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Think Like a Criminal

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Phil had made his decision days ago. In the motel, actually, watching the footage of another Phil Coulson talking about the TAHITI Project, if he had to put his finger on the exact moment. He just hadn’t intended to make a formal announcement so soon, not when they’d only just stopped Garrett and put Ward in lockup.

But that was before Nick Fury showed up in the middle of the fight at Garrett’s base, and definitely before Nick cornered Phil between racks of stolen weapons to spring his new ‘Phil Coulson, Director of SHIELD’ plan.

It takes Phil a moment to recognize the black cube in Nick’s hand, and realize that he really should have said something sooner.

“It’s an honor, sir,” Phil says, keeping his hands down at his sides, and nowhere near the responsibility that Nick is offering to him. “But one I can’t accept.”

Nick scowls at him, leather jacket creaking. It’s brown, not black, and the sunglasses aren’t anything at all like an eye patch, but he manages to make them feel the same way. “Don’t do this to me, Phil.”

Phil knows his resolve would weaken at that world-weary tone, if this was driven by resolve. It isn’t. Every agent reaches the end of his rope, sooner or later, and Phil knows he’s reached his. HYDRA, Ward, GH-325... He could name a thousand reasons, but none of them really matter.

He’s done.

“I’m sorry.”

Nick lets the cube roll across his fingers, arm still outstretched. The silver frame gleams briefly in the overhead lights. “The world doesn’t need saving any less today than it did yesterday, you know that.”

“Was that what we were doing?” Phil’s question is almost whimsical; it’s the only way he knows to talk about the most serious things.

Nick knows that, and scowls harder. “Damn straight, that’s what we were doing. And what still needs doing.”

Phil turns to lean against the wall. It’s cool against his back. Somewhere nearby, soldiers of the US Army are herding Garrett’s forces into trucks and taking them to holding facilities. Some of them were there against their will; they’ll be debriefed and reunited with their loved ones. Some of them were HYDRA; they’ll go to prison. Maybe.

His team is out there, too, and he’s going to miss them. But they deserve better than he can give them.

“How many people do you think we killed for HYDRA?” Phil asks finally, his tone still too soft for the subject, and sees Nick wince. “I’ve been trying to estimate a percentage, based on the number of times I relied on other people’s intel to make the call. It’s a pretty high percentage, Nick.”

Nick glowers and crowds into Phil’s space, storm and bluster in full effect. “Are they gonna be any less dead because you quit helping people?”

But Phil knows. Nick slips the cube back into his pocket, and Phil knows he’s won. Or lost. Something like that. Strange how they feel the same, these days.

“Oh, I’m not going to quit helping people,” Phil responds. He knows himself too well for that, too. He may be tired now, but he’ll come up swinging sooner or later. He just needs to make sure he’s swinging at the right targets. “I know a man with... let’s call it an alternative business model. I’m hoping he’ll let me join up.”

Nick turns away, somehow finding the one shadow in the room to hide his expression. But the line of his shoulders is hard and tight. “You’re really gonna do this.”

Walk away from me, he means. Walk away from everything they’ve built together. Take away one of the last people Nick knows he can rely on, now that everything has gone to hell.

Phil wishes it could be different, but it isn’t. “Yes, I am.”

Nick doesn’t bother to turn around. “Then I guess this is goodbye.”

“I guess so,” Phil says, and isn’t surprised when Nick just starts walking. Neither of them were ever any good at goodbyes.

*****

Phil doesn’t even go back to the Bus; now that he’s made his announcement, he doesn’t have to see what Garrett did to it. His very perfunctory debrief with May happens in the back of a van on its way to the airport. He can’t talk about any of this, to anyone, ever.

May doesn’t ask him to explain why he’s leaving, though she does arch an eyebrow when he buys his ticket.

“What’s in Antignano?” she asks.

“Not what,” Phil says. “Who. An old acquaintance of mine has a boat there.”

When he doesn’t say anything more, she just nods. She’s used to secrets.

She doesn’t say goodbye, either.

*****

The boat rocks gently, creaking faintly with the weight of water slapping against the side. A brilliant Italian sunset is barely visible through the tiny open windows, but the lamps in the room are more than a match for the gathering shadows outside. It feels more like a home than anywhere Phil has been in years.

The man whose home it is stands behind the full-length bar, pouring identical quantities of scotch into a pair of old-fashioned glasses with an air of intense concentration.

Nate Ford finishes the second pour, eyes the levels critically, and finally looks up. “I don’t think you have the right mindset for this line of work.”

“How so?” Phil takes the scotch when Nate holds it out to him.

Nate would’ve made a good agent, Phil thinks again, except for all the ways he wouldn’t. They met while Phil was undercover at IYS Insurance a number of years ago. Nate had always been brilliant, so when he left IYS, Phil kept an eye on him. Leverage Inc. was a surprise, but not really out of character. Phil passed a little information Nate’s way once in a while; in return, Nate kept Alec Hardison out of SHIELD’s systems.

Looking back, that was almost certainly a mistake. If anyone could’ve spotted HYDRA’s presence sooner...

Nate settles into the matching heavy leather chair and takes a sip of scotch, looking for all the world like he’s gathering his thoughts. Except Phil figures he’s had this conversation planned for hours.

“You’re accustomed to being able to bring in the authorities when something goes wrong.” Nate says finally. “Hell, you’re used to being the authorities. You’ve never been a criminal. You don’t think like one.”

“You weren’t one, either, when you started,” Phil points out.

“But I loved the chase. I loved the life, even if I told myself I didn’t.” Nate’s smile is one of hard-earned self-knowledge. “What do you love, Phil?”

The question is unexpected, blindingly so, and Phil isn’t braced for the flood of regret that hits him suddenly. His life is divided into ‘before New York’ and ‘after,’ and what he’d wanted... hasn’t been within his reach for a long time.

Phil knows that his thoughts are showing on his face when Nate’s expression shifts to sympathy.

“Other than things I can’t have?” Phil smiles around the lump in his throat, and pushes it away. He has a lot of experience with that. “My passion has always been making the world safer. Making people safer, from the things they don’t even know how to fight. I love... the moment when a plan comes together, or starts to fall apart. I’m good at that, and I’m good at bringing out the best in my team. I love my team. But we’re back to things I can’t have, aren’t we?”

Nate is still eyeing him sympathetically. “You’ll need a team. People you can trust.”

Phil takes another sip of his scotch. “I thought you said I had the wrong mindset for this.”

“You do.” Nate grins over at him, reckless and sharp. “But I know someone who can help you with that.”

He gives Phil an address in Portland, of all places. “Sophie and I, we’re retired,” Nate says apologetically and not at all convincingly. “But Parker, she’ll show you the ropes.”

*****

The hotel gift shop has a selection of prepaid cell phones for tourists. Phil stares at them for a long time, struck again by that sense of longing and regret he’d felt on Nate’s boat. He shouldn’t be thinking of the past; he needs to get his head back in the game.

He buys one of the phones anyway.

He takes it back to his room before dialing a number he memorized years before, back when he was blessedly ignorant of so many things, and could still send brilliantly talented men and women into the field to kill. He’d thought they were doing the right thing; he’d thought he was.

He’d thought he was doing the right thing when he cut off all contact with the people he worked with before his death in New York. Even with Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov, the two agents he’d worked with almost constantly for three years. Orders were orders, and surely it was for the best that they think he’s dead.

But Phil remembers the night Natasha gave him this number, only six months before the Battle of New York. It’s a voice mail drop that she kept for emergencies. There are only three people in the world with this number, she’d said: her and Clint and Phil.

You shouldn’t have told me, he’d said at the time. If she planned to run from SHIELD, Phil was the last person she should tell about how to find her.

As if we’d leave without you, was her only answer.

Phil leaves the carefully bland message she’d made him memorize that night. He’s calling about the car for sale, the blue one; the question about the odometer reading gives her the map coordinates for Portland. It doesn’t really matter what he says. His voice is the message.

*****

Nate’s team -- Parker’s team, now, even if Phil can see the marks Nate left on them all -- meets in a converted warehouse that also houses a microbrewery. The smell of yeast and hops floats in the air for blocks around, and the people on the sidewalk slow down and smile a lot.

Actually, people in Portland smile a lot in general. Phil finds himself responding to that. It’s a strange place to go to learn how to think like a criminal.

“So what do you think?” Parker asks him cheerfully, the next time they’re together.

The team is targeting a medical testing firm whose CEO has been depositing suspiciously large payments in the Caymans every time they’re set to report on a new drug from a particularly aggressive biotech start-up. The payments are bribes, the drugs ineffective -- and a lot of people will pay for treatments that don’t work.

The problem is obvious. Phil is still trying to wrap his head around finding a solution.

“We could try a Wenatchee Slingshot, maybe. Or a Double Barrel?” Parker prompts, still smiling, but she’s watching him closely -- and letting him see that she’s watching. Spencer and Hardison watch him too, of course, but Parker is the one still weighing him.

She’s still judging him, Phil thinks, and he hopes he never comes down on the wrong side of that equation. Parker is crazy, the kind of crazy that thinks around corners and can’t be predicted. Phil can’t be sure what she’d do if she decided to get rid of him, but he imagines he’d find himself hiding in the wilderness and babbling about flying monkeys, or something equally unfortunate.

Phil is perfectly willing to admit that Parker is terrifying.

She’s also waiting for him to answer her question. “What about the Pigeon and the Pear?”

Parker tilts her head to the side, considering. “We’d need a camel for that.”

“Camels?” Hardison is already shaking his head. “Unh-uh, no way, no camels. Have you ever been anywhere near one of those filthy creatures? Two words: Fleas everywhere. Everywhere. No.”

Parker tilts her head the other way and raises an eyebrow at Phil.

“All right, no camels,” Phil agrees.

Parker smiles at them both like sunshine coming out from behind a cloud, and Phil wonders what about that answer was the right thing to say.

It’s the strangest training Phil has ever taken part in, but he figures can do worse than follow that smile.

“He wants fame,” Phil says, looking back to the life-sized photo of the CEO dominating the display screens. “In his own name, not his grandfather’s. He wants a legacy.”

Phil can feel the edges of an idea fluttering in his mind, but they won’t quite come together. He shrugs an apology at Parker, who takes over like she was just waiting for him to hand it back.

“So let’s give him one,” she says, as if it’s that easy

*****

“I stole a parade today.”

By this point, Phil has left a dozen messages for Clint and Natasha, on every number that he can remember and some he might have made up. Three were entirely disconnected, but the rest have let him ramble on for at least a minute or so before cutting him off.

Phil has stopped leaving coded messages. He doesn’t say their names, or his own, but that’s as close to secrecy as he can make himself come these days.

“Not by myself, of course. It takes thousands of people to make a parade happen.”

“But we did, and it worked.”

Phil isn’t sure he’d call it easy, but he has to admit, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

“I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.”

*****

Phil wakes to the thin gray light of dawn seeping in the windows of the downtown condo he’s rented for the year. There is also the smell of coffee, a hint of perfume, and the weight of a body on the other side of the bed. Phil finds himself smiling before he even opens his eyes.

Natasha is blonde now, the thin blue jeans and gray hoodie making her look closer to eighteen than thirty. She sits with one leg tucked under herself at the far corner of his bed, casually drinking coffee from one of the blue mugs that came with the condo.

“Our first debrief, Coulson?” she asks, swinging her free foot softly now that he’s awake. “I never knew you were such a romantic.”

She says romantic like an epithet, and Phil shrugs. He would’ve said that using that date for his alarm code was more nostalgic than romantic, but he doubts she’d like that word better. “I thought about leaving a key under the mat.”

Natasha smiles at that. Something in her smile is younger than Phil thought she could look. He’s grateful that he stopped sleeping naked years ago; the t-shirt and shorts don’t cover much when he slips out of bed, but at least he doesn’t have to feel like a pervert for flashing the kid she really isn’t.

He can’t help smiling back, though. It’s good to see her. “You want breakfast?”

“Only if I don’t have to cook it.”

The arch of her eyebrow is a flat-out dare, and Phil heads into the kitchen to show her what he’s learned about omelets from one of the world’s most dangerous people.

The way her eyes widen in surprise at the first bite, then narrow in sheer pleasure, is more than worth having spent three hours learning the best way to crack an egg.

They talk about inconsequential things until the plates are in the dishwasher and they’re both on their second cup of coffee.

“I thought you’d call,” Phil says finally. The tiny Ikea table is nowhere near the kitchen’s window; it was his only nod to security and sightlines, but he wishes he had something to pretend to be watching. He’d lost track of everything he’d said in his phone messages, but he’s fairly sure he ought to be embarrassed.

Natasha doesn’t seem to mind. “I had to get some questions answered first,” she says simply.

Phil can imagine how that went. “How is Nick, these days?”

“Breathing,” Natasha says, and grins slyly. “It’s going around lately.”

“Clint?” Phil has to ask. She’d have said something straight out, he thinks, but still --

“Also breathing.” The smile slides off her face. “He checked in to let me know he’s okay. But this shook him pretty hard.”

“It shook all of us.”

“Is that all this is?” Natasha waves a hand at the condo, Portland, and Phil’s new SHIELD-free lifestyle all at once. “One Phil Coulson, shaken but not stirred?”

“No. This is... just me. Making choices.” Phil looks down at his empty coffee mug. “I’m not going back.”

“Good.”

“Good?”

It’s Natasha’s turn to drop her eyes. She traces a brief, nervous curve on the table top with one finger. Phil has long since given up trying to tell when she’s serious and when she’s playing him; he figures it’s both often enough not to matter.

She flicks her eyes back up to his. “Actually, I’m looking for a job.”

It takes Phil by surprise, his visceral response to that. The quick flip in his stomach is like the drop at the beginning of a roller-coaster ride. It’s the same feeling he used to get when the plan for an op unrolled in front of his eyes, like it was already done and he just had to follow along.

If she’d asked him even ten minutes ago if he’d imagined her on his team, he’d have said no, and believed it. She’s an Avenger now, and way out of his league. But he can feel that the idea isn’t new. It has been growing somewhere in the back of his mind; he knows exactly how good she could be at this.

“Yeah, I am.” Natasha can read his answer in his face; the nervousness drops off of her like an old coat. “There might be a few other people who are looking right now, too.”

“I’m willing to take suggestions,” Phil tells her, but he’s gone straight past willing and jumped immediately to thrilled. Natasha may not know yet what skills they need for the team, but she knows in her bones what it takes to make a team work.

If, somewhere in his heart, Phil is saving a spot for Clint... she probably knows that, too.

*****

“I overheard the most terrifying thing today,” Phil says to another anonymous voice mail drop. Natasha assured him it was current; Clint should be getting these messages.

Clint still hasn’t called, but Phil can’t stop wanting to talk to him. So he doesn’t.

“Natasha and Sophie were throwing fake accents at each other. Terrible ones. I think it was an acting exercise.”

Phil doesn’t think he’s ever heard anything worse than Natasha’s Jersey-Shore-Lithuanian accent. Then again, he didn’t stick around to hear Sophie Deveraux’s response.

“Either that, or they wanted to scare everyone away from their video chat.”

*****

Melinda and Skye manage to get into Portland without setting off any of Hardison’s computer flags, but they don’t bother breaking into Phil’s house. They just walk into the brewpub and order drinks.

Phil brings them a menu.

“I know you said you were getting a new job,” Skye says, eying his Keep Portland Weird t-shirt askance. “But I didn’t think it was going to be ‘waiter.’ Oh, how the mighty have fallen.”

“I missed you, too,” Phil says lightly, taking the seat beside her. “Besides, this is just what I’m doing while my acting career gets off the ground.”

“How’s that working out for you?” Melinda asks.

Phil can tell that he only has half of her attention. Spencer is in the kitchen today, and though he isn’t looking, he’s moving around the service window in a way that would let him watch the dining room. Melinda isn’t looking at him, either, but Phil has no doubt that they’re sizing each other up somehow.

“Bit parts, for the moment,” he says, smiling. “But I’ve been getting good reviews.”

Skye looks back and forth between them, frowning slightly. “Are we speaking in code, here? Because no one got me a decoder ring, and I’d like to know what you’re saying.”

“It’s not code,” Phil assures her. “It’s more of an extended metaphor, really.”

“Well, as long as we’re extending that metaphor,” Skye says drily, “point me toward the casting couch.”

Phil sputters, and Skye grins, unrepentant. Melinda rolls her eyes at both of them.

“She means we’re here to join your new team.”

Phil has to swallow twice before he can answer that. “I kind of hoped you’d stay and look after the old one.”

“No way.” Skye slumps back in her chair, dark hair curling over her shoulder. “They wanted me to talk to Ward. Like, all buddy-buddy talking. I mean, it was on the other side of a force field, but still. No freaking way I’d do that for Gonzalez.”

Phil hadn’t heard who’d taken over. Still. “Gonzalez is a good man.”

“Maybe.” Skye shrugs, leather jacket creaking with the movement. “But he’s someone else’s job now. I quit.”

Melinda taps the table with her menu. “Before you ask, so did I.”

“Gonzalez must have hated that.” Phil doesn’t mean Gonzalez this time, and the flick of Melinda’s eyebrow says she knows it. Nick must have hated that.

“He wasn’t happy,” Melinda agrees. “But I think he’s consoling himself that I’ll be here to watch your back.”

She watches him just long enough to make sure he understands her answer, before going back to tracking Spencer’s movements in the kitchen.

“He’s not going to make a move, you know,” Phil points out.

“Who’s not?” Skye asks, and jabs Phil with the corner of her menu. “Who are we talking about?”

“I know.” Melinda smiles, meanly. “But I kind of wish he would.”

“Hey! Does this mean I’m rid of the six am sparring sessions?” Skye drops her menu on the table with a clatter. “Cause I won’t miss those bruises, let me tell you --”

“No,” Phil and Melinda say, simultaneously.

Skye grins and kicks her feet under the table playfully. “Anything you say. Boss.”

*****

“You should’ve seen them. May and Spencer... watching them spar makes me feel old. And slow. And very grateful they’re on our side, but I think you can take that as read.”

Other than checking in with Natasha to prove he’s still breathing, Clint hasn’t contacted anyone. Phil has just about convinced himself that it isn’t just a matter of needing time.

Phil wasn’t there when SHIELD fell, not for Clint and Natasha. He wishes he could have been.

Then again, if SHIELD hadn’t fallen, Phil might never have told them he was still alive.

It’s a hell of a thing to expect forgiveness for that.

*****

“Grifter, hacker, hitter, mastermind,” Parker lists off. She has her feet propped on the table, red Converse sneakers that match her red sweater. “You just need a thief.”

“Sadly, the Craigslist ad hasn’t turned one up,” Phil says lightly. He’s been saving that spot for Clint, even if he hasn’t been willing to admit it.

“You’ve got to know a thief or two,” Skye points out. “Aren’t secret agents all about the B&E?”

“I know some people who are good at breaking and entering,” Phil agrees. “But that’s not what Parker’s talking about.”

“Actually, you do know someone with a head for heights and a habit of crawling through ductwork,” Natasha says. “He’s just ducking your phone calls.”

“I don’t think he’s avoiding me.”

“Oh, he is.”

“Wait, who are we talking about?” Skye asks, looking up from her laptop. “And why don’t I know him?”

“Someone I used to work with.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “Let’s just say that I’m not the only Avenger he knows.”

“Cool!” Skye’s eyes widen a little at the word Avenger, but she doesn’t let it throw her. “We need more men around here. Otherwise, I’m gonna have to start flipping my hair and calling you Charlie.”

At Phil’s blank stare, Skye laughs. “Charlie? Like Charlie’s Angels? Jeez. Someone’s getting an update to his Netflix queue.”

“We should start considering other options,” Phil says, though mostly the person who needs to consider other options is him. He’s the one who’s been waiting for Clint to slot into the team; but the team can’t wait forever. “Parker, if you can give me a short list of your recommendations, I’ll see about interviewing candidates.”

That makes Parker frown -- and everyone else in the room, too, but it’s Parker’s frown that makes Phil pause. He’s not supposed to make Parker frown. But what else can he do?

There’s something about that question -- what else can he do? -- that sets something simmering in the back of Phil’s head. He knows what he ought to do. He ought to give Clint space to get his head together, whether that means contacting Phil again or not. He ought to stop holding his team back. The old Phil Coulson would put his feelings for Clint aside and move on.

But he’s not the same Phil Coulson any more. Maybe it’s time to try something new.

*****

“Parker thinks we’re almost ready to fly solo; she has a couple of jobs researched for us,” Phil tells Clint’s voice mail later that day.

“We still need a thief, but I think I have a good candidate lined up. Do you remember Aadil Bashir? He stole those papers from the consulate in Johannesburg, and we chased him all the way to Buenos Aires. You said at the time that he was good, and he’s only gotten better, from what Parker tells me.”

Clint had actually called Bashir a slippery son of a bitch, but that was after Bashir managed to knock Clint off a roof and escape. During the fight on the rooftop, Clint had called him worse.

“Natasha agrees that he’s our best choice, since you’re staying with SHIELD.” Phil slips that in as matter-of-factly as he can. It’s one interpretation of Clint’s silence. Phil just doesn’t want it to be the right one. “So I’ve arranged a meeting in New York this weekend.”

“I have to say, I’m excited to be moving forward. This team... I think we can do a lot of good together.”

“I know I’ve put you in an awkward position with these phone calls,” Phil goes on. “I’ve enjoyed speaking openly about what’s going on here, but I don’t want you to worry about any potential conflict of interest. I’ll be more discreet going forward.”

“I’ll miss you.”

The last part slips out unplanned, and for the first time in any of these calls, Phil presses the button for more options and considers deleting the message. It’s the closest he’s ever come to saying goodbye. He might have tipped his hand there. But it feels right.

Time runs out on him; the message saves, and the line disconnects. It’s too late to change now.

He’ll just have to play it out.

*****

The meeting with Bashir is going as well as Phil had hoped. Bashir chose the location; they ended up at a glitzy, high-end fusion restaurant in Manhattan. Skye seems to like it, or what she can see of it on the surveillance cameras. She’s been singing along with the upbeat Japanese disco blaring from the ceiling speakers, her voice clear and happy in Phil’s ear.

They need someone who can match Skye’s energy. Bashir would actually be a good choice.

“You do come highly recommended,” the man says, meeting Phil’s eyes in the mirror behind the bar. Both of them are wearing suits; Bashir’s is perfectly tailored, his tie the same deep brown of his eyes. “I admit I’m intrigued by the offer.”

“The first job would be an audition on both sides.” Phil hasn’t touched the martini in front of him, but he’s thinking about it. “You can walk away afterward if you change your mind. No hard feelings.”

“Of course.” Bashir leans a little further into the bar, and not so incidentally, into Phil’s personal space. “And if we all enjoy the experience?”

Phil lets himself smile. “Then we’d be happy to offer you a spot on the team.”

“Too bad you won’t be taking it.”

That voice, after all these months of empty voice mails... For a moment, Phil's afraid to look.

“Excuse me?” Bashir turns toward the man who just slid up to the bar behind him.

The other man leans his elbow on the bar, hemming Bashir in -- or edging him out -- and Phil can finally turn to look.

Clint’s in a suit, too, upscale enough to blend in here but not sharp enough to stand out. Blue, Phil thinks, but it’s hard to judge in these lights. His hair is shorter. He looks tired.

And pissed.

“You were supposed to warn me,” Phil subvocalizes into his earpiece.

“Whoops.” Skye laughs a little under her breath. “I was busy making the popcorn.”

“Seriously, the job is already taken.” Clint turns his back long enough to wave at the bartender, then turns back to grin obnoxiously at Bashir. “So’s he, by the way. If you were thinking that way.”

Bashir turns back to Phil. “Do you know this man?”

“Jealous ex-boyfriend,” Phil says, but he can’t quite keep in his smile.

“Ex?” Clint reaches around Bashir to lay his hand over Phil’s on the bar. “Sweetheart, you'll make me cry.”

“Right.” Bashir’s eyebrows have reached stratospheric levels, but his smile has genuine humor in it. “You have my number if you need to reach me.”

He squeezes Phil’s shoulder as he leaves, and winks at Phil where the mirror will catch it.

He really would make a good addition to the team.

“I thought he’d never leave.” Clint moves his hand, but slides over into the space Bashir left, which is the kind of mixed message that Phil can deal with. “What were you thinking, anyway? Tash would eat him for breakfast.”

“Did he just call her Tash?” Skye asks in Phil’s ear.

At the same time, Phil asks, “Tash?”

Clint puts a finger to his lips. “Shh, no one else gets to call her that.”

“If you say so.” Phil finds himself grinning helplessly as Skye laughs over the comms. “Do you come here often?”

“Only for job interviews.” Clint grins back. He points vaguely at the martini in front of Phil. “Is that any good?”

“How would I know?” Phil pushes it in Clint’s direction. “It’s yours if you want it.”

Clint’s fingers close around the stem of the glass, and he looks down, suddenly serious. “Is that just about the drink?”

“No.”

“Good.” He takes a sip of the martini, makes a face, then gulps the rest. “I didn’t spot Natasha anywhere.”

“She’s not here.” Phil raises an eyebrow at Clint’s pointed look. “We didn’t need a grifter for this, and May’s here as back-up. I’m as safe as I’m likely to be.”

“No offense to May, but Nat is better.”

“Tell him to come over here and say that to my face.” May catches Phil’s eye in the mirror for a moment, before going back to watching the crowd.

“It’s not her job anymore.”

Clint looks away, and Phil knows from the way he’s twisted up that this is it. This is the key, this is what Clint’s looking for and he doesn’t even know it.

Phil’s only going to have one chance to get this right.

“I’m not sure I get that,” Clint says flatly.

“That’s because you’re still thinking like an agent.” Phil smiles when Clint looks up, startled. “None of us are agents any more, not on my team. This isn’t an op; it’s a con. I made you believe that we were going to hire someone else, so that you’d make a move.”

“I was wondering if you set me up.”

“Of course I set you up,” Phil says, letting his smile broaden. “Because I want you on my team.”

Clint looks away again. “I don’t see how that’s any different.”

And looks right back again when Phil takes his hand. “The thing about being criminals, we get to make our own rules.”

Clint’s fingers twitch under Phil’s, then close tight. “And what does that mean?”

“It means that we don’t kill people.” Phil keeps his voice gentle. “It means that we don’t use force. We trick people, and we trip them up, and we reveal their secrets in public. But each of us gets to decide where the lines are, and which ones we won’t cross.”

Clint takes a shuddering breath. “I always thought we were doing the right thing.”

“So did I. But we let someone else tell us what was too much, too far, too dangerous -- and I can’t go back to that. ”

Clint hangs his head for a moment, then nods. “Criminals, huh?”

“Yes. Still want the job?” Phil is pretty sure he knows, but he has to hear it.

“Yeah. I do.” Clint glances around once, grinning as a new song comes pounding out of the speakers. “Not that I can fault their taste, but can we get out of here? Unless you’re secretly a big fan of DJ Kawasaki, in which case, can we get out of here and let me raid your record collection?”

“He knows DJ Kawasaki? Now I want to raid his record collection.” Skye doesn’t sound disappointed that they’re turning Bashir down.

“Come on, then.” Phil laughs and pushes himself to his feet. “Your teammates want to meet you. And your taste in music.”

“Sure.” But Clint puts a hand on Phil’s sleeve and stops him before he can move away. “Ex-boyfriend?”

Phil had wondered if Clint was going to let that slide. They’d danced around this particular topic before, always joking, but Phil figures what the hell. If they’re making their own rules now...

“I was joking about the ex part,” he says, catching Clint’s eyes. “But the rest was wishful thinking.”

Clint smiles back and leans in...

“Are you going to kiss him?” Skye asks. “Are you kissing him right now?”

“Shut up, Skye.” But Melinda is laughing over the comms.

Phil leans away. “Maybe some time when we have less of an audience.”

“Were they razzing you about being my boyfriend?” Clint starts laughing, too. “Because they’re going to have to get used to that.”

“But not to making out over the comms.”

“Oh, come on, May! That barely even counts as making out."

“Shut up, Skye.” Phil doesn’t bother to subvocalize this time, and Clint leans in to make sure his voice catches on Phil’s microphone.

“I like you already, Skye. He doesn’t tell just anyone to shut up.”

“Shut up, Barton.” But they’re grinning at each other, and Phil would be perilously close to kissing him again if they didn’t have quite so vocal an audience.

Clint’s grin softens. “I missed you, too, Phil.”