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Something Fishy

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Agent Phil Coulson has been MIA for one year, four months, and five days when Clint Barton is conscripted hired by SHIELD, and Clint can't help but be a little curious as to why. It shouldn't be that special, agents go missing all the time, except--

Except rumors still echo through the halls, one year later--Phil Coulson escaped from a HYDRA base using nothing but a smuggled paper clip. Phil Coulson discovered a double agent by the way he filled out form 23-D.

Except Clint, deep in the airducts, overhears Hill--damn it, Fury, what do you want her to do? The only one of us who could ever have controlled Barton was Coulson.

Clint doesn't stop climbing in the ceiling and he doesn’t lose the backchat, but he knows it's only a matter of time before SHIELD figures out he’s more trouble than he’s worth. He finds himself hoping this Phil Coulson is found soon.

***

Clint sees better at a distance, always has, but this time they need eyes up close. He's armed with a blow gun--yes, a blow gun-- and a spit wad doused in nicotine. A direct hit on exposed skin and everyone's favorite addiction becomes an untraceable, lethal poison. His target is an arms dealer, constantly covered by bodyguards and protection details, which is why this particular scumbag doesn't get an arrow in the eyeball like so many of his comrades. The Scumbag, however, does have a fatal weakness.

Dolphins.

Fucking dolphins, which is why Clint is casing an aquarium and generally feeling like a twelve-year-old. This is his life. Wading through the fishies with a spit ball in his pocket.

Apparently the dolphins don't dance for another half hour, so The Scumbag and his bodyguard are wandering the cramped rooms, peering into tanks. Clint stops in front of a large glass wall, keeping his eye trained on The Scumbag's reflection in the water. The big bad boss seems unnaturally captivated by the octopuses--octopi?-- floating past. Though, as Clint watches what appeared to be a big rock scuttle across the floor, he has to concede that, at least where octopi are concerned, The Scumbag might have a point. Their camouflage skills are enviable, and those arms probably a lot more versatile than they let on. Clint tries to spot more of the little beasties hiding in the rocks, when a giant bugger appears a few feet from Clint's face. It is huge, its arms as long as Clint's, a bold red covered in bright, white spots. Clint grins. This bastard sure as hell isn't hiding.

"What's up, big guy?" Clint gives it a nod.

The octopus bobs quickly, up and down, almost like--

"Well, shit," Clint blinks. "that's a neat trick. Listening to a lot of Will Smith, are you?" Clint has heard about this, that octopuses/i are smart. He wonders if they make good pets.

The thing whooshes towards the glass, bringing its body bit up to eye level with Clint. "Umm...hi," Clint fumbles. He distantly wonders if he should start backing away.

The octopus thrusts an arm forward, poking the glass.

Clint took a step back, and brought a finger to his chest. "Me? Um, hey. My name's Clint. Hi...Ursula?"

The octopus swiftly changed from red to brown to red again. Okay, not Ursula, then. "Touchy bastard." The touchy bastard jabbed at Clint again, then swept its tentacle towards The Scumbag, deep in conversation with an aquarium official.

"Hey, no, I don't know that guy." Clint throws up his hands. He has to mentally slap himself, because he's defending himself to a fucking octopus. They don't understand English. They certainly don't discover secret operations taking place outside their tank. It's just an octopus.

The octopus jabs again at the side, and turns a vivid black, whirling its arms. Clint looks up, and sees a worker, complete with brown polo and khakis, running at him with a knife.

Clint kicks backwards, and sends the bastard flying. He stomps on the guy's wrist and wrenches his knife out of his hand. Two more khaki-clad goons rush him. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees The Scumbag shepherded off into a back room. Damn it all, Clint swears, slashing the attackers with their comrade's knife. They fall--too quickly, he thinks--but he doesn't have time. He needs out, fast. As he scales the wall and climbs into the ceiling, Clint thinks he sees a very black, very pissed octopus banging on the glass.

***

"I'm telling you, it's not a fucking aquarium." Clint lays his head on the desk.

"Then what is it, a restaurant?" Miller demands. "You had one job, Barton--"

"Yeah, and those were just biologists with ninja skills?" Clint stands up. "Look, Leweski was clearly deeply involved in some serious shit with that place, that knife was definitely not kosher, and..."

"And what, Barton?" Miller looks pained.

And I had a lovely conversation with an octopus. "There's more to Leweski's involvement than just weird dolphin love, okay? I can't explain it, but when I was there something just seemed, well--"

"Don't you dare, Barton."

"--fishy." Clint ends, because, well, he has to.

Miller lets out a long sigh. "So Leweski has bodyguards dressed as employees. Not that surprising. And other than weird fish guts, tox screens turned up nothing on that knife. Go to your quarters and rest, Barton. You startle at too many shadows. We'll talk this over later once you're less excitable."

Clint leaves, but he can't rest. He paces around his quarters, scowling. Excitable, Miller said. Uncontrollable, from Hill, before. And they’re probably fucking right. He talked to a damn octopus like he was in Finding Nemo or some shit. He’s reading way more into the situation than he should. Do what you're good at, Barton, he tells himself. Shut up and take orders.

Three days later, he takes The Scumbag down at the opera. The arms organization falls to pieces, and Miller gives him a smug grin. “Still smell something fishy, Barton?”

***

It’s his day off, and Clint is back at the aquarium. Not because he’s investigating, no, because that would be a direct violation of his orders to Leave it the fuck alone, Barton, jesus. No, he’s here because...he’s visiting a talking octopus. Christ, he doesn’t know which one is worse. The aquarium’s only been open a half hour, so Clint’s the only patron as he walks into the octopus room and stops at the sight in front of him.

“Come on,” an employee cries, rapping his knuckles against a tiny tank in the middle of the room. His khakis are covered in slime and his face is filled with desperation. “Pick a damned mollusk. I really couldn’t give a crap which one, just choose something!”

“Something wrong?” Barton asks, raising an eyebrow.

“What?” The man straightens. “Shoot, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize we opened yet. No, nothing’s wrong, just this little terror won’t choose a football team.”

“Excuse me?”

“We’ve got this octopus, terrifyingly smart octopus, and were hoping to bring in a little money by making it do predictions like the one with the World Cup. Except he’s not playing the game, won’t choose, like he’s too damn good for parlor tricks. We’ll move him back to the big tank and try another day.” The man shakes his head. “Sorry, sorry, I’ll get out of your hair. Enjoy your visit.”

Clint nods to him, and walks over to the tank. It’s a red spotted one, like his friend, but if he’s honest with himself he doesn’t think he can tell the difference. “Hey,” he says, giving a wave.

The octopus picks himself off of the rocky floor and propels itself over to Clint. He lifts a tentacle and shakes it. Definitely his friend, then.

“You’re pretty good at that mimic thing,” Clint says. “Thanks for the heads-up the other day, by the way. I got the bastard, just so you know. He won’t trouble you anymore.”

The octopus flashes, white and black and brown and green, and shoots a jet of ink at the glass.

“Whoa, okay, jesus, what is it?” Clint says. It occurs to Clint that this monster is roughly man-sized, and probably very dangerous. “You can’t tell me you wanted that fat dolphinophile around, did you?”

The octopus glares at him. He doesn't know if glaring is anatomically possible in a creature that can't blink, but it's happening. Clint feels like he should be ashamed. “He wasn’t the problem, was he?”

It twists its body, like it’s shaking its head. Clint laughs. “I thought so, I fucking told Miller--”

His phone vibrates in his pocket. He answers, “Barton’s Super Secret Agent Service, how can I help you?”

“Barton, get down to base, now, something’s come up.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He hangs up. “Sorry, Oswald, gotta run.”

He swears the octopus watches him as he leaves.

***

Clint watches the warehouse from up high, gun in hand--leave the bow, Barton, we’re not in drama school--and waits for Miller’s signal. Apparently The Scumbag left behind an ambitious nephew who’s trying to restart the family business. SHIELD is going to stop that from happening.

“Ground team enter, now.” Miller’s voice chirps out, strong and decisive.

Clint readjusts his grip, waiting for the sound of gunfire.

“Hey, Miller,” Sandburg calls, hesitant. “All the targets are already dead.”

Clint’s mind jumps back to the octopus, flashing angrily like it was threatened. There’s something else at play here. Later, during clean-up, he approaches Miller. “Ma’am,” he says, “I really think we should--”

“Save it, Barton. I’ve got a warehouse full of dead bad guys. Whatever you’ve dreamt up this time, I need it to wait.”

Clint nods. “Yes, ma’am.”

***

Clint returns to his quarters, rubbing his head. Miller’s right. He was hired as a sniper, not a spy. If there was any credible threat in the aquarium, she’d be on it. He takes a long-ass shower, and climbs into his bunk. And thinks, and thinks.

Fuck. Clint gets up, and for the second time since his arrival at SHIELD, turns on his standard issue computer.

"The octopus is a complex and little understood animal. Capable of complicated hiding and hunting strategies, it is widely regarded as a highly intelligent creature, to the point of exhibiting individual personality traits in captivity....Though all three hundred species of octopus contain a form of venom, only the blue-ringed octopus is known to be lethal to humans....Some scientists have speculated whether the vivid color patterns displayed by many species may be utilized for more than just camouflage, specifically speculating about the possibility of rudimentary linguistic skills..."

Clint can't take it anymore. He grabs his jacket. After a moment’s deliberation, he leaves his swimsuit.

***

Clint stands outside the tank for Octopus Cynea, a Treasure of the Pacific, feeling distinctly like an idiot. He broke into an aquarium in the middle of the night, --an aquarium, by the way, he had just tried to convince his boss was full of Bad Guys Up to No Good--armed to the teeth with a bow and quiver, to talk to an octopus. Not his proudest moment. And now the Kraken wannabe isn't even there. After a minute, he knocks on the glass. Shave and a haircut.

Two bits. The knock comes from behind him, and to the left. Clint doesn't jump; swiftly and silently, he lifts his bow and nocks an arrow. He stalks over to the tank, which had captivated The Scumbag just the other day. There, crawling along the floor next to the glass-

"The fuck, dude," Clint swears, lowering his bow. "How'd you get here? You're supposed to be over there, with the other three-foot-long monstrosities. This water's full of baby octopi, they're all little and yellow and blue and creepy."

The octopus glares. The thing has got glaring down to an art, jesus.

Clint clears his throat. "Okay, so, to prove the 'Clint Barton is not crazy' interpretation of events, I am going to ask you some questions. And you," Clint digs out two crumpled pieces of paper, "are going to point to the 'yes' paper or the 'no’ paper." He holds the pieces up to the glass. "Are you an octopus?”

The octopus jabs a tentacle at yes.

"Am I an octopus?"

The octopus jabs no.

"Okay, so far, so good." Clint rattles off several questions, all of which his eight-legged friend answers correctly. Clint is feeling vaguely not crazy at the moment. It’s a good feeling.

"And last, but certainly not least, is Jurassic Park III a good movie?"

Yes.

Clint sighs, and leans against the glass. Miller was right, then. Excitable, uncontrollable, and completely delusional. "Well, damn. Not that I don't agree with you on that score, buddy, completely misunderstood by the critics--but that was a trick question. You’re not supposed to do anything when you can’t answer the question. You've been pointing blindly this whole time, and I’ve been seeing what I want to see."

The octopus flashes white, then brown, and shakes its tentacle furiously at no.

Clint laughs weakly. "Oh what, I’m wrong? So you've seen Jurassic Park III, then?"

Yes.

"You're a fucking octopus!" Clint yells.

The fucking octopus wiggles, as if it was hesitating. It doesn’t move towards either paper. Trick question. Clint stands up straighter. "Are you really an octopus?" he asks, slowly.

It wiggles again, before waving one tentacle at yes and another at no.

Clint takes a deep breath. "Are you...have you always been an octopus?"

No.

"What were you before?" He blurts out, and the not-octopus slides forward, and touches the glass directly in front of Clint.

"Okay, just, hold on." Clint breathes. He lets the papers slide to the floor and covers his face with his hands. A human turned octopus? A human turned octopus that can spot an assassin and warn of an attack and has been tracking evil people in its spare time? "Okay," Clint finds himself saying. "I believe you. Fuck it, I believe you. So you say there’s something fishy going on here?” It bops up and down. “Can you show me where?” Another bob.

Clint laughs, and flashes his best shit-eating grin. “Come on, Octopussy. Let’s take down a villain.”

***

The octopus-slash-superspy worms its way through the aquarium tanks, squeezing through water filters and retaining walls. Clint follows in the ceiling, bow at the ready. At last, it wedges itself into a small tank kept in the corner of a dark backroom. The tank is filled with the golfball-sized yellow and blue thingies from earlier. Clint’s octopus becomes brown and bumpy, and curls up as just another rock. Clint smiles appreciatively and swings into the nearest duct and peers out an air vent.

In the middle of the room, the employee Clint had spoken to earlier is tied to a chair, weeping. A large man looms over him, not blinking and smirking threateningly. “You have failed me, Hartmann.”

“N-no, sir, it’s just--proving difficult to replicate on a large scale--if I could just, just have more--”

“You have failed me!” Big Evil Man yells, revealing a mouth filled with huge, pointy teeth. “Again and again, you have failed.”

“Please, sir! P-please, just a little more time--”

Big Evil Man snarls, and lashes out with his hands. The prisoner falls limp, his neck broken. “Someone clean up this mess!” He barks at the door. Two men, heavily armed, rush in and carry the dead man away. Big Evil Man hums to himself, and strides to a table where a pile of anchovies lies on a plate. He picks one up, and swallows it whole. Big Evil Man--okay, Big Evil Shark Man--smacks his jaws together. “So, Phillip,” he says, snapping his head towards the tank in the corner, “did you enjoy the show?”

Clint sees his octopus shoot out from the rocky bottom and turn a deep black, spreading its tentacles and making itself huge. Big Evil Shark Man just laughs. “Take that as a no? Pity. I did that just for you. Well, for you and your guest.” He snaps his head towards the vent, fixing Clint with his unblinking eyes.

Something heavy and hurtful collides with Clint’s head. Well, damn.

***

Clint wakes up, tied to the same chair as the poor employee was. He takes that as the bad omen it probably is. He assesses in his surroundings. Directly in front of him, Big Evil Shark Man is munching on his plate of anchovies. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Octopussy--Phil, his name is Phil--throwing himself against the glass. He stills when he sees Clint’s open eyes. Clint winks and turns his attention to the mean bastard in front of him.

“Hello,” he says, “you want to share why you’re a creepy shark man?”

Apparently, yes, Big Evil Shark Man does want to share, all he was waiting on was an audience, so he sets down his plate of smelly fish and begins to monologue. “Every primitive human who lived near water had tales of sea monsters. From Japan to Greece to Hawaii to Peru, little children went to sleep with nightmares of krakens and sea serpents. Then we humans grew up. We knew better, scoffed at the stories our grandfathers told, and slowly stopped believing in the deadly nature of the sea.” He pauses, glances to see if Clint is absorbing the story properly. Clint nods encouragingly, and he grins, pointy teeth glinting.

“But the sea, oh, the sea never grew up. The monsters still roam the water, though we have forgotten them. It is my intention, good sir, to bring the terror of the sea back to land.” He finishes with a flourish, his eyes (still not blinking) never leaving Clint’s.

Clint stretches, taking the chance to glance to the back of the room. At some point during the soliloquy, Phil disappeared from his tank. Clint smiles. “A lofty goal, Aquaman, and I admire you for it. I really do. However, that doesn’t answer the question of why you, specifically, are a creepy shark man?”

“Careful, little man, or you shall find yourself my next meal. My humble associates and I are attempting to harness the power of sea creatures for ourselves, you see. I am a product of gene splicing with a Great White.” Clint has a really great joke for that, seriously, comic gold, but for once in his life he holds his tongue. This might not be the best time. Meanwhile, Phil has returned with his tentacle curled around something metal and glinting. “Your dear Phillip is a special pet of mine. Such an accomplishment, that. A man becoming fully a sea creature. Such a privilege.”

“I’m sure he feels the same way,” Clint says. He’d really like to know more about that, but important things are happening in the back, and Shark Man’s attention needs to stay in front. “You developing poison, too?”

Big Evil Shark Man claps his hands. “Delightful! Oh, yes, very good, sir. Several occupants of the big blue are known to kill. My favorite, of course, the Blue-ringed Octopus. Weighs less than an ounce, yet produces a neurotoxin capable of killing a human in minutes. Though large-scale production is proving...problematic.”

“Yeah, I guess I could understand that.” Clint shakes his head. “I got one more question for you, big guy. What,” and Clint can’t help it. He gives Big Evil Shark Man his shit-eating grin, “is your opinion of the Sub-Mariner?”

A large crash sounds from behind the Shark Man, and he whips around to see Phil the Badass Octopus fling himself at his face. The door bangs open, and Clint tears his bonds and attacks the bodyguard. He wrestles him to the ground, steals his gun, and puts a round in his chest. He turns towards the Shark Man, pauses to ensure he won’t hit Phil, and shoots. Big Evil Shark Man falls to the floor.

“Hey, Phil,” he says, rushing over, splashing in the bloody water. Hey, look, apparently octopuses have beaks, and Phil has used his to gouge the bastard’s eye out. “That was incredible, Phil!” He reaches out a hand, when he sees...

Jesus.” The monster has torn one of Phil’s legs to shreds with his fucking teeth. “I got you.” Clint gathers him up close to his chest, keeping his left hand free for the gun. Phil’s tentacles curl around his torso. “I got you, Phil, we gotta run, let’s go.”

Clint takes out three more guards as they leave the room. He starts running, firing shots in all directions. He can feel the octopus dry up in his hand. “Phil, I swear to god, survive this and I’m taking you to dinner. I’m serious. King crab legs, lobster, fucking caviar, Phil, just don’t die on me. You can’t die on me.” Clint knows in the back of his mind that he’s rambling, but as he shoots another goon, he can’t help but feel terror at losing him, losing this stupid octopus that he somehow trusts more than other human beings. Clint fights his way through the lobby, bursting through the glass doors--

To see Fury and Hill and a dozen SUVs pull up. Agents in bullet-proof gear fly out of the cars, and rush in the building. Clint can feel himself begin to shake from adrenaline, and grabs Phil tight. He fucking loves SHIELD sometimes. “I need a vet,” he croaks out. “Please, someone get me a vet!”

Fury opens the car door and strides over, long coat flowing. Clint laughs. “Don’t frighten him, Director, he may think you’re a pirate--”

The Director silences him with a glare, then glances down at the octopus. “Long time, no see, Agent.”

“Aw,” Clint breathes, feeling feverish. “I missed you too, Fury, but really, I was only gone--”

“Not you, dumbass. Though congratulations, you rescued Agent Coulson.”

Clint wants to say something, he really does, but his tongue is suddenly numb. A tremor racks through his body, and he falls to the floor.

***

Clint wakes up in SHIELD medical with a headache the size of Kentucky. He notices, with a bit of surprise, a man sitting in the visitor’s chair. He’s calmly reviewing paperwork in a crisply pressed suit, his back ramrod straight and not a hair out of place.

“Well, this is new,” Clint croaks. “Never had a visitor before.”

The man flashes him a mild smile. “Good afternoon, Agent Barton. My name is Phil Coulson.”

Clint wonders briefly if it’s wrong to think a man you first met as an octopus is hot. “How’s the leg?” He asks instead.

“Perfectly fine. I had a few to spare,” Coulson says, deadpan.

Definitely hot. Probably wrong, too, but when has Clint ever cared? “What happened to me?”

“Blue-ringed octopus venom. You didn’t get bit, people don’t come back from that, but apparently their water had enough poison to send you to the hospital. Medical is requiring you to stay out of the field for two weeks to give your neurological system time to heal itself. Incidentally, Director Fury has placed me on mandatory vacation to ‘get used to having only two legs, goddamn,’ as he so eloquently put it. My exile last two weeks.” Coulson’s eye glints. “Our bad guy’s name was Michael Goodwin. The aquarium was not his only stronghold. In two weeks, you want to help hunt down the rest of them?”

God, yes. “What does Miller say about that?”

Coulson’s stare turned cold. “Olivia Miller has been reassigned to a research outpost in Siberia. She has no say in the matter whatsoever. See you in two weeks, Barton.” He stands and heads for the door.

Clint never realized before that competency could be incredibly attractive. He is extremely and royally fucked.

“Barton?” Clint shook his head, and looked up. Coulson had paused in the doorway. “Yes, sir?”

Coulson looks Clint dead in the eyes. “You saved me from hell. I don’t know how to thank you for that.”

Clint grinned. “Let me take you out to that dinner I promised you. Sir.”

“I don’t think seafood will sound very appealing for a long time. Good afternoon, Barton.”

Coulson is out the door before Clint realizes he didn’t really say no.