Something dangerously close to contentment curls in Phil's gut as he watches the four youngest members of his little team chatter to each other over Chinese food and beer. Phil feels his shoulders relax a bit as some of the tension he's been carrying for months eases. These are good kids. Good people. A good team.
"You should tell them," Melinda says, appearing out of thin air right behind Phil's left shoulder. Phil just barely suppresses a full body twitch at her little stunt, and, from the smirk on her face, she knows it.
"Tell them what?" Phil locks his knees and resists the urge to move so that he can see her. Melinda May is many things, but a threat to him is not one of them.
There's a little huff of laughter, and Melinda knocks Phil's shoulder with her own as she passes by him. She stands so he can look her in her face, but still have an unobstructed view of the kids. "Tell them why you really put this team together."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"Of all of the jobs at SHIELD you could hold - and don't try and tell me you couldn't have had your pick - you decided to put yourself at the front line of looking for anyone with superhuman abilities. Strength. Speed. Endurance." Melinda raises one eyebrow. "Aim. You're trying to find him."
Phil feels a muscle by his left eye tick a few times. "Clint's not a superhuman."
"No, but he is exceptional enough to be on a team with superhumans. That puts him well above average, wouldn't you say?"
"I'm afraid I'm a bit biased when it comes to him. As I'm sure you're aware."
"Yes, I am. They aren't. And you should tell them."
"They don't need to know."
"Not yet, maybe. But what happens if he does come across our radar, if Hawkeye can't or won't stay hidden and he starts leaving a trail of perforated bad guys in his wake?"
Phil takes a deep breath. "If we get any reports of anyone operating with his skill set, I'll be handling that alone."
"Like hell you will," Melinda says with a snort.
"He won't hurt me."
"No, Clint would never hurt Phil Coulson. But he thinks Phil Coulson is dead. If you do happen to find him-"
"When," Phil says. "When I find him."
"Fine. When you find him, and you show up wherever he's at, do you honestly think his first thought is going to be oh, Director Fury must have faked my husband's death?" Melinda shakes her head. "He's going to think you stole that face, Phil, and he's probably going to try and carve it off of you."
"I can convince him it's me," Phil says, his voice reflecting the confidence that's in his core. He doesn't try to argue with Melinda because he knows she's right; when they first meet again, Clint will probably jump to a wrong conclusion - doppelganger, clone, face-stealing alien - and try to take a pound out of his flesh. All Phil will have to do is stay out of reach and alive long enough to say a few key phrases, bring up a few memories - both good and bad - that Clint will know could only come from his mind and no one else's. And then there will probably be tears, and hopefully kissing, and he'll bundle Clint into his arms, and take him home, and never let him out of his sight again.
"You're still going to need backup." Phil opens his mouth, and Melinda holds up one hand. "Wait, let me rephrase that, you're going to have backup."
"Whether I like it or not?"
"Now you're getting the picture."
Phil smiles, despite himself. "You really think I'm going to be able to find him?"
"You're the one who found him before, right?"
"He wanted to be found then. He was tired. Alone. Hurting."
"And you think he isn't any of those things now?"
"He's had almost a year to get over me, Melinda," Phil says, finally voicing the fear that had been gnawing at him for a while. "It's entirely possible that he's moved on."
"Hmmm. Maybe. And if he has?"
"He deserves to know he was lied to. He deserves the truth."
"And if the reaction to that truth isn't what you hope it'll be?"
"Then I'll respect his decision, and I will make Nick Fury the sorriest man on the planet."
Melinda lets out a soft noise of discontent. "Seems odd to me. It's one thing to lie to Tony Stark, but letting Clint think you were really dead was just-"
"A more dickish move than we've come to expect, even from him? Yeah, I know." Phil shakes his head. "He said he'd planned on telling him after the dust cleared, but Clint disappeared before he could. I guess no one knew how tenuous SHIELD's hold on him was."
"No one wants to lick their wounds in public, Phil. And your supposed death did wound him. Badly. Which is why I'll say again, you need to tell them. Everything."
"If we get a solid lead on Clint..." Phil shakes his head. "When. When we get a solid lead on Clint, I'll reevaluate my decision."
Melinda huffs. "Speaking of leads, do we have any new prospects?"
Phil snags a nearby tablet and pulls up the latest files had been looking at. "There are some interesting rumblings coming out of Wakanda. Some guy in red footie pajamas with horns on his head is hopping around Hell's Kitchen. Some other guy with a sword fetish took out some mob types in Tokyo. And, in the Southwest, there are reports of a motorcyclist with a flaming skull where his face should be."
Melinda ponders this information for a moment. "A flaming skull?"
"Instead of a face?"
"Yeah. And eyewitnesses say his appearance was accompanied by a strong scent of sulfur."
"Huh. That's weird."
"Isn't it just? Are you missing your stapler and paper work fort yet?"
"I could do a lot of damage with that stapler."
"I can imagine."
Melinda scowls, then her face softens. "We'll find him, Phil."
"Yeah." Phil looks down at the tablet in his hands. "I know."