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Permit A38

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“You are shitting me.”

“I’m not, honestly.”

“But...”

“Look, I didn’t make the rules, it’s not my fault this is ridiculous.”

“Auuugh!” Agent Patricia Mackenzie let her head drop on the counter and dug her hands in her hair.

“There, there.” The Agent across from her reached over to pat her shoulder lightly. “Bad day?”

“You have no goddamn idea,” Pat groaned and then straightened abruptly. “So, form B57, the red copy, which I have here, but also KP774, the yellow copy.”

The other Agent nodded. “Yep. Oh, and a thumbprint, obviously.”

Pat blinked at him. “Thumbprint.”

“Yeah, for the Level five and six access? That needs a thumbprint, preferably the right hand, but we take lefties if there’s something wrong with the other, like acid damage or something. Or a missing digit.”

“How the hell am I supposed to get a thumbprint? Like, press his finger in ink and then bring you a piece of paper?”

“Of course not,” the other guy said, brows knitted. His name is Agent Foxe, no jokes please, he’s heard them all, concentrate, you are supposed to know these people!

“Medical has the scanner for prints, if HR doesn’t have the records or there is a concern that they might have changed. If your guy - what’s the name? Carson? - has to be reinstated on that high a level, they have probably destroyed all the old paperwork.”

“The name’s not Carson, it’s-”

“You could ask for a retinal scan, too, once you’re at Meds. You’d need that for Level six anyway.”

Pat bit back a groan and the urge to throw up her hands. The guy - Agent Foxe, for god’s sake! - was only trying to be helpful.

“Thanks, Agent. I’ll be back later, then.”

***

“Hi Pat.”

“Hi Jo, sorry for calling again. Listen, for that guy you’re looking after - can you get me his thumbprint, right hand? Apparently SHIELD has moved on from petty things such as keys to high-tech. And a retinal scan, dunno which eye though.”

“Are you still running around for Colesen or whatever the name was again?”

“Don’t ask, seriously. They don’t want a paper trail here, they need a paper motorway or something.”

“Why is that your job anyway? I thought you were on for civilian casualties...?”

“Yeah, I am, actually. But this paper thing turned up - handwritten, can you believe it? Also the worst handwriting I’ve ever seen, all shaky lines and differently sized letters. Anyway, it was passed around the office a couple of times and when it came past me on like, the third round, I was so annoyed that I took charge of that. So since yesterday I’ve run around like a crazy person to get this shit done. I am this close to throwing it all down the next chute.”

Josephine, Pat’s friend from Medical, laughed at the other end of the line. “I love it when you start ranting, it’s the funniest thing ever.”

Pat huffed in mock indignation, but smiled. “At least one of us is entertained. Anyway - eye and thumb, yeah?”

“Sure, can do, although the retinal thing might be a bit fuzzy. With the artificial coma he’s in, we had to put salve on the eyes to prevent drying... Oh and the thumbprint things, hang on...”

Patricia heard distant talking and then Josephine came back to their conversation.

“You’ll need to come ‘round here to pick that up, it’s some sort of gel imprint apparently. That okay for you?”

Pat hurried around the next corner towards the elevators. “Sure, it’s not like I don’t already have to visit every damn corner of this place.”

Josephine laughed again. “I’ll leave it with the front desk, then you don’t have to go through the hassle of decontamination and all that.”

“Thanks, man. I’ll get extra popcorn on Thursday for that.”

“You do that. See you later!”

“Bye!”

Pat came to a stop at the elevators and fiddled with her phone while she pushed the ‘down’ button with her elbow. The light over the button switched on, blinked three times and switched off again.

“Fucking fuck.” She pushed it again, with the same result.

“First sign of insanity: repeating the same action over and over again while expecting a different outcome.”

Pat turned around and shot the guy behind her a dark look. “Aren’t you a riot.” Guy (bald, glasses, coffee in hand) grinned. “I know, right? The elevator’s broken, anyway, you’ll have to take the stairs. Unless you want to get to the third floor, you can’t get there from this end.”

“What? Why not? I thought the damage was on the north side?”

“Nah, someone thought it would be a good idea to seize the moment and do some renovation. They moved the travel department over to C and in with Rem-Sense, too. In case you wanted to go there.” He took a drink of his coffee and Pat used the opportunity to peek at his badge. Huh, Sitwell.

“Hm, no. I need Finances. Specifically Mrs... hang on.” She started to shuffle her files around. SHIELD obviously did not believe in a paper free office strategy. “Mrs Pachard. No, Packard.”

“Packard?” Sitwell stepped closer and tried to get a better look at her paperwork. “What do you need from the old dragon?”

“I’m following up on a note for a re-instatement. Some Agent was accidentally declared dead and someone high up seems really keen to get him back to work.” Pat turned the files in Sitwell’s direction. When he suddenly crumbled his mostly empty styrofoam cup in his fist, she flinched back - mostly in the effort to not get coffee stains on the files.

“Fuck me sideways,” he hissed. “Now that’s some news. Lady, I mean Agent, once you get this done, come around to my office and I’ll treat you to a cupcake or a dozen. Mr Fancy Pants is coming back, I can’t believe it.” Sitwell laughed, obviously delighted.

“Mr Fancy Pants?”

“My niece used to get him confused with Jonathan Coulton, you know from the internet, the singer songwriter? Cause the name’s so similar. We used to mock him for that for ages, because if someone has no ear for music, he’s the one. Truly, when the gods handed out musical talent, he must have been hiding behind the door.”

“I... have actually never met him.”

“You haven’t? How did he end up on your To Do list then?”

“We got this request in the office,” Pat fished out the letter in question and handed it over to Sitwell, who had disposed of his cup in a nearby trashcan in the meantime. He took the paper and after a quick look, laughed again.

“Oh look, he tried to sign himself out again. Don’t let Agent Barton see this, or we’ll never hear the end of it.” He passed the sheet back to Pat.

“Sign himself out? He’s in an artificial coma.”

“Yeah, see? That means they wake him up on a regular basis. Must have swiped pen and paper from someone and got crackin’ on gettin’ back to work.”

“But that’s crazy. Who does that?”

Sitwell shrugged. “He does. He’s very attached to his job, believe me. Oh, and he’s Level seven, so you need an additional Permit A38, do you know that?”

Pat pulled a face. “Okay, now you’ve overdone it. Haha. Very funny. There’s no Level seven.”

Sitwell just grinned.

Pat groaned. “Please tell me there is not Level seven? No more paperwork, please God...”

“Ah, you may call me Sitwell. Or Jasper, once you come over for those cupcakes. And it’s not that much more anyway - you can download it from the server and have everything printed in a couple of minutes - but you’ll need the director’s signature on it. That’s more of an obstacle. Come on, I’ll help you get everything put together plus give you directions to Fury’s office.”

“I know where the directorate is located.”

“You think you know. Fury hates dealing with all the details, so his actual office is somewhere else. At the directorate, you’ll only find a horde of evil secretaries. Who will try to delegate everything to this guy.” Sitwell tapped two fingers on the stack of paper. Then he gave Patricia a pondering look. “He might need an assistant when he comes back. Light duty at first and all that.”

“Over my dead body!” Pat squeaked, horrified. Emergency Response Administration was bad enough already.

Sitwell laughed. “Yeah, that’s what they all say.”

***

Still mulling over Sitwell’s last ‘helpful’ tip, Patricia climbed down the stairs from fifth floor (Sitwell’s office) to the second floor (connecting hallway over to Building A).

“Oh, and when Mrs Packard pretends to be hard of hearing again or is generally unhelpful, tell her it’s for Cheese.“

“Cheese?”

“Yeah, that is Nick’s nickname...that sounds wrong... anyway, nickname for your nutcase there. He keeps arguing that it’s because of some slang in ‘video game culture’ (Sitwell had made actual, honest to god finger quotes) for unconventional and hard to counter strategies but I think it’s because of Philadelphia Cream Cheese.”

“...oookay.”

It took her a moment to identify the faint background music as her ringtone and then another moment to get her phone to her ear.

“Patricia Mackenzie.”

“Hi, it’s me. Wanna meet up for lunch later?”

“Nah, I can’t today, I’m super-busy trying to get this thing done. Tomorrow maybe? They have birria in canteen three, I saw earlier.”

“Urgh, americanised mexican food with far too much chili. My stomach is made of squishy tissue, not concrete.”

“Peter, you are the worst former hispanic illegal immigrant with mexican roots that I have ever met. You should like spicy food. It’s in your genes. Plus, it’s healthy.”

“It can not be healthy if I feel like my ass breathes fire for days after. Do not lie to me like that, sister-lady.”

“Sister-lady?” Patricia laughed. Over the phone she could hear the squeaky noise Peter’s office chair made when he swivelled around in it in boredom.

“What? I’m trying out new lingo to suit your obvious cultural needs as a person of colour. Only, you, like, don’t adhere to your proper clichés. It’s sad, really. ”

“Yo, bro, I’m a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man!”

“...That was terrible.”

“Yeah, it was. Also, I fucked up the snipping-a-Z right now and did a S instead.”

“You are truly the worst black stereotype person in the history of ever.”

“I’m also Irish, though. Mackenzie, remember?”

“That’s an interesting question actually, whether skin colour trumps nationality in stereotyping or the other way around.”

“You don’t have enough work to do, do you?”

“Nope, sitting around again, waiting for the boss-man to decide how much toilet paper we’ll need next month. Or something like that. Main Facility Management - where the crazy stuff happens. Only not.”

“Wanna switch? I have to run over to the range and weapons hand-out to get some signatures. That is, if I get away from Finances quickly enough before they close for the day.”

“Oh, don’t worry, the range will not close for a looong time today. Hawkeye got his bows back.”

“Seriously? Already?”

“Yep. Ann-Lee was on Skype earlier and said that she had just taken a dictation of the latest memo. Hawkeye is to not be treated differently than before, for he was compromised and forced to do things against his will. Poor brainwashed baby.”

Pat snorted. “You are such an asshole.”

“What can I do? Work at SHIELD has confronted me with so many ridiculous situations, I shall not be impressed by anything ever again. And I’m pretty sure he’d be happier if nobody would make a fuss. I’d be stuck in my head enough as it were.”

“Shame that no one reads the memos then.”

“Yeah, well. Maybe it’s better in this case. Dunno. Also, I want it noted for protocol that I DO read the memos.”

“Your boss-man just walked in, didn’t he?”

“Yep, have to go. Get back to me because of tomorrow?”

“Sure, if I don’t go crazy first. Bye!”

“Baby, byebyebye!”

***

“And this is for whom?”

“Like I said, for the reinstatement of Agent Cou - of Cheese.” Pat changed track in the last second, remembering Sitwell’s advice.

“Cheese? Last I heard Europe had a horse meat scandal, now we are in trouble for cheese?”

“No, not cheese like the foodstuff, Cheese like the name.”

“When I was a kid, nobody named their children after foodstuff. What has this world come to? First some woman named her kid ‘Apple’, now you ask me about Agent Cheese Whoever... Really. What’s wrong with proper names? In my time, you wouldn’t find an upstanding man with a first name like ‘Cheese’. Only shady people. Jokers. Or someone with a really bad foot-condition. Does he have a bad foot-condition, your poor guy?”

Pat, who had been gritting her teeth and counting to ten silently in order not to scream, blinked confused.

“I... No, I don’t think so. He was dead for a bit, though.” She offered as an afterthought.

This seemed finally enough to drag Mrs Packard’s attention away from the papers she had been stapling together with painstaking precision (Slowly, so sloooowly. The woman was ancient.)

“Was he now? Let me see that.” She reached out a gnarly hand for Pat’s heap of paperwork. Mrs Packard didn’t even react to the heavy weight Pat passed her, arms obviously used to the labor of moving infinite stacks of paper around.

She wasn’t only ancient. She was experienced, Pat realized as she quietly watched the old secretary shuffle around the papers with practised ease, resorting parts of the stack into a different order. Mrs Packard hummed under her breath, blindly reached for a stamp and rubber-stamped a few of the many coloured sheets. She completely ignored Patricia as she then got up, dug notes and forms out of different drawers and folders all over the office, filled out other forms and compiled them in different folders, copied things, printed out documents from her equally ancient computer, marked and unmarked things in databases. In short, she handled the probably organically grown bureaucracy of SHIELD like she actually, truly understood it.

Patricia was in awe. “You really know what you are doing, don’t you?”

Mrs Packard gave her a look. “Darling, I sometimes think I’m the only one.”

“How... I mean, just-- how?”

“Go to any office anywhere in the world and the only one you’ll ever find who really knows what’s going on is the secretary. Have a good secretary, who cares, who pays attention, who feels responsible and treat her well and you can conquer the world.”

She finally turned back to Pat on the other side of the desk and put another stack of folders on the original collection.

“Honey, I’ve been with SHIELD since its beginnings and honestly, if they keep going with these ridiculous things like the helicarrier, I will be around for its end, too, which would be a shame. I told Marcus, it’s bound to drop outta the sky like a brick the first time someone looks at it funny. But Marcus, oh excuse me, it’s Nicholas now, has to have his toy. See where that got him. And Cheese, the old dog, when you see him tell him this: his hazard pay is so high by now, SHIELD is bound to get in trouble with his salary. So he has two choices. To bloody well stay safe or face early retirement.”

Patricia nodded mutely. She heaved up her load and then for a moment didn’t know what to do. She felt like she should curtsey, but surely that would be ridiculous. Mrs Packard watched her fuss a bit and then pushed her glasses down to the tip of her nose, old but still clear eyes focussing directly on Patricia. She smiled and her whole face crinkled along the old lines in her worn face.

“Jasper told tales from school again, didn’t he? You don’t worry kid, I won’t eat you. As I said, pay attention, care and make an effort and I will be right beside you to help you along. You may come around any time if you have a question or need advice. And don’t you ever think, just because someone has a higher clearance than you or gets paid more, that they know better. The higher you get, the more incompetence you will find, because people get promoted beyond their abilities. You have a brain and a heart - use them. We are all amateurs. It’s the great equalizer.”

Patricia slowly, nervously smiled back.

“Thanks. I... thanks.”

Mrs Packard smiled again, then turned back to her desk.

“Now shoo. The work doesn’t do itself. Youth! Always think they have all eternity. Pssh.”

***

“I’ve had it with you, Barton, seriously. I’ve had it up to - I can’t even reach that high! Which part of NO, FUCK NO did you not understand?!”

“Goddammit, Street, just give me the fucking arrows, okay?”

Pretty much at the same time that Pat walked onto the range, the officer in the gun cage banged the counter window shut. The man in front of it cursed loudly and punched the security glass so hard that everything rattled. One of the magnets tucked against the iron mesh on the inside fell off and the paper it had held fluttered down out of sight.

Pat raised her eyebrows and carefully shut the entrance door behind herself. Most of the range was dark and only the gun cage and one shooting lane in the far back were illuminated. She gripped the paper-tray tighter and walked towards the light.

Hawkeye was leaning on the counter, head hanging down, fingers clenching and unclenching on the edge. Before she could even say a greeting, he snapped at her.

“What?”

“I come in peace. I’ve been instructed to bring coffee.”

Pat tried not to show her nerves when he turned to stare at her and at the same time tried to vanish behind the three steaming cups in her hand. Okay, Hawkeye, right, that definitely had nothing to do with being from Iowa and the sports team. More with the piercing stare and the grumpy face.

After a moment, he seemed to relax slightly, although he still eyed her with suspicion.

“Yeah? By who?”

“Whom.”

“What?

“It’s by whom, not by who.”

Hawkeye narrowed his eyes. “Are you messing with me?”

“What? No. But if you want to be grammatically correct, you’d have to say ‘by whom’ not ‘by who’, although a sentence like ‘by whom were you instructed to do so and so’ is sort of archaic English anyway and I’m babbling, ain’t I? I had three espressos in the last three hours alone and I never drink coffee on a normal day.”

“Espressi.”

Now it was Pat’s turn to narrow her eyes. “Now you’re fucking with me.”

Hawkeye smiled, although it looked a bit strained at the edges, as if he hadn’t done so in quite a while and was out of practice.

“I might be.”

“...just take one of the damned things, will you? And then we start again.”

Pat passed over one of the take away cups and set the others down on the counter. From the corner of her eye she could see the supply officer lurk between the shelves in his office, but didn’t do anything to acknowledge him.

“Now once more with feelings. Hello.”

Hawkeye offered a sloppy salute. “Evening, ma’am.”

Pat gave him a scandalised look. “I’m not so old that I’m a ‘ma’am’!”

They both paused. Then Pat shook her head. “Yeah, okay, whatever, bro. We are not starting again. I don’t have the whole day.”

“It’s not like you’ll get anything more done here today,” he said and took a sip from the cup. “Street’s bitchy.”

“Let me be a polite little girl and say that you didn’t seem very diplomatic either.”

“I had a long day. More like long week. Make that a month.”

Pat snorted. “As if we hadn’t all.”

“At least no one looks at you like you might stab them in the back any second.”

“You have clearly not been in a budget meeting recently.”

“Can’t say I ever have.” He took another sip. “But you’re not here to chat, are you? Not that late, and don’t tell me you’re nightshift, because the rings under your eyes tell a different story.”

“Aw, you make me feel ever so pretty. Throwing precious stones from your glasshouse. And the reason I’m here,” she hazarded a guess, “Is above your clearance level.”

Hawkeye closed his eyes for a moment as if to breath away pain. “Haven’t heard that one in a while. Not since before... you-know-who.”

Pat bit her lip. She had pretty much reconstructed every connection and involvement and thing her case had had a part in and Hawkeye’s name had turned up more than once. A lot more. What with her running around to un-die her man, it wasn’t hard to add two and two together to get … three in this case, probably.

She put her bag down and crouched beside it to dig for a pen. “Look, I’m not supposed to tell you, I think, but there’s spies and then there’s the home crowd and loyalty and I don’t think I can leave this-- leave you like this.” Pat had found the marker she had looked for and got up again. “Gimme your arm.”

With the pen-cap between her teeth, she grabbed Hawkeye’s right arm and quickly wrote a combination of letters and numbers on the skin between the straps of his wristguard, one sign per free space.

“You go to Medical’s ICU, and ask for Josephine, right? Josephine Baker, like that dancer with the bananas, but don’t mention that. Seriously, don’t, it’s a sensitive topic. Anyway, when you’ve found her, tell her I told you to go here,” she finished the last number with a decisive stroke, “and voila, profit. No more Mr. Grumpy Cat.”

She recapped the pen again and looked up, when Hawkeye didn’t move.

“I’m not breaking into any facilities, not right now. And I’m really trying to not break any Regs, either.” He said slowly, not even glancing at what she’d written on his skin.

“You’re not. I am.”

He rubbed the palm of his right hand with his left thumb. “I’m not sure if that makes me more comfortable.”

“I... please? I know it sounds strange and especially so after that thing recently, but you can trust me, I swear. Ask Agent Sitwell, if it’s true, if you want to - he’ll throw a fit the next time he sees me and probably curse me, my family and my cow or whatever, but I don’t care. Please?”

Pat endured his scrutiny as well as she could and tried to radiate calm, stoic and trustworthy.

“When you fuck me over,” he said slowly after a moment, voice calm and dangerously quiet, “It won’t be me who hunts you down. Natasha - that’s the Black Widow to you - will do that for me and she will take you apart until every cell in your body screams for mercy. And then she’ll keep going.”

Pat swallowed. “To the pain, right?”

He nodded. “To the pain.”

With that, Hawkeye stepped around her and left, steps silent on the concrete floor. Pat waited until she heard the door open and fall shut again, before she dared to take a deep breath.

“All the drama. Come to SHIELD, we have ALL the Drama,” she muttered under her breath and shuddered all over again. Then she took another deep breath, straightened her shoulders and knocked on the security glass of the gun cage.

“Oi! I know you’re still there, this thing only has the one exit.”

It took a second knock and a slightly louder “Oi!” for the supply guy to come out from behind the shelf he had been hiding and to open the window on the counter again.

“He gone?”

“Yep.”

“How did you do that?”

“Secret Agent secret.” Pat smiled. “But really, why didn’t you just give him what he wanted?”

“Because a) my shift was over 50 minutes ago and my girlfriend is already super-anxious about me continuing to work for SHIELD and me coming home late definitely won’t help her settle down and b) he wanted a whole box of arrows, which comes in a minimum size of a hundred pieces. Do you have any idea how long it takes Hawkeye to go through a hundred arrows? The fucker recycles! And c) do you have any idea what he can do with a hundred arrows? I ain’t giving him a single q-tip anymore after that thing with the helicarrier.”

“You know that wasn’t by his own will, right? There’s even a memo coming round sometime tomorrow stating that he’s to be treated as usual.”

“Well, fuck if I care?!” Street snapped.

Pat held up one hand. “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just sayin’.”

Street shrugged. “Sorry, long day. What do you want here, anyway? If not for that nutjob, I’d have closed up an hour ago.”

“A little bird told me he’d be out and about again, so I chanced my luck. I need these papers processed and for you to hand over this guys service weapon. As far as I understand, it’s been modified or something? Should be in vault seven.”

He took the papers she pushed over with a face like someone had forced him to swallow an entire bag of lemons in one go.

“Vault seven? There’s nothing in there to my knowledge. We kept Captain America’s shield there because some suit up high made a terrible fuss about it... what’s this name? Carlsen? Never heard of.”

It took all of Pat’s resolve not to roll her eyes. “No. That’s an O-U and another O, not A-R and E.”

Street retyped the name on his keyboard and this time the computer gave a happy little chirp instead of the frog-burp from before.

“Wow... Vault seven, like you said. Weird. Hang on, I’ll be back in a sec.”

He left and Pat drummed her fingers on the tabletop while she waited. After a few moments, she reached through the window, grabbed one of the blank requisition sheets from a tray and filled it out.

After a few more minutes and increasingly odd sounds from the depth of the armory, Street returned, a small silvery case in one hand. He put it up on the counter, opened the lid and turned it around to show her the contents.

“Standard Beretta M-9, 9 mm caliber, 15 rounds. Modified for-”

“I have no idea what you’re saying, you might as well stop,” Pat interrupted him. “Seriously. I work in an office. Nice, calm, nine-to-five job. Worst threat I ever encounter is papercuts and bad canteen food.”

Street snapped the case closed again. “I’ll need signatures if you take this away.”

“No problem. I schlep so much stuff around with me for this, another kilogram or three won’t really make a difference.”

Street grinned and handed her the forms and a pen to sign. Pat passed him the requisition form in turn, smiling sweetly. “Oh, and a full box of a hundred arrows, if you’d be so kind? Thanks.”

He reflexively took sheet, but his glare could have melted steel. “You fucking cheating bitch.”

“Thanks, but I prefer ‘witch’, if you insist on calling me names. By the way, I’d watch my mouth if I were you. Someone less forgiving might hear.”

Street shot her another murderous glare but went to get the arrows. When he was back and passed over the box, Pat took it, but leaned forward at the same time, until she was nose to nose with the guy.

“As for the cheating - I’m a daughter of Eve. The first cheater of creation. It’s my privilege.”

She leaned back again and was just quick enough to pull the box away before Street slammed the counter window shut a second time that evening. Safe behind the security glass, he sneered at her and mouthed something that probably was another slur. Pat tucked the arrows under her arm, slung her bag over her shoulder, picked up the gun case and turned to leave.

“Douchebag.”

***

Patricia needed five minutes (in her defence, it was dark) to realize (and stormy - stupid hair) that she had not got the address wrong (it wasn’t even late evening anymore, it was night) but that some idiot had painted over the sign next to the entrance so that it read S.H.U.S.H instead of S.H.I.E.L.D.

She cursed out all of humanity for a minute and preemptively threatened painful death to anyone who might cross her and entered.

The foyer was dark and empty, not a single soul in sight. Pat took a breath to shout “Hello?” and then decided that in every horror movie ever, that was the beginning of the end. Then again, if there was an axe-murderer around, he’d probably by now converted to crocheting out of boredom.

She dug the crumbled note from Sitwell out of her pocket and squinted at it in the half-light. Third floor, second door to the right. Elevators were straight ahead. She had seen illuminated windows while she ran up and down the road outside, so there was hope that Fury would still be around.

The (ancient, tiny, creaky) elevator had no button for the third floor. The row of numbers skipped three entirely and went on until eight, although the building definitely only had four levels, at least from the outside. There was no six, either, but, well, whatever. Pat stepped out again and looked around. Was there another elevator? She walked back to the middle of the eerily silent foyer, put her bag of many files down on the receptions desk and thought.

After a while, she walked back over to the elevator, leaned in and pushed the button for two. The doors closed before her and she watched the thin slit between them. The cart had definitely gone down. Pat snorted. Spy organization, yeah, right. She walked back to the reception desk, grabbed her bag and resolutely started down the hallway to the left. This bit was easy now: two wrongs never made a right, but three lefts did.

The second to last door after three turns had a sign that very simply stated this to be the office of “Nicholas Fury”.

Pat took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

“Come in.”

She warily pushed the door open, stack of files and data-storage devices by now unpacked and clutched to her chest. This was it. The final step. Just a couple of signatures (still, what the fuck, level seven?! what the fuck in general, even) and thumbprints and scans on devices and stamps on forms and more forms and she would have everything together. One more run through all the offices to distribute the whole medley into the right channels and she’d be done. Formal reinstatement of one Agent: Go.

There was another guy in the office with Fury. Fuck.

“Director Fury, sir? I’d need a couple of signatures and uhm, scans and so on for an on-going process - I can come back tomorrow if it’s inconvenient right now?”

“No, come in. Mr. Stark here,” the director glared at the man sprawled in one of the chairs on the other side of the desk, “Doesn’t have an appointment anyway. Since he missed our scheduled meeting this morning, he’ll just have to wait now, until I have time for him. What’s your request?”

Pat stepped forward to the desk and started to unload her stack onto it, spreading things out in order and trying not accidentally elbow Mr. Stark in the face. He was leaning over to get a look, completely unashamed of his curiosity.

“This is about the formal reinstatement of Agent C-”

“COULSON?! What the fuck, Fury?! You said he died!”

Awww, no.

Agent Patricia Mackenzie closed her eyes and tried to tune out the commotion starting around her. Of all the people, Tony fucking Stark had needed only one glance at the paperwork and got the name right.

...If this meant another delay, she’d kick him in the nuts. Iron Man or no Iron Man, she was way past caring by now.

***

A few weeks later...

“So he went: Nine silvers for a ham? That’s too much! - And I was like: Too much? There’s a monk out back, with a ladder!” Arthur, their little group’s resident field agent gestured with his fork. “To say nothing of the dog!”

Pat laughed out loud and then louder when Ann-Lee snorted out her soda through her nose.

“Eww, Ann, seriously?” Kathleen (tall, gorgeous and one of the sharpest lawyers SHIELD had) across from her pushed away her plate (now soiled with spit and soda) in disgust. “I wanted to eat that.”

“Argl, fuck, urgh, sorry.” Ann Lee wiped her face with the napkins they all passed over. “Arthur, really, you can’t tell stories like that when I’m eating.”

Arthur grinned at her. “You’re eating approximately always. It’s not my fault civilians are completely bonkers. And you know me - live wild and dangerous, that’s my motto.”

He had come into their little group after Patricia’s Great Adventure of Paperwork through Sitwell and sort of stuck around. It was rare for them to all be on lunch break at the same time, but today they’d managed. And the food was even half-digestible, a miracle in itself.

“May I sit here?” A silky voice asked suddenly right next to Pat’s ear. She flinched hard and turned around. The voice apparently belonged to a beautiful woman with flaming red hair.

“Uhm, sure, sure, let me just--” Pat stuttered and moved hers and Jo’s bags from the free chair next to her. The woman set her tray down on the table and took a seat.

“Hi. I’m Natasha.” She offered her hand. Pat gingerly shook it.

“Dude,” Peter hissed from the other side of the table, “That’s the Black Widow.”

Pat froze. “It wasn’t me?” She blurted out after a panicked moment.

“Wasn’t it?” Natasha asked sweetly and started to cut her steak with a definitely-not-standard-canteen-cutlery-knife. “Clint was quite clear on it being you. Sitwell, too.” She picked up a piece of meat with her fork. “Oh, and Supply Officer Agent Street. He was particularly keen on the subject,” she added like an afterthought.

Pat swallowed.

“Agent Romanov, stop scaring the babies.” Sitwell suddenly appeared as if out of thin air and settled down on the other side of the table. Natasha grinned at him and grinned even more when the usual complaints started around the table.

“Babies?!”

“Who are you calling a baby, Sitwell?”

“Shall we remind you of the one time--”

“No!” Sitwell suddenly looked a lot less smug.

“--when you said, and I quote, ‘I got this I’m a Senior Agent’ and then you threw chocolate into the curry. It was terrible!”

“It wasn’t my idea! This french guy told me!”

“Everything tasted like chocolate! You fucked up a perfectly good curry! Not all french people can cook! Especially not curry!” Ann-Lee had Opinions on this. With capital O.

Sitwell put his face down in his hands. “I’ll never live this down, will I?” He ignored the balled up napkin Ann-Lee threw at his head (she missed anyway).

“Anyway,” abruptly he sat up straight again, “Street. Hill didn’t appreciate that he called a female agent ‘bitch’ in a non-ironic, not-affectionate way and he was fired last week.”

Pat gaped at him. “There was nobody there but me.”

Natasha next to her shrugged. “The whole range is fitted with security cams. And Clint can lip-read. He just wanted to show you to us, that’s why we checked the footage. One thing came to the other and now Street’s on the street, pardon the pun.”

“That was a terrible wordplay,” Peter complained and then blanched in terror as he realized he had criticized the Black Widow.

“Speak of the devil,” Sitwell said before Natasha could reply something, “There’s Barton.” He pointed towards the canteen-entrance and waved.

They all turned to look. Hawkeye spotted them and waved back, but immediately vanished through the doors again. A moment later he came back in, followed by a man in a dark suit. The man also had a sleek black cane with a silver handle to help him walk. The limp was pronounced, but nevertheless his back was straight and he held his head high.

“I didn’t know they had released Agent Coulson already,” Josephine said next to Pat and she turned around to look at her friend.

“That’s Agent Coulson? Not Carlson or Colesen or Coulton or Carlsen? Coulson? C-O-U-L-S-O-N?”

“Thor keeps calling him the Son of Coul,” Natasha threw in on Pat’s other side. Pat twisted around again to stare at her and then at the two men who were steadily coming closer. Hawkeye only made a quick detour to grab a free chair from a nearby table and set it at the head of theirs. Then he glared at Coulson until the man gave in and took a seat, hands folded on top of the cane. Hawkeye himself stayed standing behind him as if to keep watch.

“Good day to you, agents. Natasha, Jasper.” Coulson greeted the assembled agents with a slight bow of his head while Hawkeye continued to silently glare.

Patricia could only gape.

This was Coulson? Seriously? The guy just smiled at them politely and looked for all the world as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Or like he knew a joke no one else was in on. This was the guy she had invested hours, no, days in to get back to his position? For real?

“You’re the guy no one can spell?” she blurted out and then clapped her hands on her mouth. Coulson looked at her. “I wasn’t aware that was an issue,” he said, brows slightly wrinkled. He had a nice voice, even if he sounded a bit raspy as if he hadn’t used it in a long time.

“I thought you’re still on rest,” Josephine now said, sounding slightly cross. “I don’t think you should be out and about already.”

“Ah, I--” Coulson began, but Pat interrupted him. In for a penny, in for pound, after all.

“I’m sorry, but this is a bit anticlimactic, okay? You could have at least brought cupcakes or something as a Thank You. And I still have Hawkeye’s arrows lying around in my cubicle. I can’t even use them as pins, cause they’re too long. Oh, and your service weapon, too. Which is all sorts of creepy, by the way. And Mrs Packard said to say hello and that you should bloody well stay safe. And I’d at least have expected someone more like Fury with a badass eyepatch or something. You’re very... bland,” she said and gestured vaguely in his direction.

Coulson blinked at her. “I have a sword cane,“ he offered after a moment “But I didn’t bring cupcakes and I’m sorry for the oversight. Although - I do bring a job offer.” He smiled his enigmatic smile again. “For all of you, actually.”

“That would entail what exactly?” Pat asked warily after a quick glance around to her friends.

“You’d be part of a special SHIELD branch to support the Avengers Initiative. Jasper and me will probably need all the help we can get to deal with that particular mess. It’s pretty much an offer you can’t refuse, by the way.”

Patricia sat back in her chair, flabbergasted.

“Well, I’ll be fucked.”

Coulson winked at her. “Yes. Yes, you will. But it’s going to be fun. Trust me.