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They're a few hours outside of Krasnoyarsk the first time Nick Fury establishes his relationship with Agent Coulson of SHIELD, as opposed to Ranger buddy Cheese.

The World Security Council, in its infancy, has finally decided on a course of action, and Nick Fury, being Nick Fury, disagrees violently. So because he believes it's the right thing to do, and a little bit out of spite, he strides across the shack and grabs the spare weapon off Agent Hendricks' body, then turns to look at Agent Coulson, one firearm in each hand.

"If you have any objections--professional, moral or otherwise--now would be a good time to keep them to yourself," Nick says.

Coulson stares blankly at him for a few seconds, before his hand goes to his service weapon. Nick tenses out of reflex, but Coulson doesn't raise it; merely unholsters it and keeps it pointed at the floor. "What are your orders, Director?"

Nick smirks.

*

Coulson is used to following orders, and his loyalty surprises even Nick on occasion.

*

The mess is spectacular, and Nick's headache is building rapidly. "Director," a nameless underling rushes out as she comes to a screeching halt in front of him, "Director, the press is here, I don't--I don't know--"

"Oh for fuck's sake," Nick groans, "what Security Clearance Level are you?"

"Two, sir," she stammers, "but I'm not--"

"Then you should know how to spin the fucking press!" Nick snaps, but before the underling can make up more excuses, Hill magically appears and grabs her elbow.

"I'll deal with this bullshit," she says to the underling, "watch and learn."

Coulson watches them go with a bland smile, and Nick is unreasonably angry with him all of a sudden. "What are you smiling about?"

Coulson turns back and claps Nick's shoulder gently. "Just happy things worked out in the end, boss."

Nick puts his hands on his hips and stares. "You cannot be serious," he says. "You cannot fucking be serious right now. Have you seen the fucking mess he made?"

Coulson's smile doesn't waver. "Yes," he says, as if they're not standing in the rubble of what used to be a small town in Georgia. "But no casualties, sir!" Coulson is emoting more happiness than Nick can recall seeing in a long time.

Nick sighs and grumbles a little. "I suppose that's something. Still. The media spin will have to be fucking amazing. And the property damage alone... we need to bribe and otherwise silence enough people it could take us all year. Not to mention... Flint!" He turns towards their makeshift containment unit. "What the fuck are we supposed to do about that?!"

Coulson follows Nick's gaze, then his smile grows an inch.

"Director, you know those island prototypes we've been working on in the far southeast regions?"

*

Everyone, including Nick Fury himself, acts as if he's joking when he says that Phil Coulson is his one good eye. In reality, he's being completely serious.

*

Four months after Coulson gets his Level 6 Security Clearance, there's a mole in SHIELD. Nick sits at his desk for an hour and just stares. As the Director, he's a very busy man. He can't really afford to take hour-long breaks just to stare, but he's not really sure what else to do.

Coulson knocks on his door and enters without waiting for the go-ahead, but still asks cautiously, "Sir?"

Nick sighs deeply and waves him in; pushes the paperwork on his desk towards him. "Coulson," he says. "Let's put that new Security Clearance Level to good use, hm?"

Coulson doesn't speak, just nods as he sits down and starts looking over the paperwork; the carefully falsified documents, the red herrings and the very authentic-looking signatures. It's only from having worked with the man from a number of years that lets Nick recognize the slight widening of his eyes, the barely-there downward twitch of his lips, as Coulson finds the weapons manifestos. "This isn't good, Sir," he says at last.

"No, it is not," Nick agrees. He feels sick to his stomach, that someone in his organization--his home--is double-crossing them. "And I don't know who I can trust with this information. Which is why I'm putting you on this."

Coulson carefully puts the papers down on Nick's desk. "You trust me, Sir?"

A thousand flippant answers race through Nick's head, along with memories of everything they've been through together. "And nobody else," he says, and means it like he's never meant anything before.

Coulson just nods and stands, straightens his tie, and heads towards the door. "I'll keep you updated."

It takes Coulson less than a month to track down the mole. When now ex-Agent Hewett is led away in cuffs, Nick claps a hand onto Coulson's shoulder and doesn't say thanks, doesn't say anything at all, but Nick thinks Coulson gets the point all the same.

*

Coulson has never disobeyed a direct order from Nick Fury in his life.

*

They once almost came to blows over it.

"She wants to change," Coulson says firmly, with more emotion behind his words than Nick has ever heard. "She has potential, Director."

"Yeah, potential to steal all of our most classified information and turn around and sell it to the highest bidder!" Nick thunders. "Potential to fucking kill us all in our sleep!"

"Sir--," Barton starts from the corner, but Nick interrupts him.

"You," he says, with venom in his voice, "would do well to start following orders. When I say dead, I mean she should be fucking dead! Done for, stone cold! I didn't mean you could bring her in for fucking tea and cookies!"

Barton doesn't speak in response, and Nick waves a hand dismissively. "Get out of my fucking sight, we'll discuss your disciplinary actions later."

Barton nods sharply, once, and then wisely disappears without further argument.

"I support Barton's decision," Coulson says, and Nick wants to punch something.

"It wasn't a decision for Barton to make, he had clear fucking orders. Do I look like I'm running a restaurant where you can pick and choose off the menu according to what you're in the mood for? No!"

"With all due respect--," Coulson starts, and Nick growls and slams a fist into the wall because what the actual fuck? He didn't even know Coulson had a button to push, but Barton has apparently found it.

"If you don't stop talking right the fuck now, Agent, I will be more than happy to transfer Barton's orders to you, do you understand me?"

"Yes, boss," Coulson says immediately.

His eyebrows draw together in a vaguely unhappy pinch, and something in his face hardens. Part of Nick takes great pleasure in knowing that if he did it--if he really did make it an order--Coulson would come through for him. He wouldn't do it happily, but he would certainly do it without protest, because no matter how many suits they stuff him in, no matter how many sitreps he does, Phil Coulson is a soldier first and foremost. And good soldiers follow orders.

Nick studies Coulson's face for a moment, thinks about the number of times Coulson says Yes, boss to him every day, and taps one finger against the holster of his firearm.

"That'll be all, Agent," Nick says, then continues before Coulson even has the chance to relax his muscles. "Get your ass down to the cell block. We put Romanoff in number three and I want a complete debriefing, a profile and an initial psych evaluation on her by tomorrow morning at oh eight hundred hours. Got it?"

Coulson, to his credit, doesn't react at all, just nods and leaves without a word.

*

To be fair, Barton apparently pushes a lot of Coulson's buttons.

The only other time Coulson looks like he wants to disobey a direct order from Nick is when Nick tells him, "I can't change the fraternization rules just for you, Coulson. I just can't." And he really can't.

Coulson says, "I understand, boss," but his eyebrows move just a little and he looks very vaguely unhappy for a moment. It's startling. Nick feels bad, because he realizes suddenly that Coulson actually likes this guy, and Nick can't recall the last time Coulson liked someone.

"I really wish things were different," Nick says, and it's true.

Coulson simply nods, says, "Me too," then asks, "Will you be reassigning Specialist Barton to a different field handler after his suspension, as per the terms of our contracts?"

Nick narrows his eye for just a moment, then shakes his head. "Suspension? Reassignment? Whatever for?"

Coulson's silent for a long moment, then nods. "Will that be all, Director?"

"That will be all, Agent," Nick says. Then as Coulson's hand is on the doorknob, he adds quietly, "I'm sorry, Cheese."

"Me too, Marcus," Coulson says without turning.

The affair stops, but neither Coulson or Barton show any sign of distress when they're working--and Nick should know, he keeps a close eye on them both for several months after. Even after it's obvious that the forced end of things didn't change anything, that Strike Team Delta still is the best team on SHIELD's payroll, Nick still feels bad.

*

"Just stay awake. Eyes on me," Nick orders.

"No. I'm clocked out here," Coulson responds, sighs really, and anger bubbles up in Nick, because--no. Just no!

"Not an option," he says, more sternly, but it has no immediate effect.

For once, Coulson doesn't give a damn about Nick Fury's orders.

*

Nick can't deny the truth to Coulson's dying words, but at the same time--at the same time, fuck him! Fuck him for thinking this was in any way an acceptable exit strategy. Not gonna happen. There's too much history, and it's a different world now, with Gods and magic and portals to other worlds--they have a different relationship now--but that is not how Marcus and Cheese play an exit strategy. No, it's not, so fuck Coulson, and fuck his plan.

Nick Fury makes the call, and then steals Coulson's cards out of his locker. He bloodies them, and nudges Stark and Rogers together, because that's the sort of thing Nick Fury does.

When Coulson blinks back to life, eyes frantically darting back and forth as he gasps for air in his hospital bed, Nick watches from the doorway as SHIELD's medical personnel calms him down and nobody notices the mutant slipping back out.

Nick briefly stops him with a hand on his shoulder, and says, "Tell the Professor I owe him one," and then lets him go. He doesn't need to say more. Everyone who knows Nick, knows what it means to have Director Fury owe you a personal favor. But after all, he gave Coulson an order, and he was intending to disobey it. What else was he supposed to do?

*

Nick can't afford emotional compromise.

That's why, when the Avengers descend on the SHIELD medical bay like six very angry Gods (in one case, literally), Nick doesn't give them an inch. He keeps his scowl on his face. He's got an organization to run, a world to save, and if his manipulation saved the lives of billions of people, well then he just doesn't find it in him to give two fucks about what this ragtag team of superheroes thinks about it.

"You should have told us," Captain Rogers informs him, and if Nick had been anyone else, he might have felt some level of shame at having Captain America direct such blatant disappointment in his direction.

Natasha looks oddly unsurprised, Dr. Banner's looking slightly green around the neck region, while Stark just narrows his eyes at Nick from across the room. Nick makes a mental note to up their overall security.

Coulson looks tired and vaguely confused in his hospital bed, his face carrying an expression that Nick can't read. Barton is sitting next to Coulson's bed, leaning so far in he's almost on top of Coulson with one fist clinging to his hospital shirt. His face is doing a number of things that Nick doesn't even want to start trying to analyze.

"Why'd you do it?" Coulson asks, voice like gravel.

He knows, of course. He knows every single one of SHIELD's security parameters and failsafes and backup plans and Nick's personal weaknesses. He knows what it took to bring him back. Well, fuck him, Nick doesn't owe him an answer for a single damn thing. He's here to protect the world. He did his job. Unlike Coulson, he thinks briefly, bitterly.

Still, he can't help but say, "I told you to keep your eyes on me. When I give you a direct order, I expect you to follow it, Agent."

Coulson's face starts doing the same kind of complicated dance that Barton's face is doing, before the purest anger Nick's ever seen on his face settles in.

"With all due respect, boss," Coulson huffs out, "fuck you and your orders."

Nick knows what's coming, and he keeps the scowl on his face, but he still feels an inexplicably pleased pang of happiness for his friend as Coulson grabs the edge of Barton's field uniform and pulls him in for a kiss.

The other Avengers start chattering, and Nick figures it's a good time to leave. He's got about fifty thousand things to take care of. Jesus, this cleanup is going to be about fifty times bigger than Georgia, and that's not even getting into the unpleasant meeting he knows is coming with the World Security Council.

Nick Fury leaves the Avengers to their school yard squabbling. He's got a top secret intelligence organization to run.