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His safe held a cell phone.

It was hidden in the back - behind the fake back and secured before the real back.

It was an old phone, as these things went. Big keys. Bulky. Flipped open. Screen that existed only to display information, and limited information at that.

Phil brought it to Skye.

“Search everything,” he told her. “Find out if there’s anything resembling a bug or tracking device of some kind.”

It was an old phone. Prior to the safe the last time it had seen the light of day was when Pegasus was still standing.

Oh for the days when that had been the only SHIELD facility destroyed by a surprise attack from the inside.

Skye turned the phone over in her hands. To her it was probably a relic. “What do I do if I find anything?”

“Destroy it.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Text the number on it,” Phil said. “Say… say ‘I could use a slice.’ Those words, exactly.”

In spite of everything, Skye’s mouth quirked in a grin. “Is that some kind of spy code?”

“Something like that.”

***

The phone was clear. After Skye sent the text, Phil had her destroy it anyway.

He could only allow himself so many temptations.

***

It was afternoon in Queens. Sunny. Bright. If he’d driven Lola he would’ve kept the top down. Instead he’d left the Hub on his own and gone through three kinds of public transportation and a car theft, using different names each time.

It reminded him of the old days. SHIELD training 101 for navigating in hostile territory. All that was missing was a scrap of chalk for leaving easily overlooked messages by park benches.

Also the part where hostile territory wasn’t the United States.

Chalk wasn’t going to cut it now. Those messages assumed a friend was nearby. Someone watching out for you and ready to act as the - god help him - cavalry when things got tough.

Phil had lost his taste for those kinds of espionage trust falls.

***

It took time. Phil knew it would. Especially now. Especially him. Phil knew he would have to stand there in the shadow of dumpsters reeking of oregano and rotting cardboard until he’d been observed enough from afar for a new shadow to drop down from the roof of the jewelry shop next door.

Barton stared at him. Phil stared back.

“If you ‘Hail Hydra’ at me I’m not gonna be responsible for my actions,” Barton told him.

“Ditto,” Phil replied.

***

They went inside. Phil got a slice and a soda. Barton two slices and a coffee. Phil let the oil drip from his pizza until his paper plate was stained orange. Barton chewed in large bites that pulled most of the cheese away from the crust. Around them were shoppers on a quick break, teens tapping away on tablets and smartphones, and silver-haired women who tutted over the lack of manners that led to someone putting their feet up on the chairs.

Barton gave a guilty look at the latter and sat up straight.

“I don’t know if my mind is my own anymore,” Phil said. It was blunt and honest, but in a world where Nancy Grace was on hour ten of going over the known list of Romanoff’s kills, what were secrets anyway?

“Join the club,” Barton said. He frowned in thought then, as inspiration struck, added, “Banner made T-shirts.”

“I think he knows when Hulk is in charge.”

“Why you gotta ruin my jokes?”

“Fury did something involving an alien and god knows what to bring me back from the dead,” Phil said. “He made me think I’d been on vacation the whole time. Also your jokes aren’t funny.”

Barton’s brows furrowed. “What kind of alien?”

“Great question.”

“You couldn’t ask it?”

“I don’t speak Blue Alien Floating In A Tank. Also it was dead.”

“You sure?”

“It was missing half its body, so yes.”

“How could you - “

“Chunks were hanging off of it.”

“That mean anything these days?” Barton asked. He took a thoughtful bite of his pizza, making the question rhetorical.

“It - whatever it was - didn’t brainwash me.” Phil figured he might as well make that comparison between him and Barton clear. “At least I don’t think it did. The mental stuff was something else.”

“So you think,” Barton pointed out.

“So I think,” Phil agreed.

***

“I got a place,” Barton said, which made for as good a next location to go as any.

Once they got to the point of climbing up a rusty, clearly code-violating fire escape - Barton’s damned circus-trained body making easy work of the necessary acrobatics - Phil had to ask, “When you say you’ve got this place - “

“I lost my key.”

“You’ve worked for SHIELD how long now and can’t pick a lock?”

“This is easier. ‘sides, do I still work for SHIELD?”

“Employment status doesn’t affect your knowledge base.”

“If it means I keep working with a killjoy like you I may quit anyway.”

They reached the apartment. Barton yanked open a window, scattering chips of wood and paint, and let himself inside. Phil followed.

The place was nice. Prewar. Hardwood floors. Tin ceiling. Of course it was a mess of dust and decades of neglect - some of which applied to the structure, some to the various lumpen masses of Goodwill rejects that Barton was clearly calling furniture - but it was nice. Could be nice, with attention and a bit of care.

“I don’t think we quit,” Phil said. He’d been thinking about this constantly. Ever since the realization that the Clairvoyant’s calls had been coming from the inside. “If we give up, they win. They take this from us.”

“We sure we had it to begin with?”

***

“I need it to mean something,” Phil said, when enough time had passed that the only noises were the creaking of pipes and the roar of commercial planes flying overhead. “I gave my life to this organization - god damned literally - and it can’t have been a waste. It can’t have been for nothing.”

Barton shrugged. “It’s a job.”

“It was more than that!” Phil knew he was shouting. He didn’t care. “Don’t stand there and tell me that all of it - Manhattan, New Mexico, all of it - was just a job. It had meaning. It had a purpose!”

“Paycheck isn’t what gave it purpose.”

***

Barton was looking at him. They were just outside of arm’s reach of each other but Barton was watching him with the intensity he normally gave to the lens of a sniper rifle.

Actually more. Barton was always relaxed when it came to lining up a shot.

“What, then?” Phil asked.

“The people.”

“I don’t know who I can trust,” Phil said. “Fury, May - Hell, part of me is annoyed at Cap for being the one to reveal the terrorist organization behind the curtain, even though I know that denial is worse.”

After a moment, Phil added, “This is where you tell me I can trust you.”

“Isn’t that what someone untrustworthy would say?”

“I’d still find it comforting.”

“Then I want one too.”

“What are you, five? This isn’t about preschool fairness, it’s about life or death.”

“So I can’t trust you?”

“How the Hell should I know?” Phil threw his hands out to either side. “That’s my entire point. I don’t know SHIELD anymore, I don’t know my friends, I don’t know myself.How am I supposed to keep going when any minute now I could turn into my own worst enemy and not even realize it! I could kill people I care about and do it with a smile! How am I supposed to know I’m not doing that right now? After Tahiti how am I supposed to know if me talking to you right now is even real? How - “

Barton was closer. Behind him. Having his back, just like out in the field. Arms around Phil’s chest, which was not something they had ever done in the field.

In the field Phil would’ve protested, pointed out this kind of contact was forbidden under SHIELD’s rules about relationships between personnel.

In the field Phil and Barton - Clint - had never allowed themselves that kind of conversation.

“Hallucination me would have better jokes,” Clint pointed out.

Phil closed his eyes. He leaned back, feeling the solid security of Clint’s chest against him. “I think I’m starting to see benefits to not having to adhere to the SHIELD handbook anymore.”

“Took you long enough,” Clint replied.