The first time Kate Bishop met Clint Barton (well, the first time as far as she knew; in their line of work these things weren’t always certain), he attacked her in the middle of a romantic carriage ride in Central Park to see how good her reflexes were. Kate had been kind of relieved, actually; given how the date had been going, the surprise ninja attack had actually made it less awkward.
This encounter set the tone between Kate and Clint for... a while.
Kate was a little wary of him at first—she'd always been a firm believer in never ever meeting your heroes, and their early encounters with Cap and Iron Man hadn't really done much to dissuade her—but she got over it. It was pretty obvious pretty quickly that Clint was just... a good guy. Not, like, Captain America shiny-beacon good (though he had his moments) but a more worn-in, everyday kind of virtue. Clint was the kind of guy that took people as they were, not based on their reputations or what other people said about them (which honestly probably explained why he and Tony Stark got along) but on his own observations and judgement. He was the kind of guy who noticed little things that people needed and unobtrusively helped them get them. He was the kind of guy that would help a person move, even if their building didn't have an elevator and it was raining that day. So yeah, Kate liked Clint, because even though she was a superhero now and friends with superheroes, she just plain didn't have enough of those kinds of guys in her life.
It also helped that she knew her father would hate him. Hey, she never claimed to be the mature one.
She hadn't been quite as certain why he liked her. On good days she'd been pretty sure that he just enjoyed hanging out with someone who could meet him as an equal on the field of sarcasm and would appreciate archery shop-talk. On bad days, she'd tended to think about the fact that lots of guys would be pretty happy to hang out with a rich, barely-legal girl who had, admittedly, maybe a lingering touch of hero-worship going on.
The first time he introduced her to one of the other Avengers—to the Black Widow!—with a casual and completely sincere "this is Kate, she's the best damn bowman I've ever seen," well. She'd been... really surprised at how much she apparently cared what he thought of her. Clint was the first person—definitely the first person who knew shit about the subject—who had ever complimented her archery skill without qualifying it. Best of her age, sure. Best woman; best female; sometimes, infuriatingly, she’s good for a girl; but never such a simple, unadorned statement. She even kind of loved that Clint insisted on calling her a "bowman," even though normally Kate was all about gender-neutral terminology.
She was a little intimidated by Natasha—okay, she was very intimidated by Natasha—but Natasha actually seemed to be going out of her way to be friendly, in her own Natasha-like-way. She offered to give Kate some hand-to-hand training, anyway, which Kate accepted like a shot, because... Black Widow. After Natasha had comprehensively kicked her ass every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for a couple of months, she started inviting her up for Avengers Pizza Night when they were done sometimes, which Kate suspected was pretty much like any other person braiding her hair and declaring that they were sisters.
What solidified it was one night in June, a few weeks after the giant clusterfuck that had killed her best friend. With Tommy and Eli both unavailable, Billy and Teddy were the only Young Avengers left besides Kate; even though they were mainly preoccupied with each other, being with them still helped a little. She had taken to spending a night every week or two eating Chinese takeout at the Kaplans’ and letting Billy’s mom fuss over her. (Billy’s mom did that a lot, and in certain moods Kate found it really comforting, even if it meant she felt duty-bound to go to Mrs. Kaplan’s PFLAG meetings with her in return).
They’d been halfway through their lo mein when Natasha had texted her to come to Clint’s place ASAP. She’d have gone anyway, because Natasha, but the summons was highly unusual and Kate was both cautious and worried.
When she got there, Clint and Natasha were on the couch, surrounded by liquor bottles in various stages of emptiness and a lonely-looking and untouched carton of OJ. Clint was lying with his head in Natasha’s lap and his legs hanging over the arm of the couch, holding a bottle of tequila by the neck.
“Kate!” he greeted her loudly. “Katie-Kate-Kate-Katie-Kate. Join us!”
She dragged over a footstool and perched in front of the couch. “Soooo,” she said. “I see today’s episode has been brought to us by the letters tequila and the number lots.”
“Nat’s having vodka,” Clint pointed out helpfully. “She’s Russian.”
Natasha lifted a tumbler of clear liquid vaguely in Kate’s direction.
“We’re drinking today,” Clint said. “You should have a drink! Or, wait. Nat, can she have a drink? Only she’s like twelve.”
“I’m nineteen,” Kate said bitterly, wondering if Natasha had just called her over here to drunk-sit all night. “And my best friend just died, so I can fucking well drink if I want to.”
“Makes sense,” Natasha said, draining half her tumbler in one go and handing the rest to Kate. Kate picked up the OJ and topped it up, because she was not Russian or, you know, Tony Stark. She raised the glass in their direction, which Natasha acknowledged with a nod and Clint by waving his tequila bottle vaguely in her direction.
“So,” Kate said, taking a healthy swig. “We’ve established why I’m drinking. What about you guys?” because there had to be something going on; this was not normal.
“Same reason,” Natasha said. “Different friend.”
“Phil’s dead,” Clint interrupted. “Phil’s dead, and so we’re drinking.”
Kate wanted to ask who Phil was, but it seems like that would be kind of a shitty thing to ask, so she raised her glass again and took another belt of her insanely strong screwdriver.
“Agent Phil Coulson,” Natasha explained. “Loki killed him,” and at least Kate didn’t need to ask about Loki. That battle, at least, had been hard to miss. “He was our handler for SHIELD.”
“He was fucking more than that,” Clint said sharply.
“He was,” Natasha agreed.
“He vass... my boyfriend,” Clint declaimed, in a silly accent like Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein, and he cracked up laughing, only it turned into something more like sobs. It was the worst fucking noise Kate had ever heard him make, and she had personally witnessed him get shot. She pretended not to notice, because Clint had the arm that wasn’t holding the tequila bottle slung over his face and his chest was heaving. Natasha put her free hand in Clint’s hair, just barely stroking with her fingertips; she looked brittle, her eyes too bright and hard. Something under Kate’s breastbone burned. In sympathy, yes, but also a terrible sort of jealousy, because Billy and Teddy were at home taking care of each other, and Tommy fucked off God knows where, and Eli just left them, and they were all looking to Kate to hold the group together but there was nobody left to help her hold herself.
But maybe, she thought, that was why Natasha had asked her to come. Maybe there was room for her here; maybe the three of them could help each other hold on.
“To Phil, then,” she said, forcing down the lump in her throat and raising her terrible drink again. “Phil and Cassie.”
That was the day Clint (and Natasha) basically got promoted to family.
She figured Clint knew it, too, because pretty soon after that, on one of their periodic afternoons playing on the totally sweet custom range that Tony Stark had installed on Clint's floor of Avengers Tower, he tossed her a key and told JARVIS to add her to the approved total-access list for the floor.
"You may need to practice some time when I'm on an op," he said, shrugging at her. "There's a bunch of empty rooms if you want to leave some gear."
His voice was nonchalant but his shoulders were tense. Kate just pocketed the key. "Sweet. Thanks, boss," she said. "It'll be nice to have range access on this side of town."
When he'd taken the lease in Bed-Stuy, he'd tossed her the key as a matter of course. It was on a keychain with his face on it.
"I take it your undercover days have come to a close, now that you have an action figure," she said, adding the key to her ring without comment.
"I've got plenty to keep me busy," he said. "I try to keep it quiet around the neighborhood, though. You know how it is."
She did, too. It was strangely nice around Clint's building; the neighbors all minded their business when she and Clint came and went at odd hours and carrying weapons, and Grills made a mean slaw dog. The people in the building liked Clint, and they liked Kate, and they didn't give a fuck about Hawkeye, or Hawkeye, or even socialite Kate Bishop, heiress to the Bishop publishing empire.
Not giving a fuck was a really sterling quality that people in general just did not have enough of, in Kate's opinion, so she started hanging out at Clint's place more and more. If anything, she could make sure that he and Lucky ate something besides pizza every once in a while, and if it meant she got more chances to save Clint's ass (and, okay, sometimes for him to save hers), well, she was fine with that.
She told her family she had an internship, which was actually true if you looked at it the right way. Kate was a master at looking at things the right way.
She was headed over there on a mission of mercy (“Katie-Kate, you gotta do me a solid, I'm stuck on the helicarrier in quarantine for sentient slime mold exposure and I need you to go walk Lucky,”) when she realized that there were lights on in Clint's apartment that shouldn't be.
What she probably should have done was call Natasha and try to clear the building in case of a bomb or world-ending dimensional portal.
What she actually did was put her grocery bags down as quietly as possible in the hall, get Clint's emergency backup bow and quiver out of the safe in the janitor's closet, and slip up to the roof and down the fire escape to scope out the situation. Which, okay, might sound like incredibly foolhardy behavior, except for how she and Clint had spent most of one (extremely entertaining) weekend around New Year prepping the place for the surely inevitable tracksuit-and/or-evil-circus incursion, and there was a better-than-even chance she'd look through the window and see a pile of incapacitated criminals sleeping off a tranq.
Clint's apartment was the only one on the top floor, and there were fire escapes on either side of the building; you could get to one from the living room and one from Clint's bedroom. Kate went to the bedroom window first, sidling up to the frame to get a peek. The room was empty, and looked undisturbed—or, rather, it looked the same as it usually did when Clint had left in a hurry, with clothes and bits of equipment scattered around and a half-empty bag of Cheetos on the bedside table. Kate curled her thumb under the sill until she found the hidden depression, then pushed and held it in until it pulsed, signaling that the fingerprint lock had opened.
She pushed the window open soundlessly and stepped through, closing but not locking it behind her and ducking down behind the bed in case of patrolling goons. It was quiet in the apartment; she couldn't hear any conversations or footsteps or muffled curses or drugged snores, which could either be a very good sign or a very bad one. She could see most of the hall reflected in Clint's mirror, and it seemed empty too. She didn't see any sign of Lucky, but she was trying not to think about that too much.
Moving quiet and low, she skirted the wall until she could see out the door; the hall was definitely clear, and the other rooms’ open doors showed them to be equally deserted. Whatever or whoever she was going to find, it was going to be in the big open plan living room/kitchen that took up half the apartment. She took a deep breath and wrinkled her nose; she could smell coffee, which wasn't that unusual at Clint's place, but this coffee smelled fresh.
It took a special kind of crazy to break into a superhero's apartment and make yourself a pot of his coffee, and a special kind of skill to avoid the various booby traps that said superhero had installed in his apartment after consultation with a technical genius and a super-spy. Kate kind of wished that she'd called Natasha after all, or at least texted Billy and Teddy to fly over and provide backup, but it was too late for that now. If Mysterious Goons were making coffee, it stood to reason they'd be near the coffee machine, at the far end of the room opposite the main door, and wouldn't have good line of sight into the hall.
Arrow nocked, she crept down the hall, then froze when she came within eyeshot of the kitchen counter. Mysterious Goons was, apparently, just one guy; a white guy, average height, brown hair, nice suit, sitting on one of the barstools with his back to Kate, leaning over what she would hazard a guess was a cup of coffee. Lucky was at his bowl, eating something, and her stomach lurched.
Two strides and she was in the room, arrow drawn and aimed square at Mysterious Suit's throat. "Freeze," she ordered, and she saw him tense up all at once, his somewhat slumped posture hardening, eyes flicking up to look at her reflection in the microwave door. "Anything moves but your mouth, and I shoot a hole in it," she spat. "What did you give the dog?"
He remained obediently still, but she thought she saw him relax a little. "Just dog food," he said, and fuck, he even sounded like a suit. He reminded her of nothing more than one of her dad's lawyers or accountants. "I found it in the cabinet. He seemed hungry."
She didn't relax. Just because she didn't know of any supervillain accountants didn't mean there weren't any. She whistled, sharply, and Lucky perked up and shuffled over to her, limping on his trick leg but not looking any worse than usual, his tail wagging gently.
"Hands behind your head, then stand up and turn around," she ordered the Suit. "Slowly."
He obeyed, though she saw him flinch as he raised his arms above shoulder level, and he definitely had some sort of tremor on the left side. Something was hinky; what kind of criminal syndicate sent their... injured? disabled? accountant/lawyer to break into an Avenger's apartment?
"I assure you, I'm not here for any nefarious purposes," the Suit said.
"I'd find that easier to believe if you hadn't broken in," Kate said. "So who sent you, the tracksuit Russians or the Eurotrash circus freaks?"
"Neither," he said. "I'm with SHIELD; I just came by to speak with Agent Barton."
"Bullshit," Kate said. "If you were SHIELD, you could talk to him at work."
"I'm... on a leave of absence," the Suit said. "I don't currently have access to those channels. Now, if you don't mind, Ms. Bishop—"
"How do you know my name?" Kate demanded, feeling cold. "Who the fuck are you?"
"I'm with SHIELD, as I said. My name is Agent Coulson, and—"
"Wait," Kate said flatly. "Coulson? As in, Phillip J. Coulson?"
The Suit blinked. "Yes."
"As in, the Phillip J. Coulson Memorial Garden? The Coulson Trauma Center? The Agent Coulson Scholarship For Excellence in Menswear Design? The Maria Stark Foundation Coulson Award? The Phillip Coulson Principal Cello Chair at the Oregon Symphony?"
The Suit actually looked a little green. "What—how—"
"Stark was upset, you fucker," she said. "Oh, and how could I forget the annual Phil Coulson Deathiversary Barton/Romanov Binge Drinking Olympics, because that one's my absolute favorite."
It was, of course, at that moment that Clint kicked the door in.
She watched out of the corner of her eyes, not letting her focus or arrow leave the Suit (It couldn’t possibly be Clint’s Phil, not really, but then what was it, every other option she could think of was worse) as Clint came in fast, low and peeling to the left (where the slamming door would have disabled any lurking goons), and he was upright with his back to the wall, two arrows drawn and ready to fire, in less time than even Kate would have expected.
“Kate?” he asked sharply, over Lucky’s freaked-out barking.
“We’re fine,” she said. “One intruder, no damage so far, but...”
“Bravo charlie four alpha tango one six bravo eight four victor niner two three hotel oscar three delta one lima,” the Suit interrupted, turning to fully face Clint, stance squaring up, arms held out from his body, voice gone low and firm, and suddenly he looked a lot less like someone’s accountant and a lot more like someone they would need backup to handle. Kate found herself hoping, hypocritically, that Clint had called in the cavalry before kicking in the door.
“Don’t move—” she started, then she nearly flinched, feeling the whoosh of air past her head and hearing the twang of Clint’s bowstring, and then holy fucking shit, the Suit was bent backwards over the kitchen island with an arrow shot through each of his jacket sleeves and buried in the butcher-block countertop, and Clint was looming over him with a knife to his throat, in between the Suit and Kate’s drawn arrow and not even seeming to notice.
Even Lucky fell silent.
“What. The fuck. Are you doing here,” Clint spat. “I don’t care what you are, LMD, plastic surgery doppelgänger, IMF bio-mask, but I told Fury, I told him, that my one condition for remaining with SHIELD was that I would never have to work with anything wearing my friend like a fucking suit. So you have about five seconds to convince me why I shouldn’t consider you an imminent threat to world security and act accordingly.”
For about three seconds, there was no sound in the room but harsh breathing and the almost inaudible creak of Kate’s bow under tension. She stepped forward, keeping to one side, where she could see them both, so she could keep them in sight and have a shot if she needed it, but also just desperately needing to see what happened, because she had never seen Clint anything like this before.
Then the Suit started talking, soft and fast, and things got worse.
“I can never decide between chocolate donuts and powdered sugar, so you always bring me one of each. Natasha shot you through the left calf in Budapest to take out an enemy agent. It was absolutely the right thing to do but she had to talk you into filing the friendly fire report because you were worried we’d think she was compromised. For my birthday in 2007 you bought me the last Captain America card I needed for my collection from an antique store in Billings, Montana. You always enter a sniper nest right foot first because in the circus it’s bad luck to enter the ring with your left. We got pinned in a ravine by HYDRA soldiers in Peru in 2011. You’d been shot and I’d broken my ankle. I used my tie to make a tourniquet for you and told you that you’d have to make it up to me, because it was my favorite tie. You said you’d take me out to dinner and then passed out from blood loss. We started dating the week after we got out of medical and Natasha won four hundred and twenty-six dollars in the pool that we were both pretending we didn’t know about. The last time we ever spoke privately was in the break room two floors up from Dr. Selvig’s lab. You knew I was coming and got there ahead of me; you met me with a cup of coffee, black, one sugar. You—” his voice caught on something and he cleared his throat, swallowed, his eyes never leaving Clint’s set face. “You kissed me while my hands were full. I said you were hopelessly insubordinate and you winked at me and asked if I was going to punish you later.” He took a deep, shuddery breath. “That was the day Loki came.”
Clint had gone rigid; Kate could see the knife blade trembling slightly from the tension of his grip. “What color was it?” he demanded.
“The tie. What color was the tie?”
“Purple. The same color as your old decoy uniform. You bought it for me as a gag gift the first Christmas we worked together.”
Clint stood, stepped back, and then he was stumbling backwards and he had dropped his bow.
“Clint?” she said, and her voice was higher than she had wanted, tight and small and scared, and her arm was starting to shake from holding the draw.
“Katie,” he whispered, “Katie, let—let him up.”
“Are you sure?”
“Katie, it’s him. Just, just let him up for me, please? I’m just—I need to sit down.”
“Okay, boss,” she whispered, and she let her arms relax, her shoulders burning as she put the arrow back in its quiver, slung her bow back in its place. She crossed the rest of the way to the counter and bent to inspect the arrows pinning the Su—Coulson down.
“Easiest way is to cut the jacket,” she murmured, watching out of the corner of her eye as Clint stumbled to the couch, lifting Lucky up beside him and burying his face in the dog’s fur while Lucky whined and tried to squirm around to lick his face.
“Do it,” said Coulson, so she drew her smallest knife and set to work, slicing neatly through the cloth and pulling his arms free. He worked the right one loose himself, but winced when he tried to move the left, so she grasped his forearm and helped ease him around the arrows and upright. He looked sore but didn’t seem to be bleeding, so her sympathy kind of ended there. He was staring at Clint, and his face was so open and ragged that Kate wondered how she’d ever found him bland-looking, but it didn’t matter, because Clint was curled up on the sofa like he’d taken a body blow and it was all Coulson’s fault.
“You bastard,” she hissed at him under her breath, cutting her eyes in Clint’s direction. “Fix this.”
He looked at her, sharply, and nodded, then he crossed the room in three big strides and folded himself down awkwardly onto his knees in front of the couch.
“Eighteen months,” Clint said, lifting his head to meet Coulson’s eyes. “Eighteen fucking months, Phil.”
"Clint," said Coulson, and he sounded absolutely wrecked. Kate was exactly the kind of person to feel glad about that. "Clint, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I couldn't—the Director invoked Clause 19."
"Don't give me that bullshit, there is no fucking Clause 19."
"Not below Level Seven," Coulson said, and he sounded desperate now, almost babbling, and even having met him so recently and under such unusual circumstances Kate could tell it was strange. “And not often even then, but the clause is in all the contracts, and Fury invoked it when I coded on the helicarrier, he thought they might be able to use something from Captain Rogers’ experience to make the thaw process more viable.”
“So he just, what, stuck you in a freezer for a year until he could be assed to pull you out again?”
“As I understand it, there was a lengthy experimental low-temperature tissue regeneration process involved,” Coulson said. “I’ve only been conscious for about a week, Clint, I came as soon as I could get out of medical, and I know—I know things are different now, I don’t expect you to do anything, but I had to tell you, Clint, I had to make sure you knew—”
“You are a fucking idiot,” Clint said roughly, scooping Lucky out of his lap and sliding down onto his knees on the floor, arms wrapping around Coulson tight, so tight she heard Coulson gasp a little, and Coulson fisted his hands in Clint’s hoodie and held him right back.
It made Kate’s chest ache, and she felt like she probably shouldn’t be watching, so she went back out in the hall and got the groceries and stuck them on the counter. They were still on the floor, foreheads touching. Clint looked like he was afraid to blink lest he’d discover Coulson had vanished while his eyes were closed.
“Kate,” he said softly. “This is Phil Coulson.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I kind of figured. So, um, I’ve heard a lot about you,” she offered weakly. “Sorry for threatening to shoot you all those times. Although, to be fair, you did break in.”
Coulson grinned at her, eyes crinkling and kind, and suddenly she kind of got what Clint saw in the guy. “I’d expect nothing less, Ms. Bishop,” he said. “I’m glad to see that Clint has had someone like you backing him up.”
“Us Hawkeyes gotta stick together,” Kate said.
“Damn straight,” Clint added.
“You should probably tell Natasha, though,” she said. “She’ll be pissed if she hears it from someone else.”
“True,” Coulson said. “We’ll take care of it.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Clint added, and looked at Coulson like he was a supermodel or something. Like he wanted to eat him alive.
Like he loves him, and he just got him back against all odds and possibilities.
"Well on that frankly disturbing note, I think it’s time I split,” Kate said, and looked Clint square in the eye. “Take care, Hawkeye."
He grinned at her, wide and sweet and sunny, and she let herself hope that maybe this time things were going to go okay for him for a while. "You too, Hawkeye."
She slid her sunglasses on, the better to glare over them at Coulson. No need to let him off too easy, he still had penance to do as far as she was concerned. "I've got my eye on you, Suit," she said, and Clint rolled his eyes at her, but Coulson nodded gravely.
"I appreciate that, Ms. Bishop," he said, and the damnedest thing was, Kate was pretty sure he meant it.