1. S.H.I.E.L.D. : Stark's Highly-Individualized (Experimental) Love & Dating service
It was Stark's idea, of course. The best (and worst) ones always were.
Phil Coulson figured that was the trouble with genius: when Stark had a brilliant idea, it took off like a home run ball on a clear blue day, and when he had a terrible idea, well ... Phil invariably ended up with a mountain of paperwork. Actually, the paperwork seemed to be pretty consistent whether the idea was good or bad, so Phil had to assume it was simply that Stark's plans spontaneously generated more paperwork than the average person's.
Also more injuries, more property damage, more calls to legal. It was a good thing Tony Stark was a billionaire who believed in throwing money at his problems, otherwise S.H.I.E.L.D. might not be able to afford to stay in the business of saving the planet.
“In my defense,” Stark was saying, walking around Coulson's office as if looking for another exit, “he made that face. You know the one where he tilts his head like a confused puppy with sad eyes and—”
“I did not,” Steve said, affronted at the accusation. “I looked the way I always look.”
“Exactly,” Stark confirmed. “See? He even admits it.”
“That wasn't admitting—”
Phil already had a headache named Stark to worry about. He'd prefer to keep his warm feeling towards Captain America for as long as he possibly could. Given all the Avengers were now living at Stark Tower, under Tony's constant influence, Phil expected it wouldn't be long before he was considering what exactly would be deemed justifiable use of strike technology against the entire lot of them.
“Coulson, you know what I'm talking about, of course you do.” The sad thing was Phil did know what Stark was referring to, and he hated it when he could actually appreciate Tony's position on something. “He did that, 'aw shucks, man, I was a Capsicle for seventy years and everyone I ever loved is dead, but it's okay, I'll muddle through somehow' look.”
“I never said that!” Steve's protest might've had more effect if he hadn't been making exactly the look Stark was trying to describe.
“See? He's doing it right now.” Stark's pointy finger waved accusingly in front of Rogers' chest. “And since I'm only human, I listened to his pathetic, silent, facial cry for help, and well, there you have it. Clearly, I'm not responsible for my actions in the face of ... that face!”
Steve started to argue, but Phil cut him off with a simple, “That'll be all, Captain Rogers. Thank you.”
For a moment, Phil thought Steve was going to argue with him, but the soldier in him won out and he gave a brief nod, and left with a simple, “Sir.”
Stark slid into a chair across from Phil as soon as Steve shut the door. “So, we're good, right?”
“No, Mr. Stark, we're not 'good.' You hacked into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mainframe—”
“Hacked is such an ugly word; I barely poked at it.”
“—and misappropriated data for use in a glorified matchmaking service.”
“I devised a simple algorithm to sort through a few files for compatibility variables.”
“Confidential personnel files.”
“Well, see, I needed certain types of information—”
“Classified medical records, employee evaluations, psych profiles.”
“It's not like I sat down and read them all,” Stark said. “I don't care what's in anybody's files, except maybe mine. Hey, could I see—”
“We'll see about that, but I also didn't want to do a half-assed job of it. Then I'd be no better than eHarmony. Give me a bit of credit, please. At least with my system there's no need to lie on embarrassing profiles, or post blurry photographs and hope for a myopic date. Just beautiful clean mathematics.”
Stark sat back in the chair and threw his hands in the air. “No one got hurt, nothing went boom. Why can't we say it's win-win and call it a day? It was just a bit of fun.”
Phil shook his head. Conversations with Stark always made him want to beat his head against the nearest wall. “It's always 'just a bit of fun' with you, yet at the end of the day, I'm breaking up fist fights, dealing with sexual identity crises, and trying to explain to Director Fury why one of the archivists is sending him invitations to have coffee to his private email address.”
“Oh, is that the guy who likes pirates? Seriously, that's just karma at work, agent.”
“You accessed and distributed confidential information, secure email addresses, and generally made a mess of things.”
“Not true, not true at all. I know of at least a few couples that are happy about this, sir.”
“Who?” Phil said, incredulous. He wanted names, and he wanted them now.
“That, um—that scientist with the big glasses, smells like formaldehyde. He met someone. Someone who has no sense of smell whatsoever, I suspect, but still. And, well, I'm sure there's someone else.”
Phil hadn't gotten to be a senior field agent without knowing when and how to go for an opponent's weak spot. “And what about your match?”
“Mine?” Stark started pulling at a stray thread on the arm of the chair. He staunchly avoided Phil's attempt at eye contact. “That's not—I mean, I didn't check—. It was a bit of harmless fun.”
“I've examined your algorithm, and I'm not a genius, but it's clear it was designed to achieve one goal. To match you up with Steve Rogers and him with you.” Stark opened his mouth, then wisely shut it again without saying anything. “Now, rather than involve the entirety of a covert intelligence organization in your misguided attempt at convincing Rogers you're the man for him, why don't you tell him how you feel?”
“I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Just because it gave me the result I wanted doesn't mean the algorithm's invalid.” Stark was an arrogant bastard, but he had the brains to back it up, Phil would give him that. “Isn't there anyone, Agent Coulson, anyone who makes your day a little brighter, who makes a mission more bearable by being there?”
“It's irrelevant,” Phil said, but he knew Stark had caught something. Stark's chin jutted out proudly, and Phil suspected he was about to be on the receiving end of enemy fire.
“Who did it match you with, Agent Coulson?”
“Really?” Stark looked like a bloodhound on a scent. “Because whenever someone says it's irrelevant, it usually means it's not irrelevant at all, and double negative though that may be, that makes the answer extremely relevant.”
“You might as well tell me because as soon as we're done here I'm going to find out anyway. No? Don't feel like sharing? I'm hurt. JARVIS?”
Phil bristled. No matter how many times the computer division extricated JARVIS from the system, he continued to show up whenever Stark was on the premises. It was unsettling.
“JARVIS, who was Agent Coulson matched with?”
“I'm afraid, sir, my protocols have been over-ridden. That information is not available without a Level 7 clearance.”
Stark looked surprised and a little impressed. “Is it true you've had your sense of humor surgically removed, Coulson? 'Cause I can see it. A little bit.”
Phil didn't allow a single muscle in his face to twitch.
“Fine,” Stark said. “I'll delete the algorithm from the system.”
“And explain to the IT security people how you breached the system and how to prevent someone from doing it again.”
“And you'll send out an apology.”
“That's more Pepper's department—”
“It's already in your Inbox. Just read it over and hit 'Send'.”
“I can do that.”
“I'm sure you can.”
Stark bounced out of the chair, seeming no worse for wear. “And you want me to do that—when?”
“Now would be good.”
Stark made a gun out of his thumb and index finger and mimed pulling the trigger.
“You got it,” Stark said, and left Phil by himself to consider how much more of a disaster Tony's “harmless” matchmaking might've been if they'd had a full complement of staff on base, all checking their email.
Phil considered it a stroke of luck Agent Barton was away on assignment, and if Phil had anything to say about it, this was one bit of Valentine's Day gossip Clint never needed to know about.
“Sir, if I might correct something I reported earlier?” came a disembodied voice.
“My apologies for the intrusion, sir, but I think it's important to note Mr. Stark's algorithm was designed to provide the best matches within the data set. In most cases, people were matched with multiple possible mates. It was in less than half of one percent of cases where two individuals were matched only with each other. That type of singular match usually required a 95%, plus or minus one percent, compatibility rate. It's a strong indicator of suitability.”
“Your point, JARVIS?” Phil said, trying not to sound testy. It was a computer, and even if it was Stark's computer—Artificial Intelligence, or whatever—there was no reason to be rude.
“Perhaps it would be worth sharing that information with Agent Barton when he returns from his field assignment.”
'I don't think that would be wise, JARVIS, but thank you for not telling Stark. How did you do that, anyway?”
“Miss Potts, sir. She installed subroutines that allow for withholding of information which is deemed irrelevant, dangerous, or likely to result in someone other than Mr. Stark's horrifying embarrassment.”
“Remind me to send Miss Potts a thank you arrangement of flowers.”
“She's very fond of daisies, sir.”
2. Cupid, Draw Back Your Bow, and Let Your Arrow Go
“It's entirely possible we didn't consider all of the repercussions of the plan,” Steve admitted. There were heartfelt, sincere nods and expressions of agreement from the other four Avengers; Barton had been sent back to his quarters to “for God's sake, put on some clothing!”
Phil stared into his coffee and wished he was the kind of man who kept alcohol in one of his desk drawers. He was certain this was exactly the kind of circumstance the desk drawer bottle had been intended for. He dropped a teaspoon of powdered whitener into his mug and sighed. It wasn't the same.
“Let me see if I've got this right,” Phil began, glancing over the forlorn faces of his team. “Two weeks ago, there was an email sent around promising the 'special delivery' of Valentine's Day greetings to anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D. for the cost of a donation to the Heart & Stroke Foundation.”
“It's a great cause,” Dr. Banner said. “We raised several thousand dollars.”
“I'm not disputing that. It was an excellent fund-raising effort.” Under different circumstances, Phil would've been thrilled to see such an unselfish idea arise from the team. Some positive PR certainly wouldn't hurt either S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Avengers' reputations. “What concerns me, however, is what happened after the messages were collected and the donations were received.”
“Cupid's a perfectly valid symbol of Valentine's Day,” Stark said abruptly. “I'm not sure I see why everyone's getting so upset about a bit of—”
“Harmless fun?” Phil finished the sentence for him. “Do you recall our last conversation on that topic, Mr. Stark? Yes?”
“In all fairness, sir,” Steve said, “none of us was on the bridge of the helicarrier the day that Barton—”
“Loki,” Natasha corrected. “It was Loki's doing. Clint didn't have any control over it.”
“The day that Loki,” Steve continued, “attacked the carrier. Tony and I were fixing the engine, Natasha was with Banner, and Thor was confronting Loki.”
“I'm aware of your circumstances at the time of the assault. However, you've all received debriefs regarding the actions Agent Barton undertook,” Phil gave Natasha a warning look, “while under Loki's control.”
“You're right,” Tasha said, face grim, and this was why Phil had never had a problem working with her. She accepted the consequences of bad decisions, and tried her best to never repeat them. “We didn't think it through.”
“Obviously. If you had, you would've recognized that dressing Barton up as some kind of—I don't even know how to describe it—”
“A Cupid for the modern age?” Banner offered.
Stark laughed. “Oh, come on, he would kick that little cherub's ass. He made the whole Cupid schtick look good. ”
Phil found he couldn't exactly disagree with Stark's assessment, but that was a different matter entirely, and one that could wait for a more appropriate moment, if such a thing even existed. Phil cleared his throat.
“As I was saying, dressing Barton in black cycling shorts and his quiver, then sending him off to distribute Valentine's Day greetings in a hail of arrows—”
“But the arrows were red!” Steve pointed out.
“And tiny! The tips were heart-shaped,” Banner said.
Thor seemed puzzled by the whole situation. “With splendid greetings which spoke of love and affection!”
“He wasn't shooting at anyone,” Natasha said, succinctly, her tone suggesting that if Barton had wanted to hit someone, he certainly would have done so.
Phil was perfectly aware of Barton's reputation as the World's Greatest Marksman. It wasn't an exaggeration by any means, and he knew from viewing the CC footage that Barton had landed every arrow in an innocuous surface near the intended recipient. It wasn't his fault there were still S.H.I.E.L.D. staffers who didn't react terribly well to arrows—even well-intentioned red heart-shaped arrows—being shot at them. Or near them. Or at all.
The door opened, and Barton, now dressed in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, slunk in, taking a seat beside Natasha. He looked relaxed, which told Phil better than anything how hard Barton was working at appearing normal, like none of this mattered. It had been almost a year since Loki and the attack, and Clint had worked hard to earn back the staff's trust. Phil hated to think all that effort was going to be undone because of one poorly considered decision.
Phil sighed. “I understand everything was well-intentioned. But you have to realize other people don't deal with life-and-death situations every day the way the six of you do. A lot of staff find it difficult to see the humor in it.”
Natasha put a hand protectively on Barton's knee. “If they can't trust us not to hurt them—”
Phil was strangely proud of the way she was talking about all of them as a unit, rather than singling Clint out as a problem. It was what good agents did; they protected each other.
Phil gave a half-smile of acknowledgement. “In an ideal world it wouldn't be an issue, but we're dealing with a mainly civilian population, and they're not all used to dealing with superheroes and gods. After the initial panic, the number of actual complaints filed about the incident was relatively few.”
Phil didn't bother to say how many people he'd talked out of making a formal complaint, or how blatantly he'd played up the “they were doing if for a good cause” angle. He also hadn't been averse to exploiting the fact that, deadly or not, Barton was generally well-respected and a significant percentage of the staff had a bit of a crush on him. Very few people wanted to see him reprimanded, and those that insisted on it were ones that probably shouldn't have been working for an organization where surprise attacks weren't as rare as one would hope. Phil had flagged their files.
“What now?” Barton asked, opening his mouth for the first time since joining them in Coulson's office.
“There's no real point suspending any of you since all that means is a week of hanging out at Stark Tower, dreaming up new ideas for making my job more difficult than it needs to be. Consider this a warning, though. We expect better from you—from all of you.” Phil looked pointedly at Stark, who grinned back. “Next time you have what you think is a great idea for something, take a moment to run it by me or Director Fury or even Deputy Director Hill. Someone who might possibly be able to stop you from doing something stupid.”
They were all on their feet as soon as it was clear they'd been dismissed, and although they didn't exactly run out of the office, it was a quick exit nonetheless. All except Barton.
“Yes?” Phil asked. Barton shut the door and turned to face him, standing with his hands clasped loosely behind his back. He looked like a soldier waiting for a reprimand.
“I'd like to offer my resignation,” Barton said, and Phil should've known it was coming, but he honestly hadn't considered it. It was out of the question.
“Sir, I think it might be for the best—”
“I said no, Barton. It's not an option.”
Phil let out an exasperated sound. He leaned back in his desk chair and loosened his tie, popped open the first button on his collar. Better.
“It was a stupid thing to do, but it wasn't just you.”
“I should have known better.”
Phil tipped his head back and considered. “Yes, probably. But so should've Natasha and Banner and Rogers. I'm used to dealing with the fallout from leaping without thinking when it comes to Stark and Thor, but it's clear this was an act of collective idiocy, and besides that, it's not worth losing you over.”
“I'm a liability. My judgement's shot to hell.”
“Clint,” Phil said, finally. “Sit down.”
Barton settled back onto the couch he'd formerly shared with Natasha.
“Stark put thousands of people in danger with a staggering display of drunken stupidity a few years ago. He slipped out of house arrest. He decided to drive his own car in Monaco's Grand Prix and ended up getting into a pissing match with a guy who could cut cars in half with his energy whip.”
“I remember seeing that.”
“He also cobbled together a particle accelerator from what he had in his lab and what he could order online in an attempt to create a new element, then immediately tested said element on himself. As far as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s concerned, you've got a long way to go before you're anywhere close to the liability that Stark is on a daily basis.”
“I can't do my job effectively if people don't trust me.”
Phil levelled a questioning look across the desk. “Your team trusts you—that should be obvious even to you. I trust you. Do you honestly think it matters to any of us that some technical analyst straight out of college is uneasy around you? Almost everyone at S.H.I.E.L.D. is replaceable, myself included; agents come and go, but there's only one Hawkeye, only one group good enough to call the Avengers, so cut yourself a little slack, Clint, okay?”
Barton gave a quick nod, his lips curling into a faint smile as he headed for the door. He was harder on himself than anyone else ever could be, Phil knew, and yeah, sometimes he fucked up, but sometimes they all did. It was the price they paid for being human.
“You're wrong about one thing, sir,” Barton said from the doorway.
“You're not replaceable either.”
3. Love is in the Air
“Barton, explain to me again why we're hiding in the armory.”
“It's not hiding, sir. More like a strategic retreat.”
“Retreat from what?” Phil asked. The two of them were sitting on the floor of the armory facing the door. Clint kept glancing at the door as if he expected an assault at any moment. “You appeared at my office, dragged me down here, and haven't told me a damn thing.”
“It was need to know,” Clint said, apologetic.
Phil raised an eyebrow. “I have the same security clearance as Director Fury. There isn't anything that goes on at S.H.I.E.L.D. that I don't need to know.”
Clint screwed up his face. “Okay, maybe it's more like 'better if you don't know' than strictly need to know.”
Phil gave him the face that said, “I'm waiting, and this had better be good, or those sixteen days in a Turkish prison are going to look like a Club Med vacation.” Clint shuddered, and it was times like this when Phil was grateful they knew each other well-enough that threats could be delivered with a look. It made things so much simpler.
“There was a ...” Clint paused, considering how best to word it.
“A breach? Attack? Outbreak? Hostile take over? What? Give me something, Barton, or so help me, I'm walking out of here in ten seconds.”
Clint's eyes darted toward the door and back again, and Phil knew Barton was considering what he'd have to do to keep him here, by force if necessary. It didn't settle Phil's apprehensions in the least. He decided to try a different approach.
“Clint, just tell me what's going on.” He and Barton had worked together for years. There had to be a way to work this out without resorting to violence.
“You know it's Valentine's Day, sir, right?”
“Yes, what's that got to do with—it's Stark, isn't it? It's always Stark.” Phil braced himself for the inevitable bad news. “What did he do this time?”
“It wasn't Stark. It was Bruce.”
“Dr. Banner?” Phil couldn't help the note of surprise that crept into his voice. For someone who turned into a giant green anger management issue Banner usually wasn't a problem.
“Well, he gets kind of down sometimes, and it's Valentine's Day, and—”
“Ah.” Phil understood this problem. “Betty Ross.”
“Yeah, so apparently he was working on something, a serum of some kind—”
“Because that always works out so well for everyone involved.”
“—that might help her to see past the whole turning green thing.”
“You mean a love potion.”
Barton gave a weak smile. He looked fatigued, restrained, as if he was working every minute to hold himself in check. Phil resisted the urge to ask if he was feeling alright. “There's no such thing as a love potion, sir. Right?”
“Of course. The most something like that can do is raise pheromone levels. Oh.” Phil dropped his head into his hands. “Is this going to involve me having to wipe security footage and have the lab sterilized?”
“No?” Clint said, but Phil fixed him with a glare, and he caved. “Okay, yes, but it shouldn't be that bad. It's contained at least.”
“To Banner's lab? Well, that's lucky.” Phil would've felt better if he hadn't caught the wince Clint couldn't quite hide. “Barton?”
“The science wing,” Barton admitted, which was an entirely different thing than Banner's lab. Hundreds of people could have been affected. “Stark stopped by the lab to talk to Bruce, and there was a little accident.”
It was like a defining axiom of the universe. If Stark was around, things went wrong. Phil sighed. “Define little. Define accident.”
“The serum got knocked onto a heat source, turned gaseous and entered the vent system.” Barton sounded the way he always did when giving a report. If not for the sheen of sweat on his face, and the unsettled way his eyes kept darting around the room, carefully avoiding Phil, he might've thought Barton was fine. One problem at a time, he reminded himself.
“We have protocols in place to avoid exactly that kind of mass distribution of toxins. What happened?”
“Stark might've decided to upgrade the ventilation system today.” Barton shrugged. “There was some kind of freakish wind-tunnel effect.”
“So what you're trying to avoid telling me is that the entire science division is currently involved in some sort of sexual orgy with Tony Stark and Dr. Banner right in the middle of it?”
“Stark's pretty much ground zero, yes, but the Hulk—”
“The Hulk? Banner changed?” Phil realized his voice had cracked. At least it was only Clint who was there to see the calm exterior slip, and he'd seen it before. “That—that's far more disturbing a thought than anything else. We've got to get him contained. He's almost unstoppable when he's angry, I can't imagine when he's ...”
“Horny, sir?” In spite of everything, Clint was smirking.
“That's honestly not a word I ever wanted to associate with the Hulk.”
“It's alright. Apparently he really loves Betty. At last report he was sitting dejectedly in a corner, staring at her picture and mumbling something that sounded like 'Hulk sad.'”
“Oh.” It could have been considerably worse, but regardless, Phil was going to be scheduling psych evals and STD testing for the next few months. The hardest part was going to be finding a suitable euphemism for “the science division had an unauthorized orgy brought on by accidental aerosol dispersal of an experimental toxin” to use on the incident report.
Something finally occurred to Phil, something that had been bothering him subconsciously since Clint had brought them here. “How do you know all this? The alert had only just sounded when you arrived at my office.”
Clint closed his eyes, snagging his lower lip with his teeth, before letting out a controlled exhale. “I was in the ventilation system at the time, sir.”
“How is it you weren't affected?”
“Just lucky?” Clint said, unconvincingly. He still wasn't looking at Phil and his body language was all wrong. Phil was used to the archer's fluidity, his bow moving with him as if it were an extension of his arm, but now Barton was rigid, controlled, and Phil found himself reaching out to lay a hand on Clint's knee.
“I wouldn't recommend that, sir.” Barton's voice was steel and Phil froze, hand in mid-air. “My control is good, but there's no reason to test it.”
“Understood.” Phil withdrew his hand and considered what Barton had just revealed. “So, I was never in any danger?”
“Just your spotless reputation and possibly your virtue, sir.” Clint's laugh sounded humorless in the small armory.
“But you sought me out.” Phil was trying to make sense of that. There had to have been dozens of willing bodies between Barton and Phil's office, yet he'd bypassed all of them to find Phil. Why?
Barton shook his head and set his forehead on his bent knees. “Please, don't call me that. Not here, not now. This is difficult enough.”
Phil got to his feet slowly, putting some additional distance between him and Barton. He'd never been frightened of the man, and he wasn't about to start now, no matter what Clint's system had been exposed to. “I think I'd better be getting back to work then. Do you want to come?”
“Seriously, Phil?” Clint raised an eyebrow in his direction, and the agent flushed when he realized the inadvertent innuendo. He noticed Clint's fists were maintaining a white-knuckled grip on his cargo pants.
“In deference to our working relationship, I'll refrain from answering that last question if it's all the same to you, sir.” Barton bowed his head, closing his eyes. “It's probably better for everyone if I stay here.”
“Understood,” Phil said, and this time he actually did understand the larger context. He and Clint had always had a good working relationship, and a comfortable personal relationship. Phil liked to keep his work and his personal life—what little there was of it—separate, but Barton seemed to be the exception to that. They'd known each other a long time, worked countless missions together. There wasn't anyone Phil trusted more to have his back in a tight situation, and dammit, why was everything fraught with innuendo?
“Report to medical when you're able, Barton.”
“Yes, sir. These things typically wear off in a few hours.”
“We'll debrief—fuck—no, I didn't mean—I'm going now.”
“That would be for the best.” Clint didn't look at him, and Phil knew without a doubt Barton was hard and fighting every instinct that was telling him to take what he wanted. It should've been disturbing, uncomfortable at the very least, but Phil was having a difficult time not picturing Clint, all compact energy and lean muscle, pushing him up against the wall and—
“Phil?” Clint's voice was low and a little bit rough. It sent a shiver down Phil's spine.
“Yeah?” Phil responded, realizing he probably sounded a bit breathless himself.
Phil didn't hesitate to walk through the door then, locking it behind him with a command code that couldn't be over-ridden. He'd have to come back and let Clint out when the effects had worn off. Or maybe he'd send Natasha to do it; he didn't want Clint to feel trapped.
He leaned back against the armory door, and thought he heard the faint thump of a hand hitting the other side of it. It had to have been a hard hit for Phil to hear it through six inches of reinforced steel. He hoped he'd imagined it, but he knew Clint. It wouldn't be the first time he'd punched something in frustration, although Phil didn't honestly think Barton had a problem with sexual frustration.
Clint was good-looking—Phil would have to be extremely straight, which he wasn't, and possibly blind not to notice. He was attractive and competent and had saved Phil's life a dozen times over the years. Of course, Phil had noticed Clint. He simply tended to avoid romantic entanglements that might impact negatively on his work life. The truth of the matter was Agent Coulson would rather have Barton on a rooftop with a bow and arrow watching his back than have Clint on his back in Phil's bed; he'd never allowed himself to imagine the possibility of having both.
It was something he was going to have to give careful consideration.
4. Organs are Inappropriate for Most Gift-Giving Occasions
Form I27-CCD is to be completed when a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been involved in an altercation or situation that stems from cultural misunderstanding. It tends to be the form used for diplomatic incidents where the agent has committed some terrible and hitherto unknown faux pas, and generally such things are merely speed bumps on the way to forging new relationships. Difficulties are typically smoothed over quickly, as both parties realize how easy it can be to make an error in judgement when not familiar with all the practices of a particular country or people.
Form I27-CCD has essentially become Phil's go-to form when writing up incident reports regarding Thor. He's found many things are easier to accept when you chalk them up to fundamental differences in the way things are done.
The Asgardians had come and gone from Earth long before St. Valentine had been born, longer still before Chaucer had decided to liven up the little known saint's back story by creating traditions of courtly love. So Phil thinks maybe it's not unreasonable to assume Thor had the best of intentions when he'd heard about the practice of presenting loved ones with hearts on Valentine's Day.
“Ah, I see,” Thor had said, and of course, someone should have realized what Thor really meant was, “I'm sorry, your ways are strange to me. Am I to understand it's custom to present friends, particularly of the fairer sex, with hearts freshly cut from a fallen opponent's chest? And is it also acceptable, if multiple opponents are not available to donate their organs to this noble cause, to substitute the heart of a sacrificial beast, either Asgardian or Midgardian in origin, or perhaps even those hearts kept for food stuffs in the S.H.I.E.L.D. commissary?”
Which is why Agent Coulson is spending his Valentine's Day filling out forms:
I27-CCD Incident Report - Arising from Cross-Cultural Differences
I29-THO-E Incident Report - Unauthorized Transport of Human Organs (Earth)
I29-TO-9R Incident Report - Unauthorized Transport of Organs (Human or Other) (Within the Nine Realms)
I-32-IUF Incident Report – Inappropriate Use of Food Stuffs
GB7-DI Gifts and Bribes Presented to Employees (Deemed Inappropriate)
R13-HZM Request for Hazardous Materials Unit Deployment
R17-SU Request for Security Unit Deployment
R12-MA Request for Medical Assistance (Minor)
R13-MA Request for Medical Assistance (Major)
R14-PSY-TR Request for Psychological Counselling (Trauma-Related)
RL1-AIC Standard Release – Agents Held in Custody Pending Investigation
RL8-LW-TR Standard Release – Agents—Permission to Leave Work (Trauma-Related)
I14-SVD Incident Report – Saint Valentine's Day
Phil didn't believe in extraneous paperwork. The Form Division at S.H.I.E.L.D. was a thing of beauty, stream-lined as a Masarati, as efficient as Agent Romanov was deadly. So the fact that they'd felt it necessary to create an Incident Report form specifically for Valentine's Day fiascoes was significant, and Phil couldn't help but feel it was a mark of judgement against him. The form hadn't existed in the pre-Avengers period.
The Avengers were his people. His responsibility. He tried his best to serve by example. But even he couldn't be expected to predict the group's behavior outside of mission parameters. Most days he was amazed he could reasonably predict their behavior in the field, and that under most circumstances, they would listen to his orders when given.
He was, after all, only one ordinary man.
RSC1-DDO Request—Special Circumstances—Designated Day Off (St. Valentine's Day)
He was fairly certain Fury would laugh, and then turn Phil's carefully created form into a three-point shot in garbage basketball. Still, it couldn't hurt to try. As long as the Avengers were Coulson's team, he had a feeling Valentine's Day was never going to be quite the Hallmark-inspired celebration most people expected.
Phil might even go so far as to suggest Valentine's Day should be considered a S.H.I.E.L.D. holiday (barring acts of war, invasion, or other emergencies), and that everyone be given the day off.
Of course, what the Avengers could get up to on twenty-four hours of leave was often worse than the Valentine's Day shenanigans, and Phil was reminded that some days his job was like being asked to choose whether to hang upside-down over the pit of alligators or the pool of sharks. Neither option was good, and both were going to end badly no matter what choice he made.
Next year, Phil Coulson was cancelling Valentine's Day.
5. Sharing is Scarring
In a classic “fuck you” to the crass commercialism that is Valentine's Day and in celebration of the fact that not a single Avengers team member was in anything even remotely resembling a healthy relationship, Tony took them out for shawarma at what had become their favourite restaurant for a team meal. It was empty of everyone except the family who owned it—just the way the team liked it.
“Remember, boys and girls, girl, woman, people,” Tony blundered through as if he were making opening remarks to an audience. “Remember the first rule of keeping a good shawarma restaurant to ourselves is not to talk about shawarma. Everybody got it? Yes? Thor?”
“But should we not glorify the name of such a fine establishment by welcoming others to its humble tables? I know Sif and the warriors three would enjoy it most heartily.”
“See, this is why I'm asking,” Tony said. “If we tell everyone about it, then when we want to come here, it'll be too busy.”
“You might even say it would be shawarming with customers,” Clint said, grinning.
“Oh, you did not—did you all hear—that was horrendous! Hasn't anyone ever told you puns are the lowest form of wit? What, did you grow up in a circus? Oh, wait.”
Clint ignored him. “Don't you just offer to rent the place for the whole night anyway?”
“Not the point.” Tony waved the comment away. “Change of subject. Psych evals are coming up.”
There was a collective groan from the table.
“Exactly! And do you know what really gets me is how they always ask why I'm not in a relationship.”
“Well, there's Dummy,” Steve pointed out.
“And JARVIS,” Clint added.
“And Pepper when you're not causing her to consider having you disappeared or institutionalized.” Natasha met Tony's gaze with a knowing smile. “I did work for you, remember?”
“Did you? As I recall, you were always working for S.H.I.E.L.D.."
"Who's got time to have a relationship?" Banner asked, out of the blue. Clint took advantage of the distraction to steal a slice of tomato from Natasha's plate.
“My relationship with Jane is most healthy,” Thor said loudly, mouth full of food.
“We're not talking about sex,” Clint responded, rolling his eyes. “Besides, isn't this the woman who's 'accidentally' run you over a bunch of times now?”
“He's right, buddy,” Tony agreed. “Vehicular assault kind of suggests there might be a few issues there.”
Thor looked genuinely concerned, and Steve took the opportunity to pass him more food.
“I could've had a normal relationship,” Steve said, his voice nostalgic. “I had a date.”
Tony patted Steve on the shoulder. “Yeah, let it go, Cap. That ship sailed seventy years ago, and honestly, it might've been the Titanic. You might've dodged a bullet. Besides, she's dead now—”
“Stark!” Natasha kicked him under the table.
“—I just mean there are people in this century who are available if Steve wants to go on a date. That's all I'm saying.”
“Yeah, I bet that's all you're saying,” Clint murmured into his drink, and received a kick under the table for it. “Have anyone in mind, Tony?”
Not only did Stark have exceptionally good hearing, he wasn't one to step away from a fight. “I don't think you're one to talk, Barton. You've been nurturing a secret love of pinstripe suits and spreadsheets for how many years now? Eight?”
“Spreadsheets?” Thor asked with interest. “Those sound like something I might wish to acquire.”
“They're not nearly as much fun as they sound,” Bruce said quietly. Mostly he ate his shawarma and tried to ignore getting drawn into conversations that didn't involve physics.
“What about you, Natasha?” Steve said hastily, trying to head off a confrontation between Tony and Clint. They were still glaring at each other across the table and trying to outdo one another in the number of condiments piled on their pitas. Steve pushed his chair back a discreet distance from the table. He had no desire to be caught in the fallout of that. “Anyone special?”
“The last man I had between my thighs got his wind-pipe crushed.” She took a delicate bite from her plate. “Could someone pass the taboon bread?”
Five hands instantly reached to give her what she wanted.
“Thanks,” Natasha said with a genuine smile, and the table settled into a comfortable silence.
Coulson probably wouldn't have known about any of this except for two things.
1. The Avengers' shawarma place was also the restaurant of choice for a militant terrorist group with ties to HYDRA, a decent supply of C-4, and a bone to pick with Tony Stark.
2. Even without an armored suit, a shield, a hammer, or a bow and arrow, the team was still a lethal force when their dinner was interrupted by automatic weapons fire. Banner hated having his dinner interrupted, and worse than that, he hated to see a hard-working family's business destroyed by evil men. It made him angry.
"Seriously?" Clint asked, picking small pieces of the ceiling out of his hair, and pulling Natasha down behind a table with him before the dust cleared. She was already dialling S.H.I.E.L.D.. "It's Valentine's Day! You're supposed to say it with hearts and flowers, not C-fucking-4!"
"We do not recognize your capitalist holidays! We shall not bow to your Western ways!" shouted one of the terrorists.
"Is the day not intended to be a celebration of love and friendship?" Thor asked, impassioned. He'd grabbed a ladle from the open area kitchen and was twirling it as he would Mjölnir. It was nowhere near as impressive.
Steve took over command. “Thor, go out the back and check on Bruce. Keep civilians as far away as possible. Tasha's calling for backup, but you two will need to secure a perimeter. Make sure these guys don't have reinforcements coming as well.”
Bruce had hurried the staff out the back already, and Thor followed after him with a keen nod and a hearty slap on Steve and Tony's backs.
“Fight well, my friends. We shall hold the line.”
“I'm going to try to engage them in conversation,” Steve whispered, looking for anything he could use as a weapon. He was mostly limited to what the vegetable bins had to offer. “If we get them talking, maybe they'll give their strategy away.”
"Are you kidding me?" Tony fumed while grabbing various bottles and jars from the lower cupboards. "You think they had a strategy? I think they wandered in to grab some shawarma, recognized us, or at least me, and decided it was karma!"
"Shawarma karma?" Clint couldn't help himself. The onion that came sailing over the table edge and clocked him in the chest only made him laugh harder.
"This is why we weren't supposed to talk about the shawarma place," Tony said with an "I told you so" clear in his voice. "Now all the kids with guns and explosives want to hang out here. This is why we can't have nice things!"
Clint finished fastening two butter knives together with a shoelace and took the hair elastic Natasha offered him. The onion was the heaviest projectile he had, and he wanted to save it for last. That left him with a handful of creamers and a container of sugar cubes.
"We'd be so much better supplied if this was a Denny's or a 7-11," Clint grumbled, but he started lining up silverware in front of them to use as throwing weapons. A fork to the eye could still do a hell of a lot of damage when thrown with enough weight behind it.
Natasha shut her phone. "Coulson's on the way." She pulled a small handgun from the ankle holster hidden beneath her pant leg.
"You don't have another of those, do you?" Clint asked hopefully. Natasha never went anywhere unarmed. It was one of the things he'd always loved about her. She passed him her purse which held a .38 special snub nose revolver with extra ammo. "I could kiss you, Nat!"
The terrorists were still blathering on about righteous missions and Western excess as personified by Stark.
"So, your main problem is that I'm rich and you're not?" Tony said, throwing a bunch of liquids into a cooking pot and watching them start to smoke. He grinned. "Yeah, it sucks to be you."
Half-rising to his feet, knowing Steve would cover him somehow—by tossing tomatoes like fastballs, apparently—Tony threw the pot of liquid across the room, where an acrid cloud of smoke rose up, forcing the terrorists to move closer to the door, still choking on fumes. That put them directly in Natasha and Clint's line of fire.
Three of the men went down with bullets, another two under a barrage of cutlery.
"Note to self," Tony said. "Plastic utensils for Hawkeye from now on. No knives. At all."
“It wouldn't matter,” Natasha supplied, knowingly.
“You two are scary. I'm glad you're on our team. Aren't you glad they're on our team?”
Steve nodded, then rolled another onion across the floor to Clint. "You play chess? You know what castling is?"
Clint grinned and nodded. On a silent count of three Steve and Clint threw themselves across the open space between the solid counter and the upturned table, effectively changing places. "I'm better with a gun," Steve said, grabbing the .38 Clint had left for him. "And I'm sure Clint's better with ... onions than I am."
As if to confirm that statement, an onion went flying across the room via slingshot connecting with a solid thump and a yelp. Another wave of gunfire came at them , biting into the walls above their heads. Steve looked up in wonder.
"They're not terribly good shots, are they? Are they trying to drag this out for some reason?"
Natasha shrugged. "Maybe they didn't have dates for Valentine's Day either."
When Coulson arrived, the dust was already starting to settle. Literally. He deployed agents to secure the premises, collect the prisoners in custody, and deal with local law enforcement, which had started to assert its authority. He grabbed a first aid bag and went to check on his team.
He found Thor and Dr. Banner—mainly Thor—entertaining a crowd of civilians at the furthest perimeter. He left them to it. Aside from the occasional cultural misunderstanding, Thor was a walking, talking ad for all that was good and just. S.H.I.E.L.D's approval ratings tended to go up when Thor appeared on the news.
The other four were sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, their hair and clothes grey with dust and debris.
“Are any of you injured?” Phil asked, looking from one to the other. They all shook their heads. A splash of red caught his eye, and he reached out for the front of Barton's shirt. “Is that blood?”
“No, sir. It's tomato.”
The four of them looked a little wired, so Coulson cut them loose with a warning that he'd be by to debrief them the following morning. As he watched them join up with Banner and Thor to sign a few autographs before heading home, he thought he heard one of them say, “Best Valentine's Day ever,” followed by a round of raucous laughter.
The junior agents never could figure out why Coulson smiled periodically during the rest of the evening's clean-up.
+1. Date: I Don't Think It Means What You Think It Means
It was turning out to be a day from hell, and it was only 8:00 am. Phil had already sat through an hour long breakfast meeting to discuss budgetary concerns with the Department of Defense. The coffee had been cold, the orange juice warm, and the pastries had passed fresh sometime in the distant past.
But when he arrived at his office, there was a fresh, piping hot cup of coffee on his desk, made the way he liked it, and the freshest donut he had ever eaten. It tasted like it had been baked especially for him and whisked straight from the oven to the plate on his desk. Phil didn't understand how this had happened.
He buzzed Darcy Lewis who'd been working as a part-time assistant when he was pressed for time—which was a lot lately.
“Did you leave anything on my desk this morning?”
There was a pause while she considered. “No, sir. Is there a problem? Has there been a security breach?” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Do you need the bomb disposal unit? I have my tazer in my desk, and I can be there in—”
“It's quite alright, Darcy,” Phil said, not allowing the smile on his face to creep into his voice. “It's nothing.”
It was quite obviously something, but what exactly, Phil wasn't certain. He wasn't used to surprises—not pleasant ones, at least—appearing on his desk.
He didn't have much time to consider his secret benefactor, although he savored the coffee through his next two meetings. It somehow made them seem more bearable. It was almost one by the time Phil made it back to his desk, and this time there was a neatly wrapped sandwich, a bottle of water, and a mug of strong tea waiting for him. He pocketed the bottle of water, grabbed a different binder from his shelf, and picked up the tea and sandwich.
On second thought, he grabbed a piece of stationery from his desktop set and scrawled “thank you” across it, leaving it where the food had been. It wasn't enough to express his gratitude, but he hoped the person would understand. Whoever it was.
“Are we doing some sort of Secret Santa thing?” Phil asked Agent Hill on the way to the next meeting.
“It's February,” she said. “We'd either be really late or ridiculously early.”
“That's a 'no' then.”
“Why are you asking?”
Phil shook his head. No need to volunteer fodder for office gossip. “Following up on something.”
He finally had a free hour in the late afternoon, which was good because he had several phone calls and emails that required urgent attention. There was a knock at the door, and Phil said, “come in,” glancing up until a neat stack of typed reports was placed in front of him. When he looked up, he was caught by surprise, something that rarely happened anymore.
He looked from the stack of completed, on time reports to the man that had delivered them. Barton had eschewed his usual work attire of black cargo pants and black t-shirt for a beautifully tailored navy suit. Phil found himself staring, and as pathetic as it might be, he couldn't seem to look away. He'd known Barton for years, but he'd never seen him looking quite like this.
“Do you have an assignment?” Phil asked, grasping for a reason for the radical wardrobe change.
“Not unless you're giving me one.” Clint looked amused. “You like the suit? Tony helped pick it out. Well, and Pepper.”
There were days when Stark might be the biggest pain in Phil's ass, but the man had a fashion sense, and Pepper, God bless her, had terrible taste in men, but exquisite taste in everything else. Phil had to resist the urge to reach out and run his fingers along the lapels.
“It's very nice,” Phil agreed. “You look great in it.” The compliment was out of his mouth before he could stop it. He hoped it didn't sound creepy.
“Thank you,” Barton said, looking pleased. “And I brought your favorite: paperwork!”
“You brought me completed paperwork,” Phil said, flipping through the stack. Everything looked perfect. Maybe Clint had paid someone to do it. Blackmail was also a legitimate possibility, although everyone else was equally bad about completing reports, except for Natasha, and Phil knew her writing style. This was definitely in Clint's angular printing. “It's also suspiciously devoid of mysterious stains, mostly blank sections labelled 'Stark's fault', and oddly-shaped paperclips.”
Barton shrugged, and his jacket moved with him as if it was part of him. It was a thing of beauty. Phil was man enough to admit, at least to himself, he was having some trouble concentrating on the paperwork in front of him. His mouth felt dry, and he wondered if it would look odd if he dug his water bottle out now.
“I know you've got a lot of work to do, but I wanted to drop by and give you those.”
“Thanks.” Phil was still amazed, but he wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. “You never said why you're dressed up.”
Phil was reluctant to see Barton go, which was silly. He saw him all the time. They'd worked together for years. He considered him a friend, in a profession where friends were a liability. He trusted the man with his life.
“It's Valentine's Day,” Clint said, and Phil nodded. Right. He'd almost forgotten. Obviously Barton had a date that he wanted to look good for. Phil should be happy for him, but he couldn't quite manage it.
“The suit's a good choice. I'm sure your date will be impressed.”
“Who said anything about a date?”
“I doubt you're wasting that suit on the shooting range.”
“It does feel very James Bond,” Barton admitted, striking a pose, and Phil couldn't help but laugh. Clint shot him a playful grin, then left him to his work.
A weekly debrief with Director Fury and another round of phone calls and email follow-ups. Phil was getting better at delegating some tasks, but there was still so much of his job that was need-to-know. Senior agents were really the only ones he could designate certain tasks to, and they were generally too busy or needed elsewhere.
Around six, Barton stuck his head in again. “It's Valentine's Day, Phil,” he said, admonishment in his tone.
Phil warmed at the use of his first name. It was a rare indulgence, generally when they were off-the-clock or on their own (or with Natasha). Otherwise, they followed standard protocols. In the field it was often easier to think of Barton as “Agent Barton” first and “Clint” second, but over the years the lines had become considerably less well-defined.
“Some of this can't wait,” Phil explained.
“I bet some of it can.” Barton sat down across from the desk. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Phil was about to say no and send him off, but Clint looked sincere in his offer, and Phil knew him well enough to know he didn't make offers he didn't plan to follow through on. Also, his security clearance was more than adequate for the files Phil was working on.
“What about your date?”
“I have some time to spare.”
Phil looked at him gratefully. “Actually, it would be a tremendous help if you could have a look through those files. Your eyes might be exactly what we need.”
The stack was leaning dangerously, but Barton straightened it and pulled the pile closer to him. “What am I looking for?”
“Connections,” Phil said. “I know that's vague, but names, dates, places—anywhere there's overlap. We know there's a group that's been hitting military weapons caches, and we know they're planning something big, but we haven't been able to pin down exactly who's involved.”
For the next hour or so, Phil dealt with agent deployment issues, won a jurisdictional pissing match with the CIA, and managed to close a number of the open files on his desk. All the while, Barton worked on his stack, spreading files out on the floor, making occasional notes on a legal pad he'd snagged from Phil's desk, and most often sitting up on the back of the couch staring at the array of papers spread before him.
A quick knock and then Darcy Lewis was pushing through the door, carrying a large order of take-out.
“Darcy, why are you still here?” Phil asked. He might work ridiculous hours, but he certainly didn't expect it of part-time contract staff.
“I'm on my way home. This was my last task of the day.”
“You didn't have to—” Phil reached for his wallet.
“I didn't,” Darcy said, accepting a handful of bills from Clint and passing him the food. “Have a good night.”
Clint carried the containers to the desk, and Phil cleared a space for them. “When did you—”
“When you were busy grinding the CIA beneath your heel.”
Phil smirked. “You probably shouldn't have been here for that.”
Clint shrugged. “I like it when you go all paperwork ninja on them, citing regulations and statutes. Besides, they'd never know I was here. Sniper, remember?”
Phil considered that. Clint was down to shirtsleeves, cuffs rolled up to his elbows, and it looked like there was an ink stain on the delicately-striped white shirt. He'd never forgotten Clint was there, but he hadn't felt the need to keep track of his every movement, the way he usually did when someone was in his office. Phil supposed that was a sign of trust, but he didn't want Clint to feel taken advantage of.
“Stop thinking,” Clint said, handing him a fork and a pair of chopsticks. “Eat. Let me tell you what I found.”
Phil ate and as he listened the pieces started falling into place. “We should've caught that.”
Clint shrugged. “It's a clever set-up. Laddered cells, only one point of contact between each, and the contact changes depending on which group is being used. Plus, I think they might be getting inside help. That's why your guys have had such a hard time finding a pattern.”
“But you didn't.”
“You asked me to do one thing. I did it. It's kind of what I do, Phil.”
Phil knew Clint didn't like praise for simply doing his job, but this wasn't in his job description at all. Plus, Phil was pretty sure he'd managed to ruin Clint's date for the evening. He tried to feel bad about that, but his heart wasn't in it. Maybe he was selfish to want to keep Clint close by, especially when he wasn't sure he'd ever be ready to act on the chemistry between them.
“You know,” Clint said. “If the cells continue to function as they have been, they'll be looking to hit another weapons depot in the next day or so. Maybe even tonight.”
Phil knew an invitation when he heard it. “You feel up to a little recon?”
“I thought you'd never ask.” Clint wiped his mouth, and gathered up the empty containers to pitch into the trash. “I'll suit up and meet you at the jet.”
The army base was quiet when they arrived. Phil had given the base commander a heads-up, but asked him not to do anything that might alert personnel to their presence unless required. If someone planned to make a grab for the weapons, it would be best if everything seemed normal at the base.
“Talk to me,” Phil said into his radio. He couldn't see Barton on his perch atop one of the buildings, but that was kind of the point. Phil knew he was there, and keeping watch over everything.
“No suspect activity, nothing out of the ordinary.”
There was something comforting about Barton's voice in the dark. On some missions it had been the only thing keeping Phil tethered, and he knew it worked the same for Barton. Hours of watching, body always anticipating something, and the guy on the other end of that radio was the only thing that seemed real.
“Movement,” Barton said suddenly. “Perimeter fence, 30 yards to your two o'clock. Looks like they're using an inside man.” Clint's voice smacked of disapproval. He didn't have much use for people who betrayed their own.
“I see them. I'll alert the commander.” There was no need for heroics when they had an entire base of army personnel at their disposal. Phil pulled out his cel just as he heard a crackle through his headset.
“Barton? Clint?” No response. The dead cel in Phil's hand suggested an EMP pulse or some other type of jamming device was being employed to disrupt communications. He was going to have to sound the alarm the old-fashioned way—by causing a disturbance.
Phil checked his weapon and was preparing to move when he sensed movement behind him. Turning low, gun drawn, he was in time to see a figure falling towards him, a puzzled look on the man's face, an arrow sticking out of his back. Phil nodded, grateful, in the general direction where Clint was positioned.
Keeping to the shadows, Phil stayed low and followed the small group of men as they moved towards the armory. The two soldiers on guard duty had already been incapacitated, possibly by the inside man. Phil stopped to check for a pulse and was satisfied the downed soldiers were unconscious but seemingly unharmed. He slipped unseen through the door.
The armory was a large windowless storage facility with crates stacked in various sections. Phil ducked behind the set of crates nearest to him, and listened. Six men were standing in the center of the room by a truck that appeared to have been preloaded with weapons crates. It could've been a late arriving shipment that hadn't been unloaded yet, or it was possible the base had a serious problem with infiltration. Either way, it was essential to keep those weapons out of enemy hands.
Phil assessed the situation. Windowless meant Clint was blind here; he wouldn't be able to see Phil or any of the other men until they exited the building or opened the large central doors that would allow the truck to roll out. At the moment the men were contained, arguing about what extra crates to load onto the truck, but Phil didn't want this to end up in a stand-off where the bad guys could draw on a huge stockpile of weapons and ammo. Tear gas might be the easiest thing, but it wasn't something Phil carried on him, and he didn't know if Hawkeye still packed a few arrows fitted with tear gas canisters. There wasn't any way to convey that request to him at the moment, anyway.
Phil waited, running through several possible scenarios in his head. He filed away as much information as he could about the men—names they let slip, locations. He had about five more minutes before the truck was packed and he needed to decide on a strategy for stopping the truck without endangering the men on base if it could be avoided. He trusted Clint to disable the truck before it could leave the base, but Phil would rather it not even leave the building. Tear gas would have been a good all-around solution.
Phil felt a slight draft, and knew the door he'd come through had been opened. He manoeuvred around the crates so he could see both the likely route of whoever had entered and the truck the men were preparing to steal. Without warning, three arrows streaked towards the center of the room, smoke starting to pour out of the small attached canisters. Phil had a moment to consider how great minds think alike when Clint was suddenly at his side.
“Cover your nose and mouth, shut your eyes, and we don't have time for you to argue with me.” His voice sounded muffled, as if he was speaking through a mask of some kind, which made sense under the circumstances.
Phil could already feel the beginnings of a burning sensation prickling at his nose, so he held his breath, and did what he was told. The sensation of being hoisted onto someone's shoulders in a fireman carry was familiar, but usually Phil wasn't entirely conscious when it was happening. This just felt unnecessary. He was about to open his mouth to say so, but when he drew in breath, the burning got worse.
“What did I say about arguing with me?” Clint said, exasperated, and then Phil was being gently set down outside on solid ground. The air was blessedly free from the burning smoke.
All around him Phil could hear shouts and occasional bursts of automatic weapons fire. From what he could surmise, the men had leaped into the truck, thrown open the large doors to the outside, and tried to escape in the truck when the tear gas hit. Base security personnel had been waiting at the front for them, and after a short skirmish—the truck hadn't offered protection from the tear gas for more than the three men crammed in the front—all six men were in custody.
“Here,” Clint said, and Phil felt a wet cloth being put into his hands. “This should help. I'm sorry I couldn't pull you out of there first, but the commander's not the type to wait.”
Phil nodded. His eyes were stinging and his throat felt prickly, but he'd been exposed to very little of the gas.
“It's fine,” Phil said, and his voice was raspy. “It's what I would've done.”
It was another half-hour before they were able to iron out the paperwork to leave the men in military hands, and by that time, Phil's eyes were sore, but he could see normally. His throat no longer felt like it was burning.
Clint walked up to him after collecting his arrows. “Ready to leave, sir?”
“What's wrong with your hand?”
“You never hold your hand like that unless it's hurt, Agent Barton.” Phil's voice was still a bit rough, but it was all business. “Show me.”
“It's nothing.” Clint held up his palm and flexed his hand quickly. Phil caught it between his own before it could be withdrawn. He turned Clint's hand over and took in the scraped skin and blood.
“Bloody knuckles aren't nothing. Who've you been punching?”
“My men,” the Commander said. At least he sounded amused, Phil thought, and not as if he wanted a pound of flesh. “Seems there was a difference of opinion.”
Clint's face wasn't giving anything away, and Phil decided to let it go for the moment. “Thank you for your assistance, Commander.”
“Likewise, Agent Coulson. We wouldn't have known until it was too late to do anything about it.” The commander gave a quick nod of acknowledgement to Clint. “They used our own people against us. Loyalty's a damn rare quality these days.”
They shook hands, and Phil and Clint headed back to the S.H.I.E.L.D car they'd brought. They drove in silence until they were away from the base, and headed back towards the city. Phil picked a nicely deserted stretch of road and pulled over. He unbuckled his seat belt, reached across Clint and grabbed the field medical kit from the glove compartment.
“You're kidding, right?” Clint said.
“Give me your hand.”
“Bloody knuckles hardly require field treatment, sir.”
Phil didn't miss the emphasis on “sir,” but he chose to ignore it. He plucked Clint's hand from where it had been resting on his thigh and pulled it towards him. He tore open an antiseptic wipe with his teeth, then applied it to Clint's knuckles.
“Let me take a wild stab at what happened,” Phil said, concentrating on gently cleaning the scraped skin. “The commander ordered his men to hold position just outside the armory when you suggested tear gas deployment. Tear gas is non-lethal, so the commander felt there was no need to worry about pulling anyone out of there and possibly alerting the thieves. You took exception to the order; a couple of soldiers took exception to you. How am I doing?”
Clint's eyes were following the ministrations of Phil's hands as he applied antibacterial cream to the worst scrapes. “I had to get inside to fire the canisters anyway. What would've been the point of leaving you in there? Tear gas isn't pleasant.”
“You could've fired from the doorway,” Phil said knowingly. He wrapped a thin strip of gauze over and around Clint's knuckles. “But thank you for getting me out as fast as you did. The commander was right about one thing; loyalty is a rare quality.”
Phil looked at his handiwork. The gauze was probably unnecessary, but it would ensure the wounds stayed clean. He smoothed down the ends of the wrap and neatly tucked in the ends.
“I'm sorry you had to miss your date,” Phil said, not looking up from where he was still holding onto Clint's hand.
“I didn't miss it.”
“I didn't miss it. I was exactly where I'd planned to be. Making sure he ate throughout the day, helping where I could, buying him dinner.”
Phil looked up in genuine surprise, but he didn't have any idea what to say.
“Then we busted some bad guys together, and now we're sitting in a dark car, and you're holding my hand.” Clint laced their fingers together and brought Phil's hand to his lips. “Unless you have a strenuous objection, I'm going to kiss you now.”
Clint slipped out of his seat belt and leaned across the space between the seats. The hand that wasn't holding Phil's settled at the back of his neck and gently tugged. Phil let his eyes fall closed even as Clint's lips pressed against his in a kiss that was sweet and slow and tender all at once. It didn't stay that way for long, though, and Phil couldn't help the low growl he let out as Clint pulled back. They were both breathing hard.
“Next time I'm your Valentine's Day date, you should probably let me know,” Phil said.
“So we can skip the part where you're pretending not to be jealous of my imaginary date?”
“How about so we can skip straight to dessert,” Phil offered, moving in to kiss Clint again, a little harder and with more tongue. He felt somewhat giddy. There was no way he could've imagined he would end up sitting in a car, making out with Clint Barton at the end of today.
“Can we take this somewhere a little more—”?
“Private?” Phil supplied.
“Comfortable,” Clint said, pulling back reluctantly. “Preferably somewhere with a bed.”
“Are you tired?”
Clint's blue eyes were determined, and Phil thought back to the day he'd had. Even though it had been full of challenges and meetings and things that didn't go according to plan, he'd felt looked after the entire day. In fact, he'd had a pretty decent Valentine's Day considering his original plans had been to bury himself in work and try to forget about its romantic implications (at least until someone—Stark—managed something stupid as per usual.)
“Can you wear the suit?”
Clint laughed. “I owe Pepper twenty bucks. She said the suit would do it.”
“You don't owe her anything,” Phil said, slipping the car back into drive. “It wasn't the suit; it was you.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere.”
“I sincerely hope so.”
“What if I tell you I'm not that kind of boy?”
“I'll know you're lying.”
It was good to hear Clint laugh, sounding relaxed and happy in the darkness beside him. Phil kept hold of his hand and didn't let go until they were safely home. He kissed Clint again, under the motion-sensor light at Phil's front door, in the hallway where they were fumbling like teenagers, and finally, when Clint was laid out naked beneath him against pale blue sheets.
“Happy Valentine's Day,” Clint murmured against his lips, and Phil could honestly say it was the best Valentine's day he'd ever spent.
“So, what do you have planned for our second date?” Phil asked casually.
The pillow that hit him in the head was exactly the answer he'd been expecting.