Contrary to popular rumour, Agent Phillip Coulson was human. He had not sprung fully formed from Nick Fury’s mind like Athena had from Zeus (and Phil was rather uncomfortable with the connotations of his junior agents’ thinking to come up with that one). This didn’t, however, stop Phil from being very good at his job and memorising several personnel files so he could better predict the behaviour of the generally unpredictable agents under his command.
“Barton, don’t even think about it.”
He felt rather than saw the other man freeze in the shadows of his office doorway. Phil, for his part, simply continued filling out the 41C form on his desk in an attempt to diplomatically explain why several city blocks of New York no longer existed. If he thought it would actually be completed in any legible way, Phil would have made the Avengers do it. It was their fault. It was generally always their fault.
“And what, sir,” Barton asked, sauntering into his office without a care in the world, “makes you think I would make it that easy?”
He gestured expansively around himself at the almost silent corridors of SHIELD and the dark shadows of three in the morning. Phil glanced up long enough to arch a disbelieving eyebrow in reply before returning his gaze to his paperwork. “Making it easy to do what, exactly, Barton?” he asked dryly.
“Spot me coming,” Barton answered with a grin, flopping down onto the couch that was against the side wall.
Phil knew all about Barton’s latest bet with Agent Romanov and wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. He had enough trouble running herd on the Avengers while systematically trying to scare/train the junior agents into actually being effective agents and he really didn’t have time to dodge Clint Barton and his increasingly obsessive need to prove he could get the drop on Phil. (Phil also truly resented the glee at which Agent Romanov had proposed the idea).
“Seriously, sir,” Barton broke the silence that had only been broken by the sound of Phil’s pen moving across paper. “It’s four am. Shouldn’t you be... somewhere other than in your office?”
Risking a glance at the other man, Phil found Clint staring at him from where he’d pillowed his chin on his hands on the arm of the couch. Too tired to register more than blue eyes staring sharply into his, Phil bit back a large sigh, because sighing was not something he did. Not even when it felt like invisible concrete was weighing down his eyelids and he was confronted with Clint Barton.
“I would love to be anywhere other than my office right now, Barton, but until the Avengers either stop creating so much paperwork or you all start filling it out yourselves, I don’t see that happening any time soon,” Phil replied.
“You’re really just doing the Avengers paperwork?” Barton asked, surprised.
“Explaining to all the relevant parties why exactly the Avengers felt it necessary to destroy three city blocks isn’t easy,” Phil said.
Absently, he glanced at his coffee mug, but it only seemed to contain the same icy cold dregs that had been keeping him company for the last hour. Phil would have gotten up for another cup, but he was beginning to think sucking coffee down like water probably wasn’t considered healthy behaviour. He should probably give in and grab a couple of hours sleep, but Barton was currently taking up his usual spot on the couch.
“Was there something you wanted, Barton?” Phil asked finally, hoping it would be enough to disrupt the archer from his silent staring.
“No, I’m good,” Clint said, climbing lazily to his feet. The sharp look on his face never quite went away though, even as he sauntered to the door. “Don’t work too hard, sir.”
Phil opened his mouth to reply, but the underlying seriousness in Clint’s tone had him swallowing the sarcastic words. Instead, he nodded and Barton disappeared as silently as he arrived. Phil refused to think about how empty his office felt without the archer’s warm presence.
Phil woke up about three hours later with a sharp crick in his neck and a 41C form stuck to the side of his face. With a grimace, Phil realised he hadn’t even made it as far as the couch before he’d passed out with exhaustion. His back probably wouldn’t forgive him for that any time soon.
“Morning, Boss-man!” a loud voice called out, right before the whirlwind that was Darcy Lewis entered his office. “You’ll never guess what happened in the level three corridor as I was coming in. It’s a shame I can’t post it straight to Facebook, because it was hilariously epic...”
Darcy trailed off her greeting as she got her first good look at Phil, but her eyes sharpened. Phil suppressed a grimace as he imagined the sight he presented; after another night at his desk, he was hardly at his best. His suit was probably crumpled beyond rescue and Phil had a feeling he’d taken off his tie at some point and it might possibly have been trailing out of his jacket pocket.
“One of the downsides of working for a covert government organisation, Miss Lewis,” Phil replied dryly, trying to hold on to some sense of dignity this morning. Of course, he was beginning to wonder if SHIELD could truly call themselves covert ever since the Avenger Initiative was born.
Phil ignored that thought as he usually did as Darcy placed a large cup of coffee and a small brown paper bag on Phil’s desk. Phil immediately reached for the large takeout cup and had to bite back a groan at the taste of his favourite coffee from the little shop around the corner.
Ever since her employment, Darcy had proved herself to be a very astute and resourceful PA. Phil wasn’t sure how much of that stemmed from working for a slightly distracted but completely brilliant scientist like Dr. Foster and how much came from Pepper Potts taking Darcy under her wing, but since Phil mostly benefited from Darcy’s skills, he didn’t try to analyse it too much.
“Boss-man, you’ve got to stop sleeping in your office,” Darcy told him, her eyes serious, but she knew him well enough by now not to push the issue any further. “Right, you’ve got an appointment with Director Fury this morning at eight,” she continued a beat later, slipping straight into the day’s business. “And Deputy Director Hill wanted you to swing by her office around twelve. That’s just after your meeting with R&D, so you’re free if you want to go.”
“Any idea what she wants?” Phil asked absently as he peaked into the brown bag Darcy had brought. When Phil saw it was a large toasted sandwich, he could almost have kissed her.
“Sorry, Boss-man, she didn’t say,” Darcy answered. “Want me to sic Natasha on her?”
“Thank you for the offer, Miss Lewis, but that won’t be necessary,” Phil said.
“How about I run interference while you grab a shower?” she asked, her voice soft with compassion.
Since it was just the two of them in his office, Phil gave in and ran a tired hand over his face. “Please,” he said, his voice little more than a worn-out groan.
With a nod, Darcy tottered outside on her impossibly high heels (another thing she’d picked up from Pepper Potts) to guard the door. She was terrifyingly good at it – between the rumours about her tazing the God of Thunder and the fact that Phil actually liked her, most junior agents obeyed her without question for fear of getting tazed repeatedly themselves.
Phil pushed himself wearily to his feet, somewhat fortified by the coffee and the thought of a hot shower. It was only when Phil went to his small, hidden closet to grab a fresh suit that he realised he didn’t actually have a clean suit to change into. Phil grimaced and ran a hand over his face in frustration. Since Phil usually kept at least four suits on hand at all times, not only did that mean that Phil had (rather depressingly) spent the last five days in his office without going home, but he was clearly exhausted because his forward planning was usually way better than this.
“Hey, Boss-man?” Darcy said, poking her head back into his office. “If you’re going to make a run for it, I’d do it now. You have incoming.”
Giving in to the inevitable with a sigh, Phil reached for the pair of jeans and sweater he kept in the back of the closet for emergency situations. He wasn’t sure his pride or his reputation would survive walking around the SHIELD offices in jeans if any of the junior agents caught him (let alone what Fury would say), but Phil was fairly sure the crumpled suit would be worse.
Fifteen minutes later, Phil was feeling more like himself, despite the casual clothing. If he was lucky, he might even make it back to his office without anyone other than Fury seeing him before he could dispatch Darcy off to his apartment for a clean suit – but naturally, because Phil no longer had control over his own life, his luck didn’t run that way. Hearing a strangled cough to his left, Phil resisted the urge to close his eyes and curse, because he didn’t do that anymore than he went around sighing with frustration no matter how Tony-Stark-sized his migraine.
“Wow, sir, are you actually wearing... jeans?” Barton’s voice reflected nothing but confusion and surprise, but when Phil turned to look at him, Clint’s face held a distinctly unfocused look.
He was casually leaning against one of the walls, his usual smirk absent from his face and his arms crossed over his chest. Unfortunately for Phil’s sanity, Clint was wearing one of his tight black t-shirts that showed off his muscular arms to an advantage that had to be premeditated.
“Observant as always, Barton,” Phil said in a dry voice, trying very hard to keep his brain cells from focusing on tanned skin and bright blue eyes.
Clint blinked slowly for a long moment, his expression still dazed, before he pushed away from the wall. He moved to stand in the middle of the corridor, as if instinctively blocking Phil's escape route. Phil wouldn't put it past him.
“But why are you wearing jeans?” he asked, sounding as if he couldn’t quite wrap his head around it.
“Simply put: because I’d rather not walk naked around SHIELD,” Phil answered, wondering if Barton would give up before the pain in his head got any worse.
“I didn’t even think you owned jeans, Coulson,” Barton muttered.
Phil tried to remind himself that the resulting paperwork would remove any pleasure he got from strangling Barton, but the temptation was still there. There was also the temptation to shut Clint up in a completely different (and far more pleasurable) way, but Phil had promised himself that he was going to stop thinking about Clint like that.
“Well, there are still a lot of things about me that you don’t know, Barton,” he answered truthfully, too exhausted to come up with a more evasive answer.
Clint gave him a long, sharp look that seemed to read every emotion and thought Phil was trying to keep hidden. It was the same kind of stare he used on his targets in the field when he was calculating wind-speeds and trajectory, but this time it wasn’t because he wanted to shoot Phil.
At least, Phil was pretty sure Clint didn’t want to shoot him.
“Sitwell’s waiting for you outside your office,” he said finally, his face unreadable. “You might want to brace yourself.”
Clint moved to let Phil pass, but Phil hesitated, not sure he really wanted to find out what Sitwell wanted. No doubt it was some sort of epic mess, because that was just the way Phil’s luck ran today.
“Oh, and sir?” Clint added with a sharp-edged smirk. “Before you get the wrong impression... I like the jeans. They’re a good look on you. You should totally wear them more often.”
And to think, Phil had actually begun to like Barton and his chatter.
“Yes, I’m sure Fury will approve of the change in uniform immediately,” Phil replied with as much sarcasm as he could muster.
“Are you so sure he wouldn’t ever do that, sir? ‘Cause I’m not. Not after he gets a look at your ass in those jeans, anyway,” Clint said with a grin as he blatantly looked Phil up and down again.
Phil willed himself not to blush at the outrageous flirting, even as he tried to remind his brain (and other parts) that Barton flirted with everyone. He still felt strangely disappointed when Barton’s mischievous expression faded into a more serious one. “I’ll be on the range for the next few hours if you need anything. Or for someone to shoot Sitwell.”
Phil nodded and cleared his throat. “Your offer is noted,” he said, before he paused, his feet somehow not ready to move. “Thank you,” he added after a moment, even though Phil wasn’t sure what he was thanking Barton for – aside from maybe the fact that no one else at SHIELD flirted with Phil, or even noticed him beyond the suit.
Clint grinned, his entire face lighting up. Unlike his usual expressions, it wasn’t snarky or sarcastic or hard-edged. Instead, it looked happy. Like Phil’s words had been some sort of unexpected reward.
Decided Clint Barton was far too complicated a subject to be musing on while exhausted, Phil gave him another nod, before heading off down the corridor towards his office.
True to Barton’s warning, Agent Sitwell was waiting for him by the door, face edging towards pale, his eyes wider than normal and a pile of folders clenched in his white-knuckled grip. Phil knew for a fact that it took something significant to make Agent Sitwell look that disturbed and Phil braced himself for reports of a horrifying new kind of supervillain.
Sitwell’s expression could also have been from some new, deranged Avenger drinking adventure, but Phil was pretty sure if Tony Stark had commandeered a jet again to go drinking in Moscow, Barton would have been right next to him and not heading to the range.
“Hey, Boss-man,” Darcy greeted as she speared Sitwell with a sharp look, before waving a purple post-it note in Phil’s direction. To Darcy’s credit, she didn’t even bat an eye at the fact Phil was dressed in jeans. Sitwell, on the other hand, was eyeing Phil’s clothes like it was a sign of the coming apocalypse.
“Director Fury has had to cancel your 8am appointment because he’s ‘in a string of highly classified meetings and not to be disturbed for any reason, up to and including imminent destruction of the Earth’,” Darcy announced in what was a fairly credible imitation of the Director himself. She paused. “Also, Agent Sitwell is here. And he won’t leave.”
Phil had to bite back a smile at Darcy’s pointed words and their accompanying glare. She was actually getting rather good at it. And it seemed the encounter with Agent Barton in the corridor had substantially brightened his mood, even if he was still exhausted. “It’s alright, Miss Lewis,” Phil said softly, before he turned his attention to Sitwell. “What happened?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Sitwell said. “If there was anyone else…”
Phil arched an eyebrow as he waved Sitwell into his office and tried to force his exhausted brain to focus. “I do believe Deputy Director Hill has an office just down the hall,” Phil said dryly.
Sitwell cleared his throat. “She does, sir,” he agreed. “But what she doesn’t do is deal with the Avengers.”
Phil sighed. He did not want to have to deal with this. “Have you tried Captain Rogers?” he said, mostly because it was his job and not because he actually wanted to know exactly how Captain America was involved in whatever this was. His question put an extremely nervous expression on Sitwell’s face.
Sitwell cleared his throat again. “That would be part of the actual problem, sir. Captain Rogers is refusing to cooperate,” he reported. “Apparently, both he and Thor are finding this all very amusing.”
“Amusing?” Phil repeated, trying to keep his tone as inflectionless as possible while what felt like a migraine began to build behind his eyeballs. “Dare I ask what is it exactly that Stark has done now?”
“Stark is, ah... locked in his workshop,” Sitwell answered. “He’s building a new series of robots. He’s created four so far and all of them appear to have a terrifying level of sentience.” Sitwell paused. “At least one of them has been stalking me around the SHIELD offices.”
Ever since he’d started running herd on the Avengers, Phil had become used to taking statements like that in his stride. Genius billionaires amassing robot armies were a monthly occurrence and Phil was stubbornly determined to cling to the remaining threads of his sanity.
“And the status of the rest of the Avengers?” Phil asked resignedly.
Sitwell coughed nervously and briefly looked as if he wanted to flee. “Dr. Banner has barricaded himself in his lab and is refusing to come out. So far he seems safe.”
Phil arched an eyebrow, unamused. Sitwell swallowed. “Thor and Captain Rogers are watching TV and are refusing to help with Stark,” Sitwell continued hurriedly. “Agent Romanov returned from an undisclosed mission in Russia six hours ago and is currently sleeping. However, she did terrify several junior agents that are refusing to come out of the storage closet she locked them in. And Agent Barton…”
Sitwell trailed off. “Actually, I’m not sure where Agent Barton is. He was last seen entering the air ducts with a roll of duct tape.”
Christ on a cracker, who had let that man near duct tape?
Phil made a mental note to ask Barton what he’d been up to in the air ducts and prayed it was something that was easily ignored. If it was something like Barton’s obsessive need to store weapons in unusual places, Phil didn’t really care because that sort of thing was usually very useful and not one of the strangest habits Barton had.
“Barton’s in the range,” Phil told Sitwell, because Clint had said so and Phil hadn’t seen him disappearing back into any ducts. “He wanted to get in some more target practice.”
Sitwell blinked at him for a long moment. “How do you always know things like that?” he finally blurted.
“Magic,” Phil replied, deadpan.
Sitwell nodded as if he actually believed Phil. Phil sighed. “Have you tried asking Stark to stop building the robots?” he asked.
Sitwell’s eyes gained a look of utter despair. “Yes, sir. I’ve tried,” he said. “But he won’t listen and the rest of the Avengers are refusing to help.”
“Right,” Phil said, determined to solve this before it got any worse. “Can we get close enough to Stark to taze him?”
“Unfortunately, that would be a no, sir,” Sitwell said.
“I didn’t think I’d get that lucky,” Phil muttered. “Miss Lewis?” he called in a louder voice.
With a grin, Darcy strolled into Phil’s office as if she hadn’t been obviously eavesdropping on the whole conversation and storing it up for blackmail purposes. “Yes, Boss-man?”
“Draft a memo to Mr. Stark his and robots on the concept of personal space,” Phil began. “Then get Agent Woo to let the junior agents out of the storage closet. Inform them that if they cannot perform their duties adequately, SHIELD has no use for them.”
Phil paused and looked at Sitwell. “Dr. Banner will reappear whenever he gets hungry. Thor assures me that he has Dr. Banner’s favourite poptarts hidden somewhere in the kitchen,” he continued. “Stark should be fine until he passes out from exhaustion, but keep an eye on him anyway. We can have a discussion about his robot army when he wakes up, hopefully with both Miss Potts and Captain Rogers in attendance.”
“Yes, sir,” Sitwell said, nodding, just as Darcy called out with a grin, “You got it, Boss-man!”
Phil’s day passed relatively pleasantly after that. No new supervillains attacked, Loki didn’t blow anything up and Stark’s terrifyingly sentient robots seemed programmed to stay well away from Phil. Barton stopped by several times with fresh coffee, almost exactly when Phil was contemplating getting up and searching for some and Maria Hill had even dropped by with lunch with minimal comments about his wardrobe choices.
Although Phil hadn’t come up with a logical reason why he hadn’t had someone fetch him a new suit to change into when she’d asked. (And he wasn’t about to admit Barton’s blatant staring being the reason out loud.)
His peaceful afternoon was probably why it was a surprise when Barton burst into his office about five o’clock and promptly slammed the door. “Problem, Barton?” Phil asked mildly, eyeing him carefully.
“Yeah, Coulson, I have a problem,” Clint replied, his tone hard-edged with something that sounded like a mix of sarcasm and frustration. “I have many problems.”
In any other situation, Phil would have made one of many quips about Clint’s ‘problems’, but whatever had Barton acting like this felt far more serious than his being bored and wanting a distraction or an attempt at flirting. For a moment, Phil watched in amazement as Clint began to pace restlessly in front of Phil’s desk, jerking a hand through his scruffy blond hair. Phil’s analytical brain registered the fact that Clint still wore his shooting glove, like he’d just come from the range, while the rest of Phil began to worry.
“Whatever the problem, I can’t help you solve it until you tell me what it is,” Phil said softly.
“You!” Clint said, whirling to face Phil. His eyes were wide and his expression looked a little panicked. “This!” he added, waving a hand in the vague direction of Phil’s sweater. “It’s driving me crazy!”
“What’s driving you crazy, Barton?” Phil asked, feeling like he was missing a rather large and crucial piece of the puzzle.
“I thought I was dealing with it, you know?” Clint said, jerking his hand through his hair again. “Even Tasha’s bet, it was just a test. A way of getting close and making sure I could deal with it. And it was fine. I was fine.”
Clint was making absolutely no sense and Phil was starting to seriously worry. “And then you had to go and do... this!” Clint added, his voice edging up towards a shout as he waved his hand in Phil’s direction again.
Now Phil was thoroughly confused. “What exactly did I do?” he asked, his tone more clipped than he had intended.
Clint opened his mouth and then shut it again, as if suddenly at a loss of what to say. “You had to go and look all soft and approachable and...”
Phil look on in amazement as Clint’s usually rock-steady hands almost twitching as he laid them against his thighs and Phil had to stop himself from reaching out to tangle their fingers together.
“Jesus, Phil,” he said in a hoarse whisper, his blue eyes drilling into Phil’s. Phil tried to ignore the way Clint saying is voice like that sent goosebumps up and down his spine. “I’ve spent the whole day on the range and sparring with Tasha and trying to stay away from you and failing... just so I don’t come in here and beg you to fuck me over your desk.”
As soon as the words were out, Phil felt himself freeze in his chair as everything clicked into place with a rush of emotions that almost left him dizzy. He felt surprised, relieved and more hopeful that he’d ever thought he’d have a right to be.
“Oh,” he said. Then a wicked smile slowly curved his face, as Phil realised it was okay to want. “You weren’t kidding when you said you liked the jeans, were you?”
Clint let out a strangled laugh. “I have a hard enough time trying to keep my hands to myself when you wear a suit,” he said.
“So...” Phil said, clearing his throat as his own voice roughened. “Don’t.”
Phil had to laugh when a second later he ended up with an armful of Clint Barton. The laugh cut off abruptly when Clint’s lips brushed his and Phil felt all of the ignored wants and needs coming rushing back. He felt as if his skin was on fire from the simple slide of his hands up Clint’s barred forearms and Clint’s responding shiver had Phil’s hands suddenly yanking him forward as his mouth arched up to slide across Clint’s.
The kiss was hot and wet and filthy and Phil poured everything he had into it: every suppressed desire and every hidden want because Clint Barton was in his arms and he wasn’t going to risk never being able to do this again.
“Hey, Boss-man..!” Darcy voice was sudden and jarring. “Nevermind.” There was a pause. “Hey, Stark. Go away. The Boss-man is busy!”
Reluctantly, Phil pulled away from Clint wondering just what it was about the archer than made his sense of professionalism fly out the window. Normally, Phil would be insisting on getting up and seeing what was going on and that this would never happen again. Hell, normally he wouldn’t have been caught dead spending all day in jeans outside his apartment.
“Uh...” Clint suddenly looked nervous. “We should probably go. Out the back way. So Stark can’t see us.”
“I know the man can be an unbearable asshole most of the time, but I thought you liked him?” Phil said dryly.
Clint flashed him the bright smirk he usually used when he was about to get into trouble. Phil ignored the momentary flash of fear that Clint was about to get up and call this whole thing a joke, because Phil was pretty sure you couldn’t fake a kiss like the one they just shared. Or certain other things that were fairly obvious right now.
“Stark’s here to kidnap you,” Clint said. “With his robots.”
Out of all the possibilities Phil had run through in his mind that had definitely not been on his list. “Stark and his robots are here to kidnap me?” he repeated.
“He was worried about you,” Clint said, his eyes growing soft and warm. “We all were. Even Bruce and he’s a workaholic. You work too hard, Phil.”
“So you all decided to kidnap me?” Phil said, but he felt something warm spread across his chest because that actually made a lot of sense when it came to the Avengers. If it in anyway resembled normal, they tended to avoid it like the plague.
“What?” Clint said, his cocky smirk returning. “You didn’t think I’d have this much trouble keeping my hands to myself if it was just how good you looked in a suit, right?”
“It’s not?” Phil was aiming for flippant, but judging by Clint’s suddenly serious expression, Phil failed by a mile.
“No,” Clint. “Not for me.”
Then he smirked. “Of course, I can’t speak for Tony...”
Phil moved to shove Clint off his lap and right off the chair for that, but Clint’s reflexes were too fast and Phil found himself being tugged to his feet. “Come on,” Clint said, before he leaned in to steal a kiss that turned out to be way too distracting for both of them.
Feeling more like a teenager than he ever had in his life, Phil managed to pull away just in time to hear Tony Stark yelling, “Quick Steve, Thor’s got her, now get the door!”
“Oh, hell no,” Clint muttered, slipping his hands out from underneath Phil’s sweater. “I’m keeping you all for myself. They can’t have you!”
Then Clint had grabbed his hand and before Phil really knew what was going on, he and Clint were sprinting past the stunned Avengers and Agent Sitwell and someone who looked suspiciously like a shocked Deputy Director Hill and heading for the stairs. Phil had barely enough time to catch Darcy’s grin from where she’d been slung over Thor’s shoulder, before Clint was tugging him into the stairwell.
“Run, Boss-man!” Darcy’s voice echoed after them.
Phil wondered at exactly what point in his life had this become normal. Then he glanced over at Clint’s grinning face and decided he didn’t care. At all.