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This is not in his job description.

Coulson knows this for a fact, because after the request had come in from Fury, he'd looked it up. He’d checked his job description, his hiring agreement, every single iteration of his contract—hell, he’d even checked the footnotes in his nondisclosure paperwork. Nowhere in the reams of paperwork documenting the varying depths and degrees of his obligations to SHIELD did it say that he has to babysit juvenile delinquents.

Unfortunately, when Fury says jump, Coulson jumps. (Fury has a lot of guns and few compunctions about shooting toes off of people who have not jumped. It makes for an active and engaging workplace environment.)

The teenager that they lead into the holding room is grinning at him. It would be less discouraging if his teeth weren’t covered in blood. The guards cuff the kid’s hands to the table and his ankles to the chair. They don’t undo the chain around his waist that ties the whole mess together, so he’s hunched over, and jangles every time he moves.

Phil Coulson is a man who likes to keep track of all of possible variables in any given situation; he likes to have contingency plans for his contingency plans. It’s what makes him a good agent. Makes him valuable. Irreplaceable. Makes him, according to Fury, perfect for this assignment.

In Coulson’s opinion, four years at Berkley, three years in the Rangers, and two years working under Nick Fury in a fledgling organization that’s been growing in scope and influence at a frankly terrifying rate, have not remotely prepared him for this.

“You here to do my taxes?” the kid asks. His voice comes out in a painful rasp. He spits blood on the floor to his left, and one of the guards smacks him on the back of his head.

“I’d like some time alone with Mr. Barton,” Coulson says, smiling calmly at the guards. They may not know who he is or what organization he represents, but they know what his clearance level is, and that alone gives him a not inconsiderable amount of clout.

“Be careful with this one,” the taller guard says as they leave the room. “He’s a handful.” Coulson stares at them, still smiling, until they leave.

“So,” he says, after the door closes, sitting back in his chair and crossing his legs, “do you need help with your taxes?”

Barton laughs. Something must be torn up in his throat, because he spits blood on the floor again. Phil really hopes he isn't bleeding internally. “You aren’t my lawyer,” Barton says, “and you aren’t social services. You don’t look like a reporter, and my story’s old news by now anyway. So. The fuck do you want?”

Phil takes a good look at the young man trying so desperately to put up a strong front. He’d watched the security footage they’d used at Barton’s trial, looked at his mugshot, seen the shaky camera footage of the teenage archer that kept popping up online. Barton’s lost weight and gained a few defenses since then.

“I’m here to talk to 'The World’s Greatest Marksman.'”

“Guilty,” says Barton, holding his hands up as much as his chains allow. “You here to see the show? I can’t get them to give me my bow, but I can do tricks with paper clips that’ll blow your mind.”

“They give you have paper clips?”

“Yeah, sure, they give them to me. I’d never steal from the United States government,” says Clint with a bloody smile.

“My name is Phil Coulson,” he replies, moving slowly as he reaches for his credentials. He lays his badge out on the table and pushes it closer when the kid looks at it curiously. “I work for the Strategic Homeland Intervention and Enforcement Logistics Division.”

“Huh?”

“The government.”

“So? What does the—strategic…enforcement…want with me? Did I break into one of your buildings on a job or something?" Barton's string of dubious criminal enterprises had put him on SHIELD's radar, but he hadn’t directly obstructed any of their operations. He’d been on their watch list, but as a potential assent, not a threat. The prison sentence just sped up their timeline. "They already put me on trial once, and I’m pretty sure they can’t do it a second time just ‘cause it took you a while to get your panties in a wad about it.”

“I’m not here about any past crimes that you may or may not have committed. I’m here to talk to you about your future.”

“What about it?” Barton's got his hands resting on the tabletop now. The chains don't give him enough room to reach Coulson's badge, but he's fiddling with a paperclip in a way that makes Coulson distinctly nervous.

“You’ve got twenty-three years left in your sentence,” Coulson says. The courts had tried Barton as an adult and convicted him of not only his own offenses, but also some crimes that some SHIELD analysts—and now Coulson himself—suspects were in fact committed by Barton’s older brother. Parole is out of the question for at least two decades. “I’m here to offer you an alternative. SHIELD is currently on the lookout for people with your kind of…talents.”

“You think I’m special,” Barton says, smirking at him. It might have been more intimidating had he not immediately had to rub his chin on his shoulder to wipe off some dripping blood and saliva.

“I think you have potential,” Coulson says, repeating Fury’s words.

“You sound like my elementary school teacher.”

“I assure you,” Coulson says, feeling an ache start to build between his eyes, “that I am nothing like your elementary school teacher. We have people—uniquely skilled, highly trained people—who undertake duties to assist in the preservation of the safety of our country. I am offering you the chance to become one of those people.” The kid flicks the paper clip at Coulson, who only manages to catch it before it hit him in the face because the noise of the cuffs had given Barton away.

Fury must have lost his damned mind, sending him out here.

“You want me because I’m a marksman?”

“I want you because you’re the world’s greatest marksman,” Coulson corrects, twisting the paper clip back into shape. Barton grins at that, surprised and a little crooked, before he catches himself and glares.

“What’s the catch? You get me out—what exactly do I have to do?”

“Does it matter?” Coulson picks up his badge, folds the leather folio closed, and slips it back in his pocket. “We will train you, pay you, and put you to work serving your country.”

“I'm not real patriotic,” Barton says, with an ugly smile.

“You have two options. One: stay here and rot for a quarter of a century. Two: you come work for me. You do exactly what I say, when I say it, without asking questions. There is no third option. There are no second chances. You step out of line, I send you back.” If he takes Barton out of prison, he needs something to replace the handcuffs and bars on the exits.

Barton swallows hard; the blood and nerves must be making his mouth dry. He looks Coulson over. Coulson knows how good Barton’s sight is. He wonders just how much he can see.

“If you’re going to sell me into sexual slavery, or auction off my organs or something, I’ll be really pissed off,” says Barton, pasting on a cocky grin. “But, hell—I’ve never been one to make the smart choice.”

“Is that a yes?”

Barton looks up at him, his face twisted into a smile. “Get me the hell out of here, and I’ll do whatever the fuck you want.”

Coulson tosses the paper clip back to him and leaves to start processing the paperwork.

*

Bartons’s got nothing more than the clothes he came in with, and those are old and bloodstained. Coulson fills out the necessary forms as Barton gets processed for release, keeping a sharp eye on him as they get closer and closer to the exit. They’re in the last waiting room when one of the guards finally brings Coulson the bottle of water he’d asked for half an hour earlier. He hands it to Barton, who holds it awkwardly in front of him.

“I didn’t poison it,” Coulson says, rubbing at the headache that’s blossoming in his temples. “You want to dehydrate, that’s your prerogative.”

“Prerogative,” Barton says slowly, sounding the word out.

“It’s your right,” Coulson clarifies. He closes his eyes and tries to convince himself that he’s not a glorified babysitter.

“Not gonna fucking dehydrate for one bottle of water,” Barton says, unscrewing the lid of the bottle and taking a drink.

*

Barton throws the empty bottle in the backseat of Phil’s rental car, rests his feet on the dash, breaks the radio (getting it stuck on Christian rock, for fuck’s sake), and tries to jump out of the car.

“I have child locks installed on all the doors,” Coulson says, as Barton jiggles the door handle. “Also, if you run, I will shoot you in the back.” He slaps Barton’s hand (gently, since there are bruises on the kid’s knuckles) away from the radio. “If you will sit down—with your feet on the floor, Barton, seriously—and don’t touch anything for five minutes, I’ll buy you a burger.”

Barton ‘accidentally’ kicks the rearview mirror as he pulls his legs off the dash—the kid’s inconveniently flexible—but he settles down pretty quickly. He keeps tugging his sleeves down over his wrists. Given the extent of the bruising there, it will be at least a few weeks before the marks will fade enough for him to be able to wear a t-shirt without getting stared at.

Coulson stops at a McDonalds drive-thru and gets two burgers, fries, a coke, and a milkshake. Coulson’s not sure he wouldn’t lose Clint in the Playplace if he let him go inside, so they eat in the car. Twenty miles down the road Phil pulls over, unlocks the doors while Barton grasps for the handle, and gets out. He leans against the hood and looks at the clouds while Clint vomits on the asphalt.

Coulson gets a stick of gum from his pocket and waits for Barton to pull himself together. He looks pretty damn miserable.

“Are you sick, or did you just eat too much?” he asks, handing over the gum.

“Why do you care so much? You some sort of pervert, Secret Agent?”

“Are you physically ill or injured in any way that requires immediate medical attention? You were spitting blood in the interrogation room.”

“Christ, I’m not bleeding internally, I bit my tongue.” Coulson raises his eyebrow. “Come on, agent man! All I did was ralph a little. I get carsick. Can we get moving? How far is it? Are we almost there?”

None of this was in his job description.

*

Barton’s definition of doesn’t need immediate medical attention and Phil’s definition don’t quite match up.

“For future reference,” he says, sitting in a chair at Clint’s bedside with Clint’s ratty clothes folded in his lap, “if you’re bleeding, and it doesn’t stop after a few minutes—much less two days—you tell me.”

“Fine, grandma.”

Coulson's tired, and cranky, and he feels all of five years old. He doesn't like being called names even at the best of times. “Hooligan.” He’s never laid any claim to the high road.

“Worrywart,” Clint shoots back.

“Deathwish.”

“Cocksucker.”

“Delinquent.”

“Tax…guy.”

“Taxidermist?”

“No, like—never mind. Sorry that I didn’t tell you I was bleeding, Mom. Now can I go to my cell?”

Jesus. Barton thought he was trading one prison for another. Coulson knows he can be a bit of an asshole sometimes, but he hadn't thought he'd given Barton such a poor impression. He smoothes his hands over Barton’s muddy jeans and breathes deeply. This kid’s giving him emotional whiplash. “I’m not taking you to a cell, Barton. They want to keep you in Medical a little bit longer for the IVs to finish. I’ll sign you out after that, but you’re not—there’s no cell for you here.”

Barton looks at him like he’s stupid. “Then where am I supposed to sleep? You’ve got to let me sleep. Sleep deprivation’s part of the Geneva Convention, so don’t even try to pull that shit. If you're not giving me a cell, bring me back to prison. At least I had a bed there.”

“You have a room here," he explains. “With a bed, a desk, and a bathroom.”

“Oh." Clint blinks a couple of times before regrouping his scowl. "Well, good, because that’s what I was going to ask for, anyway.” He’s not a good enough liar yet. Coulson’s going to have to fix that. “You better read the fucking Geneva Convention, asshole, because if you try to—to violate my rights—then I’ll fucking sue you.”

“Sounds good,” Coulson says, resisting the urge to slump. He is not equipped to deal with this.

Val, one of the doctors who has been on staff practically since SHIELD's inception, comes in soon after, carrying a spare set of scrubs for Barton. Coulson turns around while he dresses, on a hairtrigger alert the entire time; it’s not often he turns his back on anyone who could be remotely considered a threat.

According to the doctor, the tearing in the back of Barton’s throat was probably caused by the insertion of a foreign object. “It was a nightstick,” Barton had said with a shrug. “Guard was trying to shut me up. I can’t blame him, though, I was being an asshole.” The blood had been trickling down the back of his throat for days. Slowly, because it was on its way to healing, but there was enough blood pooling in his stomach to cause nausea.

Coulson can’t think of what offense would have been bad enough to warrant that kind of blatant mistreatment—or how long the abuse may have been going on, for Barton to treat it so cavalierly—but it makes him respect the kid’s defensiveness a little more.

Phil has a collection of the photos Val had taken of the injuries. There are bruises around his wrists. Lines of bruises across his back; probably the nightstick again. The kid had thrown enough of a fit when they’d tried to get him into x-rays that Val had decided the risk of further injury wasn’t worth getting a better look. Barton relented enough to let Val do a physical exam of his ribcage over his clothes and she was pretty sure that, at the worst, his ribs had minor fractures, and there wasn’t anything they could do about those.

Coulson steps out of the room when Val says that she needed to perform a rape kit, and comes back inside when he hears crashing sounds. He finds Barton up against the wall, a scalpel in each hand. Coulson keeps a hand on his sidearm while Val talks Baron down, promising she won't touch him. Eventually Barton's breathing evens out and he puts the scalpels down.

"I didn't mean anything," Barton says breathlessly, the weapons clattering on a metal tray, eyes on Phil. "I wouldn't have hurt her. Don’t—" He swallows and Phil winces in sympathy; it looks like it hurts. “I’ll let her touch me. Don’t send me back yet.”

Coulson steps closer and the kid flinches instinctively.

"We have enough evidence here to make a good case for prisoner abuse," Phil says quietly. "If it was the other inmates—or even the guards—we can see that justice is done."

Barton nods, laughing quietly. "I'm gonna be real honest with you," he says, a hint of a Southern accent slipping into his voice. "Going in and out of prison is a Barton family tradition. And as bad as things were this time around, you don't want to know how bad they'll be if I go back a snitch."

Clint won't say anything else on the matter, hands still flinching towards the scalpels, and eventually Phil and Val give up on it for the time being. "I don't want to end up doing more harm than good," Val tells Coulson, pulling him away. "He's had enough people ordering him around and taking away his choice to last a lifetime. I'll put together a regimen of antibiotics if anything shows up on his blood tests."

Coulson doesn't like leaving a job undone. Clint, bruised and angry and afraid, just isn't a problem he can solve yet.

The scrubs that they give Barton to wear while they wash his old clothes are short-sleeved. Barton snags the threadbare hoodie from the pile of his clothing that Coulson’s about to dump in the laundry chute and slips it on. “It’s cold,” he mutters, tucking his thumbs into his sleeves, hiding the worst of his bruises.

Barton stays behind him as Phil leads him to his rooms, practically stepping on his heels, muttering about unimaginative interior decorating and weak security measures. (Phil, who’s not a big fan of the beige walls or infrequent security camera placement himself, doesn’t disagree.)

Barton’s rooms are bare, but serviceable. He stands just inside the doorway and gives Clint the ten second tour. There’s a bed, a minifridge, a toilet, sink, and two dressers. They usually use them for temporary agents’ quarters if shifts are unexpectedly extended, or any of the myriad other reasons personnel might not be able to get home on their own.

“This sucks,” Barton says, kicking the wall. “Can’t I have a TV? Or a goldfish or something? This is fucking boring.”

“If you’d prefer, I can return you to solitary confinement.”

“This is solitary confinement. Asshole.”

Coulson’s exhausted. He can’t imagine how tired Barton must be, but he has to admire the kid’s pure bullheaded refusal to show any signs of weakness.

“I'll get you some magazines or something tomorrow to keep you entertained, but these are your quarters. For now, the door will lock from the outside,” he says. “There’s an intercom by the door. If you have a problem, press the button, and it’ll ring through to wherever I am in the building.”

“Can I have a phone?”

“No.”

“Can I have a TV?”

“Good night, Barton. Sleep tight. Try not to bleed to death before the morning.”

Phil leaves, locking the door behind him. He’s still standing there, feeling vaguely shell-shocked, when Barton punches the door and says Fuck so angrily that it must tear at his throat, the sound barely travelling through the door. “Fuck,” he says again, a bit of a sob in his voice.

Phil walks down the hall to his office and does his best to push the kid out of his mind.

It doesn’t work.

*

Clint has nightmares his first night at SHIELD. No different than the ones he’d gotten in prison, only now, there aren’t any guards to wake him up by rattling his cage and no other inmates to yell him into silence

He was almost two years into his twenty-five year prison sentence when the suit came and offered him an out. The guy had phrased it like a question, but he’d have to have known Clint’s answer. Clint isn’t ready to die yet. He doesn’t want to be broken. If he’d stayed in prison any longer—well. That doesn’t matter anymore.

The night before, before Coulson had come in like a hurricane of paperwork and calm smiles, a guard had rapped against the bars of Clint’s cell every forty-five minutes as he circled by on his rounds. The day before, a guard had shoved his nightstick into Clint’s mouth and told him to suck it. Clint had been complaining about the food again; he really should have known better. It was just...it was easier to talk sometimes than to put up with the sound of his own voice screaming in his head.

Clint has been made very aware of the fact that he’s small for his age, constantly hungry, blond, fair-skinned, and unprotected. He had no one to put money in his discretionary account, no gangs he could affiliate with, and nothing to offer except his body, which he could only trade for so much, its value decreasing every day. (He saved as much of himself for as long as he could manage. He’s not sure how much is left.)

He’s in a completely new world now, but abrupt change is practically routine for him. Every year or two he's moved somewhere new. His parents’ homes, before they died; foster homes until they’d given up on him and Barney and moved them into the orphanage; the circus; prison.

His first night at SHIELD, in his silent, unbroken sleep, his nightmares are full of the old doctor coming at him with scalpels, forcing Clint's legs apart; behind her distorted, terrifying figure is Coulson, grotesquely vacant eyes looking him over: his pale, skinny body, the muscles weak with disuse, covered with bruises as evidence of how bad he'd been. Everyone in his dreams looks different except for Clint.

He wakes up only once during the night. His jaw aches from holding in screams and his thighs burn from being pressed together, trying to protect himself.

Only the depth of his utter exhaustion helps him fall back asleep.

*

The next morning Phil knocks on Barton’s door, a set of clean clothes in his hands. It’s seven-thirty, which Phil knows is a full hour later than the morning wake-up that Barton had been getting every day for the past year, but there’s no answer. He uses his key and lets himself in. The room looks exactly as it had the day before, only with an added occupant.

Barton’s sprawled on the bed on his stomach. The bruising on his back looks even worse than it had the day before, framed by the fresh white sheets. He looks younger in his sleep, which Phil knows is common, but—but it’s different to see the tough, brash, arrogant kid as actually a kid. It’s the first time that he’s been in the same room with Barton without wanting to strangle him just a little bit.

“Barton. Barton..” There’s no response from the teenager on the bed. “Clint?” Coulson’s heart starts to beat a bit faster. What if he’d had an adverse reaction to some of the medication from yesterday? He should have kept a closer eye on him, maybe checked in during the night—. He steps closer to the bed and shakes the kid’s shoulder.

Barton’s in motion almost faster than Coulson can track, scrambling off the bed, putting it between the two of them.

“It’s just me,” Coulson says, dropping the clothes and holding his hands up to show that he’s unarmed. Barton doesn’t look comforted by Coulson’s assurances.

“I’m not going to fuck you,” Barton spits at him. He’s pressed himself as far back into the corner as he can get. His hair is mashed flat and there’s a bit of spit dried on the corner of his mouth; the pillowcase has left creases on his face. “Not going to fuck you. If that’s what you want, you just send me back now. I’m not—I won’t,” he says, fighting against a demand that Coulson hasn’t made. His voice is thin and thready and Coulson knows that if he pushed him now, Barton would break.

Coulson doesn’t know what nightmare he’d woken Barton out of. Doesn’t know what world he’d taken the kid out of the day before that had left him smirking and bleeding internally.

“I came to wake you up for breakfast,” he says, keeping his hands in the air. He backs towards the door. Barton flinches when Coulson moves, so he keeps his pace slow and steady. Coulson relaxes his face and looks as unthreatening as he can (which is pretty damn unthreatening; he practices this look). “I’m not here to extort anything from you. We took you out of prison for your archery skills. That’s it, I promise.”

“Whatever,” Barton says, staring at the floor. “I just had a bad dream. I wasn’t—I didn’t even—”

Coulson nods. “I’ll be waiting in the hallway.”

He closes the door and hears the scrape of furniture against the floor a moment later. Barton’s probably wedging the dresser under the doorknob. Phil leans against the wall and waits, hoping he’s not going to have to get a blowtorch to get it reopened. He hasn’t even had his coffee yet.

Thankfully, Barton comes out soon, dressed in the clothing Coulson had left with him.

“We’re going to go to breakfast,” Coulson says. “You’ll stay in your quarters the rest of the day, except for lunch, a therapy session, and dinner. The doctors think you need time to rest.” Coulson can’t imagine how that’s going to end well for any of them, but Fury’s determined to see this out. "We're not keeping you prisoner, but you will need to have an escort at all times. Tomorrow I’ll show you around some more and we’ll get you to the range."

“No shit?”

“No shit at all,” Phil says dryly.

Barton’s gaze flick to Phil’s and then away again. “You shouldn’t swear,” he mumbles, “I’m an impressionable youth, you know.”

Coulson gives Barton an appraising glance. It’s refreshing to see a gentler side of his humor. He’s even grinning, just a little hint of it in the corners of his mouth, but it disappears as soon as they pass someone else in the hall.

The dining hall’s not huge, and not many people are there for breakfast, but Barton still seems to shrink under the pressure. His breathing quickens and his shoulders tighten. “You’re fine,” Coulson says, grabbing a tray for himself and handing one over. “I’m much scarier than everyone else in this room. You’re safe with me.”

“With you? What can you do, threaten them with paperwork?”

“You’d be surprised how well that works,” Coulson says, loading up his tray. He’s not used to eating breakfast this late; Barton’s throwing his whole schedule out of alignment.

Barton stays close to his side, although whether it’s because Coulson is a known entity or because Barton actually believes in his offer of protection is unclear. He puts the exact same items on his tray that Coulson selects for himself. (He also steals a banana and a granola bar and tucks them somewhere in the folds of his hoodie, but Coulson’s not cruel enough to call him out.)

He finds them a table in the corner of the room, eyes on both entrances. Apparently getting settled has woken up Barton’s more annoying traits, since he starts copying every move Coulson makes. It’s irritating, the kid mimicking him gesture for gesture and word for word, but Coulson takes a deep breath (a moment later, so does his smirking shadow) and tells himself to stay calm. Barton drops the act about halfway through the meal, but picks it back up when Coulson starts his oatmeal. His face is creased with an undue amount of attention, and some of his movements are more mechanical than mocking.

Coulson mentally smacks himself. This might be the first time Barton’s had oatmeal. Coulson's going to have to start a list of his newest assest’s deflecting maneuvers. “Usually, when I have the oatmeal here, I keep it pretty simple,” he says. Barton’s spoon falters, but he stills it with a glare at Coulson. “You can put whatever toppings on it that you want, though.” He drizzles some brown sugar on his. “Raisins, or blueberries. Sometimes there’s flavored oatmeal, too. I like to pour some milk in it to cool it down."

“Tastes like crap,” Barton says, talking with his mouth full.

He finishes his bowl before Coulson does.

*

Coulson doesn’t know exactly why Barton hates him so much. Even given the disparity in their respective situations, it’s unexpected. Very few people feel strongly enough about him one way or the other to work up to that level of emotion. It’s a new experience.

After breakfast he drops Barton off at his quarters—cruel and unusual punishment, according to Barton, who’d already been drooping and in need of a nap—and meets with Fury to debrief about the situation. There’s not a lot for Fury to say at this point; the rest of the decision making process rests on Barton’s skill with the bow.

Coulson complains about the fact that Barton seems to view him as some sort of demonic tyrant. Fury laughs at him (which makes one startled intern drop everything she’s carrying), and then recommends Phil get an eye patch of his own.

“We can’t both be despotic megalomaniacs,” Coulson says, glaring at his boss.

“Then you better get the kid to like you,” Fury says.

*

At lunch, Barton spills his glass of water in Coulson’s lap and talks inappropriately loudly about things that Coulson would not have thought were anatomically possible, were it not for the level of extreme description that Barton goes into. At dinner, he dumps half a plate of spaghetti and meatballs on Coulson’s shoes and somehow sneaks a slice of cheesecake into his suit pocket.

He also flinches if Coulson moves towards him and keeps his scarred knuckles and bruised wrists tucked within the sleeves of his hoodie whenever anyone else is around. Coulson avoids any rough or acidic food after that first meal, when Barton had downed a whole glass of orange juice because that’s what Coulson had poured for himself. He can’t imagine what that must have felt like, given the tearing in his throat.

It’s exhausting, and frustrating, and heartbreaking. The kid’s seventeen and there’s not an ounce of trust left in him that hasn’t been taken and misused. It helps him resist the urge to throttle the kid, but not by much.

*

The fucker in the suit makes him to go fucking therapy. Clint's no stranger to it, given the amount of foster homes he's cycled through and the problems he'd caused in every single one of them. Stealing, fighting, running away, talking back. His case workers kept trying to fix him. They'd thought talking to a stranger once a week would somehow douse the fire that was always burning in him.

They'd thought they could help him cage the fear, the urge to run, that had started in his toes the night the cops had sat him and Barney down, Your parents are gone, son, and worked it's way up his legs and into his arms, his fingers, his bow, until all he ever wants to do is fight or run.

The therapist's name is Johnny. He asks about Clint's love of archery. Asks about prison. Asks about his bruises. Asks him if he needs anything.

Clint picks at his sleeves and says nothing for an hour. He's not giving the suits any more ammunition to use against him than is absolutely necessary.

*

The next morning Barton’s already up and waiting for Coulson when he gets to his room.

“You smell,” Coulson says, wrinkling his nose. “You need to shower. The communal bathroom’s just down the hall, I’ll wait while you use it.”

“Later,” Barton replies, bouncing on his toes. “I get a bow today, right? You said I did, you said I get to go to the range, and I did good yesterday—”

“You meant to say you did 'well' yesterday," Coulson corrects, "which is a lie. You were a nightmare yesterday. But I keep my promises. You will still get to use a bow. After you get some breakfast and let the doctors check you out.”

Barton gets his own breakfast today, bypassing the oatmeal with a glare at Coulson, and eats it faster than is polite, sitting hunched over the plate. He must have been on better manners the day before, when he was learning how the meals worked.

On their way to return their trays, Barton ‘accidentally’ trips and upends his dishes on Coulson’s shoes. Lukewarm coffee splatters all over his slacks. Coulson looks at the floor, looks at his outfit, then looks at Barton. Then he shifts his tray into his left hand, picks up his glass of apple juice with his right, and dumps it on Barton’s head.

“Next time, look where you’re going,” he says calmly, while the kid splutters. “Let’s get a move on, Twinkle Toes; you can shower in Medical.”

Barton keeps a wary distance after that.

Coulson doesn’t know how he’s supposed to enforce discipline with a kid who’s both asking for and terrified of it, but he'll give it his best shot.

*

Coulson’s an asshole. A stuck-up, boring, mean, asshole.

Clint hates him.

But he is kind of grateful that he doesn’t leave Clint alone in Medical when they check his ribs and throat and give him antibiotics for diseases he hadn't known he had. The nurse shuffles Clint into a tiny bathroom with a little shower stall and leaves him there to wash the apple juice out of his hair. There’s no shampoo, but there is a bar of soap, and Clint takes the opportunity to scrub as much prison dirt off his skin as he can manage. (There’s a shower in the hall where Coulson left him, but the doors don’t lock, and he’d seen people walking in and out of it.)

He pulls his clothes on over wet skin since the hand towel barely manages to dry his prison-length buzz cut. He doesn’t even mind that his clothes stick to his skin; it’s so nice to be clean.

Val—the old lady doctor with glasses and a messy ponytail who looks like she should be smoking pot and painting watercolors—pokes and prods him with various instruments and gloved hands. She doesn’t seem to want to touch him, which is good. (Her hands are warm, though, and she’s trying not to hurt him—. Nevermind. He shuts those thoughts off at the pass.)

Coulson looks away when she has him take his shirt off. Clint’s avoided looking at himself in the mirror for months, but he knows he’s pale and too skinny and covered with bruises. Coulson probably stuck Clint in therapy for the same reasons the guards had decided to take matters into their own hands. Clint’s a little shit who can’t follow orders, who never does anything right, who can't seem to help himself from getting in trouble.

The lady doctor runs a careful hand down Clint’s spine, and he shivers. “Did that hurt?” she asks.

“No,” he mumbles, biting his lower lip.

“All right. I’m clearing you to go on the range today, but I want you to put a heating pad on your ribs after that. Let me know if your throat doesn’t feel better tomorrow, or if there’s any new soreness anywhere else. Okay?”

Clint drags his shirt back over his head and nods. Coulson tosses him his hoodie and Clint pulls it on quickly. His arms look weak right now; the rings of bruises say too much about how bad Clint’s been; how stupidly he fights.

He forgets about everything when they get to the range. Coulson takes him through a maze of hallways. (Clint suspects Coulson of doubling back a time or two just to screw him up, but when he says that, Coulson just sighs.) The door to the range looks like all the others, but when they step inside he realizes it’s huge, like nothing he’s ever seen before. It’s so long he can barely see the end with his naked eye; it’s got to be under street level. There are machines that shoot targets of all sizes into the air at random angles and speeds, and there’s an obstacle course with targets that pop up unpredictably, so you might have to shoot something while climbing over a wall, or belly-crawling under a net, or slogging through mud.

And the bow Coulson hands him—Clint hadn’t known that they made bows like this. Slick, smooth, strong, with a string that practically sings under his fingers. His fingers curl around it and he can’t make himself let it go.

“Thanks,” he says to Coulson, because he doesn’t want to appear ungrateful. He doesn’t want to give Coulson an excuse to take this away from him yet. “I, um—this is really—”

“How about you show me what you can do?” Coulson suggests, rescuing Clint from one of his more pathetic attempts to talk.

There are other agents in the complex, but they’re all working with pistols and rifles. Some of the rifles come with more gadgets and accessories than Clint can identify. He wonders if he’ll get trained on those, too, or if his ‘skill set’—what Coulson had dragged him here to use—will be restricted to archery. Not that he minds, not with a bow like this, but it would be kind of cool to learn something new. Coulson leads him over to the farthest gallery and sets up targets.

“Seriously? That’s as far as you’re going to set them?”

“I’m giving you a chance to familiarize yourself with your new equipment. Once you’ve done that, I’ll make it more challenging. I promise you won’t find it easy.”

Clint rolls his eyes, but he’s already lifting his bow. Coulson’s holding the quiver. The arrowtips have been dulled so much they’re basically round. Clint could still do damage with them, but he’s not going to try. Not yet. Coulson hands him an arrow, and Clint runs his fingers through the fletching. When he fits it to the string he feels like he’s going to cry.

Pulling back the string feels like dancing, like hearing familiar music and letting his body sway to steps that are ingrained in his body. He’s out of practice and woefully out of shape, but his body understands this in a way that he’s never known anything else.

Draw, sight, release. He hits each target dead-on. He’s practically shaking with adrenaline, excitement, and relief, but he doesn’t let that affect his aim. Coulson, true to his word, silently changes up the targets without telling Clint what’s coming up next. First, moving targets about the size of dinner plates drop from the ceiling. Then slightly smaller plates arching up from some machine set in the ground. They don’t shatter when Clint hits them; they’re made of some sort of plastic that makes the arrows bounce off and fall back on the floor. Clever; they’ll be able to reuse them.

The targets get progressively smaller, faster, and less predictable. Coulson has to stop once so they can collect his arrows, and by the time he runs out a second time the targets are shooting out almost faster than Clint can see them. He hits all of them. Despite the fact that other agents in the range are staring at him, making his skin itch, Clint feels safe for the first time since he begged Barney not to leave him.

He wants to cry with relief. He can see things clearly now. Behind his bow, no one can hurt him. He can see every ripple in every plastic target, see every scratch in the wall behind them, every crinkle in the corners of Phil's eyes when he hands Clint a new arrow. He can see his own pale fingers and the tendons working under the skin. He can see the bruises painted over the flexing muscles in his wrists.

He's still alive. He still works. Prison had taken a lot away from him, but it hadn't taken this.

Coulson shuts the gallery down when Clint reaches for another arrow and comes up empty. Clint has to bite his lip to keep from asking Coulson to let him keep going.

“That was certainly impressive,” Coulson says. Clint smirks, because, yeah, it was. “When your ribs have healed—don’t argue, I can see that you’re still favoring them—you can try the obstacle course. Until then, I want you down here for at least an hour a day.” Clint nods eagerly. He has no problem working if this is what it’s going to be like.

They collect the arrows together. Clint’s fingers are starting to ache, the pads of his fingers burning, his wrist swollen and red from the recoil of the string. His form's always been shit—Trick Shot had tried to beat good posture into him using his own bow, but Clint's imperfect posture never seemed to get in the way of his aim.

Coulson reaches out slowly and grasps Clint’s hand to examine the injuries, and all of Clint’s breath leaves him. His eyes start to sting. Coulson has warm, strong hands, and Clint hasn’t been touched or held down in long enough that it feels strange. Coulson lets go of him carefully.

“We’ll get you some gear tomorrow too,” Coulson says. Coulson doesn’t touch him again, for which Clint is both grateful and resentful, but he does say, “Good work,” when he drops Clint off at his room. Coulson doesn’t let him keep any arrows, but he doesn’t take the bow away. Clint sleeps for a few peaceful hours in a stretch, his body curled around the graceful weapon.

*

The next day Coulson gives him piles of clothes. Sweats and t-shirts, a new hoodie, steel-toed black boots that lace up past his ankles. He gets dressed slowly, even though he knows Coulson is twiddling his thumbs out in the hallway.

He puts on clean underwear and thick, soft socks, and pulls on a pair of cargo pants and a t-shirt—clean, new, comfortable—and does up his boots. Everything fits him. Everything is comfortable. He puts the SHIELD hoodie on last. The Hub isn’t actually cold enough for it to be necessary, but he doesn’t want anyone to see his bruises. He’s not sure how long it’ll take for them to fade; there are layers on layers of them in various states of healing.

Coulson gives him an appraising glance once he finally steps out of his room. “Everything fit?”

“The color scheme’s unimaginative,” Clint says, because he doesn’t want Coulson to get too comfortable. "Black on black on black? Really?"

Coulson sighs and motions for Clint to walk down the hall with him. He gives Clint a walking tour of the few floors that aren’t classified. Clint isn’t allowed to go anywhere on his own (not yet, Coulson says, which means that one day Clint might have free reign in these halls and better access to its exits).

Over lunch, Coulson explains what next few months will consist of: training. “The organization is expanding,” he says, “there are a lot of late hires coming in. Usually at the end of school terms we recruit employees in large groups, divided up by specialty. Science, operations, communications. You're in a hodge-podge group. There will be introductory classes, training, testing.” Clint, who’d never been good at tests back when he’d been a preteen and still in school, stifles a frown. “We’re putting you in a full schedule to keep you busy. SHIELD deals with an unusual subset of threats and situations, so there’s a lot of background information that you need in order to keep you safe. You’ll also be in tactical courses, self-defense classes, as well as commencing a regimen to improve your long-range abilities.”

“Can I—I mean, do I have to use guns?” It wouldn’t do to appear too eager, to give Coulson any more weapons to use against him.

“Yes. You’ll become familiar with the entire SHIELD arsenal. None of this is going to be easy,” Coulson says, because he seems to like making Clint feel about two feet tall. “You have to listen to your instructors, work outside of classes, and get along with the other new hires. Can you do that?”

“I’ll try,” Clint says. He’s not often honest, but it matters this time.

When Coulson drops him back off at his room, he slams the door in the man’s face. Being honest doesn’t mean he has to be nice.

*

Coulson drives to headquarters in the dark. The streets are as empty as they ever get. He feels like part of a new sector of humanity: the people who are already at work by the time the sun rises. Barton’s first class is at eight AM, so Coulson has to be there early to give the kid a chance to shower. He keeps very careful track of every extra second he spends on Barton. He’s planning on filing for hazard pay. And putting in a request for SHIELD to cover the dry cleaning expenses for the suits Barton's spilled food on.

He’s tired, short on both sleep and patience, so he doesn’t react entirely calmly when Barton—sleep still in his eyes, t-shirt baring his pale, bruised arms—flat-out refuses to bathe.

“You smell like teenage boy,” Coulson says. “It’s not a particularly appealing aroma.”

“I am a teenage boy,” says Barton, who had just yesterday been arguing vehemently that he was a man, not a boy. “If my smell bothers you, don’t stand so close, you fucking stalker.”

Coulson shoulders his way into Barton’s room and opens the drawer that he knows contains the soap and towels. Barton moves to the closet and holds onto the doorframe. “I will drag you out of here,” Coulson says.

“Try it,” Barton says, baring his lips in a feral smile.

Coulson stops, takes a deep breath and counts to ten. Then counts to ten again. He’s famous at SHIELD—as he had been in the Rangers—for his control, his stoic demeanor. Fury’s been slowly sharpening the mind and wit behind that façade, but sometimes—especially, apparently, when Barton’s involved—he feels himself losing his grasp on that calm rationality.

He takes another look at Barton. The kid wouldn’t put up this much a fight just to be irritating. Probably. What could he be hoping to get out of this? Or, maybe more accurately, what might he be avoiding? Coulson runs through the scenario of showering and his mind halts.

“If we move quickly,” he says, “we can get down to a gym on the twelfth floor that has individual shower stalls. With locks.”

Barton flushes and his expression hardens with shame. Eventually he lets go of the doorframe. “Fine,” he says, as if he’s doing Coulson a favor.

Barton avoids looking at him on the walk to the small workout room. Coulson waits in the locker room while Barton showers, rethinking his life choices. Barton comes out of the shower with a glare so fierce Coulson has to stifle the urge to reach out ruffle his damp, fluffy hair.

On their way up to the cafeteria, Barton attempts to ‘accidentally’ trip him twice, and looks speculatively at every branching hallway, elevator, and stairwell entrance that they pass. Coulson’s feeling frustrated enough that he almost stops Barton from filching his habitual granola bar and fruit from the breakfast line. He resists the urge, but only just.

He drops Barton off at his first class—an introductory self-defense class—nods at the instructor, and heads to his office.

He is less relieved to have Barton taken off his hands than he thought he would be.

*

Coulson, that asshole, leaves him only after making sure the teacher sees him, because they still don’t trust that Clint won’t bolt if they give him the chance (SHIELD's a lot of things, but apparently stupid isn't one of them).

He’s been put in the defense class with SHIELD’s civilian hires: the people who are actually paper pushers (not like Coulson, who looks like an accountant but whose grace and strength imply that he could take Clint down so effortlessly it terrifies him). The people in this class aren't soldiers, aren't fighters; they don't seem to be running from anything. Some of them look nervous, but none of them look afraid.

Clint has no idea what to say to them. He keeps his mouth shut and glares at everyone and tries to figure out when they’re talking about work gossip, when they’re talking about TV shows, and when they’re talking about their families (which, god, they have families, and children and partners and parents).

The instructor, a short wiry woman named Felicia, gives them a short rundown on what to expect. She’s got two teaching assistants: a big burly man named Samir, and an older guy with sleepy eyes named Louis. Clint hangs to the back of the class, which is a group of about twenty. He’s by far the youngest, and he feels about as out of place as he ever has before. Felicia and Samir give them their first lesson: how to punch someone. Clint’s punched more people than he can count, and, according to Felicia, he’s been doing it all wrong. He copies her gestures along with everyone else, thinking of the bruises and scrapes still visible on his knuckles, and the time he’d broken his thumb when he was nine because he made a fist wrong.

They learn how to parry that same day. Clint’s one of only a few people with long sleeves on, and he has to keep tugging them down. He’s a bit worried about how much it’s going to hurt, blocking too many blows with bruises all up and down his arms, but Felicia says that for now they’re taking everything pretty slow, and no one actually makes contact.

After the demonstrations are complete, Felicia matches them up into pairs. Clint gets matched up with a middle-aged woman, her hair completely grey even though she doesn’t look older then her early fifties. She smiles at him and shakes his hand. “I’m Marlene,” she says. “And I hope you know what you’re doing, because I’m completely hopeless.”

“Clint,” he says, taking his hand back and hunching his shoulders. “I don’t know what I’m doing either.”

“Then we’ll figure it out together,” she says with a smile. She gets into position carefully, and he does the same. Left foot out front, hands loosely at their sides. “I feel like the Karate Kid,” she says, waving her arms in the air. Clint looks around to make sure none of the instructors are around before he smiles.

They go through the movements in slow motion. Marlene really is as clueless as she claimed. Her limbs don’t seem to go where she wants them to, and whenever she focuses on any one thing the rest of her form falls away. He keeps his mouth shut, but after Louis comes over to correct her for the third time, he quietly offers some reminders of his own. She seems grateful for it, not resentful, so he keeps it up.

At one point Louis comes up to Clint to correct his stance—his hips aren’t angled forward enough—and Clint’s entire body freezes as Louis’s hands reach for his hips. Louis stops mid-gesture and smoothly changes direction, as though he’d intended to demonstrate the shift himself.

Clint keeps quiet after that.

*

Samir walks the group to their next class. Some of them split off to go somewhere else, and a few new people join them. No other groups have escorts. Clint’s pretty sure Samir’s only there to make sure Clint doesn’t make a break for it.

The next class is in a straight-up classroom, with long tables instead of desks, a white board up front, and notebooks and pens laid out at each chair. He slides into the seat furthest away from the front of the room and stares at the woodgrain pattern on the table while everyone else sits down.

Right on the hour the instructor strides in. “My name is Maria Hill,” she says, looking around at all of them like they should know what that means. “And you’re about to learn things that very few other people in the world know. If any word of this goes outside SHIELD walls, you will be very, very sorry.” She turns around, takes out her firearm (one of two, Clint’s pretty sure, given the slight bulge at her ankle), and puts it on the table.

“Well. Let’s get started. Welcome to the world of the weird."

*

Coulson’s waiting for him when the class lets out, which is kind of nice, since everyone in the class is chattering about what they'd just heard, and Clint has at least some experience talking to Coulson.

“Did you know that the yeti’s probably real?” Clint says, after closing his notebook and adding it to the pile beside the door. They’re not allowed to take them out of the room for security reasons. (Clint’s is full of doodles.)

“Yes,” Coulson says.

“Did you know he’s probably a herbivore?”

“Yes.”

“How do we know he’s a he, and not a she?”

“I don’t know. Ask Maria.”

Maria’s kind of scary. Clint can’t imagine ever raising his hand in class without it getting shot off.

Marlene waves at him in the lunch room, and Clint pretends not to see her. He and Coulson take their usual table in the corner and Clint rambles on about his day. He talks about what irritated him, the trainees he doesn’t like, how stupid his self-defense class is. He doesn’t ask Coulson what Clint’s supposed to be learning, doesn’t say ‘I need help,’ doesn’t say ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’

*

In the afternoon Coulson brings him to the range and introduces him to a man named Bullet. His hands are gnarled with arthritis, but his handshake is strong. No one says it outright, but Clint figure’s he's being trained as a replacement.

Bullet gives him a tour of the armory, talking about all of the guns like they’re ex-girlfriends. When he gets to a modified AK-47, he practically caresses it. Clint recognizes the same love he has for his bow, which he and Coulson had picked up from his room on their way.

They spend the afternoon in near silence, disassembling firearms. Clint feels peaceful until he realizes how much Bullet reminds him of the Swordsman. After that, the smell of gun oil makes him feel sick.

*

He stays quiet the rest of the day. The next day he sits through a math class, a tactical strategy class (this time with all probationary combat agents, no paper pushers), self-defense again (Marlene tries to talk to him, but Clint stonewalls her), and an hour at the range.

Nothing bad happens to him. He doesn’t know why he feels so tense; so angry.

*

When Coulson picks him up from the range on Thursday, Bullet tells him that Clint’s doing well. Clint feels a bit like he’s back at the one parent-teacher conference his parents had gone to, only back then his teachers hadn’t had anything nice to say about him and his parents hadn't smiled at him.

For the next twenty-four hours Clint feels like breaking something. There’s nothing in his rooms that isn’t cloth, plastic dishware, or furniture. The books he's been given—textbooks, mostly, but some books from Bullet about guns and the history of archery that contain information Clint hadn't dreamed existed—are too precious to damage.

He slams a chair against the wall a couple dozen times, but it doesn’t even leave a mark. He doesn’t rip up his clothes or his sheets because he suspects that Coulson wouldn’t replace them, and he doesn’t want to sleep on the floor with no padding or walk around the base with no clothing.

He contemplates breaking something of Coulson’s. He could knock something off his desk, maybe, even make it look like an accident—but Coulson might send him back to his room as a punishment, and Clint’s gotten used to seeing other people and walking through hallways in Coulson’s wake; he’s gotten used to not being locked up.

They stay in a strange kind of equilibrium for a while. Clint sits through silent therapy sessions twice a week, he bothers Coulson too much, suffers through his classes, and works at the range until his blisters start to turn back into calluses.

*

“You’re an asshole.”

Coulson sighs. “It’s your prerogative to think so—”

“My right to think so,” Clint says, because he’s not stupid.

“—but it’s not relevant to the matter at hand.” Clint sits down on the floor in protest. “Barton—get. In. Your. Room.” They had finished breakfast and Coulson had walked Clint back to his room like he was a fucking infant who needs a babysitter. Clint’s sick of it.

“It’s boring in there. There’s nothing to do. You won’t let me rearrange the furniture—”

“That blanket fort was structurally unsound, and also, your bed is where you’re supposed to sleep.”

“—and there’s no TV. I've finished all of my homework, so, really, you should just let me come with you. It’s Sunday; locking me in there is cruel and unusual punishment, which—”

“Yes, yes, Geneva convention. I know.”

Coulson finally relents and lets him tag along, which makes some of the tension in Clint’s shoulders unwind. He’s been going a little crazy in his room. He still hasn’t managed to fall asleep in the bed without waking at least once in the night with nightmares, and when he sleeps on the floor his whole body aches in the mornings. There’s no food in his room except for what he steals (which is fine, he tells himself, because he can’t cook, and Coulson’s brought him to get food every meal so far), and there’s nothing to look at besides the walls. There’s only so many times a guy can jerk off in one day before it starts feeling pathetic.

Coulson works ten floors up from where Clint lives. Clint thinks his rooms—his fucking apartment, basically, which is awesome and terrifying in equal measure—might be underground, but Coulson hadn’t mentioned it on the brief tour and Clint hasn’t asked.

Coulson’s floor is busy even though it’s a weekend. He’d never really thought about the fact that Coulson never takes a day off. (Clint doesn’t look forward to the first time Coulson doesn’t come in to work, when no one will be there to bring Clint to meals.) There are people speed-walking through the hallways, talking on tiny headsets and drinking coffee and typing on their phones all at the same time. He feels a little out of place in his sweatpants and hoodie. He sticks close to Coulson’s side so people will know he belongs.

“How come you wear suits and most everybody else is wearing uniforms?”

“Because after my last promotion I had it written into my contract that I wouldn’t have to wear it unless it was directly relevant to the mission at hand. You, by the way, are not in my contract.”

“So you just lucked out, huh?” He grins cheekily at Coulson and wonders what’ll happen to him if Coulson has Clint written out of his contract the next time he gets promoted. “Is wearing catsuits in my contract?”

“You don’t have a job contract; you have a custodial release form.”

“Huh. Can I have a uniform anyway?” There’s already SHIELD insignias all over his clothes, but maybe if he had a uniform he’d look less out of place.

“I’m not letting you have a uniform until I lose the urge to shoot you. I’d hate to put bullet holes in SHIELD property.”

*

Despite Clint’s best efforts, he starts to make friends. Marlene introduces him to a balding bespectacled man named Frederick, who’s even more hopeless than she is when it comes to combat. Marlene’s a statistician, and Frederick-not-Fred is a pharmacist. They aren’t front line material, not like the agents Clint spends the afternoons with, but sometimes (as his learns in his military tactics class) the front line moves farther back than anticipated. Should a fight come to them, it’s good that they won’t be helpless.

*

His seventh week after arriving at SHIELD, a couch appears in Coulson’s office.

It doesn’t make any sense. Coulson’s got a chair for himself behind his desk (with wheels) and two in front of it (without wheels), so the couch is—maybe Coulson's started sleeping there sometimes. Maybe that’s why there’s a blanket folded up and draped over the back of it. Probably keeping up with Clint—who’s not part of his assigned duties, which probably means Coulson’s got a lot of extra work to do—keeps him past his regular hours.

Clint goes to sit at his usual chair, but Coulson waves him towards the couch. “If you’re going to be a regular fixture, you may as well be comfortable.”

Clint sits down cautiously at first. He can’t help occasional glances over at Coulson. After a few minutes, Clint puts his feet up on the couch. Coulson looks up, raises an eyebrow, and sighs. Then he looks back at his papers. Clint sits with his boots digging into the cushion for a while longer, to make his point, then curls up more comfortably. The last time he'd done this—curled up quiet on a couch with nothing to hide from—his parents had been alive. He can't help but to think about Barney.

He wonders if Barney regrets leaving Clint behind. He wonders if Barney ever thinks about coming back for Clint. Barney probably could have gotten a message to Clint in prison, but here—here, Clint doesn't even really exist.

*

Eventually Clint gets used to the new pattern of his days and stops wanting to punch people (with his fist properly folded, his elbow correctly extended). He’s started individual combat classes with Felicia where they're working his natural acrobatic skill into some kind of ninja-esque fighting style, but Coulson won’t let him out of the baby class yet. He’s got two hand-to-hand classes, marksmanship, and math (which is just a class of three: Clint, a translator, and a probationary agent).

The math class actually makes sense to him for the first time. He’s allowed to take his textbooks back to his room with him, and he holds his bow in his hands while he learns about angles and trajectory. Bullet explains the parts he doesn’t understand. Now, when he shoots a bow, he knows the equations that carry it forward. (Bullet disappears every so often, taking different weapons with him every time, and he always comes back looking tired and moving stiffly. Clint knows that'll be him, soon. He listens closely to every word that Bullet says, and tries not to think about the moving, breathing targets they're teaching him to hit.)

The teachers still trail him from class to class, but now they chat with him on their walks down the hallway. The other trainees have stopped looking at him funny for the most part, and Clint stops staring at every door and window that he passes, thinking of all the ways he could get out. His ribs still hurt after a full day's training. The places on his skin that had been bruised on top of bruises are still dark. The silence that springs up from the pit of his stomach and weighs down his tongue every time he meets with his therapist is still just as heavy.

*

At first, Coulson doesn’t bother him about shooting except to check in with Bullet every so often. Then he decides Clint should add another class. "Right now, you're an archer. A marksman. And a good one, I’ll grant you that. But we need to make you a sniper."

"I am a fucking sniper. You've seen my distance shots. You know how good my aim is."

"I also know how impatient you are."

He has trouble sitting still during meals; he's always hated waiting, his skin itches when he isn't moving. The fire in his belly that tells him to fight and the tension in his legs that tell him to run are the oldest friends he has. "So?"

"What if I were to set you in a nest and tell you that, at some point in a four-hour window, a target is going to appear? If you have to stay focused on a single spot for those four hours, ready to fire at any second—could you do it?"

He thinks he could. He could if he had to, he’s pretty sure. There’s a way that—sometimes—his bow turns into a camera lens, and he can fade behind it until he is only his eyes, all he is is watching, he forgets he has a body. "Of course I can."

The next day, Coulson puts a target at the farthest end of the range, and sets a timer. "In the next three hours this timer will go off four times at completely random intervals. If you hit the bullseye within your usual reaction margin for each one of those shots, I'll leave you alone about sniper training."

"Bow drawn, or am I expected to do that within the window?"

Coulson shrugs. "They're your arms."

Clint strings the arrow, but doesn't draw the string back. Coulson stands behind him until Clint tells him to fuck off. Coulson sighs, and says he'll back when Clint's done. The first alarm comes within half an hour of Coulson's departure. It's loud, a horrible buzzing sound that startles him badly. He swears and vows not to let it throw him off the next time. It hadn't disrupted his timing, but it had thrown off his aim by probably half an inch.

The wait for the second alarm is long. He loses track of time. He starts to sweat. He has to lower his bow. Standing there, even with his arms at his side, he starts to shake. He can’t look away from the target, he can’t put his bow down, he can’t scratch his nose or stretch his shoulders—he can’t relax.

The only other times Clint has stood like this—waited like this—he hadn’t been looking at a target. He'd been the target. With every sense on alert, waiting in a corner or under a bed or tucked in some nook that would hopefully be too small for anyone to find him, this same tension had surged through his body.

When the alarm goes off he takes the second shot and misses the center of the target by almost a full inch.

He waits. His hands begin to tremble in a way that frightens him; he doesn’t know how it will affect his shooting.

He knows that his behavior is irrational. There is no real threat here. The buzzer will not hurt him and the price for failure is practically nonexistent. The target isn't far, his weapon is familiar, and he isn't injured.

He waits.

When the third buzzer goes off, he hits the target dead center, and then drops his bow. He crouches down, resting his elbows on his knees. He takes deep breaths, trying to calm his heartbeat.

The buzzer goes off again and his body moves on autopilot. Pick up the bow, draw an arrow, sight the target, release. He fires from his knees and misses the center of the target by three inches.

He had forgotten that there were four buzzes. Four targets in three hours, not three in four, he can be so fucking stupid sometimes—

Coulson arrives a few minutes later. Clint's wedged himself against the wall, his legs drawn up in front of him. He hates Coulson for exposing Clint's weaknesses so easily, forcing him to face himself in a way that he hasn't let happen in years. The bow is supposed to make him feel safe.

Coulson's eyes widen when he sees Clint. "Christ, Barton—what happened?"

"Fuck you," he whispers. He lurches to his feet and walks to the target. He pulls the arrows out one by one. Only one dead center. One out of four. 'World's Greatest Marksman' indeed.

"What happened?”

“I failed your test. Happy?”

“No, of course not.” Clint clenches his fists until his hands stops shaking. Fuck Coulson. Fuck Coulson for doing this to him, for tricking Clint into doing this to himself. “This was not the result I was hoping for."

Clint stays quiet. Coulson had known that Clint would fail; he wouldn’t have set any test without knowing the results in advance.

"You need to believe me," Coulson says. "I may be imperfect, but I'm not cruel." He reaches for the arrows but Clint doesn't let them go.

"I do believe you," Clint says. He doesn't.

Coulson sighs. “Well. I think we can both agree that the results of the test were below expectations. Will you let me help you?"

Clint turns his back to Coulson and sets his arrows down carefully. There is only one thing that he is good at; there is only one reason why Coulson came and plucked him out of hell. "Yeah," he says. He isn't good enough yet. If he wants to stay out of prison, if he wants to survive, he has to get better. "Sign me up."

Coulson waits, but Clint doesn't turn around and talk to him; eventually, Coulson leaves. The door, as always, locks behind him after he scans his ID badge and goes through the retinal scanner.

Maria Hill fetches him at dinner time. She’s less scary in person than she is at the front of the classroom. He asks if he can just go to his room. She looks sad when she says yes.

*

After that, the range no longer feels like the same kind of refuge it always had before. Robbed of that security, he looks for it somewhere else. He steals a screwdriver, unbolts all of his furniture from the floor, and sleeps wedged between the bed and the wall, his dresser propped under the doorknob every night. There are high beams in the cafeteria that he dreams about climbing and large ventilation shafts that he knows he could hide in if only he could have some time to himself.

Instead of giving him free time, Coulson takes more of it away. Apparently he’s going to make Clint a sniper by desensitizing him to boredom.

He has to do fucking tai chi.

He bitches about it nonstop. Coulson pretends like he’s not bothered by Clint’s constant chatter, but Clint knows the subtle signs of tension that Coulson doesn’t know how to hide. A petty part of him enjoys engineering their appearance.

There’s no class for tai chi, just Clint and Samir—one of the instructors from Clint’s hand to hand class (too big, strong, and trained for Clint to be able to take him down, to defend himself should he need to)—in the gym by themselves after hours.

It takes Clint a few nights before he can bring himself to relax at all. Samir’s got even more patience than Coulson, and he goes through every movement slowly, carefully, and repeatedly, while Clint swears and stumbles and flinches and complains.

It’s actually not that bad. It helps increase his flexibility and expands his range of movement. He's never had official training like this before, other than what he learned from fucking around with the acrobats at the circus.

Meditation, on the other hand, sucks.

He cannot quiet his mind. He doesn't want to keep his eyes closed. Every time he concentrates on his breathing, it falls out of sync, his stomach tightens, and he thinks only about how he's doing it wrong, not how the air (which he's supposed to visualize as golden light, what the crap) is flowing to the tips of his fucking fingers.

When he clears his mind, when he stops cluttering his thoughts with every little thing he sees, every move that the people around him make, every vibration in the air, he has no control over the thoughts that swim up from the spaces of his brain that he tries to keep silent. He closes his eyes and breathes until the waking nightmares that make him break out into a cold sweat get too bad.

He asks Samir if they can end their sessions early every day for two weeks, and Samir always says yes.

He has trouble sleeping now. He has trouble finding the mental clarity that had always come with the move of his arms on the bow. Bullet worries about him, even though he doesn’t say anything. Marlene brings him cookies (that she apparently makes herself, out of flour and sugar and stuff in her own kitchen, which Clint didn’t know you could do). Coulson asks him, once, if he’s okay. Clint doesn’t talk to him for two days.

One day it works. One day he breathes and feels it fill his body and it’s...it’s like nothing he’s ever felt before. He is content, he is potential, he is at rest and ready. Then he realizes that he's doing it right and the moment shatters.

*

He talks to Johnny for the first time in their seventeenth session. He says, "I have no idea what I'm doing here," which isn't the truth, really, since he's here to kill people, but it is the truth because everyone seems to think Clint is someone else. They keep treating him like someone who belongs here, someone good enough to work here, someone worth the effort and time it's taking to make him into something useful.

Johnny tries to ask him more questions, but that's all Clint has to say.

*

The next weekend Clint trails Coulson into his office only to find a stack of books resting in the corner of the couch where Clint always nests.

“What's this?”

“If you’re going to get your GED,” Coulson says, picking up the top book and throwing it at Clint, who catches it automatically. “You have homework. Your math class will catch you up just fine, and I’m working on finding you a science tutor. This is to help you with English lit.”

The Great Gaspy?”

“Gatsby.”

“The hell is a Gatsby?”

“Read the book and find out.”

Clint would have gotten his GED on his own, if Coulson had left him in prison. For the first time he’s angry that Coulson transplanted him here. He only gets through a few pages before he can’t hold back his frustration. “I’m not a fucking retard,” he says.

Coulson actually looks up from his paperwork to meet Clint’s glare, which means he’s taking Clint seriously. “Did the book make an allegation to that effect?”

“What?”

“Did Fitzgerald insult your intelligence?”

“Who the fuck is Fitzgerald?”

“The author of the book,” Coulson says gently.

“Oh.” He feels himself flush unpleasantly. He doesn’t need to read to be able to shoot, he reminds himself; he doesn’t need a degree to be able to do what he wants to do. “Fuck Fitzgerald and his fucking Gatsby.”

“A thousand English majors just rolled over in their graves,” Coulson says, absolutely deadpan in the way that Clint is pretty sure means that Coulson thinks he’s being funny.

“Fuck them too,” Clint mutters, tossing the book on the opposite end of the couch and curling up to pretend to nap.

*

“I have an offer to make you,” Coulson says, a few days later, when Clint’s almost done with the book. He’s enjoying it despite himself, but he’s not going to tell Coulson that.

“No, I will not trade archery lessons for sexual favors.”

“You’re about a decade too young to be my type,” Coulson says. Clint keeps his mouth shut, because he knows that being powerless makes him most people’s type. He’s still not convinced that Coulson is any different. “You’re settling in remarkably well,” Coulson says. “We’re all very pleased with your progress.”

“What progress? I haven’t fucking done anything.”

“Exactly. Initially, there were concerns about potential vandalism or theft. Fury had his money on arson.”

“You guys have a betting pool about how I’m going to fuck up?” Clint grins to hide that fact that it actually kind of hurts a little.

“Yes. I have my money on instigating a food fight.” Clint’s grin slowly becomes real. That does sound like something he would do. It’s weird—and maybe kind of nice—that Coulson knows him well enough to tease him. “My point is that you’re doing really well, and I’m going to offer you a deal a few weeks sooner than I’d planned.”

“What is it?”

“Right now, you’re a flight risk. If you want the opportunity to have unsupervised time, we’ll need to implant you with a tracking device.”

“I don’t know what that means.” Clint’s fingers are itching for his bow. He sets The Great Gatsby (which he finds fascinating and frustrating by turns) on the couch so that he won’t wrinkle the pages with his fidgeting.

“It’s a very minor surgery. We’d implant a device in your scapula—shoulder blade—which would transmit your coordinates to SHIELD, should we need to find you. It’s standard procedure for all field agents, and it’s also…”

“Insurance. In case I run.”

“Yes.”

In order to give him freedom, they want to give him a leash. He doesn’t know which option to take. “Is this—the implant—is it something that’ll be removable?”

“No.”

“Can I have some time to think about it?”

Coulson hesitates before he says yes.

Clint asks Coulson to take him back to his room early that day. The lock clicks as Coulson leaves.

If he says yes, he’ll get to move around the building without Coulson at his side. They’d let him go around, let him outside without supervision—but that’s not really true, is it? They’d always know where he was.

If he says yes, he won't ever be able to escape.

Barney’s out there somewhere. And maybe Clint hadn’t been the best brother, but they’re still family. Barney’s the only person who would care if Clint died (had tried to kill him, actually, which Clint counts as ‘caring’).

If he says yes to Coulson, he’ll be saying goodbye to Barney. Goodbye to rejoining the circus. Goodbye to all his back-up plans.

The next morning he tells Coulson no.

*

Instead of an implant, Coulson gets him a bracelet--a metal one that circles his wrist with no sign of seam or latch--that will set off alarms if he leaves the premises or tries to go through the wrong door. Coulson won’t have to come in for early breakfasts anymore, there won’t be instructors walking him from class to class, no more escorts to the range. Clint, who still feels lonely even though he’s almost never alone, tries to take it as the gift it’s meant to be.

*

Really, Coulson should have expected it. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The first time that he leaves for an out of town mission, Barton makes his first serious escape attempt. Fury'd sent him to Argentina to supervise the disposal of a couple dozen human-sized purple fish with legs (which were weird, even by SHIELD standards).

Phil’s always liked South America. He likes the food, knows the language, even has some friends to visit. He’s in the middle of a nice meal with Camilla, the liaison with the local militia who’d helped him sort out the purple-fish disaster, when he gets the call from Maria.

“Your hatchling tried to leave the nest,” she says.

“Fuck.” He gestures his apologies and leaves the table at a run.

“We caught him eventually. He got pretty far, too. He was two miles away before we caught up with him.”

“Who was supposed to be watching him?”

“Sitwell. Apparently the kid was showering after a workout in a small gym—he said you approved it—and he squirreled up a ventilation shaft. Had a wire cutter for the bracelet. Made it all the way up and out of the building in less than twenty minutes.”

“He okay?”

“He got hit with a taser, but other than some scrapes and bruises he seems pretty unharmed. We’re keeping him in lockdown until you get back.”

“Thanks for calling me.”

“He’s a good kid,” Maria says, after an uncharacteristic hesitation. “He could do a lot of good here.”

“I know,” he agrees, scraping some purple blood of his shoes and heading for Lola to get to the airport. “Damn Fury and his hunches anyway.”

*

“I have a terrible sense of déjà vu,” Coulson says, stepping into the room. Barton’s sitting on one side of a long table in an interrogation room. “At least you’re not chained up this time.”

“Hooray,” Barton says.

Coulson sits down. He feels heavy and old.

“You okay?” Barton asks.

“Just tired.”

Barton, to his credit, stays still for a very long time. Coulson sits still longer. “I’m not sorry.”

Coulson sighs. “At least you’re honest.”

Barton glares at him.

“I was in the middle of a very nice dinner with a very attractive woman,” Coulson says, adjusting his tie. He’d tied it in a hurry and he doesn’t like to be less than perfect. Even if he’s just facing Barton, who looks stiff and sore from the taser, and also terrified. “You can imagine how ecstatic I was to get this phone call.”

“You didn’t have to come back.”

“You’re my responsibility. I kind of did.”

Barton glares at him some more.

“I’m done fighting with you,” Coulson says. “I’m at the end of my rope here. You want to leave? I can get you back to prison in a heartbeat. The bigger question is: do you want to stay?”

“If those are my only options, then yes.”

“What if you had more options? Is SHIELD really so bad? We feed you, we're teaching you, we've given you a place to stay--when's the last time anyone else has ever done that much for you?"

Barton visibly pales. Coulson thinks the answer is probably No one, ever. "We want you to stay, Barton. What can I do to make it so that you don’t want to run?”

Barton opens his mouth, and for a moment Coulson thinks he’s actually going to get an answer. Instead Barton clenches his jaw and doesn’t respond. Coulson leaves him in holding for another day before letting him out.

*

Clint spells out ‘Sorry, Coulson’ on a targeting sheet—with proper capitalization and punctuation—and gives it to him a few days later.

*

The new hires are mostly done with their lessons and have split off into their own departments to finish up. Frederick is happily ensconced in the pharmacy, and burbles about all his fancy new toys every time they have lunch. Marlene doesn't talk much about accounting, but every so often she'll pull out her pen and scribble equations on her napkins that Clint suspects are actually written in Greek. Clint doesn't tell them about Bullet's teaching (the most vulnerable spots on the human body, ways to inflict pain but not permanent damage, which arrow heads will cause more damage when they're pulled out than they had going in).

*

Clint knows it's dumb, knows he's as stupid as Barney always said he was, but he's starting to get used to the routine. He eats lunch with the same fluctuating group of people; he knows how to make small talk about other people's lives while deflecting questions about where he lives and who he lives with and why he's got a SHIELD issue bracelet around his wrist.

Clint knows it's dumb. But it's April, and he has friends, and Coulson is one of them. It's April fifth, and it's his birthday, which means that there's going to be cake just for him--cake with his name on it, if not candles (those had been banned ever since Fitz got his tie caught on fire). No one’s asked him what kind of cake he wants, but probably Coulson had ninja’d the information like he did with everything else. Or maybe Clint was supposed to write it down on some list in the caf—he can’t remember anyone mentioning it. It doesn’t really matter. All the cake he’s had here so far has been delicious. He hasn’t had cake since the orphanage, and then it had been store-bought cupcakes.

He spends the morning feeling kind of antsy and doesn’t really pay attention in class. His leg keeps jiggling, which is something that Bullet and Samir have both told him to stop (it could give him away one day, when he's up in a nest, pretending he doesn't exist). He’s just…excited. It’s his birthday, which, for the first time in years, actually means something.

Nobody mentions it in that morning, which is fine, because they’re grown-ups, and it doesn’t mean as much once you’re older.

Clint’s the first one into the mess hall at lunch.

There’s no cake.

He’s probably the only one who’s surprised.

His skin prickles uncomfortably and he bites his lip to keep from giving away any reaction. It’s good that he was the first one into the room, so no one can see his face; it’s good that he hadn’t mentioned it earlier, because he doesn’t want to draw any more attention to the fact that he doesn’t belong here than is absolutely necessary.

He’s not an agent, he’s not even an employee, he’s just—he’s just a kid with a bow out on a custodial release, one strike away from being back in prison.

The empty tray clatters when he puts it back down on the stack and slips out of the room.

*

Coulson gives him shit later for leaving the caf without asking for permission and grounds him to his quarters for the next two evenings. Coulson doesn’t say anything about it being his birthday.

Clint doesn’t care. Mostly he’s just mad because he should have known better. Really, he doesn’t care, because it’s his own fucking fault that he thought that SHIELD—a giant, important, serious government agency—would give a shit about a criminal’s fucking cake. He would have realized sooner if he’d given the matter any thought at all (which is what Coulson’s been trying to teach him to do; Clint’s just always been a bad student).

The only reason he’s here is to work. Birthday cake isn’t going to improve his aim, so it isn’t important.

*

“You’re seventeen years old,” Coulson says, feeling uncomfortably like his old piano teacher, after Barton had gotten caught in a lounge reserved for level sixes, watching soap operas on their giant TV. “I can’t let you run amok in secure areas of the building with no supervision!”

“Amok is a stupid word,” Barton says, rolling his eyes. “And I’m eighteen.”

“What?”

“Amok is dumb."

"No, I--a) amok is not dumb, and b) you're--you're what?”

"I’m eighteen,” Barton says stiffly, “which means I’m an adult. I can be unsupervised. I don’t need a babysitter to take care of me anymore.”

“When—when did—” He feels more flustered than he has in a long time. He thinks back to it, recalling Barton’s file, the birth date listed—

He’d missed Barton’s birthday. And if he missed it, it’s a fair bet no one else had even known about it. “That was an oversight on my part,” he says carefully, fighting the urge to bang his head on his desk. Every time he thinks he makes some progress, it’s brought home to him how utterly unequipped he is to deal with this. Tracking his assets’ birthdays isn’t typically part of Coulson’s responsibilities, because HR does it for him, but Barton’s not an agent. He’s under Coulson’s guardianship. Barton is his responsibility. It’s Coulson’s job to take care of him. “I did not—it was not my intention to ignore the occasion.”

Barton looks at him sideways. “You mean, you just forgot?”

“Yes.” There are two reasons that Barton must have come up with, as he went through his birthday, waiting for someone—for Phil—to say something about it: either everyone had forgotten, or they’d known and done nothing. Phil doesn’t want to think about how many birthdays had passed Clint in that manner.

“They’re stupid anyway,” Barton says. “I didn’t even want…anything.” Coulson’s brain unhelpfully fills the pause for him. He knows that Barton wants things. Wants a TV and new arrows and a SHIELD uniform, maybe wants video games or, hell, a bike or something--Coulson doesn’t know what kids play with these days. But Coulson knows that what Barton wants and what he expects he’ll actually get are two very different things, and that after Coulson had gone to such great lengths to give him as many normal things as he could manage, Barton might have actually allowed himself to expect something for his birthday.

“You already gave me a bow to use while I'm here,” Barton mutters. “I don’t know what else I’d even need.”

Coulson isn’t going to explain what the difference is between things that he requires to live and work, and gifts that are frivolous and pointless and nice. He’s just going to find gifts that will say it for him, which, given how dense Barton can be about anything emotional, is probably the best course of action.

“To return to my earlier point,” Coulson says, half his brain occupied with planning a party, but unwilling to let his argument drop, “I cannot allow you to go gallivanting around the corridors whenever you please.”

“Gallivanting?”

“Walking around. Cavorting.” Maybe he’ll get Clint a dictionary as one of his presents. Or a Kindle, or something—maybe an iPad? Surely he can justify that on a SHIELD expense form, although he does plan on paying for most of the gifts out of his own accounts.

"How is gallivanting better than 'amok?'"

“If you can give me three good reasons to let you roam about the building whenever you please—and two suggestions for how to monitor you, should any emergencies arise, or should anyone mistake you for an intruder—then I’ll rethink it.”

They spend the rest of the afternoon arguing. At the end of it, Barton seems a bit more relaxed, a bit more open, and Coulson realizes how much it had hurt Barton to think that Coulson had known about his birthday and just done nothing about it.

*

According to HR, Barton’s birthday party is the first time an official non-work related event has been held on SHIELD property.

Coulson had spent almost an entire afternoon decorating the seventh floor break room. There are streamers taped to the ceiling, a string of cardboard letters spelling out “Happy Birthday Barton” in purple, silver, and black, and a cake on the folding table standing in the middle of the room.

It’s only a small crowd. Some of Barton’s instructors, a few people from Barton’s classes that he’d connected with, Maria, and—shockingly and endearingly—Fury. Frederick, from Barton’s unarmed class, walks him up to the break room under false pretenses, and (per Coulson’s instructions) makes sure he’s out of strike range when he opens the door and everyone inside yells, “Surprise!”

Barton freezes, then checks the hallway behind him. Coulson’s not sure if he’s looking for an escape route, or making sure that there’s not someone else who’s getting a party thrown for them, but either option is unacceptable.

He steps out of the door and lets Frederick slip in around him. “Happy belated birthday,” he says quietly.

Barton peers around him and then hunches his shoulders, turning away from the people in the room. “How much you pay for them to do this?” he asks, almost inaudibly. “Or did you just guilt them into playing nice?”

“Neither. I just told them that there was a mix-up about your birthday, and they wanted to help make it up to you.”

Barton grunts noncommittally and sneaks a look around Coulson’s shoulder. “Is there—I mean, it smells like—is that a cake?”

“Blueberry cream cake with almonds and a tart cherry cheesecake icing. I hope that’s all right.”

“You made it?" Clint stares at him when he nods. "And are those—are those presents? For me?” Barton looks more concerned than excited.

“There are a few gifts, not everybody brought one.”

“Right. Okay. What do I…shit, Coulson, the fuck am I supposed to do?”

It’s a fight to keep his smile from slipping off his face. “You say thank you and open the gift. Even if you don’t like it, you say thank you again.” The conversation behind them has slipped from uncomfortable small-talk to a natural rhythm; this would be a good time to ease Barton into it. “If you get confused or overwhelmed, you just come talk to me.”

“I’m not scared,” Barton scoffs, visibly pulling himself together. “It’s a fucking party. I bet I’ve been to more parties in the last year than you have in your whole life, old man.”

Barton spends most of the next half-hour standing slightly to the right of and behind Coulson. He eats a few bites of the cake, opens his presents, and says thank you more times than is necessary, but doesn’t relax until everyone else has left.

“Fury patted me on the back,” Barton says, perching on a chair and waiting for Coulson to get back from closing the door. “I think he’s got a crush on me.”

“He’s got hearts in his eyes,” Coulson agrees. “All one of them.”

Barton smiles and then picks at the fraying hem of his sweatpants. “Thanks,” he says, voice muffled against his kneecap. “For the books and the binoculars. And the cake and everything. And for—you know. Not being an asshole.”

It’s maybe the nicest thing Barton’s ever said to him. “You’re welcome.” He starts to clean up, but Barton makes him sit down. Barton collects all the streamers and balls them up, tosses them in the trash can with the wrapping paper.

Coulson helps him carry his presents back to his apartment, since Barton’s carrying the leftover cake (which he refused to share or surrender).

“Thanks,” Barton says again, standing in his doorway. The walls of his rooms are still bare, but his minifridge is full, and there are magazines and books scattered on all the flat surfaces. Maybe pictures will be the next gift Coulson gives him. Maybe he can set up a reward system of some sort—or perhaps a regular bi-weekly tradition, independent of academic or extracurricular performance—

Not that many things surprise Coulson anymore. Barton stepping up close to him and giving him a quick kiss on the cheek? That leaves him breathless and clueless and speechless.

“Don’t get all gay about it,” Barton says, staring at the floor, his face a beet red. “Just, you know. Whatever. Good night.”

*

That week in therapy, Barton asks, "Whatever I tell you, you got to keep to yourself, right?"

Johnny nearly falls out of his chair with surprise. Clint smirks. "Wha--I mean, yes. Unless you're planning to harm yourself or others."

"Okay. So--so say I broke the rules at SHIELD. You wouldn't write me up? Or tell Hill or something?"

"No," Johnny says. He looks like it takes a monumental effort to sit back in his seat. Clint figures it's been about as frustrating for Johnny as it has been for Clint, to be forced to spend an hour in uncomfortable silence once every damn week.

Clint stares at his scarred knuckles. "I fucked up." He glances up at Johnny, who nods encouragingly.

"You said you broke a rule," Johnny prompts eventually.

"Yeah. And, I don't know. Probably laws. I...I kissed someone." He closes his eyes, because he's not saying it right. He wishes he could say things as clearly as he can see them. "I didn't ask if it was okay before I did it. And I basically ran away afterwards."

"What do you think you did wrong?" Johnny asks.

Clint's skin feels like it's itching itself off his body. He wants this to be over so badly. "Coulson, he--he told me, real early on, that no one here's allowed to touch me unless I want them to. And that not saying no doesn't mean...doesn't imply that it's okay. You got to ask for permission, and the other person's got to say yes. Otherwise it could be--" He doesn't want to say ‘rape’ because, well, even though it's probably the same thing, there's miles between kissing Coulson on the cheek and the times Clint's been left bleeding and alone. "Otherwise it would be against the rules."

"What happened? When you kissed the other person?"

"Nothing."

"Were they angry?"

"I don't know. Maybe. I kind of left."

"How do you feel about it?"

Clint twists his fingers together and regrets ever saying anything. "Stupid. Real fucking stupid." Not because he forgot to ask 'yes' or 'no,' not because he spilled his guts to Johnny, but because he'd thought--when his hands had been full of cake and Coulson had been smiling his pleased-with-himself smile--that he would get to keep a part of that. He could be a part of that.

But Coulson wasn't something Clint got to have, not even on his kind-of-but-not-really birthday.

Johnny asks him some more questions, but Clint's done. He's just...he's done.

*

Coulson doesn't alter his schedule after the birthday. Barton doesn't bring it up, so Coulson doesn't, either; it was probably an impulsive teenage thing, and he's not going to rub Barton's face in it. He very diligently continues working and eating and spending time with Barton in exactly the way he had before Barton's birthday. He does stop filing for hazard pay, because at this point his bank account is big enough to make him feel guilty, but that's it.

That's the only change, he tells himself, every time his mind drifts off as he stares at Barton's hands.

Ever since Barton's bruises faded he'd stopped wearing long-sleeves. He'd cut a few t-shirts off at the shoulder, which should have made him look like a punk-rock teenager, but instead makes him look like the cool kid in high school who smoked hand-rolled cigarettes under the bleachers.

(Coulson has a dream about Barton doing exactly that on the night after Clint wears one of those shirts and lounges on the couch in Coulson's office while chewing on a pen. He wakes up tasting cigarette smoke in his mouth; hard but not satisfied. Even in his dreams he knows that he shouldn't feel this way. He knows nothing should come of it.)

*

"Why am I still in the kiddie classes?" Barton eventually asks Coulson. "I can beat Felicia sometimes hand-to-hand, and the math class has gone way past what I need to know to get my GED or make crazy-awesome shots in high winds. Samir's not even teaching me how to meditate anymore; we just do it together out of habit."

Coulson looks over at Barton, who's got his boots propped up on one end of the couch, and is sprawled across the rest of it. "It wasn't ever really about the classes."

"Are you fucking with me right now? I had tests, Coulson. I did fucking homework for those classes--"

"And you made friends in those classes. You made connections. No, hear me out--think about it. If you ever get injured in the field, you know at least five of the first responders who are most likely going to be there to help you. If you need late-night food from the cafeteria, all of the servers are going to sneak you extra mac and cheese. If you need help filing your taxes, which you'll have to do once you become a full-time agent, you know Marlene's going to be ecstatic to help you."

"So...I've been cultivating allies?" Barton's forehead is scrunched up tight. His hair, which he hadn't cut since he'd left prison, falls over his forehead.

"You've been making friends. Ones who know you, who like you, and who will be willing to help you. Ones who will come to your birthday parties."

Barton looks away, confused and angry. Coulson turns back to his paperwork, waiting for Barton to work out what he wants to say next.

"Is there anything you do that doesn't have an ulterior motive to it?"

Coulson thinks about it for a while. He's...he's not sure. "Everything I do, I do for a reason," he says carefully. "Most of the time the reasons are obvious, and they're meant to help people. Sometimes--sometimes..."

"Sometimes you really are level 8." Barton says it calmly, but it makes Coulson's nostrils flare, makes his stomach tense like he's about to yell; about to be punched. "A lot of people forget that," Clint continues, cocking his head and staring at Coulson like he's a particularly easy target on the range, "because you're nice, and straightforward, and you make yourself look like the best you could do in a fight is hide under a desk."

Coulson's not sure how Barton so often makes him feel like he's being both insulted and complimented at the same time.

"Sometimes I think Fury knows you better than you do," Barton says. "He's the one who puts you--the harmless nice guy--into situations that'll take people the most off guard. He had you take me out of prison. He had you demote Louis when he started spreading classified intel as rumours. He has you conduct more interrogations than any two other agents combined."

Coulson's mouth is dry. "Speaking of classified intel," he says stiffly, "none of that is--"

"I'm not spying on you. And I'm not breaking into anybody's files. I just pay attention." Barton stops picking at the hem of his hoodie and shrugs. "You hired me because I see things."

They'd hired him because he knows how to find soft targets and hit them with unerring accuracy.

"I'll stay in the kiddie classes," Barton says, standing up to leave. "I'll keep playing nice and making friends. I just--are we… You and me, even after I fucked up after the birthday party--are we friends?"

He's almost at the door, and Coulson aches with the physical need to push him out into the hallway so he can have a nice quiet breakdown while he lets Barton's revelations sink in.

He knows how Barton likes his oatmeal, he knows Barton's favorite color, he knows Barton's taste in literature. He knows there's more to Barton than he'll ever be able to know. He knows he’s starting to trust Barton.

"Yes," he says. "We're friends."

“Maybe--you can call me Clint. If you want.”

He leaves before Phil can say anything else, which is good, because he’d never realized that he’s never heard Barton--Clint--say his first name, either. Only Fury calls him Phil anymore.

The headache that had been omnipresent in Barton’s first weeks at SHIELD is coming back.

Phil doesn’t know what he’s doing.

*

Three weeks after Clint's birthday, Bullet comes to Coulson.

“I’ve got nothing left to teach him,” Bullet says, settling comfortably into Phil’s office. Phil isn’t sure he’s ever seen the man outside of the range or on a mission. It’s more disorienting than when Barton had spent a week practicing being polite.

“No one’s perfect,” Bullet continues, “but he’s pretty damn close. He was good when he came—better with a bow and knives than anyone I’ve ever seen—and he’s just gotten better. What he needs is training with guns. And I’m still working with the sniper equipment I was trained on twenty-five years ago.”

“So what are you suggesting?”

Bullet hesitates. “I know you’ve been socializing him. Putting him in all those classes, the private lessons, shit like that. He complains about it like a kid with chores, but even I can see that he’s getting better around people. He may even be good enough for undercover one day. But as it stands now—look, they wanted to bring in other snipers before Fury picked Barton, right?”

“It's possible that there was a list of alternatives, yes.”

“A list drawn up by the World Security Council?”

“Possibly.”

“Let me guess—they picked candidates from the Marines? Air force?”

Coulson cracks a smile, still leaning forward in his chair, exuding casual as hard as he can. “Even Mikel Dayan from Mossad.”

“All soldiers. All people who respect the chain of command. Soldiers who would obey Fury’s superiors over Fury.”

“Protocol states that—”

“Protocol has very little to do with Fury’s agenda.”

Coulson very deliberately doesn't give any outward signs of his surprise other than a raised eyebrow. “If this is about Fury, why are you coming to me with this?”

“You want Clint’s place to be secured. Unquestioned.” Bullet shifts in his chair. “That’s what I want, too. This place is good for him. You’re good for him. If I’m leaving—and we both know I’m on my way out—then I want his place to be as secure as possible. He’ll need to be able to beat all the other fuckers on the WSC’s list at their own game.”

“Do you think I should bring in outside trainers?”

“Fury’d never allow that. No, I think you should send him out. Let the boy gain some life experience along with some added sniper training. Toughen him up. Give him some free reign.”

“I don’t know if he’s ready.”

Bullet heaves himself out of Coulson’s chair with a sigh. He’s stiff; both of his knees crack. He needs someone to take his place soon. "I think he is. But you know him better than anyone. I'll leave it up to you."

Later that day Coulson watches Clint at lunch. He'd snuck in quietly and claimed a table in the corner. He watches Clint chatting with Marlene and Frederick. He’s laughing, and casually making physical contact with the people sitting next to him, and when he stands up his tray is completely empty.

*

He decides to bring it up that afternoon. “I need to ask you a question.”

“My answer is forty-seven.”

“Well, at least I know you’re reading the books I loan you. Smartass.”

“You know you love me." Barton grins and bats his eyes; Coulson swallows hard and looks away. "What’s the real question?”

“It’s an opportunity, really. A chance for you to get off-campus and travel around, train with some of the best snipers in the world.” Barton stares at him. Coulson sighs. “Bullet and I both think it would be best for you if you left the Hub for some additional training. Spend some time with different branches of the military and pick up all the extra knowledge that you’ll need to secure your place here.” He can see the flash of fear across his face when Coulson implies that, currently, his place isn't safe. “It would just be a couple of months. We’ll give you the implant that all field agents receive. And a cell phone,” he adds, because Barton’s been begging for a phone since his birthday.

“You want me to…what? Join the army? Visit exciting new places, meet new people, and kill them?”

“I want you to study with their snipers. Show off a little. See what they have to offer you. Play as nice as you can.”

“Is this…is this your way of getting me to leave? Pawning me off to someone else?”

“Funnily enough, this is my way to get you to stay. If you want to secure your place at SHIELD, we need you to leave. Just for a little while.”

“The last time I tried to leave, you weren’t that happy with me.”

“Last time, you broke out without permission, and I had to fly back in a cargo carrier to keep Fury from booting your ass out of here. I let you off easy.”

Barton waves his tracker in Coulson’s face. “You call this easy?”

“It’s not subdermal, is it? You’re not in handcuffs, are you? You’re here and not in prison, are—”

“I get it,” Barton says. He’s staring at his tracker now and not at Coulson. Coulson knows his soft spots better than he knows his own.

“And if I…”

“As long as you don’t take this as an opportunity to make a break for it, then SHIELD will be waiting for you when you’re done. There’s nothing you can do to fuck this up as far as we're concerned.”

Barton’s eyes look bright with fear. “You can’t know that.”

“I do. That is actually within my power. We’re doing this to help you, not to subtly get rid of you.”

Barton nods and looks away. Coulson stays quiet; gives him some time to process. When Barton speaks, he takes Coulson completely by surprise. “Do you know what happened to Barney?”

Phil honestly hadn’t thought about it since he’d first read Barton’s files and mentally put together the record of his pertinent information. He knows the amount of foster homes he’d cycled through, the breaks and fractures from his x-rays, his nicknames and aliases, the criminal records of the mentors from his time in the circus. He hadn’t put Barton’s family up that high on the list, but he should have. “I don’t know.” He looks at his own family photo perched on the corner of his desk. He reaches out and touches the edge of it, resting his thumb on the corner over his parents kissing heads.

Barton lets out a small snort.

“What?”

“No offense, I just, uh—I always thought that was a fake. Like the photos that come when you buy the frames from a store?”

“I’m not a robot. I didn’t spring from a science lab with my suit already on.”

“I know, I'm the one who started that rumor, after all. It’s just—no one’s family looks that perfect.”

Phil looks back at the photo. It looks like every other cheesy family reunion photo he can think of. Mostly smiles, a few people caught looking out-of-frame or with their eyes closed, everyone standing in tiers based on where a bossy photographer had placed them.

“If I leave,” Barton confesses, “and I get the tracker, that means I can’t...I can't ever really leave SHIELD. Even if you fire me, or send me back to prison, you'll always have your eye on me." His voice gets quieter and his shoulders hunch in tightly. "It means I can’t ever go after Barney if he needs me.”

Coulson thinks of Barton’s earlier escape attempt and calls himself an idiot about a dozen times. Barton’s loyalty had been the biggest ‘pro’ on his ‘and cons’ list. “I’ll look into Barney for you. And I’ll tell you whatever I find out.”

“Promise?”

“I promise, Clint”

*

The Marines treat him like dirt for the first five days. They put him through training more rigorous than anything else he's ever been through. At the end of the first day he doesn't think he could be any more tired, doesn't think even Trick Shot's beatings had hurt as badly as his muscles do right then. The second day is worse; he has to run obstacle courses with even more weight in a pack on his back, the whole time a chorus of jeers and insults being thrown his way by drill sergeants and any soldiers free to come spectate.

Clint calls Coulson every night, just like he's supposed to. Clint lies, mostly. He tells the truth about some things: he gets a room to himself (it reminds him of his prison cell), his prior training at SHIELD makes everything easier, he's not homesick at all.

It's a hazing ritual, he's pretty sure; they're not happy that some wet behind the ears pup has been sent in to learn how to shoot without going through the hell of boot camp that they'd all endured.

On the fifth day they bring him to the range and Clint lets out a breath so big he thinks his lungs might actually collapse. He doesn't even care what they put in his hands. Someone talks him through the objectives, gets him to lie down on his belly to mimic how he's most likely to be positioned in the field.

There are a lot of people watching. The trainer doesn't tell Clint about the kick the gun's likely to have, or about the way it's a bit out of alignment and likely to veer left. Clint learned how to shoot on the rigged games of the circus. He doesn't hit the center of the target on the first try, but he does on the second, third, and fourth; then he hits the center of every other target currently out on the range.

After that they stop trying to scare him away and start trying to recruit him.

They show him how each gun in their arsenal works. He takes them apart and puts them back together, shoots them and cleans them and learns their quirks, their strengths, their weaknesses. There aren't any bows, but there's a set of throwing knives that he brings with him to the mess hall to show off with. The men on base clap him on the back and call him kid and say that he's alright in their book.

He thinks he could make this work, if he had to.

Every night he falls asleep thinking of SHIELD, Coulson, and Barney. Clint can't set down roots here. He can't afford to yet, not when he has people he needs to find, catch, hold onto.

*

After the Marines he goes straight to the Air Force. It's just Clint and two sniping instructors for the most part. They run him through his paces, and he can't tell from their expressions whether they're impressed by him or pissed off. One of them yells whenevver he talks, like he's been a drill sergeant too long and forgotten how to turn his volume down below eleven. The other one barely talks, but he scares Clint even worse. He can't get a read on the guy.

He's got a bunk in a barracks full of guys going through basic training. They steal his mattress the first night, his clothes the second, and lock him out the third. Thankfully, they don't manage to steal his phone, which he keeps on him at all times, so he can still call Coulson every night and listen to his voice (Talk to me, Clint) and jerk off guiltily afterwards, pretending that Coulson wants to kiss him and hug him and say you're hot, I want you, come back.

The fourth day he finds two of the meanest of the pranksters in the armory messing with the one bow they have there. They'd just finished cutting all the strings with a dull pair of scissors, and Clint sees red. It's been so long, so long since he'd gotten to feel fiberglass and sinew under his fingers, and he'd been looking forward to it; he needs it. He needs the clarity and distance that shooting a bow can give him.

He remembers enough of the fight to be proud of his technique when he thinks back on it. He ends up with a huge bruise on his left cheekbone, a twisted ankle, and more contusions around his stomach than he really wants to think about.

The sniping instructor--Finn, the one who almost never talks--walks in, looks them over (one of the pranksters is out cold on the ground, but the other one's sitting on Clint's chest, his hands wrapped around Clint's neck), and says, "That's quite enough."

Clint gets thrown in the brig. It's cold and there's no blanket on the thin mattress in there, but he sleeps anyway; he hasn't had a mattress since they'd stolen it three days ago. He'll be able to hear someone coming and wake up in time to defend himself.

He doesn't know how long it is before someone comes to get him, but when he wakes up it takes him a minute to realize he's not back in prison. He's cold, hungry, and in pain; SHIELD's gotten him used to being spoiled.

When a key clicks in the lock and the door to the cell swings open, Clint crouches on the bed, holding his hands up the way Felicia taught him. He doesn't lower them when he sees it's Coulson.

Coulson sighs. "I've gotten five phone calls since you left. Four of them were people calling attempting to recruit you. The fifth one said you were sabotaging archery equipment and starting a fight in the armory."

Clint's throat closes up, as if there were still hands wrapped there, as if someone was still sitting on his chest, taking all the air.

"The two soldiers involved have been demoted to privates. That's the best I can do in the situation, unfortunately." Coulson shrugs. "Word's gone out that those two need a close eye kept on them, so I don't think they'll last much longer here before washing out."

"You--you haven't even heard my side of the story yet."

"I know you," Coulson says with a frown. "After meeting thos two clowns, I didn't have to talk to you to figure out what happened." Coulson takes a step inside and leans against the bars.

"Don't do that," Clint says, dropping his fists, leaving himself open for attack. "You shouldn’t be here. You'll get dirty." Coulson's wearing his favorite suit and the bars are probably as cold as the wall against Clint's back; he hadn't meant to drag Coulson into this.

"Then let's leave," Coulson says. He stands back up and reaches out a hand.

The bravest thing Clint's done since he said Yes to Coulson in prison, since he said Guilty when they put him up for trial, is taking Coulson's offered hand. It's warm, and even though they pull apart when they get back to the main hallway, Clint knows the shape of Phil's palm now the same way he knows his bow.

*

Coulson makes him go to Medical when they get back to SHIELD. Val, the woman who'd treated him on day one, and who Coulson seems to like, gives him some aspirin, cold packs, and stern instructions not to fight people hand-to-hand when he could shoot them from a distance instead and save her a hell of a lot of paperwork.

She makes Coulson smile, which makes Clint smile too, because he knows the lines on Coulson's face like a map and the laugh lines aren't the most prominent ones anymore. Clint wonders when that had happened.

*

It figures that as soon as he can sign Clint out of Medical, the first thing he wants to do is go down to the armory and check up on his bow. As soon as he’s finished with that, he gives Bullet a hug. Bullet looks at Coulson over Clint's shoulder when he gets wrapped up in a teenage embrace. Coulson shrugs helplessly. Bullet looks more surprised than he had when they'd gotten ambushed in Nambia.

"You having a good vacation?" Bullet asks when Clint lets go.

"Nah. Coulson stuck me with a bunch of idiots who claimed they knew how to shoot. Couldn't find their own asses without a scope and a map. You could take them all out in your sleep."

Bullet grunts and looks simultaneously disgruntled and flattered. "Well, that's what I figured. Waste of damn time."

Clint grins, then steps back and rocks on his heels. "You wanna see some cool tricks?"

Phil leaves them (Clint, Bullet, and Betsy the Bow) to get reaquianted and goes back to his office.

Two hours later a sweat-soaked Clint unscrews his air conditioning grate and twists through the vent and directly onto his--the--couch. His sleeveless t-shirt clings to his chest. It's still novel to see Clint without a hoodie or sweater. He, uh--it looks... He looks good. Phil swallows and casts his mind about to find something to distract himself with.

"I found some info about Barney," he says. Clint's face pales and Coulson feels like a shithead. "He got on the feds' bad side with some drug running business. Last they knew, he and Trick Shot were in Orlando but on their way out of the country."

Clint nods stiffly. "So he and...he and Trick Shot are still working together?"

"They were five months ago."

"And that's it?"

"That's all I have so far. If I can gather enough evidence, I'm going to look into getting your conviction overturned. We both know it was Barney who committed those crimes, so--

"No. Don't bother. I'm already out of prison. I've got the special agent tracker now; you're stuck with me. And Barney..." Clint shrugs and a half-smile twists its way onto his lips. "If he lives long enough, he'll end up there on his own anyway."

Coulson doesn't disagree. Clint's probably right. "I'll keep you updated when I find out anything new."

"Just like you promised," Clint says easily.

"Just like I promised."

Clint nods and looks at him for the first time since Phil said Barney's name. "I missed you, sir."

"I missed you too, Clint." Phil's face breaks into a smile, rusty and uncomfortable. It's his Clint smile, apparently. Hill said he got it every time Clint called to check in. He hasn't had many reasons to smile over the last few weeks. "Want to go grab a bite to eat?"

"You keep feeding me," Clint whines. "The doc said I'm almost at a healthy weight now. Are you just trying to bring me around food so you can win that stupid bet with Fury about the food fight?"

"Nope. I'm fattening you up and am planning on luring you into my oven soon. I'm going to make you into pie when you least expect it."

Clint waggles his eyebrows. It’s a new, ridiculously flirty, move for him. Coulson wonders in which branch of the service he'd picked it up. He takes Clint to the cafeteria where they pick over the offerings left out for the agents working late nights and overtime. Clint talks about trivial things the whole time. He talks about the pulpiness of his orange juice and the boot camp he'd gone through with the Marines and the guns he'd taken apart, and Coulson just listens and smiles his Clint smile.

When Clint's finished devouring his weight in junk food, Coulson walks him back to his quarters. He's finding it hard to say goodnight. Clint keeps up his stream of chatter, but it dies down when they get to his door.

"These are my old rooms," Clint says, like he's prompting Coulson for something.

"And?"

"And that's great, but...where am I staying now?"

"Here," Coulson says slowly, "unless you'd rather move somewhere else?"

Clint shakes his head quickly and keys in his PIN code on the door lock with lightning fast fingers.

Coulson hasn't seen Clint's quarters since he left. They're clean. All of the belongings that Clint hadn't taken with him (books and extra bowstrings and unpaired socks, a cup he'd stolen from the caf, some folded up wrapping paper) are sitting in neat piles on his bed. All cleaned up and organized, ready to be taken away when someone else took the room.

Clint had been moved around a lot before he came to SHIELD. He probably hadn't stayed in one place this long since he was in the single digits.

"I wouldn't have moved your stuff without asking you," Coulson says. "Maybe I should have asked a while ago, though. Do you want to go somewhere else? I don't think I can wrangle you off-campus quarters yet, but there are probably nicer rooms somewhere. Maybe something with windows? I know you weren't a big fan of the rooms when you moved in."

"I still wouldn't say no to a TV," Clint says quietly, slipping inside, keeping his back against the wall, like this was a training drill instead of a homecoming. "But, uh--I don't mind staying here."

"Then 'welcome home,'" Coulson says, because he wants to know what saying that will mean to Clint. He kicks himself immediately afterwards, because this isn't an interrogation, Clint's not a suspect that Coulson's trying to read, but at this point gathering information is practically instinctual.

Clint doesn't respond. Just stares at the room in front of him like it's the strangest thing he's seen in weeks of relocation and training and strangers.

"Good night," Phil says. Clint's echoed response is whisper quiet and brings the now-familiar smile to Phil's lips.

*

They have three days before Clint's next deployment. They spend it in Coulson's office, mostly, Clint catching up on reading Bullet's magazines and making sure the imprint of his boots and torso are indelibly imprinted in the couch. (No one else sits there. Sitwell had almost sat there once, and Coulson had honest to god growled at him.)

Clint's different when he comes back. More relaxed, happier, more at ease around Coulson. The tension that had been there seems to have subsided. It feels like Clint had never kissed him, feels like Coulson hadn't wanted to grab Clint and keep him close and ask him to do it again.

It comes back in spades when Clint drags him into the men's bathroom on his way to catch a plane to Israel, stares at Coulson's mouth, and asks, "Is this okay? Just--just for good luck?"

Coulson's not a weak, nor an impulsive man, so he pleads temporary insanity to explain why he says, "Ask me again, and call me Phil.”

Clint’s eyes widen and a blush blooms on his cheeks. “Hey, Phil? Want to kiss me?”

There’s really only one answer.

Clint’s lips are soft and Phil can’t stop thinking about the brush of Clint's hands against his sides, even after Clint’s plane is in the sky.

*

Clint gets a week at home between his visit to Mossad and his trip to Afghanistan. It's early May, and Clint drives Coulson mad by wearing short sleeves and flexing his biceps inappropriately. (Coulson's too old to be developing new kinks, but his libido doesn't seem to have gotten that particular memo.)

They eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, and sometimes their knees knock against each other under the table, but Clint doesn’t pull him into any more corners and Phil doesn’t ask him for anything more than the paperwork that Clint always turns in late.

The day before he's supposed to leave for his third and final tour, which will take him through Nevada, Germany, and Argentina, Clint swings by after lunch, and thrusts a rectangular package under his nose.

"Happy goddamn birthday," he announces with a flourish. "Open it. And then come to the caf. They made you donuts instead of cake, and I think Bullet's trying to eat all of the powdered ones before you get there."

Phil stares at the present Clint's still holding. It must be the eighteenth already. He'd actually forgotten. "Jesus, I'm getting old," he says, surprised.

"Yup. Now open your present."

"How did you--how'd you know when my birthday was?"

"Hill told me. And Marlene traded me hand-to-hand lessons for the present when I talked to her about it. She ordered it from some website, I don't know. And Frederick saw it this morning and asked what it was for, and he said I couldn't give it to you without wrapping it properly, so." Phil takes a closer look. The wrapping paper is a blown-up color copy of the table of elements. The C for Carbon and P for Phosphorus have been circled with a permanent marker. "So it's kind of from all of us. Happy birthday?"

He opens it as quickly as he can make himself. It's a boxed copy of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. "I don't know what to say," he admits.

"I have it on good authority that 'Thank you' is acceptable. Even if you say it too much."

He feels like the Grinch at the end of the story; his metaphorical heart swelling uncomfortably in his chest. "Thank you. This is... No one's done something this thoughtful for me in a long time."

"Well. They should. You're sort of--you're sort of the best." Clint scrubs his hand over his hair, which has grown out into a floppy, tangled mess. "Anyway. Happy goddamn birthday, Phil."

"Thank you," Phil says again. "I-- Thanks."

"Whatever. Now come on--donuts!"

Coulson lets out the laugh bubbling up inside of him. He puts the books down next to his family photo and lets Clint pull him out of the office

*

Coulson’s in meetings on the day that Clint actually leaves. There’s no third goodbye kiss for luck, no more whispered, intimate questions and answers. Phil’s mind drifts a lot thinking about things he could have said, the way Clint would have felt if Phil had put his hands on Clint’s arms.

Clint calls him every night, but they both know the line’s monitored.

In the three months that Clint is gone, the phone calls become the highlight of Coulson's days. With Clint gone, and Coulson no longer attached to the Hub, Fury sends him on a whirlwind tour of the SHIELD outposts that have been reporting trouble.

He gets shot at twice, shoots one person three times but manages not to kill her, and has to throw away four different suits because of stains that even his dry cleaner can't get out.

Val doesn't chide him anymore when he shows up in Medical, or make jokes with him the way she does with Clint. She just patches him up and sighs and gives him lollipops with a little smile that he sometimes manages to return.

He misses Clint every time he turns around and sees only his actual shadow; when he starts to talk to the rattle in the air vents before he realizes it's just the heater coming on; when his eyes start to burn with fatigue and Clint doesn't chase him out of the office by shooting spitballs at him. He misses Clint in every silence, misses Clint when he is hurting, misses Clint when he finds himself hurting other people.

Fury calls Coulson his one good eye.

Coulson barely recognizes himself anymore when he looks in the mirror.

*

When Clint gets back, he's got a tan, a comprehensive knowledge of every long-range weapon in use around the globe (including a Stark prototype that the Air Force wasn't technically supposed to have, but which was awesome), pictures of landmarks in five different countries with Clint in the foreground, grinning and waving, and a few stories to tell Coulson that he hadn't already told the man over their phone calls.

Clint comes back feeling stronger. He comes back to the same quarters with all of his things still in it, knowing that SHIELD wants him to come back, trusting that SHIELD would come get him if he got in trouble again. Coulson would come for him, and trust him, and listen to him.

When he sees Coulson after stepping off the plane, he wonders if the two of them are on a seesaw; Clint feels grounded and calm and Coulson looks like he hasn't slept in a week.

Clint doesn't mention it. Just hugs Coulson like it's a normal thing that the two of them do now (hugs him like they haven't kissed two times now: once on the cheek, and a second time when Coulson had kissed back--it had been kind of scratchy since Phil hadn't shaved in a while; Clint wants to lick his stubble). Clint chatters at him on the way to his room. Coulson walks away with a quick I'll see you tomorrow instead of hugging him or kissing him or coming in to talk. It's the first time in weeks that they haven't spent at least a couple of minutes talking before going to sleep.

Coulson's skittish around him the next couple of days. Clint figures Coulson's probably keeping his distance so that Clint won't--won't give in to his desire to kiss Coulson again. He wants to tell Coulson that he's not a love-struck teenager, he can keep his hormones in check, but he gets half-hard every time he sees Coulson with his sleeves rolled up or his glasses on, which kind of invalidates his argument.

Eventually he gives up on forcing Coulson to talk in person and just calls his phone instead. Coulson lets Clint go to voicemail now, so Clint rambles until he reaches the three minute mark when it cuts him off.

He doesn't want to talk to Hill or Sitwell about it. He doesn't want to get Coulson in trouble, in case he's gotten himself mixed up in something bad that he's trying to keep Clint away from. So he goes to Marlene. She's got her own cubicle on the third floor now, four different calculators out on her desk. She's scrawling something on a post-it note, which she attaches to a whiteboard covered in post-it notes like a bad attempt at neon pointilism, when she notices Clint.

"Hey, sugar! Welcome back. Frederick and I were just talking about how long it's been since we'd seen you. You should come back to lunch." He hums noncomitantly, and Marlene narrows her eyes. "I feel like taking a walk," she says. "You look like you could use one, too."

He trails along in her wake, his fingers tensing in the familiar draw, release pattern that helps him keep his thoughts in order (helps keep the darkest thoughts away). Draw, release, release, release.

"It's Coulson," he says, after paying for the mochas that Marlene orders for both of them. It's chocolately, almost grainy on his tongue; he's in love with it instantly. "He's...he's been..."

"Distant?"

He looks at her, surprised; he wasn't sure anyone else had noticed. He finds himself telling her everything. (Well, almost everything. The kisses, he keeps to himself, the way he keeps all of his most twisted mistakes and treasured moments.)

When their cups are empty and they're just sitting on a bench, watching their breath fog in the air, she says, "He helped you when you needed a friend. Needed someone to show you the light." He makes a face. "No, not God--although Jesus is a good friend to turn to, in times like these--I mean you. Remind him that he's still got you. Just let him know you're there. He'll come to you if he needs to."

He hugs her when they part. He's getting better at hugging. This is the fifth one he started himself, and it almost feels natural to step into someone else's space, voluntary and unafraid; touching someone without flinching when they touch him back.

*

There's a bookstore five blocks away from the Hub, and he buys a couple of books with dragons or spaceships on the covers, because he likes books where people can fly (he likes stories set in the past or far in the future) and starts sneaking into Coulson's office extra early. He's always there now when Coulson stumbles in, coffee clutched in one hand, briefcase in the other. Clint waves good morning and doesn't say anything at all.

He fetches lunch for both of them and leaves afterwards. Some days he shows up at dinner time. He almost never talks.

Coulson stares at him sometimes, like he's never seen Clint before. It makes Clint feel naked and uncomfortable. He'd always thought that Coulson knew everything about him, that he knew what Clint was going to do before Clint did.

After a week of pleasant (okay, painfully awkward) small talk and silence, Clint asks, "What did you do while I was gone? Any crazy adventures? Orgies in the office? What about you and Hill's sexcapades?"

"That's a rumour that you started, Barton, and it died when you left."

Clint examines Phil closely. "It totally didn't."

Phil sighs. "It didn't. We get side-eyed every time we go into a private meeting. So thank you very much for that."

"Just think," Clint teases, "I could have put you in a relationship with Fury."

"He does have a certain charm."

"Ew, he does not. But seriously, what happened while I was away?"

Phil shrugs. "Paperwork. A new batch of agents came in. A big group, but a lot of early washouts. Other than that, not a whole lot."

Clint knows that's not the truth. Coulson seems tired all the time now, always a little tense at the edges. He never stands without his back against a wall, and the lines around his eyes are always tight. He wears a mask whenever they're not alone: a calm, competent facade. He smiles and laughs and he's funny, casual and personable, but not Phil. Clint knows that because whenever they get to a safe space--Phil's office, or to Clint's section of the range (he has his own section now, just like Bullet), Phil slouches and rolls his eyes and complains about things.

Coulson's work has gotten harder right alongside Clint's. His files are covered with Classified stamps and are delivered by special courier half the time. Twice, since Clint got back, Coulson has left for 'meetings' and come back with bruised knuckles.

Hill calls Coulson Fury's right hand man, but Clint thinks Fury's training him to be something else. Not muscle, maybe, but someone who gets his hands dirty when Fury can't.

He'd trailed Coulson exactly one time trying to find out what he was getting up to. He'd ended up in the floor that he'd been held in after his break-out attempt. It was full of small rooms with one exit and one-way glass on the walls. Coulson had gone into a room; Clint had inched his way over it and heard Coulson asking questions. Quietly, calmly, repeatedly. He'd heard other sounds in between the questions.

He'd left as quickly as he could because he knows those sounds as well as he knows Coulson's voice.

(Clint snuck into Johnny's office that night and scrawled his name on the schedule for a session the following day. Clint still hates therapy, because questions make him want to hide, but Johnny had managed to help him talk through enough of what had happened that Clint's nightmares were blurry, instead of sharp and painful, the next few nights.)

"If there are things you can't tell me, could you just tell me that, instead of lying to me?" Clint asks. Coulson stares at him, and Clint twists uncomfortably in his seat. "I don't lie to you," Clint mumbles. "It's only fair."

"You don't lie to me?"

Clint shakes his head. "Not since my birthday. Well, the birthday party."

"I'm still sorry I messed that up," Coulson says, his eyes darting around the room.

"Not your fault. And not the point."

Coulson stares down at the papers on his desk. All Clint can see from the couch are the huge amounts of blacked out text. "Things happened while you were gone that I can't tell you about." That's all that Clint expects to hear, because even that admission sounds like it cost Coulson something. But then he takes another deep breath and continues. "SHIELD's growing every day. Getting more powerful. We're getting new enemies, dealing with bigger threats. And I've been..."

Clint waits for him to finish his sentence, but Coulson just trails off, his eyes unfocused. Clint will be loyal to SHIELD until the day they kick him out, but that doesn't mean he can't hate Fury with everything that he is. "You've been Coulson," Clint says. "You do what needs to be done. You take care of things."

Coulson puts a hand over his eyes and rests his head. His forehead is creased and his shoulders are shaking and Clint thinks, Oh, shit, because Agent Coulson is probably crying. Probably silently crying in a building that's almost empty, with Clint his only witness. Clint stays quiet and still. He keeps one eye on the door to make sure no one disturbs them, and one eye on Coulson, who eventually sits back in his chair and stares at his desk with red, blank eyes.

Coulson stands and starts to leave. He doesn't have his briefcase and he forgets to grab his jacket.

Clint reaches out from his place on the couch (his couch) and wraps his hand around Coulson's wrist. His pulse is strong and fast, and new tears spill down his cheeks when Clint rubs his thumb in circles on the back of Coulson's hand. "It's going to be okay," Clint says. "You're going to be okay."

*

"Your pet assassin came to visit me last night."

Coulson blinks at Fury for a good thirty seconds. "There are so many things wrong with that sentence, I don't even know where to start." Not Coulson's, not a pet, not exactly an assassin, not yet, and what the hell was Clint doing talking to Fury?

"He didn't say anything threatening, but he did have an arrow pointed somewhere very sensitive during our brief conversation, so I'm inclined to take him seriously. I'm also inclined to tighten the security of the ventilation system around my office."

"He has a thing for small, enclosed spaces, sir."

"What is he, a mouse? Get your boy in line."

"He's not my boy, sir--"

"Oh, keep it in your pants, Coulson. I know he's not. If you two were fucking, you wouldn't be walking around looking so pissy all the time."

"I--I beg your pardon?"

"Besides, I keep hearing that you and Hill are an item, and I know for a fact you don't swing that way. Are you switching teams in your old age? Or are you not even playing the game?"

"So many things wrong with these sentences," Coulson moans into his hands. "So many things."

"There are so many betting pools on you I'm losing track of how much money I have riding on what outcomes."

It figures that Fury plays them all like poker even when he's off the clock. "That's what you have secretaries for, sir."

"I don't want to encourage insider trading."

"You trust your secretary with level--what, 11?--classified data, but not your opinion on my love life?" Fury doesn't even blink. "Interesting priorities, sir. I'll keep that in mind." He rubs at the headache blooming between his eyes. "What did Clint say to you?"

"He said that I should pull my head out of my ass."

"Goddamnit."

"I see where he gets his mouth."

"Sir, I am so sorry--"

"He said I should pull my head out of my ass and take a good look at you. He seemed to think that I don't know what's been going on with you." For a split second Phil thinks Fury's talking about his crush on his jailbait asset. "I've been asking you to do a lot of work for me lately. Sensitive work."

He's been having Coulson handle interrogations. Intake reports on hostile subjects. Debriefs of dying agents. Work that leaves Coulson feeling drained, and old, and dirty in a way that he can't figure out how to wash away.

"I know it's not easy. But be honest with me, Phil. Can you handle what I'm asking of you? Do I need to find someone else to do it, or--" Fury hesitates, which Coulson's never seen him do before. "Or have I been asking you to do things that no one should be asked to do?"

Phil sags into Fury's uncomfortable chair and stares at his boss's desk. "I honestly don't know, sir." He scrubs his hands over his face, trying to wake himself up, trying to help himself see this clearly. "We've both seen worse. When we served--"

"Just because someone else is doing it doesn't mean it's right. And it doesn't mean that you should be the one doing it."

"What does Hill think?"

"She told me that asking the question was the important part. I can't tell if she was angry about it or if she approved. That woman is always judging me."

"It's the eyebrows," Coulson says. "They're so skeptical. For what it's worth, sir--I'll do whatever you tell me to do. No questions, no hesitation. But you--you've been asking me to do things that I..." His jaw works convulsively, because he doesn't want to have to speak like this to his boss, let alone to one of his oldest friends. "I know there are times when the nice way and the quick way aren't going to be the same, but maybe..."

"Maybe I should be doing the dirty work myself?"

"No, sir, that's not what I mean. You're the face of SHIELD now." Scarred and damaged and terrifying, Fury is the face of their organization, its face and drive, if not its heart. "I think it's possible that we've been choosing the quick and easy way too often."

There's a reason Fury clawed his way into his position. There's a reason SHIELD's growing as fast as it is.

They're gaining a reputation for being ruthless. They used to be known for their cunning.

"I trust you, sir. I'll trust you even if you admit to making mistakes now and then." Coulson's thinking of Brazil and the woman he'd found there, bleeding in the rubble. She'd been a murderer, but she'd been damaged, and Coulson knows, he knew where her weak spots were and that he'd made them weaker, he knows he exploited her pain to get the information they needed.

Fury says, "Vancouver," and, yes, that had been a massive fuck-up. They'd been on a mutant's trail, but at the end of the road they'd just found a recently returned soldier with flashbacks and a shit ton of ordinance. They'd sacrificed the city block he'd been hiding in when Coulson couldn't talk him down in the time frame Fury had set.

"I'm always going to have work to do that is going to be dark, and messy, and unpleasant." Fury looks him straight in the eye. Coulson looks at the scars around the eyepatch, which he almost never does. "You're the most human person I know. If taking care of these things starts to change that, you let me know--or send your pet assassin with another message--and I'll figure something else out. Until then..."

"Until then, I'll keep being Coulson," Phil says, remembering Clint's quiet words. "I'll do what needs to be done. I'll take care of things."

Fury actually smiles at that. "Thank you, Phil. That will be all."

*

He goes down to Clint's quarters in a state somewhere between shock and rage. Clint's obviously been waiting for him, because he answers the door after the first knock, and says, "Fury?" before Coulson gets a word out.

"You had no right. No right."

"I know."

"You--how dare you--"

"You should come in," Clint says, half-hiding behind his door when he opens it for Coulson. Coulson's the one who slams it shut once he's inside. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, but I--" He licks his lips and Coulson follows the movement of his tongue because Clint’s lips are never far from Coulson's thoughts and right now nothing's in place, nothing's in the right order.

"Why did you go to Fury?"

"Felt like it."

"For fuck's sake, Barton--"

"Because I was worried about you, okay? I worry about you."

"You--you worry about me? You're not my superior officer, and you're sure as hell not my mother."

"Well, fuck you too. You get to worry about me all the time. You complain about it every frickin' day. 'Eat your vegetables, Barton, you're going to get scurvy.' 'Wear your armguards.' 'Make conversation with people who aren't me.' 'Put your--'"

"I get it. I get it. Just--I'm just not used to it."

"Well, get used to it." Clint glares at him, but it's missing its usual threat, its usual fire. "I need to know, sir. What are you going to do?"

"Do, Barton?"

"To me. For--for what I did."

Coulson closes his eyes. He usually feels safe in Clint's quarters, as if he owns them, a little bit; he had been the one to give them to Clint, after all. Right now he feels like he's at sea and the floors are waves under his feet.

"I'll probably yell at you a bit more," he says. "Maybe have Bullet run you through your paces in the morning. Have you copy out some lines about respecting other people's privacy and the chain of command on a chalkboard a couple thousand times." Clint looks confused. He probably hadn't been in school long enough to pick up that particular punishment. "I'm not sending you back to prison over this. I won't do that no matter what you do."

"I didn't think you would," Clint says. Coulson manages to work up enough energy to raise an eyebrow. "Well, I was pretty sure."

"I don't know if I'll ever trust you again. And if I do, I don't know how long it will take. But--but I understand why you did it." He's felt stretched thin for months now. It's easier knowing that he's not alone in this. "Thank you."

Clint nods slowly, warily, still keeping his distance. Coulson feels like a lion in a cage. Clint had probably had dealings with lions back in his circus days. Coulson doesn't even have claws; he doesn't know why Clint's scared. Or, he admits to himself, maybe he does.

"Fury thinks I want to sleep with you," he says, because he's already let so many secrets go today; why not break this one open, too? "He's part of a betting pool."

Clint's eyes go even wider. He takes another step away from Phil. "I don't--I didn't say anything about that, sir. I wouldn't."

"Wouldn't tell Fury about the betting pool, or about the fact that I want to fuck you?"

"Neither, I--I wouldn't--" A choked off noise breaks its way through Clint's throat. "You want to fuck me?" Instead of the fear that Coulson's always imagined would be there, there's hope.

"No, that's not--that's not what I--" It infuriates him that he’s too off-kilter to articulate this; it’s too important for him not to.

"With all due respect, sir--Phil--you're the one who told me that there's a difference between not saying 'no,' and saying 'yes.'" Jealousy, sickly and old, sweeps through him. He knows Clint's been with other people. (And under the jealously, under the anger and confusion and want that he can't control, there's sorrow. When he'd gotten Clint out of prison his throat had been abraded because it had been abused by a foreign object. A nightstick, jammed into his mouth, because--Clint's words--he could be a mouthy shit sometimes. Clint's probably said 'No' more times than Coulson wants to imagine.)

Clint shifts his weight uneasily before he continues. "So just if you're curious--just if it matters, and, maybe it doesn't--if you wanted to kiss me again, even after everything I did, I'd say yes."

After everything Clint did. Buying Coulson books and having the caf make him donuts for his birthday. Asking questions about his family and getting him coffee with just the right amount of cream and Sweet'N Low without Coulson asking. Clint, who threatened Fury because he was worried about Coulson. After everything Clint has done, yes, Coulson does indeed want to kiss him.

He takes a step forward. The floor feels steadier under his feet, but he feels like a lion again; he feels like a predator. Clint matches him step for step. They meet at the edge of the kitchenette counter. The beta fish that Marlene had bought Clint for his birthday swims in circles in his little tank by their elbows. Clint had named the fish Betsy, which is also what he calls his bow; in some areas of his life he's startlingly uncreative.

"Yes, I want to kiss you." Coulson murmurs the words into Clint's lips and kisses the gasp out of his mouth. Clint's lips are soft and already open, and it's more than Coulson ever let himself hope that he might get. Clint moves closer and wraps his hands around Coulson's face, his fingers curling around the edges of Coulson's jaw, his thumbs brushing over his cheekbones. Clint's more careful than Coulson thought he'd be. And just as greedy as he'd always hoped. Clint's hands pull Coulson tight and his tongue pushes at the seam of Coulson's mouth; Coulson hums happily when one of Clint's hands drifts forward and clutches at Coulson's neck.

He raises his hands to Clint's hips, resting on the sharp lines of Clint's hipbones, which he can still feel, even though they're covered now with a thin layer of fat and an indecent amount of muscle. His hands stay there when Clint leans back and takes a deep breath. "I--this is--" His eyes search Phil's face. They're close enough that it makes him go crosseyed, and it's adorable, and there's really nothing Coulson can do except step back.

"You're eighteen," he whispers, like it's a secret Clint didn't know. "You're eighteen, and under my supervision, and I can't--I shouldn't--this isn't right." There's something inside of him tearing apart. He feels every bruise he's inflicted with his hands, he feels every threat he's ever frightened someone with, he feels like he's as inhuman as Clint and Fury fear he might become. Clint looks heartbroken. Coulson thinks of every hurt he's responsible for and knows that this one might be the worst; it is by far the most personal.

Clint nods and looks at the beta fish wandering in unconcerned circles in the bowl next to them and keeps nodding as he puts his hands back into his pockets, both of them pretending his hands aren't trembling.

"You know--I could have had sex with about a dozen people since you got me out of prison," Clint says. "But I didn't. I figure you--you probably know that I've been fucked before. And sometimes I said 'no' and they didn't listen, and sometimes I didn't say 'no,' but I sure as hell didn't say 'yes'. But since I got out..." His voice fades, and Coulson wonders if that's his cue to say something, or leave, or kiss Clint again, which he can't let himself do (he can't, he can't, he wants to too badly, he can't).

"There's lots of people I could have said 'yes' to. But I want my first time--my first 'yes' fuck--to be special." Clint shrugs. "I'll wait for you, if it's the age difference, I'll wait until I'm nineteen, or twenty, or however old you need me to be for it to feel okay. If it's because of rank, I'll wait till I get promoted or move to a different department.

"But if it's because you don't want me because of--because I'm a man, or just not your type, or too--too fucked up, then you should tell me, and I'll...I guess I'll just wait and hope there comes a time when I stop wanting you, too."

Coulson wishes there was paperwork for this. Wishes there was an equation he could use, so he could put in all the broken variables that make up Clint and Phil and see what the right answer is supposed to be.

"The worst thing I can do is hurt you," Coulson says. He swallows convulsively, a physical shock actually going through him. He hasn't said anything that uncalculatedly honest in years. "And I think that if we do this--if we get involved--it's going to end with you hurt."

Clint shrugs, like he'd already thought of that and discarded it out of hand; Clint's never put his own well-being in front of anyone else's. "That's always a possibility. But I know that if you say no, that's definitely going to hurt me. And if you say yes--if we give this a try--maybe no one gets hurt. Maybe this is..." He pauses, searching for words. Coulson wants to laugh: here they are, two deadly, strong, skilled, talented men, floundering in such shallow waters. "Maybe this is something good. Maybe you hurt me, or probably I'd hurt you, but--but I really--" He licks his lips, and Coulson follows the motion, and he knows Yes is his answer before Clint finishes with, "I really want you. All of you. And I'll wait--"

Coulson kisses the rest of that sentence out of his mouth and says, "Yes," when they stumble against the wall, "Yes," when Clint leans into him and slots their hips together, "Kiss me," when Clint looks at him with wide eyes and asks him what to do next.

"I don't want to sleep with you," Phil says. Clint's face freezes and Coulson adds, "Yet, I don't want to sleep with you yet, but I do want to sleep with you. I promise, I want to--I want to--" He wants to leave trails of kisses down Clint's bare arms and lick the muscles in his shoulders, he wants to ghost his lips over every single ticklish inch of Clint's skin that he's yet to discover, he wants to take Clint's cock in his mouth until his jaw is too sore to continue, but he doesn't want to tell Clint that. He doesn't want Clint to think that Phil (like so many other people in Clint's life) only wants him for his body. "I want to take things slow."

"You mean, like, lots of foreplay?" Clint asks. Coulson bites back a laugh because Clint is actually being serious.

"No, I mean--I want to date you first," he says. Clint laughs, confused, and turns a skeptical eye towards him.

"Like, flowers, and restaurants, and shit like that?"

Coulson shrugs. "Or maybe a picnic on the roof or a trip to the new shooting range Bullet keeps talking about. Things you'll enjoy doing. Things we'd enjoy doing together."

Clint purses his lips and his eyebrows draw together. "You're a weird guy, sir."

"I know."

"So you don't want to fuck me?"

"Not today."

"But you like kissing me?"

"More than I can say."

Clint's staring at him like he's a particularly convoluted piece of paperwork. "You're putting off fucking so that we can..."

"So that we can get to know each other better."

"You already know me better than anyone else," Clint says with a huff. He pushes forward into Coulson's space and kisses him hard. Coulson opens his mouth and lets Clint take him over. Eventually he presses gently on Clint's shoulders, and Clint backs off.

"If we're going to do this, I want to do it right. I don't want to hurt you. I want to make you feel..." Cherished. Loved. "Safe."

"You already do that."

"I'm asking you for this, Clint. Please?"

Clint's still eyeing him suspiciously, but eventually he nods. "Dates," Clint says. "Don't buy me flowers, though. You can buy me chocolate. That's a date thing, right? And make me dinner. I'll--I'll plan something too." Phil smiles, then rolls his eyes when Clint adds, "Just so you know, the date I'm planning involves a lot of lube and possibly some SHIELD issue handcuffs. I'll even file the appropriate forms to check the handcuffs out from the supply department. I know how that turns you on."

"I wish I'd left you in prison," he grumbles, still holding onto Clint's shoulders.

"No, you don't."

"I wonder who won the betting pool," Coulson says, running his hands through Clint's hair (he can't believe he's allowed to touch like this, but it's okay, because Clint looks amazed when Coulson reaches out for him).

"I think Fitzsimmons," Clint murmurs.

Clint grabs Coulson's wrist, his fingers on his pulse, his thumb rubbing small circles. "I'm glad you're the one Fury sent to get me," Clint says, quietly, like a confession. Coulson laughs, and smiles his Clint smile, and kisses Clint, thinking about the angry, terrified kid who'd spit blood at him across an interrogation table, chains clinking with every move he made like a belated chorus of bells.

"I'm glad too," Coulson thinks, remembering his impatience with Clint, his impotent anger, the distance he'd tried to keep between them that Clint had slowly worked his way through. Fury had probably planned the whole damn thing. "Want to have breakfast with me in the morning?"

Clint smiles. "As long as you're okay with getting up early. I'll bring it to the office, but I'll warn you: my boss is a total grouch before he has his coffee. I have to make sure I grab it from the caf before he gets in." Coulson lets out a shuddering breath that he'd meant to be a laugh. Clint curves his strong, lean body around Phil's tired form, and holds him until his breathing steadies again.

"That sounds good," he says, holding onto Clint's wrists, no bruises or tracker in his way. Clint presses his forehead into the space between Coulson's neck and shoulder and says, "Thanks," before falling silent.

Coulson holds on, wondering if he's made the right choice, hoping that his selfishness, his desire, is bringing him closer to the human being Clint and Fury think he still is, instead of the monster that he knows he can become.