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The Way We Really Are

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Phil Coulson was an Eagle Scout. Not everyone knows this about him, but no one is ever surprised to learn it. He tries to take that as a compliment, not a commentary on his perceived wholesomeness or white-bread-ness or whatever. But sometimes, he wants to grab people by the shoulders and scream, “Do you even know what being an Eagle Scout means? I had to learn about citizenship from the mayor! My Eagle Project involved snow removal in three counties! I got a goddamned badge in bugling!!”

 

Of course, he would never say this, and so he never gets to mention that the badge in bugling was a joke. (No one got their badge in bugling, at least no one who valued their survival in middle school.) Phil made this joke exactly once, to a junior agent who immediately believed him and solemnly congratulated him on the accomplishment—Phil had walked around all day in a foul mood, wondering if the “Pathetic dork: please humor” sign apparently written on his forehead was in Crayola or Magic Marker.

 

But when the Supreme Court decision came down in 2000, all Phil’s self-conscious handwringing over not being one of the cool kids sort of paled by comparison to the Much Bigger Problem he was now confronted with. Phil had always known he was gay. He’d known since he was seven years old, trying to get Greg Baldwin to spend time with him by showing him his knot collection (that didn’t work, but Phil can still tie a rolling hitch in his sleep, and his shoelaces never, ever come undone). He’d known when he was nine, watching James MacArthur on Hawaii Five-O. He’d known since the first time he’d read the term in his parents’ Whole Earth Catalog and thought “So that’s the name for what I am.” The relief had been so great that he’d marched downstairs into his parents’ study right away and, without thought or preamble, delivered the news. Just like that: “I’m gay. Just thought you should know.” He was eleven at the time. 

 

(To their credit, Art and Judith Coulson managed not to fall out of their chairs, drop anything, or burst out laughing until Phil, confident his message had been received, had gone back upstairs and shut his door. Keeping a straight face was a paramount Coulson family value.)

 

But so anyway. He knew, and his family knew, and that, in fine Yankee tradition, was enough to be getting along with. He went to a private school that valued old fashioned English stiff-upper-lippiness (first kiss, Eric Stocki—pleasant), then a boarding academy with a hell of a rowing team (first sort-of handjob, Evan Vintner—lousy), then Bowdoin on a crew scholarship (first sex with a woman—Alex Camber, which was surprisingly nice for all concerned, and they parted good friends.) Then the Army, 101st Airbourne as an intelligence officer (first sex with a man—Drew Passarelli, and to hell with “surprisingly nice” sex, he’s never going to bother with “nice” again, this was the gender he was meant to fuck, forever and ever amen. Go Screaming Eagles.) Phil’s military career made him a bit of an oddball in his parents’ world (they were professors and hung with a fairly tweedy crowd), but they gritted their teeth and grinned and welcomed him back from every deployment with reminders of his deeper ties to the Coulson identity: touch football on the lawn, cutthroat crosswords every Sunday morning, U-Conn women’s basketball before all others, forever and ever amen (Go Huskies). 

 

So in 2000, when the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Boy Scouts to purge whomever they wanted from the membership, Phil was already pretty used to separating his private from his public life. He’d served effectively and honorably under DADT and didn’t find it terribly irksome to do so; he’d gotten used to dodging the rules with the same lack of guilt that, say, a Catholic feels tucking into a chicken wing on a Friday. Other people got upset. Phil just… got along. He honestly only found it truly uncomfortable when, sitting at home in his parents’ kitchen after a long deployment, surrounded by their friends and wanting only to unwind with a big mug of mint tea in the peaceful Connecticut winter, some firebrand friend of his mother’s would try to pin him down on how he felt about putting his life on the line for a country that was so clearly ashamed of him. How he could sleep at night. How he owed it to his country to come out right away, make a racket, force the issue. When this happened—and it happened more than once, with his mom’s friends—Phil would quietly excuse himself and go upstairs to sit with a book until they were gone. His mom would come up later, stroke his hair where he sat in the armchair. An apology in her touch, the only sign she understood.

“Mom,” he said, once, but his voice clogged.

She looked down at him, through tears. “I have always been so proud of you.” Then she got down on her knees and hugged him.

“Thanks, Mom.”

All they ever said on the subject.

 

But the Scouting thing. He couldn’t let it go. It irked at him, it got under his skin, reached into his past and polluted everything he’d ever done, even as a kid, trying to be good, trying to be the best Phil Coulson he could be. He found himself thinking about it when he was washing dishes, standing in line, changing his oil. And one day, while he was tying his shoes, he found himself thinking about it so much that his hands were shaking. He was furious, he realized. It was an unfamiliar emotion for Phil, an emotion that required no logical fuel to exist. It simply was. (Years later, he and Bruce Banner will have a moment over this, and it will be one of the most surreal of Phil’s exceedingly surreal life.) And then he heard a story on the news about Eagle Scouts returning their badges in protest, and he thought, “So that’s what I’m meant to do.” And the relief was so great that he marched upstairs right away, got his medal out from the top drawer, and mailed it back to B.S.A. headquarters in Irving. Just like that. The note read: “I’m gay. Just thought you should know.”

 

So really, Phil isn’t an Eagle Scout any more. He’s voluntarily resigned membership in the organization. And he can’t correct people who’ve heard it through the grapevine that he is one, because that would entail explaining more about his personal life than he’s comfortable sharing with co-workers. So he’s stuck. Can’t make the bugle joke because people take him seriously, can’t take credit for the actually legitimately cool stuff he did through the organization (to this day, there are fourteen low-income families in the back woods of Connecticut who get their roads plowed because of Phil Coulson) because that would feel somehow dishonest, and can’t get away from the one thing about his past that makes him truly ashamed. He’s SHIELD’s little Eagle Scout, whether he likes it or not. Fury is cool about it and never brings it up, but Maria Hill is just insufferable on the topic, teases Phil about neckerchiefs and sashes every chance she gets. One of these days he’s going to find an excuse to leave her in the woods without a TP roll.

 

But working for SHIELD is still good. For starters, SHIELD lets him do what he does best: cultivate teamwork, convince people used to doing things their own way that another way might be better, get everyone pulling on the oars at the same time. (He’s never let it get out that he was a coxswain. If Maria ever gets ahold of that one, suicide will be the only option.) He likes it, likes the crossword-puzzle work of finding just the right person for any given job: a demolitions guy who can get along with an abrasive boss without pissing him off, because the abrasive boss is actually a known double agent and they’ve been feeding him false information for years. A navigator and mapping specialist who’ll mesh well with a team who just lost their navigator of eleven years, and oh-by-the-way, this team works nine hundred feet underwater. A liaison who can talk to the mutant community without getting pulled into their endless political in-fights (this turns out to be harder to find than any of the others combined). And Phil is especially gratified when he gets assigned to bring in Clint Barton, because Clint is someone he’s had his eye on for a while now. Which makes him sound like some creepy sort of people-collector, like he’s got a vat of chloroform and a really big cotton ball somewhere, but hear him out, it’s really not like that. It’s about bringing someone extraordinary to a place where they can do extraordinary things, where their unique talents are recognized, where they can (the cliché is unavoidable) be the best that they can be. Thomas Gray said “Full many a flower is born to bloom unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air”, but Phil sees it as his job to make sure as many damn flowers as possible get seen, and noticed, and valued for what they are. So maybe it is like collecting: you dig through layers of stuff, yard sales and attics and all the places that things go overlooked, and maybe you come up empty-handed, but sometimes—just sometimes—you find a beautiful and perfect thing, a truly unique item, and you rescue it from obscurity and decay and neglect, and you give it a home where it can be appreciated for its true value.

 

In Clint’s case, the need for rescue is especially pronounced. He is in terrible peril even before he meets the Black Widow, and Phil waits for weeks to hear that a nineteen year old male with strange calluses and a snapped neck has washed up somewhere in New Jersey, but the call never comes. After a few months, they figure out that the call isn’t going to come, because apparently—and this goes against all the intel they’d ever gathered about the Black Widow—she’s taken the kid on as a partner.

“Don’t spiders tie their mates up and eat them later?” muses Hill aloud, looking at a grainy speed-camera shot of the duo. Phil about rolls his eyes out of his head.

“That’s praying mantises who eat their mates. And spiders who wrap up their food,” he informs her, and the words have barely cleared his mouth before he’s kicking himself. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Oh, that’s right, you were the Boy Scout. Tell me again, what kind of badge did they give you for spider identification?”

Maria is from Long Island, Phil patiently reminds himself. In her world, nature is an extinct branch of study, like phrenology or alchemy. Food comes from the grocery store. Water comes from the tap. Trees come from…. well, Phil has got no clue where Maria thinks trees come from, but he’s willing to bet the answer would horrify him. He slowly releases his breath, points out a couple of salient details in the speed camera shot (for instance: Barton’s got his elbow resting out the rolled-down window, which indicates a certain amount of comfort and also pretty much puts the final nail in the coffin of the “Barton’s being held against his will” theory) and beats a hasty retreat to his office, where he can take deep breaths, page through Barton’s file, and come up with a plan to bring him in. It should be easy. 

 

It takes four years. Phil has to mentally reclassify Barton almost six times during the course of those years, as the kid continually defies expectations, reveals hidden talents. By year two of the hunt, Barton’s file is actually thicker than Phil’s and contains notes like:

 

“Prospective asset scaled exterior of embassy guesthouse, a distance of nineteen feet, where he obtained entry via an unsecured window (assistance from codename Black Widow probable but unconfirmed) and removed the currency in question from the interior safe using a combination of unknown provenance (see: prev. parenthetical). Single Post-it note found in emptied folder, handwriting match to Barton’s, content: ‘Now I have your bank acount (sic). Ha ha.’ Specialist Boothe informs us that the film reference (See: “Die Hard”, 1988) is apt, though the embassy staff understandably fails to see the humor.”

 

“Prosp. asset can apparently fly light aircraft, although asset cannot yet effectively land them.”

 

“Prosp. asset avoided interaction with SHIELD agent by using the hotel’s main telephone line as a tightrope, a route which caused him to walk directly over the head of the SHIELD agent in question. Recommended add ‘slackline, skilled’ to prosp. asset’s file. See: Agent Wallis, Annual Review.”

 

“Prosp. asset has apparently acquired training in advanced hand-to-hand combat. See: Agent Wallis, Personal Medical Record.”

 

“After considerable expenditure of time and resources, it was ascertained that prosp. asset had left country four days prior to SHIELD team’s arrival. See: Agent Wallis, Dismissal Hearing.”

 

“Prosp. asset can now speak Russian??!!?”

 

It speaks to Phil’s state of bafflement that when (in year three of the Great Clint Barton Chase) Maria Hill loses her cool completely and melts down in spectacular fashion (“I HATE that little bastard! He’s a cheap fucking redneck fucking piece of inbred fucking trailer trash from fucking East Jesus, Iowa! He’s NOT SUPPOSED to be able to do this!”) Phil doesn’t roll his eyes or tune her out. Instead, he puts a friendly arm around her shoulders, ignoring the tears and snot she’s leaving on his shoulder, and escorts her to his office, where he gives her a slug of the strong bourbon he started keeping in his desk around year two of the Great Clint Barton Chase. Then he has one with her.  By drink five, they’re sitting on the floor with their backs against Coulson’s desk, passing the bottle back and forth and staring at an unspecified point on the floor. Phil has decided that Maria isn’t that bad. She can’t help being from a concrete compound on Long Island any more than Phil can help being an uptight Yankee from Connecticut. It’s not a tight bond and never will be, but they’ve developed some cohesion in the course of their three years of failing to reel in Clint Barton. Go Team Failure. Phil says this last bit out loud, and passes the bottle to Maria, who takes it without looking and presses it to her lips. Then she turns, grabs Phil’s face, and presses him to her lips. Then she sways, puts her head between her knees, and pukes all over the floor.

 

Phil is absurdly glad, in the intervening Dance of Many Paper Towels (a festive two-handed indigenous number featuring ritual apologies and self-mortification gestures), that Maria is the kind of drunk for whom throwing up wipes clean the mental slate, refocusing them on higher thoughts like, “Wow, that was my dinner” and “I’m sleepy” instead of “I just kissed my strangely aloof co-worker” or “He didn’t kiss me back”. Phil has no desire to hurt Maria. Not any more, at least.

 

But he does go back to his apartment, after Maria’s been bundled into bed by her roommate and given a wastebasket and a glass of water, and sits for a long time by himself.

                                                                                                                           

They finally get their chance at Barton in 2005. Romanov gets injured (a car accident in Lodz) and they apparently slow down to give her time to heal, because SHIELD actually manages to catch up with them for once. Barton goes out for coffee and food, and Phil takes a walk in a similar direction, while Hill and a surveillance team sit on the hotel with orders to monitor Romanov and alert Phil if she moves. Phil subtly works it so he gets in line just ahead of Barton for coffee. There is something about standing with the back of your neck exposed to one of the world’s better assassins. Phil orders decaf.

“Sir, she’s watching porn on the hotel pay-per-view,” says Hill in his comm, and Phil chokes on his first sip of coffee, turns and runs smack dab into Barton. Barton is spreading his hands wide, looking Phil straight in the eyes, and fuck, Barton is grinning. He’s got Phil backed against the counter, and Phil realizes he’s just exactly where Barton wants him, not the other way around, and furthermore that this has probably been the case since wheels-down in Lodz.

“I understand you want a word with me,” says Barton, and Maria goes absolutely apeshit in Phil’s ear: “Phil! Was that Barton who just said that? Are you OK? Is the situation under control?” and Phil cannot win a staring contest with one of the world’s better assassins AND deal with a panicky Maria Hill at the same time, so he rips his earbud out and drops it in his coffee. It was decaf anyway. 

“Yeah,” says Phil. “Let’s talk.”

 

The conversation takes about half an hour, which coincidentally is exactly how long it takes Natasha Romanov to clear out of the city, leaving nothing behind except a very embarrassed SHIELD surveillance team who, as it turns out, are so easily distracted by a little hard-core European pornography that they can fail to notice that the person watching the porn is not Romanov at all, but a petite redheaded prostitute wearing Romanov’s clothes and enjoying the easiest two hundred Euro she’s ever made. Coulson would be mad, but the sight of Maria Hill trying to explain the lapse frankly makes up for it, and besides, they’ve got Barton. If Fury guessed right, this means they also have Romanov, just on a delayed timer. It’s like letting a bear cub wander into your campsite. It’s cute and cuddly and it can sit on its back legs and it can seriously fuck up your Dalmation, but sooner or later Mama is going to chew through your station wagon to retrieve it. And Phil is excruciatingly aware that the only chance they have of keeping their station wagon intact is to convince baby—and by proxy, Mama—that camping is the way to go. To this end, he has been saving a special file, marked “Hawk Meat”. The file is packed full of objectives, none of them hugely strategically urgent, but all deeply appealing to the type of person Phil’s figured Barton to be. Objectives like, “We cleaned house in Dublin back in 1996, but this is the scumbag the Provisional IRA hired to blow up a primary school. Put an arrow through his kneecap.” “We can’t figure out how to remotely disable this particular type of tank that’s favored by warlords in the former Soviet Union. Want to take a crack at it?” “We found an honest-to-God Nazi. Go make him regret his life choices.” (Okay, that objective was originally meant for someone else, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that that person will ever be found, or that if he is, that there will be any Nazis left for him.) The file is pretty full. Phil’s had four years to fill it. 

 

And so he starts giving these objectives to Barton, and Barton just cleans the floor with them, knocks them out one after the other with a workmanlike efficiency that Coulson very much admires. A bare minimum of chit-chat, too, which alarms some people but not Phil. The way Phil sees it, Barton is learning everything he can about his (and potentially Romanov’s) new environment and scoping it out for potential threats, and if he’s disinclined to spill personal details to coworkers, well, that means he’s taking it seriously. If Barton were going to fuck them over, Phil has no doubt that he would be laying down a heavy layer of bullshit right about now, trying to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. The fact that he doesn’t seem to give one single shit about how he comes across is a good sign, permanence-wise. Fury doesn’t give a shit either, and he’s been at SHIELD since shortly after the continents separated. But Phil’s good feelings about Barton are tempered by the knowledge that Barton’s vote of confidence will only go so far if Romanov shows up and smells something she doesn’t like. If, if, if. If they can’t win Barton’s trust. If Barton takes the assignment to kill Romanov at face value and bolts, doesn’t even consider bringing her in. If he tries to bring her in and she resists. If he does bring her in and she doesn’t like the orders they give or the way that they give them or the coffee they serve. This is a typical Nick Fury gamble, one full of little sub-gambles that could fail at any moment. So Phil is very careful playing his cards (really Fury’s cards), because he is acutely aware that if he abuses Barton’s trust, someone will probably die for it.  Phil is okay with the idea that it might be him—he is radically not okay with the idea that it might be Barton, because Phil brought him here and is therefore responsible for everything that happens to him afterwards. Barton’s trust was given first—now Phil has to earn it.  So: when Phil says he is going to meet Barton at three at the shooting range, Phil is damn well going to be there at 3:00 P.M. E.S.T., and he’s not going to check his time against SHIELD’s unbelievably precise atomic clock, either. He’s going to be there at the dot of three according to the watch Barton uses, which is set against a burner cell phone Barton doesn’t know SHIELD knows he has. When Phil tells Barton to look for his post-mission evals in the morning, he places them in Barton’s mailbox before midnight, because anything after midnight is morning. And when Phil drops by Payroll to make sure Barton will be paid on time (because Phil can already tell that Barton runs on pride and would say exactly nothing if he were getting screwed, would just quietly live under a bridge eating field mice or something) and discovers that Barton has not filled out the forms to get paid, Phil knows he has to fill the forms out himself, and he can never let Barton know, because again with the pride thing. This is difficult for three reasons. First, Barton was never actually issued a Social Security number, because Barton was born in an abandoned trailer somewhere near Cal-Mar by a mother who feared the Winneshiek County Health and Human Services Bureau more than she feared death. Second, Barton has no actual bank account, because you can’t open one without government issued ID since September 11th. Thirdly and as a result of the first and second facts, Barton has been hoarding cash money like a goddamn squirrel all around the world since at least 2001. (Prior to 2001, Phil supposes, there was never enough money to horde.) SHIELD knew these facts about Barton already, but for some reason Phil had never considered them a serious obstacle to recruitment—not compared to the more pressing challenges of A) finding Barton, B) catching Barton, and C) trying not to get shot by Barton between steps A and B. Now, however, he finds himself flummoxed, by a Human Resources issue of all things. He wants to impale himself on a letter opener in shame.

 

Instead, he calls his mother. “Mom, I’ve got a problem,” he says, and lays it all out there, leaving out the name and other classified details but still being pretty specific about the numerous mind-bendingly frustrating obstacles to getting Barton hired, aware that he’s never told his mother this much about his job and completely unable to stop talking. This has never been a problem for Phil before.

Judith Coulson does not teach Psych 303: Strategies of Selfhood for nothing. “It sounds like you’ve got quite a talented individual there,” she says when Phil finally runs out of steam. “To evade detection for so long while traveling around the world developing interesting and desirable skills right under everyone’s nose, yours included? You must be quite taken.”

Phil is silent. He hates when his mother responds to the things he hasn’t said. Even when that ability is precisely why he called her. He can hear the scrape of the kitchen chair across the floor that signals the end of a conversation with his mother. “Well, that’s the doorbell,” she says, even though Phil knows it is nothing of the sort. “Lovely hearing from you, Philip honey, must run. Good luck with your new find. Bye bye.” 

Phil hangs up the phone and stares at his letter opener. Then he sighs deeply, picks up the phone, and calls the Social Security Administration.

 

The problem and the blessing of having Judith Coulson for a mother is that the truths she points out stay pointed. All of them. From “Dear, you are a lovely human being who cannot wear yellow,” to “There is zero genetic chance that you will retain your hair” to “I have always been so proud of you.” Now that Phil is “taken” with Barton (why oh why couldn’t she have said “impressed”, he could have shrugged off “impressed”, he’s “impressed” by the pyramids and good bourbon and Diana Taurasi), he can’t be un-taken.  The word echoes in his head like the last chord of “A Day in the Life”, twenty hands hitting ten pianos, a note that stays struck. Now that he’s “taken”, it’s like a switch has been flipped in his head—instead of looking at Barton and seeing an aggregate of skills and strengths and weaknesses, an asset to be guided and focused and managed, Phil starts noticing… things. Things like how Barton’s laugh isn’t really a laugh at all, more like the harsh bark of a fox, and yet it’s somehow warmer, realer, than other people’s properly identifiable laughs. How athletic tape—plain old-fashioned athletic tape, smudged and fraying, cream-white against blunt, tan, workman’s fingers—can be sexy. How “dishwater blonde” is such an ugly term for a beautiful color, a color like the reflection of the sky in the sand behind a retreating wave.  Now that Phil is “taken”, he can’t stop noticing these things. It’s awful, and it’s all Judith Coulson’s fault, and he tells her so. “I am going to send the bill for my therapy to you,” he threatens over the phone, and she laughs. “Put it on my tab, son.”

 

Phil gives Barton a Social Security number for his new, completely fabricated birthday. He hands Clint the card and doesn’t mention the sizeable back taxes estimate that SHIELD has paid to keep Barton out of hot water with the IRS: an unreasonable amount by any standards, it was more than Barton ever could have owed based on his circus earnings, more than he could have owed even if they’d counted his bank robberies as income, which thank Christ Phil’s managed to work it so Barton is now a year younger on paper than he is in reality. Now, Barton’s dumber and more public crimes were officially committed by a juvenile and are therefore subject to statutes of limitations. So if some rival department wants to knock Fury’s team out from under him, they’ll have to find someone other than Barton to pry loose. For maybe the first time in his life, Barton is safe. Phil feels pretty good about it. 

 

His relief is short-lived. Two days after Barton’s new birthday, he gets the Romanov assignment.  It’s not Phil’s choice. In fact, he begs Fury not to send Barton out after Widow, not yet, not before he’s comfortable with SHIELD, not before he’s had a chance to develop real trust. Fury just shakes his head and says, “Now or never, Coulson. If he’s not ours now, he never will be. I’m not willing to lose two, three years’ worth of intel if he ditches.”

“Sir, if he ditches it won’t be bloodless. He spent nearly four years with Widow. What do we have to counter that kind of history? He’ll kill every backup agent we send with him to get himself and Widow out alive.”

“That’s if he ditches, Phil. But he’s not going to fuck us over. You did good work with him, and I have faith in that. Even if you don’t.” 

Phil’s feels like he’s going to pass out. “Sir. Please. Don’t do this now.”

Fury looks puzzled. “Cheese, what the fuck. Cold feet aren’t your style.”

“Sir, I.” Phil’s mouth works a couple of times as he tries to say it. Ten years knowing Nick Fury, he’s never said anything, and now those ten years are rising up to wrap around his throat.

Nick’s eye narrows, and just as Phil’s about to say something truly fatal, he holds up one admonitory hand. “Wait. Before you come down with a terminal case of the stupids, why don’t we play it like this. You’ll go as Barton’s primary backup. We’ll send others, but keep them at a safe distance. A very. Safe. Distance. That way, the Wonder Twins won’t feel too cornered if they decide to ride off into the sunset. Of course, this plan has one very big catch for you.”

“Which is?”

Fury gives him the full force of the glare. “You have to be willing to play dead.”

 “Sir?”

“What, you want to let them kill you? I’m not losing my best agent just because he’s temporarily misplaced his damn mind. One of your backup agents will keep a scope on you, loaded with a blood round. If it looks like things are going south, we’ll shoot you somewhere dramatic looking, make some noise, maybe set off some flashbangs outside, and you will fall the fuck down, play the fuck dead, and let Bonnie and Clyde walk the fuck over you if necessary on their way out the door. Catch ‘em later, or say fuck it and let someone else chase them for a goddamned change.”

Phil is now speechless for other reasons.

Fury throws his hands up.  “Am I the only one thinking here? I feel like I’m talking to my damn self. Have you got a better idea?”

 “No, sir. I accept.”

Fury regards him with extreme irritation. “I’m so glad to hear that you accept this truly retarded plan I’ve had to cook up for you because you just got your period, Coulson. Now go put your goddamn poker face back on. I could win your house right now with two deuces and a coupon from Dairy Queen.”

Phil walks back to his office, shuts his door, and proceeds to throw the world’s quietest and most contained temper tantrum. He kicks his trash basket across the room into the ficus plant; swipes the travel mug full of pencils off his desk and bats it into the framed poster of Arizona cliffs on his wall; rips out a sizeable chunk of his DC phone directory and wads it up, throws it at the window. Then he collapses in his office chair and puts his head in his hands.

SHIELD is full of observant people. After a tactful interval, Maria knocks.

“Yeah, “ says Phil. Maria comes in, sits down.

“Rough day?” she says.

“You could say that,” Phil admits. He really doesn’t think he could do any more damage to his reputation today than he already has.

“You know,” says Maria, “You could talk to me about it.”

And Phil, noticing once again the tiny crush Maria still thinks she’s kept hidden, and feeling like the world’s biggest coward, suddenly sees the opportunity to solve two problems at once.  And he might be shooting his career in the foot, and he might be a horrible human being, but he just doesn’t have the energy to keep from hurting Maria Hill any longer.

“Maria, I’ll take you up on that offer,” he says. “Close the door.”

 

She takes it like a champ, Maria does. Not even a flicker on her face as he delivers what he knows to be a gut punch (which itself is a tell, but whatever. Not everyone was raised in an emotionally stunted family of Yankees whose poker faces had poker faces, and Maria’s frozen deer-in-headlights thing is actually kind of sweet. It lets you know she cares.) What Phil isn’t prepared for is what happens when he’s done delivering the news (“I’m gay. Just thought you should know.”) and Maria doesn’t get up and leave. Instead, she exhales a deep wobbly breath, and her smile is wide and teary and totally unexpected, and she leans across the desk and puts her hand on Phil’s, and says, “I always knew, deep down. And I want you to know I’m so glad you finally said something, and I’m honored you trusted me enough to say it to me.”

Holy shit. Maria looks like a stone-cold military-grade Charlie’s Angel, but is in fact an Italian grandma from Long Island. Phil swallows, a totally unexpected lump in his throat, and blinks, hard. He never realized he wanted an Italian grandma from Long Island until he had one, apparently. And then he’s really glad he had Maria close the door, because then no one else has to know that Phil Coulson and Maria Hill once shared an over-a-desk hug that was completely undignified, totally chaste, and involved more than a little snottiness on Phil’s part. Whatever. They’re even now.

 

He’s very, very glad Maria has his back the next day. Because Operation: Ladyhawke (who names these things, is what Phil wants to know) is both the best and the worst thing it could possibly be: a success. No one has to play dead. No one, in point of fact, dies. Barton and Romanov reunite with a smoothness that leads Phil to suspect they had planned it all along. He never was truly ahead of Barton, not really. Phil is okay with that—he’d be a pretty poor talent scout if he always had to be the smartest guy in the room. But what he finds himself unsettled by is the way Barton and Romanov… are. Together. It’s like watching Nureyev and Fontaine, dark and light, twined together, on fire with sex and passion and everything that makes the great world spin. And that’s just how they eyefuck each other through the one-way mirror that lines a SHIELD interrogation room. He can’t even imagine how it’s going to be when they’re allowed to be in the same room together. 

“Can you imagine how it’s going to be when they’re in the same room together?” he complains, tie loosened, to Maria, who is keeping up with him in the beer and pretzel department, watching the Capitals lose and riding the backwash of jet lag that followed them back to D.C. Maria is squirming with pleasure, it’s indecent how much she hates the Capitals, or maybe this is just girlish glee over getting to talk boys with Phil. Far from being heartbroken (which would have been a little flattering), she’s apparently decided to play Grace to his Will. All night long, she’s been giddy over the set-up possibilities, asking him whether he likes twinks or bears (hearing Maria use these terms nearly makes Phil spit his beer), making sympathetic noises over the Barton/Romanov spectacle. Also, she’s done his colors against a beer coaster. (Phil is apparently a winter.) At this point, Phil is done trying to figure her out: he’s just riding with it.

“Maybe it’s overcompensation?” Maria helpfully suggests, then rockets out of her chair., sloshing beer everywhere. “YEAH! YEAH! POUND THAT LITTLE FUCKER!!! INTO THE WALL! HE’S A PUSSY! GET HIS FUCKING FACEMASK OFF!” On the screen, Zubrus is having a very bad day, brought to him courtesy of an angry Russian on the New Jersey Devils. (“Say it with me, kids,” an old SHIELD instructor of Phil’s used to say. “An angry Russian can happen to anyone. When it happens to you, try to remember you are part of a long tradition of people having very bad days!”)  Maria sits back down, takes another bite of her pretzel, talks around it. “You know, like he’s really gay but he acts really straight to distract attention from it?”

Phil just looks at her.

“Alright, no,” says Maria. “He’s totally into her. You’re screwed.”

“Thanks,” says Phil, and they turn their attention back to the TV.

 

Maria’s not completely wrong, is the thing. Watching Barton and Romanov practically scale each other after their first assignment together, Phil can’t shake the feeling that their relationship is, at least partially, staged for the benefit of everyone watching. Maybe it’s a kink of theirs, maybe they’re insecure, maybe they’re just fucking with everyone’s heads, but Phil is pretty sure that whatever’s going on behind closed doors between those two looks nothing like the scene currently happening in Ambulance # 6. Barton’s got Romanov up against the side of the driver’s compartment, moaning his name theatrically, her nails in his hair, his hands all over her ass. Barton’s already been cleared by medical, Romanov never had anything wrong with her in the first place, two med techs are standing around drooling and Phil knows for a fact the driver’s got better places to be. He clears his throat, waits for Romanov to tear herself away from Barton’s mouth and fix Phil with that icy, cat-like stare. Go ahead, sister, Phil thinks. I work with Nick Fury, I can get stared at all day long.

“Sixty percent of detail is lost in the first thirty minutes,” he tells them. “Your memories will be flawed by tonight and useless for testimony by tomorrow. That’s not acceptable, so I’ve prepared digital recorders for you both. You can give them to the secretaries for transcription. I don’t waste my assets’ time with typing,” he says, handing them the recorders. “Don’t waste mine with this.” He walks off, not looking back. He’s thrown down gauntlets before, but never to a dyad of stone-cold assassins whom he’d just interrupted between first and second base. Perhaps some chamomile tea tonight.

 

He waits twenty-four hours before going to see if the reports have been turned in. Tries not to fidget while the secretary searches her transcription database and then prints two medium-length documents. Takes them back to his office, sits down, starts to read. They’re perfect. Detailed, precise, dovetailing smoothly at all the crucial points of the operation, careful not to overstate matters or get caught in logical contradictions, Barton’s and Romanov’s reports form a single seamless braid of information and logic, a brick bridge you could roll a battalion of court cases over. Phil slowly releases a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He’d thought Barton wasn’t ready, but he was only seeing half the picture. Barton is one spiral of a double helix, fifty percent of a tango, half a raw egg. This is an entirely different animal. This is a born team. He can work with this.

 

The next mission they share, Barton and Romanov again start making out like teenagers the second the assignment’s completed—but this time, as Barton carries Romanov off the scene like Tarzan hauling Jane, he pauses in front of Phil. “Tape recorders?”

Phil nods, hands Barton his recorder; Barton swivels so Romanov, hanging over his shoulder, can take hers. Then they’re gone.

 

The next assignment, Barton stops long enough to say, “Batteries are low,” as he trades Phil the filled-up recorders for some fresh ones. Three words. Progress.

 

“I don’t know how you deal,” Maria says, watching Barton and Romanov from across the cafeteria. Romanov is laying on Barton like he’s a hammock, their shared tray on her lap and her feet up on a neighboring table. She is feeding herself and Barton by turns: a bite for her, a bite for him. There are three unoccupied tables around them in every direction. “It’s like they’re in high school.”

“Yeah,” says Phil. “It’s different.”

 

Different, Phil decides, is not a bad thing. Watching junior agents and support staff scatter around Barton and Romanov like minnows making way for a pair of sharks, he wants to laugh at the brilliance of the technique. When you make everyone around you that uncomfortable, you glide along in a smooth and uninterrupted bubble of isolation. Barton doesn’t get hassled by Human Resources to turn in TERs. Secretaries don’t ask the Widow to help set up the party tray for Tammy who’s retiring from IT. No one asks them to buy raffle tickets. It’s genius. Phil explains this over festive holiday drinks with Hill and Sitwell, and they both look at him funny. Well, Sitwell looks at him the way he always does, but Jasper is wearing a Santa hat with built-in antlers, and this makes it funny.

“What?” he finally says.

“You like them,” says Hill.

 “I hardly know them,” says Phil.

“Yeah, but you like them. You’re starting to become one of them. The glamorous pod people. Super Secret Sexy Spymasters. Da-da, da-da-da-da…” Hill trails off into the Mission: Impossible theme, and Jasper sings right along with her. They’re making finger guns and everything. Phil cannot believe these are his friends.

 

“So what do you think of Barton and Romanov?” asks Fury.

“I like them,” says Phil.

“Good. ‘Cause you’re getting permanently assigned to them,” says Fury. “They are officially your assets. Congratulations. Name ‘em whatever you want, as long as it’s Strike Team Delta.”

“Thank you, sir. Where would you like us to be headquartered?”

“Frankly? I’d like it to be the Helicarrier, but we don’t have clearance yet from OSHA to live here full-time, something about the noise levels, I don’t know, so you’ll have to get them a room in the barracks back at DC.”

“Just one, sir?”

“Oh, what the hell, Cheese. Nineteen different people have already told me we ought to sell video. So what if Barton and Romanov like to get their freak on to celebrate a job well done? Jasper Sitwell’s celebratory tradition is eight tequila shots and a cigar, for God’s sake. At least your team’s chosen method is aerobic. Put ‘em wherever you want to, Phil, I truly don’t give a shit.” And walks off.

Some people get sweaters for Christmas. Some people get golf clubs. Phil gets a dyad of stone-cold assassins who are sleeping together and hate everyone who isn’t them.

 

He feels pretty good about it.

 

His relief, as always, is short-lived. There are starting to be… rumblings. Rumors. Nothing particularly definite, nothing with a name or a face to it other than, “There are these people. We don’t know exactly what they are.”  A group of them emerge after a botched private spaceflight and move into a converted warehouse together, calling themselves The Fantastic Four and fighting some sort of incredibly costly and destructive battle against their initial investor. Phil is pretty sure this is the life cycle of a garage band, but Fury seems to think it’s significant. The mutant community disavows the Four and furthermore registers its “extreme offense at being accused of involvement whenever anything out of the ordinary occurs.” (“Once, just once,” Fury moans, “I want to find the thing that that doesn’t light those people’s tampon strings. Kittens? Hot cocoa? Hell, I’d personally airdrop a couple dozen bales of weed over the Xavier Institute if I thought it would get me five goddamn minutes of peace and quiet.”) And the anonymous tipline SHIELD set up as an early-warning system (fliers posted around university chemistry departments, on military bases, anywhere weapons designers talk shop) is getting an unusually high number of calls talking about something called “gamma radiation”, which is still theoretical but has the potential to get practical—and dangerous—within a few years. On top of all of this, the CIA has just turned up a base in the Bolivian jungle that doesn’t look like any drug or weapons lab they’ve encountered before. There are no personnel, and not much equipment beyond a few crates of ammunition, but those crates have a logo on them, a logo that Phil looks at exactly once before he has to sit down and put his head between his knees. What really bothers him is this: when the CIA got there, the lights were on.

 

So all in all, it’s a good time to be training. Phil keeps Strike Team Delta in the gym for four hours a day and in the classrooms for the other six (SHIELD days are ten hours long. It keeps the riff-raff out). They learn languages and weapons systems and tactics and theory, and history, history, history. It is impossible to run an operation in a foreign country unless you have a deep and nuanced understanding of its culture and its people—SHIELD’s grasp of this simple fact is why its operations have a 23% higher success rate than that of the CIA or the armed forces. Barton needs education from the ground up (he got about as far as “I do not like them, Sam I am” before dropping out of school) but Romanov needs an altogether subtler form of help. The Red Room wasn’t so much a school as a testing ground for experimental forms of hypnosis, séance, occultism—whatever nonsense was currently in vogue with the Soviet leadership that minute. Phil honestly wishes they’d just shown them propaganda films instead; it would be easier to weed out the truth from the lies. As it stands, Romanov will follow along beautifully for eight or ten units on the rules of modern warfare and then will come out with, “There is no such thing as the American Red Cross. We talked to Clara Barton through a medium and she told us her angels of death would sweep the battlefield and execute the cowards who were too weak to fight.” And then they’ll have to stop everything and backtrack until they can find and pick up the missed stitch that is causing her whole grasp of the Geneva Convention to unravel. It’s time-consuming, and frustrating, and terribly sad, and the worst part of all is the wounded pride that keeps Romanov on the defensive, sometimes storming out of the classroom yelling things like, “I know what I heard! I know what I saw! There were witnesses! Conclusive proof!”

On the up side, with Romanov hogging the instructional spotlight, Barton is flourishing—compared to her outbursts, his sub-literacy garners little embarrassing attention, and he chugs along stoically, making steady progress. Phil fights hard to make sure he gets into classes with the best visual lecturers SHIELD has, which isn’t easy with all the other handlers advocating for their own assets. He has a whole new appreciation for mothers navigating the Manhattan preschool system. He keeps Barton supplied with fresh tapes and batteries and colored index cards and highlighters and Post-it notes, and makes sure to give exactly the same things to Romanov. He also asks the custodians to misroute a few boxes of trashy magazines from the medical offices to the recycling bin nearest Barton and Romanov’s barracks, and if he happens to drop a couple dozen cheap Captain Americas on top of the box, so be it. The box is gone in the morning, Barton suddenly displays an appalling depth of conversational knowledge about How to Blow His Mind Tonight (which he deploys, at high volume, in the cafeteria), and Romanov is actually spotted painting her nails. Mission accomplished.

 

“Your team needs a leash on,” Hill informs him abruptly in the HR offices, where he is trying to resolve a minor bureaucratic nightmare involving travel reimbursements for a mutant who can teleport but prefers to fly first class because of the hot towels. 

“Pardon?” says Phil.

“Barton specifically,” says Hill. “I caught him in the ventilation system the other day. He’ll tell you it wasn’t him, but I saw one of those neon purple bootlaces he likes dangling through the ceiling vent. And then it moved and was pulled up.”

“Did you say anything to him?” says Phil, feeling the throbbing behind his left eye that always accompanies these picayune little turns into the surreal.

“I said, Barton, you redneck motherfucker, I know it’s you and if you do not get the fuck out of the women’s locker room in the next thirty seconds I will tase your balls right through this vent so help me God.”

Phil closes his eyes. “And what did he say?”

“Nothing,” says Hill. “But he was laughing when he left, I could tell ‘cause the whole vent was shaking.”

Phil goes and has a little talk with Strike Team Delta about not scaring the other agents unnecessarily when becoming acquainted with alternate means of egress and exit to given rooms. Specifically, he has a word with Agent Romanov. No need to bother Barton with this.

“Sir, how did you know it was me?” asks Romanov as he gets up to leave.

Phil sighs. “You’re in the middle of a prank war. He’s three up but you’re gaining, you would never accidentally let a lace dangle through a vent and neither would he, and while your laugh is actually silent, Barton’s sounds like a tractor backfiring.”

This gets a smile from Romanov, one of the first she’s ever shown Phil. Rather, on her, it’s a smile. On anyone else it might constitute a grimace.

 

After this, it’s totally over. Phil is so onto them. They may have the rest of SHIELD fooled, but Phil has seen their living quarters while they were out, and he knows for a fact that James Bond never had that many marshmallow guns. Or Barbie dolls. Or Legos. If Romanov and Barton want to continue playing Ice King and Queen of the Archipelago, that’s fine with Phil—but he knows better. So now, when the mission is over and Hawkeye and Widow have begun their usual party trick of trying to climb into each other’s mouths, Phil has no compunction about walking up to them and thwapping Barton in the head with a rolled-up briefing to get their attention. “Hey,” he says. “You notice anything odd about that military base?”

Barton tears himself away long enough to look at the charred and smoking rubble Phil is gesturing towards. “I swear it was on fire when we got here, boss.”

“Come take a walk with me,” Phil says, and walks away towards the ruins. The secret to getting anyone to follow you, including a dyad of stone-cold assassins whom you’ve just interrupted between first and second base, is not to look back to confirm that they are following you. Phil stands at the edge of the damage zone until the crunch of boots behind him makes Barton’s presence known, and the total lack of any crunching whatsoever, Romanov’s.

“Where are the flagpoles?” says Phil speculatively.

“Interesting,” says Barton, his eyes narrowing.

“There’s the guard hut,” Romanov points out, indicating a charred heap of rubble with a low post for the swing-gate next to it.

“There’s the bomb barriers.”

“Way over there’s the fueling station.”

“And right here’s where the landing pad was.”

“So where are the flagpoles?” This time it’s Romanov who says it, and they stand around contemplating for a few more seconds before Phil speaks up.

“Kids, what do you call a military base without a flag?”

“Not a military base at all,” says Barton. “Sir.”

Phil puts his sunglasses on. The Wonder Twins aren’t the only ones who can play the super-spy game. “Want to go exploring with me?”

 

It takes about forty-five minutes before they find something with the logo on it—a charred food service item, of all things. Phil turns the plate over, wipes the soot off.

“Hawkeye, Widow, over here.” he says. His voice sounds tinny and distant even to him. Clint doesn’t know what he’s looking at, but for once Phil doesn’t need to explain. Natasha knows. Seems the Red Room was good for something.

 

After this, Strike Team Delta really hits its groove. Natasha is pleased to contribute knowledge that, for once, isn’t questioned by anyone, and settles down in the classroom. Clint is thrilled to be hunting seriously bad guys, and both of them begin to work with Phil beyond the parameters of individual missions, looking for a bigger picture. They’re not single-focus by any means; sometimes months go by without the whisper of a hint of a rumor, and that’s OK—but they’re always, quietly, on the lookout for it. Bases that aren’t obviously connected to any government. Aircraft hangars without any aircraft in them. Armories without any weapons. And always, always, the sense that the structures have only just been deserted, moments before SHIELD got there. Sometimes they find a logo. Sometimes they don’t. Clint and Natasha always bring the item to Phil first when they do, and he passes it to Fury, who passes it to God-knows-who. Phil suspects they’re housing a warehouse full of this crap, Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark style. He also wishes that the underwater team he recruited a navigator for all those years ago would hurry the hell up and find someone, because it’s looking like if someone ever gets found, there will be plenty of Nazis left for him.

 

In 2008, two things happen. First, a gigantic green… individual shaped like a plastic action figure shows up on a college campus in Virginia and engages in a… lively debate with a small military detachment headed by a general whom SHIELD always regarded as a crackpot, but whom, they’ve now got to begrudgingly admit, may have had a point when he came to them a few years ago all arm-wavy over gamma radiation and out-of-control scientists. About a week later, the gigantic green… individual shows up again in Harlem, this time having a pronounced difference of opinion with a gigantic yellow… individual, whom (it turns out) was a former associate of the aforementioned general and was part of a completely off-the-books series of biological weapons experiments run by the very same general, who only came running to SHIELD for help when the (now gigantic and colorful) victims of his experiments escaped his control. (SHIELD reverts, gratefully, to its former view of said general.) This all puts Nick Fury in a bit of a mood for most of… July.

 

The second thing which happens is Tony Stark’s months-long kidnapping, which creates a supply-chain problem for SHIELD until he escapes, and suddenly it’s a different kind of supply-chain problem, because now Tony Stark doesn’t want to make weapons any more. Which Phil personally understands, even though it’s not helping with Nick Fury’s mood problem.

 

Clint agrees. “Come on, leave the guy alone,” he complains around a mouthful of Weetabix, gesturing towards the press conference being endlessly re-run on the small television in Phil’s office. Phil glances up, takes in first Tony Stark (sitting on the floor with a burger and most of the AP) and then Clint (sprawled out on the sofa, shoveling in fuel). Phil likes to believe he keeps the television in his office so he can be kept abreast of the kind of world news that isn’t on DARPAnet. And because Phil wants to continue believing this, he has never once mentioned to his mother that he keeps a television in his office.

 

Clint apparently reaches his tolerance for the Tony Stark Show and reaches for the remote. Because the remote is on Phil’s desk and Clint is comfortably ensconced with his cereal bowl on his chest (he’s like one of those otters that float around on their backs smashing oysters open with rocks), this involves a very long reach on Clint’s part.

“Ennngh,” whines Clint, making gimme-fingers at the remote. His face is pathetic.

Phil moves the remote father away. Just to see what Clint will do.

Give up, apparently. Clint relaxes back into the cushions, shrugging. “Fine, whatever. Have it your way.”

The silence goes on for another ten minutes. Then the remote goes flying across the room and thwacks Clint in the side of the head. Clint, chewing happily now, selects “Dora the Explorer”. They don’t talk (except for an occasional choral “Lo hicimos!”) but the silence is warm.

 

Fury calls Phil into his office late that Sunday evening. (SHIELD weeks are six days long with a rotating day off. It keeps the riff-raff out.) When Phil gets there, Fury has already poured drinks. The sun is setting, and Fury’s entire office is bathed in orange light. There’s a whole stack of folders on Fury’s desk, another two stacks on the drinks cabinet. There’s a forth stack of banded folders teetering on top of the paper shredder, and Phil finds he actually has to move a stack of accordion folders to sit down. He sets it on the floor. Next to the six other stacks.

“Reorganizing, boss?” he asks.

“Refreshing my mind,” says Fury. “And I have done about all the refreshing I can stand for one day. I need a fresh pair of eyes.”

Phil looks around at the folders. Some of them haven’t been updated since at least the seventies. They switched to powder blue folders in the eighties. “How fresh, boss?”

“You’ll do,” says Fury, handing Phil his Scotch and sitting down. “Cheese, I have been sitting here for the last few days trying to figure out who the ten most extraordinary people on earth are who are also on our payroll. And do you know what I have discovered?”

“What’s that, boss?” says Phil, smiling and leaning back in his chair, swirling the Scotch.

Fury sighs. “We do not have the ten most extraordinary people on earth on our payroll. We don’t even have the top five. We used to have four of them, back in the fifties.”

Phil immediately begins counting them up, sticking his fingers out from the glass. “There’s Lemsky.”

“Obviously. Katz,” says Fury, and Phil adds a finger.

“Garbo,” they say together, and they both grin. They’ve played this game before. “Figure out who the fourth is yet?”

“You, sir?” says Phil, because Nick Fury turned forty-five last week and is sore about it.

“Funny, Cheese. Say, did you get that Rogaine coupon I clipped for you?”

“Depends. Did you get that dome wax I left in your memo tray?”

“Hey, brothers can wear this and it looks good. Bald white men, on the other hand, look like their own peckers. With freckles.”

Phil nearly snorts his Scotch. “Please don’t ever say that again.”

“Why, am I turning you on?”

“Oh, uncontrollably so,” says Phil. “Did I ever told you my dad went bald at thirty?”

“Well then you’re doing pretty well, aren’tcha, Junior? Now shut up and drink, you’re messing up my train of thought.”

“Yessir,” says Phil.

“Now, where was I…. right, the ten most extraordinary people in the world.”

“Right. You were only up to the four we had in the sixties.”

“Right, of which you could only name two. You keep working on it, I’m sure you’ll come up with it eventually. Anyway the ten most extraordinary people. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and it occurred to me that ten? Is far too great a number.” Fury gets up, goes to the drinks cabinet, unscrews the bottle, refills his, holds it out to Phil. Phil shakes him off. Not yet.

“As I was saying. Ten is far too great a number. Do you know what I’m getting at?”

“Not yet.”

“For a team, Phil! For a team to work effectively together, it has to be small enough that everyone knows each other, but not so large that sub-groups form. Ten is too big. Three is—”

“Too small,” Phil finishes for him. “So what’s the perfect number?”

“Five,” Fury tells him. “Or, I dunno, maybe six if the people are just right. But no bigger than seven at the most. Anyway, I’m still working that out. I’ve been researching all the best teams we’ve ever had, the best teams the other guys have, teams from history. Did you know there were only four guys in the room when they invented the hand grenade?”

“Yeah? How many were there after they invented it?” asks Phil around the rim of his glass.

“Not the point. Point is, all the best teams in the world have historically numbered between four and seven people. Or at least, they have been according to what I’ve been reading over the past six days.” Fury sits back in his chair, looking tired. “More than that, I can’t narrow down. But either way, it’s all just so much hot air right now, and you wanna know why, Phil?”

“Why is that, sir?”

“Because we only have three right now.”

“Three, sir?”

“Of the most extraordinary people in the world.”

Phil blinks. “We do?” Three seems a high number to him, but then again he spent twenty minutes today talking to a disbursement clerk who didn’t understand why agents couldn’t use blanks at the firing range. Right now, Phil isn’t sure SHIELD has three of the best of anything. 

Fury nods. “We do.”

“Who are they, sir?”

“I’m getting to that,” Fury says. “But first I want you to imagine for a moment that you’re me. And your right-hand man, that’s you, starts telling you about a possible terrorist network that up until a few months ago? We thought was consigned to the freaky books of history. But besides that, you got a whole plateful of other issues to deal with. You’ve got scientists experimenting on themselves with a form of radiation that no one understands. You’ve got mutants everywhere bending the laws of physics. You’ve got astronauts coming back from space with strange physical properties that medicine can’t explain. Can you smell what’s coming, Coulson?”

“World’s getting stranger, boss.”

“Yes. And do you know what the Good Doctor said about that?’

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro, sir?”

“Exactly.” Fury sits back in his chair, tents his fingers. “So tell me, Cheese. Based on raw ability. Who’d you want on your team?”

Phil shifts in his seat, leans forward to look over the folders spread out everywhere. “On my team of the weird, you mean?”

“Precisely. And think outside the building. Imagine we’re in a hiring mood.”

Phil rolls up his sleeves, starts ticking them off on his fingers. “There’s a mutant I like the look of, but she’s not a fan of humans and her politics are murky at best.”

“You talking about that blue chick?”

“Yeah, her. Goes by Mystique.”

“Mystique, I like that. Sounds like an exotic dancer.”

“Yeah, her. Can turn into anybody, it’s a hell of a party trick. Clothes and everything. We got her on our side, we could eat the CIA’s breakfast. Let’s see. There’s what’s-his-name, the head scientist from the astronaut crew.”

“Reed Richards?”

“Yeah, him. He’s not good with people, but neither is she so they’d work well together.”

“You recruiting me a team of assholes, Coulson?”

Phil shrugs. “Assholes work best in the company of other assholes, sir. It’s why we’ve been friends for so long.”

Fury laughs, and the conversation stretches long into the night, and pictures and files get spread out and tacked on the walls and argued over and agreed upon, and by the morning something extraordinary has started to take shape on the walls of Fury’s office. A team.

 

“There’s just one problem,” Fury says.

“Problem, sir?” Phil says. He’s bleary from lack of sleep, and the Scotch has left a dry residue in his brain.

“Yep. Team’s too small.” Fury gestures at the wall on which three pictures are taped, the only three they could finally agree on. A NORAD radar image of Iron Man, with a list of possible leads on his identity (the list consists of “Stark.”). A grainy cell-phone shot of the green guy who laid the smackdown on General Ross’s group. A low-value Captain America trading card with a big question mark written in Sharpie across its face. “Three.”

Phil blinks. “Yeah. Three.”

Fury snaps his fingers. “But I forgot! You never figured out who our three extraordinary people in SHIELD are!” He goes to his desk, opens the drawer, roots around. Comes up with three pictures, goes to the wall, puts them up with a flourish.

 

It’s Romanov. Barton. And Phil.

 

When Phil is done soundlessly working his mouth open and shut, a whole lot of sounds come out. Mainly “Take that DOWN,” and “I insist you take that down” and “This isn’t funny,” despite the fact that it obviously is to some people in the room. When Fury is done laughing himself sick, he thwacks Phil on the shoulder with a hand that feels like a steel beam.

“Naw, Phil, you’re part of the team whether you like it or not. I knew it the moment I started planning this project. You were the only non-negotiable member. Do you know why?”
“Because I failed to recycle in a past life?”

“Because you are something very special. You are the chemical stabilizer that can make any combination of people work and play nicely with each other. You think any other handler would have responded to this challenge—which, I remind you, was a team based purely on abilities—with a first-instinct pairing of a mutant who hates us and Reed Richards? No, they would not. They would have cherry-picked the easiest-to-manage Type-A motherfuckers SHIELD’s got and then spent the rest of their careers making themselves look good and wasting my time.”

Phil wipes his hands over his face. “Oh, God, I’ve done this to myself.”

“Damn straight, so no backing out now. Face it, Cheese,” Fury says as they stare—Fury with pride, Phil with something approaching nausea—at the wall. “These are superheroes. And you, my friend,” and he claps Phil on the back again, hard enough to loosen fillings, “You’re Supernanny.”

 

The title sticks. Fury sends Phil to feel Stark out and determine if he A) is Iron Man or B) knows who is. He gives Phil two weeks for the fact-finding mission, but Phil knows within fifteen seconds of meeting Stark that A) yes he is, and B) he’s dying for people to know it. Stark is neither given to subtlety nor humility, and everything about him, from his handshake, to his eye contact, to his smirk, screams catch-me-if-you-can. To wit:

The two known sightings of Iron Man match up perfectly with Stark’s no-shows at a gala for the Jimmy Fund and a planned appearance to ring the opening bell of the NYSE.

The candy-apple red and Christmas-ribbon gold of the suit are an exact match to the coloring of the Ford Flathead that Stark bought at public auction in 1996. Oh, and if you park on Quintanilla Boulevard a bit north of Stark’s mansion and wait until night falls, you can watch him doing his test flights over the ocean. Phil does not mention his findings to Fury right away. The pool at the Malibu Hyatt is really, really nice.

 

So is Pepper Potts, even when she’s doing her best to keep Phil from talking to Stark—and her best is quite effective. Phil is thinking it may actually take the full two weeks to get any face time, but then Obadiah Stane initiates proceedings on what’s got to be one of the more hostile takeover attempts in corporate history, and Phil finds himself considerably closer to the action. As in, helping Miss Potts pick glass out of her hair in the driveway. Stark saunters up wearing the suit he won’t publicly admit to controlling for another two days, flips up the face guard and says, “So I understand you wanted a word with me.” And Phil gets his face time, right then and there, just the three of them under a glimmering night sky in Stark’s driveway, exhausted and covered in glass and concrete dust. They don’t say very much, but the silence is warm.

 

“It’s him,” are Phil’s first words to Fury when he gets back to SHIELD. “And he’s not going to play ball with us.”

Fury grins. “Just wait and see, Cheese. Just wait and see.”

 

Fury has always played the long game. For two years following his and Phil’s late-night brainstorming session, they keep their ears to the ground for heavy green rumblings, occasionally kick Stark a contract for something interesting and non-weaponizable (the shields on the Helicarrier are all his), and continue scanning the shrinking Arctic ice cap for any traces of survivable wreckage. For their part, Strike Team Delta continue their quiet search for a network that seems to have gone ominously silent. There is one point when they find nothing for nineteen months and Phil begins to wonder if maybe the entire network has imploded from within, splintered due to internal power struggles, or perhaps been absorbed into another global terrorist organization, an Al-Qaeda or a Hamas or a Shining Path or any one of countless others. Then comes Budapest, and a mission so fucked it should have come with lube (Clint’s phrasing, not Phil’s). The bank they’re supposed to infiltrate turns out not to be a laundromat for terrorist money at all, but the bank across the street sure is, and when those bankers notice the disguised surveillance van parked outside their neighbors’ service entrance and the jumpsuited SHIELD agents milling around inside empty offices doing things that janitors don’t, they make the reasonable, if premature, assumption that SHIELD is preparing to launch an assault from the (perfectly law-abiding) bank across the street and send an all-hands-on-deck alert that literally has bad guys breaking out the windows of their own bank to rappel down into the street like termites pouring out of a nest. Clint and Natasha are stuck in the bottom of the canyon-like street, facing wave after wave of astoundingly fit bankers who are sliding down ropes but can still shoot, which points to a level of training that your average illiterate teenager just does not receive when he signs up with Al Qaeda.

“WHO ARE THOSE GUYS!” squawks Clint in Phil’s ear, and Phil, frantic as he is, will be damned before he lets Clint Barton down on a reference in the middle of a firefight.

“I don’t know, Butch, but they’re beginning to get on my nerves,” he says, driving at about three hundred miles an hour across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge in the bicycle lane with the (entirely fake) police siren on and the emergency lights flashing. Because he is driving a lime-green Dacia rental, this draws odd looks.

“We are losing cover,” says Widow into Phil’s ear. “How far away are you, Nanny Jo?” and it’s a measure of how much they’ve grown as a team that Phil doesn’t even bat an eye as he’s screaming down the Belgrád Parkway and unbuckling his seatbelt, the better to crane around while still doing about two hundred miles and hour and unlock all the doors in the Dacia, which has not got automatic locks, stupid, stupid, stupid. “Four hundred yards, children,” he says, “Hold tight,” and busts through two layers of traffic barriers and onto a sidewalk to get to where Hawkeye and Widow are pinned down behind the surveillance van. He brakes just enough for them to hurl themselves into the Dacia and then rabbits down the nearest entrance into the law-abiding-bank’s underground parking garage, where at least they’re out of the range of small-arms fire, though he doesn’t give the bad guys long before they produce a rocket launcher. They seem like those kind of folks. When he screeches to a halt one level down, Hawkeye and Widow have already reloaded all their weapons, checked and reholstered Phil’s sidearm for him, and are checking the batteries on their comms, because that’s how Team Delta rolls. (Phil is going to make them all s’mores when they get home, see if he doesn’t.)

“Strike Team Delta, what’s your twenty?” asks Jasper Sitwell (now a handler himself in charge of the newly minted Strike Team Foxtrot) on the emergency frequency, and they peel themselves out of the car and race for the stairwell. “Coming up,” Phil barks into his comm. “What floor do you want us on?”

“Sixth would be nice if you could get there,” says Jasper.

“On it.”

Hawkeye and Widow climb stairs faster than most people can run downhill, and Phil, two steps behind them, is so proud he could cry—elevators are for out-of-shape wimps who don’t mind getting shot the moment the doors open by nice comfy assassins who’ve been practicing their breathing exercises and drawing a bead on the seam of the doors for twenty minutes before your lazy ass arrived on Floor Gameover—and Strike Team Delta arrives at the sixth floor just as the bad bankers across the street do, in fact, locate their rocket launcher.

 

Budapest is, in short, a disaster, one which ends up costing SHIELD nearly three years of intelligence-gathering, not to mention the permanent injuries sustained by three of its agents in the rocket attack. (Jasper Sitwell never regains full hearing in his left ear following the explosion of the room above him, and the two assets on Strike Team Foxtrot both lose a lot of lung capacity after inhaling superheated air.) Clint, Phil, and Natasha are all relatively OK, having been blown back into the stairwell when the explosion happened on the seventh floor, but the mission quickly becomes a just-get-our-folks-out-of-here-alive mission after that, and all the bad guys get away. Nick Fury literally bribes an entire Hungarian tabloid to allow SHIELD to publish a cover story which is promptly ripped to shreds by the not-even-slightly-gullible Budapest press corps, and it is days before SHIELD can come up with a way to extract Strike Teams Foxtrot and Delta. By this point, one of the Foxtrot assets is doing very poorly indeed (her scorched lung has developed a secondary infection), and the other cannot be away from the oxygen tank they’ve rigged for more than a couple of minutes before his extremities start to turn blue. Jasper is beside himself and they’re all stuck in one very tiny room in a youth hostel with literal mattresses on the floor, and it’s around day two of Clint’s Godfather references that the penny finally drops for Phil. “My God, that’s what they’ve done,” he says, and turns to Clint, who’s been sleeping sitting up against the wall, same as Phil and Natasha and Jasper, so that the Foxtrot assets can rest as comfortably as possible.

Clint is wide awake, looking back at Phil, and the look in his wide grey eyes when he says, “What who’s done, sir?” just makes Phil’s throat ache, and Phil promises himself (for about the eighteenth time) that if they get out of this hellhole alive, that he will man up and request that goddamn transfer once and for all. This is getting ridiculous.

“HYDRA,” he says. “They’ve gone to the mattresses. We’re not finding active bases any more because they’re no longer in the R & D stage of things. Training’s over. They’re holed up all over the world—”

“In places like this,” Clint says, finishing his thought. “Getting ready for what, though?”

Phil wishes to God he had an answer for him. For them all. He looks around at Jasper, who is watching in quiet fascination as Tasha, one of her handguns strewn in pieces across a towel, teaches him how firearms are maintained in Siberia, a lesson which apparently involves the freezing point of yak fat. There’s a crust of dried black blood rimming Jasper’s ear canal and he’s been too nauseous to eat for days now, but he’s taking it like a champ, has refused to take even a single Advil that could go to his assets, and is right now eagerly dismantling his own handgun so Natasha can teach him the Russian names of the various components. Jasper’s gonna be a hell of a boss one day. Next to him, Natasha is inordinately pleased to be teaching for a change, carefully considering each of Jasper’s questions before giving her responses. Her hair glints like a dark vein of copper as she moves and shifts over the pieces of handgun like a fluid and powerful snake nosing its way between stones; she selects each component deliberately and hefts them with respect. Jasper is already halfway to being in love. The two Foxtrot assets, Jasper’s precious babies whom he fought tooth and nail to get assigned to, are sleeping fitfully on the mattresses, and then there’s Clint, sitting right next to Phil. Clint, whose hair, all sticky-up and sweaty, makes Phil’s fingers ache to tunnel through it. Clint, who always laughs the hardest at his own jokes. Clint, who gets looser the tenser a situation gets. Clint, who makes Phil feel like he’s in that Emily Dickinson poem where she falls through floor after floor, “And hit a World, at every plunge”.  Clint, with whom Phil is so utterly taken.

 

He cannot believe these are his friends.

 

When they finally get back to DC, Maria Hill is waiting for them at the SHIELD landing strip. She opens her arms and Phil walks right into them, hugs her tight. He has spent five days in a crummy little hostel sitting next to and carefully not touching Clint Barton (not making a big deal out of it or anything but not touching all the same), and right now if someone doesn’t hug him he might just come apart into molecules, and Christ, if he’s mentally referencing Before Sunset then he really does need some time with his Italian grandma from Long Island. (Sometimes around year six of what she calls The Great Ongoing Clint Barton Chase, Phil broke down and told Maria that’s what he thinks of her as. She started laughing and then punched him right in the radial nerve. He still hasn’t told her he used to be a coxswain. He’s saving that one for her birthday sometime.) Maria puts him in her car and drives him home and puts him to sleep on her couch, and, exhausted as he is, Phil is the only one who doesn’t notice the expression on Clint Barton’s face as he goes.

 

Maria hits him right between the eyes with it the next morning.

“He’s into you, you know,” she says as soon as Phil’s upright, and he freezes. 

“What?”

“He is,” says Maria. “I wasn’t sure before, so I didn’t say anything, but I’m sure now. Something happened, I don’t know what, but he’s into you, and what’s more, Romanov knows it.”  She slides into the chair opposite Phil at his little kitchen table and grins devilishly at him. “We’ve got ourselves a horse race.” She clinks her coffee cup against Phil’s—Phil hasn’t moved, hasn’t even blinked, is sitting there with his coffee cup halfway to his lips—and happily sits back in her chair, putting her feet up.

 

There is something about being maybe-mutually hot for one member of a dyad of stone-cold assassins who are sleeping together and hate everyone who isn’t them. Phil won’t admit Maria has him spooked, but her observational skills have gotten sharper over the last ten years, and if Romanov is allowing an expression to cross her face that Maria Hill can read… well. Phil may not need coffee ever again. Phil very seriously doubts that Barton is feeling anything at all for him, but it doesn’t really matter what Barton feels, it’s what Romanov thinks Barton feels that has Phil checking his quadrants every fifteen seconds that afternoon. And when word comes from a terrified-looking junior agent that a noisy altercation in Barton and Romanov’s quarters has completely cleared the wing, Phil has to sit down and put his head between his knees. He knows he has to go down there, but he can’t stand up. He is going into a room with a Black Widow in it within twenty-four hours of her apparent realization that he is maybe-mutually hot for her partner. It’s okay. He wasn’t using that kidney anyway. No one really needs kneecaps. He’s lead a good life. He tells himself all these things. None of them work. But then he hits upon one that does. It’s weird and kind of embarrassing, and it makes no logical sense whatsoever, but the only thought that enables him to stand and walk down to the barracks is this:

I am a goddamned Eagle Scout. I can do this.

 

Phil comes around the corner just in time to see the emergency exit door slam shut at the other end of the hallway. A howl of utter and complete woe rises from Team Delta’s room. It’s Natasha, making a sound Phil didn’t even know humans could make. He looks out the window—Barton is hightailing it across campus, and even from this distance, Phil can tell Barton is angrier than he’s ever seen him before. Also, he’s naked. Phil realizes in one sickening wallop that within twenty-four hours, he has gone from having a team that was the envy of SHIELD, to, most likely, having no team at all. And there is not a goddamned thing he can do about it. He realizes, too late, that in trying to be good, in trying to be the best Phil Coulson he could be, he has inadvertently distanced himself so far from Clint and Natasha (mainly Clint, if he’s honest) that he doesn’t truly know his team at all. He’d thought he knew everything there was to know because he’d seen their room, psychoanalyzed their reports, gotten behind the first layer of smoke and mirrors. It turns out he knows exactly shit.

 

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Phil moans, punctuating each word with a slight thudding of his head on the beer-puddled table. Maria, bless her, waits until he raises his head and slides a stack of cocktail napkins under his forehead before the next thud.

“You couldn’t have known they were nearing a breaking point,” she says. “No one really knows those two, because they never let anyone get close. It’s a miracle you handled them as well as you did, for as long as you did.”

“I thought I knew them,” Phil says miserably into his cocktail napkins. He’s drunk, in public, and he doesn’t care. This has literally never happened to him before. He tells Maria that just so she can make a dick joke about it, and it’s a measure of how good a friend Maria is that she just stores it up for later and pats Phil on the back of the head. “I know, sweetie. But everyone needs to do it once or twice in their lives. It’s how we know we’re human. Come on, drink up.” She encouragingly presses another shot glass into his hand and prods his shoulders until he sits up and blearily focuses on the task at hand, which appears to be the scotch portion of his third bourbon/scotch/beer.

“Really?” he says.

“No whining,” says Maria.

 

The next morning is exactly as awful as he’d expected, save one thing: Romanov and Barton make themselves blessedly scarce. Phil supposes they may be softening him up for the kill, but frankly as long as it’s a clean kill, he won’t object. He downs Advil and Tums and coffee, to no avail. He still can’t open his left eye all the way. Nick Fury walks in, takes one look at him, and leaves, cackling at high volume. Maria brings him an absolutely disgusting homemade hangover remedy. Jasper sends him an email with Nick Nolte’s mugshot and no caption whatsoever. He cannot believe these are his friends.

 

Team Delta stays scarce for days, then weeks, until the penny finally drops for Phil that they aren’t precisely avoiding him, they’re avoiding each other, and by extension, him. (After all, they can’t very well avoid each other in his office; it’s not big enough for that.) The instructor in their ongoing Spanish class tells Phil that Romanov has effectively dropped out and that Clint, once a genial and chatty student, has nearly started a fistfight with a probationary agent by calling him a “fucking maricón”. Phil glimpses Clint a couple of times on the firing range, and once he thinks he sees Romanov, heading through the cafeteria line like she’s on rails, but that’s it. Total radio silence. Phasers set to “ignore”. And then Maria comes to Phil with paperwork in her hand, looking like somebody died.

“He brought this to me,” she says. Transfer paperwork for Barton. He apparently wants to go provide security for an excavation of some weird meteorite in New Mexico.  Barton wants to provide security for an inanimate object. It’s like watching someone use Excalibur to cut bait.

“No,” he says. “This has gone too far.”

Maria nods. “What do you want me to do?”

Phil swallows. He knows who he really has to fix this with, but he can’t bring himself to. Not yet. “Bring me Romanov.”

 

She comes into his office looking like death’s leftovers and drops dully into the chair opposite Phil.

“What happened?” he asks her, and she doesn’t say anything, just shakes her head, and then he sees her lips are quivering, and that just undoes him. It’s impossible that the Black Widow is crying in his office, but she is, and it’s the most horrible sight. He would prefer that she break his kneecaps. He stands, thinking to give her some privacy, and she keeps right on sobbing, completely silently, the same way she laughs. He wants to apologize, but how do you apologize for this? I’m so sorry. I thought I was keeping it hidden. I never meant to take away your only friend. Five years of knowing Natasha Romanov, he’s never said anything, and now those five years are rising up to wrap around his throat. In the end, he can’t say any of it, so he just touches her shoulder on the way out.

 

He’s never felt like more of a coward.

 

When he goes to Fury and tells him Strike Team Delta needs some time apart, Fury has the experience and good sense, honed by years of governmental people management and quietly reserved friendship, not to ask why.

So Phil tells him. “I’m gay. Just thought you should know.”

It’s the only time he’s ever seen Fury look confused. “For fuck’s sake, Cheese, you think this is news to me?”

When Phil is done soundlessly working his mouth open and shut, a whole lot of sounds come out. Mainly, “You’re a son of a bitch,” and “No, I mean it, you’re a fucking asshole,” and “This isn’t funny,” despite the fact that it obviously is to some people in the room. When Fury is done laughing himself sick, he wipes his eyes. “I got to hand it to you, Coulson, you do have a hell of a poker face. But let’s face it. I only got one eye. You can’t outbluff that, and you never will.” He stands and buttons his coat. “I’m not going to dissolve your team. You can all go have a little cry in the corner if you need to for a couple of weeks, but it’s going to be a working vacation. I’m gonna send Barton to New Mexico to provide some intel on the down low while we’re working out just what the fuck fell out of the sky down there, and Romanov is gonna go bat her eyelashes at Stark. You’re coming with me. I’ve got about sixteen scientists who want to talk to me about how to find a big green guy who doesn’t wanna get found.”

“Sir, are you sure you want Barton? For subtlety?”

“Why, you wanna send him to seduce the rich guy?”

Phil shrugs. “Might be better at it than Romanov will be.”

“Aw, hell, Phil. Let’s give ‘em some practice at what they ain’t good at. How else will they learn?”

 

And so Barton is sent off to New Mexico with a suitcase full of tatty and crudely be-sloganed t-shirts, camouflaged baseball caps, and torn jeans, all of which are meant to make him look like an opportunistic tailgate salesman of UFO-themed memorabilia. (Apparently upon seeing his gear, Barton burst out laughing and told the SHIELD outfitters they could have saved a couple hundred bucks by telling him to just bring his old clothes from before SHIELD.) Natasha is given more creative leeway to transform herself into Natalie Richman, ex-underwear model with a degree from Vassar. In retrospect, sending the Russian into Macy’s evening wear department with a SHIELD-issue credit card may have been a slight miscalculation—her choices manage to shock even Maria’s Long Island-honed sensibilities.

“Phil, she’s spilling out of everything! I’ve never seen so much tits in my life and I went to an all-girls Catholic school!”

Phil closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose, holds the phone a couple of inches away. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. Stark’s not picky.”

“But Phil! Acrylic platform heels!” Maria shrieks.

“Hanging up now, Maria.”

“A leopard-print romper with built-in bustier!”

“Bye, Maria.”

 

For his part, Phil stays in D.C. playing science translator to Fury, a job he’s woefully unqualified for.

“Is it just me,” says Fury over Burger King, “Or are you getting used to ending each day more confused than you were when you started it?”

“Not just you, boss,” says Phil, chewing as he one-handedly opens a ketchup packet.

“Good, I’m glad to know that,” says Fury. “So. Have you always had a hard-on for Barton, or is this a recent development?”

Phil nearly chokes on his French fry. “Scuse me?”

“Oh, come on,” says Fury, spreading his hands wide to indicate the restaurant’s patrons. “No one’s listening. Just making conversation, passing the time.”

Phil blinks. “What do you know,” he says.

“Only that he and Romanov had been fighting and fucking for the better part of a decade until you came along, at which point the fucking part abruptly fell out the bottom of the relationship, no pun intended there. Now, Romanov’s still willing, but Barton hasn’t been laying it on her anywhere near as regular since Team Delta was formed, mainly cause he’s been so goddamned busy following you around like a teenager, a fact which has apparently escaped your notice because you’ve been so goddamned busy acting like you aren’t interested. Must be exhausting lying to yourself like that, but your boy’s about ten times worse off, because that clueless redneck motherfucker? Would sooner get shot in the face than admit he wants to get down with a man, hence why I’ve got three current complaints on my desk right now about homeboy mouthing off about “faggots this” and “cocksuckers that” in every goddamn language under the sun other than the one you speak, which how’s that for a coincidence?”

 “It’s not, sir,” Phil hears himself say, faintly.

“That’s right it’s not,” says Fury triumphantly, sitting back.

“Sir? How the fuck do you know all this, pardon my asking?”

“I listen, Cheese. Don’t you ever just listen? Or do you just read the transcripts?”

 

Phil gives it a whole ten minutes the next morning before going downstairs and accosting Ellen from the typing pool. “Ellen, do you ever transcribe Strike Team Delta?”

 “Sure, all the time.”

“Can I listen to some of their tapes?”

“You bet, but wear some headphones. Someone walks in your office with the speakers on, that’ll take some explaining.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

“Well, they’re lot of fun but a lot of work. Me and Bridget and Colby usually draw straws for who has to edit ‘em down into a report we can file, but everybody likes to listen. How many you want?”

“Give me one from the first year, one from third year, and one from last month.”

“Coming right up.”

 

Phil takes the tapes back to his office, locks the door. Puts the first one, from about two months after Barton and Romanov joined SHIELD, into the player. Barton’s voice, a little strained, comes in mid-sentence.

“—ting on the outcome of Operation Kindling, which was satisfactory from an objectives standpoint, in that we accomplished our uh, goal of discrediting the would-be demagogue via a released videotape of him engaging in sex on-camera with ah, uh, transsexual prostitute, but which didn’t go well in terms of our uh, Nat? What’s this, uh, term here?”

Romanov’s voice, a little fuzzy and distant: “Which one? Hold the paper closer. That’s ‘secondary outcomes’.”

Barton again: “Uhhh, right. So, secondary outcomes. Which were that we sort of won the battle but lost the war, because—ouch!”

Romanov’s voice: “Stick to the script. I write, you record. That was our deal.”

Barton: “And I’m trying to hold up my end but it’s hard—anyway, so our unforeseen repercussion is that the second-in-command of the, uh, temporary military government, uh—” and it’s at this point that the breathing patterns and slight tightness in Barton’s voice click with the background noises of Romanov’s movements and Phil realizes with a jolt of utter certainty that he’s listening to Barton getting head while giving a verbal report that Romanov has written and the typing pool has detangled into one of the seamlessly professional reports Phil had always attributed—and he now realizes he never questioned this incredible assumption—to a quasi-literate redneck raised in a circus (a circus!) and an ex-Russian assassin-for hire for whom English is a fourth language. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Phil is way past wanting to impale himself on a letter opener. He wants to lie down and let the entire typing pool take turns closing a door on his head. How could he have failed to realize that Ellen—who has a degree from Princeton—Bridget (Pomona), and Colby (Oberlin), were cleaning up the reports? More to the point, why would he ever assume SHIELD hired secretaries who didn’t create uniform, flawlessly professional reports out of the varied transcriptions of an extremely diverse asset group? And more importantly—how much information about his own team has he missed out on as a result of his incredible naïveté? Awash with embarrassment, he pushes the play button on the second recording, from Clint and Natasha’s third year with SHIELD.

 

It begins with a godawful wash of static, and there’s giggling—Romanov’s—in the background, and then Barton’s voice. “Ok, this is my report on Operation… Operation… Natasha, the fuck was this operation called?”

“Operation Matzoh Ball,” Romanov supplies.

“Right, Operation Matzoh Ball! What is a matzoh ball, anyway?”

“It’s a dumpling, idiot,” says Romanov, and then the recorder apparently gets dropped in some cloth, and there’s more giggling in the background, and unintelligible speech, and then Barton’s voice getting louder as he says, “I’ll show you a white roundish dumpling,” and then the recorder is picked up again. “Anyway, so Operation Matzoh Balls. Objective was to sabotage and cripple a speedboat used in the transport of illegal goods and trafficked immigrants between Albania and Italy and make it basically possible for the bad guys to get a few hundred yards out but not much farther, so we could then surround them and ascertain if….. hang on…. Nat, what’s the full name of the asshole we were looking for? All I have here is code name Icepick…. Really? That’s it? Icepick? Memo to self, if I ever get to make up my own code name, make it better than Icepick. Anyway, so we’re supposed to cripple the boat, get on board and search the boat for this Icepick dude who’s apparently really really tall, but as soon as the boat slows down and engine failure becomes, like, apparent to these assholes, they start pitching the cargo overboard, and the cargo is screaming Kurds in all their clothes, and so we ask permission to change the panties of the mission—what? Parameters? That’s what I said, parameters. What’d I say? Really? I said that? Well Jesus, Nat, it’s not my fault it’s suddenly become Victoria’s Goddamn Secret in here, what do you expect when you’re parading it around in my face like OW OW OW OW OW Jesus I give, I give, Natasha ow I’m trying to write a report here, be nice to the report. Ow. You’re mean.”

The recorder is apparently picked up and brought very close to Natasha’s mouth.

“This is Natasha Romanov. I order whoever is transcribing this to delete the last ten seconds of footage on pain of Clint Barton’s death.” A soft thud.

Clint’s voice again in a stage whisper: “She’s serious about that folks, so please cut me some slack and do-not-whatever-you-do transcribe down in official SHIELD documentation that Natasha Romanov wears these little green and blue panties, with like the lace around the thighs? Unnh. It just kills me. You believe she does this to me and she hasn’t even laid me in like three months? What! It’s true! You haven’t!”

“Yesh’ menya.” Eat me, Phil quietly mouths as he checks against Google translation.

“Yeah, yeah, love you too.” A drawn-out kissy noise from Barton. “Anyway, so we ask for permission to change the rules of the mission to a search-and-rescue and Coulson gives the go-ahead, which yippee-ki-yay for that, and now we’re hauling soaking-wet teenagers out of the freezing fuckin’ water, and we have one count-it one thermal blanket—‘

Natasha’s voice again: “For the record, we would like to request that more thermal blankets be included in any further operations off Otranto, especially if Agent Sitwell insists upon falling in.”

Barton: “It’s true, Agent Sitwell if you’re listening? Your name is a clue to what you should do. Anyway, so we’re fishing for Kurds, when the smugglers decide to open fire, and because these smugglers are smarter than the average bear, they aim at our spotlights and take out two before Agent Sitwell cuts the power and saves our three remaining lights, which goes a long way towards making me glad I pulled his chunky ass out of the water, even if it did gave me a hernia.”

Romanov: “Did it really?”

Barton: “Nah, just felt like giving Sitwell some shit. He’s good people, don’tcha think?”

Romanov: “I don’t think that about other agents.”

Barton: “Awww. Are you saying I’m special?”

 

Phil can’t hear Natasha’s reaction, but he can guess which finger it was communicated with. He clicks the recording off and grabs the third tape, from last month. After pressing play, it’s several seconds before he realizes it’s only Romanov in the room with the recorder—the complete and total silence, her only giveaway. Her voice, when she does speak, is flat and dead. “Operation Deposit Slip. Strike Teams Foxtrot and Delta were asked to participate in an intelligence-gathering mission on the Northern Star Community Bank’s possible connections to terrori—” and here Phil has to pause the recording for a minute, because this is Budapest. Their last mission together, and Natasha apparently filed the report by herself. He takes a deep breath, and hits the play button again. “—st money laundering operations throughout the region, a theory which was discredited when it turned out that the intelligence we were given got a crucial address wrong, the bank in question being across the street from the Northern Star. Strike Team Foxtrot…” and Natasha goes on to detail in careful and precisely clipped terms the exact magnitude of the disaster, from beginning to end, leaving no detail out—except for any clue of what happened to make her and Clint’s partnership so suddenly and dramatically implode. He goes back and listens to the entire twenty-eight minute recording again when he’s done, just to make sure he hasn’t missed anything—a hint, an implication of a poor decision on his or Clint’s part, a shade of jealousy. There’s nothing. It may be the most professional report Strike Team Delta has ever filed, and it lacks the one crucial piece of information Phil needs. He wants to turn in his resignation and get a job mixing daiquiris on Pismo Beach.

 

Instead, he calls his mother.  “Mom, I’ve got a problem,” he says, and lays it all out, this time not even bothering to change the first names or to hide his incredible frustration. Judith Coulson did not retire from teaching Psych 104, Psych 202-A, and Psych 303 for nothing.

“Phillip honey,” she finally says when Phil runs out of steam, “Your situation beats the hell out of me.”

Phil is so surprised his mouth shuts with a little clipping sound; his mom continues. “But then again, I would never have to say that if I hadn’t raised a son who so far surpasses me in intellect, sensitivity, and bravery that his daily problems include managing some of the most talented and unusual people on the planet. My daily problems, at their very worst, involve fitting too many books into too little time and keeping your father from ruining the pachysandra with the weedwhacker. I don’t know what to do about your young man there. It sounds to me as though he must be very frightened and lonely, to be pushing people away at such a rate. And frightened people frequently do terrible things.  But loneliness can do two things—it can either embitter a person against the world they’ve withdrawn from, or it can force them to reflect. I don’t know which path your young man will take, but I do know that if he turns to reflection, he can only reach the inevitable conclusion that you are one of the best people he will ever have the privilege of knowing.”

Phil swallows, blinking hard. “Thanks, mom.”

“You’re welcome, honey. Now, truly must go. Your father’s got the metric ratchet set out, and that can only mean ill for our chances of having running water this evening. I’m going to go run a bath before he cuts us off completely.”

“Bye, mom.”

“Bye bye, love.”

After he hangs up, Phil sits alone for a long while.

 

“Pack your bags,” Fury tells him the next week. “We’re going to California.”

“We are?”

“Well, I am, but I’m coming right back. You’re gonna stay for a little while, keep Stark company.”

“Natasha not company enough, sir?”

“She hasn’t been calling you?” Fury says, brow creasing in puzzlement. “Oh, that’s right, y’all are still seeing who can hold their breath the longest. Allow me to ruin the ending: it’s her. Anyway, she’s gone and made nice with Stark’s girl, which would be fine except Stark and his girl are on the outs right now and Natasha can’t get anywhere near him. So she needs us to come out there and give him a push in the right direction. I’ll take care of that part. Dude’s got no clue how close he is to getting one of the little boxes on the periodic table named after himself.”

“OK. Where do I come in?”

“You gotta lock him in a room and sit on him until he gets the clue.”

Oh, lovely. Phil is about to open his mouth and get smartassed about babysitting duty, but something in Fury’s face tells Phil he’s got a snappy comeback all teed up, so he doesn’t. Sometimes, the look of disappointment on Nick’s face when he doesn’t get to use a good line is the only entertainment Phil gets all day. He’ll feed Fury the straight line later. In time for Christmas.

 

Babysitting duty doesn’t last for long. Stark, while an asshole, is a properly motivated asshole, and he lunges for the box of films and notes that Fury leaves him the second he thinks Phil isn’t looking. Phil isn’t looking, technically, but JARVIS is, and Phil and JARVIS have long since reached an understanding based on mutual respect and a lifelong love of P.G. Wodehouse. Sometimes, when Phil’s killing time in the lobby or the elevator of a Stark building, he’ll lob favorite quotes back and forth with JARVIS. “‘He looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow’, Agent Coulson.”

“God, yes…. ‘He stared at the girl like an ostrich goggling at a brass doorknob’.”

“Oh yes, that one frequently comes to mind when Miss Potts enters the lab.”

They’re nearly an hour into a discussion of Pigs Have Wings when JARVIS alerts Phil that “Sir has left the premises on an apparent mission to locate the old Stark Expo model.”

Well, would you look at that. He figured it out.

“JARVIS, would you please patch me through to Director Fury?”

“With pleasure, sir.”

 

After that, it’s really just a matter of trying to find earplugs dense enough to withstand the noise that accompanies any Stark endeavor. It’s a miracle the man has any hearing left at all, what with the constant Ozzy and the welding torches and the Blue Oyster Cult and the pneumatic drills and the AC/DC and the circular saws and the Alice and the jackhammer and JARVIS hollering above it all, trying to be heard. “YOUR PIZZA HAS ARRIVED, SIR.”

“I don’t think he can hear you, JARVIS.”

“I know, Agent Coulson. Unfortunately, there are programming protocols in place to keep me from adjusting the music’s volume when Sir is in one of his creative moods.”

Phil reaches into his back pocket, fishes out a black swipey card embossed with the SHIELD logo. “Think there are protocols in place for me?”

“I wouldn’t dream of guessing, Agent Coulson.”

The card works. It also cuts the music and dims the lights, which Phil finds a bit overly romantic, but hell, it gets Stark’s attention.

“Eat,” Phil says, dropping the pizza box on top of a towering pile of crap. “It’s been over forty-eight hours. The music comes back once you’ve eaten and drunk a glass of water. Right, JARVIS?” he says. There’s a brief pause as JARVIS ostentatiously re-examines his protocols (which really only takes a couple of picoseconds, but JARVIS is all about style) and comes back online. “Indeed, Agent Coulson is apparently authorized to override the Not Now Honey, Daddy’s Inventing protocol.”

Phil nearly chomps through his own tongue. Keeping a straight face is a paramount Coulson family value. For a moment, he and Stark have a little stare-off. Which, if you’re used to Fury, is sort of like facing off with Bambi. Inevitably, Stark blinks first (Phil swears he feels a breeze from the eyelashes) and melts into his mask of practiced ease, his smile coming on like the light in an airplane bathroom. “Sure thing.” He grabs a slice. “So, how’re things treating you? You settling in OK? Where are you sleeping, anyway? I can’t even tell, I never see you even though JARVIS says you never leave.”

“I’m around,” Phil says.

I’m around, Stark mouths back to himself, frowning, rolling the words around as he wanders to the sink, runs a glass of water, wipes his hands on an oily rag. “OK, got it, man of few words, I can respect that.” He throws a look at Phil over his shoulder that is not even close to respect. “But don’t think I’m not onto you and your little games.”

“Pardon?” Phil says, just a few seconds ahead of his judgment. Stupid, stupid, stupid

“Flirting with my AI. Don’t think I didn’t notice the absolutely massive server libraries of ancient British crap that get accessed every time you enter one of my buildings.  JARVIS, I want you to know you’re a hussy. And I’m onto you both.” He points at Phil, then at an indistinct point in the ceiling, then Phil again. “Onto you.” The big Bambi eyes narrow, the water goes down the hatch, and the glass is set down with a thud. “JARVIS. Music. Bring it back.”

“With pleasure, sir,” JARVIS says, and a wall of sound once again barricades Tony Stark from the hearing world. 

 

Phil gets the call to go to New Mexico sooner than he wants it, and to his credit, Fury sounds a little sheepish on the phone. “Need you in New Mexico,” he says. Well. Not really all that sheepish. “Our scientists want to get a better look at the hardware from Mars. Go roust out all the looky-loos and set up a field base. Oh, and your boy’s gotten in three verbal altercations with his superiors since he got there. Enjoy cleaning that up.” Not sheepish at all, in fact, as it turns out.

Phil sighs, hangs up, goes to tell Stark the news. On his way out Stark has him use one of Howard’s skeletal prototypes for the shield (probable value at auction: $80,000+) as a shim. He tries not to look.

“JARVIS?” he says on the way out the door, “If Mr. Stark ever uses a piece of, say, the Apollo spacecraft as a doorstop? Do me a favor and never tell me about it.”

“I shall endeavor to do my best, Agent Coulson,” JARVIS says. “And good luck in New Mexico.”

“Thanks, old plum.”

 

New Mexico is weird. The light is all wrong, piercing and wobbly, making everything shimmery and unreal. Phil gets to the site of the crash and Clint is nowhere to be found. Which is as he expected. In his dark suit and shades, Phil is visible from a long way off. He does note a likely-looking spot on the side of a mountain not too far off, though. There is something about being watched through a long-distance scope by one of the world’s better assassins when he’s in a snit. Phil buys an iced coffee out of a cooler anyway, because fuck it. He’s tired. He scopes out the likeliest-looking places for an impromptu landing pad, guesses he’ll need about two miles of fencing, and texts a few preliminary photos to Fury and the science team.  Then he turns around slowly, puts his sunglasses in his pocket, takes a long deliberate look straight at the spot he’s made for Clint’s nest, and saunters back to his car. By the time he gets back to it, the sun’s low in the sky and the dust is starting to kick up. Clint is sitting on the ground, back against one of the tires, wearing sunglasses and looking like he hasn’t just jogged a steady mile and a half to beat Phil back to his own car.

“Afternoon, sir,” he says.

“Afternoon,” says Phil. A few moments pass. Weather happens. 

“Mind giving me a lift back to base?” says Clint.

Phil unlocks the car doors in response, but takes off his sunglasses to frown down at the younger man. “What happened to your truck? SHIELD was supposed to get you a vehicle you could blend in with.”

Clint stands, stretches, goes around to the passenger side. “It’s down there,” he says, lifting his chin towards the crash site.

“Not realistic enough for you?”

“Oh, it’s plenty realistic. Colorful, too.”

“Colorful?”

“Bright turquoise with white ‘n purple decals.”

“Oh.” Phil closes his door, waits for Barton to get settled in before turning up the air conditioning and pulling the wheel around. Barton will tell him what’s up with the truck when he’s good and ready. They’re about ten minutes into the drive towards their host base at Los Gallos when Barton speaks up again. “Of course, it’s also realistically and colorfully broke.”

“Mmm.”

“It’s the alternator. I think. Or maybe the starter motor, I dunno. I never been good with that stuff. You good with that stuff? Sir?” He’s looking at Phil across the still-scorching car, and Phil feels like he’s being asked about something other than engines. What, though, he has no idea.

“Not really. A little,” Phil admits. “I ran a snowplow some when I was a kid.”

“You ran a snowplow? Where?”

“At home,” Phil says. “Connecticut.”

Connecticut,” repeats Barton, rolling the word around and staring out the window. It sounds like he’s laughing at some dark, private joke.

“Something funny?”

“Nah, just. They got gay marriage, in Connecticut?”

Shit. Really? This is really where he’s taking this? Six years of not saying anything and this is how Barton wants to bring it up? Phil keeps his expression neutral, focused on the road ahead. He could let go of the wheel and they wouldn’t leave the road for five hundred miles, that’s how flat New Mexico is, but right now Phil is going to drive like it’s the Nurburgring. 

“Yeah,” he says. “For a few years now.”

“And that’s okay with you? Sir?” Barton’s voice is bold, insolent even, and were this line of questioning coming from any other agent Phil would be preparing for a fight, but there’s a crack in Barton’s façade, Phil can fucking hear it, and just like that he knows Barton is looking for a way out of this fearful corner he’s backed himself into. So he keeps his tone neutral and his eyes on the road, neither matching Barton’s aggression nor flinching from it: “Well, it’d pretty much have to be, seeing as I’m gay.”

He doesn’t register Barton’s entire reaction in his peripheral vision, but he catches at least a
fleeting glimpse of smug as Barton turns and looks out the window, saying, “Knew it. Tasha’s gonna be so pissed.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?” Phil asks.

Barton shrugs. “She and I had a bet.” A lie, but Phil is willing to play along.

“Yeah? What’d Natasha bet?”

“Twenty bucks,” says Barton too casually, the tension lines showing in his back as he studies the featureless landscape outside. The rest of the ride to Los Gallos is silent, save the gears Phil can hear churning in Barton’s head—Clint thinks louder than anyone Phil has ever known before. The silence is tense, but on the bright side every minute Clint spends thinking is a minute he’s not trying to kill Phil or calling some luckless rookie a faggot or otherwise committing a hate crime. Progress!

 

Phil’s relief, as always, is short-lived. Clint hightails it out of the car the second they hit base tarmac, and he doesn’t see the younger man again for three days. Three days in which Phil manages to get so unspeakably fed up with apologizing and smoothing things over and otherwise cleaning up after his asset’s bad behavior that by the time he does run into Clint again, at the firing range, he forgets entirely about the whole patience-and-non-escalation thing and just snaps at him: “Barton. Don’t ever let me hear about you mouthing off to a direct superior in the field again.”

Barton whips around and is into Phil’s personal space like a shot, jaw rippling and muscles bunching in waves, and all Phil can think is: Well, I’ve finally given him that fight he’s been looking for. Oddly, the next thought isn’t that this is stupid. It’s dizzying, lightheaded relief. Because Phil can feel in his bones, in his teeth, that whatever happens next will at least be real: not another avoidance or evasion, not another step in this endless dance.

“Yeah? Or what?”

Phil opens his palms forward, letting Barton know he’s not going to throw the first punch. “Or I request that Fury permanently removes me as your handler.”

Barton’s face goes studiously blank. “I thought that already happened,” he says.

“No,” Phil tells him. “Fury just approved your request to be assigned here. Sent Natasha to California and me too, for a while. But Strike Team Delta still exists. If you want it to.”

Barton stands down, steps away. Scrubs the back of his head, goes to the shelf where he’s left his soda, takes a long swig while squinting out into the sunset. Looks at Phil, looks away fast. Doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. Phil has never seen Barton at a loss. It’s stranger than watching Widow cry.

“If I want it to,” Barton finally repeats, looking at Phil.

Phil nods, and Barton chuckles, the darkness in his voice like thunder rolling up the desert.  “If I want. That, that’s just great…” He screws the cap back on his soda, flings it down onto his balled-up sweatshirt, turns to face Phil squarely. The light in his grey eyes like heat lightning. “What about what you want. Sir. What do you want, anyway? I never could tell.”

Phil doesn’t respond, can’t really. He’s frozen.

Barton continues. “I mean, is it to fuck me? Cause Tasha says that’s what it is. I dunno, I mean me personally, I could never tell, but maybe that’s on me, not on you, because I would probably expect a gay guy to be acting all stereotypical and shit, and no offense sir but you’re not like that at all, so I always figured you were straight. Which I get is my own fucked-up mentality, Tasha says it’s a fucked-up mentality and she should know, but you gotta cut me some slack here, the way I was raised… I’m not. Ya know. Good at this stuff. Not like you two are, anyway. I pretty much only ever knew someone was gay when they were trynna slip it to me in the costume trailer.”

Phil’s mouth opens and shuts once or twice. Whole new chunks of Clint’s psychology are falling into place faster than he can make room for them, crushing the basic structure of Barton-as-Phil-thought-he-knew-him. It’s like standing under a tornado as it drops a payload of torn-up trailer park on your head. The strange thing is, it all fits, just at a different angle than Phil had ever considered before. Why Barton has never really trusted anyone except Natasha. Why he uses his and Natasha’s overt sexuality as a weapon, a performance to scare others away. Why Barton’s run all the way to New Mexico to avoid dealing with whatever… this is. He owes Barton an explanation, that much is clear from the way Barton’s looking at him. Phil’s just not sure what’s going to come out of his mouth. Not a problem he’s ever had before.

“I can’t really… Can we sit down?” he says, pulling out a plastic folding chair from next to the lockers and sitting, awkwardly, while Barton sort of perches on the edge of the ammo shelf, looking ready to bolt. Phil puts his head down for a moment. Rubs his temples with his thumbs. Sighs. You’re a goddamned Eagle Scout, he reminds himself. You can do this.

“You were?” says Clint, and Phil looks up to realize that yes, he did say that out loud. Clint is looking at him strangely, sort of half-amused.

Phil nods. “I was. I mailed my medal back ten years ago.”

Something flickers behind Clint’s eyes, and his mouth opens around a silent O of understanding. “The gay thing.”

“Yeah,” says Phil.  “The gay thing. I wasn’t interested in belonging to an organization that was ashamed of me.”

“So you joined the Army,” Clint says, and now he’s definitely amused at Phil.

 “It wasn’t completely linear decision-making,” Phil admits.

“When did you, uh, realize that you were into the… guys?” Barton says, and the awkwardness of the conversation is totally worth it to see Barton not being a super-cool ultra-spy for once.

Phil shrugs. “I think I’ve known pretty much my whole life. My parents say I told them when I was eleven. I don’t really remember it too well. But yeah, pretty much all along.”

Clint looks a bit pole-axed by that, sitting back and blinking a lot, mouthing eleven to himself. “And your parents were okay with that?”

 “Yeah. I was lucky,” says Phil. “My parents were very…. ahead of the curve on that. They were both professors, academics. Nothing new under the sun if you take a long enough view of human history, that type of thing.”

Clint nods, biting his lip. He’s hugging himself, Phil notices, arms wrapped tight and hands clamped around his elbows. The setting sun has warmed the plywood range shed. It’s not cold.

“I suppose you saw a different angle on things, growing up?” Phil offers as mildly as possible, trying to get Clint talking again.

Clint’s bark of a laugh echoes weirdly in the shed. “Yeah, you could say that. Uh. Yeah. Where I come from, people beat up on f—er. Gay people. No offense, sir, I—”

“None taken,” Phil reassures him. Last thing he needs is Barton feeling more self-conscious. “You were saying, about the circus?”

“Um. Not much to say, really,” Clint says, fidgeting. “Not much good happened there, except I learned to shoot, which got me here. I don’t want to leave here,” he says, looking at Phil as pleadingly as Phil’s ever seen him look, and suddenly Phil’s heart is plummeting, because oh. Barton was coerced into sex to keep a roof over his head. Phil has to address this. Immediately.

“Clint,” he says, as firmly as possible, “You will never have to leave SHIELD because of anything on my account. I will recuse myself as your handler and never set foot in your sightlines again if that’s what it takes to make you feel comfortable here. This is your home, for as long as you want to be here. If I ever made you feel… uncomfortable, I apologize. That would be the greatest mistake of my career.”

Clint blinks, grey eyes wide and unknowable. “Um. Geez. Uh. Jesus, Phil. That’s uh, a hell of an offer.” He scrubs the back of his neck with his palm and smiles, just a bit, looking up at Phil from under his eyelashes. “I don’t think anyone’s ever offered to shitcan their career to make me comfortable before.”

“Oh, my career would bounce back,” Phil says. “You’re a good asset, but you’re not that good.” They grin at each other for a moment, and Phil feels the pressure in the air ease back towards equilibrium. The night lights of the firing range click on, their low hum electric and steady.

“Well, don’t go turning in your papers just yet,” says Clint. “I think I can deal with this. If you don’t mind working with me, that is. Wouldn’t blame ya if you didn’t want to, after som’tha shit I pulled recently.”

“You have been quite the asshole,” Phil agrees pleasantly. “Want to tell me what’s up with that?”

Clint looks sheepish. “I don’t know. Natasha says it’s cause I got the mentality of

a scared homophobic teenager.”

“What do you think?” Phil asks, genuinely curious.

Clint looks out over the firing range. “I’d say it’s cause I got the mentality of a scared homophobic teenager. Tasha’s got my number pretty good.”

Phil smirks. “Well. Don’t go giving up on yourself just yet.” He stands, figuring, enough progress for one evening. But Clint surprises him, and probably himself, as he turns to walk away. “Wait. Uh, sir.”

Phil turns back, eyebrows raised.

“You never answered my question,” Clint says, looking like it’s taken all his balls to say it.  “Sir. About what you want.”

“That’s right,” says Phil. “And I’m not going to, because it’s not your problem. ‘Night, Barton.” He smiles, just a bit, and leaves. He feels Barton’s eyes on his back the whole way.

 

The next few days are… odd. Clint doesn’t really talk to Phil much, but he never strays very far, either. No matter where Phil is throughout the day, Barton is in his sightlines. Getting a cup of coffee. Reading the paper. Helping the secretary replace the water jug on the cooler. It gets a little ridiculous when Barton decides the chair next to the copier is the perfect spot to wax his entire collection of bowstrings, but Phil’s not complaining. He knows what Barton’s doing. He’s trying to fit Phil’s gayness into his pre-existing concept of Phil as handler, as Team Delta member, as…. whatever. Which is difficult for Barton. He’s having to delete all sorts of old, faulty information to make room for new truths. Romanov could have helped with this, but she and Barton are on the outs, so Barton’s having to figure it out on his own, and because it’s Clint, that means lots and lots of watching. Phil kind of starts to feel like he’s on exhibit at the zoo. The Gay In His Natural Habitat. Do Not Tap On The Glass. Moving suddenly becomes a fraught affair, heavy with weight and meaning. Phil is aware of his wrists and his posture and his tone more than he’s ever been in his entire life, including middle school. It’s exhausting, being the only gay panda on Planet Barton, but Phil is willing to make the effort if it helps Clint pull his head out of his ass. Which sounds sort of gay, come to think of it.

“What’s so funny?” Barton’s voice comes through the three-P.M. fog that coffee hasn’t dissipated, and Phil looks up to see Barton watching him with amusement, a few dozen bowstrings looped over the arms of the chair he’s sitting in.

“Nothing,” Phil lies, feeling his ears redden.

“Come on, sir, it has to have been something.” Barton says, stretching lazily in his chair. A few over-waxed strings go sliding off his thighs to the floor, and Barton makes no move to collect them, just keeps watching Phil with that steady gaze.

“I was just thinking,” Phil says, thinking quickly. “About our weird crash-landing. Old saying. When all you’ve got’s a hammer, pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail.”

Clint nods. “I heard that once in a meeting.” Then, catching Phil’s look, he clarifies. “NA. Every Wednesday night in the circus, free coffee.” Then, catching Phil’s slightly more stricken look, “Me and Barney weren’t IN it or anything.”

A silence. Phil isn’t sure of his footing, never having heard Clint mention his brother (a real shining star, Barney Barton is currently enriching the universe as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood in Lompoc) by name or deed.

“Sometimes there were donuts,” Clint adds.

“Donuts are good,” Phil agrees. There’s a pause. 

“I like the maple ones,” Clint offers. His eyes haven’t left Phil’s in about two minutes.

Phil shakes his head. “Nah. Powdered sugar’s where it’s at.”

Clint wrinkles his nose. “But it gets all over your clothes.”

“Such is the price of greatness, Barton.” Phil clicks his ballpoint pen clicker down and turns back to his file on meteorite impact craters. They don’t say much else, but the silence is warm.

 

The next morning, there’s a donut next to Phil’s laptop. The piece of paper next to it, folded like a little table tent, reads: “True Greatness.” It’s maple glazed.

 

Phil stops at a gas station the next morning and spends several moments selecting the biggest, chalkiest white-powder donut he can find.  Leaves it nice and neat on Barton’s black canvas gym bag. The unholy screech can be heard from two locker rows over.

 

When Phil next goes for coffee, all the carafes have been filled with Starbucks’ maple nut flavor.

 

When Barton finally gets his truck mended and coaxes it back to base, he finds the gate checkpoint oddly hypervigilant. As in, three separate drug-sniffing dogs are given the chance to inspect his cab. When Clint asks the commanding security officer at the gate for the reasoning behind all the extra rigamarole, he is tersely informed that an alert was phoned in that Agent Barton might be attempting to transport some type of white powder onto base. 

 

Clint comes limping into Phil’s office and sits down gingerly. “You know, you didn’t have to order the cavity search. I was cooperating.”

Phil doesn’t even look up from his laptop. “You’re overselling it.”

“Damn,” Clint says.

“Also, our security staff isn’t authorized to conduct cavity searches,” Phil adds.

“Then what was that I got last Christmas from McCartney at the gate in D.C.?”

“A bonus,” Phil says without hesitation. In his peripheral, Clint is turning purple from the effort not to laugh. Phil keeps on typing.

“You shouldn’t joke about this shit with me,” Clint says when he regains his composure. “Seriously, sir. I’ve been traumatized. I could file a complaint.”

“By all means,” says Phil, reaching for a Post-it note. “SHIELD will conduct a probe.”

At this, Clint, who really is a teenager in some ways, loses it completely. Nearly falls off his chair laughing, clapping his hands, legs pedaling like a puppy on its back. And Phil, seeing Clint red-faced and teary-eyed, helplessly abandoned to laughter, feels another plank giving way underneath his feet.

 

The next time Phil rides out to the crash site, Barton hitches a ride with him. Phil is too pleased to ask what’s going on with Barton’s horrible undercover truck; it can rust for all he cares.  Barton rolls the window down, sticks his elbow out, squints at the flat, reflective desert.

“Sir? You mind if we stop at this gas station? I forgot my shades and I’m gonna need something to cut this glare.”

“Sure,” says Phil, and takes the opportunity to fuel up. When Barton comes out of the gas station, he’s wearing the most hideous pair of wraparound sunglasses Phil has ever seen. The reflective lenses shimmer with all the hues of an oil slick, and Barton’s finished the look with a fluorescent orange snug-cord to hold them in place. Phil regards him levelly from across the roof of the truck. Barton regards him right back, shit-eating grin firmly in place, and hops back in.           

“You look like a NASCAR driver,” Phil offers, about ten minutes down the road.

A brief silence.

“You know, these aren’t even close to my best sunglasses,” Barton offers. “I have even better ones at home.”

Phil closes his mouth. 

Barton smiles out the window.

 

About ten minutes farther down the road, Barton snaps his fingers, says, “Oh yeah, I forgot something,” and dives into the glove compartment. Takes out something wrapped in about eight layers of bakery tissue. Hands it to Phil.

 

It’s a donut. But this time, it’s powdered sugar.

 

Phil waits about twenty-four hours before leaving a maple glazed in Barton’s in-tray. It leaves a greasy ring on his paycheck and makes the whole mail room smell like syrup, and Barton spends an inordinate amount of time standing there flipping through his mail with the donut hanging out of his mouth, in full view of Phil’s desk, studiously not looking at Phil but standing in full view all the same.

 

It’s a baking hot day. Broiling. Nevertheless, Phil finds himself near the coffeemaker. It is the only spot on this particular worksite where his daily orbit regularly intersects with Barton’s. He tries not to take personally the encouraging observation that Barton seems to be drinking a lot more coffee recently, but when Barton routinely positions himself right behind Phil in line for coffee and then smirks at Phil when Phil turns around—well, it’s either a very thinly veiled reference to their first face-to-face encounter, or… well, there’s really no “or” possibility. He’s just not sure what the reference is supposed to signify. So Phil sets up a little experiment. He triples his number of coffee breaks. Just to see what will happen.

 

By the end of the day they’re vibrating at each other. Phil’s hands are shaking and Barton can’t shut up. The whole ride back to base is taken up by one long, very involved monologue about a night in the circus when the power went out mid-show and all the aerialists, Barton included, were stranded in the top of the tent with no light with which to find their way down until a net got strung, which was a low priority compared to evacuating the crowd, who were getting panicky because darkness apparently triggers the hunting instincts of big cats, and did Phil know that the purr of a lion is so sonically disorienting that it can confuse prey into wandering straight into the lion’s path?

 

Lying in bed that night, staring up at the ceiling and trying to think of the ongoing caffeine tremor as exercise, Phil registers unprecedented sympathy for the plight of the gazelle.

 

“It’s all very odd,” says Phil over the phone to Maria the next day, watching through a makeshift window of clear plastic sheeting as Barton clambers aboard one of the communication trailers and then jumps to the roof of another, trying to find a comfortable perch from which to survey the surrounding desert. He keeps turning around, unhappy with his lines of sight, and nearly trips on one of the trailer’s roof vents before righting himself, arms pinwheeling. Someone comes out of the trailer and glares up at Barton, saying something Phil can’t make out from this distance. Barton steps to the edge of the trailer, leans down—“Hang on, Maria, I think he might be about to get in a fight,” says Phil, letting the phone drop—and then sticks his hand down, and the other agent reaches up and shakes it, and then Barton straightens up and points out over the desert, then to the other roofs surrounding the hammer. And now the other agent’s shielding his eyes and looking around too, and pointing to another roof across the square from Barton, and wow, now he’s helping Barton scout locations. Phil brings the phone back to his ear.

“Never mind,” he says. “False alarm.”

“Sweetie, you’re wound tight,” says Maria. “Even for you. Can’t you just tell him you’re in desperate need of a blowjob?”

Jesus, Maria, unsecured line,” Phil hisses, and Maria laughs.

“Unsecured line, what is this, Mission Impossible? Relax, Phil.  It’s a hammer. You’re all busy watching a piece of Craftsman hardware that probably got dropped out of the luggage compartment of a 747 heading to an antique weapons convention in Vegas. You’re all taking an unofficial little vacation down there in the salt flats while those of us with real jobs slave away in D.C.  in the middle of a fucking heat wave.”

“It does look toasty up there,” Phil says, sneaking a glance at the Weather Channel, which is perpetually on in the SHIELD break room.

“It’s so fucking hot my tits are sweating,” Maria agrees, and Phil closes his eyes. Maria always gets crude when she gets overheated.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Me too, the elastic’s gone gummy on my bra and my shirt’s a ball of sweat and wrinkles, and now they’re talking about making us wear a jumpsuit to work on the Helicarrier, can you believe that shit?”

“Yep.” Phil does not mention having personally signed off on the prototype.

“I just hope the fabric’s breathable.”

“It will be,” Phil says, and nearly bites through his own tongue.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Wait, you already know about this!?! What color are they?! What do they look like? I swear to God, Phil, if you’ve dressed us all in orange like prisoners so help me I will—”

“They’re blue,” Phil says hastily. “Dark navy blue. Flattering on everyone or so I’m told. Very tailored, individually fitted, breathable. You’ll like them. Plenty of pockets. Stark designed the fabric.”

“Do you have to wear one?”

“I will if it gets me out of this conversation,” says Phil.

“Well, look who’s getting touchy. I told you, you need a blowjob. Get him to give you one, you’re getting to be a cranky old ma—”

Goodbye, Maria,” Phil tells her, but after hanging up he immediately regrets it. He dials back. Maria picks up on the third ring.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry, you’re right, I’m being a cranky old man.”

“Yes you are. You wanna tell me what’s up?”

 Phil sighs. “I don’t even know where to begin. I need some Maria time. What are you doing tonight?”

“Seriously?” says Maria. They haven’t pulled one of these in years—the last time was when Maria had a bad breakup and Phil caught three consecutive military flights to get back to DC from Singapore, twenty nonstop hours and he arrived at 6 PM the next day looking like shit, but he was there to help her through the crying and the drinking and the defriending-the-asshole-on-Facebook, and that was what mattered.

“Seriously,” says Phil.

 

They agree she’ll leave her key under the mat—she’s working late and that can’t be helped, but it will give Phil time after his flight lands to swing by SHIELD, check on Romanov. Apparently, the Stark Expo has not gone well. Well, anyone with CNN can see the Stark Expo hasn’t gone well. A largish portion of New Jersey can testify directly to how not-well the Stark Expo’s gone, not that that’s SHIELD’s fault. Or even Natasha’s. Phil wonders if telling Natasha that she is part of a long tradition of people having very bad days will result in his death. Only one way to find out, really. He calls her as soon as he gets on-site.

““I’m in town for the afternoon,” he says. “New Mexico is weird. Meet me for coffee?”

When he sees her, though, he has to revise his estimate of how badly the Stark assignment’s gone. Natasha looks worse than Phil’s ever seen her. Her eyes are red and her skin is dull and her posture looks so… defeated. She slides into the booth opposite him and folds herself up, like she’s trying to make herself as small as possible.

“Agent Romanov,” he says, trying to reconcile the victimized-looking woman before him with the Black Widow. It’s impossible. 

“Is everything OK?” she asks, not meeting his eyes.

He’s not sure how to honestly answer that. “Yes.”

“Is everyone OK?” She flicks her eyes to his, briefly—a tiny spark of something real there, a tiny spark of Natasha-before-Budapest, and Phil is awash with guilt for having extinguished that fire. Even though he never meant to. Even though he’s got no idea how to make it right.

“I don’t know,” he says truthfully, and then something odd happens. Instead of rising to leave or slapping him across the face, neither of which would have surprised him, Natasha slides a small hand across the table and carefully covers his. They sit in the sunlight together for quite some time. 

 

“It’s like I’ve broken up a marriage without even trying,” Phil complains, sitting with his back against the sofa that Maria’s lying on, his legs stretched out under a coffee table covered with empties. On TV, the Nationals are quietly losing to Seattle in front of a nearly-empty stadium. Maria is an affectionate drunk, finger-combing Phil’s hair and working her fingers down his collar in an uncoordinated, occasionally pokey massage. She’s told him once or twice, in unguarded moments, that he’s the most reliable man she’s ever had in her life. Which makes Phil sad.

“Uh-huh,” she says glassily, a few seconds too late to really be a response to anything Phil’s said. LaRoche takes a walk to first but is wasted moments later when Morse strikes out to end the inning. A Domino’s ad blares on and Phil mutes the TV, letting his head drop back against the sofa cushions.

“I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he says to the ceiling. With the TV muted and the windows open, he can hear the humid wash of sound that drenches every summer night in DC: locusts, car alarms, sirens.

“Mnnghh,” says Maria, and Phil looks back over his shoulder. She’s already drooling on the couch cushion.  “Come on, then,” he says, and scrambles to his feet, scooping her up and carrying her to bed. Arranges her on her side, draws the comforter over her, loosens her watchstrap and hunkers down next to the bed to brush her hair out of her eyes. “Good night, Maria,” he says, and her eyelids flutter halfway open—her smile is angelic and drunk, and she reaches out to pat his face.

“M’love,” she calls him. “Don’ look so sad, m’love. You got me. Clint, he got you even though he don’t know it yet. Natasha, she’s got NOBODY. She gotta reasonabee sad.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” asks Phil, but it’s rhetorical. Maria’s out.

He stands there in the darkness for a moment, looking down at her, alone in her massive bed. Enough.

 

At night, you can see all the way to the Capitol from Maria’s place, but Phil isn’t looking. Instead, he’s hailing a cab and booking a flight on his phone, leaving before the first streaks of blue hit the sky, heading back to New Mexico.

 

Five hours later, the sun is just rising over the desert when he finds Clint Barton on the firing range, aiming into the sun to practice his limited-visibility shooting. Phil walks up to him, Thomas Gray thundering in his ears. He’s been hearing him ever since he left D.C. Maybe it’s true that the paths of glory lead but to the grave. Maybe it’s just, and right, and okay, that Clint Barton was born to fortune and to fame unknown in a trailer in Iowa, while the likes of Tony Stark are made to sway the rod of empire. All Phil Coulson knows is, right now, he truly does not give a shit. 

 

Barton turns to look at him and the rising sun sets every angle of him alight with celestial fire. He is motionless as a desert lizard in the sun, except for his fingers, which furiously twiddle an arrow like a cheerleader working a baton. Phil can read his tension, see it drawn tight across his face and his shoulders. A man who’s been hit as a boy stands differently than one who hasn’t.

“You asked me what I want. Do you still want to know?” Phil asks.

Barton tilts his head.

“No. Wait. Don’t answer that. I don’t care. It’s you,” says Phil.  “I said it wasn’t your problem, and I meant that. I said I would recuse myself as your handler if you wanted, and I meant that too. But what I didn’t take into account is that not doing something? Isn’t harmless. Not saying things, isn’t harmless. And refusing to acknowledge how I felt towards you, wasn’t harmless. It destroyed our team. I take full responsibility for that. So here it is: I want you. I don’t care to pretend any more, and I don’t give a damn if it makes you uncomfortable, because I don’t honestly believe it makes you that uncomfortable and I’m done waiting for you to grow up. You’re nearly thirty years old and I’m nearly forty. That doesn’t give us much time to get our acts together. Not in this job. So I’m calling it.”

Barton blinks. It’s slow, like a lizard’s blink. It occurs to Phil that Barton’s been shooting into the sun for God-knows-how-long, and for all he knows, the speech he just made came out of a gigantic sunsplotch of purple and green in the center of Barton’s vision. The silence goes on long enough that he starts to wonder if maybe Barton’s so blinded that he’s puzzled about who the talking sunsplotch even is. In which case Phil will just go quietly off in a corner and die, thanks. He’s about to do that anyway when Barton finally speaks up.

“Wanna donut?”  He gestures towards a half-open box near his wadded-up sweatshirt in the corner of the ammo shelf. (The donut box is nestled up against a half-empty Mountain Dew, because Barton likes to wash his sugar down with corn syrup. Phil has absolutely no idea why he is in love with this hick.)

“Sure,” Phil says.

They get about two bites into their donuts when Barton says “All right, fuck this,” and they’re both dropping their donuts on the ground and moving in, and the first kiss is rough and harsh and hungry, and then Clint pulls away, looks up into Phil’s eyes, and oh. So it’s like that.  Barton is scared shitless, terrified of his own desires, wary and hungry as a coyote on the outskirts of a campfire. His eyes are wide and God, Phil can see his pulse pounding in his neck. Phil brings his hands to Clint’s jawline and, trying not to spook the younger man, leans in for a serious, soft kiss, a kiss that tries to communicate things, things like “value” and “cherish” and “never harm”. Clint is trembling by the time their lips make contact, and by the time Phil prizes his lips open his whole body is shaking, and when Phil softly sucks his tongue he whimpers, and just like that, Phil is officially, and permanently, off the market. All spoken for. Taken. They trade kisses, slowly, the arousal like a soapbubble passed gently between wet hands, larger and more iridescent with every turn. Barton is whimpering and moaning and making all kinds of fucking noise, and every sound Barton makes is driving Phil closer to the point where he is going to rip his asset’s clothes off with his fucking teeth if he has to and fuck him into the ground right here at the firing range. And Barton, thank God, seems to have the same idea, because he pushes Phil away for a panting breathless moment, says, “Woah”, and “Shit, you too?” and “OK, you and I need to take this somewhere else right-the-fuck-now.”

“On it,” says Phil, and Christ they make a good team, because Barton has his gear together in seconds and Phil gets on his Blackberry and cancels all his meetings and Barton’s shift for the day while Barton drives like a gravel-throwing maniac all the way to the nearest motel, where Phil barely gets the door shut before Barton’s on his knees in front of Phil, yanking open his fly and sucking him with a ferocity that makes black stars explode across Phil’s field of vision. Barton’s hands are braced flat against the door to either side of Phil, he’s rolling his hips against nothing but air, and he’s moaning because apparently even a mouth full of cock cannot shut Clint Barton up. Phil slams his head back against the door once, twice, but he can’t help it, the sensation is so exquisitely high and pure and sweet, and he comes and comes and comes down Barton’s throat with one hand gripping Barton’s sweat-damp hair, the other covering Barton’s splayed fingers on the door, both still mostly dressed in a scorching-hot motel room in the middle of August. Afterwards, he goes slithering down the door and sits, speechless, goggling at an unspecified point on the floor. Clint scoots over and cranks the A/C, then comes and sits next to Phil.

“Am I better at that than you thought I might be?” he says, nudging Phil’s shoulder.

Phil’s reply is glassy, stoned, sounds distant even to him. “You’re better at that than I thought anyone could be.”

Clint shrugs. “Just like riding a bicycle, I guess.”

Phil frowns. “Waitaminute. You’re… um… Barton, how much experience are we talking about here?”

“You mean, consensual?” Barton says, picking at something on the knee of his jeans and trying, extremely unsuccessfully, to hide a grin.

Yes of course consensual.”

“Not counting the times I did it for food and shelter?”

Jesus, Barton.”

“What?! I’m just asking you to clarify!” Barton says, not even trying to hide the grin now, and oh, that’s it. Phil is so onto him

“You know, you can’t brag about how good you are and try to make me feel bad for how you got good at the same time.”

“Why not?”

Phil opens his mouth to reply and then realizes he doesn’t have an answer for that. “Huh.”

“See. Gotcha there,” Barton says, scrambling to his feet and offering Phil a hand up. Phil takes it, gratefully, and Barton begins undoing Phil’s tie, helping him undress as his brain slowly comes back online. “It’s not nice,” Phil finally concludes.

“Well, I’m not very nice, sir,” says Barton, nicely hanging Phil’s shirt over the back of a chair and arranging it so it won’t wrinkle. “Arms up.” He pulls Phil’s t-shirt over his head, capturing Phil’s lips in a kiss as soon as his face is clear of the fabric, and Phil groans, grabs Barton by the hips, topples them both over onto the bed.

“Besides,” Barton says, whipping his shirt off and lifting his hips to squirm out of his jeans as shoes and belts go caroming across the room, “Nice is overrated.”

“Barton?”

“Yeah?”

“Shut up,” Phil says, and Barton surges up below him, all tan skin and little pink flecks of scar tissue and bright grey eyes blown wide with lust. They kiss, skin sticking in the cold pool-scented blast from the hotel air conditioner, heads swimming with the scents of sweat and salt and chlorine and come, a dizzying swirl of summer and sex. Phil feels like he’s fifteen years old again, except that fifteen never had anything this good, fifteen never had rough hands skimming down his back, open lips catching on his ear, stomach muscles clenching under his mouth. By the time Phil works his way down to take Barton’s cock in his mouth, the younger man’s pressed right up against the wall of arousal, about ready to tip over, the skin of his cock glossy and pink as a new eraser. Phil pauses. “Now this. This is nice.”

“….Fffffuck you, sir. Gonna kill me with this shit.”

“Can it with the ‘sir’, Barton, unless you’d like me to start giving you some real orders.”

“Fuck!”

“Oh, so you like that. Duly noted.”

Barton glares down at him. Phil smiles back up, pleasantly, as if he’s not right next to the firmest sturdiest most mouthwatering prick he’s ever seen in his life, and then, without breaking eye contact, shifts over and takes Barton’s cock in his mouth, sliding down just enough to press it snug against the back of his throat, giving it a good spit-coating before rising, sucking all the way to the tip, letting it go with a faint popping sound, and settling between Barton’s legs to give his balls a long, thorough laving with his tongue, all the while jacking Barton with a grip that has the younger man arching up off the bed and grabbing at the sheets while he babbles and yowls like he’s losing his goddamn mind. This… this is really good. Barton is mouthy and hyper and crazy as a shithouse rat and all that gets amplified when he’s in bed, and that is just fine with Phil, because apparently crazy rednecks who never shut up are just exactly his type. He shifts to give his own dick more space, and the movement doesn’t go unnoticed, at least not according to the little nonstop monologue that’s going on over Coulson’s head: “OhJesusGodAlmighty—you’re getting hard again aren’tcha. Aren’tcha. I’mma come so hard you fuckingcrazysonofabitch. I’mma—FUCK!!—suck you off again. So hard. So-OHGOD-hard. And I’mma do it slow this time justyouwait. Can’t wait to get you down my throat again. Sir. CannotFUCKINGwait."

Phil pauses and presses his thumb down firmly on Barton's cockhead, right over the slit, wobbling it just a bit to create tiny circles of pressure. “You ever been told you have an oral fixation, Barton?”

“FUCK!”

“So do I,” says Phil, and swallows Barton down whole. And for one second, everything stops, and the world is bleach-white and cave-dark and freezing cold and boiling hot at the same time, and then Barton screams and comes like a volcano and Phil lets his mouth fill before swallowing, slowly, luxuriantly, the taste exploding over his tongue like little white flowers of chlorine and vodka, jasmine and caffeine, and he nuzzles Barton’s hip and places come-wet kisses all over his skin as Barton comes down, breathing hard.  He blows a steady stream of cool air over Barton’s wet cock, grins when Barton moans and twitches all over, little last spasms working their way out. 

“Hey,” says Barton, his voice shattered. “Come up here.” Phil pauses, grins, wipes his face on the sheets and crawls up to where Barton sprawls, looking knackered. His golden skin is glistening with sweat, and Phil’s glad for just a moment that Barton’s got his eyes closed, because he can’t see how young and unearthly-gorgeous he looks next to Phil’s… ordinariness.

Barton cracks one eye and regards Phil narrowly. “You’re going to kill me,” he informs Phil. “I just want you to know. If you’re going to be doing that shit to me, I’m going to have a heart attack and die before I’m forty.”

Phil smiles, places a hand on Barton’s belly, shrugs. “We’re in a dangerous career field. Seems about right.”

Barton laughs at that. “What a way to go, though.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“So, you don’t mind, sir? The, uh, experience discrepancy?”

“Is that what that was?”

“I think I got pretty conclusively shown up, yeah, sir. Blown away completely.” Barton makes an explosive gesture with his right hand, accompanied by a “PFFF” sound effect, then mimes falling debris with wiggling fingers, tiny faint screams of imaginary bystanders.

Phil sighs, drops on his back next to Barton, talks up at the ceiling. “And here I was just laying here thinking I hope Barton doesn’t notice the embarrassing way I came all over him within about ten seconds over there by the door.”  

Barton doesn’t say anything to that, but he pinkens slightly and looks pleased by the compliment, so Phil continues. “And by the way, I frankly don’t care where you learned how to do that. Well, I do and I don’t. You’re incredibly good at it, and I won’t be made to feel guilty for enjoying it, but I’ll dedicate my life to hunting down your teachers and killing them with my bare hands if you want.”

Barton chuckles. “Not necessary, sir. I say living well and killing bad guys with long-range weaponry is the best revenge.” They’re quiet for a moment, both lying on their backs, eyes closed, and then Phil edges his hand over and carefully covers Barton’s. Barton reacts immediately, and Phil thinks maybe it was a mistake and starts to pull away, but no—Barton is turning his own hand over and grasping Phil’s, squeezing it tight. They lie there together in the sunlight for some time.

 

“Sir?” Barton says to him, much later that evening, driving back to base. “Promise me something?”

“What?”

“Promise me this won’t change shit.”

Phil chuckles. “Barton, I think I can pretty conclusively promise you that this will change shit.”

“I don’t mean it like that, sir. I mean, I know it’ll change some stuff. But…” and Barton pulls in a deep breath. “WhatIlikeaboutyouishowyoudon’ttakeanyofmyshit.”

“Pardon?” says Phil, because Barton is mumbling and also because that was totally not what he was expecting. 

“What I like about you. You don’t let me get away with shit. The only other person who’s like that with me is Natasha. And, uh, I owe her a lot. Some explanations, probably. An apology. Anyway,” Barton says, shifting around uncomfortably and mumbling down into his collar. “I don’t want that to change. I like that you call me on my shit when I’m acting like an asshole. I like that you don’t let me play the, uh, victim. Like, ever. With anything. I like that you’ll tell me when to shut up, an’ that you’ll make me run on the treadmill for like, nine million hours a day, and that you’ll tell me when I’m outta line. I need that. Without that, I’m…” and here he trails off, makes a sound and gesture like the fallout from his earlier mimed explosion. Blowing in the wind.

“Barton, I...” Phil is lost for words, lost in a sea of nameless emotion. Then it comes to him. It’s weird and embarrassing and makes no logical sense whatsoever, but he knows exactly what to say. He takes his eyes off the road and looks at Barton (he could let go of the wheel completely and they wouldn’t leave the road for five hundred miles, that’s how flat New Mexico is).

“Clint.” He reaches over, takes Barton’s chin in his hand, and the look in Barton’s wide grey eyes when he says, “Yeah?” makes Phil’s heart pound damn near out of his chest.

 

“I promise.” A few moments pass. Weather happens. Phil’s fallen through the last floor, he’s hit solid ground, and the look in Barton’s eyes is like the rain that’s pounding down a curtain around their car and drumming a deafening rattle on the roof, it’s wet earth and fresh rain and a good place to start roots.

 

“Scout’s honor.”