Phil has been Agent Barton’s handler for three months when it happens.
Barton had gone through handlers at an alarming rate since he was first recruited - authority issues, complete inability to maintain radio silence, disappearing from base without authorisation. If he hadn’t been so damn good at his job, SHIELD would have dropped him ages ago. So Fury assigned him to Phil, with the instruction make it work, somehow.
Thirty minutes into his first op with Barton, Phil decides the other handers were all idiots. “Barton, you got a visual?”
“Yeah, I got a visual. I got all sorts of visuals. Lots of crap visuals, but hey, don’t ask me, I’m just the help, right?”
“You got a better idea, Barton?”
“Wait, you’re actually asking me?”
“Yes, Barton. I’m asking you. Do you have a better position in mind?”
“Yeah, eight-storey office building at your 4 o’clock.”
“That's two blocks further away.”
“Yeah, but the angle’s much better. More lines of sight means more opportunities to take the shot. I can make the distance.”
“Ok then, we’ve got ten minutes. Redeploy and report when you’re in position.”
Barton makes the shot on the second opportunity - the first having been blocked by an unexpected truck of sheep. By the time the truck moves, the target is nearly to the door of the building, and completely out of sight of the original position Barton had been assigned by Logistics. The fact that that position is also the first swarmed by the target’s men after his brains decorate the sidewalk is just the icing on the cake.
“Good work, Barton,” Phil says into the comm as he watches heavily armed men search in vain for the sniper. Phil can practically hear the surprise in the silence before Barton replies.
Back at headquarters Phil calls Barton up to his office for a debrief.
“Ok, here’s the way this is going to work,” Phil says, when Barton has parked himself in a chair and doesn’t even scold him for sitting on it sideways. “The position you chose today allowed us to complete a mission that would have otherwise been a failure. You have suggestions like that in the future you let me know, and I promise to consider them. If I don’t take your advice, I promise to at least tell you why. You can chatter on the comms all you want unless I tell you otherwise, but don’t expect me to answer you. And if I do tell you to keep quiet, you better be silent unless you have time-sensitive intel to pass on. Think you can live with that?”
Barton is watching Phil like he’s waiting for the catch, but finally he nods. Phil raises an eyebrow. Barton rolls his eyes.
“Yes, sir!” The tone is just this side of insubordinate, but Phil doesn’t call him on it.
“Will you be off base tonight?” Phil asks. Barton’s eyes widen.
“Probationary agents aren’t allowed to leave base without permission,” he replies guardedly.
“I didn’t ask if you were supposed to be off base, I asked if you were going to be off base.”
The slightly panicked look on Barton’s face is answer enough. Phil turns to his computer and pulls up Barton’s file, making a few quick changes.
“Congratulations, Agent Barton. You are no longer probationary and are free to come and go as you wish, unless ordered otherwise. Feel free to keep sneaking around, however - it keeps security on their toes. I believe Agent Philips has offered a reward for the first person to tell him how you got out and back in without being caught last time.”
Barton grins. He’s beautiful when he smiles. “I like you,” he says, and Phil’s stomach flip-flops disconcertingly. Years of practice keep it from showing on his face.
“My life is now complete,” he responds dryly. “Get out of here.”
Barton rolls to his feet with his famed acrobatic grace. He waves a hand at Phil as he heads for the door.
“Barton,” Phil calls when the man’s hand is on the doorknob. Barton looks back over his shoulder quizzically. “Don’t make me regret it.”
“No, sir,” Barton says, and there’s nothing flippant in his tone now. The words are accompanied by a genuine smile and the only thing going through Phil’s mind as Barton closes the door behind him is that he is so, so screwed.
The halls of SHIELD headquarters are abuzz with the news that Coulson’s the one who finally tamed the Hawk and there’s speculation everywhere on just how Mr. By-the-Book himself managed to get Barton to play by the rules. At least that’s what they wonder until the time Phil catches a group of junior agents discussing it by the watercooler (seriously? How clicheéd can you get?).
“What do you think, Barton,” he asks, “Have I tamed you?” The junior agents look at him in guilty bewilderment until a voice drifts down from above.
“Me, sir? No, sir. Never, sir!” Barton replies as he swings down from the rafters where he’d been listening, much to the discomfiture of the agents below.
“Well, there you have it,” Phil tells the agents. “And I would expect agents of SHIELD to have better situational awareness. I’m sure Agent Barton would be happy to continue to help you develop that particular skill.”
Barton’s grin is predatory, and the junior agents very quickly find somewhere else to be. “You realise I’m now going to have to find a different eavesdropping spot, sir.”
Phil rolls his eyes. “It’ll be good practice for you, Barton.” Barton’s answering smile is good practice for Phil, who is getting very good at not showing how much it affects him.
And so, for the first three months of their partnership, everything goes smoothly. Phil lets Barton pick his own positions in the field, which annoys the hell out of Logistics but Phil’s got the evidence to back up the fact that Barton’s picks are nearly always superior. He still keeps up a running commentary on the comms, but far from being annoyed, Phil finds he enjoys the chatter. Barton’s smart - several times his insights have improved the running of an op and Phil appreciates his dry, sarcastic humour. More surprisingly, Barton appreciates Phil’s sense of humour, whereas most other agents don’t even realise he has one, and after the first month or so, Barton has become ‘Clint’ and the comm chatter decidedly less one-sided.
Clint has taken to sprawling on the couch in Phil’s office for debriefings and sometimes bringing take-out, or sticking around afterward to help Phil out with the post-mission paperwork. He still disappears off-base every night, but whatever it is he does, it doesn’t interfere with his work in any way - Phil never gets any reports of public intoxication or petty assault or any of the other misdemeanors agents got up to that led to the no unauthorised trips off-base rule being instated in the first place.
So Phil buries his attraction, because what they have is good enough. They work well together in the field, so Fury’s happy. They’re friends, and it’s an easy, comfortable relationship. Phil doesn’t fool himself into thinking he knows all Clint’s secrets, just like Clint doesn’t know all of Phil’s, but he knows everything he needs to. At least he thinks he does, and he believes it until that moment three months in when everything he thought he knew about Clint is turned upside down.
It happens like this: They’re on an op in Pakistan. Clint and Phil are huddled together on a roof a block away from the building where intel says the target is hiding. They’ve been waiting for him to show for three hours, and Phil thinks if he doesn’t show up in the next hour he’ll call it.
Phil’s watching the building through a pair of night-vision binoculars, and Clint’s eye is pressed to the scope of his rifle. Suddenly he straightens up, head cocked slightly to the side, eyes distant.
“We got company, boss,” Clint says, and ten seconds later Phil hears it - the rumble of souped-up engines over rough terrain. He and Clint watch as the target is taken out not by them, but by the forces of a rival warlord and it’s not exactly an optimal outcome but it’s not their job any more.
Phil’s not thinking about that though. He moves on autopilot through the clean-up and extraction, typing out a report to Fury that he’ll probably have to edit in the morning because all he can think about is Clint’s voice saying ‘We got company’ well before he could possibly have known. Seeing Clint staring into space with that little head-tilt Phil’s seen before, long ago and far away, sitting on the back porch of an old plantation house in the Louisiana summer, hearing his sister tell him dinner is coming several minutes before Frank and Emmett come tromping out of the forest with a deer across their shoulders, her head tilted just like that listening to something only she can hear.
Back at base, Phil submits his report to Fury and cashes in a week of leave. He steals one of Clint’s t-shirts from the locker room and packs up the car, heading South.