The moment Phil slid the preliminary mission brief over the table toward her Natasha knew he would be more than her handler during this. The Widow and Agent Coulson would go to Birmingham and deal with the target beyond doubt.
The two of them were not the only agents who could get the job done, even disregarding Hawkeye. However earned their special assets status, Natasha knew that the day Phil believed them unique to that degree he would resign from being a handler and devote most of his time to recruitment.
Regardless. This was a target that she, and he, had to meet in person.
While Natasha absorbed the brief’s information Phil conducted several meetings and persuaded Woo, Sitwell and even Hill to back him up. Hawkeye, he told Fury firmly, could not be allowed anywhere near this mission under any circumstances.
They would never be sure whether Fury had been thinking along those same lines or if the man actually let himself be convinced. It mattered – it was relevant for future considerations – right then, however, Phil and Natasha could not care less about anything but the end result.
SHIELD wanted Trickshot neutralized. Since Barton needed to be on the other side of the Earth when it happened, SHIELD would send the only two other persons in the world who would know what taking him down would mean. SHIELD owed that much to Hawkeye as much as it owed him to shield him from having to be the one to do it. Coulson owed it to Barton. Natasha owed it to Clint.
It was the only way Barton wouldn’t run when he found out, they agreed on the transatlantic flight. Granted, there was a slight chance that he might never even know it happened. They both knew Clint to be so much more than a former circus artist and thief who could shoot straight. They didn’t kid themselves. He would find out eventually.
Natasha wasn’t sure if she was surprised or not when Phil confessed that it was also the only way he, Phil, would be able to live with himself when it happened. The only way that would leave him with the courage to tell Clint himself. If the situation ever called for it. If the timing seemed right.
Besides, there was an infinitesimal chance that…
Agent Coulson asked her for ten minutes alone with the target before she made her move. Natasha watched from a distance as Coulson sat down next to Barney Barton and spoke quietly to him. In all the years afterwards she never found out what was said, but she always remembered what she’d seen.
Two minutes before the time was up, Barney nodded. Phil gave the Widow the mission accomplished sign. The elder Barton walked out of the bar. Trickshot was never heard of again.
Phil’s job description did not actually include “The Avengers’ secretary”, but they quickly found out that they had better let him have a say about the team’s public appearances. Tony actually listened to him when he cautioned against showing his face somewhere – most of the time, anyway – and if Fury wanted them paraded around they took it a lot better if wasn’t actually Fury making the ‘request’.
Steve was the easiest one to handle. The man was used to CO’s and politicians controlling his time and while he might not always have been comfortable with being a national icon – in some way, even more of one now than he’d ever been during the War – he understood the necessity and complied with only very quiet grumbling.
The grumbling stopped entirely after about six months. Phil had no doubt Rogers had noticed a trend. He was still being hung out for PR purposes. However, if an event starring businessmen and/or politicians was on the same day as something involving veterans or children, the latter got to chat amiably with Rogers while the former trudged nervously around the Black Widow. Groundbreakings, award ceremonies and other high-profile gatherings all had a charity purpose. Even if those responsible for the original planning hadn’t intended to include one at all.
Eventually, Phil was swamped by other work, but the underlings he and Pepper selected to take care of the issue fulfilled their tasks with splendor. It turned out it was really easy to train minions to say “You wouldn’t want to be known as the man disappointing Captain America, do you?”
Agent Coulson directed the committee designing evasive maneuvers for agents to use in the event of Hulk encounters. He used the insights his close position granted him to ensure their chances were as stellar as could be. That the agents and any civilians they had better rather die than fail to protect might get away without injury. At his instigation, emergency procedures were issued to be taught in schools and hospitals and a myriad of companies. It could never hurt to be able to fall back on a drill.
Phil didn’t value Banner’s life over the life of SHIELD agents, but after a while he had to admit – if only to himself- that that was increasingly only the case because Banner would hardly thank him for it.
Protecting the public was SHIELD’s priority. The be able to do so efficiently they could not afford to lose any agents even to time in the infirmary. Agent Coulson’s logic was sound. Everyone who could make things difficult by dragging their feet, from the President down, agreed.
In his heart, Phil wanted to enable every non-hostile on the planet to get out of the Hulk’s way so that Bruce wouldn’t have to feel guilty.
Ioakim Budayev was about the last person left of the Red Room’s financial backers. It had taken years to find his trail once he’d disappeared during the first confused years after the Cold War. All others had been terminated after looking the wrong way at Putin after the man had turned out 1000% less malleable than old Boris – if former operatives hadn’t gotten to them first. Romanov, Phil was 99% certain, had personally killed two.
Director Fury wanted Budayev brought in alive for questioning.
Debriefing the man would bring valuable insights, for all that the Cold War had been a long time ago. Nowadays Russia was a part-time uneasy ally. As far as Fury was concerned, it was always better to be safe than sorry . Phil understood that. Phil endorsed that. Phil lived that.
Weeks and weeks of work culminated in a strike team having the man surrounded, taken by surprise, wrestled to the ground by Phil himself and with a tiny arrow sticking in his left ankle, counteracting his attempt at suicide by cyanide.
All Phil had to do now was to order Barton to follow up with a tranq shot. It was the easiest, most risk-free way to detain him. It was all he had to do. Barton wouldn’t miss, no matter where the man tried to move. The mission would be over. Phil’s team would have earned commendations. It was all he had to do, but he didn’t. Couldn’t. Not after having seen Romanov’s face.
He knew what Budayev’s instincts would be the moment he allowed the hand holding his Stark-issued hand gun to twitch just the tiniest bit. Budayev pulled out a fourth gun from seemingly nowhere. The shot caught Phil in the arm. The tranq shot flew wide and hit Romanov. Phil gritted his teeth through the pain and shot Budayev through the eye.
Three weeks from now, Hill’s investigation of operation Red Alpha would be wrapped up. Barton would receive a slap on his wrist for knocking out Widow instead of the mark. Unofficially, the move would give Hawkeye one of Fury’s rare nods of approval. Budayev’s death would be ruled as an unfortunate result of self-defense. The doctors would insist Agent Coulson keep his arm in a sling for another month. Nobody would blame Phil for fucking up the requisite non-fatal shot.
It had been ruled as being against SHIELD’s best interest to allow Thor to visit Loki in his cell. Their encounters had been… explosive… every time they’d happened. They had resulted in Loki’s escape on three previous occasions. The aftermath had been, in a word, destructive.
Preventing further contact between them was prudent. It was. And while Thor might not like it, he was less thick-headed than Loki’s taunts would have one believe. If he wanted to enforce a visit, the resistance SHIELD could throw in his path could never suffice.
Three escapes were three escapes. The Crown Prince of Asgard knew when the odds were against him.
He also wasn’t blind. He had expressed to Phil his guilt at the tension that Loki being on the loose brought to Hawkeye’s demeanor despite Tessaract and Spear remaining far out of Midgard’s reach. He had commented on the worry the other Avengers failed to hide completely when casting not-so-covert glances at their teammate. Phil had verbal proof that Thor was more than aware of the distress Loki’s escapes had caused a man who he once might have dismissed along with billions of other ‘petty’ humans but whom he now counted as one of his closest friends. Furthermore, Thor had been an active part of the furtive parameters the Avengers had formed around him, Phil, their handler, during those very same occasions. Causing anxiety and chaos was the opposite of Thor’s intent.
The God of Thunder would not insist on visiting the Liesmith. Not this time.
But Phil had also noted that none of the mayhem and destruction had been enough to turn Thor against his brother completely. No matter how many times they clashed and how many people were killed, Thor, without fail, refered to Loki as his brother. Their clashes had been violent – with a notable increase of desperation from Loki’s side. Hill believed it was because Loki had found himself with less resources each time. Phil was not so sure.
This last time, Loki had not denied being Thor’s brother at every turn.
It would not be the first time Phil had taken this risk. Loki was about a thousand times more dangerous than Barney, but Phil was not planning on setting him free.
Clint would understand.
If this played out according to Phil’s prediction, Tony and JARVIS would make sure Fury would never know that Phil smuggled Thor into the prison.
When Tony Stark had come back from Afghanistan Nick had set Coulson on him because Coulson was the epitome of unflappability. He would be able to take whatever shit-stained smokescreen Stark threw at him and would not relent until he got his debrief. It had been exactly what Nick had needed since hauling Stark in for questioning hadn’t been an option, damn him for being under Rhodes’ protection and a civilian on his own soil during ‘peacetime’.
When Iron Man had started to go off the bend and begun doing more damage than questionable, uncontrollable good, Nick had set Coulson on him once more because he was the quantity Pepper Potts had come to know and like. He’d sent Romanov in because there was only so much intel an agent known to Stark as such could gather. To this day Nick was convinced that if only the situation in New Mexico had occurred a few months later – if Coulson could have operated as the overt to Romanov’s covert a little longer – Nick would never have needed to talk to Stark in person. Life was not in the habit of giving Nick breaks.
Coulson was a damn good field agent but an even better handler. Hell, until the medics had called Nick and told him that the resuscitation had been successful, Phil had proved that he could even handle the not-quite-yet formed Avengers from beyond the grave.
The Avengers hadn’t trusted Nick since. This didn’t really bother him, as they were now a team and would protect the Earth regardless of their opinion of the current Director of SHIELD. If they wanted to assert their independence, fine, a substantial measure of autonomy had always been intended. Nick had put Coulson down as liaison between the two organizations from the start, had counted on him filling the place so much that he would have been hard pressed to find a replacement. Not his smartest move, that.
Still, Coulson was alive, he was liaising, and after Stark had acknowledged his affection and, more importantly, loyalty to the man… The fit really was perfect.
And if, sometimes, Iron Man was being Stark and going completely against the parameters Nick or even Rogers had set for a mission… If, sometimes, Coulson would countenance Stark’s mid-operation change of focus, target, even objective without batting an eye… If, about a third of those times, Nick wondered what would happen if Coulson were to shift his allegiances to the Avengers entirely… If, for that one second, Nick would be very, very afraid…
Then all lingering worries were dispersed once the crisis ended.
Because Coulson would analyze his backing of Stark’s spur-of-the-moment decision in painstaking detail. Rogers would paint it as unplanned but mission essential. Romanov’s and Barton’s reports would state they would have done whatever Stark had done given his specialized weaponry and intel. Sitwell would comment favorably on the flexibility during unpredictable mission conditions. Hill would read through every claim and statement with a critical eye and announce them prurient.
There would be debriefs during which Coulson would keep the peace, and paperwork Coulson would file, and explanations Coulson would phrase that Nick could use to silence the WSC. And Nick would look back on his moments of doubt and feel paranoid as appropriate to his position, yes, but silly. It was Coulson. There was not an agent alive that was more loyal to SHIELD.