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And If You Should Fall

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“Are you nervous?” Melinda May asks, appearing behind Clint and making him drop his book on his face.

“Weren’t you talking secrets in the bedroom?” he asks, removing the book with dignity and tipping his head back over the arm of the couch to look at her.

In jeans and a sweatshirt, she’s slightly less intimidating than the first time he met her, when she was a scary, black-clad SHIELD Agent, but only slightly.

She shrugs one shoulder. “Are you nervous?” she repeats.

“Nah.” Clint sits up and grins at her. “It’s only school, right? What’s to be nervous about?” He even copies her shrug thing, hoping she’ll believe him, hoping she doesn’t know how much of a foreign concept only school is to him.

“It’s SHIELD Academy,” she says. “That’s a little bigger than school.”

“Stop scaring him; it’ll be fine,” Phil says, walking down the tiny stretch of hallway from his and Clint’s bedroom, wiping grease off his hands on an old towel. Clint doesn’t know what Phil and Melinda brought home from SHIELD Central that he wasn’t allowed to see, but he bets it was cool.

“I’m not scared,” Clint lies. “It’s fine. They wouldn’t have let me in if they didn’t think I was cut out for it.”

It’s what he’s been telling himself since his place at SHIELD’s Operations division was confirmed, but he still can’t help that his voice rises on the end, hoping Phil will agree with him.

Because Phil’s awesome, he agrees immediately. “You’ll be top of all your classes,” he says and gives Melinda a very stern look.

“You’ll be the next Peggy Carter,” Melinda agrees flatly, then reaches over and ruffles Clint’s hair. Clint wishes she wouldn’t do that; he’s eighteen, not two. “Good luck.”

He smiles at her, since she might be a hair-ruffler, but she’s also good people. “Thanks.”

Phil sees her to the door in that super-polite, Phil way of his, then comes and sits next to Clint on the couch. Clint wants to tip over sideways and make loud, complaining noises into Phil’s lap until the nervous, gnawing feeling in his belly goes away. But he’s trying hard to be less of a needy mess these days, so he can’t do that.

“It’s okay to be nervous, you know,” Phil says, putting his socked feet up on the table and leaning back into the couch cushions. He looks tired; he always looks tired, which is one of the reasons why Clint decided to join SHIELD. Phil’s never going to quit, so Clint’s going to help.

“I’m not nervous; don’t be dumb,” Clint says. Phil’s tablet beeps, so Clint picks up his book and stares hard at the page, pretending like his heart isn’t hammering too hard to let him read it.

Phil shifts on the sofa, until his shoulder is pressed up against Clint’s. Clint looks at him sideways, suspicious, but Phil keeps his eyes on his tablet, scrolling down the page like he’s oblivious to everything else.

“You’re not subtle,” Clint mumbles.

“Yes, I am, that’s literally my job,” Phil says, and presses against him just a little harder.

***

Clint makes himself go to bed early, then lies awake staring at the ceiling anyway, until Phil finishes his reports and comes to bed.

“I thought Lucky was in here,” Phil says, when he sees that Clint’s awake and alone.

“Yeah, I think he went to sleep in the bathtub,” Clint says. He doesn’t say that it was his tossing and turning that drove Lucky there, but it’s probably not hard to figure that out.

“Hmm,” Phil says, and grabs clean boxers out of the dresser before heading to the bathroom. He leaves the door open while he pisses and brushes his teeth, and Clint can hear him talking softly to Lucky, though he can’t make out the words.

“Good chat?” he asks when Phil comes back, dressed for bed and already yawning.

“Just having a heart-to-heart,” Phil says, smiling at him. “He’s worried about the value of equities in emerging markets, so we discussed that for a while.”

“Obviously.” Clint rolls onto his side and watches Phil get into bed. He doesn’t know why, but even after more than a year together, little things like that give him a ridiculous amount of joy.

Once he’s in bed, Phil reaches out and turns off his bedside lamp, plunging them into darkness. Clint’s eyes never take the amount of time to adjust to the dark that apparently everyone else’s do, so he can easily see when Phil holds out an arm to him.

“I’m fine,” Clint says, but slides under Phil’s arm anyway, pressing his face half into Phil’s armpit.

Clint hasn’t grown much taller in the time they’ve known each other, just enough that they’re almost exactly the same height now, but he’s bulked up: gotten wider than Phil in the chest and arms. But he really likes it when Phil holds him like he’s still underfed and scrawny, and he’s not even a little ashamed of that.

“Nick says if it all goes wrong, drop his name and see what happens,” Phil says into Clint’s hair.

Clint snorts. “Right. That’ll make everyone love me.”

“Everyone will love you, anyway,” Phil says, of course. He always says shit like that.

“Terrible line,” Clint says, turning his face up for a kiss. “Lines don’t work on me.”

“No?” Phil asks against Clint’s mouth, hand curling around Clint’s waist and pulling him up a little so the angle’s easier.

Clint shakes his head, but doesn’t stop kissing long enough to answer. They don’t have sex every night, anymore, but Clint really wants something tonight. He squirms around until they’re chest to chest, and slides his hand down into Phil’s boxers.

Phil’s cock is soft and warm under Clint’s palm, but Clint doesn’t mind that; he likes getting Phil hard.

“Aren’t you tired?” Phil asks. He’s smiling against Clint’s mouth as he says it, which is one of Clint’s favourite feelings ever.

“Shh, that’s not what you say when a guy has his hand on your junk,” Clint tells him. He guides Phil’s boxers down over his hips and off, and gets a better grip on Phil’s dick, rubbing the base with his thumb until Phil sighs and drops his legs open, dick filling as Clint watches.

A guy?” Phil asks. He settles his hands on Clint’s ass, squeezing and stroking over the thin layer of Clint’s sleep pants.

Clint leans down and kisses him. “Yeah, just some guy.” Your guy, he thinks. He doesn’t know why he doesn’t say it. He could have; they’ve both said stupider things to each other, but he’s embarrassed suddenly, so in love that he sometimes doesn’t know where to put it all.

“Come here,” Phil says, and pushes Clint’s ass until Clint slips into the open V of Phil’s legs. They rock together lazily, Phil’s cock bare and Clint’s still covered, and kiss even slower still. Phil wraps his arms around Clint’s back, holding them together, his knees tight against Clint’s sides.

From the bathroom, Clint hears Lucky knock something over then bark at it, and he has to break the kiss to laugh against Phil’s cheek.

“Your dog’s destroying my bathroom,” Phil grumps. He doesn’t stop humping up against Clint’s crotch though, so Clint doesn’t think he really minds.

“Our dog,” Clint says, then feels kind of weird talking about dogs - even awesome dogs like Lucky - when they’re having sex.

“Yes, of course.” Phil kisses him on the corner of the mouth, finally sounding serious. “Our dog.”

Clint knew what he meant, but he can also admit that he gets kind of emo and tragic about belonging sometimes, so he doesn’t blame Phil for clarifying.

“Less talking, more sexing,” Clint says, then kisses Phil before he can complain that Clint’s the one who was talking.

Clint always talks during sex. Sex is the best thing ever because it involves orgasms and Phil’s undivided attention, so hell yeah, Clint will talk the whole way through it, every time.

“I want to blow you,” he says. He pushes up onto his hands, ready to go down. Phil loves getting his dick sucked and Clint loves sucking it, so he’s not expecting a protest.

“No, wait,” Phil says, shocking the hell out of Clint. He catches Clint under his arms, keeping him up within kissing distance. “I’d like hold onto you, tonight.”

Well, Clint likes the sound of that, too. He needs to stockpile all the Phil touches he can get, before he goes to the SHIELD Academy. “Yeah, okay,” he says. “What’ve you got in mind?”

“Like this,” Phil says, hands careful on Clint the way they always are as he gets Clint naked. He guides Clint over onto his side and then twists himself around, so he’s mirroring Clint like a comma.

“Oh, wow,” Clint says, reaching down so he can touch Phil’s hair, rub his thumb across the place where his hairline’s just starting to recede. “Are we doing a sixty-nine? Phil Coulson, I am shocked.”

“Too shocked?” Phil asks. He doesn’t sound like he’s worried, but Clint knows that he just has to say the word and they’ll find something else to do.

“Just the right level of shocked,” he promises. He crawls across the bed until he can lay his head on Phil’s thigh, curl his hand around Phil’s cock, and angle it toward his mouth.

Down between Clint’s legs, Phil’s doing the same thing, and hey, this was a really good idea, because Clint gets a dick in his mouth, his dick in Phil’s mouth, and they’re still pressed together all down their chests and bellies.

“You’re kind of a genius,” Clint says, around Phil’s dick.

Because Phil’s Phil, he still understands him. Also because Phil’s Phil, he has enough manners to pull off before he answers. “Did you ever doubt it?”

Clint laughs, almost choking himself on cock. “Nope,” he says, letting the P sound buzz all the way down Phil’s dick.

“Christ,” Phil groans. He slides his hands into Clint’s hair, which they’ve both learned he really likes, and slowly rolls his dick out of Clint’s mouth, before pushing carefully back in.

Clint sucks and works his tongue in time with Phil’s lead, trying to move his own hips in time. He’s got great rhythm, actually, but it’s hard to remember that when he’s surrounded everywhere by Phil.

He tries to focus on making it good for Phil, too, sucking the base of his cock and his balls, scratching blunt nails over his asscheeks, all the things that he knows Phil likes best. But Phil is being fucking merciless, doing all the things Clint likes in return, and if it’s going to be a competition between their staminas, Clint’s never going to win.

He pulls back and presses his face into Phil’s thigh, gasping. “Shit, shit, Phil, I’m seriously going to come in a second.”

“Mmhm,” Phil hums. He tugs on Clint’s hair, tipping his face back so he has no hope of doing more than sticking his tongue out to lap at the head of Phil’s cock. Since he has (slightly) more dignity than that, he settles for wrapping his hand around Phil and then doing a lot of moaning.

He doesn’t come in a second but that’s about all he can really say for himself. He manages to last a full sixty seconds, and then he can’t hold back any longer. Phil swallows around him, even after he’s finished coming, until Clint flails one hand down to push weakly at his head.

“I know I came too fast, but you don’t gotta suck it all the way off,” he mumbles, rolling his head across Phil’s thigh and mouthing sleepily at Phil’s balls.

Phil sits up slowly, so Clint doesn’t get jostled around too much, and slides out from under him.

“No, wait,” Clint says, making grabby hands. “I want to blow you, remember? That’s how this whole thing started.”

“I know,” Phil says placidly. How someone can be placid while their dick is hard and red and shiny, Clint does not know. He’s hoping to learn that awesome trick at SHIELD, along with whatever else they want to teach him.

Phil leans over Clint and puts his hands on his shoulders. “Lie on your back for me?” he asks.

Clint does as he’s asked, rolling onto his back and watching as Phil straddles him, then kneewalks slowly up the length of Clint’s torso.

Clint’s smile starts to grow and grow, once he realises what’s going on. “Are you finally going to fuck my face?” he asks, reaching out eagerly. He’s been asking Phil for that for months and months, but Phil’s had a strict Not Until You’re Eighteen rule for their bedroom since day one.

“Is that okay?” Phil asks. He’s got to feel the way Clint’s tugging on his hips, all eagerness and complete lack of grace, but Clint doesn’t point that out, he just says, “Yes, yes, so very okay.”

It’s clear Phil’s a little too turned on for really serious negotiation, so he lets himself be tugged and pulled until he’s sitting over Clint’s chest.

“There you go,” Clint croons softly, straining forward to get his mouth back on Phil’s dick. It’s been minutes, okay, that’s too long.

“Sometimes I think I should leave the two of you alone,” Phil says. He ruins his own sarcasm by groaning at the press of Clint’s tongue against the head.

Clint arches his eyebrows. “Well, that’d be kind of weird,” he says.

Phil laughs and lifts up onto his knees at the same time, so he’s still laughing softly, when he eases the head of his dick past Clint’s lips.

Clint sucks eagerly, not really worried about making a mess, because he’s always had lots of enthusiasm and not a lot of patience, and Phil hasn’t complained yet.

“God, you look good,” Phil tells him. He’s watching everything Clint does, eyes burning hot, and usually it would be too much, but Clint keeps his eyes open, watching Phil watch him.

It’s easier than Clint thought it would be to breathe and suck all at the same time, even while lying on his back. He could definitely stand to take a little more, so he pokes Phil in the back once, then twice, then a little harder, until Phil starts thrusting.

The head of Phil's cock hits the back of Clint’s throat and Phil immediately stops thrusting, but Clint loved that, Clint wants that some more, and digs his fingers into Phil’s back until Phil starts again.

“I don’t want to choke you,” Phil says. He sounds breathless and on-edge but also totally serious.

Clint leans back, until Phil gets the message and pulls out. Clint has to swallow twice to speak, which he really likes. “The point is to choke me. I wanna feel you every time I swallow. I wanna be that kid at the Academy who can’t talk right because his boyfriend fucked his throat too hard.”

Phil makes a sound between a laugh and a groan. “I don’t really think you do,” he says, and, “If you’re sure?”

He doesn’t hold back this time, and Clint gets to swallow and swallow around his dick, choking a little, but mostly keeping up pretty well. It’s that part that’s the hottest, having to fight not to choke and knowing he’s working hard to make Phil feel good. And apparently Phil really does feel good, from the noises that he’s making and the pre-come coating Clint’s tongue.

Clint lifts up from the bed and holds Phil tight, getting Phil as deep as he can, then swallowing hard. Phil finally shudders and comes, holding himself up on shaking hands as best he can until he’s done.

Clint slides out from under him after licking him clean, and rolls to the side. Clearly that was all Phil was waiting for, because his arms buckle and he slumps against Clint, making soft, happy groans.

“See,” Clint says, petting his hair. “Should have let me do that ages ago.” His voice sounds great, like he’s been living in a pack of cigarettes.

“I was trying to be a gentleman,” Phil says. He kisses lazily at Clint’s shoulder. “But you were right.”

Clint beams smugly, even though Phil isn’t looking. “I’m always right.”

“Yes, dear,” Phil says, and just laughs when Clint smacks him.

***

Clint wakes up with his arm fallen asleep under Phil’s back and his feet fallen asleep under Lucky’s warm, furry body. This is par for the course these days; it’s going to be weird sleeping alone at the Academy during the week.

Hell, scratch that, it’s going to be terrible. But he only has to suffer through it for however long it takes him to pass all his classes, and then he’ll get to move back here permanently, stay with Phil and Lucky forever, and be a qualified SHIELD Agent. It’s worth it, even if it’s scary.

Under the comforter, Lucky shifts around, soft fur tickling Clint’s calves. He has no idea how Lucky can be comfortable under the weight of all the blankets Phil prefers, but it’s his favourite place to sleep.

Careful not to dislodge anyone, Clint half sits up and sticks a hand down by his knees. He gets a lick across the back of his hand and he grins, flopping back onto his pillow.

“Mph,” Phil mumbles, shifting closer.

“Hey,” Clint says, then wipes his hand on Phil’s cheek. “Dog drool for you.”

Phil cracks one eye open and glares. “Thanks,” he says, flatly.

Clint laughs and kisses the frowny lines around Phil’s eye. “Happy Getting The Apartment To Yourself Day.”

Phil frowns a little more, looking confused, then both eyes widen. “Oh,” he says. He pulls Clint close and hugs him. “That’s going to take some getting used to.”

“Don’t get too used to it,” Clint warns, mostly joking but also a little not.

Phil just squeezes him tighter. “Never,” he promises.

Clint’s chest warms, even if his heart has started pounding nervously. This is it, it’s today. He never thought it would really come, but today is SHIELD Day. He brings his arms around to hug Phil back. “Can we stay in bed a while longer?”

Phil kisses his temple (never his forehead, Clint reacts badly to anything that implies he’s a kid). “Definitely,” he says.

***

Usually, Clint’s in charge of breakfast, because Phil has the coordination of a mongoose before coffee, but this morning, Clint gets out the shower and finds their breakfast bar covered in food.

“What the fuck?” he asks, coming to a stop and letting his towel slide out of his hair to hang wetly over his elbow.

Phil looks up from where he’s trying to stop Lucky from stealing a slice of bacon. “Breakfast,” he says, making a tada! motion with his hands, like a dork.

Clint rolls his eyes. “Duh.” He drifts closer, hanging his towel over a radiator, and taking in the eggs, toast, pancakes, hashbrowns, two pots of coffee. “How? I was in the shower for ten minutes.” Phil raises his eyebrows, so Clint amends that to, “Okay, thirty minutes. Still.”

Last year, Clint spent months on the street with no access to warm water, in fact hardly any access to any water, so he really likes showering. He still wasn’t gone long enough for Phil to make all this and do the dishes.

Finally, Phil cracks a smile. “The pancakes are from Jessica and Luke,” he says. "Mrs Mason did the eggs, Mr Noyce brought the bread for the toast, the Hendersons gave us the bacon and the hashbrowns. It’s your going away breakfast; they all wanted to chip in.”

Clint swallows hard. “Seriously?” he asks. He scratches the side of his nose, overwhelmed and awkward. “They don’t even know where I’m going.”

Clint’s still acting as building super, so he had to tell the other tenants something about why he’s going to be away, but SHIELD doesn’t really like being mentioned to anyone, at all. Phil vetoed telling them Clint had defected to the KGB, experienced a temporary alien abduction, or been pressganged by pirates, so they’d settled on joining the police. From what Clint has heard about Ops, that wasn’t even that much of a lie.

“They’ll still miss you,” Phil says. Lucky takes the bacon straight out of his fingers, and he sighs. “Come eat before he gets it all.”

Clint slides onto his usual stool and pulls one of the coffee pots toward him. “This is awesome. Maybe I’ll lower their rent or something.”

“I don’t think that’s up to you,” Phil points out, handing Clint a mug so he doesn’t just drink coffee out of the pot. Usually, he sits opposite Clint, but this morning, he takes the seat next to him. Clint puts his feet up onto the bottom rung of Phil’s stool and, after a second, Phil does the same, so their legs are tangled.

They help themselves to food, passing off plates to each other without needing to discuss it. Lucky lays his head on Clint’s foot, whining softly. His one floppy ear and his one-eyed stare look particularly tragic, today.

When they first got him (in other words, when Phil stole him from the ambiguously Russian Mobsters, who used to run their building), his name and was Arrow. They’d stuck with that for a while, then they’d realised they’d stolen the most accident-prone dog in the world and they’d had to rename him.

“What?” Clint asks, but he’s already feeding Lucky bacon with his fingers as he asks it. He’s not very good at being strict with Lucky, but then neither is Phil.

“Did you remember to pick up your uniform from the cleaners?” Phil asks, suddenly.

Clint sticks his tongue out. “Yes, Mom.” Phil kicks him, so Clint kicks him back. “I still think it’s dumb that we have to wear a uniform; it’s school.”

“It’s a training academy,” Phil says. “The uniform helps make you all feel like part of the same thing, like a team.”

“Science Division doesn’t have to wear a uniform,” Clint grumbles. He could say that he’s no good at being part of a team, but Phil knows that. Plus he’ll say that they’re a team, and Clint’s feeling a little too fragile for that.

“No one wants Science to all work together,” Phil says with a fake shudder. “They’d take over the world in five minutes flat.”

Clint pokes at his eggs. “Sounds cool; can I go there?”

“Clint.” Phil lays a hand over Clint’s. If you’ve changed your mind, you don’t have to do this for me. Or for Nick.”

“I’m doing it,” Clint says. He smiles, big and only half-fake. “It’ll be great.”

“You’ll be great,” Phil says, which is when Clint has to climb off his stool and onto Phil’s, so he can kiss him.

***

“Sure you’ve got everything?” Phil asks for the fifth time. He’s standing on the sidewalk, watching Clint pile his shit into the back of a taxi, and he looks awkward, like he thinks there’s more he should be doing.

“I’ll be back Friday night,” Clint says, closing the trunk. “If I’ve forgotten anything, I’ll pick it up then.”

“You know you don’t have to come back so often, don’t you?” Phil says. That’s probably also for the fifth time. “Don’t get me wrong, I want you to, but if you find you’re having too much fun, please don’t feel like you have to.”

“Don’t be dumb,” Clint says. He sticks his hands in his pockets and rocks a little onto his toes. “‘Course I’m gonna come home on the weekends, that’s what we agreed, isn’t it? Besides, you commuted every day when you worked there.”

“That’s different,” Phil says, but he smiles like he knows he’s being ridiculous. He spent six months training recruits at SHIELD Ops before he started working at SHIELD HQ in NYC, and he wore himself out travelling home to Clint every day. For some reason, he wants Clint to experience living there, like he thinks Clint is a college Freshman who needs to make friends.

“Really isn’t,” Clint says. “We’re codependent motherfuckers and you’re just gonna have to get used to it.”

Phil’s lips twitch up, but he pretends to sigh. “Nick is such a bad influence on you,” he says.

The cab driver, who’s been hanging around pretty patiently until now, chooses that moment to lean on his horn. Clint jumps, then pretends he hasn’t. He catches Phil’s eye and laughs shakily. “Okay, I gotta go,” he says.

“I know.” Phil steps into his space quickly, catches him by the wrists, and kisses him. Clint melts into it, kissing back hard and fast, before they both step back, breaking it at the same time.

“Bye,” Clint says, pulling one hand out of his pocket to reach behind his back for the door handle.

“Bye,” Phil says. He looks as helpless as Clint feels, like there are a million things he wants to say, but he knows this isn’t really the time. The world isn’t ending; they’ll see each other in a week, even though this feels big, bigger than it really is, probably.

“Love you,” Clint says, then slides into the car.

The driver’s looking at him in the rearview mirror. “Breaking up?” she asks him.

The thought is so terrible that Clint actually feels nauseous for a second. “No,” he says, fast and appalled. He tries to tone it down; she’s only being nice. “Just going away for a while.”

She grunts, putting the car in gear. Clint twists around as they drive off, looking for Phil out the back window. He’s standing in their building’s doorway, hand raised to shield his eye from the sun.

Clint waves, worried that Phil won’t see him until it’s too late, but after a second, Phil drops his hand and waves back, hand raised until he’s out of sight.

***

SHIELD Academy is a big historic-looking building in upstate New York. It’s brown-brick, with an imposing clock tower at the end of one wing, and wide green fields of grass all around it. It smells weird: fresh and grassy and like nature. Clint was born in Iowa, he knows what nature smells like, but this is wetter and greener, unexpected.

Clint hefts his bags up to the front door, wonders about knocking, then tries giving the door a push. It swings open pretty easily, considering how old and heavy it looks, so Clint steps into the sunlight-dappled front hall and looks around. There’s a tall staircase in the centre of the hall, loud voices floating down the stairs.

Clint thinks about going up there, just to find a human, but he doesn’t want to fuck up before he’s even started, so he just stays where he is. Soon enough, boot heels click down the corridor and a woman Clint recognises rounds the corner.

“Mr Barton,” she says, holding out her hand to Clint. “Maria Hill.”

“Hi,” Clint says, dropping his bags and shaking her hand. “We’ve met.”

She nods, smiling very slightly. “We have,” she agrees. “I wasn’t sure if you’d remember.”

Clint wrinkles his nose, hoping he’s not blushing. He met Maria about a year ago, when she came to Phil’s apartment to recruit him to SHIELD. It was the morning after they’d first had sex and Clint’d been a little underdressed, a little sleep-deprived, and a little floating on air, at the time.

Maria doesn’t wait for him to answer, just turns around and starts walking toward the stairs. “You’re the last of your class to arrive, so I’ll take you up to your room and then you can get some dinner with the others.”

“Yeah, sorry about that, bus got stuck in traffic,” Clint mutters, rather than the truth, which is that he didn’t want to leave home until he absolutely had to. He hurries to catch up with her, without tripping over any of the trailing handles of his bags. “I didn’t know you worked here.”

“Only at intake,” she says. She takes the stairs two at a time, so Clint does the same. “Director Fury likes the field agents to rotate in with the Academy’s staff, from time to time.” She shoots him a sideways look. “Coulson will start doing the same thing, after you’ve passed through the Academy.”

“Right,” Clint says. He grips his bags tighter, looking left and right at the rooms that they’re passing. Most of them seem to be set up as class rooms, but every now and then, there are what look like common areas, full of plush chairs and Xboxes.

“Barton.” Maria stops him with a hand on his shoulder, just before they pass through another set of double doors. “Did you and Coulson discuss what you’re going to do?”

“Do?” Clint asks, then gets it. “Yeah, I’m gonna not mention him.” Phil and Nick have both been pretty adamant about that. Apparently having a level four agent in his back pocket might get him shit from the other recruits. Or something. Clint suspects that it’s partly the other way around, and that having a cadet for a boyfriend will do nothing for Phil’s cred.

“Good.” Maria nods. “That will make things easier. Allegations of favouritism won’t help you any, here.”

Clint snorts. “Favouritism,” he mutters. “Right.”

Maria smiles. “I didn’t say it was likely, just that that’s what some people might think.” She claps him on the arm. “Besides, it will do you good to stand on your own two feet.”

Clint follows her through the doors, frowning to himself. What does he think she did for the seventeen years before he met Phil? Hell, what does she think he still does? He wonders if she thinks he’s only here because Phil asked Nick for a favour, but he doesn’t want to hear the answer, so he doesn't ask.

The doors along this hallway are all closed, numbers nailed into the wood. She stops outside number six and slips a key into the lock. “This is you,” she says, pushing open the door and handing Clint the key.

It’s a smallish room, one bed along either side, and a closet behind the door. The bed by the window already has someone’s bags on it, so Clint drops his stuff onto the other bed, folding his arms across his chest and trying to look relaxed.

“Your roommate’s downstairs,” Maria says. “Do you want to unpack or do you want to eat?”

“Eat,” Clint decides. He’s not really the unpacking type. He’s barely the packing type; Phil has been exasperated with him all week.

“Good, I’m starving,” Maria says. “Come on, then.”

“Yeah.” Clint grabs his phone out of his bag and stuffs it in his back pocket, before following her to the door. “Wait, do I need to put on my kinky lycra suit thing?”

“Your field uniform?” Maria asks, raising two very unimpressed eyebrows at him, one after the other. “We’ll save that for tomorrow.”

It’s about then that Clint realises she’s wearing a field uniform, and he intensely regrets calling it kinky. She’s going to kill him.

When they reach the big, communal eating area in the basement, it looks more like a cafeteria than the sort of school dining room from the Harry Potter movies that Clint had been imagining.

“Line up here,” Maria says. “Tomorrow, you’ll get a food card but tonight you can eat whatever you want.”

“That’s a risky thing to say,” he warns her, but she just laughs.

“Get food, find someone to sit with,” she tells him. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Clint watches her turn to grab her own tray, and has to clamp his lips shut around the desire to call her back. “Don’t be needy, Barton,” he mutters to himself. He steels his shoulders, picks up a tray, and goes to check out the food.

There’s a lot of it, most of it the kind of heavy, hearty stuff you feed to people you’re trying to bulk up. Clint takes a plate of lasagna, a plate of chicken pot pie, and hesitates over the desserts before picking a big slice of apple pie. It’s Phil’s favourite; he probably ate it when he worked here.

Clint gets through the line and tightens his grip on his tray, looking out across the sea of loudly talking humans, and trying to figure out where to sit. He never went to high school, but he watched a lot of teen movies while trying to look like he was studying for his GED, so he knows how this goes.

There’s a space at the end of a long table just ahead of him, but someone else slides into it before Clint can reach it. He makes a face and wonders if it’s frowned upon to take his dinner up to his room.

Probably.

“Hey, new kid,” someone calls, and he turns around, hoping he’s the new kid in question. Clint’s bad at people, but he’s even worse at being forgotten.

A girl about his age is waving from a table to the left. There’s an empty space next to her and she points to it, raising her eyebrows.

Clint heads that way immediately, but almost stops again when someone else tries to sit there. The girl bares her teeth in a sharp smile and the other dude slinks off, so Clint sets down his tray next to her and sits down.

“Hi,” Clint says. “Thanks.”

She shrugs. “It’s okay, you looked like a lost little bear cub; I thought someone should do something.”

“I did not!” Clint protests. “I looked… cool and, um, manly?”

“Sure,” she says. She looks like she’s trying not to laugh. She holds out her hand and shakes Clint’s firmly. “Akela Amador.”

“Clint Barton,” he says. “How long you been here?”

“This is my second month,” Akela says. She points across the room at a group of guys and girls who are talking louder than everyone else. “That’s my intake group.”

“You don’t sit with them?” Clint asks. He picks up his fork and deliberates between plates for a minute, before starting with the pie.

She has at least as many plates as Clint, and she gets back to eating when he does. “Not every day. We train together, learn together, do everything together. Sometimes you need some space. You’ll see.”

“Yeah, okay,” Clint agrees. He’s sure he’ll need space, but doesn’t want to seem like too much of a loner, already. He looks around. “Who else is new?”

Akela looks too. “That kid over there with the moustache,” she says, pointing. “Heard he’s a legacy. The grumpy looking one in the corner.” She gives up after that, the room too crowded to really pick people out. “There’ll be about ten of you; SHIELD doesn’t usually take more than that at a time.”

Clint nods, because he knows that. Phil’s told him all about it and so has Nick. It’s different when you’re living it, though. “Cool. So like, what’s it like here?”

“It’s okay,” Akela says. “Hard work, but I like hard work, so I haven’t found it too tough. The outdoor classes are the best: orienteering, endurance, that kind of thing. You know the shit they teach Recon Marines? Holding your breath underwater and all that? We learn to do it better.”

“That’s really cool,” Clint says. He leans forward. “What else?”

***

Clint’s feeling pretty good about SHIELD Academy by the time he gets back to his room that evening. He’s not sure, but he might have made a friend in Akela.

He’s wondering if it’s okay to call Phil or if that’s just clingy, when he unlocks his door, and finds a dark haired guy sitting crosslegged on the bed by the window.

Right. Clint forgot he had a roommate.

“Hi,” he says, then takes in the pieces of the rifle this guy has spread out all around himself. “Whatcha doing?”

“Hi.” The guy jumps out of the pile of gun parts and holds out his hand to Clint. He’s got a wide, even smile and a bland, midwestern drawl. “You must be Barton.”

“Yeah,” Clint says. “And you’re - ?” Is he supposed to know this? Was there a welcome pack he missed?

“Grant Ward,” the guy says. “It’s good to meet you.”

“You too,” Clint says. He waves at the gun parts. “Starting early?”

Grant shrugs, giving an awkward little laugh, like he’s been caught doing something embarrassing. “No, this one’s mine. I’ve carried it with me for years.”

“Years, huh?” Clint asks, wondering how old Grant is. He desperately misses his bow. Nick promised he’d get a new one and soon, but Clint suddenly really wants the one he had to leave behind with the circus.

“A few,” Grant says. “Do you mind me doing it in here? I can stop.”

Clint waves at him to go on with what he’s doing. “No, you’re good. I gotta unpack, anyway.”

“Let me know if you need me to move any of my stuff,” Grant says, with another of those small, easy smiles. It’s possible Clint may have the perfect roommate: friendly, considerate, doesn’t want to chat; it’s like someone designed him for Clint.

Clint turns toward his own side of the room, unzipping his bag and unpacking half his underwear, a couple of t-shirts, his toiletry kit. He leaves enough stuff in his bag that he’d be able to make a quick getaway, if he had to, then goes to hang his field uniform in the closet.

Grant’s is already there, along with two pairs of jeans and some hiking boots. Either he packs light, or he has a go bag like Clint.

There’s nothing else to do after he’s finished, so he flings himself onto his bed. It’s way harder than he was expecting it to be and the mattress doesn’t so much spring under his weight as groan and then try to break his back.

Clint flails, chokes off a pained noise, and curses.

When he looks around, Grant has his head down, but the corner of his lip is curled up.

“You didn’t see that,” Clint tells him.

“See what?” Grant asks, without looking up.

Satisfied, Clint nods to himself. He reaches for his backpack and pulls it up onto his lap. Unzipping it, he pulls out the book he’s been reading - it’s one of Phil’s ever-growing collection of novelisations of Captain America’s life. They’re always terrible, but Phil always buys them. It’s becoming a tradition that, every time they find one in a thrift store, Clint reads it first so he can warn Phil exactly how many plot holes there are and how many times he’s going to want to throw it across the room.

He sticks his hand back into the bag, rooting around for his cell phone, but hits what feels like a plastic box. Frowning, Clint pulls it out and can’t hold back the sudden, startled laughter. It’s a box of something called Lemon Balm and Valerian Root tea, shrinkwrapped in plastic.

It sounds disgusting. Jessica must have given it to Phil; she’s always trying to find him a tea that’ll help him sleep. They’re always horrible. Phil and Clint always drink them.

When he goes for his phone, he finds Grant watching him curiously out the corner of his eye, but Clint doesn’t explain. It’s all a little too homey and personal to share with a stranger.

Thnxs for the tea, he sends to Phil.

Phil must have been waiting to hear from him, because he replies straight away. Jessica says it’s delicious…

Before Clint can reply, another text comes through.

Settled in? Lucky says he misses you.

Clint grins, ducking his head so Grant can’t see, if he’s still watching. Sure it’s just Lucky? he writes back.

Did I say *just* Lucky? Phil asks.

Clint tightens his hand around his phone, squeezing it. He’d been doing okay today, in the rush of getting settled in and everything being new and different, but now he misses Phil with a rush that’s so sudden, he has to take a minute to breathe.

He can’t think of anything else to say, he’s bad at this shit, so bad, so he ends up just sending Shut up.

He gets back You shut up and then Good night xxx.

“Girlfriend?” Grant asks, when Clint puts down his phone.

“Just a friend from home,” Clint lies, and hates that he’s lying.

“Where’s home?” Grant asks. He’s finished reassembling his rifle and he lays it and his cleaning brushes in a bag beside his bed.

“New York,” Clint says. “You?”

Grant shrugs. “Here and there,” he says. It’s kind of a crappy non-answer, but Clint doesn’t call him on it, since he would have given the same kind of answer until he left the circus and stopped travelling all over.

“Cool,” Clint says. “Wanna watch a movie?”

Grant looks for a second like he really doesn’t want to do that, so Clint’s surprised when he says. “Yes, okay. You pick.”

Now Clint feels bad; he doesn’t want to force the dude into doing something he doesn’t want to. But at the same time, he’s lonely, and Phil will be pleased if he manages to make two friends in one night.

“I was promised the TVs have Netflix,” he says, reaching for the remote. “Let’s see.”

Grant scoots back along his bed, sitting up against the wall at the head. “Promised by who?” he asks, eyes on the TV.

Clint thinks about telling him. “People,” he eventually settles on, because he can be mysterious, too.

***

Days start at five a.m. at SHIELD Academy, which is just inhuman. They don’t even let them have coffee first, just blast a fake-bugle sound through the sleeping quarters and ten seconds later start banging on doors.

“Oh my god,” Clint moans, pulling his pillow over his head. He squints sideways and finds that Grant is not only upright, he’s fucking dressed. Clint sits up. “Are you human?”

Grant just opens their closet and hands Clint his uniform. “I get up at sunrise,” he says.

“So no, you’re not human.” Clint stumbles out of bed, grabs his uniform, and waves Grant away. “Go downstairs then, you don’t need to wait for me.”

“I’ll wait,” Grant says, sitting down on the bed to retie his shoes.

Apparently a couple hours watching Blade Runner last night means that they’re friends, now. Cool.

Downstairs, the grounds are full of black-clad cadets, some of them already getting down on the ground for push-ups, as though they’ve been here before and know it’s coming.

Clint looks around for Akela and can’t see her, but he does spot the guy with the moustache who she pointed out, yesterday.

“Over here,” he says to Grant, and scoots around a couple of people to cross the grass. “Hey, there,” he says, when he reaches his target.

He gets a look up and down - not like the guy’s checking him out, but more like he’s assessing him for his fighting ability - and then a, “Hi.”

Clint introduces himself and Grant. “You’re new, too, right?”

“Yeah, Antoine Triplett,” he says, “Call me Trip,” and then there’s more handshaking. Clint has never shaken hands this much, before.

“Okay, everyone,” Maria Hill’s voice carries across the field. “Fifty push-ups and then we’ll get started.”

“Is she serious?” Clint asks the air. He doesn’t mean to ask the air, he means to ask Grant, but Grant has already dropped, so Clint’s just talking to space where his head used to be.

“I think she’s serious,” Trip says. He gives Clint a what can you do? look and folds himself down onto the ground.

With a sad, sad thought for his bed, Clint copies him.

***

By the end of the day, Clint is fucking exhausted, except it turns out not to be the end of the day, it turns out to be lunchtime. They eat their bodyweight in pretty excellent food, and then everyone gets split off into different classrooms.

Clint vaguely remembers being in school and falling asleep in the back of any class where he could get away with it, but that’s not the point of being here. He takes a seat at the front, next to Grant, and sits up, ready to pay attention.

The door opens and Melinda May comes in. Her eyes sweep across the room, land on Clint for a second, before continuing on to Grant.

Clint sits up even straighter. Melinda is super cool, but he’s pretty sure she’d garrotte him, if she thought he wasn’t paying attention in her class.

“I’m Agent May,” she says, folding her hands together. “This is SHIELD 101. Who can tell me when SHIELD was founded?”

Clint knows the answer, but he doesn’t put his hand up. Grant’s just watching Melinda cooly, head tipped slightly to one side, like he’s a robot trying to read her. Trip raises his hand, as does the blonde girl on Clint’s left.

“Yes,” Melinda asks, picking her out. “Tell me your name, Cadet, then your answer.”

“Sharon Carter,” she says. “And SHIELD was founded in 1947 as the successor to the Strategic Scientific Reserve.”

Clint grins down at his desk. He knew that; if he’d put his hand up, he would have gotten that right. It’s a cool feeling.

***

Tuesday starts with a rope course and ends with four hours learning how to disassemble and reassemble a whole cache of weapons. They get it down good enough that their instructor, Agent Blake, almost smiles. Then he starts issuing blindfolds and they have to do it all again.

***

Wednesday is a five mile run in gross, drizzly rain, and in the afternoon, an Agent Hand starts teaching them all about being a spy.

***

Thursday, they give Clint a bow. If anything else happens, he has no idea what it is.

***

After classes end on Friday, Clint gets a weekend pass and rides the bus all the way back to NYC. It takes a couple of hours, but that’s fine, he has homework to do, and he doesn’t actually want to do it at home.

Not letting the super nosy college boy sitting next to him see what he’s working on is tricky, but Clint’s training to be a spy; he’s got this.

“That’s some fucked up math, dude,” the guy says, somewhere just inside Brooklyn.

It’s calculations on the optimum use of his bow. He has extra homework, because he’s not just using a gun. He’s pretty sure it’s worth it. “Yup,” Clint says, even though it’s the first thing he’s found really easy this week.

“You at Cornell?” the guy asks next. He’s twisted in his seat, and he’s taken the earbuds out of his ears. Clint doesn’t know much about social interaction, but he knows that’s serious business.

“Yeah,” he lies. Why not? He could be at Cornell; he’s sort of smart. A little. Maybe.

“That’s really cool,” the guy says. He puts his hand on Clint’s arm, just a little pat, but not really a bro thing and Clint freezes. Is he being hit on? He might be being hit on.

“It is really cool,” Clint agrees with a smile, which he deliberately doesn’t let reach his eyes. He knows how to flirt, he’s not totally sure how to not flirt, but not-flirting is definitely what he wants to be doing right now.

He looks up just as the bus pulls to a stop and oh hey, it’s a miracle. “This is my stop.” He jumps up, stuffing his notebook back into his bag. “Good to meet you.”

“You too,” the guy says. He smiles slowly. “Think maybe I could give you my number?”

“My boyfriend’s meeting me,” Clint says in a rush. “But thanks.” He slides off the bus and out into the street.

He doesn’t actually know if Phil is meeting him, since Phil was stuck at the office when Clint texted to say he was leaving, and when Phil gets stuck at the office, he sometimes forgets to come home at all.

But, “Clint,” he hears, and then he’s being turned around and hugged tight.

“Hey,” he says, burrowing into Phil’s arms for a second before he tells himself that’s too needy, and turning it into a more balanced sort of hug. “I didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Of course I’m here,” Phil says. He glances past Clint to the bus and frowns. “There’s a young man looking intently out the window. Did you cause an international incident on the bus?”

“How could I cause an international incident on a bus?” Clint asks. He doesn’t look back, because he knows who he’ll see. “And nope, he just thinks I’m hot.”

Phil twitches a little, then laughs. He lets go of Clint and they start walking toward home. “Is that just based on an assumption that everyone finds you hot, or - ?”

“Nope, he asked me out.” Clint slows his steps then, realising that maybe that wasn’t cool. “Um, that’s not weird, right? You’re not going to get weird about that?”

“Why would I get weird?” Phil asks, stopping at the crosswalk that will take them onto their street. He looks at Clint. “Do you want me to get weird?”

“No,” Clint scoffs, then, “Yeah, maybe, a little.”

Phil laughs and squeezes Clint’s hand. “Next time I’ll fight for your honour,” he says. “How about that?”

“Much better,” Clint agrees, and lets himself be tugged across the road between a car and a slow-moving bicycle. “Jaywalking, Agent Coulson?”

“It would appear so, Cadet Barton,” Phil says, totally bland.

Something goes ping in the general vicinity of Clint’s arousal duct, and he laughs. “We could get so kinky with this shit.”

“We could,” Phil agrees, then because he’s a giant cocktease, adds, “but we won’t.”

“Boring,” Clint says. They’ve reached their building and he turns on the front step, grinning at Phil. “You’re so boring.”

He’s expecting Phil to snark back at him, but Phil doesn’t. He just smiles slightly, a weak shadow of a thing, and follows Clint up the steps.

“Hey, I was joking,” Clint says, catching his arm. He gives Phil a little shake. “You know I was joking, right?”

Phil’s smile is absolutely no better, this time. Clint starts to feel like a total jerk.

Clint turns around right there in the doorway and slides his arms around Phil’s waist. “You’re not boring,” he says. “You’re… you know, you’re a badass Army Ranger slash secret agent man, how could you be boring?”

Phil looks Clint in the eye for a while, then he huffs out a laugh, shaking his head slightly. “I know you don’t think I’m boring,” he says. “Ignore me; it’s been a long week and I think I left my sense of humour back around Tuesday.”

“Bad week?” Clint asks. He lets Phil walk on, but he keeps his hand fisted in Phil’s sleeve. They walk up the stairs like that, Clint more worried than he’d like to admit about the tired slump of Phil’s shoulders.

“There are some things going on in California that seem determined to make me prematurely grey,” Phil tells him. “I can’t really tell you what.”

“No, that’s cool,” Clint says quickly. Phil used to tell him a lot more about his work with SHIELD before Clint decided to sign up, too. “And you can go grey, if you want. It’d be pretty hot.”

“Hmm,” Phil says, and he’s still not smiling right.

Clint doesn’t get a chance to worry about it immediately, because he opens their front door and Lucky fucking bowls himself into Clint. Clint lets himself get knocked backwards and lands in the hallway with seventy pounds of slobbering dog on his chest.

“Hey, boy, hey,” Clint says, reaching up to dig both hands into his fur. Lucky wiggles all over with joy and starts licking him in earnest, getting Clint in the ear with his hot, wet tongue.

In the doorway, Phil’s watching them, laughing a little. “You could rescue me,” Clint tells him, when their eyes meet.

Phil shakes his head. “You don’t really want me to,” he says. He picks up Clint’s bag from where he dropped it. “I’ll go heat some water; you want a drink?”

“Gross tea, please,” Clint says and finally gets a real smile.

***

The two of them, plus Lucky, curl up on Phil’s ancient old sofa after the tea’s ready. Clint leans into Phil’s side more than he normally would, just because he missed him, and he doesn’t know how to say that.

He’s been having fun at SHIELD, but something has been gnawing away at his insides, like a Phil-shaped hole has been forming. It feels like it’s closing up again, now that Phil is here, pressed against his side.

“Tell me about the Academy,” Phil says into the top of his head. “Melinda says she has you in one of her classes.”

“Yeah.” Clint shifts Phil’s arm and pulls it around his chest, leaning back into Phil’s solid warmth. “She’s mean. She did a pop quiz in our first class; who even does that?”

“I used to do that,” Phil says. His voice is light; Clint would bet he’s smiling. “She’s teaching SHIELD History, isn’t she? I taught that one.”

“I know,” Clint laughs, “how else do you think I’m planning to pass it?”

“I won’t help you cheat,” Phil says, mock-sternly.

Clint tips his head back and flutters his eyelashes up at Phil. “Aww, Agent Coulson, don’t be so cruel.”

“I thought I was boring,” Phil says. It’s said lightly, but it’s a very false sort of light.

“You’re not boring,” Clint says with absolute conviction, and leans up to kiss him, upside down and just a little awkward.

***

The next morning, Phil presents him with a list of all the jobs that the tenants have called about during the week, so Clint drags himself out of bed with a groan and digs his toolkit out from the hall closet.

“Very sexy,” Phil tells him, watching him strap on his utility belt.

“I know, I’m straight out of porn,” Clint says, adjusting a wrench, which just came close to smacking him in the balls.

“A very specialised branch of porn,” Phil agrees, and reels Clint in for a kiss, before Clint can decide if he’s pleased or offended by that.

***

Fixing all the shit that decided to break this week takes most of the morning, plus he has to stop to answer everyone’s questions, every five minutes.

He feels bad about pretending he’s at the Police Academy, but everyone seems so delighted for him and eager to know how he’s doing, that he knows they would have been just as nosy if he’d told them the truth.

He’s just finished helping Gil fix the grill on the roof, when Phil appears, offering them a bottle of water each, and Clint an apologetic smile.

“I need to go into work,” he says. “I’m really sorry.”

Clint swallows down the pang of disappoint he feels and nods. “Sure, okay, everything all right?”

“That situation in California just got even more annoying,” Phil says. “I shouldn’t be too long.”

“It’s okay,” Clint promises. He leans in so Gil can’t hear. “Tell whoever it is that you have to get home, because you need to have sex with your hot boyfriend.”

Phil coughs, cheeks flushing adorably. “I… honestly don’t think that would help with this particular problem,” he says. “He’d just use it as an excuse to make lewd suggestions.”

Clint reluctantly lets him go and goes back to helping Gil. He’s done with his chores after that, and not too interested in hanging out in their empty apartment without Phil, so he drifts downstairs to visit his favourite neighbours, Jessica and Luke.

“I’ll get it!” yells a voice from inside, and their daughter Danielle flings open the door.

“Hey, kid, I don’t think you’re supposed to open the door,” Clint says.

“Clint!” she shrieks, and jumps up into his arms. He catches her automatically, letting her wrap her legs around him and hang on.

“Woah,” he laughs. “I was gone a week; that’s no time at all.”

“That’s forever,” she says. “The radiator broke. Mommy’s all wet.”

“What?” Clint asks, carrying her into the apartment. “Jess?”

“Ugh, in here,” Jessica calls, and he follows her voice and Danielle’s poking into the bedroom. Jessica’s sitting on the floor, wet from head to toe while water drips sluggishly out of her radiator pipe.

“Gross,” Clint says. “What did you do?

She flips him off. “I tried to turn it down and the fuc- the blessed thing broke off in my hand and started shooting water everywhere.” She pushes wet, dark hair out of her eyes with the back of one wrist. “I’ve pretty much fixed it.”

“Where’s Luke?” Clint asks. He thinks about putting Danielle down, but she’d definitely want to go play with the puddle of rusty water soaking Jessica’s carpet.

“Work. Why, because he’d use his magic man powers to fix it where I can’t?” Jessica asks, arching both eyebrows.

“No,” Clint says. He puts Danielle down on the bed and tells her to stay. “Because he would have called me, like you’re supposed to.” He leans forward, taking a look. She has pretty much fixed it; the water’s almost stopped leaking out.

“I thought you’d be busy with Phil,” she says. “You’re only here forty-eight hours, right?”

Clint wrinkles his nose at her. “I woulda stopped being busy with him to stop you from drowning.”

“You’re too kind,” Jessica says, but she’s laughing now. “Tell you what, if you fix this mess while I’m in the shower, I’ll make you lunch.”

“Deal,” Clint says. He takes off his tool belt and lays it on the bed next to Danielle. “You gonna be my awesome assistant?” he asks.

“Yes,” she says, bouncing a little. “Are you gonna do it as good as Mommy?”

“Probably not,” Clint says, grinning at Jessica. “But I can try.”

Danielle nods seriously. “Yes, you can try,” she tells him.

***

Clint ends up getting Lucky for Danielle to play with and then spending the afternoon hanging out with Jessica. He’s pretty sure she’s twigged that he’s hiding something about where he’s been this week, but she doesn’t call him out on it.

That’s pretty lucky, because he’d probably tell her, if she did.

“Are you happy?” she asks. “This is what you want to do?”

“Definitely,” Clint says. She knows all his history, so he doesn’t feel too embarrassed to admit, “I spent so long thinking I wasn’t ever gonna have a future, you know? This is like, a whole world away from anything I thought I might end up doing.”

“That’s great,” she says. She sounds like she means it, but there’s still something off about her tone.

“What’s up?” he asks. Lucky’s ball comes sailing toward them, and he snaps his hand up and catches it, throwing it back to Danielle.

Jessica’s face twists up for a second, like she’s thinking about how to say it and like she isn’t sure she wants to say it, at all. “Phil’s had a bad week,” she says. “By which I mean he was ever so slightly less than perfectly stoic and actually let me notice.”

Clint frowns. “He doesn’t mind me being gone,” he says. “We talked about it.”

“I know, I know you did.” She taps her fingers on her knee, uncertain. “I don’t know, he just seemed different, this week.”

“Shit,” Clint mutters. He’s sure Phil’s on board with the SHIELD thing; he’s sure he is. “Shit, I’m gonna have to have a talk with him, aren’t I?”

Jessica laughs. “Yup,” she says. “Welcome to marriage.”

“We’re not married,” Clint says automatically, even though it sounds like it would be a really nice thing to be. “Do you think he’d marry me?”

“God, you’re young,” Jessica sighs, shaking her head. Then she sends him home without explaining what that means.

***

Phil doesn’t get home until late. He drops his briefcase by the door, throws his jacket onto the back of the couch with extreme prejudice, and groans. “We’re no longer buying anything from Stark Industries,” he announces.

Clint, who had actually been texting Natasha on his StarkPhone, right that second, tucks it protectively back into his pocket.

“Why?” he asks. He gets up from the breakfast bar and steps into Phil’s space, helping him take off his tie. He loves getting to see Phil all dressed up as Agent Coulson, but Phil loves shedding it just as much.

“Because Tony Stark is a pain in my ass,” Phil says, eyes sliding closed as Clint slips his tie off then starts unbuttoning his shirt. “Don’t repeat that.”

“Is Tony Stark the problem in California?” Clint asks. He’s pretty sure SHIELD has been working with Stark for a while, so he’s not sure why this is suddenly a secret.

“I can’t tell you that,” Phil says, but he says it in a flat sort of way that means yes. He leans into Clint’s hands as Clint pushes his shirt off his shoulders. “Fuck, I’m glad you’re here.”

Clint stills. He makes himself restart, dropping Phil’s shirt onto the floor. “You don’t miss me too much, right?” he asks.

Phil’s eyes open and he watches Clint carefully. “Just the right amount,” he promises. He bends and picks up his shirt, shaking it out. “I’ll hang these up and then we can order pizza.”

“I thought you were boycotting all the pizza places around here?” Clint asks his retreating back.

“There’s a new one,” Phil calls from the bedroom. “Their pizza hasn’t been proven to be a travesty, yet.”

“Okay,” Clint laughs, going to find the landline phone, which always ends up shoved between two books on the bookshelf, or tucked into a drawer in the kitchen. One time, it ended up in Lucky’s bed, but neither of them could explain that.

***

The pizza comes and earns half a raised eyebrow from Phil. For a Chicago boy with snobby pizza opinions, that’s actually pretty good.

They try to watch a movie after dinner, but Phil’s eyes start closing about twenty minutes in, and he’s snoring softly with his head tipped back against the back of the couch before Bruce Willis has even gotten his shoes off.

“Hey,” Clint says softly, muting the movie. He puts his hand on the back of Phil’s neck and gives him a squeeze. “You’re gonna hurt, if you sleep like that.”

Phil wakes up with a groan and another giant yawn. “Sorry,” he mutters, rubbing his face. “This isn’t a fun visit for you, is it?”

“What the fuck,” Clint asks flatly. “This isn’t a visit, this is my home. I mean… right?”

“Of course,” Phil says. He groans into his hands. “Sorry, I’m not making any sense.”

“Let’s go to bed,” Clint says. He gets up, then tugs Phil to his feet, keeping a hand on him the whole way to their bedroom, while he obviously struggles with his coordination.

When they finally crawl into bed, Clint rolls onto his side and looks at Phil across the mattress. He looks tired, hollow-eyed and a little quiet. “What’s wrong?” Clint asks, reaching out and hooking two fingers in the neck of Phil’s t-shirt, just to touch.

Phil huffs an embarrassed laugh. “I don’t sleep that well without you, it turns out,” he says. “That’s a little pathetic, isn’t it?”

Clint ducks his head into the pillow, watching Phil from under his bangs. “No, that’s real nice,” he says. “If they weren’t waking me up at five and making me run a fucking marathon, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep without you, either.”

Phil puts his hand over Clint’s. “But they are,” he says.

“But they are,” Clint agrees, and ends up blinking at Phil’s back when he rolls away to go to sleep.

***

At first, Clint thinks it’s SHIELD Academy’s morning siren that’s startled him awake in the middle of the night. Then his brain clears and it’s not a siren, it’s yelling, and he’s not at SHIELD, he’s home.

He sits up, fumbling on the light, and finds Phil still asleep but with his eyes wide open and glassy, moaning and mumbling, and flailing against the comforter.

“Hey,” Clint says. He should know better than to touch Phil when he’s having a nightmare, but it’s been so long since a really bad one that he’s forgotten.

He puts his hand on Phil’s shoulder, and Phil grabs his wrist, squeezing tight enough to crush the bones together.

Clint freezes, more worried about Phil waking up and finding he’s broken Clint’s wrist than about getting his wrist broken. Not that Clint wants a broken wrist; he only just got to use a bow, again. “Ow, fuck, Phil, it’s me. It’s me, wake up.”

Phil mumbles something that sounds like Clint’s name and lets go of him, pushing him back and away, and twisting toward his nightstand. He used to keep a gun in there, back before Clint moved in, when he was fresh out of the army and his nightmares were worse.

His SHIELD-issued weapons are all locked away now, but Clint’s still worried. He puts both hands on Phil’s back, strokes his palm down the line of Phil’s spine.

“Hey,” he says, soft as he knows how. He’s not good at being gentle, but he tries. “Hey, come on, I really need you to wake up now. Phil? I need you.”

Phil shudders under his hands. “Fuck,” he says, then goes stiff and still, repeating, “Fuck,” much louder. He sounds awake now, thank god, and Clint takes his hands away, pressing his throbbing wrist against his chest.

Phil stumbles up and out of bed, disappearing into the bathroom and shutting the door. Clint sits up in bed, useless, with his heart hammering, listening to water running and the bathroom cabinets opening and shutting.

When Phil comes back into the bedroom, he has his arms folded across his chest and he looks shitty. “I’m sorry,” he says, eyes bleak and exhausted. “Did I hurt you?”

Clint holds out his arm, where there’s a neat ring of bruises forming around his left wrist. “Just got a little kinky, s’all,” he says.

Phil doesn’t smile.

“Come here,” Clint orders, patting the bed next to him. “Come on. Don’t make me come over and get you.” He just wants Phil lying down, because Phil looks like he’s about to drop.

Phil doesn’t have the energy to argue, apparently, because he sits down on the bed without complaint. He drops his head into his hands and doesn’t make a sound.

“Remember the first time I woke you up and you tried to shoot me in the face?” Clint asks, trying to lighten the mood. “Good times, huh?”

Phil makes a choked sound that might be a laugh. Clint’s gonna be generous and call it a laugh.

“Can I touch you?” Clint asks, waiting for Phil to nod, before he carefully slides both arms around him. Phil doesn’t feel small, because he never feels small to Clint, but he does feel breakable. That’s the most scary thing about this.

Phil lets out a shaky breath and leans back into Clint’s arms, back against Clint’s chest. “Sorry.”

“Hush,” Clint says into Phil’s hair. He thinks about how tired Phil has looked, how Jessica said he was having a bad week. “This been happening a lot?”

“Only ever night,” Phil says. “I told you, I don’t sleep well without you.”

Clint tightens his arms, squeezing hard. “Sorry, shit, I’ll come home. I won’t go back to the Academy.”

“Clint,” Phil says, sounding steady, much more like himself. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine. A couple of nightmares aren’t going to kill me.”

Clint presses his lips to Phil’s hairline, kissing him carefully. “I just wanna help,” he says.

Phil sighs softly, a quiet, exhausted sound. “I know.”

They sit like that until Phil’s breathing starts to turn deeper, slow and even, then Clint reaches behind himself blindly and turns out the light.

“I’m not sleeping,” Phil mumbles, turning a little toward Clint.

“I know,” Clint promises. He lays them both down, keeping his arms around Phil’s chest. “How’s this?”

Phil rolls onto his side and pillows his head on Clint’s chest. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says.

“Yeah.” Clint combs his fingers through Phil’s hair and stays awake long after Phil falls asleep.

***

“Oh hey, did I tell you about Trip?” Clint asks, watching Phil make them lunch. It’s Sunday afternoon and he’ll have to leave to catch the bus back later, but right now, he’s ignoring that.

“No?” Phil says. “Carter, Ward, and Amador yes, Trip no.”

Clint laughs. “Sorry, am I boring you?” he asks, stealing a pepper slice, once Phil’s finished chopping it.

Phil flicks pepper seeds at him. “Of course not,” he says. “Who’s Trip?”

“Antoine Triplett. His grandfather was Gabe Jones, one of - ”

“One of the Howling Commandos,” Phil interrupts, eyes lighting up. “Nick told me he was joining this year. He forbade me making contact, beforehand; apparently I’m not Hagrid and I’d only embarrass myself.” He rolls his eyes.

Clint snorts. “You know you would. Trip’s a cool guy though, you’ll like him. Plus he’s hella hot, except for this weird moustache thing he’s got going on, but everyone’s allowed one fashion mistake, right?”

“Is your life nothing but hot boys, now?” Phil asks. “I think I must have been doing SHIELD wrong.”

“Hey.” Clint kicks him lightly. “You didn’t notice the hot boys, because you had me back home.” He hears himself talk himself toward that hole, but doesn’t back up in time. “Um. And I don’t notice them either. Because you. Because I have you at home.”

Phil laughs, shaking his head and looking fond. “You’re terrible at this.”

“I’m the worst,” Clint agrees. “I’m so bad. Seriously.” He walks around the counter and wraps his arms around Phil from behind. “Hey, you gonna be okay?”

“I’ll try to cope,” Phil says dryly. Then he turns around and looks at Clint seriously. “I will. I’ll be fine. The first week was bound to be the hardest.”

“Okay,” Clint says, even though he doesn’t really believe him. He leans his head on the back of Phil’s shoulder and reminds himself he’s doing this SHIELD thing for Phil. It’ll be worth it, in the end.

***

“Where did you go?” Grant asks, when Clint gets back to their room late Sunday night. Clint’s been on a bus for three hours; he’s exhausted, but he manages not to faceplant straight down onto his bed (mostly because he thinks that’ll break his nose).

Clint doesn’t plan on telling him, but then he thinks about Phil, left alone with his nightmares again, and can’t stand the thought of lying about him. “I have a boyfriend in New York,” he says.

“Huh,” says Grant, after a pause.

“Don’t get gay-panicky,” Clint warns him. He’s too tired for gay-panic, he’d probably do something ill-advised.

“I’m not,” Grant says. He actually sounds kind of offended. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Clint shrugs. “He works for SHIELD.”

“For SHIELD?” Grant asks. He sounds surprised and mildly interested, not like, super disapproving or whatever it was Nick was worried about. “What does he do?”

“He’s a level four agent,” Clint says. “I’m not supposed to say much; they think it’ll make things weird for me.”

Grant frowns. “I’m not going to make things weird for you.”

“Thanks, man” Clint says. He’s pretty tempted to tell Grant all about Phil, because Phil’s awesome and deserves to be talked about. But he trusts Nick. Kind of. As much as anyone trusts Nick, anyway.

“I’m sure it is,” Grant says. He doesn’t sound sure, but Clint doesn’t push; he’s already had enough nasty shocks, today.

“I miss anything cool?” he asks, finally giving in and sliding his way down onto the bed. He’s so tired that it almost feels comfortable.

Grant pulls out his phone and starts texting someone. “Not a lot,” he says. “I think there was a party, last night.”

“You go?” Clint asks. His eyelids want to close, but he manages to drag one open again.

“Nah,” Grant says, not looking up from his phone.

Great, now Clint feels bad. Grant doesn’t seem like the type to go to a party without someone dragging him along, and with Clint gone, maybe no one thought to do that. Next weekend, he’ll have to drop a word in Trip’s ear, before he leaves.

“What did you do, then?” Clint asks. He can’t really keep his eyes open, so he hopes Grant isn’t going to tell him anything that really needs an answer.

“Hiking mostly,” Grant says. “There are a lot of woods around here.”

“Cool,” Clint says. “That sounds exhausting.”

Grant laughs at him. “Just go to sleep, Barton,” he says.

“Mmhmm,” Clint agrees and passes out.

***

The week passes in the blur of exercise and education that Clint’s starting to get used to. His muscles hurt and his brain hurts, but he’s still doing well; he still doesn’t regret coming here.

He sneaks away Tuesday night to call Phil, even though they agreed he wouldn’t do that, and ends up spending twenty minutes FaceTiming with Lucky, while he chases Phil’s balled up socks.

When he gets back to the room, he’s still laughing a little. “My dog’s a bozo,,” he says to Grant.

For the first time, maybe ever, Grant gives him his full attention. “What kind is he?” he asks.

“Fuck, I don’t know,” Clint says, “some kind of labrador retriever mutt? He’s great, though.”

Grant smiles. “My dog, Buddy, he’s a chocolate lab. Labradors are great, right?”

“Right,” Clint says, twisting around on his bed to face Grant. “Where’s Buddy, now?”

“I…” Grant hesitates. “I had to leave him, behind,” he says, “when I came here.”

“Sucks,” Clint says. “Still, we’re not here forever, right? You’ll see him, soon.”

“Yeah,” Grant says, but his attention is drifting back to his homework, again, so Clint leaves him to it.

***

On Thursday, instead of going to class in the afternoon, Clint gets stopped in the corridor by a guy he doesn’t know. He’s taller than Clint, but not tall, heavy set with hair so dark Clint thinks he must dye it.

“Barton,” he says, dropping a meaty arm around Clint’s neck. “You’re with me.”

“With you for what, sir?” he asks, trying not to be the weirdo who throws a superior into a wall for touching him.

“Whatever I want,” he says, then chuckles. He ruffles Clint’s hair then pulls away. “I’m just messing with you, kid. I’m Agent Garrett, they’ve assigned me as your SO.”

“Okay,” Clint says, “that’s cool.”

“That’s cool,” Garrett echoes, shaking his head on a laugh. “I see it’s hard to impress you. Come on, let’s go get the team together.”

“Team?” Clint asks, following him down a corridor he hasn’t explored yet.

“Yep, they’ve given me you and Ward,” Garrett says. “Word around here is that the two of you make a good team.”

Okay, now Clint feels better. “That’s cool, too,” he says, to see if it’ll make Garrett laugh at him again. It does.

***

It’s not just Grant waiting for them in the practice room when they get there. Trip’s standing around too, awkwardly trying to chat with Grant.

“Who are you?” Garrett asks. He looks at Grant for half a second, but Grant just shrugs.

“Cadet Triplett, sir,” Trip says smartly. “My SO can’t make it this week, so Agent Hill suggested I ask to join you guys.”

For some reason, Garrett doesn’t look thrilled. Then he smiles, showing too many teeth. “Who’s your SO?” he asks.

“Agent Coulson?” Trip says, and Clint nearly swallows his tongue. His tongue-swallowing must have been mostly silent, though, because no one seems to notice.

“Right,” Garrett says. “Well. You can stay, but keep out the way, okay? I want to see what I’ve got here.”

Garrett puts them through their paces for most of the afternoon, switching around the three of them in hand-to-hand and taking on the spare himself.

Turns out that Garrett and Grant have pretty similar fighting styles and Clint gets used to blocking a hand to his throat and twisting to jab his elbow into someone’s chest.

Garrett grabs his arm and jerks him back, stepping out the way so Clint falls hard onto his back on the barely-padded floor.

“Ow,” Clint groans, trying to curl up in a ball.

Garrett jabs him lightly in the stomach with his toe. “Stop complaining and get up,” he says. “Ward, your turn.”

Grant steps over Clint to take his turn against Garrett, while Clint waves his hand pathetically at Trip until Trip grabs it and pulls him to his feet.

Grant and Garrett circling each other on the mat. Garrett goes for Grant’s throat the same way he did with Clint, but Grant blocks it better than Clint did, pushing Garrett’s arm up, while going for his knee with a bare foot at the same time.

Garrett actually concedes ground, laughing as he does. Grant comes for him again, the flat of his hand going for Garrett’s neck, like a karate chop. Almost as if he knew Grant was going to do that, Garrett blocks it immediately and the sparring goes on.

“Damn,” Trip says in Clint’s ear. “Didn’t know he could do that.”

“Me either,” Clint says. “Guess I’ll be okay if anyone breaks into our room.”

Trip elbows him in the ribs. “Yeah, just hide under the bed and scream while Grant saves your ass.”

Clint elbows him back. “Sounds good,” he agrees, then goes to trip him over.

“Asshole,” Trip laughs, stumbling.

“What?” Clint asks innocently. “We’re supposed to be sparring, too.”

“I’ll show you sparring,” Trip says, and rolls up his sleeves.

***

“Barton, hang back,” Garrett says, at the end of their session.

“Ooh,” Trip mutters under his breath. Clint flips him off.

He takes the towel Garrett throws at him and mops the sweat off the back of his neck. “Something wrong, sir?” he asks, wondering what it could be. He doesn’t think he fucked up.

“No,” Garrett scoffs. “Just want to get to know you better.”

Clint wants to ask why him, why not Grant too, but there are probably already enough SHIELD agents he can be cheeky to; he should probably be polite to his SO.

“Sir,” he says, instead.

Garrett sighs and sits down. He reaches into a bag under one of the benches lining the room, and pulls out a plastic bottle. He takes a long swig then hands it to Clint.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he says, which puts Clint on his guard enough that he starts with a sip. It’s vodka. Cheap, strong, disgusting vodka, the kind that would make Natasha smash the bottle in disgust.

“Thanks, sir,” he says a little hoarsely, handing it back.

Garrett nods, like he’s satisfied. “Where you from, Barton?” he asks. “Your file says New York, but your accent doesn’t.”

“Iowa,” Clint says, wiping his lips on the back of his hand.

“Any family?” Garrett asks. He screws the cap back onto his bottle and tucks it back into his bag.

Clint shakes his head. “No, sir.”

“No one?” Garrett presses.

Clint frowns. “Why?” he asks. “SHIELD already vetted me, you know. Sir.”

Garrett laughs, holding his hands up. “Getting to know my new pal,” he says. “Don’t worry, I’ll do this to Ward later, too.”

Clint nods quickly, trying to smile. He’s not sure Garrett’s his sort of guy; he’s too showy. Clint likes quieter people, who don’t feel the need to go on and on about how badass they are. Phil, basically. He likes Phil.

“I had a brother,” he says. “He’s in jail. No one else.”

Garrett nods slowly. “I hear you have serious skills with a bow. Wanna show me?”

“Yes,” Clint says, quickly. He is much, much better at shooting arrows than he is at trying to decide what to tell a virtual stranger about his family.

“Come on, then,” Garrett says, smacking him on the arm. “Impress me.”

***

“Do you know John Garrett?” Clint asks on Friday night, when he’s lying in bed, head on Phil’s bare chest.

“Yes,” Phil says, “Nick’s his SO, so we’ve worked together some. Why?”

“He’s my SO, apparently,” Clint says. He tips his head up toward Phil’s face, but gets distracted by the stubble on his jaw and his need to kiss it.

“Really?” Phil twists around, leaning on one elbow so he can look down at Clint. Clint sinks back into the pillow, denied his kiss. “Nick was leaning toward Melinda, for you.”

“Sharon Carter got her,” Clint sighs. “I got the weirdo who uses vodka as a bonding mechanism.”

“He did what?” Phil asks. For a naked dude with spunk on his stomach, he sure can look incensed, when he tries.

Clint pats him on the chest. It’s half to reassure him and half because he’s potentially never going to be over how much he likes Phil’s chest hair. “It’s was barely a sip. I think he was trying to make me think he was cool?”

“You’re eighteen,” Phil says, still incensed, but Clint thinks he’s at least half faking it for effect, now. He sighs. “I wanted Sharon Carter.”

“You got Trip,” Clint says, because he’s still smarting over that, just a very little. He pokes Phil in the nipple. “It’s not ‘cause I said he was hot, right?”

“Yes, Clint,” Phil says solemnly. “It’s because you said he was hot.” He lies back down, looking at Clint from much nearer, now. “Hey.”

Clint grins and scoots closer. “Hi.”

Phil’s hand lands on Clint’s side, stroking slowly up and down over his ribs. “You know I’d have picked you, if I could?”

“I know,” Clint says. He does. “I’m just being dumb.”

Phil taps his fingers on Clint’s ribs like he’s playing the piano. Clint wonders if he’s ever played. “You should know that Melinda and I are battling to see who’ll get to to be Natasha’s SO, if she ever joins SHIELD.”

Clint blinks, startled. “You think she will?” he asks. Natasha is technically a former Russian assassin (formerly Russian and formerly an assassin, she says). Melinda met her during the same fuck up that landed Clint’s brother in jail last year, but Phil never has.

“I think she will, eventually,” Phil says. “Especially if she knows you enjoy it.” He slides his hand down to Clint’s hip. “Do you enjoy it?”

“I still do,” Clint says, after taking enough time that Phil will know he thought about it. “It’s cool to be good at something.”

“I thought the Amazing Hawkeye was good at everything,” Phil teases. He lies down on his back with a tired sigh, then oofs again when Clint sprawls out across his chest.

“I mean something useful,” Clint says. “Although I did totally impress Garrett with my bow.” That sounds dirty and he’s orgasm drunk, so he snickers into Phil’s skin. Phil just groans and puts his arms around Clint.

“Imagine that I’m very jealous,” he says.

“Hey, you were jealous of that dude on the bus last week,” Clint says, poking Phil in the chest.

Phil’s arms tighten around him. “Whatever makes you feel better, dear,” he agrees. Because he’s an asshole.

“Asshole,” Clint says.

Phil laughs. “Actually, speaking of that?”

“Mm?” Clint asks, curling in closer and hoping Phil’s only been thinking good things, this time.

“It turns out I wouldn’t be happy if you left me for a younger model,” Phil says. “I might even fight dirty.”

Clint grins, delighted. “What would you do?” he asks.

Phil shakes his head slowly. “It’d be nasty,” he says. “I might challenge him to see who has the biggest Captain America collection.”

Clint snorts. He loves it when Phil’s silly; he loves that Phil’s a dork. “Thank god you’d win that,” he says. “Looks like I’m stuck with you forever.”

Phil’s hand squeezes Clint’s shoulder hard, just for a second, almost like he didn’t mean it to. “I’d like that,” is all he says.

***

Monday night, Clint is trying to learn neuro-linguistic programming from his textbook, while dangling backwards off his bed (it helps, okay, all the knowledge rushes to his head), when his cellphone rings.

He stretches out a hand, catching the edge of his backpack strap, and tugs it over. He pulls his phone out and flips it open, halfway between worried and pleased when he sees Phil’s name flash across the screen.

Grant is off doing something with Garrett that Clint wasn’t invited to, so he stays where he is to take the call. “Hey?” he says. “You okay?”

“I’m okay,” Phil says immediately. “Sorry, I know we agreed I wouldn’t call.” There’s a lot of noise going on behind him, beeps and whirrs and loud voices.

“Dude, I always wanna hear from you,” Clint says. “Where are you?”

“On the helicarrier, about to catch a jet, so I have to be quick,” Phil says.

He sounds tense, but not worried. It’s still enough to make Clint let himself slide off the end of the bed so he can sit upright and pay full attention. “Where are you going?” he asks. If it’s a war zone, he might just storm out of SHIELD Academy and demand to help, qualified agent or not.

“Malibu,” Phil says, which okay, that’s not a war zone, that’s good. “Nick wants me out there wrangling Stark, for a while.”

“How long a while?” Clint asks, trying to sound offhand, trying not to mind that he won’t be able to picture Phil safe in their apartment with Lucky.

“I don’t know,” Phil says. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m going to be home this weekend. I really am sorry.”

“That’s fine,” Clint says quickly. “I mean, that sucks, but I’m not gonna be a brat about it.”

Phil laughs softly. “I never thought you were,” he says. A horn blares in the background and he curses. “I have to go; apparently we’re taking off right now and Melinda can’t wait one more minute.”

“Say hi to her from me,” Clint says, but he doesn’t know if Phil hears him, since the background noises suddenly come into the foreground and then the call ends.

“Huh,” Clint says to himself. “That sucks.” He grabs his textbook and crawls back onto his bed, pulling his pillow over his head this time. He’s allowed, his boyfriend just cancelled their date. Kind of. If a weekend can be a date.

Five seconds later, he gets bored of moping, opens his book, and goes back to reading about increasing his sensory awareness. It’s kind of interesting; maybe if he can get good enough at this NLP stuff, he’ll be able to convince Phil to stay in New York forever more.

***

Clint’s almost done with his homework when the door opens and Grant comes in. He’s staggering a little, and Clint knows something’s wrong before he looks up. Then he looks up and sucks in a breath.

“Holy fuck, dude, what happened?” he asks, jumping up and grabbing Grant’s arm.

“Nothing, I’m fine,” Grant says, waving him off, but he has blood pouring out of his nose and his right eye is swollen shut, so that’s bullshit.

“Okay,” Clint says, making him sit on his bed. “Tip your head forward.”

“I’m fine,” Grant says, trying to push him away.

“Shut the fuck up,” Clint says flatly. “Tip your head forward, and keep still.” He goes to the sink in the corner of their room and runs water over a washcloth.

Grant takes it from him without any more complaints, and hisses when it comes in contact with his nose.

At first, Clint sits on his bed, waiting for him to stop bleeding and start talking, but when he doesn’t show much sign of either, he makes himself twist around on the bed and look away, giving Grant space, if he needs it.

“Thanks,” Grant says, at last. He drops his blood soaked hand towel on the floor, and falls backward on the bed. Clint’s never seen him do anything that isn’t spare and decisive; whatever happened really did a number on him.

“Someone punch you?” Clint asks. When Grant doesn’t answer, Clint presses on. “Want me to punch someone back?”

Grant stays quiet for a while, then he squints his non-swollen eye at Clint. “Would you?” he asks. He sounds really doubtful, which is sad. Hasn’t he ever had anyone who’d punch someone for him? Even Clint had Barney.

“Duh,” Clint says. “We’re, whatever, right? If we have the same SO, we’re brothers-in-arms or whatever.”

“Whatever,” Grant echoes. He snorts and closes his eye. “Don’t worry about it.”

Clint really wants to press. He wants to ask if Grant’s sure, and the whole protective instinct thing really takes him by surprise.

“Sure?” he eventually asks, kind of pathetically.

Grant doesn’t answer. Clint hesitates, worries, hesitates some more, then ends up just going back to his reading and pretending nothing’s wrong. He feels like a dick for it, but it’s none of his business, right?

***

“Well done, Cadet, that’s exactly right,” Agent Hand says to Sharon Carter, who Clint is starting to think might just be her own aunt Peggy in disguise. She’s really good at everything, especially this body language thing they’re working on now. Clint, however, is really bad at it.

On the positive hand, Clint has never felt more like a spy than right now, learning how to go undercover.

“Course it was,” Clint says, he’s not even trying to be a jerk; he means it.

Agent Hand obviously thinks he was trying to be a jerk because she glares at him. “Would you like to take a turn next, Mr Barton,” she says, but he totally thinks she likes him.

He sinks down into his seat and mutters a, “No, thank you, ma’am,” that seems to appease her. He catches Sharon’s eye across the room and mouths Sorry. She shakes her head at him and winks.

Hand tells them to get into pairs a minute later and, to Clint’s endless shock, Sharon claims him before anyone else can. Not that there’s a line, but Clint has friends. (Having friends is weird.)

“Can’t resist my charm,” he says, mostly to hide how confused he is.

“Yes, that’s it,” Sharon says, dryly. “Look, you suck at this class and I can help.” She folds her arms and looks expectant.

“Why?” Clint asks slowly. He doesn’t want to say what’s in it for you? but, well.

“Because,” Sharon says, “I saw your marksmanship scores, and I want you to help me in return.”

Oh, thank god. Clint knows he’s good at shooting shit; he can actually help with that. “Deal,” he says, immediately.

“Great.” Sharon claps her hands together. “Okay, well, going undercover is easy. It’s all about changing your body language, and mostly it helps if you know what it’s like to want to hide.”

“Hide?” Clint asks. “Physically or emotionally?”

“Both,” Sharon says. “You’ve wanted the ground to swallow you before, right? Because you need to take that feeling and roll with it to turn you into a completely different person.”

“I can do that,” Clint says, thinking of all the days and nights he spent on the streets or in foster care or with his parents, wishing to be anyone or anywhere but there.

“Of course you can,” Sharon says, giving him an encouraging smile, so Clint decides to give it a go.

***

“Barton.” Nick Fury’s voice booms across the hallway, making a lot of cadets jump, and Clint tense up.

“Sir,” he says, turning around.

Nick grins, fast and sharp, like he enjoys Clint calling him sir. “You’re with me, this afternoon.”

“I am?” Clint asks, but Nick’s already striding away. Apparently when he drops by SHIELD Academy, he still wears his trademark swishy coat and kickass boots. Clint’s relieved; his world would be rocked if he saw Nick in a field suit.

“Did something happen?” Clint asks, when Nick doesn’t answer him. “Phil’s okay, right?”

“Jeez,” Nick sighs. “Phil’s fine. His blood pressure is probably climbing sky high by now, but he’s fine. Keep walking.”

Since there’s no point trying to annoy Nick into giving him an answer, Clint follows along behind him, wondering if he’s in trouble, while trying to remind himself that he hasn’t done anything to be in trouble.

They’re heading up to the roof, so maybe he’s not in trouble, maybe Nick’s going to skip that part and just push him right off.

This part of the roof is flat and tarmaced, a little like the one photo of the helicarrier that Phil let Clint see. In the middle of it, looking like a really angry metal bird, is a small, sharp-nosed airplane.

“That’s… cool?” Clint tries, wondering why Nick has brought him up here to stare at a shiny thing. Even though it is really shiny.

“Yep,” Nick says and marches straight up to it. “Come on.”

“Wait, I get to go inside it? Okay, that’s awesome, you’re forgiven for dragging me out of school and embarrassing me in front of all my friends,” Clint tells him, running a careful hand over the paintwork. It’s still warm.

“Imagine my relief,” Nick says. He opens the hatch (it has a hatch, not a door, this is fucking cool) and points at the co-pilot seat. “Sit there; don’t touch anything. If you do decide to touch anything, I will kill you.”

“Okay, cool,” Clint says, and scrambles inside.

The seats are leather, and the dashboard has about a million different buttons and levers that he desperately wants to touch. Nick is walking around the front of the plane to climb in the other side, so Clint risks sticking out his finger and running it along the shiny chrome edge of the control stick.

“Saw that,” Nick says, climbing into the plane.

“You didn’t,” Clint says. He’s pretty sure Nick didn’t, Clint was really quick; unfortunately, Clint is also kind of predictable.

The hatches close around them until they’re locked into a little bubble of fancy technology and Nick Fury. Clint leans back in his seat and watches, fascinated, as Nick flips switches and turns levers and the engine roars to life.

“Where are we going?” he shouts.

It’s loud as fuck in here, and Nick doesn’t answer. After a minute, though, he must sense the waves of curiosity Clint’s giving off, because he looks over his shoulder, rolls his eyes, and points at the headset he slipped on.

Clint looks around, spots one just like it hanging over the back of his chair, and puts it on. The noise cuts back massively and Clint can finally hear himself when he says again, “Where are we going?”

“Nowhere,” Nick says. The plane starts to taxi forward, then he pulls on the control stick thingy and the nose goes up a little.

“Nowhere?” Clint repeats. He’s not nervous, he’s not, but this is a very small roof, not runway sized at all. “Are you sure?”

“Nowhere in particular,” Nick amends, and then they take off fucking vertically. (Vertically! Like something out of a sci-fi movie!)

“Oh my god,” Clint says, looking around in awe as they rise higher and higher above the roof. “Oh my god, we’re flying.”

“We are,” Nick says, a little gruff like he’s hiding the fact that he’s laughing. Clint doesn’t mind. He’s never flown before; this is incredible.

They do a couple of loops around the Academy grounds, and then further over surrounding houses - someone has a pool; someone else has a fucking tennis court. Clint leans as close to the window as he can get, taking everything in.

He’s always wanted to fly, but his whole life has been buses and circus trailers. This is amazing. Maybe he should feel vulnerable up here, but he feels so fucking powerful instead. Look at him, he’s flying.

“Clint,” Nick says and Clint turns toward him. A flash goes off and Clint blinks, thinking for a second that something’s gone wrong before he sees Nick slip a cell phone back into his pocket.

“What was that?” Clint asks. Now he’s been reminded about the inside of the plane, he wants to look at everything happening in here, too.

“Promised Coulson,” Nick says, with a shrug. “Wanna take the stick?”

“What?” Clint asks. He definitely asks; he definitely doesn’t squeak it.

“Only if you want to,” Nick says, totally casual like he doesn’t know Clint’s about to vibrate out of his seat.

“Yes,” Clint says. “Yes, definitely yes.”

Nick smirks. “See that thing right there in front of you, looks like a playstation controller on steroids?”

“Yup,” Clint says. It juts out from the dash and he holds his hands over it.

“That you can touch,” Nick says.

Clint curls his hands around the edges and holds his breath.

“Okay, I’m gonna give you control,” Nick says. “All you gotta do is hold her steady.”

“Okay.” Clint lets his breath out slowly. The control jerks a little under his hands, but he holds it tight. He can feel the plane fighting him, but the world still looks pretty steady out the window. Seriously, he feels so fucking powerful up here.

“Oh and Barton,” Nick says. “You break this bird, I’m gonna break you.”

“Fair,” Clint says. They’re still flying forward, their nose is still where he thinks it should be, the little control thingy on the dash is showing that they’re going in a (reasonably) straight line. He is totally doing this. “Okay, what next?”

Nick laughs, actually letting Clint hear it, for once. They usually exist in a world of mutually assured grumpy tolerance; Nick never lets on when Clint does something he finds amusing.

“Of course you wouldn’t be content with that.” He sighs, sounding put upon. “All right, see that green button?”

***

Clint doesn’t know how long they stay up in the air for, but his knees are shaking in a really good way, by the time they finally land back down on the roof. Nick won’t let him do that part, which Clint thinks is totally unfair.

“Have a good time?” Nick asks, once the engine’s off. He slips his headphones down to hang around his neck, so Clint does the same. His ears and the sides of his face are buzzing.

“Fucking amazing,” he says. It comes out way too loud, so he repeats it, quieter this time. He can’t stop the way he bounces in his seat, though. “Can we do that again?”

“Not sure how else you’re gonna learn to fly,” Nick says, offhand and casual like that’s nothing.

“Seriously?” Clint asks. “Are you serious?” He curls his hands in the edges of his seat cushion, just in case Nick’s not, just in case this is going to get taken away.

Nick just watches him for a minute, then he shakes his head slowly, sighing heavenward. “Do you use those lost puppydog eyes on Coulson?” he asks. “Is that why he’s so gone on you? Yes, I’m serious. SHIELD needs agents who can fly, but it’s not for everyone. Think of it as an elective.”

“Why me?” Clint asks. For the first time, he starts to wonder if there really is some favouritism going on, here. “Phil didn’t ask you to - ?”

“No,” Nick says with a huff.

“So why?” Clint presses.

“Because it’s fun,” Nick says, like Clint is being really difficult.

Clint is being really difficult, but he still has to know. “No but why?”

Nick presses his hands together, probably praying for strength. “Because I’m getting A+ reports from all your teachers, I’m proud of you and I’m giving you a treat. Any more stupidass questions?”

Clint opens his mouth then closes it again. “No, sir.”

Nick nods, firmly. “That’s better.”

Clint waits a beat, then, “All my teachers?” he asks. “Even Agent Hand?”

“Get the fuck out of my plane, Barton,” Nick says, popping the hatch in a really decisive-sounding way.

“Yes, sir,” Clint says, but it takes him a few seconds before he can bear to tear himself away.

***

Despite the fact that Phil’s on a mission and that they promised they wouldn’t call each other during the week unless there was an emergency, Clint sits down in the stairwell that leads up to the roof and calls Phil.

“Did you have fun?” Phil asks, as soon as he answers. “Nick sent me a picture.”

“Oh my god,” Clint breathes, waving his hands around even though no one can see, maybe because no one can see. “That was the most awesome thing I have ever done in my entire fucking life, Phil. Screw SHIELD, I want to be a pilot.”

Phil laughs, low and soft. “You can be a pilot for SHIELD,” he says. “We have better planes than United. You may have noticed.”

“That plane was so beautiful,” Clint says, all in one breath still. For once, he doesn’t care how dumb and little-kid excited he sounds. That was one of the best times of his life and he earned it. “Thanks.”

“What for?” Phil asks. He’s still laughing; Clint can hear it catch on the edge of his words, and suddenly he wishes desperately that Phil was there. Clint wants to climb in his lap and fuck for a week, then tell him about every second of that flight.

“I don’t know,” Clint says. He presses his face into his knees, kind of overwhelmed by how happy he feels, right now. “But I figure you did something. You always do something.”

“You only think that because you don’t give yourself enough credit,” Phil says. A voice says something in the background, and Clint expects him to make his excuses and go, but he doesn’t. “Tell me about it,” he says instead.

“Aren’t you busy?” Clint asks. His knees smell like engine oil; it’s not a bad smell, at all.

“It can wait,” Phil says. “Come on, start at the beginning.”

***

It’s weird not being able to go home to visit Phil that weekend. He gets his weekend pass, anyway, then stares down at it, not sure what to do.

Well, he has one idea, but it’s a shitty one, and he’s trying really hard to talk himself out of it.

By the time he falls asleep Friday night, he’s completely set and determined that he’s not going to do it. Then he wakes up early Saturday, tries to run off his bad idea, tries to shower it off, fails, thinks fuck it, and grabs his wallet.

***

Clint hands his ID over at the prison gate, lets himself be body scanned, then frisked, then goes to sit in a big room full of chairs and tables and other people’s families.

He came here once before, right after Barney was sentenced, but he didn’t stay long; Barney wouldn’t see him. This time, no guard comes back to tell him he’s wasting his time, so he sits and waits, and tries not to watch anyone else’s emotional family reunion.

When Barney comes out, he’s wearing a plain grey jumpsuit, not the orange one Clint was half-expecting, and there are handcuffs around his wrists.

“Hi,” Clint says. He wants to jump to his feet and come towards Barney, but he’s done following around at Barney’s heels like a puppy; it never did either of them any good.

“Fuck, look at you,” Barney says and drops down into the chair opposite Clint. “Looking good, kid.”

Clint grins down at the table. “Yeah, you too,” he says. He frowns at Barney’s arm. “That a tattoo?”

“No, it’s a fucking kiddy transfer,” Barney says. He pushes up his sleeve so Clint can see the tattoo on his forearm. It’s a bow and arrow, crudely drawn and swollen at the edges, like someone did it with a sewing needle and a sharpie or something.

“That’s.” Clint has to swallow hard. “That’s… wow.”

Barney keeps his chin up and doesn’t back down. “Don’t go getting soft,” he warns, then twitches his sleeve back down.

“No, uh, yeah,” Clint says. He traces a pattern someone else drew into the top of the table. “So, how are you?”

“Can’t complain,” Barney says. He’s tapping his fingers on the table, looking to the side and out the window. Bartons aren’t good at awkward conversations. Or looking at each other, apparently. “You?”

“Yeah, good,” Clint says. He’s not sure what else to say after that. It’s been over a year, and he’s the one who sold Barney out, got him put in jail in the first place. What do you say?

Eventually, Barney snorts and kicks him under the table. “You came to me, remember? What do you want?”

“Nothing!” Clint says, looking up and glaring straight at Barney. “I came to see my brother, asshole.”

Barney leans back in his chair, shaking his head. “Just like that?” he asks.

“Just like that,” Clint agrees. He doesn’t say that he was feeling guilty because his life is going well; that’s the sort of shit Barney would cuss him out for.

“Fine,” Barney says, “let’s say I believe you. Let’s have a cute little chat like brothers catching up. How you been? How’s that bitch Natasha? You still seeing that guy?”

“Natasha’s not a bitch, she just schooled your ass,” Clint says automatically. He might always feel guilty for putting Barney in jail, but it was at least ninety percent Natasha’s plan. Clint mostly just did as he was told. “And yeah.”

“Yeah?” Barney asks, then wrinkles his nose. “Oh, the guy?”

“Don’t look like that,” Clint snaps. “You don’t even know him.”

“Don’t I?” Barney asks slowly. “Agent Coulson? Looks like an accountant, kicks ass like a devil? I’ve heard things.”

Clint gets a bad feeling crawling up his spine. He leans his arms on the table and folds forward, lowering his voice. “How?” he asks.

Barney rolls his eyes. “You think I’m the only cast-off your precious SHIELD put in this place? Guys they can’t use, ones who are just mixed up with the ones they can use, we all get put in here and forgotten about. Your guy’s put quite a few in here, himself. Wonder how they’d feel, knowing he’s a fag…”

Clint’s on his feet before he knows it. He balls his hands into fists, spinning away, because he’s not, he’s not going to punch Barney. He’s not. But fuck, he wants to.

“Fuck,” Barney sighs behind him. “Clint.”

“This was a stupid fucking idea,” Clint says. “I’m gonna go.”

“No, come on,” Barney whines behind him, but Clint’s already walking out. This was such a stupid idea; he knew that before he came, so he has no idea why he did it.

One day, he’s going to fucking learn when it comes to Barney. Maybe, that day’s today.

***

“Woah, what’s with the face?” Trip asks, sitting down next to Clint on the wall that bisects the front lawn.

“Only one I got,” Clint says. He picked up a pack of cigarettes on the way back, and he’s smoking his way through them, even though he hasn’t smoked since he was thirteen.

Trip elbows him. “What’s up?”

“Eh,” Clint says, shrugging. “Just a sucky day.” He flicks ash off the end of his cigarette, watching the embers burn out on the grass.

“You should come to the party tonight,” Trip says. “Take your mind off whatever it is.” He raises his voice a little. “Is it Ward? Yo, Ward!”

Clint looks up to see Grant coming toward them. Grant stops beside them, leaning his hands on the wall. “What’s going on?”

“Barton’s having a bad day,” Trip says. “I’m trying to convince him to take his mind off it with booze and hot cadets.”

“Another party?” Grant asks, like that’s the most confusing thing he’s ever heard. Clint would tell him that most kids their age party every weekend, but Clint’s too busy giving himself lung cancer to enlighten anyone.

“Another party,” Trip agrees. “My roommate likes parties and I like hot cadets, so what are we to do?” He squeezes Clint’s arm. “Cheer up, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Clint says, and manages some kind of pathetic grin at him.

When Trip’s gone, Grant hoists himself up onto the wall and steals a cigarette from Clint’s pack. Then he steals his lighter, lights up, waits a beat, then starts coughing.

“That’s disgusting,” he says, voice going high and hoarse.

“It really is,” Clint agrees sadly. He keeps on smoking, just because it’s making him feel sullen and young and pathetic, which is exactly how Barney always manages to make him feel, too.

“Want to talk about it?” Grant asks, looking sideways at Clint in this way that’s half hopeful and half worried. It’s endearing. “You didn’t, um, did you fight with your boyfriend?”

“No,” Clint says. He finally gets tired of himself and stubs his cigarette out. He picks up the pack and lobs it twenty feet into the trashcan at the end.

Grant watches, looking a little impressed. “Good,” he says, sounding way too relieved. It’s funny; Clint likes Grant, but he’s kind of a robot, Clint doubts he’d be any good at relationship advice.

Clint looks around to make sure that no one’s listening then lowers his voice. “It’s my brother,” he says.

Grant straightens up, leaning in a little to match Clint’s secrecy. “Brother?” he asks.

Clint scrubs a hand through his hair. “He’s in jail, not far from here,” Clint says quickly. He doesn’t think Grant will judge him but hey, it could happen.

“Okay,” is all Grant says, so Clint finds himself spilling the story: the drugs Barney was selling, how SHIELD stepped in and swept him away. He doesn’t tell him what Barney said about Phil, because he’s still smarting about that.

“Yeah, brothers suck,” Grant says, when he’s done. “My older brother’s an asshole, too.”

That shouldn’t make Clint feel better - lots of people have sucky older brothers - but it does. He holds his fist up. “Bros with bad bros,” he says. “Let’s go to Trip’s party and drink our troubles away, yeah?”

Grant frowns and Clint’s sure he’s going to say no, but eventually, he bumps fists with Clint and says, “Yeah, why not.”

***

Clint doesn’t drink much, he never really has, so he’s happily wasted after a couple of solo cups of whatever it is Trip’s roommate smuggled into the Academy.

He sits on a bed with a girl and a boy he doesn’t know, and lets one of them paint his fingernails. It’s nice. It feels like college, maybe.

“Can I tell you a secret?” the girl asks. She’s English and she has very pretty hair. Clint wants to play with it, but he knows he can’t do that without permission.

“Yes,” Clint says. He’s great at secrets.

“We don’t go here,” she whispers. “We snuck in from Sci-Tech.”

Clint laughs. “I feel like I snuck in every day,” he says. “Do you think they’ll find out and get rid of me?”

“Oh no,” the boy says earnestly. “I’ve seen your scores; you’re excellent.”

“Shh,” the girl says, laughing.

“You’ve seen my scores?” Clint asks. “I have scores?”

“Your bow scores,” he tells him. “They sent them over so we could analyse them, see if we could make you better arrows.”

“I love arrows,” Clint says. He’s tired, so he puts his head down on someone’s lap; they don’t seem to mind.

***

He half wakes up to find the room cleared out and Grant tugging him up to his feet. “Come on, Barton,” he says. “Up.”

Clint stands up, then sways. “Hey,” he says, catching himself on Grant’s shoulder. “I feel weird.”

“You’re drunk,” Grant says. He hands Clint an open bottle of water. “Drink some of this.”

Clint drinks, but it doesn’t make him feel any less weird.

“Do you do this at home?” Grant asks casually, leading Clint out into the hallway. “I pity your guy, if you do.”

“Noooo,” Clint says. The hallway is really fuzzy. He doesn’t drink much but he has been drunk. This doesn’t feel like that. “No, we drink gross tea and we have a dog. We’re old and boring. It’s awesome.”

Grant props him against a wall and pushes the button for an elevator Clint didn’t think they were supposed to use. “Bet you miss him.”

“All the time,” Clint says. He closes his eyes so the swirling will stop. It doesn’t, which means it’s probably in his brain. “I miss him all the time.”

“But he works for SHIELD, right?” Grant asks. “You could go see him.”

“He works at SHIELD HQ, now,” Clint says, proudly. “For Director Fury.”

“Cool,” Grant says. He doesn't’ sound like he cares much, so maybe it’s okay for Clint to talk about Phil. Just a little. “You wanna know how awesome he is?”

Grant makes a sound like a laugh, but Clint’s not gonna open his eyes to check. “I’m betting you want to tell me.”

“I do,” Clint sighs. So he does.

***

Clint is hungover as fuck the next morning, but Grant looks fresh as a fucking daisy. Clint takes back whatever warm and fuzzy feelings he might have felt about him last night; he doesn’t like him at all.

“Get me coffee,” he begs, from under his pillow. “Please?”

“I got you coffee; it’s on the floor by your bed,” Grant says. He’s pulling running shoes on, because he’s superhuman. “Your phone’s buzzing, by the way.”

“Ugh, who is it?” Clint asks, snaking out a hand and wrapping it around the coffee cup. He’s not quite up to lifting his head yet, but it’s reassuring to know it’s there.

“Phil,” Grant says, presumably reading it off the screen. “That the boyfriend?”

“That’s the boyfriend,” Clint agrees. He moans again. “I’ll call him back.”

“I’ll see you later,” Grant says, opening the door. “Good luck.”

“Hate you,” Clint calls after him, then sinks back down into his pit of hungover death.

***

By the evening, Clint’s feeling human again and starving. He’s down in the dining hall, eating as much food as he can get his hands on, while Akela and Sharon talk ballistics over the top of his head, when Sharon breaks off mid-word and says, “I think that guy’s looking for you.”

“Guy?” Clint asks, looking up from stuffing sweet potato fries into his mouth.

He looks where she’s pointing, then stops, heart leaping up into his throat. It’s Phil, standing on the edge of the dining hall and watching Clint with a weird look on his face. He’s wearing his blandest suit with his most boring tie, and he’s still the most goddamn gorgeous person Clint’s ever seen.

“Yeah, he is,” Clint says, distracted, and jumps up from the table. Phil gives him the tiniest shake of his head, so he doesn’t rush over or anything. Not that he’d really do that, a sweeping Hollywood welcome in the middle of the dining hall isn’t really his style, but he might have jogged a little.

Instead, he walks at a totally sedate pace, stops in front of Phil and says, “Sir?” like they’re strangers.

Phil smiles just slightly, but the skin around his eyes is tense; he’s worried, even if he maybe is also pleased to see Clint.

“Cadet Barton?” he says. Even his voice is quieter, less confident. Clint’s never seen the full Unassuming Agent Coulson routine; it’s scarily convincing.

“Sir,” Clint says again. He wants to say What’s wrong? and also, Any chance of a kiss? but he manages not to.

“Come with me, please,” Phil says, and turns on his heel, leading him out of the dining hall.

Clint’s vaguely aware that at least a few people are watching them. Grant’s standing in the dinner line, a frown on his face, so Clint flashes him a what the fuck? look, but gets no help, at all.

Phil doesn’t stop once they’re out of the dining hall, just keeps walking until they reach an empty classroom, then bundles Clint into it.

“What the hell?” Clint asks, as soon as the door’s shut. “Is this kinky roleplay? I could do kinky roleplay.”

Phil sighs out a laugh, like it’s been bent up inside him a long time. “It’s not kinky roleplay,” he says. He slides a chair in front of the door, then sits down on one of the desks. Clint picks the one immediately opposite it, so their knees touch.

“Phil,” Clint presses, starting to feel a little scared. “Are you okay? Did something happen? Is Lucky - ?”

“We’re both fine,” Phil says. He leans forward and puts his hands on Clint’s knees, which is how Clint knows this is serious. Shit. “Did you go see Barney, yesterday?”

“What?” Clint asks. “How the fuck did you know that?”

“Visitor logs,” Phil says. “You gave your real name.”

“Okay, but why were you - ” Clint starts, but gets interrupted.

“Barney escaped last night,” Phil tells him. He squeezes Clint’s knee, like he thinks Clint’s going to take that badly, but mostly Clint just feels numb.

He opens his mouth, trying to pick the question he wants to ask most, and eventually settles on, “How?”

Phil sucks in air through his teeth. It makes a whistling noise that somehow foretells more bad news. “No one knows. The prison governor called SHIELD in because whoever helped to spring Barney used a device that cuts straight through metal and somehow let Barney walk straight out of the back of a cell that was on the fourth floor. That’s the kind of device we’d usually own.”

“And do we?” Clint asks.

Phil nods. “We do. Someone checked it out of storage, last night, but we don’t know who.”

Clint presses his fists into his eyes, trying to push his brain into understanding this. It doesn’t make any sense. “Why would SHIELD spring Barney? They put him in there, in the first place.”

“SHIELD wouldn’t,” Phl says. He strokes his thumb along the ridge of Clint’s kneecap. It feels apologetic and Clint doesn’t understand why until Phil adds, “But a brother who felt guilty and suddenly had access to the means to do it, he might.”

Clint pushes away so fast he falls off the back of the desk and lands in an awkward half-crouch, a good three feet away from Phil, now. “You think it was me?” he asks. “Seriously?”

“No,” Phil says quickly, “but.” He shakes his head, tries again. “No, I don’t think it was you, but I’m at a loss to think who else it could be.”

“You think it was me,” Clint repeats, straightening up. “Does everyone? Fuck, do they… are they going to kick me out?”

Phil stands up, too, reaches out to Clint, but Clint backs up a step. “No, of course not,” Phil says. “Nick agrees with me that you wouldn’t be that stupid, but we can’t not investigate just because we care about you.”

Clint folds his arms across his chest, nodding jerkily. “Right,” he says, “yeah, that, that makes sense I guess. I mean, none of this makes sense, but that almost makes sense? Where’s Barney, now?”

“We have no idea,” Phil says. He sits on the corner of the desk, and because Clint’s brain is dumb, Clint’s immediately sad that Phil’s not trying to touch him anymore, so he drifts closer. “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to visit him? I would have come with you.”

“I know.” Clint looks down, fiddles with his sleeves. “I just I wanted to do it by myself? So if it went wrong, I’d be the only one who had to know and… I don’t know, I was freaked out. Now I’m freaked out in whole new ways.”

“Clint,” Phil says softly. “Are you okay?”

“It was so shitty,” Clint says. He scrubs his hand over his face. “He’s such an asshole; I don’t know why I wanted to see him. And now I’m fucking worrying about him, like, like what if something’s happened to him? God.”

Phil pulls him into a hug, and Clint wants to melt against him, he really does, but his spine feels like it’s fused together, all his worries knotting up in his muscles. Still, Phil is warm and solid, and Clint appreciates being held.

“I just thought it’d be nice to see him, you know,” he admits into the quiet space between them. “Why do I always think that?”

“Eternal optimism,” Phil says. He pulls back, straightening the front of Clint’s field suit for him. “Don’t worry, okay. Barney will be fine; you’re not going to get thrown out of SHIELD. Please don’t panic.”

“What’s gonna happen?” Clint asks. “Are you looking for Barney? Can I help?”

Phil hesitates. “We’re looking for the device,” he says eventually. “If we find Barney, that’s a bonus for me personally, but it’s not SHIELD’s priority.”

“Why for you?” Clint asks.

“Because it’ll make you happy,” Phil says, like that should have been obvious.

Clint ducks his head; maybe it should have been. “What happens now?” he asks. “Are you staying?”

“You carry on as normal. If anyone asks, I wanted to see you about something personal that you’d rather not talk about. I’ll be staying this evening, I need to meet Agent Triplett at last; it’s ostensibly what I’m here for.”

Clint manages a smile. “You’re good at this whole secret relationship thing,” he says.

“You’re not a secret,” Phil says, sounding appalled at the very idea. “I’m not keeping you a secret.” He smiles his lopsided smile that Clint likes best. “If anything, you’re keeping me a secret.”

Clint doesn’t want to, he really doesn’t, but he laughs. “Does that turn you on?” he asks. “Sir?”

“Oh my god, no, don’t do that,” Phil says. He squeezes Clint’s wrist. “You’ll be okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” Clint says, lies. “Go meet Trip. He’s been all mopey and lonely without an SO of his own. Will you - ”

“Will I?” Phil prompts.

Clint sighs, exasperated with himself for always having to push for more. “Nah, never mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Phil crosses his arms and waits. He’s horrible when he does that; Clint thinks it’s totally unfair, mostly because it takes him five seconds to cave most times.

“Will you be home this weekend?” Clint asks in a rush. “I mean, you don’t have to be, I get that you’ve got a Tony Stark thing, but apparently I make shitty decisions when you’re gone?”

Phil’s eyes go soft in that way that leaves Clint in no doubt that Phil loves him. “I’ll be home,” he says. “I promise.”

“Okay.” Clint takes a breath. “Then I’m good.” It’s only four days; how much shittier can things get in four days?

***

Clint hardly sleeps Monday night, which means he passes out as soon as he crawls into bed on Tuesday night.

He wakes up groggy and confused in the pitch black, to someone shaking his shoulder. “What?” he mumbles, hitting out awkwardly at the hand on his shoulder.

“Come on,” Grant’s voice comes through the dark. “Get up, Garrett needs you.”

“Now?” Clint asks, a sinking feeling passing over him as he realises he’s not going to get to go back to sleep.

“Get up,” Grant says, letting go of him.

Clint fights his way out of the comforter, wondering if dying is a logical alternative plan when cold air hits his bare knees and feet. He grabs the jeans that were hanging over the end of his bed, fumbling them on with sleep-numb fingers. If Garrett wants him in uniform, he can send for him during the day.

They creep along the corridors and deeper into parts of the Academy that Clint hasn’t been to before. No one else is awake, because it’s ass o’clock in the morning, but as they go further and further down flights of stairs, Clint starts to get the impression that they wouldn’t be meeting anyone, even if it were the middle of the day.

“Where are we going?” he whispers, as they round another corner and come to a heavy metal door.

“Almost there,” is all Grant says, typing in a code that he probably thinks is too quick for Clint to see and too long for Clint to remember. Very few things are too quick for Clint to see, though, so he memorises it instinctively, just in case.

Garrett meets them at the door, pushing Grant aside to sling his arm around Clint’s shoulders. He always does that; Clint’s not sure he likes it.

“Welcome, welcome,” he says, pulling Clint down a couple of steps into a wide, cavernous basement. There are curtains strung up across each corner, shielding them from sight, and there are a million shadows everywhere under the dim, flickering light.

“This is very secret lair-y,” Clint says, looking around slowly. “Where are we?”

“Secret base under a secret base,” Garrett says. He pulls Clint over to a table in the middle of the room and pushes him down into a seat. “Drink?”

“No, thanks,” Clint says. Everything’s just a little weird and middle of the night surreal. He’d expect to start hallucinating, if he drank anything Garrett gave him, down here.

“Suit yourself,” Garrett says and drops down into the chair opposite. “Sorry to drag you out of bed, kid; we were gonna do this slower, but the powers that be have sped up the timetable.” He spreads his hands like what can you do?

“Do what?” Clint asks. He looks over his shoulder at Grant, who’s leaning against the wall, arms folded. His body language looks different from normal, more fluid, like he’s half a step from rolling straight into a fight.

Garrett rests his elbows on the table and his chin on his hands. “Okay, I’m gonna level with you. Ward and I might have been lying to you a little.”

Clint waits. He has no idea where this is going, and he definitely can’t see why it had to happen at three in the morning.

Garrett nods to himself. “Yeah, we’ve been a little sneaky. See, I’ve known this guy a while now, and I’ve been on the look out for another kid who can match his talents. When I saw your application to the Academy come in, I got you two assigned to a room together and asked Ward to do some recon, find out if you were worth recruiting.”

“Recruiting?” Clint asks. He turns all the way around in his chair to make a face at Grant. “What the hell is going on?”

Grant just nods his chin at Garrett, like he’s telling Clint to pay attention.

“It’s a little complicated,” Garrett says. “But we work for a secret organisation within SHIELD.”

“What? SHIELD wasn’t secret enough for you?” Clint asks. “Do you have a catchy name, too?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Garrett says, so fast that he ends up talking over the end of Clint’s sentence. “Have you heard of Internal Affairs? We’re a little like that. We clear out the trash, make sure SHIELD is working toward the right goals, that kind of thing.”

The only thing Clint knows about Internal Affairs is that people in cop shows hate them, but that sounds like kind of a cool job, so he nods. “And where do I come in?”

“We’d like you to join us,” Garrett says. He beckons to Grant, who comes forward. “Shit is about to go down and you and Grant could be our eyes and ears here at Ops.”

“You can’t tell anyone,” Grant says. He’s standing on Clint’s left, looming over him, and it’s a little intimidating, even though Clint’s sure he could take him. Well. Mostly sure.

“What, you want me to swear on a bible?” he asks.

“No,” Grant says. He kneels down next to Clint’s chair and looks him in the eye. “Seriously, it needs to be a secret. No one’s allowed to know. Not Director Fury or - ” He glances at Garrett. “Anyone.”

Right, of course Grant knows about Clint’s flying lesson with Nick, if he’s been spying on him. Fuck, Clint thought they were friends. This sucks. He wonders if Trip and Sharon and Akela are spying on him, too.

Clint wants to get out of here, and he wants to talk to Phil. Fuck them and their secrecy.

“Don’t worry, Clint’s not going to tell anyone,” Garrett says. He smiles slowly, this really smug, satisfied sort of smile that Clint doesn’t like, at all.

“Okay, you know you look really creepy when you do that?” Clint asks, starting to stand up.

“Good,” Garrett says and grabs his wrist in a grip that’s tight enough that Clint can’t break it, not unless he really wants to struggle. “Come see what I got, see if it changes your mind.”

Clint really doesn’t want to go anywhere with him. He wants to go back to bed and pretend this was all the weirdest dream, ever. Garrett keeps pulling though, so Clint follows him.

They cross the room toward one of the curtains against the wall. Garrett knocks it aside, revealing another door with another lock on it. Garrett types in a pincode, keeping his hand over it, so Clint doesn’t stand a chance of seeing it, this time.

When the door opens, it reveals a long, dark corridor, with closed doors running down both sides. Garrett marches down the corridor until he gets to the very end. He slides an old-fashioned key into the lock, pulls a pistol from his belt, and levels it at the door.

Clint looks at Grant, then hurries down the corridor to see who the fuck Garrett’s about to shoot.

“On your knees,” Garrett shouts, before swinging open the door. He waits a beat, then reaches in and switches on the light.

Clint chokes down a gasp, starting forward in horror. Kneeling on the floor, blood on his face and in his hair, is Barney.

Grant catches his arm before he can get into the room, just shrugging when Clint spins around and tries to shove him away.

“What the fuck? You’re the ones who busted him out?” Clint demands. “Why?”

“We’re the ones,” Garrett agrees, blandly. “Consider this an, I don’t know, what should we call it? Let’s say it’s an incentives programme.”

Clint’s heart’s pounding fast in his chest. He’s so fucking angry, but he doesn’t know who to punch first: Grant for betraying him, Garrett for being a psycho, or Barney for existing and being someone Clint can’t stop caring about.

He slumps against the wall, rubbing his eyes. “Is this how Internal Affairs is supposed to work?” he asks. “Seems to me like the kind of thing you’d be investigating, not doing.”

“It’s how we work,” Garrett says. He nods toward Barney, who’s peering out at them, with a frown between his eyes. “All you have to do is help us, and we’ll look after your brother.”

“And if I don’t?” Clint asks. It’s dark in the room, but he doesn’t like how quiet Barney is. The Barney Clint knows should be screaming bloody murder.

Garrett shrugs. “Then we’ll kill him.” He watches Clint for a moment, then smiles. “If that doesn’t work, we’ll kill Phil Coulson. And your little dog too.” He waggles his eyebrows like this is hilarious, like it’s all one big joke.

Clint’s going to throw up; he’s sure of it.

Garrett laughs. “Aww, don’t look like that, it wasn’t hard to figure out, you know, despite your clever little subterfuge. Get a couple of drinks in you, a little flunitrazepam in your beer, and… bam.”

“I’m going to fucking kill you,” Clint tells Grant between his teeth. “You fucking bastard. You drugged me?”

“Now, now, no need to be like that.” Garrett swings Barney’s door shut without sparing Barney another glance. “We’re not the bad guys, Clint. We’re not the enemy.”

“So how come you’re acting like it?” Clint asks. “Why is my brother in a fucking cage?”

“Insurance,” Garrett says. He moves to pat Clint on the shoulder, but Clint snarls, slapping him down. “Now, you gonna be good, or do I need to start removing your brother’s fingers to show we’re serious?”

And you think you’re not the bad guys? Clint says. He needs to think, he needs to come up with a plan. He needs to tell Phil, because Phil will know what to do, but if he tells Phil, Garrett will hurt him.

“Okay,” he says. “What do you want me to do?”

Garrett beams at him, like he’s Santa Claus. “I need you to go back upstairs, go back to your classes, and when the time comes, be ready to do what you need to do.”

“Which will be?” Clint asks.

“Whatever I fucking tell you,” Garrett snarls. He waves his fingers at Grant. “Off you go. Don’t get caught, now.”

Grant nods and walks over to join Clint, but Clint can’t deal with being anywhere near him right now, and strides on ahead.

It’s doesn’t make his point very successfully, because he needs to wait for Grant to open each door in turn for him, but it’s that or put a fist in his face, and Clint doesn’t think Garrett will count that as being good.

***

“Look,” Grant says as soon as they’re back in their room.

“Oh do not fucking try,” Clint says, shucking off his jeans, and kicking his shoes angrily across the room. He wants to crawl into bed and pull a blanket over his head, and try to decide what the hell he’s going to do.

“We’re not the bad guys,” Grant says, like he actually believes that. “I know Garrett’s a little brash, but we’re doing a good thing. SHIELD’s gotten off course and we’re helping to steer it back.”

Clint rounds on him, breathing hard. “Yeah, you’re doing such a great thing, that you have to kidnap people’s families to make them help out.” He tugs at his hair, tries to stay calm, but mostly fails. “Or is that just me? Am I the only one in Garrett’s fucking ‘incentives programme.’”

Grant sits down on the bed. He looks tired, the remnants of the black eye he had more pronounced in the shadows. Clint wonders how he really got that, but he doesn’t care enough to ask.

“You’re not the only one in the programme. Garrett’s threatened a lot of other people, too.”

“You?” Clint asks, quickly. Maybe they can fix this shit together; he doesn’t know how to do it by himself.

Grant doesn’t answer, and the longer he doesn’t answer, the more obvious it becomes.

“Not you,” Clint answers for him. “You actually want to help him.”

Grant still doesn’t answer. Eventually, he just says, “Go to bed, Clint.”

Clint doesn’t want to, just to be contrary, but he needs the quiet to get his head in order. He crawls into bed and pulls the comforter all the way up over his head. Grant just stays sitting on his bed, looking completely blank and exhausted, but Clint’s not thinking about him.

***

It’s a shitty fucking week. Clint spends every day doing his best to seem normal, terrified that he’s going to slip up and Barney or Phil or Lucky will pay the price.

“Stop acting so jumpy,” Grant hisses on the range, after Clint’s missed two shots in succession. Clint never misses, but he’s exhausted and furious and terrified; it’s hard to concentrate.

“Or what?” Clint hisses back, but he regrets saying it as soon as it’s out. He knows what. So he lines up the next shot, forces himself back into the room, and nails it.

He’s more careful after that, answers questions in class, does his best to joke around with the others the way he usually would. Only now, he’s aware of Grant watching him in a way he never had been before. He can’t help wondering which things are being reported back to Garrett, who else Grant is spying on.

It makes Clint feels sick and dirty and helpless that he’s just letting it go on, but he doesn’t know what to do about it.

***

Friday evening, he goes home like normal, because doing anything else would look suspicious, and because he’s desperate to see Phil and make sure he’s okay. Grant pulls him aside before he goes, says, “Don’t tell Agent Coulson, anything,” like he’s actually worried, not like a threat, like a plea.

Clint doesn’t understand him.

Being at home feels like a dream. It’s easy to sink back into talking to Phil, playing with Lucky, and to forget that anything exists outside their apartment.

Phil’s really chatty tonight, telling Clint all about Malibu, and Stark, and Stark’s giant house. He doesn’t tell Clint what he was doing there, but he has enough rants to fill a whole evening, anyway.

“You’re quiet,” Phil says, when they’re stretched out on the sofa. “Am I talking too much?”

“No, I like it,” Clint promises. He’d been being good and sitting on his own side of the sofa like a grownass adult who didn’t need a hug, but he gives up on that now and crawls down the length of the sofa.

“Hi?” Phil asks, lifting his arm so Clint can tuck in against his side.

“Hi,” Clint agrees. He slides his arms around Phil and holds on tight, pressing his face into Phil’s neck.

Phil brushes the hair off the nape of his neck, fingernail catching on Clint’s skin. “Worried about Barney?”

“Yes,” Clint says, way too forceful, he knows, but fuck is he worried about Barney, so much more than Phil knows.

Phil sighs. “I wish I could give you good news, but all our leads are coming up with dead ends. Are you sure he didn’t mention anything about where he might go?”

“I don’t want to talk about this,” Clint says in a rush. He turns his face further so it’s buried in Phil’s neck and the arm of the sofa. He slept on this sofa for weeks after Phil first brought him in off the streets; its dusty, slight stale smell always makes Clint feel safe.

***

That night, they’re lying in bed, Phil mostly asleep and Clint’s heart pounding relentlessly along with his thoughts.

He closes the gap between them and presses his face into the back of Phil’s neck. “I love you, you know?” he mumbles.

Phil rolls over and touches his face, but Clint turns his head away. “Of course I know,” he says. “I wish you’d tell me what’s wrong.”

Clint shakes his head, which ends up pressing his face into Phil’s hand, which he hadn’t wanted, he hadn’t been going to do that.

“Clint,” Phil says. Clint thinks Phil’s going to push him for an answer again, but Phil doesn’t. In the light coming into the bedroom from the street outside, he looks grave. “If anything ever happens to me, and you feel you can’t stay with SHIELD, there’s an address in Portland you can go to.”

The idea of anything happening to Phil on top of everything else that Clint’s worrying about makes his stomach turn over. “Dude, don’t. What would happen to you?”

“I don’t know,” Phil says, and the way he’s looking at Clint almost makes Clint feel like he’s asking him. “Just in case.”

“What address?” Clint asks, even though he hates himself for asking. He’s not going to get Phil hurt and, even if he does, he sure as hell isn’t going to run for cover, but he still can’t help asking.

“It’s in your phone,” Phil says. He makes a soft noise like he knows Clint’s going to object to that. “I put it in before you left.”

“Sneak,” Clint says and laughs. It’s not really funny, but he’s prepared to pretend it is. He just wants something to feel normal, just for a second.

“Sue me, I worry,” Phil says. He puts his hand on Clint’s hip and strokes his thumb over the sensitive skin just above the waistband of his sleep pants. “It’s my mother’s address.”

“Your mother?” Clint asks, startled. “You told me your mother was dead.”

Phil ducks his head, dark hair blurring into the darkness. “That’s what I told everyone,” he says. “We lost touch when I joined the army, and then SHIELD came along and it seemed safer to be someone with no ties.” He laughs quietly. “Well, no ties except you.”

“God,” Clint mutters, covering his face with his hands.

“What?” Phil asks. “Are you angry I didn’t tell you?”

Any other day and Clint would have been super hurt that Phil didn’t tell him something big like that. Today, that would be massively hypocritical, so he just shakes his head. “I just really fucking hate secrets,” he tells his palms.

“I’m sorry,” Phil says, sounding genuinely contrite, like he really means it. God, Clint hates himself so much.

“Don’t,” Clint begs. He puts one of his hands over Phil’s face, rather than his own. Not quite pushing him back, just making sure there’s a definite space between them. “Would you go to her, too? If shit hit the fan.”

Phil puts his hand over Clint’s, gently pulling it down until Clint’s fingers are pressed against Phil’s chest. He loves Phil’s chest, but he can’t even enjoy it. “It depends on what the problem was. If it were something I could fix, I’d have to stay.”

“Yeah,” Clint says quietly. He knew that would be the answer. And the trouble is that he doesn’t even know what’s happening, just that Garrett’s going to do something. Maybe it won’t involve Phil at all, as long as Clint does as he’s told. Maybe.

“We were talking about a vacation, after you graduate, remember?” Phil says, hesitantly. “We could visit my mom, then.”

“Yeah,” Clint says. He knows it comes out too quick, that it’s out of character for him to be eager to visit with strangers, especially strangers he really wants to like him, but going away with Phil sounds so good.

“Okay, we’ll do that,” Phil says. “You’ll like her.”

Clint rolls his eyes, even though it’s probably too dark for Phil to see. “I want her to like me, dude,” he says.

“That’s a given,” Phil says, soft and sure like he always is. It’s always overwhelming how much he likes Clint (worse, probably, than how much he loves him), but today it’s way too much.

“Okay,” Clint chokes out and rolls away. With his back to Phil, his face hidden in a pillow, he knows he’s being obvious, that there’s no way Phil believes he’s okay, but all Phil does is lie down behind him and curl his arm around Clint’s waist.

Clint slides backward into him, even though he shouldn’t, and breathes out when his back is pressed flush against Phil’s chest. He’s going to keep this, he thinks wildly, he’s not going to let anyone take this away from him.

***

Clint pounds on the door until it opens. He’s not particularly worried that anyone will hear him; Garrett’s secret base seriously is ridiculously deep under ground. Clint wonders if he shot all the people who built it for him, like one of those pharoahs or whoever.

He could just type in the door code, but he doesn’t want to tip them off that he has it.

“Jeez, Barton,” Garrett says, opening the door and ushering Clint in. “They haven’t taught you stealth yet, then?”

“I want to see Barney,” Clint says. “I haven’t told anyone about your Bond lair, so I want to see my brother.” He folds his arms, squares his jaw, and waits.

Garrett sucks on his lower lip, like Clint’s hilarious. “Be my guest,” he says, waving at the room at large.

Suspicious, Clint starts to walk toward the curtain covering the door they were keeping Barney behind last time, only to come to a sudden stop in the middle of the room.

Barney isn’t dazed and locked away in a cell anymore, he’s sitting at Garrett’s table, drinking something amber out of a tumbler and watching Clint with his head tilted slightly to the side.

“What are you doing?” Clint asks. He looks back at Garrett, confused.

“Your brother and I came to an understanding,” Garrett says. “You didn’t tell me he was such a hoot.”

“He is?” Clint asks blankly then remembers that that’s not the point. He drags a metal folding chair out from the table and spins it around, before sitting on it backwards. It’ll be easier to jump back up to his feet that way.

“Are you okay?” he asks. There’s bruising all down the right side of Barney’s face and a scabbed over cut along his hairline above his ear. With his red hair and pale skin, it really stands out.

“I’m great, there’s booze,” Barney says. He smiles at Clint, a little too wide and a little too sloppy. Of course he’s fucking drunk in the Lair of Ambiguous Evilness. Of course he is.

“Getting along well with Agent Garrett?” Clint asks carefully.

Barney nods slowly “Yeah, he told me what’s really going on. Looks like the whole smacking-me-around thing was a misunderstanding.”

“Cool. Okay,” Clint says. “That’s… that’s good.”

Garrett leans his hands on the table, breaking Clint’s eyeline with Barney. “Sorry to break up the reunion, boys, but I’ve got to head out. Mr Barton, you mind if I put you back in your room?”

“I’ll go too,” Clint says, making the decision on the fly. “That’s okay, right? Lock me up with Barney so we can talk more?”

“Sure,” Garrett says. He looks like he’s trying to figure out what trouble Clint could get into that way, but can’t come up with anything. Neither can Clint, but he’s confident he’s going to find something.

Clint and Barney let themselves get locked into Barney’s room, as good as gold. The door locks behind them, Garrett leaving with a friendly thump against the wood, and all of a sudden Barney’s hand is over Clint’s mouth.

Clint makes a muffled protest, then bites Barney’s palm when that doesn’t do any good. Barney slaps him on the shoulder and, all of a sudden, it’s like being little kids again. Clint widens his eyes at Barney, but Barney waits another minute before letting go.

He gives Clint a shove in the middle of the chest, knocking him back into the wall. “What the actual fucking fuck have you gotten into now, you idiot?” he snaps. He doesn’t seem drunk anymore.

“Ow,” Clint says, rubbing the back of his head. “Are you seriously questioning my life choices, right now? You’re the one drinking with a psychopath.”

“Would you rather I was sitting in here doing fuck all?” Barney demands. He sits down on the bed, rolling his head from side to side like his neck hurts. “Figured we had a better chance of escaping this shit, if they thought I was on their side.”

The relief hits Clint so hard, he goes dizzy with it for a second. “Tell me you’re serious.”

“Course I’m fucking serious,” Barney says. “These guys are crazy.”

Clint slides down to sit on the floor, back against the door. “I know,” he groans, tipping his head back and letting it thunk, hoping another knock to the head will help. “I don’t know what to do.”

Barney slides off the bed and onto the floor, so they’re sitting at the same height. “Hey,” he says, kicking Clint’s ankle. “We okay?”

Clint stares at him. “We’re locked in a room by a scary man who wants to chop off your fingers,” he reminds him.

“I mean,” Barney says, breaking off to roll his eyes, like he really has to make sure Clint notices. “I mean, are you and me okay? I heard what Garrett said to you the other night. You didn’t have to go along with their plans just for me. I know... I know, it’s not just for me, but… I appreciate it.”

Clint doesn’t know what to say. “Sap,” he settles on. “Can we skip the heart to heart until later?”

“Yes,” Barney says, heartfelt. “Okay, come on.” He stands up, but Clint’s confused, so he doesn’t follow.

“Come on… where?” he asks, looking around the tiny, square room. There isn’t even any furniture other than the bed.

Barney grunts, grabs Clint by the arm, and yanks him to his feet. Clint’s just about to seriously object to that, when Barney pulls something out of his pocket that looks kind of a lot like a lockpick.

“Okay,” Clint says, backing up from the door. “What?”

Barney sticks the pick in the lock and jiggles it. “Soon as my ears stopped ringing, I got bored. Went exploring. There’s a lot of shit down here.”

“We can’t escape,” Clint says. “They’ll hurt Phil, if they think I’m working against them.” He watches Barney jimmy the door open and yeah, okay, he’s impressed. Not at the lockpicking, he could do that too, but at the lockpick. Who knew Barney was resourceful?

“They’re not gonna catch us,” Barney says. “We ain’t going far.”

He pushes the door open quietly, waits a beat, then steps out into the hallway. Clint follows, absolutely certain that this is a stupid idea, yet doing it anyway.

(In other words, a typical moment hanging out with Barney.)

Three doors down and across the corridor, Barney presses his ear to a door, then pulls out his lockpick again. “You need to be really quiet,” he whispers, like he thinks Clint’s suddenly going to get fucking chatty.

When this door opens, it doesn’t take them into anywhere Clint was expecting, which was a room like Barney’s. This room is way bigger, maybe two or three of the bedrooms knocked together, with medical equipment lining one wall, a really scary looking chair in the middle like the kind they use for executions, and a gurney in the corner.

There’s a guy strapped to the gurney, a mask over his face and a whole bunch of different needles going into a cannula in his right wrist. His left wrist - hell, his whole left arm - is made of shiny silver metal.

Clint can’t really take his eyes off that.

“Yeah,” Barney says, hand landing on Clint’s shoulder and making him jump. “Kind of a sight, ain’t it?”

“Who is he?” Clint asks, though why he expects Barney to know, he isn’t sure.

Sure enough, Barney shakes his head. “Found him the other day; he’s always like this. Check out the arm.”

“Yeah,” Clint says. He drifts closer, looking down at the dude from above. He’s younger than Clint was expecting, somehow, can’t be any older than Phil. Long dark hair is stuck to his face and the stubble all over his jaw is half-hiding a nasty-looking bruise.

He looks half-dead, lying here, and something clenches in Clint’s chest. He’s not used to feeling anything for strangers, but this just isn’t right. He reaches out and smoothes the hair back from the dude’s face.

“What are you doing?” Barney snaps at him, but the dude hasn’t moved, and Clint isn’t worried.

“Look at him,” he says helplessly. “This is sick.”

Barney huffs and comes to stand next to him. “You and your bleeding heart,” he says. “Fucking Hydra.”

That gets Clint looking away from the gurney. “What? Who?” Clint asks.

Barney shrugs. “That’s what they call themselves. Garrett told me. Why… why are you laughing?”

Clint waves him off, hysterical laughter bubbling out. “Hydra?” he echoes. “They’re Hydra? Of course they are, why not. Do you know what Hydra is?”

Barney shakes his head. He’s looking at Clint like he’s flipped, but that’s okay, Clint has totally flipped.

“Hydra are the guys who killed Captain America. They’re fucking Nazis.”

Barney lets out a low, long whistle. “Fuck,” he says.

“Yeah.” Clint looks up and around the room. For somewhere that’s clearly medical, there’s a weird lack of anything sharp. Clint wonders if that’s because of them or because of the dude on the gurney. “Why did you bring me in here?”

“Just wanted to show you him,” Barney says. “You know, I guess...” He trails off then seems to regroup. “I guess if we manage to get out of here, we should take him with.”

Surprised, Clint looks at him. He didn't know Barney ever worried about other people; Barney barely even worries about him.

“Don’t look like that,” Barney says. “I’m not made of fucking stone.”

“Aren’t you?” Clint asks, then shakes his head, he doesn’t want a fight, here. “We should get back.”

“Yeah,” Barney agrees. They leave the room with one more glance each back at the gurney, locking the door behind them, and do the same with Barney’s door.

Clint throws himself down on the bed before Barney can get there. The blanket is pretty small and itchy, but it works well enough, when Clint stuffs it into his mouth and screams in frustration.

Barney shoves him to the side, ignoring his breakdown, and lies down next to him. “How the fuck are we gonna get out of this, smart guy?”

Clint sits up, lies down again, sits up, stands up and paces. “I don’t know,” he says. “We need to tell someone.”

Barney frowns up at the ceiling. “Won’t that get your guy killed?” he asks.

Clint stops, leaning his back against the wall. “Yeah,” he says. “God, there has to be something we can do. Why aren’t I smart enough to work this out?”

Barney snorts. “If you’re not smart enough then god help the rest of us.”

“What’s that mean?” Clint asks, frowning.

Barney swings around and sits up, meeting his eye. “You’re smart as hell,” he says. “You always have been. You’ll work it out.”

“Don’t be nice to me,” Clint says, glaring, even while his mind is racing. “Can you… do you think you can find out more about what they’re doing?”

Barney gives him a super doubtful look. “Like, spying?” he asks. “That’s not really my thing.”

“Is helping me your thing?” Clint asks. “You’ve been a shitty brother, you know that, right? I’m asking for one thing.”

“Woah, mean,” Barney says, but he looks serious. “Can’t I just buy you a beer on your twenty-first?” Clint levels him an unimpressed look, and Barney sighs, nodding. “Okay.”

Clint hadn’t realised he’d been holding his breath until it all blows out of him. “Thank you,” he says. “Garrett keeps saying that whoever’s in charge is gonna be doing something big, soon. Maybe if you can find out what that is, we can do something about it.”

Barney’s nodding again. “Yeah. Yeah, okay, I can do that.”

Clint breathes out shakily. “Thanks.”

“Don’t get emotional,” Barney says. Which leaves Clint no choice, but to flip him off.

***

It feels like Clint’s living two lives at once, that week. There’s class and then there’s after class when he hangs out with Barney and tries to avoid Garrett.

It’s easy enough to do that part; something’s definitely going down and Garrett’s busy all the time. He seems happy that Clint’s spending time in the Secret Lair of Hydra, like that means Clint’s embedded or something. Like he believes in their gross Nazi goals.

It must be great believing you’ve got right on your side; apparently you can’t see that everyone else thinks you’re disgusting.

Garrett definitely likes Barney more than Clint - which is fine, Clint is totally happy to be ignored as much as physically possible - Clint goes down Wednesday night and finds them huddled together with a big, brawny white guy Clint’s never seen before.

Grant opens the door for him, then ignores him. Things are kind of strained between them, oddly enough. Turns out it’s really hard to have a buddy-buddy relationship with your roommate when he’s a Hydra spy. Shocking.

Clint wanders around a while, pokes at things he’s probably not supposed to poke, then leans against the wall, waiting for them to be done.

Sixty seconds later, he starts looking around again. Sue him, he gets jittery when he’s anxious, and he’s hella anxious, right now.

He sees movement out the corner of his eye and saunters over, inconspicuous-like, to have a look. Maybe the Secret Lair of Hydra has rats. That’d be ironic, although rats probably have better taste.

“Holy fuck, hi,” Clint says, moving a curtain aside and finding not a rat, but a dude, sitting ramrod straight in an uncomfortable-looking metal chair. He’s so still that Clint isn’t shocked to find that he’s tied at the feet and waist, heavy-duty rope keeping him pinned to the chair.

Well, he is shocked, but he’s not surprised.

There’s also absolutely no acknowledgement that Clint’s even here.

“Hi,” Clint tries again. “Who are you?”

The guy turns his head this time, just enough that pale blue eyes track up to Clint’s face.

“Hi,” Clint says one more time, just for luck.

“Hi?” the guy says, like he’s not sure that’s the right answer. His voice is quiet, rough, like he’s been talking too much or hasn’t been talking at all.

“You new?” Clint asks. He’s wearing battered cargo pants and a long sleeved black t-shirt, black gloves on his hands. He doesn’t look like SHIELD, but he doesn’t act like Hydra. Clint’s spidey senses are tingling.

“No,” the guy says. He reaches up a hand and scratches his temple with one gloved finger. He tucks long, dark hair behind his ear, scowling when it flops back and fuck, no, Clint knows who he is.

“You’re the guy from the gurney. Oh my god, you are, aren’t you?”

The guy shrugs. It’s a slow, spare movement, nothing casual about it. He’s definitely the guy from the gurney though, now that Clint’s looking at him properly. He can’t see the metal arm, obviously, and half his face was hidden by a breathing mask last time, but Clint touched his hair like a creeper; he knows it’s him.

“Why? Do you…?” Clint stops and tries to form a question. “Who are you?”

That gets him another shrug. Gurney Guy’s watching him, staring at him really, and his eyes look like they’re begging for something. It’s horrible. Clint has no idea what he wants.

Okay, Clint can do this. “You’re a prisoner?”

One more shrug then. “They say I’m an asset.” He makes a quiet sound in the back of his throat, like a scoff.

“Do you work for Garrett?” Clint presses.

He looks past the curtain, where Garrett at the others are still plotting. “For Alexander Pierce,” he says.

The name sounds vaguely familiar - he’s pretty sure it came up in one of his classes - but Clint can’t place it, right now.

Clint drums his fingers on his thigh, until he realises that it’s making his new friend twitch. “Sorry. Look. I don’t know what your deal is, whether you want to stay here or whatever, but I’m kind of guessing you don’t? Like, you’re tied up and I… I saw that they drug you?”

Not even a shrug this time, just pale, pale eyes boring straight into him.

“If you get out, go to Nick Fury or Phil Coulson, okay? I have no idea who else is Hydra, but I know they’re not.”

He doesn’t get a reaction. He’s pretty sure he’s being listened to, but that’s about it. He wonders what Phil would do, if a monosyllabic dude with a metal arm appeared at his door looking for help.

Actually, scrap that; he knows what Phil would do. Phil would invite him in, let him sleep on the couch, and probably make him some soothing herbal tea.

God, Clint wishes Phil were here, now.

“Barton!” Garrett’s voice barks, and then the curtain is pulled back. “What are you doing?”

“Just hanging out,” Clint says, walking toward him. “I made a friend.”

Garrett barely spares a glance past Clint’s shoulder. “Him? He’s not a friend, he’s an attack dog. Come on out, we need you.”

Clint follows him, he’s being watched so he doesn’t dare look back. He doesn’t want to do anything that makes them suspicious, not just for Phil now, but also for Gurney Guy. Clint might not know his name, but he knows he wants to help him.

Barney catches his eye, asking a question with a quirk of his eyebrow, but Clint moves his head in half a shake.

“What do you need?” Clint asks, throwing himself into an empty seat and relaxing back into it, like he doesn’t have a care in the world.

Garrett waves at the big guy Clint doesn’t know. “This is Rumlow. He’s got a present for you.”

“Shucks,” Clint says, “and we’ve only just met.”

He half expects to get a backhand across the face; guys who look like Rumlow don’t tend to like him getting cute. Rumlow just looks heavenward, though, like he’s any other dude in authority who Clint’s ever managed to exasperate.

“Sure you want this one?” he asks Garrett, and it’s almost like he’s teasing, like everyone’s friends here.

“He’s got his good points,” Garrett says. “Show him what you got.”

There’s a thunk as Rumlow lays a compact, black pistol on the table. “SHIELD won’t let you have your own yet, so keep this one on you,” he says. “You know how to shoot?”

With everyone’s eyes on him, Clint has no choice but to pick it up. It’s tiny, about the size of his hand, easily concealable. It looks like the kind of thing soccer moms keep in their purses; one of his and Barney’s foster moms had one. He wonders if Barney remembers.

“I know how to shoot,” Clint says. This thing feels way too light; he has no idea what he’s supposed to do with with it.

“Show him,” Garrett says.

Clint looks at him like he’s crazy. “Down here?” he asks.

Garrett leans back in his chair and points all the way down the length of the room. “There’s a knothole down at the end there, see it?” Clint nods. “Hit that.”

Clint wonders for a second, if he should deliberately miss. Maybe they’ll think he’s no use to them, if he can’t make the shot. But Grant knows he can do it and so, apparently, does Garrett. Missing will just piss them off.

He takes the shot easily, putting the bullet straight through the knothole. The sound is loud in the enclosed room, and the smell makes Clint cough.

“That’s good,” Rumlow says, nodding slowly. “You’re good, kid.”

“I know,” Clint says, and tries to hand the pistol back to him.

Rumlow waves him off. “Like I said, you hang onto that. You’ll need it soon enough.”

“Brock,” Garrett says, quiet, like a warning, and Rumlow’s eyebrows draw together.

“He doesn’t know?” Rumlow asks. “Huh.”

What don’t I know? Clint wants to ask. He wants to bang heads together and demand to know what they’re doing. But that’s what Barney’s for; Barney’s finding out their plans in ways that won’t tip their hand.

“I don’t know anything,” Clint says, like it’s no big deal. He shrugs and drops the pistol in the pocket of his jacket. He hopes they’ve forgotten about ammo, keeps hoping that, right until Rumlow slides four little boxes across the table, and then he has to take those too.

The meeting winds up from there, of course they only called Clint in for the very end. He tries to hang back at the end, to catch a word with Barney, but Barney gives him a quick shake of the head, so Clint lets Grant herd him out.

Fuck. Fuck, Hydra's giving him guns, something’s going to be going down any minute, and Barney still doesn’t know the plan. This is so very bad.

“Don’t suppose you want to just tell me what’s happening?” Clint asks Grant on their walk back upstairs. Yeah, it’s not subtle, but he’s getting desperate.

“Can’t,” Grant says. “Sorry.”

“No, you’re not,” Clint mutters, glaring at Grant’s back.

“No, I’m not,” Grant agrees, calling it back over his shoulder. He’s way too cheerful, all of a sudden. Clint misses his grumpy cat, robot Grant, even if that was all an act.

***

“Okay, what’s up with you?” Akela asks, after Clint’s pushed meatloaf around his plate for the last ten minutes.

“Not hungry,” Clint says. Mostly, his stomach’s in so many knots that food feels like it’s going to get stuck in his gullet. He hasn’t slept, he can’t stop thinking. He’s seriously considering bashing himself over the head, just to get a break.

“Wow, that’s serious,” Trip says, across the table. He elbows Grant, who glares at him. “Is he dying, do you think?”

“Possibly,” Grant says, then shoots Clint a look that probably means get a grip.

“Fuck you,” Clint says. He says it to Grant, only, but everyone assumes it’s a table-wide thing and laughs.

Trip stands up and starts to lean across the table, hand out like he’s going to fake take Clint’s temperature. Before he can make contact, the double doors at each end of the dining hall flying open and there are suddenly people with guns, everywhere.

“On your knees, cadets,” Garrett yells from the front of the charge.

“Sir?” a cadet near the doors asks, getting to his feet. Garrett shoots him straight in the chest without pausing, and continues walking down the aisle between the tables.

Some people scream, others jump up, and more shots ring out.

Clint freezes. This can’t be happening. Of all the things that he thought were coming, it wasn’t supposed to be this.

“What the hell?” Sharon mutters. She starts to stand too, hand going to her belt, where Clint knows she’s taken to keeping a knife, but Clint snaps his hand out and grabs her by the wrist, forcing her back down.

“Don’t,” he hisses. “They’ll shoot you.”

On the other side of the table, Grant’s doing the same with Trip, pulling him back into his seat. Clint hates that they’re working toward the same end, even if it’s probably for different reasons.

“That’s better,” Garrett says, when his armed minions have gotten everyone on their knees, hands over their heads. There’s muttering, but no one else is trying to stand. “Consider this a takeover.”

“Sir?” That’s Sharon. Clint prays as hard as he can that she’s not about to get shot, too. “What’s going on?”

“There are some changes afoot,” Garrett says. “Call them leadership changes. You’ll hear about them soon. But in the meantime, we’d rather you kids kept well out of the way.”

“Sir.” Rumlow appears in the doorway, giving Garrett a salute that is most definitely a Nazi salute, how is anyone not seeing that that’s a Nazi salute? “The Triskelion is under our control.”

“Good, good,” Garrett says, smiling wide and maybe a little bit unhinged. “That’s good. Ward?” He raises his voice. “Barton? On your feet.”

“Clint?” Akela asks, and Sharon swings around to look at him, too.

Clint can’t look at either of them. He gets to his feet, slow as he can, keeping his hands up.

“Now, now, there’s no need for that,” Garrett says. “Put your hands down.”

Clint does as he’s told, but he doesn’t move forward. Grant’s already picking his way between their classmates to get to Garrett, but Clint stays where he is. He feels safer with Akela and Sharon and Trip, even though he knows that’s just an illusion.

“Hail Hydra,” Grant says, taking his place at Garrett’s side. There’s a gasp from near Clint’s feet, but he doesn’t look down.

Garrett’s still staring at him. “Hail Hydra, Barton.”

Clint can’t, he cannot.

Garrett lifts his gun and levels it at a random head in the crowd. Clint doesn’t know the boy he’s threatening, but he can’t let him get shot.

“Okay,” he says, and walks forward. He stands in front of Garrett, watching Garrett watch him. Garrett’s gun hand doesn’t waver, the tip practically touching the poor kid’s head.

“Hail Hydra,” Clint whispers, feeling like he’s going to puke.

Garrett grins at him and finally lowers his gun. “There,” he says. “That wasn’t so hard. Okay, everyone, you listening? If you want to live, stay right here, don’t try any heroics. We will shoot any one of you who tries to leave this room.”

“You can’t leave them in here with the bodies,” Clint says. There’s blood on the floor and it’s soaking into his shoes. There are people kneeling near the places where the blood is pooling and their pant legs must be wet with it.

“Can’t I?” Garrett asks, frowning. “You’d better move ‘em, then.” Clint looks to Grant, but Garrett shakes his head. “Just you, kid.”

So Clint does. If Garrett thinks he can break him this easy, he needs to think again. The bodies are fresh, still warm and human-feeling, but so heavy they can’t be anything but dead. Clint lived on the streets for six months; he’s seen dead bodies before, but he’s never touched one.

He’s shaking by the time he’s dragged them all out of the dining hall, left them alone and hollow-eyed in the corridor. Grant catches his eye, then grips his elbow, which Clint guesses means he probably looks like he’s going to pass out. Clint shakes him off, regardless.

“Say thank you to Mr Barton,” Garrett says. The bastard is having so much fun. Clint is already plotting how to murder him in the slowest, nastiest way possible. No one speaks and Garrett shakes his head sadly. “Aren’t they an ungrateful bunch. Okay, we’re outta here.” He waves at some of the armed minions. “Guard the doors, keep them in here.”

He waves his gun at Grant and Clint, so they follow him out the door. Clint can’t look back at all the people he’s abandoning, he just can’t.

Out in the corridor, Garrett laughs, the sound echoing all around the empty stairwell. “It’s the dawn of a new age, kids. Are you ready?”

“Sir,” Grant says smartly. “What do you need us to do?”

“You, I need on comms,” Garrett says. “Monitor the situation at the other bases, let me know if there’s any trouble. Barton, I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

“Sir,” Grant says again and hurries off.

Clint shoves his hands into his pockets, to hide how they’re shaking, and asks, “What’s happening at the Triskelion?”

“A take over,” Garrett says. “We’re stepping out of the shadows and into the light; it’s time everyone knew that we’re here.”

“Are you killing everyone?” Clint asks. He hopes Phil’s still in California, but he didn’t check. He’s been so preoccupied; he should have checked.

“Only those who fight us,” Garrett says, like that’s a sensible answer, like that’s reasonable. He claps Clint on the shoulder. “Come on. Let’s go see who’s lurking around.”

Clint digs his heels in, thinking of all the agents who teach classes here; all the people he knows who might still be in the building. “What do we do when we find them?” he asks.

“Guess,” Garrett says. He points his gun at Clint. “Come on, now.”

***

They clear the first floor - there are three janitors, some kitchen staff, one teacher Clint doesn’t know - none of them put up a fight, so Garrett just gets Clint to tie them up.

On the second floor, Victoria Hand comes out of nowhere, gun out and fists flying.

Garrett doesn’t shoot her. He blocks her attack, blocks again, and waits. “Barton, any time,” he shouts.

Clint takes a breath, hates himself, and shoots her in the shoulder. She staggers, but doesn’t drop, pushes red-streaked hair out of her eyes and points her gun at Clint.

“I knew you were a risk,” she says. “But Coulson defended you.”

Clint shoots her in her other shoulder, and this time she goes down. He steps over her, murmurs, “I’m sorry,” and smacks her in the side of the head with the butt of his pistol.

Garrett is shaking his head when Clint turns back to check with him, and Clint panics that Garrett’s going to tell him that he has to kill her. “Bleeding heart,” he says, shaking his head at Clint. “Come on.”

They’re five yards down the corridor when there’s a loud-as-hell bang from downstairs, and Garrett curses, turning back the way they came. There’s a fight going on downstairs, cadets spilling out of the dining hall, Hydra agents chasing them with a spray of bullets.

“Jesus Christ,” Garrett mutters darkly and wades down the stairs. “Can’t these assholes just do as they’re told.”

Clint follows him into the melee of bodies, cadets, and Hydra agents. A Hydra goon he doesn’t recognise is grappling with a blonde girl with a fighting staff in each hand. Assuming that Garrett doesn’t have eyes in the back of his head, Clint shoots from the hip and puts a bullet through the guy’s leg.

“Thanks,” says the girl, but Clint shakes his head at her and looks around. There has to be someway he can use this mess to his advantage. Maybe he could just shoot Garrett. He wonders if he could just shoot Garrett; if he could actually kill someone.

“There you are,” says a voice in the rush of noise, and Grant appears, grabbing Clint’s arm. There’s blood on his cheek like someone scratched him, hard.

“There you are,” Sharon says, suddenly in front of them, and punches Grant in the face.

Grant growls and goes for her, hand to hand that she blocks and keeps blocking, until he backs her into a wall and she’s got nowhere to go. They haven’t been taught fighting like this yet; Grant’s obviously been holding back.

Sharon kicks Grant hard in the thigh, right on the bone.

He goes down, but he takes her with him, hands twisted in her hair, and her head dragged all the way back. “Shoot her,” he tells Clint, struggling to keep hold of her.

Sharon narrows her eyes at Grant. “Coward,” she says clearly.

“I can’t,” Clint says. “No, fuck, no way. You can’t really want me to.”

“Garrett wants you to,” Grant says, like that’s all that matters. “You know what’ll happen if you don’t.”

Clint’s hand is shaking. Sharon is staring up at him, looking furious rather than afraid, and he doesn’t know what to do.

“It’s her or your boyfriend,” Grant reminds him, like Clint’s fucking forgotten that.

Except.

Except that’s right. It’s Sharon or Phil. Barney’s safe now, because Garrett thinks he’s on their side; he’s no longer collateral. It’s Sharon or Phil, and Phil would rather die and have anyone else die for him.

“Yeah, I’m not gonna do it,” Clint says and lowers his gun.

“Thank you,” Sharon says and kicks Clint in the kneecap. He falls over backwards with a startled yell and crashes right into Grant. They both go down, Sharon on them a second later.

She lets Clint roll out the way, but snatches the gun straight out of his hand and levels it at Grant’s face.

“Clint,” she says, eyes on Grant. “Don’t you have somewhere you need to be.”

Clint really does, but he hesitates. “Do you need help?” he asks, hovering and holding his knee all at the same time.

“Go away,” she says, so he does.

***

With no one watching him, for once, Clint runs. If he can get to the main office, he can get on the phone, warn Nick what’s happening here.

When Clint was in school, he was in the principal’s office all the time, but he’s been good here, he’s been doing well. He doesn’t know exactly where he needs to go.

Someone grabs at his leg as he makes for the stairs, but he kicks out, getting free, and keeps running. He takes one corner, then another, until he smashes right into a man coming the other way.

“Hail Hydra,” says the guy, not sounding sure if that’s the right answer.

“No way,” Clint says. He doesn’t have a gun, but he does have fists and he’ll use them.

“I’m Agent Sitwell,” the guy says quickly. “Who are you?”

Clint hesitates. He’s heard of Sitwell, Phil’s mentioned him, but that doesn’t mean he’s not Hydra.

“Barton,” he says, at last, because it’s written on his ID card, and Sitwell could see it, if he tried.

To his surprise, Sitwell smiles, nodding and laughing quietly. “I thought so,” he says. He holds out his hand. “Phil’s a friend.”

Clint curls his hand in against his side, and nods rather than shaking. “Sorry, but I’m having trust issues, today,” he says.

“That’s definitely understandable,” Sitwell says. “I called for reinforcements an hour ago. They should be here any second.”

“An hour ago?” Clint asks. “You knew about this an hour ago.”

“Yes, yes, it’s all very fascinating,” Sitwell says, waving his hand in a hurry up motion. “I promised Phil I’d get you out of here; you’re a hard man to find.”

God. Phil’s worried about him, Phil’s maybe on his way here. This is just getting more complicated. “I can’t get out of here,” he says. “I need to - ”

“Hey!” And fucking, fuck, that’s Garrett. “Jasper! There you are. What are you guys up to?”

Clint stares at Sitwell, Sitwell stares back at Clint. It’s interesting, watching someone try to figure out whether or not you’re Hydra, while you’re trying do the same with them.

“Saw this guy coming up here,” Sitwell tells Garrett. “Says he’s one of yours.”

“He is one of mine. And what were you doing?” Garrett asks, smiling a nasty smile at Clint.

“Looking for a gun,” Clint says, showing his empty hands. “Got disarmed down there.”

Garrett looks at him closely, like he can read Clint’s mind, but Clint just stares back, doing his best to look confused. He tries to remember the tricks Sharon taught him to sell a lie with his body language, and makes sure to blink regularly, stilling his fingers when they try to tap nervously.

“Here,” Garrett says, at last, and hands over a Beretta from the back of his belt.

“Thanks,” Clint says. It probably doesn’t sound particularly convincing, but he does his best.

Garrett claps his hands together. “And back into the fight, please, boys,” he says. “These assholes need to be taught a lesson.”

Clint tries to fall back, so he can catch Sitwell’s eye and find out what’s going on with him, but Garrett keeps him in front and Sitwell behind, like he doesn’t trust them together.

They’re almost at the top of the stairs when Rumlow comes bounding up them. “Sir,” he says. “Director Fury’s here.”

“Oh good,” Garrett says. “Gang’s all here.” He leans against the guardrail at the top of the stairs, looking down at the open area below. The fighting’s trailed off, and it looks like a standoff. Nick’s standing in the middle, Melinda is on one side and, fuck, Phil is on his other side.

They’re armed to hell and back, and Nick at least is rippling with anger.

“John!” he yells up at Garrett. His eyes land on Clint, but he doesn’t react. “What the motherfucking fuck are you playing at?”

“A new world, Nick,” Garrett calls down. “Just taking out the trash.”

This has to be the moment that Clint could act. Maybe he could run at Garrett and tip him over the banisters. He doesn’t know what to do. Automatically, he seeks out the only person who’s ever really known what he should do, who’s believed that he’ll do it.

Phil’s already watching him, looking pinched and tense and worried, ignoring the all the pistols raised around him.

“Help,” Clint mouths.

As though he was just waiting for a sign, Phil steps forward, stepping over bodies on the floor as though he can’t see them.

“John,” Phil says.

“Hey, Phil!” Garrett says, like he’s actually pleased to see him. “Wanna join Hydra? Your boy has.”

“I don’t think so, thank you,” Phil says mildly. He looks at Clint, apparently done with Garrett. “Clint, come down here.”

Clint looks at Garrett, at the gun that he's pointing at Phil.

“I can’t,” he says, curling his hands into fists to stop them from shaking.

“It’s okay,” Phil says. “It’s okay, come down here.”

“Phil,” Clint says.

Phil smiles at him and holds out his hand. “Come down here, Clint.”

Clint steps forward.

There’s a whip-crack noise and Phil freezes. A bright smear of red spreads across the white front of his shirt. Garrett steps forward, his pistol still raised, and fires a second shot.

This time, Phil falls.

Clint darts forward, grabbing the edge of the bannister and half throwing himself over it. Phil is lying on the ground, completely still, one dark red stain spreading rapidly across his belly and another across his chest so the edges bleed together. He isn’t moving.

Garrett fires again, and Phil’s body twitches, but that’s… that’s just the force of the shot, because Phil isn’t moving. Phil isn’t moving at all.

Clint’s knees give out.

“Get on your feet,” Garrett snarls at him.

“No,” Clint says blankly. He doesn’t care anymore. It doesn’t matter. Garrett can shoot him, if he wants.

A bullet whacks into the wall behind them and Garrett ducks, darting back with Rumlow providing cover. Sitwell is at their side and Clint is half aware that he’s watching Clint, but Clint can’t really see him, Clint can’t really do anything.

“Come down and face me, you coward,” Nick’s voice roars up from ground level.

“Since you asked so nicely, Nick,” Garrett says and barrells down the stairs, guns drawn, leaving Clint completely alone.

There are shouts and screams, more gunfire down below. Clint doesn’t know who’s winning and he finds he doesn’t care. He will care, maybe, one day, but Phil’s dead so what does it matter?

Time swirls around Clint. He doesn’t bother trying to keep track of it. Then a hand appears out of nowhere and grabs him by the front of the shirt.

He’s on his feet with no input from his own legs, swaying and disoriented, and blinking into a face covered in a black mask and black goggles.

“You’ve gotta go,” Gurney Guy says.

Clint stares at him. “I… what?” he asks. Phil’s dead. There’s nothing else to think about, because Phil’s dead.

“Go,” he repeats. “Leave. Go somewhere safe.”

Clint laughs, because that’s the most hilarious fucking thing he’s ever heard. There’s nowhere safe, anymore. Phil’s dead.

“Where,” he says, but he’s not being listened to. He’s being pushed toward the door on the left and he almost falls, almost goes down the back stairs head first. It’s only instinct that makes him catch himself; he sure as shit doesn’t care.

Somehow, he finds himself at the door to the basement, and he types the code in from memory, fingers moving automatically. The door swings open and he finds Barney sitting at the table, a laptop open in front of him.

He’s poking buttons and cursing, and he looks relieved when he sees Clint.

“Thank god,” he says. “How are you at computers?”

Clint walks over, sits down at the table. “Hydra is here,” he says. That earns him a funny look and a duh from Barney, but he shakes his head impatiently. “Here. Upstairs. They’re taking over.”

“Yeah, I know,” Barney says. “That’s stage one of the plan.”

Clint smacks him hard on the shoulder again and again, only realises he’s really doing it when Barney grabs his wrists and yells, “What the fuck?” in his face.

“You were supposed to warn me!” Clint yells back. “That’s what you’re here for. What the fuck good are you, if you can’t even - ?”

“Woah,” Barney, says, slapping down Clint’s hands. They land on the table with a crack that’s probably from the wood not his bones, but he barely feels the impact. “I was too busy waiting to warn you about this.”

“What this?” Clint asks. He looks at the screen, but he can’t seem to focus. Nothing feels real. He rubs at his eyes. “Tell me?”

“It’s a hit list,” Barney says. “The guys Hydra wants to kill the most. They upload it, the kill order goes out to all the sleeper agents everywhere.”

“Yeah, Hydra likes to kill people,” Clint agrees flatly.

“Your Coulson’s on here,” Barney says. “If we delete the whole fucking thing, they’ll be suspicious, but we can take off the ones you know. Yeah?”

Clint grabs the edge of the memory stick poking out the laptop and holds it up. “This it?” he asks.

“Yeah, but I don’t think you’re supposed to eject it like that,” Barney says.

Clint ignores him. He throws the stick down onto the ground and stamps on it, crushing it between his boot heel and the concrete floor. “There,” he says. “Now it’s all gone.”

Barney spins around in his chair, spreading his arms wide and looking appalled. “What are you doing? If they think you betrayed them, they’re gonna kill - ”

“They already killed him,” Clint says. It doesn’t even hurt to say, because he can’t feel anything.

Barney pales, which is weird, he doesn’t know Phil, he never even met Phil. He’s never going. No, Clint’s not thinking about it.

“Fuck, I’m sorry,” Barney says. He reaches out to touch Clint’s shoulder, but Clint cannot be touched, right now.

“We’re leaving,” he says, standing up and away from Barney’s reaching hand. “Come on.”

Barney watches him carefully. “I was thinking I could stay,” he says. “They trust me, I could find out what they’re doing?”

It’s the right plan. Of course it is, but Clint just lost Phil, he can’t lose his brother, too. “No,” he says. “No, we’re both going.” He tugs on Barney’s collar too roughly, giving Barney no choice but to stand up with him. “We’re going and we’re just gonna keep going and. And, and I don’t know, but we’ll work it out after that.”

“That really what you want?” Barney asks. “That doesn’t sound like you.”

“I want to go,” Clint says. He’s starting to shake and he can’t, he cannot, they have to get out of here.

“Okay,” Barney says. He stands up, grabs a jacket from the back of his chair. He stops for a second after shrugging it on and stoops to pick up the shattered memory stick before he follows Clint to the stairs. “Okay, then we’ll go. Any idea where?”

Clint doesn’t have any idea, so he doesn’t answer. “I just need some air,” he says. Then he’ll think. When he can breathe again, he’ll think.

***

There are cars out on the lawn, and between them Clint and Barney can hotwire anything. They pick the most boring looking sedan they can find and Barney shoves Clint around into the passenger side.

“You’re not driving,” he says, all firm and big brother-ish.

Normally, Clint would argue, but today, he just nods. He sinks into the seat and closes his eyes, only to snap them open again at the sound of gunfire.

Barney climbs into the driver's side, closing the door behind him. The car’s already purring under his hand, while he adjusts the mirrors.

“What was that?” Clint asks, looking all around. The grounds are empty; everyone must be inside, still fighting.

“What was what?” Barney asks, reversing the car until he’s clear to turn it around.

“Someone shot at us,” Clint says. He puts his hand on Barney’s shoulder, frantically checking him for blood. “Are you hit?”

“Quit it, fuck, I’m driving,” Barney snaps at him. “No one shot at us. I woulda heard a shot; I was outside the car, remember.”

“No, but they did.” They did; Clint heard it. He heard the crack of the gun, he heard it over and over, but he didn’t hear Phil fall because he was too far away. “Oh god,” he says and presses his hands to his face.

“Don’t,” Barney says. He kicks Clint across the footwell. “Breakdown later, come on, focus. Clint. Clint, I need you to focus now.”

It feels as though Clint’s been transported back fifteen years, like he’s tiny and crying, and Barney’s telling him he needs to forget about how much his bruises hurt, because if Dad sees him crying it’s going to get so much worse.

Clint drags in a breath. “Okay,” he says, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m listening.”

“Good. Where are we going?”

Clint looks around. He doesn’t even know where they are. They’re on a suburban road, bouncing along, and he can see people in their front yards, paying them no mind.

“Somewhere Hydra won’t look for us,” he says, “and SHIELD either. God, SHIELD are going to think I’m Hydra. They’re gonna… they’re gonna feel bad for Phil and how I duped him and. What if they think he’s Hydra?”

“They won’t think that,” Barney says, but he can’t know. “Okay so you can’t go to anyone you know from SHIELD. Where can you go?”

Clint thinks about the address in his phone. Phil’s mom. He promised Phil he’d go there, if things got rough, but he can’t now. He got Phil killed. He asked Phil for help, and trying to help him got Phil killed. How can he turn up at his mom’s place now and think he deserves any help.

“Let’s go to Natasha,” Barney says, while Clint’s busy getting stuck in his head, again.

“We can’t, she’ll kill you,” Clint says, startled into answering.

Barney makes a noise between his teeth. “Sure, she’ll kill me, but Hydra will actually kill me. The worst she’s gonna do is give me a really hard beating, and I kind of deserve that. She’ll take us in. Or, you, anyway. She’ll definitely take you in.”

“I want us to stick together,” Clint says. It’s about the only thing he does know.

“That’s sweet, dude, but you don’t even like me,” Barney says.

That’s not true. Clint tried to make it true, but it really isn’t. “You’re all I’ve got,” he says, staring sightlessly out the windshield.

Barney reaches across the gear shift and squeezes his arm.

***

It’s a long fucking drive from New York to Kentucky, and there’s an ninety-nine percent chance that Natasha’s going to take one look at Barney and refuse to let either of them through her door.

Still, the more Clint thinks about it, he more he thinks it’s their only option.

He sends a text to Natasha, to warn her that they’re coming, and then fires another one off to Jessica.

Is Lucky with you?

It doesn’t take long for her answer to come, almost as if she was waiting to hear from him.

Yes, he’s fine. What’s going on? Men with suits in your apartment.

Clint wonders if it’s Hydra looking for him, or SHIELD looking for him, or if they’re clearing out Phil’s stuff already. He turns off his phone without answering her and drops it somewhere deep within the car.

***

Natasha meets them in her front yard with a shotgun raised and pointing at the windshield.

Barney turns off the engine and holds his hands up, so Clint does the same. Natasha jerks her barrell sideways, waving them out of the car.

“Hey, there,” Barney says, after a glance at Clint. It’s not until twenty seconds later that Clint realises he probably should have started the conversation. His brain feels like it’s running on a delay.

“Hey, yourself,” she says flatly. “Want to tell me what’s happening?”

Barney nods slowly. “Sure do,” he says. “But we’ve been driving twelve hours and Clint here’s in shock.”

“I’m not,” Clint says, but now Natasha’s looking at him properly and her eyebrows are drawing in.

“You look terrible,” she tells him. She looks at Barney. “You always look terrible. Come inside, then. If you steal anything, I will shoot you.”

“Totally fair,” Barney agrees. “Clint, come on.”

“Yeah.” Clint follows them into the house, going down familiar hallways until they’re in the big, open kitchen. The farm is huge, and the kitchen is the biggest part. Last time Clint was here, it was always filled with foods and delicious smells, but it’s the middle of the night now, and all it smells of is cleaning products.

“Tea,” Natasha decides, talking quietly to herself. “Both of you, sit down.”

Clint does as he’s told because it’s easiest. He slides into one chair at the long dining table that runs the width of the room, and watches Barney sit down opposite. It’s got to be really late, and Barney looks exhausted. Clint might be tired too; he’s not sure.

Natasha puts a mug down in front of him and another in front of Barney. She sits at the head of the table and folds her arms on the wood. “Talk,” she says. “What happened?”

Clint stares down at his mug. It’s regular tea, not the herbal stuff Phil likes, but it’s close enough. It’s too close. He doesn’t realise he’s going to push the mug away until it’s on its side halfway across the table and Barney is jumping back, away from boiling water.

“Sorry,” Clint says, confused by himself. “Sorry, I don’t know why I did… that.”

“It’s cool,” Barney says slowly. “I’m just gonna sit down here away from flying tea.”

Natasha leans forward, hand over Clint’s. “You need to tell me what happened, Clint. You’re scaring me.”

He looks up at her. She’s changed her hair; it’s short and kind of crinkly, but her eyes are still the same, warm and demanding answers. “SHIELD is full of Hydra and Phil’s dead.”

She starts, just a little, her hand tightening around Clint’s. “Hydra?” she asks, then, “What happened to Phil?”

She looks at Barney, when it must become obvious that Clint can’t talk about it. Barney says, “I didn’t see it, but Clint did.”

“Garrett shot him,” Clint tells the place where his fingers overlap with Natasha’s. He’s been listening to the gunshot over and over; he can’t make it stop playing in his head.

“I’m sorry,” Natasha says. “I really am so sorry, but you need to tell me about Hydra, now. Please.”

“Why?” Clint asks, frowning at her. “What does it matter?”

Natasha looks at him seriously, something close to fear in her eyes. Clint’s never seen that before, he doesn’t think. “Hydra is bigger than you, or me. Or Phil,” she says. “If they’re in SHIELD then we’re in big trouble.”

“They’re not in SHIELD, they are SHIELD,” Barney says. “There are fucking hundreds of them at every level. The guy in charge is Hydra.”

“Not Nick,” Clint says, turning around fast. Please not Nick.

“Alexander Pierce,” Barney says. “Apparently he’s on the top council thing? He’s Hydra.”

“Oh my god,” Natasha breathes. “Does anyone know you’re here?”

Clint doesn’t know; he was mostly turned off for the whole drive. “They shouldn’t,” Barney says. “No one saw us go; we haven’t used credit cards or gone near any stores or anywhere that might have picked us up on CCTV.”

“Did you buy gas?” Natasha asks.

“In cash, from a shack on the highway. The car was lojacked, but I shut that down outside New York. Don’t worry I kept us under the radar.”

Clint shakes his head, surprised. He didn’t notice any of that happening. “That’s good,” he says.

Barney huffs. “I’m not totally useless, you know,” he says.

Clint almost smiles but it feels wrong on his face and falls off. “Can I go to bed?” he asks abruptly. He wants to be on his own really bad all of a sudden.

“We need to plan what - ” Natasha starts then stops herself. “Yes, you should go to bed. Do you want your old room?”

Clint just nods. He doesn’t care, but his old room was okay. The bed was big and soft and there was a view overlooking the fields and barn where they keep the horses. It’s nice here; he was going to bring Phil, sometime.

He’s pretty sure that they both say something to him as he walks out the room, but he doesn’t listen and he doesn’t stop, just takes the stairs, finds his old room, and kicks off his shoes. He curls up on top of the comforter, turned on his side and staring blankly out the window at the night.

***

“I made coffee,” Natasha says, coming out and joining Clint on the front porch. The sky’s just starting to get light, the air already warm. He can’t sleep, but the gentle rocking of the porch swing is nice.

“Thanks,” Clint says, taking the mug from her. “Promise not to throw this one.”

“You can, if you want to,” Natasha says, curling up in the opposite corner of the swing. “These mugs are old.”

Clint sips coffee and stares out across the fields. “The farm looks good,” he says. Last time he was here, it was the middle of winter, and it had been pretty then. It’s fucking gorgeous in early summer.

“We got a loan from the bank,” Natasha says, with a little laugh like that’s a ridiculous thing to have done. “I got Power of Attorney so I can sign things on behalf of my grandmother, now.”

“How is she?” Clint asks. The only reason Natasha stays here is that her grandparents owned the farm for years and years and her grandmother doesn’t want to leave it. At least, she always told him that was the only reason. She looks happy, though; maybe she’s found her place.

“She’s remembering less and less, so she stays in her room most days,” Natasha says. “I told her you were here, though. She wants to see you.”

Clint stares down into his coffee. “I’m not good company.”

That gets him a gentle kick in the thigh. “Neither is she.”

“Yeah.” Clint drinks coffee and tries to remember how to function. It’s lucky that his lungs have got the breathing thing down without his intervention; he would definitely have given up on that, otherwise.

Because Natasha is Natasha, she doesn’t let him wallow for long. “The two of you can stay here, if you need to. As long as Barney doesn’t even think about touching anything within the house that isn’t screwed down.”

“Thanks,” Clint says and, “Can he touch the shower?”

She snorts. “That would be appreciated. In a week or two, I’ll put some feelers out, find out where SHIELD stands, but I won’t do it yet; if Hydra has taken over, we don’t want to make them suspicious.”

“Should we… do you think we should be doing something to help?” Clint definitely thinks they should be doing something to help, but he doesn’t know what.

“No,” says Natasha simply, like it’s that easy. “What’s the point of getting killed, now? If Fury and the others aren’t able to stop them, do you think the three of us could?”

“I guess not.” Clint leans his head against the padded back of the swing and closes his eyes. His head aches, and his eyes feel gritty. He almost fell asleep a few times last night, but the echo of gunshots and the blood blooming across Phil’s shirt won’t leave him alone.

“You could talk,” Natasha offers. “I mean, we could talk. If you need to.”

“You’d hate that,” Clint says. They mostly text, but even then Clint can tell how much she hates when shit gets personal.

She narrows her eyes at him. “I could try.”

It’s not that Clint doesn’t appreciate it, but he still shakes his head. “I don’t wanna talk, thanks,” he says. He doesn’t want to do anything, but he doesn’t mention that. That’s just milking it. He holds out his mug and makes a wide-eyed look at her. “Is there more?”

“Am I your maid?” asks Natasha archly, but she takes the mug and stands up. “Only because you’re having a bad day.”

Clint laughs, but it sounds wobbly almost immediately, so he chokes it down. A bad day is definitely one way of putting it.

They leave him alone, mostly. Barney makes sandwiches at lunchtime, and Natasha finds cake in the pantry mid-afternoon, but otherwise they seem to decide between them that Clint’s earned a day of doing shit all except being sad.

He knows they’re inside, trying to work something out, because there’s a lot of shouting and occasionally some banging doors. He should probably go mediate, he thinks every now and then, but more time passes and he finds he hasn’t.

“It’s time for dinner,” Barney says, poking his head out of the door and eyeing Clint carefully. “Come on, inside.”

Clint gets up, because it’s easier than explaining that he’s not hungry. He sits down at the place someone has set for him, and mechanically eats the food that’s put in front of him. There’s biscuits and gravy and vegetables, and he eats it all, because otherwise one of them looks at him pityingly, and fuck them. He doesn’t need to be pitied; he’s not the one who’s dead.

He swallows his last mouthful and feels it stick painfully in his throat.

“We were thinking maybe you might wanna see the horses tomorrow,” Barney tries. He sounds tentative and that’s all wrong; Barney’s been telling Clint to get his shit together, since he was born, practically.

“Why?” Clint asks.

Barney winces, like he’s pretty sure he’s fucking this up, but is going to keep going, anyway. Clint knows that look from his own face. “You were gonna look after them, before, remember? If we’d stayed here.”

“Was he?” Natasha asks mildly. “What was I going to do?”

“Stay out of the way,” Barney snaps back at her.

He glares, Natasha glares back. It’s possibly Clint’s favourite moment of the day, because neither of them are focused on feeling sorry for him.

“We’ve been coming up with contingency plans, for if Hydra finds you,” Natasha tells him.

Clint manages some kind of smile. “I know,” he says, “I heard the shouting.”

Neither of them look embarrassed, but neither of them look at each other, either.

“If they come,” Natasha says, like Clint never interrupted. “I’ve got an armoury full of weapons, a cellar they’ll never break into, and a lot of supplies. We’d stand a pretty good chance, as long as they didn’t get into the house.”

“What about a bow?” Barney asks. “Clint’s better with a bow. Me too, I guess.”

Natasha shakes her head. “I don’t have bows, because this isn’t the Paleolithic Era,” she says. “But I have a lot of rifles; that do you?”

It’s cosy, listening to them bicker, but at the same time, it’s weirdly suffocating. “Thanks for dinner,” he says, standing up.

“Don’t go back to the fucking porch,” Barney says. “You’re gonna get stuck to that damn seat and then what’ll we do, if Hydra comes.”

“I’m not,” Clint says. “I’m just gonna walk. If I see Hydra, I promise to yell.”

Barney doesn’t look happy, but he doesn’t try to stop Clint from going. That’s good, Clint really doesn’t want a fight.

He takes a walk around the farm once, then twice, until he’s totally sick of the thoughts inside his head. Right now, he’s stuck on Phil’s mom, who probably knows her son’s dead, by now. The least Clint can do is make sure she knows Phil died a hero.

He breaks into the car they stole and fishes his phone out of the footwell. It starts chiming with alerts as soon as he turns it on, and the screen is full of them by the time he’s settled in the passenger seat, feet on the dash and knees curled up to his chin.

He ignores them all and searches for the contacts icon. His fingers are shaking, which is stupid, and he has to scroll down the whole list because he doesn’t know what Phil would have saved her as.

He finds her under ‘M’ - Molly Coulson (Phil’s Mom) she’s saved as, and suddenly Clint’s eyes are wet. Of course that’s how Phil labelled her; it’s dorky and informative.

Clint hits call before he can chicken out and listens to it ring and ring. By the time it kicks over to answering machine, his heart is pounding so loud that he can barely hear the message.

“Uh, hi,” Clint says, suddenly at a loss. “Hi, my name’s Clint, I’m… I was… I knew Phil. I just, I needed to tell you that I’m sorry, I’m sorry he died. I was there and I saw, and I’m so sorry, but he died a hero; he was trying to save me, and I’m sorry.”

***

Clint leans his head against the dash and tries to breathe, tries to get a fucking grip, because this isn’t going to help. People have always left him, he’s always lost people, that’s no excuse to fall apart.

But he’s so sad, sad all the way down to his core, and it rushes over him, too strong to keep back any longer, and his arms shake when he curls them around his head, trying to block out the world, trying to make this not be real.

He gives in and sobs until he can’t see and he can’t breathe, and he can’t think about anything but missing Phil.

***

It’s dark when Clint stumbles into his own room, rubbing his face with his hands. His face feels disgusting. Even his eyelashes hurt.

“Hey,” says Barney out of the dark, and Clint nearly jumps out of his skin.

“Jesus,” he says, pressing a hand to his heart. “What are you doing in here?”

The dark shape that is Barney rolls from his back to his side on Clint’s bed and doesn’t do anything helpful, like get up and go away. “Thought you’d wandered off and got eaten by wolves,” he says.

“Thanks for the concern,” Clint says. He’s too tired to deal with Barney’s shit, right now, so he just crawls into bed next to him, and elbows him in the stomach. “Move over.”

Barney does, and doesn’t talk, which is a blessed relief. Clint thinks that he might just be allowed to go to sleep, and that wouldn’t be too bad, knowing that Barney’s here might be oddly comforting, maybe. Except Barney has to ruin it by talking.

“You okay?” he asks, then scoffs to himself. “Obviously, you’re not okay. Can I do anything?”

“No,” Clint says then, “Yeah. Shut up.”

“Fuck you,” Barney says. He kicks Clint’s ankle, so Clint kicks him back. “Want me to go?”

Clint rolls onto his stomach and presses his face into his pillow. “No,” he mutters, and that seems to be all Barney’s waiting for. He steals a chunk of Clint’s blankets, rolls over, farts, and starts snoring.

Brothers suck, but Clint’s kind of glad he has one.

***

In the morning, Clint goes downstairs, finds an axe, and starts chopping the wood that he finds in the back shed. Sure, it’s summer, but Natasha will need wood eventually; he’s being useful.

He chops until there’s no wood left, then looks around for something more. The swing and thump of the axe is weirdly soothing.

“Very manly,” Natasha says. She’s in the doorway, arms folded while she watches him.

“Thanks, that’s what I want from life,” Clint says. “You got anything else I can do?”

“You don’t need to do anything,” Natasha says. “I can chop my own wood.”

“Sure, but I want to.” It comes out more desperate than Clint meant for it to.

Natasha steps forward. “We’re worried about you,” she says, handing him a bottle of water that he doesn’t want.

“Both of you?” he asks. “Did you have a conversation?”

Natasha smirks. “It was mostly shouted, but yes.”

Clint sighs and puts down his axe. “What do you want me to do?” he asks. “Tell me how you’d like me to behave so I don’t freak you out some more.”

“Drink that water,” Natasha says.

Clint frowns. “That’s all?”

“For now.”

***

He waits until she’s gone back into the house, then leaves the barn. He doesn’t mean to run away, not exactly, but he doesn’t want to be around people, and Natasha obviously thinks he should be, so he just needs to put some space between them.

His insides feel jagged. It’s like he cried himself into so many pieces last night that he put himself back together wrong this morning.

The grass is wet with dew under his feet, which is when he realises he’s not wearing shoes. It doesn’t seem to matter all that much; wet feet aren’t going to kill him. He walks along the edge of one field and then another.

There’s a whole group of horses near the woods, moms and babies, he thinks, all chesnut, except one runty-looking black one. They watch him curiously, lifting their heads and neighing softly.

“I don’t have any food, sorry,” he says, but they don’t seem to mind all that much. A couple come to the fence to check him out, and one butts her head straight into his armpit when he stops to say hi.

Clint goes still, patting her on the head. “Still no food.”

She snorts and turns away, giving up on him, but the little black baby one sticks around. Clint doesn’t know what baby horses are called, but this is definitely a really little one, all spindly legs and too-big head.

“Scat,” Clint tells it, but it doesn’t, bumping its head against the wooden fence. Clint gives in, swinging his legs over the fence and sitting on top of it. “Jeez, hi, here I am.”

The little horse leans its head against Clint’s legs instead, so he reaches down and strokes it between the ears. Natasha must spend a lot of time with the horses, because none of them seem to care that this random human is playing with their baby. There’s something comforting about being around it. It’s like having Lucky back, except slightly less clumsy.

“You mind if I move in here with you?” Clint asks the horses.

None of them seem to. The little one stumbles off after a while to visit its mom, but the others wander by every now and then, sniffing him and knocking into him, before going off to eat more grass or go for a run.

Clint’s just wondering how you become a horse when there’s a shout from up at the house. He looks up and sees Natasha on the back porch, waving her arms at him.

“Fuck,” he says, and runs. If it’s Hydra, he’s going to shoot people in the head; screw any ethics he might have thought he had.

Natasha meets him halfway. She doesn’t look worried and she isn’t armed, but she does look rattled, kind of.

“What’s wrong?” Clint asks, looking around. “What happened?”

“I need you to come inside with me,” Natasha says carefully. “There’s someone here to see you.”

“What kind of someone?” Clint asks, automatically tensing. “Is it someone who wants to shoot me?”

“I really don’t think so.” She’s kind of halfway between smiling and grimacing, and Clint doesn’t know what to do with that.

Clint lets Natasha take his arm and lead him into the house. Her nails are digging into the skin just below his elbow, almost like she’s going to keep him back by gouging out his skin. He’s getting kind of freaked out about what he’s going to find in her living room.

What he finds initially is Barney in the doorway, shotgun draped over one arm, staring intently into the living room.

“If he’s lying, I’m gonna shoot him,” Barney tells him, which is weird as fuck.

Clint shakes off Natasha’s hand, steps past him and walks into the room. He stops. Phil’s sitting on the couch.

Phil. Sitting on the couch. Clint’s legs wobble.

“What?” Clint chokes out, struggling to push it out of his frozen throat. “I don’t… what?”

“Is this Phil?” Natasha asks. “Clint?”

“Yeah.” Clint can’t stop staring. “Yeah.”

“Fuck, thank god,” Barney says, and Clint can distantly hear him lowering his shotgun.

“Can I stand up now?” Phil asks He’s looking at Barney with a tiny smiling playing at the corner of his mouth. Clint shakes his head, back and forth, but he’s not answering Phil’s question, he’s just trying to think.

“I guess,” Barney says.

“We’ll be just outside, Clint,” Natasha says.

Clint doesn’t answer. He watches Phil as he stands up, as he comes closer, as he puts his hands on Clint’s arms, but he still doesn’t believe it’s happening.

“You real?” he asks, taking in the dark shadows under Phil’s eyes and stubble all along his jaw. He looks worn down and exhausted, and Clint should care, but he doesn’t because Phil’s alive.

“I’m real,” Phil promises.

Clint can’t stop shaking. He’s always been able to stop himself from shaking, before. He leans forward until their foreheads are pressed together. “God, Phil.”

Phil reaches up and cups the back of Clint’s neck, holding him tight. “I know, I know,” he says.

His hands are trembling against Clint’s skin, breath coming out shakily just like Clint’s. He’s breathing. Clint doesn’t believe this is happening. “Okay, I know why I’m shaking,” Clint says, at last. “Why are you shaking?”

“Because I couldn’t find you,” Phil says, fiercely. “I’ve never been so scared.” He pulls away, even though Clint can’t help whining, and pulls Clint properly into his arms. “Are you okay? Are you hurt? Did Garrett hurt you?”

Clint shakes his head. He wraps his arms around Phil, holding on as tight as he can, kissing the first skin his finds, which is Phil’s stubbly jaw. “He shot you,” he says, which he knows they’ve already been through, but it’s kind of a big thing; he’s maybe going to be stuck on it for a while.

“Not really,” Phil says. “Although it was a while before I could move again. I looked for you, but you were just gone. By the time anyone realised you’d taken a car, the tracker had been disabled and I know you texted Jessica, but you can’t trace a text. I think Nick was going to knock me out, if we’d gone much longer without finding you.”

Clint tries to imagine that, Phil going frantic worrying about him, and it’s weirdly easier than he would have guessed. “How did you find me?” he asks. Then he gets it. “Oh shit, I called your mom.”

Phil laughs, shaky but genuine. “You did and she called me, and I’m in a lot of trouble for upsetting you, apparently.”

Clint ducks his head, overwhelmed. “Wasn’t your fault.” Something horrible occurs to him and he stumbles back, keeping his hands on Phil’s shoulders, but putting some space between them. “I’m not Hydra. You know I’m not Hydra, right?”

Phil bites his lip like that’s actually funny, the bastard. “Yes, Clint, I know you’re not Hydra.” His smile fades away. “But I’m not ready to let go of you yet, come back here.”

Clint goes back there willingly, slotting their bodies together in all the places that they fit.

“Are you okay to talk about what happened?” Phil asks softly.

That’s his Phil, always so fucking careful with him. Clint sucks in a breath that’s definitely a sob in disguise, but nods. “Yeah, but in a minute? We need Barney, too, and I don’t wanna let go of you.”

Phil hums into his hair, sounding happy with that plan.

***

“You must be Natasha,” Phil says, holding his hand out to her. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, although not quite under these circumstances.”

“I’m not sure anyone predicted these circumstances,” she says and shakes Phil’s hands hard. “Phil.”

When Phil turns to Barney, Barney just nods at him. “You don’t gotta shake my hand,” he says. “I wouldn’t blame you.”

Clint doesn’t say anything, just watches, but it’s no surprise that of course Phil shakes Barney’s hand. Well, Barney looks surprised, but Clint isn’t.

“What’s happening at SHIELD?” Natasha asks. “Is there still a SHIELD?”

“There’s still a SHIELD,” Phil tells her, and Clint lets out a relieved noise. “Hydra has control of our key locations, but we still have a lot of loyal agents. Director Fury has a plan. Or he will have a plan. I think he’s still working out the details.”

“Do you know about the list?” Barney asks. At Phil’s raised eyebrow, he explains about the list of Hydra targets he found, which leads them to explaining how Barney got into Hydra, which leads to everyone relocating into the kitchen for chairs and tables and food, while Clint fills in the gaps that happened at the beginning.

When they’re done, Natasha whistles softly. “You’re terrible spies, boys, but well done for trying.”

“Could you do better?” Barney asks her.

She smiles slowly. “Of course I could do better,” she says, slow and very, very dangerous. Barney gulps. She turns her attention on Phil. “How is it you’re alive?”

Clint’s hand twitches. He wants to grab Phil and ask him not to talk about it, he can’t hear it, but that’s stupid, and he’s got to know.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with Tony Stark, lately,” Phil says. “He got bored and designed some new armour that was intended to look as though the person wearing it had been shot. It’s a good idea; the lack of blood makes normal kevlar very conspicuous. Unfortunately, he hadn’t quite gotten the shock-absorbing capabilities right. The bullets didn’t penetrate, but they knocked the wind out of me.”

“Tony Stark, like the billionaire?” Barney asks.

Clint’s more interested in how Tony Stark just saved Phil’s life. “Can I send him a bunch of flowers?” he asks. “Maybe two?”

“Absolutely not,” Phil says.

“What happens next?” Clint asks. He’s more or less sitting on Phil’s chair, but no one’s commented on it, yet. Not that he’d care, if they did; they’re lucky he hasn’t made Phil strip all the way down, to prove there are no bullet holes.

Phil turns so he’s looking at Clint, meeting his eye. “Nick’s formulating a plan; I told him to call when he needed me. Although if I hadn’t found you, I might not have gone back.”

“That’s cute,” Clint says, trying to look unmoved, even though he’s totally moved, “but you would totally have gone back.”

“No, you’re more important,” Phil says, like it’s that simple.

Across the table, Barney makes a noise that he eventually turns into a cough. Clint flips him off, without looking away from Phil. Then, for good measure, he flips Phil off, too. “Sap.”

“We’ll help, of course,” Natasha says. “If Director Fury needs us.” Clint’s not sure if she’s speaking for him and her, or her and Barney or what, but Barney nods anyway.

“I can’t ask you to do that,” Phil says. But she just waves that away.

“I’m the Black Widow,” she says. “You don’t ask me to join you; I tell you that I will be.”

“What a Black Widow? Is it kinky?” Barney asks.

Clint's kind of relieved that Natasha completely ignores him, rather than beating him to a pulp. “Have you eaten, Phil? There’s a lot of food in the pantry, if you’re hungry.”

“Where does all the food come from?” Clint asks. He’s never thought about that; this kitchen just seems like the sort of place where real, home cooked food is supposed to be.

Natasha looks at him closely, like she’s looking for a trap. “I make it?” she says. “Where the hell did you think it came from, fairies?”

“No,” Clint says, startled. “Just. You bake?”

“Baking is very soothing,” she says primly. “Phil, would you like some cherry pie?”

Phil’s watching her and Clint with a smile dancing around his eyes. “I’d love some,” he says. “And some coffee, if you’ve got any.”

Natasha stands up and kicks the leg of Clint’s chair. “Make the man some coffee.”

***

“Are you tired?” Clint asks, watching Phil undress. It’s late, it’s dark, Clint hasn’t slept properly for weeks, but he doesn’t want to sleep now, either, he just wants to touch.

“Not that tired,” Phil says. He drops his pants on the floor and reaches for Clint. “Not if you have something else in mind.”

Clint laughs and clutches at him. “So many other things in mind,” he says, and then he’s not talking because he’s being kissed senseless instead.

They hit the wall with a bang, Phil taking the brunt on his palms, but Clint’s back getting up close and personal with the doorframe. He doesn’t care. He runs his hands over Phil’s smooth skin and grips and squeezes and touches him everywhere. There are deep purple bruises on Phil’s chest and stomach; they’re warm to the touch and he winces, even when Clint skims them lightly.

Phil’s doing the same to him, touching him too, except that Clint’s still wearing clothes, which Clint has just decided was a terrible decision when he finds himself being ripped out of them.

“I liked that t-shirt,” he says into Phil’s mouth, but Phil just bites his lip.

“I’ll mend it for you,” he says, hands on Clint’s belt, pushing it and his jeans and his boxers all down at once. “God, Clint, I thought - ”

“I know.” Clint interrupts him with more kisses, because whatever Phil thought, Clint thought worse and he doesn’t want to think about it, anymore. He reaches out and tangles his hands in Phil’s boxers. “Off, get these off.”

Phil does, dropping them where they stand, and Clint grabs him by the hips, pulling them together until they’re cock to cock, chest to chest, mouth to mouth. One of Phil’s hands is exploring Clint’s back all the way up and down, over and over, and the other is between his legs, just resting against his cock, while they kiss.

“Bed, please can we... bed?” Clint asks. He wants Phil over him like a blanket, and that’s exactly what he gets, except Phil doesn’t stop moving or touching or kissing him, so it’s the hottest blanket he’s ever had.

Apparently Phil has moves that he’s never bothered to show Clint. It's always been good. It’s always been warm and safe and gentle and so very very nice. Clint has always felt so fucking cherished when the two of them are in bed together, but it's never been like this.

He's kept it gentle for Clint’s benefit because Clint was young and new at all this. And god they could have been fucking like this the whole time. Clint hadn't even known sex like this existed.

Clint’s so turned on so fast, that it almost hurts, and he can’t even do anything for Phil because he’s shaking and sweating too much to remember how to use his arms.

He can hear himself whining Phil's name, hell the whole farm can probably hear him, but he doesn’t care, it doesn’t matter.

“Anything, anything,” Phil promises into his mouth.

Clint pushes at Phil’s chest, uses the awesome new moves SHIELD taught him to roll him onto his back, so he can straddle Phil’s hips.

“Very nice,” Phil says, staring up at him, his face all flushed and gorgeous.

“Do I pass the class, Agent Coulson?” Clint asks, hiding his grin in Phil’s neck, when Phil groans. Clint kisses him and kisses him, running his hands over Phil’s chest, while Phil’s distracted, making sure there definitely no bullet holes in him.

“I’m fine,” Phil says, catching Clint’s wrists. Apparently Phil wasn’t as distracted as Clint had hoped.

“I saw you bleed out,” Clint says, then shakes his head. “Pretend I didn’t say that. I don’t wanna kill the mood.” He props himself up over Phil and stares down at him. “Will you fuck me?”

“Like this?” Phil asks.

“Yeah,” Clint breathes then, “No, no, wait, sit up. Sit up?”

Phil sits up, letting Clint guide him where he wants him, until his back’s against the headboard, and he’s sitting with his legs spread, his cock red and thick and waiting for Clint.

“We need lube,” Phil tells him, stopping him with a kiss and fucking logic, when Clint just wants to climb onto his lap.

“Shit, okay, there'll be some somewhere,” Clint says, dragging himself away with serious difficulty and stumbling over clothes to get to the dresser in the corner. If anyone’s going to keep her guest bedrooms stocked with lube, it’s going to be Natasha and fuck, yes, there’s a brand new bottle of it, in the second drawer down.

“Your friend Natasha is an interesting woman,” Phil says, looking a delicious mix of bemused and relieved when Clint crawls back onto the bed with his find.

Clint peels off the plastic and pours lube over Phil’s fingers. “My friend Natasha is a godsend,” he says. He climbs into Phil’s lap finally, and kisses him, while Phil gets busy with the lube.

The mood shifts when Phil is finally inside Clint. Everything slows down, narrows to their heartbeats in sync.

“You can’t do that to me again,” Phil says. It doesn’t sound angry or like an order, just desperate and sad.

“I didn’t,” Clint starts, then shakes his head fast, feeling his chest squeeze closed. “I won’t, I swear, I love you.” He says it between kisses, pressed fast and hard to Phil’s mouth.

Phil grabs him, arms wrapped around his back and hands firm on his shoulders, keeping him in place.

Clint doesn’t mind, he wants to be held harder, squeezed closer, if anything.

Clint drops his head onto Phil’s shoulder, opening his mouth against warm, sweaty skin. Phil nuzzles at the side of his head, breathing warm in Clint’s ear. His breath is shaky, like he feels as split open as Clint does.

“If you ever die on me again, I’ll kill you,” Clint tells him seriously. He doesn’t care, if that doesn’t make sense, he means it so hard.

“You’d be okay without me,” Phil tells him. It sounds more like an order than reassurance.

Clint laughs loudly. “I wouldn’t, I seriously wouldn’t, you should have seen me; I was a mess.”

“I’m sorry,” Phil says, but Clint’s already pulling back, shaking his head and kissing him. He doesn’t want to think about it; he wants to think about right now, when Phil is so definitely very alive and here with him.

They kiss and kiss until Clint finds himself moving on instinct, not thinking about technique, just fucking and being fucked, while Phil keeps up with him like they’re both reading each other’s minds.

“This isn’t going to be my finest hour,” Phil warns him, wince appearing between his eyebrows as though he’s in pain. Or as though not coming is painful already.

“That’s cool, that’s fine.” Clint tries moving, just little rolls of his hips because his skin doesn’t want to be separate from Phil’s skin, even for the length of a real thrust. “Be nice not to have it be me, for once.”

“Just - ” Phil says and bites Clint’s shoulder; it’s somehow lazy and hard at the same time, lips loose against Clint’s skin but teeth sharp, painful, while his tongue works the skin that he’s trapped.

“Yeah,” Clint says. “That’s good. I like that. Remind me that you’re here.”

Phil comes with a sigh so quiet it’s almost unnoticeable, except that Clint doesn’t think it’s possible for Phil do anything without Clint noticing, right now.

It should be scary to be this tuned in to someone else. It hurt so much losing Phil; that’s what feeling like this lets him in for. But it’s not scary, it just feels right, like someone has sewn his insides back together.

There are no fireworks or anything when they come, but Clint wasn’t looking for fireworks this time. He much prefers the feel of Phil’s come on the insides of his thighs, his come on Phil’s belly and he keeps touching it all, smearing them together, until Phil pulls him down to lie curled up together.

“I’m glad you weren’t alone,” Phil mumbles into Clint’s skin. He pulls Clint around until Clint’s facing him, and talks right into his neck. “Glad you had Natasha and Barney.”

Clint tries to think about what he would have done without them and can’t. “Me too,” he says. “They’re all right, I guess.”

“They’re good friends,” Phil corrects. He always gets bossy when he’s falling asleep, like Clint’s inability to be right is keeping him awake.

Clint smiles and tugs Phil closer, getting both arms around him. “That too,” he agrees. The weird thing is that it’s true; he’s never had anyone before, and now he has friends. It’s nice.

“Hey,” he says, poking Phil in the side. “Why did you give me your mom’s number? Did you know shit was coming?”

Phil takes long enough to answer that Clint thinks he’s fallen asleep. “No,” he says at last, and Clint realises he was thinking. “We didn’t know what was coming, if anything was coming, but Nick had a feeling something wasn’t right. Nick’s feelings haven’t been wrong, yet.”

Clint nods. He’ll take that as an answer; he prefers that to being kept completely out of the loop and then tripping into the Hydra stuff, anyway.

“That’s why Nick didn’t want anyone to know about you and me, too,” Phil says. “He thought you could be used against me. We stupidly didn’t think about it happening the other way around.”

Clint blinks. “What? What about the favouritism bullshit?”

Phil laughs. “That was bullshit. Nick’s the worst for treating you favourably.”

“He taught me to fly a plane,” Clint says, grinning.

“Yes, I’ve heard,” Phil says, then pulls Clint closer toward him, holding him tight.

***

Someone’s banging on Clint’s door and that’s really not okay, because it’s waking him up. He twists under the comforter, presses closer to Phil, and mumbles his complaints into Phil’s spine.

“I know,” Phil agrees, reaching back to pet his hip.

“Guys,” Barney calls. “You need to wake up.”

“Why?” Clint yells back at him. He’s so comfortable; he shouldn’t ever have to move.

“Probably because it’s two p.m.” Phil says thoughtfully, but he’s as horizontal and sleepy as Clint, so it’s not like he can talk.

“Because Tony Stark is in the kitchen,” Barney says.

Phil sits up in a rush. “What?” he asks, then, “For fuck’s sake.”

“Yeeeeah,” Barney drawls through the door. “He said you’d say that. Come on down before he eats all the grits.”

“Tony Stark’s in the kitchen?” Clint asks, rolling onto his side, so he can watch Phil try and fail not to swear some more.

“Apparently,” Phil agrees. “That man’s a menace; I don’t know why Nick likes him.”

“What does he actually do for Nick?” Clint asks. Currently he’s predisposed to hating Tony Stark, because what he’s doing right now is making Phil get out of bed and start searching for clothes and that’s not okay.

“He’s a consultant,” Phil says. He pulls on his boxers and starts shaking out his shirt. He turns back to Clint and winces before adding, “He’s also Iron Man.”

Clint sits up in a rush, overwhelming desire to sleep completely forgotten. “No way,” he says. “Iron Man, Iron Man? Like Iron Man from the news?” There’s been a guy in a metal suit flying around for months now, but everyone keeps saying it’s a military thing. Clint seriously should have guessed that it was a SHIELD thing.

“Are there other Iron Mans?” Phil asks. He pulls his shirt on and buttons it quickly, looking seriously displeased at all the wrinkles. “Please get dressed; he’s going to want to meet you and if he sees your penis, he’s never going to let you forget it.”

Clint found himself automatically checking that the comforter was over his lap, in case Tony Stark bursts in then and there. “Why’s he going to want to meet me?” he asks. Billionaires don’t usually want to meet him; that isn’t a thing.

“Just trust me on this one,” Phil says. He stands in front of the mirror in his rumpled shirt and creased black pants and sighs. “Oh well. Are you coming?”

“To meet Iron Man?” Clint clarifies.

Phil still looks so pained; it’s pretty funny. “To meet Iron Man.”

Clint rolls out of bed and grabs his clothes. “Hell, yeah.”

***

The guy at Natasha’s kitchen table is a lot smaller than Clint was expecting, but he’s definitely Tony Stark, right down to the dubious facial hair. He’s probably about Phil’s age, which is just disturbing; no one should be a billionaire before they’re thirty.

“Coulson!” he calls with his mouth full of food. “Do you have any idea what a grit is? I have no idea what a grit is, but damn these are good.”

“They’re cornmeal,” Phil says. He walks past Stark and heads for the coffee machine on the counter. “Why are you here?”

“Because I missed you,” Stark says. He tips back in his chair and looks Phil over from top to bottom. “Got to say you’ve looked better. Did your travelling trouserpress break?”

Clint snorts, which is a mistake, because it gets Stark’s eyes off Phil and over to the doorway where Clint’s lurking. He points his fork at Clint, eyes lighting up. “Is this him? Are you him? Tell me you’re Agent Mysterious’s honeyboo.”

Clint looks to Phil for help, but Phil seems to be trying to kill himself with a coffee pot. “I’m Clint Barton,” he tries.

Apparently that’s the right answer, because Stark grins. “Agent, oh my god, he's adorable. Is he even old enough to drink?”

“Fuck you,” Clint says flatly, which gets Stark howling with laughter.

“I like you. Come and sit with me. Do you want food? Where’s the cute redhead, who could get you food.”

“I can get my own food,” Clint says, circling him to do exactly that. He hopes ‘the cute redhead’ is Natasha, not Barney and then he hopes that Stark calls her that to her face, so she can gut punch him.

There’s a hell of a lot of food laid out today, and Clint can’t remember the last time he ate properly, but he’s suddenly starving. He loads up his plate, then fills one for Phil too, because he can see Phil making two cups of coffee out the corner of his eye.

When they first met, Clint told Phil that he took his coffee with cream and sugar, which he really didn’t at the time, but now it’s the way Phil always makes it for him, and it tastes like home.

“Aw, isn’t that cute and domestic,” Stark says, watching them as they both take seats opposite him and swap mugs for plates.

“Why are you here?” Phil asks. He picks up his fork but doesn’t start eating, just holds it semi-threateningly.

Stark waves a hand. “Eh, there’s a thing. Message from Fury, take down Hydra, yadda yadda yadda. You know, I stopped listening.”

“Stark,” Phil says very, very carefully.

“Fine.” Stark sighs. “Fury and his plucky team of renegades are planning a strike on Hydra tonight. Your presence is humbly requested. They’ll be bringing a plane for you at some point, I guess, but I thought I’d fly down early and surprise you. Surprise.”

“That was very thoughtful of you,” Phil says, deadpan.

“I know,” Stark agrees then turns all his attention on Clint. “So… you know what’s under the suit, huh? Is he a robot? You can tell me.”

Clint smirks and lets his eyes travel very slowly up and down Phil’s chest. If Phil were standing up, he’d probably go a little further. “Definitely not a robot, Mr Stark,” he says.

Stark pauses for a moment then shudders. “Oh, ew,” he says. “I didn’t need to know that.”

“You did ask,” Phil says mildly. There’s a smile curling the corners of his eyes, but his mouth is steady and Clint wonders if Stark’s noticed. “Will Iron Man be helping SHIELD or are you just here to spread joy as always?”

“I do always spread joy,” Stark agrees. “But I thought I’d probably help this time, too.” He jerks his thumb at Clint. “Boy Wonder helping or will he be staying here, darning your socks and keeping the home fires burning?”

“I’m helping,” Clint says firmly.

Phil opens his mouth, looks at Clint, sighs, and closes it again. “I suppose there’s no way of talking you out of that?” he asks.

“Nope,” Clint agrees. “If nothing else, I’d like to punch a couple people in the face.”

“Specific people or just general violence?” Stark asks.

“Specific people,” Clint says, making Stark grin at him.

***

“Clint,” Natasha says, after Clint’s done with breakfast. “Come with me.”

He doesn’t mean to glance back at Phil, he really doesn’t, but she catches him at it and punches him on the arm. “He’ll still be there, when I’m done. Besides, it’ll be fun for him and your brother to get to know each other.”

“Fuck,” Clint groans, but lets Natasha tug him out of the room.

In the pantry, she leans against a thick shelf and watches him steadily. “I know Hydra,” she says. “I’ve dealt with them before.”

“Okay,” Clint says. “Guessed that.”

“It… didn’t go well,” Natasha says. If Natasha’s saying that, it probably means half the world blew up or something. “Sometimes Hydra and my former employers worked together, sometimes they were enemies. I prefered it when they were enemies; Hydra was never trustworthy.”

“Your former employers being… something scary in Russia?” Clint asks. Natasha doesn’t talk about her past, but she alludes to it, sometimes.

“My former employers being the KGB,” she says.

Clint frowns. “I wasn’t great in school,” he starts. “But I’m pretty sure the KGB stopped being a thing before I was born, and you’re not that much older than me.”

“I’m a lot older than you,” she says. Her smile is wide but empty. “I just don’t look it.”

“Okay,” Clint says. “That’s weird and mysterious. So while you were going around, being old or whatever, you bumped into Hydra.”

“I did,” Natasha says. “I want you to be careful. If they’re this deep within SHIELD, then you might want to rethink staying with SHIELD, even if we win this round.”

That’s not something Clint wants to hear. He’d been going to have a place, finally. “I only just joined,” he says. “And Phil - ”

“Phil will won’t care whether you work for SHIELD or the circus or no one. I knew that before I met him and certainly know it now; the two of you are almost enough to make me believe in love.”

“You don’t believe in love?” Clint asks, derailed.

“Love is nice story adults make up for children,” Natasha says. “And we’re getting off the point.”

They are, but, “No one loved me when I was a child, and I still believe in it.”

“That’s nice for you,” Natasha says. She straightens up, as though she’s said all she wants to say, but Clint stops her.

“If you know Hydra,” he says, “did you ever meet a guy with a metal arm? Garrett has him strapped to a gurney and sedated half the time, and I want to get him out. What? Why are you making that face?”

“A man with a metal arm?” Natasha asks. She’s stepped all the way into Clint’s space and her expression is scarily intent. “Do not get him out. He’s dangerous.”

“Sure,” Clint agrees. “Metal arm. It’s not there for extra tight hugs. But… but he’s a prisoner. I want to help him.”

Natasha looks him square in the eye. “He shot me,” she says. “Right through my stomach, it barely missed my spine.”

Okay. Okay Clint needs to prioritise that, because Natasha’s his friend and Gurney Guy is just… completely helpless and barely living. “Does he have a name?”

Natasha glares, and looks as though she isn’t going to answer. Eventually, she nods. “He’s known as the Winter Soldier. I don’t know who he used to be.”

“Cool name,” Clint says.

“You’re hopeless,” Natasha says. She reaches into her pocket and drops a handful of little silver disks into Clint's palm. “If you have to make friends with the Winter Soldier, at least take these. They’re very effective on his metal arm.”

“What do they do?” Clint asks, slipping them carefully into his back pocket.

“Bite,” she says, with a wide smile.

“You’re terrifying,” he tells her.

“I am,” she agrees and kisses his cheek.

***

Just before dusk, a big, black plane touches down on Natasha’s back field, and Melinda May waves to them from the pilot’s seat.

“Guess this is it,” Clint says, but he can’t help making it half a question.

Natasha nods, eyes flickering suspiciously all over the plane and focusing on the back, which is opening in front of them. “Guess so,” she says.

Clint nods and tries not to feel disappointed. He knows Natasha’s out of the spy business; why would she want to help SHIELD? He jerks his head at Barney. “Take care of him, for me?”

“Yeah, right, we’re coming with you,” Barney says.

“No,” says Phil.

“Hell no,” says Clint. He means hell no to Barney; he’s all on board with Natasha coming.

Barney just flashes his teeth at both of them. “It’s cute that you think you can tell me what to do,” he says. “I’m in this, I’m seeing it through.”

“This is like Band of Brothers, but with more terrifying assassin people,” Stark says. He’s wearing his Iron Man armour, and Clint has been trying really hard not to geek out about that.

“Are we going?” Nick calls from the back of the plane. “‘Cause I’ve kind of got somewhere I need to be.”

“We’re coming,” Phil says. He sounds resigned. “Everyone’s coming, apparently.”

Stark waves them off with a blast of repulsor boots and sarcasm and Phil, Clint, Natasha, and Barney climb on board the plane.

“Finally,” Nick says.

The plane starts up, while he leads them up some narrow metal stairs to what looks kind of a lot like someone’s really plush living room. Half the chairs are already full of black-clad agents who Clint doesn’t know.

Victoria Hand is sitting in one straight backed leather chair, a hell of a lot of bandaging around her chest and one arm in plaster.

“Fuck,” Clint says, stumbling to a halt.

She looks him over cooly, then jerks her head. “Mr Barton. Take a seat.”

Phil comes up behind Clint and squeezes his shoulders. “Agent Hand,” he says.

“Agent Coulson,” Hand says, eying the places Clint’s touching him. Clint takes a deep breath and makes himself step away from Phil. He can’t let Phil shield him from everything; he needs to take responsibility for the things he’s done, and he definitely shot Agent Hand.

“I’m sorry I shot you,” Clint says, eyeing her bandages miserably.

“We won’t mention it,” she says, which isn’t I forgive you, but Clint doesn’t really have the right to expect it to be.

***

“The plan is simple,” Nick tells everyone, when they’re assembled around a conference room table. (This plane has a conference room, but Clint still prefers the little jet Nick took him up in.) “Hydra has my buildings and I want them back.”

“So we’re just going to take them?” Phil asks.

“Sir?” Maria asks. “Is that a plan or a suicide mission?”

“It’s a plan,” Nick says, glaring at them both. “We might be outnumbered, but we’re not outgunned. We have Stark, we have weaponry, and we have the advantage of not being psychopathic, Nazi motherfuckers. They’re gonna go down.”

“Hooah,” Phil mutters and despite everything, despite this being seriously serious, Clint laughs.

“How many guys you got?” Barney asks. He looks around the table. “Because these guys look badass and everything, but you’re gonna need more.”

“We have more than this, Mr Barton,” Nick says. He’s looking at Barney like he remembers putting Barney in jail last year and is thinking about putting him back in.

They talk strategy for a while; it mostly seems to boil down to shoot people, make quips, but they’re planning it to the nth degree. It’s like a workshop at the Academy, and it’s fascinating, which Clint feels kind of bad about, since there are lives on the line.

“As soon as they realise something’s up, they’ll send in aerial support, so May and Stark will be taking care of that.” Nick steeples his hands together and looks a little pained, probably at the thought of relying on Stark.

“That doesn’t explain how we’re going to get close to Pierce though, sir,” Phil says. “He’s the heart.”

Nick raises his eyebrows. “I’m sure he’d be real glad to hear you think of him that way, Coulson.”

Phil does that thing of his, where he glares, without glaring, so it’s not quite insubordinate. “The heart of the Hydra, sir. You keep cutting off their heads, more grow back, but if you stab it in the heart...”

“So we need a way to get to Pierce,” Nick says, nodding. “I imagine him and Garrett and my fucking level 8s will be sitting around, congratulating themselves on a coup well couped.”

“There’s this guy called Rumlow, too,” Clint says. “He’s badass scary.”

Very calmly, Nick leans forward and hits a button on the table. “Anyone working with the STRIKE Team? Tase ‘em and tie ‘em up.” He looks back at Clint. “What else you got for me?”

“Um.” Clint tries to think. “They’re working with this dude called the Winter Soldier? But he’s okay.”

Around the table, people make startled noises. Nick closes his eyes for a slow blink. “The Winter Soldier is okay?” he asks. “Fine. What else?”

“We found this,” Barney says. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the memory stick he stole from Garrett’s lair. The plastic case is smashed, but the metal part looks okay; Clint might think it still worked, if he hadn’t been the one to put a boot to it. Clint feels a little bad for ruining it - just a little.

“What was on here?” Nick asks, turning it around between his fingers.

“Targets, locations, bad shit,” Barney says.

“Hmm,” Nick says. He looks at Melinda, who tips her head and grins.

“I’ll talk to the tech kids,” she says, plucking it out of his hands and heading downstairs.

“What’s going on?” Clint asks.

“Trojan horse,” Natasha says quietly. She’s been watching everything, taking it in, but this is the first time she’s spoken.

Nick grins at her. “Exactly, Ms Romanov. If we can change what’s on here, add a bug or two, and if we can plug it into their system, maybe we can wipe out all their data. That’ll slow them down.”

“I can do that,” Natasha says. She grins straight back at Nick, just as deadly. “It’s one of my skillsets.”

“Excellent.” Nick looks around the room. Clint’s pretty sure he’s pleased, despite the lack of facial expression. “Ms Romanov and I will aim for the ‘heart.’ Coulson, you and Hill can lead the ground troops. Take down as many of the bastards as you can.”

“Me and Barney, too?” Clint asks.

“You’ll stick with me,” Phil says, before Nick can say anything.

Clint beams at him; that’s exactly the answer he wanted.

***

“We’re the distraction,” Phil reminds them. “Anyone gets in our way, shoot ‘em down, but don’t shoot Pierce unless you have to. He’s our main goal.”

“What if we don’t know what Pierce looks like?” Barney mutters to Clint, who shrugs.

“Shoot everyone,” Phil tells him, and Clint has to hide a laugh.

It feels like Clint’s in the middle of a Mission Impossible movie or one of those first person shooter games, as they sneak through the building. They keep to the back stairs and the maintenance routes and make it up three flights before anyone spots them.

“Hail Hydra!” a voice shouts down to them. Clint can’t even look up in time to see who it is; Maria just sighs and shoots them, before carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Phil touches Clint’s back, just lightly, which Clint appreciates, but he’s okay. Some people just need to be shot.

At the top of the stairs, Maria splits the team, sending everyone off down different long, overly-lit corridors. Clint sticks with Phil, and Barney sticks with Clint.

“No heroics,” Phil whispers to both of them. “And if anything happens to me, you get out.”

“You wouldn’t have let us come in, if you didn’t think we could handle ourselves,” Barney tells him and starts off down the corridor.

Phil glances at Clint, looking exasperated, but Clint just grins. “Sorry about your in-laws,” he says.

“That’s… horrifying,” Phil says, but he smiles, wide, like he can’t help it, before he puts his Agent Coulson mask back on.

They make it most of the way down the corridor without spotting anyone, and Clint’s just starting to relax, starting to fall into the pattern of a training exercise, when a door opens ahead of them and Rumlow steps out.

“Shit,” Barney mutters, fumbling out the gun they gave him on the plane, while Clint goes for an arrow.

Phil shoots at Rumlow over Clint’s shoulder, winging him. Rumlow smiles, wide and savage, and steps toward the bullets rather than away. Clint knew he was a creepy robot person.

The door Rumlow came out of crashes open again, and suddenly it’s a way fairer fight. If you’re Hydra, anyway. Bullets fly, Clint fires off arrow after arrow, and in the madness, he catches sight of Grant, pistol raised, stance professional.

He was never really a cadet, Clint realises; he always knew what he was doing.

Clint turns and shoves his bow into Barney’s hands, drops his quiver as his feet. “Stay here, shoot people,” he says, and slips into the mess of the firefight, before Phil can see him go.

“Hey!” he yells, grabbing Grant’s arm.

Grant turns, fist already raised, but he hesitates just a second when he sees Clint. Clint punches him in the jaw.

“That’s for being a total fucking bastard,” Clint says, standing over him as Grant falls.

Grant kicks Clint's knees out from under him, and pins him to the ground. There’s blood on his teeth from where Clint hit him, and a purple bruise around his eye that Clint would bet is from Sharon, back at the Academy.

“Ow,” Grant says, actually having the nerve to sound wounded. “I was trying to help you.”

Clint twists, sinking his teeth into Grant’s wrist, but Grant doesn’t let go. Clint spits out Hydra cooties and glares. “Help me? Seriously? You blackmailed me. I thought we were friends!”

“We are friends,” Grant says and the hell of it is that he seems to mean it.

Clint is having some trouble escaping, but he never has trouble snarking. “Yeah? Well you’re a bad friend.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Grant says. He tightens his grip around Clint, tight enough that Clint feels his throat click, dry and desperate for air.

Black spots dance at the corners of Clint’s eyes, but he’s weirdly not scared. He remembers this; he’s sparred with Garrett and with Grant, he knows how to get free. He twists, brings his knee up and his elbow down at the same moment.

Grant rears up, one hand going to his crotch, where Clint just kneed him. It’s only going to be a temporary distraction; Grant’s too much of a professional to let crushed balls slow him down, so Clint scrambles up and shoves him, pins him, their positions reversed from a second ago.

This time, when he punches Grant, he makes sure he knocks him out cold.

An arrow flies over his head, taking down a guy who was really, really close to Clint’s back with a really sharp knife. He turns and waves at where he thinks Barney is. “Thanks!”

“What do you mean thanks, wasn’t that you?” Phil asks, dangerously. Oops, Clint forgot he had a radio.

“Sorry, can’t hear you, fighting Nazis,” he says. Except there aren’t many Nazis left, just Rumlow, who Phil is fighting, while bitching Clint out. Phil’s multitasking skills are awesome.

“Need help?” Clint asks, rubbing his bruised throat.

“No, I don’t think so,” Phil says mildly and does some amazing jujitsu move thing, where he flies through the fucking air, and kicks Rumlow in the face.

Rumlow hits the wall head first, twitches, and goes still. Phil stands over him for a second, obviously checking to make sure he’s not going to do the horror movie thing and come back to life. Then he straightens up and smoothes the line of his jacket.

“There,” he says, turning back to Clint and Barney. “I’ll go first, this time.”

“He’s a fucking ninja,” Barney hisses at Clint.

“Yup,” Clint agrees, feeling incredibly, smugly pleased.

***

They circle around, coming up to a set of double doors that leads to what looks like a really fancy IT suite.

Clint risks a look, then presses himself back against the wall. “Seven guys with guns, a whole lot of civilians on the floor,” he says.

“Shit,” Phil mutters. “Okay, I’ll come around from the other side and - ”

“Or we could go up?” suggests Clint, who’s been studying the ceiling. The tiles look flimsy and easily removable, and he’d bet there’s enough crawl space to get past the door.

“No one’s going through the vents,” Phil tells him sternly.

Clint grins at him brightly. “Aww, come on, sir. Please.”

Barney laughs and stands, keeping his back to the wall. “Brace you?”

“Why is no one listening to me?” Phil asks, but he doesn’t stop them as Barney braces Clint upwards. Clint curls his fingers around the edge of a wall vent and peels it back. He hands it down then pulls himself up into the ventilation system. He leans down and takes his bow from Trip.

“If anyone shoots at you, get the hell back here,” Phil warns him.

Clint blows him a kiss and twists around, crawling until he figures he’s pretty much over into the other room. It’s harder to shift the vent cover on this side without being seen, but he manages it, lying flat with his bow parallel with the floor and just the tip of his arrow visible.

He takes down the first guy between one breath and the next, and then the two nearest him as soon as they react. There’s a commotion below him, and he thinks about ducking back before they find him, but then another guy’s stepping forward and it’s too good a chance to miss.

A bullet flies up through the floor of the vent shaft in front of him as they finally get a bead on where he is, but Clint’s close now, the room’s almost cleared, so he takes down the shooter, and then the shooter’s friend, who tries to take his place.

One more to go and Clint lines up his last arrow, only to hesitate when he comes face to face (bow to gun) with Agent Sitwell.

“Barton?” Sitwell asks, gun halfway between raised and surrendered.

“Whose side are you on?” Clint calls down to him.

“Whose side are you on?” Sitwell counters, which is when a door crashes open down below.

“Hands up,” Phil says and he sounds like he really means business. “Jasper, I mean it, put your hands up.”

Sitwell’s hands go up and he gets down on his knees, holding out his gun to Trip who takes it. “I’m on your side,” he says. “Don’t shoot.”

Clint closes his eyes for a second, relieved that he hesitated, that he didn’t kill a friendly. He pushes aside the rest of the tile, and drops down onto the ground, pretty close to Sitwell but without actually landing on him.

“I’m pretty sure I told you to run away from bullets,” Phil says, but his heart’s not in it, he’s too busy glaring at Sitwell. “And you, why should I believe you?”

“I’m pretty sure he’s telling the truth,” Clint offers. “He didn’t shoot me at the Academy.”

“Lots of people didn’t shoot you at the Academy,” Barney mutters, “doesn’t mean they’re not Hydra.”

“Ask Fury,” Sitwell says. “You’ve got him on comms, right?”

“Sir?” Phil says, a voice in the room and a voice in Clint’s ear and ooh, Clint needs to learn how to turn his mic on without touching it. “Status on Agent Sitwell.”

“Friendly,” Nick answers immediately. He sounds breathless. “Barton there with you?”

Clint’s taking a break, breathing hard against the wall, but now he stands up straight. “Sir?”

“I need you and your idiot brother in the south corridor stat.”

“Coming,” Clint says.

“Idiot brother coming too,” Barney says, sounding resigned.

***

“Pierce and Garrett are holed up in Pierce’s office,” Nick says, when the three of them find him. “Your friend the Winter Soldier is guarding the door. We can’t get near them.” There’s a cut over his eye and sweat on his forehead, but Natasha’s standing next to him and she looks totally pristine.

She sighs, straightening her long, black sleeve. “You think he’s friendly?” she asks Clint. “Time to prove it.”

“Why?” Phil asks, before Clint can. He sounds a lot less happy than Clint would have. “What are you planning?”

Nick looks at him seriously. “We need Clint to get us into that room,” he says.

“No,” Phil says.

“Yeah.” Clint shrugs when everyone looks at him. “Yeah, obviously. What do you need me to do?”

***

Alexander Pierce is a suave-looking old guy in a three-piece suit. He curls his lip in distinct disapproval, when Clint’s thrown down at his feet.

To be fair, Clint disapproves too; the floor is hard and now his knees hurt.

“Barton,” Garrett says, walking over from a computer console where he was doing… something, probably something nefarious. “Nice to see you.” He looks up at the Winter Soldier, who’s standing at Clint’s back, the muzzle of his gun still pressed to the back of Clint’s head. “Where’d you find him?”

The Soldier doesn’t answer Garrett and Garrett narrows his eyes at him, looking about two steps up from completely hating his guts.

“Who is this?” Pierce asks. “Why haven’t we shot him, already?”

“He’s one of the cadets,” Garrett says. “Thought him and his brother could be useful, but they turned out to be a serious disappointment.”

Pierce crouches down in front of Clint. His knees click, but that doesn’t make him any less powerful or intimidating. “What were you doing here, kid? Did Nick Fury send you?”

Clint shifts back, fidgeting and curling his hand tighter around the memory stick in his left hand. “No,” he says, dropping his eyes from Pierce’s. He tries to remember what Sharon Carter told him about selling a cover, but his body’s zinging with too much adrenaline to get it right.

“What have you got there?” Garrett asks, grabbing Clint by the elbow and yanking his arm forward.

“Ow,” Clint complains. “You know, Hydra really needs to work on its people skills.”

Garrett grins. “Yeah, we get that a lot,” he says, and squeezes Clint’s wrist, hard enough that a bone pops and his fingers spasm open. The memory stick falls from his numb fingers, falling to the floor.

Pierce sweeps it up and stands, holding it up to the light. “What’s this?” he asks.

Garrett doesn’t look pleased. It’s his memory stick, so he really should. “It’s Project Insight,” he says. “I know you said it’s not ready, but I - ”

“But you were working on it anyway,” Pierce says, sounding tired. “Garrett, sometimes I wonder why I keep you around.”

Clint was expecting a quip, but Garrett doesn’t give one. “Sir,” he says, instead.

Pierce huffs an annoyed breath at him. “No, I’m not going to shoot you. Not yet, anyway.” He waves a hand at the computer terminal. “Plug it in, let me see exactly what it was this brat tried to smuggle to Fury.”

Garrett moves over to the computer, while Clint holds his breath and watches. At least he tries to. His view is suddenly blocked by Pierce standing in front of him, talking over his head at the Soldier.

“Kill this one,” Pierce says. “He’s no use.”

The Soldier doesn’t say anything, just takes Clint by the collar and drags him across the room. It puts them further from the door but closer to the window. If he had to, Clint could jump and hope Iron Man’s out there.

That’s really not his first choice of plan, though.

“Please don’t shoot me,” he says, and hears a very, very worried, Clint? in his ear.

The Soldier raises his gun, cocks it and fires without missing a blink. The bullet sails past Clint’s ear, close enough that he’d swear that he hears it. He falls forward, even though he’s pretty sure the force of the bullet would have blown him backwards.

No one’s looking though, so it doesn’t matter, and he wants to watch Pierce and Garrett.

“Clint!” Phil yells over the radio.

“Shh,” Clint breathes, and the line goes quiet like someone’s cut it off so they can curse really loudly.

The Soldier stands over Clint, close enough that he’s half-blocking Clint’s line of sight. It feels protective, since Garrett and Pierce can’t see him properly now, either.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Garrett is saying over at the computer terminal. “This isn’t what I downloaded to the - ”

“Take it out,” Pierce snaps. “Take it out, right now.”

“Trying,” Garrett says, then snatches his hand away. “Fuck, that fucking stick bit me.” Clint grins, he doesn’t know how Natasha managed that, but he’s glad that she did.

“It’s a trap; they’re uploading something to your servers,” Pierce says, and then what sounds like every alarm in the building goes off at once.

The double doors leading into Pierce’s command centre fly open and Fury strides in, pistol raised.

“Stand down, Mr Secretary,” he says.

Pierce laughs. “Really?” he asks. “You’re mixing your mythology, Nick. You can’t take down Hydra with a Trojan Horse.”

“Wanna bet? Nick asks.

Pierce barely spares the Soldier a glance. “Shoot him,” he says.

The Soldier twitches, breath catching. Clint scrambles to his feet. “Don’t,” he says, putting a hand on the Soldier’s arm. “Do not shoot him.”

Pierce is staring at Clint - probably at Clint’s whole not-being-dead-thing and oh, now he looks worried. “What?” he starts.

The Soldier lifts his gun and points it at Pierce. “I - ” he starts, then his voice gives out.

“You can’t pull that trigger,” Garrett says. He’s holding a gun in each hand, not looking like he’s about to back down. “You’re just his little lapdog.”

“Maybe,” the Soldier says, and his gun swings from Pierce to Garrett. One bullet hits Garrett in the chest, the next in the head, and Clint thinks there’s kind of a poetic justice there.

“What did they do to you?” Pierce asks. He backs up one step then another, reaching for Garrett’s gun.

The Soldier pushes Clint down, before Pierce can fire, and a bullet embeds in the wall around about the place where Clint’s head used to be.

The Soldier is on top of him, shielding him, and Clint can hear more shots, some yelling, but he’s busy staring at the completely lost expression on the Soldier’s face.

“You talked to me like a person,” he says, like he’s answering Pierce’s question.

There’s a thump to Clint’s left and Clint turns his head, just far enough to see Pierce, wide-eyed and bleeding out, before he looks away. He doesn’t need to see that.

“I think we’re safe,” he tells the Soldier. “Hey, hey I think you’re safe. Look, he’s dead.”

The Soldier looks and then he doesn’t stop looking. Clint reaches up and squeezes his shoulder; he doesn’t think the Soldier is mourning, but he still looks shaken all the way up.

“Clint?” Phil asks sharply, a pair of shiny dress shoes stopping between Clint and Pierce’s body.

“I’m fine,” Clint says. “Just, you know, trapped.”

The Soldier sits up slowly, and Clint holds out a hand to Phil, who grabs it and pulls him to his feet.

“Everything okay?” Clint asks. Phil doesn’t look ruffled, but then he never does; that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been sneakily fighting more Hydra goons while Clint’s back was turned.

“You’re never doing anything like that again,” Phil tells him. “I don’t care if the fate of the world is hanging in the balance.”

“Sure,” Clint agrees readily. “I’ll sit home and knit, next time.”

“I’ll teach you to bake,” Natasha offers dryly, from behind him. Then her voice changes. “Are we just gonna let him go?”

“Hmm?” Clint asks, turning to see what she means. Instead, he catches sight of the Winter Soldier, smashing out a windowpane with his metal arm. “Hey, what are you doing?”

The Soldier turns back toward the room, and pulls off his goggles. “Thank you,” he says, and steps toward the window.

Light falls across his face, and Phil makes a choked noise. “Bucky?” he asks. “Bucky Barnes?”

The Soldier looks at him for a moment. “No,” he says, and steps backwards through the broken window.

Clint drops his bow and runs to the hole, catching himself on the crumbling brickwork and staring down at the ground, miles below, where the Soldier should have landed.

There’s nothing, and Clint closes his eyes for a second, totally relieved.

“Bucky Barnes?” he asks, when a shadow falls across him.

“I’d swear to it,” Phil says, sounding shaken. “His face… he looks exactly the same.”

“Okay,” Barney says, joining them, “who the hell is Bucky Barnes?”

***

There isn’t a lot of resistance after that.

Clint sits down on the balcony, watching Nick and May and Maria and people who know what they’re doing, round up Hydra agents, handcuffing them or coldcocking them as the situation demands.

He watches the dark shape of Phil moving around efficiently, and sighs.

“What’s up?” Natasha asks, sitting down next to him.

“He’s never gonna leave SHIELD,” Clint sighs. “Look at him, he’s real good at it.”

“Is that bad?” Natasha asks. “He seems happy.”

Clint sighs again. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s good. I want him to be happy. I just…” He rubs his face. He’s so tired; he doesn’t even know if he’s making any sense. “I want to lock him away in our apartment and keep him safe.”

Natasha rolls her eyes, making it really exaggerated, so he can’t miss it. “He’s not a hamster, Clint. That’s not how life works.”

“He’d make a cute hamster,” he hears himself say then groans, dropping his head down onto Natasha’s shoulder. “I’m so tired; please let me sleep here.”

“Maybe,” Natasha says, but she doesn’t move to dislodge him.

***

“Sure you don’t want a ride back?” Stark asks Natasha, flexing his iron-plated muscles. “I’m loving Kentucky. You could feed me more of that food.”

“Really, really sure, thank you, Mr Stark,” Natasha says. She’s gotten a car from somewhere - Clint’s mostly sure she didn’t steal it - and she’s leaning against the hood, looking very, secretly amused. She looks past Clint and raises her eyebrows. “You can come, though, if you want.”

“Me?” Barney asks, stepping forward then stepping back. “Is that part of your plan to kill me?”

“Probably,” she says. “I haven’t decided yet. While I’m deciding, you need somewhere to stay and I need someone to look after the horses.”

“Um.” Barney scuffs his toe on the floor and peeks up at Nick. “I think I probably have to go back to jail. Don’t I? Sir?”

Nick looks at him then looks at Phil, who raises his eyebrows ever so slightly. Nick sighs. “Go away. Go play on a farm.”

Weirdly, Barney still hesitates. “What are you waiting for? Go,” Clint says, waving a hand to indicate the cool car and the cooler girl who are waiting for him.

“You’ll be okay?” Barney asks, hands in his pockets.

Clint doesn’t glance at Phil, because he doesn’t want to make it seem like he only needed his brother when he didn’t have a Phil. “I’ll be good,” he promises, and unexpectedly gets a hug.

“Call me,” Barney says. “Like, once a week, not every day, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Clint laughs and shoves him away. “Get in the car before she gets bored of waiting.”

“That can happen,” Natasha warns.

Barney grins at Clint and slides into the car. Natasha waves through the windshield, so Clint blows her a kiss, half to be an asshole and half because he means it.

Phil’s arm wraps around his back as they drive off in a roar of sound. “Okay?” he asks.

Clint leans into him. “Okay. But I really wanna go home.”

***

Lucky won’t let either of them out of his sight, when they pick him up from Jessica. It makes showering off the remnants of the last few days kind of tricky, but they manage, and then Clint and Lucky curl up on the sofa, while Phil makes tea.

“I’m not going back to the Academy,” Clint says, while Phil’s busy and can’t see him. Phil doesn’t answer, so Clint calls, “Phil?”

Phil comes around the side of the sofa, and hands a mug to Clint, before fitting himself into the space Lucky has left for him. “I heard you,” he says. “I think it’s a shame; you were doing brilliantly.”

Clint leans his head on Phil’s shoulder. “I still want to learn,” he says. “But I can’t go back there. There are too many memories and shit.”

Phil slides an arm around him and squeezes. “We’ll figure something out,” he says. “When you’re qualified, I want you on my team. Would that be weird for you?”

Clint turns so fast that he sloshes tea from his mug, but it only lands on fingers, so he ignores it. “That’s what I’ve wanted all along,” he says. He elbows Phil lightly. “See what happens when you try to pass me off to other people? Garrett happens.”

“You can’t blame me for Garrett,” Phil protests. “That man is a psychopath.”

“Yeah.” Clint slides down and puts his head on Phil’s chest, listening to his heart beat. He’s stopped hearing the gunshot, but he still sees Phil bleeding out every other time he closes his eyes.

“I’ve been talking to Nick about some time off. I thought I might look for the Winter Soldier,” Phil says. “Want to come?”

“Like a mission?” Clint asks.

“A very unofficial, non-SHIELD-sanctioned one,” Phil says. “Just you and me.”

“And Lucky,” Clint says. It’s not a question.

“That’s less a mission, more a vacation,” Phil says. “But yes, if you want.”

“I want,” Clint says. He twists around and kisses Phil’s chin. “We could visit your mom, too.”

Phil groans. “A mission, Clint, it’s a mission. My mother is not involved in missions.”

Clint leans against him and closes his eyes. He’s going to get his way and they both know it. “Okay,” he says, easily. “If you say so.”

Phil pokes him. “You’re being a nuisance,” he says.

“S’why you love me,” Clint says, confidently.

“I guess it might be one of the reasons,” Phil allows, and Clint grins, satisfied with that.