Barton starts sleeping with Romanov. They’re discreet about it but Coulson knows. He knows because it’s his job to know. The dynamics within the Avengers are fragile and Phil Coulson is the man tasked with monitoring such things. Of course he’d notice any shift, no matter how subtle (and Clint Barton is not subtle). Coulson finds that it's easier to foster the opinion that he's a relatively unfeeling man but people talk. At somewhere-in-his-forties, Coulson is, sadly, used to disappointments of this sort. His last actual relationship was with a SHIELD agent ([name redacted]) and it didn't end particularly amicably. It is for the best that this thing, this nebulous friendship with Clint, never really started.
The most important thing is that it doesn’t impact on the team. If it impacts on Coulson alone, it’s an acceptable risk.
His evenings are considerably quieter without Barton trailing him home and, so, his evenings are considerably more productive. There is now no backlog in his reports or paperwork and the rumour starts to circulate that, soon, Agent Coulson will begin prospective paperwork for future missions. He doesn’t disabuse anyone of that notion as it has an entirely positive effect on discipline. No one wants to put a foot out of line when Coulson is at the top of his game.
His feet are up on the coffee table, toes curling around the edge. His phone rings.
“This is an unacceptable risk, Coulson.”
Coulson pinches the bridge of his nose.
“I let you call the shots here but-“
“-failing to outline the parameters of the mission was a mistake on my part.”
Fury sighs. Coulson knows that he hates it when Coulson takes the words out of his mouth. “As a rule, it does help to let the operative in question know that there is a mission.”
“I know, sir. But there’ve been no more threats.”
Coulson fixes his gaze on the television screen. The volume is muted and there’s some random South American soap opera on that seems to have some basis in bondage.
Coulson knows that Fury knows. It is easier to spend time with Barton when Barton does not feel that it is an obligation. Coulson doesn’t think that he required a bodyguard but Barton’s presence (by choice, oh, it was by choice) was a comfort. Coulson can do without comfort, though. He can do without a great many things.
“I’d rather that you have some additional security, Agent Coulson. The lack of written warnings doesn’t mean that the threat itself has been neutralised."
“If it’s a genuine threat, sir.” The fact of the matter is that no one’s quite sure whether Coulson’s in any danger at all. For all they know, his name could have been plucked randomly from a list of NYU alumni or some stray RAF communication. Cryptic letters and the occasional crank call aren’t enough to trouble him, as a rule.
Naturally, he should have known better.
A few nights later, he’s snatched from the underground car-park at his apartment. He’s disarmed, sedated and thrown into the trunk of a car that resembles his own.
It’s just as well that he’s a patient man. He knows that SHIELD will mount a recovery mission once they realise he’s missing, which will probably be about six hours from now. He comes to in a darkened room and swallows back a moan at the pain in his shoulder. After he wraps his head around that pain, he can catalogue his other injuries. His jaw hurts, but isn’t broken, and there’s something like agony blooming at the base of his skull. They’ve taken his tie and his shoes and his hands are cuffed together but he’s not actually been cuffed to anything. Granted, they’re cuffed behind his back and any movement sends darts (or arrows) of pain to his shoulder but, really, whoever his captors are, they should be less negligent.
The floor is cold beneath his feet and he’d guess that he’s some distance below ground level. He can hear clattering in the distance. Water-pipes and footsteps.
At first, he doesn’t put up a fight. It’s counter-intelligence, in a way. These guys aren’t HYDRA. They aren’t even members of a lesser-known terrorist cell. It turns out that this is personal. Some mission from his time in the British Intelligence Corps, when he was a low-ranking officer and a bad call was made. It wasn’t even his bad call but he’s no man to shirk from his responsibilities.
Unlike the episode in the gas station near Puente Antiguo, this won’t be televised. There’s no security footage here. Coulson’s going to need major surgery on his shoulder when this is over but it’s an amateur three-man job. They’re easily neutralised (yes, even with his hands tied behind his back).
With some minor contortions, he manages to uncuff himself and he picks up a Beretta. His head is swimming. Injury inventory now includes likely broken ribs on the left and a bleeding head-wound. The blood pumps down over his right eye and he has to hold the gun in his right hand and apply pressure to the wound with his left hand and it’s pretty ungainly.
When he surfaces, he’s a little surprised to find himself emerging from a bunker in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. He lowers himself to the ground and leans back against the door. He can’t imagine his weight will do much to keep it shut when his captors recover consciousness but at least it’ll give him some warning that three men with headaches are coming to kill him.
While he’s waiting for the cavalry, he takes off his suit jacket, thinking to fashion some sort of bandage for his head. The pains in his shoulder and his ribs are vying for supremacy and he blacks out.
It’s not surprising that Hawkeye and the Black Widow are the first on the scene. Coulson’s always known that they work well together. He can’t quite discern the expression on Barton’s face until it turns to frank shock at Coulson’s somewhat slurred request.
“Sir, I can’t do that.”
“You have to, Clint,” says Coulson. He winces as Romanov rips his suit sleeve and wraps it around his head. “Wait much longer and the swelling’ll be too bad.”
“We could wait for Thor-?”
Coulson manages to chuckle. It hurts, like someone’s trying to pass his lungs through a cheese grater. “And risk my arm being pulled off entirely?” He shakes his head, earning a soft slap to the cheek from Romanov. “Natasha’ll hold me still and you’ll relocate my shoulder. ‘s simple.”
And it is simple, even though Barton’s pale and looks faintly queasy.
“You have to do it, Clint,” says Romanov. “You’re stronger than I am.”
Coulson’s neurons must be misfiring because he doesn’t mean to murmur she’d know. Maybe they didn’t hear because the next thing he knows is more exquisite pain.
When he comes to again, he’s on a stretcher, in a helicopter. Everything’s sort of fuzzy, like he’s been wrapped up in cotton wool. There’s something rough, like sandpaper, on his left hand and warm, like breath, and when he manages to force his eyelids open, he sees that Barton’s resting his stubbled chin on Coulson’s hand, breathing slowly and steadily, like a sniper, readying a shot. Barton’s eyes are fixed on his face (like a sniper, readying a shot).
“Watching me sleep is kind of creepy, you know,” murmurs Coulson, lifting one finger to trace the curve of Barton’s mouth.
Barton shakes his head slightly, a furrow appearing between his eyebrows as he frowns. “People’ll talk,” he says. His voice is hoarse.
“They always have.”