taught. What can't be taught is loyalty. That can only be proven."
"And how do I prove my loyalty?"
The man is his, Phil knows. He doesn't let pride in a job well done show in his face. He says, "I wasn't here. There was one man, and he fought you, and then he called the police."
The man asks, "That's all?"
"That's all," Phil says.
Behind them, Barton says, "Yeah, whatever, you too. Okay. See you soon." There is the sound of a phone being put on the hook, and then Barton hops over to stand at Phil's back. "Everything good?" he asks.
Phil asks the intruder, "Is everything good?"
The intruder stares at him, and then says, "Yeah, boss. Everything's good."
"Excellent. Now," he moves to rise, and then remembers. "One more thing. What do you like to be called?"
The man rolls onto his back and laughs, eyes closed. "Wade, boss. Call me Wade."
Phil says, "Thank you, Wade."
He stands and leaves Wade lying on the floor. Barton leads him back to the exercise room and the nest, and waits until they're tucked into the warm little room before he asks, "Did you give him the loyalty speech? You know it's famous back at Headquarters."
Phil says, "It's not a speech. But yes."
"God," Barton laughs. "The number of tired, lonely, angry mercs you've brought in from the cold with the promise of family. We're all just teddy bears to you, aren't we, sir?"
Phil sits down on the cot, and then wishes he hadn't. The warmth and the soft blankets are reminding him how exhausted he is. He yawns, and tips his chin toward the kitchen. "Girlfriend?" he asks.
Barton ducks his head. "Naw," he says. "Katie's too good for me." There is adoration in his voice, and sadness. "Did Fury tell you about the Young Avengers?"
Phil says, "A little."
"Kate, she's a Hawkeye, too. She's amazing. The best bowman in the world, smart, strong, goddamn fearless. I, ah." He scratches the back of his neck. "I fuck things up a lot, sir. I don't know if you know that about me."
Phil says, "It didn't seem like anything was messed up, from what I could hear."
"Yeah?" The hope in Barton's face looks almost painful.
"You'd be surprised, how resilient friendships can be," Phil says. "Go call the police. The sooner they're gone, the sooner we can get to Stark."
Barton salutes and closes the door. Phil falls asleep waiting for the police to arrive.
Barton's suit fits him like a sack, and it still has bloodstains on the lapel. "Aw, okay," Barton says, watching Phil swim around in his Oxford and jacket. He is clearly trying not to laugh.
Phil shrugs. "We work with what we've got," he says, although he misses the armor and anonymity of his own suits. "Can I borrow something else?"
He ends up in a pair of Barton's jeans and another purple tee shirt. These fit slightly better, although it's still clear that Barton takes up more space than Phil, and to better effect. No matter. Phil's job is to calm and then terrify, and he can do that quite nicely in borrowed clothing. He looks at Barton, who is still covered in Wade's blood and has somehow (how did he do that?) acquired a rip across the belly of his shirt. Phil says, "Maybe you should change, too."
Barton looks down at his shirt. "Aw, another one?" He grabs the back of the collar and pulls it off.
Phil blinks, and his face goes hot. He looks away and clears his throat. "Does this happen often?"
"You have no idea," Barton says. Phil can hear him walking toward the staircase, and focuses on the outline of the broken window to keep from watching him. That's a lot of skin of display, and the man deserves his privacy. "It's like the air is full of knives or something. How do other people keep their stuff from falling apart? I swear, I can just look at a shirt and it gets rumpled." His voice trails off as he gets to the top of the stairs. A minute later, a pair of pants falls over the banister.
Phil feels a throb of heat in his chest. Stop that, he tells himself. Of all the inappropriate, ill-advised, dangerous --
Barton comes sliding down the banister and does a somersault at the end, popping up to standing about a foot away from Phil. Then he winces. "Ow, dammit, feet," he says.
Phil cannot be attracted to this man. "We should call Stark," he says.
Stark, who is the leader of the free world when it comes to obvious and ostentatious, sends a bright yellow stretch SUV limo to pick them up. Phil resists putting his face in his hands.
Barton asks, "Why, again?"
Phil says, "Mostly for distraction. Partly so they'll underestimate us. Partly so the neighbors will watch your building, which should keep everyone here a little safer until we neutralize the problem."
"But why yellow, though?" Barton asks. "Freaking Tony."
The ride is quiet, and feels strained. Phil picks at the hem of his (Barton's, oh God, he is wearing Barton's clothes) shirt and tells himself over and over again to get a fucking grip. Barton stares out the window. Every once in a while Barton will turn and open his mouth as if to say something, and then he'll shut it and looks back out the window again. Phil finally snaps when they're crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. "What, Barton?"
Barton hesitates, and then says, "This isn't what you came for."
Phil says, "Barton --"
"No, let me finish. You came to me to get the word to Natasha. She's the spy's spy, she can find out what happened to you if anyone can. And now we're -- you don't even like Tony. You hardly know me. And what if Fury finds out where we are and comes looking for you? And I couldn't even get to Tasha anyway, you picked the absolute wrong guy for that. Just. This isn't what you came to me for."
Phil takes a minute to put his thoughts in order. Barton deserves that. He says, "A month ago, I recovered memories of the procedure that brought me back to life. They were -- unpleasant." Barton looks at him, expression crumpled. "Since then, I haven't been good for much. No," he says, when Barton opens his mouth, "let me finish now. I started asking, why? Who am I? Am I even human anymore? Am I still Phil Coulson? Why, out of everyone who has ever lived or ever will live, do I get a second chance? Real good midlife crisis questions. I thought Agent Romanov could find answers for me, but." He stops. How to say this? "Barton, this is the first time since I regained my memories that living has felt more important than knowing. I'd like to help you. It makes me feel like Phil Coulson again."
Barton is quiet for a long time, just looking at Phil. The inside of the limo is a perfect bubble of stillness, while outside taxis grind their horns and pedestrians yell, and the seething mass of New York City churns around them. Finally, Barton says, "Okay."
And then they are at Stark Tower, lord help them.
Phil has a moment of intense sense memory, riding in the elevator up to Stark's suite. This was the last place he visited before he settled himself on the Helicarrier. Stark and Pepper were the last civilians he saw before his heart was cut in half. He grabs the railing of the elevator and tries to breathe normally.
Barton notices, of course he does. "Hey, JARVIS, stop the elevator. Coulson, you okay?"
"Fine," Phil says. He is alive, he's not panicking, he's alive.
"Yeah, okay, breathe in."
"That's good. Hold it for a second. Now out. Okay, in."
Phil breathes. His shoulders go down.
"That's right. Another one, in. Now hold it. Out. Let me know when you're ready."
"I've been ready," Phil says, but his voice is still weak and thready.
"I believe you. In. Okay, out."
Finally, finally, he comes back to his heartbeat and the hum of the elevator. Barton has a hand resting between Phil's shoulder blades, and his voice is low and soothing in Phil's ear. Phil's body immediately goes from danger to yes, please, and he gulps and shakes off Barton's hand. He turns his back and smoothes his palms over his face, and wills himself to calm the fuck down. "Thanks," he says, "I'm good now. JARVIS, we can move."
Barton doesn't argue.
The elevator takes them to a floor Phil has never seen. It's much cozier than the cave-like room he'd visited before, filled with bread-colored microsuede couches and little nooks with laptop stations. It looks like a bougie coffeehouse/workspace from the financial district, except that at least two Avengers have wandered through in the past day or so. Captain America's shield is leaning against the side of the nearest couch, and Thor's ceremonial helmet is on its side on the coffee table. Stark has his back to them when the elevator opens, and is waving his hands at the air.
"No, look," he's saying, "it's the perfect telenovela. El Cartel de los Avengers. You can't tell me you don't want in on this action. You'll be a star."
Banner's voice comes out of the walls. "I don't want to be a star, I want to read my physics journal and then go to sleep."
"Nuh-uh, I promised Barton I'd round everybody up. He said it was important."
"Barton's here," Barton says. "And I brought a guest."
"Hear that?" Stark asks, pivoting on his heel. He catches a look at Phil and loses his balance, stumbling forward before he rights himself. "Holy mother of God. Barton, you fuck." He looks shocked.
Barton laughs, but the sound is gentle. "Hey, Tony," Barton says. "I brought a friend."
"I see that," Stark says, staring. "Hi."
Phil says, "Hello." He twitches, wishing he had a potted plant to hide behind. Stark has never looked at him for this long before, or with this much concentration.
"In all fairness," Barton says, "I wasn't just trying to mess with you, you know, not telling. I couldn't be sure SHIELD wasn't tapping your phone lines."
"Nobody's tapping my -- why would Fury be tapping my phone lines?" Stark turns to frown at Barton.
Phil says, "I am absent without official leave." Stark looks back at him. "I ran away."
"You seriously -- what the hell is happening? You're wearing jeans. I only found out you weren't dead like a month ago. I'm glad to hear it."
"Thank you," Phil says, all politeness.
"But just. You're going to have to explain, because not one single bit of this is making any sense."
"Uh, guys?" Banner says. "I'm coming down there."
Phil, Barton and Stark all look at each other for a minute. Barton raises his eyebrows at Phil, and Phil shrugs. "Sure," Barton says. "The more the merrier, I guess."
"I'm happy you're not dead, by the way," Stark says. "Did I say that already/"
"Yes," Phil says, confused. This is more positive emotion from Stark than he would ever have expected. On top of the last thirty-six hours, it's surreal. "Thank you."
"Not least so I can sock you one for making Pepper cry."
Oh, God, Pepper. Phil crumples a little. "I'm sorry, I --"
"Oh, hey, no, don't look like that. Come on, just a little rabbit-punch to the jaw? I won't even make a fist. I'll just tap you with my knuckles."
Phil can't help it. He laughs. The sound comes out ragged, but it's definitely a laugh. Twice in one day; these Avengers must be good for him. "Please tell her I apologize for any pain I may have caused her."
"Tell her yourself," Stark says, but it doesn't sound mean. "Now, what are we doing?"
"Uh, so here's the thing," Barton says.
Banner arrives while Barton is trying to explain why he let an international crime syndicate and a passel of Russian mobsters hound him for months without telling anyone.
"It wasn't a big deal!" Barton says. He throws up his hands.
"Bullshit it wasn't a big deal," Stark says. "I saw you at Christmas. You remember, when you chewed me out for taking on the Mandarin by myself, while you sat there all covered in bruises and insisting everything was fine? It goes both ways, asshole. If you're my team and I get to ask you for help, then I'm your team right back."
"Nope. Bruce, tell him."
Banner says, "You did look pretty beat up. Not that I'm taking sides."
Phil leans behind Barton and reaches out a hand. "Phil Coulson," he says. "We met on the Helicarrier, before the Battle of New York."
Barton says, "Stuff that's my own mess should be my business to clean up."
Stark asks, "In what universe is that true in any way?"
Banner takes Phil's hand. "I remember. I heard you'd died. And then, uh, that you hadn't died."
"I get that a lot," Phil says.
"Fine!" Barton says. "I'm asking for help now. I have no idea what to do. These people killed one of my friends, and they might be targeting others, and I have absolutely no idea what to do about it. Happy?"
Stark looks at him for a minute, and then says, "'Happy' is such a funny word when it comes to vengeance."
"Sirs?" JARVIS's voice comes out of the walls. "An Agent Melinda May of SHIELD is here, with others."
Phil freezes. Banner, Barton and Stark all stare at him. He pinches the bridge of his nose.
"I can send them away," Stark offers.
Goddammit. He's ready to say yes and go hide in his bolthole in Jersey. He could give up the whole crazy scheme. The first thing he wanted, the only thing that was set in stone from the moment he stepped out of the car in Philadelphia, was that he stay well away from SHIELD. Everything else had been secondary, even finding Agent Romanov. But he thinks about the mission he'd set for himself today. He thinks about Barton, who has been loyal beyond reason when Phil was nearly a stranger. He thinks about May and Skye and Ward and Fitzsimmons, and how they came for him when Raina had him.
He thinks about Stark saying, 'If you're my team, then I'm your team right back,' and something in his brain goes click, click, click. There, there it is, a bigger plan, and it depends on so much, it depends on them saying yes. But if they do, God, it's perfect. He rides the wave of it until Stark begins to look worried.
Phil shakes his head. He realizes that he's grinning. "No, let them in. Make sure Skye is with them. And Fitzsimmons."
"I'll just take a roll call, shall I, sir?" JARVIS asks.
"Sir," Barton says, "the Director."
"I'll deal with Director Fury," Phil says. Barton's face shifts through several unreadable expressions, and then he nods.
Phil wants to tell him, this is going to be so good, but he waits. First, he has to introduce everyone.
Ward walks in first, with May at his right shoulder and Skye right behind them. Fitzsimmons bring up the rear. Fitz is carrying a garment bag. They look like they haven't slept since Phil ran.
Phil feels cold guilt settle in his belly, and he makes himself meet their eyes. Whatever they want to say to him, Phil can take it. He owes them so much.
Ward comes right up to stop in front of him, standing military straight, and says, "Agent Coulson, sir."
Phil says, "Agent Ward. I want to extend my deepest --"
"We're here to help," Skye says. Ward turns to glare at her, and she says, "What? We are. Fitz even brought a suit."
Behind Phil, Stark says, "Oh my God, they're babies."
Simmons shifts around May to look at the rest of the room, and makes a noise like a hissing kettle. Ward's face goes blank.
It's like herding cats. And Phil , damn him, loves cats. He says, "I am sorry, all of you." His team all focus back on him. He says, "I didn't trust you, I didn't tell you what was happening to me, and I left you alone. Before I accept your offer of help, I need you to know how sorry I am. I," he tries to smile, and can't quite make it. "I'm not at my best."
There's the sound of quiet conversation from behind May, and then Fitz gets shoved to the front of the pack. He is red-faced and isn't meeting Phil's eyes. He says, "This should help, sir," and pushes the garment bag at Phil.
Phil's throat gets tight and he has to blink rapidly. "Thank you, Fitz. I'm sure it will." He takes the garment bag, and offers his hand to Fitz to shake.
After that, it feels easy to introduce his team to the Avengers. Skye's expression is shocked as she shakes Stark's hand, and Simmons looks at Banner like she wants to peel back the layers of his brain, and also like she wants to ask him out to coffee. May looks at Phil and quirks the tiniest of smiles, and Phil feels something in his chest come loose.
They can do this, he thinks. His team, his people. It will be amazing, and Barton will be safe, and Phil is alive, alive, alive. He says, "I want to make it very clear to you all that this is in no way an order. We are not acting under authority, with the permission, or even with the knowledge of SHIELD. Anyone can back out at any time, with no argument and no repercussions."
They all watch him in silence. His people, his team. They are spectacular.
"All right, this is the situation," Phil says. "A team of possibly-unknown hostiles has been targeting Agent Barton, and we need to find them and take them out. Skye," he hands her the coin he found in Wade's jacket. "There is a man named Wade in lockup at the 79th Precinct in Brooklyn. He was carrying this. Find out who paid him to attack Agent Barton, and whoever is paying them. I want school reports, family trees, dental records, everything. JARVIS will help you."
"Jarvis?" Skye asks, looking around the room. "He's coming later, right?"
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma'am," JARVIS says.
"Holy shit," Skye says, her eyes as wide as dinner plates. "Are you Skynet?"
"No, ma'am," JARVIS says, "but I appreciate the compliment."
"Ward," Phil says. "I'd like you to go get Wade from the police station and bring him to SHIELD." Ward frowns and opens his mouth. "Then come back here, without being followed."
"Yes, sir," Ward says, looking satisfied. He turns on his heel and leaves.
"Fitz, Simmons, I need explosives. A lot of them. Work with Stark. They have to be lightweight, undetectable, remote-detonated, and able to bring down a skyscraper if we need them to."
Stark claps his hands together. "Come on, kids. This is going to be fun."
Phil looks at the others. May is solid, but Barton has gray shadows under his eyes, and his bruises are standing out in stark relief. "Barton, May, you rest. We'll need you fresh if we have to fly anywhere."
Barton says, "Sir," like he wants to object.
Phil leans closer. "You watched over me all day," he says, voice quiet. "It's time to stand down."
Barton examines him and then nods. "There's a guest room down the hall," he says. "I'll be right there. You call me if anything happens, all right?"
"I will," Phil says.
"Come on, May," Barton says. "I'll show you where you can bunk down."
He forces himself to turn away, instead of watching them leave. Around the room, little pockets of activity are bubbling. It feels good. "Banner," Phil says. "Stark mentioned getting everyone together. Who else is coming?"
Banner says, "Steve and Thor. Pepper. Natasha."
Phil asks, "Can you help me catch them up when they arrive?"
Banner nods, and goes to sit on an unoccupied couch with his tablet.
And then Phil is left with nothing to do but wait.
An hour later, Skye yells, "Yes!" and jumps up off the couch with her hands above her head. Stark, Fitzsimmons, Banner and Phil all stare at her. "I mean," she says. "Oh, shut up. Coulson, come look what I found."
Phil walks over as she throws five holographic screens into the air. On one of them is the symbol from Wade's coin, and the other four each display a rap sheet for a very unpleasant-looking man. Gun smuggling, human trafficking, robbery, murder. "My, my, gentlemen," Phil murmurs.
Skye says, "These are just the small-time players. That symbol? Connects to a shell corporation run by an organization called The Black Hand. They have their fingers in a lot of pies in the States, including a real estate partnership with the Russian mafia, and a highly unsuccessful circus heist last year."
Phil whistles. "So Barton's mob problem and his thief problem are the same problem."
"Yup, and check this one out." She throws up a sixth screen. On it is a grainy night-time photograph man in harlequin make-up. "The man from hell," she says.
Phil commits his face to memory. "Barton's going to want time with this one specifically. Where are they?"
"All over, but their base is in Zagreb."
"Zagreb?" Stark snorts. "What the hell kind of crime syndicate sets up shop in Croatia?"
Phil says, "It doesn't have an extradition agreement with the United States."
Banner says, "And there are all those --"
"Castles," Simmons says. He looks at her over the top of his glasses, and she shrinks and says, "Sorry."
"No, no, uh," Bruce says. "That's what I was going to say."
"But the taxes," Stark says. "Give me Monaco any day. Sure, I might get dragged off to Guantanamo, but before that I'd make some serious money."
Phil turns his back on them, and points at the screens. "You said those are the small-time players," he says. "Who's the big time?"
Skye grins, and the air around them fills up with faces. "We're the big time, boss," she says. Phil can't disagree.
Captain Rogers comes in, followed by Agent Romanov, while Phil is getting addresses and feeding the information into a flight plan. He can hear Banner explaining the situation, and leaves them to it. He'll have time to speak to Agent Romanov later, and he doesn't want to greet Captain Rogers in borrowed clothes and bandaged feet. Instead, he asks Skye, "Can you hack into the security cameras, or should we send Fitz's toys?"
Skye frowns and hums. "Let me try the cams first. If I can do it, we could have more than five people to show them. Gotta make it as impressive as we can, right?"
"Right," Phil tells her. "Let me know as soon as you're sure, whether you can or not."
"On it, boss," she says, and bends back down over her laptop.
Phil watches her, feeling prickles on the back of his neck, until he can't stand it anymore. He turns to see Rogers and Romanov standing three feet away, much closer than he was expecting.
"Captain Rogers," Phil nods at him. "Agent Romanov. Thank you for coming." Then he wants to slap himself. They came for Barton. They're Barton's team, of course they're here.
Captain Rogers nods, and says, "Of course."
Agent Romanov's mouth quirks to the side, and she raises her eyebrows. Phil sighs. She's always had his number, even when his number was making a fool of itself in front of the good captain. "Agent Romanov, you're looking well," he says.
The quirk becomes a full-on smile. She says, "So are you," and then astonishes him by leaning over and kissing him on the cheek. "Thank you for helping him," she whispers, before she straightens, pushing her hair out of her face.
Phil clears his throat and shakes his head slightly. "You're here to help, I assume?"
Captain Rogers nods. "Anything we can do."
Phil says, "You can look impressive marching through the main thoroughfare of Zagreb." Then he twists his fingers together so he won't put his face in his hands.
Captain Rogers looks like he wants to back away slowly. Phil would let him. "If that's all," he says.
Phil says, "What I meant is, I'm planning a performance. It's an important performance, of course, but in the end it is theater. If you would like to be in it, I need a very visible bodyguard. Someone people will look at so they won't notice me coming."
Captain Rogers nods, his face clearing. "I'd like to help, very much."
"And me?" Agent Romanov asks.
Phil says, "You can blow things up."
She nods, satisfied.
Phil says, "The issue now is one of timing. We have two planes, the Bus and Stark's private jet. We need to get to seven locations to set up explosives without being seen, and then corral all the major players at their base of operations in Zagreb, where I'll engage them in some polite conversation. I could use both of you to help me finish planning this."
Romanov looks calculating. Rogers looks determined. Phil is about to invite them over to one of the hipster sofas to help him plot, when he hears Nick Fury say, "You have two planes and three quinjets, and as many SHIELD tactical teams as you need," from the other side of the room
The bottom drops out of Phil's stomach. He turns away. He can feel his face twist, and Fitz and Skye and Stark are all watching him, and he just can't do this right now.
Stark says, "What is this, Grand Central Station? Get the hell out of my house."
Fury says, "Right now, Mr Stark, your house contains five AWOL agents and a conspiracy to, I don't even know what the hell. Murder? Extortion? If I want to bring some sanity back to my organization, coming to your house seems like my best first step."
Phil really can't do this. He grabs the garment bag off the back of the couch and heads toward the hallway, muttering, "I'm going to change," as he goes.
"Agent Coulson," Fury calls after him.
Phil walks faster.
"You don't want to talk to me like we're friends, Director," Phil tells him. Then he is in the hallway, thank God. He is away from the heavy weight of everyone's eyes, and away from Nick.
To his left, about twenty feet away, Barton is crouched on the floor next to a young woman in a purple jumpsuit. They both look up when he stumbles to a halt.
"Sorry," he says. "Where's the shower? I need to -- sorry, I'll go."
"Coulson, wait," Barton says, and scrambles to his feet. The young woman stays where she is, leaning against the wall with a recurve bow perched on her knees.
Phil starts backing down the hall away from them. "No, you go back to, I just need," he says, and then Fury is there in the hallway with them.
For a moment, Phil is back in SHIELD medical. He is restrained and desperate and begging. He can hear Fury say, "Agent Coulson," but it's overlaid by the memory of Dr Streiten yelling, 'Listen to him!'
Phil says, "Get away from me right now, please."
Fury says, "Coulson, I need you to listen to me."
Phil laughs. He clutches the garment bag and says, "Not now, Director. Tomorrow, I'll listen to you tomorrow." It's the most insubordinate he's ever been, and it feels awful. It feels freeing, and nasty, like screaming at your parents.
"There are some things I need to explain to you."
Barton appears at Phil's side, and says, "I believe Agent Coulson asked you to step away from him." He puts a hand on Phil's shoulder, and Phil can breathe.
Fury glares at him. "You want to back away from this, Agent."
Barton says, "No, sir, I don't," in a soft, dangerous voice.
Fury goes still, and then takes a half step back. "All right?" he asks.
Phil says, "I'd rather not be here if it's all the same to you." He feels steadier with Barton's hand on him, but his skin is crawling and he has the very real fear that he'll start to cry in front of his oldest friend. Or maybe hit the man. Whichever works.
Fury takes another step back, and Phil's shoulders go down. He asks, "Did you watch the video of me?"
Fury twitches. "Excuse me?"
"The video, of the procedure they did on me. There must have been a video. An experimental procedure where you bring a man back to life --"
"After days --"
"This information is classified --"
"I begged to die!" Phil yells. He throws the garment bag at Fury. "Did you hear me begging? Where were you? I was in so much pain for so long, and I hoped you would come take it away. I asked them to kill me. I asked them to forget their directive and walk away from the machine and let me starve. A gun, a knife, an overdose of morphine. Do you understand what that means, Nick? You've known me since I was twenty years old. Do you understand?"
Fury stares at him, licks his lips, and says, "Yes."
Phil says, "Then tell me why."
Fury is a large man, taller than Phil, but there in the hallway he looks small. He says, "I've known you since I was twenty years old. I just, I couldn't."
Phil covers his face. "Go away, please."
"No," he looks up. Fury is back to being large as life and twice as dangerous, but Phil can see the cracks. He always has. "I'm still an agent of SHIELD, but right now I can't do my job with you here."
"And after this job?"
Phil says, "I don't know. I'll still be an agent of SHIELD. I'm going to want more answers."
"What happened to me. How you found the procedure. Whether I'm still human."
Fury opens his mouth, and closes it. He says, "All right."
Phil says, "All right."
There's a sound from the doorway. Phil looks over to see every single member of his team and all of the Avengers staring at him, looking various shades of heartbroken, horrified, and furious. Phil cannot right now.
He grabs the garment bag off the floor and says, "Shower."
Barton, hand still on Phil's shoulder, says, "I'll show you, sir. Come on."
He leads Phil down the hall, away from Fury and the others. Behind them, Fury says, "Excuse me? You pile of maudlin Oscar speeches, mind your own fucking business." If Phil felt any less exhausted, he'd laugh.
They turn a corner in the empty hallway, and Barton tugs Phil to a halt. Phil frowns at him, feeling bleary and emptied-out and humiliated. He can't read Barton's expression.
Barton says, "Sir, I'm gonna offer something, and you can say no."
Phil asks, "What?" And Barton hugs him.
It's shocking. Phil hasn't held another person in so long, not since Marianna. He doesn't know what to do for a second. The warmth of Barton's body is overwhelming. His smell, the solidity of his arms. Phil can feel the rhythm of Barton's breath, and it unravels him. He grips the back of Barton's shirt and heaves in big gulping breaths and trembles.
"Hey, hey," Barton says. "I've got you. Hey, you're here, you're right here, I've got you." Phil loses track of how long they stand there.
Finally, he gets a handle on himself, and manages to let go of Barton's shirt. Barton steps away gracefully, and leans down to pick up the poor abused garment bag from where Phil must have dropped it. Phil wipes his eyes.
"I didn't figure you for the hugging type," Phil says.
"I'm usually not," Barton says, glancing at him sideways. "This is a special case."
Phil huffs. "Special is one way of putting it, yes."
Barton says, "Well, anyway, you seem a little more," he waves a hand at Phil.
Phil says, "Yes, I'm just going to." He lifts the garment bag. "I think a shower and a change would help."
"I don't know, you look pretty good wearing my clothes," Barton says. Then his mouth drops open and his face turns bright red. "Oh my God."
"I mean. I'm sorry, I'm gonna," he points back down the hall and starts walking backwards away from Phil. "You enjoy your shower. Wow. Bye."
Phil stands for a minute in the empty hallway. Then he says, "Fuck everything. JARVIS, where's the scotch?"
JARVIS says, "Mr Stark has a minibar in the Oval Bathroom. Continue down the hall another ten feet, and then turn right."
The shower, the scotch and the suit go a long way toward putting his head on straight. So does rebandaging his feet. The glue is holding, and but it would be good to have a doctor to look at them after all of this is over.
He avoids looking at his naked chest in the bathroom mirror, like always, and watches himself while he ties his tie. The Oval Bathroom is bigger than his office on the Bus, and it's ugly the way many of Stark's design choices are: all iridescent green tile on the walls and light fixtures where he wasn't expecting them. The whole experience, even the tragic decor, is comforting. When he steps out of the bathroom, he feels ready to face whatever this goddamn day will throw at him next.
Barton's woman friend in the purple jumpsuit is standing outside the bathroom. Phil might not actually be ready.
She looks him up and down and whistles. "You clean up nice," she says. The words could be mocking, but her voice is friendly. Phil relaxes a tiny bit.
"Thank you," he says. He reaches out a hand. "Phil Coulson of SHIELD."
She takes it. "Kate Bishop, Hawkeye. Clint asked me to show you the way back to the lounge."
Phil shakes his head. "JARVIS could show me the way back to the lounge. What did he actually ask you?" Maybe, after watching his spectacular meltdown, she wants to check to see that he still has all his marbles. It's a legitimate concern.
She narrows her eyes. Ms Bishop is shorter than Phil is and almost painfully young, but with the full weight of her stare on him Phil can see why she's a Hawkeye. "Okay, nothing," she says. "I volunteered. You're the one sending SHIELD agents and Avengers all over to help my friend. I wanted to meet you." She makes an after-you motion, and they start walking.
Phil nods. "And see if you could trust my judgment."
Phil bites down on a smile. "The two of you seem to have patched things up."
She rolls her eyes. "Yeah, we did. Clint's a trainwreck, but he's my trainwreck, you know?"
Phil stops, and she stops with him. "Ms Bishop," he says.
"Kate, then. Agent Barton has shown me nothing but generosity, consideration and care since I arrived on his doorstep yesterday. Now, I'm happy that the two of you have each other. Your partnership is clearly very important to Barton, and to you as well. But if you don't understand his full worth, I don't want to hear about it."
He starts walking again, and after a second he hears her rush to catch up with him. "Wait a minute," she says. "Did you just give me the shovel talk?"
"Yes," Phil says. On any other day he would have more subtlety, but this gets the job done.
She puts a hand on his arm and he stops again. He turns to look at her and she is smiling. Her whole demeanor has changed. "Good," she says.
Phil raises his eyebrows. "Good?"
"Yes. Good. Come on, everyone's waiting for orders." She tears off down the hallway, her short legs eating up the space, and Phil scrambles to catch up with her.
Inside Stark's workspace lounge, it feels like barely controlled chaos. Stark, Banner, Fitz and Simmons are writing equations in the air and waving their hands. Skye is sketching out the flight paths Phil and JARVIS planned, explaining them to May and a rapt Thor. Captain Rogers and Agent Romanov are cleaning their respective weapons. And Barton is sitting off to the side, looking like a kicked dog. He glances up when Phil and Kate come in, and then quickly away again. Kate goes over and sits on the couch next to him, swinging an arm over his shoulders and ruffling his hair. Some of the misery goes out of his posture, but he doesn't look over at Phil again.
"All right, everyone," Phil says. "I think we're ready for stage two. Everyone who's willing to go on a field trip, raise your hand." Everyone does. Phil feels a thrill, looking at all of them. "Skye, where are we on surveillance footage?"
"All set," she says.
"JARVIS, can you modify the flight plans I'd set out for two planes, to include the three quinjets Director Fury has lent to us?"
"Already done, sir."
"What's our departure schedule?"
"Teams one, two and three to leave at three-thirty a.m., team four to leave at four-thirty a.m., and team five on a flight to Zagreb at six a.m., to arrive at midnight local time."
"Great," Phil says. "Please send a letter respectfully requesting the presence of each member of The Black Hand. Sign it, oh, sign it yourself."
JARVIS says, "Permission to use creative license, sir?"
"So much permission," Phil says. "Explosives?"
Fitz says, "Yes, sir. We have enough for all targets."
"Good. Now, we need teams. My thought was May, Simmons and a SHIELD tactical unit on team one. Romanov, Fitz and SHIELD on team two. Ward and SHIELD on team three. Stark, can you start flying over Zagreb at ten o'clock local time? Make it look like you're searching for something."
Stark says, "I'll start polishing my suit."
"Kate and Barton are with me on the Bus." He stops, looking over at the two Hawkeyes on the couch. Kate is watching him with a smile as big as her face, and Barton has his head down. Phil asks, "Can anyone else here shoot a bow and arrow?"
Simmons slowly raises her hand.
"Jemma!" Fitz says, looking scandalized.
"What? I went to boarding school in Northumberland. Of course I learned archery."
Phil asks, "How accurate are you?"
"Oh, ten years ago I was excellent. Today . . ."
"Hmm. We have some time. Kate, would you be interested in giving an archery brush-up lesson?"
"Yup," she says.
"All right, Banner, you go with May. Simmons, you're with my team. That leaves Captain Rogers, Thor, and Skye on Stark's jet. Captain Rogers, Thor, are you all right being the main show?"
Rogers says, "Sure. It'll be just like old times."
Thor says, "I believe I would enjoy it very much."
Phil says, "Good work, everyone." He doesn't try keeping the pride out of his voice, or the excitement. This is going to work. "Get ready. You're on the clock."
Before anyone can move, the elevator door opens and Ward comes in. He's lost his SHIELD issue jacket and his face is covered in dirt. He is whistling. When he catches sight of the room filled with Avengers, holographic screens, equations, and the tension of a plan about to be executed, he stops and asks, "Hey, what did I miss?"
Phil fucking loves his team. "Come here, Ward. Let me fill you in."
Ward, May, Romanov, Fitz, Banner leave the tower around three, and once they are gone Phil deflates. The middle of an op is always the worst for him. He sits on the couch that Banner recently vacated, and debates shining his shoes vs getting in a nap before he has to leave. Kate and Simmons are somewhere practicing, and Stark is in his shop. Barton hasn't shown himself since Phil gave out assignments. He is alone.
"JARVIS?" Phil asks. "Where is Barton?"
"Unknown, sir," JARVIS says.
Phil sits up straight. "Unknown like he's left the building?"
"Agent Barton's whereabouts can be successfully determined to be within Stark Tower. His location within the tower is unknown."
"Does that happen often?"
JARVIS says, "With regularity."
Phil whistles. "I bet that bugs the hell out of you."
JARVIS hesitates for a fraction of a second and then says, "Of course not, sir."
Phil laughs. It does a little to pick him up, but he's still sulking down at his shoes a few minutes later when the elevator opens and Pepper walks in.
Phil jumps to his feet, and then doesn't know what to do with himself. "Pepper, hi," he says.
She looks like she's about to cry. "Phil, oh my God," she says, crossing the room in long strides.
"I, ah, I want to apologize. If. I imagine news of my death must have hurt you." He doesn't get any farther before she's there in front of him, grabbing his hand.
"Stop it," she says. "Come sit down."
"I wanted, when I heard about Extremis, I wished I could be there for you." He lets her tug him back down to the couch and arrange him so they're settled next to each other. "I just," he says, squeezing her hand. She stops her arranging and looks at him. "I understand, if you don't want to speak to me again after this. But the loss of your friendship would be devastating. Has been," he corrects himself.
She shakes her head, eyes bright. "Stop it," she says again. "Come here." She moves him so his head is on her shoulder and their arms are linked together. They are still holding hands.
Phil sags into her. "How are things with Stark?"
She snorts. "Annoying. Wonderful. He's my partner in crime."
"Yes," Phil says, happy for her. She sits with him in silence until it's time for him to leave. While they sit together, Phil imagines little broken pieces of his heart being glued back together.
Barton appears out of nowhere in the empty hallway and grabs Phil as he's heading for the plane. Phil does not jump out of his socks or yell, 'Holy fuck!' like he wants to.
Instead, he turns calmly and says, "Agent Barton."
Barton has changed into black cargoes and a SHIELD uniform shirt. His hair is wet, and he looks like he managed to catch some sleep. Phil tries not to stare at the corner of his mouth, at his shoulders.
Barton says, "Sir, about earlier, when I . . ."
Phil says, "Yes?" He has absolutely no idea which way Barton will go on this. He has no idea which way he wants Barton to go. Besides, the middle of an op is definitely not the time to say, 'I liked the way I looked in your clothes, too.'
Barton stares at him, and then says, "Nothing." He turns and starts walking. "This way, sir," he calls.
Phil, Kate, Simmons and Barton are technically team four, flying over in the Bus. Their job is to arrive in one piece in Zagreb, infiltrate the base of operations quickly and without being detected, and then sit for hours in utter boredom while they wait for Captain Rogers to arrive. Skye has provided them with blueprints of the building they're targeting. JARVIS gave them a condensed travel guide to Croatia that Phil skims during the flight.
Barton is flying, and Simmons is showing Kate her laboratory. Phil is alone in his office. It feels wrong to be here, like a suit jacket he's grown out of. He doesn't know if he wants this life anymore, or what he would get to replace it. He's not leaving SHIELD, but being here, in his own territory, makes him question what his work is worth, to the world and to himself. When he starts getting angry at the word "hvala" for having too many A's, he decides to try and get some sleep.
He folds his suit up at the foot of his bunk, and sets his alarm for an hour before they're set to land, and closes his eyes. The bunk smells familiar, and the sound of the plane is soothing. He's asleep in minutes.
They make good time, and arrive at the airfield near Zagreb at nine p.m. local time. Barton takes point, driving them into the city, maneuvering around trolley stops and along winding streets. They have to move on foot once they get close to their target, and Phil helps Simmons while Barton keeps Kate and her purple jumpsuit from being seen. The Black Hand operates out of a bar set up in what used to be the lobby of an old opera house. The house itself, including stage and box seats, is ostensibly closed. In reality, it is the oh-so-creative meeting space of their wonderful little crime syndicate. Phil has to stop himself from rolling his eyes so hard he sprains something.
Once they are in sight of the bar, they split up. Simmons goes with Barton and Kate to find nests, while Phil sits in a bar filled with university students all stridently singing folk music, and tries to look as inconspicuous as possible. It's a miserable couple of hours.
At midnight, he leaves the bar to go find a restroom. He waits there until he hears Thor blow the door of the bar off the hinges with Mjolnir, and then gets ready to move. This is it.
Inside the bar, half the students are screaming and the other half are cheering. "Mjolnir, Mjolnir!" they yell.
Thor smiles and bows, all friendliness and nobility. He and Rogers share a glance, and then Thor bellows, "My friends!" The entire bar starts hollering. Captain Rogers slips through the crowd toward Phil while the students work on teaching Thor drinking songs. It's not quite the original plan, but it is visible, which is what Phil asked for.
Rogers says, "All right, sir?" as they squeeze behind the bar and up the back staircase.
"Hawkeye?" Rogers asks.
Barton's voice is low but clear through his earpiece. "We're set up and ready when you are."
"Well, then," Rogers says, waving Phil ahead. "After you."
Phil and Rogers march through what used to be the grand main hallway of the opera house. They meet no resistance, hear no whisper from the members of the Black Hand. It was the least likely of the scenarios Phil planned out, but still within acceptable parameters. They reach the doors to the opera hall, and Rogers gives Phil one last check before he kicks them in.
The inside of the opera hall is almost cliche. There are spotlights on the main stage, and pools of shadow everywhere else. Some industrious soul has taken out the orchestra seats and built up the floor so that it's smooth and level from the main doors to the stage. Perfect for Rogers to march across in his spangled, six foot tall, larger than life glory while Phil walks behind him.
"What the fuck," someone says from the cluster of Black Hand members sitting around tables at the back of the opera hall. Phil can hear others shushing him. He clearly wasn't informed of tonight's show.
Rogers paces up to the circle of light, stopping ten feet or so from the nearest table. From behind Roger's shoulder, Phil can see one man standing at the back, center stage. He is pale and round, dressed in black tie, and looks unruffled by the chaos Thor is still fomenting downstairs and the appearance of Captain America in his secret lair. From the way the others are glancing at him, he must be the de facto leader. Phil thinks, You're mine.
The round man says, "Hello, Captain Rogers."
And Phil is up. "Hello, Mr Belkin," he says, stepping out from behind Rogers.
The man looks surprised at Phil's presence. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Agent Phil Coulson of SHIELD," Phil says. "I would offer to shake your hand, but," he grimaces.
"Did SHIELD orchestrate this colossal bullshit?" Belkin waves his hand to encompass, presumably, Tony Stark in his flying suit high above Zagreb, as well as the singing Phil can hear downstairs and the presence of Captain Rogers.
"Merely facilitated," Phil says. "You have been targeting an Avenger, after all."
The other men, and a few women, sitting around the tables are silent. Phil can see five of them checking their guns under the tables. One man keeps opening his mouth and then getting a pained look on his face, as if his companion had kicked him in the leg. No more than two thirds of the members of the Black Hand are here, but no matter. Phil has done much more with much less, and he has his teams at his back for this.
Belkin snorts. "Is that what this is about?"
Phil says, "A company tied to your assets paid Wade Wilson to kill Agent Barton. Before that, you sent a man by the name of Kazimierz Kazimierczak," one man near Belkin twitches slightly. The Clown. Phil memorizes his face without makeup. "to kill Agent Barton. When he failed to achieve his goal, he murdered a man living in Barton's apartment building. The mafia presence in Brooklyn, NY has been targeting Barton constantly for the past nine months."
"That's a sad story," Belkin says.
Phil tells him, "It's going to stop."
Belkin laughs, sounding surprised. "No," he says. "You do not come fuck with me in my house, Agent Coulson."
"The threats, the violence, the intimidation. All of it stops now."
"Or I could kill you before you take another breath," Belkin says. One of the men next to him takes a handgun out from behind his back, and a second later there is an arrow sprouting from his hand. The gun clatters to the floor. The man yells.
Four more men take out guns and have them trained on the shooter's position in seconds. Arrows fly from another corner of the room, and another. Most of the men go down with an arrow through their hands, but one man gets an arrow in his side. "Sorry, sorry!" Simmons hisses in Phil's earpiece.
Phil says, "You could try, but you wouldn't get very far."
Belkin watches him for a minute, and then waves his arm. Phil can see three other men take their hands off their guns, and he allows himself a smile.
Belkin says, "I'm sure we can come to some kind of arrangement. There's really no need for fuss."
Phil's smile grows wider. "No arrangements, I'm afraid," he says. "Your organization is done. You are done."
In his ear, Romanov says, "Here we go, people."
Phil says, "You have passed the point of negotiation. Well, there really was no point of negotiation. The second you first offered violence to an Avenger and a member of SHIELD, you and everyone connected to you got a bounty on their heads. We're coming to collect."
With perfect timing, there is a massive, percussive boom that shakes the opera hall. Some dust falls from the ceiling.
Belkin's face is turning red, and he looks afraid. Good. "What in hell --"
"That was your distillery, I believe, Ms Dascalescu."
There is another boom, from somewhere else in the city.
"And your bookstore, Mr Gregory."
Gregory says, "Those are legitimate businesses --"
"I don't care," Phil says. He fills his voice with ice.
Through his earpiece, he hears Stark say, "The bookstore and the distillery are gone. I got all the people out."
May says, "Targets four through eight are down. No civilian casualties."
Around the table, cell phones start ringing. The seated men and women get text messages, emails and voicemails telling them their legal and illegal businesses have been destroyed.
Romanov says, "Targets nine through fourteen are eliminated. No casualties."
Ward says, "Remaining targets eliminated. No casualties."
Skye says, "I guess I'm up."
Phil tells the room, "Every business venture you have established in your time on this earth has just been destroyed. Your factories, restaurants, laboratories, and other companies are now smoking craters in the ground."
The members of the Black Hand start yelling. One man pulls a knife out, and he gets an arrow in his arm.
Belkin waves a hand and everyone goes silent. He looks nearly incandescent with rage. "I am going to take you and everything you love apart."
"With what resources?" Phil asks. "Your bank accounts are being drained as we speak."
Belkin chokes, and checks his phone.
"Oxfam thanks you," Phil says. "As do Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders."
"Minus a little something for SHIELD, to pay for this adventure," Skye says.
Belkin says, "I'll get it back."
"No, you won't," Phil tells him. "Because you'll be too busy running."
"Do not threaten me right now," Belkin says. "It will end very badly for you."
Phil says, "I don't deal in threats, Mr Belkin. Gentlemen and ladies. I deal in promises." He takes a step forward, and then another, until he is fully in the light. He puts his hands out at his sides, the perfect picture of a helpless, paper-pushing government accountant. He puts death into his face and his voice. "I promise," he says, "that you will not find safe harbor in any nation on any continent in the world. I promise that you will never again amass enough capital to feed yourself, much less try to come after me and mine. I promise that any violence you visit on any single person anywhere in the world will be met with swift retribution from the Avengers and from SHIELD. I promise," he pauses. "You're done."
The others have started to collapse into themselves, looking defeated, miserable, frantic. Belkin is still a tower of anger. "Then what's to stop me from killing you right now?"
"My people would take you apart piece by piece before I stopped breathing," Phil promises. "You would still be alive when we started with your arms and legs."
Belkin takes a step back. "I'm not afraid," he says.
Phil says, "Your family is afraid."
Belkin staggers. "No," he says.
Phil takes out the miniature tablet projector Stark gave him, and calls up the surveillance footage Skye found. "Elizaveta worries for you every day. She writes emails to her boyfriend, asking him to run away with her to Belarus. He says he wants to finish his education here, but she's close to convincing him." Belkin's face crumples, and his shoulders cave in. Phil keeps pushing. "Valentina has started taking Vicodin again. She always waits until after you leave the house." He calls up more pictures: men and women and children all sleeping, eating, laughing. Every one of them a fragile living soul, the kind that SHIELD is supposed to protect. Phil doesn't regret his actions, but he has no illusions, either. In this moment, he is a terrible man doing a terrible thing. "Every one of you has family, and that family is afraid. You see, Mr Belkin, gentlemen, ladies. There will always be someone I can hurt in order to get to you. There will always be something more I can take away from you. You should tell all of your friends, all of your allies. This is what happens when you come after SHIELD."
Belkin is done. The others are done. Phil sees the Clown backing away into the shadow, and then two arrows come out of the right-side orchestra box, spearing him through each of his hands. The threats are gone. Phil can finish.
He steps back, and says, "Thank you for your cooperation." He walks back toward the opera hall entrance, with Captain Rogers following behind him.
There is silence in the opera hall and silence on the radio, and then Skye says, "Damn, boss," sounding shaken.
Phil has nothing to give her. "Teams one through five, are we ready to ex-fil?"
"Ready," Ward says.
"Ready," May says.
"Ready," Romanov says.
"I feel superfluous, does anyone else feel superfluous? Cap? I mean, you really just stood there and looked pretty."
"Tony," Rogers sighs.
"All right, I'm getting the hell out of Europe," Stark says. "Come back to my place, I'm buying tacos."
Rogers says, "Thor, we're coming to get you."
"Hawkeyes, Simmons," Phil says, "Come on out."
Rogers follows him across the gallery, and down the stairs into the bar. Thor is still drinking, although his fan club has dwindled to a few swing-shift workers and some dedicated students. He glances at Phil and nods, one leader to another, and then falls in behind them on their walk back to their vehicles.
Outside, the city is in slight disarray. There are fire trucks working to contain the damage from the distillery and the bookstore. Phil regrets their loss, but he doesn't regret his actions. He breaks off from Captain Rogers and Thor, heading toward where Barton left the car.
"See you back there," Rogers says.
Phil walks through the dark, sleepy city. He is still thrumming with adrenaline. It's rare that he comes so close to his own bloodthirsty ruthlessness, and he wonders if his team will trust him after this.
There's a rush of footsteps behind him, and Phil spins around to put a hand on the throat of the man following him. It's Barton, staring at him with wide eyes.
Phil steps back, and puts his hands down. "Sorry," he says. "How are you?"
Barton's eyebrows go up. "How am I?" he asks.
Phil turns his earpiece off, and Barton scrambles to do the same. "It's over," Phil says. "They can't hurt anyone else in your life. They won't murder, or buy and sell drugs, or buy and sell people. How do you feel?"
Barton scrubs a hand through his hair, making it stick up in crazy spikes. "I feel," he says. He waves his hands in circles. "I, God, I feel." He steps up close to Phil, and cups his palms around Phil's jaw.
Phil swallows. "Barton?"
Barton rests his thumbs under Phil's chin. He says, "You are magnificent." Then he leans in and kisses Phil.
Phil grabs Barton's wrists and and kisses back. He opens his mouth for Barton's tongue. He bites at Barton's lower lip and presses his palms to the backs of Barton's hands, and kisses him again and again.
A firetruck screams past, and they break apart. Phil feels overwhelmed, crazy, with a ball of heat low in his belly and anger still thrumming in his chest. Barton looks dazed and exhilarated. "That's, uh, what I wanted to tell you, before," Barton says.
Phil opens his mouth, and then sees Simmons and Kate walking toward them. He says, "Tell me again later, please."
Barton grins. "Okay," he says.
They get the hell out of Croatia.
Phil can't handle his office right now, even just to pull his bed out and sleep, so he crashes in the guest bunk off the lounge.
He is woken out of a light doze by the plane touching down. Outside the window of his little sleep pod, it is still dark. The area looks empty for miles, except for the neat rows of airstrip lights and one single car. From the timing, he'd guess they're in Montenegro or Italy. Barton must be picking up another pilot so he can get some rest.
Sure enough, ten minutes after the plane takes off again, there is a knock at the door of Phil's bunk. Phil braces himself, and pulls the door aside.
Barton leans in the open doorway. He has his arms stretched above his head, forearms pressed to the top of the door frame. Behind him, the kitchen is dark, and his face and his body are obscured in shadow. Phil wants him so badly.
"Hey," Barton says. "So, uh, we could talk, if you want."
Phil turns and puts his legs down on either side of Barton's waist. He reaches out and runs his hands along Barton's sides, feeling heat and muscle. Barton brings his hands down to Phil's shoulders, and then runs them up to cup his face, circling his throat. Phil's heart thumps, and his breath comes faster.
"Or this," Barton says, shaky.
Phil shakes his head. "A talk would be good," he says. "Clint." The name tastes strange and lovely.
"I, uh, might be a little distracted like this."
Phil presses his face into Clint's chest and breathes in Clint's smell. "I can stop?"
"No no no, stopping is less good. Just, gimme a minute." He trembles when Phil runs hands up his belly under his shirt. "Um, this isn't really that fast for me. Or, uh," Phil's hands brush over a nipple, and Clint twitches. "I mean, I like people fast, but I've known you since like the second day I started working here, and, and I admired you. I liked working with you." Phil curves his hands around Clint's back, and Clint relaxes into him. "I like you. And you're so -- well, anyway."
Phil thinks about Clint saying, 'You are magnificent.' He thinks about Clint's hand on his back in the elevator, about Clint hugging him in the hallway of Stark Tower. He thinks about Clint holding an arrow to his face, on the sidewalk in Bed-Stuy. He says, "This is fast for me. No, wait," when Clint starts to back away. "I didn't tell you why I came to you, the other day."
Clint sags back against him. "To help you find Tasha, you said." Phil savors the buzz of Clint's voice against his face.
"I did say."
Clint pulls back to look at Phil. "Agent Coulson," he asks, "did you lie to me?" He is smiling, but there is tension in his face.
Phil pulls him down for a kiss, lingering against his mouth. He says, "I remembered you. Six ops, you said. Dublin, Timisoara, Puente Antiguo, Vatican City, Manaus, and --"
"Boise," Clint says, laughing. "The first one. God, I fucking hate that city."
Phil says, "I liked you. You make an impression."
"Boise?" Clint asks, surprised. "I was such a little shit on that op."
Phil ignores that. "I respected you, and I admired you, and I trusted you. Since the first time we worked together. And then, this last month," he takes a breath. "I'm not the same man I was before I died." Clint's hands tighten on his shoulders. "That man wouldn't have let himself want, not like I want. I would like, very much, to be a part of your life. For a while, I think. If that sounds all right to you."
Clint looks down at him, and strokes his fingers across Phil's face. "I tend to ruin things," he says, like it's a secret he's been keeping for a while.
Phil says, "You think I can't handle you, Barton?"
Clint chuckles, but the sound is weak, and his body is tense under Phil's hands.
"Okay," Phil says, "let me put it this way. Why did you decide to help me, the other day? You could have called Director Fury, or shot me, or sent me away. But you gave me -- God, everything. Why?"
Clint pauses, and then twists his face up. "It honestly didn't occur to me to do anything else." He sounds surprised, but Phil is not.
"We'll be fine," Phil promises him. "Come lie down."
He pulls Clint until Clint is folded almost overtop of him. Phil wants to put his hands everywhere, and to kiss and kiss. Clint curls over his shoulder like a guard, and runs his beautiful hands down Phil's back to the top of his ass. He says, "It's kinda hard to lie down with you in the way like this."
Phil presses a kiss to Clint's side. He says, "I trust your creativity."
Clint laughs and shivers. He moves Phil to the side, easing him down on the bunk and following after, hitching Phil's legs up with his ankle so they both fold into the tiny space at the same time. His chest is still level with Phil's face, and when he reaches out, flailing, for for the bunk door, he can barely reach it. Phil smiles, and helps him.
With the door closed, they are in almost complete darkness. Phil can see outline and shadow, and he has to rely on touch and sound, on the taste of Clint's skin. He reaches under Clint's shirt again and places both hands on his belly, trying to get as much contact as he can. Clint leans up over him and pulls the shirt off, then comes down on his arms so that his face is level with Phil's. He bumps his nose against Phil's chin, along his cheek, and then they're kissing. Phil gets lost in the feel of it, the sound of them breathing, the small noises Clint makes in his throat, the heat of Clint's skin.
"Phil," Clint says, and it lights him up inside.
But Phil is a fifty year old man, and he's had a brutal several days. "I'm not going to be good for much," he says, regretful.
Clint grins against his cheek. "I was just going to ask if I could nap with you. Post-mission sex gives me the heebie-jeebies. You're the one who got all tempting."
"I'm tempting? You were leaning like an underwear model."
Clint kisses him. Phil gathers up the feel of Clint's mouth and the soft humming noise Clint makes, and tucks it away safely inside himself. He rolls them over and arranges them, Clint's back against his front, facing the little window. Then he says, "Wait, wait," and yanks his sleep shirt off. He lies back down and presses his bare chest to Clint's skin. Clint wriggles against him in a thoroughly distracting way, and then draws Phil's arm up to cover his chest, gripping Phil's wrist in both hands. Phil presses his nose to the back of Clint's neck and falls asleep.
He wakes again as the sky is getting lighter, because he desperately needs to pee. Clint has rolled over onto his belly, wedging himself into the corner between the pallet and the wall. One of his hands is still gripping Phil's wrist. Phil blinks down at his arm, groggy and confused.
Phil manages to extricate himself, and stumbles through pushing the bunk door open and standing up. When he steps out into the lounge area he sees Kate Bishop sitting sideways on the little curved loveseat, her head propped on her arm. She glances past Phil to Clint's sleeping form, and for a second she looks miserable before she covers it with a smile.
Oh. That was a complication he had already discounted. Apparently prematurely.
Phil is not firing on all cylinders right now, and he is acutely aware of his naked chest, his scar. He should make time to talk, but instead he nods to her and wanders toward the bathroom. When he comes back, the lounge is empty.
Clint rolls over when Phil settles back down on the bunk, without really seeming to wake up. He curls around Phil's side and presses one hand over the scar on Phil's chest. Over his heart.
Phil's plane is the last back to New York, due to Clint's pitstop in ("Where were we?"
"Ah.") the Mediterranean, so everyone has started in on the mountain of tacos by the time his team arrives.
Kate and Simmons enter the room while Phil hangs back. He can hear the rumble of conversation, a happy cheer from Fitz. Through the open doorway, he can see Skye sitting with Pepper and Rogers on one side of the main table. She is listening to something Pepper is telling her and nodding. Phil watches Simmons greet Ward and then walk over to the other side of the table, to wedge herself between Fitz and Banner.
Thor, Stark, May and Romanov are working their way through a pile of taco fixings with admirable dedication. Phil can see them leaning toward each other like plants. They don't speak, but after a few seconds Stark laughs, and it sets the rest of them off until they're all giggling into their tacos.
There is so much Phil still needs to do. He needs to debrief his team, and make sure they are all okay. He needs to be debriefed himself, and possibly justify excessive use of force and SHIELD resources to the Director and the WSC. He needs to decide what his future in the organization will be, and whether he wants to patch things up with his oldest, best friend. He needs to solve the mystery of his own resurrection, and what it means to him, now, to be alive. He needs to find the parameters of this thing with Clint. He needs to talk to Kate Bishop. It all crashes over him in that moment, as he stands outside the lounge in Stark Tower, watching his people eat and laugh together.
"Hey," Clint says, touching his elbow. "We can go somewhere else if you're, whatever."
Phil breathes in, accepting the small kindness. He is so grateful for this man. For everything. He presses his lips to Clint's neck, just under his ear, and says, "I'm good."
They go inside.