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"Barton! Leave it alone."
On the surveillance monitor, Barton rolled his eyes, but his hand dropped away from his neck.
Phil's gaze flicked across the dozen displays in front of him, noting the positions of the World Security Council's forces, his own agents, and the coterie of intelligence agency big-wigs assembling in the Council headquarters lobby. "It's almost time. Is the conference room secure?" he asked over the comms.
Three agents checked in, confirming a clean sweep. The clock showed 5:50. He could feel sweat starting to bead on his forehead.
Ten minutes from the start of the World Security Council's Special Symposium on Counterterrorism, and so far there had been no sign of a threat. But Director Fury was willing to bet SHIELD's funding that someone would make a move today; he had assigned enough SHIELD agents to overthrow Portugal.
(And yes, that was an exact number.)
Phil's ground unit was composed of three plain-clothes agents posing as aides, mingling with the conference attendees; a dozen junior agents watching the perimeter; and three specialists secretly embedded with the WSC's regular security team.
All ready and waiting for something—anything—to happen.
Except Barton, whose fingers were again dug into the high collar of his black WSC uniform.
His guilty hand froze in place, and this time he made eye contact with the camera. "Don't you have anything better to do than spy on me?" Barton muttered into his mic.
"As a matter of fact, I do. But one of my undercover agents keeps breaking character and potentially compromising the mission."
It was a troubling development: Barton hadn't broken cover once in the last fifteen ops. Phil had been relieved to have his rebellious streak finally tamed.
Training an ex-mercenary loner to accept commands in the field, let alone display qualities of loyalty and teamwork, had stretched Phil's patience for two years. The two of them had spent months camped out in decaying rat-holes and war zones, countless enemies just the other side of crumbling brick, with only each other to trust. The result had been the development of the best SHIELD operative Phil had ever seen. And he'd congratulated himself on getting Barton past his rebellious stage.
But every time Barton reached up to tug at the black fabric, stitched with the red WSC insignia, Phil's temper flared.
"Wow, you're in a bad mood tonight." Barton's voice turned sly, "Must be this heat wave."
Phil's lips twisted in an inadvertent grin. "A hot-under-the-collar joke would be poorly aimed, for a marksman."
Barton grunted, acknowledging the point. "Or maybe it's the broken air conditioning unit…." He raised his eyebrows at the camera.
At least three agents snickered over the comms. At a glance, Phil catalogued the names of the agents paying more attention to the comms than to their assignments. And then he glared over his shoulder at Peterson, whose ceaseless bitching about the van's broken AC had somehow leaked to the rest of the team.
Peterson ducked his head and pretended to be heavily involved with his recording equipment.
"Bet you wish you were in that cushy, air-conditioned security room upstairs. Too bad Fury doesn't have the rank to get—"
"That's enough," Phil said. "All agents, stand ready."
"Come on," Barton drawled, a near-imperceptible slouch to his shoulders that Phil couldn't help noticing. "It's not like there's any actual threat. This is all just a fucking hunch."
"Is that based on actual intelligence, or your own hunch?"
Barton snorted, his breath sharp over the comm link in Phil's ear. "Based on my professional experience. Ten bucks says this is Fury trying to scare a bigger budget out of the WSC."
Phil had had the same thought last week, but he wasn't about to admit it, publicly or privately. He gritted his teeth and shut Barton down. "Are you questioning my orders?"
Barton's posture straightened to match the pair of WSC officers next to him. "Way to escalate, Coulson," he muttered.
"What was that, agent?"
"No, sir," Barton said.
Phil glanced at the clock. 5:54. Sweat was prickling between his shoulder blades. He made a scathing mental note for his post-mission report. By next week, all surveillance vans would be fully over-hauled or certain maintenance staffers would find themselves transferred to the Arctic Search and Rescue Project.
"Any chance we can hit up the buffet once the meeting starts?" Barton asked.
"Barton," Phil warned. But a glance at the screen told him Barton was talking to one of the WSC guards next to him.
And he had found a kindred spirit.
The guard shrugged and answered, "I hope so. I heard they got those little cocktail-wiener things with the really good mustard."
"Sweet, I love those."
Phil sighed through his nose as Barton, staying fastidiously in-character, talked buffet foods with the two WSC guards at his post. This sort of pushing wasn't atypical for Barton, but it seemed especially problematic tonight. Maybe it was the uniform, Phil thought, one part of his attention worrying at that thread even as his gaze jumped from screen to screen, noting the watchful eyes of his agents and the shifting formations of attendees.
Barton had only just acclimated to wearing his dark blue, SHIELD-issued field suit, albeit with his own creative modifications; the man had issues with sleeves. Phil scowled at camera 19's display, at the way Barton flexed his neck and jaw, obviously over-conscious of the high neck-line. The sooner he was out of that damned uniform the better. Just watching him, Phil's fingers suffered the same compulsion, itching to dig under Barton's collar and rip it off—
He blinked, finding his hand raised off the keyboard, acting on its own.
Motion on exterior-camera seven caught his eye, and he jumped on the comms. "South entrance, incursion in progress. Five…six subjects armed with automatic weapons. Units three, four, and five, make your way toward the south entrance and set up ambush from the catering kitchen. Units one and two, watch the lobby doors."
The op went cleanly. The assailants were contained and neutralized in the back hallway by the catering kitchen with zero disruption to the conference. The two wounded junior agents were evac'ed to SHIELD Medical. Phil encrypted and sent the security footage of the assault and response to Director Fury for his next budget negotiation, and then ordered his undercover agents to extricate themselves as discreetly as possible.
A few minutes after wrap-up, with the van sent back to headquarters for some much-needed repairs, Barton finally slouched his way into the passenger seat of Phil's sedan. Phil dialed down the air conditioning and straightened his shoulders as though he'd never sweat a day in his life.
"The conference is underway," Barton said, his fingers redirecting one of the dashboard vents toward his face.
"Mission accomplished," Phil said, and forced a smile. He could still feel the tension of the op under his skin, temper primed to erupt at the slightest provocation.
It must have showed, because Barton shot him a wary look and settled back in the seat. And then he reached up and tugged at his WSC collar again.
Phil's grip on the wheel tightened, but he kept his voice perfectly level when he said, "You know, the SHIELD field suits are cut from the same pattern. I've never seen you have trouble with them."
Barton ripped at the Velcro flap at the nape of his neck until the top of the suit gave an inch. He pulled it away from his throat and folded it down, covering the insignia. "Not really my colors."
Phil's eyes zeroed in on the small strip of skin he'd exposed. He watched Barton swallow, his Adam's apple moving up and down. "Oh? What colors would you prefer?"
Barton grinned. "I've heard I look really good in purple." Before Phil could threaten to make that ludicrous image a reality, Barton cocked his head and added, more serious than he'd been all night, "But I think I prefer dark blue."
The tension in Phil's temples finally receded, replaced by a low buzz of satisfaction, relief at an op gone-well. He nodded and forced his eyes away from Barton's throat.
"Fasten your seat belt," he said, and then turned up the air-conditioning, shifted gears, and pulled away from the curb.