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It was still early, but the sunlight was falling bright onto the roof of the minibus by the roadside, defeating the occasional breeze that blew sand and dust onto the already dirty asphalt and blurred the line between tarmac and land.

The slamming of the door on the passenger's side shook the vehicle and Clint frowned as he jerked out of his light doze. Turning his head, he watched Reuben Ellis stretch his long, skinny and sunburnt limbs as he looked down the deserted road behind them, yawning. Clint shifted a little and rolled onto his side, propped up on one elbow.

“They better made it across the border in time,” Ellis muttered darkly. “If I miss my flight, I'll flay Fahim.”

Clint flexed his shoulders and rolled off the roof of the van, adjusting his sunglasses.

“We managed to smuggle an entire arsenal across in a hippie bus, along with a Brazilian prostitute,” he chuckled. “You guess the surgeon with the Arabic name's gonna be a problem?”

“We both know the Arabic name is the least of Fahim’s problems,” Ellis replied flatly. “He’s a pissy asshole even when he hasn’t just spent a week puking over the railing of a ship. And let’s not even talk about the tacky fake-Jersey accent.”

“Touché,” Clint grinned and suppressed a yawn himself. Patting Ellis's shoulder, he turned away. “I gotta piss.” Stepping off the road into the short, dry grass and unzipping his pants, he called back. “Cheer up. We can't leave anyway, not as long as the others aren't back.”

Ellis sighed, but didn't reply. Instead, he flopped back into the passenger's seat and pulled a thick, bound script from the glove compartment. The SHIELD eagle was printed in black onto the battered cover above the names of various authors, and Ellis flipped the script open on a marked page. A crease of deep concentration appeared on his forehead, as it always did when he memorised something.

Clint rolled his eyes at him when he returned to the car, threw a quick glance at Reena Chowdhury's sleeping form on top of their concealed weapons in the back of the van, and was about to climb back onto the roof when he spotted movement on the road ahead. Three people were walking his way, waving.

“Food's here,” Clint grinned and slammed his flat hand down on the roof excitedly.

“Food. Where,” Reena jerked up, narrowing her puffy eyes as she looked out through the front window, fumbling for her sunglasses. “It better not be chicken sandwiches again...” Running a hand through her short, black hair, she turned and climbed out of the car.

“I'm amazed you've got it in you to be picky,” Ellis muttered from the passenger’s seat, his script abandoned. “I could seriously eat anything right now.”

“Good for you. I'll purposely choke to death on the next manky MRE you present me with. They could at least make them in another flavour,” Reena replied as she stepped up to Clint and nodded good morning, yawning. “Hey, does hawk taste like chicken?”

“This one does,” Clint smirked. “Can't even remember the last time I ate anything else...”

“Have you two considered working on improving your memory instead of your nutritional habits?” Ellis commented loftily and blocked the scrunched up tissue Clint had pulled out of his pocket and thrown at him with the SHIELD training script in his hands.

“The intellectuals among us are, of course, entitled to their opinion,” Clint teased and Ellis pursed his lips in amusement before focusing back on the text before him. Clint chuckled and turned his head back to face the rest of the team, who were within earshot right now. “I call dibs on Reena’s chicken!” he hollered and avoided Reena's elbow with a grin.

Unfortunately all out of chicken, but we have mouldy looking cheeseburgers!” Joe Campos yelled back at him and a sigh of longing escaped Clint's throat before he could stop himself. When the three had reached the car, he more or less ripped the plastic bag from Shou Ueno's hand while he was busy talking on the phone, and started to hand out cheeseburgers to Reuben and Reena.

“Heaven,” Joe sighed happily and nudged Reuben to move over into the driver's seat so he could sit down himself. “Most deserted gas station ever, by the way. We could have taken the car, there was nobody around apart from us.”

“Hours away from two weeks of vacation we’re not taking chances,” Reena muttered darkly and Clint grunted inarticulately, nodding.

“News from Rosie,” Shou threw in when he'd hung up the phone and began to unwrap his own burger. “They got across the border fine and picked up Yu and Miguel as planned, but then had to re-route because of some military patrol that passed through. They'll meet us at the gas station we just came from in half an hour and we'll repack and head on up to base from there.”

“S’go. You're driving,” Clint said, already climbing into the back seat of the van, burger clutched safely in hand, and slumped down by the window, shifting to make space for Ellis and Sarita, their Brazilian companion. Reena squeezed into the passenger's seat next to Joe and slammed the door shut, while Shou took the wheel and turned the key.

***

“No, let’s keep the big tech in there,” Alejandro Duarte threw in, one hand on Reuben’s arm as he moved to shift a heavy metal box out of the back of the large, black transporter van. Reuben frowned and Alejandro looked around the bags, suitcases and other containers scattered between the two cars on the deserted parking lot of the gas station. The slightly run-down, grey hippie bus Clint’s part of the team had travelled in stood in stark contrast to the large, sturdy polished black transport van Alejandro’s party had come with.

“How did all of this fit into the cars in the first place?” Miguel Salcedo scratched his head and Reena flopped down on one of the larger caskets next to Rosalie, who was shielding her bare eyes from the sun.

“I think we can actually get all of the tech into the smaller car,” Yu Zhang contemplated. “It’ll get tight, but we’re past all controls, so we can maybe move one or two people to travel in the big one, along with the weapons, ammo and our kits and stuff... Then you can go drop off the intel and paperwork at the office with those who have business in town and the rest of us can just sign off when we reach South Valley base.”

“Mh. That could work,” Alejandro contemplated. “How many would that be, then? Rosie, Reena, you’re headed for LA, right? Reuben, your flight?”

“From Albuquerque, yes,” Reuben nodded.

“We should also take Sarita along for her immigration paperwork, so that’s five...” Alejandro muttered to himself, when the phone in his jacket pocket began to ring. A sour expression appeared on his face when he looked at the screen. Throwing the phone at Rosalie and shooting a dark glance at the others, he shrugged and went back to sorting their luggage.

“Maybe we can strap our clothes bags up onto the roof and save some space,” Reena suggested, nodding at the grey bus and Alejandro nodded pensively, turning his head when Clint and Shou walked over to them, each of them happily devouring another cheeseburger that they’d got from the dingy shop at the gas station.

“I’d rather get some of the kit onto the roof,” Clint threw in. “Nicer to snuggle up to a clothes bag than a metal crate.”

“So which one of SHIELD’s sensitive and expensive computers do you want me to strap on top of our rusty hippie bus, then?” Reuben asked dryly and Fahim Darzi chuckled, leaning against the bigger van, smoking a cigarette.

“Fair point,” Clint grimaced. “Maybe we should tie you to the roof instead, you’re not expensive...” He frowned for a second, then looked at Alejandro, then at Rosalie. "Is anyone going to pick up the phone?”

“No,” Alejandro replied, pulling his own pack of cigarettes from his pockets and lighting one up by holding it to the end of Fahim’s. Blowing out smoke, he held Clint’s gaze smugly. “It’s Fury and I’m not talking to him.”

“You have met Fury, right?” Clint snorted and Alejandro shrugged.

“I don’t care; I’m on vacation.” He shook his head and stuck his chin out. “You talk to him; I sure as hell won’t.”

Clint raised an eyebrow and the phone fell silent in Rosie’s hands for a couple of long seconds. The screen stopped flashing and the sign for one missed call appeared. For a moment, everyone looked tense, then the phone began to ring again.

“Oh, fucking give it here...” Clint muttered and Alejandro groaned.

“Don’t. Clint-” He sounded slightly defeated. “It’s Fury. Now, what could he possibly want?” He glared at Clint for a moment and Clint rolled his eyes as he grabbed the phone and turned to walk away from the group. Chewing and swallowing the last bite of his burger, he closed his eyes for a moment, then picked up.

“Nick! How nice of you to call.”

Where’s Duarte?” Fury said without much ceremony and Clint let out a hiss and tilted his head back, squinting at the sky.

“Ah, he’s not in. Unfortunately. You know, being on vacation and all... it’s really nice of you to call, though. We’ll be dropping off our kit at the base in about three hours, by the way; how’s the weather in NYC?”

There was a pause on Fury’s end and Clint realised he was holding his own breath in expectation of the inevitable. Looking back at the two vans and his team, who were watching him with stern faces as they lazily shuffled boxes around, he waited.

Barton,” Fury eventually said. “Listen, I know you’ve got some downtime coming up, but I need-

“Oh no, come on-” Clint began, but Fury continued, his voice determined.

-your team to come in. The Houston unit’s delayed in Fort Stockton and you’re the only available people with high enough security clearance currently close-

“No. Listen, Nick, I’m sorry-,” Clint pressed out through clenched teeth. Fury ignored him.

I need someone there as soon as possible. I’ll send you the location through your sat nav-

“We’ve been on the road for half a month,” Clint cut in sharply, determined not to give up that easily. “Not exactly on a joy ride either, in case you didn’t get the memo. Remember how it had ‘emergency evac’ and ‘contingency protocol’ written on it? And before that we cleaned up Rio and - oh! - before that there was the whole Rio disaster, remember? There were emergency evacs for that one, too. And before that-

It’s a two-day gig, Barton,” Fury replied, sounding at least a little guilty. “I need a reliable team and you’re the only Level 6 guys within reach. Tell Duarte he’s got my word, just two days until I can get part of the Malibu cell there, or Sharon gets out of Fort Stockton. But hell, I'm having a crap week and I fucking need someone to back up tech and research with some guns in the meantime. Flushing Meadows blew up in our faces last night, I’m tight on high-level personnel and I really, really haven’t got the patience for negotiations right now.” When Clint didn’t interrupt, Fury took a breath and continued, his voice calm and firm. “You go there, help secure the perimeter and I swear, you’re gone the moment I can pull people from somewhere else. Two days. If that.

Clint sighed and hung his head, licking his lips. Fury was quiet on his end and Clint frowned as he turned to look back at the team, who had abandoned all pretence of packing and were glaring at him across the small parking lot. His voice, when he spoke, was raspy and he cleared his throat.

“That’s still two days. Some of us had plans.”

Reschedule. You’ll be compensated. I know what you’ve been through, but I’m sorry, it can’t be helped.

“Shit, no,” Clint muttered, shaking his head slightly. He could feel the team’s eyes boring into his neck. “C’mon, Nick, you gotta give me something...”

I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t have to.

“Fuck you, I almost believe you, too,” Clint rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to bring the different voices in his head into agreement. He glanced at the team again and wondered how was supposed to be breaking the news to them. “Promise there’s no rage monsters. Because really, I’m not joking - I don’t think we could face one right now.”

No rage monsters,” Fury replied, his voice earnest, with a slight hint of something else. It might have been amusement. “At least I’ve not heard them called that lately...” He paused and, when Clint didn't say anything, added calmly, “Just a security gig. It'll be fun; there’ll be tech and intel units, free food, you could take it in shifts... It’s not a tough job, it’s just too top secret for anyone else until we know what we're dealing with.

Clint kicked the sand with his booted foot and shook his head.

“You know, I get you, I really do, but... Listen, we’re tired here; I can’t promise-”

Tell Duarte I owe you all if you do this,” Fury cut in and Clint thought he sounded rather tired as well. “I mean it. I don’t care what it takes. Make it work, Clint.

Swallowing, Clint took a deep breath.

“I’ll talk to Ale and the rest. No promises,” he muttered and hung up.

Rubbing his forehead, he turned around and walked back to the two vans. When he saw the faces of the team, he grimaced sheepishly and Reuben groaned.

“Don’t say it...” he began and Clint smirked apologetically.

“It’s a two-day gig-” he began, then fell silent and faced the wave of exasperated and tired protest. Holding both his hands up defensively, he was about to say something, but Fahim was quicker.

“Dude, you can’t be serious...! I’m not going. Mbali had to have an emergency caesarean the day before yesterday; I am not going.

“Well I am,” Clint retorted and Fahim fell quiet, together with the rest of the team, his face mutinous. Clint looked at him for a moment, then glanced at Ellis, who looked sour. Miguel seemed to be more amused than annoyed, which was something at least.

“Fury’s paying us all an extra week of vacation if we do this, all costs covered,” Clint added evenly, pleased to see that it seemed to pacify Joe, Reena and Rosie well enough. All he had to do was convince the rest - and then Fury, who was probably not going to like the extra week of vacation. Then again, he had told Clint to make it work. “It’s a simple security job. High clearance, but low threat. No action, just keeping an eye out; we can take it in shifts...”

He fell quiet and looked at them in turn, watching emotions play out on their faces as the information sank in.

“A week of vacation, all on Fury,” Miguel eventually spoke slowly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, then shrugging. “Guess that’s good enough.” He nodded at Clint. “I’ll do it. Wasn’t going anywhere exciting, won’t mind the two days.”

Clint grinned and glanced at Reena and Rosie, who nodded, albeit without much enthusiasm. Alejandro was focusing on his cigarette, ignoring the look Shou was throwing him. Yu was explaining the situation to Sarita, who looked sceptical. Reuben was glaring quietly at his own feet, his fingers twitching.

The air was palpable with tension and brooding, and Clint sighed.

“Okay, listen up,” he spoke slowly. “Here’s how it’s gonna go down. I take one of the cars, our ammo and firepower - and whoever wants to come along, comes along. Ale, Fahim, Reuben, Sarita and everyone who’s got somewhere to be...” he made a sweeping gesture, “Go. Take the other car, report to the base, hand over our intel and debriefing files and we’ll take care of Fury... somehow,” he added. “Deal?”

“No,” Alejandro sighed, dropping the butt of his cigarette and rolling his eyes. “It’s all right, I’ll come.” He looked at Fahim. “Can you take care of the paperwork? I’ll sign off on everything, it’s pretty much done. All you gotta do is fill in the last couple of expenses and hand it in to Bill Shaw’s office when you get to base.”

“Yeah, sure,” Fahim nodded. He looked at Clint and the corner of his lips twitched ruefully. “Another time, I’d do it, but-”

“You have a kid to go meet. I know.” Clint replied, with a quick glance at Reuben, then gestured at Sarita. “Take care of her, too. I’ll give Corr a call; he’ll pick her up from South Valley and get her into one of his training programmes as soon as she's got papers. He still owes me one... I think.”

Fahim nodded again and Clint heaved a deep breath, looking around.

“Anyone else?” When nobody replied, Alejandro clapped his hands and made a waving gesture as he stepped up to face the group.

“Let’s get packing, then. All tech we won’t need into the small van; take some of the guns, too, we don’t need the whole stash...”

Walking up to the big van and grabbing two gallons of drinking water they weren’t going to need, Clint turned his head to find Reuben next to him, a large duffel stuffed with combat gear slung over his shoulder.

“Thanks,” Reuben muttered, his usually pale, now sunburnt face a little guilty. “I didn’t... I mean, I would have-”

“Hey,” Clint slapped his shoulder. “You’re just some kind of intern anyway – and pretty useless to begin with – so cut yourself some slack.” Reuben bared his teeth at him, a dangerous glint in his eye, and Clint chuckled as he lifted the two gallons and took a step back. “Tell Béla 'Happy Birthday' from me, huh? And good luck with the qualification. You better be a spy next time I see you, or I’ll put an arrow in your ass.”

“You can try,” Reuben muttered.

***

“For you,” Sitwell’s voice jerked Phil out of his light nap and, blinking, he took the phone out of Jasper’s hand and accepted the offered cup of coffee with a grateful nod. He raised an eyebrow when he saw the name on the screen and picked up.

“Don’t tell me. You've killed him, haven’t you?” he opened the conversation and a smile tugged at his lips when he heard a chuckle on the other end.

I’ve not seen him today,” Natasha replied, a smirk audible in her voice. “But the day’s not over yet, so who knows...

“I’ll have you know that you’ll be on your own with the paperwork,” Phil grinned while Sitwell climbed into the driver’s seat next to him and started the car, depositing two large paper bags on Phil’s lap. The scent of more coffee and fresh bagels emanated from them and Phil sighed happily as Jasper turned the car around to drive them back to the site.

He’s hardly going to become more paperwork than he already is. Did you hear what happened last night?” Natasha replied and from the sound of it, she seemed to be walking, high heels clicking on hard floor.

“I got the short version. You Russians are crazy people.” Phil yawned. “You all right?”

Yeah, actually. I got to use the shiny new taser grenades; you’d love them...” Natasha chuckled, then her voice sobered up. “Listen, I know you’re reassigned and probably busy, but can I borrow Stan for a couple of days? Level 6 espionage exams are in two weeks and I could really use a hand with reviewing all the applicants’ profiles. Last night dumped a ton of work on me to take care of. I'm supposed to be in Mozambique this time tomorrow, I also still have to write that eval for Nick, and wrapping up the PA job is eating up the rest of my time right now...

“The PA job?” Phil teased. “I thought you’d simply chuck it. Good to see where your priorities lie, Agent Romanoff...”

With the bigger salary,” Natasha deadpanned. “Do you have any idea what they pay me for this job? We'll finally be able to throw out that abysmal couch of yours and replace it with a rocketship...” She paused. “Honestly, though, I don’t want to have to hand over my chair on the board of examiners to Maria after working my ass off overhauling the system...

Taking a large sip of coffee and licking his lips, Phil nodded.

“Rocketship, huh? It’s all right. I’m pretty sure you can have him, let me ask Jasper-”

Oh, Jasper’s with you? Tell him I said hi!

“Yeah, he came down from NYC yesterday evening; missed the whole show. Natasha says hi,” Phil dutifully reported with a sideways look at Jasper, who nodded and grinned. “And can she borrow my secretary for a couple of days? Someone has to review applicants’ files for the exams in two weeks.”

Our secretary,” Sitwell corrected smugly. “And, uh,” he frowned, then shook his head and shrugged. “Sure, I left him with filing tasks to keep up appearances, nothing important. Go ahead.”

Phil nodded and raised the phone back to his ear.

“You can have Stan. Just give him a call, or drop by HQ, he’s usually at the office until...” he glanced at Sitwell, “...7pm?” Jasper nodded and Phil looked ahead again. “He’s not actually busy, in case he pretends to be. I can give him a call, too.”

You’re a darling,” Natasha replied and Phil chuckled, taking another sip of coffee.

“So, how’s the eval coming along? Something tells me it’s going to be one powerful piece of prose,” he teased and Natasha snorted.

You bet. I might have to order a thesaurus on the company card because I’m running out of synonyms for ‘jerk’.”

“Even after last night?”

It’s the bigger picture that counts. He’s a pain in the ass.

“I’m not sure Fury accepts that as a valid argument against adding someone to the roster, though,” Phil grinned. “I mean, Sitwell still works for him, right...?”

“And we both know he will never fire me,” Jasper replied smugly. “He'd keep me on just to torture you, Coulson.”

Natasha chuckled when she heard it and Phil smiled, putting her on loudspeaker.

I’m backing up my arguments, don’t worry. I have already elaborated on how he’s immature, unreliable, arrogant, inconsiderate-

“Did Pepper give you those?”

-inattentive, self-centered, careless, irritating, attention-seeking-

“You really are on a roll,” Phil chuckled and threw a sideways glance at Jasper, who was sitting bent forward against the steering wheel, laughing quietly. When Natasha went on, her voice muffled through the phone, Jasper shook his head and changed lanes to overtake another car. He made a grab for Phil’s coffee and smirked when Phil moved it away with a smug expression before he could reach it.

-wasteful, self-absorbed, reckless-

“That's a far more complex description than the 'textbook narcissism' you had to offer,” Jasper grinned at Phil, slapping his hand away as it tried to sneak a bagel out of the bag.

Textbook narcissism!” Natasha repeated. “Good one. Thanks, Jasper!

“Most welcome,” Jasper replied and snatched both paper bags from Phil, reaching back to put them onto the back seat. “Is he really that bad, though?”

Yes!” Natasha and Phil spoke in unison, then Natasha sighed, adding, “No. Not all the time, anyway...” She paused and the sound of elevator doors opening was audible. “To be fair, last night was a solid piece of work. But I don’t know...” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, I gotta go, debriefing witnesses in five minutes...

“Is that our tech?” Sitwell muttered and sped up a little, big black vans on the road ahead getting bigger. Phil narrowed his eyes, then turned back to his phone.

“You’ll be fine. And hey, did you check by the apartment?” he asked casually and he could hear that he’d made Natasha smile.

Yeah, it’s still in one piece, Mrs Kowalzky’s been saving your mail and sends her love as always. I’ll also warn you; Clint sent a carved, wooden fertility statue from god-knows-where and it’s taking up most of the couch. It’s fireproof, too.

“Figures that a year of deep cover would make him cocky.”

Funny you should use that word because the statue-” Natasha replied dryly before breaking out a giggle, and Jasper chuckled, glancing at Phil.

“Or maybe it’s payback for that souvenir you brought back from India.”

Don’t tell him I told you, but he rather liked that one,” Natasha giggled, then took a breath, apparently sitting down. “All right. Duty calls. Thanks again for Stan; I’ll call him once I'm out of here. And good luck with whatever your new job’s about. Nick won’t tell me.”

“I don’t think Nick knows,” Phil replied. “None of us really do, at least not yet.”

So jealous. Be careful, Phil,” she added and Phil smiled, nodding.

“Yeah. Well, who knows. Take care, Nat.”

When Phil hung up the phone, Sitwell had already pulled out his own and dialled a number, eyes on the cars ahead.

“Hey, Marshall, we’re right behind you.” Catching up to the small SHIELD convoy, he flashed his lights a couple of times. “Yeah, take a turn left in about a hundred yards. Coulson’s car and my people from NYC should already be there, we were just getting coffee.” He paused while Marshall spoke, then shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Not when we left, but Fury said he’d send someone.”

***

“This is not a federal issue, either; your boss can call Washington all he likes,” Phil retorted, clutching his phone to his ear as he stepped out of the makeshift sun tent under which Sitwell and three agents from the tech department were busy setting up their computers.

Blinking against the sunlight as the protective flap at the tent’s entrance fell shut behind him, he dodged a long, metal pipe that a member of the construction team was hauling across the cleared and taped-off area. Walking over to where he’d left his car, Phil rolled his eyes at the woman bickering at him on the other end of the line.

“Actually, the governor should know better than to put up a fight about this. I told you-” Unlocking his car, he took his sunglasses out of the glove compartment and slammed the door shut again. “Yes, by all means, make more calls. It's your time. Have a nice day.”

He hung up and put his phone away, sighing. For a moment, he watched the construction team set up parts of what appeared to be an elaborate, supposedly earthquake-safe metal framework while a couple of other people had begun to properly fence off the perimeter. A forklift truck drove by, carrying what looked like giant rolls of white plastic, and Phil could see Marshall, who was in charge of the construction team, wave and call out to the driver. The truck made a daring swerve and almost ran over Dr. Everall, the head of the science unit, who was helping one of her researchers carry a crate with equipment towards the centre of the area, where more people in white lab coats were bustling around and scribbling onto clipboards.

“Hey, Agent Coulson, sir!” Jasper’s voice reached Phil’s ear and he turned his head to see Jasper stand by the main tech tent, waving his phone. “Security’s here in two minutes! They said they got held up by road work.”

“Got it!” Phil called back and Sitwell gave him the thumbs up.

“Power line’s up, too. We’ll have a rough-and-ready comm channel set up in ten and Everall said she’ll get the most important of her tech running once they’ve unpacked and we’re secure,” he added, then half ducked back inside the tent when one of his team members had begun talking to him. He threw a glance back at Phil, gesturing that he was busy and Phil nodded, looking around and scanning the horizon for approaching cars.

A single, black van coming down the hill on the opposite side attracted his attention and he started to walk towards it, passing by the tech tent, inside which Sitwell’s assistants were speaking to each other in fragments of coding tongue.

“Only one car?” he called in to Jasper. “I thought we were getting a team.”

“So did I,” Jasper frowned, sticking his head out and throwing a glance in the direction Phil was facing. “Should I call HQ and verify?”

“It’s all right, I got it,” Phil shook his head, nodding Jasper to get back to work and moving further into the direction of the approaching van, one hand moving to his hip, brushing over his gun in its holster. Just in case. “Could be tourists...”

“Well, the computer says it’s one of ours; it’s picking up a SHIELD tracker signal,” Jasper called from the tent and Phil nodded and waved him off, standing back to watch the van come to a screeching halt at the edge of the taped-off area not too far away, only just out of earshot.

The driver, whom Phil recognised as Agent Shou Ueno, stepped out of the vehicle and walked around to the back, unlocking the doors to the cargo compartment, while three rather tanned agents were climbing out through the passenger’s door, stretching their limbs and talking to each other. One of them said something to Ueno, who took a step back from the van and shrugged in reply, adjusting his sunglasses.

Frowning, Phil slowly stepped closer so he could hear what they were saying. He stopped next to a pile of stacked metal pipes needed for the construction of their temporary base, half out of view for the men around the car, and watched.

The doors at the back of the van were thrown open from the inside and two laughing women tumbled out of it, wearing civilian clothing except for their solid combat boots. They turned around and took two heavy-looking bags off the burly man who climbed out after them a moment later and seemed to be throwing peanuts at them. He growled something at the women and turned around just in time to catch the large, black suitcase that was thrown at him from inside.

“I’m sure I could be suing you for... I don’t know!” the man laughed, pointing at the women. “There has to be something. Where’s Ruby with his smart handbook when we need him?”

“I’m pretty sure this place is too far out for any of those rules to apply here, Miguelito,” one of the other men snorted, tugging his shoulder-length, dark hair behind his ear with one hand, holding his phone up into air with the other. His – ridiculously handsome – face was sceptical. “Honestly, I should not be having a signal here. I should not.”

“Work of the devil, Duarte. Welcome to the seventh circle of hell,” a voice from inside the van replied and Phil involuntarily shifted, the back of his neck prickling.

Laughter was audible and Phil’s fingers slipped off the grip of his gun, his composure faltering for just a heartbeat when the lean figure of Clint Barton hopped out of the transporter and straightened up, frowning in the bright sunlight and putting on sunglasses.

Clint moved smoothly, relieving the other man of the suitcase he’d thrown at him and stepping away from the van a little before he put it down. The others followed him, and Clint looked back the way they’d come, then swiftly scanned the edge of the crater before facing his team.

“Okay, listen up.” His voice was firm and business-like. Heads turned towards him and he pointed at the two women. “We’re kind of late so let’s get cracking. Reena, Rosie, punished for emotionally scarring Miguel by taking the first shift and setting up the watch spots.” The two groaned, but Clint continued. “I want one of you up there,” - he pointed at the hill from which the road was well visible, then moved his arm to point at the other vantage point opposite - “and the other one up there. We should get the best possible cover this way, at least for now. Don’t get too comfy; you’ll get proper orders once we’re set up down here. Give Ale your comm sigs before you go so we can get you hooked up with comm central.”

“S’all right, I think I've got them memorised by now,” the tall man with the phone threw in dryly and Clint nodded.

“So... no comm silence?” the blonde woman - Rosie, Phil figured, as he had met Reena before - asked and Clint narrowed his eyes at her for a moment, apparently contemplating.

“No,” he eventually said, raising his index finger and smirking when a grin spread on her face. “But if I catch you gossiping about Miguel’s assets, there will be comm silence. Harassment paperwork is the worst. Off with you.”

The two women shrugged and set to work by hauling two sniper guns and caskets of ammunition out of the apparently heavily loaded van. Clint took a couple of steps backwards, towards the camp, fleetingly surveying the construction site before he faced the others, pointing at them in turn, his voice curt.

“Yu and Miguel, stay with the car and unpack the necessities, leave the rest for now. Then find a power line for our tech and hook up everything that needs charging. Call Fahim and check that everything went all right for them, then contact Albuquerque and find out how I can get a word with Corr. Alejandro, go and find whoever’s in command of this circus and hook us up. You know the drill... Shou, go with him and secure us some place to crash and sleep tonight; I’m not passing out on the car again, weather forecast said rain...” The two men nodded and Clint focused on the last man.

“Joe, food and drink; find the kitchen, sign us up for dinner and then take some water up to Reena and Rosie. Take your gear along and, unless you have new orders by then, set up a third temporary watch point, uh...”

Searching their surroundings again and absent-mindedly scratching the back of his head, Clint turned around, seemingly undecided.

An involuntary smile tugged at Phil’s lips when he saw Clint suddenly halt in his movements as he faced Phil’s way. Disbelieving recognition was flashing across Clint’s features and, taking off his sunglasses, he stared at Phil for a moment before he swallowed and cleared his throat, turning back to Joe.

“Uhm, up there,” he continued, pointing at a slightly smaller hill not far off where Rosie was supposed to be stationed. “Try and find a place that’ll allow you to cover Rosie’s blind spot as well as the road that leads into town... We’ll figure out the specifics once I have a map.”

His eyes darted back at Phil for a second.

“Questions?” he asked, facing the team again, and they shook their heads.

“One,” Alejandro drawled, crossing his arms with a languid smirk. “What are you gonna do, Barton?”

A sheepish grin appeared on Clint’s face and he took a step, towards where Phil was standing.

“I’ll... be around. Gotta do something first.” He glanced over his shoulder at Phil, then clapped his hands. “Off you go. Chop chop!”

Pairs of eyes darted past Clint and settled on Phil, who had stepped out of cover enough to be easily visible to the group. Nodding in acknowledgement as a couple of people who knew him gestured a greeting, Phil’s gaze wandered back to Clint, who was strolling his way, kicking the sand, both hands in his pockets.

Not for the first time that day Phil’s throat felt uncomfortably dry from the heat of the desert and he straightened up expectantly when Clint stopped before him, a glint in his eyes as they met Phil’s. Clint hesitated for a moment, then wet his lips and cleared his throat.

“Reporting for duty, sir.”

“Agent Barton,” Phil greeted him curtly, sizing Clint up and sticking out his chin as he held his gaze, trying to keep his face straight and professional. His lips twitched and for a moment he wasn’t entirely sure what to do, or say.

They hadn't talked in almost two years.

“You’re late.”

Clint glared at him for a second before a laugh burst out of him, and a smile spread on Phil’s face. Shaking his head, Clint licked his lips, eyes sparkling and voice low.

“It’s good to see you too, Phil.”

***

"Jazzy!"

Stepping into comm central behind an uncomfortably quiet Phil, Clint grinned as a disbelieving Jasper turned around his chair, looking him up and down. When Clint held out his fist, Jasper snorted and, half embarrassed, bumped his own against it.

“My ass, Clint fucking Hawkeye! Don’t tell me you’re security? We’re so screwed,” he grinned, absent-mindedly tossing a phone at Phil and handing him a clipboard. “Scouts are back. And the kids called. They need to talk to you.” When Phil merely smirked, pocketing the phone and ignoring the clipboard, Jasper turned back to Clint. “It’s been so long, I thought they’d fired you, man."

“Don't think we didn't try,” Alejandro threw in as he entered the tent, casually saluting Phil and assessing the situation with a quick glance. He nodded at Clint. “I guess you got this?”

“Yeah, su-” Clint began, but was cut off when Shou suddenly stuck his head in through the flap.

“Ale!” A broad grin was plastered across his face. “Cracker is here.”

“No way!” Alejandro blurted out, smug composure replaced by disbelief. “For real?”

Shou didn’t reply, but simply disappeared from view again, laughing at someone outside. Ale strode across the tent to join him, grinning goofily at Clint.

“Sorry. We took Impro and Survival 401 together,” he shrugged sheepishly by way of explanation, slapping Clint’s ass as he walked past him. “God, I love civilisation...”

The flap fell shut behind Alejandro and Phil shifted in the corner of Clint’s vision. It was Jasper who spoke first, though.

“You would call this civilisation?” He sounded vaguely despaired as he looked Clint up and down again. "You look... where did you even come from?”

Clint crossed his arms, lips twitching smugly.

“That’s classified and top secret, Sitwell.”

“Which means you don’t know?”

“It means you won’t know.” Clint shot back and Jasper pouted.

“Aw, but you can tell us,” he gestured between him and Phil, who had been watching without comment. “We’re on first name basis with Fury. We’re the masters of stealth.”

Clint laughed out loud.

“Oh, I’ve heard,” he snorted, lips twitching. “What was your top secret code phrase again?” He cleared his throat and puffed out his chest. “I am Iron Man!”

Jasper gasped loudly, but Clint's attention was on Phil, whose mouth had opened only just so before his face had morphed into a speechless glare. Clint's lips twitched, and he thought he could see a challenging spark in Phil's eyes that he'd been missing.

“You did not!” Jasper exclaimed, clasping a hand over his heart. “Low blow, Barton.”

Chuckling, Clint stuck his tongue out at Jasper, his grin turning into a blush when he glanced at Phil, who was back to looking calmly unimpressed and superior.

“It must’ve slipped my mind because it all went down so stealthily,” Phil crossed his arms, frowning as if he was trying to remember something. “But are they done rebuilding that street in Cleveland yet...?”

“Aww, come on, that was years ago!” Clint protested, fleetingly wondering whether awkward silence was maybe preferable, and Phil grinned smugly.

“Yeah, you’d think they’d be done by now, but funnily enough you managed to cause geographical damage large enough-”

“Is it true that you escaped on a chestnut pony while firing arrows?” Jasper cut in, eyes wide and round as he stared at Clint in mocking awe.

“What? No! I- what?” Clint shook his head, glaring at Jasper in disbelief. “I swear, if I find the person who started all of these rumours, I’ll- it was a motorbike and Bobbi was-” Jasper started laughing and Clint threw up his arms. “It wasn’t even that big a deal!”

“They call it the ‘Cleveland Street Scandal’, Clint,” Phil said flatly.

“It’s legend,” Jasper continued dreamily, chuckles still breaking from his throat.

“Oh god,” Clint groaned, tilting his head back in exasperation. “How much longer do I need to spend in deep cover to live this down...?” He ran a hand over his eyes, smirking at Phil. “You know, it took me three months to figure out why everyone thought that name was so funny...”

When Phil simply laughed in reply, Clint couldn’t help but laugh himself, a pleasant buzz in his chest as he felt the past two years temporarily fall away. Phil's face was flushed and Clint felt a little out of breath when the ringing of a phone ended the moment. Averting his eyes, Phil imperceptibly straightened up as he pulled it out and saw the caller ID.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he muttered under his breath, turning to leave the tent and raising the phone to his ear, “Damn it, Henley, which part about ‘you make the call’ did not compute with you? Wh- ...okay, calm down, for heaven’s sake, man...”

The tent fell shut behind him and Clint turned to Jasper, who was frowning at the door where Phil had disappeared. Clint cleared his throat and Jasper’s eyes darted towards him, gaze sharp and narrow. Clint raised an eyebrow.

"Intel?" He asked and Jasper blindly grabbed a nearby data pad and held it out to him, face suddenly innocent. Grabbing the list of comm signatures, he busied himself with his computer while Clint flipped through the information that was currently available on this op. He had to admit that 'immovable hammer' was a new one even for him.

He was about to mark the vantage spots on the small 3D model of the area to pass on to Reena and Rosie, when Jasper cleared his throat.

"You know, not to overstep any boundaries here, but... you’re two people and a car short."

"Yeah, that," Clint muttered, glad that Phil wasn't around. "Fahim Darzi really needed to get to a hospital and Reuben is... on a strategic deploy."

"Strategic deploy, huh," Jasper grunted as he added the team's in ear devices to the system setup. "To where?"

"Novigrad."

"Novigrad," Jasper repeated, then frowned. "Novigrad, Croatia?"

"Family business," Clint said simply, holding Jasper’s gaze steadily until the other man huffed.

"You are still the same stubborn asshole as always," Jasper rolled his eyes and Clint snorted.

"Yeah? You haven't exactly changed either, Sitwell." He slumped down into a nearby chair and watched Jasper do computer things for a while. It only occurred to him then that the last time he'd seen both Jasper and Phil, it had been across an open grave on a cold morning in spring. He hadn’t known then that it was going to be last time for over a year and he’d been so set on getting away right after the service, away from Bobbi and the disaster that had led them to Ryke's funeral, that he hadn't stayed to talk to either of them. “So... you two doing okay, then? I mean Phil looks...”

Jasper raised an eyebrow at him, but when Clint didn’t continue, he blinked, then shrugged.

“Nah, you know...” He gestured around the tent and Clint chuckled.

Commotion was audible outside the tent and Clint thought he could hear Alejandro yell something, shortly before a loud metal clang caused the tent to shake. Frowning, Jasper got up to throw a glimpse outside, before he returned to his desk, rolling his eyes.

“I mean, of course,” he sighed when he sat back down, “Not that you look like you need to be told, but we could all use a bit more sleep, especially Phil. That on the phone just now were Level 6 newbies,” he explained casually. “You know what they’re like - eager, but too used to being told what to do...”

“Don’t tell me Fury is seriously wasting Phil on teaching the kiddies, though?” Clint asked with a snort, “I heard about that before I went undercover and I was so sure it was just a front...”

Jasper smirked and threw Clint a knowing look.

“Fronts need to be maintained too,” Phil suddenly re-entered the tent and Clint found himself momentarily lacking a quick reply. He watched as Phil threw the phone back at Jasper, who went back to making things pop up on the screen of his computer. “And this one’s actually doing Maria a favour. She’s been grounded ever since they took the helicarrier out of the air for maintenance and she’s going fucking nuts.”

“She really been made AD? Or was that a rumour?”

“Who else if not her?” Phil grabbed his previously abandoned coffee cup up from the desk again and raised his eyebrows questioningly at Clint over the rim of the cup as he took a sip. Clint shrugged, feeling a little foolish.

“Oh, well... you know, a couple of people seem to think it should’ve been you.”

Behind Phil, Jasper coughed loudly and threw Phil a pointed look, but Clint barely paid him attention. Phil was staring at him for a long moment, until he tilted his head, lips curling in a smile as he picked up the clipboard Jasper had tried to hand him earlier.

“Maria belongs on the bridge of that helicarrier a lot more than I ever will,” he said simply. His lips twitched. “And ‘AD’ is really just fancy for ‘Nick’s babysitter’.”

Clint chuckled and watched a grin spread across Phil’s face.

“Your comms should be online, Barton; rest should follow in a minute,” Jasper interrupted in his business voice and Clint nodded, raising a hand to his ear. His earpiece crackled when he turned it on.

“Team Hawkeye,” he ordered. “Confirm you can hear me.”

You bet I can hear you. I can also see you sitting on your lazy ass from all the way up here, Barton,” Rosie’s voice spoke in his ear. “I’m not liking it.

“What’s not to like about my ass?” Clint chuckled, biting back a laugh and composing himself when he saw Phil’s professional frown. “Well, carry on, Dangerfield. Everybody?”

Half listening to the rest of his crew members making bird sounds at him and each other through his earpiece, Clint watched as another agent entered the tent, muttering something into Phil’s ear in a low voice. Phil’s face was serious and he nodded at the man, who promptly turned around and left again.

“Looks like we have a lead at the local hospital. I’ll take two cars,” Phil told Jasper, grabbing a data pad off the desk and checking his pockets for his phone and keys. “Call me if something comes up.”

“Aye, sir,” Jasper muttered in reply and Phil’s eyes darted over to Clint, nodding a goodbye.

Before Clint could stop himself, he got out of his chair.

“Need backup?”

Phil took a step back, looking at him, lips parted in surprise. He blinked.

“I-”

“Hey, Barton!” Alejandro entered the tent, his face business. Shou stepped in behind him, looking amused. “Get your ass going; Shou got us a container to crash in, but we gotta help empty it first. Either you take over Joe’s food patrol and shift, or you help us do some heavy lifting.”

Clint shifted, eyes darting from Alejandro to Phil, who was looking at his phone again, typing something.

“You know, out of interest,” Jasper asked, glancing from Alejandro to Clint and back with a critical look. “Just who exactly is in charge of your...” - he gestured at them - “team? Or whatever you are?”

“I am,” Alejandro and Clint replied in unison and Shou rolled his eyes.

“It’s complicated,” he explained with a sigh and Clint smirked.

“I’m not sure you have the security clearance to know, Jazzy.”

“Yeah, dream on, Barton. Go and do your food patrol,” Sitwell shook his head, grinning. Clint snorted as he got up and slapped Alejandro’s shoulder.

“I think I can do some heavy lifting, actually.” He turned his head to look at Phil, who still seemed to be engrossed in whatever he was looking at on his phone. “Unless you want us to back you up, after all, sir? Agent Coulson?”

“Hm?” Phil looked up from his screen with a mild expression. He contemplated Clint and Alejandro for a moment, then shook his head lightly. “No, we’ll be fine. Routine job.” He gestured outside. “Securing this place and getting settled in has priority.”

***

“What is this?” Jasper asked, staring at the crate that had just been deposited next to his computer terminal. “Apart from ‘held together by duct tape’?”

“I don’t think it has an official name,” Phil replied as he entered what was the new communication centre in the rapidly growing metal construction in the middle of the crater. Alejandro Duarte and Shou Ueno were sitting in a corner next to Sitwell’s desk, bent over a data pad, each cradling a cup of coffee. Both were watching with obvious interest how the makeshift room got invaded by people carrying boxes of confiscated evidence.

Phil deposited a cardboard box filled to the brim with stationery and smaller technical gadgets onto Sitwell’s desk and turned to look at the group agents.

“Just put it all there, research will pick it up once they’re ready.” Phil gestured at the back wall of the yet sparsely furnished room.

“They should be done setting up their lab in about an hour,” Alejandro said, moving his chair to make space for a large metal suitcase that had to be carried by two people. “Some of our people are giving them a hand.”

“Tell them they’ll be needing a bit more space than just the lab, some of this stuff is pretty big,” Phil replied and looked at Sitwell. “Someone’s gotta talk to Marshall and see if we can find somewhere to put some of this. And ask Everall if she’s got someone on her team who could make sense of all the customised equipment and maybe get started on those notes...” He nodded at another box, filled with papers, notebooks and rolled up printouts.

“I can take care of that, sir,” Shou threw in and emptied his coffee. “Was about to go that way anyway.”

“Thank you, Agent,” Phil stepped up behind Jasper, looking at the screens in front of him. “I’m beat. How’re we doing? This place is taking shape.”

“Slightly strange shape, but yeah, it’s coming along fine,” Jasper muttered in reply, then glanced at Alejandro. “Comm channels are all up, we're plugged into most external information sources and all units are working smoothly. News from Barton yet?”

“It’s mostly Yu talking,” Alejandro shrugged, one hand on his ear. “Last I heard they were about to set up the last sensor. Reena and Rosie are on their way down, so I guess that’s all done.”

“Where is Barton?” Phil asked casually, looking from Jasper to Alejandro, who was looking at him with a strange expression on his face. When Phil raised an eyebrow, Duarte blinked and pointedly looked at Sitwell.

“Just left for shift with Agent Zhang,” Jasper answered, sounding bored. “That’s how we knew you were coming back, they saw the cars. Here’s Everall’s first report, by the way...”

“Thanks,” Phil muttered, accepting the clipboard Jasper handed him, then frowned again. “I didn't know we had sensors.”

“They're ours,” Alejandro offered neutrally in a voice that Phil knew meant that SHIELD security policy did not encourage further questions on the subject. He nodded.

“Yeah,” Jasper replied matter-of-factly. “We are a little understaffed on security, to put it mildly. We figured we’d try to reduce the watch to two people and put up a bunch of movement sensors in strategic places instead. If someone breaches the wider perimeter, it’ll sound the alarm and we’ll have more people down here to deal with it.”

If the sensors picked it up, Phil thought and it was obvious from everyone else’s faces that they were thinking it as well.

“I hate to say it quite so frankly,” Alejandro added, his voice not unfriendly, but with a definite edge to it, “But our team is running on fumes. The only reason we’re here is because Fury swore no-one else could do it. We will do our best, but our resources are limited.”

Phil contemplated him for a moment, thinking about the lines he’d seen in Clint’s face, the shadows he could see under Alejandro’s eyes, then nodded.

“Just as well,” he muttered. “This place is a kill box, anyway. Not like two more scouts are going to help if someone’s really determined to blow us up...”

“Funnily enough, sir, that was Cl- Agent Barton’s line of reasoning, too,” Alejandro suddenly chuckled, then tilted his head as he listened to his comm. “Damn right, I’m talking about you... Yes... No, he agrees with you, actually. Yeah, I don’t know either, must be the heat.”

Phil turned away to lean further over Jasper’s shoulder, focusing on the smaller writing on the screen, while Alejandro spoke on.

“Good, now get your ass in position. Shift started five minutes ago.” Clint replied with something and Alejandro snickered evilly before switching off his comm and nodding towards Sitwell’s computer. “Sensors should be online. Are we getting a signal?”

“I am,” one of Sitwell’s assistants said and began typing frantically. “Synchronising.”

“We’re back!” Rosie announced, entering the room closely followed by Reena, both of them covered in sand to a much larger extent than Phil thought was strictly necessary.

“No more civilians strolling about the area, sir. All quiet,” Reena reported to Phil, who acknowledged it with a nod. Then she turned to Alejandro. “As quiet as it can be with Hawkeye and Yu in the area, at least.”

“Fair enough,” Alejandro chuckled and excused himself to Phil and Jasper with a curt nod, before pushing the two women out of the room. “Showers. This way.”

The three left and Phil sighed as he leaned with his back against the side of Sitwell’s desk, browsing lazily through the research reports that had come in while he’d been away. Not that there was much to report. The long and short of them seemed to be that they didn’t know what it was, what it did or why nobody could seem to lift it.

“Everall’s requested backup?”

“Dr. Tal from linguistics and her team, to make sense of the inscriptions on that thing. All our computers are throwing at us are fairy tales and vikings.”

“Fair enough...” Phil replied, looking out at the camp, eyes leisurely darting along the edge of the crater and the hills beyond. “Has anyone updated Fury yet?”

Jasper snorted.

“Fury doesn’t even pick up the phone when I call him.”

“Right,” Phil muttered, slightly distracted as he blinked against the light reflected off the cars parked outside.

It was quiet for a moment, until Jasper muttered pointedly,

“He’s stationed on the other side.”

Phil’s head jerked around and he quickly raised a nonchalant eyebrow at Jasper, whose lips were twitching with smugness.

“What?”

“Oh, please,” Jasper snorted, eyes darting to look at the rest of his team, all of whom were busy, wearing headsets and apparently not listening, before he turned back to Phil. “Awkward much?”

“What? I’m not-” Phil broke out a disbelieving laugh, then crossed his arms in front of his chest, glaring right back at Jasper’s smug face. “Oh, come on! I’m not!”

“Are, too,” Jasper replied stubbornly, shooting Phil a Look. He leaned back in his chair and grabbed his mug of coffee. “And what’s with the cryptic gazing when he’s not looking? And is that a blush?"

Bursting out a chuckle despite his consternation, Phil straightened up, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Cryptic gazing? Really?

“Well, would you prefer blatant gawking?” Jasper retorted and laughed, hands raised in defence at Phil’s murderous gaze. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

Phil smirked, then leaned his back against the edge of Jasper’s desk.

“I don’t know.” He shook his head and frowned casually down at Jasper. “Doesn’t he seem... different to you?”

“Uhm.” Jasper looked at Phil, apparently contemplating the question, then shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s... Barton.”

“And you’re useless,” Phil snorted and dropped his tablet onto Jasper’s desk. After a moment’s pause in which Jasper began working at his computer again, Phil absent-mindedly gnawed at his lip, talking to himself rather than Jasper. “I don’t know, it’s just kind of... weird to see him give orders, I guess.”

Jasper snorted again, not looking at Phil, but focusing on his screen as he spoke.

“Gee, Coulson, just tell me you were swept away by his dashing, masculine-”

He abruptly fell silent and, slamming both his hands onto his keyboard as he turned to look up at Phil, glared at him with a mixture of awe and horror in his eyes. His voice was quiet.

“Oh my God, you were.”

Phil, who had temporarily frozen, shifted and pulled a face.

“What?” he snorted, adjusting his collar and tie to the stuffy heat of the tent. “Oh, fuck off, Sitwell. This is Barton we’re talking about.”

“Yeah, it is...” Jasper didn’t even seem to hear him. He was still staring at him in surprised disbelief, but the look in his eyes was softening.

“Jasper!” Phil said sternly, hands at his hips.

“Oh, don’t even try, Coulson,” Jasper replied fondly, grin spreading on his face. “You totally are flustered by Barton and his commando voice.”

“Well, seeing orders given and actually obeyed is something I’m not used to seeing,” Phil snapped, pushing away from the desk and pulling his phone out to dial Fury's number. Not looking at Jasper’s smug face, he made to leave the room.

“I bet you’d like to see Barton obeying-” Jasper began, gently teasing, and Phil cut him off with a glare.

“I’m not going to discuss this further.” He was almost out of the room.

“Not with me,” he could heard Jasper calling after him, “but maybe you should mention it to him. It might just get rid of the awkward staring!”

“Get laid sometime, Jasper!” he yelled back over his shoulder, ignoring the bewildered look on Alejandro Duarte’s face as he passed by him on his way across the perimeter.

“Yeah, don’t think it’s not on my list,” Jasper’s vaguely disgruntled reply was audible before the buzz of the base outside drowned out his voice.

Phil shook his head to clear his thoughts, trying to focus on what he needed to tell Fury.

Listening to the low beeping sound on the other end of the line Phil strolled along the row of parked cars, waiting and sighing when the line switched to voicemail. He was about to press redial, when his earpiece came to life with a click.

Don’t move.

“Clint?” Phil froze in his steps, looking around, shoulders tensing automatically, as if preparing for an attack. He could feel that prickling in his neck again and for a short moment he was a little panicked that Clint might’ve overheard his conversation with Sitwell somehow. “What in-”

Don’t. Move,” Clint repeated, a faint smile audible in his voice. Phil could feel the hairs at the back of his neck stand up. “There’s a scorpion about three feet to your right.

Phil’s shoulders sagged and he groaned when he spotted the animal in the sand. Arms at his hips, he turned towards the general direction he knew Clint to be positioned at.

Really, Barton?” he asked sternly, trying his best to channel the sudden tingling of adrenaline and his breathless urge to laugh into professional anger instead.

Want me to take it out, sir?” Clint grinned and Phil shook his head in exasperation, glowering at the hill in front of him.

“I think I can just about handle it,” he replied and pointedly took a couple of steps to the side, away from the scorpion. “See? Catastrophe averted.”

Impressive.” Clint paused. “You’re looking a little too far left, by the way...

“Screw you, Clint. Screw you,” Phil muttered, head turning ever so slightly, eyes scanning the hill for signs of the other man. There was a tightness in his chest that came with the knowledge of being watched without being able to figure out where from. His face felt hot and he did not feel silly at all, standing just outside the camp and talking to the scenery. “That’s not the kind of threat you’re supposed to be looking out for, Agent Barton,” he added, trying to make his voice sound authoritative as he pulled his sunglasses out of his suit pocket. “Get back to work.”

Thought my job was to keep an eye on potential threats.

“Define 'threat', Clint.”

Oh, don't go all innocent on me here, we both know I’m looking the right way,” Clint replied playfully, chuckling and Phil couldn't quite help the smile that crept across his face. He shook his head, glancing around to find nobody was close enough to listen anyway.

“Flattery? That's what you're going for?”

You know me and my subtle cunning.

“Oh, I remember,” Phil answered dryly.

I'll have you know, my charm has a one hundred percent success rate... in the long run.

“How long a run?”

It was quiet for a moment, then Clint replied, only the faint trace of a smile audible in his voice.

I'm a sniper, Coulson. I can wait.

A pleasant glow was settling in Phil's belly and somewhere, a tiny voice in his head told him that he was going to regret this. He wet his lips to reply.

“Well-” he began, then broke off, looking down at the vibrating phone in his hand. Fury’s name was flashing on the screen and Phil forced himself to snap back to the routine. He raised a hand to his earpiece and gestured with the phone, eyes scanning the slope once more. “Have fun waiting.”

***

It was dark and the camp was fully set up by the time the small research unit of linguists, including two people from the graphemics department, arrived to back up Everall’s team. Phil was glad to see they hadn’t brought much equipment other than a couple of laptops and didn’t overly interrupt the routine that was finally beginning to settle over the camp. The construction team was done and had been reassigned to light guarding duty; people had stopped shouting to each other across the crater and the roaring of cranes and trucks had given way to the low humming and occasional beep of computers and scanners.

Jasper, still seated at his desk in comm central, was rubbing his neck and blinking tiredly at Phil’s earpiece in front of him.

“I don’t know... It’s probably a hardware issue,” he sighed, glancing up at Phil. “I’ll have someone look into it. Can you just grab a walkie talkie until tomorrow? Or at least until after dinner?”

“Yeah, of course,” Phil muttered, waving it off. “I have no idea what happened. It just went dead.”

“Happens to the best of us,” Jasper shrugged and looked smug when Phil rolled his eyes and cracked a tired smile, wondering how many bad jokes the day could still suffer.

“You’re the expert. So... walkie talkie? Do we even still issue those?” Phil asked and Jasper nodded.

“Not as a rule, but there should be a couple in my car’s emergency kit. At least one of them has to work.” He threw Phil the keys. “Go get them yourself. I need something to eat – guys, I’ll be back,” he announced to the two assistants that were still on shift and they both nodded. “Add the walkie talkie to the channel when you pick up the frequency.”

Phil left the comm centre, closely followed by Jasper, who took a turn for the makeshift cafeteria tent while Phil walked in the direction of the lines of parked cars and vans, enjoying the quiet of the cool evening after the hectic buzz of the afternoon. Jasper’s car was the last in line, furthest away from the lights of the camp, and Phil was glad for the small light that went on inside as he unlocked it.

Clutching the walkie talkie in one hand and slamming the trunk shut with the other, he locked the car again and was about to walk back to the camp, when he saw something move in the corner of his eye.

“Hey.” Clint sounded taken aback, a plastic bowl containing something steaming in one hand, the other one about to open the back door of the van his team had arrived in.

“What are you doing?” Phil asked, out of reflex rather than suspicion. Clint grimaced and nodded at the van.

“Just... fixing one of the sniper rifles,” he muttered, gesturing with the bowl in his hand. “I lost at rock, paper, scissors and figured I might as well get it done over dinner...”

“I see,” Phil replied and Clint hesitated for a moment, his hand still on the lock of the door to the storage compartment.

“Feel like keeping me some company?” he asked quickly, shrugging a little awkwardly and looking back at the white tunnel construction at the center of the crater. “I mean, I don’t know, are you busy? Probably-”

“I-” Phil began, then broke off and contemplated Clint for a moment before shaking his head. “No, I’m not busy. I think.” He gestured lamely with the walkie talkie, then stepped towards the van. “Guess I can take a break. Let me just grab something to eat?”

A grin spread across Clint’s face and he unlatched the lock.

“Sure.”

 

“Come on in.”

The light inside the back of the van was violently bright, and fixed to the ceiling with gaffer tape and a couple of wires. Phil put down his walkie talkie and his own bowl of stew on the floor, before he stepped into the back, shrugged off his suit jacket and threw it over Clint’s jacket that was lying on a nearby box.

“Sit down. S’not really spacious or comfortable in here, sorry,” Clint muttered, running a hand through his hair, still wet from the shower, and down his neck as he stood crouched and looked around. “And yeah, uh. It’s a mess, too...”

“I’ve seen you leave the kitchen in a bigger chaos,” Phil replied dryly and Clint chuckled.

It was obvious that the van had been emptied in a hurry and without much care, Phil thought, once he’d closed the doors to keep the mosquitoes out. He sat down on a large metal box and looked around. The couple of caskets and crates that were still in it were in disarray, carelessly stacked or shoved against a wall and into the caveats of the SHIELD interior design. Loose luggage binders were lying around on the floor. An array of guns and rifles was hanging from hooks fastened to the wall, some sporting a number of scratches, but all of them clean and ready for use. A heap of sandy combat clothes was piled up in a corner.

“Is this one of our standard armoured vans?”

Shoving some of the boxes into line and out of the way with his foot, Clint turned around.

“It was once,” he replied sheepishly, shrugging. “Then we got it.”

Phil stared at him for a moment, then let his eyes wander over the run-down interior that looked like the car had been burgled. A computer terminal had been ripped out of the wall and been replaced with a cardboard plate, sealed along the edges with tape. In other places, appliances had quite obviously been removed to create more storage space. The original wiring along the ceiling had been severed and replaced with the simple, but much brighter neon light.

“Looks homey enough,” he commented with a nonchalant grin and Clint sat down again, grabbing his mostly untouched dinner and motioning for Phil to take a seat somewhere as well.

The stew wasn’t the best, but better than Phil would have expected. They ate in silence, feet occasionally shuffling and every once in a while the walkie talkie crackled. Clint finished first, licking his spoon like a starving man before rummaging in one of the crates for a bottle of water.

“That the rifle?” Phil asked with a nod at a dirt-covered weapon leaning in a corner as he accepted the offered water bottle, having finished his stew as well.

“Uh, yeah,” Clint snorted, looking sceptical. “Although, honestly, I don’t think there’s any saving it at this point. That one’s seen one too many patch-up jobs done with duct tape...” He bit his lip, then grinned at Phil, expression devious. “...Wanna see something really awesome, though?”

He was up and messing with the locks on the box he’d been sitting on before Phil could reply.

“Would you look at that,” Phil muttered, putting his bowl aside and moving closer when Clint lifted the bow from the crate. There was a hint of suppressed excitement in Clint’s voice.

“I know,” he replied, straightening up to get a better grip on the elaborately crafted bow. He gently ran two fingers up and down the bowstring and Phil had to admit it was a beautiful weapon. It looked heavier and less practical than Clint’s combat recurve, but it was a piece of art.

“Where did you get it?”

“There was this guy in Rio, who-” Clint paused and Phil realised he’d probably just said something he shouldn’t have. Clint cleared his throat. “Who makes custom bows...” He glanced at Phil, who tried to keep his face neutral as if he’d never heard a thing, and a grin spread on his face. He winked. “Fury doesn’t know yet, but he’s getting me this for Christmas. Compensation for all that overtime he’s making me do.”

Phil chuckled, smiling quietly at the faint expression of worship on Clint’s face as he put the bow up on two hooks that was fastened to the wall and moved a little away to heave a sigh at the sight. There was a twinkle in his eye when he turned to Phil.

“I didn’t know you’d switched to compounds,” Phil remarked and Clint shook his head, shutting the crate and sitting down on it again.

“I haven’t. Not really, but Tanya corrupted me a little. I’ll still stick to my old one in a proper fight.” A sheepish grin appeared on his face and he shrugged. “But, you know...”

“Tanya Lazarus?” Phil frowned and Clint nodded.

“Yeah, I consulted on some project of hers between deployments. She started working for R&D in Seattle when her network got axed after, uh, Budapest...” He’d slowed down, then fell silent after the last word, and Phil looked down at his hands. He could hear Clint swallow and sat back on his heels.

It was quiet for a moment.

“Clint-”

“I’m sorry for what I said last time,” Clint cut him off, his lips a tight line as he turned his head to look at Phil. “I don’t care whether it was pain meds, or whatever, but... I was such an asshole to you and I’ve been meaning to tell you that I’m sorry. It wasn’t your fault and I shouldn’t have said all that. Fuck, I didn’t really mean-”

“I know you didn’t,” Phil replied, still looking at his hands. “Clint, all the things you said I was thinking too. Trust me, I know, and I’m not-” he sighed. “I wasn’t mad at you.”

“No?” Clint sounded hopeful and Phil looked up at him, smirking.

“No. Gave Fury hell of a time getting me to agree with him on anything, though.”

Clint chuckled and licked his lips, contemplating Phil.

“We’re good?”

“Always were,” Phil replied with a smile and Clint’s face lit up. “It’s really good to see you again. It’s been too long.”

Clint looked like he was about to say something, when a beeping of a phone came from the pile of their jackets. Clint jerked out of his crouch and dug it out of his pocket, fingers frantically pressing buttons. It was a positively ancient phone, Phil noticed, the kind that was too old to be traceable without a tracking device, that didn’t leave traces, barely contained information. The kind that wasn’t issued without a really good reason.

“Can you pretend you didn’t see this?” Clint interrupted Phil’s thoughts and Phil looked straight into his eyes.

“Saw what?” he replied innocently and the corner of Clint’s mouth twitched in reply. Looking away, Phil nodded at the handful of polaroids that lay scattered inside the empty bow case. He could make out Clint’s tanned, laughing face among those of his teammates, having his face licked from both sides by Rosie and Reena, covered in war paint and bright pink lipstick with Shou, painting sun-block smileys onto the back of a very sunburnt Reuben Ellis.

“Looks like a fun family,” he commented and Clint shifted a little at the last word, but smiled fondly as he crouched down again and rifled through the pictures.

“Gotta make sure to catch the good moments.” He smirked at the image of an impressively purple bruise down the entire length of Miguel’s body. “They’re good people to be crammed into dirty holes with for half a year...”

Picking up a photo of Clint with a full beard and a pipe between his lips, Phil laughed and held it up next to Clint’s head.

“I like the current one better, I have to admit,” he commented dryly and Clint snatched it from his hands, stroking the fingers of his other hand across his upper lip with pride.

“I was going all out on facial hair at the time,” he chuckled. “Compensating for... ah...”

“The daily heterosexual shaving frenzies with twenty other men in green garb?” Phil asked archly, leaning back to rest his back against the wall of the van. Clint rolled his eyes.

“That is so classified, I should report you for knowing.”

“Pah,” Phil said smugly. “I know you were put into Ferrante’s - oh, sorry, Major Sparr’s network of military moles around Ross.”

“Do you?” Clint teased. “And how is that?”

“I know everything,” Phil challenged. “I’m Level 7.”

“So am I,” Clint shot back, crossing his arms importantly. “And I know it doesn’t work that way.”

Something in Phil’s stomach gave a lurch and his teasing expression faltered. Level 7. Of course Clint was Level 7. He’d spent a year in deep cover, was in charge of his team even though - and yes, he had checked - Duarte was listed as the agent in command. He had an untraceable phone, which meant that for him there was never any downtime, not really.

It hit him that Clint wasn’t just part of Ferrante’s network; he had to be that main operative between Kat and Ross’ inner circle and her team, keeping ahead of Ross’ men in the field without ever being visible or accounted for. Clint was the ghost informant, the agent designated Axis Gamma in the few reports Phil had had access to. He was second in command in one of SHIELD’s most extensive undercover operations.

He stared at Clint with a mixture of pride and, to his surprise, sadness.

“Guess I shouldn’t have said that,” Clint muttered when Phil didn’t say anything, and Phil shook his head.

“No, I’m... sorry, I was just...” He ran a hand over his face, then looked at Clint again. “I was... I was thinking about something that Fury said to me after... well, back then.” Insecurity was flickering across Clint’s face for a moment.

“Yeah?” He sounded like he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to hear what came next and Phil cocked his head.

“He told me I had to let you go because I was holding you back.” He disregarded the strangled sound that came from Clint’s throat and smiled wistfully. “And he was right.”

“No,” Clint blurted out, clearing his throat when his voice was too rough. “What...”

He heaved a deep breath, then forced out an unamused laugh.

“Fury. Of course. Funny, you wanna know what he said to me?” he asked quietly, not looking at Phil, who shook his head. “That it was time that I proved that I could be an agent worthy of SHIELD without you vouching and holding your neck out for me. That I showed that your inexplicable faith in my sorry ass had paid off.”

Phil wasn’t sure whether he was impressed by Fury or whether he wanted to punch his teeth in. Part of him wasn’t even surprised at what he heard.

“Well,” he said eventually and Clint looked up at him. “Nick’s always been a lying asshole.”

Clint snorted, but didn’t look very convinced.

“Overly fond of the word ‘jackass’, too...” he grunted eventually and Phil chuckled.

"I-" he began, but the frown that suddenly appeared on Clint's face cut him off. Clint was tilting his head to listen to his comm and he moved a hand up to his ear.

"Copy that. I haven’t seen them in the van, so they must be with you. Report to Sitwell and get someone up to Ale and Miguel." He switched his comm to standby again and shrugged at Phil, glancing up at the roof when the first rain drops began to hit it. He smirked. "Weather forecast was right for a change."

"You know, it's really strange to hear you talk like this," Phil said before he could stop himself, and Clint raised an eyebrow in confusion. Phil licked his lips. "You make a good commander," he added, only half succeeding at making it sound teasing.

“Yeah?” Clint chuckled. “Who’d have thought, huh?”

“Oh, you always had potential,” Phil grinned. “You just had this annoying habit of talking inappropriately on comm lines-”

“Lucky my handler never seemed to mind that...”

“- and throwing yourself off high things for everything...”

“Not everything,” Clint replied with an eyeroll. He looked at Phil. “Just you.”

The sudden crackling of Phil's walkie talkie caused them both to jerk. His face flushed, Phil grabbed for the device and held it up.

"-oulson, where are you?" Sitwell's voice was audible and Phil cleared his throat, brushing down the front of his suit as he straightened up a little.

"Coulson here," he replied, already shifting to get up. "What happened?"

"We're not sure right now, but something is going on-" The line got distorted and distant thunder was audible outside. “...Duarte...

Phil swallowed and looked at Clint for a moment. Clint already had his hand at his ear.

"Ale? Report!" he demanded and his face hardened as he listened to Duarte's reply. "Go and take a look. Make sure there's no more. Miguel, grow a third eye to keep open, cover Ale.”

"-seems to have been a perimeter breach," Sitwell concluded, his voice crackly through the old walkie talkie. Phil had already got to his feet and was about to push open the door, noticing how Clint had moved to get his jacket.

"Clint," he began and Clint's eyes met his. Phil wet his lips.

"Coulson!"

"Kids are crying," Clint smirked ruefully and Phil rolled his eyes, lifting the walkie talkie to his face.

"I'm on my way."

***

Wiping the water off his forehead, Clint blinked through the drops that were settling on his eyelashes. Holding his bow with one hand, he wrapped the other around the metal railing, looking down at the motion below.

"Don't even think about it," Coulson's calm voice spoke in his ear.

A hot tingle rushed up Clint's spine and a disbelieving laugh burst out of his throat at the sound. Realising he'd been caught before he'd even fully formed the idea in his head, his eyes darted towards where he knew Phil was standing. A smile tugged at his lips when he realised Phil wasn't even looking at him.

"Someone lower this thing down, then," Clint muttered into his comm and turned to glance at the cabin of the crane. A member of the construction team was gesturing with one hand while working controls with the other. The cage around Clint shook and swayed as it began its descent.

"Barton?" Alejandro's voice came crackling through Clint's in-ear as his feet landed in the mud.

"Got you," Clint replied as he strode across the slippery ground towards the entrance to the control centre, where he assumed the intruder had been brought. "Report?"

"Had a look at the broken sensor," Alejandro spoke. "It's hard to tell whether it was manipulated by Mr McMuscle or whether it simply malfunctioned. Sitwell told me its signal is still clear, but it obviously fails to register movement..."

"Shit," Clint muttered, wiping the rain off his face as he ascended the steps into one of the bright, white tunnels. Two men in suits hurried past him as he made his way towards the tech center. "Can you confirm that this is where he got in?"

"There's footprints, yes," Alejandro answered. "Lots of them, amateur work. Two sets, and the second one's much smaller. I sent out Rosie and Joe to have a look whether there's any more people around, but Miguel said he spotted headlights of a retreating car, so there's a chance that the accomplice bolted. I'd ask them to confirm with satellite shots, but nobody's replying."

"They’re probably busy, it's like a kicked beehive in here," Clint muttered as he approached Sitwell's working area. "I'll tell them. Thanks, Ale. Go and keep an eye out while I get us up to date, will you?"

"Copy that."

Walking over to where Jasper and Phil stood, talking over a data pad, Clint leaned his bow against Sitwell's desk. Phil's eyes darted towards him and Clint cleared his throat.

"One of our sensors is dead," he reported, straightening up formally, his voice curt. "We found the spot where the guy got in. There's tracks of an accomplice, got two more of my people on it. Duarte and Salcedo are keeping an eye out too while the rest are securing the immediate surroundings." He paused. “Request permission to put part of the construction team on security alert down here, so I can get some more eyes uphill?"

"Granted," Phil replied calmly, switching off his data pad. "Take whatever men you need; I'll leave it up to you." He looked at Sitwell and handed him the datapad. "Guess I'll be doing the honours of interrogation, then. Walk with me, Barton." Glancing at Clint, he nodded him to come along as he turned to leave. "Any observations you'd like to share?"

Clint pursed his lips as he fell into step beside Phil. Looking at the agents who stepped out of their way as they walked towards the area where the stranger was being held, he briefly felt the same rush of elation he'd felt outside in the rain, looking down his arrow while Phil Coulson talked in his ear. For a moment he'd felt like the last two years had never happened, had never been half as real as the handful of seconds of listening to the calm voice in his ear.

"Not familiar with the area," Clint muttered, his mind quickly replaying everything he had noticed from above. "The attack on the base itself was strategic, but he and whoever he was with left too many traces. It was sheer luck our sensor was dead."

"Go on." There was a hint of a smile in Phil's voice, but when Clint threw a sideways glance at him, his face was perfectly straight. He continued, his voice firm.

"Not tanned enough to have been here longer than a day or two; the last two weeks have been sunny. Not a civilian. His blocks, dodges and counters were too neat. Some of them would've been counter-intuitive for a man who hasn't been trained. He also moves like he's used to wearing heavier gear than jeans and t-shirt."

"Military?"

Clint hissed, doubt on his face.

"Hard to say," he replied. "I'm tempted to say yes, at least he must've had combat experience. But some of those moves he wouldn't have learned in the military, and what would a rogue soldier do here in the first place? There's got to be something else." He made an undecided sound. “Not a merc. At least not on business.”

Phil pursed his lips, looking increasingly intrigued.

“And how do you figure that?" he asked as they turned a corner and Clint shook his head.

"If someone paid me to get the hammer out, I'd go about it differently. I’d be armed, for one." He paused for a moment and looked at Phil, who looked like he was waiting for Clint to continue. "And what's irritating me is that his attack didn't include an escape route. He burned all his bridges on the way in."

"As if getting to the hammer was all that mattered?" Phil finished Clint's thought and Clint nodded, a smile tugging at his lips.

"Granted, he might just not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but still..." He wet his lips as they came to a halt in front of the large two-way-mirror door behind which they could see the stranger sit handcuffed to a chair. “It looks like this is personal.”

Clint glanced at Phil, who was contemplating him, seemingly pondering what Clint had just said.

“Guess I’ll find out,” he eventually replied, then a smile ghosted across his lips. “My god, Barton, you are rooting for this guy.”

Clint chuckled and nodded at the man inside the room.

“Well, hands down, he’s pretty damn gorgeous,” he said with a slight leer, grinning at Phil's exasperated groan. He gave him a nudge, his voice conspiratorial. "Come on, Phil! Blond hair, blue eyes, have you seen those abs? Don't tell me you wouldn't tap that!"

Phil rolled his eyes, looking slightly embarrassed. Glancing at Clint, he shook his head reproachfully.

"You and blondes, Barton. They get you every time."

"It's the eyes, actually," Clint shot back before he could stop himself, then bit his tongue.

Phil's lips twitched minutely, but he made no reply, instead kept looking at the man inside the interrogation cabin. It was quiet for a second, then someone called Clint’s name from somewhere behind them. Clint, whose cheeks still felt an edge hotter than he was comfortable with, cleared his throat and took a step back.

"Guess that's my cue." He nodded at the two-way mirror. "Good luck."

"Thank you," Phil replied nonchalantly and moved to step into the small, closed-off room.

Turning around and walking back the way they'd arrived, Clint could hear Sitwell's voice ahead in the comm center.

"What's up?" he asked as he joined the discussion and Sitwell nodded him to sit down beside him, dismissing the agent he'd been talking to.

"I sent two people with a car to trail the vehicle the accomplice escaped in. From what your scouts said, the tracks lead back towards the main road..." he kicked his heels into the floor and his office chair rolled across the room to another computer, where he pushed a couple of buttons. A small window opened on the screen and numbers and letters began to race across it at high speed as the programme hacked its way into a secure connection. "We'll try to get the local police to keep an eye out for the kind of car we're looking for, judging from the type and depth of the tyre tracks..." He came sliding back and turned back to his own computer, where a rough map of the camp and immediate surrounding area was peppered with red dots that, one by one, turned green, signalling the progress of securing the perimeter again.

"Barton, this is Marshall," a voice in Clint's ear spoke and Clint straightened up. "All my men are on alert. Any orders?"

"Marshall! Thanks, man,” Clint replied, frowning slightly as he pondered the options. “Get the three best shots to our van, Reena should be there. She'll get them kitted out and take them with the rest of my team to secure the wider perimeter. Everyone else, form patrols and make sure this place returns to routine as soon as possible. Try and relieve as many intel and tech agents as possible, Sitwell's working himself to a stroke."

"Gotcha."

"Alejandro?"

"Buzz is dying down," Alejandro replied. "Once Reena and the others are up here, we'll be fine."

"Good. Three of Marshall’s men will be backing you up. I'll leave you in charge up there, copy?" Clint asked and, hearing Alejandro confirm the order, turned around just in time to catch the last piece of dialogue between Sitwell and an agent who had stepped into the room in the meantime.

"...called Agent Coulson..."

"What for?" Clint cut the other man off, wondering why the name on his name tag looked familiar. He was pretty sure he'd never seen his face before. The man looked at him for a moment, decidedly uncomfortable when he apparently recognised Clint and pulled his shoulders back.

"Sir, the team you sent to trail the escape vehicle reported that a car is headed our way. The civilian driver explicitly stated to have business-"

"Your point being?" Clint interrupted sharply.

"Well, we have to run the car's number plate and I assumed he'd want to be informed in case the guards and security-"

"For heaven's sake, man, then go and tell the guards and security!" Clint cut him off exasperatedly. "Are you kidding me? Agent Coulson is in the middle of an interrogation. How exactly do you figure that handling an approaching civilian ranks high enough to disturb your superior in a task far more important than running a number plate?"

"I had orders-" the man protested meekly and Clint glowered.

"Here's some new orders, Agent...” he narrowed his eyes at the nametag, “Bouwer - leave the plate number here, one of Agent Sitwell's men will run it as soon as they have taken care of more important things. You locate Agent Marshall and inform him of the vehicle, if he doesn't know already," he added. "Tell him to make sure the visitor is monitored and escorted the moment he arrives and doesn't see or hear anything he doesn't need to see or hear. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Agent Bouwer replied curtly and disappeared outside. Clint rolled his eyes.

"You're pretty damn scary, you know," a voice suddenly said from behind him and he turned around to see Phil lean in the other door. He had crossed his arms before his chest and looked faintly amused. Clint grinned embarrassedly.

"I didn’t mean to..." he began, then shifted when Phil stepped closer. "Okay, maybe I meant to. The guy broke Bobbi's heart some two years ago. I had to give him a hard time." He cleared his throat. He wasn’t entirely sure why he’d brought up Bobbi, especially since she and him still weren’t on speaking terms. "Also, there really was no need to call you out of there." He nodded down the corridor behind Phil.

"You’re a knight in shining armour, Barton," Phil rolled his eyes, head turning when the hacking programme Jasper had initiated began to beep. "What's news?"

"Nothing much. Civilian car approaching, but you heard that. Security is looking good, we've got all men working on it," Sitwell said, still busy typing into his own computer. He glanced at the other computer and shook his head. "That would be the satellite..."

"I got it," Clint interjected before Jasper could get up, and stepped over to turn off the beeping. He picked up a scrap of paper lying next to the keyboard. "That the coordinates?"

"Yes," Jasper replied absent-mindedly. "Thanks."

"What about research?" Phil asked and Clint chuckled.

"Still babbling gibberish. Apparently the scanners showed something for a split second when the guy was in there with the hammer, but it was gone before anyone could really pin it down and now it's all back to normal." He pressed a couple of keys. "Satellite is moving."

"I didn't know you knew how to do this stuff," Phil muttered, stepping up to Clint and Clint grinned back at him over his shoulder.

"Maria showed me, in case I ever needed to shoot someone from space," he replied and Phil chuckled. Holding his gaze, Clint faltered for a second. “Shouldn’t you be getting back to...?”

“Right,” Phil sighed and took a step back. Clearing his throat and brushing down his suit, he grimaced. “Not that I’m getting anything out of him...”

“Need help?” Clint chuckled as he slammed down on the ‘enter’ key and straightened up. “Good agent, bad agent shtick?”

Phil snorted.

“You wouldn’t last two seconds in there.”

“Oh yeah?” Clint cocked an eyebrow and stepped closer. “Why’s that?”

“He’s got big and sad blue eyes,” Phil replied smugly. “You’d have a meltdown.

“Oh, screw you, Coulson,” Clint chuckled, crossing his arms before his chest. “I think you grossly underestimate my stamina.”

“Is that so?” Phil stuck his chin out, lips twitching. “Because I feel like I know you pretty well.”

Clint opened his mouth as if to reply, when somewhere in the background, Jasper let out a strangled cough. Phil, who’d held Clint’s gaze, turned his head to see Jasper glare at him.

“Wrong pipe,” Sitwell wheezed, coughing again, loosening his tie and mopping up splotches of coffee from his desk with a napkin.

“I guess I should get back,” Phil muttered, throwing Clint another glance and Clint straightened up, nodding as Phil turned to leave.

“Hey, Phil,” Jasper called and Phil stopped in his tracks. “Remember that thing we talked about earlier?”

“That we decided never to talk about again, ever? Because it really is way, way above your clearance?” Phil replied, a strange edge to his casual tone. Jasper leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his belly, eyes narrowed.

“Yeah, that,” he replied flatly. “You know, just for the record - I stand behind every word I said. Every. Last. Word.”

“I have to go,” Phil pressed out curtly, his face faintly flushed. “And you’re fired.”

“No, I’m not and you know it!” Jasper laughed. “Go get him, Coulson!” he called after Phil before turning back to his computer. When Clint cleared his throat and stepped up to his desk, Jasper looked at him inquisitively.

“Uhm, what was that all about?” Clint asked, trying his best to sound casual.

“Classified,” Jasper deadpanned. After a second, he paused in his work and threw Clint a contemplative look. “But you know, Barton... you might find out soon enough. If you’re lucky.”

***

“So, let me guess,” Phil said quietly as he watched Clint leave the darkened container in which his unit had set up their sleeping quarters, “You sent everyone to bed and took over the graveyard shift now that everything’s back to boring?”

Grinning, Clint tilted his head and headed towards where Phil stood, two cups of coffee in hand.

“No rest for the wicked. And look who’s talking,” Clint chuckled, taking the offered cup with a smile. He looked tired, but not like his adrenaline had subsided just yet. “Thanks. And yeah, I figured I owe them, considering it’s my fault they’re here to begin with, and not somewhere nice on vacation...”

They started walking, their feet making soft sounds on the muddy earth underneath. The rain had ceased by now, and the air was colder and felt cleaner than it had during the day.

“You have a vacation coming up, then?” Phil asked, his eyes scanning the hills around them, where two or three of Clint’s men were still stationed.

“Yeah, well... as much as there ever is such a thing in this job,” Clint muttered, taking a sip of coffee and pointing his flashlight at the dark corners they passed. “But Ross should be licking his wounds for a while longer and we’re so overdue it’s not even funny. This was the first proper downtime for us in seven months.”

“I’m sorry,” Phil replied. “I was told that Sharon will be here tomorrow at noon...”

“It’s okay,” Clint shrugged. “Those of us who couldn’t make it, well... they aren’t here anyway. The rest can hang on just a little bit longer... and I, for one, am really glad we came.”

Phil smiled quietly, looking at his cup of coffee.

“Any plans for the break?”

“No,” Clint shrugged. “I was gonna go to New York, maybe get lucky and see you or Nat there, maybe hit some bars with Joe...” He smirked and Phil smiled at the exasperation in his voice. “I’m not good with downtime. The last proper one I spent in Seattle working with Tanya, the one before in Chicago with Bobbi, preparing for our first op...”

“Tell me about it. I spent mine buying a present for Hayden’s wedding,” Phil chuckled. “It was terrible. And then I didn’t even go because Stark... never mind.” He shook his head and trailed off.

“Hayden? Your army buddy Hayden?” Clint asked with a frown. “He’s married?”

“Yes. They legalised it, you know...”

Clint pulled a face.

“But he was... you know, your booty call!”

“What?” Phil spluttered. “He was never-” He glanced at Clint and couldn’t help laughing, blush creeping up his cheeks despite himself. “Okay, so let’s say he hasn’t been my booty call in a long while now. He is, in fact, very married these days.”

Grinning, Clint nodded at one of the night guards they passed.

“So what did you end up getting him?”

“Something random made of china,” Phil muttered. “I hope it broke in the mail; it was hideous. Unfortunately you hadn’t sent the giant fertility statue yet...”

“Did you actually see it, or did Nat tell you about it?” Clint asked, looking far too smug for Phil’s liking and Phil scowled.

“The latter. Honestly, what were you even thinking?”

“I'm home so little, least I could do is put a dude with a huge cock in there to keep you two company?”

“I have to say you’re the first person I know who is so up front about substituting a giant dick for himself.”

He dodged Clint’s elbow and hid his grin behind his coffee cup as he raised it to take another sip. Huffing, Clint ostentatiously quickened his step, letting the beam of his flashlight run across the the tops of the parked cars that stood in long lines in the dark.

A sudden thought came to Phil.

“Wait,” he caught up with Clint and grabbed the sleeve of his combat jacket to turn him around. Clint cocked an eyebrow and a grin spread on Phil’s face. “Promise not to tell Sitwell?”

“Wh-” Clint stumbled after Phil, who was heading towards his car, bending in through the passenger’s door to rummage around in the glove compartment.

“Catch!”

Phil watched Clint’s hand snatch the package out of the air with the same precision as always and he couldn’t help laughing at the barely contained excitement on Clint’s face.

“Are those doughnuts?”

“Not a word to Jasper,” Phil repeated and Clint raised two fingers to swear, flashlight between his teeth and both his hands busy tearing the plastic wrapper open.

Each with a doughnut in hand they continued their patrol around the base and Phil listened to various non-classified shenanigans Clint had gotten up to while in the military.

“Why did you leave?” Phil asked suddenly, when he’d stopped laughing about the idea of Kat Ferrante agreeing to accompanying Ross to a formal occasion as his date, all in the line of duty. “I mean, if you can’t tell me, then I guess it’s okay... I was just wondering. I was under the impression your placement was supposed to be long term.”

“It was. Well, nothing spectacular,” Clint shrugged. “There was... the possibility of Kat’s cover getting compromised. Someone had to take the fall to get rid of the threat without arousing suspicion and ultimately, she’s far more valuable where she is than I ever was.”

“What did you do?” Phil frowned, finishing his own doughnut and holding out the package to Clint, who took another one, sounding only a little embarrassed.

“Got the guy off in the armory right when Ross walked in?”

“You what?”

“In my defence,” Clint hurried, “he was an asshole, but a pretty hot asshole. And I gotta add, Ross himself probably wouldn’t have discharged either of us, but he wasn’t alone.”

“You got a dishonorable discharge for-”

“I got a dishonorable discharge to save Kat’s ass,” Clint interrupted. “I don’t care about any of that crap; I was there for SHIELD and I did my job. Nobody told me to do it quite this way, but I had to improvise quickly and it was the easiest way to pull him from the game without bringing Kat into it at all. Even if he’d spilled everything, it’d have sounded like wild accusat-”

When Clint broke off and froze in his steps, Phil looked to see him stand straight, his facial expression falling as he listened to his comm. A second later he cursed under his breath, dropped his doughnut back into the package and started to run towards his unit’s quarters.

It took Phil a moment to spot him when he’d caught up, and he slowed down, watching Clint crouch down next to Rosie, who was hugging the shaking form of Reena Chowdhury to herself, rocking them both back and forward. Clint’s lips were moving and he grabbed one of Reena’s shaking hands, running the other one through her hair. His flashlight lay discarded on the floor, illuminating a pool of sick not far off.

Slowly, Phil stepped closer, catching her low voice as she replied to something Clint had said.

“...figures. Something other than chicken for once...”

Chuckling, Clint pressed a kiss into her hair and muttered something that elicited a small laugh.

“Yeah, fuck you too, Barton.”

She leaned back to sit on her heels and Clint ran a hand over her face. Rosalie gently pulled her up to stand and she patted Clint on the shoulder before she turned to walk back into their quarters. Phil saw Joe Campos approach from the direction of the mess, carrying a glass of water and a bottle of whiskey that he must’ve gotten elsewhere. He spoke a couple of words to Clint, then threw an unsure look towards Phil before following the women into the container.

“Will she be okay?” Phil asked quietly when Clint walked back over to him, brushing dirt off of his flashlight.

“Yeah. I hope so,” Clint replied, then paused, seemingly undecided whether to continue or not. He looked at Phil. “Shit, Phil. Sorry. It’s not all glamorous, I’m afraid.”

“I know.” Phil swallowed. “But you... they’re lucky to have you.”

“Yeah, I bet they’re fucking exhilarated.” He regarded Phil for another long moment, then asked quietly, “Do you know what it is we’re doing in this team? What we were keeping an eye on down there, apart from Ross’ men?”

Phil held his gaze, then nodded slowly. He didn’t know the details, not all of them, but he’d butted heads with Fury time and time again over the fact that SHIELD strung Ross along to piggyback on his research while supporting his personal vendetta against someone Phil was pretty sure they shouldn’t be hunting just on Ross’ word alone.

“A month ago in Rio,” Clint continued quietly, “things got... pretty fucking close. For all of us, but Reena... I don’t think this is something you stop waking up screaming from soon.”

“I’m sorry,” Phil replied, for lack of anything better to say. Clint laughed humourlessly, walking past Phil to continue their round.

“Guess that puts my qualities as a commander into perspective, huh...”

“She’s alive,” Phil said simply. “You haven’t failed her, Clint. This isn’t your fault.”

Clint didn’t reply and the rest of their patrol passed in silence.

They stood in front of the entrance to the comm center, where Phil was going to relieve the last remaining agent of his duty and keep an eye on the monitors and intercom for the rest of the night, when Clint spoke again. He didn’t quite look at Phil.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yes. I won’t answer if I can’t.”

“Why did you take me on as an agent all those years ago?” Clint blurted out and Phil’s lips parted dumbly. “Sometimes I just... I look at my team and myself and I wonder how the hell I got here and what you were even thinking? I was a fucking mess. You said so yourself. ”

Phil looked at Clint in silence, until he met his eyes. He licked his lips.

“How many people,” he said softly, “do you think would have had the heart to zipline out of a helicopter into an exploding enemy complex?”

“I-”

“How many?” Phil repeated and, when Clint didn’t reply, smiled. “I can tell you, that line is pretty short, and SHIELD certainly doesn’t employ cowards. But you - hell, you didn’t even know for sure whether I knew a grenade from a molotov - you didn’t protest or hesitate for a second.”

Clint snorted with disbelief.

“I’m pretty sure that on all the ops to follow you used the words ‘stupid’ and ‘reckless’ to describe that particular personality trait...”

“Well, sometimes you do act pretty stupid,” Phil replied dryly and Clint chuckled hollowly. Quietly Phil added, “But never when it counts.”

“I...” Clint began, then shook his head. “I should check on Reena,” he muttered, taking a step back. Phil smiled tiredly and nodded, pointing at the entrance to the comm center.

“Well, you know where I’ll be.”

***

Clint blinked away the sleep in his eyes and pulled a face at the pain that shot up his spine as he sat up in the office chair he’d never wanted to fall asleep in in the first place.

“Good morning, starshine!” Jasper greeted him as he came walking into the comm center, cup of coffee in hand. He looked like death warmed up and his tie was crooked.

“What time is it?” Clint groaned, rubbing his neck and looking over to find the chair that Phil had fallen asleep in when he’d come back earlier empty.

“Any time is SHIELD o’clock,” Jasper yawned, blindly typing his password into his computer. “As for right now, it’s too fucking early.”

“Where’s Phil?” Clint made to grab Jasper’s coffee, but retracted his hand when Jasper hissed at him like an angry cat. Holding up his hands in surrender, he raised his eyebrow at him to signal that he still wanted an answer. More agents were beginning to file into the room and something was obviously going on.

“I don’t know, somewhere outside. The scientists - who are apparently fucking automatons who don’t need sleep - got weird readings somewhere not far from here, comparable to the readings the other day...” Sitwell emptied his coffee and turned around to look at his team. “I will let whoever brings me the coffee pot play with the satellites for the rest of the day!”

“Do we know what it is?” Clint asked, trying to figure out the information on the various machines and computer screens. “Are we on defence, what’s going on?”

“Nah, we’re mobilising, I think...” Jasper muttered. “Guess Phil’s putting a team together or something...”

Stumbling out into the early morning sun, Clint almost ran into Shou, who grabbed him by the arm.

“There you are! Ale told me to get you.”

“Are we moving out?” Clint asked, raising Shou’s entire arm to take a sip from the coffee cup clutched in his hand.

“No. Coulson wants us to stay behind and hold the fort. In case it’s a diversion and someone wants another go at the hammer.”

Clint swallowed, looking around the base, where people were bustling about with maximum possible efficiency.

“Where is he?”

“Ale? He’s taking more coffee up to the snipers on shift...”

“No, not Ale... Coulson!”

“Last I saw him he was at the mess. Guess the coffee pot’s the surest way of finding people- ...Clint?”

“Hey, is Reena okay today?” Clint called back over his shoulder, turning around just long enough to see Shou’s confused face as he replied that Reena was fine.

Phil wasn’t at the mess anymore, but Clint rudely claimed Miguel’s cup of coffee for himself and drank half of it in one long gulp before continuing to make his way across the crater.

A large part of the commotion seemed to be moving towards the cars and eventually Clint spotted Phil coming out of one of the white tunnels, phone at his ear, and striding towards the command center.

Walking towards him, Clint didn’t bother calling his name, only grabbed him wordlessly and pulled him between two of the larger metal containers scattered over the site.

"Hey, I-"

Clint had barely turned around before Phil was pressing him up against the side of the container and kissing him, tasting like coffee, sleep, and like he meant it.

Clint kissed back.

Breaking apart, they laughed breathlessly as their foreheads rested against each other and Clint’s fingers dug into the fabric of Phil’s jacket. His eyes darted from Phil’s down to his lips and back up again and his face felt flushed.

"Yeah?" Phil’s eyes were sparkling and Clint swallowed, nodding and leaning in once more...

“Coulson? Where the hell are you?”

Jasper’s voice somewhere nearby broke the moment and Clint thought Phil sighed softly as he stepped back, letting go where he’d grabbed Clint’s jacket and licking his lips.

“Phil?”

Clint turned his head and saw Jasper turning around the corner. Straightening up, he looked back at Phil, who seemed reluctant to look away. Out of the corner of his eye, Clint saw Jasper gesturing mutely and turning away.

“I’ll see you later?” Clint asked quietly and Phil’s lips spread into a slow smile.

“Later,” he replied, turning his head towards Jasper, who was throwing them furtive glances over his shoulder. Eyes darting to Clint’s lips once more, he began to walk away backwards before turning around and rounding the corner.

 

“You look suspiciously happy, man,” Alejandro remarked as he stepped up to Clint, who stood outside watching the small convoy of SHIELD cars disappear in the direction of wherever the strange readings had been recorded.

“Do I?” he asked, not entirely able to keep the stupid grin off his face. Alejandro shoved him in the ribs and rolled his eyes.

“Yeah,” he laughed. “Like you need to get properly suckerpunched, actually.”

Clint chuckled as he tilted his head back to look at the sky.

“I guess I do.” Somewhere in his pockets, a phone was vibrating.

“So, I take it you’re not actually going anywhere near a vacation today, are you? Clint?” Alejandro continued, his grin suddenly faltering when he saw the expression on Clint’s face as he stared at the tattered phone in his hand.

Clint swallowed and accepted the call.

“Kat?”

We’re in Culver. Banner was here today.

“He got back stateside? Are you sur-” Clint started, but she cut him off, her voice hurried.

Listen to me, there’s no time. Forget Banner. Something went down here last night and I have no idea who’s compromised. Banner isn’t our problem anymore. Clint, something is really, really wrong.

“What do you mean?” Clint blurted out, his mind reeling. “Kat, what-”

You need to watch out for Blonsky, you hear me? Tell Fury. Lay off Banner, Ross is compromised.

Clint shared a look with Alejandro, whose expression was stony as he stared at Clint. He didn’t need to hear to gather that it was bad. Clint swallowed.

“Kat, you get out, okay? Right fucking now. I’ll tell Fury-”

Kat’s voice was very quiet.

Clint...” Her voice was painfully even. “I don’t think I can anymore. Listen, I’ll hold the fort for as long as I can, but... Clint, I need you to come. You’re second in command, you need to... Natasha should be here when you arrive.

“Kat-”

The line had died.

***

Phil knew the moment his phone began to ring in his pocket. Ignoring Jasper’s furtive glances and meaningful coughs, he stared at the name on the display for a long moment before picking up.

“Hey,” he said gently and he heard Clint exhale on the other end of the line. The slamming of car doors and starting of an engine was audible and Phil pressed his lips together.

Hey, Phil,” Clint finally said. “So... remember that phone you know nothing about?

Phil closed his eyes.

“Yes.”

It rang,” Clint said simply, his voice strangely caught. “And I... I gotta go. If... well, if you check the news you’ll probably guess.

Phil kept his gaze on the road ahead and took a silent, deep breath.

“Be careful,” he replied, his lips twitching with involuntary memory. “And... keep in touch. If you can.”

I will.

-The End-