Phil Coulson was trying to keep his eyes going in twelve directions at once when he caught sight of a familiar shock of dark-blond hair across the street, on the ground floor of a parking garage.
“Barton, why the hell are you out of position?” he demanded into his radio, eyes already moving onward, watching as Ironman blasted one of the ravening.... well, Thor had called them something, but none of the twelve languages Phil spoke gave him the ability to pronounce something eleven syllables long and composed entirely of consonants.
There was a heartbeat of silence on the other end of the comm before an arrow whistled in front of Phil’s face, passing so close to him that the ends of the fletching actually brushed the tip of his nose. It thunked into the brickwork of the building beside him, point embedding a solid four inches into a hairline crack in the mortar. The two junior agents that were assigned as Phil’s backup both jumped, staring incredulously at the arrow until the resounding echo of Cap’s shield rebounding called their attention back to the battle.
Scrubbing a knuckle against the underside of his nose to banish the tickling sensation of an impending sneeze, Phil tracked the arrow’s trajectory backwards, following it until he caught a glimpse of Barton, leaning around a support pillar of the parking garage, ten stories up.
Phil flicked his eyes between them once, from Barton to the other man; Barton’s perfect doppelganger, wearing suit pants and a leather jacket, backpack secure across his shoulders, watching the chaos of Loki’s forces with surprise on his face... but no fear.
Phil swung a glance back to the hovering junior agents. “Dalton, take over comms. Barton,” he called into his own radio, taking a step back from the command nest, “switch to channel five.”
The receiver in Phil’s ear crackled a little as he switched it over, unsurprised to find Barton already on the new band.
“...flattered, but the middle of a fight isn’t really the best time for phone sex, sir,” Barton was saying, his tone far more innocent than he should have been able to manage.
Arching an eyebrow, Coulson turned his gaze deliberately up to the tenth story of the garage. The archer had vanished back into the shadows, but Phil knew when someone’s eyes were on him. “What are you wearing, Barton?”
There was a muffled choke on the other end of the line, and Phil permitted himself the faintest trace of a smirk.
“My.... tac suit...?”
“Good. Because there’s a man, ground level, directly below your position, who could be your exact double. Civvies and a backpack. You don’t by chance have an identical twin you’ve neglected to inform SHIELD of, do you?”
In the brief pause that followed, he could almost hear Barton blinking, working frantically to process the information. Despite his joking, Barton was deep in sniper mode, his entire focus set on analyzing the course of the battle below him, monitoring the movement of both enemies and allies alike, waiting for the perfect shot.
It went a long way towards proving that Hawkeye could indeed flirt in his sleep, as he’d so often argued to Stark.
“If I do,” Barton answered after a moment, voice tight and all trace of humor gone, “they neglected to inform me, too.”
Keeping his shoulder to the doppelganger, Coulson maintained a watch on the man from the corner of his eye. There was no possibility the man was a civilian. His carriage was too trained; not the stiff formality of the military, but the hunting-cat grace of something far more dangerous. He was standing still and calm, watching a battle between giant reptilian wolves and superheroes raging in a New York City street without any fear on his face, only incredulous disbelief.
“Main channel, Hawkeye,” Coulson ordered softly, but switched his own radio two channels back instead. “Agents Alden, Dunworth, Pelltey,” he ordered, taking care that his voice didn’t carry. “Potential hostile sighted. Ground level directly below Hawkeye’s position. Wearing civilian clothing but appearance is identical to that of Agent Barton. Approach as potential shapeshifter. Avoid hostility if possible, secure unharmed for interrogation.”
The affirmations were coming back just as Dalton yelled ‘Sir!’, and Phil’s near-preternatural sense for trouble had him wheeling back to the fight in time to see the shimmer of green-gold energy in the middle of the shattered street resolve itself into the form of Loki himself.
The Hulk’s roar echoed off the buildings surrounding them, loud enough to shatter windows, and Coulson saw Cap duck, shield above his head as the razor rain showered down. Iron Man’s cursing carried over the radio loudly enough that Coulson could hear it from Dalton’s headset - his own was still set on the agent’s frequency, not the Avenger’s.
Which meant that he didn’t have time to order the Hulk back before he leapt.
Coulson’s hand was already retuning his radio as the Hulk went airborne, the apex of his jump five stories high, and started hurtling down towards the god of chaos.
Loki glanced up, watching with dispassionate eyes as a ton of green-skinned fury shot towards him, and almost casually raised a hand. A burst of energy, painfully bright, exploded from his palm, and the Hulk was hurled away like a leaf in a gale.
It took almost the length of a full heartbeat before he smashed through the wall of the hotel, thirty stories up and more than five blocks from the battle.
Loki’s appearance had pushed Barton’s doppelganger from the forefront of his mind, but even the presence of the trickster god couldn’t stop Phil from hearing the cry that echoed up from the unknown man.
“No, no, no, God no, ETHAN!”
“Hulk’s up,” Barton commented dispassionately, even his voice in the earpiece eerily similar to the one that had just screamed from across the street. Then, “Oh, shit.”
“Barton, report!” Coulson snapped, wheeling around to watch as the three agents he’d ordered in converged on the doppelganger. Who was trying to run towards the hotel the Hulk had just struck, through the middle of an active war zone populated with monsters greater than human imagining.
“Armed civilian in - fuck. Coulson, get medevac to that hotel,” Barton snapped, and Coulson felt his stomach sink as he switched channels again for long enough to relay the order. Across the street, the doppelganger was fighting the agents with the vicious terror of a man fighting for something he loved more than himself.
But he was fighting as a human. A trained human, there was no question, but a human none the less.
Coulson watched as Pelltey drove a kick into the back of the man’s knees, unbalancing him enough to let the three get the upper hand, cuffs slapped tight around his wrists. The man didn’t stop fighting, though, even with his hands restrained, lashing out at the agents around him with powerhouse kicks, and even catching Alden with a solid headbutt that knocked all two hundred and thirty pounds of agent squarely on his ass.
Pelltey got a knee in the solar plexus, probably in retaliation for the earlier kick, and Dunworth got the guy’s shoulder in her throat before Phil finally muttered “Enough of this,” withdrew his sidearm, and fired off a single shot, neatly one-handed, towards the melee opposite him.
The bullet drilled into the concrete support of the garage, six inches above the doppelganger’s head, showering all four combatants with concrete dust.
The doppelganger’s reaction was instantaneous - dropping to one knee, he kicked Pelltey in the stomach to get clear of him, rolled his way clear, and came up with his back against the pillar Phil had just shot, standing far enough back that it provided adequate cover.
The three SHIELD agents had barely moved, and Phil resisted the desire to fire again, just to urge them to scatter like frightened chickens.
His earpiece gave a cough of static - no, just a cough, he amended, as Barton’s half-amused tone drifted through. “Everything all right down there, Coulson?”
From his vantage point, Barton couldn’t see the scuffle going on below him, but there was no doubt he’d seen Phil draw.
“Under control, Barton,” he answered tersely, and muted his radio long enough to yell across the street, “Stand down, all of you!”
The doppelganger risked a peek around the side of the support pillar at the order, and Coulson deliberately caught his eye, reinforcing his command with a glare.
“I repeat, stand -”
Something crunched behind him.
He didn’t need to see the widening of the doppelganger’s eyes, or the dawning terror in the faces of the junior agents, to know what had made the sound.
Turning, he found one of the gigantic creatures they’d been combating barely twenty feet from his position, rounding the corner of the building that had kept it hidden from all of them - until now.
Ten feet tall at the shoulder, with six legs and a glossy black hide of thick armored plates, the things were a madman’s fever-dream of a wolf, torn from the heart of nightmares. The earless head had a muzzle the length of Phil’s arm, double-rows of teeth showing through a foam of red-tinted saliva.
His gun was still in his hand, and Phil didn’t hesitate in raising and firing. In his ear, he could hear Barton’s invective turning the air blue, and he threw up his forearm to shield his eyes when an incendiary arrow slammed into the creature, spewing a burst of flames across the armored hide.
It was something of a redemption for the five junior agents on the street with him that all of them - even Dalton, who had a gun in one hand and the radio in the other - took his cue to open fire on the creature, and six clips worth of .45 hollowpoints plus another pair of incendiary arrows battered the creature.
Unfortunately, all of their weapons had precisely the same effect they’d had all along - which was exactly none.
Except for the arrows.
Those made it angry.
Breath sticking in his throat, Coulson watched as the thing turned, fixing dull green-glowing eyes on Barton’s position... and leapt.
It cleared the distance - fifty feet in length and over twice that in height - without any apparent effort.
Coulson heard Clint curse once, a startled, breathless exhale, and then shout, a sudden, startled cry of pain.
And then he went silent.