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These are Our Friends and These are Our Foes (You’re the One I Love Most)

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It’s a three-day mission in Jordan, just Clint and a handler named Kuring. Kuring’s a quiet one, the type to write his reports in pieces every night in the hotel. He and Clint chat a little on the plane, but they don’t have a lot in common outside of work and Clint’s got the mission brief memorized, so they settle into the silence and do their own things.

Right after they check into the hotel, as they cross the lobby to the elevator, Clint’s phone rings. He pulls it from his pocket as he shifts his duffel to his other arm, and he bites back a grin when he sees it’s Phil. “Hey,” he answers, giving Kuring a headshake to show it’s nothing important.

“Kuring’s gone rogue,” Phil greets him. “Don’t get on that elevator.”

Clint hums as though Phil hasn’t just told him the last thing he needs to hear in a crowded lobby of a hotel filled with tourists. “Not sure what the stock numbers are,” he replies, his way of telling Phil he’s not certain he can get away.

“Don’t get on that elevator,” Phil repeats. “I don’t care if you have to take off at a sprint and push down a small child. Get the hell out.”

“Hold on, let me check my bag,” Clint says and takes a step back from Kuring. Kuring turns to look at him, arm stretched out to press the elevator button. Clint balances his phone between his shoulder and ear, swings his duffel so he can open an outer pocket, and says to Kuring, “R&D thinks they passed me a bad batch of supplies.” It’s SHIELD-code for Clint’s arrows being compromised. “They need me to check the stock number.”

“Right now?” Kuring asks, and he moves towards Clint. It’s only one step, but there’s purpose to it, purpose that intensifies when Kuring’s hand hovers for a moment at the lapel of his coat, next to his holster.

“Off-grid,” Clint says to Phil, and he throws his phone at Kuring. He hits him right between the eyes, and he’s off at a dead sprint with his duffel over one shoulder, skirting around a family of four and squeezing between the luggage carts before he’s out the front door. He swings left and keeps up the sprint for a block before he spots an alley with a fire escape that looks like it can hold his weight. He adjusts his duffel so he’s got a carrying strap over each shoulder, and then he’s climbing as high as he can, peeking in windows as he goes.

*

“Off-grid,” Clint says to Phil, and Phil swears as he watches the whole thing unfold on the hotel security cameras tech had hacked as soon as they’d gotten the word on Kuring. Clint throws his phone, nailing Kuring an inch from the top of his nose, and then Clint’s moving fast, clearing the lobby before Kuring can staunch the flow of blood coming from his nose.

“I need eyes,” Phil barks, and footage from street cameras starts popping up as Clint moves. “Kuring?” Phil asks as he watches Clint keep up his pace down the block, clipping into view through the row of cameras they’ve managed to access.

“Still trying to deal with his nose,” a tech announces, and there’s a note of pride for Clint’s aim. “Orders?” he asks.

“Alpha team is in route,” Coulson says. “Keep eyes on him.” He watches Clint disappear down an alley, and another tech announces they’ve got no eyes down there. “Barton will find us,” Phil says. He clutches his cell in one hand as he reaches for the landline on the desk in front of him. “Call Kuring,” he orders. “Keep it ringing until he picks up.”

“Yes, Sir,” a tech says, and a few seconds later, Phil’s got a ringtone in his ear. He watches Kuring on the security feed, trying to push away the concierge who is clearly offering to call for medical help. Phil counts twenty-two rings by the time Kuring rifles around for his phone and pulls it from his suit jacket.

“What?” he snaps.

“This will be your only chance to come in on even passably good terms,” Phil tells him. On the screen, Kuring looks like a deer in headlights, and Phil revels in it. “You stay where you are, let Alpha Team collect you quietly, and you’ll get our most spacious, windowless cell and I will only break one of your fingers for your betrayal. You decide to run, you become Romanov’s pet project, and I won’t care about the state of any part of you after the fact.”

Kuring looks directly into the camera, and he gives a soulless smile. “I’m going to hunt down your favorite toy and mail him to you in pieces.”

“Romanov it is,” Phil says. “Best watch your kneecaps, you treasonous cretin.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Kuring says.

“Enjoy trying to hide that broken nose,” Phil replies, and he disconnects right before Kuring flings the phone out of the range of the camera. “I want Romanov and Sitwell in Sit-Room 2 in two minutes,” he says. “Get me Fury and Hill on conference on my way up.”

“Yes, Sir,” a tech says.

Phil’s earpiece beeps just as he steps out the doors from the control room. He taps it. “Coulson.”

“Fury.”

“Hill.”

“Barton’s jackrabbited on my order. Kuring is about to be in the wind.”

“We trust your judgment,” Fury says, and Maria makes a sound of agreement. “You know the protocols.”

“I’m sending out Sitwell and Romanov to find Kuring,” Phil says. “I’m going to wait for first contact from Barton before we make a plan.”

“I’ll get full camera access in the city,” Maria says. “We’ll have eyes everywhere.”

“Copy that,” Phil says as he turns down the hall to Sit-Room 2. Jasper and Natasha are already inside, scanning the dossier displayed on the wall screen that is being updated every few seconds. “Anything else?”

“You’re staying here,” Fury says, and Phil knew it was coming, but he still hates to hear it. “You’re on this until we’ve got Barton back.”

Phil has to fight not to grind his teeth as he steps into the room and Jasper and Natasha both look at him. No reason to give them more to worry about. “Yes, Sir,” he says.

“And get your ass up here for a glass of scotch once you’ve got Sitwell and Romanov on their way,” Nick says.

“Yes, Sir,” Phil and Maria say at the same time, and it loosens the knot in Phil’s chest the tiniest bit.

“I’m breaking his left thumb first,” Natasha says when Phil disconnects his ear piece and takes it out.

“Tasha says I can get the first kneecap,” Jasper adds.

“What’s gotten you that honor?” Phil asks as he pulls a tablet from the center of the table and double taps it to power it up and load the information that’s still scrolling on the wall.

“Third anniversary in a row I’ve gotten sent out at the last minute,” Jasper says as he and Natasha both pull tablets towards themselves. “Tasha gives the best condolence presents.”

For the first time since the intel on Kuring came in, Phil feels himself smile a little. “Wheels up in thirty,” he says, “so let’s do this fast.”

The intel is as follows: Kuring, Ivy League educated with special forces training and ten years with SHIELD, has been funneling information to a mercenary cell with no ties to anything besides bringing about chaos in the world.

“Mothefuck,” Jasper mutters. “At least have some standards if you’re going to commit treason.”

“His nose is likely broken,” Phil says, and he catches the grim, pleased smile that slides across Natasha’s face. “He’ll no doubt remove himself of all SHIELD tech and go to ground to either try and wait us out or try to get to a country with questionable extradition laws.”

“He’s smart,” Natasha says. She flicks her fingers over her tablet, and a list of his missions come up over the middle of the table. There are bits and pieces of reports quoted under the dates and locations of the missions, highlighting exactly how Kuring describes going to ground. “But he’s not particularly creative. His under-pressure response to mission changes was to take protocol and tweak it about thirty degrees. He’ll be able to hide pretty effectively, but once we find his trail, it’ll be consistent.”

“We’re going to need to find him sooner rather than later,” Sitwell says, flicking up a map so they can all see it. “Jordan will basically give us carte blanche in dealing with him if our embassy sucks up the right way, but he’s got Iran and Syria and Lebanon within easy reach if he wants to hide out and make us use full-on legal means to get to him, and those countries won’t play ball with us.”

“Alpha team’s got orders to get on his tail and stay on it before you get there. They’ll rendezvous with you and pass off the op once you land,” Phil tells them. “You’ll have Kuring’s records to review when you’re wheels up. You need anything, I’m the 24-7 contact until we get this sorted.”

Jasper and Natasha both nod, and Phil stands to show the meeting’s over. “Wheels up in fifteen,” he says. “Say your goodbyes and get your kit.”

Jasper hurries out of the room, clapping Phil on the shoulder as he goes. Natasha walks around the table and leans against it. “He’ll be fine,” she says. “No one goes to ground like Clint.”

“Except you,” Phil says, looking up and giving her a fond smile.

Natasha drops her hand and squeezes his. He returns it. “Kuring will come back bleeding, but he’ll come back alive,” Natasha promises. “His information is more valuable than a personal vendetta.”

“True,” Phil agrees, and he stands, dropping Natasha’s hand. “But don’t feel the need to play nice.”

“I never do.” She smiles at him, predatory and dangerous and glorious.

“Be careful,” Phil says.

“Copy that,” she says with a small smile and a wave as she leaves the room.

Phil breathes in hard through his nose. He forces his mind to into full-on mission mode, letting the known routine of a rescue op settle his nerves. He grabs his earpiece and a tablet and flicks off the lights as he leaves the room. There’s scotch up in Nick’s office, and Maria to commiserate with about why the hell the both of them had to fall in love on the damn job while they wait for word. He’s probably not sleeping tonight.

*

Clint gets to the top of the building and breathes a sigh of relief when he sees the roof door. It’s propped open with a piece of brick, and he scans the rooftop for people. There’s no one. He kicks the brick out of the way, catching the door before it can slam, and he walks down the stairs as quietly as possible. It’s a large building—twenty windows across and thirty up—so it’ll make a good hideout for the time being. There are enough people here, Clint figures, that he’ll just be assumed to be another business man or contractor in Jordan for work and not actually on the run from something.

He’d spotted an empty apartment on his way up the fire escape, devoid of any furniture and with the bright, shining look of having been recently cleaned. Someone’s moved out, no one’s there yet, and Clint figures he has at least a few hours to make use of the place before he has to worry about new tenants. It’s on the fourteenth floor, and Clint pauses at the door leading from the stairwell to listen. There’s no sound from the other side and no sound in the stairwell either. He pulls open the door an inch and peers in. Security camera up high and centered on the door, another halfway down the hallway, and a third at the other end.

“All right,” Clint mutters, and he lets the door close again. He swings his duffel off his shoulder and opens it up, pulling out a ball cap, an empty, smaller duffel, his lockpick set, and a lightweight, dark red jacket with white stripes down the arms. He jams the cap on his head, fills the small duffel with odds and ends from the large duffel, and punches the big duffel around so it looks closer to the size of a non-military issue duffel. He slides his lockpick set into his pants pocket and swaps out his SHIELD-issue black jacket for the red one. He wishes he had time to change shoes; his boots will give him away to anyone with sharp eyes and good training, but he needs to be in that apartment sooner rather than later, so he just crams the black jacket into his big duffel and zips up everything instead.

“Let’s do this,” he says. He breathes deep, shifts both duffels to one hand, and throws open the door to the stairwell. As he passes the first camera—walking like the uneven weight of the duffels is giving him problems—he just happens to reach up and scratch his neck.

The apartment is halfway down on the left side, and Clint drops his bags to the floor before patting himself down for his lockpick. He makes sure to shift to block his movement from the cameras as he gets the picks in and gets to work. The lock, luckily, opens quickly, and Clint feels a tiny drop of stress leave him when he tries the knob and finds the deadbolt was left open.

He kicks his bags into the apartment and shuts the door behind him, throwing the deadbolt and the bottom lock before dragging his stuff into the hallway. He stops halfway down the hall and drops to the floor. It’s the only place without windows, the only place no one can see in, and it makes his skin crawl to not have a good view of the whole place, but he pushes it back and gets to work.

The trick to running for your life, Clint knows, is to run light and run smart. He’s got to lose some weight.

*

Nick’s just handed Phil a tumbler with two fingers worth of scotch when Maria walks into the office. Her hair is slightly askew around her ears, and her cheeks are pink. Jasper’s goodbye kiss, Phil figures, must have just ended.

“Thanks,” Maria says when Nick hands her her own scotch. She takes a sip, sets it on the desk, then reaches up and straightens her hair.

“You both okay?” Nick asks as he sits at his desk, putting his feet up.

“Clint’s good at hiding. Natasha’s good at finding. Jasper’s great at threatening. None of them like Kuring at this point. It’ll get handled,” Phil says.

“That’s a lovely moto speech you’ve got, Phil,” Nick replies. “But you are not up here drinking my 30-year-old good stuff to feed me that bullshit.”

Phil smiles and Maria laughs, and Phil reaches up and loosens his tie. “I want Kuring’s head on a platter, and I want to be the one to kick it off.”

“That’s just good taste,” Maria says.

“Sorry about your anniversary,” Phil tells her.

“Three now?” Nick asks.

“Yeah,” Maria agrees. She shrugs. “It’s just a day, really. Jasper’s the one who puts the emphasis on it.”

“That is so very sweet,” Nick says.

“You’re just bitter because no one loves you,” Maria replies, and Nick throws his head back and laughs.

“Woman, everyone loves me. I am the baddest motherfucker on the planet.”

“And so modest,” Phil deadpans, which earns him a snort from Maria and a grin from Nick.

“To good luck,” Nick says, holding up his glass. “May it save these dumb bastards one more time.”

Maria and Phil raise their glasses too, and they all drink. They fall into silence after that because there’s nothing else to say. They’re not people who do reassurance particularly well, and they can’t fake it with one another. They’ve known each other too long.

Phil’s earpiece beeps, and he presses it. “Coulson.”

“This is Singer, Agent Coulson. I’m heading the closed-circuit tracking team for the Kuring and Barton op.”

“What do you have for me?” Coulson asks.

“We’ve got video from about ten minutes ago, Sir. A man walking onto the fourteenth floor of an apartment building and entering an apartment. He was carrying two duffels and wearing a baseball cap, so we couldn’t get a clear shot of his face, but he scratched his neck, and we saw something.”

“Send it to Fury’s monitors,” Coulson says, and Nick immediately leans over and turns the one on his desk so Phil can see the tape.

The man walks in the stairwell door. His face is mostly obscured by a ball cap, and he scratches his neck. After the video runs, a series of stills pop up, each one zooming in closer than the last on the man’s fingers.

On the left hand ring finger, there are two dots, roughly the size of freckles but spaced exactly half an inch from one another. Phil feels almost jittery with relief. “It’s him,” he confirms.

“We’ve got real-time feed on the location,” Singer says, his voice now coming through the speakers in Nick’s office. “We can dispatch Alpha to his location when they arrive.”

“It’s been ten—twelve minutes—since you got that video,” Maria says. “We certain he’s even still in the building?”

“We’ve got the GPS on some of his gear still lighting up there,” Singer reports.

“Which gear?” Phil asks.

“Jacket, emergency radio, boots, and his gun.”

“What about the bow and quiver?” Phil asks.

“No sign of them.”

“Five bucks says you show up there, and it’ll just be a pile of GPS chips,” Nick says.

“And everything they were connected to thrown in the river,” Phil agrees.

“Bring up a map of the neighborhood,” Maria orders Singer, and the map pops on-screen a moment later. The neighborhood is roughly half residential, half business with shops and cafes and other businesses interspaced with apartment buildings. It is in the middle of the city, surrounded by other neighbors of a similar layout. “Any guesses?” Maria asks.

“I won’t even pretend to try,” Phil says. “My gut says down low to the ground with a good line of sight, but Clint’s going to be working against every expectation of him.”

“Drunk in a bar acting like a tourist?” Nick guesses.

“Too obviously on the other side of the spectrum,” Phil says.

“Sirs,” Singer interrupts. “We’ve got visual on Kuring.”

“Where?”

“Same building, walking onto the fourteenth floor off the elevator. Real-time on this.”

The video pops up without request, and Maria, Nick, and Phil all watch as Kuring walks down the hallway, opens the apartment door, and walks in. There’s nothing for about ten seconds, and then Kuring storms back out, slamming the door behind him before he makes for the stairwell again.

“Barton has officially left the location,” Phil says, and he has to work hard not to breathe a sigh of relief. “Keep eyes on Kuring the best you can.”

“Yes, Sir. And Agent Barton?”

“Secondary,” Phil says, and it twists his gut a little to say it. “He’s in the wind. He’ll find us. Keep your eyes on Kuring.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Phil cuts the connection and reaches for his tumbler. Nick touches his wrist before he can drink from it and pours him another quarter-inch. “Thanks,” Phil says.

“He’ll be all right,” Nick says.

“Right,” Phil agrees. He downs the rest of his drink, thumps the glass onto Nick’s desk, and takes the small, wry smile Maria gives him.

“You could have married a schoolteacher,” she says.

“Where’s the fun in that?”

*

Clint opens his pocket knife and gets to work on his gear, popping the GPS chips from his boots, his jacket, and his gun before pulling his bow from the case and popping the chip from that, too, before crushing it under his boot heel. He doesn’t know how dirty Kuring is, but he’s dirty enough to have nearly drawn down on Clint in a hotel lobby with plenty of witnesses, so he figures there’s a fair chance whoever Kuring’s working for has hacks for the SHIELD-issue chips.

There’s a hiker’s backpack buried at the bottom of his duffel. From the outside, it looks like any other hiking backpack, something a tourist would wear when traveling light. It’s Kevlar-lined, has no GPS chip, and has a built-in, modified version of Clint’s quiver complete with a full complement of arrows and heads. There’s even a side pocket for his bow.

The first time he’d seen it, down in R&D, they’d informed him it had no name but its designation was RS-252. He and Phil, when he’d told Phil about it later, had spent some time debating what to name it, using only the R&D designation as a starting point.

“Run screaming,” Phil had said. “It’s what you’d be doing when you need it, anyway.”

“Run screaming, you bastard,” Clint had replied. “Y is the twenty-fifth letter of the alphabet, and B is the second.”

“I cannot believe I spend time with you people,” Natasha had said when she’d gotten pulled into the discussion over lunch one day.

“We can’t believe we spend time with you,” Clint had replied, an arch look on his face.

“You don’t know how good you’ve got it.”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea,” Phil had said, and Natasha had rolled her eyes at the way he looked at Clint.

Clint smiles at the memory as he packs his bow, a stack of MREs, a map, a compass, clean socks, and two fresh shirts into the bag. He zips up everything, swings the bag onto his shoulders, and throws everything else into the big duffel again, slinging it over one shoulder as he heads for a window. He climbs onto the fire escape and pauses to check the surrounding area.

Kuring’s coming towards the building. Clint recognizes his gait. He’s moving fast, with purpose, and Clint is tempted to pull an arrow and drop him right that instant. Instead, he lets out a piercing, two-note whistle, and grins when Kuring looks around and spots him on the fire escape. Clint flips the most exaggerated bird he can make, then steps back in the window. He counts to ten, looks out, and sees that Kuring is gone, no doubt already in the lobby and jabbing at the button for the elevator.

Clint wishes he had time to leave a note. “Fuck you,” or “Nice bruises,” or “Kiss your kneecaps goodbye.” Instead, he dumps the big duffel, full of everything he can do without, in the middle of the empty living room, and he makes for the fire escape again. He jumps on the escape railing, crouches, breathes deep, and jumps, catching the heavy-duty drainpipe and pressing his toes into the side of the building so he doesn’t fall. Once he’s certain he’s got his balance, he shimmies down the pipe, hand-over-hand, and jumps the last six feet when he lands. He crouches behind the dumpster, a line of sight that lets him see the window but won’t allow Kuring to see him, and grins again when Kuring looks out, looks pissed, and disappears again.

“Fuck you, too,” Clint mutters, and he takes off at a quick walk, covering sixteen blocks as fast as he can, pausing at a street corner just long enough to make clear eye contact with a traffic camera before ducking into an alley and finding a place to hide out long enough to make certain Kuring hasn’t tracked him.

*

“We’ve got Barton,” Singer says when he chimes Phil’s earpiece again. “Roughly sixteen blocks from the first location.”

“You’re not supposed to have eyes on Barton,” Phil replies, though every muscle in his back loosens at the report.

“It wasn’t us, Sir,” Singer says. “We’re running background facial rec according to protocols, and it popped up.”

“He look injured?”

“No, Sir. We think it was intentional, actually. He looked straight into the camera and ducked into an alley.”

Definitely intentional, Phil thinks. “Kuring?” he asks.

“He’s not trying to hide from the cameras,” Singer says, and there’s a note of disappointment in his voice. They love a challenge down in tracking, and Kuring is clearly failing their personal expectations.

“He near Barton?”

“He just passed the corner where Barton eyed the camera and kept going straight. We’ll keep on him.”

“Good work,” Phil says and disconnects. He’s in his office filling out forms and debating when to call Natasha with updates. She’ll assume there’s nothing to know if Phil doesn’t call. There’s not, technically—camera proof that Clint is safe isn’t something Natasha needs to complete her mission—but Phil could use a friend right now, and Maria’s got enough on her plate with Jasper in the field and cameras to check.

“Damnit,” he mutters and grabs his cell. He’ll text, he decides. It’ll be quicker than a call.

Spotted in a building, flashed his dots at a security cam. Spotted again at a corner, looked directly at the camera.

He’s halfway through an NS-63 (request for a gross of black ink pens and new stamp pads for junior agents in the bullpen) when his phone buzzes.

”Flashed his dots” sounds like a sex act. How’s he look?

Phil texts back without dropping his pen from his hand:

Not injured and clearly pissed.

He finishes the NS-63 and moves on to an SS-27 (request for extra cushions for the chairs in the junior agent bullpen). His phone buzzes again as he gets to line three.

He’s fine, then. When I get back, I want five things that could be interpreted as “flashing the dots.”

It’s moments like this, Natasha completely collected in the midst of true worry and finding ways to deflect Phil’s thinking, that he is so very grateful Clint was able to convince him to bring her on as an asset.. Clint’s got a similar way to him, keeping Phil’s stress down with dirty jokes and his uncanny ability to know when quiet is absolutely necessary.

Sitwell doesn’t get to play, he types back.

Natasha’s response is so quick, Phil doesn’t even get to line four of the SS-27.

He called you a donkeyfucker. I said that was a bit rude. He says Clint is clearly a jackass. Couldn’t argue.

Phil actually laughs. That’s because you’re smart.

There’s nothing more after that. Phil finishes the SS-27, puts down his pen, stretches, and fights the urge to call down to tracking for an update. One of the televisions mounted on his office wall is showing him real-time flight information on Jasper and Natasha. Another is showing him Alpha Team’s movement. They’re just crossing the invisible border into the city, Phil sees. They’ll be calling in with a sit-rep and request for instructions as soon as they hit the city center. Phil stands and straightens his papers before grabbing his tablet and heading for Sit-Room 3 for the video conference.

Maria’s already in Sit-Room 3 when he gets there. “Mind if I sit in?” she asks. She’ll leave if Phil requests it. She only wants to sit in to know exactly what kind of danger Jasper might be going into and she’ll respect regs if Phil wants to enforce them, but Phil sees no reason to. And, hell, he’s running the op to bring Clint home. Like he’s got a leg to stand on.

“Pull up a chair,” he says. “It’ll be quick.”

Alpha Team calls in not five minutes later. They’re in the city, headed to Kuring’s last known according to the video tracking has sent them. He’s starting to dodge the cameras, they report, but he’s still popping up enough that tracking can clearly guess his trajectory.

“Split into two teams,” Phil orders. “Burn on both ends until you’ve lit him up in the middle.”

“Yes, Sir,” Alpha’s lead, Novak, says with a nod.

“Be careful,” Phil adds. “He’s not been violent yet, but there’s no telling when he’ll snap.”

“His left hip is a little tricky,” Maria says. “Old injury from an early op. Get a good hard jab with something in the meat above the bone, and he’ll drop like a rock.”

“Or just break his nose further,” Phil adds.

“Quick takedown,” Novak says, “Copy that. When do we hand off to Sitwell and Romanov?”

“You’ll pass it to them when they find you,” Phil says. “If you get hands on him first, just keep him in one place.”

“And one piece,” Maria adds, and Novak chuckles darkly. They all get bitter at double agents and backstabbers. The reminder never hurts.

“Copy that,” Novak says, “though I won’t pretend we aren’t disappointed.”

“Be safe,” Phil says and cuts the comm after Novak’s assurance they’ll do their best. Phil gives Maria a questioning look. “Bad hip?”

“We were partnered on that op,” Maria says, her eyes flinty. “He jumped in front of me when we were being fired on with a shotgun. He’s still got some buckshot in his hip. It hurts him sometimes.”

Phil doesn’t have an immediate answer to that. “I love the job,” he finally says, “except when I hate the job.”

“Pretty much,” Maria agrees.

They stand at the same time, Phil waiting for Maria to come around the table before he walks to the door. He’s halfway through, one foot still on the sit-room’s beige carpet, when his earpiece beeps. Maria’s beeps a moment later.

“Coulson.”

“Hill.”

“Sir,” someone says into Phil’s ear, “there’s a swarm of rocket birds in Midtown.”

“Rocket birds?” Phil asks, and he waves to Maria as she hurries away at a healthy jog while speaking into her own comm.

“Yes, Sir. We can’t get hard numbers, but they’re bird-shaped and burning jet fuel.”

Of course, Phil thinks. Because of all the days to have a rocket bird attack that will lead, no doubt, to many, many stupid things said by Tony Stark, it has to be today. “Gather the Avengers. Scramble a field team. I’ll be at the garage in five.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Phil flicks the channel to his private line to Nick and waits for Nick to pick up as he heads for the garage.

“Rocket birds,” Nick says in greeting. “You sure you got this? We can delegate.”

“Who else can do this?” Phil asks. “Jasper’s en route. Maria will rocket launcher Stark out of the sky, and half the junior agents look like they’re going to piss themselves when they get within ten feet.”

“We’ve got senior agents who can do this.”

“Not yet, we don’t,” Phil says because it’s Phil’s job to train them and none of them have passed muster yet. “We simulated a Banner incident in Holo-training and three of them immediately pulled weapons.”

“The only ears you have on in the field are for these damned birds,” Nick says. “I’ll have Hill get someone on chatter from tracking regarding Barton and Kuring, and we’ll break in if there’s anything I deem worthy of your time.”

Phil hates the idea of being cut off from second-by-second updates of the search for Clint, but he knows Nick is right. Rocket birds in Midtown means the possibility of hundreds or thousands dead. Clint is one person. The most important person in Phil’s life, but still only one.

“Copy that,” Phil says. Nick drops the line, and Phil takes a moment in the elevator to button his top button and straighten his tie. He reaches into the pocket inside his suit jacket for his sunglasses and comes out with them plus a scrap of paper.

Don’t forget to be a badass while I’m gone.

It’s Clint’s handwriting, and there’s a doodle of a heart surrounded by lace. In the bottom corner are two dots, perfectly spaced. Phil folds the note and puts it back where he found it, then reaches up and presses his fingers against his own two dots through his shirt, just over the scar on his chest from Loki’s staff.

“Because we should have something to remind each other of each other,” Clint had argued in Phil’s hospital room. Phil was just past the point of being able to move without wincing, only expected to be in the hospital another few days, a week at most. Clint was sitting on the edge of the bed, hand clutched around Phil’s left hand.

“We have each other,” Phil had pointed out.

“We almost didn’t,” Clint replied, looking pointedly at Phil’s chest.

“No rings,” Phil had said. “You won’t ever wear it, and even if you did, you’d probably manage to swallow it somehow.

Clint shrugged, not even bothering to argue. “I was thinking something that wasn’t jewelry.”

“T-shirts?” Phil asked and gave Clint his best innocent look when Clint glared.

“I was thinking tattoos,” Clint said. “Small tattoos,” he added when Phil pulled a face. “Tiny. Something that could be looked over if colored right.”

Phil considered it. He wouldn’t pretend like the idea of having a reminder of the two of them wasn’t warming up his insides.

“What do you have in mind?” he asked after a pause.

“Dots,” Clint had replied. He grabbed the pen and paper off of Phil’s bedside table and drew for a moment, then held it up so he could both see it. “Like this, I was thinking.”

It was two dots, spaced half an inch from each other. “How long were you thinking about this?” Phil had asked as he gestured Clint to bring the sketch closer.

Clint looked down, cleared his throat, and spun the pen between his fingers. “A while,” he admitted. “It sounded lame, but I thought it’d be good, you know? I mean, it doesn’t look like much, but it’ll mean a lot to us to have it.”

Phil didn’t answer right away, having to swallow around a lump in his throat. “You’re ridiculous,” he finally got out, and Clint beamed at him. “Absolutely ridiculous,” he added right before Clint kissed him on the mouth.

“We can get them freckle-colored,” Clint said, so quiet it barely carried to Phil even with their mouths so close together. “Wherever we want them so people can’t put it together too easily.”

“Yes,” Phil agreed.

Phil takes his hand away from his chest as the elevator door opens. His usual SUV is already idling, pointed towards the open garage doors. The field team is standing around surrounding vehicles, all the doors open so they can sit-rep and pile in without any loss of time.

“Midtown,” Phil says. “Follow the bouncing dot on the GPS. We’ve got an uncertain number of jet-fueled hostiles and Stark’s ego to deal with. You got issues, we’re on channel six on comms. Any questions before we head out?”

“What’s the pool for Stark flying head first into something?” an agent shouts.

“It just passed a grand,” Phil replies. “Buy-in is now thirty dollars an agent. You still get to pick the object and how long it’ll take him. Money goes to Freeman. IOUs are good for 48 hours after the final paperwork is turned in on an op. Your buy-in is good for three rounds. Anything else?”

No one says a word. “We’re off,” Phil says and steps into the SUV, pulling his sunglasses on as they leave the garage. It’s just past noon in New York, making it just after eight in the evening in Jordan. The thought that Clint’s about to have a long, dark night ahead of him slides through Phil’s mind before he pushes it away and clicks his mind over to mission-only concerns.

*

The sun’s setting, and Clint still hasn’t found a place to hide out. He needs someplace he can blend in, but he’s a blue-eyed, fair-haired man with no travel companions in the middle of a Middle Eastern country. On the street, no one’s paying him much attention, but he’s going to be noticeable once he steps into a restaurant or hotel if he doesn’t choose carefully.

Full dark falls before he finds a hotel that looks promising. It’s got an attached restaurant, and through the front windows, Clint sees men in suits, and men in slacks and button downs, and men in casual wear. It’s a restaurant for visiting businessmen, meaning it’s a hotel for visiting businessmen. Clint’s not going to stay at the hotel; it’s too obvious, but he figures he can blend in long enough to get a cup of coffee and figure out the next part of his plan.

When he walks in, Clint spends a moment trying to decide if he’s going to speak in Arabic or English. He’s certain at least some of the men in this restaurant speak some Arabic, but the chances that a noticeable amount are fluent or even passable is pretty questionable. The conversation around him is too quiet to take a good measure. He steps over to the bar before the hostess can offer him a table. It’s half-enclosed, and it’s easier to pick up people talking. They’re speaking English, talking baseball or contracting work or about their families.

“What can I get you?” the bartender asks in a thick accent as Clint takes a stool at the far end of the bar with a good view of the entrance.

“Water, whatever’s on tap, and a menu,” Clint says.

The bartender grunts understanding and moves down the bar. Clint takes off his backpack and places it on the brass rail that runs the length of the bar near the floor, pressing his legs against the bag to keep it in place. He wishes he could have a gun in his waistband, but the risk of it being seen is too high. Jordan’s just unsteady enough some days that people pay attention to strange bulges in the back of a man’s slacks.

The bartender comes back with the water, then pulls a beer from the tap before handing Clint the menu. It’s written in Arabic and English. “The special,” Clint orders after giving the menu a cursory glance.

“Not picky,” the bartender says. “That’s a change.”

Clint shrugs. “Just a working guy,” he says. It fits with what he’s wearing. Gives a good excuse for his boots and t-shirt and cargos. “My boss keeps talking about this place, so I figured I’d check it out.”

“We serve good food,” the bartender says, and he slaps his hand on the bar in a friendly way before walking away again to see to another customer.

Clint rolls his shoulders to relax them and glances at the televisions scattered around the bar. There are four. One’s showing a soccer game, another some sort of game show, the third has news from what looks like a local affiliate, and on the fourth, it’s CNN. Clint doesn’t recognize the host or the show—Phil’s got him trained off 24-hours news and straight up addicted to questionable reality shows and a couple of solid dramas at this point—but he recognizes the Midtown skyline and the red-and-gold flash that is Tony Stark doing a fucking barrel roll above a swarm of some sort of robotic bird. The video takes over the entire screen, save a tiny corner space for the host’s face. The headline in the bottom of the screen announces LIVE FROM NEW YORK: AVENGERS ASSEMBLE FOR ROCKET BIRD ATTACK.

Clint takes a gulp of his beer to keep from jumping to his feet and making for the nearest phone. It’s too risky. Kuring’s people could be keeping tabs on him right now, and he wouldn’t even know it. The bartender comes back down the bar, checking everyone over, and Clint flags him down, forcing himself to look away from the screen. “Where’s the nearest convenience store?” he asks. The bartender gives him a confused look.

“I do not know that word,” he says. “The fourth word.”

He probably does know it, Clint thinks, just not in the context Clint’s using it. “Small market,” Clint says. “Someplace I could get a pre-paid cell phone.”

“One block south,” the bartender points south, “and then one block west. They take American money.”

“Great,” Clint says. “Thanks.” He looks up at the television showing CNN again. They’ve moved to footage on the ground. Anderson Cooper is reporting because Anderson Cooper—it is generally thought by everyone who works at SHIELD—has a serious adrenaline issue that needs looking into. Clint scans the crowd of agents behind Cooper, and he catches sight of Phil—moving through the crowd of agents, a tablet in one hand. It’s only as the camera changes angles again that Clint realizes he didn’t see a sign of Jasper. Jasper is always Phil’s right-hand in the field, partly due to rank and sheer ability, partly due to Phil’s preference for someone who can out-swear Stark as needed.

If Jasper’s not with Phil on the ground as rocket birds (spewing modified jet fuel, the host says, and damn if Clint wishes he could be there picking them off), then Jasper’s been pulled for something considered more sensitive and important.

Jasper’s headed to Jordan. Clint needs to find a fucking phone now. He flags down the bartender. “Hey, can I get that food to go?” he asks.

“Yes,” the bartender says and reaches under the counter for a takeaway container as Clint chugs his water and silently bemoans that he won’t get to finish his beer. He shrugs on his backpack as the bartender goes back to the kitchen with the container, and it’s at that exact moment that Clint spots Kuring walking in the restaurant.

“Fuck,” Clint breathes and ducks down, pretending to tighten the laces on his boots as he watches Kuring from between the legs of the bar stool. Kuring’s face is a spectacular palette of black and blue, and Clint takes a moment of mean pleasure at the sight of him right before Kuring makes eye contact and heads straight for him like a bull in front of a waving flag. Clint pulls a couple of large bills out of his pocket and slaps them on the bar as he stands up, picks up the bar stool by two legs, and swings it full force like an oversized bat as Kuring gets into range.

Kuring takes the stool to the stomach and goes down like a ton of bricks, but he’s already halfway to his feet when Clint hits him again, a little lower this time, enough to knock the air out of him and keep him down. Clint throws the stool to one side and grabs Kuring by his lapels. “You think I don’t know about you?” he yells. The bigger scene he can make, the better. Jilted husband 101 is really good for a big scene. “You think Phyllis wouldn’t tell me?”

“Phyllis,” Kuring snarls. He tries to shake Clint’s grip, but Clint tightens his hold and swings Kuring around, slamming him against the bar. “Don’t worry. Phyllis will see you again. Just not in the same number of pieces you’re in now.”

Clint kicks him in the balls as hard as he can, and this time, Kuring stays down. The bartender is standing back, watching in shock, the takeaway container still in one hand. “Left some money for the damages,” Clint says as he holds out his hand. The bartender hands him the container, and Clint opens it. It smells amazing, and the steam rising off it tells him it’s hot as hell.

Kuring’s scream when Clint dumps it on his face and then kicks him in the ribs confirms it, but Clint doesn’t stay around to gloat. He bolts out the front door and up two blocks before he cuts across traffic and makes for a set of buildings with an enclosed courtyard. Scaling the fence is nothing, and once he’s over, Clint ducks behind a small copse of trees and pulls two cell phones out of his pocket. He nabbed them both off Kuring when he manhandled him, slid them into his pockets when everyone was watching Kuring writhe in agony over the kick to the groin.

One’s a regular cell phone as far as Clint can tell. He flips through the contacts and spots numerous numbers in New York. Kuring’s personal cell, most likely. The other is a pre-paid phone, and it’s turned off with no signs of use, no scratch marks or dents and barely any fingerprints on the touch screen. It’s brand, spanking new, and given that Kuring is a treasonous fuck but not an idiot, Clint’s betting it’s clean as a damn whistle.

“Score one for paranoia,” he mutters as he drops Kuring's personal cell into the tiny pond in a corner of the courtyard and pockets the other phone for later use. For now, he has to find an actual safe place, one Kuring will have less luck tracking him to. He wonders if there are any places that charge by the hour in Jordan.

*

“Crazyfox has landed,” Agent Friedman says over comms ten minutes into the battle. He’s working as Phil’s right-hand in lieu of Jasper, though he’s working from the communications van rather than Phil’s actual right hand; Friedman’s instincts mid-battle still need a bit of touching up. Crazyfox is SHIELD internal code for Anderson Cooper, who is easily the most danger-prone reporter Phil has ever had to pull out of the line of fire.

“Winchester, Campbell, you’re on Crazyfox,” Phil orders to two junior agents to his left.

“We were on him last time,” Campbell argues.

“And you got that assignment for questioning orders in the field,” Phil replies.

“We’re on it, Sir,” Winchester says, throwing Campbell a death glare before pulling him over towards the media area.

“Mark ‘em for another round?” Friedman asks on the private channel.

“Campbell only. Seems Winchester’s learned his lesson,” Phil says.

“Got it.”

Phil squints up at the sky. The rocket birds keep circling the same twenty-block area like buzzards waiting for an animal to die in the desert. Phil thinks about Clint before he can stop himself. He shakes his head and pushes the thought back into its appropriate box.

“Report,” he says on the team comm channel.

“This is one for the flyers,” Steve says immediately. “I can hit ‘em with my shield, but it’s going to be easier to just fry ‘em.”

“Not entirely sure we should fry them,” Stark breaks in. “They’re rockets. If Thor lights them up, they’re going to light up and probably do a lot of property damage, and you know how I hate anyone doing that who isn’t me.”

“Repulsors?” Phil asks.

“I can’t get an exact read on the fuel source,” Stark replies.

“You’re saying you might blow them up and do even more property damage than you’re assuming Thor capable of,” Phil says.

“Yup,” Stark agrees. “And you said I don’t get to do that anymore unless I do it head first.”

“Secondary plan,” Phil orders rather than take the cheap shot.

“Hawkeye?” Steve asks.

“He’s off this op,” Phil replies.

“Off the op?” Stark asks because of course he asks. “Did you two have a domestic?”

“Stark,” Steve says before Phil can do it.

“He’s engaged elsewhere,” Phil says. “Widow as well.” There’s a moment of confused silence that Phil appreciates on a certain level. They’ve actually become a team, it seems. “So, a plan that doesn’t include their skillsets,” he says as the silence continues.

“Um,” Bruce says. He generally says nothing on comms unless he needs to confirm an order. “The Other Guy wants to catch them.”

“Catch them?” Phil asks at the same time as Steve.

“He thinks they’re pretty,” Bruce says with complete seriousness, and Phil can hear Stark snicker over the line.

“If we catch them, we can study them,” Stark says, and Phil’s not certain if the glee in his voice is from the possibility of dissecting rocket birds or if he’s still shaking off the giggles.

“So, how do we catch them?” Steve asks.

“I can create a bottle of wind to hold them,” Thor says. Phil looks to the east where Thor had headed earlier and spots him on the top of a skyscraper. He’s already twirling his hammer.

“That’ll work for the battle,” Phil says. “But what about after?”

“I’ve got some explosion-resistant stations in my basement at the tower,” Stark says. “Unless these things are nuclear, it should hold them.”

“I’ll scramble a team to the tower,” Phil says rather than even try to figure out how Tony knows nuclear rocket birds can’t be contained in his equipment. He cuts across the convoy to find any spare agents to make the run to the tower, passing near the media line and raising an eyebrow in question to Winchester.

“Crazyfox is contained,” Winchester says in an undertone into his comm. Phil’s close enough he could just say it, but Cooper’s close enough to hear it, and there is legitimate concern that making Cooper aware of his nickname will make him want to live up to it more.

Phil spares a moment to miss missions that didn’t include every reporter in the boroughs or concerns that Anderson Cooper might jump into the middle of the fight just to see what it feels like. He stops the thought just as it reaches memories of he and Clint on two-person ops, living out of each others’ pockets and breathing each other’s air, nose-to-nose in any number of security vans and tight lines-of-sight.

“No,” Phil mutters to himself and pushes the memories back down again.

“Sir,” Friedman says, breaking Phil completely out of his thoughts. “I’ve got a flatbed waiting to go to the tower and called ahead to Ms. Potts. She’s requesting names and badge numbers of the agents who are coming to collect the units.”

If Phil were not basically a married man, he’s pretty sure he would propose to Pepper for purely competence reasons. “Pass them to her once the agents are en route,” Phil orders.

“Yes, Sir,” Friedman says.

Phil holds back a sigh as he finally locates a couple of spare agents and sends them towards the flatbed. If Jasper were here, he’d have handled this whole bit of organization, and Phil could have kept eyes on the team.

“Captain,” he says into comms as he starts moving his way back towards the convoy line, “how’s Hulk doing?”

“He’s…” Steve pauses in that way he has when he’s realizing the world is a very, very strange place. “He seems to think they’re fireflies, Sir.”

Phil pulls up the security feed closest to Hulk. Hulk is catching the birds in one huge hand and grinning when they try to fly out of his grasp. Jet-fuel burns are apparently ticklish to the Hulk. “Containment?” he asks.

“He’s putting them in the cyclone just like we asked, Sir. Stark’s headed his way to see if he can’t catch a few of his own.”

Stark comes on-screen at the same moment, using his foot thrusters to push the fighting, fuel-spewing bird closer to the ground. Hulk catches it by its tail.

“Hulk like,” Hulk says. “Hulk keep?”

“We’ll see, buddy,” Stark replies. On the screen, he shoots back up towards some of the higher-flying birds. “But right now, just keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Pretty birds,” Hulk says.

“Sir,” Friedman breaks in on the private channel, “I’ve got news from tracking for you.”

Phil clenches his toes in his shoes because it’s the only way to prepare himself for any incoming news without giving himself away. “Go ahead,” he says.

“Barton was spotted in a restaurant attached to a higher-end hotel about fifteen minutes ago thanks to security feeds. Ten minutes ago, he was having a beer at the bar, and seven minutes ago, Kuring walked in the front door and spotted him.”

Phil’s pretty sure he’s about to have a heart attack. “All right,” he says.

“And then—and I’m quoting Deputy Director Hill here, Sir—Clint kicked his ass and ran like hell. Barton is currently in an unknown location but assumed unharmed.”

“And Kuring?” Phil asks.

“Last he was seen, he was hobbling to his feet after—and this is Hill again, Sir—a fucking crippling kick to the balls.”

Anyone who wonders how Sitwell landed Maria, Phil thinks, has never gotten her candid version of events of an op. “Copy that,” Phil says. He uncurls his toes and rolls his shoulders, and it’s easier to push Clint to the back of his mind than it was a few minutes ago.

“Sir,” Rogers breaks in, “there’s not much for me to do. Any orders?”

Phil checks stats. Evacuation is complete. Civilian injuries are nearly non-existent, and the injuries that have happened are minor. “Congratulations, Captain,” he says, “You’re on Crazyfox interview duty.”

There’s a pause, then Rogers’ indrawn breath, and then he curses a blue streak that would make Sitwell proud. Phil grins. “Friedman, you owe me ten bucks,” he says on the private line.

“Goddamnit,” Friedman replies.

*

Jordan, it turns out, has a rather impressive collection of fleabag motels. Clint chooses the third one he finds, down a half-lit street that smells disreputable. He pays for a room in cash, takes the key, throws the deadbolt, then climbs out the bathroom window and heads towards another motel. He repeats the trick there, and then he finds a mid-level hotel used by tourists. One of those that runs on vacation time, with screaming kids up and down the halls at all hours and drunk adults pretty much all of the time. Clint pays with one of the SHIELD credit cards, goes up to his room, deadbolts the door, then climbs down the side of the building, hand over hand.

It’s only when he’s on the street again, wondering if there’s a nearby, all-night coffee shop, that he pulls the pre-paid cell from his pocket, turns it on, and dials Phil’s cell.

“You did not just use a SHIELD-issue credit card to check into a hotel,” Maria greets him.

“This is not your number,” Clint replies in French because he figures it’s one of the least likely known languages of anyone on the street.

“Phil’s in the field with the Avengers. I had his calls rerouted,” Maria replies in English. She knows what he’s doing; it’s an old field trick.

“Ah.” Clint jogs a few steps to get in the middle of a crowd of people about to cross the street. “And yes, I did use the card, but the question you should be asking is am I still there?”

“We’re picking up ambient street noise around you,” Maria says. “So, I’m saying no.”

“You are no fun, Hill.”

“I’m the most fun you’re never going to have, Barton. Kuring’s off cameras right now, but Alpha Team is closing in.”

“How long until they’ve got him?” Clint asks.

“They estimate an hour. Once they have him, we’ve got Widow and Sitwell ready to move in and bring him back.”

“What’s that make,” Clint asks, “third anniversary in a row?”

“Yup. Where are you now? We haven’t seen you on cameras since the restaurant.”

“Um,” Clint looks around for a street sign or a camera. “Hold on,” he says. He pulls the phone from his ear and navigates to the camera, snapping a picture then sending the image to Phil’s number. “Got it?” he asks.

“Got it,” Maria replies. “And we’ve got you live from half a block east.”

Clint heads that way, spots the camera, and touches a finger to his forehead like he might tip a hat. “We got a safehouse nearby?” he asks as he moves down the block. “It wasn’t in the briefing.”

“We were working on the idea that Kuring wasn’t a dirty traitor.”

“That one bit us right in the ass.”

“Hold on,” Maria says. “We’re cross-referencing what we have nearest you versus which ones Kuring may know about.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me; I’ve got loads of time.”

“Cram it,” Maria says.

Clint crams it, humming under his breath as he continues walking down the street. There’s a food cart on the corner, and his stomach rumbles, reminding him he didn’t get to eat the dinner he dumped on Kuring.

“Forty blocks east, ten blocks north,” Maria says. “Apartment 1963. Front door code is 9712-star. The doorknob will read your palm print when you turn it and pop the lock for you.”

“Got it,” Clint says, repeating it in his head a couple of times. “And we’re sure Kuring doesn’t know about the place?”

“As much as we can be. He’s also eighty blocks south of you and closed in on all sides by Alpha team, but he doesn’t know that yet.”

“I wish him the worst of luck,” Clint says. “Tell Phil I’m okay.”

“I’ll pass it along,” Maria says. “Burn that phone, Barton.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Clint says. He salutes one more camera, disconnects the call, and drops the phone down a sewer opening on the curb before stepping into an alley and disappearing again.

*

“No, but seriously,” Tony asks as they reach the end of the debrief, “where are they?”

“Not here,” Phil says. He is determined to stay calm, but if Tony asks one more time about Clint and Natasha, Phil thinks he might give in and slug him. “That’s all you need to know.”

“They’re our teammates,” Bruce says. “We have a right to know.”

“You don’t,” Phil replies. “We run covert missions, Dr. Banner, and that means they’re covert even from you.”

“Covert?” Thor asks, and Phil almost laughs because of course that’s the word Thor doesn’t parse.

“Secret,” Tony explains. “Super secret and sneaky. Infiltration and the like.”

“Oh, yes, we have done the same on Asgard,” Thor says, and he gives Phil a nod like he’s approving.

“Everyone get out,” Phil says. “I’ve got your debriefs, and you all need a shower.”

Tony, Bruce, and Thor leave in a huddle, talking amongst themselves as they head for the showers. Steve hangs back, holding his shield in front of him like a soldier might hold his hat when approaching a senior officer.

“Yes?” Phil asks before Steve can say anything.

“I respect that whatever’s happening is need-to-know,” Steve says. “But I literally had to pull Anderson Cooper back by the collar of his shirt so he wouldn’t go after one of the rocket birds that buzzed him.”

That makes Phil grin. “You think you get special treatment for that?” Phil asks.

“I like to think of it as hazard pay,” Steve replies. “I just want to know if they’re safe. I don’t really care about what else they’re up to.”

Steve’s tone is respectful and unquestionably polite, but the look in his eyes is damn near begging for information. He’s been out the ice for over a year now, but a year’s not a very long time to get over everyone you know being gone from your life. And Phil can’t pretend like he couldn’t use another person to lean on for all of this. “Natasha’s fine,” he says. “She’s in the field specifically to assist in bringing Clint home.”

“Is he hurt?”

“Not so far.”

“Did the mission go FUBAR?” Steve asks.

“Completely FUBAR,” Phil agrees.

“I’d appreciate any updates you can give me,” Steve says. “But I understand if that’s not possible.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Phil says, and it feels like there’s a weight off his chest, just knowing that Steve understands how little he can really say. “Go catch up with the others before they circle back,” he adds. “The last thing I need is Stark firing questions at me again.”

“I’ll ask him about Wikipedia,” Steve says, giving Phil an encouraging grin. “That should keep him distracted for awhile.”

“I appreciate that,” Phil says, and they shake hands before Steve turns and leaves.

Phil picks up his tablet and the stack of forms that always go along with an Avengers event before he leaves the conference room himself. When he gets to his office, Nick is there, feet on Phil’s desk and a grin on his face. “Present for you,” he says, tapping Phil’s monitor and then turning it so Phil can see it.

“You’re sitting in my chair,” Phil says.

“Look at the monitor, you ass.”

Phil looks, and there’s Clint, live and in-person and touching a finger to his head. The timestamp is half an hour old, which puts it just over an hour from the bar brawl. “Who’s he on the phone with?”

“Maria, through a reroute from your cell.”

Phil doesn’t ask why they rerouted his cell. It’s standard procedure when he’s in the field with the team. He doesn’t have the option to split his concentration. “Do we know where he is now?”

“Safehouse apartment,” Nick says, and he laughs at the way Phil’s whole body relaxes. “Locked up nice and tight. We changed the codes as soon as he got in. If Kuring makes it to his front door, he’s gonna get fifty thousand volts from the door knob.”

Phil can’t stop the smile that goes across his face. “And Kuring?”

“Romanov and Sitwell just radioed in. Alpha team handed him over three minutes ago. Sitwell’s already accidentally kicked him in the knee.”

“Clumsy guy, Jasper,” Phil says, and this time Nick smiles with him.

“Don’t know why we have him in the field,” Nick agrees. He stands and reaches into his coat, tosses an envelope towards Phil on the desk.

“What’s this?” Phil asks.

Nick snorts. “What do you think? Someone’s gotta extract Barton from the safehouse, and you’ve been such a good little agent.”

It’s a plane ticket and boarding pass for a private jet. Phil raises his eyebrows. “Private? Can we fund that?”

“We’re not,” Nick says. “Pepper called me from the Tower with the flight information ten minutes ago. I’ve also been informed there’s a car waiting.”

“What?”

“I didn’t ask, and she didn’t explain except to tell me that Tony’s idea of helping is usually more flamboyant than this.”

“I have seen the suit,” Phil says, and Nick smirks in agreement.

“Why you’re still here talking to me, I don’t know. You’ve got an overly fancy plane to catch and an agent to bring in from the cold.”

“Yes, Sir,” Phil says. He holds out his hand, and Nick hands him his go-bag from under his desk. “I’ll report in once I’ve got wheels on the ground in Jordan.”

“Be careful,” Nick says.

“Do my best.” Phil gives Nick a half-salute and walks out of his office. He pulls his phone out of his suit jacket as he heads for the nearest exit.

“Hello,” Pepper answers. “Got your present, I take it?”

“I did,” Phil replies. “Has Tony shared his personal conspiracy theory about why I need it?”

“Nope,” Pepper says. “All he said was that you were here and Clint wasn’t, and he figured a private plane and the car might be needed. So, here you are.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. When will I be informed about what’s going on?”

“As soon as it’s declassified.”

Pepper chuckles. “Ah, yes, as I expected. Take care of yourself. You owe me a drink when you’re back.”

“Of course. Bye, Pepper.” Phil disconnects the call after she says her goodbyes, and then he’s outside, a sleek, black towncar parked ten feet from the entrance, the driver leaning against the outside of it, holding a sign that says AGENT. “No one’s ever going to confuse you for classy, Stark,” Phil mutters as he walks over and introduces himself.

*

Clint takes a hot shower, finds some SHIELD-issue clothes in the dresser in the bedroom, and then he walks into the kitchen. There’s a landline, and he picks it up. There’s no dial tone, but after a moment, there’s a click, and then someone says, “How can I help you, Agent Barton?”

“How long am I here?”

“Your retrieval agent is en route. Estimated arrival in-country is eleven hours. Estimated arrival to your location is twelve hours.”

“Any orders until then?”

“Don’t get caught,” the agent replies. “We’ve got Kuring in custody, but don’t be stupid.”

“You sound like you’re quoting Hill.”

“I am quoting Hill.”

Clint grins. “Tell her orders received.”

“Copy that.”

Clint hangs up the landline and opens the fridge. Safehouses are stocked any time an agent comes in-country just in case, so there’s fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and juice, and all the usual long-term food items like vacuum-packed meat and canned goods. Clint wants to make a steak and baked potato and celebrate getting away clear, but he’s right on the verge of his blood sugar going to shit, so he throws canned soup into a bowl and pops it into the microwave before chugging milk straight from the carton.

They’ve got Kuring. The information rattles around Clint’s head as he watches the numbers count down on the microwave. It doesn’t mean Kuring doesn’t still have men after him, but Clint didn’t see any proof he had men after him in the first place. He checks the passersby from the kitchen windows, which give a good view of the street in front of the building. It’s a nice building in a nice neighborhood, the kind of place where people pay attention to loiters and call private security if anyone hangs out outside too long.

He’s safe. Or, as safe as he can be given the circumstances. He’s itching to pull his quiver and bow and put a few holes in the walls to clear his head, but he knows from experience that will only get him yelled at.

The microwave dings, and Clint has to search for hot pads to remove his bowl. He sits on the floor to eat, sipping from the bowl as he stares down the front door. By the time he finishes his soup, he’s more relaxed, more trusting that he’s gotten out with his hide intact yet again.

He pulls two steaks out of the freezer to thaw and goes to bed, his gun under his pillow, and his quiver and bow propped against the nightstand.

*

There are stripper poles on the plane. There’s also an incredibly well-stocked bar and galley. Phil is certain the plane usually comes with at least one ridiculously attractive flight attendant, but this time it’s just him and the pilot. He sends silent thanks to Pepper’s discretion, makes himself a triple-layer sandwich, pours himself a double-shot of truly obscene scotch, and pulls his current book from his go-bag. His comm beeps as he settles at the table, and he sets down his book to tap his earpiece.

“Coulson,” he says.

“We are en route back to base,” Natasha greets him.

“How many fingers did you leave Kuring?”

“All of them,” Natasha says in that completely innocent voice that has fooled entirely too many people over the years.

“How many are working?”

“Most of them.”

Phil smiles. “Excellent. Sitwell?”

“Explaining in extremely profane language what’s going to happen to Kuring once we have him back at base.”

“Has he threatened limb removal yet?”

“He’s promised it’s going to be Maria’s anniversary gift.”

“She’ll be thrilled.”

Natasha chuckles. “What about Clint?” she asks, her voice dropping to a near-whisper.

“Safe and sound in one of our safehouses,” Phil says, and he doesn’t hear Natasha exhale, but he knows her well enough to know it’s happened. “I’m en route to retrieve him now.”

Natasha doesn’t say anything, but she gives a low, pleased hum.

“Be careful,” Phil says.

“We’ve got this,” Natasha assures him. “And Sitwell is making a rude gesture I cannot translate into any sort of verbal communication.”

“Make the same one back at him,” Phil says. “Usually works.”

“Be safe,” Natasha says.

“I will,” Phil promises. They say their goodbyes, and he signs off. He’d relaxed when Nick had told him Clint was safe, but to know Natasha and Jasper have Kuring in their very capable hands makes him relax on a different level, makes it easier to pick up his book and pay attention to it as he eats his sandwich and drinks Stark’s scotch.

*

Clint wakes up seven hours after he fell asleep. He reaches for the phone by the bed and waits for it to connect. “Any orders?” he asks after he’s greeted.

“Your orders stand as before,” the agent on the other end tells him.

“Copy that,” Clint says and hangs up the phone before throwing himself back against the pillows. There are books and a television and a stack of movies, but Clint knows none of them will keep him busy. He throws off the covers and stalks to the kitchen, setting up the coffee pot to start brewing before he walks into the small second bedroom, which is set up with an elliptical, a set of free weights, and a pull-up bar. He stretches, then does push-ups and sit-ups, and works his way through the weights until he’s dripping with sweat. By the time he wears himself out, the coffee is charred, but he drinks it anyway, straight from the carafe, as he walks around the apartment in tight circles and tries to tell himself that it’s okay. They have Kuring. There’s been no signs anyone else is after him. It’s over. He can relax.

Except the last time it happened, when he woke up and thought it was over, he ended up on top of a building calling out positions on an armored space whale.

The landline rings, loud and echoing in the quiet of the apartment, and Clint nearly drops the carafe before he sprints into the kitchen and picks up. He doesn’t speak. In all his time using safehouses, the landline has never rung in.

“Paranoid,” Natasha says, and there’s genuine pleasure in her voice.

“I learned it by watching you,” Clint replies. A tiny part of him is disappointed it’s not Phil, but he knows much better than that. He’s still—technically—a missing asset, and Phil doesn’t break his professionalism until Clint’s been announced safe and sound. “Does Maria know you’re calling me?” he asks.

“What do you think?” Natasha says. Before Clint can say anything, she adds, “I thought you’d like to know Kuring is officially locked away with a hairline fracture in his knee cap and two broken fingers.”

“Only two?”

“I considered giving him more, but given that the doctors can’t find one of his testicles because you jammed it so far up his body and the second degree burns on his face, I figure you already got yours back.”

Clint laughs. “They can’t find one of his balls. You’re kidding.”

“You are such a child,” but Natasha sounds like she’s smiling.

They fall into silence, Clint just listening to Natasha breathe for a few seconds before he says, “I’ve got an hour and change before my extraction agent even lands. Tell me this isn’t going to go sideways before then.”

“Don’t be foolish,” Natasha replies. “You’re safe. Calm down.”

“What if—”

“This was one man doing one supremely stupid thing with a rather unorganized group of lackies,” Natasha interrupts. “You’re locked down in the safehouse. You’re fine.”

Clint feels his shoulders relax and slumps against the counter. “All right,” he says. “I’m better. Thank you.”

“And eat something,” Natasha adds. “You’re always extra-paranoid when you’re hungry.”

“Bye, Tasha,” he says in sing song just to bother her.

“See you soon, Clint,” she says and hangs up the phone.

He eats breakfast, flops on the couch, and stares at the ceiling while counting off minutes in his head. When he finally gives in and glances at his watch, the eleven hour mark has just passed. His extraction agent is landing right now, probably. Clint gets back up and pulls the steaks out of the fridge, tossing them on the counter, and then starts a new pot of coffee, making sure not to char it this time.

The next hour crawls by. Clint paces and looks out the kitchen windows and disassembles then reassembles his sidearm a dozen times. As he prepares to take it apart a thirteenth time, he looks out the windows again, and he catches sight of Phil walking towards the front door of the building but looking up, directly at the kitchen windows. Clint jumps out of his chair and presses his hands to the windows, beaming without thinking about it. Phil probably can’t see him from this height, Clint thinks, but he doesn’t care. Phil’s here. Phil’s his extraction agent. He doesn’t usually get to be the one, but every now and then, Fury sends him along. Clint feels himself grinning, tapping his fingertips on the glass and watching until he can’t see Phil anymore.

Clint waits in the kitchen doorway, rocking back and forth on his heels as he figures the time from the front door (two seconds to punch in the code) to the elevator (seven seconds to cross the lobby), to ride the elevator up to the nineteenth floor (twenty-two seconds), to walk down the hall (seven seconds again), to knock on the door.

The knock on the door is two seconds ahead of Clint’s count. He follows procedure, pulling his sidearm and approaching the door from the side. He checks the video feed next to the door, which shows him Phil’s face in a fish-eye view courtesy of the peep hole. Phil reaches with his right hand and tugs his right earlobe, hand signal to let Clint know that Phil knows he’s in there.

Clint flings open the door, sidearm down and hidden behind the frame so as not to scare any possibly passerby, and feels himself beaming again. “Coulson,” he greets.

“Barton,” Phil replies. Phil steps inside and closes the door behind him. “Any injuries to report?”

“No, Sir.”

“Any odd behaviors in or around the building?”

“No, Sir.”

“Excellent.” Phil crosses to the kitchen and picks up the landline. “Agent Coulson reporting,” he says after a pause. “Agent Barton is secure. Orders?” He looks at Clint and smiles the slow, soft smile he gets sometimes when they’re alone and just having time together. “Copy that,” he says, and he hangs up the phone.

“Orders?” Clint asks.

“We are to stay put until the jet refuels and the pilot logs the flight plan home. I have been assured this will take six hours. They’ll call the landline when the car’s five minutes out.”

“So, we just hang out here?” Clint asks.

“Yes,” Phil says, and then he reaches up, removes his ear piece, drops it on the kitchen table, and crosses to Clint, backing him against the wall and kissing him until they’re both panting and Clint has both hands twisted hard in Phil’s lapels. “Scared the hell out of me,” Phil says against Clint’s mouth, “having to call you like that.”

“Scared the hell out of me having to run,” Clint replies. He lets go of Phil’s right lapel and slides his fingers between the buttons of Phil’s shirt, pressing his fingertips to the edge of Phil’s scar, an inch from where his dots are. Phil touches Clint’s hand where it rests against his shirt, his own fingertips pressing right over Clint’s dots.

“Did I see steaks on the counter?” Phil asks.

“Yes, you did.”

“I’m going to fuck you through the mattress, and then you’re making me lunch.”

“For putting you through all this?” Clint teases.

“For making it through all this,” Phil corrects, pressing against Clint from shoulder to hip, catching Clint’s hand between them as he lifts his own hand to cup Clint’s face. Clint doesn’t try to get away, just goes limp and against Phil, pressing a kiss to the side of Phil’s neck.

“All right,” Clint says. “Sounds like a plan.”

“About time we had one,” Phil replies, and Clint chuckles against his throat, murmuring encouragement against Phil’s throat as Phil manhandles him into the bedroom.