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Without A Net Upon The Wire

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The third time someone kicks Clint as they're walking past, the tip of their boot clips his hip and he can't take it anymore.

“Watch where you’re walking,” he snarls, sitting up and waving his arms like it’s pigeons, not assholes, who keep stepping on him.

The dude - preppy, skinny, douchebag sunglasses in the middle of winter - takes one look at Clint and backs up.

“Fuck off, asshole,” the douchebag says, but he’s the one hurrying away.

Score one for the homeless kid. Clint doesn’t know why, but it seems he’s a million times scarier to people when he’s trying to sleep in an office doorway than he is when he’s just a random teenager walking down at the street.

That much movement has left Clint pretty exhausted, chest aching, so he slumps back down against the doorway and pulls the tattered edges of his sleeping bag back up around his shoulders. It’s cold tonight. The sky’s clear and it’d be pretty, except that Clint’s growing to hate stars. Stars in winter mean sub zero temperatures and teeth that chatter all the way to morning.

Another couple of people walk past, a boy and girl this time, laughing to each other and not paying any mind to Clint. That’s how Clint likes it. He’s not sleeping here for attention.

Then he coughs, this stupid cough that just won’t quit, and the girl jumps, turning toward him. She obviously didn’t mean to. Her eyes widen like he’s going to shank her when their gazes meet.

He looks away, lifting a gloved hand to cover his mouth, because he has manners.

“Here,” someone says, and Clint looks up through watering eyes to find the girl holding out a neat, clean-looking bill toward him. She’s staying well back, feet planted on the sidewalk, just her arm extended toward Clint.

Clint swallows down his next cough and says, “Thanks,” and takes the money. He’s not proud anymore. You take money when it’s offered.

“Oh, um.” She looks surprised, like she didn’t think he’d be able to speak or something. “Sure.” Then she scampers back to her boyfriend and they both hustle off, neither of them looking back.

Clint looks down at the bill. It’s a ten. There’s an all-night diner three blocks from here. He could get a cup of coffee, warm up his hands a bit, maybe get even a muffin. Instead, he lifts the back of his coat and tucks the money into his pants’ pocket, pats it, and sits back down.

Who needs warm hands, anyway?

Clint decides to try lying down again, now that people have stopped walking all over him. This area gets really quiet at night, it’s why it’s one of his favourites to sleep in. He just has to put up with the dicks on their way to clubs and the drunks on their way home.

Lying down turns out to be a mistake. He’s just gotten his eyes closed, when he starts coughing again. It’s worse this time, like his lungs are rattling, and he struggles to sit up again. Knees pulled up against his chest, he still can’t catch a breath and he coughs until his eyes sting and his head begins to pound.

Shit, but he hates winter.

“Here,” someone says and presses a bottle into Clint’s hand. Clint grabs it then looks up, just about making out the shadowed figure of a guy, blurred from the tears in Clint’s eyes.

Clint checks that the seal hasn’t been broken, then rips off the cap and chugs down some water. It soothes his throat and the itchy feeling in his ears just enough that he can pull in a full breath.

He starts coughing again right away, but the oxygen is still nice.

It takes half of the water and so much coughing that Clint’s ears ring, but eventually he manages to stop. The Good Samaritan stays close by the whole time, not crowding Clint or trying to touch him but hovering, kind of, like he thinks Clint might keel over.

Clint turns cautiously and takes a look at him. If he’s wearing a dog collar or a yarmulke, Clint’s out of here.

He’s not. He’s just a regular-looking guy in sweats with a coat thrown over the top like he forgot something and had to go out again after he’d already gotten ready for bed. He looks warm, comfy, like someone who has a home and will be back there again soon.

“Thanks, man,” Clint says, voice hoarse. He tries to hand the bottle back, but the guy shakes his head. Clint shrugs. He probably wouldn’t want it back after someone had gotten all their hobo cooties on it either.

“Do you need anything else?” His voice is soft, very kind.

“Nah, I’m fine.” Clint pulls his knees up closer to his chest and fights to keep his eyes open. He’s fucking exhausted.

“I could hear you coughing from up there,” the guy says, pointing up at the apartment building next door. “That’s not fine.”

Clint just looks at him. “Okay, say I’m not fine. You a doctor?”

Now he does look away from Clint, face shadowed in the shitty street lighting. Good. Go away. Clint doesn’t need help. “No.” He steps back then lifts a hand. “Stay there.”

Clint snorts down into his knees, because he’s not planning on moving. It’s not like there’s anywhere better and moving means dealing with other people looking for somewhere to spend the night.

He’s in that weird, exhausted place where he’s not really asleep but he’s definitely not awake, when there are footsteps next to him and his new friend crouches back down at his side.

“The 7-11 didn’t have much, but here.” He hands Clint a paper bag. “Cough drops, Tylenol, orange juice.”

“What?” Clint asks, grabbing the bag to his chest and then sort of gaping down into it. “Who are you?”

Now that he’s closer, Clint can make out dark stubble and light coloured eyes. His expression’s kind of blank, neutral, like he’s waiting to see how Clint will react.

“Just a guy who wants to sleep tonight,” he says and gives Clint a tiny smile.

Clint thinks about smiling back but people don’t smile at him, not unless they want something, and whatever this guy wants, Clint’s not going to give it to him. He’s managed to duck come ons and full-on propositions for months and he’s not going to break that now over some cough meds.

“Thanks.” He tucks the bag away inside his sleeping bag on his lap, folding his arms around it and looking up. “I don’t have any money.”

That earns him something close to an eyeroll. “Really? I was hoping for a wad of cash.” He stands up, rolling his shoulders under his jacket and nodding at Clint. “Good night, then. Take care.”

Clint watches him go, not really believing it. This perfect stranger just handed him a bunch of shit he would never have been able to afford on his own and then walked off like it was nothing.

Clint wants to call after him, but he doesn’t. Instead, he opens the orange juice, takes three Tylenol, then pops a cough drop into his mouth.

He’s too tired to do much else, so he shuffles back until he’s propped up in the corner of the doorway and pulls the hood of the sleeping bag up over his head. He’s still cold and sick and uncomfortable, but one tiny little part of him feels connected to something for the first time in ages and it’s weird how much that means to him.

***

Clint falls asleep pretty easily for once, but then the temperatures take a dip in the middle of the night and he wakes up shaking with cold.

He hates nights like this. Not that the summer nights after he first ran away were exactly peachy, but at least he managed to sleep longer, most nights, and at least he wasn’t sick. He’s achy down to his bones, so tense from cold that he can’t make his shoulders unhunch. Huddling as close to the wall as he can get, he tries to pretend that he can feel heat radiating from it.

It must be awesome to be inside, right now. All the years he spent hating wherever he was living and making plans to get out, Clint thinks he should have taken the time to feel lucky that he had somewhere to go, even if that somewhere was shitty.

With a tired groan, Clint rolls over again, one arm coming up inside his sleeping bag to try to hold it closed tighter, until all that’s left is a tiny eyehole for him to peer at the world through.
His doorway is mostly darkness and shadows, but there’s light still spilling out of some of the windows in the apartment block next door, the one where his Samaritan said he lives.

Because Clint occasionally makes dumb decisions, and because light is as close as he’s going to get to warmth tonight, he climbs slowly to his feet and shuffles next door, sleeping bag gripped firmly in both hands and his bag from the 7-11 clamped under one arm.

This stoop is shallower, just enough room for Clint’s ass, but he tucks himself up small in the corner, feet out of the way in case anyone wants to go past, and leans his head against the wooden door, closing his eyes.

Light spills out through the cracked glass in the front door, harsh and too-white, but still some tiny sign of life for him to cling to.

***

Clint doesn’t totally fall back to sleep, but he does manage to doze, his half-asleep brain conjuring up dreams that he jolts awake from every half-hour or so.

It feels like the night’s never going to end, but Clint doesn’t care. It’s not like he’s super looking forward to morning or anything. Morning just means rolling up his sleeping bag and washing up in a McDonald’s men's room, hanging out in the public library for a couple hours, basically repeating yesterday all over again.

Being homeless is boring. No one ever tells you that.

The first person out the front door this morning is a girl all dressed up to go jogging. It’s still dark, but that doesn’t mean much in winter, and Clint thinks about asking her what time it is, but she takes one look at him, narrows her eyes, and looks away.

He watches her run until she’s disappeared into the fine, misty rain that’s started coming down then goes back to his cold little huddle. He’s a bit less cold now, but he’s not sure he should be. It’s more that he can’t really feel half his body than that he’s actually warmed up.

Some unknown amount of time later, the door opens again and someone else steps out, also dressed in running clothes. This guy, though, he looks at Clint, does a double-take and waves.

“Hey. You’ve moved.”

Clint scrubs the palm of his hand over his gritty, blurry eyes and makes out his guy from last night.

“Yeah,” he says, kind of distantly concerned by just how croaky his voice comes out.

The guy frowns. It’s lighter now and Clint can see concerned blue eyes and dark hair that’s still flat on one side from sleeping. “Not feeling better?”

Clint shrugs one shoulder. He still doesn’t get why this dude gives a shit.

He crouches down next to Clint, letting his hands dangle non-threateningly between his knees. “You shouldn’t be outside in this weather. Is there anywhere you can go?”

Clint pushes his hood back so that he can glare more effectively. “Yeah, I got a fucking mansion two blocks over.” He starts coughing in the middle of the sentence but he’s pissed so he manages to push the words out anyway.

He doesn’t get punched in the mouth like he’s half expecting. “I meant, are there any shelters you could go to?”

“Oh.” Clint hunkers back against the wall, defensive. “Not really.” That’s the easiest answer and the only one he’s giving, anyway.

The guy sighs. He’s dressed for running, not sitting around chatting outside, and he’s shivering a bit. “My name’s Phil,” he says at last. “If I invite you inside are you going to think I’m up to no good?”

“Yeah.” Clint’s heart sinks. He thought this was an actually decent dude, but now looks like he’s just like all the other creeps. “‘course I am. How dumb d’you think I am?”

“‘course you are,” the guy - Phil - echoes. He sits down on the step next to Clint. “So I have a problem. I can’t leave you here and you won’t come inside. What should I do?”

“Go running. I’m not your problem.” Clint wishes he felt less shivery and gross. He always used to be awesome at making people believe he was fine.

Phil shakes his head. “Not going to work,” he says, sadly. “What if I come back and you’ve died of consumption on my doorstep.”

Clint snorts, which is a bad idea because it sets off the coughing again. “Consumption,” he chokes out. “Dude.”

Phil does this thing where he smiles sideways at Clint. He did that last night, too. “I have an idea,” Phil says. “If you come inside - ”

“No,” Clint interrupts immediately.

“If you come inside,” Phil repeats firmly, “you can bring your sleeping bag and everything and set up in the stairwell. How’s that? It’s not ideal, but it’d be warmer and out of the rain.”

Warmer and out of the rain sounds like heaven. “You’re not the only one who lives there. They’ll call the cops.”

“In that building?” Phil scoffs. “They won’t. Especially not if you tell them that I said it was okay.”

“You own it?” Clint asks dubiously. He’s sure this is a bad idea, but he’s also pretty sure he’s going to let himself be persuaded.

“No.” Phil stands up. “Coming?”

Clint hesitates. “Just inside,” he repeats. “I’m not going into your apartment.”

“Just inside,” Phil promises. “You need a hand up?”

‘No,” Clint says automatically. Except he tries to stand and his fucking knees don’t want to support him. He stumbles, catching himself with a hand against the door. He’s kind of impressed that Phil doesn’t grab him, that he respects his answer and just waits beside him.

Dizzy, Clint blinks, but the sparkly lights stay in the corners of his eyes.

“Can I take your stuff?” Phil asks, then immediately amends it to, “Carry. Can I carry your stuff for you?”

“I’m good,” Clint lies. He has to lean his shoulder into the door so he can step out of his sleeping bag, then he gathers it up, precious parcel of Tylenol and cough drops wrapped up inside.

Phil doesn’t look like he believes him, but he doesn’t call him on it. “This way, then.” He holds the door open for Clint and Clint slides sideways into the building, partly because he needs the wall to hold himself up and partly because he doesn’t want to turn his back on a stranger.

The problem is that he doesn’t seem like a creepy, rapey murderer, but then probably most bad people don’t seem like what they are.

The entrance lobby smells of bleach and it’s so warm in here, compared to outside, that Clint’s lungs immediately stage a revolt. He spends some time bent double, trying to catch his breath, and when he does, he realises that he kind of grabbed Phil’s arm so he wouldn’t topple over.

In his defence, he’d been aiming to grab the banister.

“Woah, dude, sorry,” he says, snatching his hand back. “Nothing weird.”

“I promise not to become overexcited,” Phil says dryly. He looks Clint over critically. “It’s four floors and there’s no elevator. Can you walk that?”

Habit tells Clint to say that of course he can, but his shaky legs and the way his head is throbbing from all the coughing make him too honest. “Maybe if you’ve got all day.”

Phil looks frustrated but, well, fuck him. Clint didn’t ask to be half-frozen. “I could help you, but that would involve touching you and you don’t want that.”

Clint eyes him. Phil’s about Clint’s height but he’s broad-shouldered and Clint’s gotten skinny lately. He could probably take Clint’s weight.

“Hands above my waist and only over the jacket,” he says. “Touch me anywhere else and I will kick you in the balls, even if it takes me down too.”

“That’s fair,” Phil says, all serious and solemn like he isn’t laughing at Clint in secret. “Put your arm over my shoulder.”

Clint does as he’s told, even though it’s awkward and weird and he can’t remember how he used to touch people. Phil’s arm goes around his back, way above his waist, and Clint finds that, yeah, Phil feels sturdy, he can definitely take Clint’s weight.

It’s still a seriously slow shuffle up the stairs. Clint has to pause too often, because the black spots in the corners of his eyes start to grow and he thinks more than once that he’s going to pass out.

On the third floor landing, he leans into Phil more than he means to and Phil makes a cut-off sound, almost like a yelp.

“What, sorry, did I hurt you?” Clint asks, trying to let go of him.

Phil tightens his grip in return and keeps them going on up the stairs. “It’s fine,” he says and doesn’t elaborate. Since Clint’s got tons of secrets of his own, he doesn’t push.

By the time they get to Phil’s floor, Clint kind of wants to die a little bit. He’s also suddenly realised that he should be worried about how the fuck he’s going to get down again. He figures that if Phil does turn out to be a total creep, Clint will push him down the stairs and then stay up here where it’s warm and light and really way nicer than Clint was expecting.

He sits down at the top of the stairs, automatically fitting his back against the wall, into the place where the stairs going up and the stairs going down make a right-angle. He slides his rolled up sleeping bag under his knees and lets himself close his eyes for a second.

“I’ll get you some breakfast,” Phil says, quietly like he thinks Clint might be falling asleep. “Toast? Coffee?”

That gets Clint’s eyes open. “Shit, no, you don’t need to feed me, too.”

“Well, I’m not going to leave you to starve,” Phil scoffs and rolls his shoulder a couple times while he waits for Clint to answer.

“Toast sounds good,” Clint finally, reluctantly admits. “No peanut butter though.”

“Not with that cough,” Phil agrees and Clint shrugs since he hadn’t thought of that; he just doesn’t like it. “How do you take your coffee?”

Clint doesn’t mean to laugh, he really doesn’t. “Cream and sugar,” he says, like he’s ordering coffee in a diner, like he’s not half-collapsed in a stairwell ordering coffee from a random dude.

“Okay,” Phil says and smiles at him again before turning around and walking down the corridor. It’s an open stairwell, no fire door, so Clint can watch him the whole way until he reaches an apartment six down from where Clint is and lets himself inside.

Alone, Clint just stares around himself, pretty confused about how he got here. He’s sitting on bare concrete and the walls are a gross browny-red colour, but everything looks clean and it’s not like he’s been able to be choosy lately.

While he’s waiting for Phil, another door opens and a middle-aged lady comes out, dressed in scrubs and shoving her keys into her purse as she walks. She does a double take when she sees Clint.

“Phil said I could sit here,” Clint says quickly. He can’t have her calling the police.

The frown stays between her eyes but she nods. “Okay then,” she says and walks past him, down the stairs.

Huh. Clint can’t believe that worked. Whoever the fuck Phil is, his neighbours seem to trust him a really ridiculous amount.

When Phil comes back, he’s carrying an honest-to-god serving tray, which he sets down on the floor in front of Clint. Forget about feeling like he’s in a diner, now Clint’s in a super fancy restaurant, apparently.

There’s coffee, a stack of buttered toast, a jar of grape jelly and some more orange juice. “You really don’t want me to die of scurvy,” is all Clint can think to say.

“No, that’s only cool if you’re a pirate,” Phil answers, smiling when Clint laughs. “Did I hear you talking to someone?”

“Your neighbour lady in the scrubs,” Clint says around the whole piece of toast that he just shoved in his mouth. “She seemed okay.”

“Maggie,” Phil tells him. He looks at Clint, looks at the stairs, then sits down on the third step, at a right angle to Clint. “Is that okay? I don’t have a lot of food in.”

“It’s great.” Clint is maybe ripping off chunks of bread with his teeth, but there’ll be time for manners later. He had enough spare change for a Happy Meal mid-morning yesterday, but he hasn’t eaten anything since.

He practically devours half the toast then slows down, hesitating over the next slice and stops. When he notices Phil watching, he shrugs. “Saving it for later,” he says.

“You can have more later,” Phil says. Of course he does.

Clint wants to tell him to stop. That he can’t take this much kindness. The idea of food, followed by more food if he wants it is such a big deal, he doesn’t even want to think about it, in case it’s not true.

“I’m good,” Clint says instead and picks up the coffee. It’s creamy and sweet, which isn’t how he usually takes it, but he’d wanted to something really dumb and comforting and this was the only thing he could think of.

“It’s a blend from Africa,” Phil says quietly while Clint drinks his coffee and tries not to moan at the taste. “A friend sent it to me.”

“It’s good.” Clint licks cream off his top lip and stares down at the floor, not really sure what else to say or where else to look. “You don’t have to, um, stick around or whatever. I can take care of myself.”

Phil looks like he’s thinking about it. “I was going for a run,” he says. “Sure you’ll be okay on your own?”

Clint raises an eyebrow at him. “Pretty damn good at that, already. Go on your run.” It’s the same thing he said earlier, when he was freezing on the doorstep but Phil actually listens to him now.

He stands up, wincing a bit as he straightens then puts his hands on his hips, looks down at Clint. “If anyone hassles you, mine is apartment 42,” he says and then throws his keys at Clint.

Clint snatches them out of the air automatically then frowns down at them. “You’re giving me your house keys?” he asks dumbly. “Is there something, like, wrong with you?”

“Nothing except a lack of gratitude,” Phil says archly. He looks Clint over critically. “Considering you couldn’t get up the stairs by yourself, I imagine I’m safe from you running off with my TV.”

Clint turns the keys over in his free hand. “It could be an act,” he says. “Maybe I do this a dozen times a week.”

Phil still doesn’t look worried. Does anything make him have a real expression? “If you’re that good an actor, you can have my TV and the fifty-three dollars under my mattress.”

Fifty-three dollars is an eighth of the money Clint needs to get to Kentucky. He thinks about it for half a second then hates himself.

“I’m not gonna go in your apartment,” he says, trying to hand back to the keys.

Phil doesn’t take them. “They rattle when I run. You hold onto them for me, anyway.” He nods at Clint like Clint can’t totally see through what he just did there.

Clint huffs, embarrassed for him that he thinks Clint can be played that easy, and leans his head sideways against the wall, idly watching Phil jog down the stairs. He curls his fingers around the keys then tucks that hand under his knees, keeping them out of sight. He’s not going to use them, but he can look after them until Phil gets back.

***

Clint must have fallen asleep propped up against the wall, because he blinks his eyes open to find a big, slobbery dog all up in his face.

“Shit,” he says, jumping even though there’s nowhere to jump to, unless he wants to go through the wall.

Behind the big, slobbery dog is a big, less slobbery guy in an ugly ass tracksuit who’s looking at Clint with a sneer and a mean glint in his eye.

“Hobos outside, bro,” he says, accent unidentifiable but strong. “Get out.”

“No, I, uh.” Clint’s head feels muzzy and heavy. “No, it’s cool. Phil said I could stay?”

The tracksuit guy bares his teeth. A second later, so does the dog. Clint’s not sure which one of them growls. “Who the fuck is Phil?” he sneers. “You, you go, bro. Go or I feed you to my dog.”

Clint shifts, trying to work out if he can outrun this dude and if he can make himself kick a dog in the face. He thinks the answer’s probably no to both. He leans his weight on his left hand and Phil’s keys dig into his palm. He snatches them up and waves them in Tracksuit Guy’s face. “I live here, see. It’s cool, we’re cool.”

Tracksuit Guy does not look happy. Or convinced.

Clint stands up slowly, although it’s really more an awkward slide up the wall, leaning his weight on his shoulder. He stuffs his sleeping bag up under one arm then really wants to go back for Phil’s tray but Tracksuit Guy is watching him.

Clint jingles the keys and shuffles around him. “See? This is my apartment. This one.” He finds number 42 and slides the key into the lock. Tracksuit Guy keeps watching so it looks like Clint is actually going into Phil’s apartment.

Dammit.

The door is heavier than Clint expected but it swings open easily, like it’s just been oiled. Clint’s hit with the smells of toast and coffee, which just makes him feel worse about abandoning Phil’s stuff out there.

He glances back over his shoulder, but Tracksuit Guy is still watching. Get a life, Clint thinks, closing the door behind himself. He leans back against the door and tells himself that there is nothing to freak out about.

All alone in Phil’s apartment, Clint has no idea what to do. It’s not a big place. The kitchen and the living room are open plan and there’s only about eight feet of actual space between the breakfast bar and the couch.

There are two doors leading off the main room, both half open. One must leads to the bedroom, which means that it also leads to the fifty-three dollars.

Clint turns away, putting his sleeping bag on the floor and sitting down on the couch. It’s really soft. He can’t work out if it’s just a shitty couch or if it’s been so long since he sat on one that he’s remembering upholstery wrong.

There weren’t a lot of couches or squishy armchairs in the circus and there are none at all on the streets.

His back hurts. His back kind of always hurts so it’s not a big thing, but he leans into the cushions anyway, feeling a couple of muscles relax in a way that’s really nice.

He yawns and scrubs a hand over his face, trying to wake up. He shouldn’t be this tired; it seems like all he’s done is sleep since he met Phil. But his eyes keep closing and it’s hard to remember why he needs to stay awake.

Maybe he’ll take a walk around the apartment, splash some cold water on his face. That’ll help.

***

A phone rings really close to Clint’s head and he sits up, startled and disoriented.

“Sorry, sorry,” a voice he recognises as Phil’s says. “Go back to sleep.”

Clint rolls over onto his back, which is when he realises that he’s somehow gone from sitting up to lying down on the couch. His head is pillowed on the arm, which is somehow both padded and hard and the fabric smells a bit like stale milk.

Clint stares blearily up at the ceiling, listening to Phil’s side of the phone conversation and trying to convince himself not to go back to sleep again.

“Yes, I’m sorry, I left a message with your receptionist,” Phil is saying, tone a lot more crisp and professional than when he’s talking to Clint. “I’m aware of that, but like I said, there’s a family emergency... Yes, of course... Okay, thank you.”

“Family emergency?” Clint asks, once he thinks Phil’s done.

Phil sits down on the coffee table and picks up a glass of water, which he hands to Clint, who props himself up on one elbow. He waves a hand at Clint. “You were too complicated to explain.”

Clint gulps down the water and frowns over the rim of the glass. “You don’t have to miss shit for me. I can leave. I didn’t even mean to come in here.”

Phil leans forward a bit. There’s still a couple feet of space between them, so Clint doesn’t feel crowded, just unnerved by having all of Phil’s attention focused on him. “Yet, here you are.”

The water is helping Clint wake up a bit. “Yeah, there was this guy? Like, really mean, with a dog. So I told him I lived here. Sorry, I know I said I wouldn’t come inside. I really can leave and - Oh, shit, I left your stuff in the hallway.”

“That’s fine.” Phil holds up a hand. “Don’t worry, I found it. I was relieved to find you in here; I thought you’d left.”

“With your TV?” Clint jokes.

Phil doesn’t smile. “No, I didn’t think that. The man with the dog, can you describe him?”

“Um.” Clint shrugs. “Mean. Tracksuit. Kinda Eastern European maybe?”

Phil’s expression tightens. “I hate those bastards,” he says, which startles Clint into a laugh, even though Tracksuit Guy had been pretty menacing.

“Hey, wait. I had the keys, so how did you even get in here?” Clint asks.

“I picked the lock,” Phil says, like that’s no big deal.

Clint boggles at him. “Not seriously? No way. But you’re all good and Christian and stuff.”

Phil makes a sharp sound like he’s choking. “Wherever did you get that idea? That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Clint blushes and tries not to feel weird about having thought about it. “You took me in and fed me,” he says. “You’re either one of those Uber Christian types or you’re a creepy pedophile. Which I really hope you’re not.”

That makes Phil look thoughtful. “How old are you?” he asks. Damn, Clint walked straight into that.

“Eighteen,” Clint says, lifting his chin and daring Phil to argue.

Phil dares. “I don’t think so,” he says. He doesn’t sound mean about it. If anything, he’s very gently teasing. “I’d say, fifteen?”

That almost gets Clint’s mouth open to say that he is most certainly fucking not but he realises in time that he’s being played. “How old are you?” he asks, lifting his chin.

“Twenty-six,” Phil says immediately, with a shrug. “It’s a simple question. You’re not eighteen. If you were, you could have gone to a shelter last night. But if you’re underage, you probably want to stay off the radar.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Clint says, not looking at him. “And I’m almost eighteen.” Eleven months is almost, right?

Phil looks like he wants to ask more, but instead he just says, “Will you tell me your name?”

Clint’s pretty sure he shouldn’t, but he also can’t really see the harm. “Clint,” he says. He doesn’t offer a last name, even a made up one, but then neither has Phil.

Phil nods and stands up. “Would you like some lunch, Clint? I bought supplies.”

“Lunch?” Clint asks, trying not to think about Phil stopping during his run just to buy food for Clint. “I just had breakfast. Are you trying to fatten me up?”

“Yes, I’m the witch from Hansel and Gretel.” Phil walks into the kitchen area, emptying shopping bags onto the counter. “It’s nearly two p.m.”

Clint struggles all the way up so he’s sitting. He meant to stand, but he’s kind of woozy so he takes a pit-stop here. “Two?” he asks. “What time was it when you left?”

Phil’s chopping something really fast, like he’s one of those chefs on TV. Clint’s head feels less floaty so he risks standing, walking over to see what he’s making.

“About six when I found you, six thirty when I went for my run.” Phil’s chopping mushrooms, eggs in a bowl on the counter beside him.

“Huh.” So Clint just accidentally slept on a stranger’s couch for seven hours. He really needs to work on those survival instincts. “What are you making?”

“Omelets.” Phil points at the fridge. “Grate some cheese for me.”

“Okay,” Clint says, walking around Phil to get to the fridge. He reaches for the door handle, notices the dirt ingrained in his skin, his rough, blackened nails, and turns sharply toward the sink instead.

Phil doesn’t say anything while Clint scrubs his hands, pouring dish soap over them when he can’t find anything else and running the water until it’s almost too hot to stand. He’s pretty much gotten over caring about not being able to wash up often, but now, standing here in Phil’s kitchen, he feels gross and out of place.

Phil puts down his knife but doesn’t look at Clint when he says, “You can take a shower. The water pressure’s shit but it’s hot.”

Clint’s skin feels itchy and tight. He’s not sure if it’s always been like that and he hadn’t noticed or if it’s all in his mind. “No, thank you,” he says.

“Sure?” Phil asks. He reaches for one of the pans, putting it on the stove. “The door locks.”

Fuck. Is Clint that obvious? “I said no thanks.” He makes himself turn off the faucet and dries his hand on the towel hanging off the door. “Cheese, yeah?”

Phil glances over his shoulder and smiles. “Please.”

Clint is not particularly skilled at grating cheese, but he gets a nod and a, “Thanks,” when he hands Phil a bowl of badly mangled and torn-up cheese.

Because Clint’s body is really dumb at the moment, grating cheese has left him exhausted. He leans his elbows on the counter, watching Phil pour eggs into the pan and refuses to give in and sit down.

He does close his eyes though, but only once he’s sure Phil’s not watching him. His brain feels heavy, like he’s tired, which he can’t be. He’s slept a billion hours today.

“For fuck’s sake, go and sit down,” Phil says out of nowhere, and Clint jumps, grabbing the counter when he opens his eyes too fast and the world spins around him.

“I’m fine,” Clint says, digging his fingernails into the cracked countertop. The spinning has slowed but he still feels unbalanced. “But if you want to do all the work.”

He makes it back to the couch without bumping into the table, then sinks down, eyes closed again. He listens to Phil moving around the kitchen and tries not to think about going back out onto the streets tonight, where no one feeds him or swears at him for not looking after himself.

“Food’s on the table,” Phil says after a while, softly. His footsteps pad away, disappear for a second, then come back, something rattling along with him. “Clint?”

Clint opens his eyes. The omelet looks great but he’s a bit worried about the small bottle of pills next to it.

“They’re antibiotics. I won’t be offended if you don’t want them,” Phil says, sitting next to him with his own omelet.

Clint picks up his plate and chews on some omelet so he doesn’t have to answer right away. Seems like all he does is say no to things Phil offers him, but he doesn’t know how else to make sure he stays safe.

“You think I need them?” he asks.

Phil taps his fork against his plate. “Well, with my complete lack of medical knowledge, I think you have a chest infection. But like I said, I won’t be offended if you don’t want to take my word for that, or if you’re worried I’m trying to poison you.”

“Or get me hooked on drugs,” Clint says, around his own fork.

“Or that,” Phil agrees easily.

“Don’t you need them?” Clint asks at last, once his plate’s empty and he’s been eyeing the pills for a couple minute. The label on them says Philip Coulson so at least it doesn’t look like Phil bought them off the internet or from a vet’s office like that friend of Barney’s used to.

Phil shakes his head. “I had some minor surgery a while back and was prescribed them after that. I’m fine now.”

Clint drums his fingers on his knees and wonders what to do. He’s got to start feeling better somehow, or he’s never going to be able to make any money, and if he doesn’t make any money, he’s going to be stuck in New York forever.

On the other hand, how much more beholden to Phil can he stand to be?

He picks up the pills. There are five in there, rattling around, and the label says to take three a day.

“If those help, I can probably ask for some more from my doctor,” Phil says, like little things like medical insurance aren’t a problem for him.

“Fuck it,” Clint mutters, and dry swallows one.

Ironically, it makes him cough, but he waves off Phil’s worried look and tries to will it to work. After five minutes, when he hasn’t died or started foaming blood at the mouth, he smiles cautiously at Phil.

“Thanks.”

Phil has been idly playing with his phone and acting like he’s not paying any attention to Clint. “You’re welcome. They were just getting stale in the cupboard.”

Clint didn’t mean for just that, but he doesn’t say so. He leans his head against the side of the couch and tries to keep his eyes open. It doesn’t go so well.

“You’re gonna tell me when you want to kick me out, right?” he asks. There is no etiquette here, but he still feels awkward.

“I will,” Phil agrees, typing something into his phone then frowning at whatever response he gets. “Get some more rest.”

Clint doesn’t want to. He’s always been physically active and he hates how exhausted he feels all the time. He wishes Phil’s pills were magic.

“’m making your couch filthy,” he points out, frowning at the way his bangs stick to the blue material of the back cushion.

Phil laughs. “It was never exactly spotless,” he says. “I picked it up at Goodwill.”

Clint doesn’t get that. Phil’s obviously got spare cash and he must have some kind of job, but he lives in this shithole building and his furniture’s second hand.

It’s also totally none of Clint’s business, so he doesn’t ask.

“You could put a sheet down or something,” he offers anyway.

Phil rolls his eyes, puts down his phone and turns to look at Clint. “You’re not putting me out,” he says, “and I’m not putting down a sheet like you’re a stray dog.”

“I kind of am,” Clint says, ignoring the disapproving way Phil reacts to that because he genuinely can’t stay awake anymore. “Sorry, I’m gonna crash.”

“Stop apologising for everything,” Phil says softly, then stands up so Clint can stretch out all the way across the couch. Clint’s too tired to argue.

***

Phil wakes him up some time later to take another pill, but Clint only barely remembers. He isn’t really aware of much until his eyes snap open some point way later.

It’s dark outside and dark in the room and Clint’s all alone, a soft blanket thrown over his shoulders. He rubs at his eyes and looks around until he finds the time lit up on the front of the DVD player.

Apparently it’s 2:17 in the morning, which it can’t be, except that all evidence is pointing that way.

Clint really needs to get out of here. He doesn’t know what the hell he was thinking, just hanging out here, leeching on all of Phil’s hospitality.

He gets up, folds the blanket and stretches. He’s not sure if it’s the sleep, the warmth, or the pills, but he thinks he feels better. His head is way clearer, anyway, and his lungs don’t ache with every breath, only every other.

It’s chilly in the apartment, but not like it is outside, so Clint can’t really complain. He walks over to the window and pulls the blinds open, scowling at what he sees.

It’s snowing. Massive flakes of snow are swirling down and already turning everything glittery and white. Clint shivers reflexively. Maybe he can wait until morning to leave. Phil’s asleep so it’s not like he’s going to know either way.

(Clint knows that’s an excuse, okay? But he’s so warm for once and the idea of going outside makes him want to kick and scream like a little kid.)

Which leaves Clint wide awake, in someone else’s apartment, in the middle of the night. He drifts into the kitchen for lack of anything better to do and finds dishes in the sink, evidence that Phil cooked himself dinner last night without waking Clint up.

Shrugging, Clint turns on the faucet and does the dishes. The water’s warm, which makes Clint think about the shower he was offered.

He really wants a shower.

Silently, he creeps along the stretch of almost-hallway space between the living area and what he thinks is Phil’s bedroom. That door is partially open, which just goes to confirm Clint’s suspicion that Phil is a crazy person. Who doesn’t triple lock their bedroom door when there’s a stranger in the house?

The bathroom is as cramped as everywhere else, but the sight of the toilet reminds Clint that he really needs to take a leak. So he does that, then contemplates the shower.

“Yeah, okay, why not,” he says to himself, then turns around and checks the door. There’s a bolt, just like Phil promised, which Clint slides into place then tests a couple times. It’s pretty sturdy.

It feels weird, getting totally undressed. He’s managed to keep himself not completely disgusting by using public restrooms to wash his face and under his arms, most days, and his balls, when he can get away with it. But he hasn’t been naked in, shit, something like four months.

He stands in the middle of Phil’s bathroom for a minute, totally bare, and looks down at his body. He was just starting to put on some muscle mass before the circus abandoned him, but now he can see his ribs and his hips and he’s skinnier than he can ever remember being before.

The shower hisses out a steady stream of cold water, which he jumps back from, fiddling with the controls until the water turns warm.

No two showers in the whole world work the same; someone should look into that.

Clint showers fast. He doesn’t want to; he wants to stand here with warm water beating down on him and never, ever stop, but the falling water sounds way louder once he’s inside it and he’s suddenly worried about waking Phil.

Still, he steals Phil’s shower gel and takes enough time to wash his hair then lather up everywhere. The run-off water swirls kind of grey-ish around his feet, which is pretty gross, but hey, at least it means that he’s less grey-ish now.

Once out of the shower, he turns to look for a towel and, instead, spots a square of paper that’s been stuffed under the door.

Towel it says in neat print, with an arrow pointing at the gap under the door.

Shit, so he did wake Phil up, after all.

Curious, Clint unbolts the door and opens it a crack, squinting out. There’s no one outside, but there is a dark blue towel sitting folded in front of the bathroom door.

Clint darts out, picks it up, and retreats back into the bathroom. As soon as he’s shaken it out, he realises that it’s not just a towel. There’s clean-smelling grey sweats and a dark green t-shirt, too.

Considering Clint was planning to get back into his filthy clothes, he decides to suck up his pride for once and wear Phil’s clothes. It’ll be a treat not to be stuck in the same clothes that are literally falling apart around him, for once.

Clean, dry, and dressed, Clint picks up his own clothes and makes his way back to the living room. Phil’s sitting at the kitchen counter, nursing a mug of something steaming.

“I’m sorry,” Clint says quickly, putting his clothes down inside his sleeping bag and kicking them all back out of sight. “I didn’t mean to make so much noise.”

Phil rubs his temple with his fingertips and smiles sleepily. “You barely made any noise. I was already awake.”

“Oh.” Clint sits down on the spare stool and tucks his feet up onto the rungs. He feels vulnerable like this, in Phil’s clothes and with his hair still wet at the ends, but Phil looks tired and kind of soft, too.

He’s never really hung out with anyone in the middle of the night before, but maybe this is what it’s always like.

Phil stares down into his mug for a moment then seems to snap to attention. “Would you like some?”

“What is it?” Clint asks. It doesn’t smell like coffee.

“Camomile and lavender tea.” Phil laughs at the expression Clint can’t help making. “Yes, it’s disgusting. Would you like some?”

Clint shrugs. “Sure. I mean, you sold it so well.”

Phil smiles again and stands up, moving over to lift the kettle off the stove. He reaches up to open the cupboard above his head, winces, and drops his arm.

“I can get it?” Clint asks uncertainly.

Phil’s shoulders tighten like he wasn’t expecting Clint to have noticed his flinch. “It’s fine,” he says, putting the kettle down and using that hand to take down a mug.

Not sure where to look, since Phil clearly doesn’t want Clint watching him, Clint looks down at his borrowed t-shirt. He noticed some writing on it while he was putting it on, but he was in too much of a hurry to get out of the bathroom to stop and read it.

Special Forces Airborne it says on the left hand side, and there’s a crest of some sort underneath it.

“Cool shirt,” he says softly, not sure if this is something else he’s not allowed to ask about.

Phil sets a mug in front of Clint and sits back down. “Thanks,” he says. “It doesn’t get worn much, anymore.”

Clint traces it with his fingers. “Get it off eBay?” he asks.

“No,” Phil says, turning his mug one way then the other. “It’s mine.”

Clint flicks his eyes up at him, trying to imagine Phil in the Army. Sure, he’s pretty wide in the shoulders, but he’s no taller than Clint and it’s not just that, he has this quiet, unobtrusive air about him. He’s more like a school teacher or a really nice librarian. Clint can’t picture him crawling under barbed wire with a knife between his teeth or whatever the fuck Army Rangers do.

Phil smiles at whatever expression is on Clint’s face. “I was pretty good at it,” he says mildly.

Clint returns the smile, because boggling like that was probably pretty insulting. “That’s really cool. You, uh, you sure you don’t mind me wearing this, then?”

“Just consider yourself lucky,” Phil says. “I could have left out a Captain America shirt for you.”

“Captain America’s cool,” Clint says, not really sure what to say, not really sure if Phil’s joking.

Phil nods like that was the right answer. “There’s a laundromat two blocks from here. You can wash your clothes there tomorrow, if you want.”

Clint looks up, sucks on his lower lip. “I’m not staying,” he says, in case Phil’s forgotten.

Phil’s expression kind of disappears for a second. “I know that,” he says, “but you might as well get clean clothes out of this deal.”

“Deal?” Clint asks, shoulders tightening. “I never made a deal.”

Phil holds up his hands immediately. “That was a bad turn of phrase. I’m sorry. I meant, out of this situation. Of course there’s no deal; I told you I don’t expect anything from you.”

Clint swallows hard and picks up his mug because his throat’s dry. He manages a croaky laugh. “You’re right; this is seriously gross.”

“It’s supposed to help you sleep.” Thank god, Phil’s willing to let him change the subject. “My neighbour swears by it.”

Clint wants to ask why Phil doesn’t sleep, but it’s probably got something to do with how he’s secretly in pain and doesn’t want to let on.

“Maybe your neighbour falls asleep in self defence so she doesn’t have to finish it,” he suggests, which makes Phil laugh.

They drink their tea slowly, catching each other’s eyes every now and then and kind of half-smiling. Clint’s yawning before he’s halfway done, so maybe it is magic tea.

“Is the couch comfortable?” Phil asks, the first time either of them has spoken in a while.

“Yeah, it’s good,” Clint says automatically then stops and thinks about it. “Or, I guess so? I don’t really know. I was so fucking tired, I could have slept on a bed of nails.”

“That’s being reupholstered,” Phil says, deadpan. “Do you want a pillow? I found a blanket earlier, but I thought you’d probably punch me, if I tried to put a pillow under you.”

Clint bobs his head. “Good call. But nah, thanks, I’m good without.”

Phil doesn’t push. He stands up, mug in hand. “You’re tired. I’m going to finish this in my room.”

“Aren’t you tired?” Clint asks, before he can stop himself.

“Exhausted,” Phil says, with a shrug. “Good night.”

“Night,” Clint echoes, frowning after him. He knows that he’s the tragic street kid in this scenario, but something tells him that Phil needs some help of his own.

***

Clint’s up and thinking about cooking breakfast when Phil emerges from his bedroom the next morning. Phil’s combing his hair with his fingers and looks startled to see Clint vertical.

“Hey,” Clint says, waving. He takes in Phil’s running gear and says, “Take a look out the window.”

Phil crosses to the window, opens the blinds, and curses.

“Yeah,” Clint agrees, and pulls his blanket more firmly around his shoulders, like a cape. “Pretty sure we’re in Narnia.”

It looks like it’s been snowing since last night and it still isn’t slowing down. When Clint looked out earlier, he couldn’t see more than a few feet past Phil’s building and what he could see was totally covered, awnings bowing under the weight of thick snow and cars buried past their wheels.

Phil looks at the door then back out the window and sighs. “No run for me today, then,” he says. He blinks himself a bit more awake, focus sharpening on Clint. “Please don’t tell me you’re planning to leave in this. I don’t want to break my promise by trying to talk you out of it.”

“I, um.” Clint shrugs. “I should though. I can’t just move in until spring, can I?” It’s not a question; it’s not supposed to be, anyway. It’s supposed to be rhetorical, but it comes out more plaintive than that.

“I’m in no hurry for you to leave,” Phil says, meeting Clint’s eye. He looks and sounds so genuine. “As you can see, I don’t exactly have anything else happening in my life, so you’re hardly getting in the way.”

“I can’t,” Clint says, surprised by how reluctant he feels. Despite all the conditions and provisos he keeps putting on everything, he does feel safe here. Safer, anyway, which is just as good. Phil looks disappointed for half a second and it’s that, plus the snow, that makes Clint say, “But can I stay today? If you really don’t mind?”

“Of course I don’t mind,” Phil says bruskly, no-nonsense enough that Clint starts to suspect he imagined the disappointment. “Coffee?”

Clint decides not to mention that he was thinking about making breakfast; he’s not someone Phil wants in his home, he should stop trying to carve himself a place. Instead, he steps around Phil and gets down two mugs when Phil’s not looking.

Phil looks at him, eyes narrowed, but Clint just widens his eyes back and Phil gets on with making the coffee. Clint knows it’s wrong to feel proud that he was slightly, sneakily helpful, but he does. At least until Phil takes a look at the sink and frowns.

“Did you do the dishes?” he asks.

Clint feels himself blush and hates it, looking away with a casual, “Yeah, last night,” like it’s no big deal, mostly because it really isn’t.

“Oh.” Phil sounds surprised. “Thank you.”

Clint has nothing to say to that, so he sits down and swivels on his chair, rocking the bar stool up onto two legs then experimenting with one. He manages to stay balanced pretty well until he realises Phil is watching, then he goes crashing back down onto all four legs.

“Nice balance,” is all Phil says, setting a coffee in front of Clint that’s been doctored with cream and sugar, same as yesterday. Clint should tell Phil that he doesn’t actually take it like that, except not right now, because that’d be rude.

“Thanks,” he says, for the coffee and the complement. “You working today?” He’s almost ninety percent sure today’s a week day. Maybe eighty-five.

“No, I ca- don’t work at the moment,” Phil says, which is an interesting slip but, again, totally none of Clint’s business.

“Sucks,” is all he says and drinks his coffee.

***

There isn’t a lot to do holed up in a tiny apartment with a guy he doesn’t know. It’s not that Clint’s bored - he’s too grateful to be bored - but he is restless. He ends up turning on the TV while Phil’s in the shower.

The news is all about the snowstorm, which he can see, thanks, so he channels surfs until he finds an episode of Family Guy that he hasn’t seen before. He’s tucked up at the end of the couch, feet curled under the other cushion and laughing under his breath, when Phil’s cell phone starts to ring where he’s left it in the kitchen.

It really isn’t Clint’s place to mess with it, so he lets it vibrate noisily against the tiles and ignores it. As soon as the call cuts off, it starts up again, but Clint still firmly ignores it. When it starts up again, he gets curious and stands up, going to check the screen.

Marcus flashes across the screen, but nothing else helpful.

On the fourth call, Clint finally decides that it might be an emergency and accepts the call.

“Hello?” he says, wishing immediately he hadn’t done this. Phil’s going to hate him; this is an invasion of privacy.

“Who the fuck is this?” a loud, angry voice demands.

Yep, this was such a bad idea, Barton. “I, um. Phil’s in the shower,” Clint offers, then winces because wow, way to sound like last night’s hook-up.

The guy on the other end of the line obviously thinks so too, because there’s a very pointed silence for a very long second. “Put him on the damn phone,” he says eventually, sighing. It’s not a wistful sigh; it’s a big, gusty thing like he thinks he can blow Clint to where he wants him.

“I can’t, he’s in the shower,” Clint says again. “I’m - ”

He cuts himself off when Phil suddenly appears in the doorway, shower-damp with one towel around his waist and another around his shoulders, catching the drips running off his hair.

“I heard you talking to someone,” he says, almost like he was worried.

Clint takes the phone and presses it against his chest, even though he can still hear Loud Angry Marcus talking into his pecs. “It rang like, four times, I thought maybe something really bad had happened. I’m sorry.”

Phil holds his hand out for the phone. “How angry is he?” he asks.

“Very,” Clint says, wondering if maybe Phil’s psychic since he didn’t ask who it was who’d called him.

Phil takes the phone and lifts it to his ear. “Nick,” he says, “what part of give me some time don’t you understand?”

Clint’s about to point out that it’s Marcus, not Nick, and that Phil maybe needs to work on that telepathy, but Phil doesn’t look surprised by the voice that booms out of the phone, so maybe Clint’s just out of his depth.

He turns away, giving them some privacy, but Phil’s already walking away, saying, “Yes, he’s very young. No, it’s not... for fuck’s sake, Nick,” as his bedroom door closes behind him.

Unsettled, and definitely wondering if he needs to start worrying about Phil like Phil worries about him, Clint goes back to the couch. He’s lost the thread of this episode of Family Guy, but he leaves it on anyway, so that Phil won’t think he’s trying to eavesdrop on his call.

***

Phil doesn’t mention his call from the Marcus-Nick guy, just comes out of his room twenty minutes later, dressed and looking kind of sad.

He claps his hands together briskly as soon as he meets Clint’s eye. “Right. I’m thinking takeout for lunch. What do you think?”

“In this weather?” Clint asks doubtfully.

“Someone will always deliver. It’s New York.” Phil plucks a bunch of takeout fliers off the fridge and hands them to Clint. “What do you like?”

Clint knows this isn’t a big thing. He feels really dumb about it, but he looks down at the takeout menus and feels totally overwhelmed with choice. “I don’t know,” he admits. His hands feel shaky but he curls them into fists so Phil won’t see.

Phil sits down on the coffee table, the way he always seems to when he wants to talk to Clint about something important. “It’s just takeout,” he says. “It doesn’t matter.”

Clint swallows hard. “It’s not just takeout. You need to stop doing shit for me. I can’t... there’s no way I can pay you back.”

Phil picks up the menus and puts them on the table. “You’re already doing things for me,” he says, frowning when Clint snorts. “No, you are. You’re keeping me company, giving me something to think about that isn’t - ” The way he changes tracks is more obvious that normal. “That isn’t what I usually think about. I appreciate that.”

Clint reaches out and picks up the top menu. “Pizza?” he asks, trying to smile.

Phil smiles back. “Pizza,” he agrees. “Although I should warn you; I’m originally from Chicago so I can get a little critical.”

“Must be nice,” Clint says. “The only things they have where I come from are corn and then more corn.”

“A lot of Illinois’s like that, too,” Phil tells him, then gets up to place the pizza order. Clint can’t really believe that Phil didn’t push for more details about where Clint’s from, after Clint gave him an opening like that, but he’s really relieved that he didn’t.

Not that there’s anyone in Waverly, Iowa who’d give a shit about Clint, even if Phil did track them down.

***

Clint’s snapped out of a dream about ice skating penguins by a short, sharp yelp.

His first instinct is to throw his blanket over his head and pretend he didn’t see or hear anything, but then he remembers where he is - or more importantly where he isn’t - and he sits up in a rush.

Phil’s bedroom is silent now, but Clint’s sure he didn’t dream it. He presses his ear to the door and is still making up his mind about what to do, when there’s another sound, more a yell than a yelp, this time. Louder and more afraid.

Clint pushes the door open and switches the light on. Phil’s fine, no one’s murdering him or anything, but he’s flat on his back, hands twisted in the sheets, muttering under his breath.

Clint thinks about leaving him. But he’s had nightmares and he knows how much they suck. Cautiously, he crosses over to the bed and hesitates with his hand just above Phil’s shoulder. They’ve both been really careful about not touching each other.

Then Phil makes a sound that’s halfway between another scream and a sob and Clint tells himself to stop dicking around and do something. He squeezes Phil’s shoulder, saying his name firmly.

Phil’s eyes snap open and he moves faster than Clint had any idea he could. He grabs Clint’s forearm, flips him, and Clint finds himself flat on his back on the bed, the muzzle of what is definitely a gun pointed between his eyes.

Clint freezes.

Phil freezes.

Then Phil’s eyes clear and his whole face comes alive with one expression after another: shock, horror, guilt, a bit more horror.

He pops the magazine out of the gun, very carefully sets both parts on the bedside table, then gets off the bed and moves across the room until his back’s pressed to the closet, as much space as possible between him and Clint.

“I’m so sorry,” he says in a voice that sounds shredded. “Clint. Fuck.”

Clint’s heart is pounding so hard that he thinks he might throw up, but he manages to sit up and watch as Phil turns paler and more miserable by the second.

“I guess don’t wake you up when you’re not expecting it, huh?” he asks, voice shaking.

Phil shudders. His left arm is tight against his side and his other is across his chest, holding on to it. Clint would bet he doesn’t know he’s doing that.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I didn’t know where I was.”

“Yeah.” Clint nods slowly. “Got that. You okay now?”

“I know where I am,” Phil says, which isn’t an answer. “Did I hurt you?”

“Nah.” Clint’s arm hurts where Phil wrenched it and he can feel the cold circle of the muzzle right above the top of his nose. “Surprised me a bit. Although, I guess, Ranger, so of course you can do shit like that, right?”

“Never to a civilian.” Phil’s still looking at Clint like the sight of him is making Phil want to puke. Clint tries not to take it personally. “You’re sure I didn’t hurt you?”

Clint decides that all this lying around in Phil’s bed is maybe making him look more injured than he is. So he gets up and dusts himself off, doing a little stretch and pivot just to show off. “Nope. Fine. See. Are you okay? You don’t look so good.”

Phil’s gone from holding his arm to rubbing it, thumb moving in tiny circles like he needs to touch it but doesn’t want Clint to see.

He ignores the question and asks, “Why did you wake me up?” instead. “Did you need something?”

“Just thought I heard a noise,” Clint says, rather than you sounded like someone was torturing you, since he’s pretty sure Phil’s embarrassed enough.

Phil still blushes, like he’s heard what Clint didn’t say. “Thank you,” he says. “And I’m sorry. Again.”

“No big deal.” Clint knows that he should be more freaked out that maybe Phil’s a lot less stable than Clint thought, but he’s weirdly calm. Clint’s dad had PTSD from the first Gulf War and he used to get wasted and punch kids. Clint will take whatever Phil has over that.

Besides, he’ll be out of here tomorrow and then it won’t matter.

He watches Phil watch him and makes himself smile, all big and easy like he’s not worried about anything in this world. “You should go back to bed,” he says, edging toward the door. “I’m going back to bed. And I promise not to wake you ever again.”

Phil doesn’t smile. Phil stays by the closet, looking exhausted and sick and guilty.

“Phil,” Clint says quietly when he reaches the door. “Please go back to bed.”

Phil’s shoulders uncurl slightly and he nods. “In a minute.”

Clint goes back to the couch and pulls his blanket up to his chin, listening hard for any noise from Phil’s bedroom. After what the digital clock tells him is fifteen minutes, he hears noises in the bathroom: water running, then the rattle of what sounds like a pill bottle.

Clint rolls over so his back’s to the room, just in case Phil wants to come out to the kitchen. He doesn’t. Clint hears Phil’s bedroom door close softly, and then silence.

“Shit,” Clint whispers to himself, because how is he supposed to leave tomorrow now?

***

Phil doesn’t mention anything the next morning, so neither does Clint. They’re both quiet and tired and Phil’s obviously in more pain than normal, from the slow way he moves around the kitchen.

The only time they come close to mentioning anything is when Clint steps in again to get the mugs down and Phil makes a protesting noise.

“I’m doing it,” Clint says, more abruptly than he means to, then sets the mugs down next to Phil and retreats to the other side of the breakfast bar, just in case this is the time Phil decides he’s had enough of Clint’s mouth.

Phil just nods. He lifts the kettle, curses, and puts it down again, breathing through his teeth.

“I’m going back to bed,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’m going to be terrible company today.”

“I don’t need company,” Clint says automatically, rather than are you okay? Can I help? What exactly is wrong with you?

“I know,” Phil says softly and shuffles back the way he came, the whole left side of his body tight with what Clint’s pretty sure is some level of agony.

Clint makes himself coffee, just because that’s their routine by now, then drinks it while looking out the window at the snow.

It hasn’t snowed again and what fell yesterday is starting to melt, turning into that gross yellow-brown slushy stuff that slip-slides under your feet. He’d been planning to leave today, and with the weather improving, he really can’t put it off. But Phil picked him up - pretty much literally - off the streets and maybe saved his life a little. Clint feels terrible about leaving when Phil’s obviously having a really bad day.

So he sits on the couch and worries. Then he walks over to Phil’s tiny bookcase, selects a book at random, and tries to distract himself from worrying. It turns out to be a novelisation of the last days of Captain America, so maybe Phil’s crack about the t-shirt the other day wasn’t a joke.

It’s a terrible novel. Like, really bad. Clint doesn’t know much about history, but even he knows that Peggy Carter was way cooler than this.

It’s almost a relief, when someone starts hammering on the front door, but only almost because they’re going to disturb Phil.

Clint jumps up and hisses, “Coming, shut up,” at the door while he tries to work out which order the combination of locks and bolts needs to be turned in to get the door open. It’s only when he’s already pulling the door open, that he realises there’s a peephole that he probably should have checked.

There’s a tall, seriously imposing black dude standing on the doorstep, leather jacket zipped up to his neck and a patch over his left eye.

“Wow,” Clint says, without meaning to.

The dude crosses his arms and looks down at Clint. “So you’re the kid,” he says and, huh, Clint recognises that voice.

“You’re Marcus/Nick,” he says, trying to work out if that’s a good or a bad thing.

Marcus/Nick’s eyebrows twitch. “Nick,” he says. “Nick Fury.” He holds out his hand and Clint’s startled for a second before he shakes it.

“Clint,” he says, swallowing down his surname even though Nick’s whole demeanor screams that he expects one. “Phil’s asleep.” He manages not to wince that he’s once again making everything sound more suggestive than it should.

“Really.” Nick looks down at his big, silver wrist watch. “At ten twenty-seven in the morning.”

“Yes.” Clint folds his arms and tilts his chin up, meeting Nick’s eyes. So what if everything about this guy screams authority, Clint’s still not letting him disturb Phil.

Nick’s expression flickers, then relaxes into something softer. His eyes look concerned. “Is he okay?”

Clint shrugs one shoulder, pretty sure it’d be a betrayal to answer that. “You tell me.”

Nick looks at him closely, then steps past him into the apartment.

“Hey, asshole,” Clint whisper-snaps, closing the door and grabbing Nick’s arm. Nick whirls around on him, but Clint stared down the barrell of a gun last night, he can take on a one-eyed glare. “I told you, Phil’s sleeping.”

Nick laughs. It’s deep and not very flattering, but he veers off into the kitchen rather than heading for the bedroom. He opens a drawer above the stove, which Clint didn’t even realise opened, and pulls down a bottle of Jack Daniels.

“Drink, kid?” he asks, setting it on the breakfast bar.

“It’s ten thirty,” Clint says, watching him pour himself some coffee and add a slug of Jack to it.

“And you’re about twelve years old,” Nick says, raising his mug to Clint in a toast.

Clint glares and sits down opposite him, pouring whiskey into his own half-cold coffee, just to prove a point. It’s disgusting, but that’s not the point.

“So what’s your story?” Clint asks. “How d’you know Phil?”

“That is a long goddamn story,” Nick says. “But it starts in a war that didn’t officially exist, so I couldn’t tell it, even if I wanted to.”

Okay, well now Clint’s interested. He drums his fingers and pretends not to be. “Which you don’t.”

Nick smirks. “Which I don’t. And you’re a kid Coulson plucked off the sidewalk like the Little Fucking Match Girl, apparently.”

“No,” Clint says, mostly lies, just because he doesn’t like the way Nick says it. “Anyway, I’m leaving today.” Now Nick’s here, he can leave, he realises. That’s a good thing and it’s dumb to feel bad about it.

“Coulson know that?” Nick asks.

“Yep.” With effort, Clint stops tapping his fingers.

“Okay, kid.” Nick stands up, rinses his mug at the sink then turns back to look at Clint. “Not that I’m not quaking in my boots at your protective terrier routine, but I’m going in to talk to him now.” He picks up the bottle of Jack by the neck. “If you hear yelling, it’s just me beating some sense into his fool head.”

Clint wants to protest, but he doesn’t really have the right. Nick knows where Phil keeps his secret alcohol stash; they’re obviously something like friends and he’s just... well, what the fuck is he to Phil? He’s nothing.

***

Phil comes out of his bedroom a half hour later, looking rumpled and embarrassed, also slightly drunk, but Clint doesn’t call him out on any of that.

He sits down opposite Clint and opens his hands, palms up.

“Seven months ago, I was shot in the shoulder,” he says without preamble. “I was a prisoner of war for seventeen days. By the time I was rescued, I'd developed septicemia and I nearly lost my arm. I still experience a lot of pain and, like you saw yesterday, sometimes nightmares.”

Clint doesn’t know what to say. He slides his hands across the table and bumps his fingertips against Phil’s. “Shit,” he says, unhelpfully. He looks down at Phil’s fingers which are narrower and paler than Clint’s. He still can’t imagine Phil as a soldier.

“I’m sorry,” Phil says. “I probably shouldn’t have brought you into this.”

“Can I do anything to help?” Clint asks, over the top of him. Then he feels dumb, because what could he do?

“Yes,” Nick’s voice says from the doorway.

Phil looks over his shoulder, glaring at Nick. “No,” he says, looking back at Clint. “But thank you.”

Clint frowns, looking at one of them then the other. “Yes or no?” he asks. There’s no point pretending that if there is something, he’s not going to do it.

“No,” Phil says again. He lifts his hands and overlaps his fingertips with Clint’s, pressing down slightly, like a thank you.

Nick drags another chair over from somewhere and plants himself between them. “Or,” he says, looking directly at Clint, “you could listen to me. Coulson needs someone to make sure he takes his meds and follows his exercise regime.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet. “I’d say twenty dollars a day sounds fair.”

“What?” Clint asks faintly as Nick sets three twenties in front of him.

“Nick,” Phil snaps. “Don’t.”

Nick ignores him and just keeps eye contact with Clint, who’s trying hard to look back at him except that he really wants to stare at the money instead. “Stay here, eat Coulson’s food, sleep on his couch, and yell at him every time he’s a dumb motherfucker. Sound good?”

“I don’t know,” Clint says. “Phil?”

Phil sighs. He leans back in his chair and says to Nick, “You’re a bastard. Give us a minute?”

“Sure thing.” Nick slaps his hands down on the counter, grinning sharply. He drops a card on the table next to the money. “I’ve got a sonogram appointment to get to. Give me a call if you’re dumb enough to turn me down, kid.”

“Sonogram?” Clint asks, as soon as Nick’s gone and he starts to feel awkward.

“Second kid,” Phil says. “Don’t get him started.”

“He seems...” Clint looks for a word. “To care about you?”

Phil sighs. “Yes.” He pauses, looks down, then looks up again, repeating more firmly, “Yes. He does. But you don’t have to go along with his schemes. I know you wanted to leave today and I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.”

Clint gives him a look. “You’re pretty good at looking after me,” he says carefully. “Not so sure about looking after you.” He feels weird saying this, but he pushes on. “I mean, how much did you fuck up your shoulder dragging me up the stairs the other day?”

“Only a little,” Phil says firmly. “It was worth it.”

Clint looks down at the counter, at the money and Nick’s card sitting there. “I need the money,” he says, hating himself since he knows Phil doesn’t want him to take it. “I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t.” Phil touches their fingertips together again. It’s like now that Clint’s shown it’s okay to touch him a bit, Phil doesn’t want to stop. “I was going to try to trick you into staying, anyway. I’m a little pissed at Nick for manipulating us both, but I’m not pissed at you.”

“Trick me into staying?” Clint asks, looking up through his eyelashes. He wouldn’t have stayed, not without a purpose, but it’s nice to know Phil wanted him to.

“Subtly,” Phil says.

Clint laughs. He picks up the money and curls it into his fist. He wants to tuck it away in his jeans’ pockets with the rest of his secret stash, but not while Phil’s watching. “What do I need to do?”

“Honestly nothing,” Phil says, hurrying on when Clint starts to protest. “I’ve been a little lax lately, but I am an adult, I can do some exercises.”

“Yeah, no.” Clint waves the money at him. “Your hot and scary friend is paying me, so I’m gonna do what he wants.” He gets up. It’s awesome to have a purpose, even if it’s a mostly fake one. “Starting with making you breakfast.”

“You think Nick’s hot?” Phil asks, sounding bemused, not appalled, but Clint still freezes. He hadn’t meant to just out himself like that.

“Sure,” he says, staring into the fridge without seeing anything. “In a scary way, not like I actually want to bang your friend.” He should stop talking. He grabs the first two things he finds: eggs and bread, and spins around.

Phil’s laughing at him. It’s a silent kind of laugh that’s shaking his shoulders and it’s the loosest Clint’s ever seen him.

“What?” Clint asks plaintively. “Dude.”

Phil waves a hand at him. “I will pay you double if you tell Nick that to his face. Please.”

Clint laughs with him, just because Phil’s genuine laughter is apparently really infectious. “No way,” he says, shaking his head. “Do I look crazy?”

“A little,” Phil says, starting to laugh again when Clint automatically flips him off.

***

After breakfast, Clint talks Phil into showing him all the various meds he’s supposed to take. Mostly it’s painkillers and sleeping pills, but Clint starts to feel real bad about having finished off Phil’s supply of antibiotics.

“I can tell you now that I won’t be taking the sleeping pills,” Phil says, putting the bottles back in the cabinet in the bathroom.

“Even though you’re not sleeping?” Clint puts his feet on the closed toilet lid and sits down on the cistern.

Phil watches him but doesn’t object too strongly. “Don’t break that; my landlord’s an asshole. And no. When I have a nightmare, I want to wake up as fast as possible. The sleeping pills make that difficult.”

“Ugh,” Clint says, because he hadn’t thought of that. “That’s fair. I won’t tell Nick that you’re not taking them.”

Phil nods and, while Clint’s watching, rolls his eyes, twists the lid off the painkillers, and dry swallows two. “There, happy?”

“The happiest I have ever been about watching a dude swallow pills,” Clint promises. Which, actually, is probably true. “Now, tell me about these exercises?”

***

The exercises are much harder than the pills. For a start, Phil actually seems to want to do them, but he doesn’t want Clint to watch.

“I just need to do some stretches and some weight work,” he says. “It’s nothing you need to be here for.”

“You don’t need any help?” Clint asks doubtfully. Phil doesn’t seem like the type to be skipping out on things that could make him better, if he can do them, which probably means that he’s needed help and hasn’t had anyone around to ask for it. When Phil hesitates, Clint adds, “C’mon, your buddy gave me twenty bucks; you’ve gotta help me earn it. Give me something to do.”

It looks like Phil’s having some serious internal struggles for a minute there, but then he says, “Yes, you’re right, okay.”

“Okay,” Clint says then looks at Phil.

Phil looks back.

Clint waves a hand. “Tell me what to do.”

“I know, I know, sorry.” Phil toys with the hem of his t-shirt and Clint starts to suspect the problem. “I need to stretch my arm in certain directions, but sometimes it’s hard to really get a good stretch. I’d be grateful if you could help with that.”

“Sure.” Clint smiles at him, trying to look reassuring. “Maybe take your t-shirt off?”

“Yes,” Phil says and nods firmly. “There’s some scarring,” he warns before pulling off his loose-fitting t-shirt. He can’t get it easily over his left shoulder so Clint steps in to help, getting a close-up view of the scarring as he pulls the t-shirt away.

Some scarring is an understatement. The whole front of Phil’s shoulder is a mess of neat, white surgery scars and what looks like some kind of botched attempt with a butter knife. Clint wonders if Phil did that on himself while he was a prisoner, then feels kind of nauseated and stops thinking about it.

“Yeah, that is a scar and a half,” he agrees, since Phil’s obviously self-conscious about showing it off. “Sure you didn’t get bit by a shark?”

“Yes, that’s it, I fought an epic battle with Jaws,” Phil says, starting to smile and his shoulders relaxing.

“Cool.” Clint tries not to stare at Phil’s chest, but he’s stupidly curious. Phil’s so calm and kind of nerdy and he’s weird enough to rescue strange kids off the streets, but he’s also a fucking war hero. It should make Clint feel like the gulf between them is even wider, but all it really does is make him feel safe.

“I know it’s disgusting,” Phil says.

“It’s really not,” Clint says softly. Then he snaps his gaze up to Phil’s and blushes. “I didn’t mean that in a weird way, like I have a scar fetish or something, just.”

Thankfully, Phil just snorts and then sets about doing his exercises so Clint doesn’t have to dig himself any further into his humiliated hole. It’s bad enough to realise that Phil’s hot and heroic; it’d be way worse if he said that out loud.

Just like he kept insisting, Phil can manage by himself for about half the exercises. His shoulder looks stiff and sore, but he keeps going until there’s sweat along his hairline and the skin around his mouth is whitish grey.

“It’s this part I could use your help with,” he says, voice sounding thinner than usual. “I’m supposed to lift it as high as I can, then bring it down and reach backwards.”

“Sure.” Clint steps forward from where he’s been mostly hovering uselessly, and lifts his hands. “Where’d you want me?”

“Just - ” Phil starts to lift his arm and gets it to just past shoulder height before he curses and swallows hard. “Help me take some of the weight.”

For lack of anywhere better to touch, Clint wraps one hand around Phil’s bicep and the other just below his elbow. With Clint’s support, Phil can lift his arm until his hand’s pointing up, but then he sucks in a breath when he tries to straighten it.

The muscles under Clint’s hands are shaking and it makes him frown. “Maybe that’s enough?” he tries.

In reply, Phil lifts his arm another stubborn inch. “I’m supposed to do this ten times a day. I’ll be damned if I can’t even get to one.”

Clint takes his right hand off Phil’s forearm and puts it on top, stopping him from lifting his arm any further. “Sure, but that’s probably when the doctors thought you’d be able to do this every day and wouldn’t be starting again after what, like, a couple of months? You’re gonna break yourself if you keep pushing.”

Phil’s expression turns tight and stubborn for just long enough for Clint to think that he’s fucked up and that that was totally the wrong thing to say. Then Phil deflates.

“Yes, okay, you’re right,” he says, heavily. He lets Clint take all the weight of his arm for a second, looking tired all over again.

“You did pretty good,” Clint tries. “Want lunch?”

“Are you suddenly in charge of feeding us?” Phil asks. He pulls his arm gently out of Clint’s grip and bends down to pick his t-shirt off the bed. “You go on through; I need to warm down.”

Clint narrows his eyes and points at Phil. “No trying again when I’m out of the room.”

Phil salutes smartly with his good arm. “Sir, no, sir,” he says dryly.

***

After lunch, Phil doesn’t seem like he has the energy to do much more than sit on the couch and doze. Sitting and dozing are two of Clint’s new favourite things, so he doesn’t object, just tucks himself into the other half of the couch and picks up the terrible Captain America novel again.

It takes Phil a little while to notice what he’s reading, but when he does, he makes a face. “I should have thrown that out as soon as I bought it,” he says. “Are you enjoying it?”

Clint shrugs one shoulder. “I like the Howling Commandos bits,” he says. “But yeah, it’s not good.”

“What do you like to do?” Phil asks. “You must be really bored just hanging out here with me.”

Clint hasn’t even thought about being bored. Hanging out here feels like a vacation and Phil’s great company, even if he doesn’t seem to think so. Clint doesn’t say that, because he knows it won’t come out right. “I’m good,” is all he does say.

Phil nudges him with his toes, just lightly. “But what do you like to do? You must be interested in something.”

Clint gets distracted looking at Phil’s socked toes. There’s a hole on top, just above his big toe and Clint can see skin. He doesn’t understand why that’s distracting.

“Yeah, I’m interested in things,” he says. He thinks about it, not sure if this is a secret he trusts anyone with. But Phil’s told him a lot of personal things today, so. “Archery? I kind of, I used to have a bow. I was pretty okay at that.”

Phil doesn’t say anything for a minute. Clint wonders if he thinks that’s a dumb thing to like but, when he makes himself look at Phil, he gets the impression at Phil’s thinking carefully about what to say.

“Where did you get interested in that?” Phil asks at last. “I thought you were going to say soccer or something.”

“Soccer?” Clint asks, wrinkling his nose. “Nah. I’m not a team sports kind of guy.”

“Hey, I played soccer,” Phil says, smiling.

He doesn’t push again for an answer, so Clint knows he can get away without giving one. He might as well though, since he’s started. “I was… for a while, I lived with a circus. That’s where I learned.”

“A circus,” Phil asks. “That must have been fun.”

“Yeah.” Clint smiles quick and finds he means it. “Yeah, it was good sometimes.” He fiddles with the cover of Phil’s book until he realises that he’s dog-earing the corner and makes himself stop. “Yeah.”

Phil settles more comfortably with his back against the arm of the couch and gives Clint all his attention. Which means Clint finds himself talking. He doesn’t tell Phil about Trick Shot or how it all went to shit or any of that, but he talks about performing, about finding his way around a bow, and it’s really good to talk about it.

He’s resented the circus for so long for going on without him, for not protecting him from Trick Shot, for taking Barney away, that it turns out he’d forgotten all the good times.

“I wish you had a picture,” Phil says, once Clint’s finished telling him about the (terrible) outfit he had to wear. “I bet you looked great in lycra.”

Clint sticks his tongue out. “Purple lycra,” he says. “And don’t forget the little like, skirt thingy in front. That was the best part.”

Phil laughs. “You must have been very young when you started performing,” he says. Clint raises an eyebrow at him until Phil narrows his eyes. “Take your mind out of the gutter; you know what I meant.”

“Yeah.” Clint smiles. “Sorry. And yeah, I was, I don’t know, thirteen probably? My bro- Some of the other kids were dicks about it, but I didn’t care.”

“When I was a kid, I used to drag my parents to every circus that came through town,” Phil says. He’s leaning his bad arm across his knees, actually resting it for once. Clint doesn’t think he’s noticed, so he takes care not to look at it too much.

“Yeah? In Chicago?” Clint doesn’t remember Carson’s ever hitting Chicago; they tended to stay away from the bigger towns.

“Skokie,” Phil says. “I tell people Chicago when I want to impress them.”

“You wanted to impress me?” Clint asks. Phil’s leaning the side of his head against the back of the couch, looking at Clint through half-closed eyes. Clint mirrors him, settling in comfortably.

“Had to get you to stay,” Phil says with a shrug. “I didn’t want you to die.”

It’s stupid to feel touched by that. Most people probably wouldn’t want Clint to die, that’s no actual reflection on Clint. Still, he likes to hear it.

“Go to sleep,” he says. “You look beat.”

“You too,” Phil orders. “You still have that cough.”

Clint could argue that he’s way better and he’s not the one who had nightmares all last night then half killed himself with PT. He doesn’t though, because that’ll just wake Phil up all the way.

“Me too,” he promises, bumping his toes against Phil’s.

***

Despite what he said, Clint doesn’t take the opportunity for a nap. He tries to finish the Captain America book, but finds that he’s spending most of his time looking over the top of the pages at Phil.

It starts out totally innocently, just Clint checking in to make sure that Phil’s comfortable, that he isn’t having any more bad dreams. Then he realises that Phil’s dark eyelashes are really long where they’re resting against Phil’s cheeks and he gets distracted.

This whole thing where Phil’s attractive is really annoying. Why couldn’t he be an ancient and grumpy old man who’d rescued Clint? Guys with cheekbones like that and sparkly blue eyes shouldn’t go around being nice to Clint. It makes him think thoughts.

Clint stretches out his legs and feels equal parts creepy and happy when Phil mumbles something and leans some of his weight against Clint’s calf.

Phil’s weight against him makes Clint feel good inside and this dumb crush isn’t hurting Phil. Maybe Clint’s allowed. Phil’d probably just laugh if Clint told him; Phil’s twenty-six and an army vet, it’s not like he’s going to be interested in some dumb teenager.

***

It’s gotten dark when someone knocks on Phil’s door. Phil gets up, checks the peephole then opens it. He doesn’t ask Clint to hide, so apparently he’s okay with whoever it is knowing Clint’s here.

Clint keeps doing the dishes but glances over his shoulder, checking out their visitor.

It’s an old guy, stooped and stiff-looking, wiry hair white where it’s not fallen out.

“Mister Noyce,” Phil says, hovering at his side. “Take a seat, please.”

Mr Noyce shakes his head at the couch, when he’s offered it. “I’d never get up again,” he says, smiling wryly. He’s got a strong Jamaican accent with a bit of a New York twang to it. “I came by to ask for a favour.” He lowers his voice, looking up at Clint. Clint automatically looks away.

Phil makes reassuring noises. “This is my friend Clint. What do you need, sir?” he asks.

Mr Noyce makes a sound like he’s embarrassed. “The light’s out in my entrance hall. I called that goddamned… I’ve called our landlord about ten times, but he still hasn’t been by, and it’s getting so I can’t tell if I’ve locked the door at night.”

“That’s terrible,” Phil says, sounding somewhere between reassuring and pissed. Clint guesses that the pissiness is aimed at their shitty landlord, not this nice old guy. “Have you got a ladder?”

“I do. A ladder and a spare bulb. I thought about doing it myself, of course, but with my hip the way it is...”

“No, no,” Phil interrupts quickly. “I’ll do it.”

“I can do it,” Clint offers, without thinking about it. He looks over at Phil, trying to convey you’ll hurt your shoulder without saying it.

“I don’t want to put anyone out,” Mr Noyce says quickly, the kind of tone that means he doesn’t really want a stranger in his apartment. Which is cool, it’s fine, but Clint will be damned if he’s letting Phil hurt himself.

“I’ll go,” Phil says firmly.

“Dude,” Clint protests, but gets ignored. His hands are covered in soap suds and, by the time he’s grabbed a towel, Phil’s already leading Mr Noyce out of the apartment.

Clint slumps back against the sink, thinking dark and grumpy thoughts about stubborn assholes who won’t let him help.

***

The next day, Phil looks out the window, shivers, and says, “Do you want to get out of here for a bit?”

“I’m allowed out?” Clint asks. He’s mostly joking, but he hasn't actually gone out since Phil brought him back; it hadn't really occurred to him.

Phil doesn’t seem to get that Clint’s joking, because he looks genuinely appalled. “Of course,” he says. “Clint, of course you can. You’re not a prisoner.”

“I know, I know. Dude,” Clint says quickly. “Where’d you want to go?”

Phil doesn’t look convinced, like he thinks he’s accidentally become Rumpelstiltskin or something. “Lunch?” he offers. “My treat.”

Clint thinks about the money he got from Nick and the others that are tucked away. He can spare a little bit.

“My treat,” he says, and then just glares at Phil until he laughs and holds his hands up in surrender.

***

New York looks totally different when you’re not trying to pick the best place to sleep for the night. The place Phil wants to go is a subway ride away and they end up cutting through streets lined with stores that are decorated in lights for the holidays.

“What’s the date?” Clint asks, stopping to look at a terrifying mechanical Santa in one of the windows.

“December 5th,” Phil says, standing next to Clint and tipping his head, like he’s trying to work out why Santa’s rosy cheeks keep popping in and out. Clint isn’t thinking about that.

“Seriously?” Clint turns away from Santa and toward Phil, which is a way better view. “I thought it was still November.” He thinks about it. “I missed Thanksgiving.”

Phil bumps his shoulder against Clint’s. “I’ll buy you a pumpkin pie,” he says. He looks over at Clint and frowns. “And also some gloves. Here, take mine.”

“No, no, what?” Clint protests, watching as Phil strips his leather gloves off his hands and passes them over. Clint folds his arms and refuses to take them. “Nope. You’re injured; you need to keep warm.”

The corner of Phil’s mouth curls up. “Wounded, I was wounded. And my shoulder is a long way from my fingers.”

Clint just looks at him. He’s just as stubborn as Phil fucking Coulson, okay, he just hasn’t had a chance to show it yet.

“Fine,” Phil says, before stuffing the gloves in his pocket, grabbing Clint’s arm, and pulling him into the store. He tugs Clint over to a display of winter clothes along one wall. “Pick some of your own.”

Clint’s not sure if this is better or worse than stealing gloves from Phil. “I can’t,” he says, kind of hating Phil right now for putting him in this position. There are sales clerks at the checkout counter, looking over at them curiously. “I can’t afford these, these are real nice.”

“Didn’t I just say I was going to buy you some?” Phil asks, sighing like Clint is a trial. “How about these.” He reaches for a pair of dark purple gloves and there’s no way that he can know that those were the same ones Clint was eyeing up, but it’s still damn unfair.

“You’re not exactly rolling in it, either,” Clint murmurs under his breath. “Check the price tag.”

“They can’t be that - ” Phil starts to say then flips the gloves over so the price tag is facing him not Clint. “Oh. That is a lot.”

“Yeah.” Clint shouldn’t feel better because Phil can’t afford them either, but he does. It makes him feel like less of a waste of space. “Put ‘em back before someone makes you buy them.”

“I could still get them for you,” Phil says, looking sad.

“Nope. No way.” Clint takes the gloves out of Phil’s hand and hangs them back up. Then, because Phil did it earlier, so it must be okay, he tucks his hand into Phil’s arm and pulls him out of the store.

It’s just starting to snow again, and the cold slaps Clint in the face (and in the fingers, but he doesn’t mention that).

“At least let me buy you some from Target later,” Phil asks. “Maybe get some with Ben 10 on them.”

“Fuck you, I’m not a kid,” Clint says, pretending to be hurt, because he actually is kind of hurt and that’s stupid. He’s already resigned himself to the fact that Phil thinks of him that way. “And if you want to warm me up, take me to Starbucks. I want one of those crazy, syrupy Christmas drinks.”

“Ugh, those things always make me feel sick,” Phil says but he does an about-face and leads the way to the nearest Starbucks, anyway.

***

Clint gets an eggnog latte then convinces them to put a shot of caramel brûlée syrup in there too. It’s maybe the sweetest thing he’s ever drunk, and it’s totally gross, but it’s worth it for the look on Phil’s face.

“No,” he says, somehow ninjaing his way to an empty table that Clint would have sworn wasn’t empty two seconds ago.

“No?” Clint asks, flopping into the other chair and kicking his feet up onto the table. Phil looks at him and shakes his head, so he shifts them back down again.

“You’re going to give yourself diabetes,” Phil tells him, sipping at his own double shot cappuccino. “And your teeth will fall out.”

Clint grins, pretty sure he’s wearing a foam moustache right now and not caring. “I’d be sexy as fuck with no teeth.”

“It would be useful for blowjobs,” Phil says, then pauses, looking like he can’t decide if he’s sorry or not for having said that.

Clint takes just long enough to process that he really did just hear that and then he spends some time dying of laughter, giggling so loud that other people in the store turn around and look.

“Stop it,” Phil says, kicking his ankle. “I’m sorry, that was incredibly inappropriate.”

Clint takes a sip of coffee to try to stop laughing, fails, and ends up choking on it. Then he’s just a mess of coughing and laughing and coffee up the nose, but it’s still worth it.

“That was completely inappropriate,” he gasps. “That was amazing. Who knew you had such a dirty mind, Phil Coulson?”

“That was inappropriate,” Phil repeats. “You’re seventeen.”

“Yeah, but I’m not…” Clint waves a hand. “I’m not one of those sheltered suburban kids. I’ve seen things.”

“Exactly.” Phil had been blushy but smiling before, now the smile fades. “You’ve been through enough. You should get to be a kid for a while.”

“I don’t want to be a kid,” Clint says, hoping he sounds firm rather than petulant. “What the fuck is so good about being a kid? Kids just get stuck with the decisions other people make for them.”

Phil opens his mouth like he’s got a counter argument, then his eyebrows draw together and he stays quiet. “You’re right,” he says. “Would you like another disgusting latte to celebrate your maturity.”

“Fuck off,” Clint says, but he doesn’t mean it.

***

Despite Clint’s best efforts, Phil manages to buy him a scarf and gloves, both in this really nice deep purple but not as scarily expensive as the first ones they looked at.

Clint likes them so much that he wants to keep them on even after they get back to Phil’s apartment, but that’d be weird, so he makes himself take them off. Then he carefully tucks them away in the corner behind the couch that he’s taken over with his sleeping bag and the dirty clothes he hasn’t worn since that first shower.

They both gravitate to the kitchen without talking about it, ending up with a mug each of Phil’s gross herbal tea.

“I enjoyed today,” Phil says quietly.

Clint looks up at him and can’t help the ridiculous smile thing his face does. “Yeah?” he asks, trying not to sound hopeful. “Me too.”

Phil goes back to drinking his tea and Clint tries to find something else to say. This was easier while they were strolling Manhattan. And it was much easier before Clint realised how desperately he wants them to be friends.

Speaking of, “Do you have people you usually hang out with?” Clint asks. “Wait, do you have a girlfriend? Am I totally cramping your style?”

“Totally,” Phil says, deadpan, then laughs. “The closest thing I’ve had to a date since I was discharged was the time Nick had to help me wash my hair. Believe me, that’s not an experience I ever want to repeat.”

“Wow,” Clint says. Then, in the spirit of having a conversation like a real person, he pushes on, even though trying feels stilted and awkward. “How did you meet Nick?”

“I probably shouldn’t tell you since it’s classified,” Phil says slowly, like he’s trying to decide if he can. “But it involves a ton of C4, a very angry goat herder and four days holed up in the mountains.”

“Mountains in Afghanistan?” Clint guesses. He bets that Phil’s war stories would be way more exciting than any of the books on his shelves.

“I’m worried that you don’t understand what classified means,” Phil says.

Clint makes his expression as innocent as it can go. “Hey. You’re the one who mentioned the goat.”

***

It’s scary how easily they fall into a pattern. Clint’s never been someone who has, or needs, routine, but he kind of likes this one.

They have breakfast. Phil spends forever over his first coffee, because he’s hilariously sleepy without it, then they take the rest of the morning to work on Phil’s exercises. Afternoons are spent doing things around New York that Phil’s decided Clint will find interesting or fun.

Clint wants to tell him that there’s zero chance of him getting bored, but maybe that’s weird, maybe he’s supposed to be bored, so he keeps his mouth shut and just enjoys late brunches and trips to the movies and ice skating at the Rockefeller Center.

(They’re both really bad at ice skating. They get lapped by small children, but it’s still pretty awesome to see how hard Phil laughs every time he falls over.)

It’s after one of the movie trips that someone starts banging on Phil’s door. Clint glances over at Phil, surprised since Phil never has visitors.

“Stay there,” Phil says softly and stands up, crossing the room and pressing his eye to the peephole. “Fuck.”

“Who is it?” Clint asks but Phil shushes him.

“Go into my bedroom,” he says, turning away from the door and speaking so softly that Clint barely hears him. Then he smiles like he’s trying to be reassuring. “Don’t worry.”

“Definitely worried,” Clint whispers back but he gets up and retreats down the hallway.

Inside Phil’s room, he leaves the door open a crack and squints through it, watching as Phil unbolts the door and says, “Good evening,” super politely to whoever’s on the other side.

“Why take so long to open door?” demands a voice in an accent Clint recognises. “I knock, you answer, bro.”

“I was getting ready for bed,” Phil says, still polite, waving a hand down at his sweatpants and t-shirt.

“Is early,” Tracksuit Guy says and barges past Phil into the apartment.

“I’m tired.” Phil steps in after him but leaves the door open. “Can I help you? If this is an inspection, I’m legally allowed twenty-four hours notice.”

Holy crap, Tracksuit Guy is Phil’s landlord? Phil needs to move.

“Not inspection.” He walks slowly around the living room, definitely inspecting it. He stops when he sees Clint’s sleeping bag and Clint winces, holding his breath. “You go camping?”

Phil shrugs easily “In the summer,” he says. “That’s in case I get cold on the couch in the evenings. The heating doesn’t work too well; I’m sure I left you a voicemail about that.”

Unsurprisingly, that gets completely ignored. “I had offer to sell building,” Tracksuit Guy continues, like Phil’s his shrink and he’s just sharing his thoughts. “I say no, but it make me think. And I think maybe I not getting full value from tenants. Perhaps rent should go up.”

Phil doesn’t say anything, but Clint can see his expression tightening.

Tracksuit Guy turns and looks at him. “Extra fifty dollar month not unreasonable for man like you, no?”

“I think you’ll find I’ve signed a lease,” Phil says. “And that everyone here has.”

Tracksuit Guy tips his hand from side to side. “You yes, everyone no. Leases can be broken, rent can be changed.” He shrugs and turns toward the door. “Was just thought. Thought you should know. Good night.”

“Good night,” Phil says tightly. He waits until Tracksuit Guy’s in the doorway then very pointedly walks over and locks the door in his face.

Clint would like to be that awesome, but Clint would probably just have punched him.

As soon as the door’s locked, Phil slams his open palm into the wall, just the once, then straightens his shoulders and comes toward Clint

Clint pushes the door open and leans in the doorway. “Your landlord’s creepy,” he says. “Also, he’s the dude who chased me out of the hallway when I first got here.”

Phil rubs a hand over his face. “My landlord’s a fucking asshole,” he says.

“Yeah.” Clint shrugs. “That. And like, an extra fifty bucks for this place? No offence, but unless you’re paying negative zero at the moment, that’s not worth it.”

“He wants me out,” Phil says. He leans against the door so they’re opposite each other, postures mirrored.

“Because the other tenants like you?” Clint asks. Phil looks surprised that Clint figured that out, but it’s not like it was hard. “And you help them out?”

“I don’t think it’s necessarily anything I do,” Phil says, which is obviously bullshit. “They just feel I’m someone they can come to, because of my background.”

“Right,” Clint says, “That’s it. Not like you’re super reassuring and awesome or anything.”

“I’m ‘awesome’?” Phil asks, like he’s sixty years old and has never heard the word before.

“Oh, don’t front,” Clint says, embarrassed, and shoves off from the doorjam. “So what’re you going to do about him?”

“I don’t know yet.” Phil touches Clint’s arm before Clint can move past him. “Wait a second, I want to show you something.”

He walks past Clint and over to his bedside table.

“Can you handle a gun?” Phil asks, opening the drawer and pulling out the pistol Clint remembers very well from the other night.

“I can handle a rifle,” Clint says. “Never used a pistol, but I can’t see why not. I can pretty much shoot anything, so.”

“All right.” Phil says “I don’t want you to shoot anyone. Please don’t shoot anyone, in fact. But if you’re here alone and you honestly feel threatened, I want to know that you’re protected.”

“From your landlord?” Clint asks dubiously. “Yeah the guy’s a dick but I don’t think you’re allowed to shoot people for that.”

Phil puts away the pistol and quickly shows Clint where the ammo is. “He has mob ties,” he says. “He’s a dick, but some of his friends are worse than that. Plan A is that we both stay out of their way, but just in case, all right?”

“Sure. All right.” Clint knows he should probably be worried about what exactly he’s gotten himself into, but mostly he’s just really pleased that Phil trusts him and that Phil’s worried about him.

“Good.” Phil looks satisfied. “Want to see what’s on TV?”

“Sure,” Clint says, shrugging. Totally, no big deal. It happens every day, right? A guy showing you his illegal gun collection.

***

Sadly - or maybe luckily - Clint doesn’t get to shoot anyone that week. They get to the point with Phil’s exercises where he can stretch his arm all the way up and hold it for a five count. Clint tries not to think about what’s going to happen when Phil doesn’t need his help anymore.

Then on Sunday afternoon, Phil decides to read in the living room since it’s snowing outside, and Clint decides to take a shower, because he can’t get over how awesome showering is.

Phil laughs at him about it all the time and says he’s the only teenage boy in the whole world who has to be talked out of the shower, but he also bought Clint his own fancy-ass loofah thingy and a brand new fluffy towel.

Clint doesn’t want his own shower gel; he likes the way Phil’s smells.

He’s singing some Billy Joel to himself when he leaves the bathroom, and walks straight into a tiny little girl clutching a toy donkey.

Thank fuck he’s dressed.

“Uh, hey,” he says, skidding to a stop with one hand on the bathroom door. “Who are you?” If Phil has a tiny, brown-skinned daughter, he’s kept her very quiet.

“I need to pee,” she says seriously, eyes very wide. “You took forever.”

“Sorry?” he tries, but she’s already hustling past him and closing the door, managing to clip him on the ass with the handle as she goes. He stares at the closed door for a second, bemused, then heads to the living room. “Phil? There’s a really bossy kid in your bathroom. Oh, hey.”

“Hi,” the lady on Phil’s couch says. Clint’s not a genius, but he’d wager that this is the bossy kid’s mom. “Sorry about Danielle.”

“Yeah, no, that’s. She’s cute. I like her braids.” Clint turns helplessly to where Phil’s standing in the kitchen, filling the kettle.

He’s laughing. Bastard.

“Clint,” he says, “this is Jessica, she lives on the second floor. Jessica this is Clint.”

“Hey,” Clint says again. He likes the way Phil glosses over explaining who the fuck Clint is. Smooth.

“Hi,” she says again.

He slides over to Phil, leaning into his side and whispering, “Your neighbour is laughing at me. That’s not cool, dude.”

Phil flashes him a smile. “Would you like to stay here and make the coffee while I talk to Jessica?”

“Yes,” Clint says firmly. He likes coffee; coffee never laughs at him.

He futzes around, taking as long as possible to make three cups of coffee and ignoring Danielle who’s standing about two foot away and staring at him. Like, she’s standing two feet away at all times; even when he moves, she repositions herself.

It’s a little creepy, and Clint’s a guy who likes the smell of Phil’s shower gel; he knows from creepy.

“Do you want something?” he asks at last, after the coffee’s definitely as ready as it’s ever going to get.

She steps back and points very definitely at one of the bar stools. “I want to sit up there,” she tells him.

Clint looks at the height of the stool, looks at the height of her, and decides that she’s probably not going to crack her skull open. “So sit up there, then.”

She gives him a look like he’s an idiot. “It’s too high.”

Right. Okay. “Give me a minute,” he tells her and lifts a hand when she goes to follow him again. “Stay there.”

He picks up two of the coffees and takes them over to where Phil and Jessica are talking quietly.

“Thank you,” Phil says. “Do you want to sit down? I could move up.”

“No, uh. I’m gonna entertain the kid. If that’s all right?” he adds, looking at Jessica.

“That’s very all right,” she says. “Just remember that her donkey is named Derek and he has feelings too.”

“Right.” Clint grins. “Got it.”

Danielle turns out to weigh about as much as a pillow, so it’s easy for Clint to swing her up and onto one of the bar stools. Clint sits down on the other one, and Derek, the cuddly donkey, decides to sit on the table.

“Do you live here?” Danielle asks.

“Nope,” Clint says, straining his ears to try to hear what Phil and Jessica are saying.

Danielle kicks her feet, tiny sneaker colliding with Clint’s kneecap. “Where do you live?”

“In a cave under a bridge,” he says, which makes her look at him really dubiously. It doesn’t seem to make her any less interested in him though. “What?”

“I don’t believe you,” she decides.

“Well sucks to be you, because it’s true.” He sighs and gives up on eavesdropping. “Before that though, I lived in a circus.”

“With lions?” she asks, like that’s a deal breaker.

“Yup.” One lion, anyway. A really old one, who no one expected to do much of anything other than be a really big house cat, anymore. “And a lady who breathed fire and a man who could fly.”

“Really?” she asks.

Clint nods as seriously as he can.

“Draw him for me,” she says. Seriously, this kid is so bossy. Kind of cute, but really bossy.

“Oh, no, kid, I’m really not much of an artist,” Clint tries, but she folds her arms and lifts her chin so it looks like he doesn’t have much of a choice.

He steals some paper from Phil’s printer and does his best to draw a trapeze artist for her. He really is shit at drawing and she doesn’t care about the mechanics of the swing, just how spangly the outfits should be, but it keeps them both busy for a while.

It’s not until Phil and Jessica stand up and Jessica comes over to collect Danielle that Clint really thinks to be embarrassed about essentially relegating himself to the kids’ table while the grown-ups talked.

But after Jessica and Danielle have left, Phil squeezes his shoulder and says, “Thanks for doing that.”

“Sure, yeah,” Clint says quickly. Danielle took her drawing with her, so now he’s just left with another sheet of paper and a sharpie, which he shoves aside quickly. “Everything okay?”

Phil sits down in Danielle’s seat and pulls the paper and sharpie toward him. “Jessica and her husband are getting the same sort of shakedown that we got the other day. Luckily, neither of them is easily intimidated, but I’m worried about the older people in this building.”

Clint props his elbows on the table and leans forward. “So we’re going to do something about it?” he asks, thinking about nice old Mr Noyce.

Phil looks up, pen hovering over the paper. He seems to be writing a list. “I am. There’s no need for you to get involved.”

Ow. That stings. “And yet I’m involved,” Clint says, hoping that sounds logical enough since he doesn’t really have a good argument; he just wants to help.

Phil studies him closely, silently, while Clint straightens his shoulders and doesn’t squirm.

“Okay,” Phil says. He spins his list around until Clint can see a column of names and numbers. Phil picks it up, tears it in half and gives the bottom half to Clint. “These are all the tenants in the building who I know have had problems with our landlord. What I want to do is visit them, find out how many are also being threatened with a rent hike. If we can get enough of them together, we can form an action group, get this worked out.”

“And if that doesn’t work, you start shooting?” Clint asks.

Phil shakes his head. “That’s Plan Z,” he says, in that way that leaves Clint unsure whether he’s joking or not.

***

In a revelation that surprises no one, least of all Clint, people are kind of wary of a strange teenage guy knocking on their door and asking them questions about their rent. Especially when that guy is Clint and totally unable to be articulate in the face of his own awkwardness.

Shuffling his feet, smiling hopefully, and dropping Phil’s name seems to do the trick pretty often though, and it doesn’t take too long before he’s got a pretty decent list of people who are being harassed by shitty Tracksuit Guy and his shitty friends.

Because Clint’s Clint and unable to leave well enough alone, once he’s exhausted all the names on the list Phil gave him, he starts knocking on other doors.

Some of those people are really nice and are totally delighted to learn that there’s a cool army vet on the top floor who wants to solve their woes for them. (Clint’s paraphrasing. Slightly.) Then he knocks on a door and it’s opened by a guy wearing a really familiar looking tracksuit and a seriously displeased expression.

And that’s before Clint even says a word.

“Hey,” he says, instead of the spiel he’s been developing. “Do I know your brother?”

“Brother?” this guy says. “You live here, you know Anton. I Andrey. What you want, bro?”

“I, uh, nothing.” Clint tries the aww, shucks smile, already sure it’s not going to work. “Just being neighbourly. Saying hi. So, hi. And bye. I’ll be - ”

Andrey’s hand shoots out and grabs the sheet of paper and the beat up hunk of cardboard that Clint’s been using as a clipboard. Since Clint doesn’t want to let go, Andrey ends up tugging Clint half way across his doorstep.

“What this?” he asks.

Clint does his best to keep it tipped away from him, since it’s got people’s names on it and that’s only going to get everyone in trouble. “Nothing,” he says. “School assignment. Really boring.”

He pulls. Andrey doesn’t let go. It’s about to turn into Russian Mafia Tug-of-War when he hears a soft whine from his ankles and looks down to find a golden retriever nosing at his sneakers. It’s a way nicer dog than the pitbull the other Tracksuit Guy was dragging around on Clint’s first day.

“Arrow,” Andrey growls, kicking at the dog, which distracts him enough that Clint can grab back his paper.

Then he drops down to his knees to get in between the dog and Andrey’s next kick. “Hey. He’s not doing anything wrong, are you?” he says, putting his hand on the back of the dog’s neck.

The dog looks up at him, huge sad eyes pretty much breaking Clint’s heart.

Andrey doesn’t pull his kick. It looks like it’s aiming for Clint’s stomach, but lands mostly on Clint’s hip instead, hard enough to make him grunt.

“Is none of your business,” Andrey growls. “You seem like you doing lots of things that are not your business, bro.”

“Sure, but.” Clint wheezes, refuses to show he’s in pain, tries again. “Please don’t kick your dog. That’s not cool.”

“I teach him to behave,” Andrey says. He grabs the dog’s collar and tugs him backwards into the house. It’s probably just Clint’s imagination, but he’s pretty sure that the look the dog gives him means that he wants to stay with Clint.

Clint doesn’t stick around after the door gets slammed in his face. He runs up the stairs and manages to arrive back at Phil’s apartment while Phil’s standing in the doorway, chatting with an older lady.

“Clint?” Phil asks, stopping mid sentence. “What happened?”

Clint presses a hand to his side, thinking it’s a stitch for a second, then realising it’s a throbbing bruise from where Andrey kicked him instead of the dog.

“Nothing, just.” He looks at Phil’s visitor, not sure if he wants to say anything in front of her. Apparently he’s been getting too trusting. Trusting’s bad.

“I’ll let you go,” she says, after looking from Clint to Phil and back again.

“Have a good day,” Phil says, then follows Clint into the apartment. “What happened?” he asks again.

Clint forces himself to stop rubbing his hip and waves a hand. “Nothing, just bumped into Anton’s identical tracksuit wearing cousin. He was kind of mean.”

“Did he hurt you?” Phil demands, attention zeroing in on Clint’s side even though Clint has very definitely stopped poking at it.

“That was an accident,” he says, waving it off. “But he’s got this dog, who’s miserable and he kicks it and…” He trails off. He’d been so sure that Phil could fix things for the dog like he’s fixed things for Clint, but what can he really do?

“Big golden retriever mix?” Phil asks. “I’ve seen him. He looked okay to me.”

“Dude kicks him,” Clint repeats, grateful when Phil’s expression tightens. “Hard.”

“Let me see your side?” Phil asks, but doesn’t come closer, just waits. Clint had forgotten how good he is at that, since they’ve been getting more comfortable with each other.

“S’not like you can do much,” Clint says, but tugs up his t-shirt just far enough that Phil can see the place below his ribs, where it’s turning a really nice red with an awesome magenta dent in the middle, the exact shape of the toe of a boot.

“Shooting’s too good for him,” Phil says, low and sounding really angry for once. He lifts a hand, hovering it between them like he’s waiting for Clint’s permission. Clint reaches out and touches the back of his hand, nods.

Phil lays his hand against Clint’s side, feeling carefully. It’s clinical, but his hand is still warm and gentle and Clint finds himself swallowing convulsively.

“Did that hurt?” Phil asks, which is when Clint realises he’s watching Clint’s face as well as his side. Shit.

“N-nope, you’re good.” Clint isn’t good, Clint’s voice is shaking like he’s never been touched before.

Phil slides his fingers carefully from the waistband of Clint’s pants up to the place where his ribs start. His thumb is curled around Clint’s side, firm against his back. “I don’t think anything’s broken,” he says quietly.

Call Clint pathetic, but he’d be happy to stand like this forever, all of Phil’s warmth close by and his hand sure on Clint’s skin. “Good,” Clint forces out. “What about like, internal bleeding? That’s a thing, right?”

“Well I can’t check inside you ,” Phil says and then, fascinatingly, he blushes.

Clint forces himself to look away from Phil’s pink cheeks and the way his eyes are shiny. He’s reading stuff into this that absolutely doesn’t exist.

“I guess not,” he says and bites his lip when Phil uncurls his hand and steps back. The words no, please, don’t stop are batting at the back of his teeth and that’s not okay. He can’t ask Phil to keep touching him, just because it makes him feel so good.

“Clint,” Phil says like that’s a whole sentence.

“Can we steal their dog?” Clint blurts out, too loud, just wanting to drown out whatever it is Phil’s thinking.

“I…” Clint isn’t sure he’s ever seen Phil hesitate. He looks derailed, but that’s okay. “Maybe. One thing at a time. How did you make out going door to door?”

“Good, yeah.” Clint knows his enthusiasm is coming out totally false but if he just keeps on faking it, it’ll be okay. “And I found some more people, too; want to see?”

“Yes,” Phil says. He’s still looking at Clint like he’s worried about him and Clint can’t have that, so he spins away, leading Phil over to the breakfast bar and talking a mile a minute until Phil joins in.

***

As hard as Clint tries, things don’t get less awkward. It’s not like anything happened; Clint just liked Phil touching him. And he didn’t even spring an awkward erection, so it’s not like Phil could have known that. Which means the awkward must all be in Clint’s head.

Still, Clint hates it and he hates himself for risking the first decent friendship he’s had in forever on a pointless crush.

He hates it when they’re doing Phil’s exercises and Phil keeps his shirt on for once, and he hates it when they’re sharing the couch and Phil keeps his feet on his own side, rather than letting them overlap with Clint’s.

Okay, so maybe Clint’s not imagining it. He’s pretty sure it’s still his fault though.

“Hey,” he says, while they’re doing the dishes after lunch. “Want to go somewhere this afternoon?”

“Maybe not. I’m pretty tired,” Phil says, which Clint doesn’t think is true since Phil tends to look tired when he is and he looks fine.

“Sure?” Clint should let it go, but instead, he pushes. “You don’t have any last minute Christmas shopping to do?”

“I’m sure,” Phil says and reaches past Clint for a dirty mug, carefully not looking at him.

Clint can’t stand this anymore. He reaches out and grabs Phil’s hand before Phil can touch the mug.

Phil freezes. “What are you - ?” he asks, looking up.

Clint stares back at him helplessly for what he knows is far too long. Phil’s got such gorgeous eyes.

This is a really bad idea. This is the worst idea. But Clint’s just going to do it anyway and then deal with having fucked everything up after.

He presses one hand to Phil’s cheek and curls his fingers carefully. Phil sucks in a breath and goes where Clint wants him, which is way more encouragement than Clint should have and just as much as he needs.

He steps all the way forward into Phil’s space, pleased when Phil turns to meet him and really not caring about the way Phil’s soapy hands get caught between their stomachs.

“Clint,” Phil says, but he doesn’t say no so Clint kisses him. It’s such a dumb thing to do, but he loves it, anyway. Phil’s mouth is soft and still and then less soft and way less still as he kisses Clint back.

Clint’s so surprised that he ends up clinging onto Phil’s upper arms, kissing him and being kissed. Phil pushes his tongue into Clint’s mouth and groans and makes fists in Clint’s shirt and it’s the most goddamn amazing thing that’s ever happened to him, until Phil suddenly makes a harsh sound and steps back.

“Don’t say that shouldn’t have happened,” Clint begs immediately. He’s breathless and shaking and he just wants Phil back so they can kiss again.

Phil looks spooked and flushed all at once. “That really shouldn’t have happened though,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re - ” Clint grabs at Phil’s hands where they’re still fisted in Clint’s clothes. “I kissed you; you don’t need to be sorry.”

Phil shakes his head. He’s breathing as fast as Clint is, so very obviously turned on, too, and Clint doesn’t get why he won’t just go with this.

“But I’m much older than you and I should know better.”

“Don’t,” Clint snaps. “Don’t play the age card. You’re not that much older than me.” He can feel this slipping away after just being given it, and it makes his stomach squirm and get all knotted up.

Phil looks sad, but he still doesn’t try to tear his hands away from Clint’s. “I’m too old for you. And look what I’ve already gotten you involved in. You should be worrying about school, not mafia shakedowns.”

Even Clint can hear that his laugh’s bitter and horrible. “Don’t you dare tell me you’re not good for me. You’ve been better for me than anyone else in my life.”

Phil’s expression goes open and broken for a second before he really obviously crushes all of that down. “It doesn’t matter, anyway,” he says at last, like they’re having a new conversation, “You’re not really attracted to me.”

Clint’s heart is pounding, he knows Phil can feel it. “I’m definitely attracted to you, dude,” he says, trying to sound calm like Phil is, not like he’s having his heart shattered.

Phil nods. “Okay, but you don’t have feelings for me. You’re grateful that I gave you a place to stay and you’re confusing that for… something else.”

“And how about how you feel?” Clint demands, pretty certain that arguing that he knows how he feels way better than Phil does isn’t going to get him anywhere but infuriated, “You kissed me back.”

He did. He really did. He kissed him back and how. Clint’s never been kissed like that.

“How I feel doesn’t matter,” Phil says quickly.

“Bullshit, why not?”

Phil finally takes that extra step back. “Because this isn’t going to happen,” he says and untangles his hands from Clint’s. “I’m sorry.”

He turns away, staring down into the abandoned dishwater, and Clint doesn’t know what to do, what to say, or where to put himself. He stares blankly at the side of Phil’s head while Phil very, very methodically starts to scrub at a plate that Clint is pretty sure is already clean.

This is worse than thinking that Phil didn’t feel the same. Knowing that Phil does feel something and still isn’t going to let anything happen makes Clint feel hurt and angry and empty. And stupid, so very stupid.

“Fuck you,” Clint hears himself say. “You like me and you’re too scared to give it a try because, what, because I’m young and you think I don’t know how my own feelings work? Bullshit.”

Phil’s shoulders go tight and Clint can’t even bear to look at the side of his face, anymore. “Well,” Phil says, after a pause, “that was immature. Thank you for proving me right.”

Furious tears spring into Clint’s eyes, but he’s not going to stick around and let Phil see, let him think Clint’s even more of a kid. “Just… fuck you,” he says again and storms off.

There’s nowhere to go inside the apartment, everywhere’s Phil’s, so Clint heads straight out through the front door and down the stairs.

He stomps down the first flight but he’s lost all his fight by the time he hits the next corner. At the second floor, his knees give out and he sits down hard on the stairs, hands clenched into fists so he doesn’t start smacking himself in the face for being such an idiot.

He wants to cry, but he’s not going to. He presses his face into his hands and snarls, furious with the world.

“Clint?” he hears and looks up to find Phil’s neighbour, Jessica, coming up the stairs toward him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Clint forces out. He pushes a smile onto his face and tries to move out of her way. She stops next to him then sits down, which is the opposite of what he wants.

“You look like someone whose world just ended,” she says, bumping their shoulders together.

Clint stares down at his knees and says, “Yeah,” again.

“Fight?” she asks knowingly.

Clint looks up at her. “Huh?”

For some reason, his confusion makes her smile. “Did you fight with Phil?” she asks. “My husband tends to wear exactly that expression when we have a big fight.”

“Phil’s not my husband,” says Clint, trying to laugh like that doesn’t hurt.

“And he never will be, if you spend your time skulking on the stairs,” Jessica says, standing up. She looks down at him and sighs. “You can come play with Danielle for a bit, if you need somewhere to hang out.”

“Yes,” Clint says, jumping to his feet. He knows he’s going to be shitty company, but not having to go back and face Phil sounds great.

***

Clint ends up staying with Jessica and her awesomely cool husband Luke until after dinner. Then Jessica kicks him out with a pat on the back and a “Buck the fuck up and go back to your guy.”

Clint’s pretty ashamed that he never did tell her that Phil’s not his guy, but not ashamed enough to correct her now.

He trudges back up the stairs and leans against Phil’s front door, telling himself that he’ll knock in a minute. It’s going to be okay. It’s not like he hasn’t taken care of himself a million times before. He doesn’t need Phil; he just wanted him.

He taps his knuckles against the wood, half hoping that maybe it’ll be too quiet and Phil won’t hear him, that he can have another couple minutes in limbo.

Instead, the door swings open immediately and Phil stares at him. His expression cycles through what Clint is pretty sure is relief followed by more relief then becomes his usual sort of blandly friendly.

“Come in then,” he says and, “have you eaten?”

“Yeah,” Clint comes in and leans against the door, closing it as he does. “Jessica fed me.”

“Good.” Phil flashes a smile at him that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Look - ”

“No, you look,” Clint says then shakes his head. He didn’t mean that to sound confrontational He doesn’t want another fight. “I’m sorry about what I said. I’ll move out tomorrow.” A month ago, he’d be moving out right now, but he’s gotten soft and he can’t stand the thought of spending tonight on the streets.

Phil looks stricken and he starts toward Clint before stopping himself. “No, Clint, don’t be an idiot. You don’t have to leave.”

“‘course I do.” Clint scuffs his foot along the floor, awkward. “I’ll probably jump you again, if I stick around and you don’t want that, so. Besides, it’s not like you need me anymore; you’ve gotten tons of movement back in your arm.”

Phil closes his eyes for a long moment. “That’s not why you’re here. You know that was just an excuse. Please stay.”

Fuck but Clint wants to say yes. “You gonna stop saying you don’t want to kiss me?”

Phil shakes his head.

“Then I’ve gotta go.” Clint shoves his hands into his pockets and lifts his shoulders up toward his ears, a half shrug that gets derailed when he realises that it’s kind of comforting.

Phil curses under his breath, and walks into the kitchen. Clint sits down on the couch and stares miserably at nothing. He’s still staring, when Phil appears in front of him and puts a mug of tea down on the coffee table.

Clint looks at the weird swamp-water colour of the water and snorts. “I’m not gonna miss your gross tea,” he says then stops, suddenly all choked up over what he will miss.

“Where will you go?” Phil asks, sitting down beside him.

Clint shrugs, even though he does have kind of an idea. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I’ll be okay.”

“It’s December 23rd tomorrow,” Phil says. “Stay until after the holidays?”

Fuck, Clint didn’t realise it was that late. “That would be way worse,” Clint says, trying to picture doing some tiny version of Christmas dinner here with Phil and having all these fucking feelings hanging over them like anti-mistletoe.

Phil sucks in a breath and leans back against the couch cushions, mug cradled against his chest. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” he says.

There’s nothing much to say to that, so Clint doesn’t say anything.

***

Clint doesn’t sleep much that night. He drags himself off the couch as soon as it starts to get light, then realises he can’t go without saying goodbye, no matter how much easier that’d make everything.

Phil emerges not much later, rubbing his shoulder absently, his pyjama pants twisted at the waist.

“Oh,” he says, stopping like maybe he expected Clint to be gone already or maybe he forgot he was going at all. “Wait, don’t leave yet.”

“I can’t keep hanging around,” Clint says. It’s easier to pretend to be cool with this this morning; he’s so tired he’s not really feeling much of anything.

Phil looks like he wants to say something then changes his mind about it, because he opens his mouth, closes it again, then finally says, “Nick owes you money, at least let me run out to a cash machine and get that for you.”

“I don’t need your money,” Clint says, while one part of his brain - maybe the only sensible part - tells him not to be so fucking stupid.

Phil’s expression goes stubborn. “He paid you for three days and you’ve been here nearly three weeks. I’m getting you the money. Have breakfast, take a shower, then I promise I won’t trick you into staying any longer.”

Clint doesn’t mean to, but he agrees. He heads off for a shower, because he can’t watch Phil’s morning routine again today, not without aching himself to pieces inside.

Also: showering. Which he loves and who knows when he’ll get to have a decent one again.

When he gets out, awesome loofah clutched in one hand - Phil bought it for him, so he can probably take it with him - Clint finds that Phil’s already gone out.

That’s great, he decides; he can pack in peace. Except when he goes to roll up his sleeping bag and tuck away his things, he finds that his sweatshirt and jeans, the ones he hasn’t worn since he got here, have disappeared.

He maybe panics. Kind of a lot.

He’s on the brink of an actual freakout, when Phil comes back, a holdall in one hand and a weird look on his face.

“Have you moved my clothes?” Clint asks, forgetting how awkward everything is, because he needs to know. “Shit.”

Phil sets his holdall down next to Clint then kneels down in front of him. “Yes, I took them to the laundromat, since you never got around to it. They’re in there, clean and dry. And you can keep the bag, since you can’t keep carrying everything around in your sleeping bag.”

Clint’s not listening. He drags his jeans out of the bag, going straight to the back pocket because fuck, if Phil washed them -

“Are you looking for this?” Phil asks, reaching into his own back pocket and pulling out a familiar, dirty white envelope.

“Oh thank god,” Clint says, reaching for it and only relaxing when he has it in his hands. Then he realises that Phil must know what’s in here and looks up. “Um.”

“There’s nearly two hundred dollars in there,” Phil says. “I know Nick gave you sixty, but what are you doing on the streets with over a hundred dollars in your pocket?”

“I’m saving it,” Clint says, tipping out the envelope so he can count his battered collection of bills properly. He never found anywhere safe enough to do it while he was on the streets. “I didn’t steal it.”

“Saving it for what?” Phil presses.

Clint wants to tell him that it’s none of his business, but he doesn’t. “My brother’s got a business,” he says. “He says I could go down there, buy myself a piece, if I had five hundred dollars.”

“You have a brother?” Phil asks. At Clint’s nod, he adds carefully, “A brother who let you live on the streets because you didn’t have five hundred dollars?”

“No!” Clint shakes his head, hard. “That’s not what it was like. He didn’t know how bad it was, I didn’t tell him I’d left the circus. It’s not his fault.”

“All right,” Phil says, which Clint is pretty sure means he doesn’t believe him. “Where is he?” At Clint’s look, he rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to follow you down there.”

“Kentucky,” Clint says and doesn’t say please follow me down there, please.

Phil reaches into his other pocket and pulls out of a wad of bills, which he lays down next to Clint’s. “That’s the four-twenty Nick owes you for helping me out plus a little bit more.” He pauses. “So. You’ve got enough to go to Kentucky now.”

“Yeah.” Clint stares at the money and can’t really believe it. He looks up, makes himself meet Phil’s eye. “Thank you,” he says, because if Phil won’t give him anything else, at least he’s given him this.

“Is that enough for the bus fare as well?” Phil presses. “I still have that emergency fifty-three dollars under the bed.”

Clint smiles, remembering the first day they met, when Clint thought Phil was so weird for trusting him with information like that. To be fair, Clint still thinks Phil is weird, but now he likes it.

“I’ll get the cheapest ticket,” he says, “I should have enough.” It doesn’t seem real, even as he’s saying it. He’s been working for months to get to Barney and Kentucky; it can’t suddenly be happening.

Maybe if he could really believe it was happening, he’d be able to feel happier about it.

“So,” he says, repacking his jeans and stuffing his sleeping bag - and his loofah - alongside them. “I’m gonna go?”

“Take this with you,” Phil says, dropping the terrible Captain America book into Clint’s bag. “It’s a long ride to Kentucky.”

Clint swallows and nods, zipping up his bag so he has an excuse not to look at Phil. He stands up and swings the bag over his shoulder.

“Thanks,” he says again, looking at the space over Phil’s shoulder.

“Stay,” Phil says then looks away. “Sorry. I just had to say that one more time.”

Clint really wants to stay. “Yeah. And no. I...” Awkward or not, he really wants a hug, but Phil doesn’t offer him one, keeps his arms folded across his chest so Clint just flashes him a weak smile instead and turns to go. “Oh and um, good luck with the Tracksuit Twins.”

“I’ll look out for the dog,” Phil says quickly, “And you can call me, if you ever need anything.”

“Yeah,” Clint says. He doesn’t have Phil’s number. He wonders how long it’ll take for Phil to remember that. “Take care of yourself.”

“You too.” Phil follows Clint to the door and takes it from him, leaving Clint with no excuse not to step out into the hallway.

“Bye,” Clint says and just… walks away. He doesn’t stop, doesn’t look back, doesn’t take any time to dwell on the corner of the stairwell where Phil fed him toast, or look down the second floor hallway toward Jessica’s apartment.

He just keeps walking, and in no time at all, he’s out on the sidewalk in the snow.

***

The bus ride is long and shitty and full of people who are loudly excited about Christmas Day being tomorrow.

Clint hunkers down in his seat and reads, then rereads, Phil’s book. He stares in envy at the people who can sleep through the noise and the ones who are drowning everything out with their iPods.

All he has is one terrible book and approximately one million things that he can dwell on and regret.

In the end, it’s a huge relief when they stop for gas in fuck-knows-where and he gets the chance to jam coins into a payphone and call Barney on the number he’s been carrying around for at least six months.

“You’re coming here?” Barney asks, voice crackling so bad that Clint can’t read his tone. “I mean, I mean shit, you’re coming?”

“That’s still okay, right?” Clint asks. He always feels six years old and one wrong word away from getting his heart crushed when he talks to Barney. “You said, if I could get five hundred dollars…”

“Yes, yes, sure, of course.” Barney makes a sound that’s probably a laugh. “Clint, fuck, of course. You’ve just surprised me, kid, is all. When are you getting in? I’ll drive out and pick you up. Fuck, I bet you’ve grown.”

Clint hasn’t grown as much as he was hoping to, but he doesn’t mention that, just gives Barney the time.

“It’ll be good to see you,” he says quickly, at the end of the call, even though he knows that’ll make him sound pathetic. He’s standing in the middle of nowhere, feeling almost bent double with homesickness, and he really needs Barney to say it back.

“Yeah, yeah, sure,” Barney says. “Later, kid.”

“Later,” Clint echoes, mostly to the dial tone.

***

It’s no warmer in Lexington than it was in New York, but it’s dry, which turns out to be a blessing when Clint finds himself all alone at the bus station, no Barney in sight.

Clint drops his bag at the edge of the parking lot and sits down on it, telling himself that Barney will be here any second. It’s Christmas Eve; there’s bound to be traffic.

Twenty-seven minutes later, a beat up blue Honda comes screeching through the parking lot, turning a massive circle and then crawling slow past Clint.

Clint looks up, gets a good look at the driver, and jumps up.

“Hey,” he says, half waving like a dork before he shoves his hand back into his pocket.

Barney’s face lights up in a grin. “Hey, shit, almost didn’t recognise you,” he says, stopping next to Clint and leaning over to pop the door for him.

Clint scrambles over, throwing his bag onto the back seat then slamming the passenger side door behind him. “Hi. Shit, you look like Dad.” He knows that’s totally the wrong thing to say, but he hasn’t seen Barney in four years and he looks so grown-up now.

Barney just laughs, leaning over and ruffling Clint’s hair. “And you look a fuck lot like me, so suck it up.”

Clint grins, and turns to pull his seatbelt on so Barney won’t see how pleased he is about one dumb noogie.

“How far we got to go?” he asks, as Barney puts the car back into gear.

“Not far.” Barney swerves out the parking lot without checking any mirrors or, really, doing any of the shit that Clint’s pretty sure you’re supposed to do. “You’re gonna love this place. Miles and miles of fuck all. It’s what freedom looks like.”

“Cool,” says Clint, who’s never really experienced miles of nothing. “Pretty different from New York, huh?”

Barney glances over, and then changes lanes while still looking at Clint. “That where you were?” he asks. “Shit, how’d you end up there?”

Clint shrugs. “Just did,” he says. “I was there a couple months.”

“With the circus?” Barney frowns, but does finally look back at the road. “Pretty sure I remember that Carson hated the East Coast.”

“Not with the circus.” Clint pulls his feet up onto the passenger seat and stares out the windshield. “Not for a while.”

Barney doesn’t push. Clint kind of wishes he would, since Barney is one of the few people he would actually tell about Trick Shot, but he doesn’t. So Clint doesn’t.

Clint doesn’t really know what they should talk about. They went from being together every day of their lives to never seeing each other. He doesn’t really know how catching up is supposed to work in that situation.

“Hey, so we’re having a party tomorrow,” Barney says. “Loads of booze and food. You’ll get to meet everyone; it’ll be awesome.”

“Awesome,” Clint says, grinning. “Like a real Christmas thing?” He can’t remember if they’ve ever done one of those. Maybe when their parents were alive.

“Exactly.” Barney drums his hands on the wheel and laughs. “It’s such a trip having you here. Didn’t think you were ever gonna come.”

“Yeah.” Clint tries to keep smiling. Today is a good day; he’s back with Barney, how could it be anything else? “Yeah, sorry, took me some time to save the money.”

Barney turns off the main road and onto a narrow dirty track, the old car bumping along. “Shoulda just stolen it,” he says. “Way quicker.”

Clint laughs, because he’s pretty sure - at least he hopes - Barney’s only joking.

***

When Barney first told Clint about what he was doing in Kentucky, he described it as a ranch, but Clint hadn’t really been able to picture what a ranch looked like. It turns out to look crazy awesome.

There’s fields going as far as the horizon in every direction, a river that they have to drive slow over so the old wooden bridge doesn’t break, and a big, beautiful house right in the middle. It doesn’t look like somewhere that should be real and Clint almost doesn’t want to get out of the car in case it disappears.

“Wow,” he says, leaning back against Barney’s car. “You seriously own a bit of this?”

“Some,” Barney agrees. He comes around and slings an arm around Clint’s neck. “You too, soon. Come on.”

He drags Clint up the front steps and into the house, which is bright and airy inside, like something out of the Waltons or something. Clint can hear at least three radios, all playing different stations, and some people talking real loudly in one of the side rooms.

Barney pulls him past all that and up the stairs. “Drop your shit in here,” he says, pushing open a white-painted door and revealing a big, mostly empty bedroom with an unmade bed in the middle. He scratches the back of his neck. “I was gonna make up the bed for you, but I ran out of time.”

“No, that’s good, that’s cool,” Clint says quickly, dropping his bag. “I was sleeping on a couch in New York. This is amazing.”

It’s private, at least. No Phil walking through in a zombie shuffle for coffee, first thing in the morning.

Not that Clint’s thinking about Phil. Because he’s not.

“Yeah?” Barney says. “Not cool. Come on, I’ll show you - ” He breaks off when his cell phone rings, make a sorry face at Clint, then answers.

He talks fast and low for a couple minutes, while Clint wanders over to the window, looking out at a large group of horses huddled in three clumps one field over. Clint used to do a trick shot from the back of a little show pony, but he’s never ridden a full-sized horse. He’s looking forward to trying.

“Aww, shit, Clint,” Barney says, stuffing his phone back into his pocket. “Look, something’s come up so I gotta bail for like, an hour, maybe. You’ll be good here by yourself, right?”

Clint crushes any attempt at disappointment before it can rise up. “Yeah, ‘course. Don’t worry about me.”

Barney grins. “Take whatever you want from the kitchen. I’ve told everyone you’re coming, so if you bump into anyone, they shouldn’t shoot you.”

“Awesome,” Clint says to Barney’s retreating back as Barney pats his pockets and heads out. “Bye?”

He waits for Barney to call bye back, but he doesn’t. He must not have heard him.

Clint shrugs, thinks about food, decides that sleep’s way more important and throws himself down on the bed. It’s soft and it creaks in the middle, but it’s a bed; it must just be Clint’s imagination that makes him thinks that Phil’s couch was comfier.

***

When Clint wakes up, it’s dark, and his stomach is growling angrily. He rolls out of bed, blinks for a second, disoriented, then shakes it off and heads down the stairs.

He expects to find Barney futzing around somewhere, since it’s definitely been more than an hour, but he doesn’t come across anyone in his search for the kitchen.

He does find the kitchen though. He’s starting to give up on being surprised that everything’s so big here, but the kitchen is really big. There’s a long wooden table down the centre that could easily seat twenty and a giant black gas range and multiple ovens taking up half of one wall taking up half of one wall.

The shiny chrome fridge humming happily in the corner lures him over, and he finds a plate and loads it with bread and cheese and ham, filling a glass with milk and taking the whole meal over to the table.

It feels wrong to sit at the head, so he picks a spot about halfway down and digs into his food. It’s good. He’d been expecting Barney to be living on takeout and stale, moulding food like Clint would, if he had his own place, but this is real food, potentially made right here.

He finishes his sandwich too quickly, burps, and gets up to make another one.

And turns to find himself face to face with a tiny old lady. Well, not face to face, since she’s way shorter than him, but face to top-of-a-white-frizzy-head.

“Uh, hey,” he says, startled. “Hi?”

She tips her head, smiles at him and says something in a language Clint doesn’t speak. He’s pretty sure it’s Russian. Is he being followed around the country by Russians, all of a sudden?

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” he says, speaking slowly because she’s old and you’re supposed to enunciate for old people. “I’m Clint? Barney’s brother?”

“Clint,” she says and then she starts yelling. He doesn’t think those are words in any language, just this horrible, scared sound and he has no fucking clue what to do.

“What did you do to her?” a new voice snaps from the doorway, and a girl steps out of the shadows and over to the old lady. She puts her arm around the old lady’s shoulders, saying something to her in probably-Russian.

“Nothing, nothing, I swear,” Clint promises. “I swear I didn’t.”

The girl looks up at him from the other side of the old lady, narrows her eyes, then walks away, leading the lady along with her. At least no one’s screaming anymore.

Clint feels kind of weird and shaken up now, so he gets himself a glass of water instead of more food, and sits down. He’s expecting the girl to come back and isn’t disappointed.

She sits down opposite him and carefully ties her curly red hair back in two braids before acknowledging him.

“I’m Natasha Romanoff,” she says, holding out a hand, “You’re Clint Barton?”

Clint feels kind of weird shaking hands with someone who doesn’t look much older than him, but maybe they’re both secretly adults, so he shakes. “I’m Clint,” he agrees. “I’m real sorry if I scared your gramma; Barney said just to help myself to food.”

“Barney, huh?” Natasha asks, and she doesn’t sound disapproving but Clint still somehow gets the impression that she’s disapproving. “My grandmother has dementia. It was nothing you said or didn’t say; she simply didn’t understand who you were.”

Great, now Clint feels awful. “I’m really sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know about her.”

“No.” Natasha tips her head in the same assessing way that her grandmother did. Clint really hopes she doesn’t start screaming too. “Barney didn’t tell you that this is her ranch?”

“No,” Clint says slowly. “He said he bought it with some other people.”

“He bought half,” Natasha says, clipped. “From my grandmother before I realised how ill she was and moved here to look out for her.”

Clint holds up a hand. “Woah. Are you saying… Barney wouldn’t con a confused old lady out of her home.”

“You know him better than I do,” Natasha says, which is really not agreement. And the thing is that Clint doesn’t know Barney better than she does. He hasn’t seen Barney for years.

“He wouldn’t,” Clint repeats, and hopes to god he’s right. He expects her to say something else, but she doesn’t, just watches him watch himself tap an anxious pattern against the table. “You live here?” he finally asks.

She nods. “We do. It’s just us and your brother in the main house. His… friends are mostly in the outbuildings.”

Clint’s starting to get a bad feeling about this. “Why did you say friends like that?” he asks. He wishes Phil were here; Phil would be able to tell if it’s Barney or Natasha that’s fishy. And doesn’t Clint feel like a jerk for even doubting Barney.

“No,” she says, standing up. “I’m not going to tell you. Maybe you are like them, maybe you’re not, I don’t know you well enough to tell yet.”

“What does that mean?” Clint asks desperately, but she doesn’t stop, doesn’t turn back, just leaves him sitting there, wondering if coming here was a really big mistake.

***

“She’s lying,” Barney says before Clint’s half-way through telling him what Natasha said. “She’s bitter that her grandmother sold out rather than handing the ranch down to her, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” Clint presses. They’re sitting out on the back porch, the first place Clint has been able to corner Barney all evening.

“You trust me, right?” Barney asks. He’s drinking from a bottle of beer and smoking a cigarette, which just makes him look even more like their dad.

Clint picks at the label on the bottle Barney gave him. “‘course,” he says. “Just that lady seemed pretty confused.”

“Eh. She’s wilier than she looks. She sure as fuck knew what she was doing when she took my money.” Barney shrugs. He tips back on the chair and kicks his feet up onto the railing that runs around the porch. It’s too cold to be out here, but Clint’s not going to complain if Barney’s not. “Speaking of. You got some money, you said, right?”

“Yeah,” Clint says quickly. He feels like he wants to jump up right now and scurry off to get it, but he’s trying to be cool here, not ask how high every time Barney says jump. “Five hundred dollars, yeah?”

Barney’s grin is bright in the dark. “Exactly that,” he says. “You got it.”

“I got it,” Clint agrees. At the risk of pissing Barney off again, he asks, “What do I get for it?”

Barney spreads his arms wide, the glowing butt of his cigarette lighting the path of his right hand. “All this. I’m letting you buy out a chunk of my share, so what I get, you get.” He drops his chair down onto all four legs and leans in close, catching and holding Clint’s eyes. “Any more questions, kid?”

Clint shakes his head. “No. No, I’m good. You want the money now?”

He’s expecting Barney to say that he’ll wait ‘til tomorrow; it’s late and what’s he going to do with five hundred dollars in odd bills at this time on Christmas Eve? “Yeah, let’s get it,” he says, standing up. “Where is it? Your room?”

“Yeah,” Clint says, surprised. He follows Barney back into the house and up the stairs. “Do you race the horses?”

Barney turns to frown down at him from halfway up the stairs. “Huh? Oh the horses? Nah, they’re breeding stock not racers. The old lady used to offer riding classes. Maybe you could do that too, once you’ve learned to ride. You’re good with kids, right?”

“I guess.” Clint doesn’t know how Barney remembers that, but Clint’s always gotten along well with kids. Thinking about that makes him think about Danielle, so he doesn’t think about that.

He gets down on his knees next to his bag and pulls his envelope of bills out from the inside pocket. He’s about to hand the whole thing over, when he catches sight of Nick Fury’s card, tucked alongside the money, and decides to just hand over the money instead, tucking the envelope and the card away.

He doesn’t have Phil’s number, but he thinks he’ll keep Nick’s around. Just in case he ever needs to check in.

“Here,” he says, handing over his five hundred dollars, leaving him with about twelve dollars and change for his wallet.

“Awesome.” Barney counts out the bills, laying them flat, then folds them in half and puts them away in the front pocket of his jeans. It gives Clint a little pang to see his money disappearing from sight but he tells himself not to worry; he’s with Barney now and Barney will make sure he’s taken care of.

***

Just like Barney promised when Clint arrived, there’s a holiday party the next day.

It’s not much like the kind of Christmas meal Clint’s seen on TV. There’s no sitting down at the giant table and squabbling over cranberry sauce; instead, they fill the kitchen with takeout and booze and Clint gets introduced to the three guys Barney co-owns the ranch with, plus all their friends and significant others.

It’s loud and crazy; everyone knows everyone else and no one’s too bothered about making friends with Barney’s little brother, so Clint gets mostly ignored.

He fills a glass with cider and retreats to the stairs, watching through the slats as Barney holds court, laughing and joking with his friends and really looking like he belongs.

“This does not look like a Christmas, to me,” Natasha says, appearing out of nowhere and sitting down next to Clint. He hasn’t seen her since yesterday and they didn’t exactly have the best conversation, but at least she’s someone he slightly knows.

“No, it’s like Frat Boy Christmas, right?” Clint says.

She smiles. “A little.”

He holds out his glass, which she takes, sniffs, and hands back. “Where would you be, if you weren’t here?” he asks, thinking about how she came out here to look after her grandmother and has ended up in the middle of Barney’s party, sitting on the stairs with a stranger.

“Somewhere else,” she says and nothing about her expression says he can push for a real answer. “You?”

“Dude, you didn’t answer me, you think I’m gonna answer you?” Clint asks, drawing his knees up so he can rest his glass on them.

Natasha turns to look at him. “Yes,” she says simply. “You asked me because you want to tell me your answer.”

Clint stares down into his glass. “No,” he says. He doesn’t. He doesn’t want to talk about Phil, or think about Phil and how he invited Clint to stay for Christmas. “Just kind of hoping that this guy I left behind didn’t spend today alone.”

“Phone him?” Natasha says. She shrugs like the solution is simple and Clint’s being an idiot for not seeing that.

Clint shakes his head. “Can’t,” he says. Maybe he should be drinking something stronger; he’d like to kill this hollow feeling in his stomach.

Natasha claps her hands together. “Then stop sulking about it,” she says. “Also, your brother’s looking for you.”

Clint turns, looking where she’s pointing and sure enough, Barney’s looking around saying, “Clint! Where the fuck’s Clint?”

“Hey?” Clint calls, waving.

Barney waves back, grinning. “We’re setting up karaoke,” he says. “You still got that voice on you?”

“What, no, fuck off, I’m not singing,” Clint says, laughing and scooting up another step.

Someone throws Barney a mic and he waves it at Clint. “C’mon. Come down and show these assholes how to sing. It’s gonna be three hours of Jolene outta tune otherwise.”

For some reason, Clint finds himself looking at Natasha.

“Go on,” she says. “I really hate Jolene.”

So Clint goes down the stairs, accepts a shot of something from someone he doesn’t know, and grabs the mic from Barney. He ducks his head when a couple of people start cheering, and it’s nice, a little bit, to feel included.

***

It’s getting light by the time everyone clears out, and Clint’s eyes feel gritty. He learned pretty quick that sticking around the karaoke machine was the only way to keep Barney’s attention on him, and he got a shot for every song he sang, so he’s in that gross in-between drunk place, where he still feels wasted, but the headache’s kicking in.

He wants to go to bed, but the living room and the kitchen are a mess and he can’t leave it like this. Not when Natasha’s grandmother might come down and think they’ve been robbed.

He gets five bags filled with trash then has to take a break, sitting down at the kitchen table with his aching head on the hardwood, while he tries to convince his stomach to stay down.

“Here,” Natasha’s voice says above him, and something that smells deliciously coffee-filled gets set down beside his head.

“I love you,” he tells the table, but it’s definitely really directed at Natasha.

“You didn’t need to clean up by yourself,” she says, taking the black bag from him and replacing it with coffee. She even steadies his hand so he doesn’t spill it due to the weight change.

“Everyone else is passed out,” he says, pushing himself upright and inhaling coffee steam. “It’s not fair to leave it.”

“How about I make you a deal?” she says. She stands there, waiting for him to nod, which he does after he’s drunk some coffee and is sure his brain won’t fall out.

“What deal?” he asks. “I’m good for basically nothing, right now.”

“I’ll clean up the rest of the mess,” she says, “if you go outside, and see what’s in the outbuildings by the horses’ stables.”

“What’s… what?” Clint asks blearily. “It’s cold outside.”

“Everyone’s passed out,” she says, echoing him. “I think you’ll find it interesting.”

He rubs his head, confused, forgets he’s holding his cup, and clocks himself in the bridge of his nose with hot ceramic. He’s so awesome.

“Why don’t you go and see, if you’re interested?” he asks.

Natasha shakes her head, walking away. “I already know,” she says. “If you like what you see, we don’t need to talk about it again. I just think you should be aware of all the facts.”

“Wait,” Clint calls, but she doesn’t wait. She walks away, trailing Clint’s trash bag behind her like she’s going to uphold her end of the bargain, even though they didn’t make a bargain.

“Ugh,” he groans to the now-empty kitchen, before pushing off the table and stumbling, coffee mug still clutched in his hand, over to the back door. The outbuildings she’s talking about are about a hundred feet from the house; he probably doesn’t need a coat, so he grumbles out a sigh then shoves the back door open.

It’s fucking freezing outside and his coffee will probably be a popsicle by the time he gets there, so he hustles, feet shuffling softly over half-frozen ground. He’s not sure why he’d need to do this quietly, but something inside him says he does, so he avoids the gravel pathway, keeping to the frosty grass.

The first door he comes to is locked. When the second and third ones are too, he falls back, pulls his very battered swiss army knife out of his pocket and sets to the work on the lock. Turns out that picking locks is like shooting arrows, and he never forgot how to do it, even when drunk. Not that he shoots arrows drunk, but he probably could.

The lock pops open and he slips it into his pocket, tugging the wooden door open as quietly as he can. It doesn’t squeak, just whistles through the air a little, which Clint doesn’t think anyone will overhear.

The outbuilding is more like a warehouse, just one giant room, and the whole right side is filled with boxes. That doesn’t seem too bizarre or suspicious; Clint was starting to worry that he was going to find like, people chained up to the walls or maybe werewolves roaming around.

Still, there was something Natasha wanted him to see badly enough that she sent him outside in December at five o’clock in the morning, so he crosses over to the boxes and tries to open one. He’s not exactly clumsy, because he’s never exactly clumsy, but he turns out not to be coordinated enough currently to rip tape off a tightly sealed box, so he ends up slicing into one side with his knife instead.

Hopefully his drunken logic holds up and a cut in the side will look enough like an accident that no one will question it. He peels back the edges of the hole he made, squints in, and stops breathing.

The box is full of pills: plastic bags full of little green pills. Clint doesn’t know what they are, but he knows what they’re not, and that’s legal.

No longer caring so much whether anyone knows that he’s been in here, he turns around on his heel and marches back to the house.

***

It takes Clint pounding on his bedroom door to get Barney to open up, but Clint doesn’t care. He just keeps slamming his fist into the wood until the lock clicks and Barney leans out the doorway, looking bleary and hungover.

At least, Clint hopes he’s just fucking hungover. If he’s been taking whatever’s out there, Clint’s going to smack him so hard.

“There’s drugs in the outbuilding,” Clint says, just bursts out with it, way too loud, but again, he doesn’t care.

“Shut the fuck up,” Barney hisses, eyes going wide, and he tugs Clint into the room.

There’s a half-naked lady in Barney’s bed, but she doesn’t seem to have any interest in the conversation, just waves to Clint then rolls over and pulls her pillow over her head. Clint would like to do that; he’d really like to be in bed right now, not finding out that his big brother is apparently some kind of drug dealer.

He feels really sick and it’s not the hangover.

“What were you doing in the outbuildings?” Barney asks. His voice is low and maybe Clint should be worried that he’s in danger here, but he can’t make himself think that about Barney, even now.

“Looking around,” Clint says with a shrug. “That’s not the point. There’s boxes and boxes of it. What the hell is it?”

Barney looks like he’s trying to come up with a lie but eventually he slumps, rubbing a hand over his face. “Oxy,” he says, “It’s Oxy. Oxycontin. It’s a painkiller.”

“I know what Oxy is,” Clint snaps. “What I don’t know is why the fuck you’ve got a whole building full of it.”

Barney sits down on the bed, apparently not caring when he nearly sits on his lady friend’s feet. “Use your brain, Clint. Why do you think it’s here?”

Clint sits down hard on the carpet in front of Barney. “Are you crazy?” he asks miserably. “They’re gonna put you back in jail when they catch you.”

Barney’s shoulders straighten, something angry crossing his face. “No one’s going to catch me. You’re not gonna tell anyone, right?”

Clint shakes his head. It’s not a no, but he knows Barney takes it for one.

“What’s my money gone into?” Clint asks. “The ranch or the drugs?”

Barney’s expression tells him the answer. “It’s complicated. They’re all tied up together really, so see - ”

“The drugs then,” Clint interrupts. “Fuck. I want it back.”

Now Barney looks mad. Mad and maybe a little scared. “It don’t work like that. I can’t just go ask the other guys for a big chunk of money back all ‘cause my baby brother’s got scruples.”

“Fuck you, that is my fucking money.” Clint earned every cent of that money and, worse than that, a lot of it’s Phil’s. Clint can just imagine how disappointed Phil would be if he knew that Clint’s let his money go into drug dealing.

“You wanted in, I gave you in.” Barney leans forward. “You think you and I get shit like a fairytale ending on a fucking ranch in fucking Kentucky with no strings attached? I’m never gonna ask you to get involved in the drugs. I meant what I said about you teaching kids to ride. You can do that and I’ll deal with the Oxy. It’ll be cool. You can pretend you never saw them.”

Clint closes his eyes. “Yeah,” he says. He swallows hard. “I wish you’d told me.”

Barney reaches forward, touching Clint’s shoulder. “It’s good money,” he says. “You’ll make your five hundred back with interest in a couple months. I swear, this is gonna be good for both of us.”

Clint nods and makes himself smile. “Okay,” he says. He rubs the back of his neck. “Sorry I freaked out. I just.” He shrugs.

Barney squeezes his shoulder, giving him a bit of a shake. “Go get some sleep, kid. Put all this shit outta your mind.”

Clint gets to his feet and sways for a second, before nodding at Barney again and letting himself out of the room. His hands shake on the doorknob, but he manages to make it to the end of the corridor before his knees give out again and he has to lean against the wall for support.

“Fuck,” he says to himself then again, softer still because he doesn’t want Barney to hear. It’s not even Barney’s fault. Barney seems like he’s hardwired to fuck up. It’s Clint’s fault; he’s the one who always believes in him, over and over again.

***

“You look terrible,” Natasha says, opening her bedroom door.

“Fuck off, you knew what I was gonna find,” Clint says. “How did you think I was going to look?”

She steps back, expression softening. “I hoped you’d look like that,” she says. “If you’d looked happy, then I’d know I misjudged you.”

Clint leans his head against the doorjamb. “Can I please come in?”

“Yes,” she says. She locks the door behind him then gestures to her bed. He guesses she’s probably telling him to sit, but he lies down instead, kicking off his shoes and curling up at the end.

“I swear I’m not hitting on you or doing anything else gross,” he says, turning his face into the cold end of the comforter. “But can I just stay here and not think for five minutes?”

“You can have ten,” she says, then shocks the hell out of him by climbing into the bed at the top end, kicking him a little in the back when she straightens her legs. “I’m going to sleep. You should know that if you are hitting on me, I know how to kill you without leaving any marks.”

“Hot,” Clint mumbles, and forces himself to close his eyes. He can’t think. He doesn’t want to think. He’ll think after his ten minute nap.

***

Three hours later, Natasha kicks him awake, then sits up against her headboard and says, “What are you going to do?”

Clint rolls onto his back. He doesn’t feel any better, to be honest, at least not mentally. “Call the cops?” he offers. Then he frowns. “Wait, will that get you and your grandma in trouble, too?”

Natasha shrugs. “It won’t get us in trouble,” she says, “but it will ruin the business. I have another plan.”

“What kind of plan?” Clint asks, rolling onto his stomach. For the first time, it occurs to Clint that maybe she’s in on all this, but that doesn’t sit right.

“I have a plan,” she says again. “I’m pretty certain I can take down Barney and his friends and get them off my land without the town ever knowing anything about it.”

Clint sits up and rubs at his eyes, yawning. “Why though?” Clint asks. “It’d be easier to call the cops.”

“Easier, maybe.” She tips her head. “But this is what my grandmother would want. She wouldn’t want anyone to know what this place that she and my grandfather built has become. Also - ” She smiles sharply. “I want them to suffer.”

Clint feels like he should put a stop to that, tell her that he has some loyalty to Barney. The words don’t come out though. “Do you need help?” he asks.

“No,” she says, but it doesn’t sound unkind. “I’m very, very good. They won’t know what hit them.”

“Wow.” Clint’s eyes widen with no input from him. “You’re really scary. It’s super hot.”

Natasha laughs, an actual honest-to-god, really pretty little tinkle of a laugh. “I like you,” she says. “I’ll miss you.”

Clint frowns. “Where am I going?”

“Back to New York.” She clicks her tongue before he can start to argue. “You’re involved. You gave Barney money. I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t bring you down with them, if you were here.”

“But I can’t just leave you here alone,” Clint protests.

Natasha folds her arms and looks at him hard. “I was alone before you came here,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting you, and to be honest, you’d probably get in my way.”

“I…” Clint starts, then stops, shaking his head. It’d be so easy to leave, but he can’t do that. He’s spent years drifting, waiting for Barney to pick him up and give him a future. If that isn’t going to happen, Clint’s at least determined to see this through to the end. “No. No, I’m staying.”

Natasha looks pained, like he’s being super difficult on purpose. “You’ll get in the way,” she repeats. “Or you may just get yourself killed.”

“Which one would be worse?” Clint asks, since she sounded a lot more regretful about the first problem.

Natasha leans forward until they’re eye to eye. He isn’t surprised to find that even morning breath doesn’t dare be a problem for Natasha.

“Do not be flippant,” she tells him, like she’s his teacher, not a girl barely older than him. “If you insist on staying, you will be working directly against your brother, can you do that?”

“Yes,” Clint says, which is probably not true, if he thinks about it too closely. So he doesn’t think about it too closely. “Yeah, sure. He’s an idiot for getting mixed up in this drugs shit; he deserves what he gets.”

“And why should I believe you?” Natasha asks. Her eyes are boring into him. “I do not believe you.”

Clint blinks, then just keeps his eyes shut while he thinks, tries to work out exactly how far he’d go against Barney. “Just don’t let me be the one holding the knife when we stab Barney in the back and I’m pretty sure we’ll be good. I don’t give a shit about the others.”

“Yes, okay,” Natasha says eventually. “But if you betray me, it will not be a metaphorical knife in your back.”

Clint swallows hard. “Totally fair,” he says. “Where do we start?”

“Breakfast,” Natasha says. At his frown, she frowns straight back. “This is not going to be a quick fix; we need to lay some groundwork first. How is your acting?”

“Um.” Clint thinks about the circus. The Amazing Hawkeye who stood up in front of hundreds of people and tried not to let on that half the time, he was just a fifteen year old kid with stage fright. “Pretty good.”

Natasha smiles, then gets out of bed in a graceful flurry of legs. He’s sure that it’s no accident when she kicks him in the shoulder. “Good enough,” she tells him. “And close your eyes; I’m getting dressed.”

***

After breakfast, Clint goes out to visit the horses. It’s Barney’s idea. Clint’s pretty sure he’s trying to make up for what happened earlier and, since Clint’s supposed to pretend to have forgiven him, he goes along with it.

The other benefit is that it gets him out of the house where he’s spending all his time freaking out about messing up and ruining Natasha’s plan.

“Cool, huh?” Wilson, one of Barney’s friends, says. He’s the one who brought Clint out here and he seems to be actually interested in the horses, introducing them all to Clint by name and grinning proudly when one eats an apple out of his hand.

Clint feels almost bad that he’s the first one Clint’s going to try Natasha’s plan out on. “Really cool,” Clint agrees, reaching out and stroking one of the horses. It has a white strip down the middle of its brown face, and it blows air out through its nose when Clint touches it. “Woah. Did I piss it off?”

“Her,” Wilson says, patting her on the side. “And nope. That means she likes you.”

Clint can’t help grinning at that. “Cool.” Keeping his eyes on the horse, not on Wilson, he asks, “How long you been here?”

“Couple months,” Wilson says.

“Yeah,” Clint says, slow and thoughtful-like, “that’s what I thought.”

Wilson leans forward, arms on the edge of the horse’s stall. “What’s that mean?”

Clint turns toward him, widening his eyes. “Nothing, dude,” he says, fast, “just fits with what Barney was saying. Nothing big.”

“What did Barney say?” Wilson asks. Clint can hear the dangerous edge creeping into his voice, but pretends he can’t.

“Just that…” Clint trails off, coughs, hopes he’s not overselling this. “Shit, I probably shouldn’t have said anything.”

Wilson’s hand lands on Clint’s wrist, squeezing. Clint knows he could get away, but tries not to look like he knows that. “Tell me, kid.”

Clint shrugs one shoulder. “Seriously, it was nothing. He was just talking about this new big deal he’s got going down and how maybe he should just keep it between the guys who’ve been here longer.”

“What new big deal?” Wilson asks, tone turning dangerous but not, Clint hopes, directed at him.

“I swear to god I don’t know, man,” Clint says. “I’m way newer than you, you think he’d tell me?”

“You’re his brother,” Wilson says, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

Clint laughs, and it isn’t hard to make it derisive. “He hasn’t seen me since I was like, twelve. Look just, I probably shouldn’t have told you anything. Don’t tell him, ‘kay?”

“Sure,” Wilson says. “Maybe. I won’t tell him you told me, anyway.”

“Thanks, man,” Clint says, grinning like he’s seriously relieved. “You know what Barney’s like.”

“Yeah,” Wilson says slowly. “Yeah, I do.”

***

“Well done,” Natasha says when Clint reports back to her. “That was good work, you did well.”

Clint tries not to feel too pleased instead at the praise, but the alternative is dying of guilt over what they’re trying to do to Barney, so he doesn’t fight it too hard.

“What did you do?” he asks instead.

She grins, neatly folding her legs where she’s sitting out on the balcony leading off his bedroom, balanced perfectly on the railing.

“I convinced Taylor that he wanted to ask me out and then let him think that Smith already had. So now they are in competition with each other.”

She looks smug, pleased with herself, so Clint guesses that’s a good thing. Still, he can’t help asking, “Doesn’t that make you feel kind of skeevy? Like, you don’t have to use yourself like this, you know.”

“I know.” She shrugs. “But it’s easier. I use what I’ve got and I get things done fast.” She hops down, patting him on the arm. “It’s not as though I am actually going to sleep with either of them.”

“No, I know but…” Clint trails off. He feels uncomfortable, but it’s none of his business.

Natasha’s condescending pat turns into a squeeze. “It’s very sweet that you’re worried about me.”

“Sweet but annoying?” Clint guesses, following her to the door.

She smiles and doesn’t disagree. Her hand lands on the doorknob and she’s turned it, has the door halfway open, when they hear someone come jogging up the stairs.

Clint freezes. He doesn’t know why, but he feels like it’s suddenly seriously suspicious for him to have Natasha in his room. Like anyone in this house would only need to take one look at them to know what they’re up to.

Natasha moves faster than Clint, leaving the door where it is and throwing her arms around Clint. This isn’t a 1950s noir movie, so she doesn’t kiss him, just gives him a long, lingering hug that would be doing things to him, if hugs from girls were what turned him on.

She lets go slowly, stepping back with a smile that looks nothing like her usual sharp-edged ones, slipping through the door and past Barney - of course it’s Barney - who’s standing in the hallway, eyebrows raised up to his hairline.

“Wow,” Barney says, way before Natasha’s out of earshot. He whistles. “You’re a fast mover.”

“It’s not like that,” Clint says quickly, because he thinks he’d say that, even if it was like that.

Barney shoves into his room and grins, catching Clint around the shoulders and tugging him in for a bonecrushing hug. Clint tells himself not to enjoy it, but that’s pretty much impossible.

“Proud of you, kid. She’s a real firecracker.”

“Yeah, she’s cool.” Clint pulls away, telling his shoulders not to hunch, trying to smile like a guy who’s got a hot girlfriend, not like a guy whose brother knows absolutely nothing about him.

Barney slaps him between the shoulderblades one more time before, thank god, changing the subject. “Anyway, I came by to tell you I got to take off for a while, but I guess you won’t be lonely, after all, huh?”

“Take off where?” Clint asks. “Is it something to do with the, you know, the stuff downstairs?” He’s proud of how nonchalant he sounds.

Barney looks at him closely, and for a second, Clint thinks he’s been rumbled already. Then, “Yeah,” Barney says, “but I meant what I said, you’re not gonna be involved in that.”

“I could be?” Clint offers. “I mean, if you need help with anything, or…”

“Nah. You’re good.” Barney shakes his head, looking fond. “Pretty sure I can handle this on my own, baby brother.”

“Sure,” Clint says, telling his smile to reach his eyes.

Barney walks off, whistling. Feeling like a spy, Clint gives him thirty seconds, then follows him, creeping out onto the landing above the stairs and crouching down, listening to Barney talking on his phone.

After a minute of one-sided conversation that means nothing to Clint, Barney snaps his phone closed and yells for Wilson. Clint crosses his fingers and waits.

“What?” Wilson asks. He sounds surly, but he always sounds like that, Clint thinks.

“Where you been?” Barney demands. “We need to get going. Quarles won’t wait.”

“Thought you’d have gone without me.” When Clint risks a glance, Wilson’s leaning against the wall, one foot resting on the paintwork, looking at Barney over the top of a bottle of beer.

Barney looks baffled. “The fuck, man? Who pissed in your Cheerios?”

Wilson just shrugs and drinks some more beer. “Just thought you might want a guy who’s been here longer, a guy more trustworthy than me.”

“I don’t…” Barney curses and reaches out, grabs Wilson by the arm and hustles him toward the door. “C’mon on. We can hug it out later.”

Clint watches them go and tries to feel satisfied. Looks like their plan is working; there’s definitely disharmony in the ranks.

***

Clint’s lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling like every teenaged cliche, when his new cellphone rings. He grabs it so quickly that he nearly falls off the bed, and then feels like an idiot because it won’t be Phil. Phil doesn’t have his number.

“Hey,” Clint says, “Barney?”

Barney takes a minute to answer and, when he does, his voice is strained. “Should have brought you with me,” he says then coughs. “Fuck.”

Clint sits up straight. “You hurt?” he asks. “Where are you?”

“I’m okay, just a little bit beat up. Bastard Wilson left me here,” Barney says and shit, shit that wasn’t what Clint wanted to happen. He swings his legs over the side of the bed and is grabbing his coat before he realises he doesn’t have a car.

“Text me where you are,” he says, brain spinning. “I’ll find you.”

“Thanks,” Barney says and ends the call.

Clint goes clattering down the stairs, three steps at a time. He feels like he shouldn’t be this worried, but Barney’s hurt and it’s got to be at least partly Clint’s fault.

There’s a truck parked near the stables, dust on the hood, which implies no one’s going to miss it if Clint borrows it for a while. He finds a piece of chicken wire in the dirt by the stables and it’s easy to bend it into a hook and find the lever inside the door lining. The door swings open then Clint ducks down below the steering wheel and hotwires the car.

***

The cell Barney gave him has GPS, which is the only reason Clint doesn’t get lost forever driving around empty roads and mountain paths. He sticks to the speed limit because he doesn’t have a licence - or really much of an idea how to drive anything beyond a caravan - so it takes him nearly an hour to reach Barney.

He’s in the parking lot of a closed down bar, propped up against a wall under a faded neon sign, blood on his face and bruises on his knuckles.

“What the hell happened?” Clint asks, fumbling out of the car and grabbing Barney by the shoulders.

Barney shakes his head. “Disagreement with the suppliers,” he says. There’s blood on his teeth too.

Okay. Clint breathes a little easier. Okay, so he didn’t make Wilson beat Barney up. That’s something. “And Wilson?”

“Took off as soon as the fists started flying. Bastard.” Barney reaches out, using Clint’s shoulder to support himself as he makes his way to the truck and drops into the passenger seat. “Can you drive?”

“Drove here,” Clint says by way of answer, and takes the handbrake off.

They drive in silence for a couple of miles, then Clint rakes up some courage and asks, “Is this worth it?”

“What?” Barney asks. He sounds tired.

Clint waves one hand. “This whole thing. You could run the ranch as a legit business, couldn’t you? You’d get beaten up way less.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Barney grins at him, opening the split in his lip so blood rolls down onto his chin. Clint tries to smile back, but it reminds him too much of when they were little and Barney would take punches meant for Clint.

Clint stares out the windshield, hands gripping the wheel tight. He wants to tell Barney that Natasha is going to bring him down. He wants to tell him to get away. The words don’t come.

***

There are no lights on downstairs when they get home, so Clint parks out front and lets Barney out before swinging around to park. He’s walking into the house as slowly as he can manage, when he hears a cut-off yell followed by a crash, come from the side of the house.

He hurries toward it, arriving just in time to see Natasha kick the cellar door closed. There’s blood down the front of her sweatshirt, and her hair’s coming loose from its ponytail.

“Are you okay, what happened?” Clint asks, jogging over to her.

Natasha pushes red curls out of her eyes and glares at him. “I thought you left,” she says, fast enough that he can’t tell if she was happy or sorry about that, or if she felt anything at all.

“I went to get Barney,” Clint says. “Wilson’s out of the picture. What happened?”

“I thought you left,” Natasha repeats, “so I escalated my plan.” She jerks her chin at the cellar door. “Smith and Taylor are down there.”

Clint stares. “They’re down… they’re down there? Dude, I was gone a couple hours at most.”

Natasha lifts her chin. “I am used to relying on no one but myself,” she says. She stops suddenly, eyes trained over Clint’s shoulder. “Clint. Step to the left.”

“What?” Clint asks, but does as she says before spinning around.

Barney is standing there, a shotgun in his hand. By stepping left, Clint’s put himself out of Barney’s range and Natasha straight into it.

“What are you doing?” he demands. This is spinning so far out of control.

“Step away from her, Clint, she’s crazy.” He jerks his shotgun at Natasha. “I heard what you said. You got my guys down there?”

Natasha’s looking at him levelly. Clint doesn’t get how she can look so calm. “I do.” Her eyes cut to Clint for a second and he tries to work out what she wants him to do.

He steps back, tries to breathe, zones out Barney and Natasha arguing. He needs to fucking do something, and maybe that thing is to stop thinking of Barney as the guy who’s going to save him.

The stables are to their left, a horsewhip hanging between two of the stall doors. No one’s looking at Clint. He crosses the yard in a half-dozen steps and grabs the whip.

Barney is advancing on Natasha.

Clint turns, cracks the whip. He learned how to use one in the circus, and his aim has always been perfect. The whip snaps down across the back of Barney’s hand, curling around skin. Clint pulls sharply and the shotgun falls to the ground, the crash it makes mostly drowned out by Barney swearing.

Cradling his hand against his chest, Barney turns to Clint, whole expression somewhere between shocked and betrayed.

“Sorry,” Clint says, because he is, but, “I had to.”

***

“Fuck,” Clint says. He’s been saying it for ten minutes; he doesn’t plan to stop.

“Shut up,” Natasha snaps, handing him another box to load onto the truck. “You are becoming repetitive.”

“I just horsewhipped my brother,” Clint reminds her. He piles the new box on top of the old ones, the bed of the truck rapidly filling with the drugs from the barn. “That earns me a couple of fucks.”

Natasha stops handing him boxes and sighs. “Yes, okay, it does, you’re right.” She smiles at him, just the right side of her mouth curling up. It might be the most honest smile he’s gotten from her. “Thank you. You did the right thing.” She goes back to the boxes. “Although I could have taken him myself.”

Clint saw how bloody and well-tied Smith and Taylor were, when he took Barney down into the cellar. He knows she could take him. “Yeah. I felt kind of like I should do something, though. You know?”

“Thank you,” is all she says.

When they’ve gotten all the drugs loaded up on the truck, Natasha picks up Barney’s shotgun from the corner and hands it to Clint. “I’ll be back in two hours at most. Keep an eye on them.”

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“The first open space I find to create as big a fire as possible.” Natasha smiles wickedly. “Maybe I’ll take pictures for your brother and his friends to see.”

“You’re kind of evil,” Clint says, and doesn’t mention that she’s burning his five hundred dollar investment there. It’s not like he was going to be able to sell it back to anyone.

“Remember to shoot them if they try to escape,” Natasha says, and slams the truck door closed behind her.

***

Clint’s the kind of kid who always pokes at a sore tooth or a hangnail, so obviously he only lasts twenty minutes before heading down into the cellar. Taylor and Smith are still out, but Barney’s wide awake, tied to the wall and spitting nails.

“Come to your damn senses?” he demands as soon as he sees Clint. “Let me go.”

Clint stays back from him, in case his hands suddenly develop a mind of their own and try to untie him. “I can’t.”

Barney glares. “However well she’s sucking your cock, it’s not worth giving up family.”

Clint flinches. “She’s not,” he says. He swallows. “One, that’s a shitty thing to say about anyone and two, she’s… I’m… I’m not interested in girls.”

This is not the biggest thing he’s done tonight, or the thing most like to make Barney hate him, but it still feels like the scariest.

“I…” Barney starts then stops, blinking. “Huh.”

“Yeah.” Clint curls his hands into fists, wishes he hadn’t come down here.

“Why don’t you ever tell me shit? You’re my fucking brother; we’re supposed to be a team.” He doesn’t look mad anymore; he looks betrayed. That shouldn’t be what tips the balance for Clint, but it is.

“Fuck you,” he says, making sure to enunciate every syllable. “Just, fuck you, you fucking asshole.”

“Fuck you too,” Barney says, but it sounds like it’s automatic. His expression is shocked, like he never thought Clint would snap.

“A team?” Clint yells. “What does that even mean? Does that mean I’m supposed to be there for you? Because since when have you been there for me? I hadn’t even seen you for years.”

“Clint,” Barney starts. Then his eyes harden and he switches tracks. “Wait, is this payback? I left you with the circus so you come here and fuck everything up for me, just when things were starting to work out.”

“They weren’t starting to work out,” Clint snaps at him. “You’re peddling drugs to kids, that’s not working out, that’s bullshit. And I don’t give a damn about you leaving me with the circus, I care about the fact that you don’t care what happened after. You haven’t even asked me. You never asked me. You let me call you and tell you all these lies, and you never once called me on them. You’re supposed to be my big brother. You’re supposed to care.”

Goddammit, his eyes are stinging. That’s not supposed to happen.

“Am I supposed to be a fucking mind reader, too?” Barney asks.

“Trick Shot shot me,” Clint says, swallowing hard, keeping his voice level. He wants Barney to know, wants him to feel bad. He’s not going to scream it at him like it still matters. “He was robbing people in the towns we went through and I tried to stop him, but he turned on me, put an arrow right through me. The circus dumped me in a hospital and went on without me.”

“Shit,” Barney says, and there, that’s what Clint wants, there’s a flicker in his eye that means maybe he does care. “You tried to stop him?”

“Of course I fucking did,” Clint says on a laugh that isn’t amused. He feels like he’s going to shatter. He wants to be anywhere but here. He wants to be back on Phil’s couch, listening to Phil bitch at the TV, the warmth of his thigh close to Clint’s on the couch.

“Of course you fucking did,” Barney mimics. “Dammit, kid, why you always gotta get involved?”

It hits like a punch. Clint looks away. “I don’t know,” he says.

“Look just…” Barney shifts, shoulders flexing against the rope. “Let me go, c’mon on. You and me, we can get out of here.”

“You and me?” Clint asks. Six months ago, he would have killed to hear that.

Barney smiles slowly, winningly. Clint knows that smile; he has one too. “Why not?” he says. “It’s always you and me, remember?”

“Oh my god.” Clint had maybe, almost, slightly been tempted. That bullshit jerks him straight back to reality. “Since when? Do you know where I’ve been living since I got out the hospital?”

He waits. It’s a rhetorical question, but he still wants Barney to care enough to think about it.

“New York?” Barney tries.

“Yes. The fucking streets of fucking New York,” Clint spits at him. “With assholes spitting in my face and creeps trying to pay me to get into my pants. It’s never been you and me.”

Barney’s frowning. “That where you got the five hundred dollars from?” he asks. “Hustling?”

Clint closes his eyes. “That’s really not the point I was trying to make. And no, it’s not.” He’s not telling Barney about Phil; Barney doesn’t get that.

Barney looks like he’s waiting for more, but Clint suddenly realises that he’s not, he’s done waiting. Barney is never going to stop disappointing him, so Clint’s going to stop letting him.

He turns around and walks out the door, ignoring Barney calling after him, ignoring everything until he’s upstairs in the kitchen and can put his head down on the table, spend ten embarrassing minutes having a bit of a breakdown.

Then he straightens up, swipes the cuff of his sweatshirt over his face, and pulls out his cell phone.

***

“So I don’t know exactly what it is you do, but if I told you I had a whole bunch of drug dealers tied up in a scary Russian girl’s storm cellar, could you help?” Clint asks, all in a rush.

There’s a really long pause at the other end of the line, long enough that Clint hopes he didn’t call the wrong number. This would be a really unfortunate time for that.

“Clint?” Nick Fury finally says. “This better be Clint.”

Clint rubs his hands over his face and watches the ceiling spin lazily above him. He’s so tired. “It’s me.”

“Well thank fuck and all the little fishes for that,” Nick says. “Where the hell are you? Tell me it’s not motherfucking Russia.”

“It’s not Russia,” Clint says. “Can you help?”

Nick sighs a long, put-upon sigh. “What kind of help?”

“We don’t want to call the cops,” Clint admits. “But we need to do something with them.”

Nick mutters something, half under his breath, that Clint’s pretty sure is a plea for a merciful god. “Tell me where you are.”

Fuck. Clint doesn’t want to, but he doesn’t know how else he’s going to get out of this shit. “Kentucky. Not too far from Lexington.”

Nick pauses before answering, and when he does, it’s to say, “This drug shit got something to do with your brother?”

“What the fuck?” Clint demands because, well, what the fuck. “How do you know about my brother?”

“My best friend’s got a thing for you; I looked you up,” Nick says, like that’s normal, like… Wait.

“Your best… No, he doesn’t. What are you talking about? That’s not true.” Clint’s heart pounds, and he’d tell it to quit, that he’s worrying about Barney and Natasha not about Phil right now, but it doesn’t seem to care.

“This isn’t a conversation I’m having,” Nick says flatly. “I’m no one’s yenta. Text me the address then sit tight. No heroics.”

“What you gonna do?” Clint asks. “Parachute in here and rescue us?”

“Motherfucker, I could,” Nick says then hangs up on him.

***

Clint stays in the kitchen. He can hear Barney yell for him every now and then, but he ignores it. When it gets too hard to ignore, he gets up and boils the kettle, trying to recreate the calm of Phil’s tiny apartment.

It doesn’t really work. He drinks tea. He paces. He makes more tea, lets it go cold, throws it away.

Finally, there’s a knock at the door.

Clint jumps up, then hesitates. What if it’s Barney’s suppliers? Clint’s pretty foolhardy, but even he doesn’t want to take on a drug kingpin all by himself.

There’s another knock. “Mr Barton?” calls a woman’s voice. “This is SHIELD.”

Clint crosses to the door and opens it a crack. “SHIELD?” he asks, peering out.

The lady on the doorstep is Asian, older than Clint, and wearing a really awesome all-black uniform. Sort of like a catsuit, but less sexy and more practical.

“Agent Melinda May,” she says, presenting a name badge, which she actually holds up long enough for him to read. She’s security level three apparently, whatever that means.

“What’s SHIELD?” Clint asks, refusing to open the door until she tells him.

“Nick Fury sent me,” she says, one eyebrow raised as if to say any more questions?

“Yeah, okay.” Clint steps back, waves her inside. “You come alone?”

Agent May looks over her shoulder, smiles at him thinly. “Trust me, I’m all you need.” She reaches into her bag and pulls out a pair of black leather gloves, tugging them on quickly. “Where are they?”

“Um.” Now that Clint thinks about it, he doesn’t actually know what Nick’s mixed up in and he doesn’t actually want his brother murdered by a scary lady assassin.

“I’m not going to hurt anybody, kid,” she says, and this time her smile is warmer. “Just get them out of your hair.”

“And do what with them?” Clint asks.

She blows out a breath, dark hair blowing upwards from her forehead. “Hell if I know. This isn’t standard SHIELD operating procedure.”

“Oh.” Which means Nick is doing him a favour. Clint doesn’t know how to feel about that. “Sorry. I didn’t realise.”

May taps her foot on the floorboards, obviously too busy to give a damn about Clint’s guilt. “Where are they?”

Clint points outside toward the storm cellar. “There.” He pulls the key out from his pocket, hands it over. “The one in the room by himself is my brother. Really please don’t kill him. But like, if you wanted to punch him a bit, that’d be okay with me.”

May laughs, looking startled at herself then shaking her head at Clint. “I’ll see what I can do.”

***

“What did you do?” Natasha demands, hands on her hips.

Clint rubs his forehead and wishes she’d arrived half a minute later. Agent May’s got the whole gang in her shiny black van, and Clint’s very firmly rooted to the kitchen so he doesn’t have to see Barney again. If Natasha had been gone just a little bit longer, she would have been too late to argue.

“I said no cops, Clint,” Natasha says.

“These aren’t cops.” Clint waves a hand toward May, who’s watching them from the doorway. “Does she look like a cop? She’s super scary. Cops aren’t that scary.”

Natasha turns to May, arms folded. “Who are you?”

May flashes her badge at Natasha, the same way she did at Clint. Natasha looks much less impressed than Clint was.

“Why would SHIELD want to help me?” she asks. Clint wonders if that means she’s actually heard of them. He’s sure he never has.

“We’re helping your friend here.” May nods at Clint. “Although, some of those guys were muttering about being taken down by a little girl. That you?”

Natasha tilts her chin up. “I am not a little girl,” she says, “but yes. I took them down.”

May smiles at her, reaches into her breast pocket and pulls out a card, which she hands over to Natasha. “In case you ever need SHIELD backup of your own.”

“Thank you,” Natasha says then spirits the card away so fast that Clint has no idea where she puts it.

May nods her head. “I’ll see you kids around.”

“Thank you,” Clint says, awkward and inadequate. “Could you, could you say thanks to Nick too?”

Nick,” May echoes, shaking her head, and lets herself out, heading to her van.

Natasha turns and levels a seriously disbelieving stare at Clint as soon as May’s gone. “SHIELD?” she asks. “I was gone an hour. Do you have them on retainer or something?”

“Who are SHIELD?” Clint asks. “Am I missing something?”

Before Natasha can answer, Clint’s cell phone buzzes on the table. It’s a message from Nick:

Get yourself to the bus station. Ticket waiting for you. Don’t fucking argue.

“SHIELD are the kind of guys you don’t mess with,” Natasha says.

Clint stares at his phone. “Yeah,” he says. “You can say that again.”

***

New York doesn’t look any different. Clint doesn’t know what he expected; it’s only been five days, but he feels different, so New York should look it.

Clint’s been on buses for the last twenty-three hours; he’s not claiming to be at his most logical.

He spends some of his last twelve dollars in the bodega by Phil’s apartment, buying himself a Diet Coke and some candy and just really trying to kill time. He wants to see Phil so bad his fingers are shaking with it, but Phil doesn’t know Clint’s coming and maybe he won’t want to see him.

Eventually, the guy running the store starts to look at Clint like he’s expecting to get robbed, so Clint grins at him, grabs a package of sugared doughnuts on a whim, and drops his change on the counter.

“Have a good day,” he says, getting a grunt in return. He really has missed New York.

He doesn’t have keys to let himself into Phil’s building, but he can’t quite bring himself to press Phil’s buzzer. To buy himself some time, he sends a quick text to Natasha, just a got here okay, say hi to the horses.

He wishes Natasha were here; she’d kick his ass until he went inside, but Natasha wouldn’t leave her grandmother, so Clint’s here all alone.

He ends up hanging around outside until someone he recognises comes up the steps.

“Hi, Mrs Mason,” he says, smiling at the old lady with the cats who lives on the third floor. “How’s things?”

“Noisy,” she says ominously. “You forget your keys?”

“Yes,” he lies. “Can I take one of your bags?”

“Take both,” she says, handing over two overflowing flowery old lady shopping bags while she puts her key in the lock. “Haven’t seen you around. You been home for the holidays?”

Clint feels his casual smile freeze on his face, but, “Yeah,” he says, “went to visit my brother.”

She nods like she approves of brother-visiting. “Good. Glad you’re back. That boy of yours has been getting himself in trouble.”

“Trouble?” Clint asks. It’s more important to know what Phil’s been doing than to explain he’s not Clint’s boy. They’ve reached the top of the first flight of stairs, and Mrs Mason doesn’t stop for a breather, so Clint really can’t either.

She clucks her tongue and shakes her head. “With those… people who bought the building. He should keep his head down like the rest of us. You tell him that from me.”

“He’s not great at keeping his head down,” Clint says, like Clint’s one to talk. “You want them taken care of, right?”

She stops, turns around, and shoves her knit hat back so she can look him in the eye. “I don’t want good boys like him getting themselves killed over things that don’t matter. I’ve seen that enough.”

Clint doesn’t really know what to say to that. “I’ll tell him,” he promises, which seems to satisfy her. She spends the rest of the journey up the stairs chatting about spending Christmas with her son and daughter-in-law and how her oldest grandson is gay, if Clint has any friends who are looking for a good boy.

Clint leaves her at her front door, setting the bags down inside for her before wishing her a good day and backing away as fast as he can. He’s pretty pleased to have something to tell Phil about, in case things get awkward, although he really doesn’t like the idea that Phil’s been taking on the Tracksuit Twins again.

Walking up to Phil’s front door feels a bit like it did the other day, when everything was ruined and Clint knew he had to leave. This time though, he doesn’t have any clue what’s about to happen and that’s somehow even scarier.

He knocks on the door, then steps to the side, in case Phil sees him through the peephole and doesn’t answer. He knows that’s a pretty risky strategy, because it might mean Phil won’t answer at all, but Clint’s heart is pounding in his throat so hard he thinks he might throw up, and Phil not answering might not be that bad a thing.

Phil answers the door.

He throws it open with a frown on his face and Clint has just enough time to think that jeez, he looks exhausted, before Phil sees him and the frown melts away. It turns into something wide open and Clint thinks maybe he doesn’t look so exhausted anymore.

“Clint,” Phil says, and Clint finds himself being dragged into a hug.

Clint’s not ashamed, he totally melts into it, clutching at the back of Phil’s shirt and holding on. He doesn’t care if this is needy, or if it goes on longer than Phil wanted, he just presses himself as close to Phil as he can get and doesn’t let go.

“Thank god, you’re all right,” Phil says, right against his ear. Then, “Are you all right?”

“Not really,” Clint admits. The shaking in his hands is travelling all over the rest of his body and he presses his face into Phil’s warm neck like that’s going to help, like Phil won’t be able to tell Clint’s falling apart, if he can’t see his face.

“Shh,” Phil murmurs, holding onto him with arms that are almost as tight around him as Clint needs them to be. Clint feels dry lips brush against his temple. Phil doesn’t ask him to let go, so Clint doesn’t let go.

Eventually, embarrassment wins and he pulls back, letting his hands fall to his sides. “Hi?” he tries. “I bought you donuts.”

Phil chuckles, taking the donuts and Clint’s bag - which is really Phil’s bag - from his hands and leading him inside.

“Are you back for good?” Phil asks, at the same time that Clint says, “Nick didn’t tell you I was coming?”

Clint grins nervously, sitting down on the couch, which he’s missed, and letting Phil be the one who answers the overlapping questions.

“Nick told me he’d heard from you,” Phil says, sitting down next to him. He’s close enough that Clint hopes it’s an invitation. “He didn’t tell me for sure that you were coming back here, just that things didn’t work out with your brother.”

Clint tries to laugh, but it comes out like something way more broken. He slides across the tiny gap between them and leans his arm into Phil’s arm. When Phil doesn’t push him away, he drops his head onto Phil’s shoulder.

“My brother’s a dick,” he says, “and somehow I always convince myself that he’s not.”

Phil slides his arm into the space between Clint’s back and the couch and pulls Clint against him. “Because he’s your brother,” he says. “Of course you want to make allowances for him.”

Clint closes his eyes. He’s enjoying this new thing they’re doing with all the touching. “He’s got this gorgeous place in the middle of nowhere, fields and horses and nature things I don’t even know for miles and miles, and he’s ruining it all by selling drugs out of his backyard. I don’t get him.”

“Selling drugs?” Phil asks. It looks like Nick really didn’t clue him in on what’s been happening.

“Yeah.” Clint pulls back enough that he can see Phil’s face for this part. “I gave him your money and I couldn’t get it back. I’m really fucking sorry.”

Phil doesn’t look pissed like Clint’s been imagining. He mostly just looks sad. “Don’t be ridiculous, that doesn’t matter.” His fingers move against Clint’s shoulderblade, restless, like he doesn’t realise he’s doing it. “I wasn’t sure I’d see you again.”

Clint makes himself smile, cocky-like. “Yeah? You start to pine for me, Coulson?”

“I started to call myself every name in the book and wonder how I could have been such a damn idiot,” Phil says seriously.

Clint’s heart leaps with hope. He really does hate hope. “What’s that mean?”

Phil shrugs, looking kind of helpless. “It means I missed you,” he says, “and I worried about you, and I want you to stay this time.”

Clint looks down, realising that where he thought he was fiddling with the hem of his t-shirt, he’s actually fiddling with the hem of Phil’s. Oops. “Sorry,” he says, trying to smooth it straight. Except that that basically leads to him smoothing his fingers over Phil’s stomach, which probably isn’t okay either.

“That’s fine,” Phil says quietly, so Clint leaves his hand where it is, feeling Phil’s stomach rise and fall in time with his breathing. “Clint, did you hear me? I want you to stay.”

“For how long?” Clint asks. “I can’t mooch off you forever. I mean…” He waves his free hand. “I actually have no life plans, anymore? My whole plan forever was just Get To Barney and you just heard how well that worked out.”

Phil puts his hand over Clint’s and squeezes. It’s a little weird to be mostly holding hands, but Clint’s not going to question it just yet. “You could get your GED,” he says. “You’re smart; you could do anything.”

Clint makes a noise that’s supposed to be dismissive, but is probably just startled. No one’s ever called him smart before. It’s kind of hard sitting here, thinking about his future, when Phil’s got one hand over his and the other warm against Clint’s spine.

“I can’t do anything,” Clint says, licking his dry lips. “I mean, a couple days ago, I kissed you and that went really badly, so.”

Phil closes his eyes, blushing in this way that’s fascinating to watch. “In my defence, it’s a mindfuck to find yourself suddenly excruciatingly attracted to a seventeen-year-old.”

Excruciatingly, Clint thinks, and finds himself grinning. “I’m not your average seventeen-year-old,” he says, which makes Phil laugh.

“You’re really not,” he agrees. He seems like he’s having trouble looking at Clint’s eyes rather than at his mouth. Clint’s not going to help him out this time; it’s Phil’s turn, if he wants kissing.

Phil starts to shift toward him and Clint holds his breath, waiting. Then Phil stops and Clint kind of wants to punch someone.

“It’s not just that though,” Phil says, sounding apologetic.

Clint groans. “Come on.”

Phil smiles. He turns Clint’s hand over in his and laces their fingers together. “I know. I just need to say this. I just need you to know that I’m going to help you and let you stay here as long as you like, even if nothing ever happens between us. It’s important to me to be your friend.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, nodding. “I know that.” He does know that; it’s a trippy thing to know for sure.

“In that case,” Phil says, and then he doesn’t say anything else because his mouth is on Clint’s.

Phil tips his head to make the angle better and pulls Clint in toward him. Clint scrambles closer, twisting until his knee is pressed against Phil’s thigh and his shoulder is jammed into Phil’s, which seems like a brilliant idea until Phil twitches.

“Shit, did I hurt you?” Clint asks, sitting back quickly, and putting his hand over Phil’s shoulder, feeling the uneven ridge of scar tissue through Phil’s thin t-shirt.

“No.” Phil’s eyes are soft and he tries to pull Clint back in. “No, it’s fine. Come back here.”

“In a minute,” Clint tells him, peeling Phil’s collar open so he can check on his scar. It’s redder than Clint remembers it being, but it’s not bleeding.

“Sorry,” he says anyway, ducking his head. “I got carried away.”

Phil laughs and leans in, kissing the corner of Clint’s mouth. “I like that you did,” he says. He straightens up a little from where he’s slid down against the couch cushions. Clint’s crazily pleased that he’s made that happen. “Do you want to slow down?”

“Fuck no.” Clint wants to make out with Phil for the rest of today. Maybe the rest of forever.

But Phil’s already moving away, pushing Clint back gently. “I want to show you something,” he says. “Come with me?”

“Is the something your dick?” Clint asks, letting himself be levered up from the couch. He curls his fingers into Phil’s waistband, since Phil was being really touchy-feely earlier and will probably be okay with Clint doing the same.

“You have a dirty mind,” Phil scolds. “And no, I’m not going to show you my dick for the first time in my living room.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Clint promises, but keeps quiet while he follows Phil into the bathroom.

“Just behind the door,” Phil says softly and lets Clint go on ahead.

Clint peers around the door, curious, and gasps, dropping on his knees next to the brand new dog bed in the corner. The Tracksuit Guy’s dog, Arrow, is curled up there, one leg bandaged from paw to hip and stretched out in front of him.

“What happened to him?” Clint asks. At the sound of Clint’s voice, Arrow opens his eyes and woofs, tongue lolling in a way that Clint’s going to classify as happy.

“I remembered what you said about them ill-treating him,” Phil says, coming in and crouching beside Clint. “So I went down to check it out.”

Clint remembers what Mrs Mason said about Phil getting in trouble and frowns. “Did you steal their dog?” he asks.

“I did,” Phil says, apparently not bothered about that. “But only after I noticed how badly he was limping.”

“Shit, dude,” says Clint and he touches Arrow’s flank, keeping his hand far away from the bandages. “He hurt bad?”

“His leg’s broken.” Phil moves out of his crouch and into sitting on the floor. “The vet patched him up and said he’s going to be fine, but we have to keep him off it as much as possible for as long as possible.” He looks at Arrow, who’s already fallen back to sleep. “So far, that hasn’t been a problem.”

Clint smiles helplessly. “I can’t believe you stole a dog for me.”

“I didn’t steal him for you,” Phil says, like that’s ridiculous. “I may have stolen him because of you.”

Clint can’t resist turning and kissing Phil, just quickly, even though they’re sitting on a bathroom floor. “Thanks, anyway.”

“You’re welcome.” Phil says. The way he’s looking at Clint is pretty overwhelming. Clint’s used to being the only one who looks at people like that. No one ever looks back at him. “Clint? Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Clint finds that he doesn’t have to force this smile; it feels totally natural. “Make me a cup of gross tea?” he asks. “I’ve missed it.”

“Yes,” Phil says, getting to his feet. He sounds so happy about it that Clint ends up beaming to himself like an idiot.

On the dog bed, Arrow snorts in his sleep.

“Yep,” Clint tells him. “I’m fucked.”

***

For all that Clint’s bed at Barney’s was four times bigger and a bit like something out of a Disney movie, he feels way better for being back on Phil’s couch.

His old blanket smells more of Phil's aftershave then it used to, which he finds suspicious, but that just makes it more comfortable. He curls up and tries to sleep, exhausted even though it’s still light out.

Shifting around, his hand finds the gloves Phil bought him, forgotten and shoved down the side of the couch. Clint digs his fingers into the soft fabric, and suddenly finds himself grinning so hard the corners of his mouth feel stretched.

He’s home.

***

Something cold noses at the back of Clint’s knee, and Clint wakes from his half-doze with a startled yelp.

Arrow looks up at him from the floor, head tilted curiously.

“Hey, dude,” Clint says, reaching out a hand and petting him between the ears. Arrow whines, injured leg held up awkwardly in front of him. “You need to get off that foot, remember?”

Almost like he understood that, Arrow woofs and jumps up onto the couch, head on Clint’s feet and his solid leg cast digging into Clint’s shin.

“Yeah, I actually meant for you to go back to your own bed?” Clint says, but apparently Arrow only understands when he wants to understand, because he rumbles happily and goes to sleep. Which is nice for him, but completely derails any hope Clint might have of getting back to sleep.

He tries for another ten minutes, then sighs, slides his feet out from under Arrow, and pads to Phil’s room.

He’s honestly only planning to tell Phil that he’s awake, but then he pushes the door open and finds Phil sitting on his bed, bare feet on the comforter and square black reading glasses halfway down his nose and Clint’s breath stutters in his throat.

Phil looks up, smiling when he sees Clint. “Hello.”

Clint clears his throat twice. “Hi,” he says. “Hey.”

“Can’t sleep?” Phil asks. He goes to take off his glasses but Clint, embarrassingly, finds himself saying, “Don’t.”

Phil frowns but then whatever he sees on Clint’s face makes him stop frowning and start smiling. “You can’t possibly find my glasses attractive.”

“I really can,” Clint assures him. He crosses the room and really wants to climb onto Phil’s bed, but he remembers the last time he was here, Phil’s gun in his face, and decides it’d be best to wait for an invitation.

“Now?” Phil asks, putting down his book.

Clint had been planning to come up with a line, something like Maybe you should help me sleep? but what he ends up saying is just, “Please.”

Phil slides his hand up Clint’s arm and tumbles him down onto the bed. Clint hits the bed softly, obviously landing exactly where Phil wants him, because Phil leans over him and smiles, satisfied, before bending down to kiss him.

Clint slides his hands up Phil’s chest, careful to avoid his shoulder on the left side, and ending up with his hand wrapped around the back of Phil’s neck instead. “Nick says you have a thing for me,” Clint tells him, in between kisses.

Phil rolls his eyes but doesn’t deny it. “Nick is a menace,” he says. He bites Clint’s bottom lip, lingering. “You’re a menace too.”

“I’ve got a thing for you, too,” Clint says, laughing, delighted, when that makes Phil kiss him even deeper next time. He wonders if he’s allowed to mess up Phil’s hair then decides he’s going to do it anyway. It’s soft and fine under his hands, easy to comb his fingers through, and he really likes the sound Phil makes when Clint accidentally tugs a bit too hard.

They’re mostly side-by-side, Phil on his stomach and Clint on his back, but Clint wants Phil closer than that, wants Phil on top of him and all tangled up in him, so he tugs and Phil shifts and that’s much better.

“Take your shirt off?” Clint asks, putting his hands on Phil’s waist where Phil’s shirt has risen up a bit with no help from Clint (mostly).

Phil hesitates, just for a second, then sits up, pulling it over his head.

It’s not like Clint hasn’t seen Phil shirtless before. They’d spent hour after hour working through Phil’s exercises, so Clint’s even seen him flushed and sweaty before, but this is so, so much better. Clint gets to touch, this time, and to play with Phil’s chest hair.

None of the guys Clint’s made out with before have ever been old enough for chest hair - which isn’t something he’s going to tell Phil - and Clint finds it fascinating.

“What are you doing?” Phil laughs as Clint curls short, dark strands around his fingers.

“Just seeing,” Clint says, refusing to be embarrassed. “You made me look but not touch for ages, remember?”

“You wanted to touch then?” Phil asks, sounding surprised.

Clint rolls his eyes. “I always wanted to touch,” he says honestly. “Like, always.” He slides his hand toward Phil’s scar, hesitating. “Will it hurt?”

“No.” Phil puts his hand over Clint’s, guiding it up to the centre of his scar, a solid nub of flesh that the rest of the scars radiate out from. “No, it’s fine, you can touch.”

“Is that where you got shot?” Clint asks. “Right here?”

“Right there,” Phil agrees. He smiles, shaking his head slightly. “When I was being held prisoner, I kept myself busy planning out my future. I never imagined you.”

Clint goes warm all over at the idea that Phil thinks he’s in his future now. “Yeah, well, I’m pretty unbelievable,” he says. He strokes his thumb over the scars, careful even though Phil said it wouldn’t hurt. He’s come to realise that Phil mostly says what he wants to be true, rather than what’s actually true, when it comes to his own health and safety.

“Do I get to see you too?” Phil asks. “Or is this a one-way show?”

“What if I said it was?” Clint asks. He doesn’t know why he asks that, he just likes how very, very careful Phil always is with him.

“Then that would be fine,” Phil says immediately. “We’re only going to do what you’re comfortable with.”

“You’re awesome,” Clint tells him, and wriggles around to strip off his t-shirt. As soon as he’s shirtless, he has this ridiculous impulse to cover his nipples, but he ignores it. He’s never been body conscious and he’s not going to start now.

Phil stares down at him with wide eyes, pupils dilating in a way that Clint knows means good things. “I’m going to go to hell,” Phil says, but he doesn’t sound sorry about it.

Clint laughs, tugging Phil back down on top of him, pretty sure that chest to chest is going to feel amazing. He’s right. “Nope, no, no you’re not. I’m legal and this is hella consensual. Stop worrying.”

“I enjoy worrying; I’m very good at it,” Phil says primly. He doesn’t stay prim for long though because kissing happens and then happens some more and Clint starts to wonder if there’s a way to ensure that he never has to do anything but kiss Phil Coulson for the rest of his life.

Then Phil shifts and his hip meets Clint’s dick and Clint realises just how fucking hard he is. Maybe kissing and fucking? That’d be good.

“Phil,” he says softly, lifting his hips. His sweatpants are soft but they still slide uncomfortably against his dick, making him whine. He is grace and decorum while getting off, apparently, fuck.

“Shh,” Phil says and puts his hands on Clint’s hips. “Can I take care of you?”

“Fuck, please,” Clint begs. Of course Phil’s a gentleman in bed, of course he is.

Phil slides Clint’s sweatpants down his thighs, just far enough that he can get to his cock. The combination of cool air, then Phil’s very warm palm, makes Clint buck and swear, but Phil seems to want this to go slow, moving his hand carefully, experimentally, and Clint forces himself to calm down.

He takes a deep breath and focuses on the strength of Phil’s grip, the rasp of his callouses, the way he keeps his free hand on Clint’s hipbone to hold him still, his eyes fixed on what he’s doing to Clint’s cock.

Clint thinks that’s way hotter than if Phil were lovingly staring into his eyes or whatever. Phil is lovingly staring at his cock; it makes Clint feel hot and tingly all over.

“Can I do you too?” Clint asks, fidgeting with the waistband on Phil’s pants. “Does that work?”

“It works for me,” Phil says, with the sort of feeling that makes Clint wonder exactly how turned on Phil is. He gets his answer as soon as he gets Phil’s pants open and his fingertips on Phil’s cock through the slit in his boxers.

Phil’s rock hard and his boxers are sticky where the head of his cock is leaking pre-come. It makes Clint feel stupidly smug, makes him want to fling open the window and yell to the world that he turns Phil on.

Shoving Phil’s boxers out the way and wrapping a hand around him turns out to be the better plan, though, which is probably for the best. He tries to move his hand in time to how Phil’s touching him. It’s awkward, but it turns out pretty well.

“How about this?” Phil asks, shifting so he’s straddling Clint and their cocks line up. He takes hold of Clint’s hand, and wraps both their fists around both their cocks. It feels weird for a second, because now Clint can only feel half of Phil’s hand, jerking him, but then it hits him that his cock is pressed up against Phil’s cock, and the thought’s so hot he nearly comes then and there.

“Yeah, that, that works,” Clint says, laughing shakily. He reaches up for Phil with his free hand, pulling him down and trying to kiss him even though he’s so distracted by everything that it’s hard to concentrate on what his mouth’s doing. “You should be so impressed that I haven’t come yet.”

“I am,” Phil promises. He’s panting too, hips rolling so his cock moves against Clint’s, inside their fists.

That’s an awesome idea, Clint decides, so he does the same thing and then it’s really just a race to see who comes first. Clint wins - loses? - but it’s close, and he’s still gasping and blinking away stars from his orgasm when Phil groans against his cheek and comes too, come covering the parts of Clint’s dick and his fingers that he didn’t jizz all over himself.

“Jesus,” he says with feeling, staring blankly up at the ceiling. It’s hot and he’s really sweaty, so he prods Phil until he rolls off and onto his back, joining Clint in the blank staring at the ceiling thing. “That was good, right?”

“That was good,” Phil agrees, with a quiet, satisfied sigh. He turns his head to look at Clint and Clint is honestly impressed that he has the energy. “Was that your first time?”

Ordinarily, Clint would get embarrassed or defensive, but he’s wiped and he’s feeling nothing but amazingly good things. “First time with a guy,” he says. “I did some things with a couple girls in the circus before I realised I’m mostly just… you know.”

“Gay?” Phil asks.

Clint rolls his eyes. “I was gonna say that in so many more words,” he says. He rolls onto his side since he’s cooled down some and he regrets making Phil go so far away. (Shut up. Six inches is far.) “Thanks.”

“What for?” Phil asks. He grunts when Clint throws an arm across his chest and curls up against his side, but Clint was very careful to put his head on Phil’s ribs, not his shoulder so he knows he’s not hurting him.

Clint presses his face into Phil’s skin so he can say, “I don’t even know where I’d start,” without getting too embarrassed.

Phil touches his hair, sweeping it back from his forehead and doesn’t say anything. The fingertips against his cheekbone feel like you’re welcome and maybe even it was worth it.

***

Clint falls asleep with his arms wrapped around Phil’s waist, face pressed into the back of Phil’s spine, and wakes up eighteen hours later to voices in the kitchen.

Groggy from so much sleep, he thinks about rolling over and going back for some more, but his bladder is really, really against that idea. He ends up flailing around for a second, trying to fit his legs into jeans that turn out to be Phil’s, and settles on just boxers and a t-shirt. Everything else is too complicated, right now.

After a pitstop in the bathroom, he stumbles into the kitchen and really wishes he’d stopped to tackle pants, when he finds not only Nick there, but also a really smartly dressed lady with scraped back dark hair and one eyebrow raised in his direction.

“Uh, um, hey,” he says, waving with one hand and rubbing the other hand over his face like that will magically make him look awake and alive.

Phil turns from the stove and smiles at him, the kind of smile that looks teasing and fond. “Good morning. Want breakfast?”

“Yeah, maybe?” Clint tries. He doesn’t know if he should go away and leave Phil with his visitors, but Phil settles that question for him by reaching out a hand and reeling him in against his side.

Phil’s side is a good place to settle since his shoulder is just the right height for Clint to lean in and yawn against. Who knew sex and sleeping were so exhausting?

“Clint, this is Maria Hill,” Phil says, nodding at the woman. “Maria, Clint Barton.”

“I never told you my last name,” Clint mumbles into Phil’s collarbone, but he doesn’t really care. Phil and Nick are the sort of people who seem to know all stuff.

“Hello, Clint,” Maria says. Her amusedly raised eyebrow looks really amused now.

Clint forces himself to straighten up and wrap his hands around the coffee mug Phil pushes on him. “Hi,” he says. “I promise I’m usually more awake than this.”

“That’s a matter of opinion,” Nick says. “But he is usually more dressed.”

Clint blushes, but ignores him, sliding onto a spare bar stool next to where Arrow’s curled up, napping on the floor, and ignores everyone in favour of coffee. Phil laughs softly, then touches Clint’s shoulder before sitting down next to him.

“I’m not really built for sitting behind a desk,” Phil says, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to Clint, but then he’s not part of this conversation.

“You’re built for exactly what I’m asking you to do,” Nick says, tone no-nonsense. “Train recruits, scare the shit out of them, tell me which ones suck so I can weed them out. Easy.”

“What are you talking about?” Clint asks, looking up from Arrow.

“Nick wants to offer me a job,” Phil says. “I’m playing hard to get.”

“Nick has offered you a job,” Nick corrects. “Barton, how’s his shoulder?”

Clint blinks. “Fine? Way better?”

“There.” Nick claps his hands together. “No more excuses. I expect you there nine a.m. sharp on Monday. Report to HR for your door pass and guns.”

“Your HR department are in charge of guns?” Phil asks.

Maria smiles. “Only the basic ones. You get the really interesting ones from me.”

Clint looks between the three of them, wondering exactly what sort of job Phil’s being offered. “Can I work there, too?” he asks. “At SHIELD?”

“How do you know about SHIELD?” Phil asks. He looks up at Nick, narrowing his eyes. “What did you do?”

“Helped your boy out of a corner.” Nick looks Clint over. “Coulson wants me to wait until you’re eighteen before I recruit you.”

“Oh. Huh.” Clint hadn’t really meant it. Well, he’d meant it, but he hadn’t thought the answer would be yes. “Cool. Do I get a gun, too?”

“If you like.” Maria leans forward, meeting his eye. “But I hear you’re better with a bow.”

“How do you - ?” Clint frowns, pulling his feet up onto his stool and pulling his coffee close. “You’re all really creepy,” he decides.

“Creepy but efficient,” Nick rumbles. “Now. As fun as torturing you is, Coulson, we do have places to be.”

“Places?” Phil asks, then immediately looks like he regrets his curiosity because Nick’s good eye swivels to him.

“Stark Tower,” he says. “We’ll brief you on Monday.” Nick stands up, followed by Maria, who winks at Clint before following Nick to the door.

“Fuck off,” Phil calls after him. “I didn’t agree to anything.”

Nick chuckles, leading the way out the door.

As soon as they’re gone, Phil leans back in his chair and groans. “You didn’t hear me agree to work for them, right?” he says. “I still have plausible deniability?”

“You’re going to work for them,” Clint predicts. He gets up from his stool and comes to stand by Phil’s, leaning into him until Phil wraps an arm around his waist and pulls him over to sit on Phil’s thighs.

“Tell me how you know about SHIELD,” Phil says. “What really happened in Kentucky?”

So Clint tells him. It’s not like it’s that long a story, but it makes Phil frown, expression going pinched.

“I didn’t ask about Barney,” Clint finishes quietly. “That’s shitty, huh?”

“No.” Phil leans in and kisses him, even though Clint knows he still tastes of sleep and coffee. “It’s understandable.”

“Ugh.” Clint drops his head onto Phil’s shoulder even though it bends his neck at a funny angle. “What will they have done with him and the others?”

Phil touches Clint’s back, stroking along his spine. “If any of them have skills they can use, they’ll have recruited them. Otherwise, they’ll find a way to send them to jail without involving your friend or her ranch.”

“Wow, that’s.” Clint laughs disbelievingly. “Creepy? When you go in on Monday, ask Nick for me?”

“I will.” Phil promises. “Not that I’m going in on Monday.”

“Course not,” Clint says. He mouths at Phil’s neck absently. He really doesn’t want to think about Barney. “So, that gives us six days to have lots and lots of sex, right?”

“Six days to clear up the Tracksuit Mafia problem for good,” Phil corrects. He pauses then, “And to have lots and lots of sex.”

Clint laughs. He still feels horrible and twisted up inside, worrying about Barney and Natasha, but it’s hard to feel too bad with Phil’s arms around him.

***

“I do not know what you want from me, bro,” Andrey - or is it Anton? - says, arms folded across his chest and a really unimpressed sneer on his face.

“I want you to move on,” Phil says calmly, “find another building to launder your money through.”

Anton - or Andrey’s - eyebrows draw together in a really overdone expression of confusion. “I do not know what you talk about. I run this building. That is all I do.”

“You shake down this building and use it as a front for something much worse.” Phil sets a cup of tea down in front of him. “Milk? Sugar?”

“No.” Andrey growls.

“Lemon or honey then?” Phil asks, still so very calm.

Clint feels a little like he’s watching a masterclass in being a badass, and it’s turning him on way more than is okay when one half of the Tracksuit Twins is sitting at the breakfast bar in Phil’s apartment.

Anton’s hands slam down on the countertop. “I not know who you think you are, bro, but - ”

“I’m no one,” Phil says, leaning forward. “But I know people who are someone and they’re not going to take kindly to what you’re doing here.”

Anton’s eyes cut to Clint and he snorts. “I threaten your pretty boy so you threaten me.”

“You think I’m pretty?” Clint asks, not even caring when Phil gives him a shut up, don’t draw attention to yourself look.

“I think you steal my dog, bro,” Anton tells him.

Clint widens his eyes and doesn’t look toward the closed bathroom door. “No clue what you’re talking about,” he says, “bro.”

“Okay, listen.” Anton gets to his feet and looms over Clint. Clint would be scared but he’s pretty sure that if Anton lays a hand on him, Phil’s going to take him down. Not that Clint can’t take care of himself, but it’s nice to have backup. “This was cute. But now it is annoying. You need to stop.”

“I think you need to stop, Mr Kuznetsov” Phil says from over Anton’s shoulder. Anton goes very still. “That’s your full name, isn’t it? Wanted in Russia for extortion and murder, and also in Ukraine just for murder. Did the extortion get boring?”

Anton turns on Phil, eyes so narrow and furious that Clint automatically reaches out for something to hit him over the head with. Phil doesn’t look concerned.

“Who are you?” Anton asks.

Phil smiles kindly, like he thinks Anton is a little slow. “I told you, I’m no one.” He holds his hands out, palms up. “I was going to let you walk out of here,” he says, “but I’ve changed my mind. Clint, call 911 for me?”

Clint reaches for the phone, but Anton gets there first, slamming Clint’s hand down on the counter, hard enough that Clint’s fingers spasm open.

“Ow, dude,” Clint complains, then kicks Anton hard in the kneecap.

Anton rears back, straight into Phil, who does something cool and ninja-like and, next second, Anton’s face down over the breakfast bar.

“Are you all right?” Phil asks, looking at Clint and barely breathing hard.

“Fine.” Clint flexes his fingers, rubbing at his wrist bone.

“There are handcuffs in my bedside table drawer,” Phil says, leaning a little further onto Anton when he starts to struggle. “Get them for me?”

“Sure,” Clint says, and goes to get them. He comes back with heavy duty, metal cuffs in his hand, and a really badly-suppressed giggle rising up in his throat. “Do I get to know why these were next to your bed?”

Phil takes them, locks Anton up securely, then smiles at Clint. “Only if you’re very good. Now, let’s call the police.”

***

Two hours later, their building is free from the Tracksuit Mafia, and Clint finally feels safe enough to let Arrow out of the bathroom. Arrow trots twice around the apartment, woofs happily, and flops down in front of the TV.

“Yeah,” Clint agrees, joining him on the floor. “You’re ours now.”

“Ours?” Phil asks, sitting next to him. The police said a couple things about not taking on Russian Mafia by yourself, then Phil said a couple things about SHIELD and everyone gave up.

Clint ducks his head and concentrates on polishing Arrow’s tags with his thumb. “Yours?” Clint asks.

Phil leans into him, bumping their shoulders together then, doesn’t move away. “He’s yours,” he says. “I just realised that, in all the excitement, I forgot to actually ask you if you wanted to move in with me.”

“I…” Clint frowns. “Wasn’t I already doing that? Do you not want me to?”

“I want you to stay,” Phil says, which Clint thought he’d said yesterday, but now he’s having a heart attack worrying that he’s gotten everything wrong. “Staying here as my guest is a little different from living here as my… whatever we decide to call ourselves.”

“Lover?” Clint suggests, letting it roll ridiculously off his tongue.

Phil shudders. “Definitely not that,” he says fervently. Then he turns serious. “If you think living together for real is too much of a commitment too soon, well, there are a few spare apartments in this building all of a sudden.”

Clint opens his mouth to say no immediately, then decides that they’ll both probably feel better if he thinks about it properly. So he thinks about it properly.

“No,” he says eventually. “Unless you don’t want me to stay. I like being here. You, you know, you make me feel safe and shit.” He blushes, not looking anywhere near Phil.

“I’m glad,” Phil says, squeezing Clint’s shoulder. “Look at me?”

Clint looks at him and gets a kiss for his trouble.

“I had an idea,” Phil says, “and you’re welcome to tell me, if you don’t like it.”

“Does it involve those handcuffs?” Clint asks hopefully.

Phil laughs, but shakes his head. “How about we leave those until you’re eighteen?” he says. “We need to leave some mystery in our relationship. No, my idea was more about giving you something to do. I spoke to the woman who owns the lease on the building after I finished with the police, and she was pretty horrified to hear what the Kuznetsovs had been up to. So she asked me if I wanted the job.”

“And you told her you already have a job?” Clint asks.

“I never agreed to take that one,” Phil points out, “but yes. I suggested you, though.”

Clint blinks, shocked. “Me?”

Phil shrugs. “Why not? You’re already on good terms with most of the tenants. It’s mostly just collecting rent money and fixing things that break, which I’m sure you’d be good at. It would be a way for you to earn some money while you’re studying.”

“You’re really set on me doing shit with my life, aren’t you?” Clint asks, stalling while he thinks.

“I’m set you getting your GED,” Phil says. “Anything you want to do after that - even if it’s working for Nick - is up to you.”

“I, um.” Clint knows it’s a silly thing to be overwhelmed by, but everything’s so much better than he could ever have hoped for, even a month ago. “Okay.”

Phil smiles at him, looking genuinely pleased. “Good,” he says, leaning forward like he’s going to kiss Clint, but not quite making contact. “In that case, the light in my bathroom’s been flickering for a month.”

Clint laughs. “I see how it is,” he says, “you just want me to take the job so you get special treatment.”

“Well, as your lover,” Phil starts, and Clint has to shove him down onto the carpet. Arrow barks at them in annoyance and jumps over them onto the sofa, while Phil pulls Clint down and, still laughing, kisses him hard.

***

Monday morning is bright and sunny enough that Clint doesn’t really mind the alarm that wakes him at six thirty a.m. He makes coffee while Phil’s in the shower, then he and Arrow go back to bed, sitting up against the headboard to watch Phil get dressed.

At least, Clint watches. Arrow’s less of a creep so he goes back to sleep.

“I feel like my father,” Phil confesses, tucking his crisp white shirt into his brand new black suit pants.

“Then your father is super hot,” Clint tells him, mouth dry. Those are really nice pants; he doesn’t remember them being that nice when they bought them from the store on Saturday.

Phil snorts and threads his equally new tie under his collar. Clint picked out the tie; it’s cool because it looks plain black straight on, but at an angle or in the right light, there are all these tiny silver star patterns woven into it.

Phil’s a badass Army Ranger; he couldn’t have a boring tie.

“Wish me luck?” Phil asks, shrugging on his black suit jacket.

“Knock ‘em dead,” Clint says, reaching out a hand and trying to call Phil to him with the power of the Force, since he doesn’t want to get too grabby and ruin Phil’s clothes. “Call me at lunch to bitch about your coworkers.”

Phil steps up into Clint’s reaching hands and leans down to kiss him. Clint thinks he should get a medal for not grabbing Phil’s tie and tugging him back down onto the bed. “What are you going to do today?”

“I - “ Clint holds his arms out grandly “ - am going to survey my kingdom.”

“You’re going to terrorise the tenants,” Phil says shrewdly.

Clint grins. “Visit. I’m going to visit all the tenants and maybe they’ll be so excited to have me as building super they’ll bake me cookies. What do you think?”

“I think I’d rather be here than there,” Phil says, letting Clint see that he’s nervous, just for a second.

Clint kisses him again. “I’ll save you a cookie,” he promises. He pats Phil on the arm. “Now off you go, Mr Super Spy, go save the world.”

“You have an odd idea of what my job is going to entail,” Phil says, straightening his jacket, which is already straight and nodding at his reflection in the mirror.

“Good luck,” Clint says then, when Phil’s almost in the doorway. “Love you.”

Phil stops and doesn’t turn around, which is good because Clint would die of embarrassment if he made a big deal out of it. “You too,” he says.

Clint wrinkles his nose and throws himself down on the bed, making Arrow bark at him. “Go away,” he says. “But don’t forget to come home.”

“Try to keep me away,” Phil says and flashes Clint a smile over his shoulder.

/End