Clint stares at Phil across his handler's desk, his stomach sinking. "They're dividing it into three drops?"
Phil sighs and nods. He taps a file on his desk. "Yes. Natasha managed to move up. She knows the locations but the timing is unchanged. Her original drop is only one of three."
Clint rubs a hand over his head and leans back in his chair. "Fuck." He looks up at his handler. "We can't do it. Unless Stark can invent a machine in the next thirty hours to let me be in three places at once, this isn't going to work."
Phil hesitates. His gaze flickers up to Clint and back down to the file. "I could - "
"No!" Clint stabs a finger at his handler. "There is absolutely no way in hell Fury has cleared you for the field. You shouldn't even be coordinating the op, don't think I don't know how you bribed Dr. Foster in medical."
Phil frowns. "I didn't - "
Clint shakes his head. It's the truth, but it hurts like hell to have to say it. “You'd be a liability in the field."
Coulson sighs like he does when he knows Clint is right. "I know. But then - "
"S.H.I.E.L.D. - ?"
Phil shakes his head. "There's no one I would trust with this kind of operation. We're the 'law-enforcement division' - stakeouts and armed response and apparently alien invasions, yes. But counter espionage isn't a part of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mandate. We aren't good at it."
"Then we'll have to find someone who is."
It's been sixteen months since their third and last operation together, but Clint still has the phone. He texts the group while Phil calls the secretary of the IMF.
They luck out - the team is currently on standby in New York.
"It's hardly luck, Barton." Phil sips his coffee from their arranged meet on Upper 49th street an hour later. "Every world office has been re-evaluating their counter-insurgency response in the wake of the Chitauri invasion."
Clint frowns into his latte. "Just because there are aliens now doesn't mean there isn't still local espionage activity."
Phil's upper lip quirks, which is the equivalent of a shit-eating grin on anyone else. Clint feels a sharp stab of relief, only his forty-second this week, that Coulson is alive and well enough to quirk at him.
"True," Phil agrees. "But you just referred to American-Russian relations as 'local'. Our basic understanding of the universe has shifted."
Clint shrugs one shoulder, agreeing with Phil's point, but warning his handler that Ethan has appeared at his eight o'clock.
"Doesn't mean the C.I.A, the F.B.I, the I.M.F and every other acronym on the planet - including S.H.I.E.L.D. - won't have other work to do."
Phil nods, putting down his coffee. "I agree with you, and I think the other agencies will too, but it will take time. Good morning, Mr. Hunt." Phil doesn't bother to turn around. "We've ordered you a latte."
Clint turns slightly in his seat to meet the eyes of his sometimes boss. The waitress steps forward at that moment with a coffee and smiles at Ethan before setting it down at one of the three empty chairs at their table. It's cream, no-sugar, just the way he likes it. A little piece of proof that Clint is still who he thinks he is, if he isn't only that any more.
Ethan doesn't sit down though, and he doesn't touch the coffee. He looks at Clint.
"Thank you," he says to Phil without looking away. His stance is patient. Clint knows what he wants, and he knows how stubborn he can be. He can also see the half-disguised ear bud in his left ear and knows the rest of the team is listening.
Fuck. He had hoped it wouldn't come down to this.
But rules are rules.
"Ethan," Clint says, indicating his handler, knowing he's going to regret this later. Possibly immediately.
"This is Phil."
Phil's eyebrows twitch at that, it clearly wasn't what he was expecting Clint to say. But Phil doesn't know the rules of this particular game, and he isn't aware of how Clint has broken them.
Ethan's face smiles. The grin is shit-eating, but his eyes are honestly twinkling. Clint feels his stomach sink.
"THIS is Phil?"
Clint gives in to the urge and rubs his hand across his face. It's something Brandt would do, and it's what Clint's always wanted to do when faced with this man. "This is Phil."
"Well," Ethan reaches over to shake Phil's hand, magnanimously sitting down in front of his latte. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Phil gives Clint one of his micro-glares, a twitching of the eyes, and turns to smile non-threateningly at Ethan. "Mr. Hunt. It's a genuine honour."
Clint really wants to bang his head against the table, but the rest of the team is walking towards them now, fingers reaching up to shut off their ear-mics. Jane sits down with a smile for Clint and a thoughtful glance for Coulson and Benji is trying to play it cool but his verbal diarrhea starts the moment he sits down at the table.
"Look at this! Together again, eh? Just likes old times. Only, it's not like old times because - hey! Hawkeye! Sorry," he lowers his voice at Phil's flicker of an expression. Ethan just rolls his eyes and slaps him gently on the back of the head.
Benji cringes. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry. It's just - wow. I mean, I watched the news reel, we all watched the news reel, and then I tried to go in the server to get more information and - " he perks up and looks at Phil. "Can I just say that I was impressed? I mean, really impressed with the firewall. It took me five attempts to get around it -" he puts his hands up at Phil's pained expression, "- I didn't do anything, just looked around a little. Someone called Jarvis called me on my cell and asked me politely to stop, which was really interesting and also a little scary because then Tony Stark called and offered me a job and I -" he turns to Ethan when the man blinks, "I told him I was already employed and thanks but no thanks and then he wanted to know about the IMF - " he rolls his eyes at Clint when he winces, " - I didn't tell him anything, but," he trails off. "I think he might have gone into the server after me anyway. Sorry?"
Clint sighs. "So that's why Tony's been smiling whenever I walk into the breakfast room. I bet he's waiting for the opportune moment to bring up Paris."
Phil's lips twitch. "No bet."
Jane shakes her head. "You really are Clint Barton." She looks at him, and her expression shifts from wonder into something a little sad. "I didn't want to believe it."
Clint bites at his upper lip. He had always liked Jane. "I'm sorry."
"Three years?" Clint shrugs, "On and off." He turns to Ethan. "That really was my file you looked up, I did those ops and I have worked as an analyst. It just ... isn't all I've done."
Ethan looks at him. His gaze holds weight, but no judgment. "Croatia?"
Clint nods, slowly. "That was me. I - you -," he flushes a little, catching Phil's worried micro-expression. He isn't usually this flustered. He can practically see his handler mentally scanning Clint's file as William Brandt and recognizes the moment Phil remembers Croatia. Clint lets his eyes fall closed. Too much to hope that Phil won't put the carefully worded pieces of that file together and connect it to the man sitting in front of them. The op had been under a previous handler, and Clint had lied to psych about the majority of the aftermath. Phil knew what his lying to psych looked like, though, and he had never told his handler what really happened.
But Ethan deserved the truth.
"The assets were important. IMF asked for backup and I was sent in, under the Brandt identity. I still - that was still me." Who failed, he didn't add. But he didn't have to. Ethan knew what he believed for two years, and he knew that finding out the thing had been a set up, that his wife was still alive, diminished the responsibility but not the guilt. If Ethan hadn't been ahead of the game, Clint would have been responsible for her death.
More red in his ledger.
He has a sharp mental flash of his hands at the controls of the quinjet, piloting it towards the heli-carrier.
He breathes out. Then taps Phil's foot to reassure him he's okay.
Clint turns back to his former team. "The Avengers Initiative has been in the works for a few years now. I've done a lot of work on the side. But now the game's changed. There are only two of us trained in infiltration activity. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s more of an enforcement division, and I don't have to tell you Tony Stark is the last person anyone would want running counter-espionage."
The table winces. Ethan looks over at Phil. "So what do you need us to do?" He put up a hand. "Not that we have accepted the mission, but the Secretary called me this morning to make sure I would come to this meeting. I suspect whatever it is you're handling, the IMF wants in on it."
Phil nods. "I'm not surprised. IMF has been running actions against this particular terrorist organization for years, but S.H.I.E.L.D. has been keeping tight reins on most of the information. IMF simply didn't have the security clearance to deal with alien-tech before." Phil shrugs. "New York has changed that."
Benji snorts. "Yeah, blew that little secret right out in the open, didn't it?"
Phil sighs. "Yes. I wouldn't be surprised if your Secretary calls our Director and requests permission to increase IMF activity against this particular organization. And to be fair, IMF does possess a useful skill set that could come in handy during particular operations."
Ethan nods, "Like this one."
"Like this one," Phil agrees. He stands up from the table. "I understand this isn't usually the way you do things, but if you'll agree to drive with me to the airport, I can explain things on the way. You will still have every opportunity to refuse, but," he glances at Clint, "we are a little pressed for time."