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***

Contrary to popular opinion, Phil does not particularly enjoy having junior agents going in terror of him. A little healthy respect, yes, can get him a cup of coffee before he even thinks to ask for one, and overestimation from time to time has proved useful during negotiations and junior agent welcome seminars, sure, but since he'd apparently become a legend in SHIELD for what Fury determinedly and euphemistically calls 'The Incident', it's reached ridiculous levels.

He supposes the 'back from the dead' thing doesn't help, even if Medical is 98% sure he isn't a zombie.

Still, he'd appreciate if Agent Tat, the only other agent assigned to this field office, wouldn't flinch and edge nervously around him without meeting his eyes as if Phil will go for his throat every time they meet in the corridor. Considering this dingy field office in Idaho only has one corridor lined with two offices, bookended by one tiny storage room and one supremely depressing breakroom, it happens entirely too often.

It doesn't help that the man's tie is always badly knotted, a detail that harrows Phil deep inside and makes his fingers twitch spasmodically with a life of their own. With each inadvertent meeting in the corridor, Phil always has to take his inner OCD firmly with both metaphorical hands and repress the urge to tackle the man, fix his tie, and then introduce him to a lint roller.

On second thought, maybe Tat is justified in being squirrelly around Phil.

But that, combined with the utter boredom of auditing this office – paperwork is another thing, contrary to popular opinion, that Phil also hates – means that, all in all, it's been a terrible thirteen days. A boring thirteen days.

Technically, Phil's too high up on the totem pole to be sent on a garbage assignment like this, but this is Fury's Motherfucker, I thought you died welcome back. A vacation, Fury calls it. A chance to recuperate before being plunged back into the fray of SHIELD life, otherwise known as Fury having no idea what to do with Phil because the man prides himself on having contingency plans for contingency plans, but nowhere did he ever imagine that Phil would just…stop being dead.

(Although replacing Phil with an LMD hadn't been above him, which Phil still isn't totally over finding out. And no, he hadn't known those things existed. "Really?" he'd demanded of Fury. "It's only been a year. Really?" And Fury had given him a long, considering, meaningful look, and Phil had shut up.)

Phil would be more okay calling it a vacation if he were assigned someplace — no offense to Idaho intended— like Hawaii. Or Tahiti, or Morocco, or Greece, all of which also have field offices in dire need of an audit but have cocktails and sunny beaches too. But he isn't, so this is actually Fury's version of sending him to Siberia for scaring the shit out of him and making him have actual feelings by dying.

It's flattering in a round-about way, and Phil is prepared to be nothing if not patient because Fury has very little leeway to dick around with mind-games at the moment, not with SHIELD down by a third of its staff and still struggling to refill its ranks with competent people instead of idiots blinded by the starshine of possibly working with superheroes. But this is just the way Fury does things, and Phil's long ago learned to just nod and smile and wait him out.

But on the other hand, Phil might crack before that happens, out of sheer eye-gouging boredom.

It's hard to care about little things like this when half a country away, the Avengers are engaged in an ongoing, slow-burning, inter-dimensional war, punctuated by the occasional crazed super-villain or mercenary for variety. Phil wants to be in the thick of things, the sizzle of adrenaline always burning down his spine and lighting the back of his eyeballs, not sitting here gray-faced, sifting through ten years of dusty financial reports and personnel evaluations of an office that hasn't seen any action since 1987.

He throws his pen down and leans back in his office chair, rolling the back of his head against the headrest. The chair is lopsided and a little too low, and swivels around with a mind of its own when his feet aren't flat on the ground. He'd have thought that the Idaho office would use some of their not-insubstantial budget on properly working office equipment, but no.

Something bounces off his coffee mug with a muffled clank, then falls onto his keyboard.

He stares at it, bemused. It's a little, densely folded star made of yellow lined paper torn out of a legal pad. He picks it up, unfolds it, and reads, Hey.

And somehow, Phil isn't surprised. And isn't surprised to find that he's been waiting for this, somewhere deep down he doesn't let himself examine too often.

He snatches the next one out of mid-air, and swivels just in time to see the small vent cover on the opposite wall snapping back into place. "You might as well come down," he tells the vent. "How did you even fit in there?"

There's a pause as if the occupant is surprised at being caught. "Um," the vent says. "Actually."

"You're not going to come down?"

"I am. I will." The vent rattles. "Give me a second." Bang. Thump. Now the voice sounds strained.

"Are you –" Phil blinks. And blinks again as the thumps continue followed by a quiet curse, the corners of his lips curling up into a grin despite himself. "You're stuck."

An affronted huff. "'Stuck' is such a strong word."

Phil laughs, laughs for the first time in days. He crosses the room and pulls a chair to the wall and stands on it. Lifting off the cover, he comes nose to nose with Clint, who's lying there prone and looking rather squashed, squirming about amid a pile of torn up paper and cursing under his breath. "'Strategically wedged'?" Phil suggests.

Clint makes a pathetic noise at him, half wounded, half whine.

"Should I call the fire department?” This earns him an eye roll, as Clint tries to worm forward and he gets all of an inch amid the crackling of paper and the sound of popping buttons and tearing fabric.

“Or I could find a tub of Crisco." Phil does his best not to laugh again, he really does, but all he succeeds in doing is choking it off into a little cough at the end of the sentence as Clint glares at him. Clint is more than kind of endearingly ridiculous like this, all red-faced and edging into desperate, dignity gone straight out the window.

"You're not helping," Clint growls through his teeth. “Sir.”

“Butter?”

“Coulson, really?”

Phil swallows his smile down, hard. “You’re right, I'm sorry. How can I help?”

Grunt. Wriggle. "Just – it's my shoulders. The shaft's just a little too narrow here, so— look, help me roll –"

Clint falls out of the vent opening, nearly taking Phil out with him. Only Phil's quick reflexes enable him to catch Clint's wrist in mid-fall, preventing what would probably have been a nasty landing onto his face.

Clint pops upright almost immediately. "Hey, sir." A cobweb interrupts him with a sneeze. There's dust ground into his dark blonde hair. He swipes at himself, a big, slightly manic grin pasted on his face, evidently determined to pretend nothing happened.

Phil tries on his sternest expression. "Barton. Many office buildings, as I may have mentioned to you in the past, do not have ventilation systems large enough to fit a normal sized man, much less you, and SHIELD won't give compensation for vent-related injuries sustained while you're not on an officially sanctioned mission."

"Did HR put you up to that?"

"I get paid $100 each time I say it," Phil replies dryly. "I also get an additional bonus if you ever actually listen." They smile at each other for a moment that stretches and stretches until Phil has to ask the question that needs asking:

"Barton, why are you here?"

"Oh. Um. Right." Clint shifts, looking down at his feet, then braves a sidelong glance back at Phil, as if gathering his courage.

Then he steps forward.

With only the slightest hesitation, he pulls a startled Phil to him and wraps his arms around him in a tight hug, burying his face into Phil’s shoulder.

Phil freezes in surprise. Then he lifts his arms and returns the embrace, because—because—this is just a normal hug between two people who haven't seen each other in a while, right? He doesn't know where to put his hands. He settles for patting Clint on the back, resisting the urge to clutch at him like a lifeline. Clint's the first exciting thing to happen in the long march of grey days in this purgatory of sour-smelling documents, away from this person that he didn't allow himself to admit he missed the most.

Clint is warm in contrast to the overly air-conditioned room. He smells like sweat and dust and something faintly like coffee.

"Just," Clint says, then seems to realize that he's hugging Phil maybe a little too long for the bro-code and lets him go as if burned. He steps back and shoves both hands into the pockets of his cargo pants. "Wanted to see how you were doing."

Phil looks around him at the dingy office, scuff marks on the beige paste walls and dust bunnies and mysterious stains decorating the weird multi-colored nap carpet. "Here? You could've just called."

He'd wondered why no one contacted him before. He'd reunited with the Avengers before he left for Idaho and while he doesn't expect anything more from Rogers, Thor, Banner, or even Stark – with the exception of Stark, they barely knew each other before, and didn't have time to become friends after – the total silence from anyone but Maria, Jasper, and Fury has been disheartening.

And, if he has to admit, especially so from Clint and Natasha. But especially Clint.

Clint gives him a strange look. "Director Fury said you were on vacation and didn't want to be bothered. He wouldn't even tell us where you were."

Phil stares at him, his mouth open. Then closes it. "Is that so."

"I'm guessing that isn't true."

"Do I have to worry about plausible deniability or can I ask how you found me, then?"

Clint grins. "Well, we aren't supposed to know, but Director Fury didn't say anything about us not trying."

"Us? Who – You mean you and Stark?"

"Yup, Tony. It was kinda awesome to watch him and JARVIS backdoor their way into the SHIELD systems. I wonder why the CIA never tried to recruit him for their black ops hacker corps or whatever they call it now?"

Phil is touched that Stark would even trouble himself to help look for him, but then very few people can resist Clint when he has his mind set on something, much less his puppy eyes when he's really set on something. And that Stark would even help means that – Clint's made friends outside of SHIELD, maybe even made himself a family of sorts.

Phil can’t help but smile at the thought. "You're assuming they never tried."

"Did they?"

"Just the once. I'm only sorry I missed it. I was assigned to Russia at the time."

A mercury flash of a grin. "The collateral damage probably wasn't worth it." Pause. "Sir, what are you doing here? No offense to people living here, but when I think 'vacation,' Corinna, Idaho isn’t the first place that comes to mind."

"It's quiet here." He can't help giving Clint another smile, the places where Clint was pressed up against him still warm.

It's good to see him. In the weeks since reappearing and Fury packing him off to the middle of nowhere, he'd seen the Avengers and all of his old SHIELD colleagues as much as he could but far less than he would have liked, what with being quarantined as a potential doppelganger or alien impostor – and failing that, being poked and prodded by all of Medical to figure out how he'd returned from the dead out of nowhere. Phil could help the debate very little, his memory ending with Loki and then beginning again in Fury's office, Fury ashen with shock and pointing the biggest hand-cannon Phil’s ever seen before or since right between his eyes.

Thor had explained it as Asgardian magic in a manner that suggested the subject needed no further discussion. And maybe it did; it was hard to accept ‘magic’ as a catch-all explanation, but Medical and all its expensive gadgets was at a loss.

Phil tries not to think about the being dead bit, much. If there's anything working for a clandestine government organization has taught him, it's the importance of Need To Know. There is no scar; no physical reminder of what occurred. Aside from the strange looks and almost physical hush that falls when he comms HQ, he could almost pretend nothing happened.

Clint's looking better, at least. Clint's preferred method of dealing with problems is not dealing with them at all, and he'd had a curled up, tense look at the time that Phil is very sure he caused. He'd mostly avoided Phil in those early weeks. And then Phil was sent here, and now here's Clint, looking—or, at least appearing—like his old self.

Phil shrugs. "It's relaxing."

Clint snorts disbelievingly at that.

"Did you come with anyone?"

Clint hears the unasked question, Are the Avengers waiting just around the corner? and smirks. "No, just me." He looks suddenly shy. "As long as you don't mind."

Phil's instant, "Of course not," releases a tension in Clint, his face relaxing and the corners of his mouth starting to curl up into a genuine smile. Phil's tempted to try for another hug when Agent Tat rounds the corner and nearly runs into Clint.

Tat shrieks, his armful of papers flying, and nearly falls on his ass.

This is why Tat is relegated to a backwater office like Idaho, Phil is reminded for the fifteenth time in as many hours. Just the fact that Tat made it past basic training and was allowed to become an agent is indicative of how woefully understaffed SHIELD is.

"High-strung," is Clint's only comment, after Agent Tat stutters his way through sweeping all the papers into one giant pile, leaves it on Phil's desk, and flees, shooting Clint and Phil wary, resentful looks the entire time. "Want to get lunch?"

***

It isn't that Phil isn't glad to see Clint, he is. But around here, there's nothing much for a visitor to do, if you aren't particularly interested in shopping at outlet malls or visiting chain supermarkets or doing anything else associated with suburban living.

He worries about this after lunch as he continues to work away at the pile of records and reports that Tat digs up at Phil's request. Phil has no illusions about himself; he's Phil. Dependable, steady, unexciting Phil. Clint will surely satisfy himself as to Phil's continued well-being then pack up and leave for New York probably as soon as is polite.

Phil is selfish enough to want Clint entertained enough to stay a while, so he allows himself to take a fifteen minute break to check the local listings on Yelp. There're a number of local outdoor activities that Clint will probably like, like whitewater rafting and hiking. This probably isn't what Fury had in mind when he admonished Phil to rest, but Phil isn't actually recovering from anything except a rather disturbing blank in his memory. He generally spends his evenings alone in his hotel room surfing web forums and Google, keeping track of the Avengers' latest missions and trying to fill in that one year long gap in his memory of world news, American politics, and superhero doings, and feeling queerly unmoored and out of sync with the rest of the world.

He also spends probably more time than is healthy trawling E-Bay and contacting antique and collectible shops, looking for replacements for his cards. He hadn't even bothered with "Really?” that time, just given Fury a look of aghast horror when he'd found out. At least Fury had had the decency to look sorry, if not ashamed.

But Clint seems to find things to do on his own, perching on the edge of Phil's desk as Phil works, leaning into Phil's space while touching everything like a restless magpie, playing with Phil's pens and highlighters, swinging the stapler open and shut, and making more of those little folded stars out of strips of whatever paper he can scrounge.

Another person would find it annoying, but to Phil, it's soothing. So many years were spent like this in his office in DC: Phil working, Clint humming tunelessly under his breath and keeping him company.

A small star, this one of sparkly pink paper, falls precisely between Phil's thumb and forefinger where they're resting on his keyboard as he's lost in thought.

He picks it up, deposits it into a small glass jar on his desk. The jar is starting to fill up.

Only then does he look up at Clint sitting on the edge of his desk, his thigh close enough to Phil's arm to touch, if he wants to.

"Can I help you with anything?" Clint asks then, fingers busy with another star. This one is cheap blue paper swiped from the copy room, the kind used to make flyers that fade fast and turn brittle in the sun.

"Are you bored?"

"No. But you look like you need help." He waves at the papers sprawling organically across Phil's desk, his laptop open and blinking on spreadsheets, multi-colored columns of figures marching across the screen, uncapped highlighters scattered about.

"Because if you're bored, we can go out? There's this hiking trail just outside of town—"

"I didn't say I was bored," Clint replies patiently. "Aren't you bored? I know how much you hate this kind of stuff."

Phil taps his pen against a binder and studies him. He hasn't reported Clint's whereabouts to Fury yet, because though Phil is pretty well known for having an even temper, let it not be said that he doesn't hold grudges. Phil knows Clint well enough to know that Clint is very probably not supposed to be here. He also knows that he'd rather not know, and that Clint will tell him what he needs to know when he thinks it necessary.

And, in the meantime, Phil wants to leave the office sometime before five. Before everything, back in his main offices in New York and DC, Phil had been known to stay until the small hours of the morning, but right now he's on vacation. In theory, at least. His first vacation in over twenty years.

And, well. Being (sort of) dead really makes you reconsider your priorities.

This train of thought flicks through his brain in less than a second. "Here," he says, and hands Clint a stack of folders. "Have a look at these and see if you come to the same conclusion I did."

Clint doesn't even hesitate at the sudden avalanche of papers in his lap. Phil knows Clint is not one for the social niceties; if he didn't want to help, he wouldn't have offered. And he could use Clint's sharp eyes, because his own have started to cross. "Anything I'm looking for? I'm not much of an accountant." Clint asks. Then, as if he's suddenly embarrassed, he ducks his head and mutters, "Or good at math."

Neither is Phil, for that matter. "I'm not asking you to do calculus. Just look for anything that seems unusual. Like this." He pulls out a requisition form and turns it around so Clint can see.

Clint studies it and shrugs. "I've asked for that much at one time."

Phil rolls his eyes. "But you're a special case. A superhero on the most specialized team the world has ever seen. So you," tapping the paper for emphasis, "can get expensive adamantium armor and customized equipment without any questions asked."

"So what does a tiny field office of one in Idaho need that many automatic rifles for?" Clint's interested now, leaning forward with a frown to inspect the document more closely.

"Exactly." He shuffles through the papers again, finds what he's looking for under his mug, pulls it out. "Like this – a requisition for bullets, but a shade too many for an office this size."

"Maybe they take training seriously."

"For an office with no more than three agents at any one time?" Phil shakes his head. "No, it doesn't make sense. But single incidents don't concern me. See if there's a pattern, then we can see if it's just administrative error."

It probably is; Phil's seen this before. Department and field office heads tend to get enthusiastic when their annual budgets are announced, particularly if they have to spend it in full every year or risk having it reduced the next. For some, it's like Christmas and Easter and Kwanzaa coming all at once, only to have their bubble burst by a surprise audit and a personal ass-chewing by Fury or by whomever Fury delegates the job. Phil's done it himself a couple times. It's a depressing task, like taking a toy away from a toddler, complete with tantrums, tears, and in one memorable case, a suspension -- which is, in effect, a time-out.

Phil’s not looking forward to Agent Tat’s epic sulk.

"Yeah. Huh. I'll have a look." Clint slides off the desk to sit on the floor.

Tat peeks around the doorjamb. His eyes widening, he jerks his head back and disappears when he notices Phil noticing him.

"Try to keep the papers in order," Phil says to Clint as he frowns after the man. Clint salutes him jauntily, his eyes still scanning the top paper in the first folder.

"Where are you staying?" he asks Clint several hours later after they emerge from the office building, blinking owlishly in the lowering daylight. He has a headache, a $150,000 headache of ordnance that's disappeared into thin air. They'd queried Agent Tat about it – the requisition papers had the name of the requesting agent mysteriously redacted – and Tat, with all of his usual sullen, twitchy unhelpfulness, simply shrugged. Phil mentally resolves to leave a note in the man's personnel file but he doubts it will do much. The man is already relegated to a tier four field office after all, there isn't much lower he can go.

Tat's help (or non-help, as it goes) doesn't matter much anyway; the office has only had one or two agents at any given time for decades, so tracing the originating head agent's name by cross-referencing it with when the requisition was filed won't be that difficult.

Clint shrugs. "Easy 8."

That stops Phil in his tracks. "That motel on the edge of town?"

That shrug again.

"Don't you get paid a stipend?" Surely Clint can afford a nicer place, one that doesn't look like its primary occupants are cockroaches and desperate people on the fringes of society.

Clint hunches in on himself, his hands shoved deep into his pockets again. He isn't exactly incognito, though Hawkeye is by no means as well known as the Big Three, but his famous arms are covered in a long sleeved henley and he's wearing sunglasses. And really, who expects to see Hawkeye the Avenger out here?

Clint mutters something.

"Sorry, I didn't catch that."

Clint sighs and says louder, "I'm not exactly supposed to be here."

Phil rolls his eyes at him. "Yes, I figured that much, even if Fury's emails of 'Where the fuck is Hawkeye, Phil, goddamnit' didn't clue me in."

Clint winces. "Really?"

"How much money did you get out of your emergency cache?"

"I took off with just the cash in my pocket, actually." He grins crookedly at Phil's expression. "I was in a hurry, okay? It was enough for a plane ticket out here and a couple nights at a motel. I can't access any of my accounts if I don't want Fury or Hill showing up and chewing me a new hole."

Phil only sighs in reply, rooting around in his pocket for his keys. He wonders what Clint would've done if Phil weren't here. Likely stuck in Idaho without a return ticket or extra money, and in Fury's black books as a bonus. Knowing Fury, he would've made Clint hitchhike all the way back.

Although, it occurs to him then, the Avengers would probably just come and pick him up, irrespective of Fury's opinion or approval on the subject. Which is good, because in this hypothetical scenario and in what Phil's been able to glean through the news feeds and some rather disturbing blogs tracking the Avengers' every move and various conspiracy theorists debating who is dating who and if the Avengers are just an arm of the government that will one day take over the Earth, that means the Avengers has coalesced as a cohesive team. If not…well. This is a hypothetical, after all.

He knows so little about the everyday dynamics of the Avengers, Phil thinks with a pang. He's missed so much. He finds his keys, and nudges Clint in the direction of his car. "You can stay with me. I have an extra bed in my suite."

"Hey, no, you don't need to –" Clint protests weakly as he's prodded along, but not sounding particularly reluctant to spend a night somewhere where he isn't kept awake by the sounds of skittering critters. Over the years, he and Phil spent time in many less than savory places but not by choice; having something multi-legged run over your face in the middle of the night isn't something you ever get used to.

"I do," Phil answers him anyway, turning to let Clint see the smile that's twitching the corners of his lips upwards. It feels good to smile naturally again; in the nearly two weeks he spent here with no one but the dour Agent Tat for company, there'd been precious little reason to smile. "I know this might be hard to believe, Barton, but I'm really glad you came."

Distracted by trying to unlock the car, he doesn't notice that Clint stopped following him until Clint says, "I'm glad I did too." His voice cracks at the end like a teenager's crashing into puberty. He clears his throat, and says again in a voice that strives to be more normal but again falls more than just a hair short, "I'm glad I came. You know, to make sure you aren't dying of boredom and stuff."

When Phil glances at him, he's inspecting the tops of his boots, the tops of his cheeks dusted pink in a way that makes Phil want to do things to him, like running his thumbs across Clint's cheekbones and kissing that vulnerable, shy look off his face.

He squashes that thought immediately with a skill honed with long practice.

Still, the way Clint's eyes flick to his makes him think something will happen, much like the way a black cloud on the horizon presages a thunderstorm.

He's getting rusty, he thinks later as he's filing his report and has time for analysis. When the crack of a single gunshot echoes across the office parking lot, he thinks for a second that it's a firecracker, of all the banal things to happen here, but his body recognizes the sound for what it is and long-ingrained reflexes of animal instinct has him tackling Barton just as Barton lunges for him too. They crash into each other and fall to the ground. The bullet spangs off the chrome side mirror of the truck parked next to Phil’s car, two inches from where they'd been standing, knocking it off its base to dangle crazily by a wire of twisted metal.

A split-second pause then, as the assassin seems to realize he's missed, then he opens up in earnest, high-caliber bullets whining over their heads to thud into the cars around them in a barrage of deafening thunder. Phil yanks out his gun as he scrambles into deeper cover behind the line of parked cars. Barton's hand is an urgent exclamation point between his shoulder blades, pushing him down onto the hot asphalt, until Phil shrugs him off to try to get a vantage around the chrome bumper of an ancient wood-paneled Buick.

Windows shatter and shower glass shards everywhere over the loud cracks of gunfire that echo over the parking lot. Car alarms go off in sympathy, adding to the cacophony.

Phil sneaks a quick look, jerking back as a bullet whizzes by his head. Damn it, he can't see, and they're pinned down. As far as he can tell, it's a single gunman and he'd caught a glimpse of a dark-colored vehicle, but there's no way to tell if there are more or if they're being flanked without popping his head up into that impenetrable layer of fire. There's only one source of the gunshots, though, and there's been no pause long enough to indicate reloading; so either there are multiple gunmen in the single vehicle or there's a single gunman with multiple loaded guns with him.

At the other end of the Buick, Clint rolls to his stomach. He's got his own piece out, one considerably larger and much less subtle than Phil's. He sights around the cars and squeezes off four shots. A scream, then the gunfire abruptly ceases, followed by faint shouts, then the roar of an engine rising into a scream before fading into the distance. Clint curses under his breath and slaps his hand against the asphalt.

"Clint, are you all right? Clint!"

Clint swears again, then grunts, "I'm fine, I'm fine. They got away." He gives Phil a humorless grin. Glass shards twinkle in his dark blonde hair. There's a streak of grime down one cheek. The grin doesn't reach his eyes. "You're calling me by my first name now, sir?"

Phil blinks at the subject change, smelling hot asphalt and acrid gunpowder against his cheek and hands. "Is that a problem?" he asks tentatively. "I can stop if you want." He hopes Clint doesn't. Technically, he isn't Clint's superior anymore nor are they even work colleagues, and Clint doesn't even need to call him 'sir,' but hadn’t they almost been to that point before Loki? They're not really friends enough to be on a first name basis, are they? And oh god, is he thinking way too hard about this?

"Nah. It's fine. Can I call you Phil?"

Phil shakes himself. "Of course. Yeah. Yes. As you wish."

Clint snorts, then his face splits into a wide smirk. "Did you just – really? A Princess Bride quote here? Now?"

Phil pushes himself to his feet. "I will neither confirm nor deny. Barton, report."

If Clint notices the switch in names, he doesn't comment. "Black late-model SUV. Shot the tires twice, didn't even slow it down. I'm thinking steel-reinforced. I might have hit somebody, though. Couldn't get a good enough look."

Phil hums to himself, thinking rapidly, sparing a wry thought for worrying about Clint's boredom levels when Clint is his own personal tornado of crazy things that just seem to happen to him and to anyone within range. Funny that Phil forgot that. "Have you pissed anyone off recently?" he asks at last.

"Me?"

"You."

"You know the Avengers, we're always popular," Clint says, frowning as he appears to give it thought. "Someone's always mad at us for something. Probably even in Idaho. But, uh, why are we assuming it's me they were trying to get?"

Phil gives him a look.

Clint shrugs in that ridiculous, loose-jointed way he has, rolls his eyes, rolls his eyes again in case Phil missed it the first time, and doesn't disagree.

The clean-up takes up the rest of the afternoon. Tat is nowhere to be found. Phil resolves to definitely leave an admonishment in the man's record.

At the end of it, he has to get the next closest field office involved. Nevada is thankfully efficient about it, the owners of the other cars and the local police convinced it was a random drive-by, and Phil's own rental towed away and replaced. Phil and Clint are unhurt, miraculously untouched by the hail of automatic gunfire.

This is good. Not just for Phil's blood pressure, but also to the advantage of the attackers; if Clint had even been so much as scratched, Phil's level of piss-off would've been at Def-Con 1, a level that'd only ever happened once, long ago in Afghanistan when his unit had come under friendly fire. It'd resulted in Fury, then a scrappy and young brigadier general trying to start an organization even more covert (and less bumbling) than even the CIA, hiring him on the spot. The appropriately awed looks Clint throws at him demonstrate that Clint knows this too.

By the time everything's done, it's dark. They're both so exhausted they can hardly speak. There are no more protests as Phil puts Clint in the passenger seat and drives back to his hotel, stopping by the Easy 8 only long enough for Clint to check out and grab his few things.

The hotel bellhop gives Clint's ragged duffel and beaten up combat boots only a sideways glance and keeps his mouth shut.

Clint doesn't look too uncomfortable there, among the plush couches of the lounge and the gilt counters of the hotel lobby. He's had plenty of missions in such environments to at least not look totally at sea, but he relaxes perceptibly as Phil pushes open the door to his extended-stay suite and they're alone.

"Fury's not that mad at you, is he." It isn't a question, as Clint surveys the two massive queen-sized beds and the big-screen television.

Phil laughs. "Don't let on you've figured him out."

Clint takes a look inside the bathroom next and lets out a low whistle. "I don't care if you've got dibs, I gotta give this bathtub a test drive," he declares, and dropping his duffel, disappears into the bathroom, leaving a trail of clothes behind him like breadcrumbs.

Really, Phil should have seen this coming; in the years they were partners, Clint proved quite the bear for deep bathtubs and also quite incapable of keeping his pants on. If Natasha were around, she'd throw things – the remote, likely – at his boxer-clad ass, but that's Natasha and Clint and when they're together they're like 2-year-old siblings, but this is Phil and Clint, so Phil ignores the silken pile of Clint's Captain America boxers (silk, of all things, and Captain America – Phil struggles with this for a long moment before deciding to pretend he didn't notice for his own sanity's sake) crumpled on the floor by the bathroom door and digs out his laptop to make his report to SHIELD.

Clint emerges thirty minutes later amid a billowing cloud of citrus-scented steam, bath towel wrapped around his waist, toweling his hair dry.

Phil concentrates on flipping through the channels and, settling on CNN, watches a news report on something happening in North Korea.

Clint looks good. And has never been shy about his body, god knows. He's grown a little leaner in the time Coulson was gone, and now he's got an impressive farmer's tan, perhaps because working with the Avengers involves more fighting in broad daylight than SHIELD ops generally do.

A drop of water traces its way down his chest, just barely skirting a taut brown nipple.

Phil swallows again, hard, then berates himself for being susceptible to something so stupid as the worst porn cliché ever.

"Anything new from SHIELD?" Clint asks. His voice is muffled in the towel as he dries his hair.

"No," Phil says, when he can trust his voice again. "They're cross-referencing all the known threats in the area, but really, we didn't see enough to find out who they are." Apologetically, he continues, "I also had to tell Fury you're here."

A blue eye appears. "And?"

"Some choice four-letter words were used, but I don’t think he's surprised." That gets a snort out of Clint, and with that, Phil takes his turn with the shower. Fury also said, I sent you out there to not have adventures, Phil, so quit having them, but Clint doesn't need to know that.

When he gets out, fully clothed in pajamas and armed with more questions for Clint because while he does trust Clint to tell him what he needs to know, he also needs to reassure himself that Clint's not in some kind of trouble because that is the kind of information Clint chooses not to share, especially with Phil or Natasha, he finds Clint in his bed, fast asleep.

Which is fine; they hadn't discussed whose bed would be whose, but Phil's been sleeping in the one closest to the window and farthest from the door. His glasses are on the bedside stand, along with his dog-eared copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Clint apparently fell asleep paging through it.

Phil soundlessly reaches across him for his glasses and the book, fully intending to get them and move to the other bed, when a hand comes up and seizes his wrist. "Where you going?" Clint mutters into the pillow, not bothering to lift his head. "Come here." Pulling a little at Phil. And god help him, Phil can't muster the will to resist.

"Please," Clint adds as an afterthought, sounding almost completely asleep again, and shredding the last of the tatters of Phil's resistance.

"All right," he tells him quietly, and at Clint's, "Mm," slips under the covers. It's okay, he tells himself. They've done this before, on too many missions to count, on less comfortable beds than these. It's never meant anything.

Clint always sleeps warm, his own private furnace, and Phil hasn't forgotten that Clint likes to sleep mostly naked, in his boxers and nothing else, because if there's anything in the world that's Phil's personal purgatory, it's Clint and Clint's inability to keep his clothes on. It is all Phil can do to slip to the furthest edge of the bed and turn over to stare out at the glaring red numbers on the beside clock, wondering what in the coldest blue hell he'd done in a past life to deserve this.

***

Clint disappears sometime after breakfast with a cryptic, "I have to look into something, I'll see you later," and a wave.

Phil returns to the office and makes faces into his coffee mug. Tat's called in sick, and Phil can't quite manage the energy or motivation to dig around in the badly kept filing cabinets in the back room himself.

Two hours in, he's logged into the SHIELD database with the clearance he's technically not supposed to have as an inactive agent, investigated Clint's potential and known enemies, determined that most of them are in custody or being quiet, and decided that nothing much else can be found out without more information. He makes up a dossier of potentials anyway and emails it to Fury and Hill.

What about 'vacation' don't you understand, Phil? And send that asshole back ASAP. If people are shooting at him, I don't want you in the line of fire. He's paid for that, not you, Fury emails back in two minutes flat. He must be stewing at his desk, scrubbing at his eyepatch with a finger like he does when things have jumped off the rails and he hasn't worked out how to fix the situation quite yet. Whether that's because of Phil or Clint, Phil doesn't know.

I'm not his handler anymore, Phil writes back. I can't make him do anything, it's not in my job description. And because he can't resist, he adds, Also I'm on vacation.

If Fury will deign to use emoticons, Phil's sure he would use a very angry frowny face instead of the terse, I also don't pay you to be sassy.

Sorry, on vacation. Please leave a message at the beep.

He considers that for a long moment, his finger hovering over the mouse. Too insubordinate, even for their thirty year friendship?

Fuck it, life's too short, he decides, and clicks Send. What's Fury going to do, send him on some makework detail to somewhere that's not Tahiti?

That done, he closes his email before Fury can reply, then masters level 167 on Candy Crush Saga, and promptly runs out of lives on level 168. He sends a request for more lives, but Fury must be ignoring him. When he finds himself idly playing with the jar of paper stars, he decides to go to lunch.

Clint catches up to him outside of Denny's as he's perusing the menu and wondering if bothering to drive downtown to a bistro instead would be worth the trouble. Clint says, his voice low and casual, "We need to talk."

"I hope it's about having the maple or blueberry pancakes," Phil replies just as casually, before turning his head to look at Clint. His smile freezes at Clint's expression. "What is it?"

Clint shifts, looking around. "Maybe we should go inside," he says.

"Agent Coulson!"

Turning, he sees Agent Tat, in a nondescript, badly fitted off-the-rack navy suit that scorches the alligator part of Phil's brain, walking rapidly towards them. "I thought you were sick," Phil starts, summoning a bland smile he reserves for people he really doesn’t like, before the man reaches them and, with a swift motion, pulls a gun from under his coat and points it at Phil's head.

"Walk," Tat tells him, all trace of sullen sleepiness gone, replaced with a sharp alertness so in contrast to the Tat Phil knows that Phil almost doesn't recognize him. "And your friend here is going to behave, or he'll have your brains all over his face. Isn't that right, Hawkeye."

There're thick bandages peeking out from under Tat's sleeve on the arm he's not using. His dominant arm, because his grip on the gun is shaky and crooked. "How did you hurt your hand, Agent?" Phil queries, his voice as modulated and calm as he can make it though the blood is pounding in his head, his vision white hot, and oh so many things make sense now.

"This is what I wanted to talk to you about," Clint says now, very calmly, his hands in the air. Normally at this juncture Phil or Clint would proceed to twist around, grab the gun, and beat the snot out of the offender, except someone appears behind them out of nowhere and tasers Clint.

Clint goes down into a twitching heap, and now there are two guns pointed at Phil.

Not a single person walking by reacts. It's almost like New York, in a strange nostalgic way, except jesus fuck, it's like New York and Phil hates New York.

Trying to talk to Tat will be useless, Phil knows, and right now he knows all he really needs to, doesn't he? Evil villains monologuing are really stereotypes that don't happen in real life, and he won't give Tat the satisfaction of asking, at least not until Phil's evened the playing field and has the opportunity to make the man very, very sorry he ever messed with Clint.

"I really hate nosy people," Tat tells Phil conversationally. "Now walk, and nobody gets hurt.”

Phil raises an eyebrow at him.

Tat amends, “Okay, nobody gets hurt more."

So now they're in the trunk of Phil's own car, hands duct taped behind their backs, ankles also wrapped. They're being driven somewhere. Phil can hear Katy Perry playing on the radio and a conversation too low to make out, a man and a woman.

This is interesting. It'd been another man who'd gotten the drop on Clint, which means that whatever this is involves at least three people, and three implies there may be more. Phil finds this ominous.

Clint snorts himself awake five minutes in, thank god. Phil was beginning to worry that he'd choke on his own drool, because apparently those someones know Hawkeye quite well and so also duct-taped his mouth shut.

But even gagged and still groggy, Clint has a lot to say, his expressions going from what to hey there to are you okay? to my nose itches and then cycling back to the mainstay of fuck. Then concentration, as alertness returns to his eyes and he starts to work his tongue against the tape to free his lips of the adhesive.

"Hold still," Phil tells him, bracing as they go over another bump hard enough to bang his shoulder and hip against the roof of the trunk. Generously sized as the trunk is, they barely fit. Clint is draped across Phil, chest to chest, thigh to thigh and parts are…touching.

Phil isn't particularly thinking about that at the moment, though. He'll remember every detail in stereoscopic HD later, the way faint light peeks in through the lines of the trunk lid, Clint's breath moist against his neck, the flex of his thigh against Phil's hip, but for the moment, Phil has bigger priorities.

Clint makes an interrogative noise at him as Phil leans in. He mouths against Clint's cheek, feeling Clint's raspy stubble and the sharp intake of breath through Clint's nose as Phil fumbles for the edge of the tape with his lips. It was an amateur move, not gagging Phil too, as amateur as attempting something as imprecise as a shoot-em-up in a parking lot for an assassination, but Phil's never one to quibble about dumb mistakes that increase the odds of his and Clint's survival.

He finds the edge, works his tongue under the lip of it, then after a lot of working at it, feeling the tickle and scent of Clint's hair against his nose as his jaw gets progressively sorer, he finally manages to gets his teeth into the tape. He pulls. Pulls and pulls, wincing in sympathy as Clint makes a muffled yelp as some skin and a lot of hair goes with it.

The first thing Clint says after getting his mouth free is, "Ouch, fuck," and then, "Are you okay?" Which is nice of Clint to ask considering Phil's not the one who received 50,000 volts of current through his body, but then Clint does have impressive pain tolerance, a good skill for a SHIELD agent cum superhero to have. Clint has had a lot of practice at it too; something about Clint's face just seems to piss off the bad guys, and they like to taser him. A lot.

It's a phenomenon Phil commissioned an analysis on, before the Tesseract incident. He'll need to see if it ever got done.

"Where's your knife?" he asks, pitching his voice low. They'd been frisked before getting stuffed into the trunk, but Clint always has a knife stashed somewhere that only the most professional and thorough of searchers can find. And these kidnappers, whoever they are plus one Edward Tat, are neither.

"In-step, left boot."

"Can you get to it?"

More sliding, the drag of skin and clothing. Phil closes his eyes and concentrates on finding his zen place. He can see the glint of Clint's smirk as he comments with sorry good humor, "This could turn into the worst porno ever."

Phil counts to ten. "Keep it down, Clint, they'll hear you."

A sigh, then. Of...what? Disappointment?

Some more wriggling, an elbow in Phil's solar plexus, more wriggling against Phil's thigh – Zen place, Phil repeats to himself in a fast mantra – then a sawing noise, some muttered curses, then a relieved, "Ah ha."

"Now do me," Phil says, just in time to hear the words come out of his mouth and just too late to shut himself up. "Shut up," he says at the amused wall of meaningful silence that is Clint. "You know what I mean."

"I want it on the record that I didn't say anything. At all. Nothing at all. Zip. Zilcho."

"Your newfound maturity impresses me, Barton." He turns over so his back is to Clint and waggles his tied hands at him. If his knee happens to thud painfully into a certain pressure point on Clint's leg as he goes, well, it's a small space.

"Ow, Coulson," Clint complains, but gets to work sawing at the duct tape. It falls away in short order and Phil takes some time to rub the sensation back into his wrists before he turns around. Escape will be tricky; the car has an inner trunk release, but judging from the hum of the engine and the lack of sharp turns or stops, they're on a highway, and popping out of a trunk at speed probably isn't the best idea.

The plan gets as far as considering and rejecting shooting through the rear seats – again with going eighty or more on a highway, the odds of crashing and dying are too high. And Phil's gun is gone.

"So I guess this is where I tell you what I was going to say before we got ambushed," Clint says, crabbing down to work at Phil's ankles.

"You were going to tell me something about Tat. We were investigating a series of strange requisitions that I initially thought was poor paperwork but considering the circumstances, is looking suspiciously like embezzlement. And now we're kidnapped and being transported somewhere," Phil replies. "I'm going to assume these things are related." And he's going to shoot somebody, he mentally adds. Philip Jerome Coulson prides himself on being a hard man to sneak up on, and he got snuck up on. He's still working out a plan for the immediate future but after escaping the trunk, shooting is definitely on the agenda.

"I love it when you get all sarcastic," Clint replies. Then, as if he read Phil's mind, he adds, "And watching you think about shooting someone that's not me is pretty damn hot, sir," which derails Phil right there, because what. As Clint slides back up he realizes Clint's about two inches away from his face, and his hands are in interesting places that can be excused as close quarters but really don't need to be resting on Phil's hip like that. Clint's voice drops. "Just fyi."

Phil's suddenly glad for the dark, so Clint can't see the hot blush that overtakes his face as he gropes for composure. After three decades of serving under Fury, aplomb under fire usually comes easily to him, but now it takes him nearly a full minute to reply with a semblance of calm, "Are you hitting on me, Clint?"

"Yes?" The hand on his hip twitches uncertainly, then falls away. Phil has time to mourn its loss. "I mean, if you want me to."

Stupid question, Phil thinks, knowing this is where he should sing hosannas for his good fortune, except they're still kidnapped and still stuck in a trunk and plastered against each other and breathing each other's stale air. So instead of saying anything along the lines of "Fuck yes," he blurts, "Now? We're doing this right now?" because Phil has this thing where he says the pragmatic thing instead of the thing that'll get him laid, which is probably how he made it to Division Director by age 35 instead of having anything resembling a long-term interpersonal relationship.

Clint has the worst timing ever.

Fortunately Clint knows him well enough to understand that Phil hasn't said no. Instead of backpedaling (as much as one can in a 2x4 coffin) or laughing it off, he puts the hand back, warm on Phil's hip. And Phil has the breath punched out of him when Clint says, "I was waiting for the right moment, then you went and died for a year."

In the wake of the raw grief in those words, Phil allows himself to have this for exactly one moment. He cups Clint's face with his hand not trapped beneath him, exquisitely aware of their less than perfect circumstances, and finds Clint's lips more out of blind luck than accuracy. He breathes Clint in, wanting to make this last forever in the seconds that they actually have, all damp, shared breath and the tentative touch of tongues. Clint's making small sounds against him as if he can't help himself. Phil's heart pounds heavily, tangible against Clint's hands that are clenched in the material of Phil's hopelessly wrinkled suit.

The hell with it, Phil thinks in a haze as Clint does something with his tongue that makes Phil seem to switch on from head to foot and now he wants, needs to touch Clint, has needed this for far too many years without any kind of hope. A soft gasp escapes him and Clint seems to lose control at that, making a broken growl and pressing himself closer as Phil's world narrows to Clint, just Clint.

A hard bump slams them against the roof of the trunk, and they break apart, panting.

"Clint," he says, and stops, for the first time in his life (well, for the first time since his second grade spelling bee, where he'd frozen in the middle of spelling 'pink') at a loss for words. Their hot breath mingles, puffing into each other's faces.

"Yeah." Clint's voice is wrecked, muffled where he's buried his face into Phil's neck like he's scenting him.

"Clint," he says again, still tasting him on his lips and wanting nothing more than to kiss him again, maybe do something about that hardness that's (probably) not a gun pressing against his hip. "Priorities," he manages, struggling to remember that they're in a trunk, Phil's own damn trunk, in a hostile situation with god knows how many people he'll have to shoot (or beat with his shoe, if he can't locate his gun), and still no escape plan.

"Priorities," Clint parrots. He sounds dazed. He hasn't stopped worrying the skin of Phil's neck between his teeth. "Right. Those things."

"Not dying."

"Escape."

"Yes."

"Right."

"Clint."

"Hm?"

"I need you to let go of my ass and tell me if you still have your backup gun."

Clint does not have his gun. Phil is both annoyed yet weirdly pleased that apparently Tat's SHIELD training wasn't a total waste.

"Don't worry," Clint adds hastily, probably in response to Phil's silence. "Tony built me something really cool."

'Something really cool' turns out to be a miniature modified crossbow that can be broken down into its component parts and hidden on various parts of his person.

Phil lets himself be quietly impressed. He has no doubt that like all of Stark's inventions, despite its unassuming appearance, it does exactly as advertised and is deadly efficient at it. Phil likes that.

Clint huffs another laugh that ghosts across Phil's neck and makes him shiver. "You love it, I can tell. He made it because he broke Betsy trying to improve her – yeah don't worry, I was plenty pissed about that," shrugging as if Stark breaking his favorite bow is no big deal and as if he hasn't punched bigger men and once burned down an AIM base for less cause, "But he fixed it and made this too. It's pretty sweet."

Phil pauses, then chooses to set that particular conversation aside for later, when he has time to pry the details of Stark's survival out of Clint. "Have it ready," he murmurs into Clint's ear. "Once the car stops, we'll have only a very small window of opportunity to--"

"I've got a better idea," Clint tells him. "There're two in the car, right? Sitting up front unless someone in the back is being very quiet. If I clip the driver--"

Phil has no doubt Clint can hit someone simply by triangulating them by sound. "Clint, no. You'll make us crash."

Clint lowers the weapon from where he's aiming it at the backseat, but only an inch. "I said clip, not kill." He adds, "Do you trust me, Phil?"

Phil's breath catches at the use of his name. Not 'sir,' or 'Coulson,' or 'boss,' or any of the other formal names Clint has called him over the years.

Of course, Phil reminds himself, once you kiss a guy while kidnapped and locked in a trunk together, you might as well.

"With my life," Phil replies simply.

"I can do it. Trust me."

Phil takes a breath. Lets it go. "Take the shot."

Clint smiles once, ferally, then looses the crossbow. Its recoil near silent, the quarrel no bigger than a pencil, it makes only a faint punk as it punches through the backseat. The immediate reaction is gratifying: an agonized scream and frenzied swearing. And then the car swerves violently, which is much less relieving.

They're thrown around like loose biscuits in a tin, their arms, thrown out to brace themselves against the sides of the trunk, doing little to protect them from slamming around. There'll be bruises if they survive, Clint's forehead knocking into Phil's hard enough to see stars.

The sound of tires screeching, skidding, but the car does not flip over.

"Get ready," Phil whispers as the car thankfully screeches to a full stop and someone that sounds like Tat bellows, ”Those assholes! They shot me!"

A car door slams, the entire car shaking from the force. Then another from the other side, this time gentler. "Get ready," Phil whispers again, just as footsteps crunch around the side of the car and the lid of the trunk pops open. The sudden flood of light blinds them but Phil doesn't hesitate, pistoning his legs out through the opening and meeting a soft midsection. The owner of the midsection squawks and falls backwards. Phil throws himself out of the car, rolling to his feet in an instant, knowing without looking that Clint's followed and gone in the opposite direction.

Tat's sprawled on the dirt shoulder of whatever deserted backcountry road they're on, two dusty footprints matching the soles of Phil's shoes imprinted on his chest. Phil steps up and stamps on the hand that's reaching for the gun that's been knocked several feet away, while another almost silent twang from Clint's crossbow results in the female companion, who'd been raising her own piece to shoot Phil, going down with a quarrel in the eye. She convulses for a long moment, heels rattling against the gravel, pale hands twitching, before going still.

He knows her, Phil realizes. Former SHIELD Agent Poock, who'd been turfed out five or six years ago for embezzlement and excessive force. She'd worked in a different department than him and Clint and this time her hair is longer and blonde instead of in a severe black bun. He hadn't recognized her before, not having caught more than a glimpse of the side of her face when they'd been taken.

"Agent Tat," Phil says, returning his attention to the man beneath him, straightening the sleeves of his suit with efficient flicks of his fingers. The suit itself is wrinkled beyond repair, but it's the show that counts. "I am beginning to suspect you've been very bad."

"He was gun-running," Clint supplies, keeping the crossbow trained on Tat as Tat flops like a beached fish underneath Phil's foot, grimacing at the pain of his bandaged wrist being ground into the dirt. "Selling SHIELD ordnance to cartels in Central and South America."

"How many others are involved?" Phil bites out. Tat tears with scrabbling fingernails at Phil's shoe then his sock-covered ankle, before flopping out to strain again towards his gun. Phil grinds his foot down harder until the man yelps and quits.

"Fuck you," Tat seethes at him.

"Thank you, but you're not my type."

Tat grabs a handful of road dirt with his free hand and flings it at Phil in a thick cloud. It patters harmlessly against Phil's pants leg and lands mostly on Tat's stomach.

Phil raises an unimpressed eyebrow at him.

Tat squirms, adam's apple bobbing as he gulps. He stares up at Phil, Phil backlit by the sun and looming over him in the most threatening, Fury way he knows how. Finally he snarls, the words jerking out of him in a flood as if he's been bottling them up inside for a long time, "You stupid nosy bastard, doing your fancy superhero bullshit then coming here and sticking your nose where it doesn't belong. I was going to kill you quiet and quick then your Avenger boyfriend showed up and," his voice rising to a near-hysterical scream, "Christ, I hate both of you meddling assholes, I wish you stayed dead!" It's the most he's ever said to Phil in the entire two weeks they'd known each other.

"You missed the memo, then," Phil tells Tat pleasantly, giving him his blandest smile. "I don't die easy."

This seems to incense the other man, because then he spits, "And I hate your suit."

The world seems to draw down into a frozen silence.

Clint cocks his crossbow, his face gone dark. "Keep talking, please," he grits. "It'll be my pleasure to keep field-testing this weapon."

"That's only fair," Phil replies, still deadly mild. "Everyone's entitled to their opinion, even if it's wrong out of breathtaking ignorance and heinous taste. But our differences in opinion on menswear are really not at issue here."

"Fuck you!"

"So. Agent Tat. Thanks to you I am having one spectacularly bad day. I suggest you rectify this by telling me what I want to know."

Tat is silent. Ah, there's the mulish curl to his lip that Phil hates so much, defiance in every line of his body.

"Go on," Clint interjects, smirking. "Ask him 'or what.'"

Tat stares at Clint, then back into Phil's face. His eyes narrow.

"Ask him," Clint encourages, grinning wider. It's not his true smile, the one that only a select and privileged few get to see. It's not even his this is just my face and I smile so I don't look like a grouchy troll and so people quit telling me to smile smile, it's grim and hard and makes him look every inch the dangerous man Phil knows him to be.

Fear begins to creep into Tat's face for the first time. "No," he wavers. "I don't want to."

"Here, I'll do it for you," Clint says. His voice goes up into a falsetto in a mocking imitation of Tat. "Or what, Badass Agent Coulson?"

Phil resists the urge to roll his eyes at Clint. Carefully, in case Tat decides to get up to trouble again, he kneels in the dirt next to Tat.

He studies the man, observing the way his breathing quickens, the way his sweat sheens in the muggy air and how the tan road dust clumps in gritty beads on his skin, and smelling the thick iron of blood trickling from the gash in his arm. Sliding up to hold his gaze, Phil leans forward and taps one index finger right between the man's eyes.

"Luxembourg, 1998," he tells him, and watches Tat turn an alarming shade of puce so quickly Phil thinks he's going to faint.

"So," Phil continues in that even, gentle tone. "I want names. The SHIELD agents working with you. Who your outside contacts are. Everything. Start talking."

"N-no."

Phil leans back on his heels. Gathers the man's ugly tie – hunter green printed with haphazard purple fleur-de-lies, which clashes badly with his blue off-the-rack suit – in one hand. Smiles with kindness and exquisite pity down into Tat's sweating, panicking face. "I was hoping you'd say that."

***
"And so the propane gas tanks in the maintenance shed outside the HYDRA base caught fire. The flames spread to the improperly stored munitions, and--"

"Coulson," Fury says. The director is rubbing his temples hard enough to give himself friction burn. "Shut up a second."

Phil shuts up.

"Let me be clear, in case I heard you wrong and you know I hate hearing you wrong."

Phil nods, folds his hands across his stomach, and waits. More than anything, he wants this briefing to be over. He can smell himself, the miasma of sour sweat and acrid smoke and gunpowder filling the large office. The stuff is streaking his face, his hands, and is even ground into his hair. There's blood on him and in his hair that isn't his. Fury hadn't given him even enough time to shower when he landed back in New York before sending Maria to demand Phil's presence in his goddamn office, now.

"You went to Idaho, motherfucking Idaho, where I sent you specifically to keep you quiet for a few weeks while I figured out what to do with you, and you uncovered a weapons smuggling ring with ties to HYDRA and half a dozen other enemy organizations, and blew up their base."

He eyes Phil severely until Phil nods again.

"At least twenty SHIELD agents have been implicated, including five here in HQ. Human Resources and the Supply & Requisitions department will never be the same. We'll be years reevaluating the permanent staff and our recruitment and requisition policies, and the newest class of junior agents is possibly demoralized to the point of uselessness." He points a threatening finger at Phil. "Do I have it correct so far?"

Phil raises his eyebrows at him. Fury sits back in his chair hard enough for the leather to squeak. They stare at each other for a long heartbeat, Fury's lips drawn into a grim line. The clock on Fury's desk ticks.

Fury's stern face cracks into a grin.

"Good job, Cheese."

Phil allows himself to smile back. "It wasn't all me, Nick. In fact, most of it wasn't even me."

Fury's smile snaps back into that humorless frown like it's been slapped off. "Right. Barton. Let's talk about Barton. Barton, and his near-mutant ability to find trouble. Barton, who wasn't supposed to be within 500 miles of you."

"Clint saved my life," Phil says flatly. "Agent Tat was going to quietly shoot me in the back of the head if I got any further in the audit, but Barton showing up when he did –"

"—Accelerated the schedule a bit," Fury interrupts. "Not the first time an Avenger showing up caused a panic."

"Well, yes," Phil concedes. "But Clint going off and asking around his underground contacts –"

"As Ronin," Fury interrupts again. "Which he told us was dead and buried."

Phil glares at him. "Personally, I'm grateful Clint went AWOL for my benefit, then discovered a SHIELD-wide conspiracy, and oh, kept me from getting shot and left in a ditch."

Fury leans back casually. "Are you telling me you believe that the end justifies the means?"

"I believe in anything that gets the job done, and don't even pretend you don't think the same. Sir." He tacks on the last as an afterthought, trying to draw away from the precipice of insubordination he's just realized he's dancing across.

Fury glares at him for a long moment. "Getting sassy in your old age, Phil."

Except, well – screw that.

Phil matches his glare. "It's the only thing a man's got left, once he loses his hair."

Fury bursts into laughter.

They grin at each other then, their conversation unspoken and understood. Fury will never say anything so sentimental as I'm really glad you didn't die; he hadn't said it two months ago when Phil reappeared from the ether and he sure as hell isn't going to say it now, but Fury sure can look it in the way he keeps rubbing his temple with his finger and staring at Phil like he still can't believe Phil isn't a ghost.

Finally Fury drops his hand. "So is it 'Clint,' now? Did that finally happen?" Now he's finally got Phil exactly where he likes everyone to be: derailed, thrown off his guard, stuttering through a deep blush of surprise and mortification.

"Did what happen?" Phil hedges. Maybe if he had more experience with crushes – oh god, what is he, in junior high? – infatuations, the beginnings of potential relationships, new flings, he wouldn't be so thrown by a simple question. "Nothing happened."

Fury's expressive finger is back at his temple. Fury, secure with a wife and a son somewhere (although in a parallel universe, if rumor is to be believed) studies Phil with the jaded amusement of the long-taken-off-the-market.

"And what do you mean, finally?" Phil asks with an edge to his voice as Fury keeps studying him, a sardonic smirk writ large on his face.

"Oh, please." Fury finally replies. "Barton was driving us crazy. Kept pestering Hill with 'what if he's bored,' 'is he okay,' and 'I need to tell him something super important and what if I don't get another chance,' and oh, also a lot of pretty-pleases and following her around like a little lost puppy. She nearly spaced him out an airlock."

"Oh," is all Phil can think to say, lost in that furious blush once again.

"You really think our systems are so bad that we'd let Stark just waltz in and steal the data on your whereabouts?"

Phil opens his mouth. No, he doesn't, not with SHIELD not being stupid enough to make their systems entirely StarkTech. Not because they consider the man a risk for turning super-villain, but because they don't want SHIELD vulnerable to Stark if they ever and will certainly one day piss him off, so their systems are a hybrid of StarkTech and Sh'iar technology. But then, he never underestimates Stark's ability to get into places he shouldn't and causing the maximum amount of trouble.

"Shut up," Fury says. "I ought to demote your ass for being a doubting Tom."

"I never doubt you," Phil says, loyally. "But are you saying that you and Maria aided and abetted Barton into going AWOL?"

"There was no 'aiding,' just not putting up extra obstacles when Stark, predictably, entered the system. Subtle as a Christmas tree in July, that one." He sniffs derisively. "I told Barton you'd be back in a month or two but I guess that fool couldn't goddamn wait."

"Sir," Phil says very carefully.

"Sit your skinny ass down, Phil," Fury says with a wave of his hand. "I swear to you I am not an alternate universe version of me, or being mind-controlled, or replaced by an LMD. Auth code Zebra-Zebra-Tango-2-3-5-9-1."

Phil relaxes, but only slightly. “So you…”

“You got lucky, Phil. If you kept up those sarcastic, borderline bitchy reports, I would've had to send Romanov after you instead and then we’d be lucky if Idaho is still on the map.”

“Nothing happened,” Phil says flatly.

Fury eyes him for a long moment. Then he asks, “What happened in Luxembourg?” He raises a finger before Phil can even open his mouth to answer. “Rather, the correct question would be, just what do the junior agents think happened in Luxembourg? I seem to recall that Luxembourg involved you and Barton eating your weight in chocolate and macarons in little cafes while surveilling a diplomat who we thought was a double agent but instead turned out to be a sad little man with a vivid fantasy life.”

Phil grins.

Fury's eye twitches. "Just what the hell has Barton been telling the junior agents?"

Phil grins wider.

***

The door sweeps shut behind Phil with a futuristic-sounding whoosh. He half-expects Clint to be standing there waiting for him like he used to – leaning against the wall, in combat boots and SHIELD tactical gear, casually observing the passersby and nodding at acquaintances until Phil comes out. Phil has to clamp down on a feeling of loss when he's not.

It's okay, he tells himself. Clint probably went to go take a shower and do his own debrief to Hill and – and – that interlude in the trunk, fraught with tension and danger and ridiculous as it was, will be as if it never happened. Which is fine, totally fine.

Phil's office on the Helicarrier is one level down from Fury's, on the port side. The battleship is currently hovering over the New York City harbor so Phil takes the long way along the observation decks, looking down at the blue water and the city skyline. It's been a while since he's seen this, so he dawdles, trying to match his memory with the reality of the altered Manhattan skyline. He tries to ignore the way the junior agents start at seeing him and then hurry on, whispering to each other.

It's probably less to do with his reputation at the moment and more to do with him looking like he's been in an explosion. He cuts short his reverie and hurries on to his office, looking forward to the cramped shower there and a change of clothes.

Phil's shower in his office is occupied. A quick survey of the biometric lock indicates that all is still secure, and his office empty. Useless thing. He hasn't had a chance to fiddle with it, to customize it to his liking before the Helicarrier's maiden voyage where it'd nearly sunk like the Titanic, and –

And.

Phil is just never going to get used to that blank in his memory.

He shakes it off for the time being, because Clint's shooting glove is on Phil's desk, all the velcro and snaps loose, tossed there helter skelter next to a small pile of torn up paper, folded stars, and a mangled crane. It's not at all the way the man normally cares for his equipment. It makes Phil's breath catch to think of Clint breaking into his office, sitting behind Phil's desk with his feet up as if he belongs there, waiting for Phil as he fiddles with his origami. Phil can vividly picture Clint then losing patience and, slamming his feet to the floor, stripping on his way to the small door to the right of and behind Phil's desk, and casually dropping the glove where he knows Phil will see it.

Soundlessly, Phil slides open the door to the bathroom, and oh. Clint is diabolical.

Warm steam, redolent of vanilla shampoo, hits him in the face. The bathroom is little more than a cubicle, really; just a toilet, a tiny triangle of a sink, and an enclosed shower with a fogged glass door behind which Phil can see movement and tantalizing glimpses of flesh.

Phil is only human.

Clint laughs into his mouth as Phil rips open the door hard enough for it to slam against the opposite wall and climbs in, suit and all, and pins Clint against the tile. Clint knew he was there, of course, so there's no surprise, just pliant limbs and wet skin and a mouth that meets Phil's without hesitation. "What if I was the Red Skull or somebody else?" he murmurs against Phil's lips.

"If the Red Skull needs my shower that badly he's welcome to it," Phil replies, deadpan. The shower pounds down on them, hot water instantly matting Phil's hair to his head and soaking him to the bone.

"Crap, your suit."

"Don't care, no big loss," Phil growls because Clint's ridiculously long eyelashes have spiked together with wet and somehow this is very important information. His hands roam all those expanses of slick, glistening skin. Soapy skin, because apparently Clint got into Phil's shower with the intention of getting something practical done as well as seducing Phil.

"Kinky," Clint murmurs. "Knew you have a thing for showers, but clothes in the shower?"

"Just you in the shower," Phil tells him honestly. "Are you going to keep talking?"

Clint smirks. "Going to try." He tries for sarcastic and biting but there's something raw in his voice and his face that makes Phil come back to himself, to pull back from the near-frantic touches, to look at what they're doing, when they're doing it, where they're doing it, and --

The realization's been burning deep down inside of him since that morning and that trunk – had it really only been this morning? – that he needs Clint, wants Clint, has always wanted Clint since the day they met when Clint was a grim-faced merc used to depending on nobody and no one but himself, much less a nondescript man in a suit. That want had been a suffocating companion compressing Phil's lungs and weighting his legs as they forced Tat to drive them to the hidden base while they crouched in the backseat under a blanket with a gun and a crossbow to the back of Tat's sweaty head. It had been with him through setting off smoke grenades and methodically clearing rooms while Clint followed at his back.

"Quit thinking so hard," Clint murmurs into his mouth, all wet tongue and hot breath filling Phil's lungs. His hands slide down Phil's ribs to rest on the indent of his waist. "If you're going to complain about this happening in your office shower, I swear to god you're not getting laid." He pulls back and gives a grin. "Which would be upsetting to both of us, so make the right choice here, huh?"

"I plan on having this happen on every available surface multiple times. Emphasis on 'every' and 'multiple,'" Phil tells him. He's a practical man; romantic notions like having the first time happen in a plush bed is nice, but they're not locked in the trunk of a car now and he's absolutely done with cockblocking himself.

Clint smirks and manages to look intrigued at the same time. "Dirty," he comments and looks to add more commentary before Phil presses him up against the tiled wall again and the next syllable is swallowed up in a moan when the wet material of Phil's pants catches against his erection. Suddenly the hands that have been exploring Phil's ass are very interested in getting his pants unbuckled, unbuttoned, unzipped, and down and off in record time while Phil's preoccupied with gnawing bites into one perfectly shaped pec.

Not that he's been obsessing about doing that for oh, fifteen years or more. Absolutely not.

"Just for the record," Clint tells him, "I like your suit."

Phil tears his mouth away just long enough to digest this. He's about to reply dryly, "You are a man of discerning taste and I appreciate you defending the honor of my suit," when he realizes that Clint has stilled.

"Can I see?" Clint wants to know. His voice is so quiet that Phil can barely hear him over the pounding of the water.

"There's nothing to see, Clint."

Clint's mouth flattens into a tight line. "I know that." He seems to soften then and now his eyes flick up to Phil's, and now there's a faint plea in his voice. "I mean, I know it because the docs have told me, but I don't know it in here, okay?" He taps the center of his own chest with two fingers before dropping his hand to his side. "I just – never mind." An abrupt laugh, the sound harsh like a breaking branch. "I'm being stupid."

"It's fine," Phil reassures him hastily, hating that flash of vulnerability, hating that he caused it. His fingers fumble on the slippery buttons. The cotton clings clammily to his skin and doesn't want to come, but he manages to work the shirt open enough to pull up his undershirt.

Natasha told him, when he asked, that Clint is fine. He trusts her judgment implicitly; Clint has an inner strength that let him survive hits that would kill a lesser person. Clint's ability to accept responsibility for things that aren't his fault is legendary, but Phil had believed Clint had adjusted and moved past the Tesseract incident with the help of his team.

Phil had gone to Idaho with these reassuring thoughts, but now --

The reverent way Clint skims his fingers over the unblemished skin of Phil's chest makes something in him tighten in sorrow, because he'd been so evidently wrong.

"I'm sorry," he tells Clint.

Clint seems to snap out of his reverie then as if startled. "No," he says, his eyes leaving Phil's chest to flick up to his face, his eyes a startling dark blue that surprises Phil every time. He smiles suddenly, and Phil's heart lifts at how happy it is, as if a weight has fallen off Clint. "No, this is good." His fingers skim Phil's chest again, then the palm presses down over his heart. "It's like, getting a second chance. That's how it feels to me."

Phil can't catch his breath. He never allowed himself the same thought, not ever. When he'd gone out, staring dazedly at the ruin of the wall he'd just blasted Loki and Loki's smug face through, he'd been satisfied. Satisfied with himself, his own death, his life. But there'd just been that one thing. This one person.

So he pulls Clint close, and kisses him.

Clint's hands leave Phil's chest to his and trail up to grip Phil firmly by the back of his neck as if there's still a danger Phil will change his mind. Then Clint apparently decides Phil has entirely too many clothes on, and sets about stripping him methodically. The water-logged fabric clings and sticks to Phil's body, and they continue kissing as Clint yanks and tugs until the jacket, shirt, and undershirt fall to the floor with a sodden thump.

And then one callused hand grips both their cocks together and Clint hums happily as Phil tears his mouth free to pant against his collarbone.

"Just let me--" Clint murmurs, his breathing gone ragged, and his hand starts moving with purpose. Clint is also a practical man, straight and to the point; a man after Phil's own heart. And his hand is sure, squeezing in the right parts, lubricated with just enough soap and water, his calluses dragging in all the right places, but it isn't enough. Phil pushes back and nudges against the line of Clint's clenching jaw until Clint turns his head and then they're kissing again, breathing in the same air, hot water running into their mouths, steam and lack of oxygen making them lightheaded. Everything is slick and wet, spiraling with tense desperation. Phil turns his face to lick the runnel of water down Clint's cheek and slides his hands down to Clint's ass.

Clint breathes, "Oh fuck," and comes.

Phil barely has enough time to memorize the blissed-out look on Clint's face, those ridiculously long eyelashes blinking water out of his dazed eyes, before Clint's gone, sliding down the wall to his knees. Phil makes a choked noise. Then he makes another when Clint opens his mouth without any preamble and swallows him down like he's been hungry for it and he can't wait any longer. Phil stares down at him with wide eyes and tries not to come right there at the sight.

Phil cards a reverent hand through Clint's hair, his fried brain sparing some neurons for concern about Clint's ability to breathe with water pounding down on both of them. He pries his other hand from its deathgrip on the soap shelf to move the showerhead so it isn't directly funneling water onto Clint's face.

Clint doesn't seem to think much of this courtesy; in fact rewards it with a dangerous hint of teeth along Phil's length and that talented, callused hand rolling his balls once – and then Phil is gone, holding Clint's head still with one hand and the other slapped against the tiled wall so hard his knuckles turn white.

It takes Phil entirely too long to come back to himself, forehead pressed against tile hard enough to leave an imprint, his brain whited out and rebooted, his vision filled with swirling black dots, but it's hard to miss Clint's equally dazed and slap-happy grin as he slides back up the wall.

"So," Clint says. "Every available surface, huh?" He waggles an eyebrow at Phil. Phil reels him in with hands on his hips, and wordlessly wraps his arms around him. Clint's smirk melts away into something softer, more honest. He buries his face into Phil's neck.

They lean against each other in silence, letting the hot water wash away all the things they don't say, and Phil has no quibbles about his life. At all.

***

It's Tuesday.

Tuesdays are Phil's weekly meetings with Maria. In any other position, this would seem excessively frequent, but as the head of the SHIELD unit providing logistical support to the Avengers super-team, Phil has a lot to report. The Avengers battles and conflicts tend to come in waves, and even if super-villains and opportunistic mercenaries aren't acting up, at any given moment they might be involved in a spat with another team or are gone off on personal missions or embroiled in a drama with someone resurrected from their past. Sometimes Phil privately thinks the lives of the Avengers are more telenovela than actual telenovelas. (Which, he will never admit that he enjoys watching.)

But this week, it seems everyone's playing nice.

Stark hasn't engaged in any paparazzi-baiting lately, Banner is hiding in his laboratory, Thor is back in Asgard with Jane, Natasha is spending her time in her room reading 50 Shades of Grey. Phil makes a note to check on her because the peals of laughter can't be a good sign.

Rogers is – Phil hesitates in his mental recount. He tries his best to be calm and professional around Captain America, but sometimes he can't help blurting out things like, 'I collect your face – I mean, your likeness – I mean, I collect all your cards, like, all the time,' as if he's back in high school, a painfully awkward freshman in big glasses and owner of all the Captain America comics published since 1961. But Rogers is a gentleman, and probably used to a certain level of fanboy insanity (the one time he accepted an invitation to be a guest-of-honor at Comic-Con in San Diego had made Rogers go squinty-eyed and silent for a full week), so all he says whenever Phil gets his nerd all over him is thank you.

Phil mentally cringes. He's gotten better since 'I watched you sleep,' which Clint will never ever let him live down, but one simply doesn't get over a lifetime's worth of hero worship in a matter of months.

He wends his way down to the mess hall, just in time for lunch. His stomach is rumbling and he doesn't want to wait the three hours it'll take to get down to the flight hangar and catch a transport back to New York.

And besides, it's Tuesday.

Tuesday is Clint's medical evaluation day on the Helicarrier, and lunchtime usually finds him in the mess hall.

"—So there was this plane, one of those dinky private jets. The plane was carrying this diplomatic courier who was delivering bearer bonds for the Finnish government, right?"

Phil stops at the door to the mess. Clint's perched on top of one of the dining hall tables, boots firmly planted on the seat beneath him, surrounded by a group of the newest junior agents. The ideal SHIELD recruit would be in their thirties and embarking on a second career in SHIELD after an illustrious first career in military or civilian life, but these are so young it's almost painful. That look of wide-eyed credulity is the same in every face.

Clint, deep in his story and his arms waving to illustrate his points, doesn't stop talking, but his eyes land on Phil and his eyes and voice warm. Phil smiles back, wrestling his blush back under control even though he wants nothing more than to cross the room, plunge his hands into Clint's dark-blonde hair, and kiss him breathless. It won't do to give the junior agents something to gossip about.

Phil settles for leaning against the door jamb to watch Clint, and listen. Clint is a consummate story-teller; Phil allows himself to be sucked into the story, for all that he knows how it goes.

Well, how it actually went.

"—So this is back in 2003, so the Chimera are just getting started, right? They need money, so they decide to hit this guy. They think he's defenseless. This is a scrawny dude, probably all of ninety pounds soaking wet, maybe five-five, coke-bottle glasses, every stereotype of a weakling you've ever heard of, he's it. Plus he's got five million euros in bearer bonds attached to his wrist in a steel-reinforced briefcase. Easy, they think. Kidnap the guy, chop off his hand, make him open the case, everybody's happy. Well, except the guy missing his hand."

"So SHIELD was sent to stop them?" This one is older than the rest of the group, edging towards middle-aged and a bit chubby. After some thought, mentally paging through the dossiers he studied earlier this week, Phil places her. Prescott. Former Chicago PD. He can't remember if she'd been recruited, or enlisted.

Clint winks at her. "Right. Me and Coulson, we get sent out there. We scope the situation, set up our surveillance, and decide our best bet is to intercept the guy ourselves and escort him without him knowing it to his destination. If the bad guys make their move, then we'll be a lot less covert about it, just grab and go. So Coulson's on the plane, being one of the pilots, I'm in one of the towers at the airport with him in my sights –"

"Coulson." Phil jumps guiltily as Fury's voice comes suddenly at his right ear. "What the fuck is Barton doing? Don't tell me he's doing what I think he's doing."

"Just sharing war stories," Phil tells him with a crooked smile.

"—Now, Helsinki's cold as fuck most of the year and 2003 was a really bad year for that, especially in the ass end of January, so I'm not thinking about much besides keeping my eyes peeled for trouble and trying to keep my ass from freezing off when," Clint slaps his hand on the tabletop. The agents jump. "—BOOM, the plane blows the fuck up in a giant fireball. It goes flipping end over end at me–"

"Helsinki? 2003?" Fury snorts. "Isn't that the one where the courier got stuck on a layover in the Philippines and got rerouted through Italy, too far away for you two to do jack shit about it?"

"And I'm like, FUCK, right? Coulson's on that plane, the courier and five million euros are on that plane, the mission's going to hell, and I didn't even see anything. I'm trying to figure out what's going on when I see Coulson out on the tarmac, and he's got the courier guy in a headlock with a staple remover to his head." Clint leans forward and lowers his voice dramatically. The recruits lean in to hear. "Turns out, the guy was a mole. He wasn't just going to give over those bearer bonds to Chimera, he also had Russian nuclear secrets that were stolen right from under the KGB's noses."

"A staple remover?" Prescott sounds skeptical. "Really. As an interrogation device."

Around her, the other junior agents blink as if this never occurred to them before, and start to nod. Clint's about to get rumbled, Phil thinks, unsure if he should be amused or worried. Clint's had a good long run of telling tall tales with a facility for invention that are plausible just enough to pass muster with the smarter junior agents. Some of the best ones, flatteringly, often feature Phil himself, and have long since passed into urban legend with even veteran agents unsure if the events didn't really occur, or who told the tale in the first place.

Phil's favorite is the one where he incapacitated a Skrull masquerading as the Pope with a pine cone. (Although, it occurs to him now, this probably doesn't help Phil's cause of not having the junior agents intimidated by him to the point of tears. He's gotten used to the stares.)

But it only takes one savvy person to catch the lie, and he doubts even Clint's almost hallowed position of Avenger, Earth's Mightest Hero, will save his reputation then.

But then, Phil has no doubt Clint can talk his way out of anything.

"What, you don’t think so? Oh right, you haven't taken the Advanced Interrogation Techniques training yet—"

"—And I seem to recall that you two spent the rest of that week lounging around in the local hot springs spa. Barton even got a mud facial," Fury continues.

"Sir," Phil hisses, making frantic gestures at him because Fury has no such thing as an inside voice, much less a whisper, and people are starting to look at them, "Can you just – I want to hear where he's going with this."

"Hold up," Fury snaps. Phil winces and braces himself, knowing he made a misstep. "Are you telling me to keep my voice down?" Fury's voice, never the quietest under normal circumstances, rises to its full glorious bellow. "Are you telling me what I think you're telling me, because hell to the fucking no."

The room has hushed. All eyes have turned to the door and have fastened squarely on Fury and Phil.

Crap.

Clint, never a master of self-preservation, grins at them, totally unembarrassed at having been caught red-handed by the Director, and obviously completely ready to continue on with his tale in Fury's presence.

"Special Agent Barton," Fury says at full volume, turning his glare on Clint, "Just what the hell do you think you're doing?" A ripple goes through the junior agents like wind through a wheat field, and as one they lean backwards, away from the director like frightened rabbits.

Clint pales just a bit, but that cocky grin slips not an inch. "Just a little lunchtime entertainment, sir."

Fury draws himself up to his full height, one eye glaring down at him, black coat swirling around his ankles ominously on its own without the benefit of any cross breeze. Phil resists the urge to pinch his forehead and instead draws himself up and does the best imitation of a stone wall that he can even as his mind races, trying to find a way to save Clint with a minimum of bloodshed. "With stories?" Fury says, low and menacing. "Stories about highly classified missions?"

Clint's eyes flick to Phil in confusion. "Sir?"

Phil gives him a small shake of the head. I don't know. Stay quiet. Technically, it doesn't violate any rules to spread disinformation about classified missions, so he has no idea where Fury's going with this. After decades of friendship he can tell Fury's not nearly as pissed off as he's pretending to be, but until he can read the situation better Phil really needs Clint to not aggravate the Director.

"Special Agent Barton," Fury intones sternly. Clint raises his eyebrows at him, that smirk slipped a bit but still stubbornly pasted on his face, and waits. "If you're going to violate your security clearance and all SHIELD policies by discussing classified missions with unauthorized personnel, you should at least tell them the truth."

"I knew it!" Prescott declares triumphantly. She appears to be the only one in her class unintimidated by Fury. Phil decides he likes her; it's good to know that recruitment for the last year and a half hasn't been a total wash, despite Edward Tat to the contrary. "I knew it was all bs!" A muttered grumbling arises from the group. Clint rolls his eyes.

Clint opens his mouth to reply but he's cut off by Fury's outstretched hand. Fury's talking to Prescott and the junior agents now. "You are correct, it was not a staple remover." Phil groans inwardly. Fury seems to hear Phil anyway, and turns a wicked grin on him before continuing. "Special Agent Barton is completely mistaken about that, possibly because he wasn't close enough to see the instrument before the interrogation was over and they had to escape in a jeep through an erupting volcano."

He pauses for emphasis. The recruits stare back at him with goggling eyes and open mouths. "It was, in fact, a binder clip."

He glares around at them, his eye landing on Prescott who looks ready to protest or call bs again, and he looms over her until she subsides, looking sullen. He waits until he's sure she's fully cowed, then continues in a friendlier tone, "If you are wondering as to the how, it's simple. Binder clip. Ear. Twist it like an oven dial. And so Coulson saved the world from total destruction, again. He's good at that."

Finished, Fury whirls on his heel, and stalks out of the mess hall, the thump of his boots loud against the ringing silence. Past Phil, whose expressionless mask is hanging by only a hair. Clint looks like he's been hit with a one-eyed two-by-four.

Fury winks, and is gone in a swirl of black leather.