The shirt didn't start off as special. All the new Ranger recruits got one as part of their uniform: a black t-shirt with a gold Ranger tab emblazoned across the chest. His name and rank (SSG Coulson) were written in black marker on a piece of tape sewn on the back. And every morning at 5:30 he pulled it over his head and reported for PT with the other 150 men in his class.
There was a well-established hierarchy at Fort Lewis.
At the very top were the Rangers of the 2nd Battalion, the epitome of the American fighting man, the envy of men, and the desire of women (and quite a few men, if we’re being honest).
At the bottom was everyone else. It was just that simple.
Phil was surprised to find himself among them. His ego wasn't so big that he couldn't admit that. He had never been the biggest or fastest or strongest. But he had conviction, and a desire to protect good people from bad things. He knew that was old-fashioned and the others would probably laugh. But it was true.
He wore his shirt with pride and hoped he could live up to the standard set by the men who came before him.
Here's what people knew about Staff Sergeant Coulson: The missions he led never ended in glory. No one got any medals. They'd never make a Hollywood blockbuster out of any of his exploits.
Here's what else people knew: Staff Sergeant Coulson always completed his missions, and he always brought his men back alive.
So that's why, after eight years in the Army and over a dozen combat operations, Phil found himself in the re-enlistment office talking to Nick Fury, Special Agent of SHIELD, instead of the re-up NCO.
Fury made quite the impression, with the bald head, sunglasses, and black leather against smooth brown skin. Phil wasn't quite ready to let him know he was impressed. "What agency are you with again?"
Fury looked like this was exactly the question he expected. "Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. Don't worry that you've never heard of us. That's kind of the point."
"Agent Fury, is it?"
"I don't know what you've been told, but I'm not looking to leave the Army. I plan to re-up and stay with the Battalion as long as they'll have me." And it was true. Phil was perfectly happy where he was.
Fury seemed to find that amusing. "You've come highly recommended."
"I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but this is where I want to be."
"I think you'd be very happy at SHIELD."
Phil found his confidence intriguing, and a little annoying. "With all due respect Agent Fury, you don’t know a thing about me." He wasn't sure why he was making the other man work so hard for this.
Fury crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, never taking his eyes off Phil. "You got a tattoo of Captain America's shield on your right arm when you were 16 years old. You attend comics conventions whenever you can because they are the best place to find vintage Cap trading cards. You decided that if you couldn't be a super-soldier like your hero, then an Army Ranger was the next best thing." Phil tried not to react. "You enlisted rather than accepting a commission after college because that gave you a better shot at getting into a Ranger unit. You've won the Best Ranger competition two years running. You're HALO, Pathfinder, and SCUBA qualified. And last year you led a group of soldiers on a 36 mile road march, through hostile territory, to make the alternate extraction point after the helicopter sent to retrieve you never showed."
"It was 40 miles."
Fury raised one eyebrow. "The report says 36."
"You need a new a report. It was 40. Sir." Fury smiled and Phil knew he was going to enjoy working for this man. "Do you stalk all your recruits?"
Another smile, and Fury didn't miss a beat. "Just the ones I want to impress. Spend a week with us at SHIELD headquarters. If you don't like it, back into the Army you go."
As soon as Phil set foot on the Helicarrier, he was sold.
His SHIELD training had been more intense that anything he had in the Army. There were weapons he'd never seen before, places on the map he'd never heard of, and a commitment to secrecy and protocol that bordered on the pathological. Phil had never been happier in his life.
Or more nervous. He wore his Ranger t-shirt under his new uniform on his first SHIELD field op. There were a dozen cultists barricaded in a compound in Wyoming, with a large cache of weapons and a particularly nasty piece of Hydra tech. Phil was the patrol leader and was responsible for apprehending the cultists, securing the Hydra weapon, bringing his team back alive, and maintaining the safety of the mostly clueless civilians in the area.
He was SHIELD now, he thought to himself as he looked in the mirror before heading out. Chosen and trained and trusted to the get the job done. And he was ready. He was confident about that.
But it helped to feel the familiar drag of his t-shirt against skin. In the midst on the non-stop controlled chaos that was SHIELD, it was nice to have a center.
He wore his shirt the day he lost his first agent. It was freak accident—something that couldn't be avoided, something that could only happen on a SHIELD op. One second the agent (Viders, 26, West Point grad, reigning SHIELD Guitar Hero champ) was reaching for a metal box with strange markings, and the next—nothing. There was no body, no blood or hair or nails or anything at all to indicate that Viders had ever existed.
He got the rest of his team back to base, debriefed with Fury, and filed his after action report. Then he showered, changed into his t-shirt and sweats, and headed for the range.
Fury was waiting for him. "It happens to all of us Coulson."
"Not to me, sir." He loaded his weapon, set the target, and began to shoot.
"This wasn't your fault." Fury was trying to take it easy on him. His hands were in his pockets. He was leaning casually against the wall and he'd taken off his sunglasses. But the new eye patch and the fact that he was still Nick fucking Fury kind of undermined the effort.
"Is this the part where we talk about our feelings?" Maybe he could get Fury to punch him, replace one kind of pain with another.
"I need you to report to Psych at 0800 to tomorrow." Fury gave up easy and went back to badass.
"I'd rather shoot something." As if on cue, he fired the last round in his magazine and the range was silent again.
"We all would, Phil. Get your head straight and we can shoot as many bad guys as you want." He left without another word.
Phil wished he could say that was the last time he lost an agent in the field, but doing his job well sometimes meant ordering men and women to march headlong into situations that were quite likely to kill them. There was nothing he could do to change that.
What he could do was make sure he never did anything to cause any of his agents to doubt his word, his resolve, or his commitment to them or the mission. If that meant being a hardass about protocol and a stickler for reports, so be it. If trading warm-and-fuzzy for competent-and-prepared meant that junior agents walked the other way when they saw him and whispered behind his back, he could live with that. At the end of day he needed everyone, even him (especially him), to know that he'd done all he could to bring his team back alive.
He met Stephanie just as he began to worry that his life consisted of little more than Thai takeout, mission briefs, and reports.
On paper, she was perfect for him. Tall, leggy, redhead. She worked for a SHIELD sub-contract, so knew enough about his work to know not to ask questions. She never went into the field herself, though, so he didn't have to worry about a 2am phone call asking him to identify her remains. And best of all, she was unobtrusive. She didn't ask for any more than Phil was prepared to give.
Once he got used to the idea, he had to admit it was nice having someone to talk at the end of the day, eating off of real dishes with someone who didn't call him 'sir,' and getting laid on a regular basis. After a few months he began to think he could make Stephanie a permanent part of his life.
And then one morning he woke to an empty bed and the sound and smell of bacon cooking. He found Stephanie in his kitchen making breakfast, dancing to Hall & Oates, and wearing his t-shirt.
His Ranger t-shirt. Which lived in the top drawer of his dresser. Which Stephanie had clearly rifled through without his permission.
And it would be so much easier if he thought she was a spy or a double agent or Hydra or something else evil. If he thought that she was trying to seduce SHIELD secrets out of him. That would make him feel a lot better about his reaction to the sight of her in. his. fucking. t-shirt.
It would be okay to be angry with a spy. To feel invaded by a double agent. It probably wasn't okay to yell at your very sweet girlfriend for making you breakfast and wearing your shirt because it smelled like you.
It was only after she was gone for good that he realized how little space he'd made for her. Probably because he just didn't have very much to give.
He packed his t-shirt away after that and didn't see it again for five years.
The seed for the Avengers Initiative was planted once Fury and Phil started to bring in promising recruits who showed no interest in being government agents. Some of them were even openly hostile to the idea.
Cue Clint Barton.
An archer of all things, with a circus background to boot. Barton was cocky and defiant and not interested in anything Phil had to offer. That just made Phil try harder.
(He was also sexy in a way that caught the seasoned agent completely off-guard. He added that to the list of things that marked the younger man as trouble.)
In the end he had to promise both Fury and Barton that he would personally act as the archer's handler. Which is how Phil found himself on the SHIELD Hogan's Alley course, dressed in his Ranger shirt and fatigues (he'd dug it of a box in the back of his closet a week or so after meeting Barton), taking Barton through his field qualification test.
"Talk to me Barton." Phil was well aware that this was as much a test of him and Fury as it was of the new agents. All the members of the Council had come to observe the tests, prepared to shut down Fury's "dangerous pet project."
"So what happens in the field if I need to change the plan?"
The voice in his ear was playful and not immediately worrisome. He held up his hand to Fury, stopping him before he could interrupt. "Since I will be writing all of your plans in the field, I doubt that'll happen."
"Did you write today's plan?"
"No." Another look at Fury. 'One minute,' he mouthed.
"Then I don't have to worry about hurting your feelings."
Phil grabbed a pair of binoculars and positioned himself so that he could see Barton in his perch on top of the tallest building in the fake town SHIELD had built for the test. "I have eyes on you Barton. You don't look like you're suffering from a head injury." In fact he was in position, eyes trained on the road, bow loaded, poised to shoot. Exactly where he should be.
"I don't know, sir. I'm getting my paycheck from a shady government agency these days. The jury's still out on the head injury."
Fury was on the phone and full on glaring now. The Council was trying to step in. The convoy carrying the target was still a couple of minutes out. "What are you thinking?"
"The mission is to take out the number one bad guy, and prevent a bomb from going off in the town, right?"
"I can take him out on the road, before he gets into the town."
"He's travelling with a convoy. Even if you could make that shot, which I doubt, you'll have about dozen other pissed off bad guys. The other agents are inside the town, not close enough to cover you." He was keenly aware of all the eyes on him--Fury, the other handlers, the Council—and the ticking clock. He should stop this.
"I can make the shot," the archer said matter-of-factly. "In about 30 seconds, they'll be in range. I can get all three drivers and Mr. Big. That leaves 6 for the other agents, if they move out now. The bomb won't get close enough to do any damage." Clint glanced quickly to where he knew Phil was standing, watching. "I just need the go order."
And really, that's what did it. The fact that Barton needed a go order. He trusted Phil to trust him. "Take the shot."
A half dozen pair of binoculars went up. One. Two. Three. Four. The archer was impossibly fast and, more importantly, accurate. The six remaining SHIELD agents posing as terrorists, realizing that the field test was suddenly off-script, struggled to regroup. The other agents being tested that day, including a beautiful former Soviet assassin, made quick work of them. Fury was actually smiling.
"I'll make you a deal. You keep getting me results like that in the field and I'll ignore it when you write your reports in pig Latin."
Phil could hear the grin. "Now you're just flirting, sir."
Someone had taken pictures at the BBQ celebration afterward and they made the rounds over the SHIELD listserv. One of them was of Phil and Barton. They were sitting on a picnic table, each holding a beer. Barton had been telling him some ridiculous story about a small town, a farmer's son, and an honest to god pitchfork that had Phil laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes. The clever photographer had included a caption—"Still not convinced he isn't a robot."
Before he could talk himself out of it, Phil clicked save.
Clint stopped sleeping in his room when he could make it through the night without pain medication. He stopped bringing him breakfast in bed once Phil could make it to the kitchen they all shared without any help. He tried to ignore how much he missed waking up to the younger man's soft snores, but eventually decided he didn't have the energy to lie to himself.
He and Clint worked well together. They'd even become friends. But as outgoing and friendly as Clint was with everyone, he was also careful with his heart. And since Phil had locked his own away years ago, he doubted he should be the one to ask Clint to take that leap. In a few weeks Medical would clear him to go back to work and he'd move back to his own apartment. (He wasn't an Avenger after all. He couldn't stay with them all in the Towers.) He could back to his real life.
The loneliness was already eating away at him.
He had physical therapy every other day. On his off days he walked the streets of New York, taking some comfort in the fact that the Chitauri attack hadn't broken the spirit of the city, despite the death toll and the property damage. He was glad today was an off day. He needed the air, the time to think. He went to his room to change.
When he walked into his room, Clint was there. With his shirt.
"Hey," he said when he heard Phil come in. "Up for a run? " He tossed the shirt (it was faded and worn now, soft and barely retaining its shape after so many years) to Phil.
He caught it easily. "I thought it was only button downs for me?"
"Dressing yourself is part of your therapy, right?" Phil nodded. "I thought you could suit up and we'd pound the pavement."
"I don't think I can run yet." It pained him to admit even that small weakness. " But if you don't mind walking, I wouldn't mind the company."
"That sounds perfect," Clint said so sincerely that it made Phil's heart clench.
They walked for an hour, longer than Phil should have truthfully, but he couldn't make himself bring their walk (which was *not* a date) to an end. It wasn't even that anything special happened. No fireworks or hand holding or knee-weakening kisses. They just walked and talked and laughed. He didn’t know how or when, but this sarcastic, insubordinate, circus-performing archer had filled a space in his life, a space he didn't even know was empty. He didn't know how he was going to give this up.
Back at Stark Towers they settled on Phil's couch (Clint had been right about Tony getting him a sweet TV setup—probably to make up for all those months he refused to learn Phil's first name) to watch DVR'd reruns of Dirty Jobs. If they sat a little closer than friends should, well, Phil was willing to let it go.
Clint started to yawn not long after they sat down.
"A little walking wear you out?" Phil joked.
Clint smiled and rolled his shoulders. "No. I'm just not sleeping well lately."
"Bad dreams?" They'd only talked a little about how hard it was to get Loki out of your head.
"Nothing like that." Clint shrugged. "I don't know. I think maybe I'm still waking up to give you meds every four hours, even though you don't need me anymore." He looked embarrassed at his admission.
Phil didn't hesitate. "I haven't stopped needing you." It was so true it hurt.
He could see the moment Clint decided to take the leap. "I don't know how to do this, Phil." He was looking at him, eyes wide, heart open.
"I don't think I'm any better prepared." He really wasn't.
"So it's the blind leading the blind here?" Clint asked.
Phil could only nod. And hold his breath.
Clint smiled. "Well, it's good thing we're not secret government agents or anything. That would be bad."
And that right there might be the moment Phil Coulson fell in love with Clint Barton.
An hour later Clint was snuggled up against him, head on his shoulder, snoring, and drooling on his favorite t-shirt.
Phil thought back to all those years ago, when he first wore this shirt and thought that all he wanted in life was to protect the world from bad guys.
Looking down at his sleeping archer, he was never happier to be proven wrong.