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Barney left Clint in the hospital with a fractured ankle, two broken ribs, a liver healing from surgery necessary to repair a laceration, a cut that needed twenty-six stitches on the side of his arm, and a bruised kidney. He left Clint to go with the people who put Clint in the hospital in the first place. He left Clint with a $148,000 hospital bill, no insurance, and skills really only predominantly useful for circus acts.

Clint tried to listen to the hospital admin who checked him out about getting on a payment plan, he really did. The antibiotics were making him nauseated, though, and the painkillers weren’t helping as much as he needed, and, if he was honest, panic was a little bit of a problem. At least his fake ID was checking out, and nobody was talking to him about Children’s Services. It was something.

She gave him paperwork, lots of it, some of it filled in with the name he’d given them and a bunch of false information like his address and social security number. Clint was sure he had one of the latter, but nobody had ever bothered to tell him it, so it remained a mystery. He didn’t have one of the former.

The paperwork was slipped neatly into a plastic bag also holding his medications. One of the nurses wheeled him out of the hospital—policy, evidently—and when he stood, gingerly testing his weight on the casted and booted ankle, she said, “Try to keep off the foot and don’t stop taking the meds until you’re out, okay? That’s really important.”

She smiled like she cared as she said it. Clint ached to just stay and talk with her, even if only for a bit longer. Instead he nodded shyly and said, “Yes, ma’am.”

Walking hurt fiercely, but Clint didn’t have bus money. He found a bench to sit down on for a bit, rest. He wondered if Barney would discover the cash Clint had stashed in the trailer vent right over his bunk. Idly, he considered sneaking in and trying to get to it, but between the ankle, ribs and liver he wasn’t moving so stealthily just yet. The last thing he needed was to get beaten again for “trespassing.”

No. No, there were other circuses. He was still Hawkeye. He’d find a way to replace his bow and arrows. He could shoot with his injuries. He could probably find a way to shoot with a broken arm. He was ambidextrous, after all. Swordsman had been insistent, the way he had been about all of Clint’s training.

Clint flexed his hand. He did wish he still had his bow. He knew it was childish, stupid for a sixteen year old to feel this way, but it made the world seem just a little bit less threatening. Clint swallowed a sigh. Wishes and horses. He made himself stand up, get moving.

*

Clint made it to the city center purely by willpower. He slept in a relatively out-of-the-way alley until he could even think about moving again. Then he made himself keep going until he found the first shop, restaurant or parking lot looking for an attendant, cashier, dishwasher, busboy, it didn’t matter, so long as he got paid. He needed money if he was going to be able to hook up with another circus, get his act back on the road.

The first three places told him the position had already been filled. Clint could read the lie, but there was nothing he could do. He knew he looked disreputable, the night in the alley, his injuries and youth all tallying up to one impression, but yelling or throwing a punch wouldn’t change that, so he kept walking, kept trying until the pain made it impossible.

He eased himself onto a stoop and did his best to find a position that didn’t hurt, at least not too much. He fell asleep sitting up for a few minutes, so tired that even the pain wasn’t enough to keep him awake. He jolted awake, the movement agonizing. He bit his cheek until it bled to keep from crying.

He could go to the police, tell them the truth, tell them how old he was. They’d find him a bed, a roof. Clint wasn’t stupid, he knew the kinds of conditions the bed and roof would no doubt come with, but it was an option.

Stealing was probably out, in the immediacy. It took too much agility. And getting a menial job was evidently going to take looking a little less like street trash, which wouldn’t happen until Clint could get himself some cash.

Clint was pretty sure his skills could be translated into more broadly useful applications if given the proper context. He was also pretty sure the proper context meant the army, and they were going to look a little deeper than his fake ID.

Clint knew there was another option, of course. He’d grown up among orphans and carneys. He knew what someone could do if they needed extra cash quick without questions being asked. He wasn’t a stranger to how it worked. Barney couldn’t be around all the time, and most of the older kids at the orphanage had long since had any compassion ground straight out of them. Plus, there was a price to mentorship with Swordsman. Clint had never minded paying, not for the end result. It was just the way it was. Still, he would have preferred washing dishes, or flipping burgers, or, well, something else, was all.

But Clint was a pragmatist, so he let himself rest for a bit longer, until the worst of the full body pulsing of pain thrumming up from his ankle and out from his ribs and liver calmed down to something more like an ebb and flow of intense discomfort. Then he stood, and walked in the direction of the neighborhood he’d made mental note of earlier. Clint was good at directions, at seeing what wasn’t immediately apparent. He knew where he could find the right kind of clientele.

*

Once he’d honed in on the right part of town, Clint checked out the different spots, careful not to take anyone else’s. He couldn’t win a fight just now.

He also watched how the other kids operated. Clint knew how the mechanics worked, it was the drawing people in that was a bit of an issue. Really, Clint had always just been a convenient body. He’d never needed to convince anyone to use him. He’d also never asked for cash. There had been more implicit bargains, but he wasn’t entirely sure what his street value was.

He figured he’d start small. Blowjobs at ten couldn’t be too much, and ten could stretch to three meals if he was smart about it. Food was a priority. Shelter would be nice, but Clint would feel out if he could up his price.

He managed the right combination of offer and discretion somewhere around midnight, and sucked a balding man in a business suit off in his car, bent over the controls, his ribs hurting so badly he had to keep himself from passing out. He pocketed the ten dollars and let himself have a half hour off of even trying.

The second guy was willing to go into the alley. Being on his knees made Clint’s ankle scream at him the entire job, but it was another quick ten dollars. The third guy liked choking Clint, and after that, when Clint came all-too-close to passing out face first in the street, over the spot where he’d been dry-heaving from pain, he gave up for the night. Thirty would get him through the day, with extra left over. Once he had some cash saved up, once he could figure a way to get the cast off, once his face was healed up, he’d be able to move on, get himself a day job, find another circus.

Clint held onto that plan as he searched for a secluded spot in a nearby park. It couldn’t be too secluded; the last thing he need was to intrude on a dealer’s territory, but enough so the police wouldn’t find him. When he finally found something that would suit, he barely managed to get himself on the ground before he closed his eyes, let go of the world.

*

The plan worked for four days; which, Clint acknowledged in the privacy of his own mind, was longer than most of his plans managed to hold up. Luck, he had decided, was for people who were not him. On the fourth night, two men who were easily twice his size and weren’t pinching their pennies for food or sleeping rough, came to where he was tucked into the alley as best he could be, trying to time his approach to the passing cars correctly.

He knew the best thing to do was run, run and not come back, but he was barely back up to a full speed walk, and that only when he really tried and ignored the considerable pain it brought. Instead he said, “I get it, I’m on your turf, I’ll leave.”

One of the guys, who looked almost albino, rolled his eyes. The other, a Hispanic looking man, almost the complete opposite of the other in coloring, just said, “You don’t get it, kid.”

The thing was, Clint did, but he’d had to try. He sighed. He took out all the money he’d made and saved—getting near to one hundred bucks—and handed it over. “Like I said, sorry.”

The one who’d rolled his eyes looked like he almost pitied Clint, but not enough not to take his money. The other one said, “Not that easy.”

“I don’t want—“

“We don’t care,” the talkative one said. “Not to be cliché, or anything, but do you want to follow us, or would you prefer we beat the shit out of you and take you where we’re going?”

Clint realized he currently looked like someone who couldn’t stay out of trouble, but he shook his head slightly. “Coming.”

The walk wasn’t too long, but long enough for Clint to be limping worse than he had since his release from the hospital by the time they reached their destination. He’d run out of pain meds a couple of days earlier, but the pain itself hadn’t run its course. The apartment complex only had stairs, of course. They took Clint up to the third floor. The edges of Clint’s vision greyed out for a moment, his barely-healed ankle in agony, but if there was one thing he thought was a bad idea, it was passing out right here, with these people around him.

They took him into a room that was considerably nicer than the outside of the building or any of the halls he’d been led down would indicate. There was a desk bigger than some houses sitting inside and behind it sat a middle-aged man with graying hair and the most mild-mannered face Clint had ever seen. Something about it made his stomach pitch.

The man nodded at Clint’s two escorts and they left the room. As the door shut behind them he said to Clint, “You’re on my territory.”

“I gave you the money. I said I would leave.”

“Yes, well. I let that happen once. Then my boys and girls started getting ideas, is the thing.”

Oh. Clint felt dizzy for a moment. “I…see.”

“Do you?” The man cocked his head.

“Sir—“

“Save it. You’ve got a choice: work for me or I throw you to my crew and let them have their way with you until they’re done, at which point, someone’ll provide a bullet.”

Clint knew when someone wasn’t kidding. He also knew better than to think life would somehow provide a way out. He could worry about escape when he could actually run. For tonight, “First choice.”

The man’s expression didn’t change. “Thought you might say that.”

*

Clint’s pimp’s name was Frank—which seemed somewhat mundane, all things told, Clint had been hoping for something like Lucius, but he supposed that was the circus performer in him—and he took a 70% cut of Clint’s profits. He had eyes pretty much everywhere, and if he caught you skimming, he would cuff you to one of the apartment beds, and sell you to a non-stop stream of johns with neither food nor water until he thought you had learned your lesson. Frank had made Clint watch one of the girls Frank owned subject to the treatment for three hours. Clint could acknowledge that as deterrents went, it did a pretty solid job.

Frank’s stable had a pricing guide for both services and time schedules, and one did not get creative in what one charged. One also did not refuse services if they were requested. There were a lot of things on the list Clint had never done. He hoped, knowing it was against hope, he’d never need to.

There was a quota, due bi-weekly. Clint worked the math in his head, and realized it was literally impossible to cover with blowjobs, even if he just lined men up and stayed on his knees for 24 hours straight. It was possible to take time off if he did some of the higher end stuff.

There were no nights off. There was a bedroom, something of a cell, really, with a mattress and window with bars. It locked from the outside. The bathroom was down the hall, shared with at least eight other kids that Clint had counted. The water was generally lukewarm, if he was lucky. The living accommodations didn’t bother him all that much, or rather, the sparseness didn’t. He had a roof. What he didn’t have, so far as he could find, were air vents that were safe to climb into, a spot on the roof he could reach and tuck away inside, anything that wouldn’t leave him exposed, that would allow him to reach out and touch the sky.

Even the orphanage, which hadn’t provided much else, had given him those things. And that was before the circus, where he’d learned to be clever in finding those spots, learned to depend on the safety of them.

Clint didn’t really want to find out what happened if he didn’t make quota. He was experienced enough to know that unspoken consequences were often the worst. If he was careful about how much he ate, his 30% covered food, basic medical supplies and a little bit of savings for when he could figure out how to make his move.

Most nights were pretty routine. It could get competitive for the regulars who were clean and just wanted a suck or a fuck. Early on, Clint, who didn’t have the energy or the speed just then to beat the others off, took the ones nobody wanted, the ones who smelled, or called him names, liked to choke him or pull his hair hard enough to evoke involuntary tears.

After the first week of his new job, Clint realized he was getting a reputation for liking it rough, but wasn’t entirely sure how to change that. His ribs were still a problem, and he had finished the antibiotics, but his entire back could still feel where he had been opened up and had instruments prodding around inside him. The cast was still in place, and although Clint would have loved to get rid of that most obvious sign of weakness, it was fairly miserable to walk in the thing, he could only imagine what it would be like without it. He wasn’t going to have a permanent limp so he could look strong to a bunch of kids with no better luck than him.

He learned to get the money up-front from Frank, who only gave instructions when it suited him. Clint learned the hard way to make sure the money was somewhere hidden, so that when a john smashed his head against the wall after a fuck and left Clint unconscious he’d be less easily able to steal the entire night’s take and leave Clint working into daytime hours and skipping meals to make sure he reached quota.

He learned that Frank’s guys got freebies on everything, and they liked fresh meat. He learned that his room was not his, that anything he brought there for himself would be confiscated; if it was food, usually in front of him. It was just somewhere he came back to when—he thought—he was done being fucked for a twenty-four hour period.

Mostly, he learned not to think, because thinking got a kid in trouble.

He cut his sleeping periods to four, five hours a night, minimizing the time he had to be on Frank’s territory when he wasn’t locked in, and spent the lingering days of fall—too cold to be comfortable, but warm enough to ignore that fact—holing up in trees in the park, or reading library books in the air vents above the information desk.

He breathed shallowly until his ribs finally, finally began to heal; moved slowly until he finally could cut the cast off; favored his side until the worst of the surgical damage began to mend. Then he started considering how to get himself out. Out of a string of bad decisions, Clint would later decide that was probably his worst.

*

The bitch of it was, Clint wasn’t rash about it. He waited and planned. He used his time to strengthen his ankle, regain muscle as best he could on a diet with not much fat, save as much cash as possible, and in general, set himself up as well as he could to go. He crept away the evening after collection, thinking that would give him more time, but evidently he was either wrong, or he hadn’t noticed one of the other kids seeing him scale the building he’d chosen, up to the roof.

Despite the familiarity he’d formulated with the rooftops, they found him within hours and brought him back to Frank. Frank asked, “Any excuses?”

Clint didn’t bother trying to provide one. He’d know the risks when he’d tried, thought if he could reach a circus, find someone to take him in, he’d be safe. It was always a long shot. He wasn’t all that surprised to have lost.

Frank tapped his finger on his desk, as though he was thinking about what to do, but Clint had been intimidated before, and he knew the routines. Frank wasn’t thinking; he was just drawing out the moment when he explained what was going to happen to Clint. Clint was kind of pissed at himself for giving in and allowing the wait to discombobulate him, give fear a place to settle in.

After a moment, Frank muttered, “Take him,” and Clint was taken to a room below floor level and chained up with his hands over his head. They actually hadn’t hit him too much more than they’d needed to in order to incapacitate him, tie him up and get him back to Frank. He should have known that was a bad sign.

They took his clothes before they left, cutting off his shirt. It was cold in the room, the beginnings of winter having seeped into the concrete Clint had seen when they’d brought him in. They turned off the lights when they went, leaving him in pitch darkness.

The chains were just long enough that he could stand on his toes. Clint did so for as long as possible, knowing his arms would only take his weight for a certain period of time. Toes, arms, toes, arms. He made himself think of books he’d read at the library, acts he’d seen when new performers would come around, the feel of the bark of the park trees under his fingers as he climbed, anything that would keep him going, keep him from hanging so long he dislocated a shoulder.

In the end, it was futile. Clint had suspected as much, after all, Frank knew what he was doing when it came to punishment, but Clint had never been able to just give over and roll up. When he tried to go to his toes one last time and could not manage, he took a deep breath and refused to scream even as his left shoulder socket popped from its place. Within the hour, he managed the right with only a faint moan.

He lost complete track of things after that. The darkness didn’t shift, there was no indication of daylight, but he doubted there was a window anywhere near. The pain made time stretch, so he stopped trying to figure it out, trying to follow any sort of coherency. He would get out of here when they let him out, or, more likely, when they disposed of his body. He could probably make them mad, make it quicker, but his choices beyond that were scant.

They came back eventually, about the time he’d begun thinking they wouldn’t, that cold and hunger and thirst would do their job for them. But they came back, and put something on the floor, something unbearably hot—a pan or sheet metal straight from a fire, Clint really had no idea—and pressed down on his injured shoulders, flattening his feet against whatever it was. He screamed, then, forgetting any plan he had to be brave or defiant or anything other than in agony. Eventually, thankfully, he passed out.

When he woke up, they drove heated needles through his nipples, his tongue, and then his scrotum. He lost consciousness again, and woke up in a bed, his shoulders still out of their sockets, stretched to either side of the bed, his legs spread-eagle.

When Frank saw that he was conscious, he said, “This should be familiar.”

It was. It took a second, but Clint recognized the bed where he’d seen Frank’s girl “apologize” for skimming. Clint just turned his head. Frank laughed, short and mean. “One week, kid. If you survive it, I’ll even get you medical attention, and we can let bygones be bygones. You’re pretty, hardy. Once you settle in nice and proper, you’ll bring in some serious cash.”

Clint just closed his eyes. He couldn’t get the sound of that laughter out of his head.

*

Clint didn’t think he would survive. Prayed not to, at times. He didn’t believe in G-d, but he thought, if there was anything out there, it might not hurt to ask nicely. It didn’t help, either.

Sometimes, it was just a fuck, just a suck, which were painful enough. His shoulders were a bundle of pure pain, and every movement exacerbated it. He’d been given nearly no water in what had to be days now, and each scrape of a cock against his throat, each choke reflex burned, felt as though it was tearing at his flesh.

Most of the time it was something more: someone with anger to burn and nobody but the kid whose body came cheap to expend it on, with fists, crops, whips, paddles. Or someone who would do the things a wife, husband, partner, lover, boyfriend, girlfriend, fuckbuddy simply wouldn’t: objects and fists used in a different manner and speculums. The john with a thing for warm milk and molasses enemas stood out, even amongst the rest, because Clint had honestly thought he was dying, being ripped apart from the inside out.

He forgot everything at times, down to his name, his history. Only because he forced himself to repeat, Clint Barton, crack shot, perfect eyesight, whenever he could manage to recall, did he keep any of it, anything other than the names they called him, the things they did to him.

At some point—Clint wondered if it really had been a week, as promised, or the lifetime Clint was so entirely sure had actually passed—they untied him, dumped him onto the floor. He was kicked, rolled over onto his back, which made him scream shortly as open wounds hit the rough carpeting. He blinked up. Frank was there. He asked, “Are we going to have to do this again?”

Clint swallowed blood, amazed he had any left. “No, no.”

“No, what?” Frank asked.

“No sir,” Clint managed, his voice wrecked and feeble.

Evidently it was enough. Frank said, “Get this thing cleaned up, and back in his room.”

*

He got the promised medical attention, someone who knew what they were doing enough to clean out his wounds and stitch the ones that needed it, get his arms back into their proper place. The medic told him there might be damage from how long they’d been dislocated. Clint bit his cheek and didn’t say anything. It was hardly as if he had use for his arms anymore.

He was given some Tylenol-3, but the stitching and the setting were still acutely painful. He slept as soon as he was left alone, until he was woken for working hours. The burns on his feet had gotten infected, as had a few of the piercings. He took the antibiotics left for him and more of the painkillers and made himself go out onto the sidewalk, stand on his feet, and drum up business.

The night was mostly a blur of delirium that was half-pain, half-fever. He wasn’t even sure how he managed to make quota, but he did. He counted three times, just to make sure.

They locked him in for the entirety of the day. Not that he would have gone anywhere, his only desire at the moment was too sleep, maybe find some food before his next shift, but it worried him in the back of his mind. The thought of only ever seeing the sky while trying to entice johns made him panicky in the place where fear that wasn’t about being hurt like that again still existed.

He figured out what Frank had meant about him being hardy, bringing in good money, fairly quickly. Johns liked his too-skinny physique, the remnants of bruises and welts. They wanted to add to the collection. He let them. It was money, and money was what Frank wanted, and Clint didn’t have the guts to deny him whatever he wanted, not just then.

On collection day, Frank’s lackey informed him that Frank had upped his cut to 80%. Clint bit back the sob that wanted to be given voice, held back the infinitesimal part of himself that was still alive enough to want to tell the guy to fuck off, and handed over the money.

It took three weeks for them to stop locking him in all day, every day. It took another four, and contracting a cold that made deep-throating a death-defying experience and everything else simply five times more miserable than it traditionally was, for Clint to venture out during the day. He used his 20% to buy himself an extra blanket from the army surplus store. He lingered over a coat, the kind that seemed like it might keep him warm even on the nights when ice rain came down sharp and merciless, but he knew better; no john was going to go for the kid in the big, puffy ugly-ass army coat. He made his way to the nearest pharmacy and purchased some over the counter meds, then sat in a diner, eating soup and drinking hot chocolate. The apartments were always kept at around sixty in the cold. Clint presumed that a bunch of whores weren’t worth the money for the electricity bill.

He missed the library, its warmth and air vents and endless books taking him away from Frank and his corner and the world, but it was too far. If they were watching him, they might think he was trying to run. Instead, he combed the trashcans for old newspapers, magazines, anything that he could use to fill the silence in his world.

Now that it was cold, he could lie to himself, tell himself that he missed Barney because it would have been nice to have someone to share body heat with, because the kids who watched each other’s corners and backs tended to make easier, get more food, in general just come out a little better than those like him, who were on their own. He didn’t have to acknowledge that he was just plain lonely, that as stupid as it was, he missed conversation and laughter and just the feeling of other people really existing around him, rather than just ghosting by.

He didn’t so much as allow himself to think about his bow, about the feeling of an arrow being released. Clint was a consummate self-deceiver, but there were certain things that no lies were big enough to cover. If there was one thing Clint knew on sight, it was a battle lost before it had even been waged.

*

Three Years Later

Clint was having a shitty week. He hadn’t made quota for the first part of the week, meaning that he’d given 100% so it wouldn’t get noticed, which had left him high and dry on food supplies; it had started sleeting despite only being early October; the water had been shut off for two days now, because Frank occasionally missed that bill, what with all his other responsibilities, and one of Clint’s t-shirts had gotten eaten by one of the dryers at the laundromat. All in all, the week wasn’t even a do-over, it just needed to end and never come back again.

Given the way his luck was running, he wasn’t surprised when one of his least favorite regulars swooped by to pick him up, despite the guy being a Monday regular, when he showed, and it being a Thursday. Whatever, Clint’s job wasn’t to ask questions. In the case of this regular, it was to be hogtied with his hands beneath him, and have Icy Hot put in places it was never supposed to go. There was a reason that shit warned that it was for external use only.

This regular took him, if not home, then it was at least somewhere he owned, somewhere sound-proofed, because while Clint could manage short breaths and small whimpers with the application of the stuff to his nipples and even by butt-plug, once the john started in with sounding tools, Clint was going to scream. He tried not to, every single time, mostly just to keep something back for himself, but the sounding would have been painful without the cream; with it, it was a little bit like someone was trying to fill his most sensitive organ with dry ice.

The john was choosing a second sound, wider gauge, and Clint was trying to get his breath back, prepare for another round, when there was a sharp sound, almost like a whip, and the john went down. It took Clint a second to realize what the sound had been. Then a woman with a gun capped in a silencer was standing over him.

Clint blinked up at her. She had a mask on, he couldn’t see her features, but her body shape was entirely female. She held the gun steady and Clint was surprised to not really feel fussed one way or another. If anything, he felt a little relieved. It had been a crap week after a crap three years following a not-all-that excellent first sixteen years of life. She didn’t seem like she’d miss and a bullet wouldn’t be painful.

He was still staring up at her when she let out a long stream of what he was pretty sure was Russian, pulled out another, smaller gun, and aimed that one at him. Clint felt the sting of something hitting his chest and thought, yeah, not so bad. Then he thought nothing at all.

*

Clint woke up. It was surprising and not an altogether a pleasant surprise, but it was a fact, so he figured he’d best take stock of the situation.

He was on a padded slab of some sort in a room that was clearly a cell. He couldn’t see a door, but he presumed there was one, somewhere. The walls were all a uniform metal, reinforced steel, maybe, in what seemed like seven by seven dimensions. There was a toilet and a sink and he was covered by a blanket, so all told, it was nicer than his own room, back at Frank’s bordello.

Someone had taken the sound and plug out, which he supposed was nice of them. They hadn’t flushed out the gel, so his dick and his ass were both burning something fierce. They’d also cut the ropes, but he had rope splinters practically everywhere from his struggles while tied. He always tried to stay as still as possible, but once the burning started, it just was not wholly achievable. He kept needles in his room to help him remove the splinters after the time they’d gotten infected and he’d had to work with inflamed skin all along his arms and legs until the antibiotics had finally worked.

He was naked, so he appreciated the blanket, but he set it on the bed and went over to the sink. It turned out that the two taps weren’t just there for looks, and he could actually get hot water. There was an antibacterial soap bar sitting on the sink, so Clint went to work trying to scrub the worst of the splinters out, and clean out what couldn’t be forced from his skin. It stung enough to bring tears to his eyes, but the pleasure of hot water was admittedly seductive, and he found himself working at the problem areas for longer than he would have back in the public restrooms of “home.”

When he’d finished, he walked around a bit, letting himself dry off. The cell was a little chilled, but not so much that Clint was shaking. It was decidedly warmer than Frank’s currently was.

After drying off, he climbed back onto the slab sticking out from the wall, wrapped himself in the blanket and did some thinking. The things he knew didn’t make a long list. He knew a woman had shot the john he’d been with, then shot Clint with something, not the same gun. The first gun had probably been bullets, the second probably tranquilizers, given that he had woken up. Clint was pretty sure he wasn’t being held for solicitation, which meant he had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He wasn’t sure who was holding him, but what he was sure about was that he’d been gone long enough that Frank would have assumed he’d run. The thought made Clint’s whole body seize up, and he had to concentrate not to vomit. He made himself breathe, remember that he was safe, for the moment. He just had to keep himself safe. For that, he had to figure out where the hell he was, and what he had to bargain that would make him worth keeping to whoever was holding him now.

He knew tradition urged against it, but Clint was more than willing to take a chance on the devil he didn’t know. If nothing else, this devil believed in hot water.

*

There was no way to figure the passage of time. The lights in the cell weren’t terribly bright, but they were on constantly, and there was no window. Clint slept a lot, his body pretty insistent that after three years of no days off and fairly regular abuse, it was going to take this chance to pass the hell out. It evidently had no plan on sleeping any more deeply than it generally did, because Clint woke to the slight hiss of a door opening.

It closed again behind a man of average height, with a sharply oval face, dressed in a tailored black suit, and molding into the wall once more. Clint made himself not stare, made himself pay attention to the new occupant of his room, the immediate threat. The man was carrying a tray with something that looked and smelled a hell of a lot like tomato soup and grilled cheese with a glass of milk.

Clint said, “I’ll trade you the best blowjob of your life for that tray.”

The man’s expression didn’t so much as flicker, which either meant he got offered blowjobs as a regular course of business, or he had a damn impressive poker face. He said, “I already ate. It’s all yours.”

Clint was hungry, almost unbearably so. He’d gone for at least thirty-six hours without food because of the quota debacle, but he knew how the world worked. “What’s the price, then?”

The man set the tray down on the space where Clint had been sleeping, next to where he was now sitting. He pulled a pair of pants and a shirt that he’d been holding underneath the tray out and handed them to Clint. “Get dressed. Sorry for the delay in provisions, but we had to find something you wouldn’t fall out of.”

Clint didn’t move. He wasn't touching anything without knowing what it was going to cost him. He'd had enough surprises on that front for a lifetime. Softly, he repeated, “Price.”

The man, whose eyes were surprisingly unthreatening, given everything, almost friendly in a way that Clint wanted to be terrified by but was mostly just drawn to, said, “A conversation. Perhaps some honesty, if you feel it’s a fair trade.”

Clint considered whether he was being lied to, and then decided that, even if he was, he needed the clothes and the food. He could worry about consequences when they came. He slipped off the blanket and pulled on the running pants and hoodie provided, moving quickly and somewhat amused by the man turning away to give him some privacy. The clothes were too big, but soft against his abraded skin, and while the cell had been kept warm enough that Clint wasn’t particularly chilled, it was nice to be fully warm. Then he dipped one half the sandwich in the soup and took a bite.

He started slowly, since he hadn’t eaten in a while, and he knew better. But the food was warm and tasty and substantial and it was, hard, so hard to keep himself from just stuffing his face. To slow himself down, he made himself talk. He read discarded newspapers all the time as a way to know things, to feel connected to things outside his stupid fucking existence, so he asked, “You guys CIA? NSA?”

The man’s lips twitched and he said, “Something like that. I’m Agent Coulson.”

He held out his hand. It took Clint a moment to remember how to respond, but then he wiped his hand on the napkin provided and shook it. The sensation of the other man's hand clasping his was surprisingly pleasant. “Clint.”

“You going to attest your right to be charged with something? Or read your Mirandas?”

Clint shook his head. “Nope.”

He was safe here, for the moment. He hardly wanted to stay in this cell the rest of his life, but he wanted to be tortured to death by Frank and Co. even less, so kicking up a fuss about his constitutional rights wasn’t really in the plans.

“Ask for a phone call?” Coulson tried.

Clint almost snorted. In the end, he just shook his head.

Coulson considered him a moment and then asked, “What are you going to do?”

Clint thought for a bit, then shrugged. “Suppose that depends on what you guys do.”

“What if I said we were going to pin the murder you just witnessed on you?”

Clint took a couple of sips of milk and thought about getting three meals a day he didn’t have to scrounge up himself. “Prison has its perks. I hear it has a library,” he added a little flippantly. “I’d take my chances.”

More softly, Coulson asked, “And if I said we were going to let you go, contingent upon you signing a confidentiality clause?”

“I’d ask if you knew how to kill me with your bare hands. Or if you could get your assassin to finish up the job she probably was supposed to have done back in that room. Collateral damage, and all that.” Clint kept his voice even, sincere, to let Coulson know he wasn’t kidding around, wasn’t being a smart aleck. This was the only request that really mattered, in the end.

Coulson watched Clint for a moment, his poker face firmly in place, then he asked, “Can you still shoot a bow and arrow?”

Clint spit the milk he’d just barely swallowed out of his nose, choking on it on the way up. “What?”

“Clint Barton, orphaned age seven. Your prints were in the system though CS. You’ve been presumed dead for over two years now. A little over three years ago, and for the better part of the four years before that, you performed in the circus as Hawkeye, prodigy with a bow and arrow.”

Some honesty, Coulson had said, and now Clint understood. He looked wistfully at the plate, which he’d finished, reduced to crumbs and smears of soup. It was so tempting to lie, to buy himself some time, see if he could figure out a better solution to his situation. But he also was worn out, too tired to find out what the consequence of lying might be, so he said, “Probably not. Had my shoulders dislocated for the better part of a week a while back. They never healed quite right.”

“And if we could fix that problem?” Coulson asked, like Clint had just told him he’d skinned his knee or something.

Clint blinked. Coulson said, "In the three years you've been out of the game, nobody has surpassed your record for shots hit. No professionally trained snipers, not Navy SEALS, nobody. Extrapolation is that you could be even better as an adult, more body mass and more patience, among other things."

Clint couldn’t remember what it felt like to be good for something other than the pleasure his use or pain could give, wasn’t even sure there had really been a time when that had been true for him. He hugged his knees to himself and said, truthfully, “I picked it up quickly the first time.”

Coulson stood. “Come,” he ordered. “We need to get those shoulders looked at.”

*

Coulson ordered a full physical before the specialists were even allowed to look at Clint. The doctors were gentle and professional, a combination Clint was so unused to it made him edgy, at least until they gave him something to numb him up while they removed the splinters, and he found himself relaxing for the first time since he’d tried to run. He drifted in and out on the meds, aware that he should probably stay awake, alert, but largely unable to.

By the time the drugs wore off, they’d flushed the last of the Icy Hot from his system, put something on him to calm the rope burn, slathered welts he’d picked up a few days earlier in something cold and soothing, and set a bowl of chicken noodle soup down in front of him.

Clint said, “I think I ate, like, an hour ago. I’m good for…” It struck Clint that giving the amount of time he could do without food, was used to going without it, might not be a good plan for a number of reasons. “A while.”

A doctor, a new one, said, “Eat as much as you can anyway. You’re going to have to gain at least twenty pounds before I can even think about operating on you.”

Clint looked at Coulson who nodded at him, then turned back to the doctor, a slight woman that Clint thought might be of Pacific-Island origins. She had hair so short it spiked out, and was almost drowned by her white coat, but Clint only had to watch her eyes to see that she knew what she was doing. Coulson asked, “Other things that need to be taken care of before you can start in, Dr. Vivien?”

“He’s on two different antibiotic courses, partially to ward off infection from all the holes we just made, partially to clean up a few STIs. The current wounds have to fully heal, he needs to catch up on sleep, we need to get the blood panels back. In the meantime, I’m going to want some x-rays, possibly some MRIs.”

Clint, eating the soup slowly, savoring the salty-richness of the broth, asked, “Would this be a bad time to point out that I have over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in outstanding medical debt already?”

Coulson met his gaze and said, “We found that alias. It’s been taken care of.”

Clint felt his fingers go numb, felt the sharp splash of hot broth on his wrist. It wasn’t until the doctor said, “Breathe, Clint,” careful and insistent, her hand touching his spine, that he realized he’d stopped, that his lungs no longer wanted to cooperate even a bit. His vision narrowed, blurred, and the panic that he’d kept at bay through watching a man be killed, and the cell and the poking and prodding flooded him.

The doctor’s hands moved, cupping his cheeks, small and cool and she looked straight at him and said, “Come on, just a small breath in. Take it with me.”

Time stretched with the panic, and Clint was certain he was going to pass out, which was a stupid thing to do, but after a bit he managed a shaking, hitched breath. When he had enough oxygen, he turned his face to where Coulson was standing, watching patiently, his eyes betraying mild concern. Clint said, “Nobody drops one hundred and fifty grand on a hooker.”

“I didn't,” Coulson answered softly. “I dropped it on a possible asset, the chance to have an exclusive contract application with the World's Greatest Marksman." The capitals were evident in Coulson's tone. "If this works out, I dropped it on a world-class sniper I can trust to have my back. Cheap at ten times the price, Barton.”

“And if this doesn’t work?” Clint asked. “If my shoulders can’t be fixed—“

“I can fix them,” the doctor interrupted, sounding mildly miffed that he would so much as question that fact.

“—if I can’t shoot again?”

“Investments are always risky,” Coulson told him, seemingly unbothered by Clint’s dire possibilities. “And perhaps we will find something else at which you excel.”

“I’m fantastic at anything that involves bending over and taking it,” Clint assured him, as much to see how he’d react as to drive home that he’d just spent more money than Clint would ever earn in an entire lifetime of hooking on someone who was currently being treated for multiple venereal diseases.

“Blowjobs, too, if your earlier offer goes to the truth of anything, but I suspect your skills extend beyond the bedroom.” Coulson looked…kind of bored, actually. Clint was pretty sure that was just a highly developed covering mechanism, but it was admittedly impressive.

“Oh, believe me, I can perform anywhere,” Clint promised, pushing the issue, trying to get Coulson to show his hand.

“We’ll see,” Coulson said. Then, “Eat up. Evidently you’re twenty pounds underweight.”

“Thirty, really,” the doctor, who was hanging back, doing a horrible job of masking her amusement, interjected. “But once he gains the twenty his body will probably have the necessary strength to at least start the procedures.”

Clint blinked at the two of them, and then refocused on Coulson. “What are you going to do with me if this doesn’t work out? How do you get your money back?”

Coulson shrugged. “Maybe I don’t.”

“And then?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “But I won’t throw you back where I found you, I promise that.”

Clint knew all about how promises from people in positions of authority worked. Still, he didn’t have anything else to go on at the moment, and no matter what they did to him here, it could only be as bad as what would happen if he left, not any worse. Also, the soup was really good. He nodded slowly, “Okay.”

“Okay,” Coulson said. Clint went back to eating.

*

The room they gave Clint had a window without bars on it. It didn’t look out onto much of anything, but he could see the sky, and could probably climb out of it if push came to shove. Where he would go was something else, but that wasn’t the point.

It had a toilet and a sink, and an actual bed, mattress and box springs and all. It was a nice bed, possibly the nicest one Clint had ever had. There were blankets on it, soft and fluffy and a blue that Clint found calming.

The walls were a clean, neutral beige. The door had a lock on it. Oh, Clint didn’t doubt for a second that Coulson and possibly a few other people had the keycard, but not everyone did. He could lock it, not allow those other people in, a luxury he’d never known, ever.

Coulson said, “Your job, for the next few weeks, is to get yourself healthy enough for the necessary medical procedures.”

Clint looked at the walls, and despite knowing he shouldn’t push, couldn’t help asking, quietly and cautiously, “Am I allowed out of my room?”

There was silence for a moment and Clint looked back at Coulson, “Nevermind. I didn’t—“

“Yes,” Coulson cut him off. “You’re not a prisoner.”

No, for one hundred and fifty thousand, he was just a permanently occupied rent boy. The terms as he understood them weren’t all that different.

“There are restricted areas, and if you leave, we will find you. But there’s a courtyard I can show you, and you can eat meals in any of the cafeterias, explore a little, so long as you pay attention to signs and listen when someone tells you not to go somewhere.”

“Thanks,” Clint said softly.

Coulson nodded and looked like he was about to leave when he said, “You like libraries?”

Clint blinked. Coulson said, “When I mentioned prison, you responded that it had a library. That’s not a common response.”

Clint shrugged. “I like information.” Mostly, he liked something to fill his mind with that wasn’t his life, but the first explanation was true as well.

“I’ll be back in a second.” Coulson left, and Clint stood where he was, waiting. True to his word, it took Coulson less than a minute to reappear with something in his hand. He held it out to Clint, who, after a second, took it.

“Tablet,” Coulson said. “Hooked into the mainframe. Lots of reading material without any clearance codes.”

Clint looked down at it. He’d seen things like it before, advertised in newspapers and the like. He’d never known anyone who’d actually had one. He made himself look at Coulson, but couldn’t manage to enunciate, “I don’t know how to use it.”

“Sure,” Coulson said easily, evidently being fluent in Clint-mumble, despite having just met Clint. “It’s simple, here,” he held out his hand and Clint gave the tablet back, uncertain it would be returned to him, but certain it did him no good if he couldn’t make it work.

Coulson just showed him how to get into the menu and look things up, and then handed it right back. Clint asked, “Are you sure? It’s-- This isn’t part of the investment.”

Coulson said, “You just don’t understand investing well enough.” He reached out and squeezed Clint's elbow, which was surprising, but also kind of nice. It felt supportive. He turned around and went out the door, looking over his shoulder to say, “Get some sleep, we’ll have someone here with more food in another couple of hours.”

The door closed, and Clint knew, knew he should lay down and follow directions, but there was an air vent directly within his reach above the bed just begging to be explored, and a tablet he could tuck into the back of his pants and open the world up with when he found the perfect spot, the place where he could see anyone coming and it would take work to get him out against his will.

Clint looked at the bed. He bit the inside of his cheek, hoped against hope he would get to check it out later, and climbed up to remove the vent.

*

It took Clint two days to find roof access through the vents. Once there, he tucked himself on the edge, abutting a raised barrier, and overlooked the compound. It was huge. Clint wasn’t looking for an escape, so much as just to see where he was, what his world looked like at the moment. It was then that he caught sight of the jets.

They were sleek; black and beautiful in the way his arrows had been. Clint had always loved books with math problems, geometry and physics, numeric explanations of what happened when he loosed an arrow, how it found its way if he calculated wind speed and course correctly. The jets sat there, like the physical representation of all that, only bigger, more substantial. Clint watched for hours, catching one of them coming in, another leaving.

He was late for his scheduled meal—every three hours, like clockwork, generally something heavy on healthy fats and proteins—and when he slid back into his room, Coulson was there, sitting on the bed, filling out paperwork. Clint held himself still and said, “Sorry, I—“

“We really need to get you a desk in here,” Coulson said, not waiting for the last of Clint’s apology.

Clint stayed right where he was. Not that Coulson had shown any signs of psychotic tendencies, but Clint had learned the hard way that more than a few people could stay calm right as they were about to tear the skin from your body with their teeth. A john had actually done that once; Clint had the scars on his right shoulderblade - and the nightmares - to prove it.

And of course, Frank had always been calm right before he was about to do anything that would leave Clint begging for mercy that wasn’t forthcoming, so Clint wasn’t fucking moving until he found out what the punishment for unauthorized monkeying around in the air vents was. After a few minutes, Coulson looked up and said, “The food got cold. I sent it back and figured I’d bring you down to the cafeteria when you showed up.”

“I wasn’t trying to leave,” Clint said. “Or spy. Or—“

“What were you trying to do?”

Clint swallowed, trying to find an answer that made sense, since there hadn’t really been much of a plan, just a desperate need to strike out on his own again, to regain some independence, even if it was merely illusory. Finally, he shook his head. “Just trying to feel safe, I guess.”

It was hard to explain to people why small spaces like air shafts felt secure, especially when it wasn’t as though he was agoraphobic: he hated not being able to access the sky, breathe fresh air. But the tinier a spot, the harder it was for someone bigger and meaner than you to find you, and since Clint could remember, that had always been true. There had been nowhere to hide for three years now, and if Coulson took that away it was probably going to hurt as much if not more than anything that had been done to him.

Coulson nodded, once. “Did you?”

Clint shrugged.

Coulson stood. “Come on. I’m pretty sure I saw a sundae bar in the cafeteria earlier. I think it might be one of the kitchen staff’s birthday. I’ll cover for you if you wanna skip the healthy stuff.”

Clint took a cautious step away from the wall, and then down off the bed. The corner of Coulson’s mouth tilted up, and he looked at Clint with those careful, strangely sweet eyes that Clint was stupidly beginning to think might be genuine in their display of emotion. Then he turned, and led the way out of the room.

*

Over a banana split with three kinds of ice cream, caramel, hot fudge, butterscotch, marshmallow fluff, peanuts, walnut pieces, chocolate chips, sprinkles, whipped cream and four maraschino cherries, Clint said softly, “If the answer to this is no, that’s fine and all, but do you think, maybe, if I turn out to be a good investment, I could see one of the jets up close?”

Coulson, in the middle of a bite of his own, comparatively sedate, banana split—coffee and vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, toasted almonds, and whipped cream—waited to swallow then asked, “You saw the jets?”

Clint looked down at his sundae, and reminded himself how Coulson hadn’t even blinked as he’d piled things on, just offered him the stuff he hadn’t gotten to yet. He said, “I like roofs.”

“Roofs and air vents,” Coulson said softly. “Huh.”

“I wouldn’t touch them,” Clint explained. “The jets. I wouldn’t even get near enough to fuck something up. I just—“

“How about flying them? If we taught you to do that, would you?”

Clint choked on his ice cream, turning away so he wouldn’t spew all over Coulson if he couldn’t swallow it down in time. He’d choked on other people more than often enough to know it never ended well for him. When he’d managed to stop coughing, he wiped his eyes and found Coulson waiting, calmly. Coulson asked, “You all right?”

“Are you serious?” Clint asked.

“Well, yes. I’d hate to lose my investment over some rogue strawberry ice cream.” He somewhat playfully flicked his spoon in Clint's direction, at odds with his lack of tone.

“About the jets,” Clint clarified, surprised by his actual desire to respond to the deadpan humor in Coulson’s response.

“It’s something you could train on while you’re healing up, a good skill to have. If it works out, it makes you even more valuable than I’d planned. And you’re interested, which makes things ten times easier. Yes, I’m perfectly serious.” Coulson kept his gaze on Clint while he spoke, and for a second afterward, but then went back to eating his ice cream.

Sometimes, Clint wasn’t sure Coulson understood what he was dealing with, didn’t quite get that Clint was street trash who’d been at what seemed to be the wrong place at the wrong time and turned out, for the first time in Clint’s worthless life, to be the right time and the right place. “Those jets have to cost like, a billion dollars.”

“Not quite. But cars are fairly expensive for the average American and we still teach our children to drive.”

“Parents do that. Because… Because they love their children, and-- I don’t actually know why, but it’s not something you do with some random kid you find on the street.”

Something Clint couldn’t quite determine shifted in Coulson’s body language. He took the spoon out of his mouth and said, in a drawl, “Good thing I’m not going for father-figure status.”

“Coulson. Agent. Agent Coulson.”

Coulson took another bite and waited.

Clint gestured expansively and explained, slowly, as if to someone with only rudimentary knowledge of the English language, “I could crash the jet. I didn’t even go to high school, you know? I’m pretty sure you have to be at least a little smart to fly those things. And probably qualified at more than epic cocksucking.”

“Your reading level, assuming you’re actually reading the things the mainframe has shown me you pull up, is at a college-level. You’re clearly decently self-educated, something it takes a person of above-average intelligence to accomplish in your circumstances. And we’ll train you. I don’t think you’ll crash the jet.”

“Oh, good. You don’t think so.” Clint was aware he sounded mildly hysterical, but he was pretty sure Coulson was the one who was actually completely insane.

Coulson did smile at that. “Before you start training, there’s some reading you need to do.”

Clint couldn’t help the question that slipped past his lips, “About the jets?”

“And more.”

Clint took the tablet from where it was still tucked against his back and slid it across the table to Coulson. “Show me. Please.”

Coulson didn’t wait for him to say (beg) the magic word.

*

Clint lost himself in the jet-related readings Coulson had given him for the better part of the next week. Coulson made him wear a watch with a timer so that he wouldn’t forget to eat, and he was ordered to stop and sleep whenever he felt so much as a little drowsy, but Coulson said he didn’t care where or at what precise times Clint did all these things.

Clint had figured out a perfect juncture in the air vents that was easily accessible from all his other favorite points, most particularly the roof and his room. If Clint wasn’t curled up in his bed when he became tired, he just slipped down to that spot and tucked himself away in it a bit.

Coulson supplied him with a second blanket, and didn’t ask where it disappeared to. He also requisitioned a framed schematic of one of the jets and hung it on Clint’s bland walls, like Clint had a right to make the space his own, like Clint might stay. Clint got that there was also a purpose to it, that he needed to understand the inner workings of the jet, but that fact didn’t make waking to it in the mornings any less secretly special, didn’t diminish the feeling he got when he tucked his legs into a pretzel on his bed and studied the thing, feeling a little bit like a kid in a science class, or what he imagined that would feel like.

He had a weigh-in at the end of the week and Dr. Vivien was pleased with his progress. She said, “Here, I brought this for you,” and handed him a Tupperware.

He peeled back the lid and couldn’t even help inhaling; it smelled delicious. She grinned. “One of my favorite smells. My mom taught me how to make that when I was fifteen, she said it was survival food.”

“What is it?” Clint asked, peering at the colorful riot of vegetables, thick noodles and sauce.

Dr. Vivien grinned. “We call it drunken noodles. It’s kind of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink food.”

“You made it?” Clint asked.

“I’ve never poisoned anyone, promise.”

Clint shook his head. He tried to keep his face blank, because the other option was stupidly appreciative, like some three-year old being given a piece of candy. “I didn’t mean-- Just, I, um. I don’t think anybody’s ever cooked for me.”

She was silent for a second and then said, “I think it might be time for you to have more than a few new experiences.” Then, “You can keep the Tupperware, my sister has parties and I’ve got it coming out of my ears.”

Clint held the container to his chest. “Thank you.”

“Eat it all, you’ve still got some serious weight to put on, mister.” She had a slight frown that Clint didn’t think was angry, more just concerned.

Clint nodded. She said, “Go on with you. Clean bill of health on all the other stuff, you’re free for another week.”

Clint dutifully went and made his way to the roof, where he ate the noodles, scooping up the sauce with his fingers to get every last bit of it. He read about flight protocols until his eyes were drooping and then slid and crawled to his blanket in the crook of the vents, right where he’d left it. He wrapped it around himself and drifted off to thoughts of the sweet way the air on the roof whipped past him, and what it might be like to ride that air, controlling his own destination.

*

Clint met Agent Arnett on the rooftop of building four at fourteen hundred hours on a Tuesday with clear skies and no predicted chance of rain. Arnett, who towered over Clint at what had to be six foot nine or ten, and looked a little like he could be related to Fury, smiled, held his hand out and said, “You must be Clint.”

Clint shook his hand. “I really appreciate this.”

Coulson had explained that some of SHIELD’s more experienced pilots would take him out several times, show him the reality of controlling the jet before he was allowed to so much as co-pilot. Clint had agreed that this approach was for the best, but it meant that those pilots were probably being taken off of something more important to see to his training.

Arnett nodded. “Agent Coulson mentioned that this might be the first time you’ve flown? At all?”

Clint made himself keep eye contact, not look off to the side, not allow his posture to shrink into itself. “Traveled a lot. Just never by plane.”

“So, basically, I get to be the person to introduce you to the sky,” Arnett said, and he didn’t sound like he was judging, he sounded…excited.

Clint smiled wryly. “Basically.”

Arnett clapped his hands together and took his time helping Clint to suit up and strap in to the jet. He talked Clint through the procedure of lift off through their helmet mics, stopping every once in a while to make sure Clint didn’t have any questions, and remind him to ask if he did. Clint made him go over a few aspects of the process twice.

Lift off was intense, the weight of pure air seeming to press Clint down into his seat, but once he got past the oddness of the sensation he looked to his right and saw endless, vast space. The world of people was getting smaller and smaller, until they were no longer even targets, just specs of dust, forgettable.

He couldn’t help touching his fingers to the glass, it was just that the sky was so close. Arnett asked, “Doing okay back there?”

Without thinking, Clint asked, “Do we really have to go back down?”

Arnett laughed, bright and loud, and said, “Not for a while.”

*

Clint asked Dr. Vivien for her drunken noodles recipe, because he thought, maybe, if he ever had a kitchen, he could probably make them himself. She grinned and said, “I can do you one better,” which was how the Thursday Night SHIELD Comfort Food Cooking Class began.

Dr. Vivien started it with that first Thursday night where she took over the cafeteria kitchen and let anyone who wanted to join in and learn how to make Vietnamese comfort food crowd around her workspace. Agent Jermane, the four foot eleven Southern Belle who was arguably the smartest tactician SHIELD had, had evidently financed college by being a short order cook. She invited people back the next Thursday night, for a session on how to make southern fried chicken, macaroni-and-cheese, and collared greens.

On the third Thursday, one of the engineers from R&D, an athletic-looking Pakistani woman from Illinois, introduced herself as Jagathi, and showed them all how to make a mean deep-dish pizza. The fourth Thursday was all about vegetable pakoras and a positively luscious mutter paneer, taught by Tennison, the ex-Air Force officer who'd been stationed in India for two years, and one of the pilots who’d been helping Clint learn the feel and design of the jets’ cockpit.

On the fifth Thursday, Hungarian goulash was the goal, taught by someone out of accounting. That night, someone new showed up to the class. There were usually one or two new people every week, who disappeared the week after that, only interested in the particular food item, or there because a friend was teaching.

The new girl this week was different. She stayed in the back, and others avoided her while trying to seem like they weren’t. Clint couldn’t shake the feeling that she was familiar. It was distracting, so he finally just slipped to the back and said, “I’m Clint. Wanna work together when we pair off to actually try this?”

She looked at him, her expression blank. She had an even more impressive poker face than Coulson. She was also, he realized, gorgeous. It had been a long time since he’d looked at anyone and thought about whether that person appealed to him or not, desire pretty much having been driven out by his former day-job. The feeling of simply liking her red hair and soft-looking skin was so intense it took him a moment to recover.

Her, “You want to partner with me,” was flat, uninformative.

Clint checked himself back into reality and realized she probably knew who he was. When a person stayed in the vents, he heard things he wasn’t meant to hear. He knew what the agents whispered about him, about what he must be doing to keep Coulson picking up his tab, about how SHIELD had previously only metaphorically kept bitch-boys. He stiffened a little, reminding himself he’d been spending too much time on his own, or with Coulson, who treated him like something other than a cheap fuck. “It was just a-- Nevermind.”

He turned to slip back up toward the front. Dr. Vivien was always willing to be his partner, even if everyone else managed to find another workspace. Before he could move, the woman’s hand came around his wrist, tight enough that he knew she could hurt him if she wanted to. Suddenly, he realized why she was familiar. He whipped his gaze back to her, startled.

She smiled, but it was sharp, knowing. “You look much better than when last I saw you.”

Clint growled, but she didn’t so much as blink. He asked, “Why not kill me? Probably were supposed to.”

She did blink at that, slowly, like she was thinking. Finally, she said, “Coulson says everyone deserves to live before they die.”

“Coulson,” Clint found himself repeating.

“Actually, he told me that when I asked why he didn’t kill me. He was definitely supposed to.”

Clint was starting to get why the others avoided her. Barney had once told him—after being spurned by one of the circus burlesque girls—that pretty things were always rotten inside. Clint didn’t believe that, hadn’t believed anything Barney had told him in a while, but he was fairly certain this girl’s beauty covered up for a lot of danger, maybe some lurking poison. Even so, he looked down at where she was still holding his wrist. She didn’t let go as he did so. Clint had plenty of rotten parts inside himself. It didn’t make him less lonely when others pretended not to see him. He said, again, “I’m Clint. You wanna be my partner in probably burning the everloving shit out of some goulash?”

Surprise flickered in her expression. “Natasha,” she responded. “I-- I wouldn’t mind someone reading me the directions.”

Clint cracked a smile. “All right, then.”

*

Natasha and Clint made a good team. Sure, they were often messy, and Natasha had more than once scared a junior agent away by playing with the knives, but they always managed a finished product, even if it sometimes had more personality than it was originally intended to. This worked out pretty well the week they were making hummus. They hadn’t stopped experimenting with that particular dish since.

People avoided them, maybe even more than when they had each been on their own, but it didn’t bother Clint as much anymore. They avoided Natasha because she scared the crap out of them, so Clint could pretend they avoided him for the same reason. Besides, he had a friend now, so the avoidance didn’t seem like such a big deal.

She was younger than him. Clint thought she was maybe too young to be legally employed by an outfit like SHIELD, but he didn’t ask because he got it. Where the hell else was someone like her going to go?

He didn’t ask her about the time Coulson hadn’t killed her—even though he really, really wanted to know—and she didn’t ask him about the things in his life that had led him to be tied up and tortured for someone else’s pleasure. It was a silent accord, one that worked for both of them.

She taught him words in Russian and found him after his doctor’s appointments, when it was determined whether he was getting any closer to being capable of withstanding surgery. She went up to the roof with him before his first flight actually being the one in charge of the controls, rather than the co-pilot, and was waiting for him when he landed.

He taught her the best pathways through the air vents and best places to overhear quality conversations. Sometimes, tucked tightly into spaces, eavesdropping on other agents, her hand would accidentally brush his arm, or his hand would momentarily make contact with one of her curls. It made him think about what kissing her would be like, how she would taste like faraway places and the way her lips would fit against his, how she would take over but not in a way that made him feel powerless. She would look at him in the dark, though, pale and unreadable, and he would never follow through.

Coulson, who clearly knew what they got up to in the vents, if the unreadable expressions on his face where anything to go by, just checked in to make sure Clint was keeping up with his eating and physicals schedule, and Natasha was fulfilling her time in the training rooms.

Clint figured out how to get to the training rooms by vent less than a week after meeting Natasha, and watched her spar. It was pretty much the most beautiful thing Clint had ever seen, including the show horses, with their grace and majesty, and the acrobats, who could make their bodies do anything. They didn’t even come near to the sheer exquisiteness that was Natasha doing what she clearly did best.

One night, when they were reading together, late into the evening, Clint whispered, “One day, you’ll teach me what you know,” when he thought she was asleep.

Without opening her eyes, she said, “I charge.”

“I have ways of paying,” Clint said softly.

Her eyes did open at that, dark and just a little bit wet. Clint blinked. He’d never seen her show emotion, not like that. She said, “I meant you would have to teach me to shoot a bow. That’s what you do, right?”

“Supposedly,” Clint said. “I’m better at—“

“And you could make me want it, I do not doubt. No small feat in itself.” Natasha’s accent, which never, ever came out, whispered in her tone. She leaned slightly back, her fingers curled lightly, the way they did when she wanted a weapon and knew it wasn't appropriate to grab one. There was fear hidden in her tone, her posture, but of what, Clint couldn’t be sure. His instinct was to assume she was afraid of sex, but this was Natasha, and she didn’t let much scare her. The other option, though, was that she was scared of Clint, of him taking something from her; that was impossible to believe. “But unless I was making you want it in return, I wouldn’t want it. You know me. I like having the upper hand.”

Clint didn’t know her, not really, but he was starting to. She did like having the upper hand, but she didn’t need it. What was more, with Natasha, what seemed like the upper hand to everyone else might only be an illusion, something she wanted you to believe you had. He took a chance, ran a finger over the back of one of her hands, then pulled away. “You’re lying.”

“Not entirely,” she said.

“Enough,” he told her, because while he appreciated her leaving him some dignity—a mercy he was not sure she would show to many—his pride stupidly demanded that he make her aware he knew what she was doing.

She closed her eyes again, none of the wetness that shone in them seeping out, but her body language still stiff, removed. “Maybe.”

*

A little over three months into Clint’s tenure at SHIELD, Dr. Vivien checked him out and said, “Okay, Barton, you’re ready to be fixed.”

Like that first time he met her, his lungs seized up, his breath coming in stuttered gasps, and she said, “Hey, hey, breathe. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

Clint shook his head. He believed her. His words were short and sharp, like his oxygen supply. “It’s not that.”

“Then what?” Coulson asked. Dr. Vivien must have told him she suspected they were close, since he only came to appointments if he thought there might be news. Otherwise, he just had Clint report to him in his office.

Clint made himself ask again, despite the fact that the last time he’d asked, Coulson hadn’t given him much of an answer. “What are you going to do if this doesn’t work? Now that we’re here.”

When he’d asked the first time, it had just been fear of what waited on the other side of these walls. It was worse now, knowing what he had inside these walls; which was precisely why he had to ask. Clint had learned the hard way to always, always ask for the client’s wishes upfront; it saved a lot of unnecessary pain and clean-up afterward. This was really no different.

“Keep training you as a pilot. Have Tasha train you in hand to hand. Teach you to deal with paperwork. Give you junior agent status rather than specialist rank. Does that work?”

Clint didn’t even know the difference, really, but he could appreciate that there was one. There was only one difference that mattered. “Would I be…would you turn me over to someone else?”

He forced himself to meet Coulson’s eyes. They were tellingly blank, the kind of empty Coulson only managed when something was really bothering him. Clint said, “It’s okay, I get it. Thanks for-- Everything.”

“Clint,” Coulson said, and it made Clint stiffen, because Coulson never called him by his first name.

Clint turned to Dr. Vivien. “So, what’s the timeline—“

“Agent or Specialist, Barton, you’re mine. I found you, I put the time in, and I get to keep you.”

Clint swung his gaze back to Coulson and blinked. “Tasha found me.”

“Tasha is mine,” Coulson said with a deceptive mildness that Clint recognized.

Despite knowing there was something underneath the veneer of civility Coulson was presenting, Clint needed more. “She says it’s just because nobody else will take her. She says Director Fury said she’s your problem.”

“Yes, because, much like you, what Tasha perceives as her self-worth is always the unvarnished truth.”

“Tasha is a specialist,” Clint pointed out. He took Coulson’s meaning, but it didn’t change that there was a significant difference between himself and Natasha. She was an asset. She was entirely unique in all the universe, and Clint was sure Coulson knew it as well as he did. Clint thought maybe, underneath Coulson’s diplomatic, “I get to keep you,” laid a much more truthful, “nobody else wants you, and I’m a responsible kind of guy.”

“And so will you be,” Coulson said, as though this was a foregone conclusion.

“Coulson—“

“What’s the timeline, doctor?” Coulson asked, mildness morphing into bland interest.

Clint made a face at him, which Coulson in no way acknowledged. Dr. Vivien asked, “How’s tomorrow sound?”

Coulson said, “Like he’ll have less time to panic,” and somehow, without Clint saying a word, he was scheduled for surgery at oh-eight-hundred hours the next morning.

*

Clint couldn’t sleep, so he accepted that Coulson very possibly had a point about his being a little high-strung over this whole thing. On the flipside, they were about to cut open his arms and essentially rewire his shoulders, so he thought maybe he deserved a little bit of anxiety. Nonetheless, he threw on some sweats and was down in the medical wing by ten to oh eight hundred.

Natasha was there, sitting next to Coulson. Clint said, “Uh. They predict this’ll take like seven hours, or something.”

“We’re patient people,” Coulson said, not looking up from the paperwork he’d brought with him.

“You don’t have to—“

Coulson’s look, when he focused in on Clint, was enough to shut Clint up. Coulson said mildly, “I ordered you to go under the knife. I can at least wait to hear how it goes.”

Clint considered that, and after a second, turned his attention to Natasha, who was pretending to read while watching him. He said, “You didn’t order me to do anything.”

Natasha frowned. “You really suck at friendship.”

Her tone was softer than he thought it should be, filled with a barely-concealed tremor that Clint would have pegged as worry in anyone else. Only mildly stung, Clint came back brilliantly with, “So do you.”

She shrugged. “Not so much that I’m not staying.”

Clint didn’t mean to, was usually better at hiding himself than this, but he couldn’t stop from hugging himself, trying to keep himself physically safe. Softly, without making his stare challenging, Coulson asked, “Barton?”

Clint shifted from foot to foot. “Last time I walked into a hospital with family at my side, I left having lost everything.”

“Your family put you in that hospital,” Coulson responded, sounding as pissed as he ever did, which was to say, not very. But his mildness was definitely off.

“And left you there.” Natasha sounded like someone who knew that something was wrong, but didn’t quite understand why it was wrong. Then, sounding more certain, she told him quite firmly, “We’re not leaving. I brought four books. Just in case.”

“And I brought all the paperwork the two of you accumulate just by breathing,” Coulson said. “Believe me, we’ll be here longer than you could ever plan to stay.”

Clint couldn’t remember the last time someone touched him without wanting something. Barney was never much of one for physical affection, and Barney was the only person in Clint’s remembered life who might have fulfilled that role. He also couldn’t remember the last time he had wanted someone to touch him just to have that connection, just to feed off their warmth and humanity.

He wanted it then; wanted it before he went and let the doctors put him under and cut into him, remake him, sew him back together. He wanted it, and had no idea how to ask for it.

“Barton?” Coulson asked, probably due to Clint’s hesitation in just going back to the prep room.

Clint shook himself. “Yeah, no, sorry.”

Coulson stood then, setting the paperwork to the side, assessing Clint. He frowned the way he did when Clint or Natasha was being particularly obtuse or stubborn. Then, slowly, he reached out and squeezed Clint’s arm. Clint couldn’t help letting his eyes flutter closed, seeming to expand into the touch. Because he had his eyes closed, it was a surprise when Coulson used his grip to pull Clint into a hug, but it took Clint less than a second to melt into it. He wasn’t sure he’d ever been hugged, but if he had been, he was certain it had never felt this wonderful.

Coulson said, “It’s going to be fine, Barton. You’ll see. Everything’s going to be fine.”

In that moment, surrounded by platonic, safe, kind human contact, Clint believed him.

*

Clint woke up very, very, very high. He’d been severely beaten more than a few times in his life, had to have anal tearing sewn up, and experienced more than his fair share of broken bones and nobody had ever given him meds that made him feel the way he did now. He was pretty sure he could get shot in the face currently and laugh it off. He told Natasha, who was watching him suspiciously, “You’re pretty. Really pretty. The prettiest girl ever.”

She blinked, actually blinked in reaction to that. Clint wished he could think more clearly, because his brain knew it was a clue, but couldn’t figure out what it meant. She recovered herself and said, “Since you’re alive, I’m going to go get myself a cup of coffee.”

“I love coffee,” Clint told her. “Coffee is awesome.”

She just kept walking out of the room, so Clint turned his attention to Coulson, who had a slight smile on his face. Clint told him, sincerely, “You don’t smile enough. You’re so nice, but you never smile. It worries Tasha. She worries a lot. She doesn’t really say it, or anything, but I can tell. I’m a feelings ninja.”

“Okay,” Coulson agreed easily.

“I can’t feel my arms,” Clint told him, then thought about it. “I can’t feel my body. Or my face. Is that normal?”

“That’s why they call it the good stuff.”

“Oh. Ooooh.” Clint nodded. “It is very good. The stuff. Maybe even better than coffee. But coffee smells really good, too. Like Tasha’s hair. Tasha’s hair smells like rain, but not the nasty rain by Frank’s, the good kind of rain, like in the small places we’d go with the circus, where you could see the stars at night and people smiled at you in the streets.

“And your ties and shirts. They smell clean. I don’t actually know what that means, but it’s true, they smell very clean, and I like it, because everything smelled dirty at Frank’s and on the johns. It sucked.”

Coulson's face looked funny, not placid and unreadable, more as though he'd swallowed a lemon.

Clint didn't like that face, he wanted Coulson to smile. Clint laughed. “Sucked! Get it?”

“Wow, he’s like a twelve-year old hopped up on pixie sticks and cleaning fluid.” Natasha walked back in the room and handed Coulson a cup of coffee.

“I’m fairly certain that would kill a twelve year old,” Coulson said mildly.

“It would,” she assured him.

“You know all kinds of stuff,” Clint said, nodding. To Coulson he said, “She’s very smart. She teaches me stuff all the time just by talking. I don’t have anything to teach her.” Clint frowned. “Nothing good.”

Coulson’s hand was warm from the coffee when he took Clint’s hand. “Tasha doesn’t need anything from you except the way you listen.”

Clint looked at Natasha, telegraphing his doubt, but she said, “Coulson’s right,” with that weird look in her eyes again, the one Clint never knew how to parse.

“I always am,” he told Clint solemnly. “You should listen to me more often.”

Natasha made a noise that was halfway between a cough and a laugh and muttered something that might have included, “taking advantage of the compromised.”

Clint grinned. “Okay. Will you touch me more if I do? I like it when you touch me. You don’t hurt me and you don’t want anything and it’s really nice. You’re very gentle, and that’s strange. Gentleness is strange, but good, I like it, I think. I mean, I’m still getting used to it, and all, but I really think it’s a good thing.”

Coulson set the coffee cup he was holding with the hand not in Clint’s on the table and used the second hand to brush Clint’s hair from him forehead. Clint sighed with pleasure. “Thanks.”

“It really is possible I should get you high more often,” Coulson murmured.

“Do you like me better this way? There were a lot of johns who liked me better gagged, and one who liked me better on this drug that paralyzed me. I didn’t like him, but he paid really well, and Frank had it out for me, so it really was best just to take the high rollers, no matter what. But this isn’t bad at all, you could do this to me, if you wanted. You’ve paid waaaaay up front.”

“We like you just the way you are.” Natasha’s voice was clipped, she sounded angry.

Clint chewed his lip. “Did I make you mad? I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.”

“She’s not mad at you,” Coulson said.

Clint looked at Natasha for confirmation, and she nodded. He brightened. “Oh, well, okay then.”

“But it is easier to help you when I know what you need,” Coulson said. “And right now, you’re actually telling me.”

“You got me everything I need,” Clint told him, confused. “You got me a bed, and food, and books, and places to climb and somewhere I can see the sky and Natasha. I don’t need anything else.”

“You needed a hug,” Coulson pointed out.

“Noooo,” Clint said. “Nopenope. I wanted a hug. I didn’t even really need a lot of that other stuff, just wanted.”

“You should ask for what you want. See where it gets you.”

Clint rolled his eyes. “That’s stupid. Everyone knows asking for what you want is a bad idea. How come you don’t know that?”

Clint looked to Natasha for support, but she seemed torn. In the end she said, “Maybe we-- you ought to try, all the same.”

“I think you should, and I’m always right, remember?” Coulson asked.

Clint thought about that. “You might have a point. But I’m pretty high right now, so who knows?”

It got Coulson to break an actual smile.

*

The third time Clint woke up, they had definitely dialed back the drugs. His shoulders were throbbing so badly that for a moment, he thought he might be back in the basement, tied up, waiting for Frank’s goons to come back. Then his heart rate made the monitor spike and the elevated beeping brought him back to where he actually was.

He took a breath, then another, and noticed Natasha sitting at his side, watching him. She looked as though she’d just woken. It was possible. She could sleep standing up. It was awesome.

She said, “You’re safe.”

Clint nodded. After a second, the last couple of times he’d woken filtered in through his memories and he closed his eyes. He opened them again to look at her and say, “Kill me. Now, before someone comes back.”

“Yeah,” she said, “we’re going to have to teach you to resist drugs, that’s for sure.”

“Nat—“

“It was nothing we didn’t know.” She tucked her knees against her chest in an odd show of vulnerability. She sounded the same as always, steady, unbending. “We deal in intelligence.”

“It’s different.” He couldn’t explain how, but it was. Perhaps it was simply that Natasha and Coulson already held all the important parts of Clint in their palms.

“I know,” she admitted. She swallowed and put her legs down, leaning into the bed. “Coulson, when I was healing, when he first-- It turned out the one interrogation technique nobody had ever tried on me was patience and kindness.”

Softly, Clint realized, “You must have hated him.”

“More than I have ever hated anyone or anything,” she agreed. She leaned further into her knees and seemed to struggle not to look away from Clint.

“And loved him,” Clint added.

She frowned. “I-- Maybe. Maybe that’s what I feel. It’s different, at least, from everything before. What does love feel like?”

Clint chewed the inside of his lip and thought about it. “I think it might be different each time. I loved my mom, but that was like, um, like warmth and familiarity. And I loved Barney, but that was more like routine and basic rightness. They didn’t feel the same way.”

“I’ve read books where people fall in love, or love other people, but I don’t recognize the emotions described. I figured that was something else the training had eradicated.”

“There’s nothing missing in you,” Clint told her, feeling fierce, but aware the drugs he was still on were blunting the edges of the reaction.

She rolled her eyes. “You’re a romantic.”

“I’m a rentboy.”

“Who’s managed to retain a sense of romance. It’s almost laudable.” There was a note of wistfulness to the statement that he was entirely sure she hadn’t meant to allow.

It was laughable, was what it was. But Natasha wasn’t laughing, not at him, nor the situation. He didn’t tell her, but he was pretty sure the slow burn of safety and sweetness and quiet desire he felt when she was near was also love.

*

His first week of physical therapy, Clint pushed himself so hard that the therapist arranged an intervention with Coulson, who said, “If you reinjure yourself, that’s not really going to help your cause.”

“It’s fine,” Clint told him. “Really, I think they’re just not used to working with people who have a high pain tolerance.”

For a second Clint was convinced Coulson was going to roll his eyes. Clint watched, fascinated, wanting to see this spectacularly unlikely event. Then Coulson took a breath and said, “Barton, they work with people who have been trained in torture resistance. And quite a few of whom have been tortured.”

After a second, Clint acknowledged, “I see your point.”

Coulson placed a careful hand on Clint's shoulder, and Clint very cautiously did not move into it, but the temptation was there. “Listen to the therapists, Clint. I didn’t stick you with anyone I don’t trust. Everyone on your team has handled something for me before. They’re good at what they do and they’ll get you to the place you want to be. But you have to let them do it their way.”

Clint swallowed. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to fuck up your investment, I swear. I was trying--”

“To make it pay off faster. I get it.” Coulson tilted his head. “Ever followed a stock?”

Clint blinked. “Like…on the market?”

“Yes, exactly like that.”

Clint shook his head. “No.”

“How would you like to see the type of patience pure money investments take?”

Clint thought for a moment, then shrugged. If that meant his shoulder deepened Coulson's touch a little, well, that really was incidental. Truly. “That’d be interesting, I guess.”

“Non-monetary investments, though, they take even more patience, is the thing.”

Clint tried a roll of his shoulders, conveniently one of the exercises he’d been assigned, and winced. “I’m not used to having things to wait for. I don’t even know if I’m not patient, really. More just…used to resignation.”

“Eagerness is not a bad thing.” Coulson slipped his hand down to touch Clint’s bicep, keeping the contact light. “Nor is working hard. Both of those are admirable traits. But knowing your limits is equally admirable. And you don’t. You’ve had too many people push you so far past them that any knowledge you might have once had in that regard is entirely skewed. Let us help you figure it out again.”

Clint knew a little something about enticing others, even if he hadn’t often wanted to or had to bother. He said, “If I do, will you tell me when you are disappointed, when I need to step it up, instead of just giving up on me?”

Coulson fixed Clint with a Look. “You’ve mistaken me for someone who gives up on things.”

Clint didn’t look away though, didn’t give. Coulson let out a slow breath. “Very well. I’ll mention it, if things aren’t going to plan.”

Softly, Clint said, “Thanks.”

*

“No,” Clint said. Then, mostly because he couldn’t stop himself, “No.”

“You weren’t kidding,” Natasha said, her eyes still on Clint, but she was speaking to Coulson, standing between Clint, who was perched on Coulson's couch, and Coulson, who was leaning back in his office chair.

“It’s a logical fear,” Coulson said, and his tone didn’t really change, but there was that undercurrent of reassurance that he somehow knew how to employ without revealing a thing.

“But one that makes you useless,” Natasha said to Clint, no reassurance in her words, nothing but her own well-hidden fear.

Clint didn’t like scaring Natasha. He swallowed. His voice fucking squeaked on his first try at speaking, but after a second he managed, “Just lunch?”

Coulson nodded sharply. “That’s it. An hour at most, cuisine of your choice. Natasha and I will be right there. Nothing’s going to touch you.”

They wanted to take him beyond the walls. Just the thought made Clint dizzy with terror. The complex was safe. Everywhere else, Frank finding him was a possibility. Clint knew, realistically, that was crazy. He also knew it had been nearly half a year: Frank probably assumed him dead at this point. None of that mattered.

But Natasha was right, and Clint knew it. What good was an archer who couldn’t leave the grounds? Absolutely none.

She had been training him in self-defense, largely with his legs at this point, his shoulders not yet healed enough to take the strain. He had worked his way up to being able to support weight with both arms, but there was a difference between that and repeated impacts. In a fight, at the moment, he’d most likely lose, and lose quick.

Coulson was watching Clint, and Clint was smart enough to know that there was a second test embedded in the first, that Coulson was watching to see if Clint could trust, if he could be trained to be part of something. Compared to this, the surgeries, the training, everything until now had been a walk in the park; or, in Clint’s case, a slow-traverse through well-maintained air ducts.

“Okay,” Clint said, before he could go back on it, before he could let himself screw up every opportunity he’d been given because he was a scaredy-cat. “Okay, um. I want to go to Natasha’s favorite place.”

Natasha rolled her eyes, “The whole point—“

“That’s what I want,” Clint said, more sharply, because it was what he wanted. He wanted to see what she liked, and what she ordered, and how she looked somewhere where she had chosen to be. He supposed SHIELD technically counted, since he’d heard how she’d been brought in, and there’d been a whole lot more agency on her part than on his, but this was different, this was something he didn’t know about her. He hated that those things even existed. He knew it was irrational. He had stopped caring.

Coulson came and sat by him on the couch, their knees brushing against each other, like he knew that was the only proper reward for Clint's willingness to try. Next time—because Clint would make there be a next time—next time it would be Coulson’s favorite place. Clint almost smiled at the thought. He could do this.

*

Natasha loved Ethiopian, evidently. Coulson said, “It’s because she gets to eat with her fingers.”

Natasha made a face at Coulson, an actual honest-to-goodness, screwing up her face kind of face, and Clint laughed, and proceeded to make a total mess with his hands and copious amounts of injera. Neither of them mocked him for it, or, well, at least no more than they mocked each other, straight-faced and impossible to read unless you knew them. Clint wasn’t sure when it had happened that he did, in fact, know them, but somewhere along the way it had, because by the time they got the check, his stomach, lungs and face all hurt from laughing so hard.

The terror, which the laughter had managed to wash away for a bit, came back the moment they exited the restaurant, his feet on pavement they hadn’t touched in months and months, going on almost a year. Natasha’s hand came to rest on his shoulder, one of Coulson’s landing on Clint’s lower back and he remembered how to breathe for long enough to get in the car, be taken safely back to the compound.

A week later, after four night terrors, one night spent on the roof, another night in the vents, and one in a deep exhaustion brought on by intensive self-defense training, Coulson said, “Pho, but only because this town doesn’t have any real pizza.”

Clint knew he wasn’t exactly worldly outside the circus universe of small towns and truck stops, but, “We’re, like, half hour from Brooklyn, barring traffic.”

Coulson managed to look both apathetic and deeply disappointed, all at once. “I said real pizza.”

Natasha explained solemnly, “He comes from Chicago.”

Clint was about to ask what that had to do with anything when he remembered a show in Springfield, performed in the dreariness of late February one year. “Deep dish.”

“As I said, real pizza.”

“Princess,” Natasha accused. It rolled off of Coulson. Everything, so far as Clint could tell, rolled off of Coulson.

Clint had never had pho, but it was perfect for the mid-March rainstorms that had been non-stop of late. He stopped breathing on the way to the restaurant, but once they were seated, and Coulson had suggested a couple of variants—Natasha arguing with him over what was best—Clint was working toward calm again, reminding himself he had a wall at his back and the two of them at his side.

That last thought caught him off guard, mostly because he’d had it before, so this meant that he’d thought of them as safe, as his, as loyal, more than once, and more than once in a situation where he was scared out of his mind. The thought made him panic, and before he knew it, Natasha had him with his head between his knees and was ordering him to breathe in a voice so damn soothing he almost wasn’t sure it was her. She’d sat with him after his surgery at times, though, and he’d been mostly out of it, then, but not so out of it he couldn’t remember that sound.

By the time he’d recovered, the two of them had agreed on a few types of pho which were the best and Clint made himself pick one as an exercise in pulling it the fuck together. Pho, as it turned out, was delicious and warming and the kind of thing Clint thought he’d want if he ever got a cold and could take a day off to eat soup and heal.

Clint polished off his first bowl and Coulson asked, “Want one to go?”

Clint gripped the edge of the table, too emotionally exhausted to feel comfortable giving into any desire, no matter how small, how evidently allowable it was. Natasha ordered bowls to go for her and him. Under the table, he brushed her knee with his. She looked over at him, and, after a moment, smiled, warmer than usual, almost inviting, definitely a little proud. If he could have, he would have smiled back.

*

Around the same time Natasha started training Clint on upper-body fighting in earnest, Phil commandeered Clint right out of one of his last sessions with the physical therapists. He apologized to the therapists, but just steered Clint down the hall and out onto one of the landing pads, where the jet Clint had been training on was parked. He said, “Flight manifest’s in the cockpit, let’s go.”

Clint had been piloting flights for months now, but never without more experienced backup in the co-pilot seat. He settled into the pilot’s chair and looked over at where Coulson was in the seat next to him. Behind them, Natasha purred, “Any day now, Barton.”

Clint opened his mouth, but Coulson said, “You’re cleared. Now get this thing off the ground and take us where we’re going.”

Clint glanced at the paperwork, and sure enough, he was the sole listed pilot. Not that he doubted Coulson would cross his t’s and dot his i’s, but still, the thought was overwhelming for a second. Then Natasha murmured, “Breathe,” without any of the insinuation or flippancy of the moment before. Coulson just rested a hand on Clint's shoulder, but it had the same centering effect.

Clint took a breath. He let his hands curl over the controls, and spoke up, clearing them for take-off. He flew, controlling something stronger and probably smarter than himself, staying on level with the sky, and he didn’t make any mistakes, brought them to the ground safely. Only when the engine was off did he ask, “Chicago?”

“Home of real pizza,” Coulson responded.

Clint scrambled out of the jet after the two of them, and into the SHIELD car waiting for them. It was only once in the car that he realized there wasn’t any reason to feel afraid. Even if Natasha and Coulson would have let someone get to him, he was too far away for Frank, beyond his reach. He had to press a hand over his mouth to keep himself from becoming stupidly giddy.

They ended up at a place where the wait was over an hour despite it being a weekday. Coulson just found them seats at the bar and ordered virgin piña coladas for all three of them. Clint unabashedly loved all things pineapple, so despite Natasha’s smirk, he drank it right up.

When they finally got their table, Coulson had Clint order a large pizza with whatever he wanted. Clint’s favorite was green peppers and hamburger, but he knew Natasha loved red onions, and Coulson’s pizza weakness was Canadian bacon, so he added those to his order. When the waiter had walked away, Clint asked, “Is this-- Did I do something, um. Am I being rewarded?”

Coulson had been teaching him about setting goals and rewarding himself when he accomplished them, but so far Clint was terrible at it. Coulson always had to point out when he’d managed something and take him to the commissary for a brownie or give him the recommendation of a new book he’d like. Still, Clint was fairly certain he hadn’t done much that was all that impressive in the last week or two. Sure, the therapists had given the go ahead for him to start using his arms in lessons with Natasha and she had talked with him about moving from purely defensive tactics into offensive fighting, but he’d barely gotten started on blocks.

Natasha looked like she had a secret—it had taken Clint forever to figure out that look, since it wasn’t so much a look as an absence of one—and Coulson glanced around until he found their waiter, and signaled him. The waiter nodded, disappeared and returned carrying a large box covered in shiny blue wrapping paper. The waiter set it down in front of him and said, “Happy birthday.”

Clint blinked at the box and then said, “Oh, uh. Thanks, thank you.”

The waiter moved away and Clint asked Coulson, “Is it? Really?”

“According to your birth certificate.”

“Huh.” It was October 7th. Clint vaguely remembered his mother making him a cake as the weather got colder. He couldn’t remember presents or parties, but she had always made a cake and put candles in it. “Good to know. How old am I?”

“Twenty,” Coulson said, and had the grace not to let on how dumb Clint looked, not knowing this information.

Clint nodded. “Not a teenager anymore.”

Natasha seemed mildly put out, and maybe a little saddened by this information. She was three years younger than him. Clint would have needled her about it, but he didn’t have a death wish. She kicked him under the table. “Open your present.”

Clint leaned forward, tearing the paper away at the folded creases, efficient and neat. He opened the brown case inside and sucked in a breath. “Holy-- This is—“

The bow wasn’t any brand Clint had ever worked with or even dreamed about working with. Clint figured SHIELD had their own people for creating these sorts of things, but it was clearly in league with a Fred Bear, at the very least, a W. W., maybe. The kind of bow Clint might have lingered over in a weapons shop, but knew better than to even wish for. Clint let his hand hover over it, but snatched it back.

“Clint,” Coulson started, but Clint shook his head.

“If I can shoot the way you need me to, I can do it with a three dollar bow from Wal-Mart. This, this is,” Clint tried to explain, “this bow is worth more than I am.”

“Maybe for a night,” Natasha said with a straight face, because she wasn’t afraid to say the things most people said behind his back to his face. “But that’s not the kind of investment SHIELD made in you.”

“Besides,” Coulson spoke up, “if you can shoot the way I need you to, then you deserve to have the kind of weapon that rises to your level. Don’t worry, we got you something non-work related as well.”

Clint ran a shaky hand over his face. “You took me out for deep dish.”

“That too,” Coulson agreed, kicking playfully at Clint's foot under the table.

Clint was in too much shock to kick back. “I don’t need—“

“You have no idea what you need, Barton.” Coulson’s tone was more tired than mean.

“But if you don’t want your other present, I’ll take it. Just let me know when you open it,” Natasha assured him. Somehow, it helped.

He laughed. “It’s back at HQ?”

Coulson nodded. Clint reached out and allowed himself to touch the bow. “All right, then. I’ll do that.”

*

Working with a bow again was like coming home, like riding a bike—which, incidentally, Clint had never learned to do—like every stupid cliché about just reconnecting that Clint had ever heard, and probably a few he hadn’t. He pushed himself well past the endurance of his still-healing body on the first day, and only quit because Coulson pulled the, “I didn’t invest in you for you to damage the goods,” card.

In fairness, after that Coulson put him in a hot tub and ordered a massage for him, doing everything he could to prevent the intense amount of pain Clint woke up in the next morning. Coulson then had the compassion not to say anything.

Natasha, on the other hand, laughed at him, but Clint was pretty sure he wouldn’t have it any other way. A Natasha who gave him quarter when he was being stupid wasn’t his Natasha, and he didn’t want anyone but her.

Coulson put him on a strict schedule, using himself, Natasha, and a couple of the handlers he actually trusted with Clint—okay, really just Hill, but Sitwell helped out occasionally—to enforce the schedule so he didn’t screw himself back up through the need to seek out the centering being on the range offered, and the feeling of being something more than a variety of holes with an indecent pain tolerance.

Of course, there were times when Clint managed to slip his leash and get to the range without anyone noticing. It was always Coulson who found him there, who coaxed him off the bow and into taking care of himself, making it seem like a series of orders, but ones accompanied by a hand to the small of his back, other little touches that eased the sting of it and gave Clint room to refuse if he really wanted to do so. Clint figured this out the night he got belligerent, intent on not going back to his quarters, to the nightmares that had driven him out to the range in the first place.

Coulson stopped after Clint refused a third time, holding the bow between himself and Coulson, like he might actually fucking using it. They both knew better. They both knew that if Coulson wanted to make Clint do something, he was the one with all the power. Coulson didn’t say that, though.

Rather, he said, “I’m going to move behind you. Try to relax.”

Clint made himself breathe. Relaxing wasn’t entirely possible, he didn’t like people behind him, not even Coulson or Natasha, but he did his best. Coulson said, “I’m going to touch you. You can move away if you have to.”

Clint startled at the touch, but he stayed where he was, because it wasn’t hurting him, and in his more honest moments, he knew Coulson deserved the benefit of the doubt. Coulson’s fingers started moving, careful at first, pushing into muscles but not in a way that hurt, just started to get at some of the tension. Clint blinked. “Sir?”

“The therapists are in bed, like other sane people. You’ll have to put up with my partial training, Barton.”

Partial or not, Coulson knew what he was doing. Clint received these types of medical massages on a regular basis, but from staff members who didn’t know him, who were just doing their job. Technically, Clint could have classified what was happening now in the same way, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt like… Clint shied away from the thought, not ready to deal with his own desire, with things long dormant and twisted inside of him.

Shakily, he said, “You can-- you can go deeper. I can handle it.”

“Do you need me to go deeper?” Coulson asked, his tone even, soothing.

Clint swallowed. “Yes. Sir.”

Coulson’s hand ghosted over the back of his neck and then began to work the areas that would soon ache in earnest. After a bit, Clint had to set down the bow, allow for his muscles to go limp in the wake of Coulson’s efforts. Eventually, Clint himself was drooping, and Coulson herded him back to his room, taking care with Clint’s bow, keeping it safe for him.

Coulson tucked him in, honest to goodness tucked him in, and said, “Sleep, Barton. Just rest.”

Clint did his best to follow the order.

*

After his first mission—an easy in-out sniper post, over within two days—Clint allowed himself to breathe again, really breathe. He’d done it. Sure, it hadn’t been the kind of thing Natasha could do, infiltrating herself into secret societies and whatever, making death look natural or pinning it on whomever SHIELD wanted taking the fall. No, Clint was just an archer, but that was a million times better than being just a whore, and it was starting to seem like he might actually be able to carry it off.

Natasha wasn’t there when he got back, which Clint always hated, but he understood. She could be gone for months at a time, according to Coulson, although so far it had only ever been weeks. Clint knew it was selfish to want her there, want to say, “I did it,” softly, a secret between them, and have her roll her eyes at him.

Coulson let Clint fall asleep in his office, Coulson still working, the first night back. He roused Clint when he was leaving and ushered Clint back to his room. Clint leaned into him more than he technically needed to and mumbled, “You’re in contact with Tasha, right?”

“When we have communications at all, yes.”

“Tell her I did it.” Clint half-asked, half-demanded, mostly asleep.

“She knew you would,” Coulson said, tucking the quilt they’d gotten him for his birthday as his non-work gift around him. It wasn’t like one of the old-fashioned quilts, but upcycled from old clothing, the pieces coming together to form the picture of a diving hawk. Clint was pretty sure they’d had it custom made, but he’d yet to figure out a way to ask without sounding really stupid if the answer was no. It was the warmest thing he’d ever owned in his entire life.

“Not the point,” Clint managed.

Clint was pretty sure Coulson laughed at that, but it was such an unusual response that for a long time afterward, Clint would tell himself he’d imagined it. Coulson asked, “What is the point, Clint?”

“C’n work off y’r investment,” Clint said, his eyes entirely closed by this point. “Not g’nna have t’go back t’Frank.”

Clint would have thought he was completely asleep by the time Coulson spoke up, but evidently not, because he heard, just barely, the man say, “Ask Tasha about Frank sometime.”

Clint heard Coulson leave, even as he was trying to open his eyes, trying to ask what the hell that meant. The door closed behind Coulson and Clint gave up. It was Natasha he needed to speak to, anyway, evidently. Now he just needed her to come back to him. He had a sinking feeling he would always need that from her.

*

Natasha didn’t return until after Clint had completed three missions, but she came straight to him, not even stopping off at medical, which was standard operating procedure, regardless of possible injury. She walked in without buzzing and rolled her eyes at him. “Your maturity is overwhelming.”

Clint grinned at her, but didn’t go in for the hug he desperately wanted, the reassurance that she was there and real and whole, because there was something about her that was fragile just then, and Clint was the last person to override other people’s boundaries.

Instead he said, “Hey, wanna sneak in the kitchens tonight and make those banana chip cookies?”

He waited, watching as something inside of her seemed to come loose, seemed to stretch back out, filling spaces inside her that she’d emptied to make room for other things. She nodded. “Midnight.”

“Tasha,” he said, right before she reached the door, having turned to leave.

She paused, every muscle displaying her need to escape. He said, “Missed you.”

He could feel her roll her eyes, but she said, “Yeah,” softly. He took it as a win.

*

When Clint was busy mixing, and he wouldn’t be forced to look at anything but the combination of flour and sugar, eggs and vanilla, in front of him, he asked, “Did you kill Frank?”

This was Natasha, though, and Clint should have known better. She took the bowl right from him, intentionally startling him into looking up at her. Clint considered fighting, but she would just kick his ass and they’d have to start on the batter all over again. Clint was nothing if not practical. One, two, three stirs around and she asked, “Coulson?”

Clint wasn’t going to rat Coulson out. Natasha would know anyway, but he wasn’t going to confirm it. Clint just shrugged. Natasha made a rude noise.

Another three whisks and she answered, “Yes. Slowly.”

Clint wasn’t sure why he hadn’t expected her to answer him honestly. As far as he knew, she was rarely honest in general, but scrupulously so with him. “Oh.”

“Remember the first night I fell asleep in your room?”

Clint felt his jaw tighten, but he made himself say, “Yes.”

He’d woken them both up with his screams. Nightmares had still been a regularity at that point. Now they were more of an every-few-weeks sort of occurrence. He would never have asked Natasha to stay the night. They’d been working on his bed, each quietly absorbed in their own tasks and it had just sort of happened. Later, both of them had tacitly acknowledged that it was a sign of trust, since the two of them weren’t in the habit of falling asleep around other people.

“You didn’t just scream in your sleep. You did, later. And I pretended that was what had woken me.”

Clint took a breath. “What did I say?”

“Doesn’t matter,” she told him. “Nothing I hadn’t said, awake and asleep, at certain points in my training.”

Clint had suspected, of course, that Natasha had some of the same stories as him, some worse, probably, but the plain recognition of it made his hands itch for his bow. Instead, because she deserved his full attention, because she could take care of herself, he nodded. “So, Frank.”

“Coulson already had all the information on him. We traced you back the moment we had you in our cells.”

Clint nodded. A year ago, it might have surprised him. Now, anything else would have surprised him.

Natasha set the bowl aside. “I meant to tell you, it was meant as a present, but then I thought-- I thought I should have waited, given him to you.”

Clint couldn’t deny that he would have liked watching one of his arrows bury itself deep in Frank’s stomach, watching him bleed out slow and in agony. But the pleasure in that thought was strangely nothing to the realization that Natasha had done that for him, solely for him, when their relationship was in its first stages. He said, “Tash,” and he meant to follow it up with something, maybe thank you, or something equally inane, but he found himself tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear, found his brain rushing with all the thoughts he’d made himself suppress for so long, all the ways he wanted to be near to her, part of her.

“Clint,” she said, low and inviting.

Later, Clint finished the cookies while Natasha made sure to destroy the security footage of the two of them making out like teenagers (well, okay, Natasha still was a technically in her teenage years, but it was emotional years Clint was counting) in the SHIELD kitchen facilities.

*

Coulson figured it out within two days, and gave Clint the most terrifying come-to-Jesus talk Clint had ever endured. Jesus had not been mentioned, and Clint was able to walk away and he still knew that if he so much as made Natasha frown he was going to think Frank had been gentle.

Natasha was strange around him that evening and it took Clint a bit, but then he realized, “Holy shit. Coulson gave you the same talk, didn’t he?”

Natasha looked unimpressed, as though this was obvious. “He probably didn’t use the exact same words. He likes variety. Spice of life.”

Clint tried copying her droll demeanor, he really did, but she just rolled her eyes and said, “You’re easy, you realize?”

Clint nodded. He was completely aware. But Clint couldn’t remember the last time someone had threatened someone else over him, someone else they cared about. Clint was fairly sure that had never happened before. All he said was, “Well, I am a whore.”

She hissed, and before he even knew what had happened he was on his back, his arms pinned to his side, Natasha over him, hair everywhere, eyes pissed. “Mine,” she said, a little bit like a threat, but mostly like a promise, or at least what Clint imagined promises between them sounded like.

“Tash,” he said softly, meaning to soothe, but it seemed to just raise her hackles.

“Mine,” she said again. “Nothing else is real.”

But Clint could still feel the warmth of her hesitancy, and so he said, “Coulson.”

“Exception,” she admitted.

She had loosened her grip, but he stayed where he was. “I’ve never had sex not for money or, y’know, to keep someone happy with me.”

She didn’t look surprised, but then, this was Natasha. Flying pigs could erupt out of Fury’s ass and she’d murmur, “Saw that coming.”

She said, “I’ve never had sex by choice.”

He smiled up at her, and he knew it gave away his nerves, but he also knew she wouldn’t use it against him. It was an odd feeling, warm and filling and terrifying. “How ‘bout… Wanna pretend neither of us has modifiers?”

It took a second, but she smiled, slowly. She tried out, “I’ve never had sex.”

Clint nodded. “Yeah, me neither.”

*

The truth was, when Natasha pulled her t-shirt over her head and undid the clasp of her bra, Clint kind of felt like he never had had sex before. He blinked and said, “Um, can I maybe do that?”

She looked uncertain for a moment, but then put her bra and her shirt right back on and didn’t laugh at the request, not even by way of a smirk. Clint dragged his palms along her soft skin, skimming over the raised pink silkiness of her scars as he slid the shirt off, took his fingers along the entirely of her arms as he pushed the straps of her bra off. He undid her pants with his mouth because first time or not, he was allowed to show off.

That she did laugh at, but a real laugh, full, like she found it funny, and also, a little bit cool. She told him, “You learn quick.”

Clint smiled up at her for a moment before she was on her knees beside him, saying, “My turn.”

She took her time with undressing him, poking around to find sensitive spots, kissing where she found ticklish ones. She bit his hip, where the skin stretched over bone, hard enough to leave marks in the morning. Her teeth were sharp, the pain hit a moment after the actual bite and Clint moaned a bit, holding himself still, looking down at her, reminding himself where he was and with whom he was doing this. She looked up at him, eyes dark and possessive, but also cautious, questioning. Clint shivered, and it occurred to him to wonder if he was allowed to mark, too.

He kissed at every inch of bare skin, a little sloppy, but the taste of her skin, the smoothness against his lips, was addictive. When he made it to her clit, she said, “Oh,” like it was a surprise and it made him taking things slowly, very slowly, making himself be thorough until her hands were on his head and she was cursing him in Russian. Then he gave her exactly what she wanted.

When he drew himself up over her, waiting for her to recover, she blinked at him and said, “I think maybe I’ve not had sex before.”

It made him want to kill anyone who’d ever thought about touching her. Instead he kissed her, slow and sweet and with the taste of her still on his tongue. She murmured into his mouth, in Russian, a few words here and there that he understood, mostly endearments.

She pushed him on his back and straddled him, her legs strong around his thighs. His breath caught looking up at her, her hair wild and tangled, her breasts round and perfect. He said, “Tash.”

She widened her legs, guiding him inside of her and he dug his fingers into the bed, needing something to hold onto. She took both his hands and put them on her hips and he found himself marking her, then, without even realizing it, the crests of his nails leaving moons that would bruise and tell a story soon enough.

She sat, fully-sheathed, for a moment, and then rolled her hips. Clint whited out for a moment before coming back, because he wasn’t going to miss this, miss watching her. Shakily, he moved one of his hands between them, because he was competitive, and because he knew he could bring her to a second time, easy.

She shrieked at the first touch and then said, unusually eager and readable, “Yes, yes.”

He worked, steady and intent, even through the pleasure that had invaded every nerve, taken over his brain, he worked and she stiffened, tightening around him, calling his name. It was that last that made it impossible for him to hold on, and he gave himself over, for the first time, the only time that had ever mattered.

*

Clint was getting a particularly deep gash he’d managed to accrue on a mission sewn up when Coulson ambushed him. Not that Clint was surprised by the tactic, but it did seem dirty, when Coulson said, “Natasha’s birthday is coming up in about six weeks.”

Clint nodded. They hadn’t really been friends, or, at least, not close ones, by that time last year, but he remembered her telling him, “Coulson’s taking me to a game,” with a half-roll of her eyes. It wouldn’t be until months later that Clint would learn “a game” meant the championship game of the women’s basketball NCAA tournament, because Natasha liked women’s basketball, or that a half-roll of the eyes meant Natasha was touched by something, and annoyed at her own reaction.

It hadn’t been until they’d started sneaking into each other’s rooms at night that he’d learned that SHIELD had dug up her birth certificate on a recon mission, that before that, she hadn’t even known how old she was. In any case, though, Clint knew her birthday was coming up.

Coulson said, “I did the game with her last year, and the year before that, I took her to the Stanley Cup game.”

Natasha also really liked hockey. And rugby. And chess. Although they both agreed that last one was a game, not a sport, no matter what ESPN seemed to think. Coulson continued, “I thought, maybe this year, if you had any ideas, we might be able to go off the beaten sports-path. She’s turning eighteen, I’d like it to be special.”

Clint blinked. “I’m not really the guy people go to for…people things.”

“Well, good thing I’m not here for people things, I’m here for Natasha things.”

Clint growled at that. Coulson remained visibly unimpressed. Clint tried to find a solid, verbal argument, but he had to admit, Coulson had a point. And he did want to do something nice for Natasha’s birthday, something that would make her half-roll her eyes and not speak to him for a few days until she shoved him unexpectedly into an air-vent and had her way with him.

“Clint,” Coulson said, not even sounding impatient, just knowing.

Clint stuck his tongue out. Coulson, the bastard, responded in kind, and managed to make it look mature. Clint looked down at where they were finishing the stitches over his left pectoral and thought about the secrets Natasha had shared, the things she said with her back to him, the moments he could hear a smile in her voice. Finally, he said slowly, “I have an idea, but—“

“But?” Coulson prompted.

“But it’s going to take a lot of paperwork.”

Coulson smiled momentarily. “Good thing I’m accomplished at that, then.”

*

Natasha had no use for flowers, but she loved hardy, green, leafy plants. Coulson not only managed the paperwork for a rooftop greenhouse, but was able to get it built and stocked with every kind of ivy, philodendron, ficus and succulent the city could provide, and a few that had to be shipped from nearby states. There was only one door, and it was locked. Not that Natasha needed it, really, but they gave her the key over dinner. Clint had made dinner. Well, he’d snagged Dr. Brevyn, the Vermont-born engineer from A&R who’d lived in Japan for five years and made the best sushi on base, and promised ten hours of Clint’s devoted testing time if the doc would help take lead on making dinner. But Clint had helped, so it was sort of the same thing.

Clint had the panicked thought as she looked at the key that he should have let Coulson come up with the idea. Clearly, Coulson had hit it right the last two years, and what was Natasha going to do with a greenhouse, for fuck’s sake?

Natasha considered the key and said, “Not a car and not a safe. Neither of you would be stupid enough to get me an apartment.”

Like Clint, Natasha was of two minds about surprises. She liked them when they were good, but her experience of them was not positive in most instances, so she was generally disinclined to enjoy them. Clint turned pleading, possibly desperate eyes on Coulson, who said calmly, “Let’s take a walk.”

Natasha shrugged and palmed the key, but Clint could see the tension in her back, where most people would never be able to tell. It hurt a little, that she didn’t know they would never be so careless as to hurt her with a birthday surprise, but Clint couldn’t say anything, because he knew he had the same problem. Instead, he put a hand to her lower back and walked next to her, just a little bit in front, like he had a chance of killing whatever tried to come at her before she did.

When they reached the roof, and went around to the side where they had tucked the greenhouse, away from immediate visibility, Natasha stopped still. After a few moments of unreadable silence, Clint asked, “Tash?”

Natasha looked at the key in her hand, and then strode away, toward the greenhouse, and opened the door. Clint had to jog to catch up, Coulson at his side, and even then, they stayed outside. This was hers, her space. They had to be invited in.

It was a long time before she came back to stand at the door. She smelled of dirt and growth, and Clint noticed that her fingernails were dirty. She looked at them and half-rolled her eyes. She said, “The both of you are ridiculous,” but it was quiet, almost a whisper, and both of them could hear all the things she couldn’t manage to say aloud if she had to.

Coulson rocked back on his heels, satisfied and said, “Happy birthday, Nat,” before walking off.

Clint stayed where he was. Natasha reached out, took his hand, and pulled him inside.

*

Two weeks later, Coulson went down. It happened in the space of a millisecond, while Clint was firing off two arrows in a different direction to cover Natasha. Coulson wasn’t even supposed to be anywhere near the action, but one of the junior agents had gotten themselves lost in the middle of everything, and Coulson decided to handle the problem himself. Of course, there hadn’t really been any other choice—the other two options were both already dead—but that didn’t make Clint any less pissed at the junior agent, Coulson, or himself.

Clint made himself stay on his perch because he never, ever forgot that his performance reflected back on Coulson, but it was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life. The second it was safe he was rappelling down from his perch. Natasha reached Coulson first, but only by a matter of moments. She already had his vest off, figuring out the damage. The bullet had somehow managed to tear through the flesh of Coulson’s arm, into the unprotected spot of chest beneath his underarm.

She was doing everything she could to stop the bleeding, so Clint ran for the nearest medic, tearing the guy away from one of the junior agents with burn wounds. Those would keep. And Clint didn’t really give a fuck, if he was being honest.

Clint had to be the one to pull Natasha away so the medic could get in, which ended with Clint having a broken nose, but that could be taken care of later. For now, he needed to hold onto Natasha, make sure she couldn’t slip away, and keep his eyes on Coulson. Natasha was swearing in Russian, and she’d taught him enough, more than enough, for him to understand every word. He agreed, but was certain if he opened his mouth he would start screaming, so he let her speak for him.

The medic said something about, “stabilized” and “have to move” and Natasha was still swearing, so Clint made himself say, “We’re going with him.”

The medic looked like he was about to argue, but after glancing at Natasha all he said was, “Only one of you will fit.”

Clint let Natasha go. “Her.”

Natasha blinked at him, suddenly going silent. Clint was already on his way to commandeering a jet. He’d fucking beat them there.

*

When Coulson was being operated on, it was Natasha who dragged Clint to Dr. Ferris, who had set bones for each of them at one time or another, and forced Clint get his nose fixed. Dr. Ferris rolled his eyes and said, “Ice it,” handing Clint an ice pack. Clint nodded agreeably and made his way back to the window where he could watch over Coulson’s surgery, Natasha right beside him.

They held hands and stood there throughout the remaining six hours of surgery, letting go only so that Natasha could occasionally switch out an ice pack for Clint. She tried to apologize once and Clint glared at her. She smiled a little, then, and it reminded Clint that he could still breathe.

The surgeon eventually came out and said, “He’s stable. We’ll know more in about twelve hours. You should get some rest.”

They did, to a certain extent, growling their way past nurses and ignoring the fact that they weren’t even given a bedside chair as an attempt to deter them from staying. They camped on the floor, waking every time someone came in to check Coulson’s vitals. Once or twice someone tried to move them out only to get hissed at for their troubles.

Clint was pretty sure Natasha would have started throwing knives if Fury hadn’t finally interfered, coming down to tell the staff to leave them be. He came in to the room and looked at both of them. They were flanking Coulson, their hands laying on his chest and his arms, as if to keep him there with them by force. The only time they'd let go was when they had no choice but to sleep. Clint wasn’t certain what the expression either he or Natasha had in response was, except maybe resolute. Fury nodded once, said, “Keep me apprised of the situation,” and left.

When they were alone again, Clint barked at Coulson, “Wake the fuck up, asshole.”

Natasha added something with a very similar theme in Russian. And then she said, more quietly, “He’s not supposed-- We go into the fight. Us.

Clint understood. She wasn’t the only one who could have saved Coulson if she’d just been looking the right direction, if she’d just had any idea she needed to. Clint just walked around to her side of the bed and wrapped himself around her, like he had at the site, only this time she wasn’t trying to get away, if anything was trying to get closer. It helped, he was still able to keep one hand on Coulson. He said, “He’s gonna wake up. You’ll see. Then we’ll yell at him some more.”

“I like that idea.”

“Yeah,” Clint said, “I know what you like.”

*

They did not yell at Coulson when he woke up. Or, well, a few days later they did, but not at first. At first they stayed near enough to continue touching him non-stop in some manner, fed him ice chips and made nurses come whenever he winced and generally made a nuisance of themselves while trying to help. After a few days, they started weaning Coulson off the drugs. The more lucid and uncomfortable he became, the angrier Clint and Natasha felt at anyone unlucky enough to be in the near vicinity.

Coulson promised to make Natasha fill out all her paperwork when she tried to force one of the nurses to give Coulson another dose, and he just stared Clint down when Clint yelled at the doctor about recovery time. It went unnoticed by pretty much nobody—least of all Clint and Natasha—that Coulson could get them to behave better lying in bed and kept there by IVs than a squadron of people with full mobility.

Clint was pretty sure they released Coulson earlier than they wanted to just to get Natasha and him out of their hair, but he really didn’t give a shit. Natasha and he filled out every last bit of paperwork necessary to take Coulson home and go with him. Natasha drove, mostly because Clint didn’t actually have a driver’s license and taking a quinjet down the street seemed unnecessary.

Clint wondered if Natasha was always such a strangely cautious driver or if that was just because she was as worried as he was that Coulson’s insides might spill out at any time. It was weird: he’d seen Natasha injured at least four times now, and while it always made him want to shoot something, it didn’t give him this panicked, wholly helpless feeling. And it wasn’t as though Clint thought Coulson was fragile. He’d seen the guy spar with Natasha. He could give as good as he got. It was still different, and Clint, for the life of him, couldn’t have explained why.

It wasn’t until they were in Coulson’s apartment, with him tucked into bed, sleeping the sleep of the decently-doped-with-Vicodin, and the two of them seated on each side of him, that Clint realized he hadn’t had his freak out about Frank’s people finding him on the ride over, and that, even now, it wasn’t really more than a background concern, the sort of thing he kept on the periphery of his mind during an op just in case it became an important factor later.

Coulson had managed to order the two of them to clean up, rest and eat something before passing out, so Clint eventually got up the wherewithal to pull Natasha into the shower and wash her from head to toe. It wasn’t even sexy, but it was intimate, and needed after so many days of being in a room where others could walk in at any time. She returned the favor, her hands strong and her actions thorough, as if she wanted to carry Coulson’s orders out as best she could, even in this.

Natasha slipped out to buy groceries while Clint watched over Coulson. The two of them put together a few meals even as they continued to check on him, more for Coulson than for themselves, but they listened to him in this as well, eating a little once they’d put most everything away for later. They slept in shifts so that one of them would be awake if Coulson needed anything, if something were to happen.

The third time Coulson woke up in his own home he blinked a few times at Clint and said, “The two of you should go home.”

Clint pushed back his automatic panic about rejection, looked at the utterly worn expression on Coulson's face, and said, “You pick the worst times to try and have a sense of humor.”

For a second, Coulson looked as though he would argue, but in the end he let it go, making Clint eat with him, instead.

*

Coulson returned to work fairly quickly, far more quickly than medical had advised. Clint couldn’t blame him. Coulson took them back to the base and told them to stay there, which they both did because he used his command voice, and they knew when he meant business. And if Clint spent the next few weeks curled up in the air vents above Coulson’s office whenever possible, Natasha at his side if she could be there, that was between the two of them.

Natasha, generally being the bolder between them, broke rank first, and invaded Coulson’s office-proper. Clint watched from above as she didn’t even knock, just picked the lock—Coulson, notably, heard the noise, looked at his door, huffed a bit, and went back to work—and settled herself on one of his chairs.

He asked, “You didn’t need something, did you?”

She shook her head and pulled out her own tablet, full of work to be done. After a few moments, and without looking up, Coulson said, “You can come down, you know?”

Clint hesitated. Natasha hadn’t told him she was going to do this, it was possible she hadn’t wanted him to join. On the other hand, she knew he’d see. She did look up then, her expression, so far as he could tell through the grates, amused and exasperated. “Well?”

Clint pulled back the vent and took them up on the invitation.

*

Clint had learned to keep his reactions to himself as a child, aware that crying or being too happy or too much of anything, really, could draw his father’s drunken attention. That training had only deepened over the years. Even so, Natasha was the best in the world at ferreting out people’s feelings by way of a twitch or a misplaced blink, so he wasn’t as surprised as he could have been when she locked him in his own damn room and said, “I won’t be your second choice.”

She didn’t even sound mad, or much of anything, really. Clint made himself calm down, which was the only way he could read her when she was like this, keeping him out. It was hard, because panic at the thought of her walking away and not looking back was interfering, making it hard for him to slow his breathing the way he needed to. The words, “You are nobody’s second choice,” came without him even realizing he’d spoken. “Least of all mine.”

“I see the way you look at Coulson,” she said flatly. “I’m not so petty that I would hold you over what you truly want. And not so kind I would let you keep me because you have a hard time giving people up.”

“I want you,” Clint said, because it was true.

“You’re getting better at lying,” she said, and it was a compliment.

“I’m not—“

“But you’re not telling the whole truth, either,” she cut him off.

Clint stared at her for a moment and then realized what she’d said, what he felt was missing from this conversation. “I see the way you look at him, too.”

She blinked, which was enough for him to know she was thrown. Slowly, she said, “That has nothing to do with this.”

Sometimes Clint was forced to acknowledge that there were ways in which he really just did not understand Natasha. “But it does when it’s me?”

Natasha blinked again and now Clint was starting to feel a little disoriented. She didn’t usually give this much away when they fought. She recovered after that, though, and said, “You would make him happy.”

As a rule, Clint tried not to let on that he was lost when the two of them fought. It was rare that they did, but enough that he knew she would use his confusion to her advantage if she could. The only response he could conjure up was, “What are you-- What?”

“SHIELD trained you to kill, but you’re not a killer, Clint. You still have a… You’re still human on the—“

“Shut up,” Clint snapped. “Shut-- You think I’m in love with some empty shell with nice hair? I’m a whore, Nat, if sex is what I want—“

“Заткнись!”

Clint went silent at the command, but it didn’t escape his notice that she was slipping. Natasha only fell into Russian when someone had managed to peel back enough layers to get her bleeding. He didn’t feel proud of himself for managing. He felt nauseated.

She swallowed. “In love.”

It was Clint who blinked this time. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—“

“You’ve never said.”

Clint knew he was giving too damn much away by crossing one arm over his chest, gripping the other arm with his hand, but he couldn’t help it. “I couldn’t imagine you’d want it.” Then, after a second, just in case she’d managed to forget since being reminded, “Whore.”

Murderer,” she all-but spat in response, her fingers pressing so hard into her chest he imagined there would be bruises later.

He shook his head. “Survivor. Fighter. Professional. Alive. Beautiful.” He wished he knew more words, better words, to make her understand. “Please, Tasha. Please.”

“Clint—“

“I’m sorry that I look. That I-- That I want. I can’t help it. I swear, if I could turn it off, if I could be less of a slut—“

Don’t call my lover that,” she snarled. “Don’t you dare.”

He mouthed, lover. She stalked toward him. “If wanting makes you a slut, then I am one as well. Are you calling me a slut?”

Clint was afraid to breathe with her so near him, as though getting any closer might force her into action. He wanted her to touch him. He wasn’t sure he could have what he wanted. It seemed unlikely, if the past was any indication. Then again, Natasha had never hurt him, not even when he was just some piece of meat, tied up on the floor and an unfortunate witness to a job she needed to accomplish. He inhaled, “Perfect.”

She kissed him then, her hands on his cheeks, her body pressed to his, and he gave himself over to it, following a bit when she pulled away. She pressed her forehead to his. She whispered, “If I understand all of this, we love each other, but we both want Coulson as our own.”

“Tasha,” he said again, helplessly.

She tilted her head slightly, and waited a moment before saying, “When I was growing up I never had so much as a hairbrush of my own. I swore I would never share anything I had earned.”

Clint wouldn't make her give up her dreams. “You don’t—“

She bit his lip, quieting him. “And I earned you.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

“I have the right to change my mind,” she told him, nodding her head as if to herself. “Share him with you. Share you with him.”

Clint closed his eyes, made himself ask, “And if he does not want me?”

She tapped his cheek, made him look at her. “What if he does not want me?”

Clint couldn’t even imagine how that might occur, but he answered, “Then he can’t have me.”

Her eyes were just a hint wider than usual. “You have your answer, then.”

His brain felt loud, as if too many people were talking inside it at once. “Tasha—“

“Tell me you love me again." She swallowed. "Say it so I believe it.”

He kissed her then, sweet and slow. “It’s true. You know it’s true, because you always know when I’m lying.”

“Tell me,” she said, and there was maybe a note of pleading in her voice, maybe a little more desire, her face a canvas of anticipation.

“I love you.”

*

It did not take long for Clint to realize that between the two of them, knowing what they wanted was all well and good, but since neither of them particularly believed they deserved what they wanted, or that having more than they already had was even possible, their ability to pursue their desires—in this case, Coulson—was pretty seriously stunted. He was about to bring the problem up to Natasha, despite being entirely sure she’d figured it out before him, when Coulson looked up at the two of them one day, both having invaded his office again, as was becoming their regular practice whenever not in the field. Coulson considered them both for what felt like eternity, enough to have Clint squirming, if not Natasha. Finally he said, “You realize this is not the first time I’ve gotten shot? Not even the worst, really. I’m going to be fine.”

Clint made himself not look longingly at his escape vent. He forced himself to sit still. Natasha said, “Maybe we just like spending time with you,” and for a statement of the truth it was both something of a challenge and a lie. She covered well, but she was in a room with the two people in the world who would know.

Clint wasn’t surprised that Coulson was careful in responding to that. Coulson was always careful with them. It was what made him different from the rest of the world. He raised an eyebrow and slid into his wry, Agent persona to ask, “And your preference for such just happened to radically increase coinciding with me getting shot?”

Natasha’s jaw clenched. Clint said softly, “We didn’t know you wouldn’t kick us out before. We kept expecting, but—“ He shrugged. “You let us stay.”

“Let me get this straight,” Coulson said, his tone immaculately professional in a way that soothed Clint. Clint knew damn well it was on purpose but he couldn’t help his reaction. Coulson had trained that into him, it was necessary for him to have that reaction in their roles. He could tell even Natasha was giving into it a little. Clint reflected, for a moment, on just how much power Coulson had over the both of them, but the fear that he would have expected to accompany such a thought was mysteriously missing.

Coulson was still speaking. “You would have spent excessive amounts of time in my office prior to my injury, but apparently, my injury robbed me of the capacity to eject you from my presence?”

Natasha didn’t give an inch by way of expression, “It sounds stupid when you say it like that. Also, mercenary.”

Coulson gave her an unimpressed look at this last. They all conclusively knew Coulson would never press where it hurt with either of them unless he had exceedingly good reason, and this wasn’t it. She just stared back. Clint said, “You know both of us well enough to know that it’s true, and that-- That it made sense, from our perspective.”

That was the best Clint could give him. He’d have to work out the rest for himself. It was terrifying enough that Clint knew he would, that Clint had essentially just opened himself up and handed Coulson the tools to fool around with his most delicate internal parts.

Coulson rolled a loose pen on his desk under his palm. It was one of his physical therapy exercises, but also a strange show of nerves from the man. He said, “You were always welcome.”

She didn’t smile. Instead, she said, “We want dinner, once a week,” like she was laying out terms of surrender.

Coulson’s gaze flickered to Clint and Clint caught the secondary surprise in it. Coulson said, “All right. Anywhere in particular?”

Natasha looked at Clint. Clint said, “Rotating choices.”

Natasha looked back at Coulson. Coulson nodded. “Right. Now that that’s settled, think I can get the rest of my work done?”

“You started it,” she pointed out, and it took everything Clint had not to laugh. Natasha didn’t usually betray that she’d never gotten to be a child at the time in her life when it would have been appropriate, but every once in a while, it slipped out. Coulson didn’t bother trying, he just chuckled. Natasha hid a small smile of her own. Clint, now that the worst was over, made for the ceiling.

*

Somehow, Clint found himself picking the location for dinner first. It was clear that Coulson and Natasha had teamed up on him when he wasn’t paying attention, but seeing as how he felt that he always paid attention to them, it seemed a little weird they’d managed. Determined to get his own back on, and show that three could play at that game, Clint breezily demanded that Coulson make them dinner, at his place.

Predictably, Coulson just said, “Sounds good. Have any preferences?”

Clint was tempted to request something enormously complicated, just to feel like someone was as thrown as he was, but Clint remembered their first meeting. If Coulson didn’t blink at blowjob offers from unknown youngsters, he wasn’t going to bend for Clint insisting on soufflés. Natasha raised an eyebrow at him, later, when it was just the two of them. He scowled. She said, “Moving a little fast, aren’t we?”

Clint shrugged. He knew, he knew, deep down inside, Natasha worried every bit as much about whether Coulson would want them, at least for a little while, but it was easy to forget with her calm way of responding to the whole situation, her outer cool. He said, “Sniper.”

She pursed her lips. “Meaning you wait until the right moment, get in there quickly and get out before anyone has noticed?”

“Is it so different for you?” he challenged.

She raised one eyebrow, a picture of hauteur. “Of course it is. I play the long game.”

He wasn't terribly deterred. He knew most of her deferral techniques. “And get out before you’re caught or hurt.”

She rolled her eyes. “Only a fool doesn’t do that.”

Clint bit his lip. “You-- You haven’t left me yet.”

“Don’t,” she said. “We-- This is different. What we have is different.”

“Because we love each other?” Clint honestly wasn’t sure how that changed anything. He’d loved Barney; a different type of love, certainly, but love.

“Because—" Her lips curved just slightly downward. "Because we both know how to run and neither of us has.”

Clint did not allow himself to fidget. “Where do we run to if he decides I’m—this, this isn’t worth it?”

We’re.” Natasha caught Clint’s chin, made him look at her. “If he decides we’re not worth it, you mean?”

He almost gave into the urge to slide his gaze to the side anyway. “You don’t have to-- If he wants—“

“Each other,” she cut him off, each syllable sharper than her knives. “We run to each other. And don’t you fucking act like I could leave you to have him when we both know damn well you wouldn’t do the same if the situation were reversed.”

Clint could lie, could deny it, but he wouldn’t. He’d never wanted to hurt her. He didn’t imagine that would ever change. He took a breath. “We should, like, bring a bottle of wine. Or something.”

“You’re the one who can legally buy alcohol,” she said, her face the picture of innocence.

Clint laughed. He’d turned twenty-one a little over a month earlier. “Just barely.”

She smiled. “I like Malbec.”

*

Coulson opened the door wearing jeans and a grey t-shirt, both of which looked impossibly soft. Next to him, Natasha was unspeakably pretty in a blue sundress. Clint wasn’t sure what he was doing there. He held the bottle out to Coulson. “We, ah, brought wine.”

Coulson took the bottle, his fingers swiping Clint’s. He leaned in and brushed his lips over Clint’s, so very casual, except for how it felt like pure electricity flooding into Clint. Coulson turned and did the same for Natasha who started a bit, despite having seen it happen to Clint, which meant she was feeling a little off-kilter, same as Clint. Well, probably a little less, but similar, at least. He moved backward and said, “Come on in.”

Clint glanced at Natasha, wondering if she'd mentioned their plan to Coulson, but she gave him a blank look, which was a sure no. Clint stepped over the threshold and tried not to wonder when, exactly, Coulson caught on and if this was his way of teaching them a lesson. Clint was fairly certain he wouldn’t do that to Natasha. Clint, maybe, because sometimes Clint needed to be reminded he was an investment, probably, but Natasha was an agent.

Natasha, strangely, took his hand and drew him further inside. He didn’t resist. Coulson said, over his shoulder, “I made moussaka, I hope that’s acceptable.”

Clint had never had moussaka, but Coulson probably could have made pork ‘n beans and Clint would have been enthusiastic, so he nodded. Natasha said, “One of my favorites.”

Coulson smiled, a full, laid-back, genuine expression Clint had only seen once that he could remember. Clint couldn’t help smiling back. Natasha was smiling, though, so it probably wasn’t a sign that he was easy, or at least not an obvious one. Not that Coulson needed obvious signs from Clint, he knew Clint better than most.

Clint took a moment to look around, too curious about Coulson’s home not to. It was an odd mixture of a place rarely visited but well-taken care of when the owner was in. They layout was open, with the dining area, living space and kitchen all being in one large room. There was a bedroom off in a corner, with the door closed.

The dining table was made of sturdy, if not particularly fancy, wood. Most of the furniture in the place seemed built more for use than for looks. There were a few cells of World War II-era comics framed and hung in various spots on the walls. He had an entertainment center that seemed to house mostly albums, big band and blues from the same era as the comics, so far as Clint could tell. A stretched canvas of the Chicago skyline at dusk hung prominently over the old wood-burning fireplace off to the side of the den.

The kitchen was small, made more functional by various shelving units, and hooks with pots and pans hanging from them. His refrigerator had a set of magnets showing paintings Clint didn’t recognize but that seemed chaotic and not at all what Clint would have imagined Coulson preferring in art.

Coulson said, “Have a seat.”

Coulson poured three glasses of the wine, and laid out platters of hummus and tabbouleh along with pita, and Clint waited until Natasha started in to take some, unsure if there was etiquette he wasn’t aware of. Natasha would know that sort of thing. Clint didn’t like the fact that, as a child, Natasha had been ironed to societal perfection against her will, but it sometimes came in useful.

After a little bit of casual eating, however, Coulson telling a story about his time in the Rangers, and Natasha talking about something one of the junior agents had done earlier in the week, Clint forgot that this evening wasn’t just the three of them being the three of them and relaxed into the fact that these were the only two people in the world he trusted. He had a second glass of wine as they ate dinner, and when Coulson offered, brandy with his coffee and crème brulee.

Clint wasn’t drunk by the time they migrated to the couch, but he was nicely buzzed, the world soft in a way it never was. He told Coulson, “This is nice. You…your apartment is nice.”

“Better when I can actually clean it,” Coulson agreed easily.

Natasha said, “Your jeans are nice.”

Coulson laughed a little, and responded, “Your calves are nice.” She had them crossed over each other, propped on his coffee table.

Clint nodded. “Very nice.”

Natasha rolled her head over to look at Clint, smile at him the way she did in private. Clint could see Coulson watching. He didn’t mind. Coulson looked straight at Clint and asked, “What are the two of you up to?”

Clint said, “Having dinner with you.”

Coulson looked unimpressed by this response. “We’ve had dinner together plenty of times. You’ve never felt the need to ask. Or bring wine. If the two of you are still worried I’m going to disappear—“

“Mostly,” Natasha said with a lazy roll to her tone, as though she were discussing what she wanted for breakfast, “I suspect we’re just bad at getting the things we want that cannot be gained by either threat or deceit.”

Clint made himself keep his eyes open, not look away. It was too late to be a coward.

Coulson looked tired when he said, “You’ve always had me.”

Clint could not begin to understand that statement. It was almost past believability, except for how Coulson had never lied to him, not once. Natasha said, “Then I suppose the trick will be keeping you.”

*

Coulson, who was now insisting on being called Phil on dates and other non-job-related activities, wouldn’t sleep with them. At first, Clint had thought he was just being weirdly gentlemanly. Well, okay, at first Clint had thought he didn’t want them, or at the very least didn’t want him and wasn’t cruel enough to only sleep with Natasha. But Natasha had said, “He’s old-fashioned. That’s part of why we like him,” and Clint had accepted that as an explanation and done his best to practice patience.

But four months of dinners, sometimes even movies with popcorn and candy, once a play, and the best making out Clint had ever known, and Clint was starting to revert to his original opinion about the situation.

After kissing Phil as stupid as Phil ever got—which, unfortunately for Clint, wasn’t very stupid—Clint straddled him, Natasha already having seated Phil between her legs and whispered, “I wouldn’t have to take my clothes off.”

Phil blinked, then focused, his gaze turning sharp. “Excuse me?”

Clint nodded a little, leaning forward to really sell the idea. “You could use my mouth. Ask Tash, I’m brilliant. Trust me, it won’t leave you wanting.”

Phil took a breath and settled his hands at Clint’s waist, right atop his jeans. “You think I don’t want to strip you naked and lick every inch of your skin twice, until you’re begging me to so much as touch you? Am I understanding this correctly?”

Clint wasn’t sure how Phil could say that calmly, almost professionally, as if discussing mission parameters. Clint swallowed. “…Yes?”

“Okay, well, that’s…hilarious.”

Clint started to climb off, but Phil’s fingers tightened, and Natasha grabbed his wrist. Natasha said, “In the interest of full disclosure, I’m entirely certain you’ve been taking things slowly in a sick game to mindfuck me into believing that you want me for something more than my body.”

Clint wasn’t sure how to respond to that, torn between scowling at Natasha and giving her thankful eyes. Phil took the decision out of his hands by distracting them with the question, “So, I’m guessing it didn’t occur to either of you that, seeing as how I’m a full decade older than Clint, I might be feeling too old for both of you and figured if I didn’t fulfill my every fantasy with you it might not be so horrible when you realized that you were young and gorgeous and each others’ and left?”

Clint looked at Natasha to make sure he wasn’t the only one who hadn’t even considered this possibility. It was reassuring that Natasha, who knew pretty much everything when it came to other people because of her crazy spy interrogatory mind reading special skills, had an expression that could only be described as gobsmacked. Phil was tense underneath Clint’s legs, even the part of him leaning back into Natasha was being held tight. Clint tried, “…No?”

“Tasha?” Phil asked.

“Missed that,” she said in a tone that even Clint could hear she was keeping purposely light.

“Oh.” Phil seemed uncertain of where to go from there. Clint sympathized completely, but it was strange seeing it in Phil who was always so put together and sure of the world around him.

“Okay,” Phil said slowly. “Let’s start at the beginning. Why wouldn’t I want to see you naked?”

Clint fidgeted, but Phil held on, implacable. Clint kept Natasha’s gaze as he said, “Others have left their marks.” It was nothing she didn’t know.

Phil nodded. “Natasha. Why would I be stupid enough to not want your intelligence and your humor and your capacity to survive and your spirit?”

She narrowed her eyes. “I know there is no good way to answer that when you frame it that way.”

His smile was more of a slight tilting of his mouth, but it was there. “Of course you do, you taught me three-fourths of what I know about interrogation.”

“Then tell us,” she said sweetly, like the honey bee hiding in the blossom, “why we would be idiotic enough to leave you because of a biological fluke, a number?”

Phil reached out to run his hand over Clint’s face. “I’m going to make some adult hot chocolate, and the three of us are going to sit around, and talk about our favorite parts about each other. And then, when you’re ready, I’m going to take the two of you to bed, and each of us is going to get one fantasy for tonight, but only one, so that there will be more for tomorrow night and the night after that.”

He let those words sit for a bit and then asked, “Deal?”

“I want butterscotch schnapps in my cocoa,” Clint said. Phil kissed him, and pushed him off his lap.

*

“I’ll start,” Coulson said, setting Clint’s cocoa in front of him, and Natasha’s, which had vanilla-infused vodka in it. “I have lots of favorite parts about both of you, but I guess if I had to choose, my very favorite thing about Natasha is the way she likes old-fashioned Saturday morning cartoons, and my very favorite thing about Clint is his tendency to get excited about planning jet trajectory.”

Clint had always kind of thought Phil just tolerated that. His was an amused tolerance, in that instance, but Clint had never read it as anything more than that.

“So, what you are saying, essentially, is that you get off on us being geeks,” Natasha said, one eyebrow raised slightly.

“I won’t deny it,” Coulson told her. He took a sip of his cocoa. He’d put in whiskey and crème de cocoa; Clint had watched.

“My favorite thing about you,” Natasha said, looking at Coulson, “is how you can insult almost anyone without them realizing it.

“Almost anyone?” Coulson challenged.

Natasha shrugged. “Well, Clint thinks everything is an insult, and I’m unusually astute.”

Clint said, “Oh, thanks.”

Phil ran a toe over Clint’s foot, smiling at him. Natasha stared at Clint for a long moment. Clint gave her a smile. “It’s okay if you don’t have one.”

“I have too many, but thanks for proving my point of a second ago,” she snapped. “Even how fucking oblivious you are to the fact that I love you is kind of stupidly endearing.”

“Tash,” Phil said softly. “You can beat him up when you spar tomorrow. Right now, nice.”

“That is nice,” Clint said. This, he knew, was where he and Natasha made sense, in the way that when they got each other, they really got each other.

“That,” Natasha said. “The way you don’t judge. You just… I’m not mean or vicious or feral or any of the things the others whisper with you, I’m just me and you don’t mind.” Then, “Your turn.”

Clint took a sip. He felt for Natasha, there was so much. He focused on Phil first. “I like the way you see big pictures. I look at something and I see details, things I need to tuck away, what might hurt me, what probably won’t. You see how things play out, what’s coming, how to defend against it, or go on the offensive if necessary. It’s true about everything, really. You do it with people, too.”

Phil’s toe was now making lines, back and forth, over Clint’s foot. It was calming. He made himself look at Natasha. “The way you still feel everything. I don’t know if I would, not if someone had worked to train it out of me, not if-- I almost lost my mind and it wasn’t even anyone’s plan. But you just hid yourself inside and tricked them until they weren’t looking anymore.”

Natasha tilted her head. “I think you would.”

“Maybe,” he said softly, not knowing and not really feeling in the mood to fight. “But you did.”

Phil nodded in agreement, then smiled. “Finish your drinks. I’m owed a fantasy.”

*

Phil had a card deck on hand, so they drew numbers for who went first. Natasha picked highest, so Clint sat down on the bed and asked, “What can we do for you?”

“One fantasy,” Natasha murmured. “Do I have to be part?”

Clint frowned. Phil spread his hands. “Your fantasy.”

“And we’re doing this again?” she asked, her tone suggesting she had no stock in the answer, her body language saying the opposite.

Phil smiled. “As many times as you want.”

“Okay.” She smiled slowly. “Then I want to watch you suck him off. He doesn’t get to touch. And he doesn’t get to come.”

There was fire, banked low, in Phil’s expression when he turned to Clint. “That okay?”

Clint was probably going to die from lack of blood flow to important parts of him, like his brain, before the night was over. “You-- If you’re—“

Phil kissed him. “Okay.” He looked over at Natasha. “Any preference on positions?”

She was still smiling, seductive and somehow sweet. “As long as you’re on your knees.”

Clint was pretty sure he was going to come before Phil even got started. He tamped down on the eagerness. Phil, who’d been sitting on the bed, stood up and stripped off his t-shirt, shucking his pants and boxers. Clint followed suit. Natasha, in the plush chair Phil had in the corner, stayed clothed, but unzipped her jeans, her fingers sneaking below the waistband of her panties.

Phil took Clint’s hand and led him to the edge of the bed, where Natasha would have a profile view. He kissed Clint, slow and hard, tangling his hand in Clint’s hair, rubbing the other up and down Clint’s back. He sat Clint down and sank to his knees with a grace that Clint knew he’d never had, even when he’d been a professional. Phil looked up at him and said, without pity or condescension, “If you need to stop, pull my hair. Otherwise, please don’t.”

Clint nodded seriously and Phil, without any warning, took Clint in until Clint could feel the back of Phil’s throat. Clint made a noise that wasn’t entirely human. It wasn’t that he hadn’t done this. He’d even done it once or twice with johns who enjoyed sucking. And Natasha was imaginative and talented with her tongue. Clint had done this. He hadn’t done it with Phil’s hands strong and steady on his hips, with Natasha’s gaze heavy on the two of them. It was a whole new level of pleasure, one Clint had never been bold enough to consider.

Natasha purred, “Look at me, Clint.”

He met her eyes and she grinned. He couldn’t miss the slow undulation of her hips, the hint of her hand moving against herself. Clint grabbed onto Phil’s wrists, gripping tightly enough that it had to hurt, but Phil just kept his rhythm, making obscene noises. Clint struggled to keep his breathing decently calm, to keep himself from rising to climax, but finally he couldn’t help whimpering, begging, “Nat, Nat, I can’t.

“Stop, Phil,” she said, and Phil didn’t miss a beat, pulling off, looking up at Clint with his swollen lips and blown pupils. Clint had to close his eyes in order not to come.

Natasha, from her corner, said, “Your card was next, Clint.”

Clint could barely breathe, let alone think. Luckily he knew what his fantasy was. It was simple and vanilla and just not that interesting, but he had wanted it for as long as he could remember. “Middle, please. I get to be middle.”

“He’s so fucking sweet,” Natasha said, but there was no derision in the statement, just a sort of quiet awe. She stood up and peeled herself out from her clothes. Clint could see that she was wet, and despite having done so, over and over again, couldn’t wait to sink into her, to that place that was both fireworks and the safety of one’s own bed, under the blankets. She walked to the bed, her hips swinging, a gentle bounce in her curls, and beckoned with her fingers. “C’mere, baby.”

He crawled up the bed to where she was, letting himself be drawn in. It was easy to come together, easy and comfortable, but still spectacular, almost everything Clint had ever wanted. Clint looked over at Phil, who was watching, his gaze dark. Clint held out his hand, and Phil came. He stopped and opened the nightstand drawer, and Clint heard him open a condom package.

Phil’s weight settled behind him. Phil gently positioned one of Clint’s legs over Natasha’s. She was on her side, holding Clint to her. Phil put his hand on Clint’s hip and slid a finger inside him. It had been a while since Clint had done this, but for all that, it wasn’t unusual. He thought, to be between the two of them, to be the one holding them all together, he wouldn’t mind it so much.

Then Phil worked in a second finger, hooked both and pressed. And Clint nearly came out of his skin. “Oh fuck, fuckfuckfuuuuck. What the—“

“Hey,” Phil said, sounding a little surprised, which any other time would have struck Clint as funny, because nothing ever surprised Phil. “Hey.” The hand on Clint’s hip stroked soothingly, and Phil waited until Clint had started breathing again.

Over Clint’s shoulder, Phil began to ask, “You never—“

Natasha shook her head. “I wasn’t sure he’d want it.”

“Wait,” Clint gasped. “That-- The prostate thing? That’s real?”

Phil hooked his fingers again and Clint yelped, not even caring that he knew he sounded amazingly stupid. Of course it was real, why else would it come up in books or would people ever, ever do this? It didn’t always hurt, but without this it had never been fun or even interesting.

Phil whispered in his ear. “It’s real. And I’m about to have a fantasy I didn’t know I had. On the house.”

Phil slid in then, slow and hard, getting the angle just-fucking-right and Clint’s eyes rolled to the back of his head. “Oh Jesus. I can’t—“

“Just stay still, baby,” Natasha murmured against his lips. “We’re going to do all the work.”

Clint wasn’t sure he could have done anything else. Natasha had taught him pleasure and intimacy and things he didn’t have words for, but this, being the thing that brought them together, the center of their attention, part of something he could never have imagined or created, Clint wasn’t even sure this was real, and he couldn’t be bothered to care. The only thing he knew was the intensity of the moment, the way it kept building, growing until he couldn’t contain it anymore, couldn’t contain himself anymore.

Phil said, “Let us carry you, Clint. Let go.”

Clint listened, and things shattered apart, and the pieces of him floated, floated until Phil and Natasha gathered them back up and pulled them back together, Natasha kissed him back into awareness. He said, “I didn’t, you—“

She bit his lip and said, “Phil’s turn.”

Clint wasn’t sure he was good for much, but he would try, he would do anything he could. Phil pulled out gently, and tugged Clint up, working him into position until he was slumped against the headboard, holding Natasha’s back to his chest. It was comforting, cuddling with her.

She went still in his arms and then squirmed. He looked over her shoulder, and sure enough, Phil was going down on her. Clint didn’t blame Phil. If he’d just gotten Natasha, that would be his fantasy, too. It was nice to watch, probably would have been moreso if he weren’t completely used up at the moment. Still, the feel of her against him, the experience of holding her for Phil was enough, more than enough, perfect at this point.

Phil took his time, and Clint had to smile at Natasha’s threats, and the way Phil was completely undeterred. When he finally, finally, took her to orgasm, she nearly slipped right out of Clint’s arms. Clint held her, telling her how beautiful she was.

When her eyes fluttered open, Phil asked softly, “Can you go again, or will that be too much?”

“That your fantasy?” she asked, her words slurred, curious.

“Part of it,” he said.

“I c’n,” she mumbled.

“Switch positions with me, Clint.”

Clint did as told, and Phil reached around Natasha, petted Clint’s hair. Clint grinned up at Natasha, tired, but always, always up for this. She smiled back down, and he went to work.

She was oversensitive at first, so Clint was careful, listening for her pleased sounds, cautious about her body movements, some of which gave away discomfort. The trust that last showed Clint was a turn on itself, one Clint let roll around in his thoroughly sated body. Slowly, though, she began to arch up to meet him, and he got serious, using the tricks he’d learned to finish her off.

They were both exhausted by the time he managed, and Clint blinked up at Phil. Phil’s expression was so full of warmth, Clint almost had to look away, but he managed not to. Phil very gently set Natasha aside, down on the bed, where her eyes flickered lazily between open and closed, watching them. Phil was soft, evidently having come from the pressure of Natasha’s body against his cock alone. Clint was a little sad he’d missed it, but then, he had tomorrow, evidently, for another fantasy.

Phil pulled him up onto his knees, gently but insistently, and kissed him, deep and hot. Phil tasted like Natasha, and Clint knew he would too. The thought was hot enough to steal his breath for a moment, but Phil kissed it back into him. They kissed like that, wet and oblivious to everything outside themselves, until Clint couldn’t feel his lips, until Phil had to flex his fingers when he let go of Clint.

Clint would have fallen asleep right there and then, but Natasha laughed deep in her throat and pulled him off the bed. She said, “I’ll run the shower.”

Phil said, “I’ll change the sheets.”

“Mm,” Clint mumbled. “I call cleaning both of you up.”

Natasha laughed again, higher, more amused. Phil’s, “You can do that,” sounded amused too, but Clint didn’t think they were laughing at him, not really, and if they were, well, he was too happy to mind all that terribly much.

*

Clint woke up with Natasha on top of him. That was not unusual. If she needed to, she could make herself smaller than seemed humanly possible, hide herself in plain sight. But when sleeping with Clint, she almost always found her way to being sprawled over him, around him, as though she wanted to make sure he couldn’t go anywhere. It was hilarious that in her sleep, she seemed to think he would.

He kissed her neck. “Tash.”

“Asleep.”

“We’re missing a Phil.”

Natasha’s eyes opened at that. “Hrmph.”

“If you want me to go find him for you, you’ve got to let me up.”

Natasha made another disgruntled noise, but she moved just enough to let Clint squeeze out from under her. Clint carded his fingers through her hair and made his way out of the room. He didn’t have to look very far. Phil was in the kitchen, squeezing orange juice and having a conversation on speakerphone with Hill.

Phil smiled at him, looking pleased to see him, which was good. Clint knew it was ridiculous, but he’d only ever had one morning after where he’d expected/hoped the person would be there in the morning. He wasn’t at the point where he was taking it for granted that he was still wanted eight or so hours later. He’d been pretty sure, after the previous night, just not wholly positive.

Phil held out a glass of juice and mouthed, “Couple more minutes.”

Clint smiled. He rustled through Phil’s fridge for the camembert he knew was in there, and the eggs. By the time Phil hung up with Maria, breakfast was well on its way to being made. Phil wrapped himself around Clint’s back. “’Morning.”

“We have to go in?”

Phil nodded, but his posture stayed loose, relaxed. “Not an emergency, but yes, something’s come up.”

“What time?”

“Hour or so,” Phil said. “I’ll face Tasha’s wrath.”

Clint smiled, largely to himself. “She likes it when you rub her feet.”

Phil tilted his head. “Really, that doesn’t get you kicked?”

Clint grinned. “I’ve never been stupid enough to try it without her being partially awake.”

“Probably be hard anyway,” Phil agreed. And yeah, probably, because Natasha woke at the drop of a pin. Phil kissed the back of Clint’s head and meandered off to face the half-sleeping dragon.

He returned with her moments later, tucked under his arm. Clint plated out the eggs and said, “Food’s ready.”

Phil pulled out a chair for Natasha, and she rolled her eyes, but took it all the same. He came over to help Clint with the plates, even though Clint could have handled it on his own. Clint asked, “Can I change my favorite thing about you?”

“Or you could have another one,” Phil said lightly. “Like, another favorite of mine is the way you notice everything, pay attention all the time when you think it’s important, and sometimes even when you don’t.”

“It’s pretty hot,” Natasha agreed, clearly enjoying making Clint squirm. She continued, “Like it’s hot when you blush.”

“You’re mean.” Clint sighed. Natasha looked incredibly pleased by this assessment.

Clint sat down with the other two at the table. “My new favorite thing is the way you take care of things. Almost like it’s easy, but it can’t be. Not everything you do. But you don’t screw off when things are…complicated or hard.”

Softly, Phil said, “I don’t find you hard.”

Clint shrugged. “Still.”

“Okay,” Phil said softly. And, “Eat your breakfast.”

“Before I steal it,” Natasha added. Clint was entirely sure that was not an empty threat.

*

What started out as “not an emergency” ended up with Clint in Azerbaijan, up in the mountains, hunting out a nascent terrorist cell with possible accidental connections to HYDRA. Clint was fairly certain the Azerbaijani government had no clue that either he or the terrorists were chilling in their mountains: quite literally, since it was freezing.

Coulson was pulled away as his handler within a week and replaced by Hill. That only ever happened when there was something screwy with Natasha’s assignment, so Clint was tense about the change. Hill was fine, really—competent and she treated him with respect—she just wasn’t Phil, and when Clint was sleeping rough in below freezing temperatures and running low on supplies because either these guys actually were sheep farmers with a death wish, or Clint just couldn’t find their base and make the IDs he needed for a kill order, he wanted Phil watching his back, even if from a distance.

The air was thin at this altitude, and Clint wasn’t sleeping much, trying to find the proof he needed to get the job over and done with. He wasn’t really surprised when he began sweating in the cold on the ninth day of his sojourn in the peaks. Hill checked in with him a few hours after he noticed, at their scheduled time, and Clint lied through his teeth about his condition. He was getting this done the first time, not getting sent back, and sure as hell not having someone sent in for him. He could only imagine what that would look like on his record.

Phil and Natasha might love him, might even really want to keep him—if Clint stretched his ability to believe in something of the sort to its limits—but to SHIELD he was still an investment, property that hadn’t yet paid off. He hadn’t yet gotten the courage up to ask how he would know when it had, when he was more specialist than expensive project. In the meantime, he didn’t really want to find out what happened if he did something to make them regret the investment. He didn’t imagine it could be worse than Frank, not really, not physically, but Clint hadn’t had anything to live for when Frank had gotten hold of him. He did now.

So he stayed in the mountains. He stayed past when he finally ran out of the food he’d been carefully rationing, and told Hill he could hunt in the mountains. It was technically true, he could, there just wasn’t much too hunt, and he was pretty sure the maybe-terrorists would notice if their sheep started to go missing. Clint settled for the scant squirrels he could rustle up. Sometimes, if he could find somewhere to start a fire that wouldn’t be spotted, he boiled snow and pine needles for tea.

He stayed past when the sweating and sniffles sprouted a cough that he had to work to hide, because he could only imagine how badly it would echo within the mountain. He stayed past when it became hard to swallow and he woke from the little sleep he was getting because he couldn’t breathe. He stayed until he found the damn lair, got the go-ahead, took everyone in the cell out and collected what Fury had requested from the cave.

Then he made his way down the mountain, past the small town at the base, and to the rendezvous point. He called Hill from there and said, “I’d really like to come home now,” when he’d meant to say, “I’m ready for pick up,” and collapsed on the dirt floor of the shack SHIELD used for extraction purposes.

*

Clint woke up long enough to get himself in the helicopter and strap himself in, and then long enough to get out of the helicopter, but the latter was only accomplishable with help, which was humiliating. They took him in a building and he realized he had no clue where he was. He didn’t know how long they’d been in flight, nor was the surrounding terrain that he could see familiar.

The pilot ushered him inside a building through the roof entrance. Clint’s hand went to his bow, more instinct than anything else. The pilot asked, “Agent?”

“Where—“

“Oh," the pilot, a woman somewhere in her late twenties or early thirties, with a buzz cut and wide, compassionate brown eyes, caught on, her mouth twisted in a moue of surprise for a moment. She smiled after a beat, as if reassure him. "Germany. Military hospital. Hill gave orders for you to be sent here when we found you down.”

Right. Clint took a breath to say, “I don’t need a hospital,” or, “I want to go home,” or anything of that ilk, but what came out instead were hacking coughs, most of them bringing up blood. There was some dizziness at the tail end and before he knew what was happening he’d been put in a bed, and there was someone starting an IV on him.

He said, “I’m not-- It’s just a cold.”

A tall man with a slightly disheveled, geeky look to him—doctor, by his insignia—asked, “You were in the mountains, Agent Barton?”

“Classified,” Clint said.

He nodded, his gaze assessing Clint behind glass lenses that were easily Coke bottle-thick. “As is anything you tell me, but all I need to know is how long you were exposed to the elements.”

Clint looked down and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to stop the room from spinning. “What’s the date?”

Someone relayed the information and Clint counted backward. “Thirteen days.”

The doctor paused, writing this information down. “How long have you had the cough?”

Clint shook his head. “Wasn’t-- Had other priorities.”

The doctor's lips tightened into a rigid white line, and Clint was pretty sure he was about to be yelled at, atop everything else, but when the doctor spoke there was nothing but acceptance in his voice. “All right, agent. I’m going to run some tests. In the meanwhile, I’m going to put you on some stuff to make you more comfortable. Try and get some rest. You need it.”

Clint needed Phil and Natasha. He didn’t say that. He didn’t say anything.

*

He slept a lot. The IV antibiotics they had him on made him nauseated, and the first few times he woke up and tried some Jell-O it just came right back up, so they put a feeding tube in him and largely left his body to do as it would. It was for this reason he wasn’t entirely sure when Phil and Natasha showed up, only that the first thing Natasha said was, “Phil is pissed.”

Clint blinked at her, pretty sure that was code for, “And I am planning to eat your entrails. While you watch.” Then he fell asleep again, feeling better already, having her there.

He definitely couldn’t say how long it was before he woke up and managed to stay awake long enough to both open his eyes and ask, “Water?”

It took a couple of tries to actually ask, and Phil was already adjusting the bed so that Clint was sitting, placing the straw between his lips. Clint took a few slow sips and then leaned back, murmured, “Thanks.”

Phil placed the cup back on the stand very precisely and looked at Clint with eyes that were too calm. Clint tried a preemptive, “I’m sorry?”

“Do you even know what you’re sorry about?” Phil asked, sounding exhausted.

It was pretty obvious to Clint. “I worried you and Tash.”

Phil’s expression softened into sadness so immediately that Clint wished he could take it back. Phil said, “No, Clint, that’s a consequence of the job. We all expect that. I’m sure Tash and I worry you every bit as much.”

Clint had to believe it was more, but that was a fruitless argument, and evidently they had other things to talk about just then. If Phil wasn’t pissed about their personal relationship, it had to be about his professional performance. Clint would have thought he and Natasha were pissed about the same thing, the way she had said it, but it seemed unlikely that was what was getting at Natasha. Still, it was the only other guess he had, so, “That the mission took me so long?”

Phil looked a little ill and Clint said, “Sorry, I—“

“What?” Phil asked. “What are you sorry for?”

“Upsetting you,” Clint told him, because even if he didn’t know how he had, exactly, he was still sorry for the result.

Phil, uncharacteristically, put his face in his hands for a moment, muttering curses into his palms. When he could, he looked back up at Clint and said, slowly, “I am pissed because you lied to your handler about your state of well-being, Clint. And it could have gotten you killed. And I am upset because you don’t even seem to understand that your survival is far more important to me than any SHIELD mission could ever be, no matter the cost.”

“For the record,” Natasha said, having appeared in the doorway, “I feel exactly the same way. Idiot.”

Clint curled his knees up to his chest and said, “I’m sorry,” again.

“Clint—“ Phil started, but Clint interrupted with a frustrated, “I don’t know what you want.”

“You don’t-- What I want?” Phil echoed.

“You bought me,” Clint said. “I mean, for SHIELD, you-- One hundred and forty eight thousand down and I don’t even want to know what the final purchase price was. Frank didn’t—sickness wasn’t allowed to interfere with taking clients. I didn’t realize the rules were different. I mean, I realized SHIELD was different, since I got to shoot and fly instead of be fucked, which I really, really like, but nobody ever clarified that my duties to SHIELD could be compromised by stuff like sickness. You didn’t tell me that.”

It took a second, but Phil said softly, “You think SHIELD owns you.” He sounded lost, like he wasn’t even sure how they’d gotten to this place in the conversation.

That was fair, because in Clint’s mind that was obvious, so why they were even discussing it was mystifying. He looked over at Natasha, but even she seemed shocked, her face slightly paler than normal.

Looking a little peakish, Coulson asked, “When you… What we’ve done, is that because you think you owe me?”

Clint’s chest tightened at the thought, the way Coulson seemed small when he formed the question. “No. I-- Frank owned me, and I never came to him. I came to you. I chose you. I chose us.”

“Clint,” Phil said softly. He hesitated for a long moment, then nodded slightly, as though he’d made a decision about something Clint had never known was an issue. “I love you, okay? I need you to remember that.”

“Phil?” Clint said, feeling more than a little panicky.

“I love you, but I’m firing you, effective upon your hospital release. You’ll receive SHIELD’s unemployment package. I’ll-- I’ll put in the paperwork.”

Clint swallowed. “What?”

“You’re fired, Clint." Phil kept his hands on Clint even as he was throwing him to the wolves, like there was some kind of logic to his choice, some meaning. "I’m letting you go from SHIELD. Terminating you.”

Clint heard his heart monitor beep frantically. “Phil, I can-- I’ll tell my handler next time, I swear, and I’ll do whatever training you want me to do in between and if you need someone to handle the kind of stuff you’re not supposed to ask agents for—“

When Phil kissed him, Clint wasn’t sure if the salt that dripped onto his lips was from him or Phil. Either way, he let it linger on his tongue. Phil pulled back first and said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

He brushed past Natasha in the doorway upon leaving. Feeling numb, and somehow sure it was just masking everything he would feel later, Clint said, “I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Natasha thought about that for a long moment and then smiled. “We’ll find you somewhere.”

*

Clint could only imagine that his confusion showed when Phil came back to the room. Phil glared, or, well, looked sternly at him. “I said I was firing you, not breaking up with you. Unless you want that.” After a second, “I’d understand.”

Clint shook his head. He felt betrayed and terrified but also certain both would pass and then he’d just want Phil. Clint tried not to cut off his nose and all that, when possible. Natasha climbed on the bed with him.

Phil’s body loosened a little in what Clint recognized as relief. It made him feel weirdly powerful, which, given everything, was kind of nice. He was tempted to see what else he could do to feel that way. Phil cut into his considerations, saying, “I talked with the doctor. You’re going to be released tomorrow, when they can put you on oral antibiotics.”

“That’s…soon.” Clint tried not to feel like he was sixteen again, but it was a struggle. These years in SHIELD, he’d always been raring to get out of Medical. Now, the hospital was the only place that felt safe.

“Clint,” Phil said his name carefully. “If you could do anything that was not go home with me and Tash or work for SHIELD, anything, what would it be?”

Clint pressed into Natasha, uncomfortable with the conditions on the question, how well they showed Phil’s knowledge of Clint. Still, he made himself consider. He’d never really thought about it, because it was a moot point. Clint went where SHIELD sent him, did what SHIELD told him to do. He thought about the things he’d seen in books, read about, pictures he’d looked at. “I’d go to Russia, not just to sit in rafters, but to—to see.”

Next to him, he could feel Natasha perusing him, more than see it. He made himself continue. “And the Smithsonian, the aeronautics museum. And the castle in Edinburgh.” He paused. “Oh, and Africa, because the elephants were always my favorite. In the circus.”

He looked straight at Phil, then, and said, with a challenge in his tone, “And then I’d come home.”

Phil just gave him a sharp little smile. “Okay. Let’s make travel plans.”

*

Clint went to Moscow first, not because of any preference on his part, but because that was where Phil had booked his ticket. He checked into Cosmos, which Natasha had insisted on with a smile that had warned Clint he was in for a few surprises. The place was huge, and relatively cheap and his room overlooked VDNKH park. Clint was pretty sure the smile had been about the roving gangs of prostitutes in the lobby.

After spending his obligatory day at the Kremlin and the Armoury, walking across the Red Square and looking at the toy-bright domes of St. Basil, Clint picked one up. He hadn’t really intended to. She wasn’t his type; too young and too skinny and too not-Natasha-or-Phil. He gave her twice her price for the night and said, “Show me around.”

The girl, Alyona, wore her hair purple and had three rings in her right eyebrow, two in the left nostril. Her smile was full of crooked teeth, and her fashion sense made him wonder if she was actually color blind. He thought she was fantastic. She took him to clubs that were too loud and too crowded, and all night eateries with coffee that Clint was sure would stunt his growth. In the morning, she introduced him to Vitaly, an aging rocker with hair below his shoulders and a wicked-looking scar on one ear, who evidently knew the city inside and out. She gave Vitaly a fond smile and kissed Clint on his cheek, with a, “You know where to find me,” and went to seek out her bed.

Clint spent a few days climbing through old, forgotten city tunnels and other strange nooks and crannies of Moscow with Vitaly, grabbing a late dinner and finding different night views of the city with Alyona, who reminded him uncomfortably of himself before Phil had found him.

When he left the city, he asked her if she wanted to come with, help him out around the rest of the country. Clint’s Russian was fluent, Natasha had ensured that much, but his accent left much to be desired. He didn’t exactly blend.

She smiled at him, her expression too damn tired for a fifteen year old, maybe for anyone. “I would be found.”

“No,” Clint said. “I won’t allow that.”

She rolled her eyes. “Because traveling with you wouldn’t make it obvious or anything.”

“Who says we leave together?” Clint asked.

Alyona blinked. Clint said, “You won’t be found.”

When Clint left, so did she.

*

They went to St. Petersburg first, and Clint spent three days working his way endlessly through the Hermitage. On the fourth day he convinced Alyona to leave their room at the hotel and the two of them spent some time discovering how different St. Petersburg was from Moscow, learning its rhythms. She had a way of drawing people in, molding herself to others, and she found him more off-beat guides, people who knew the city in ways Clint could never have imagined, and gave Clint access to seeing it from a different perspective.

The two of them stayed in town through the last of the cold months, visiting the palaces outside the city some days, and other days not doing much of anything. Clint wrote letters to Phil and Natasha almost every day, his tablet a constant by his side so that he could take pictures of things he wanted them to see. Every once in a while he asked about what was happening at SHIELD and the other two avoided the question. He missed their voices and knowing what to do with himself, having purpose.

He struggled through it because there was something novel in being allowed to go where he wanted, do as he pleased, without considering anything but himself. It was new and sometimes painful, but he knew it was the reason Phil had fired him, so he let it happen, made himself live through the moments when it was scary or lonely.

Alyona helped a bit. Having her around was close to what Clint imagined having a baby sister would be like. She knew too much about the world in a way that reminded him of Natasha, but she could be goofy and carefree in a way he wasn't familiar with, and her issues were close enough to his that when they reared up, he was good at knowing when to give her support, and when to stay away. The two of them made their way from St. Petersburg into areas where they could hike and otherwise be indulgent eco-tourists. In between they stayed in small towns. Toward the time when Clint was feeling restless, ready to move on from Russia, he found Alyona a job at a café, where they might have looked at her fading purple hair and facial metal a little askance, but they didn't seem to really judge. He sent an email to Natasha telling her to find someone at SHIELD to keep an eye on her, and move her around if necessary.
He kissed her cheek and made himself leave before he asked her to come along. That night he actually called Phil in his office and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Phil said, “Good.”

From the background, Natasha said, “You’ll figure it out.”

Clint closed his eyes and tried to believe her.

*

Clint spent a few months after that still having no clue what he was doing, essentially just doing whatever sounded fun. This, itself, was novel. Clint couldn’t remember a time he’d done something simply because he wanted to. He wasn’t sure there ever had been a period in his life like that.

Some days, he didn’t even leave the hostel or B&B or wherever he’d bunked over for the night, spending the day hidden, high up or in the vents or wherever, drifting in and out of rest between bouts of people watching. Some days he wandered the city he was in all day, never entering a store or museum.

The boat he took from Tromso to Iceland was more expensive than flying would have been, but it was his first time on water, and Clint was determined to try new things, see if they answered the questions he wasn’t even sure how to form.

He liked the openness of the water, vast and cold, even in the late summer. The ship itself had endless places to hide. He didn’t like the feeling of being trapped, certain the water was too cold for him to make it to shore if he needed off the boat. It was no different, really, than being in a jet in some ways, but Clint was used to being in control of the jets he flew.

As the weather started to become cold again he worked his way south, making it to Ireland by plane. He found that the for-now quiet tensions of Belfast suited him better than the rapidly-changing pace of Dublin, even if he enjoyed both. He ferried into the UK proper and went to the castle at Edinburgh, enjoying the chance to sneak around and climb into spots he knew he wasn’t supposed to be in enormously. He ferried it back to the mainland, then ate his way through France, into Italy and eventually down to Sicily. When he was ready, he left for Tunisia.

As much as Clint had stuck out in any number of the European countries, he did so ten times more in Africa. It made his skin crawl, how noticeable he was. He forced himself to stay, to learn to disappear as best he could, and also learn not to fear being seen. He picked up postcards when he could, writing lines on the back that sometimes had to do with where he was, sometimes with how he was feeling. He sent them when he was ready, addressed always to Natasha. When he called, he called Phil. It did not matter. The communications would be relayed, he knew.

He found himself on the Ivory Coast and spent time living near the water, sometimes actually on the beach, sometimes in resorts. Eventually he went back inland, and almost by accident ended up helping out at a medical clinic in Bamako. SHIELD had trained him in field medicine, which was useful.

He learned there that he was good with kids. He didn’t have to talk much for them, just listen, and they didn’t notice that he was different, or if they did, they didn’t care. Clint bought a disposable camera and took a whole roll of pictures of himself with different people he worked with, helped. He sent the camera to Natasha, no note included.

It was comfortable to stay there, to allow his French to become more idiomatic and learn bits and pieces of Bambara. The heat didn’t bother him and Phil had sent him malaria medicines from the time he’d landed in Africa, so he didn’t worry too much about sickness. When he worried, it was about the kids who came into the clinic, the parents who would leave children behind without anyone to fend for them.

Mostly, though, things were simple, or at least simpler than Clint could remember them being. He had somewhere to sleep, people he was helping, people he could see, and the right to come and go as he pleased. Things were simple and he missed everything that wasn’t.

He missed using his bow for something more complicated than hunting game, missed creating flight plans and carrying them out, missed the feeling that his actions made the world a better place in significant ways. Most of all, he desperately missed Natasha and Phil. He missed their perspective on his life, the way he could say things to them that felt shameful in the presence of anyone else.

What it came down to, really, was that he missed being Clint Barton, Agent of SHIELD. It wasn’t that he couldn’t live out his life here, or quite a few of the other places he’d been. He could find a place for himself, perform roles that meant something. He could, he just…didn’t want to.

He said his goodbyes and spent a few more days in the country, heading to Mont Sângbé National Park to catch elephants in the wild. That accomplished, he flew to the Canary Islands because they seemed like a good place to do some thinking. He stood by the water, tasting salt on his lips. He buried his feet in the sand, stared at the stars. He thought about where he was off to next, made choices about where he was going, what he wanted, and what he would do to get it.

*

Clint didn’t go straight to New York. No, he landed at Washington National and found himself a hostel near the Mall. He spent the better part of a week going through the Air and Space Museum. He took three guided tours, all of the same material, but by different guides who had varied interests and perspectives on what the museum held. He touched Amelia Earhart’s plane and considered how close the race between Russia and America into space had been. He watched as jets became closer and closer to what he flew now in the era of World War II. He sat underneath Lillienthal’s wings and imagined finding a way to fly when none actually existed.

After midnight, when the city slowed, if it didn’t cease, he haunted the memorials, both better and less known. He laid on the cool marble of Jefferson’s floor, staring up at his famous words for hours in the still of the night. He tucked himself onto a pedestal nearly inside the spray of water and contemplated Eleanor at the Roosevelt. He sat at Lincoln’s feet and walked the length of the reflecting pool. Sometimes he thought about what it meant to be in charge at a time of war, what it was to make decisions that would change the course of a nation. Most of the time, he thought about being the soldier awaiting commands.

When he was good and ready, he boarded a train and sat for hours, watching city and country and towns that were something in between pass by. He disembarked at Penn and had dinner at a little Ethiopian dive Natasha and he had discovered after a mission one time. He was kind of surprised the place was still there, the way restaurants came and went in the city. Clint hadn’t really been keeping track of time, but he knew he’d been gone over a year, knew because no matter what, the days he was apart from Natasha and Phil logged themselves.

He walked down to TriBeCa, to Phil’s apartment. He hadn’t told them he was coming, but they would know. He didn’t know if they were on a mission, hadn’t asked. If he to wait, he would. He almost hoped he had to. He desperately didn’t want to.

He took the stairs rather than the elevator, and picked the lock, despite having the key. Neither of them were there when he got inside, and Clint stood in the entrance for several moments, unsure of what to do. Then he closed the door behind him, set down his bag and went to look inside the fridge.

They’d shopped for him. Phil never kept the fridge full like this, not for himself, only when the three of them made plans to cook. Clint wondered if Phil and Natasha had gone shopping when they’d caught the alert that he was coming back to the States, or if it had been when they’d received the postcard he’d sent from D.C.

He went back to basics, his own version of comfort food: drunken noodles and sweet cucumber salad, the things he’d learned in the very first few classes, before he’d found Natasha, even. He waited then, hoping they hadn’t gotten called off, hoping he wouldn’t have to spend another night on his own. He’d made the choice to come back. They would respect it as soon as they could. He knew that, mostly.

He couldn’t help that there was the small part of him that wondered if maybe they hadn’t realized they were better off without him, that sending him off was the best thing they’d ever done. He turned on Phil’s TV to drown out the voice as best he could. He curled up, perched on the back of Phil’s couch, and waited.

*

He almost fell from his perch at the sound of the door opening, which was an amateur move, something he wouldn’t have done even back in the early days of the circus. He muttered, “Pull it together, Barton,” but still couldn’t manage to move from his spot, watching the door. When it opened, Natasha stared at him for a moment and then growled, “Finally,” and before he could really even track what had happened she had him on his back on the couch and was kissing him aggressively.

Clint gasped, “Nat, fuck. Nat.

In the last fourteen months he had snuggled with Alyona during cold nights, held the hands of children scared by the prospect of needles, danced at a few wedding celebrations of the medical staff, and in general, not been starved of human contact. The touch of her skin against his, the heat of her breath on his lips made all of that seem like nothing, like it could not have possibly mattered. This was everything and how he had managed to stay away so long was becoming more of a mystery as the seconds ticked past.

She grabbed at his hair, managing to get a hold on it, despite its shortness. “Unless you’re telling me no, shut the fuck up.”

Clint did as told, allowing her to have her way, wanting nothing at that moment so much as to give himself up to her completely. Between learning him anew with her mouth, her hands, her eyes, she told him, “You can’t leave again. Phil-- He said you had to, he said-- And I, it’s okay, I understand. But not again.”

He captured her hands, kissing the palms, biting at the juncture of her earlobe. He promised, “No, Tash. Not again.”

She sank down onto him and said, “Mine,” wistful and uncertain, open.

For once in his life, Clint understood that ownership could be by mutual agreement. He gazed up at her and answered, “Yours.”

*

After a few hours, Clint asked, “Is… Um, Phil’s coming home, right?”

Natasha rolled her eyes and muttered about men in Russian under her breath. Clint thought that was kind of rich given that she clearly hadn’t been entirely certain Clint was coming back, but arguing with Natasha was a losing proposition, so he didn’t.

She pushed her phone against Clint’s chest and said, “Call him. Tell him to get his stupid face home.”

Blinking, Clint took the phone and tapped the correct memory number. Phil picked up with, “Coulson.”

“Really?” Clint asked. “You do that even to Natasha?”

“Clint,” Phil said softly, his tone neutral, hiding everything, Clint realized.

Clint said, “Unless the world’s ending, I’d really like for you to come home now. If the world is ending, I, uh, I could probably consult for you, or something.”

“The world’s not ending,” Phil said, but he sounded less certain than Clint was used to.

“No?”

There was a longer pause than Clint was expecting and Phil said, “I’ll be there in a bit.”

*

With Natasha, even if things weren’t easy—never that—there was a simplicity between them. Natasha took what she wanted from Clint and Clint gave her whatever she desired, which worked, because all Clint wanted, ever, was for Natasha to notice him and be happy around him. And for all that she scared people and seemed so hard to know, Natasha was not hard to please. Mostly, Natasha wanted someone to see her and not run. Clint could more than handle that.

Phil was different. For one thing, Phil wasn’t fundamentally broken. He didn’t need pieces of himself glued back together and kept in place with the help of others. He didn’t need spaces inside of him filled by anyone beside himself. When Clint came up against the question of why Phil loved them--him--the only logical reason was that Phil loved Clint because Clint was worth loving. Although he was smart and self-aware enough to know the fact that he thought that could not be true was a sign of mental health issues, Clint still couldn’t quite convince himself to believe that was possible.

Which was why, when Phil came in the door, Clint found himself rooted to the spot he’d been standing in, halfway through working the microwave to heat up dinner. Phil stood where he was, too, which meant the two of them were stuck staring at each other stupidly. After a moment, Natasha said, “I’m going for a walk,” and slipped past Phil.

Clint made himself talk, forcing the first thing that came to mind out of his mouth. “She said you told her I’d come back.”

Phil didn't even blink. “I did.”

Clint knew him though, still, even after all the time away, he did. “You don’t look like you believed it.”

“I knew you’d come back to her,” Phil said softly, the barest emphasis on the last word.

Clint hadn't quite expected that, though. “When-- You sent me away.”

Phil's headshake was fierce. “No, Cl—“

Clint chose to finish. “Was I not supposed to come back to you?”

Phil swallowed, looking like it hurt to do so. “You were supposed to do whatever you wanted to do.”

That just confused Clint. “I…wasn’t supposed to want to come back to you?”

Phil rubbed a hand over his face. “Let’s—can we sit down?”

Getting closer to Phil without being allowed to touch after all this time sounded like torture, but Clint nodded and came out of the kitchen area to sit across the couch from Phil. When they were settled, Phil said, “I need you to listen without responding. Can you?”

Clint nodded. He would try at any rate. He had always tried to live up to what Phil needed from him.

Phil said, “You and Nat, the two of you make each other make sense. Everyone sees it. She saved your life, you taught her how to live. I can’t always tell where one of you ends and the other begins, and if I can’t, honestly, nobody else can. I don’t know that I believe in the concept of soulmates, but if I did, it would be from watching the two of you.”

Clint blinked. That was a considerably different way of framing Clint’s two-broken-things-managing-a-whole theory.

“I, on the other hand,” Phil continued, “have always been a figure of indebtedness where you are concerned.”

Clint couldn’t help frowning. Phil put a hand up to ward off any response. “The first time you met me, Clint, you were naked, terrified, and willing to trade a blowjob for soup.”

Clint tucked his knees to his chest. “And a sandwich.”

Phil ignored the interjection. “You insisted I give you a price for the basic human decency of clothing, and believed yourself incapable of ever returning an investment of less than a quarter of a million dollars.”

Trying to keep his voice even, Clint said, “This isn’t an exercise in humiliating me, right?”

“This is an exercise Clint, in making you see that I’m not sure you love me so much as feel like you owe me. And as much as I try to tell myself that would be enough, that I would take that, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I would rather have nothing than be a duty.”

Clint took a few minutes to process the stiff way Phil was holding himself, the tone of his voice, the utter sincerity of his speech. Then, because he couldn’t stop himself, he said, “You’re…kind of an idiot. I mean, I’m not the smartest myself, or anything, but wow. Wow.”

“Clint.” There was so much unsaid after that it was almost as if Phil had written an entire book in invisible ink.

Clint, though, thought he might have the special viewing piece, to make the ink show up. “You trusted me with multi-million dollar jets when I was a piece of street trash with negligible education and questionable skills, you introduced me to my favorite kind of pizza, you made me laugh on the worst, absolute worst days, you took me at face value and never asked more than I could give, you gave me up and gave me time to figure out who I was and what I wanted and you think I came back because of duty?”

Slowly, Phil said, “I think you’re the most honorable person I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

“Not that honorable,” Clint said. “I-- Fuck, Phil, there were nights I missed the sound of your voice so bad I wanted to risk seeing the disappointment on your face just to hear it in person, days when I would have given my shooting arm just to lean against you. I missed you. Not someone I owe something. And I do, okay? I owe you a lot. But the fact that you were the one to give it to me was just the means by which I fell for you. The bow, maybe, but not the arrows, you get it?”

Phil took a breath and Clint waited, knowing that Phil could come up with a million reasons why Clint’s words weren’t enough if he wanted to. Instead, Phil said, “If I touch you right now, I won’t know to stop, I don’t think.”

In one motion, Clint straightened, reached out, and pulled Phil down on top of him. “So don’t stop. Don’t, please.”

Then Phil’s hands were in Clint’s hair, on his face, and neither of them were speaking, neither of them could really remember how.

*

Natasha came back in through the window. They were on the thirty-second floor. Neither Clint nor Phil even so much as blinked. She said, “I’m hungry.”

Clint sat up and ran a hand through his hair—and yeah, he was sporting an I-just-got-laid ‘do—and said, “I made dinner. It’s in the microwave.”

“Knew I wanted you back for a reason,” she said, dragging her fingertips across his shoulders as she made her way to the kitchen. Clint followed and helped her get everything set up, Phil pulling out dishes and glasses.

When they were sitting at the table, piling noodles on their plates, Clint said, “I want my job back.”

He had thought about this a lot, especially in his time at the clinic. It wasn’t that he didn’t think he could do something else. He could. He could probably even go to school, or learn a trade, branch out in ways he’d never considered before this last year. It was just that he didn’t want to. He wanted to help SHIELD save the world, and he wanted to do it with his bow in his hand. It was as simple as that.

Phil paused with his chopsticks in the air and Clint readied himself for a fight. “Or I’ll tell Fury you were abusing your power over me when I wouldn’t put out.”

“No way is Fury going to believe you wouldn’t put out,” Natasha said, eating, calm as ever.

Phil took the bite he was holding, poked Natasha with the clean end of one of the chopsticks, and said, “I was actually going to ask if you were sure.”

“Oh.” Clint flushed. “You did kind of fire me.”

Phil gave him an exasperated look. “Because I wanted the best for you, not because I was thrilled at the idea of losing one of the most competent specialists SHIELD has ever managed to recruit.”

“Technically, I recruited him,” Natasha pointed out.

“Not killing someone is not the same as recruiting them,” Phil explained gently.

Natasha made a sound of disagreement and went back to eating. Clint steered them back on point with, “So, I can have my job back?”

Phil looked down at his plate. “Ah, well, technically, as Tasha would say, you might have only been suspended.”

“Technically,” Clint said, holding back a smile.

Phil shrugged, his cheeks pinkening. “Firing someone is a lot of paperwork, is all.”

“And my unemployment checks?” Clint asked.

“Paid suspension. Much less paperwork.” Phil was utterly, completely solemn.

And the hope that the person suspended would come back. Clint allowed the smile to cross his lips. “How much paperwork does it take to get a suspension lifted?”

Natasha and Phil shared a look. Phil said, “Couple of day’s worth, really.”

Clint’s smile widened into a grin. “Seems I have a couple of days free before I go back to work.”

Natasha said, “We’ll just have to schedule that time. Keep you off the streets.”

“Out of trouble,” Phil agreed. Clint trusted them to handle the details.


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