Despite what everyone else would think, Phil's the one who starts it.
They do a lot of driving. It comes with the job. This results in a lot of visits to crappy gas stations and a lot of terrible gas station food. They do a lot of talking. But after several years of long car rides even Clint runs out of things to talk about.
It's on the drive down to Terlingua that Clint buys them. Basically, it is a long ass drive and Texas is full of lots and lots of nothing. They stop to fuel up--both the car and their stomachs--and Clint sees a colorful package and throws it down on the counter next to Phil's donuts. Phil disapproves of it immediately.
"I'm not paying for that."
"You have your own money. I'm not buying you toys."
Clint widens his eyes in faux-shock and turns to Phil. "Really? So what were we playing with the night before--"
"Go wait in the car while I buy your toys."
"Yes sir!" Clint grins and tosses off a lazy salute before bounding back to the car. He doesn't wait in the car, because that would be making it too easy. Natasha claims that Phil has him whipped, but what she doesn't understand is that Clint's just learned exactly when and how to push so that he doesn't piss Phil off too much while still keeping him on his toes.
(That's probably not true. She probably figured it out before Clint even realized what he was doing, and hasn't let on because Clint has a tendency to pout when she picks apart his every motive.)
They've got another day or so of driving so Clint takes advantage of all the free space in the parking lot to stretch, doing lunges that Natasha insists are utterly ridiculous and that he knows Phil likes to watch because they make his ass look good.
Behind him the door chimes and he jumps out of his lunge and into the car in an almost-graceful movement.
Phil climbs into the driver's seat beside him and levels Look #56 ("While I usually find your clownish behavior endearing, we are on assignment and I expect you to conduct yourself in a manner befitting of the highly-trained SHIELD agent that I know you are.") at him before tossing the package of dinosaurs on his lap.
"If any of those find their way on or under my seat you will regret it."
"Yes, boss," Clint acknowledges with a grin as he tears into the package. He dumps its contents out and sorts through them. "T-rex, long-neck, pterodactyl...is this a fucking pegasus?" He holds up the offending piece of plastic.
"That's what you get for wanting toys from a seedy gas station in the middle of nowhere."
"So what? And maybe I'll learn my lesson and go to a more legitimate toy store next time? You know I can't."
"That lifetime ban from Toys "R" Us is impressive."
"They just don't know what real fun is."
"Keep saying that. It will never be true."
A week after they get back from Terlingua, Phil returns to his office after a particularly grueling meeting to find little dinosaurs lined up along all the flat surfaces of his office.
Clint is nowhere in sight, but Phil knows that doesn't mean he isn't nearby.
"I am going to get coffee. When I come back, your toys better be gone, or I will put them somewhere you will never find them."
Ten minutes later he returns to his office to find that all of the dinosaurs have been moved to occupy his desk.
Exactly fifteen days later Clint discovers where Phil hid them and steals them back. Phil finds them in his sock drawer and war is unofficially declared.
Clint hides a dinosaur in one of Natasha's knife stashes. She returns it by dropping it in his bowl of ravioli.
"Keep your toys out of my things, Barton."
"Or I will hurt you."
"Natasha," Clint says around a mouthful of stuffed pasta, "you just don't understand. This is part of a very delicate operation--"
"Which you have failed," Phil says, setting a single plastic dinosaur down on the table in front of Clint. "The others have been relocated as per our agreement. This one was in your locker," he adds, glancing at Natasha.
"You two are hiding toys around HQ." It's not a question, because of course Natasha has already figured out what they're doing.
Clint shrugs. "Well, yeah."
"And you hid your toys in my things because?"
"Didn't think Coulson would look there."
She regards both of them the same way she looks at her targets on missions. She nods at the dinosaur still swimming in Clint's ravioli. "Alright. You can have that one." She reaches for the dinosaur on the table. "But I am taking this one. No rules, anything goes, I assume?"
She grins, all danger and promise. "Gentlemen, good luck. You'll need it."
She turns on her heel and leaves the two of them at their table in the mess.
Clint waves his spoon at her back. "I was not expecting that."
Natasha joining the Dinosaur Game, as Clint calls it, takes things to a new level.
She hides dinosaurs behind baseboards in the least used storage closets in the lowest sub-basement. Clint hides them in printers and fax machines.
This continues for several months until Coulson takes it one step further and plants one in Fury's office.
Fifteen hours later they each receive the same text--a picture of where Phil had hidden the dinosaur (taped under Fury's desk chair and yeah, that took some balls) sans dinosaur and the words "Good luck motherfuckers."
They each race to check their most recent dinosaur hiding places only to find all of them empty.
They converge in Phil's office. Natasha brings vodka.
The slump side by side on the couch, silently drinking for an hour before Clint finally speaks.
"We are so screwed."
Fury plays hard and Fury plays dirty.
For the next three months, only two or three toys resurface. Then Natasha walks by Agent Friedman's desk while she's re-potting her bonsai and catches sight of a T-rex in the recently emptied pot.
One of the junior agents--Roth--starts first avoiding, then flat out running from, all of them. Phil finally corners her five weeks later only to discover that Fury had entrusted her with a top secret mission--holding onto plastic pterodactyl and keeping it from "falling into enemy's hands"--and had told her to trust no one, especially Barton, Coulson, and Romanoff because he had suspicions that they were double agents.
During a particularly bad op Clint and Phil end up taking cover behind an overturned SHIELD vehicle. Phil's about to fire off a shot at the enemy, when he notices a long-necked dinosaur duct taped to the underside of the van.
Afterwards, Clint ends up in medical for several days. Out of boredom and to protest his enforced bed rest he tears open his pillow, planning to use the fabric in combination with a few stolen syringes to create a makeshift bow and arrows. Instead, he finds a tiny stegosaurus.
Clint digs into his meatloaf in the mess and finds a dinosaur.
Natasha is found, on one very memorable Thursday, dismantling a soda machine in the break room and laughs maniacally when she pries the rogue pegasus from its bowels.
She returns from a mission in Buenos Aires and angrily demands to know why she wasn't informed that SHIELD safe houses were within the limits of the game. Clint and Phil look flabbergasted and admit they didn't know either. Natasha's face hardens.
"This presents a problem," she admits and yeah, it does because Clint and Phil can both think of about a hundred other things they would rather do than tell Fury he's broken the rules. "I suppose this means the helicarrier is considered to be within the limits of the game. I wish I had known sooner."
She excuses herself and Clint throws himself on the couch in Phil's office. "We're doomed. I don't know if I'm terrified or turned on or what, but we are doomed."
Fury calls them together to inform them the Avengers Initiative has been put on hold. The words are barely out of his mouth when Maria Hill enters the room waving a small plastic toy above her head.
"This," she snarls, "was in my quarters."
She throws the toy down. It's a pegasus.
"Petey!" Clint cries, because of course he's named each and every one of the toys.
Maria levels a look at him. "Tell me this was your doing and I will destroy every bow you own.
"I know all about your stupid little game, and I've tolerated it because it was amusing. This, however, is the final straw. From now on, my everything is off-limits. Keep out of my office, keep away from my desk, keep out of the ceiling above my office, and--most importantly--do not enter my quarters again unless I am dying and you intend on attempting to revive me. I am here to work, not to play, and if I find any of these in my space again they will be mine. Is that understood?"
"Of course, Agent Hill."
"We apologize for the imposition."
Fury looks amused. "Will that be all, Agent Hill?"
"I'm sorry for interrupting, sir."
She snatches Petey the Pegasus from the table, despite Clint's anguished cries. "Also, I'm taking this."
"But that's my dinosaur!"
"It's a pegasus, Barton. But I suppose if it means that much to you, you may have this." She snaps a wing off and tosses it at him. "Have a good day."
Barton is compromised so Romanoff is called in and then Coulson is dead. The Earth is being threatened, so they do the only thing they can.
And then they get shawarma.
Tony says it best when he claims Fury is a "lying liar who lies."
Maria strides into the medical bay with an armful of toys. She tosses a brand new package of cheap dinosaur toys onto Phil's lap before handing him a large stuffed T-rex dressed in, of all things, a Captain America uniform complete with shield.
"Glad you're not dead. If I find any of those near my stuff, you'll wish you had." She spares a glance at the Avengers. "Good job saving the world."
"So...what?" Tony asks. "Coulson's some kind of dinosaur freak?"
"Trust me, Stark. You don't want to know." She turns to leave, pausing at the door. "By the way, Fury says he's sorry about the cards."
Coulson's grey-faced and flying high on pain meds, but he still manages to look dangerous. "What cards?"
"Captain Rogers can tell you all about it," she says before beating a hasty retreat.
"What cards?" he repeats, and everyone shifts subtly away from him.
"I have to call Pepper."
"I have to help Tony."
"I have better things to do than sit around in medbay."
"I'm technically supposed to be in a psych eval right now." Clint claps Steve on the shoulder. "Sorry, man."
They all run from the room, leaving Steve and Phil alone.
"I am going to ask this one last time and you are going to answer me, Captain. What cards?"
They all move, slowly, into the newly rebuilt Stark Tower. Coulson gets a "Congratulations on not being dead, also welcome to your new home" party.
Thor returns from Asgard and Tony gleefully takes to teaching him and Steve all about twenty-first century America.
Bruce starts spending time out of his lab, and joins in on some of Tony's lessons.
Clint and Natasha take the occasional mission for SHIELD.
Fury finally triumphs over the Council, the helicarrier is rebuilt, and somehow they manage not to kill each other.
It's a new normal for all of them.
Clint, Phil, Natasha, and Fury's unspoken, temporary truce ends, and the game resumes, but it is months before the other Avengers find out about it.
Everyone is gathered in the kitchen for breakfast, including Tony (replenishing his caffeine stream), when Clint shuffles in and grabs a box of cereal. He pours himself a bowl, and freezes as a one-winged pegasus tumbles out of the box.
Natasha glances at his bowl. "Is that?"
"Petey," Clint confirms.
Coulson frowns. "I thought Maria confiscated him?"
Natasha shrugs. "Fury must have talked her into giving him up."
"I doubt that. I overheard them a few days ago on the helicarrier. She caught him trying to bury a triceratops in the fern on her assistant's desk. Given what she said, I don't think she'd return any of them--even to him."
"Does this mean Hill is...playing?"
Clint bangs his head on the table. "We're doomed."
"Stop being such a drama queen." Natasha stands and puts her dishes in the dishwasher. "You're already getting your ass kicked by Fury, Coulson, and me. What's one more person?"
"Does anyone else understand what they're talking about?" Bruce asked.
Steve sighed. "I thought it was just me...again."
"Yeah, no. It's them, all them. Them being weird." Tony points his coffee mug at Clint, Natasha, and Coulson. "Hey weirdos, explain."
"It's fairly straightforward," Coulson explains. "Find a dinosaur, hide the dinosaur. And so on and so forth. Anywhere SHIELD operates is considered in-bounds. That includes any land bases, safe houses, the helicarrier, or any place where at least two SHIELD agents spend at least eight hours a day."
"Let me guess," Tony grins. "It was Clint's idea."
"I did not see that coming," Bruce admits.
"I found a similar trinket in my quarters, does this mean I am now a participant in your creature hiding game?"
Clint shrugs. "Sure."
"Bruce and I are playing," Tony says. "We're on the same team."
"No we're not."
"Bruce, trust me. We'll blind them with science."
"This isn't a team game, Stark. If you want to play it's every man for himself." Natasha punches Clint. "Ow--or every woman for herself. Geez, Tasha. Go a little easy on a guy first thing in the morning?"
"I don't understand. What's the point of this?"
Everyone turns to Steve.
"It's a game," Clint says. "What's there to get?"
"But how do you decide who wins?"
"Everyone wins," Tony explains. "Because it's fun."
"But what's the purpose?"
Tony throws an arm around his shoulders. "Just go with it, Cap."
"I don't even know it is I'm supposed to go with."
"New rule," Natasha interrupts. "Cap and Stark are a team."
Clint takes pity on Coulson, who's staring down at his breakfast and looking more than a little crushed. "Phil and I are together."
Tony grimaces. "Yeah, we know. I really didn't need you to put the idea of Coulson and sex back in my head, thank you very much."
"I meant together on a team, Stark. Is everything sex with you?"
"Fair Natasha, I would be most honored if you would join me in an alliance."
"I'm on Fury's team. You're stuck with Bruce."
"What about Agent Hill?" Steve asked. "She doesn't have anyone to be on her team."
"Trust us, Cap. She doesn't need any help."
1. If you find a dinosaur, you must hide it.
2. You may only hide the dinosaurs someplace where SHIELD or the Avengers Initiative have operated.
3. You may not attempt to alter the laws of physics in order to win the Dinosaur Game.
4. Asgard is strictly off-limits.
5. As is any location that my result in a diplomatic incident.
6. JARVIS is not allowed to participate in the Dinosaur Game, nor assist others.
7. These rules are subject to change at any time, without warning.