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Fury says, “Coulson, I’ve got a job and only you can do it.”

Phil allows himself to crack the tiniest of tiny smiles. There is something incredibly gratifying about being found indispensable to a shadowy, secretive government organization, but then Fury ruins everything and follows that up with, “You’re going on a diner stakeout tonight.”

Diner stakeouts mean meetings with potential contacts. Diner stakeouts mean sitting for hours eating greasy food and hoping that said contact actually decides to come in. Diner stakeouts are what junior agents cut their teeth on, and Phil is a junior agent but he’s not that junior.

“Sir,” Phil says, only partly a question. He tamps down viciously on passing thoughts of milkshakes.

Fury leans back in his chair and regards him with one eye. Phil has no idea what he’s seeing. He knows what he wants Fury to see, which is a hyper-competent, unflappable government agent capable of following orders and thinking outside the box, but he suspects that what Fury sees is what the rest of the world tends to see: sort of weedy, balding just a little, probably really great at paperwork.

“I have a talent,” Fury tells him, at last, while Phil continues to stand at attention. “That talent is the ability to recognize unique abilities in others and then deploy those same talented individuals in a way that best serves this organization. Would you like to know what your talent is, Agent Coulson?”

“Sir,” Phil says, again.

Fury grins at him, which is downright terrifying. “I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise,” he says. He slides a white stub of paper across his desk. “The address, and your target. Wear something you can run in.”

//

There is a name printed on the paper, beneath the diner address: “Clint Barton.” In parentheses beneath it, in small, scrunched up block letters, someone else has added, “(Hawkeye, world’s Greatest marksman)”. His orders are to bring this Barton in without committing serious bodily harm, or, ideally, any harm at all; Barton is to be viewed as an asset in need of assistance. He has been authorized to use an agency credit card to pay for bribes in the form of burgers and fries.

Phil slides into a booth and prepares to settle in for the long haul, but the bell above the door rings almost immediately. Phil glances up just in time to see a kid -- and it’s definitely a kid, maybe fifteen or sixteen -- skulk through the door and glance around, a little anxiously. He catches sight of Phil and makes a beeline for him, stopping just short of the booth. Up this close, Phil can see the thin layer of grime coating his skin, the way his eyes dart around the room, hypervigilant, and the careful way he's standing, protecting his ribs and his left forearm. Weakness, Phil assesses automatically, and then, mindful of his orders and the relative youth of his target, re-diagnoses that as injury. They stare at one another for a moment.

The kid clears his throat. “You Fury?”

“I - no,” Phil says. “I’m Agent Coulson. Are you --”

“I’m not talking to anyone but Fury,” probably-Clint-Barton says. He takes a single step back from the table, wary, which doesn’t actually put him out of Phil’s range but clearly makes him feel better.

“Deputy Director Fury is a very busy man,” says Phil. “He sent me here personally.”

“Prove it,” probably-Barton says. He clenches his right hand into a fist, carefully shoves the left one inside his jacket in a suspicious way, and scowls at Phil, who examines this slightly more aggressive posture with a sense of growing disbelief. The kid is maybe 5’7”, looks like he could probably stand to sit down and eat a bribery burger or six, and definitely doesn’t have a gun in his pocket; Phil is in a suit but he’s got running shoes on his feet and nearly ten years of training and field-experience from several different covert agencies. He has this in the bag.

“I don’t have to prove anything to you,” Phil says, and definitely-Barton bolts immediately, which means that was the wrong answer and also that Fury is going to do that intense-stare-disappointed-face he gets when someone fucks up.

Phil leaps up after him and out the diner door, and they race through the city streets, dodging in and out of the circles of light provided by the street lamps. Barton is fast, and not above knocking over garbage cans and diving through crowds of late-night tourists. Phil dodges a rolling trash bin, hurdles over a stroller with a real live baby inside it, sprints between the back bumper of a minivan and the front bumper of a taxi, and then promptly trips headfirst into a girl with a skateboard. She stumbles out of the way, cursing, but Phil’s momentum takes him and the skateboard another three feet, where he’s clotheslined by an actual clothesline and manages to spin into Barton, who has been taken out by the skateboard that preceded Phil by about four seconds.

They collapse together in the alley, both groaning pitifully. Several shirts flutter down to land on them. “I’m here,” Phil pants, “to take you to people who can help, not hurt.” He reaches gingerly beneath himself and tugs at the skateboard, wedged under his back.

“This does not feel like helping,” the kid moans. Phil clambers painfully to his feet and then reaches back to help Barton up, careful of his arm and ribs. He’s actually more solid than he appears, and as Phil drags him to his feet, he can feel the shift of muscles in his arms and the calluses on his hands that speak to both earnest physical labour and, potentially, weaponry.

“I’ll buy you fries to eat in the car on the way to Fury,” Phil offers. He grasps lightly at the left sleeve of Barton’s jacket, which the kid glances at, suspicious, then apparently decides to allow.

“Deal,” Barton says.

He inhales the fries and two burgers, but he “accidentally” squirts two ketchup packets all over Phil’s suit jacket before they’re even halfway back to base. Phil can’t say he’s sorry to leave him in Medical’s tender loving care and escape back to his own apartment for the night.

//

“You didn’t tell me it was a kid,” Phil tells Fury during his morning debrief. He’s covered in skateboard-shaped bruises under his suit, and he’s pretty sure he saw Barton lurking in the hallways this morning. He definitely saw a team of medical and security staff, equipped with walkie talkies, roaming the hallways in a grid pattern.

“He’s seventeen,” says Fury, and at Phil’s disbelieving look, adds, “by about two weeks.”

“Why is he here?” Phil asks. He tacks on a belated “Sir” when Fury starts to look amused.

“Young Mr Barton has no legal guardians,” Fury says. “Want to know what he does have? That’s rhetorical, Agent, you don’t have to answer that. He has a rap sheet, a legal duty as a witness in a federal investigation, at least three people actively trying to kill him, and the most spectacular aim I’ve ever seen.”

Phil processes that. “Can I amend my question to how is he here?”

“The agency did some wheeling and dealing. We get him until he turns eighteen or until people are no longer trying to kill him, whichever comes first. Sound good?”

Translation: there’s something big going down, and the only thing they get to deal with is the leftover belligerent teenager none of the other agencies wanted to handle.

“Yes, sir,” Phil says.

Fury regards him for a moment with an expression of benign calm. Phil longs for the day when he will finally achieve that same ability to project complete and utter zen competence. “You’re a responsible adult, aren’t you?” Fury says finally, which is absolutely a trick question, but yes, Phil is twenty-seven years old, and he is definitely a motherfucking adult. If they gave gold stars for adulthood, Phil would have at least ten of them.

“Yes,” Phil says, because he knows it's a trap but that doesn't mean he knows how to escape it.

“Barton has clearly imprinted on you,” Fury starts, and keeps talking right over Phil’s knee-jerk, horrified, “He has not,” to seal Phil’s doom by saying, “so I’ve decided that you’re going to take primary responsibility for him from now on.”

“Oh, god,” Phil says, faintly, before he can stop himself.

“The team psychologists think he needs a 'stable home environment', so I went ahead and arranged for a suite of rooms for the two of you; no no, Coulson, no need to worry, your belongings have already been transferred for you.”

The last time that Phil was responsible for something living was two years ago. He had a fern, he kept forgetting to water it, it languished, he overcompensated with an entire watering can, it died. He can’t take care of a person. He most especially can’t take care of Barton, who’s a little shit and thinks Phil’s the shady government equivalent of a block of wood, and shows him a commensurate level of respect. “Sir,” Phil says, despairingly, but Fury just smiles at him again.

“You are definitely the right man for the job,” he says. “I’ll send Barton’s file over later today for you to review. Don’t let us down, Agent Coulson.”

There’s really nothing else to say to that.

//

As promised, all of Phil’s worldly possessions have been transferred out of his one-bedroom apartment located a convenient eight blocks from base, and into a two-bedroom suite three floors beneath the surface of said base. Phil steps inside and experiences an instantaneous desire for sunlight as well as a small shiver of fear; he hasn’t had a roommate since before the long-dead fern, and hasn’t wanted one in longer.

Barton very clearly feels similarly, if the horrified face he makes when he’s escorted into the suite and sees Phil standing there is any indication. “You,” Barton says.

“Me,” Phil agrees. His face is trying to make an expression again; over the last few years he’s been patiently working on perfecting his blandly pleasant mask, but it really wants to make the same horrified face that Barton is directing at him.

“Good luck, sir,” the security officer who brought Barton in says, cheerful and definitely a little mean. Phil makes a mental note to exact some revenge at a later date. Barton glares at the officer’s retreating back, shuffles carefully around Phil without breaking eye contact with him, and then slams the bathroom door and locks it with great finality.

Phil remembers being a teenager. He remembers eating anything that sat still long enough, being the worst sort of petty shit to his mother, wearing too much cologne and being incapable of washing his clothes, and maybe worst of all, being utterly convinced that nothing terrible would ever happen to him.

Phil had that last point disproved to him in an incredibly traumatic fashion when he was a little older than Barton is now, but he can already tell that Barton falls under the category of teenager that knows, intimately, that terrible things can and will happen to them, believes in it as an inevitability, and no longer cares enough to try very hard to avoid it.

And now it’s Phil’s job to make sure that nothing happens to him. Yeah, that sinking feeling in his stomach? That's dread.

//

For the first month, living with a teenager is not actually the worst thing in the world. Weird? Yes. Inconvenient? Yes. Actively destructive to Phil’s sense of self-worth, career, and lifestyle? Not usually.

Phil reads the background file that Fury sends over, which is full of things like “orphan” and “circus” and “bow and arrows” (really?) and “federal investigation” and “witness” and, between the lines, “betrayal”, and then he tries to interact with Clint and mostly gets “sullen teen” and “rude” and “deliberately cruel”. He understands what that means and why it’s happening, but that doesn’t mean he likes it or, more importantly, knows how to make it better.

That first day, Barton eventually emerges from the bathroom after Phil gives up and pounds on the door. They get into three separate arguments before Phil notices that Barton has a plain white cast on his left arm, just barely peeking out from under the sleeve of his black agency-issue hoodie, which doesn’t speak well for Phil’s observational skills. Barton claims the couch as his own and curls up sullenly in the corner of it and refuses to move, eyes tracking Phil any time he so much as twitches.

Phil slowly gets used to this, just like he gets used to making extra breakfast in the mornings, Barton draped sleepy-eyed over various kitchen chairs, weirdly still, watching Phil make coffee and crack eggs. Phil has never been stared at so much in his entire life.

Barton is, theoretically, here of his own free will, but Phil isn’t terribly comfortable with the idea that the only other alternative was “out on the streets, where people are trying to kill him”. Still, they make the best of it; Barton is allowed off-base if someone goes with him, and sometimes he tags along to the training rooms and watches Phil throw knives around (a skillset marked as “needs improvement” on his last yearly qualifier, to Phil’s eternal horror) or joins him on the treadmills. Barton grumbles a lot about losing his bows and losing his "edge", but medical refuses to let him touch them yet; Fury apparently has them locked away somewhere and not even Phil knows where they’ve gone.

"So I can't give them back," Phil explains.

"Yeah, that would totally happen," Clint says, panting hard one treadmill over. Phil resents the sentiment but can’t argue with it.

Phil arranges protection details and they go on supervised excursions to the park, to the library, to a clothing store, all of which are conducted in a sort of awkward silence punctuated by periodic insults, which is basically Phil’s entire life, right now. The park is a bust, because Barton just gazes longingly at the trees like he wants to be scaling them. The library is also a bust, because Barton vanishes around a shelf instead of looking for GED test books and is Missing Presumed Something Awful until he reappears nearly an hour later. Phil strongly suspects he was in the ceiling, which is just -- what, what even? The clothing store is better; Barton picks out six t-shirts in varying shades of purple and a pair of big black stompy boots and dark sunglasses, and Phil makes him pick out pants before handing over the agency credit card, which Barton steals.

Phil realizes this during the third week of their cohabitation, when Fury calls him into his office and asks why he’s been purchasing porn on VHS on the company dime.

“If I could erase the memory of Deputy Director Fury saying the word erotica,” Phil says, when he stomps back into their suite and finds Barton curled up in his usual spot on the couch, “that would honestly improve my quality of life.”

Barton curls up a bit tighter but actually cracks something close to a real, genuine smile, which makes Phil experience a surreal mix of rage and warm fuzzies. He shuts himself in his bedroom and looks in the mirror and says, “What is happening to me?”, before going back out to promise Barton that there will be hell to pay if that credit card does not reappear and also tell him no, Fury will not give his bow back yet, and yes, Phil asked.

So maybe Barton’s grown on him a little. Like a fungus.

//

Except.

Phil comes back from a day-mission -- thank god, thank god, the agency still assigns him field duty on occasion, even if it’s never overnight and the other agents make snide remarks behind his back about Mary Poppins and nannies and babysitting -- to find Clint throwing kitchen knives at the wall while munching on an apple. Phil’s first thought is, Oh good, he’s eating fruit, because Phil doesn’t do things by halves, yes, even bogus guardianship gigs, but his second thought mostly consists of exclamation marks.

“Coulson, I have seen you do literally the same thing I am doing,” Barton says, when Phil verbalises those exclamation marks, mouth full and eyes flashing, “you fucking hypocrite.”

Yeah, in an agency-certified training room. Phil can take a lot of verbal abuse, but being called a hypocrite is right near the top of his ‘Oh No You Didn’t’ list. This is an overreaction Phil thinks, helped along by his own personal tics and the echo of “Agent Nanny” in his ears, but: “Big five dollar word,” he says. He knows his carefully-maintained facial expression of bland politeness is giving way to his ragey face, but can’t seem to stop himself. “You sure you can afford that?”

Clint goes white, and then an angry, flushed red. “Fuck you,” he says, and tosses the last knife into the floor. He kicks a chair over on his way out. The bedroom door slams.

Phil waits a few moments before giving in and gently bumping his head against the wall a few times.

Barton has magical, button-pushing powers, is the thing. It’s not just that he throws knives at walls or “gets lost” in libraries or practically lives in the ventilation; it’s like he senses exactly which topics Phil doesn’t want to talk about or can’t even deal with without losing his cool, and he seems to take gleeful, masochistic delight in hitting upon every. single. one of them. And then Phil is mean back and Clint is revealed to be seventeen again, alone and brash and terrified of being hurt, and Phil is revealed to be a terrible human being.

As arguments go, this isn’t even their worst one, but weeks of vying for the bathroom and snide comments and worst of all, getting to know one another (the better to hurt one another, apparently) lends the incident more weight than it maybe deserves. It also marks the end of a truce that Phil had no idea existed until suddenly it doesn't, anymore.

Barton stops following Phil to the training rooms. He hides in the ceilings constantly and starts stealing supplies from medical. He alternates sitting completely still with bouncing off the walls; he soaks his cast in the bathtub and then goes at it with a saw, and Phil gets the unpleasant job of locating him in the air ducts and bringing him to medical to get re-casted for another two weeks. Phil is not the right size to crawl through the ventilation system, and he has the bruises to prove it.

//

It gets worse. In the middle of month two, Barton leaves without telling anyone.

The phone rings at one in the morning, which is actually business as usual for Phil, except that the voice on the other end says, “Is this Clinton Barton’s legal guardian?” and, “This is the police department,” and Phil’s stomach stop drops down to his feet, leaving him feeling vaguely nauseous. Oh god. There are a thousand different scenarios that could have led to this phone call, including the three people still floating in the wind with a documented desire to slit Barton’s throat, and Phil can only hope that --

“Your, uh, ward has been -- we found him hitching a ride on the back of a motorcycle. The vehicle operator was extremely inebriated,” the voice says, ignoring Phil’s outraged what? “Mr Barton is fortunate that nothing happened --”

Phil doesn’t get to hear the rest because he’s stumbling into his pants and shoes and grabbing his ID and praying to god that nobody has called Fury or will have to call Fury.

When he gets to the station, he immediately spots Clint wedged into a corner. He looks only a little worse for the wear, and his expression when he glances up to see Phil standing there is almost relieved.

“What were you thinking,” Phil hisses. “There are people trying to kill you!”

“I know that,” Clint hisses back. He flashes the cast on his arm in Phil’s direction. “I absolutely know that. I just -- I just needed to -- I wasn’t running away. I just had to meet up with someone.”

“Who?” Phil demands. There’s a police officer approaching, looking wary. Phil reigns his body language in with great effort, which makes Clint roll his eyes but causes the officer to appear slightly less concerned.

“No one,” Clint mutters.

“Don’t even think that we’re dropping that,” Phil says, “but to move on to more pressing matters: did you seriously think hitching a ride with a drunk man on a motorbike was the best mode of transportation? Think carefully before you answer that.”

“I had no way to get around!” Clint shouts at him, just in time for the police officer to join them. “What else was I supposed to do?”

“Call a cab?” Phil says. “Or better yet: not be out in the first place?” The police officer shoots him a sympathetic look, which Clint notices and seems to find incredibly insulting; this observation is confirmed when he suddenly drops the enraged expression. His eyes fill with tears and Phil, alarmed, realizes what’s happening about five seconds too late to stop Clint from opening his mouth and making terrible accusations about the level of care he has been receiving in their secret government base.

“This is not what it looks like,” Phil says, but it takes another three hours and six phone calls from Fury before they’re allowed to leave the station together. By that time, Clint’s triumph at fucking Phil over has faded, and they’re both exhausted and bedraggled by the time they get home. “I guess I have somewhat renewed faith in the system,” Phil tells Fury over the landline. It was ringing when they got in the door; Phil imagines Fury sitting at his desk at four in the morning, patiently letting the phone ring for who knows how long.

It only takes ten minutes to wrap up his conversation with Fury and promise not to let this happen again, but those ten minutes are somehow more exhausting than the previous three hours combined.

“Is this really so awful?” Phil asks, collapsing into the armchair. He can barely keep his eyes open. Clint is facedown on the sofa, resolutely ignoring him. His shoes are shedding little chunks of dried mud all over the cushions. “You came with us voluntarily; we feed you, we clothe you, we keep you safe.”

Clint mumbles something that Phil doesn’t quite catch. “What was that?” Phil prompts.

“I dunno,” Clint says, turning his head to the side. He’s staring at the couch instead of making eye contact, but least Phil can actually make out what he’s saying, now, even if it’s not particularly helpful.

“Maybe,” Phil says, “you need to do something that’s -- maybe if we -- I guess we could do something fun?”

“Like you know what fun is,” Clint mutters.

Phil decides not to take offense, because that is the grown-up thing to do, and Barton's bleak expression is making something in Phil's chest hurt. “Your file says you don’t have your driver’s license,” Phil says, the seed of an idea taking hold in his mind. “What if we changed that? And then maybe there could be arrangements for driving privileges.”

“I can drive,” Clint says, but he shifts a little on the couch so that he’s staring at the ceiling instead of curled into an unhappy little ball.

“Not legally,” Phil says.

“Can you guys just -- print me off a license?”

“Definitely not,” Phil says, although they probably could. “Driving lessons. Then a test.”

“And then a car?” Clint says, hopefully. He darts a glance at Phil, then looks away, quickly. He clearly doesn’t actually expect to be awarded car privileges.

Fuck that. “And then a car,” Phil promises. Fury is definitely going to kill him.

//

“No, no, no – Barton – oh god, swerve -- swerve, swerve--”

“Just stop talking! Stop talking! I can’t concentrate when you’re shouting ‘swerve’ all the time!”

Phil maintains a death grip on the granny handle and tells himself that this is good practice for future car chases. “You said you knew how to drive!”

“I do,” Clint exclaims. Oh, he’s offended now. Probably he will take that out on Phil in new and exciting ways once they get home. “It’s all these other people! They have no idea what they’re doing.”

“CURB,” Phil says, urgently. Fury will never get a chance to kill him; he’s going to die in an agency parking lot filled with agency security officers who all jumped at the chance to help Barton learn defensive driving skills. Phil sat in on one of their department staff meetings last week as a special guest; the other special guest was Fury, who is the sort of special guest you never ever want showing up at your all-personnel emergency meetings. The department supervisor spent forty-five minutes demonstrating to everyone exactly how Barton got out and exactly why this had brought shame to the entire security office, Fury nodding solemnly in the background. Phil suspects very strongly that Security has taken it personally.

Clint is swearing pretty much continuously now, low and under his breath. Phil still doesn’t have any confirmation of who he was trying to see that night, although he has plenty of suspicions and none of them are good. Asking directly is unlikely to be productive, so instead he’s decided to lie in wait; chances are pretty high that Clint will try again, and when he does, Phil will be ready for it (and so will the Security Department, he has been assured).

//

Barton is more careful, in the aftermath of his last little adventure, but Phil gets the odd report that he’s been breaking into offices and calling payphones. Once the cast comes off (“FINALLY”) Barton is somehow even more elusive. Security seems to be cracking under the pressure (“Why can’t we catch him,” he hears one wail during a staff meeting; the department head is developing an eye twitch), but Fury says it’s good practice for them.

The day after the cast comes off, Clint gets called in to talk to a judge in closed chambers and Phil is not allowed inside; three separate legal assistants stare at him suspiciously as he paces around outside the door, which is basically the opposite of what he wants. His secret agent effectiveness is based very strongly on a bland outward persona and appearance; people are often more than willing to completely disregard him once he actually slips into his groove, but sometimes getting there is difficult.

“How’d it go?” Phil asks, once Barton is released from room and they begin to make their way back to the agency car. Phil is thinking of letting him drive, because Clint’s face is very pale and his jaw is very set; whatever was said, in there, Phil is willing to bet it wasn’t very fun.

“Fine,” Clint says, abrupt. He’s rubbing his newly-revealed arm, absently, expression distant. “I gotta pee,” he says, and speed-walks away down the hall without waiting for Phil to answer. He’s in the bathroom for a suspiciously long time, and Phil foolishly decides to respect his privacy -- it looked like tears were imminent, and Phil is really not emotionally prepared to deal with anyone being sad. When Clint finally makes his way back out into the hallway, though, Phil catches a glimpse of a vent cover, left slightly ajar.

Fuck,” says Phil.

“Hmm?” says Clint.

“... Don’t worry about it,” says Phil, because at this point, Phil really should know better. Fool me once, et cetera. Oh, what a surprise, Barton went off-book and took to the ventilation system for an unknown purpose! Shocking! Phil is not lacking in brains but oh, god, he is really not on a roll when it comes to this kid.

//

Whatever happened in the judge’s chambers, and whatever happened when Clint was MIA for fifteen minutes -- Phil suspects a phonecall to the same mysterious someone Clint’s been attempting to contact for the last two months -- the living situation, and Phil’s tentatively improving relationship with Barton, takes another sudden nosedive.

“My sister did this, after our mom died,” Dr. Claasen says, when Phil stops by with Barton in tow; he’d discovered Clint locked in the bathroom, attempting to cook up hallucinogenic drugs with supplies stolen from Medical. They shouted for a bit and then Phil had a small moment of stomach-churning worry regarding fumes and drugs and Clint’s general health, and now here they are. “He’s pushing to see if he can find the line.”

“I am more than happy to just tell him where the line is,” Phil says. Clint’s usual despondent face-plant into the couch is sounding awfully tempting, right now, but there’s no way he’s doing that in the tiny waiting room while Dr. Claasen is still around; she’s nearing retirement age and already thinks he’s hilariously young.

“Oh, honey,” she says. Case in point.

//

Fury stops by a week into the third month to return Barton’s bow and a full quiver of arrows. There’s a towel draped over the TV and a food-encrusted bowl on the couch and socks scattered periodically throughout the apartment, but Fury just takes it all in, looking vaguely amused, and holds out Barton’s gear. Barton gives up on looking cool and collected and races over to snatch them out of Fury’s hands, murmuring at them lovingly.

“Looking good, Agent,” Fury says on his way back out the door. Phil can’t tell whether or not that’s sarcastic.

“Wanna see what I can do?” Barton says. He’s stroking his thumb up and down the curve of the bow, looking more at peace than Phil has ever seen him. “There’s a range in this place, right?”

“Yeah,” Phil says. “Now? I’ve got some time --”

“No, no, not now, oh my god, I’m so out of shape it’s not even funny,” Clint says, making a face. “Gimme a week, maybe, and then I’m going to blow your little mind.”

“It takes a lot to do that,” Phil says.

“Not as much as you’d like it to take, though,” Clint says.

//

True to his word, a week later Clint appears out of the ceiling and ushers Phil out of his weekly meeting with six other junior agents, and through the hallways to the range. Barton picks up the bow and slings the quiver around his chest, darting Phil a quick glance. He’s smiling like he can’t even help it, wide and unguarded, and then he says, “Watch,” and --

And -- okay. Phil is genuinely stunned. The file said “great aim” and Fury said “one of the best” but somehow that hadn’t prepared Phil for this, for this seventeen-year-old -- who industriously cuts all the sleeves off his t-shirts and drives Phil literally up the wall (and into the ceiling) -- to raise a bow in his hand, take a deep, steadying breath, and then proceed to empty a twenty-arrow quiver into four bullseyes in about a minute, clusters of five embedded dead centre into each target.

Clint lowers the bow, slowly, and then spins around to look at Phil again.

“Oh my god,” Phil says, blank.

Clint grins back at him, which is a first. “My -- at the circus, they called me ‘Hawkeye’,” Clint says, another first; he’s never volunteered any information to Phil about his life pre-SHIELD.

“Yeah,” Phil says. “That -- makes sense.” He pulls the tattered remnants of his unflappable persona around himself, and says, “What happens when the targets are moving?”

“Try it and see,” Barton challenges, looking downright joyous.

//

“He liked that you were surprised,” Fury says, later that day; Phil catches just a glimpse of video surveillance on the tiny television perched on the edge of Fury’s desk, paused midway through Clint’s show.

“He was -- happy,” Phil allows.

“You’re good for him,” Fury says, blunt. “Now that you’ve seen what he can do, you can see why it’s important that he stay with the agency, regardless of age or whether that business from the circus is resolved. We could use him here.”

Startled, Phil says, “He’s just a kid. And we can’t --”

“Obviously we need him to choose to stay,” says Fury. “Your relationship with him is a step in that direction; if he likes you, if he trusts you, then you might be a deciding factor in whether or not he sticks with us.”

“Sir --”

“You’ve spent almost three months with him. Tell me you don’t think he’d fit here.”

Phil stays silent.

Fury says, “That’s what I thought,” and it’s true, it is, but it still feels uncomfortably close to deceit -- especially because it's Clint, who's getting his driver's license next week and trusts Phil enough to invite him to call him by the name he was given by people he loved, and especially because of what Phil read in his file.

But Phil says, "Yes, sir."

//

The next two months pass in a haze of meetings and visits to the range and the occasional mission; Barton achieves his driver’s license and seems to be done with the “testing” portion of their relationship, thank god, thank god, and every time they have a civil conversation or Barton seems remotely fond of him, Phil experiences a pang in his chest that comes from a sentiment of, “You were assigned to be his friend! Well done, Agent, mission objectives achieved; you may turn the asset over to us now.”

Phil is a goddamn professional, is the thing. He’s good at his job and he’s getting better at it all the time; he has a future in this agency, and generally speaking a reliable way to get ahead in secretive government agencies is to get very good at not asking too many questions (or at least to have a talent for asking them creatively). But he has a lot of questions about -- this. About looking after Barton; about being an intermediary between Barton and the rest of the agency.

Phil experiments with backing off, but the damage has already been done, on both sides; Phil is fond of Barton and his stupid face, and the feeling seems to be mutual. It’s been years since Phil consistently spent time with one person, every day, and maybe something is going wrong with his brain, but on days when they go their separate ways Phil finds himself almost looking forward to seeing him again; when Clint accidentally breaks a security officer’s nose, or is spotted climbing up the outside of a ten-story building, Phil rides out the minor heart attacks and just -- deals with it. And remains fond despite the frustration.

It’s incredibly strange.

//

Phil wanders into his room one afternoon and trips over Clint, sprawled out on the floor; he manages -- just barely -- to stop himself from performing a spectacular pratfall, but he still has to halt his descent by bouncing off the bed, a little.

“What are you --” Phil starts, but then he realizes what Clint’s got spread out all over the carpet.

It’s his Captain America -- well, his Captain America everything. It all fits into four boxes that normally live under his bed and in his closet; one of the first things he’d done when he was involuntarily moved on-base was make certain that it was all intact (it was; as far as he can tell no one even opened the boxes). He has comic books, bubblegum wrappers, autobiographies, a couple of archival prints, a limited edition replica of the famous shield. He has a safety deposit box at a bank that holds a mint condition, first edition, Captain America #1 -- not for monetary reasons, but for sentimental ones. His mother gave him that comic, long, long before either of them knew what it would be worth. Clint has clearly spent a couple of hours going through Phil’s collection; there’s a messy stack of comics upside-down to his left, and he’s got another one in his hands.

Clint is watching him, warily; Phil is fairly certain that most of the time, Clint actually trusts him now to act in Clint’s genuine best interests, but every once in a while they stumble across a new situation, like this one, and it’s like they’re momentarily back to square one.

“Which one’s your favourite?” Phil asks, sitting down across from Clint, who immediately relaxes.

“This one,” Clint says, putting down the one in his hands and carefully pulling out a different one from the middle of the pile. “I had -- Barney used to read it to me. We didn’t have all these other ones, though.”

“That one ends on a cliffhanger,” Phil says, carefully not reacting to this mention of Clint’s brother. He reaches out and accepts The End of Captain America! from Clint’s hand.

“Yeah,” Clint says. “We’d make up stories about what happens next.”

Phil hands the comic back to Clint and the Captain America boxes get hauled out into the main room for easy access, but The End of Captain America! disappears out of the pile and can usually be found tucked safely away inside Clint’s night table. Phil lets it go without comment; Clint was moved in with two duffel bags of belongings to his name, and most of it was archery equipment.

//

“It’s Barton,” Fury says, partway through month six. Phil jerks his head up, but no, Barton is sitting at the kitchen table, ostensibly poking at his GED practice test and in reality, doodling arrows in the margins and counting down the time until he gets to go hit the range again. Phil is impressed he’s upright, actually; last night Phil returned home to discover that a couple of the security officers smuggled a bottle of vodka on-base and shared it with Clint, who got falling-down drunk and told Phil he was super awesome before getting sick and then passing out on the couch. Phil has yet to determine whether the vodka was an act of friendship or of malice; either way, Clint spent some quality time cleaning vomit off of Phil’s shoes once he woke up in the morning.

Phil actually has no intention of wearing those shoes again; it’s the principle of the thing.

“The brother,” Fury qualifies, when Phil remains silent on his end of the phone. “He got picked up by police last night. They’re charging him with extortion and attempted murder; there’s some weirdness going down with the FBI, though, and the fuckers are definitely withholding info.”

“Snitch?” Phil suggests, ducking back around the corner where Clint hopefully won’t be able to hear him.

“Maybe,” Fury says, “and given what we know of him, I’m not convinced he would be helping the FBI out of the goodness of his heart.”

‘No, sir,” Phil says; the information he’s gleaned about Barney Barton has been a study in contradictions. What little Phil’s gotten from the ongoing legal investigation all points to Clint protesting his brother’s innocence, every single step of the way, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence against it. Phil wonders, however, if this might not be a case of “no one gets to mess with my brother but me”; one of Clint’s doodles featured a stick-figure labelled “Barney” getting punched in the face by a smaller stick figure with a bow in its hand. POW. WHAMMO. “This is not going to be pretty,” he sighs.

“Really not,” Fury agrees. “Keep an eye on him.”

“Will do,” Phil says, and Clint pops his head around the door, eyes narrowed.

“Will do what,” he says.

Fury sighs on the other end of the line.

//

Phil takes Clint to see his brother in custody, and, predictably, it doesn’t go well. He stands a few paces back, just outside the door, while Clint and Barney sit on opposite sides of a sheet of glass and have an incredibly heated discussion through the phone.

My own protection?” Clint is shouting. “Bullshit, Barney! I can take care of myself!”

Barney’s mouth moves, slightly obscured by the phone. Phil squints. Something something kill you something big brother something. Something something MY CHOICE, FUCKHEAD.

“I know you --” Clint starts, but Barney cuts him off.

I’m a something. Something something outta here, swear to god, something something nothing but a dumb kid.

“Barney --” Clint tries, again.

Something out and DON’T COME BACK.

Clint actually flinches back at this, phone cord tugging taut; Barney doesn’t wait for answer, just rises to his feet, slams his hand into the glass across from Clint’s face, and signals the guard to come grab him.

“Barney, wait,” Clint says, but Barney doesn’t even look back. He does lift his head and lock eyes with Phil, however, who tenses all his muscles in order not to startle. He jerks his head at Clint and then makes a V with his index and middle finger, pointing at his eyes and then at Phil.

Fuck you, Phil mouths back, and then has to dart around the corner so that he’s out of sight by the time Clint turns around.

//

In the three weeks that follow, Phil adds a whole host of new experiences to his repertoire. Moments like standing in the doorway to Clint’s bedroom, watching the nest of blankets on the bed shudder quietly, with no idea how to make things better. Clint spends every moment he can in the range, and Phil spends a lot of time on the phone with various contacts or in meetings with Fury. No one seems to know what’s going on, or perhaps to be more accurate, no one has any interest in explaining things to a younger agency with less political clout.

“One day,” Fury says, a frightening sort of gleam in his eyes. “One day this will all be different.”

“Yes, sir,” Phil says, and he both believes that will be the case, and looks forward to it. For the moment, however, when it comes to Clint Barton and the entire situation surrounding him, the agency as a whole has nothing.

In the fourth week, Clint opens Phil’s bedroom door at five in the morning and announces, “I want to go back and see Barney.”

“Are you certain you want to do this?” Phil says, going from fast asleep to wide awake in ten seconds flat. “Last time --”

Yes, I’m sure, Jesus,” Clint huffs, exasperated.

Phil does him the courtesy of not pointing out his clenched fists or the defensive way he’s hunched his shoulders. “Okay,” he says, and they go back, whereupon the police inform them that the FBI removed Barney Barton from police custody two days ago, and promptly “lost” him in transit.

//

The ride back to base is very, very silent. Clint doesn’t even ask to drive, just climbs into the passenger’s seat and twists around so that he’s leaned up against the window, face turned completely away from the driver’s side. Phil, who has only just recently discovered that Clint can, in actual fact, be an unstoppable chattering machine once he feels comfortable, finds that he wants to fill the silence with inane commentary. Phil is not a fill-the-silence kind of guy; Phil is a ‘let the uncomfortable silence grow until your enemies blurt out all their secrets’ guy.

“Lots of traffic today,” he says.

Clint ignores him.

“Look, we -- the agency can help figure this out,” Phil says. “Fury’s got some contacts in the FBI, and I know a couple people here and there, and I promise you that one of them will tell us something.”

“I already know what’s going on,” Clint says, like a dam is breaking. “I already know, okay? And there isn’t anything you can do about it, because they’re never going to bring them in.”

“Bring who in?” Phil says, although he’s pretty sure he already knows the answer to that question.

Them,” Clint says. “The -- the people who -- Barney and Trick Shot and the Swordsman. The FBI wants what they know, right? Who they know? That’s why they’ve never brought them in. That’s why I’m always going to be completely fucked, and now they -- they know I’m in agency custody; they know I’ve been talking to judges and lawyers and the fucking government --”

“I’m not just the government -- I’m -- Clint, I promise you, I’m going to make sure that nothing happens to you,” Phil says, desperately; he slows down just a little to take the exit off the freeway, and Clint unbuckles his seat belt, throws open the door, and hurls himself out of the moving vehicle in one smooth motion.

“FUCK,” Phil says.

He stomps on the brakes and is just reaching for his seatbelt when the car gets slammed into from behind by an SUV; the airbag deploys -- with force -- into Phil’s face as they plow forward into the guardrail in a screech of anguished metal, and there’s a shudder of a secondary impact, then a third, as Phil’s sudden stop has apparently begun the chain reaction leading to a multi-car pile-up. He bats at the airbag, gasping for air and cursing, then finally manages to undo his seatbelt, force open his door, and tumble out of the car and onto the pavement. For a moment all he can hear is the ringing in his ears, but as he scrambles away from the ruined agency car, other noises begin to fade in: cars honking, a few people shouting, and faint, from a distance, a voice saying, “Coulson!”

He jerks his head up, and there is Clint, looking scraped-up and terrified, maybe two hundred feet away in the grass on the side of the road. He takes a single, involuntary step toward him, and Clint runs.

//

“You’re telling me,” says Fury, “that you didn’t see this coming at all?”

“He jumped out of a moving vehicle,” Phil says, dodging the medic’s attempt to patch up his arm and Fury’s irate questions. He presses his sleeve to his nose, which is still bleeding sluggishly. Phil chased Clint until he got dizzy and had to sit down, by which point a series of nondescript cars filled with men and women in dark suits had begun to show up, Fury arriving shortly thereafter.

Phil did not see this part coming, exactly -- who jumps out of a moving vehicle when they’re not in an action movie? -- but he can see the entire Barney-related situation unfolding from before he even met Clint; the choices that he must have had to make -- “come in with a government agency and rest and heal under their protection, but know that if they ever decide to drop you, your situation will be far more dangerous than it was before you effectively declared your side”. Small wonder he got skittish and ran, that first night in the diner.

And now, with Barney gone -- and no clear way of knowing which side he’s chosen -- Phil suspects it’s been feeding into some of Clint’s worst fears, and now he’s decided to go solve his own problems, by himself. He suspects that, quietly sick of the forced inactivity and too full of the knowledge that the agency with which he threw in his lot is being shut out, Clint made one of those split-second assessments that are a contributing factor to why he’s going to be one of the best marksmen the world has ever seen, but in this particular case ended with a six-car pileup and Phil, with airbag burn and a bloody nose, standing at the side of the road.

“You know,” says Fury, “if you’d fallen over instead of stepping forward, he probably would have come back. So: Is he running, or is he chasing?”

“I think it might be both,” Phil says.

//

Two days, and nothing happens.

Clint doesn’t turn up dead, but he doesn’t turn up alive, either. Fury makes a personal visit to the FBI that results in three people from that office being quietly fired, but still, all they know is that Trick Shot and the Swordsman and Barney Barton and Clint are all in the wind. There’s a rumour going around -- related to Fury by one of the now-fired FBI agents -- that the oldest Barton brother is not a snitch at all, but an undercover agent who has now, to the FBI’s collective, horrified consternation, dropped off the grid. Phil sets up surveillance and searches and networks with anyone who’ll listen to him and some people who won’t (initially. Phil is convincing), and he falls into bed at night, exhausted, thinking, I lost him.

The head of security shows up at Phil’s cubicle on day three.

“There’s a -- there’s a phone call for you,” Robbins says. “But it’s -- one of our guys heard a phone ringing in one of the empty offices, and when he answered it, there was a man on the other end asking for you; he refuses to give his -- hey!”

“Which office?” Phil shouts, over his shoulder.

“Two-one-two,” Robbins calls back, and they race for sublevel two at speed. Office 212 has a fine layer of dust covering it, but in the top right corner, Phil can see the air conditioning duct, the plastic grate covering it just slightly ajar.

“Hello?” he says into the phone.

“Is this the skinny g-man asshole who lost Clint after I specifically told him to watch out for him?”

“Yes, this is he,” says Phil. “Is this the misguided undercover agent asshole who fucked over his own brother and drove him to inspiring new heights of stupidity?”

There’s a pause. “Yeah,” Barney Barton says, at last. “This is he.”

Phil is pretty convinced that Barney is a less than stellar human being, at this point, and nothing that is said during this conversation convinces him otherwise, dedicated undercover FBI agent or not.

“I can’t be seen helping out,” Barney says.

“This is your brother,” Phil starts, but Barney cuts him off.

“I know. That’s why you have to do it. What I’m doing is important, and I can’t just -- walk away from it.” There’s steel in Barney’s voice that Phil recognizes from Clint’s resolve to clear his brother’s name. This is such a mess. “I dunno where he is right now, but I know where he’s gonna be in maybe an hour. Trick Shot found him this afternoon; he’s okay so far, ‘cause the man wants info and he’s willing to wait to get it, but I just heard back that the Swordsman is looking for them both, and he doesn’t want anything but Clint dead. You understand?”

“Give me the location,” Phil says.

//

Phil enters the darkened, abandoned warehouse -- of course it’s an abandoned warehouse -- with Fury’s blessing and four other field agents under the command of Senior Agent Dylan, a tall blond man with a grating laugh, a tendency to drink the last of the coffee without refilling the pot afterward, and only half a left ear (the tale of its loss grows with each telling). Dylan raises his hand and flicks his fingers forward, ordering Phil and the other agents to fan out, carefully, quietly, and then there is a sort of thwip noise and the shaft of an arrow is sticking out from Dylan’s throat, just under his chin.

Phil and his fellow team members are all highly trained agents who have been carefully tested and prepared for situations exactly like this, which means that the chaos that erupts in the wake of Dylan’s untimely death is silent and efficient, rather than noisy and messy. Agent Righetti hits Dylan around the knees in a tackle and takes an arrow to his own shoulder for the trouble, just past the edge of his body armour, but he keeps moving anyway and hustles Dylan’s body behind a stack of crates to check for what Phil is pretty certain will be a nonexistent pulse. Agent Lee dives straight for the door they just entered; he’ll be returning with backup ASAP. Agents Willoughby and Mentz immediately split up; she dashes left and he goes right, both of them helpfully and deliberately making a lot of noise to present more tempting targets.

Phil, adrenaline pumping through his system, digs his black running shoes into the gritty concrete floor, and he sprints straight forward into the dark.

He can hear scuffling behind him, and someone cries out sharply, as though in pain. Probably they are, given that there’s someone in the building with ridiculously good aim and an archaic -- but distressingly effective -- weapon doing his level best to kill them. There should be a second team circling around the back, but earlier surveillance indicated that Trick Shot had left the warehouse, so Phil takes nothing for granted and keeps moving forward, and keeps moving forward, and really, really hopes that nobody else is dying.

He slams his shin into something that’s all sharp edges, stumbles, and hits the floor; from this new vantage point, he can see a gleam of warm, yellow light -- just a sliver of it, barely visible through what might be stacks upon stacks of half-destroyed pallets. Phil pulls in a single, deep breath, and holds it, listening: silence from the direction he just came from, but ahead, the faint murmur of voices. His team was silent when they came in, so it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility that Trick Shot is the only one aware that anything at all is wrong.

He moves forward, scuttling across the floor in the direction of the light, and stops, at last, just outside a door. Someone has slopped black paint all over the window. The problem, Phil thinks to himself, ignoring all the other problems he can’t do anything about, is that slamming open a door to the only source of a light in a big, dark warehouse is pretty much just asking to get killed.

Two things happen, then, nearly simultaneously. From inside the room, Phil just barely makes out Clint -- Clint -- saying, “Please --”, and Phil’s head fills up with white noise and conveniently derails his previous train of thought; he takes two sharp steps back to kick in the door, which is when all the lights in the warehouse go on at once. Willoughby shouts out a faint but triumphant “Ha!”, demonstrating once again why she continues to get such poor reviews on stealth and such high ones on improvisation.

Phil’s startled flinch at the sudden explosion of light spins him back around the way he came, where he spots a man in shiny, skin-tight black leggings and some sort of magenta wrap, momentarily frozen at the edge of the second floor that extends a third of the way through the main warehouse. He’s not looking in Phil’s direction, and so Phil slams into the door, jolting it open, throwing himself inside, and kicking it closed again in the space of two breaths.

He hits the floor almost before he gets a chance to take in the situation: two men, some sort of dusty room for paperwork, a table, two stools, and Clint, slumped against the floor. Quiet, Phil thinks to himself, and leaves his gun in his holster in favour of turning his dive into a roll that ends in him sweeping Bad Guy One’s feet out from under him. His right hand smacks into one of the stools, and he fumbles for it, grabs, lifts it up and whips it across the room at Bad Guy Two, whose reaction time is not good enough to dodge it. It slams into his forehead and he drops like a rock; Phil uses the time this buys him to turn his attention back to One and strike at the vulnerable spot at the back of his head. Instant blackout.

Bad Guy Two attempts to rise, fails, tries again, and Phil crosses the room and brains him with the largest piece of stool. He doesn’t try to get up again. Phil inhales, exhales, inhales, and turns to Clint; Clint, who is mostly whole and definitely breathing and is struggling to his hands and knees.

"Oh my god!" Clint says. He looks delighted, if dazed, as he grins at Phil. It would be sweet if his teeth weren't smeared with blood. "Phil! You're a secret badass."

Phil, urging Clint to his feet, can't quite resist from saying, "Nice of you to finally notice."

“You just took two assholes down with a stool! I mostly only saw you throwing knives around, which, by the way, you kind of suck at,” Clint says. He sags heavily against Phil’s side, wrapping an arm around his neck.

“Which is why I practice it,” Phil says.

All those months of having near heart attacks every time Clint climbed up the side of a building or tried to make hallucinogenic drugs in the bathroom or hitched rides with drunk strangers on motorbikes or threw himself out of a moving car are finally paying off. Clint has a serious head wound, at least one agent is KIA, and there's a man in a circus costume trying to kill them, but Phil has got this.

//

Phil props Clint up against the wall and leans against the door, himself, trying to hear what’s going on in the main warehouse. “Phil,” Clint says, “Phil, Phil, I saw the car crash, I’m sorry, I didn’t actually think that --”

“It’s fine,” Phil hisses. “Barton. Clint. We have to be quiet now, okay? I’m going to get us out of this, but you have to cooperate.”

“How did you find me?” Clint asks, blatantly ignoring this request. “I wasn’t -- I was following them but it turns out they were following me --”

“Your brother,” Phil interrupts. “Your brother told us.”

Clint’s smile fades a little. “He did?”

“He did. He -- he wanted me to come get you out, but he can’t -- he actually does work for the FBI, it turns out, and he -- he couldn’t come himself.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Clint mutters, swiping a hand at the blood oozing over his left eyebrow.

“Yeah,” Phil sighs. There’s a crashing noise outside the door. “On the plus side,” Phil says, “there were only ever two people trying to kill you, not three.”

“And they’re both outside this door?” Clint guesses.

“In all likelihood. Tell me, do they -- do you think both of them will be wearing circus costumes?”

“In all likelihood,” Clint mimics. “And hey, don’t knock the circus costumes. You should see mine, sometime. It is the best colour, and it has these boots --”

Another crashing noise on the other side of the door. “As much as I would like to discuss your sartorial choices right now, it’s probably in our best interests to focus on the matter at hand.”

“All right, give me your knives,” Clint says. “I’m seeing double but I’m pretty sure I know which stuff is real.”

“You inspire me with confidence,” Phil says.

They ease the door open and venture out cautiously; Phil keeps one hand on Clint’s shoulder and the other on his service pistol; Clint keeps both hands on his newly acquired knives.

The northeast corner of the warehouse is a little bit on fire.

"You brought Mentz?" Clint says. "Really? The borderline pyromaniac?"

“He has his uses,” Phil says; from the direction of the blaze, there’s a sort of choked-off scream. “I should really get you out of here.”

“Yes, carry me out in your arms,” Clint deadpans, apparently having recovered his tendency to chatter somewhere in between leaping out of Phil’s car and being recovered in worse shape than the last time Phil saw him (which, again: side of the road! after leaping out of a car!).

Clint abruptly shoves Phil to the side, whirling around and throwing both knives. One of them embeds itself into the gun-hand of the man attempting to sneak up on them; the other hits a stack of pallets a foot to the right. Phil darts forward and elbows the man in the throat while he's still clutching at his hand, then knocks him out and retrieves Clint's knife.

"See?" Clint says. "As long as I have two knives and don't start seeing triple, it's all good."

There’s yet another crashing noise, this one from balcony. Phil really wonders where backup is, and why they’re not swarming the warehouse right now, because what emerges from the shadows of the increasingly structurally dubious second floor is not a team of well-trained government agents, but Trick Shot.

“Fuck,” Clint says, quietly, and Phil can’t help but agree with the sentiment.

//

For a moment, all three of them stay frozen where they are, assessing the situation, and then Trick Shot raises his bow. “Agent,” he says. “I assume you’ve already located Barton?”

Phil very carefully changes his expression to one of disdain. “I did,” he calls back. “He’s outside, already, under the armed guard of twenty or so highly trained agents.” Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Clint weaving his way through the gloom, heading unerringly for the stairs and not a convenient exit like Phil’s been hoping.

“‘Highly trained agents,’” Trick Shot laughs. “One dead, four nowhere to be found, and you.”

Phil shrugs. “And me,” he agrees. Clint appears out of the growing smoky haze at the bottom of the stairs while Trick Shot is still distracted by Phil. There’s the flash of one knife, then two, and Trick Shot makes an agonised noise just as a tall, muscular figure -- also wearing shiny black leggings, but carrying a sword, rather than a bow -- crashes through a stack of pallets and pulls to halt uncomfortably close to where Clint is stumbling away from the stairs like a person in possession of a head injury: status: ongoing.

The Swordsman says, “Hello … Clint,” in what might be his movie villain voice, or his actual voice, Phil isn’t entirely certain.

“Hi,” Clint says, unenthusiastically, and then throws up all over the floor.

“Stay out of this, Duquesne,” Trick Shot orders the Swordsman from the balcony, breathlessly. “Walk away now and I won’t send an arrow through your heart.”

“Hey, hey, slow down, now,” the Swordsman says, “all I want do is make sure that the situation is … resolved. If you want to clean it up yourself, that’s fine, but I’m not leaving until that happens.”

“... Fine,” says Trick Shot, setting aside the bow he’s now having trouble holding steady, and Phil immediately whips out his handgun and shoots him in the shoulder before throwing himself in the Swordsman’s path to prevent him from taking Clint’s head off with, well, his sword.

There’s a busy, confused few minutes -- busy because it’s a fight for their lives; confused because something heavy collided with Phil’s head and it’s distressingly difficult to concentrate -- and then Clint gets a lucky blow in just as Phil manages to sweep the Swordsman’s feet out from under him, and suddenly the warehouse is full of agents.

//

Phil says, “That was seriously the worst response time in history,” but nobody seems to be listening to him beyond what he has to say in response to questions like “is anyone left in the building” and “is that all your blood.” (Answers: “No”, and “… Maybe? No. Yes.”)

Clint watches his former mentors being wheeled away from the scene; neither of them are dead, because Phil is a government agent and his orders were “alive, if possible,” with the secret, personal caveat that if Clint had been dead all bets were off.

“They’re ours now,” Fury says, gleefully. “I’m going to tell the FBI we ‘lost’ them in transit, see how they like it. I think they’ll agree it’s time they both went away for a long, long time.”

“Oh,” says Clint, and then, at Phil’s confused look, says, “I guess I didn’t think about, uh. after.”

“Did you -- want a moment?” Phil gestures at the gurneys receding into the distance and glances at Clint, who shakes his head and then looks like he regrets it.

“Nah,” he says. “Trick Shot and I already had one, before you got here. It wasn’t so much cathartic as it was infuriating.”

“Oh,” says Phil.

“Oh hey! High-five for matching head wounds,” Clint tells him, holding out his hand, and Phil is definitely concussed, because he gives Clint his high-five and then they sit together, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting for their ride out.

//

“Congratulations, Agent Coulson,” Fury says, some indeterminate amount of time later. Phil stares at him, blearily. “The paperwork has been processed and Barton is officially an emancipated minor with no one trying to kill him. You have successfully ushered Mr Barton into adulthood.”

Mr Barton is currently sleeping peacefully in the bed behind Fury, so Phil has no idea when said paperwork was actually signed.

The more accurate phrasing might be: Phil has no idea who signed said paperwork.

“Thank you?” Phil says.

“Have you figured out what your talent is, yet?” Fury asks. He rises to his feet and switches off the bedside lamp, leaving the small room illuminated only by the hallway light coming in through the doorway window. Phil struggles mightily to keep his eyes open and stay awake.

“You’re a wrangler, Coulson,” Fury goes on, clearly aware that Phil is on the edge of sleep but determined to say his piece, anyway. “You’re a herder of cats. I had to beat three other agencies off with a stick to hang onto you, and I have big, big plans that are going to need exactly that talent.”

“Hmm,” Phil manages, but the next time he successfully opens his eyes, Fury is gone and it’s morning.

//

Clint and Phil celebrate having no legal ties to one another by spending the day together in matching hospital beds, watching homemade VHS tapes -- courtesy of Dr Claasen -- of some some sort of new-ish TV program called, unimaginatively, COPS; despite its similarities to Phil’s actual life, there's something about the basic premise that's weirdly compelling.

Midway through hour three, Clint says, "I was thinking -- Fury said it’d be okay if I wanted to stick around. You know, join you guys, um, officially.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Phil says, immediately and without thinking, and gets to watch Clint’s body language shift to something incredibly hurt and trying not to show it. He fumbles for the remote and hits hits mute on the TV. “I mean --”

“No, it’s cool,” Clint says, though it’s clearly not, “I get that -- I’m sure you’re sick of having me around, but I wouldn’t need to -- I don’t -- if you don’t want to, we don’t have to still --”

“That’s not what I meant,” Phil says. He takes a deep breath. “I meant -- I’ve been putting away some money in an account for you, every month. It’s not charity,” he adds, hastily, “it’s yours, from the government,” -- and some of it’s skimmed off of Phil’s monthly paychecks, but no one needs to know that -- “so it’s free and clear. No obligation. You should use it. Go take a trip or something. See something cool. Send me some postcards.”

Clint’s staring at him now, eyes wide. “A trip?”

“Yeah, like -- like a gap year.” Clint deserves the chance to go be his own person before he decides to become one of the agency’s; Phil’s not sure how to explain that and not sound condescending. “Go eat a lot of good food and take really bad pictures. Shoot an arrow at a mountain or something, I don’t know. Make some more friends. Enjoy having no one trying to kill you for a while.”

“And then -- come back?” Clint says.

“If you want,” Phil says. “Once you’ve done all that; that’s when you should make your decision. Just -- not yet. And if you don’t want to come back, then -- we’ll meet up. We’ve already done the cohabitation thing. We probably wouldn’t kill each other as travel partners.” Phil is fully aware that a million different things could happen in the interim; that Clint might make an entirely different choice altogether in a month or two, let alone after an entire year or however long he stays gone. It’s worth it, though. Fury might chew his ass over this, but it doesn’t even matter: he might never see Clint again after this, and he’s trying not to let that break his heart, but. Phil’s conscience is clear.

“You would really come visit?” Clint asks.

“Yes,” Phil says, no hesitation.

Clint blinks at him, then says, encouragingly, “I’m going to send you a lot of postcards. The weirdest ones I can find. Starting with one of those Russian guys with the big furry hats. You know, Robbins has one with a Russian guy and a bear standing together.”

“I look forward to being stunned by your horrifying postcard choices,” Phil says, smiling back at him.

//

Phil mostly only catches glimpses of Clint over the next two days, which are a whirlwind of attending Dylan's memorial service, medical appointments, statement-giving for Clint, report-writing for Phil, and shifting all of Phil’s cubicle possessions to his brand new office, which matches his brand new promotion. The first thing Phil uses it for is to help Clint throw darts at a map they tack to the wall ("I never miss! I need an element of chance!"), and then they use his new phoneline to order plane tickets.

//

It occurs to Phil that, somewhere in the last year, they’ve become friends.

//

There's a knock at the door, and -- this is it. Nearly nine months of seeing Barton pretty much constantly, and starting tonight he won't be seeing him at all. At least for a while.

Clint wanders into his office and they stand there awkwardly for a moment, until Phil rounds to the front of his desk and offers his hand for Clint to shake. “I’ll see you soon, Clint.”

“See you soon,” Clint echoes, and then pulls on Phil’s hand, still caught in his grip, and yanks him into a tight hug. “Thanks,” Clint says, muffled, so quiet Phil almost misses it, and then lets go and steps back, moving toward the door to retrieve his duffle bag from the floor; Phil knows it’s stuffed full of clothes and a collapsible bow and several of Phil’s Captain America comics.

“Wait!” Phil says. “One more thing.” He opens his desk drawer as Clint turns back around, and pulls out a page of stickers he bought yesterday on a whim. He peels a gold star off the sheet and sticks it to the chest of Clint’s purple t-shirt.

“And this is for …?”

Phil says, with a straight face, “Adulthood, level two.”

“You are such a dork,” Clint says, grinning fondly.

Once Clint leaves his office – gold star transferred to his driver’s license and tucked safely back in his wallet – Phil awards himself a gold star, as well. Just this once.

Years later -- after Phil takes a two-week vacation and allows Clint to take his picture with a bear, after Clint comes back and they begin to think of themselves as equals, and then as partners, and years after the land of enchantment and Norse gods and revived war heroes and assembling Avengers -- that gold star will still be there, carefully taped to the corner of his framed degree, hanging on the wall.

//

Tony Stark is honestly not much of a challenge.