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The file was thick and ragged, the manila envelope frayed at the edges and the string fuzzy with long use. The label's edges had scrubbed across so many other files that they were faded and frayed but the typed words were still readable.

 

   S.H.I.E.L.D. Personnel File

   BARTON, Clinton F.

   Specialist (sniper)

   Personnel no. 034185

   FPG subsection S.H.I.E.L.D. - 9a

   Handler: -none-

 

Coulson considered it for a moment, then looked up at Suzy Lepinski from HR. She had the grace to look at least a little embarrassed.

"Sorry, Agent Coulson. Agent Hennigston put him back in the pool and we haven't got anyone else with sniper specialization free for four months in a row."

"I see. What did Hennigston say was the reason for putting him back in the pool?"

Lepinski shrugged. "Same thing as always. No respect for authority, always mouthing off." She flicked the edge of the envelope. "And some other things I didn't put down."

Coulson nodded. "Thank you."

"Anytime." She left, pulling the door shut behind her, leaving him alone.

Coulson sighed. It would be his first time working closely with Barton if not the first time working with the man at all. He'd been on several operations, led by other agents, and each time he had been impressed by Barton's aim and patience. Unfortunately, his virtues didn't extend to keeping his mouth shut and as the file reminded him, Coulson had been unwilling witness to two blowups, both of which culminated in Barton being returned to the open pool. One included a black mark against both Barton and his handler.

Agent Johnston, Barton's handler for the operation, had been scarlet with rage and at the final wisecrack, hauled back and slammed his fist into Barton's face. Then, on his realization that he had murdered his career, he'd gone practically green. Coulson remembered having to hold him up for a moment when it seemed that he was going to pass out. Barton, however, had simply taken the punch.

Coulson still was unsure whom he blamed more. Barton had turned provocation into a fine art and admitted it during his disciplinary hearing. It turned out to be the only thing saving Agent Johnston from a dishonorable discharge for punching a subordinate in the face.

Coulson opened the file and found the entry for the date of the disciplinary hearing. The demerit was in there, along with a note by the panel's presiding judge Coulson hadn't known about.

    This panel of judges concludes that Specialist Barton did not act with the intent to destroy working relations with Special Agent Johnston. It reprimands him for provocative behavior (reg. 218c) and commends him for speaking to exonerate Special Agent Johnston.

Interesting, to say the least. Coulson remembered the operation, if only because of its dramatic ending. Johnston and Barton had been at each other the entire time Coulson had been on location, Barton making wisecracks and Johnston ordering silence, no chatter, dammit Barton and finally shut the fuck up. Barton had gone quiet for a while and then started up again.

And this was what Coulson would be dealing with for the next four months on Operation Springtime. He felt a momentary pang of sympathy for Johnston.

***

Coulson collected his team's files - Jasper Sitwell as second in command; Janice Brown on demolitions; Shelly Kostas for surveillance; Matthew Kendricks undercover; and finally Barton as sniper.

Brown and Kostas were seasoned operatives in their thirties, solid without brilliance, competent without creativity. Coulson approved; creativity was likely to get messy in the field and neither of them had enough initiative to get out of whatever they had gotten into. They were also from the general pool, but only because their previous handler had retired. To grow petunias, of all things.

Kendricks was all of twenty-two, recruited straight out of basic on the say-so of his superior officers and his dramatic arts teacher. He wasn't Coulson's first choice for the operation - too young, not enough seasoning, but he fit the target's preferred type perfectly. It was to be hoped he wouldn't crack under pressure.

They were already waiting for him in the briefing room, Brown and Kostas joking, Kendricks watching them like a puppy and Barton sullen in the back. Coulson waved Sitwell next to him and began.

"As you know, you have been assigned to Operation Springtime. Operation Springtime is meant to neutralize a Wisconsin militia with ties to arms dealers. It is our intention to find the individuals behind this organization's suppliers in order to close them down. The operation's preliminary schedule comes in at four months. During this time, you will be working exclusively within this operation and this team. It has been classified as class two hazard, meaning that you are earning an additional eleven percent for the duration of this operation. Kendricks, in your case it's class four hazard. Standard remunerations applies; if you have any questions regarding pay, please see Ms. Lepinski from HR." Coulson put up his first slide, snapshots of two men dressed in green fatigues.

"We intended to allow more time for research and setup but there has been a development. Two of the militia's officers will be meeting with potential sponsors day after tomorrow. These are the officers, Adam March and Kenny Hill. No relation to Maria Hill and I'll thank you not to suggest it to her."

March was thickset, about fifty, with the fixed expression of a bull. Hill's face was dominated by his nose and bad skin. Coulson let his gaze wander over his team, coming to rest it on Barton, who was slouched against the wall on his chair, leaving the impression that he did not care particularly where he was and what he was supposed to be doing.

"As of yet, we do not know who their sponsors are. The meeting will take place here." Coulson closed the slide and opened a satellite image of a gas station and motel surrounded by woods. "Our intention is not to make arrests yet but to ascertain the identity of the sponsors. To that end, Specialists Brown and Kostas will bug the sponsors and the militia's officers while Specialist Kendricks will allow himself to be recruited into the militia. Specialist Barton will provide backup for this meeting."

Coulson paused. Brown and Kostas were already taking notes while Kendricks did what he did best - look wide-eyed and gullible. Their tasks were clear enough; he went through them step by step, outlining parameters and asking for input. It took about half an hour before he was satisfied that Sitwell, Brown, Kostas, and Kendricks were clear on their jobs. Barton hadn't moved from this slouch.

"Specialist Barton." Barton jumped, obviously surprised at being singled out, the front legs of his chair hitting the ground. "From a sniper's perspective, what are the advantages and disadvantages of the vantage points?"

Barton's eyes were wide; had he really expected not to be asked? But they narrowed quickly and Coulson braced himself for the wisecrack, ready to shut Barton down. But Barton hesitated for a moment, then pointed at the back of the motel roof. "This gives the best lines of sight for the open space. Disadvantage is that I'll be likely visible."

Coulson nodded and noted it down. "What about other possibilities?"

Barton looked down for a moment, as if just realizing that he was the only one without a notepad, then met Coulson's eyes and went through the possibilities one by one. Coulson nodded and asked for his recommendation.

"This one," Barton said, pointing at the high point he'd described earlier as difficult but with the best camouflage. There was a hint of smirk on his face that made Coulson's neck itch. Shades of Johnston.

"Reason?"

"I can make the shots and am least likely to give the operation away by simply being there."

No smartassery after all. Maybe they'd get though this in one piece. "Very well. Anything else?" Coulson was not expecting any but Barton surprised him.

"Do we have the weather report for the area?"

Sitwell raised his eyebrows but pulled it up. Barton pointed at an orange symbol next to a tree. "The area is in danger of forest fire and the meeting is at a gas station. Can we find an excuse to block part of the area with maybe a big truck or something between the meet and the fuel tanks at the station?"

Kostas turned back to grin at Barton. "You already planning on shooting up the joint?"

"No," Barton said, voice carefully neutral. Coulson remembered the tone and delivery aimed at Johnston and this was not it. "I'm going to take a bow along with a gun - if that's okay, Agent Coulson?"

Coulson nodded. "Bow is confirmed. Let Agent Sitwell know if you need anything else out of the ordinary."

Sitwell was tapping away at his net book. "We'll arrange for a sand-filled truck to have a breakdown right between the gas station and the motel, here." He pointed it out on the satellite image. "Will that interfere too much with the lines of sight?"

Barton shook his head. "That works."

Coulson considered the new layout. "Kendricks, make sure you time your approach so they don't get too close to the gas station. Brown, Kostas, when you create distraction to plant the bugs, create it on the motel side of the lot to keep their attention as far away from the gas station as possible. Alter your escape routes so that they do not pass the gas station." The specialists made notes. Barton, without paper or pen, had fixed his eyes on the satellite image, memorizing it.

Sitwell took over. "Neither of these men has a prior conviction and they have permits to carry concealed. It's extremely likely that they are carrying. Depending on who the sponsors are, they may be armed as well. We are issuing all but Kendricks with body armor, just in case..."

***

Mission command in this case was not a vehicle as the area did not see many visitors and the militia would grow suspicious at unmarked vans all over the vicinity. Instead, Coulson had his team arrive in nondescript limousines, his own a dented buick with an "I brake for Jesus" sticker. Barton had sat quietly next to him, dressed in jeans and t-shirt as was Coulson. Hunters from out of state was the cover as far as the motel owner was concerned. It helped that Barton, given the chance, transformed into a slightly retarded good ol' boy without effort.

Barton vanished for the roof an hour before the meet started. Coulson set up his equipment and waited.

Hurry up and wait, they'd called it in the Rangers, making a joke of the see-saw reality of soldiering. It hadn't been what Coulson had expected when he'd joined. Come to think of it, Coulson wasn't sure what exactly he had expected. He had enlisted right out of High School, one without an ROTC program. And since this had been before the internet, most of his information came from recruitment brochures and the media. Comics in particular, Coulson remembered wryly, his hands going through the motions of checking his equipment. Looking back at the eighteen-year-old he had been, he felt the need to pat his younger self on the head for earnestness. Then again, he hadn't precisely outgrown his admiration for Captain America. He still had all the comics, he had the trading cards, and he - still - occasionally judged himself by what Captain America would think of him.

Not often, now. Not anymore. He'd seen several wars from the pointy end and while he'd never lost the will to fight for his country, he'd finally learned the most important thing, that fighting a war meant that you had already lost the real, the secret war: the preventing of the war. It was why he'd joined S.H.I.E.L.D., it was why he was sitting in a dark motel room, it was why he battled the daily paperwork, it was why he occasionally hated his working hours with a passion and why he never for one moment doubted that he was doing the right thing, the best thing.

Despite holding it up against Captain America and quietly wondering if he measured up.

Barton's voice came in softly over the comm. "I have visual."

Showtime. Kostas and Brown came in, stating readiness. Coulson told them to let it play out and waited. Right until someone shot a bazooka into the meet.

Coulson did not check the window but flicked the microphone. "Report."

Coughing and cursing from both Kostas and Brown. Barton, voice pitched low, came in. "Sponsors down. Six masked hostiles from the militia moving across to the truck, heavily armed. Sight confirmed. Waiting on call."

"Can you take six?"

"Negative. Four confirmed in line of sight. Fifteen seconds."

Coulson grimaced. "Intentions?"

"Relaxed, sure of victory. Ten seconds."

"Do not, repeat, do not fire. Remain in position, report changes."

"Confirmed, no fire."

Coulson readied his gun. "Kostas, Brown, report."

"Fucking hell," Kostas whispered. "Sorry, Agent. We've got the six almost here, doesn't look like they'll do anything. We're playing possum."

"Acknowledged, Kostas. Barton, you're cleared to fire if necessary. Use your own initiative."

"Confirmed, fire if necessary," Barton whispered over Brown's groaned "We're doomed..."

Coulson waited a moment longer for the wisecrack. It didn't come.

The next thing he heard was a shouted "Fuck!" from Kostas, gunshots, then shouting. So much for getting through this without a shoot-up. He kicked open the door, gun braced and aimed.

Three bodies on the ground, unmoving - the sponsors. Kostas, only just on his knees, fumbling for his gun. Brown, grappling with one of the hostiles, his gun already on the ground. Two bodies from the militia, splatter from headshots. As Coulson sprints toward them, a third falls, body twisting as he goes down, leaving two unoccupied and obviously panicked. One yanks his arms up, shrieking, and starts to run. He's out of the action, so Coulson lets him go, aiming at the last one who's bringing his weapon around wildly, aiming vaguely in Coulson's direction, wide eyes visible under the mask.

"Hold fire, that one's Kendricks," Barton's voice comes in and gravel explodes five feet in front of Kendricks who makes the turn and runs after the fleeing militia. Brown downs her assailant, elbow on his neck. Coulson fires two shots after Kendricks, carefully nowhere near him. Kendricks turns the corner of the building. Kostas gains his feet and draws his gun, securing the sponsors. Coulson lowers his gun and flicks his microphone.

"Barton, where are they going?"

"The woods. Kendricks has caught up to the guy, should be at their pickup soon."

"Good. Keep watch while we clean up."

"Acknowledged," Barton said after a moment. Coulson had the impression he'd been about to say something else, but thought better of it. Not that it mattered.

Clean up commenced. Coulson called in Sitwell to deal with the damage and inspected the truck. There were several bullet holes in the side. The angles suggested that the bullets would have gone right into the gas station's fuel tanks. Coulson dug one out of the dented metal and dropped it into an evidence bag, depositing it in his coat pocket.

Credit where credit was due. He switched the microphone back on, holding the filter button that let him talk to Barton only. "Good instincts."

A moment's silence. "Thank you, sir."

That appeared to be it.

***

After Coulson finished the progress report, Fury looked pensive, tapping his pen on the form. "No complaints about Barton?"

"Not at this juncture."

"Let's hope it lasts. I'm going to dump another problem on you."

Coulson kept his face expressionless. The reward for a job well done is a worse job. "Boss?"

Fury leaned forward. "What do you know about Natasha Romanov?"

"Code-named Black Widow, Russian, worked for the KGB then went freelance, one of the top five assassins in the last decade. Merciless killer, sting training, known for corporate espionage. Successful despite being known so it's likely her reputation is well-deserved."

"That about covers it," Fury said and pushed a file - red cover - at Coulson. "Except that it's outdated. We've recruited her into S.H.I.E.L.D. last year."

Coulson stared at the file. "How did I not know about this?"

"Because there were precisely three people who did," Fury told him. "Myself, Ann Grimm from HR and the operative who did not kill the Black Widow when ordered to and instead decided to hang out with her for a few months and bring her in."

Oh, no. "You're telling me -"

"Yeah," Fury said, mouth quirking. "Barton."

"That's not in his file." He'd read the thing front to back, including the annotations.

"No, it is not. It's only in hers." Fury tapped the red file. "I wasn't sure about this at all. But Barton makes a convincing case when he wants to and she seems to like him, God knows why. She's been going through Basic under another name and she's been acing it. Her skill set is something we can very much use. Her loyalty, well, we'll have to see about that. So I'm intending to make her first assignment easy on her."

"You want to pair her with Barton," Coulson said.

"Such was my intention. Any thoughts?"

Coulson considered it. "Not knowing her, I can only make guesses."

Fury grinned. "You're a handler, not an analyst. Guess away."

"If she's likely to betray us, Barton is most likely to notice a difference in behavior. Their skill sets overlap so if she's sabotaging the mission, he's also likely to realize. Assuming she is trustworthy, she'll have a friend in him. That's not a mistake."

Fury nodded. Coulson hesitated, then added, "If they spent months together, they also might mesh well. Sum greater than the parts."

"Glad you see it my way," Fury said. "So. Congratulations, you now have the Black Widow on your team. Go see her, she knows you're her new handler."

Coulson shook his head. "You were pretty sure I wouldn't run screaming in the other direction, Boss."

Fury grinned at him, twirling his pen between his fingers. "Coulson, as long as I get you someone competent, you ain't gonna complain. Now have fun."

***

Coulson found Romanov in her assigned quarters. She answered his knock immediately and was standing at parade rest when he came in. A striking woman.

"Agent Coulson."

No hint of an accent, body still and poised, face unreadable, wary and distanced. He'd be able to work with her.

"Specialist Romanova."

She raised her eyebrows, then, surprisingly, her lips twitched. "Romanov is fine. Explaining is - repetitive."

"Understood." He gestured and she relaxed marginally. "Director Fury has already told you that you'll be joining my team. This is a temporary team and a temporary assignment but we can use your expertise for it." He smiled and offered her his hand. "Welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D.."

Romanov shook his hand. Her grip was strong, her hand dry. "Thank you, Agent Coulson."

"Just Coulson is fine. I'm your handler, not a superior officer."

She nodded. "Coulson."

"Then let's go so you can meet your team members."

***

Surprisingly, Romanov smiled, genuinely, when she saw Barton.

"Clint."

"Natasha." He was also grinning and instead of the cool greetings of Kostas and Brown, went right over and caught her in a hug, face in her hair. He whispered something Coulson didn't understand and Romanov laughed richly, Barton's face lighting up at the sound. It was the most feeling he'd shown since he'd joined the team. Coulson breathed deeply to kill the spike of jealousy, irrational as it was.

Romanov pulled back, looked Barton over for a moment, then hugged him again. Coulson debated clearing his throat but before he ran out of patience, Romanov let Barton go, smile fading back into professionalism.

"You two know each other?" Brown asked, irritated.

Romanov and Barton exchanged a glance; he dipped his head at her. "Yes," she said.

"Yes? That's it?" Kostas demanded. Coulson was beginning to get an inkling that Romanov wasn't about to bring more peace to his team.

"That was your question, wasn't it?" Romanov said but the innocent tone had to be fake. Barton remained silent.

"I don't know how you do things in Russia, but-" Kostas started.

Coulson interrupted immediately. "Specialist Kostas, Specialist Romanov is a grown-up and can decide for herself how much to tell you about her private life or, indeed, about her professional one. She is a member of this team and as such holds the same rank as you. If you wish to instruct her about American conventions, you may ask her if she wants you to. Respectfully. Thank you."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

Romanov smiled at him then turned to Coulson, obviously waiting for something - orders, instructions, probably. Barton looked as if he was biting his tongue for all he was worth.

Coulson's mother had been a judge. His father had run a daycare. Sometimes he wondered if either job wouldn't have been easier.

***

Operation Springtime continued two days later with annoyance.

"Barton, come in. Barton, come in." Goddammit. Had Barton finally lost it? Or had he just lost his comm? Either was possible and the only way Coulson was going to find out was to climb up there and check.

The rain was icy, pinpricks against his neck and face, soaking him to the skin within seconds. Sniper's friend, it was called despite its discomfort. Nobody ever looked up into it. Barton should have been safe enough.

The metal of the ladder was slippery under his shoes and it rang softly as he climbed it. If Barton was just fucking with him, Coulson was going to bury the man under so much paperwork he'd need weeks just to find the bathroom again. If the first thing that greeted him was the smirk that had turned Johnston into the Hulk's younger cousin, Barton could sort out the filing system for the archived files prior to 1900. It needed to get done and up to now, nobody had pissed off Tallulah Gruber from Archives that much. If Coulson hand-delivered Barton to her as a volunteer, she'd probably worship at his feet.

But Archives would have to wait. Barton wasn't smirking, Barton wasn't trying to get his comm to work. Barton was not on the roof.

Coulson strode over to the air conditioning unit Barton had been hiding against. Its side and the roof right next to it were not as iced over as the rest of the roof, but getting there. Barton had to have been gone for at least fifteen minutes. Twenty-two at the longest, Barton's last check-in had been shortly before radio silence.

Coulson circled the air conditioning unit, hoping against hope. No Barton. Maybe Barton had sought shelter against the rain? Unlikely, Coulson had personally seen him remain in position through worse weather. So where was he?

"Barton, come -" Coulson fell silent. An echo? "Barton?" Not quite an echo. And it was coming from the ledge. He got down on his knees, ice and slush soaking his knees uncomfortably. "Barton?"

There. Wedged between the wall and the copper drainpipe was Barton's rifle, still assembled, the comm attached to it by its cable. Coulson pulled at the rifle, finding it stuck tightly in the narrow space. With a little judiciously applied force it came loose and he brought it up. Not even the sight had been detached, leaving it slightly bent. Barton had been in a hurry.

The comm, Coulson found when he had disentangled it, had been set to maximum volume. Barton had wanted it to be found. The REC button's tiny LED showed that a recording had been made. Coulson hit playback.

Static, then Barton's voice, so soft that even at max volume, Coulson could hardly make out his words. "Hostiles closing in, capture cannot be avoided without risk of fatal injury. Will permit capture and attempt escape. Tracer activated." A pause, sounds of metal on metal - the rifle being wedged in place, probably. "Coulson, if you're hearing this, thanks for - you know. Was good working with you." Another hesitation, then Coulson could practically hear the grin in Barton's voice. "Give the bastards Hell."

Captured, then. Coulson patched into Sitwell's channel. "Sitwell. Barton's been captured, tracing chip is active. Set up a trace, then report."

"Captured? I hate this op." A moment's silence. "Trace set up. Give it a few minutes."

"Acknowledged." Coulson dropped Barton's comm into his pocket, slung the rifle over his shoulder and climbed back down. Brown was sitting below the van's awning, Romanov stood guard at the exposed side. Both frowned on seeing him alone.

"Where's Barton?" asked Brown from her perch. "He get lost on the way down?"

"Barton has been captured," Coulson said and played the first part of the message back for them. Brown rolled her eyes but said nothing, just nodded as he handed her the rifle and comm to take back to Supplies and Equipment and left him alone with Romanov.

Romanov watched Coulson warily, waiting. Coulson raised his eyebrow at her. "Any comments?"

"We are getting him back, yes?"

I don't know how you do things in Russia, but- Coulson remembered the look on her face when Kostas had said it to her and took a step closer, putting his hand on her arm.

"Natasha. We will do our very best to find him and get him back safe and sound. He isn't expendable. None of you are."

"It doesn't sound like it when the others are talking," Romanov said. But she didn't pull away.

"I know. They think it's cool." Her mouth twitched. "And while there may come a situation where you will become expendable, things would have to be much, much more desperate for that. Preventing nuclear war, for instance. This operation is not worth your lives." Coulson hoped she would read the earnestness in his face. "We will find him, we will rescue him, we will get him back alive and well. And if we cannot do that, we will avenge him. We're S.H.I.E.L.D. and we don't misplace our people. Any of them."

Romanov nodded. "What do you need me to do?"

"For now, wait. Sitwell is tracing Barton's chip. As soon as we know where he is, you'll go on recon, then we plan the extraction."

Romanov nodded. "Yes. Sir."

He smiled. "Coulson is fine. Or Agent, even. You don't need to sir me."

"Consider it a sign of respect," Romanov said.

***

The trace ended where they all had expected it to: the militia's headquarters. Coulson sent Romanov to scout out the place and the news she brought back wasn't good. Extraction would have to wait until night shift.

Romanov, hair still wet from the drizzling rain, but at least in a dry jacket, pointed out where Barton was being held. "I triangulated from here, here, and here. The lines intersect here, on the south side of this building." She drew an X on the map. "Unfortunately, that's a solid wall. They have sent out additional patrols along these lines, and stationary guards at these points. I estimate twenty to twenty-five hostiles awake during the day shifts, and only eight during night shift. That's outside - the inside of the building may have more."

Sitwell and Coulson studied the map. "We'll need the S.W.A.T. team after all," Sitwell finally sighed.

"Agreed," Coulson said. "We'll plan the assault for 2:15 a.m. Get them here two hours earlier for briefing." Sitwell left. Coulson went back to the map but felt Romanov watching him.

"Yes?"

"Thank you."

He frowned. "What for?"

"Being honest. Honorable." The slight twitch of her shoulder indicated a shrug. "Most of the people in this country, they - talk a good game, as you say. But when it comes down to doing, the game is not so good."

"Our people, too?" His gesture included not only the two of them but the activity going on around them.

"S.H.I.E.L.D.? Rarely. Your politicians, your lawyers, the televangelists on TV. People on the internet."

Coulson suppressed the smile that wanted to come out. "Not the best examples."

She nodded. "Hard to get used to, sometimes. But you're - genuine. So thank you." She shook back her drying hair. "I'll go and sleep before the assault."

That was surprising. "You'll be able to sleep?"

Romanov smiled, razor-sharp. "Yes. Of course. I need to be awake and ready to get Barton out. Not exhausted and sloppy because I've been up for thirty hours straight."

Coulson nodded. "Then rest well."

***

"I'll keep this short and to the point. The object of this assault is to extract our operative Specialist Clint Barton." Coulson brought up Barton's picture. "He was captured at fifteen hundred hours today and immediately brought here. There has not been a sighting. The trace on his chip indicates that he is being held here." The picture switched to Natasha's map. "It is currently unknown if he is alive or dead. Our object is to bring him back alive and as unhurt as possible." A pause. Coulson surveyed the team S.H.I.E.L.D. had brought together for this operation. "Specialist Barton is part of Operation Springtime, intended to discover the sources of weapons of this militia and to close it down. There are approximately thirty hostiles, members of a militia. It has been the subject of an operation for several months. This is Specialist Matthew Kendricks, currently undercover as a militia member. Please try not to shoot him." Romanov shot him a glare from her seat in the first row. "We are expecting assault rifles, automatic and semiautomatic rifles, all kind of handguns. The hostiles are mostly gun crazies with a grudge against society. Assume that they are willing and able to resist arrest.

"Assault begins at 2:15 a.m. Agent Sitwell will take point with Squad One to secure the outside compound. Squad Two is with me and will proceed immediately into the building to extract Specialist Barton. Yes?"

Brown had raised her arm. "What if Barton's dead?"

"Then we recover the body," Coulson said. "This brings us to our secondary objective. This militia is going down tonight. Make any arrests you can, focusing on these men, Adam March and Kenny Hill. No Maria Hill jokes, please. Thank you." There was still low laughter but the rest of the briefing went quietly. "Squad Three, securing of arrested hostiles. Squad Four, surveillance. Any questions? Then let's roll."

The initial assault goes clean and quick. Coulson and his squad get to the building entrance before anyone can even think of raising the alarm. Inside is a different story. It takes Kostas too long to find the fuse box to control the electronic locks. By the time he's finally gotten them all, his squad has fanned out to take down the hostiles. Coulson and Romanov are alone on point, moving quietly toward the end of the building where they believe Barton is being held. Romanov halts first, lifts her hand to tap her ear.

Coulson stops, listens. Voices, two. One is pitched high, the other grating. He takes careful aim at the door ahead of them. Romanov signs readiness. He shakes his head, closes his eyes. Barton is in there. They cannot get this wrong. He breathes out slowly, opens his eyes. Nods at Romanov and is ready when she kicks open the door.

Light, three people. Two men standing. One is Kendricks, white-faced and cornered. The other is March behind an AK-47, and Coulson has no time to deal with the third person, he squeezes the trigger and blood explodes from March's arm and the AK-47 goes up. Then Romanov is there to make sure the muzzle stays pointed up which she does by breaking March's elbow to secure the gun and then slams her knee into March's jaw. Coulson hears bone shattering and aims at Kendricks who still has not reacted much to what's just happened.

But Kendricks drops his weapon now, face crumpled. "Thank God you're here," is all he'll say but he stumbles out of Coulson's way, so Coulson is fine with Kendricks having his panic attack as long as he does it quietly. He's got something more important to take care of.

Barton was secured on his knees, arms bound behind him and pulled up by means of a rope attached haphazardly to the ceiling's light fixture. His jacket and shirt were missing, his feet bare. He was bruised badly, particularly his face which was swollen and discolored. His eyes were completely shut. The backs of his shoulders were dark with blood and the fabric of his trousers was shiny with some kind of liquid. Coulson made sure he wasn't bleeding freely anywhere, then checked on Romanov. She nodded at him. "I have this. You check on Barton." She jerked her head in Barton's direction.

Coulson turned back to Barton. "Barton, it's Coulson. Can you hear me?" Barton nodded jerkily but didn't try to talk. "Good. We're securing the area. I'm calling for medical assistance right now." Barton nodded again, breath going short and labored.

Coulson made the call to the paramedics, then informed Sitwell that they had Barton alive but injured. He knelt before Barton and carefully helped him stand. He was unsteady on his feet but his breathing eased as soon as the strain on his arms lessened. Coulson braced him against his chest and reached around him to remove the restraints and found himself with Kendricks's shaking hand before his face, holding out the key to the handcuffs, still white and unhappy. Coulson took it from him and unlocked the first cuff, carefully easing Barton's arm from its unnatural position to his front, moving back slightly to inspect Barton's fingers. They were pale but not blue, obviously uninjured. The wrist was skinned but at least not broken. He carefully tucked Barton's hand into his belt, allowing his arm to recover without hanging down. Coulson repeated gesture and inspection with Barton's other arm, causing Barton to make a whistling sound between his teeth. But as soon as he had both hands in front of him, he was lacing his fingers together.

"Paramedics are on the way," Coulson told him. Barton's mouth twitched. "Do you need anything right now?"

"Bathroom," Barton slurred.

Coulson threw a look at Kendricks who seemed to want the ground to swallow him. "Um, over there."

"Can you walk?" Coulson asked, mind already on finding Barton a bottle or something.

"Yeah." Barton leaned forward slowly, taking his weight off Coulson stiffly but steadily. Fair enough. With both Kendricks and Coulson assisting, he was able to make it to the bathroom. He fumbled the zipper twice before Coulson covered his hand with his own, turned him around and drew the zipper down, then pulled down Barton's trousers and underwear and settled him on the toilet. Barton leaned his head back, resting it against the tiled wall behind him. "Thanks. You can go now," he said a little more clearly.

Coulson jerked his head and Kendricks fled. "Safety first, Barton. Don't worry, I won't peek."

Barton laughed, raspily, then winced when a cut on his lip broke open again. "Such a straight line."

Coulson felt something ease in his chest. "Give it your best shot, then."

"So many to choose from," Barton whispered, face relaxed as he emptied his bladder. "Want to play peek-a-boo? Afraid you'll feel inadequate? What if I want you to peek?"

Coulson laughed. "Barton, why are you in S.H.I.E.L.D. and not doing stand-up comedy?"

More blood sprang up from Barton's lip as he grinned. "Because I'm sitting down?"

"That'll be it."

"Good news, though," Barton said contemplatively.

"Yes?"

"Pissing doesn't hurt." A hesitation. "Uh. Sir, can you check - I can't see right, eyes are swollen - is there any blood?"

Coulson checked. "No, nothing. Ready?"

"Yeah."

Coulson called back Kendricks and by the time they'd maneuvered Barton out of the bathroom, the paramedics had arrived. Barton was deposited on a stretcher and carried off. So was March, as Romanov had not only broken every tooth in his mouth but knocked him unconscious in the process. She did not look repentant.

Clean-up commenced. Hill had also been arrested, as well as thirty-two other militia members. There had been no casualties and Sitwell was coordinating processing smoothly. Coulson dismissed his team at 5 a.m. and drove back to S.H.I.E.L.D. where he was met by Fury.

"Don't you have a home to go to?" Coulson asked, eye on his watch.

Fury raised his eyebrows at him and waved him into his office. "I never see it anyhow. Sitwell already send me the preliminary. Anything that can't wait till you've had some sleep?"

"Romanov."

Fury frowned and sat down. "Go on."

"There's a lot of potential there but also a lot of uncontrolled violence. I realize you want her to get used to our way of doing things but she'd be better served by surgical strike missions. At least until she has a better handle on S.H.I.E.L.D. - and America in general."

"Why're you telling me this now?"

Coulson sighed. "Because the report will state that she used undue force in subduing March, who may sue us for his teeth. That's all of his teeth, by the way."

Fury whistled. "Go Romanov."

"On the other side of the coin, Romanov was the one agent on my team who strongly implied that if we weren't getting Barton back, she was going to do it alone. Strong loyalty, determination."

"I see." Fury leaned back in his chair. "Can't say I'm surprised. We'll need to figure something out with her. Just asking, Phil - would you keep her?"

Coulson nodded. "Absolutely."

"All right. Now get some sleep and make your report after debriefing them."

Coulson nodded and went down to his office where he unrolled his travelling futon, the wisest investment he'd made after joining S.H.I.E.L.D.. At least today, he thought as he pulled the blanket over himself, the mission had been a success. Barton was alive, the militia arrested. He couldn't ask for more.

***

The S.H.I.E.L.D. hospital wing had originally been a quarantine ward and the amount of airlocks and clearance-only access doors were a testament to that. Coulson walked through them all, Sitwell a step behind him, to Barton's room. The medical report had been more terse than usual, with a note that Barton was expected to be released within no more than two days. Coulson considered the list of injuries and wondered at the projected timeline, remembering the many notations in Barton's file about being difficult.

"We're taking a detour," he said.

Barton's doctor, a silver-haired man with the dignity of an English Lord and the stuffiness of a fairground toy, was somewhat cagey about the timeline.

"Why keep him here longer than necessary, Agent Coulson?" he asked, but he wouldn't quite meet Coulson's eyes. Coulson felt Sitwell shift behind him; he'd noticed as well.

"If it's not necessary, there is no reason he should stay longer," said Coulson. "However, it seems to me that if he's to be on medical leave for the projected four weeks, two days under observation is a little short."

"Well, yes." Doctor Smithers cleaned his glasses, again looking anywhere but at Coulson. "However, most of that medical leave is due to requalification and he makes such a difficult patient -"

Translation: Barton is being a smartass, mommy, and I don't want him in my room. Time to cut through this bullshit. "Doctor." Coulson waited till the man looked at him. "Either he's injured badly enough to need four weeks' leave, then two days in hospital are ludicrously short. Or he's actually fine, then he doesn't need four weeks. Decide which it is. You cannot have it both ways. And please be aware that if Barton does not receive either necessary treatment or rest, you will be explaining why. And you will be explaining it to me." He took a step closer to the doctor and handed him Barton's medical file. "I'll return after debriefing Barton and pick this up. In case you have any changes you wish to make. Thank you for your time."

Sitwell followed him out, leaving the doctor silent and cowed.

"You know, sometimes you scare even me."

Coulson shrugged. "It's a useful skill, if you can't charm them into thinking it was all their own idea."

Sitwell tilted his head. "I'm just not sure how you do it."

"Fishing for tips?"

"If you have any?"

Coulson smiled at Sitwell's eagerness. "You can pick my brains over lunch." He opened the door to Barton's room.

Barton lay in bed half curled on his side, facing them. He'd drawn up the blanket over his shoulder and there was a thick bandage over his eyes.

"Good morning, Agent Coulson, Agent Sitwell." Sitwell started behind Coulson, whether at the accurate greeting or the sight, Coulson couldn't tell.

"Good morning, Barton. Good to have you with us."

"Yes, sir." Back to that.

Sitwell apparently needed quite a few pointers. "How did you know it was us?"

Barton's mouth twitched. "I know Agent Coulson's step and since he wasn't alone, I thought it might be you, sir."

He knew Coulson's step that well? That was - well.

"Are you feeling well enough for debriefing?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good." Coulson sat on the visitor chair next to Barton's bed. Sitwell took the chair closer to the door, and took out the recorder. "What happened to your eyes? I understand from the medical report that they weren't injured?"

"Icepacks, to get the swelling down, sir. I can't see out of them right now."

"All right." Coulson nodded at Sitwell who turned on the recorder. "Debriefing Specialist Clint Barton, May 4, 2007. Agents Phil Coulson and Jasper Sitwell attending. Specialist Barton, please state for the record the events that led to your capture."

Barton began. It was fairly straightforward, as such things went. Barton's original escape route in case of hostiles closing in on his position had become unusable due to the freezing rain. He'd judged that he'd wouldn't be able to take the drainpipe down and allowed himself to be captured. Again, fairly straightforward. The interrogation was less so.

"They didn't find any ID, so March kept asking who I worked for. When I didn't talk, March told Kendricks to get it out of me. Kendricks -" Barton hesitated. "Kendricks couldn't do it. Not quite. He kept hesitating and I could see that March wanted to test him. So I provoked him."

Coulson and Sitwell exchanged a glance. Sitwell leaned forward. "How did you provoke him?"

Barton looked uncomfortable, as much as he could with his face swollen and bandaged. "Verbally. I insulted him, his mother, made insinuations."

"How did you know those things would provoke him into striking you?" Insight into the wisecracking mystery was at Coulson's fingertips. Just a little more, then the pieces would come together.

"I'm a sniper, sir," Barton said, almost gently. "The weapon doesn't matter so much. You just have to be able to aim true."

"I see. Go on."

"March was still doubting him. I'd planned originally to make a false confession after a couple hits, but March was egging Kendricks on. He didn't seem interested in information anymore, just kept telling Kendricks to keep hitting." Barton licked his lips. They were cracked and the glass on the nightstand was empty already.

"When he realized what was going on, Kendricks made sure to hit my face, not any vital organs. So it's mostly bruises, couple of lacerations. Strained shoulders. No broken ribs or anything internal." Barton sounded almost wheedling. "Kendricks did fine, he made sure not to hurt me too badly. But March wouldn't leave, so it went on until you showed up, sir."

"What did you tell them?"

"Nothing," Barton said as if that was nothing special. "Wasn't so bad, March got his torture techniques from TV. Like, A-Team TV, not 24 TV." Sitwell choked back a laugh. Coulson gently slotted another piece into his puzzle, and considered the picture it made. "And Kendricks made sure to always be just off target when he hit me elsewhere."

"So it's your estimation that Kendricks did what he could with the situation?" Coulson asked.

"Yes, sir."

"Kendricks has put himself on report for torturing you."

Barton sat up, startled, and flinched when the movement pulled at his bruises. Sitwell raised an eyebrow at Coulson, plainly wondering why he was breaking policy and confidentiality. "That's ridiculous, sir, he was fine. I was fine!"

"Kendricks doesn't seem to feel that way," Coulson told him, watching closely for reaction.

"Oh damn." Barton slumped back down. "Sir, can you ask him to come visit? I'll talk to him."

"All right," Coulson said. "We're done here, unless you have something to add?"

"Just - just that the situation wasn't as bad as it sounds," Barton said, the wheedling tone back in his voice. "It, uh, it is my conviction that Specialist Kendricks would not have injured me seriously or permitted March to do so."

"Thank you, Specialist Barton. Debriefing ends."

Sitwell turned off the recorder and stood. Coulson looked at him over his shoulder. "Get that transcribed, please, and ask Kendricks to come here. I'll wait here for him."

Sitwell nodded and left the room. Barton looked a little confused, but waited quietly. Coulson stood, took the empty glass from the nightstand and filled it at the tap, setting it back roughly enough to make a sound.

Barton hadn't moved throughout. Coulson contemplated him for a moment. "Barton, everybody and everything tells me your mouth is going to get you killed. I saw you get punched by your previous handler because of a wisecrack. Now you tell me that you got a shit-scared kid to whale on you, no holds barred, because of something you said. So tell me. Why am I only getting yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir?"

Barton hunched over a little and mumbled something.

"Pardon?"

Louder. "I wanted to keep you."

"Keep me?"

"Yeah. You know - as my handler."

"And you thought -"

Barton gave an aborted shrug, the movement jerky, not as contained as usual. "It's okay, sir. I get it." He hesitated and Coulson couldn't shake the feeling that if he'd been able to, he'd have been out of here like a bat out of Hell.

Coulson gentled his voice. "What do you get, Barton? Tell me."

More fidgeting. "You don't take shit from anyone," Barton said finally and it was like the floodgates had been opened. "And you asked me where the best place would be, and if there was anything else, and you know, no other handler does that. They all just - bring me out when they need me and put me back in the box when they don't, as if I'm ‑" Barton broke off. "But you have this great record, and everybody respects you and then you go and you respect me. So I have to respect you, too, no snarking, best behavior. That's like - I don't know. I just - I like you."

That was more than Coulson had bargained for. And Barton had delivered this speech into the dark, unable to see his reaction. He reached out slowly, allowing his suit jacket to rustle, and covered Barton's hand with his, gripping tightly, careful not to touch the bandaged wrist. Barton's hand turned in his and his fingers laced themselves into Coulson's. Coulson covered them with his other hand.

"Clint," said Coulson, "occasionally snarking is fine. I don't want you to be something you're not."

"You may regret that."

"I don't think so."

Barton swallowed hard and smiled, surprisingly sweetly. "Thanks." He tilted his head. "Kendricks incoming."

Coulson sat up straight, drawing back his hand, fingers gliding over Barton's. Kendricks knocked, hesitantly, as if he was hoping nobody would hear it and he could go away quietly. Barton put his hands behind his head, thought better of it and draped them over his knee and the nightstand, body-language relaxed and easy. "Come in!"

Coulson stood, leaving just as Kendricks pushed the door open. "Sir!"

"I was just leaving, Kendricks. Come see me later. Barton."

"Sir."

Kendricks shuffled by him, eyes on the floor. As Coulson closed the door behind him, he only just heard Barton say, "Hey, kid, that was some sad punching back there. You hit like a girl." Kendricks made a sound between laughter and a sob and Coulson permitted himself to be cautiously optimistic about him.

Doctor Smithers had, in fact, updated his prognosis to five days under observation. The four weeks' medical leave remained, with the note that deskwork would be possible after two weeks. That was much better in keeping with S.H.I.E.L.D. guidelines regarding injured personnel so Coulson filed it with HR. Suzy Lepinski took the file from him and looked over to the cabinets that held the general pool.

"Does he go back in?"

No. No, Barton was not going back in the general pool where he might be snapped up by someone else who wasn't going to tap his potential. And he was most certainly not going to be passed around to some idiot who thought "grew up in a circus" equaled "stupid".

"No." Coulson took a pen from her basket and annotated the file. "This will do for now, but see that this gets a new cover by the time he's out of Medical."

"Sure," said Lepinski. "About time." She smoothed out the label.

   S.H.I.E.L.D. Personnel File

   BARTON, Clinton F.

   Specialist (sniper)

   Personnel no. 034185

   FPG subsection S.H.I.E.L.D. - 9a

   Handler:  - none - Phil Coulson, Special Agent

***

 

 

Chapter Text

Sitwell did pick his brains over lunch. Coulson gave it as much attention as it deserved and planned his next steps regarding Barton and Romanov. Since the operation had ended prematurely, the next step was to get Hill and March to betray their sources. With March at least, that wouldn't be easy but interrogation could be handled by one of the agents specializing in it. Sitwell could sit in on it. It'd be a good experience for him.

Coulson himself went off to find Romanov and ended up in Barton's room again where Romanov had parked herself on the visitor's chair, feet on Barton's bed. The bed had been moved from the middle of the room against the wall opposite the door and Barton was braced against the wall. They were playing some kind of word game.

"I am packing my suitcase and I am taking a knife, a six-pack, malaria medicine, honey from Hymettus, Baba Yaga's house, the big top, a fake Ming vase, morphine, a carte blanche, peppers from Senise, the MIR station, four and a half percent, a dead horse, an Armani suit, and two black eyes. Sir."

"Romanov, Barton." He leaned against the closed door. "Carry on."

Barton whistled, or tried to. "No more kid gloves? Okay. I am packing my suitcase and I am taking a knife, a six-pack, malaria medicine, honey from Hymettus, Baba Yaga's house, the big top, a fake Ming vase, morphine, a carte blanche, peppers from Senise, the MIR station, four and a half percent, a dead horse, an Armani suit, two black eyes, and a successful mission."

Romanov threw Coulson a look which somehow said everything about exasparation with Barton that could ever need to be said. "I am packing my suitcase and I am taking a knife, a six-pack, malaria medicine, honey from Hymettus, Baba Yaga's house, the big top, a fake Ming vase, morphine, a carte blanche, peppers from Senise, the MIR station, four and a half percent, a dead horse, an Armani suit, two black eyes, a successful mission, and a torture session." She turned to Coulson. "Would you like to play, sir?"

He hesitated. Barton was looking unsure, but this did seem to be a way of dealing. "Yes, thank you. I am packing my suitcase and I am taking a knife, a six-pack, malaria medicine, honey from Hymettus, Baba Yaga's house, the big top, a fake Ming vase, morphine, a carte blanche, peppers from Senise, the MIR station, four and a half percent, a dead horse, an Armani suit, two black eyes, a successful mission, a torture session, and thirty-two broken teeth."

Barton sat up in bed. "I am packing my suitcase, sir, and I am taking a knife, a six-pack, malaria medicine, honey from Hymettus, Baba Yaga's house, the big top, a fake Ming vase, morphine, a carte blanche, peppers from Senise, the MIR station, four and a half percent, a dead horse, an Armani suit, two black eyes, a successful mission, a torture session, thirty-two broken teeth, and a bastard who deserved it."

Romanov was looking at Coulson seriously. "I am packing my suitcase, and I am taking a knife, a six-pack, malaria medicine, honey from Hymettus, Baba Yaga's house, the big top, a fake Ming vase, morphine, a carte blanche, peppers from Senise, the MIR station, four and a half percent, a dead horse, an Armani suit, two black eyes, a successful mission, a torture session, thirty-two broken teeth, a bastard who deserved it, and a safe teammate."

"I am packing my suitcase, and I am taking a knife, a six-pack, malaria medicine, honey from Hymettus, Baba Yaga's house, the big top, a fake Ming vase, morphine, a carte blanche, peppers from Senise, the MIR station, four and a half percent, a dead horse, an Armani suit, two black eyes, a successful mission, a torture session, thirty-two broken teeth, a bastard who deserved it, a safe teammate, and a report about undue force that is never going to matter much." Coulson kept his eyes on Romanov. She nodded. Message received.

Barton nodded as well. "Then I am packing my suitcase, and I'm taking a knife, a six-pack, malaria medicine, honey from Hymettus, Baba Yaga's house, the big top, a fake Ming vase, morphine, a carte blanche, peppers from Senise, the MIR station, four and a half percent, a dead horse, an Armani suit, two black eyes, a successful mission, a torture session, thirty-two broken teeth, a bastard who deserved it, a safe teammate, a report about undue force that is never going to matter that much, and "

"Miss!" Romanov called. "It's that is never going to matter much, you said that much!"

Barton's lips moved as he repeated the phrase. "Dammit, you're right. But don't you want to know what I was going to pack?"

"I already know," Romanov said. She took her feet off his bed and stood up. "Agent Coulson wants to speak to me, I think. I will be back later. Think of something nice to say to me."

He waved at them. Coulson followed Romanov out of the room.

"Keeping him company?"

"Keeping him from going crazy," she said, lips twitching. "He isn't the best patient."

"So I've heard." He waited until they'd cleared the hospital wing. "I've already spoken to Director Fury about the excessive force. He agrees that it's a non-issue, considering the situation. We will, however, find missions that are better suited to your talents."

Romanov nodded. "Thank you."

"What was the game?" Coulson asked, before he could stop himself.

"I am packing my suitcase. I learned it from a German kindergarten teacher. It's a variant of the spy game in Kim. Since you don't need to see to play, it seemed to be a way to distract Barton from thinking about things."

Coulson frowned. "He seemed fine earlier."

She looked confused, then enlightened. "The beating doesn't bother him. But he thinks too much when he doesn't have anything to do."

Another puzzle piece. "Thinks too much?"

For a long moment, Romanov said nothing. Finally she shrugged to herself and faced him. "You have read my file, Coulson. You know that Barton declined to kill me when he was ordered to and instead made Director Fury give him permission to stick with me and recruit me. What I think isn't in the file is that he was ready to kill me but his handler - was a fool." Coulson frowned; she shook her head. "No matter why. They lost the shot several times because of that and Barton had time to think." On his gesture, she preceded him into his office. "It was only then that he decided differently. That is what I mean by thinking too much."

"It seems to be working out well for you," Coulson said mildly.

She was scanning his office. "It is. But it would not have happened if his handler had spoken to him at some point." She finally turned again and her face was calm. "He did not offer me the stars in the sky, in S.H.I.E.L.D.. He said that it wouldn't be perfect, and that I'd have to work on finding a way to be satisfied. He called himself a blunt - object?"

"Instrument."

"Instrument; and said that I would be that as well but that it was still better than being dead."

She turned again and picked up Coulson's coffee mug, the picture faded from regular washing. Her fingertip traced the laughing faces of his former troop, mugging for the mug. "I haven't yet decided if it is. But I am pleased by you as my handler." Her head tilted down and Coulson thought he could see the hint of a smile. "So is Barton, I think. If you'd been his handler last year, I think I'd be dead. Or I'd have gotten a different recruitment pitch."

"Why are you telling me all this?" Coulson asked.

She put down the mug gently in its spot. "So you know that I'll do my best to not use undue force anymore."

"S.H.I.E.L.D. appreciates that," Coulson said drily.

This time Romanov did grin. "I will not do it for S.H.I.E.L.D.."

"Should I be flattered?" Oh, bad idea, flirting with a specialist on his team, a woman even, bad idea all around.

She raised her eyebrows at him, a speculative look in her eyes. "Organizations are no more honorable than they should be. The people in them matter. I can work with Barton, I can work with you, I can work with Fury. It's a fair beginning."

Coulson was beginning to get an inkling of what Barton had seen in her to want to recruit her.

***

When he mentioned the conversation to Fury, Fury not only was not surprised but grinning.

"So, you have two permanents now instead of one?"

"I do," Coulson said, handing Fury the assignment slips to sign.

"I cannot help but note that this says training phase instead of mission ready, Agent," Fury commented mildly, pen tapping on the signature line.

"After what I've just told you, don't tell me you're surprised."

"Surprised, no. But I'd like to have a bit of information ahead of time here. What are you intending to train them in?"

Coulson handed him the list. Fury's eyebrow rose. "Flight school, languages, cryptography, strategy, forensics, diplomacy - what precisely is the plan here, Coulson?"

He steeled himself. "Boss. They're assassins. They're good at their job. But they could be much, much better at espionage. Barton's aim is amazing but we're wasting strategic thinking and people skills by using him only as a shooting monkey. Romanov's ability to do violence is topped only by her acting skills but she'd make an excellent negotiator. Together, they have serious potential to become our go-betweens for the underworld. We need a go-between, as Operation Springtime has definitely shown. We shouldn't let this chance go by."

"Ambitious," Fury mused.

"But not overly ambitious." Coulson leaned forward. "Boss, think about it. Our greatest problem is not finding people with the negotiation skills we need but to get the weapons merchants, terrorists and whatnot to take them seriously. So let's try it from the other side for once. Romanov and Barton can do this."

Fury did not say anything for a long moment. "I'd actually planned on something else, but that's years off at this moment and you make a convincing point. All right. They're yours." He signed the slips.

"Thank you." Coulson took the slips and the list back. "You won't regret it."

***

The five days under observation were enough for Barton's face to return to its natural proportions if not color. His eyes swelled down enough for him to see but they and a significant percentage of his entire body turned black and blue, green and yellow at the edges. Romanov, who was found at his bedside more often than not, laughed at him rather mercilessly for it. Barton seemed to take it in stride.

On his release from Medical, Coulson sat both his new permanents down and explained his plan to them.

"Training, for the next few months with only a few missions. If either of you has any objections, tell me now."

Romanov was unreadable. "Knowledge is never wasted. I agree."

Barton was not precisely doodling, but tracing geometric figures on the table with his fingers. He also wasn't quite looking up.

"Barton?"

"I don't know, sir," he finally said. "I don't think I'm the right man for that."

Not unexpected, considering Barton's career in S.H.I.E.L.D.. "Barton." Coulson waited until Barton met his eyes. "Are you questioning my judgment?"

"No, sir. Sorry, yes, sir." At least he'd straightened up. "I'm a sniper, one of the best there is. Give me a target, I'll hit it. But I don't do well with things that don't involve shooting stuff from a distance. And you want me to learn to fly a plane." He didn't ask seriously, but it was understood.

"Not a plane, Barton. A Eurofighter Typhoon, a Sukhoi Su-30MKI Chengdu J-10, an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and an F-22 Raptor. And I want you to learn to fly them because I am convinced that the skill will be useful to you. I want you to learn all the skills I listed because I am convinced that you will do well with them. I want you to learn these things because while your aim is outstanding, shooting things is not your only skill and it shouldn't be. You've transposed your sniper skills into people skills, and that is a feat I'm certain you can duplicate. You can do this."

Barton swallowed. "You're sure of yourself."

"I'm sure of you," Coulson said. "Try. Do your best, and if you think you can't, come speak to me. But try. You have nothing to lose."

Barton looked down, then up. "Okay. But I want it noted that I don't think this is going to work."

"So noted. Flight school starts in three weeks, when you're on full duty again."

Barton nodded and left. Romanov hung back.

"Thank you."

Coulson spun his pen on the table. "No thanks necessary. I'd already decided to get Barton some additional training but your description of his thought process made me go a little further. Also, we really do need people with these skills."

She nodded. "Yes, sir."

***

Six weeks into flight school, they had a mission after all. Hill had begun to spill his guts about the militia's sources once Fury had arranged for him to get a glimpse of March's face, the implication being that it was going to be straws all the way if he didn't talk.

It wasn't much. Hill knew neither name nor appearance of his contact, for safety reasons, he maintained. It was simply a meeting at an opera house in Germany, with the participants wearing pre-arranged flowers. The subject was the delivery of more weapons and possibly mercenary troops.

Coulson considered sending Barton, then decided against it; he'd be better covering Romanov as she made the meet. He recalled them and set their course on hold. Neither was complaining. They were both too used to being busy that even flight school wasn't holding their attention completely.

"The meet is taking place at the Mainfranken Theater in Würzburg, Germany. Quiet city in Bavaria. We'll be as quiet as we can possibly be; consider this mission to be a partial to total failure if we're discovered to be S.H.I.E.L.D. agents."

Barton had a notepad this time and was writing furiously. "This is a modern building, sir. Not much opportunity for hide sites."

"I realize," Coulson said, bringing up images of the theater's interior. "However, the production for the evening of the meet is a modern one and relies heavily on dramatic lighting. If you position yourself over the stage, you'd have an excellent view of the audience."

"Might work," Barton said, sketching a rough map of the stage and its proportions. "Can we see the opera once before the meet? Better not to have any surprises. What are they playing anyway?" He frowned at the screen. "Der, that means the, F-r-e-i-"

Romanov apparently couldn't stop herself anymore. She grinned broadly. "The play is about you, Clint!" A snort of laughter escaped her. "All about you!"

Barton stared at her, realizing he was being mocked but not why. Coulson smiled at him. "Der Freischütz. The Free-Shooter, an opera by Carl Maria von Weber about a man who makes a bargain with the devil. Six bullets that never miss, but the seventh bullet only the devil can control."

"Oh," Barton said. And looked shifty. "That."

Romanov stopped laughing. "You don't really believe that."

"No, of course not," Barton said, too quickly. "Just superstition. Nothing else."

"I'm glad to hear it," Coulson said. "Otherwise I'd have to have words with the devil about prior claim."

Barton coughed, surprised. "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s trumping the devil, sir?"

"Who said anything about S.H.I.E.L.D.?" Coulson deadpanned. "Moving on. Yes, we can see the opera before the meet..."

***

Würzburg turned out to be just as quiet and quaint as advertised. Coulson and Barton moved into a different hotel from Romanov; they went to the Mainfranken Theater without her as well. Her ticket was for a box and Coulson had booked seats in the ranks for himself and Barton. They wouldn't seek Romanov out and speak with her only before the meet.

Going to the opera with Barton turned out to be interesting. He wore his suit indifferently, as if business casual was his usual look, he did not draw attention to himself and didn't seem to pay attention to anything but what was going on onstage. He had acquired a small opera glass from somewhere and Coulson would have been interested to find out where, when the man hadn't even been from his sight for half an hour.

The performance was very modern, the lighting just as dramatic as the stills had indicated. There were several moments when Coulson was glad that they'd chosen to watch it before the actual mission. He was certain he'd have flinched at a few points. Barton wielded the opera glass like a lethal weapon, to make sure that nothing that happened onstage escaped him. The scene in Wolf's Glen held his particular attention and he actually sighed when all the bullets were cast.

At intermission, they stretched their legs, seeking out the restrooms along with the throng of visitors. Coulson let the German wash over him, only catching the occasional word or phrase. The notorious harshness of the language was missing in this area; the Bavarian dialect was softly guttural and if someone had asked, he would not have been able to identify it as the language spoken by Nazis in the movies. Romanov was fluent, he remembered; he'd have to ask her where that machine gun staccato was spoken.

Barton had collected a glass of champagne but seemed to be holding it mostly as camouflage. Coulson joined him at a table, leaning on an elbow. "Are you enjoying the opera so far?"

Barton nodded, sipping from his glass. "It's not bad." But he was staring into space.

"Something on your mind?"

Barton drank from his glass. "People used to say, make a bargain with the devil for perfect aim, your last bullet will hit you. It's kind of the same story."

"Sniper superstition?"

"Circus," Barton said, then grinned. "I know a couple of people I'd believe it of." He drained his glass.

"Anyone I know?"

Barton's head tilted. "Maybe from my file," he said. "The guy who taught me to shoot. He never missed, right until he stopped training me. And now-"

"Now you don't miss," Coulson said and carefully slotted this piece of information into place.

"Superstition, I know," Barton shrugged. "I figure when my aim starts going, I'll get out of the business and that'll be the end of it. Oh, intermission's over. Come on, I want to see Max own that Kuno guy."

The opera picked up with Kaspar's manipulations of the devil's bullet. Coulson watched Barton lean forward and smile unguardedly, a little sadly. But he said nothing, merely applauded and followed Coulson to the cloakroom and then outside to their rented car. Coulson let him have his mood and suggested meeting for breakfast at eight. Barton nodded and simply wished him good night at the hotel room door.

Coulson lay down on the still made bed fully dressed, feet hanging off the edge. Something about the opera had touched Barton and while he wasn't sure what, as long as it didn't interfere with the mission, who was Coulson to ask him about it?

And if the look on Barton's face during the hermit's exoneration kept him company that night, well, even a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent was allowed to dream.

***

In the morning they picked up a sniper rifle for Barton, a AMP Technical Services DSR-1 in a neutrally shaped violin case. Barton had, contrary to Coulson's expectation, not made a single complaint about not being able to take along his own gun; but since they were meant to be invisible here, that also meant that special transport was out. Barton had accepted the decision and accepted his temporary weapon without comment. Coulson gave him the afternoon to assemble and disassemble the rifle and learn its quirks.

The meet itself went off without a hitch. Romanov played the conspirator straight, feeding the middle-aged arms dealer just the right mix of the militia's ideology and business sense. She underplayed her intelligence considerably until he was convinced that he was thinking circles around her.

Coulson listened to their conversation with a growing sense that he was watching a master at work. Romanov hit the dealer's prejudices and world view note-perfect, needing only two cues, each time an issue where S.H.I.E.L.D. had to commit to expenses and Coulson fed her the secondary budget available.

When Romanov and the dealer returned to small talk for a few minutes, Coulson signed off for two minutes from her and tuned into Barton's channel. And heard humming.

Having seen the opera only the day before, Coulson couldn't help but realize that it was the melody of the Wolf's Glen scene.

He lifted his hand before he knew he was doing so. "Seriously?"

Barton made a choking sound. "Uh - it isn't what it sounds like?"

Safe in the car where Barton couldn't see his grin, Coulson asked, "What does it sound like?"

"... Like I'm casting the devil's bullets?"

"You mean you aren't?"

"No, sir, already did that last night."

The burst of laughter was out before Coulson could stop it. For a moment there was only silence on the comm.

"Made you laugh." Barton sounded so delighted that Coulson couldn't, didn't want to help himself.

"Congratulations, you did. Did you want a gold star?"

"Can I get it in purple?"

Coulson laughed again. "Signing over to Romanov. Keep out of trouble."

"For you, sir, always."

Romanov was fine, still engaged in meaningless and vapid small talk. Coulson kept most of his attention on her, ready to give Barton the signal if something went south but not expecting it. It turned out not to be necessary. Romanov and the dealer exchanged disposable Skype identities and proxy servers, then the dealer left as Romanov returned to watch the rest of the opera.

Coulson signed off her channel and switched over to Barton. He was not humming.

"Report."

"All quiet in Wolf's Glen," Barton whispered. "Far as I can tell, nobody even has eyes on her."

"Acknowledged. Keep -" The signal screeched, sending a spike of pain through his eardrum. "Barton, come in."

"All clear," Barton came in. "Feedback from that high note just now."

"Understood."

There were two more instances of feedback and each time Barton gave him the all clear without prompting. The rest of the night was uneventful. Coulson took a short walk around the area, buying a currywurst and coke at a stall kept by a bored Bavarian. By the time the opera ended, he'd finished both but was still hungry; he hadn't felt like eating during the day, faced with Barton's focus on the mission.

Romanov checked in to inform him that she was all clear and on her way back to the hotel and out on the first flight via Frankfurt. Coulson confirmed; they'd arrived separately and they would leave that way as well and reconnoiter back in New York. He and Barton had a flight two days later via Amsterdam, preventing them from meeting Romanov even accidentally. Coulson was already compiling the report in his head when Barton strolled up to the car, violin case in hand, looking as if he didn't have a care in the world other than his next beer.

"We done?"

"Yes," Coulson said and started the motor. "Handover in six."

"Confirmed." Barton fastened his seatbelt and kept the case on his lap. "Handy, this. Who'd S.H.I.E.L.D. have to bribe for it?"

"A pilot with a private airline working from Frankfurt and her violin maker father from Ulm."

"Nice of them." Baron fidgeted with the handle for a moment. "If this is all over, can I have the contact?"

Coulson threw him a look. "Why?"

"I want to commission something like this for my bow," Barton explained. "Privately, you know."

"I'll discuss it with them. Handover in thirty."

"Sir."

The handover itself didn't take more than ten seconds. Coulson stopped at an intersection, the pilot opened the passenger door, Barton handed her the case and closed the door, Coulson drove on. Nothing to see, nothing to wonder about.

There were no signs of pursuit. The arms dealer couldn't be followed until the analysts had taken a look at Romanov's data. It remained to behave inconspicuously.

The hotel had become quiet, the only noise the soft music from the bar next door. Or rather, the pub, as Coulson had booked a traditional hotel and the pub next to it was also traditional, the Weinhaus Schnabel. He sighed.

"You want to get something to eat?"

Barton looked over to the pub. "There?"

Coulson shrugged. "It's that or go looking."

The pub's decor was old but well cared for, wooden paneling and inbuilt benches. The waitress spoke English with an appalling accent and a limited vocabulary but was able to suggest food and suitable wine. Coulson ordered a specialty called zwiebelrostbraten - a cut of meat topped with fried onions - and fried potatoes and an Astheimer Karthäuser, a local red. There probably wasn't much that could go wrong with that.

Barton was staring at the menu as if looking for something in particular and finally described a dish to the waitress. "It was like ravioli, but not with tomato sauce but in some kind of broth. With minced meat and some kind of greens in it?"

"That is probably Maultaschen," she said, gesturing. "This big, in soup?"

Barton nodded. "Yes. What can you recommend to go with it?"

"Schorle weiß sauer, white wine with mineral water. And maybe bread and herb butter?"

"Sounds great. Please," Barton nodded and handed her back the menu.

Coulson waited until she was out of earshot. "You've hardly eaten all day, is a bowl of soup going to be enough?"

Barton blinked at him, surprised, then smiled. "I can't eat much right after a stakeout, sir, or I'll fall into a food coma." The smile twitched at the edges. "Thank you for being concerned."

"It's nothing," Coulson said and leaned back for the waitress to put his wine before him. "If you pass out from hunger, I'll get to do the paperwork."

Barton turned his glass around so he could reach the handle with his left. "Just the paperwork?"

"I might also have to carry you, and that will probably break my back." Coulson lifted his glass by its stem. "Cheers."

"Cheers."

The red was semidry and packed a wallop from the wooden cask it had aged in. Coulson was suddenly glad for the currywurst which was at least a bit of a basis for it. Barton drank his water-wine mix like it was water only.

"This is good." He offered Coulson the glass who declined.

"So you knew the ravioli."

Barton ran his fingertip through the condensation on his glass. "It's been ages."

"Circus?"

"No." He laughed, low in his throat. "Hired help for a - well, an archaeologist, you could say. He was looking for HYDRA artifacts and I needed the money too much to ask what he was going to do with them. Dragged me all over Germany and finally bought it when he fell and hit his head in the cave he was exploring. Fell with his face in an underwater pool. Drowned. When I finally went in after him, it was too late." He drank. "That guy was so paranoid, he wouldn't let me go in with him. And so he died."

"I'm unclear on where in this story the ravioli figure."

Barton grinned at him. "This was on the Swabian Jura, the mountain range south of Stuttgart. They had the ravioli things in every restaurant. Seriously, I'm not kidding. They had them everywhere. Those and some pasta thing they make with cheese or eat instead of your potatoes. The ravioli were usually cheap, and they do fill you up. You can try one, if you like," he added, all generosity.

"Maybe I will," Coulson accepted mildly.

The food arrived, piping hot. Coulson's rostbraten was well done but not tough. The only spices he could detect on it were salt and pepper, the whole thing caught up in aromatic fried onion. It was good if not what he was used to. His fried potatoes however - whoever thought the Germans were boring about their potatoes had never eaten anything like this. They were crunchy in a way he'd never tasted before, with tiny bits of speck, and while Coulson had no idea what kind of grease they used, it was a perfect choice. He was halfway through his meal when he realized that Barton was watching him.

"I guess I don't need to ask if you like it," Barton commented wryly.

"I guess not," Coulson said and put his cutlery down. "How about yours?"

Barton tilted the soup plate towards him. Swimming in what appeared to be beef broth were packets of filled pasta about two by two inches, the filling shimmering greenish through the pale pasta. "Looks awful but it's amazing." He hesitated. "The offer's still open. You can try one."

The implication being that Barton didn't usually permit this. "Thank you. Would you like to try mine?"

Barton nodded and halved one of his ravioli with his spoon, gathering it up and holding it out to Coulson. Take it from his hand or grasp the spoon himself? Too intimate on the one hand and bound to make a mess on the other. Well, they were nearly alone. He leaned forward and caught Barton's wrist, steadying a hand that didn't need steadying, and sipped broth and ravioli from the spoon.

The broth was only mildly spiced, meat and vegetables tasting all the way through. The ravioli was smooth as glass on its pasta side, the filling textured. Coulson couldn't quite identify the taste but there was minced meat in there, possibly spinach. Again, the cook had left the ingredients to do the job spices usually did and there was no way to argue with the decision. He realized that he had closed his eyes and even worse, was still holding onto Barton's wrist.

He let go at once. This was inappropriate, and while his last mandatory sexual harassment seminar hadn't covered this precise situation, it was probably understood to be included. An apology, immediately, or as soon as he found words. And the nerve to look at Barton.

Coulson wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. Deer in the headlights, maybe. Disgust, possibly but unlikely.

It wasn't happening. Barton's expression was open, the unreadable expression of his professional face nowhere in sight. His lips were parted slightly, and the hand that wasn't holding the spoon reaching halfway across the table. Seeing Coulson's mortification - no poker face was going to kill this - he smiled, head tilted, reassuring, and set his spoon down.

"May I?" Barton asked, the glassy tone of his mission voice gone, rumbling now. He gestured at Coulson's plate.

Coulson nodded, heartbeat in his throat. Yes, they were the only guests but the waitress... he couldn't look. It would have meant looking away from Barton.

Barton took Coulson's fork and scooped up a forkful of potatoes. He practically licked them off the fork, letting Coulson see a hint of the tip of his tongue. His eyes half-closed, he watched Coulson as he chewed, and actually licked his lips after swallowing.

"That's pretty amazing," Barton said, the tilt of his head back. "Thank you for giving me a taste."

If this had been Romanov, Coulson could have dealt with it. Sorry, I'm gay, not your fault, let's forget about it. He'd done it before enough times that he'd become a reluctant expert at letting people down gently. Or rather, women. Barton was not a woman. Barton was a man and sorry, I'm gay wasn't going to cut it.

So. It was either lie or find a new approach. Right now.

Barton must have seen it on his face. He gave Coulson's fork back, looked down and went back to his broth.

Damn. If Coulson put it into the open now, their professional relationship was going to be affected, if only because Barton was making it clear that he did not want to talk about it. But they had to address it. It couldn't be allowed to fester.

Cursing himself for a coward, Coulson kept silent.

Food finished, they walked quickly to the hotel. Barton wished him good night and that he'd see him at breakfast at eight again. Coulson nodded and thanked all the gods he could think of when there was a door between him and Barton.

A cold shower did nothing but key him up even more. And cursing himself for not only a coward but a fool, Phil jerked off to the thought of a man eating potatoes.

There was something so very wrong with his life.

Chapter Text

Barton said nothing the next morning and left Coulson as much space as he could. He bought a book and a magazine at the airport and read them during the long flights back to New York. Coulson couldn't bring himself to interrupt him, especially not in such a public place.

Romanov and Barton were debriefed not only by Coulson and Sitwell this time; a team of three analysts was also present and picked their brains about the arms dealer, the surroundings and everything else. One of them demanded detailed and precise descriptions of both Coulson’s currywurst snack and the dinner. There were no comments on the food sharing and Coulson wondered if nobody had actually picked up on this intimate behavior.

Almost nobody. When they were finished and leaving, Coulson caught Romanov at the edge of his hearing. "You let him eat your food?"

Barton's reply was too soft, which was probably better; Coulson put it out of his mind. He had work to do.

He was unable to find a single opportunity to talk to Barton about the incident. Barton was not actively avoiding him but had a tendency to be there only if he was not alone with Coulson. Either Romanov or one or more members of the analysis team was always present. But since Barton had returned to his neutrally professional non-behavior, Coulson let it go.

The analysis took two and a half weeks, during which Romanov was recalled several times to discuss strategies and limitations. By the end of that time, she walked into Coulson's office without knocking and glared at him.

"Yes, Specialist Romanov?"

"These people you call analysts are idiots."

Nothing more appeared to be forthcoming. "That would be unfortunate as we pay them quite well for their intellectual prowess," Coulson said. "Why are we wasting our money?"

"Because," Romanov gritted, "they have been training me for two and a half weeks to make the meet for the dealer's main backer. And it occurred to them today to tell me where the meet is supposed to be." She breathed deeply. "In Tabriz, Islamic Republic of Iran."

Coulson rubbed the bridge of his nose. "And they knew this -"

"From the beginning, yes. So now not only has my work been wasted, there is no time to train someone else before the contact has to leave, and these people are idiots."

"You make a convincing case." Coulson stood up. "Collect the rest of the data on file from Analysis, find Barton and get ready to move out, both of you. We'll brief him on the way and he'll make the meet. You'll stay in Turkey near the border in case you're needed. It's not ideal, but right now it's the best we can do."

The three of them flew out to Istanbul together, Coulson and Romanov bracketing Barton and giving him as much detail as he could process. It was haphazard; their small net books were balanced half on Barton's knees and their voices low, when they spoke at all. Mostly, points of interest and cover details were pointed out on the screens or tapped out sparsely. Barton had a small frown line between his eyebrows the entire time but he kept up, learning the cover which had been adjusted from Romanov for him.

It was hard work and by the time they reached Istanbul, Coulson was exhausted. They arrived at Istanbul-Sabiha Gökçen airport in the afternoon and immediately went to the airport's hotel. He hardly had eyes for either the Western decor or the call of the muezzin, all he wanted was some sleep. He'd have to finish Barton's briefing on his own since Romanov was flying to Van in the morning. Their flight to Tabriz was leaving in the afternoon, meaning that they could sleep and eat at least.

Morning came too early. Romanov left without saying good-bye and Coulson found himself alone with Barton in his hotel room. Barton had brought up breakfast at least, some kind of flakey sweetish pastry and plastic cups with bright red juice.

"Thanks."

"You're welcome, sir." It was back to this, then. Coulson bit into the pastry and promised himself that when the meet was over with, he'd talk to Barton about the elephant in the room.

More pastry, then a sip of the juice which was freshly pressed from whatever fruit it came from. Anything to guard his face. He couldn't do this now, and doing it in Turkey wasn't the brightest of ideas either. Homosexuality wasn't illegal but Istanbul was not exactly San Francisco. Better to eat the pastry and drink the juice and finish the briefing. Though not without finding some choice words about the team of analysts.

Two hours early, they left for the airport, baggage precisely assembled for maximum verisimilitude, net books left with a contact working at a company for rental cranes. This trip was unarmed all the way, as the risk was too great. It might have been possible to get a gun – or five – but if they as Westerners got caught with weapons, the consequences would be unpleasant. Particularly in a country with a death penalty.

Barton's passport, adjusted from Romanov's cover, had already brought student Peter Smythe, English national and researcher of Persian poetry, into Turkey and would send him on to the Tabriz Islamic Arts University for research. The identity had been put together quickly and Coulson was not sure at all if it would hold up under scrutiny. An earlier Google check had found Smythe with the correct information. If they'd had a little more time, Coulson would have gone over the whole thing with a fine-toothed comb but the meet was happening tomorrow and they were only getting one shot at this. Pun intended.

Coulson himself was a Polish importer of ceramics named Tomasz Wisnewski. His reason for the trip to Iran was to make connections with local tile manufacturers. He was carrying not only various catalogues and samples but also three further airline tickets for Tehran and Isfahan, then back to Turkey. If everything went well, he wouldn't use them, exchanging them instead for an earlier flight back to Istanbul. Barton's flight, in fact.

If everything went well.

The flight to Tabriz took under three hours with Iran Air. Coulson put on his reading glasses during the flight and scribbled on a notepad while reading a book on Isfahan tiling. Barton looked bored and leafed through a newspaper. His Persian wasn't as good as Romanov's but he was probably able to follow at least the general gist of the articles. They didn't speak; Coulson ostensibly didn't speak English very well.

When the pilot announced the descent, a flurry of activity broke out among the female travelers. Hijab covered hair, make-up retouched, throats covered, coats and dresses buttoned. Coulson ducked a flying scarf and contemplated Romanov’s usual style in the face of this. The mind boggled.

Tabriz International Airport met them with dry, windy sunshine. Coulson walked through security, citing research at the university as his reason for travelling to Iran in badly broken English. His passport was checked, the visa from Warsaw courtesy of S.H.I.E.L.D. apparently routine enough that he was waved through after only a cursory investigation. His ostensible business contact was not in evidence. He made a point of looking around for him, then at his watch. Hopefully, the man was just late. Coulson made for the currency exchange to exchange Euros for rial, Iran not being connected to the international credit card system. From the corner of his eye, he saw Barton meeting his own welcoming committee, two young men and a young woman, the men shaking “Peter”’s hand enthusiastically. The three were actual students of literature and would vouch for Barton in case anything went wrong. Happily chattering, they walked to the exit.

Coulson left them to it; the meet was agreed, time and date were fixed and Barton would have opportunities to contact Coulson ahead of time if anything went wrong.

A hand fell heavily on Coulson’s shoulder. Wrong like this.

He turned, looking into the faces of two policemen.

“Tomasz Wisnewski?”

Coulson nodded and on their gesture and demand, handed them his passport. There was a short discussion in Persian he didn’t understand and at the end of it they cuffed his hands and led him off.

He forced his face into shock and confusion, as any innocent tile exporter would, and most importantly did not look directly at Barton, letting his eyes instead flicker across the staring faces. The university students were wide-eyed, narrow-eyed and fearfully sympathetic in turn; Barton was only just shaping his expression from zero to what is happening here. He then looked down, then left, then down again.

Message received. Barton would contact S.H.I.E.L.D. asap to get Coulson out of whatever trouble he was in.

In the back of the airport police office, they asked him questions. First in Persian which he truly did not understand, then in broken English, which he misunderstood and answered in even more broken English. Finally they found someone who spoke a few words of Polish and Coulson was finally able to find out why he’d been arrested.

Their contact who was supposed to pick him up had been under investigation for his regular communications with persons in the U.S.. All Coulson could do was curse the analysis team for lack of care and pretend to have no idea what was going on.

They searched his baggage, then they searched him, and when they found nothing incriminating, they led him outside and transferred him to a prison cell in his pants and shirt and nothing else.

Dry concrete, no windows, a light bulb behind bars, a toilet, a ledge with a thin mattress and a blanket. Coulson sat down and rested his head in his hands. S.H.I.E.L.D. had procedures in place for such eventualities but this would take time. Certainly days, possibly weeks, maybe months, depending on the quality of the cover and the willingness of the Iranian government. There was nothing to do but wait.

Hours later he was taken downstairs to an interrogation room. It was rather the same as everywhere else. Smelling of sweat and urine, bare furniture, too cold. As he waited, cuffed to the bolted down chair, Coulson wondered if they actually had an a/c running. Probably not. Most likely, it was just deep enough below ground.

Two new officials were asking questions, the Polish interpreter from the airport translating them. Coulson gave answers, talked about his tiling business and secretly prayed that his cover included actual people in Poland who could give the correct answers.

The officials weren’t happy with what they were getting. They grew louder, their voices harsher. The interpreter’s shoulders were tightening more and more, and when the older of the two finally lost patience and started yelling, he flinched against the wall and did not look up again. Coulson begged in Polish to be left alone, cried out that he knew nothing and please let him go home to his family.

When they returned him to his cell, nothing much had changed. But it had to be early morning already and Barton’s meet was at 8 am. Hopefully that would at least go well.

Coulson curled up on the mattress, watched the shadows play against the wall and tried not to think of anything.

Thirst woke him. A dilemma. Drink from the toilet and catch who knew what kind of diseases or hope that they would bring him water at some point? With no sense of time left, Coulson decided to give it a little longer.

When it became clear that nobody was coming, Coulson did drink from the toilet, trying not to think about it. Thirst slaked, hunger began to assert itself. This he could ignore. It wasn’t like he had a choice.

Time passed, more than a day, Coulson thought. The meet had to be finished by now. If they got the backers, the wholesale merchants, this would all be worth it. HammerTech and Stark Industries were bad enough, but they were American-based and primarily worked for the American military. Some of their tech found its way into illegal channels, it was unavoidable. These dealers, however, had far more available brands and taking them down was a priority well worth spending some time in prison for. Coulson smiled to himself. Too many comics as a kid; he was thinking like Captain America again.

He must have fallen asleep for he was woken by a scraping sound at his door. Training took over. Coulson rolled up and took cover behind the door as it opened. But instead of a gun which he had expected, an arrowhead came into his line of sight.

“You have got to be kidding me.”

The arrow withdrew and Barton stuck his head past the door. “Nice place you’ve found?”

“Hell no.” He followed Barton out, past unconscious or dead guards. Barton signed for silence. Coulson nodded.

They met no opposition until they came into a courtyard. It was dark already, a nearly full moon low in the sky. Barton waved him on and fired at a patrol. The man went down with a soft thump.

Barton had a car waiting outside; however he’d managed it, Coulson wasn’t going to complain and immediately found himself with a lap full of bow and quiver. They drove off at a – for Iran – sedate pace. He gripped the bow for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts.

“Barton. Thank you for the rescue. I appreciate it. Why in the name of whatever you hold sacred did you take a bow?” The wood’s roughness caught at his skin, paint and inlay of gold gleaming in the streetlights. “Barton. Is this an antique?”

“Yes?” Barton changed lanes. “It was in a museum.”

“You broke into a museum.”

“Yep.”

“To steal a bow.”

“To steal this bow, yeah.”

A low throb was beginning in Coulson’s forehead. “In order to break me out of prison.”

“No need to thank me, sir, but yeah.”

Mentally, Coulson apologized to Johnston for all the things he’d thought about him. “Why?”

Barton shot him a look. “You really want to know? Or should I just come up with some offensive wisecrack?”

Calm. Calm. Coulson breathed deeply through his nose. He’d read the label and a case of buyer’s remorse was not about to help anything now. Also, if he killed Barton now, he’d probably crash the car.

“I want to know.”

Barton twitched a smile. “All right, sir. I contacted S.H.I.E.L.D. and was informed that they had procedures in place to get you out through normal channels. Some kind of cooperation with Poland. And that it’d take about six to eight weeks. When I said that that was kind of long, Agent Hill told me tough luck and to make the meet. Then she hung up on me.” He had the nerve to look offended at that.

“The kids – they’re great, by the way, we aren’t paying them enough – helped me find out where they’d taken you. Then I, uh, detained the interpreter and asked him what was going down. He decided to call in sick next day.”

“This antique bow has not yet featured in this story,” Coulson said, holding onto his patience with his fingernails.

“Getting to it right now, sir. The kids offered me their father’s guns. He’s got a good collection, but once we talked to the ex-con professor who knew the prison –“

“Oh, god.”

“- well, I kind of figured we should maybe do this quietly, apparently they use this ancient building because of the acoustics, like you can hear noises in the hallways all the way down the building. So I needed a bow.”

“Completely logical.”

“I know, right? But they don’t do much archery as a sport here, so I got the kids to check out the museums for bows. I told you they’re great, right? They were awesome, took pictures and everything and I picked this. Perso-Parthian, nineteenth century, composite recurve, regularly unstrung and restrung according to the curator’s description in the guidebook. This was state of the art when it was made.”

“In the nineteenth century.”

Barton grinned. “Yeah. Don’t worry, I’ll put it back, their security is shit. We fixed the arrows ourselves, aluminum tubing, broadhead, honest-to-god silk fletching, the glue they had wouldn’t stick on metal.” He took a turn. “So I made sure I was quiet, dropped the guards when necessary, followed the floor plan and found you. In one piece. Which I’m really happy about.”

“Barton.”

“Sir?”

“Did you make the meet?”

Silence. Coulson closed his eyes. All this effort for nothing.

“Um. Someone did.”

“Someone.”

Barton sighed. “Natasha, if you must know.” He stopped the car and turned in his seat to face Coulson. His face was cast in shadow. “Sir, I don’t know if you want to hear this, but it’s kind of important to me that you’re okay. More important than some arms dealer we can catch some other time. There’s only one of you.”

Coulson swallowed hard, hands still on the bow. “Barton –“

“Clint. Please.”

“Clint. We can’t do this.”

Barton reached over, hand closing over Coulson’s. “No fraternization policy in S.H.I.E.L.D. and if the Iranians catch us, they’re going to hang us anyway. So I figure we can. If you want. And I kind of think you do want.”

Oh what the hell. “I do. Want, I mean.” The tension went out of Clint’s shoulders and his grip firmed for a moment. “However, we’re in a car on a public street in a country that hands out the death penalty for homosexuality, we have to return an antique you used for a prison break, Natasha just met with an arms dealer in a hijab I assume, and I haven’t eaten since I was arrested. Let’s get out of this first, Clint.”

Barton smiled, surprisingly sweetly for a man with his body count. “All right, sir.”

“No,” Coulson said, sharply and immediately. “Not sir. It’s Phil or hey you or even you bastard. Not sir. Not when we –“

“Phil,” Barton said, silencing him. “Can I kiss you now?”

“No. I had to drink out of a toilet and nobody is kissing me until I’ve disinfected my mouth,” Coulson said. “Now drive.”

Barton’s mouth twitched, eminently kissable, and he drove.

***

One museum break-in and three hours of night driving later, they ended up having to cross the border to Turkey in secret after all. The alternative would have been further travel through Iran down to the southern coast and a boat over to Dubai. Turkey was a much safer option. Romanov joined them twenty miles out of Tabriz in a green cab, including the fake taxi license. The crossing shortly after dawn was surprisingly easy. As soon as they reached Romanov’s cache on Turkish soil, Romanov removed her hijab and handed them new passports and tickets from Ankara back to New York two days from now.

“Good to see you’re fine,” she told Coulson, tossed Barton a first aid kit and left on one of the two stashed motorbikes.

Barton juggled first aid kit and tickets for a moment, then put the kit down. “So how does she think we’re gonna get to Ankara?”

Coulson tapped the fuel gauge of the bike. “Road trip?”

“Awesome. But let’s find some kind of hotel first so you can get some rest.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Coulson sighed. He was still hungry and feeling rather disenchanted with the whole situation. “Provided you make the arrangements.”

“Done.”

And Barton did. In a rather touristy village, he booked them into a bungalow and vanished for food and supplies. Coulson felt too tired to wait up for him. After a long shower and even longer brushing of teeth, he dragged on underwear and t-shirt from Barton's carry-on, lay down and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

On waking, he felt much improved. Barton was asleep in the other bed, the nightstand between them bulging with food. In the bathroom, Coulson found mouthwash and a package of antibiotics. He used the mouthwash and brushed his teeth again. The antibiotics were a good precaution and Barton had picked a broadband. Dr. Smithers was going to have a field day testing for diseases after this. He drank from the tap and ate, slowly and with attention to his stomach, the fruit and bread Barton had left on the nightstand.

The bungalow had a porch with plastic furniture. Coulson went outside with another piece of bread, this one a ring covered in sesame seeds, and sat down in the soft evening light. The air was filled with the singing of cicadas, a soft breeze bringing dust and dinner smells. He closed his eyes. Rustling from inside indicated that Barton was awake. Clint, rather. It would take some getting used to.

“So have you disinfected your mouth now?” Clint sounded amused but also aroused. Phil couldn’t help a smile.

“Yeah. I have.”

Shadow moved across his face. He kept his eyes closed, waiting. Clint’s lips touched his, tentatively at first, gaining certainty. Phil let his lips part, drawing Clint’s lower lip between his, reaching up to brush his fingers against Clint's neck. Clint sighed against his mouth and when they parted, he was smiling.

It was infectious; Phil matched him and grinned even wider when Clint dropped into the other chair and dug a sesame seed from between his teeth. Clint noticed him watching.

"Worth waiting for."

Phil laughed. "Your standards are low."

Clint shook his head. "Not so much. Do you - I mean, we could go back inside." His eyes had darkened. "I could still - eat."

Was this going to be their very own euphemism? No matter. "I'd like that," Phil said and raised his hand as soon as Clint started up. "I'd love it, actually. But if you don't mind, I'd rather wait."

Barton sank back down. "You sure you're male? You're the only guy I've ever met who turned down sex."

"Be open to new experiences," Phil quipped. "I'm too old to jump at it, I want to do it right. In a comfortable bed which we do not get many of in our line of work, when I'm sure I'm not going to give you any diseases, when we can both enjoy it."

"I guess I can wait for that."

"And there's a talk we need to have beforehand."

"If you want to ask for Fury's blessing, forget it."

Phil nearly spat out his piece of sesame bread. "God no. I think we'd give him a heart attack." Clint laughed. "No, it's more along the lines of I'm flattered and attracted to you but I'm not going to use my position as your handler to either manipulate you into a relationship or to do you any particular favors."

"Oh, that talk." Clint was silent for a moment, staring into space. "I got it." A moment of hesitation. Phil gave him time. "This is because I told you I wanted to keep you. Right?"

"Yes."

"Yeah, figured." His fingers twitched. Any other man would have been fidgeting. "That isn't the reason. It was the basis. I was, well, watching you to figure you out and the more I figured out, the more I liked you and you fill out that suit seriously fine and you laugh at my jokes." Phil reached across to clasp Clint's hand. His was gripped back. "I'm not saying I'll die if you say no but I don't think you want to say no. So, I want to try."

"You're right. I don't want to say no. But it's got to be clear, the moment something goes wrong at work because we're together -"

"If you ask Agent Hill, something already did."

Phil sighed. "Agent Hill is a flight commander, not a handler, otherwise she wouldn't have made this call. It needs to be squared with Fury which I'm sure Romanov is already doing. It's fixable, this time."

Clint scratched his belly. "You sure?"

"Yes. Particularly because we have an excellent case that it's actually the analysis team's fault that things got so bad in the first place. The covers were flimsy, the information badly communicated. Fixable."

"Okay. But, Phil," Clint said, more serious than Phil had ever seen him, "it wouldn't have mattered. Even if Fury landed me in the stockade for the foreseeable future, I'd still have done it."

Before he realized he was doing it, Phil raised their clasped hands and brought Clint's knuckles to his lips. "Thank you, brave knight."

Clint looked torn between blushing and laughing.

***

Their road trip to Ankara would not normally have taken the two allotted days but they took their time. Coulson was glad for the extra downtime which allowed his sleep deficit to balance out. Barton seemed to have made it his mission in life to feed and water him as well as make him sleep. Finally Coulson admitted to himself that it was not the worst thing he could be doing and complied with the motherhenning.

The trip and the flight were uneventful. Romanov met them when they got back, having laid the groundwork already. She considered their tans, Coulson's relatively relaxed attitude and the fact that he looked as if he'd had sufficient sleep for once. Whatever her conclusion was, she whispered something in Barton's ear and walked off while he was still sputtering.

The debrief at S.H.I.E.L.D. was exhaustive and tempestuous; on receiving Coulson's report on everything that had gone wrong due to bad use of good intel, Fury decided not to argue the prison-break and indicated that some procedure changes were about to happen. Having stated his conclusion, he simply ordered Coulson down to medical.

Dr. Smithers did, in fact, have a field day. A full screening of Coulson's blood later, he recommended that Coulson keep taking the antibiotics Barton had acquired and to return if he noticed any symptoms. Medical leave was indicated for a week.

Every evening of that week was going to be spent with Clint. Talking, mostly, getting to know him better, what music he liked, if he preferred cheeseburgers over fried chicken, where his favorite bar was, the first drink he ordered at a new place, what music he listened to. They'd go out together for dinner and watch movies, find a dive of a bar where nobody looked twice at them dancing. Phil would finally get to see more of Clint than his arms, and they'd watch the sunrise together.

At least, that was the plan. And no plan ever survives the first engagement.

***

"What do you mean, mission?" Barton's face was a study, torn between disbelief and outrage. "We got back ten hours ago! I haven't even slept in a bed yet!"

Coulson pointed at the carry-on. "Same here. Romanov's ahead of us already to intercept the shipment. It's the last one for two months, only opportunity we've got."

"I hate my job," Barton muttered under his breath, very audibly. "I had plans."

"I know. I had them, too." Too public for more - they were standing on the helicarrier's deck and sound carried far on the water.

Barton had finally untangled the straps of his bag and straightened. "Just so you know, sir, I expect some great perks for this. Some really great perks."

A passing agent rolled his eyes; Barton's reputation hadn't changed in the few months he'd been in Coulson's team. Coulson waited until the man was no longer quite so close and pitched his voice low. "I'm sure we can figure something out to satisfy you."

Barton's face went to zero again but his eyes told a different story. He dragged a smirk back from somewhere. "Promises, promises."

The fastest commercial flights made the trip from Washington DC to Punta Raisi Airport near Palermo, Italy, in eleven hours; their jet made it in eight, omitting the stop in Rome. Both Coulson and Barton elected to look at the briefing packet the analysts had hastily compiled before sleeping. Romanov's syntax was visible throughout and Coulson made a note to discuss the matter in more detail with Director Fury. It should never have taken an entire team of analysts several days to create a document with this amount of copy-paste. Even a day would have been sufficient to avoid the interminable transcontinental flights and to take a flight from Turkey to Italy instead.

Heat assailed them as they disembarked. Happily, a car was already waiting to take them to Porto Empedocle from where they'd take a Guardia Costiera boat to the island of Lampedusa, their final destination and the weapons smugglers drop point. Coulson considered the agencies cooperating with S.H.I.E.L.D. and supposed he shouldn't be surprised that the Italian Coast Guard was among them.

The part of the dossier not written by Romanov was an overview of smuggling activities on Lampedusa. They were exhaustive; however in recent years, Lampedusa had become a main center of immigration from North Africa, both of the legal and illegal sort. Italy had a grave problem with fugitives and asylum seekers flooding the country. Coulson saw Barton's appalled look when he read that Lampedusa had less than five thousand people living on it; and that more than eleven thousand people landed there within six months.

"We're not going to be able to step, let alone find the weapons merchants in all of this," Barton said, looking at the numbers.

"Romanov will have picked out the contacts by the time we get there. Three hours to Porto Empedocle, another three to Lampedusa."

"God." Barton leaned back against the threadbare seat and fixed his eyes on the crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror. "See the world with S.H.I.E.L.D., they told me..."

Coulson laughed, startling their driver into giving it more gas. "Did they lie?"

"No, not as such," Barton sighed. "But you know, there's lying by omission."

The driver stepped on the brakes, throwing them both forward against their seat belts. Coulson leaned to see what had stopped them as a tirade of rapid fire Italian commenced, hearing bleating and stuck his head out the window. There were sheep on the road, maybe forty or fifty. They seemed to have come from a transport that was now lying on its side diagonally on the road, flanked by a tractor. The drivers argued. Their driver leaned on the horn, shouting something out the window.

"Jesus," Barton muttered. "Anyone who thinks Italian is romantic has never actually heard them speak."

Coulson threw him a look then turned to the driver. "Do they need help?"

"No. Sono stronzi," the driver called back and got out of the car. A few minutes later he returned with a lack of good news. The police had been called and until they arrived, the road could not be cleared. Coulson believed that, actually - the sheep were apparently very happy to be outside the transport and scattered whenever someone tried to herd them together.

Barton stewing next to him, Coulson called the police station in Porto Empedocle and informed them of the delay. "Yes, we're about three kilometers to Castelvetrano. Castelvetrano. No, not Castelloventro. Castelventrano. Yes. Yes, that's right. No, I don't know how long it's going to take, there was an accident. An accident. No. There are sheep on the road. Sheep. Sheep, not goats. No, I didn't, you asked - sheep. Yes, sheep. I don't know, a herd? They aren't precisely marked." Barton was laughing, the lines on his face crinkling. Coulson sighed. "That's right. We're waiting. My name is Coulson. Coulson. No, Coulson. C-O-U-L-S-O-N. Good enough. Thank you." He hung up. "That man either needs hearing aids or fewer drugs."

Barton laughed. "Didn't speak English?"

"Oh, he speaks English. For a given value of English." A smell of sheep wafted in from the open window. "You lived with a circus for a while. Shouldn't you be able to herd them off the road?"

Barton snorted. "Nice try. If they were pigs, we could talk."

"Pigs."

A grin. "Yeah. If you let a piglet near a ladder, it'll run up the ladder. Makes for a cute act. Sheep, not so much."

"I'll keep it in mind for when we have to deal with a pig herd."

"I think that's Greece," Barton said, wedging himself against the door. He opened the file and put it over his face, newspaper-style. "Wake me if something interesting happens?"

Coulson sighed. "See you in a few days then."

A snort emerged from the file, then silence reigned, apart from regular horns and cursing by the cars around them. Coulson leaned back as well.

The police took two and a half hours to arrive. By then it was clear that they wouldn't make it to Lampedusa today. Coulson called the station twice more and finally asked the man on duty to pass him to another officer, unable to endure the misunderstanding and strange English any longer.

The cop he got on the phone was older and, happily enough, immediately understood the situation. With his few English words and the bit of Italian Coulson asked of the driver, they came to the conclusion that it would be best to take a hotel for the night. The cop was willing to arrange this and called Coulson back. He'd only gotten a bed and breakfast. By this point Coulson didn't care. All he wanted to do was be horizontal and didn't doubt that Barton felt the same way.

They finally arrived at half past nine and starving. The bed and breakfast attendant suggested panini from a bar; Coulson would have been willing to settle for that in favor of sleep but hadn't counted on Barton.

"No. Sorry, sir, but no. No way in hell. I've been chased on two intercontinental flights within twenty-four hours and been sitting in a car on a highway for another five at three hundred degrees or something and now I'm supposed to sleep on a sandwich? No. Real food. And something to drink, Goddammit."

It was probably a sign of Coulson's state of mind that he actually found it adorable.

They found a trattoria at the pier which looked as if no tourist had ever set foot in it. There was no menu. Barton shrugged and ordered the house menu, whatever it would turn out to be. Coulson asked for something with meat and not fish, also willing to be surprised.

The waiter, an older man with a mustache, returned with a pitcher of wine and water each, glasses, and a plate with antipasti - small peppers filled with some kind of cream cheese, crostini, tiny deepfried squid. When they had demolished that, plates of pasta alla vongole appeared, followed by grilled fish for Barton and a veal cutlet with bacon and sage for Coulson.

Watching Barton eat, Coulson had to admit that it might not have been the worst idea. He tucked into his grilled fish with gusto, demolishing it down to the bones. No offer of sharing this time; Coulson didn't ask. His saltimbocca was also excellent and the sparkling water he washed it down with was just what he needed after this interminable day.

When they left the trattoria, the sky displayed all the colors of the palette, gently shifting across the horizon. A slight breeze played through Coulson's short hair and with his collar and tie. He couldn't help but smile.

The bed and breakfast was a good twenty minutes away on foot. They walked slowly, the ocean's dull roar blending with car horns, laughing, the occasional bit of music being brought by the wind. Barton was walking more closely next to him, not quite touching, but unmistakably there, in a way Coulson hadn't expected. It felt nice; it would have felt even nicer if they hadn't been on a mission. But they couldn't ignore that, no matter how much they wanted to. Barton understood; he wasn't showing anything but his particular brand of professional behavior. And in the morning, they'd leave for the island.

But when this op was over, Coulson swore, there would be time off. Serious time off.

They said goodnight at the doors of their rooms and Coulson tried to make his eyes tell Barton what he couldn't say aloud. He wasn't sure if he succeeded; but Barton lingered for a moment before closing his own door.

As soon as this op was over.

***

The next morning came with a storm. Coulson stared at the sky for several minutes and tried to line up the darkly roiling clouds and the wind tossing leaves about with the clear pastel sunset the previous day. Mostly, he was failing.

It was established rapidly that there wasn't going to be a boat. There was, in fact not going to be anything, owing to the fact that helicopters and planes landing around a tiny island like Lampedusa would draw the attention of everything for miles. As the operation was meant to be secret, it would be counterproductive.

Knocking on Barton's door, he found the man awake and poking at the shrink-wrapped biscuits.

"I figure we got cheated here."

"How so?"

"This is what they're calling breakfast."

Barton wasn't wrong; the spread was a little thin: three of the biscuits, portion packets of honey and different kinds of jelly, a banged-up Neapolitan coffee maker. They considered it for a moment.

"Let's go out," Coulson suggested. "It's not like we're getting over there as long as this goes on."

The wind was picking up as they made their way to the bar, leaves and dust flying about them, salt from the sea on their tongues. Coulson pulled his jacket close and kept his head down; Barton seemed to enjoy the weather, raising his face to the wind.

The bar offered them cappucino and cornetti. Barton had his with cream as they walked along the pier, darkened sky threatening rain any minute. They ducked into a supermarket for bottled water and snacks; when they came out, the rain was pouring down as if there was no tomorrow. Abandoning dignity, Coulson led the run back to the bed and breakfast, Barton on his heels, plastic bag growing slippery in his grip. Sunny Italy, sweet Sicily, beautiful Mediterranean coastline, the land where lemon trees bloom. Right.

Drenched and dripping, they made it up to their rooms. Coulson got out of his suit and put on track pants; it wasn't cold as such, just wet. He was just toweling his hair dry when someone knocked.

"Sir?"

Barton. Coulson slung the towel around his neck and opened the door. Barton had also changed out of his wet clothes into jeans and a t-shirt. A few droplets of water clung to his face. For a moment, it went to zero again, then Barton smiled diffidently.

"Sorry to bother you."

"It's no bother." Coulson stepped aside. Barton came in, eyes shifting.

"I forgot - you had the bag."

"Right." Of course, the water and the snacks. He turned to grab the bag; Barton moved behind him, one hand on his naked back. Phil froze. Barton's skin was cool. Or Phil was hot. He didn't know.

"We're benched due to storm," Clint said, voice low. "It's like leave." His register dropped. Phil couldn't help a shudder. "Don't tell me to go."

Phil turned. Clint didn't draw back. They weren't even ten inches apart. Clint's face was open, hopeful. On his own, Phil might have rationalized that it was still the mission and that it was inappropriate. Faced with Clint's unhidden want, he couldn't. Didn't want to.

He drew Clint closer, captured his lips, finally. They opened under his, a little dry. He put his hands on Clint’s waist, the heat of his skin travelling through the cotton, far warmer than his hands. Phil couldn’t help himself but smile into the kiss and slip in a little tongue. Clint opened immediately, his tongue matching Phil’s stroke for stroke. Clint tasted of the cornetto, only a slight distraction from his very own taste which Phil could easily get used to. He felt himself harden in his loose pants and crowded closer, wanting to feel more of Clint’s body against his. He slipped his hands under the hem of Clint’s t-shirt.

Finally. It was all he could think of, his hands on Clint's skin. He tugged at the t-shirt and Clint obligingly lifted his arms. Phil ran his hands up from Clint's waist over his chest and up his biceps, pushing the t-shirt up over his arms. And yes, Phil could have spent hours just with those arms, archer's arms, strong and solid. So very right.

Clint's hands settled on his hips, the touch unusually light for a man with callouses on his fingers from the sinew. He almost tentatively slid them down Phil’s flank which while nice also tickled slightly. Phil felt kind of thrown for a moment, reminded of someone calming down a horse instead of petting a lover. Resolutely Phil returned to kissing Clint again, shifting against him so that they were hip to hip. Phil felt Clint’s answering hardness pressing against him.

Clint's ass felt just as fine under his hands as it had looked. He ground against Clint a little and was rewarded with a gasp.

Clint shifted his lips from Phil’s mouth along his cheek, towards his ear, behind it, his hands now running down Phil’s back and then settling around his waist, only the thumbs slowly stroking back and forth. Clint’s lips returned to Phil’s mouth and they both seemed to enjoy the prolonged making out that ensued. It was sweet, Phil thought, but they really could move on to taking off their pants by now. While Phil enjoyed kiss-chapped lips and stubble burn as much as the next guy as a reminder of some awesome sex, for that the sex would have to happen at some point. Except that Clint made no move below the waist. And, even more alarming, wasn't talking.

"Clint?"

"Yeah?"

"Are you into this?"

Clint froze, caught out. Phil didn't move, still resting his hands on Clint's ass. Clint started breathing again.

"Yeah, I am. You're too, right?"

"I am, yes." Phil pulled back to look Clint in the face. "But we seem to have stalled for some reason and I want to make sure you’re still up for this."

At that Clint raised an eyebrow and nudged their hips together, hard-ons bumping against each other.

Phil closed his eyes and thought to himself that he had provided the perfect opening for that reaction, but at least Clint looked less cornered now. Clint looked, for lack of a better word, sheepish. "I'm just - I mean, I know where this is going with a woman. But this is kind of - and I don't want to fuck it up. Or I do, you know what I mean."

Oh. That was - unexpected. Phil generally stayed out of people's sex lives and he'd skipped that part of Barton's file. Maybe he shouldn't have, but a person was entitled to some privacy. Especially about this.

"Well," Phil said, pitching his voice low and soft. "while I can’t provide the curves, the mechanics are basically the same. If I was a woman, what would you do?"

"Uh." Clint didn't seem to know where to look. "I'd touch her breasts."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Phil had never played the instructor during sex, his encounters had been casual, both parties experienced in their sexuality, parting amiably enough afterwards. There had never been time for anything different and Phil hadn’t felt the need. He wanted to now. Phil smiled. "I’m game, if you are."

Clint blinked, his eyes searching, then he caught on and brought his hands up, laying them along Phil’s pecs, his fingers brushing across his nipples in a move both deliberate and questioning. "Kind of like this."

"And then?"

"Maybe I'd kiss them."

"Do."

And Clint bent down, brushing his lips over Phil's nipples, dry at first, then open and with a little suction. Phil shuddered, looking down on Clint’s bent head moving across his chest, his hands holding Phil’s waist. "And if she liked that, what would you do next?"

No verbal answer this time, but Clint kissed his way down Phil's chest and abdomen to his waistband, sinking slowly to his knees. The visual kind of did Phil’s head in. He felt his lips part and his breath came out in short bursts. Settling on his knees, Clint looked up. His eyes darkened, hopefully because he saw what he was doing to Phil. When Clint got a very familiar glint in his eyes, Phil braced himself.

“Any special requests while I’m down here, sir?”

Phil couldn’t help scowling. “One: never call me sir again while you're near my dick.”

Clint smothered a laugh against Phil’s thigh, his breath ghosting over Phil’s cock, making it jump in his pants.

Laughter petering out, eyes on a level with Phil’s cock, Clint ran his fingers along the elastic waistband, moving slowly so that his breath first become hotter and hotter against Phil’s dick then just barely touched his lips to Phil's cotton covered length, unmoving. Phil’s breath fell out of him and his hand settled on Clint’s shoulder, digging into the muscle, kneading. Clint’s fingers had walked as far as they could go along the waistband and had come to rest on Phil’s lower back, half on his naked back, half on the pants as if undecided.

Phil felt each of Clint’s exhalations hot and wet through the cotton and continued kneading his shoulder, his other hand first along Clint’s neck and then the backs of his fingers on his cheek, just stroking. Clint’s breath came fast and Phil was sure at least part of it was less arousal and more nerves. Being in an unfamiliar situation with next to no parameters would be hard on Clint.
“How about we move this to the bed?”

Clint looked up and Phil was struck again by a rush of arousal at seeing this at once private and self assured man on his knees for him. There would be time for that later though, at least Phil hoped.

Clint stood up and Phil let his hands drift down his body. At least Clint’s body seemed very much into the proceedings judging by the bulge in Clint’s jeans. Shoulders bumping, they moved towards the bed. Phil turned around and taking Clint by the shoulders, kissed him again. He let his fingers drift downwards, coming to rest just above Clint’s buttonfly. “May I?”

Clint nodded. Phil slipped his hands into the waistband and started unbuttoning Clint’s fly. He wasn’t going for seductive but he felt Clint huffing out a breath and settling his forehead on Phil’s shoulder, looking down. “Should have figured you for going commando.” Phil chuckled, halfway to the last button.

Clint groaned when Phil’s fingers encountered his cock for the first time. “Couldn’t be bothered.”

Phil carefully extracted Clint’s cock from his jeans and closed his fist over the velvety length. His other hand settled on Clint’s neck, running his thumb up behind Clint’s ear and into his hairline. “This ok?” Phil’s lips brushed over the shell of Clint’s ear, triggering a full body shudder and Clint grasped Phil’s waist. Phil started moving his hand along Clint’s shaft, unable to see past Clint crowding close, his forehead still on Phil’s shoulder, but also unable to keep still. Clint was uncircumcised and Phil enjoyed the play of soft skin over hard length and considering Clint’s breath became shorter and shorter and he started mouthing along Phil’s shoulder, leaving wet kisses, he didn’t seem to be doing too badly.

Clint’s voice sounded husky. “We’re still not in the bed,” and after a beat as if testing, “Phil.”

Phil chuckled. “So it would seem. Clint.”

A last stroke downwards and then Phil moved his hands along to slip Clint’s jeans over his hip bones, taking his time, lingering, stroking his thumbs over the bones. As the jeans flowed downward Phil followed with his hands, bending down to help Clint take off his shoes. Only his reflexes kept Clint’s knee from hitting his nose when Clint eagerly stepped on his own toes to yank himself out of his shoes. Clint fell backwards onto the bed, the jeans still entangled around one ankle.

“That’s a 3.0 from the East German judge, I guess.” Clint grinned unabashedly.

“But points for general enthusiasm.” Phil appreciated the view for a moment. Clint had a beautiful cock, no doubt about that. Not particularly long but thick and wellformed, the mushroom shaped head hidden beneath skin folds, a visible vein running in a teasing meander from tip to bottom. It was currently pointing towards his belly button and jumped under Phil’s scrutiny. The rest of Clint’s body: tan lines on his neck and biceps from crouching in all weather in sniper’s nests and lookouts, scars from various assignments, most of which Phil knew about but wanted to learn anew up close and personal. A life lived and lessons learned, written in skin and bone.

When Phil hooked his thumbs in his waistband and unceremoniously stepped out of his pants, Clint raised an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for commando.”

“Couldn’t be bothered.” Phil dryly retorted and pounced.

Clint caught him and they tusseled on the bed, lips locked, hands roaming freely, legs tangling. When they ran out of bed space Clint was on top, breathing heavily, his hair was sticking up, his eyes sparkling, his lips wet from kissing and Phil ached with want. He grasped Clint’s face with both hands, surged up to plant a kiss and then deliberately relaxed, going pliant under Clint, his hands falling away from Clint’s face and spreading his legs minutely, making everything Clint’s call.

Clint looked blank for a moment, his gaze moving from Phil’s eyes to his mouth back to his eyes again. Then he slowly lowered himself on top of Phil, his lips moving past Phil’s cheek and Phil couldn’t help himself but turn and breathe into short hair as Clint nuzzled his neck. Phil felt his lips move along the line of his shoulder towards the arm and back again, breathing deeply, smelling him. On the exhale Phil couldn’t suppress a deep shudder and arched his back, lifting both of them, pressing them closer together. Damp skin on skin, friction and slippage slowly building a delicious tension gathering in his balls. He spread his legs a little further and Clint easily took up the invitation and slotted his cock next to Phil’s. He muffled his groan against Phil’s shoulder, setting his teeth on the bone gently. Surging up, Phil’s head fell back while his hands landed on Clint’s nape and lower back, applying just the right amount of pressure. Slip, slide, exhale, shudder and Phil couldn’t say who came first. Whether it was the feel of Clint’s naked skin under his hands, the sound of his breath stuttering against his neck or the salty sea smell of come filling the air between them. He arched once more into Clint, peaking, feeling their chest hairs scratching, Clint’s mouth latched onto his pulse point, and a slow warmth spread on his belly. His orgasm still ebbed through his body, leaving behind a familiar lassitude. Just as he was about to kiss Clint, he rolled off of him. Both of them hissed audibly when cold air rushed between them, making their skin feel tacky and cold. Phil felt his body decompressing after being smothered by Clint’s not inconsiderate mass and already missed it. For a beat nothing was heard inside the room except the outside din of the storm spending itself.

Then Clint pronounced with feeling to the room at large: “Ew.”

For a moment Phil wasn’t sure how this would turn out and felt compelled to say: “I thought it was pretty good myself.”

Phil felt relieved when Clint chuckled.

“Actually, it was awesome.” And with that Clint rolled close again, their lips met and while their tongues slid against each other languidly, Phil let himself forget all about everything else for now.

***

It was probably going to get uncomfortable, Phil thought, if this was going to be a habit. Clint had, against expectation, not wedged himself in the space between the edge of the bed and the wall. Instead he'd shifted and pulled until he was lying half on Phil, half against the wall. He'd also fallen asleep almost immediately, Phil's shoulder in his grip, one leg over Phil's. Phil felt a little as if a limpet had attached itself to him. If he stayed like this for however long Clint was going to sleep, he was going to seize up.

For now, though, he stayed in bed with Clint, listening to the long deep breaths, the scent and the sound of the storm coming through the open window. He watched as the shifting flashes of lightning and cloud cover illuminated Clint's skin and wondered how he'd gotten this lucky.

Clint gave one particularly loud snore, and shifted against Phil's body. Their sweat had long since mingled, and there wasn't enough space to move away. Phil didn't mind. He had no intention of moving. At least not yet. At some point he would have to get up and check his phone but not yet. A few more hours before duty yanked them back outside where he was going to be bland and stony and Clint was going to be just a specialist. Just.

Phil covered the hand clutching at his shoulder with his own. Never just. Never just anything. But they did have a duty and that meant that they had to make sure this wasn't going to interfere with work. It didn't promise to be easy.

For a moment, the old comics reared their heads again. Phil could just see the panel, printed in primary colors that faded in the sun. Captain America would pose heroically and declare that nothing worthwhile came easily.

He wondered for a moment what Captain America would think of a gay man fucking his subordinate. For that moment only, Phil gave himself over to fantasy. "Son," Captain America would say, "love is the most precious thing on Earth. If you're lucky enough to love and be loved in return, nothing about it can be wrong."

Phil pushed down the old feeling that he wasn't ever going to measure up to his hero's example and pressed a kiss to Clint's forehead. Heroes... heroes were for stories, for fiction, even if they had actually existed. But his lover was real and he wasn't about to let a comic book hero get in the way of holding him till he woke up and then make love to him again.