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Phil goes where SHIELD sends him, but it is not to be denied that he’s happy they sent him here. Not because of the particular delights of the middle of nowhere, New Mexico, but because he has a small team of people with him, and absolutely none of them are Tony Stark. And then he gets a proper look at the thing. It’s not a satellite. It’s not even some nice little piece of otherworldly debris.

“Damn it.”

“What?” Sitwell asks.

“A regular security team isn’t going to cut it.”

“Because?”

“Because this is a hammer with carvings on it.”

“Okay.” Sitwell has an excellent line in bland agreement. It’s one of the things that makes him a good second-in-command. Phil would know: he has used exactly the same tone with Director Fury.

“You know what that means?” Phil asks.

“No.”

“It means someone made it, carved runes on it, and then let it drop out of the sky.”

“Again: okay.”

“I need a sniper.”

“You mean-.”

“Did I say that?”

“You wanted a sniper, I assumed you meant-.”

Phil sighs. He’s beginning to get a strong feeling of déjà vu. “Fine.” He makes the call.

 

*

“Agent Coulson.”

“Barton.”

“I hear you requested me personally.”

“I requested a sharp-shooter, and apparently everyone else was busy this week.”

Barton grins. “This is a first. You never request me personally.”

“That’s because your particular brand of insubordination wearies me.”

“I’m never insubordinate.” He looks genuinely offended, damn him.

Truthfully, Barton isn’t insubordinate per se. He uses Phil’s rank, for one, or ‘sir’, or ‘Coulson’ on occasion. He doesn’t forget who Phil is. And he obeys orders, even if he sometimes feels the need to commentate on them as he does so. It’s just that Phil had been looking forward to a nice peaceful little operation. Barton isn’t peaceful. Barton is deadly silent for twenty-three hours at a stretch and then starts cracking jokes down the radio. “Anyway,” Phil says, “take a look around. Tell me what you need.”

 

*

Two hours later, Barton is climbing the scaffolding.

Phil shields his eyes with his hand and looks up at the man. “I can have you something built, you know.”

“Yeah?”

“The contractors are already here. I’m sure they’d rig you up a perch if you asked nicely.”

Barton glares at the jab at his codename and shakes his head. “Then they’d know where to expect me.”

“Who’s they?”

“Whoever it is you think is going to come rushing in here to steal the sky-hammer nobody can lift.”

“This is just a precaution.”

“Sure it is. And the double security team and the radiation suits are just there to make the place look busy.”

“Precautions,” Phil says again. Because they are. The thing is throwing off interference and it’s made of something none of their chemists can work out but it’s almost certainly not dangerous in itself. Almost certainly.

 

*

His radio chirps at him. “You can’t lift it, you know.”

Phil doesn’t spin around looking for Barton’s voice, and he doesn’t release his grip on the handle of the hammer either. “You can’t possibly see me.”

“So how do I know where you are, sir?”

“Maybe you saw me go in. But there are ten agents in here, three of my approximate height, and there’s no light visibility as you come through the doorway. You’re guessing that I’m the one by the hammer.”

“I never guess, sir. That’s what gets the wrong person killed.”

“You’re not trying to kill me, Barton.”

“No sir. But I could get you in my sights now, if I needed to. I could pick you out of the ten other agents, and just so you know, only two other people in there are your height. Davidson just has a lot of hair.”

Phil keeps his voice steady. “So you could kill me from there, if you wanted. This is what you opened up a private channel to tell me.”

“Well, now you’re making it sound creepy.”

Phil disconnects the radio.

 

*

The difference between Barton, and other nameless people Phil has been nominally in charge of, is that when Phil says, “Get Barton to my office right away,” that actually happens.

Barton’s face is dirt-stained from the wind blowing dust up at him, wherever he was positioned five minutes ago.

“Close the door.”

Barton does. “Sir?”

“Do you want to explain to me how threatening to assassinate your superior doesn’t count as insubordination?”

“Well, sir, that’d really be more like-.”

“And then you came in here still armed. What were you doing with that thing up with you on recon?”

Barton considers this. “Due respect, sir, but you’re armed too.”

Phil looks at his desk drawer, where his sidearm is safely stowed away. “I’d like to hope you could draw your bow before I could get to my gun. If not, we’re definitely paying you too much. And also missing the point. Or were you really about to launch into an argument about how it wasn’t technically insubordination, it was more like the threat of a one-man mutiny?”

Barton stumbles over whatever words were about to be next, his eyes widened just a fraction. This is a man who has been trained to withstand enemy interrogation techniques, but something in this exchange has knocked him off his game. Phil keeps watching him for a moment or two. Barton touches his sunglasses, hooked over a strap of his gear.

Fun as this is, Phil has work to do. “So,” he says, “do we need some more lights down there, or is your night-vision really good enough for guess-free termination?”

“You know I wasn’t actually going to- oh. This is you joking. You should warn a guy. Lights? I guess it couldn’t hurt.”

“Okay then. I’ll requisition some.”

Barton grins again, leaning forward on the balls of his feet. “No forms?”

“I’ll have forms. You just go back and try not to accidentally assassinate someone while we’re waiting.”

Barton meets Phil’s eyes again, making a deliberate show. “As I said, sir, I only ever hit what I’m aiming at.”

 

*

Phil knows that Barton can’t be bored. The man is trained to sit very still for as long as necessary, waiting for the perfect shot. But his radio buzzes again and Barton says, “Thanks for the light.”

“That’s not really necessary.”

“Yep.”

Phil goes to stand by the thin wall, placing himself in the radiant white of the floodlight. He looks out, barely able to see a thing in the darkness beyond.

Barton laughs. “Other side today.”

Phil turns. He can just about make out the hazy shadow of a crane through the plastic wall opposite. “Did you move that?”

“I asked nicely.”

“Barton.”

“Maybe I said Agent Coulson authorised it.”

“Did you at least have a good reason?”

“I could tell you about sight-lines and vantage point and the direction our guys usually run in an emergency. Or I could just say yeah, I had a good reason.”

Phil says, “Okay then.”

“Okay?”

Phil nods, and trusts Barton to see it.

 

*

(Sitwell asks, “How did Barton get to be the exception to your ‘problems with authority’ blacklist?”

“I don’t have a blacklist. If I did, Stark would clearly be on it. And Barton doesn’t have problems with authority.”

“He has- I don’t know. He always looks like he’s one bad order away from shooting me in the foot.”

“Then I would advise you not to give him bad orders.”

The base is invaded and Phil says wait, wait, wait and tonight there is no one here to question him. Everyone waits.)

 

*

Phil lets the man – ‘Donald’ – go, with instructions to a team to follow him. When he gets back to his office in the base, Barton is waiting for him.

“You let him walk?”

“It was my call.”

“I’m not questioning it.” Barton clasps his hands around his wrists, behind his back. “I trust your reasons. Sir.”

He does this on purpose. He has to know. Phil looks at him.

Barton watches him steadily. “Sir?”

“I have a team watching the man. He’s in a bar right now.”

Barton steps back towards the door. “Funny,” he says. “I could do with a drink.”

“Bad idea.”

“They won’t see me.”

“That’s not why it’s a bad idea,” Phil says.

“I’m curious. He knocked out-.”

“I saw.”

“I could have taken him.”

“From what I remember,” Phil says, “you were on his side.”

Barton grins at him. “I always root for the underdog.”

Phil shakes his head. “Do you ever miss being in a line of work where six-five possibly steroid-abusing soldiers don’t count as the underdog?”

Another smirk. “Never, sir.” He ducks around Phil to get to the door. If he’s going to the bar, he doesn’t say, and Phil doesn’t ask. Barton obeys his orders, so if Phil doesn’t give one, neither of them will have to test that hypothesis.

 

*

The base is being dismantled. Barton is staring at the hole in the ground where the hammer used to be. Phil stares at him, halfway through talking to someone in the science division. He finishes with, “Get the equipment back to her by tomorrow morning.”

Barton turns. He crosses the space to Phil and his hands twitch. “You have,” he says, “sir,” as if an apology, before he brushes his fingertips over Phil’s shoulders. They come back covered with dust and a smudge of blood.

Phil looks at it. “I thought you were reassigned.”

“Yeah. Are you hurt?”

“A car was overturned.”

“Not what I asked.” He still has his gloves on, and the bow slung over his chest.

“Walk with me,” Phil says.

And because Barton is an agent of SHIELD, he falls quickly into step with Phil. They walk past agents taking down the walls and unravelling wires. There’s nothing for them to guard any more.

“Your office?” Barton asks.

“It’s already down. I’m back to working out of my car.”

“My office then.”

Phil isn’t sure when they decided that this needed privacy, but he finds himself being led into Barton’s weapon cache. Barton hangs the bow back where it belongs.

Barton says, “Where are you headed?”

That’s not something they ask. Phil answers honestly anyway. “We’re going to be here for a few more days. After that I don’t know.”

“But you know where I’m going.”

“Yes.”

Barton’s gaze drifts to the floor. “I should have been out there.”

“Why?”

“Because you- you needed a gun.”

“Okay. So why weren’t you there?”

His eyes dart up again. “Because I had my orders, sir.”

“Exactly. You were here, because that’s where I wanted you. If mistakes were made, they were mine. Civilians were hurt, property damage, confidentiality breached. Plus the only person who might have the answers to any of the questions blasted off into the sky and didn’t come back.”

“You couldn’t have known that.”

Phil shrugs. “Maybe. But as lead on this mission, it falls on me anyway.”

“Nobody died.”

“True.” He rolls out his shoulders. “Nobody died today.”

Barton is a little shorter than Phil, but Phil knows the strength there. It doesn’t explain the unaccountable surge of something when Barton’s hands find their way to his shoulder again, wiping away another trace of blood that he doesn’t like. Doesn’t explain the way Barton’s eyes drop down again to ask the question, “Why did you ask for me on this one?”

“Because we needed Widow babysitting Stark. I don’t think you’re his type.”

Barton smirks. “Bet she loves that assignment.”

“She’s had worse- she’s probably had worse.” Phil sighs. “Hard as it is for me to admit, he’s trying, I think.”

“But you wouldn’t have asked him to come down here and look at this thing.” Barton raises his eyebrow.

“No,” Phil says. “He’s unreliable, he can’t obey orders and in the field he’s a liability.”

“So why-?”

He’s looking for some answer that Phil can’t quite work out. But he has the thread of where it’s supposed to be leading. Phil says, “Because you are not a liability. Because you can obey orders. And because you stay where I put you.”

Barton blinks at him, eyes gone very dark. “And where did you want to put me, sir?”

Phil swallows. This is very bad idea. It is the kind of idea that no one but Romanoff and Fury and – apparently – Barton, would ever suspect he has. But he does have them. The operation here is over; the device is gone and so is their mysterious subject. Phil has clean-up and then back to New York; Barton is headed into Ukraine. Barton is looking at him with an expression which is half-amused, half-gone. Phil says, “You’re a highly trained SHIELD operative, Agent Barton. Why don’t you try and figure that out yourself?”

They’ve been pushing towards this but Phil still has to force himself to keep his expression blank, and his breathing slow, even as Barton closes the distance between them. Barton drops to his knees, bracing his hands on Phil’s thighs. “Better?” he asks. He peels off the glove and wrist guards. Phil must make some noise, because Barton smiles up at him. “Keeping them on always sounds like a better idea than it is.”

“I didn’t think you were planning on using your hands.”

Barton laughs. He tugs at Phil’s fly. “No,” he agrees. “I wasn’t.” But his bare hands settle on Phil’s hips, pushing the cotton out of the way. His eyes flash up again, once, before his mouth parts open in a perfect O. Barton is single-minded in his intensity – this is the man who has staked out targets for weeks before getting the okay to go in. There’s some tortured metaphor there, but Phil is not a writer.

He looks down at Clint, who has closed his eyes. His lashes are just visible against his tan skin. Phil focuses on that for a long moment, on the creases around his eyes and the bob of his head. The suction tightens incrementally. Phil smiles: mouthy and looking for more attention, unwilling to come out and ask for it. Phil has always had a type. He puts his hand on the side of Clint’s head, holding him steady. He doesn’t thrust, but it’s a close-run thing. Clint’s hands move, circling. Phil lets his head hit the wall and gasps through it.

Clint spits, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He runs a gun cloth over the spot and tosses it in the trash before unbending to stand up. “Okay then. Reassignment.” He moves towards the door.

“Stop.”

Clint pulls up short.

“Stay there.”

“Sir?”

“I said ‘stay there’.”

A shudder roils up Clint’s spine. Phil walks behind him, settling his hand on the solid muscle of his shoulder. “Clint.”

“Are we on first name terms now, sir?”

“I’m on first name terms with you. For at least as long as it takes me to do this.” Barton clearly doesn’t like not being able to see Phil’s face, but he stays put. Phil works his hand into the SHIELD issued uniform and waits until his thumb is brushing over the head of Barton’s cock before breathing softly against the back of his neck. “Now.”

“Sir?” His voice shakes; Phil watches with curiosity as the hairs on the back of Clint’s neck stand up.

“Oh, I didn’t have anything in particular to say. I just wanted to see what would happen if I did that.” He keeps a light, conversational tone, right against the shell of Clint’s ear.

“Okay…” His body is tense against Phil’s, vibrating with the desire to move but not sure whether to push back into him or forward into his hand.

“I also enjoy your company,” Phil adds, which is one of the strangest things he’s ever said during a hand-job, but it seems important to note, somehow. “Although that wasn’t why I requested you here.”

“No sir,” Clint agrees. “That would be-.” A pause, while he tries another run at forming a sentence. “That would be unprofessional.”

“True,” Phil says. He quickens his hand. “Very unprofessional.”

Clint’s body jerks, pressing him back against Phil. Sweat beads on the back of his neck and his breath comes in sharp pants. Phil keeps hold of his shoulder, with the other arm still curved around him. When it is done, he wipes the mess away.

Clint is still facing the door. “I should probably go now.”

“Don’t go too far.”

“Sorry?”

“I’m pretty sure Fury has an assignment for you when you get back. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re putting a team together.”

That was pretty much guaranteed to make him turn around again. Barton says, “If you mean the- that’s pretty much the worst kept secret at SHIELD. You need me to chase a candidate down for you?”

“I was thinking you might be one of the candidates.”

Barton stares at him. “From what I’ve heard, the Initiative is meant to be super-powered, highly-specialised-.”

“Highly-specialised, yes. Super-powered, no.”

“Stark is-.”

“Consulting, and also not super-powered.”

“The guy turned himself into a warhead.”

“Something like that. It’s not very subtle.”

“And you want-?” Barton is normally faster than this at reaching the right conclusion.

Phil says, “Fury wants. I happen to agree with him.”

“Why me?” He rubs his hand over his mouth, like he really doesn’t know.

Phil exhales. “Because you’re the best at what you do, and we need what you can do. It’s actually very simple.”

Barton’s smile then is a slow, careful thing. “Then I guess I’ll see you when I get back, sir.”

Phil nods; Barton nods back at him, and Phil leaves first. He allows himself – for the single step before he walks back into the control room – to smile back. He greets Sitwell, “Where are we?”

“Another two days to debrief and finish the clean-up. And Fury wants you in Malibu before you head back. Apparently he needs someone to talk to Stark about the other suit. Sorry.”

Phil looks out into the night, at the looming shadows of cranes taking the base apart, and at the skies that swallowed up everything they came here to see. He shrugs. “I go where SHIELD sends me.”