Ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, when he’s got an office that overlooks the park instead of the parking lot, Assistant District Attorney Clint Barton will remember the following things about his very first day of work:
“You do realize you are speaking to the Chief Assistant District Attorney, don’t you?” Maria Hill demands. Her hands are on her hips, crinkling her navy suit. When the guy doesn’t respond—a guy who’d been waiting in the lobby when Clint got there, a guy who’s decided a pair of sagging jeans with a ripped white wife-beater is a good outfit for coming to the district attorney’s office—she leans forward. She’s tall and he’s slouching, so she looms over him.
The guy smacks his lips. “So?”
“So? So? You do realize that whoever you’re here to speak to answers to me, yes?” The guy rolls his eyes. Either he doesn’t realize Hill’s about to tear him to pieces, or he doesn’t care. “So, whoever you sit down with and start to talk to about your probation, or your suspended sentence, or your immunity—”
The guy’s face, that mask of perfect asshole confidence, it slips at that.
“—they have to get my approval.” Her expression darkens. “And I can say no.”
The guy swallows. Clint knows he’s an asshole, but he kinda curls his own fingers around the strap of his bag, just outta—respect, maybe. Whether it’s respect for Hill’s speech or the fear he feels in his belly on behalf of this jerk, he’s not sure.
“Do we have an understanding?”
“Good.” Hill straightens up, smoothes the sides of her skirt, and turns around. When she smiles at Clint, it’s like she hasn’t just cornered a guy enough that he’s slunk down in his chair like a scolded puppy. It’s not a friendly smile, not all the way, but it’s a hell of a lot more cordial than what’d just happened. “Sorry about that, Mr. Barton,” she says.
Clint, he—tries to force a little smile, too. “No problem.”
“We’re really happy to have you on board, Barton,” Steve Rogers says. He’s shaking Clint’s hand, and he’s got one of the strongest grips Clint’s ever come up against. He almost wants to cringe, just from the sheer force of it. “District Attorney Fury passed your writing sample around. Really proves we picked the right man for the job.”
“Steve,” Hill explains, flipping through a file somebody handed her in the hallway, “is our charging attorney.”
“And the occasional misdemeanor, if everyone else is tapped out.” Rogers rests his hands on his hips. He’s wearing one of those horrible blue-and-white checked shirts that grandparents usually wear, along with a bright red tie and a pair of beige pants. Clint really hopes his wife leaves before him in the morning, because otherwise . . . “You need anything, you let me know.”
“Thanks,” Clint says. Steve’s office is small—not as small as his, but still small enough that the desk’s the focal point of the room. Or, at least, it should be. Problem is, the whole thing’s plastered with taped-up crayon, marker, and finger paint scribbles. So is the file cabinet and, from the looks of it, the wall behind the coat rack. “Your—kid?” he guesses.
Behind him, Hill mutters something that sounds a lot like here we go.
Rogers beams. “Dorothea, but we call her Dot,” he says. He reaches to turn the computer monitor toward the door. The background’s a picture of a little girl who’s just coming out of her toddler years. She’s sitting on the top of a slide, and god, she’s her daddy’s daughter, alright. You can see the Rogers in her for a mile. “Actually, Tony should be sending out the invitations for her party pretty soon. Everybody comes.”
Clint doesn’t know who Tony is. “Okay.”
“Really,” Steve assures him. “Even Phil comes.”
Hill flips another page in the file. “Never comes to anybody else’s parties,” she grumbles.
Rogers ignores her. “Seriously. It’s a chance to meet everybody without the suits.” He pauses, though, and frowns. “Well, except Tony. He might still wear a suit. It’s—complicated.”
The phone rings, then, and Rogers apologizes before he takes the call. Halfway down the hallway to their next stop, Hill comments, “You should actually come. If nothing else, you’ll like Bucky.”
“Steve’s husband,” she replies—and Clint nearly bowls over a file clerk.
Clint’s pretty sure that Tony Stark’s suit, which is gray with just the faintest lavender pinstripe, cost more than his first car. It’s a color combination almost no man alive could pull off, especially not since his tie is shiny, but on Stark, it looks—
The way he’s cupping his hands around his mouth and shouting, not so much.
Hill sighs and finishes typing an e-mail on her Blackberry. “You can’t keep this up for—”
“Excuse me,” someone else says, and Clint’s lightly nudged out of the doorway by a very pretty redhead in a crisp black dress. Her hair’s pulled back into one of those fancy twists, too, and he almost wants to admire her. Almost, though, because then she’s dropping a stack of files on Stark’s desk and saying, “We have phones for a reason.”
“We have a system for a reason,” Stark retorts. Pepper puts something in front of him, and he scribbles his signature across it. “What’s the rule?”
“What,” he repeats, “is the rule?”
Clint definitely admires Pepper when she, without even a moment of hesitation, heaves a long-suffering sigh and rolls her eyes. “Maria isn’t allowed within ten feet of your office without warning,” she recites. It’s pretty clear she’s said this a hundred times before.
“Right. And where—” Stark waves a hand. “—is Maria standing right now?”
As if to prove a point, Hill stretches against Stark’s office door. Clint presses his lips together to hide a smirk.
Pepper takes both the paper and the pen out of Stark’s grip. “Did you check your e-mail?”
“No, but I—”
He frowns, shifts, and starts patting himself down. He’s checking his suit jacket for the second time when Pepper moves a file, revealing an iPhone in a ridiculous red-and-gold case. She holds it up and, when Stark doesn’t notice immediately, wiggles it.
He snatches it out of her grip. “You did that on purpose,” he accuses.
Pepper shrugs, and Hill bites back a laugh a half-second too late.
But then Stark’s unlocking the phone, glancing at the display—and frowning. His eyes dart up at Pepper, over at Hill, and then back at the phone. Three times he does it, until his eyes are going around in circles like a cartoon cat after he’s chased a mouse too long.
“Noted,” he says simply, and Pepper nods before she strides out.
Stark stands up immediately after she leaves, leaning over his desk to offer a hand. “Tony Stark, appellate attorney.” He pauses. “Undefeated appellate attorney,” he adds.
“Only at oral argument,” Hill mutters.
Stark’s halfway to shaking Clint’s hand, but he stops to glare at Hill. No, really, it’s an actual glare. It’s an if looks could kill kind of glare. “One limp-wristed per curiam decision based only on briefs alone does not a defeat make.”
“Did they affirm?”
“Listen, it was more—”
“Did they,” Hill repeats, “affirm?”
She looks up from her phone. Stark’s expression is made of ice. Clint’s pretty sure neither of them is even blinking.
Or at least, until Stark shouts, “PEPPER!”
Clint glances up from the paperwork he’s filling out in Hill’s office—a massive stack of tax forms, contact information, and promises to uphold the state constitution—just in time to see a man barreling through the doorway. He doesn’t walk in, not like a normal person. He somehow leads simultaneously with his shoulders and hips, and barges right in.
His hair sways like something out of a L’oreal commercial.
Hill stops typing. “Thor,” she says, tightly.
“You must inform Mr. Barnes that I do not intend to reply to his ridiculous motion!” Thor sweeps his hand from one side of the office to the other. The gesture’s only six inches above Clint’s head. It ruffles his hair. “I have reviewed his argument. It is frivolous and unnecessary. I refuse to dignify it with—”
“You know I’m not the person to talk to about that, right?” she asks. Her eyes never lift from the computer screen. “You go to Phil, or you go to Steve.”
“I do not wish to—”
“Phil or Steve, Thor.”
“But after what happened with Mr. Coulson last time, I do not—”
“Phil,” she says, and glances up, “or Steve.”
Sitting there, filling out the form that requires his last three addresses (background check, what else?), Clint swears he can see Thor’s wheels turning. He stills, frowns, tips his head a few inches, and frowns harder.
Hill doesn’t blink. “Phil or Steve,” she repeats. Again.
Thor huffs. “I will remember this the next time you wish for—‘pull’ with Miss Rowan.”
“You do that.” She turns back to the computer. The law degree hanging over her file cabinet rattles when Thor stomps out. Clint doesn’t try to write another letter until he’s sure the miniature earthquake is over.
“Don’t forget line 36A,” Hill remarks. She’s typing again, faster than anyone Clint’s ever met.
He glances down, finds the line he’d skipped (maternal grandmother’s maiden name—how the hell is he supposed to know that?), and fills it in. “Is his name really Thor?” he asks, dotting the last I on Millville, which he’s only half-sure is right.
Hill snorts, and the corners of her lips tip into the world’s smallest grin. “Thor Odinson,” she explains. “They’re—Swedish? Norwegian? A little strange. His dad owns a horse farm in Wisconsin or something.” She shakes her head. “He’s probably the best juvenile prosecutor in the state, but a little . . . high-strung.”
Clint manages to turn his laugh into a breath. “That’s one way of putting it.”
The half-laugh that bursts out of her surprises him enough that he looks up. Hill barely wipes the grin off her face. “47C,” she instructs, and Clint glances down. Sure enough, he’s missed the blank for the color of his car.
But he’s kind of grinning, too.
“Yeah, no, no, I’m still here. Where else would I be, I told you I wasn’t getting off until—yeah, okay, I’ll hold. Again.” The man in the world’s most rumpled beige suit tips the phone away from his ear and cups his hand around the mouthpiece. “I’m sorry, Maria,” he apologizes. “Do you need something?”
Bruce Banner—or at least, the person who Clint assumes is Bruce Banner, thanks to the name on the door—peers between them with these big, half-lost eyes. His office kinda reminds Clint of a cartoon crater, debris everywhere, with stacks of paper layered on top of other stacks until there’s no floor or desk to be seen. There’s three statute books, all open, balanced on the corner closest to the door. He’s afraid to breathe too hard, in case they topple
“Just wanted to introduce you to our fresh meat,” Hill comments. She steps over a case file so Clint has enough room to come into the office. “Clint, meet Bruce, our resident abuse and neglect expert.”
“So you’re the new guy, huh?” Bruce asks. He cradles the phone against his shoulder and half-stands, straining to reach Clint’s hand. Their fingers brush, but then— “No, I’m still here,” he says into the phone, and drops back into his chair. “I need the status on—Edgerton? No, Edelmann. Those names don’t even sound alike, how did you— I’m sorry, let me get the case number again . . . ”
Clint waits for a couple seconds before he drops his hand, but Bruce is off in his own world, sliding his mouse over an open file while he rambles into the phone about secure care and social workers. “Bruce specializes in the cases of child abuse, neglect, endangerment, and all of that,” Hill explains, hands on her hips. “You remember two years ago, when the governor went on record about social services accountability and revamping the system from the inside out?”
“It was on the news for, what, three weeks straight?”
“Right.” She nods at the guy who’s taking off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Bruce headed that committee.”
Clint frowns. “Didn’t every social service agency in the state wanna come after those guys with pitchforks and torches?”
“I didn’t say it was a good thing.”
“Okay, you know what?” Bruce says, suddenly, and it’s loud enough that Clint blinks away from Hill. “I’ve got a fourteen-year-old kid who won’t stay in one place long enough for them to unpack her toothbrush, and you won’t even take the ten minutes to tell me whether you’ve got her mental health records? No, you listen to me, now.” He swings around in his chair, away from the computer and toward the window. “You have an hour to get back to me—one hour, just one—and if I don’t hear from you—no, whether you have the files or not, I don’t care if you have the files, I care that you actually do something useful right now—I’m going to call the department of children’s services. And they’re going to start calling, and—right, yeah, call me back. Good idea.”
He slams down the phone hard, hard enough that Clint flinches. Hill just cringes. “Fourteen years old,” he says, and rubs the crumpled muscle between his eyebrows. “Fourteen, running off every chance she gets, and they can’t even walk down to the file room and look up—”
“Bruce,” Hill interrupts.
He blinks. “Oh. I’m sorry.” His voice is—quieter, now. He rubs his palms on his pants, stands up, and offers his hand again. “The new guy, right? Traffic and DUIs?”
“Right.” Bruce’s got a soft grip.
“It’s nice to meet you.”
“You, too,” Clint says. But then the phone rings again, and Bruce apologizes while answering it.
“I won’t get you coffee, I won’t hunt down your files to put them back in the file room, and I won’t staple things for you when you forget to set up automatic stapling on the copier.” Darcy Lewis’s hair bounces as she strides down the hall. Hill keeps up, eyes focused on the file she’s been carrying around, but Clint’s having a hard time following her. She’s in offices, out of offices, picking up papers from one only to put them in another, and all while her long hair streams behind her. “If Sif’s on defense,” she continues, exchanging a file with a brunette she passes in the hall, “give Jane a ten-minute warning that she’s coming up here. If the toilet breaks again, Peggy’s putting in the work order, not me.”
“Okay . . . ”
“I don’t answer e-mail from home,” she continues, leading Clint past his own office (which he’s barely seen, at this point) and over to the gray-walled cubicle he’d mostly-ignored on the first loop around the floor. Darcy throws herself into the desk chair, leans back, and tucks her feet up against the edge of the desk. She’s wearing Chuck Taylors with her black slacks and distressed-looking gray t-shirt. She rocks the chair back and forth, face twisted in thought. “You share me with Steve, fifty-fifty. Means I probably won’t go out and pick up your lunch. Or your dry cleaning. Or your cat. Or—”
“I get it,” he promises, holding up a hand.
She squints at him for a half-second and then cranes her neck around the mouth of the cubicle. “Maria?”
“He gets it,” she says without looking up.
Darcy nods, drops her feet onto the floor, and smiles. “Well then, Mr. Barton, welcome to the team!”
“Uh, thanks,” he replies . . . to his own assistant.
“You’ll get used to that.”
That, or so Clint assumes, is Maria Hill standing in her office, half-shouting at somebody on the other end of her phone. Her anger reminded Clint of one of those storms that came outta nowhere: one second, they were walking down the hallway, Hill reviewing that file, and the next, she was hollering for someone named Peggy to get someone named Laufeyson on the phone.
The woman who says it, she’s—well, saying she’s pretty is like saying the Grand Canyon’s kinda cool. Neither adjective really does its subject justice. She’s curvy, red-haired, and wears a black suit that looks like it’s been spray-painted onto her skin. Clint’s first reaction is to look at her for a couple seconds, and his second is to figure she could kick his ass.
Really. Probably while still wearing the four-inch heels.
“Which part?” he decides to ask, once he’s done looking.
“The way things change in an instant.” She shrugs, a little, and crosses her arms over her chest. “You did—research, right? Before you turned up here.”
He blinks. Nobody’s said anything about his résumé all day. The stupid writing sample, sure, but not his actual qualifications. He was starting to wonder if he’d been the only applicant or something. “Yeah,” he says.
“Nice work if you can get it, but pretty static, right?” She watches him until he nods. “Doesn’t work like that around here, though. Like Bruce—glasses, messy office, you met him?”
“He works on an accelerated schedule because once a kid’s removed from somewhere, he either has to act or let the kid go back to whatever home was making his life hell. Thor’s in and out of meetings with kids and their hot-mess parents, trying to convince them that a jury trial for throwing a brick through somebody’s window isn’t worth anybody’s time. Steve’s been working Saturdays for the last month because everyone who normally covers for him’s had Monday trials. Fury’s running for reelection, so we’ll be lucky if we see him for the next couple months. And Phil and Maria are always up to their eyebrows in work, or press, or managing everybody else.”
He nods again, glancing back at Hill. She’s pacing around her desk, and her voice almost shrills when she repeats the word, “Sanctions?” He flinches and looks back to the redhead. “What about Stark?”
She rolls her eyes. “Avoid Stark,” she says. “At all costs.”
He snorts a half-laugh and watches the corners of her lips twitch. “Okay,” he replies, “then what about you?”
“Yeah.” He counts off people on his fingers. “Steve handles charges and misdemeanors, Hill and—Phil?”
“Coulson,” she supplies.
“Coulson, they do major felonies, Stark catches the appeals. Thor does juvenile offenders, Bruce takes care of abuse and neglect.”
She smiles. “Sounds like you’ve figured it out.”
“But it doesn’t explain you.”
“Maybe I don’t need explaining.”
There’s something—cat-like in the little smile that slides across her face. Their eyes meet, and Clint can’t help but let a smile stumble onto his lips, too. He’d learned a long time ago to trust his instincts with people. To fight, flee, buck, or settle, depending on the circumstance.
Right now, he thinks settling might be—okay.
At least, until, “Miss Romanoff?”
The young woman behind them’s got long, light brown hair, and there’s something about her that radiates a kind of ruthless efficiency. Clint noticed her before, talking to Darcy, but now she’s holding a clipboard and a file under her arm and waiting.
Almost impatiently, like she might be the only person who knows it’s important.
Miss Romanoff, the redhead, arches an eyebrow at her.
“Your victim’s in the conference room, and she—uh.”
“Jane?” Romanoff prompts.
“She wants to drop the charges.”
By the time Clint processes that the words coming out of Romanoff’s mouth aren’t English—angry, spat-out syllables that sound a little bit like fire, sure, but also definitely not English—she’s already snatched the clipboard out of Jane’s grip and taken off down the hallway at a run. An actual run, in her four-inch heels, and Clint—
He’s not ashamed to say he watches that. He’s pretty sure all the men in the office, no matter how much Romanoff isn’t their type, would watch that.
Jane sighs. “I told her two weeks ago that this would happen,” she informs Clint, shaking her head. “The first time, they never want to file. It’s only the repeats who stick around.”
“Repeats?” he asks, glancing at her.
Something a lot like disdain crawls over her expression. “Victims of domestic violence. Natasha prosecutes domestic abuse and restraining or—”
“You should have him skinned!” Romanoff’s voice shouts, and somewhere down the hallway, a door slams.
“—ders,” Jane finishes. She walks away just as Hill’s voice reaches a fever pitch on the phone.
Romanoff’s probably right, Clint thinks, about how he needs to get used to—that.
After the tours, the introductions, the paperwork, and the promises to uphold the state constitution, Clint closes the door to his office and—stands there. The carpet’s newly-cleaned, the desk’s empty except for two stacks of files, the bookshelf’s full of brand-new statute books with unbroken spines, and then, there’s him.
Him, standing in his new office in one of the three suits he owns—the gray one that probably cost as much as Stark’s tie—his fingers curled around the strap on his bag. He strips it off, lays it across an empty chair—not a nice chair, just a cheap plastic one that faces the desk and probably gives people cramps after ten minutes—and walks to the window.
He’s on the opposite side of the floor from people like Tony Stark and Maria Hill, and his office overlooks the parking lot. There’s a wide window ledge, enough that you could probably take one of those cushions made for Target-brand porch swings and turn it into a window seat, and he rests his knees against it. They’re six floors up, far enough that you can see the clock tower on the public library and the steeple of some old church from here.
The sun’s streaming in. It’s warm and bright, and it reminds Clint of being outside. When he did legislative research, he moved back and forth between the closet his boss called a law library and the closet his boss called his office. He never got to see the sun.
He closes his eyes and feels it on his face for a few seconds before there’s a knock at the door. “Come in,” he says, but it’s already opening by the time he gets to the m.
“Fury wants to see you,” Darcy reports. She leaves the door open when she walks away.
“Of course he does,” Clint murmurs, but not to Darcy. No, he says it to his reflection in the window, to the clock tower and the steeple, before he leaves again.
“I only hire one kind of attorney here,” District Attorney Fury says. “The extraordinary kind.”
Fury’s office, like Hill’s and Stark’s, overlooks a park. From six floors up, the view’s all about the trees, playground, band shell, and fountain. There’re kids climbing all over the jungle gym, shirtless frat boys playing ultimate Frisbee, and a string quartet rehearsing for what Clint guesses is some open-air spring concert. The view’s more impressive than Fury’s enormous wrap-around desk or the leather couch against the far wall. Hell, it’s more impressive than the massive TV with the conference-call camera on top of it.
Fury’s assistant, a nervous-looking guy who’d been playing a space game on his computer when Clint’d walked up, practically shoves a cup of coffee into Clint’s hand. He hadn’t asked for it, but he thanks him anyway. The kid’s already shuffling off, though, eyes on the floor like somebody’d beaten him for pissing on the carpet.
The coffee’s rich and dark. Clint likes that.
Next to him, Fury’s watching the park too, his good eye tracking the movements of the kids through the grass. All Fury wears is black—black slacks, black shirt, black eye-patch that doesn’t quite cover all the scarring. Clint’s pretty sure that, wherever his tie and suit coat are, they’re black, too.
Clint cups the coffee mug between his palms. “I’m not sure how extraordinary I am, sir.”
Fury raises his eyebrows. “Is that so?” he asks.
“Then tell me this: can you keep a kid in juvenile court and charge her with a DUI?”
Clint pauses, mug halfway to his mouth. “I—what?”
“Fifteen-year-old girl, drunk off her ass, takes daddy’s car down the block after she’s done raiding the liquor cabinet at a slumber party. Gets pulled over. You don’t wanna waive her up to an adult ‘cause it’ll stick on her record. Can you charge her with a DUI?”
Fury’s head twitches a half-inch in Clint’s direction. “No?”
“The juvenile code leaves traffic offenses to be charged under the traffic code, which is meant for adults.” He shrugs a little and tries to chase away the dry feeling in his throat with a sip of coffee. It doesn’t work. “Traffic code just says any court of competent jurisdiction can handle a DUI, which you’d think would mean juvenile court, but case law says that if it’s left out of the juvenile code, it can’t be prosecuted under the juvenile code. If you’re fifteen and you drive drunk, the only option’s charging you with an adult misdemeanor. And,” he adds, “if you screw around and end up hurting somebody, you can bet you’ll be tried as an adult so the DUI shows up in your lesser included crimes.”
There’s a pause, a long one, when Clint finishes up. He takes another sip of the coffee, like all that caffeine’ll settle his nerves, and watches Fury’s face. It’s neutral for a long time, not a hint of how Clint did with the question, but then Fury, he—nods. “That’s why I hired you,” he says, finally turning away from the window. He meets Clint’s eyes. “I asked that question in half the interviews we did for this job, and every one of those bozos got it wrong. Half of them said sure, why not, sounded good to them, and the other half? Argued that if you aren’t sixteen, you can’t be tried for a traffic offense, period.” He shakes his head. “Goddamn rookie bullshit, that’s what that is.”
Clint frowns. “But you didn’t ask that in my interview.”
“Because I read your term paper on DUIs and implied consent, and knew as soon as I did that I wouldn’t have to.” He puts his hands on his hips. “The people here,” he continues, “are good. Good at their jobs, good at seeking out justice, good at looking out for each other. Between that writing sample and ten minutes of your interview, I knew you’d fit right in.”
“Even with—Thor, was it?”
Fury laughs. “Especially with Thor. Just watch out for him in the softball league. He’s KO-ed more catchers coming into home than in the history of the major leagues.” Clint snorts a little, but it’s—better, he thinks, to have this twisted Fury-brand smile than complete neutrality. “He and Natasha—Romanoff, our domestic specialist—covered the traffic docket while we were a man down. You’ll have notes on your cases, and Judge English cleared this Friday so you won’t have to show up in court until next week. Hopefully by then, you’ll have your bearings. And,” he adds, “enough of an idea of how this place works that you won’t get blindsided.”
Clint purses his lips. “Blindsided, sir?”
“She won’t admit this, and I’ll deny knowing about it, but when Romanoff was new? She walked into a hearing against the slickest bastard north of the equator and got railroaded because nobody wanted to tell her she was up against the goddamn lord of legal mischief.” He shakes his head. “Took six weeks before she’d say much—unless you wanna count all of that Russian swearing she was doing.”
Clint turns the mug around in his hands. “Besides getting all the gossip, is there anything else I should know? Any—words for the wise?”
“Words for the wise?”
There’s a half-second pause before Fury looks at Clint. Not a glance, but a long, searching look, like he’s considering skinning Clint alive and wearing his pelt as a jogging suit. “One,” he decides, after a few uncomfortable seconds.
“Stop calling me ‘sir.’”
Clint leaves at six-thirty.
He reads every case file on his desk, at least the basic facts, and scribbles some notes to himself on one of the crisp new legal pads he finds in a drawer. They’ve stocked him up with the basics—pads, pens, post-its, those little shiny tabs for marking where you wanna come back to—but nothing’s exactly what he likes. He switches out the pen for a pencil from his own bag after the first half-hour, and rips up post-its so he’s got tabs he can write on.
He’s got a long way to go, but around six, his eyes start crossing, and at six-thirty, he’s too hungry to keep working.
The hall’s pretty quiet when he comes out of his office. Darcy’s gone, her bubble screensaver dancing around, and both Banner and Romanoff’s doors are closed. He wanders through the gray-on-gray hallway, reading the names on the doors and trying to take everything in. Steve Rogers has a kid named Dot, he reminds himself. Pepper—whose cubicle is immaculate, not a hint of clutter—is Tony Stark’s assistant. Thor Odinson is—
“The rule around here’s that I’m the only one allowed to stay past about six-fifteen,” someone says from behind him, and Clint almost trips into the wall when he twists around. He hadn’t heard anything—no steps, no breathing, nothing—and he doesn’t like being snuck up on.
His bag smacks the wall, audibly, before he settles again, and the guy behind him holds up his hands. He’s in your typical black business suit and tie, his office ID badge dangling from the pocket—and the second Clint’s facing him, he looks simultaneously apologetic and guilty. Clint knows, immediately, that he’s glaring or scowling. Something to make this guy pull a face and surrender.
“Sorry,” he mutters.
“I figured you heard me,” the guy says, and Clint—he kind of likes that it’s not an immediate apology. He pulls the door over while Clint reads the nameplate next to it: Phil Coulson, Chief Assistant District Attorney. “I was at jury selection all afternoon. We didn’t meet, but I’ve heard a lot about you. Barton, right?”
“You’re Coulson,” Clint says, and Coulson smiles. It’s easy, like he spends a lot of his time slipping into little smiles. His hand is strong when Clint shakes it. “Hill figured I wouldn’t see you ‘till tomorrow.”
“If you’d left with everyone else, you probably wouldn’t have. We just finished up half an hour ago. I think at least three of them want to acquit just based on selection running late.” He gestures down the hallway. “Can I walk you out?”
“Yeah, sure,” Clint replies, shrugging. They meander down the hall, but Coulson doesn’t really say anything else. Hill spent all her time in the hallway reading files, typing on her Blackberry, or explaining how the coffee pot worked, but Coulson just—walks. The silence is new, but not in a bad way. After the day he’s had, it’s more welcome than anything else.
In the elevator, Coulson asks, “What do you think?”
“Your first day.” Clint only figures out he’s frowning when Coulson chuckles a little. “That bad?”
“Just—a lot to take in.”
“Professional hazard around here: nothing ever really stops.” The elevator doors open and Coulson waits for Clint to step out before he follows. “I read your résumé. You spent a lot of time in litigation internships and research positions. That’s pretty solitary work.”
He nods, a little. “I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” he—well, it’s not a lie when you mean part of it, right? He shoves his hands in his pockets. Outside, the sun’s starting to go down, and you can almost feel the heat dissipating. “It wasn’t bad work.”
“No,” Coulson agrees, “but it’s a lot different from this.” When Clint glances over, that easy smile’s tumbling across Coulson’s face again. “You were easily the top candidate. At least, I thought so. Even on paper, you had the most advocacy training, the best handle on criminal procedure. And solid grades.”
He rolls his eyes. “Middle-third grades.”
“Maybe in contract law and second semester civil procedure. You had—what, one A-minus in your criminal law classes? A B-plus in appellate advocacy? For what we look for, you were the best man for the job.”
There’s something painfully honest about the way Coulson says it, like he believes every word right down to his shoelaces, and Clint has a hard time arguing with that. He follows as the guy trail over to a black sedan. He’s about to say something, some kind of thanks, have a good one, when Coulson starts talking again. “If you need anything, you can always ask. Me, Hill, Steve Rogers—we’re all here to help you make this transition. And Darcy’s a little . . . quirky . . . but she’s one of the sharpest assistants we’ve got.”
Clint snorts. “‘Quirky’ is kinda an understatement.”
“You think she’s bad now, wait ‘till the next time there’s a West Wing marathon on ABC Family.” He pulls the back door to the car open, and Clint watches him strip out of his suit coat. It’s funny, but in a way, it’s the friendliest thing that’s happened all day, someone willing to—be human in front of him. Everything else’s been show-and-tell, with cheesy smiles and playing up for the new guy.
Coulson just is.
“Every workplace,” he says, finally, “has a learning curve. You’ll figure ours out pretty soon. You just have to be willing to hit the wall a couple times, first.”
Clint nods, a little, and tries to smile. It’s been a long day, though. Even Coulson seems to notice, and he falls silent as he packs his jacket and briefcase into his back seat. Clint figures that’s the end of the conversation, so he shoves his hands in his pockets and wanders toward where he’s parked, near the back of the lot.
At least, until Coulson says, “Clint?”
When he turns around, Coulson’s leaning an arm on top of the open door. Their eyes meet, and then he smiles in this—genuine way that Clint doesn’t see coming. It’s distracting, for a second, the way it finds lines around his eyes. He forgets everything he’d been thinking about his long day, and just—smiles back.
There’s warmth in Coulson’s voice when he says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
And for the first time all day, Clint thinks he might really like this place.