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When people called him a glorified nanny, Phil never really gave them the time of day. So what if the Avengers were like a herd of overexcited kittens sometimes, big deal. He’d had worse. Like a sucking chest wound that had killed him for six minutes and eleven seconds, and then one more time for thirty-seven seconds while people much smarter than him had tried to stitch his heart back together. So, yeah. People calling him a nanny was pretty much on the bottom of the list of things that wound him up these days. And besides, he was glad to be here so he could be their nanny. God alone knew they needed a keeper.

That said, Phil never would’ve expected to actually be a nanny for any of them. But they were fighting forces much beyond their level of comprehension sometimes, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that some creatures apparently possessed the ability to de-age people.

In this case: Barton.

When communication with the archer had cut off abruptly, Phil’s heart had skipped a beat. For a horrible, almost unending minute he’d thought he might’ve lost one of his best agents. His voice had been clipped and tight when he’d ordered the Black Widow to go assess Hawkeye’s status, and she’d already been on her way before he’d even said two words.

Her stunned silence, when she found Barton, wasn’t what he’d expected. Neither was her, “Ah… sir? You might want to handle this situation personally.”

If Phil hadn’t known her better, he would’ve said she sounded afraid. But Natasha was a professional, and an assassin, and very hard to faze, so he had to be mistaken.

He took all of that back when he finally made it to their location and couldn’t do anything but stare for a moment.

The first thing that really caught Phil’s eye was the bow, clutched in an almost tiny fist and three times too large for the person holding it. And that was the absolute killer: Clint Barton, seasoned archer for a secret government organization, sassy and bad at following orders and a general (though fondly tolerated) pain in Phil’s ass, was all of three feet tall right now. His uniform was pooling around his small, naked feet and he was clutching a pair of black boxer briefs as if his life depended on it. But he hadn’t just shrunk down to almost half his size, oh no. If Phil had had to guess, he’d say that Barton was maybe three years old, give or take a few months.

And the big, blue eyes staring at him from under a shock of blond hair looked absolutely terrified.

For the first time in his entire life, Phil had no idea how to proceed. He’d never had kids, had only ever been around kids a total of three times in his life while their parents were in shouting distance. Him and kids were an equation that had not been properly field tested under extreme circumstances as these, and wow he definitely hung around Stark and Dr. Banner too much if he was starting to think in sentences like that. Phil took a careful, measured breath and let his instincts guide him.

Crouching down carefully, he never took his eyes off Barton’s face, which still looked like the boy might start to cry any minute, but also had this determined little frown furrowing his brows, as if he would use that bow any way he could to defend himself. It was terribly endearing and told Phil a lot about Barton’s psyche. And his past, but he’d rather not get into that right now.

“Hey there,” Phil said quietly. He used his normal, calm voice. Who knew how much Barton would remember when - if - he went back to normal? Phil would rather not be reminded at every turn that he’d used baby talk to make first contact. Barton was totally the type to throw that in his face every chance he got.

“Do you know where you are?” he asked when Barton didn’t move an inch or made any attempts to greet Phil back.

His question earned him a suspicious look, then a quick shake of the head. Phil nodded sagely, smiling a little. “Well, you’re in New York. Have you heard of New York before?”

Another pause, then another head shake. Okay, that sort of confirmed Phil’s fears of how young Barton had to be. Phil pushed that alarming thought aside for the moment and instead asked, “Do you know what happened?”

Barton’s small face scrunched up in a frustrated little scowl, probably because he couldn’t answer any of Phil’s questions, so he raised his hand carefully and allowed his smile to grow a bit. “It’s okay if you don’t. We don’t know what happened either.” He hesitated only a moment before he put his hand on his own chest and added, “I’m Phil, and this is my friend Natasha.”

Natasha still looked a little lost but willing to play along, so she waved at Barton who just stared between them, apparently trying to decide if he could trust them. Something dark and primal welled up in Phil’s chest. He wanted to go back in time and exchange some choice words with Barton’s father. From the looks on Natasha’s face, she would probably want to accompany him, preferably with a knife or ten.

“Do you know who you are?” Phil asked after Barton didn’t seem inclined to make any friendly overtures. His small fist tightened on the bow, and his lips pressed together. Then, after he’d looked at both of them again one more time, he nodded and looked down on the floor. Phil’s heart went out to him so fast that he almost stumbled from his crouch.

“You’re not in trouble, I promise,” he said quickly, and he would’ve been embarrassed about his odd behavior if it weren’t for Natasha who was crouching down next to him now, trying to appear less threatening. “I just want to find out what happened, okay? I want to help you.”

Barton’s head raised again so he could look at them both by turns, but his eyes came to rest on Phil in the end. “Okay,” he said in a high, quiet voice that Phil wouldn’t have been able to hear if he hadn’t waited for Barton to say something. If Phil hadn’t known that it wasn't biologically possible to do so, he would’ve sworn his heart stopped beating for a second when his chest tightened under the hurt he felt of seeing Barton this small and frightened and defeated.

Instead he increased his smile even more and held out his hand. “Excellent. I can tell that you’re a man who thinks before he acts. That’s a good character trait.”

Barton looked like he wasn’t sure if Phil was complimenting him or not, but he seemed to come to the conclusion that it was okay to trust the crazy strangers for now. One side of his mouth turned up slightly in a tiny smile, so familiar and yet not that Phil had to bite back an instinctive flinch. Barton didn’t seem to notice, he just looked down at Phil’s hand, then at the bow, and then at his hand still holding up the boxer briefs. Oh, right. He would certainly not give up his weapon or the only clothing that ensured his decency. Ah well, they could work with that.

“You don’t have to let go of your bow, if you don’t want to,” Phil assured him and had to bite the inside of his lip when he saw the sheer relief on Barton’s face. “Obviously we don’t want you to let go of your underwear,” he added with a tiny, mischievous grin and a small wink for Barton. The boy relaxed even further, giving Phil another small half smile and a head shake. Phil nodded sagely. “I’m afraid we’ll have to walk quite a bit to our headquarters. That’s where we can help you, okay?”

Barton looked a little skeptical, probably weighing the pros and cons of believing this stranger. But then he just shrugged, his naked toes curling into the concrete. “Would it be okay with you if I carry you there?” Phil asked carefully, looking at the bare feet. “I don’t want you to hurt your feet, and it really is quite a way.”

The grip on the bow tightened yet again, and Barton shot a quick look at Natasha who, bless her, had the most trustful look on her face Phil had ever seen, and he’d seen her in action quite a few times. In the end Barton seemed open to reason, because he tightened the grip on his bow and his boxers and nodded at him.

Phil would never tell anyone how relieved he was in that moment.

Giving Barton another encouraging smile, he put his hands under the boy’s arms and lifted him carefully. He didn’t weigh all that much, maybe 24 pounds. Phil pressed him lightly against his own body, making sure that Barton was still decent and covered, before putting his arm under his butt and his hand on his leg to secure him against his chest. Barton didn’t seem to mind. He even let go of the boxers to grab Phil’s suit jacket in a tiny fist. His bow, however, remained firmly in his grasp. Natasha, Phil noticed from the corner of his eye, had retained Barton's quiver and uniform. Good girl.

They were making their way back through the streets, the team chatter only now filtering back into Phil’s ear, when he felt Barton shift slightly in his grip, putting his chin on Phil’s shoulder to look back the way they’d come from. He couldn’t help the tiny smile stretching his lips. Trust Barton to have Phil’s back even when he was a toddler.

“You okay?” he asked quietly so as not to startle the boy. He received a tiny head nod, and he wasn’t expecting anything else, but then Barton’s head turned and he leaned closer to Phil’s ear. Phil played along, leaning his head in Barton’s direction as if they were sharing a secret. Then Barton’s tiny voice whispered, “I’m Clint.”

Something weird happened in Phil’s chest at that. His breath got stuck in his throat for a moment, humbled and worried by how much this small kid trusted him even though he didn’t know Phil at all. But he pushed all those confusing feelings aside for the moment, pulled his head back so he could smile at the boy, and replied, “Hello, Clint. It’s nice to meet you.”

The minute they got back to headquarters, people began swarming Phil. He only had half an ear for them, almost completely focused on the small boy pressed against him and a little preoccupied with the chatter on the comm. He'd told the Avengers to get back to HQ after the aliens had mysteriously vanished a few moments after they'd lost contact with Barton, and by the sounds of it they'd just arrived themselves, chatting up a storm about the sudden disappearance of the aliens and possible threats that had yet to appear.

Clint was looking around the entrance hall, wide-eyed and with his mouth hanging open slightly, his fist tightening in Phil's jacket whenever someone appeared out of nowhere at their side to ask for Phil's attention. It was apparent that the boy had never seen something like S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters before in his life, and it gave Phil a weird sort of pleasure to see him so entranced by it.

“What are you planning to do?” Natasha asked, her eyes roaming over the crowd that had descended on them, asking for mission reports and meetings for debriefing. Her thunderous face spoke volumes about the amount of patience she had left.

Phil plowed on. “Get him to Medical first, and then we'll see what they say,” he replied, feeling his own patience vanish more and more. When they finally reached the elevators, he stopped, pressed Clint's tiny body a little closer and rounded on the agents following him like little ducklings. “I will get to each of you as soon as my team has been debriefed, which for the time being is not a priority on my list. Do not contact me until I have contacted you, do I make myself clear?”

The crowd fell silent immediately, a few of them looking confused that Phil wasn't giving them his full report in triplicate already. Others finally noticed the boy in Phil's arms and backed off instinctively. Natasha's face probably didn't help matters either.

When nobody spoke up again, Phil nodded, turned and entered the elevator, quickly followed by Natasha. The ride down didn't take more than a few seconds, which Phil used to tell the other Avengers to meet him there in ten minutes.

“You don’t think they will be finished with Clint in ten minutes, do you?” Natasha asked, eyebrow raised.

Phil snorted. “Hardly. But it'll give them enough time to check if he's physically okay. We'll worry about possible solutions later.”

He felt Clint's eyes on the side of his neck and turned his head to give him a questioning look. But the boy didn't say anything, just stared at Phil with an intensity that was almost unsettling from someone so young.

They entered Medical and were instantly swarmed by two nurses. “What’s your status?” one of them asked. “We didn’t get advance warning that someone was coming in.”

Phil sighed and heaved Clint a little higher. “We’re all fine.” His gaze came to rest on the boy in his arms. “Except for Barton here.”

The nurses did a double take, and under different circumstances it would’ve been funny to see their faces morph from worried to gobsmacked. But so far nothing had been funny about this whole situation. They had no idea what had happened, if it was reversible, and if the whole de-ageing process had any lasting effects on Clint. For now, all they could do was find out if he was healthy.

Marsha, the older nurse who had seen quite a few things in her time in S.H.I.E.L.D. Medical, recovered first and pasted a smile on her face. “Why don’t you let me take him and we’ll do some tests?”

The words were barely out of her mouth before Clint’s tiny fist curled so tightly into Phil’s suit jacket that it produced an ominous ripping sound. “No,” Clint said, quiet but firm and shaking his head.

Phil looked at him, puzzled. “They want to make sure you’re okay, Clint. It’s fine, they won’t hurt you.”

But Clint still shook his head and buried his face against Phil’s neck. His heart made a funny little flip in his chest and the grip on Clint tightened involuntarily. He could feel the small body shaking in his arms, he was so terrified. Nothing on this earth could’ve made Phil give up his hold on Clint at that moment. He shushed him quietly, rubbing his small back carefully, and exchanged a look with Natasha. She raised her eyebrows at him, and Phil didn’t need to hear the words to know what she was suggesting. Okay then.

“How about I come with you, Clint? Make sure nobody does anything you don’t like?” he asked quietly, and the reaction was almost immediate. Clint’s head came up from Phil’s neck, and his big, blue eyes stared at him, searching his face. After a moment his head turned to the nurse who had originally proposed she take him with her, then back to Phil.

“With me?” he asked in his clear, high voice.

Phil nodded. “With you.”


Marsha nodded to a bed at the other end of the room and Phil walked over, making sure Clint was secure in his arms. When they arrived, he sat down on the bed. Clint slid easily down until he sat in Phil’s lap, held in place by Phil’s arm around his waist. He didn’t seem to mind, just looked curiously around the room.

“Can we put that down next to you for a moment, Clint?” Marsha asked suddenly, pointing at the bow still clutched in Clint’s tiny fist. He shied away from her, looking up at Phil questioningly.

“It’s okay, Clint. I’m right here, I won’t let anyone hurt you,” Phil assured him, but it still took a long moment before Clint looked down at his bow, cocking his head to the side. Then he held it out for Phil to take. He made sure that Clint could see him place it right next to them on the mattress. Clint seemed satisfied with that, because he nodded decisively and then leaned back against Phil’s chest.

After that came the standard tests, none of which were invasive. Phil knew that at one point there would be needles, and he remembered how much of a pain it was to get regular-sized and appropriately-aged Clint Barton to let doctors come at him with sharp objects. He was dreading how Clint Barton, aged 3 reacted to that.

Not at all, as Phil found out a minute after the thought had occurred to him. Clint was utterly fascinated by the knife Natasha had gotten out, telling him all about what made it a good throwing knife and how to grip it. Clint didn’t even flinch when the needle penetrated his skin, just let a careful finger slide down the hilt of the knife. Phil made a mental note to not let Natasha babysit, ever. With their luck, Clint would lose an eye because Natasha didn’t see a problem in letting a three year old handle sharp objects.

“What about you, Phil,” Marsha suddenly asked, giving him an assessing look. “Any chest pains?”

Phil sighed, refusing to give into the urge to rub his chest instinctively. It was just a psychological reaction at this point, there was nothing wrong with him physically. The short exercise from the command center to Clint's location hadn't exhausted him overly, though he knew that people worried whenever he did something outside of his job parameters.

So he just shook his head and assured her, “I'm fine. Nothing too strenuous happened.” It wasn't like carrying Clint around had been that taxing, even though he'd taken longer for the way back than he usually would have before Loki.

Marsha nodded at Phil in understanding, and he remembered why he liked her so much. She was no-nonsense and knew when patients lied to her. When they needed it, she gave them space. And while she trusted them to know their own limits, she was also quick in scolding her patients when they overdid it.

“Okay, we're done with the routine tests for now,” she said, but was interrupted by a commotion outside the doors to Medical. Ah, yes. The rest of the team had arrived.

“I’m just saying it was weird,” Stark said, obviously having another argument with Cap. “Aliens don’t just appear, fly around a little and then vanish out of the blue. Unless they were tourists, it doesn’t make any sense!”

“I’m just glad that property damage was almost non-existent and nobody was hurt this time,” Cap replied before they came into view. “And I don’t care that you didn’t get to test your new... repulsor... thingies.”

“Oh my god, you still have no idea what my weapons are called, do you?” Stark said, staring at Cap in disbelief who studiously didn’t look back. Instead, he gave his full attention to Phil.

“Is anyone hurt?” he asked, all sincere and ready to give out tissues and well wishes. “You said to report to the Medbay.”

“Don’t you think we would’ve known if anyone was hurt?” Stark chimed in, playing curiously with some medical instruments on a tray next to the bed. “We do have comms for a reason.”

“That doesn’t mean we always know something happened,” Cap countered, sounding a little irritated. “Anyone could fall unconscious and then get hurt.”

“Yeah, but we would notice if someone drops off the comms, and the only one we lost contact with during that brief stint with the Blue Man Group aliens was Barton who... is...”

All eyes came to rest on Phil and the child on his lap. Stark blinked, Cap looked a little disbelieving which, really? The man had been frozen solid for 70 years. Weird things happened.

It was Dr. Banner, in the end, who put two and two together. His eyes widened when he saw the bow sitting next to them on the bed. “Holy mother of Jesus.”

“What? What?” Stark asked, looking from Dr. Banner to Phil, then at the child and then the bow. It finally seemed to click for him. “Son of a b-”

“Tony!” Cap boomed over him, startling Clint in the process who flinched back into Phil’s chest. He tightened his arm in reassurance, but otherwise didn’t address it. “There’s a child present.”

“Oh, I’m sure Barton has heard and said worse things than that,” Stark deadpanned. “In fact, I’m pretty sure that just the other day, I heard him say to one of the techs -”

“Not the time, Stark,” Phil said mildly. Everyone fell silent, staring at Phil and the kid again.

“Is this really Clint?” Dr. Banner asked. “Because for once, I want to be wrong.”

“I’m afraid you’re quite correct, Dr. Banner,” Phil said, and almost laughed when Cap and Stark took a startled step back from the bed. “I can assure you that whatever has befallen Agent Barton, it is not contagious, gentlemen. If that were the case, me and Agent Romanoff would be children too by now.” Also, if they'd carried some sort of virus, the alarms would’ve gone off as soon as they’d stepped foot into HQ. Judging by Stark’s face, he’d just remembered the same, and that the sensors had been installed by him personally and were maintained and updated by JARVIS.

“So what happened?” Cap asked, eyeing the boy carefully and giving him a small, reassuring smile when Clint returned his gaze.

“We don’t know.”

That got everyone’s attention yet again. “What do you mean, ‘you don’t know’?” Stark asked in disbelief.

Phil looked unimpressed. “Did I stutter? It means that we don’t know. We found him and brought him in. The rest are questions that still need answers.” He looked at Dr. Banner, then back at Stark. “Which I hope you will help find ones for?”

“Of course,” Dr. Banner said immediately.

Stark didn’t say anything for a moment, just looked at Clint. Phil had to suppress a grin when he saw the unimpressed look Clint gave Stark in return.

Stark shook his head and sighed. “Sure, why not. Wish Thor was here, he’d probably have a story or ten from Asgard where these things happen all the time!”

Phil had thought the same thing briefly, but then dismissed it as idle fantasy. “I’m sure we’ll get a chance to interview Thor at one point, as soon as his family emergency on Asgard has been dealt with,” he said. “Until then, I’d appreciate any and all input you can give to the situation and its resolution.”

Before either of them could reply, Marsha came back with Dr. Harrison in tow. From the looks of it, they had a barrel of more tests for Clint.

“Agent Coulson,” Dr. Harrison greeted him. “First things first: Agent Barton is, for the time being, a healthy if a little underweight three year old child. He doesn’t have any toxins in his blood or seems mentally altered. On that note, I’m afraid we have to do some more tests to find out how much of the old Agent Barton is still in there, or if he’s been completely reversed to his three year old self.”

“So it’s definitely him,” Natasha asked, startling Dr. Harrison.

He nodded at her. “Oh yes. We compared his blood with the sample we have in storage. It is definitely him. Just... a considerable amount of years younger than the last time I saw him.”

“What kind of tests?” Stark asked, looking a little wary. Phil was touched despite himself. He didn’t want to put Clint through any more traumatic experiences than absolutely necessary, and by the looks of it, neither did the rest of the team.

“Nothing too invasive,” Dr. Harrison promised. “We do have to do a more extensive blood culture and I’d like to scan his body for any internal injuries, but most of the tests will be psychological. To find out what level of comprehension he has, if there are memories of his older self present, things like that.”

“In other words, you want to determine that he’s not a security risk,” Cap said in a quiet voice. He sounded a little strange, and the look on his face didn’t bode well either.

Dr. Harrison sighed. “That’s standard protocol, Captain Rogers. As soon as an agent has been compromised--”

“He’s not compromised,” Stark growled. “He’s a child.”

“Correct. A child that doesn’t know when it accidentally lets slip out government secrets, Mr. Stark,” Dr. Harrison pointed out. He sounded irritated, which was a clear sign that he was losing his patience. Phil thought it best to intervene.

“What happens if he remembers something?” he asked quietly, giving Clint another reassuring squeeze. It was curious that, for all this time, Clint had never really made a move that he wanted to leave Phil’s lap. He seemed to be quite comfortable where he was, actually. The weird, tight feeling was back in Phil’s chest when he realized that Clint had believed him when he’d promised that no harm would come to him, that he trusted Phil to keep his promise. It scared him a little how fast and seemingly effortless he’d gained Clint’s trust.

“I’m afraid we’ll have to keep him here,” Dr. Harrison said, looking gravely at Phil. The team protested immediately, and Phil’s grip on Clint tightened. He couldn’t leave a child at S.H.I.E.L.D. That was no place for a kid, even if the kid was Clint. Hell, especially if the kid was Clint. If he was even half his old self, the agents would have to dispatch search parties into the air vents within a day because they’d lost him in there.


He hadn’t even known he would say anything like that until the word was out of his mouth, effectively stopping everyone else. Dr. Harrison seemed confused for a moment. “I’m sorry?”

“I said no,” Phil repeated, mind made up. “If it turns out that Clint does remember government secrets, I will take him into my care. My clearance level is just shy of Director Fury’s, it’s way above anything Clint would be privy to. He won’t compromise anyone or anything when he’s with me.”

This time, the silence was a stunned one. Everyone was looking at him as if he’d gone crazy. Well, Dr. Harrison looked like that, the rest of the team looked oddly relieved and determined.

“I’m not sure that -” Dr. Harrison started, but Phil interrupted him immediately.

“I’ll clear it with Director Fury personally. I’m sure he will agree.” He better agree, or Phil would break out the big guns.

Dr. Harrison didn’t seem to know what to say, so Phil did it for him. “Start your tests, Doctor.” He waited a beat, then added with a sheepish grin, “And if you could find some clothes that fit him, I’d be much obliged.”

The tests took almost four hours in total and Phil knew about twenty minutes in that Clint didn’t know anything about the time before he suddenly became a three year old again. Doctors being doctors, they didn’t think that they had done all the necessary tests just yet, but Clint was on the verge of falling asleep and Phil put his foot down.

“You can ask him more questions tomorrow,” he told Dr. Harrison with a mild but stern stare while he took Clint back into his arms. The boy wasn’t even protesting anymore, or reaching for the bow. He just sagged against Phil’s body in total exhaustion.

So far their tests hadn’t indicated that the old Clint was still in there somewhere. He was a perfectly normal, if slightly neglected three year old with the appropriate vocabulary and understanding. The only thing Clint had wanted to know at one point was where his family was. When Phil told him gently that his parents and brother were dead, he didn’t even seem all that shocked, just nodded and played with the hem of his newly acquired t-shirt (still three numbers too big for him, but it was the smallest size they’d had on site).

Now, Clint was pressed against his chest, his head on Phil’s shoulder. His eyes were almost closed and he was getting heavier by the minute. No, Clint wasn’t able to answer any more questions today, and if Phil had any say in the matter, he wouldn’t have to answer any more tomorrow either. Dr. Harrison seemed disappointed, but finally relented and let them go.

The team had left before the tests had even started, sent home on Phil’s orders. It was probably for the best, too. He could just imagine Steve’s face tighten with every new, invasive question. Stark would probably have plotted to let another computer virus loose in the S.H.I.E.L.D. network in retaliation. Phil didn’t even dare think about what Dr. Banner would’ve done; it was probable that The Other Guy might’ve made an appearance.

Natasha, he thought sadly, was too used to these kinds of interrogations to be fazed in any way.

Phil walked into the elevator, pressing the button to the parking garage. When he looked at the steel doors, he could see Clint’s face mashed into his shoulder and realized that the boy was fast asleep, looking completely at peace. A small smile appeared on Phil’s face and he pressed his hand reassuringly into Clint’s back, making sure he was secure. Then the doors opened and Phil walked out to find his car.

He wasn’t prepared to see Happy get out of Stark’s limousine, giving him an amused salute.

“The boss mentioned that you might need my services,” Happy said, giving Clint a curious look before he opened the back door. Phil, only now realizing that he didn’t have a car seat for Clint - or anything child appropriate at his apartment, for that matter, which he had to rectify tomorrow - was grateful for Stark’s foresight, even though it was mixed with a little exasperation for his meddling. But then he slid into the comfortable leather seats, securing Clint on his lap once more, and didn’t give a damn. He was tired and a little worn around the edges from the day he’d had. He could worry about Stark’s meddling tomorrow.

He should’ve known that Stark’s meddling didn’t end with sending Happy along. Phil only really made the connection when Stark Tower came into view.

Phil had rooms at Stark Tower, just like all the other Avengers. He’d never used them, but they were still there anyway. Well, apparently Stark had decided it was time to break them in. Phil clenched his teeth, but refrained from letting his annoyance show otherwise. Happy was just doing his job, but the slightly sheepish look on his face told Phil that he wasn’t unaware how much of a manipulative bastard Stark could be.

The doors of the elevator had barely closed when JARVIS’ voice echoed from around them, “Welcome to Stark Tower, Agent Coulson. Your quarters have been readied for you and young Master Barton.”

That stopped Phil short.

“Hold on,” he piped up, keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t wake Clint. “I thought Clint had his own rooms?”

“Certainly, Agent Coulson,” JARVIS said, unflappable as usual. “But Master Stark thought it appropriate that young Master Barton sleep with you for the time being until he has acclimated to the new surroundings.”

“It’s so nice that he asked me first,” Phil said, letting loose a rare bout of sarcasm. JARVIS, of course, didn’t react to it. And why should he? He was an AI.

Phil sighed, shook his head, and stepped off when the elevator doors opened on one of the top floors. Curious despite himself, he looked around and took everything in with a glance. These were his rooms, after all, and he’d never even toured them. Not even after Pepper had told him about them, wearing that certain look of hers. A look that might’ve worked on Stark, but not so much on Phil. He had to admit that, even though the suite was almost three times the size of anywhere he’d ever lived before, the decoration was exactly as he would’ve done up his own apartment: simple, practical and yet elegant, with muted colors and modern appliances. Phil vowed to inspect the rest of the suite more in the morning and went in search of the bedroom.

He sighed again when he entered it and saw the bed. As in: one bed, not two for a man and a child. If Stark thought it wise to let Clint sleep in Phil’s vicinity for the time being, wouldn’t it have made sense to give him his own bed?

But at this point, Phil was too tired to care all that much. Thank god Stark didn’t know how to be modest in any respect, and the bed wasn’t an exception. There was enough space for four grown people, so him and a small child shouldn’t pose much of a problem. Still, he would have to improvise something just in case Phil had one of his - admittedly rare - nightmares and accidentally lashed out.

He walked over to the bed and leaned over it, laying Clint down carefully onto the soft mattress. He didn’t even stir, just turned to the side and rolled himself into a fetal position. Phil couldn’t help the small smile, recognizing this as something the grown up Clint did too. He pulled on the bedspread and the covers, then rearranged them carefully over Clint’s shoulder and deemed the t-shirt appropriate sleepwear for now. They could worry about that in the morning. He just hoped Clint didn’t accidentally drown in all the covers.

When Phil was sure that Clint wouldn’t strangle himself in his sleep, he walked over to the other side of the bed, took off his shoes and then crawled onto the mattress, grabbing some of the copiously applied pillows. He arranged them around Clint so he wouldn’t fall out of bed, then put a few more of them in the middle of the bed until he’d built a suitable pillow fort that separated them from each other. Phil felt a little silly doing this - he wasn’t five anymore, after all - but it was better to be safe than sorry.

He crawled back off the bed, feeling ridiculous that he couldn’t exit the bed like a normal adult because it was too big for that, and went to the en suite bathroom. He pulled the door closed, leaving a small gap so he could hear if Clint woke up. Switching on the light and turning around, he promptly stared into a mirror.

He looked tired. Also a little pale, but that was to be expected. Even two years after Loki and his heart surgery, he wasn’t back to one hundred percent of his former strength. Would never be one hundred percent back to normal again. He’d made his peace with it. It meant he'd become a glorified paper pusher and that he had to cut back some days, but that was fine. Sometimes he just had to slow down after a particularly long day. And this one? Definitely counted as a long day.

Phil loosened his tie and opened the first two buttons on his shirt. He splashed his face with some cold water before he looked up at his reflection again. It was only then that it really hit him, that he processed what had happened, and he had to grab onto the counter for a moment and take a deep breath.

Clint was a child. Clint was a child and they had no idea if they could reverse it. That thought scared Phil in a way he’d never been scared before, and he couldn’t even say why exactly. He’d known Clint for many years now, and yes he liked the man, but it didn’t explain the sudden dread he felt at the thought of Clint having to grow up again.

Which, yeah, was one of the many possibilities right now. What if Clint remained a child and had to grow up all over again? Who would take care of him? They all had busy lives and dangerous jobs and it wouldn’t be fair to a kid to put them through that. And what if Clint aged faster because he was technically already over thirty? Or what if he never grew up again at all, remained a child for all of eternity? What then?

The different scenarios running through Phil’s mind were staggering in their quantity and frightening in their levels of gruesomeness. He took a couple of deep breaths to get himself back under control. It wouldn’t help if he started to panic. He was sure Stark was doing enough of that for all of them put together, and it certainly wouldn’t help Clint’s situation. They would have to cross that bridge when - if - they came to it.

Phil pushed all thoughts of possible futures out of his head, found a toothbrush and went about his nightly routine. When he was done and emerged back into the bedroom, his gaze moved to the bed to check on Clint. He was still fast asleep but had somehow wormed his way out of the covers when he’d turned around. Phil could feel the fond smile emerge on his face and went over to pull the covers back over Clint’s small shoulders.

A quick look around led Phil to a dresser, hoping there was something he could wear in there. Indeed, there were a few work-out clothes with the Stark Industries logo in the drawers, and he grabbed a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants to change into. At last, he crawled back into bed, pulling the covers over himself. He looked over the pillow fort one more time to make sure Clint was okay, then laid down and let out a deep, grateful sigh before his back popped and ached for a moment until it settled.

“JARVIS, lights out please,” he murmured, and the lights slowly dimmed until it was completely dark. He closed his eyes and, to the quiet sounds of Clint’s even breaths, Phil drifted off to sleep.

He woke up because someone was staring at him. Phil had been trained to wake up at the slightest disturbance, and he went from deeply asleep to wide awake in a second. He didn’t open his eyes right away, assessing the situation first and not giving whoever was staring at him the advantage of knowing that he was awake. But then he recognized the stare, knew deep in his bones who it was and didn’t even have to look to be sure.

He looked anyway.

He opened one of his eyes and tilted his head slightly to the side until he could see the pillow fort he’d built. He met a pair of blue eyes staring back at him. That was pretty much all Phil could see; half of Clint’s face remained hidden behind the pillow fort, and from the twinkle in the boy’s eyes, he seemed to have some fun with that.

“Morning, Clint,” Phil rasped, turning to the side so he could face Clint full on, and opened his other eye too. “Did you sleep well?”

He received a nod, but Clint didn’t emerge further from the pillows. Phil let him, for now.

“Good dreams?” he asked, stuffing one arm under his own pillow. Clint nodded again, a little shyly.

“Well, that’s good then,” Phil mumbled, smiling at Clint. A small hand emerged, fisting the pillow as if Clint wanted to climb over it. He didn’t, but his attention was completely on Phil and he looked like he was ready to pounce.

Phil was alarmed by how adorable he found that.

His bladder took that moment to make itself known, and only then did it occur to him to ask, “Do you need to use the bathroom?”

He regretted the question immediately when Clint’s whole face seemed to shut down, which was very unsettling on a three year old. Shit, he’d never stopped and thought about the level of self sufficiency Clint had or didn’t have at this age. They didn’t have any problems at HQ, as Clint had always indicated when he needed a bathroom break by tugging on Phil’s sleeve until he leaned down and Clint could whisper it in his ear. But Phil had been asleep, and maybe Clint didn’t think he could wake him if he needed to use the bathroom.

Steeling himself for the possibility to explain to Stark why he needed to get Phil’s mattress dry cleaned, he made sure that his face remained calm when he asked, “Did you have an accident?”

And wow, he never would’ve thought that he had to ask that question, much less from someone like Clint.

The boy looked a little shifty, then shrugged his shoulders and nodded. Oh, great. Wasn’t that the perfect way to start the day?

“That’s okay,” Phil said quietly. “These things happen.” He pushed the covers aside and sat up, taking a peek over the pillow fort. But the bed looked dry, if a little rumpled up. He frowned, leaning over the pillows and running a hand over the sheets to make sure. But the mattress was dry, and now that he had a clear view of Clint who was watching him warily, he could see that the t-shirt was dry as well.

Okay. That was weird, but also took a load off Phil’s mind. He sat back and ran a hand over his head, watching Clint and trying to puzzle through his answers. Clint sat on one of his own pillows with his legs crossed, the shirt pulled down over his knees. He looked terribly endearing like that.

“Okay, what kind of accident did you have?” he asked after a moment in which they’d eyed each other up. Clint shrugged his shoulders again, but the twinkle was back in his eyes. He seemed to think they were playing a guessing game and he was winning. Maybe he wasn’t too wrong about that, because right now Phil had no clue what he was doing or what the rules were.

“Other question: where did you have your accident?” he tried next. Clint eyed him some more, then disentangled his legs from the shirt and crawled over the pillow fort and out of the bed. When he was standing up straight next to the bed, he reached out a hand to Phil.

“Do you want to show me?” Phil asked, not moving until Clint nodded once more. He nodded back, then climbed out of bed as well and took Clint’s hand. He was immediately pulled into the direction of the bathroom. It got pretty clear what had happened as soon as Phil opened the door and got a quick look inside. He couldn’t help a small chuckle escaping him.

“You couldn’t reach the toilet seat by yourself, could you?” he asked the boy still holding his hand. Clint looked sheepish and shook his head. Phil knelt down, put his hands on Clint’s small shoulders and looked deeply into the eyes.

“I promise we’ll do something about that for the future. It wasn’t your fault, you tried.” He stopped to make sure Clint understood that Phil wasn’t mad at him, and when he saw a tentative smile emerge on Clint’s face, he smiled back. “What do you say you help me clean up and then we’ll go see if we can’t find something for breakfast?”

Clint’s smile grew a little more and the tiny glint of mischief was back in his eyes. Phil felt something weird happen in his gut at the sight. It still took him by surprise how much Clint had taken to him, how much he trusted Phil not to hurt him. Something caught in his throat and he cleared it before he stood back up again.

“Okay, go and get me some toilet paper. I’ll try to find a rag.” Clint seemed enthusiastic about his task and stormed over to uncoil half the roll. Phil had to bite down on his grin and turn around so the kid wouldn’t see it. He went to find a rag instead.

Five minutes later, with everything cleaned up and both of them in new t-shirts from the dresser in the bedroom, they made their way slowly to the living room and the kitchen unit. It became clear pretty quickly that there was nothing edible in any of the cabinets. Phil sighed and looked at Clint who was watching him with rapt attention. He still hadn’t said a word the whole time they’d been up, but at this point Phil was pretty sure it was part of the game whose rules he didn’t know. Which was... surprising, given that Clint could usually never shut up over the comms when he wasn’t a child.

“Okay, Clint. Looks like we’ll have to go bother Stark about some breakfast,” he said, nodding into the direction of the elevator. “Let’s go.”

Clint looked up at him for a moment, then at the elevator doors looming in the back of the living room, before he settled back on Phil. Then he held out his hand again, looking shy and a little unsure. Phil’s heart went out to him immediately and he didn’t even have to think about it before he grasped the small hand. The tiny smile appearing immediately on Clint’s face was reward enough, all things considered.

They entered the elevator, and a short ride later emerged on Stark’s loft floor. Nobody was in sight, for which Phil was a little grateful as he was still in Stark Industries sweats and t-shirt. He’d rather not endure Stark’s teasing before he didn’t have at least a cup of coffee. Which, by the smell of things, wouldn’t have to wait for much longer.

“Okay, little man,” Phil said, lifting Clint up and into one of the chairs at the breakfast counter. “Let’s see what we’ve got for you.”

Steve must’ve been here recently, or Pepper was trying to get Stark to eat healthy again, because the first cupboard Phil opened was full of different cereals. He grinned and pulled out three that looked like they’d have the least amount of sugar. He’d rather not have a three year old Clint on a sugar high on his hands. He turned back to Clint after he’d gotten milk out of the fridge as well and was surprised that he’d apparently been watched with rapt attention.

“Okay, you get to choose, Clint. Which ones do you want?” Phil asked, putting the three cereals in front of him. Clint perused the boxes carefully, then pointed at the one in the middle.

“Whole Grain Honey Puffs?” he asked, taking the box in hand and smiling at Clint. “Good choice.”

He turned back around and opened several cabinets until he found the cereal bowls. He grabbed the purple one and put it in front of Clint, getting a weird kick out of the kid's delighted expression when he saw the color of the bowl. “Tell me when you’ve had enough, okay?” Phil said, then started to pour cereal into the bowl. Clint, of course (because apparently they were still playing the silent game) didn’t say stop, just held up his hand. Phil was definitely too well trained because he stopped pouring immediately.

He would’ve felt silly, but the small grin on Clint’s face was too adorable to care about that.

After he’d poured some milk over the whole thing and found Clint a spoon, he went about to get himself a cup of coffee, closing his eyes in delight when the first sip rolled over his tongue. He slid into the seat across from Clint and he watched him eat for a bit, sipping his coffee. They were both quiet the whole time, with Clint eating his breakfast methodically and Phil watching him make weird figure-eights with his spoon so the milk would mix with the honey from the cereal.

“You’re not a very chatty fellow, are you?” Phil asked after a while, smiling around his cup of coffee. Clint looked up, spoon in his mouth, his blue eyes twinkling. And then he grinned.

The grin took Phil completely by surprise with its intensity and brightness. And it was only then that it really hit Phil what was happening here: Clint had fun doing this whole game and obviously seemed ecstatic that an adult was playing it with him. Phil couldn’t breathe for a moment when he realized that for Clint, this was probably the first time an adult hadn’t told him to cut it out the minute he’d tried to start a game. He wanted to go back in time and punch Clint’s parents for doing that to their kid at the most important stage of his development.

He tamped down on the urge and smiled back at Clint instead, who seemed delighted that Phil wasn’t mad, and continued with his breakfast after a moment.

Phil was just cleaning up the stuff they’d used, his back to Clint, when he heard a small voice say, “Thank you.”

He froze for a moment, not believing his ears. But when he turned and saw the uncertain look on Clint’s face, he didn’t hesitate for a second before he smiled at him and replied, “You’re welcome, Clint.”

The smile he got for those simple words was the most beautiful thing in the world.

They’d been back in Phil’s suite for maybe five minutes when JARVIS’ voice piped up, “Agent Coulson, Miss Potts would like to know if she could join you and young Master Barton.”

Phil shot a quick look at Clint, whose eyes had almost bugged out of his head when JARVIS had started speaking and now tried to find the mysterious voice from the ceiling. He had to bite the inside of his cheek so he wouldn’t start laughing. God, Clint in pint size made him feel mushy feelings. He’d have to find his edge again if he wanted to remain an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the future instead of a stay-at-home dad.

Oh god, he'd just thought the word ‘dad’ in relation to Clint. This was so wrong on so many levels.

“Send her down,” Phil said to JARVIS, more out of desperation to get these thoughts out of his head than any real desire for company. He liked Pepper, she was an incredible woman. But right now he could’ve done without prying eyes, especially if you took into consideration that neither Phil or Clint were dressed to impress.

Phil had got to get Clint some child sized clothes soon.

The elevator dinged and Pepper stepped off, thankfully alone. “Phil!” she said, smiling at him and giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. He cleared his throat, thrown a little off-guard at the sentiment.

“Hello,” he greeted back, but her attention was already on Clint who stood frozen in the middle of the living room, staring at her. She seemed to sense that he felt intimidated, because she didn’t even hesitate before she sank down on her knees and smiled at him. “Hello Clint, I’m Pepper.”

He didn’t say anything, nor did he move even an inch. He just stared at her, a little wary. When he finally moved, it wasn’t to greet her, but to make his way over to Phil until he could hide behind his legs. Phil’s hand automatically came to rest on Clint’s head, running his fingers through his unruly hair. A small arm wound itself around Phil’s calf, pressing a tiny body against it. He smiled sheepishly at Pepper who was staring at them with a strange look on her face.

“I’m afraid he’s a little shy,” Phil explained, but she waved his words away.

“It’s alright. I understand.” She stood up without help (how she managed that in those high heels, Phil would probably never know and didn’t dare to ask) and sat down on one of the couches. “I’m actually here to ask if you’ve bought any clothes for Clint yet. And if not, I’d like to offer my assistance.”

Phil’s eyebrows shot up and he opened his mouth to protest right away, but closed it before he could say anything. He knew how busy Pepper was as CEO for Stark Industries, but on the other hand he had no idea how to shop for a kid. It might be a good idea to have someone with him who knew how to shop for more than a suit and tie combo (which Phil was excellent at, just for the record).

“I’d appreciate that very much,” he said, smiling at her.

She beamed back immediately. “Excellent. I’ll meet you two in ten minutes down in the garage.”

Phil nodded while he watched Pepper walk back to the elevator. Then a thought occurred to him and he called out her name. When she turned, he asked, “How big are the chances that Stark will let me go back to my own apartment with Clint in tow?”

Pepper raised a very pointed eyebrow at him. “Phil,” she said with that dry tone of hers. “Even if you could persuade Tony into letting you stay anywhere else that isn’t Stark Tower, do you really think Captain Rogers would go for it? Not to mention that taking care of a child is hard work and you’ll appreciate any help you can get, trust me.”

Phil shook his head, mildly amused. “I figured as much. Still, can we stop at my place so I can pick up some of my clothes?”

Pepper smiled and nodded. “Certainly. See you in a bit.”

The elevator doors were barely closed when Clint emerged from behind Phil’s legs, looked up at him and asked, “Who was that?”

“Miss Potts?”

Clint shook his head and pointed upwards. “The man in the ceiling.”

For a moment Phil was confused, but then it dawned on him. “You mean JARVIS? He’s a...” He stopped, a little stumped. How did you explain an AI to a three year old? “Well, he’s someone who helps around the house and keeps us all safe.”

“Me too?”

Phil smiled despite himself and ruffled Clint’s hair. “Yes, especially you.”

Clint seemed to think that over, then nodded. “Okay.” He gave Phil a searching look before he added, “You too?”

“Yes, JARVIS keeps me safe, too.”

“No,” Clint said, shaking his head and pulling on Phil’s hand until he crouched down in front of him. “You keep me safe too?”

Phil couldn’t help but stare at the completely serious look on Clint’s face at the question. The big ball of emotions was back in his throat, making it hard to breathe. He raised his hand until he could cup Clint’s cheek, then he whispered with a shaky voice, “Yes, I’ll keep you safe, too.”

“Okay,” Clint nodded, then smiled shyly at Phil.

He had to swallow several times and clear his throat before he felt able to get back up and say, “Let me get changed back into my suit and then we’ll go shopping. You going to be okay by yourself for a moment?”

Clint nodded, climbing onto the couch. Phil nodded at nobody in particular and headed back into the bedroom. As soon as the door was closed, he leaned against it, his head hitting the wood carefully. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath while trying to get his rampant feelings back under control.

The problem was that Clint as a three year old broke Phil’s heart. He was so shy and yet this tiny bundle of mischief and Phil didn’t know what to do with himself. Clint as a kid was really starting to grow on him in a way that was seriously compromising his objectivity. They still didn’t know what exactly had happened, and how it would affect Clint in the long term. It was stupid of him to get this attached and he should stop doing it immediately.

But the crux was that he couldn’t, and even if he could have, he wasn’t sure he wanted to stop getting attached.

Because Clint? Clint was a reward all on his own. And as much as Phil was frightened by the whole concept of caring so much about another person, he wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

He shouldn’t have been surprised that, when Happy opened the door to the limousine and Phil looked inside, he spotted a state of the art car seat for Clint. He raised an eyebrow at Pepper who was sitting on the bench opposite the seat. She just smiled and shrugged. “Have you ever tried getting Tony to stop doing something when he’s set his mind to it?” was all she said, and Phil nodded in understanding. Stark was like a dog with a bone in that regard.

“I'm surprised he hasn't designed one himself,” Phil replied, voice deadpan.

Pepper snorted. “Give him one more day.”

That, Phil could believe. He shook his head, resigning himself to the fact that Stark would probably branch out into the child safety business soon, and turned to Clint who was standing right next to him, holding Phil's hand. “Okay, let’s get you seated.”

Clint was, just like before, rather uncomplicated and didn’t make a fuss while Phil strapped him into the car seat. It took longer than he would’ve thought, but Phil had never used one before and there wasn’t a manual on hand telling him which strap had to go where. After five minutes he was ready to give up. Pepper, bless her soul, just held up her Stark phone for him, displaying a website on how to use that particular car seat. He gave her a grateful smile and followed the instructions, ignoring her amused smile and his own embarrassment. Clint seemed to be amused as well, if the grin on his face was any indication.

When they were finally all settled and on their way to wherever Pepper deemed appropriate to shop for little boys, Phil’s own phone rang. One look at the display made dread pool low in his gut, but he sighed and answered anyway.

“I’m gone for one day and this whole operation comes undone at the seams!” Fury bellowed at him before Phil could even say hello.

“Nobody got hurt,” Phil replied, shooting a quick look at Clint before he turned slightly and looked out the car window.

Fury scoffed. “You took a compromised asset off the premises, Coulson!”

Something in Phil froze at the wording and he sat up straight. “He’s a child, not a compromised asset,” he said coldly, not daring to look at Clint or Pepper. She seemed to sense the nature of the call and tried to distract Clint, though Phil wasn’t sure how successful she was. He was too focused on Director Fury.

“I don’t care how you phrase it, Coulson, you deliberately removed someone from the premises who could pose a security risk,” Fury said.

Phil clenched his teeth. “With all due respect, sir, that’s bullshit.”

He heard Pepper suck in a startled breath, but dismissed it. Clint would be exposed to all number of swear words as soon as he was in a room with Stark for more than five minutes. And anyway, this was important.

“He’s a child and the battery of tests he was subjected to yesterday showed clearly that he doesn’t remember any sensitive information,” he explained calmly. “I thought it prudent not to leave a child in the not so tender care of a government facility, especially since my clearance level is much higher than his and he couldn’t tell me anything I haven’t known for at least six months in advance anyway.”

He could practically hear Fury’s impatience through the phone while both of them regrouped in their heads. It showed how much Fury respected Phil’s assessment of the situation that he hadn’t shot him down right away. Still, when he spoke again he demanded, “I want you to bring him back in, Coulson. Preferably yesterday.”

Phil closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. “You should be aware that I would break him out again if I have to.” The fact that the rest of the Avengers would probably not be far behind him didn’t even need addressing. They both knew it was implied.

Silence reigned over the phone, but it was a different one this time; Fury took his threat serious. In the end, he let out a weary sigh and Phil knew he’d won. “Bring him in for an hour. I need to see this for myself.”

“Understood,” Phil agreed and hung up. As soon as he turned his head, he was met with two apprehensive stares. Pepper looked wary but ready to call in the cavalry if necessary, but it was Clint that got Phil’s full attention. He gave him a small smile and explained, “Remember when the doctors said yesterday that they wanted to do more tests?”

Clint nodded, but he looked decidedly unhappy about it. Phil smiled wider. “We have to go back today, but only for an hour. Then we’ll go back home, okay?”

Clint relaxed immediately and nodded, smiling at Phil. Trusting him.

Oh god, he wouldn’t survive taking care of Clint if he continued on like that. Phil caught Pepper’s eye, who had a mysterious smile on her own face, but when he looked questioningly at her, she just shook her head and pulled out her phone, starting to text someone. Probably Stark, telling him how much of a softie Phil was turning into.

No, that wasn’t fair. Pepper was a nice person, she wouldn’t tattle on him.

Five minutes later, the limousine slowed down and Happy let them know they’d arrived at Phil’s apartment complex. He threw a quick look at Clint, then at Pepper.

“I’ll go get some of my things,” he explained to her, then turned to Clint. “Will you be okay here with Miss Potts?”

Clint’s eyes snapped to Pepper, who smiled at him without any expectations at all, before he looked back at Phil. “You come back?” he asked, serious and a little unsure.

Phil nodded immediately. “I promise. I’ll be right back. Miss Potts can time me. I promise I’ll be back in 15 minutes.”

Pepper - he really had to buy her some flowers for being awesome - did something with her phone, then held it up so Clint could see it, too. There, in big numbers, was the time on a stopwatch. “This is 15 minutes,” she explained, pointing at the first number. “When I click here it starts to count down,” she continued while her finger moved over the part of the display that activated the stopwatch, which immediately started counting.

Clint seemed fascinated by the whole thing and nodded after every explanation. Then he gave Phil a distracted, “You can go.” His eyes never strayed away from the display. Pepper made a shooing gesture with her hand at Phil and he slid out of the car, a little bemused by how easy that had been.

He made it back with twenty seconds to spare. The huge grin Clint bestowed on him was the best reward he’d ever gotten for being punctual.

As he’d suspected, Pepper had a plan of action for the actual shopping. He could’ve kissed her if - well, if she hadn’t been dating Tony Stark who was notorious for his inability to share.

Also: Phil’s interests were lying somewhere else entirely.

They hit a clothing store first, and the look of wonder on Clint’s face was priceless. He’d obviously never been in a store of this size, with that many things to discover at once. Phil’s hand tightened around Clint’s smaller one so he wouldn’t lose him. The thought alone made Phil’s heart beat faster in a panic. That was so unlike him; he never panicked.

Pepper was no-nonsense about the whole thing, grabbing one of the clerks and telling her what they wanted, and soon they had accumulated a staggering amount of shirts, pants, jeans, socks, more shirts, sleepwear, underwear and several pairs of shoes. They only let Clint try on the clothes for the first few outfits, to see what would fit him best, and then Pepper and the clerk just went nuts and she seemed to buy out half the store. Clint, for all that he’d never expressed an interest in clothing before, seemed fascinated by the whole process.

He also couldn’t stop running his hands over his brand new t-shirt (actually the appropriate size now) or look down at his sneakers. Phil preferred not to think too hard about the reason why a few new clothes seemed such a novel concept to him.

When it became time to pay for everything, Phil sent Pepper a stern glare as soon as she tried to hand over a Stark Industries credit card. “Please don’t do that,” he said, handing over a nondescript card that had been issued by S.H.I.E.L.D. for business purposes. Phil knew that usually meant business dinners or paying for a cab ride, maybe a hotel room. Just the thought of explaining this expense to accounting made him smile. Yes, he got a kick out of filling out forms as justification for obscure occurrences, what else was new?

They left the store with several bags and a happy looking Clint. The bags were stowed away and Phil strapped Clint back into his seat, then they were on their way again.

“I’m not sure what you’ve got planned,” Phil said to Pepper, “but I’ll have to get a child appropriate bed for him at one point. He can’t keep sleeping in mine.”

Pepper raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment on that little bit of information. “That won’t be necessary,” she said after a moment. When Phil just looked puzzled, she added, “Tony already took care of the furniture purchase. He placed the order online yesterday, I believe. It should be delivered and ready by the time we get back.”

Phil stared at her. He couldn’t believe this. Well, actually he could. It was just like Stark to go over his head like that, getting his will even if he had to go through a wall head first to get what he wanted.

But then again, Phil was kind of grateful that he wouldn’t have to go buy furniture with a small kid in tow.

“Well, then...” Phil trailed off, a little at loose ends. “I suppose that we’re done with the shopping part of the day. I’ll have to go in with Clint for an hour, so if you could let us off at HQ that would be great.”

Pepper’s amusedly puzzled look was back. “What about toys?”

Phil gave her a puzzled look back. “What about it?”

She laughed. “You can’t be serious, Phil. Clint needs some toys.”

“Trust me,” Phil said, voice flat, “he really, really doesn’t.” Who knew what kind of mayhem he would wreak if he had toys.

Pepper seemed to have caught that thought and dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “Not that kind of toys. I’m not Tony. I mean educational toys. Puzzle books, books to learn colors and animals and numbers, stuff like that. He needs mental stimulation.”

Phil hadn’t thought about that. Yes, Clint was three years old, but in a small corner of his mind he’d still held out hope that it was only temporary and Clint would go back to being his normal, annoying, tall and adult self. But what if he wasn’t? Phil really didn’t want to be responsible for Clint getting a learning disability because he didn’t think educational books were important.

He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re right, of course,” he conceded, and it showed how much of a classy lady she was that Pepper didn’t even look smug, just leaned forward and patted Phil’s knee.

“Still, maybe we should leave that one as a treat for after Clint had to go meet Director Fury,” Phil added, watching Clint who was looking out the car window in fascination, watching the streets go by. Phil really didn’t want to bring Clint back in. He’d meant it when he’d told Fury that he would break Clint out again, but he’d rather not let it come to that. He liked his job, but if he staged this kind of revolt, he’d definitely have to start looking for employment elsewhere. Fury was lenient with his most senior and trusted agents, but he wasn’t quite that laid back.

“That might be best,” Pepper agreed, her voice soft. When he looked at her, she was watching Clint as well. Maybe he should warn Stark that there was a possible conversation about starting a family in his immediate future, if the soft look on Pepper’s face was any indication. “I’ll wait outside for you guys, do some business calls,” Pepper added, giving Phil a quick smile. He nodded in return and relaxed back into the seat.

When the car slowed down once more and Phil took a look outside to see the S.H.I.E.L.D. building, he suppressed the sigh that wanted to escape him. Some days he felt really old and tired, and this was one of them. He gave Pepper a last grateful smile when the car came to a stop at the curb, but when he leaned over to unstrap Clint, small hands pushed his own gently away and a small voice declared, “I can do it.”

And sure enough, Clint’s hands deftly undid the straps over his chest and he slid out of the seat to the floor of the limousine, blinking up at Phil. Phil couldn’t help the proud little smile, and when Clint beamed back while Phil ruffled his hair, he didn’t even care that Pepper took the opportunity to shoot a picture of them.

Coming back to HQ with Clint in tow, his tiny hand clutching Phil’s desperately, was quite a surreal experience, especially as people seemed to do double takes at the kid holding Agent Coulson’s hand. Apparently nobody ever thought him the type of person who would want to be around kids voluntarily. They’d be wrong. Kids seemed to like him, even though he had no experience with caring for them. Some mother had once told him he was calm and exuded a sense of security, and kids loved that.

Judging by how fast Clint had latched on to him, Phil had to agree.

They slowly made their way to the elevators, Clint’s short legs walking as fast as they could. But he was a little distracted by his surroundings, eyeing everything curiously and forgetting to watch where he was going at times. Phil indulged him by slowing down his own gait; he wasn’t very keen on meeting with Fury anyway.

But it was inevitable, in the end. When the doors of the elevator opened, Fury was already standing inside, his arms crossed over his chest and his dark eyes resting on them. Phil straightened up immediately, and even Clint seemed to sense that this man shook up Phil’s usual calm. His eyes snapped up to the Director’s steely gaze and held it, his face scrunching up a little. His brows furrowed and he got that determined look Phil had only ever seen on adult Clint when he’d sighted some sort of threat for the team.

He was oddly touched, if a little amused.

“Director,” Phil greeted Fury and stepped into the elevator with Clint in tow. The doors closed, shrouding them in ominous silence. Clint didn’t seem to like it; his arm snaked around Phil’s leg and he pressed his body against it, peeking out from behind it up at Director Fury. Phil knew the man well enough by now to know that the twitch of his left eyebrow was a sign of amusement, not irritation. Well, he supposed it could’ve been worse.

They didn’t talk until the door to Fury’s office closed behind them and Phil had settled both himself and Clint into separate chairs in front of Fury’s desk. The man himself had sunk back down into his own office chair and regarded them with his impassive, black eye.

“I’ve been trying to access the CCTV cameras from yesterday,” Fury started, and Phil already knew where this was going.

“Barton wasn’t in any of their immediate vicinities,” he answered. Fury shot him an unimpressed glare.

“I got that from the lack of video evidence on how this,” he waved a hand at Clint, “has happened. Any more clues since then?”

His tone suggested that there better not be any new developments Fury didn’t know about, or else Phil might suffer the consequences. So he shook his head. “Other than the battery of tests he went through yesterday after Medical checked him for physical injuries? No, sir. He’s a healthy kid with no recollection of what has happened to him or how to reverse it.” He paused significantly, then added, “But he’s potty trained, if that helps.”

Fury glared at that, but seemed to calm down a little. He still seemed skeptical though. His gaze moved from Phil to Clint who was sitting stiff as a board in his chair, eyeing Fury just as warily as before in the lobby. Phil was still a little amused by it.

“How old are you?” Fury asked Clint, who didn’t seem inclined to answer. He looked at Phil, as if to check if it was okay to answer this stranger. Phil nodded at Clint, biting down on the smile that threatened to appear.

Clint looked back at Fury, then held up three fingers. Fury’s eyebrow lifted and he threw a look at Phil, who didn’t react at all. Let Fury figure out by himself that Clint didn’t like to talk.

“And what’s the last thing you remember before Agent Romanoff found you?”

This time, Clint’s gaze was questioning when it landed on Phil. “Natasha,” he clarified for him. Clint nodded, then looked back at the Director and shrugged his shoulders.

Fury’s eyes narrowed. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” Clint said, shrinking back into his chair but never losing eye contact. He was intimidated by Fury, no doubt - which three year old wouldn’t be? - but he was stubborn enough to stand his ground.

“You don’t remember?” Fury asked. Clint shook his head. “You remember nothing at all?”

“My parents,” Clint volunteered, then shrugged his shoulders again.

“You remember your parents, and then nothing, and then Agent Romanoff?”

Clint nodded, looking briefly at Phil as if to check if he’d done something wrong. Phil smiled encouragingly at him. This was something where he couldn’t really help him. Fury would murder him if he thought Phil was influencing the answers so he could take Clint back home with him.

Not that he wouldn’t try anyway if he thought that Fury’s questions upset Clint. But so far Phil had the suspicion that, if anything, Clint was playing a game of chicken with the Director. He could handle himself, even at the tender age of three.

Fury seemed to come to the same conclusion. He sighed and ran a hand over his bald head, then looked over at Phil again. “He always this reticent?”

Phil raised an eyebrow at Fury. “You’ve met Clint Barton before, haven’t you?”

Fury rolled his eye. Phil had to concede that he, too, wouldn’t have thought that Clint as a child would turn out to be so quiet when the adult version could rarely shut up at all. It had been a little bit of a shock, but after careful consideration not much of a surprise.

“So what’re you doing to get this situation unfucked?” Fury asked, not mincing his words in the slightest.

Phil cleared his throat. “Right now we’re waiting to hear from Thor. We have reason to believe that he might’ve encountered this species before and can give us some information that will help us... resolve this problem.”

Fury looked at him for a minute, his gaze penetrating and grating a little on Phil’s nerves, but in the end he nodded. “I don’t need to tell you how much of a security risk it is to take him off the premises, Coulson,” he started to say. Phil opened his mouth to protest, but Fury raised his hand to silence him. He did, his jaw working to suppress all the words that wanted to spill out.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass what your clearance level is, Coulson. That’s not the point. What if you lose him somewhere, or he gets kidnapped? Can you ensure that he won’t spill the beans when someone coerces him or, god forbid, tortures him for information?”

“You forget that there’s a whole team of superheroes looking out for him,” Phil argued. Fury wasn’t impressed.

“And how many times have they gone missing? It’s not exactly putting my concerns to rest when you assure me they’re keeping an eye on him.”

“So they’re good enough to save the world once in a while, but not good enough to protect our assets?” Phil asked, his voice carefully neutral. Fury better thought really fucking hard about what his answer to that was going to be.

Fury sighed. “That’s not what I meant, and it’s not the point either. The point is that you’re making yourself a target which, frankly, I do not approve of. You’re too valuable to this operation to risk yourself like that just because you discovered as of yet unknown paternal instincts. I don’t think it’s worth it just so you can play house or whatever the fuck you’re doing here, Coulson!”

Anger welled up in Phil at the Director’s words. Who did he think he was? This wasn’t just about newly discovered paternal instincts, this was about Clint and protecting him when he was unable to do so himself. But before Phil could properly reply to the accusation, Clint suddenly said furiously, “You’re mean. I don’t like you.”

Fury’s surprised face was totally worth the bark of startled laughter that escaped Phil. Fury glared at him briefly, then looked at Clint again. He didn’t say anything, just met the stubborn look head-on. Then, after a long moment of silence, Fury’s mouth twitched upwards briefly.

“He still has balls, I’ll give you that,” he said, which pretty much told Phil everything he needed to know. Fury would let them go, for now. He wasn’t pleased, but he’d let Phil have his way, at least until he thought it unfeasible to do so any longer.

“You better chain him to your body, Coulson,” he said, leaning back in his chair.

Phil gave him a flat stare in return. “That’s not really my style, sir.”

Fury scoffed, pushing a file from one side of the desk to the other. “Just make sure you stay safe while you protect him. I don’t want to lose either of you, but if it comes down to it, you are not expendable.”

Phil’s jaw clenched, but he bit his tongue. He saw it quite differently but he knew he wouldn’t get anywhere, wouldn’t be able to change Fury’s mind. So he just nodded. “Yes, sir. But to be quite honest, I’m doing you a favor. I don’t think most of the staff on base knows how to deal with Clint Barton, whether it be in adult or child form.” Phil’s lips twitched when he added, “Though I’d like to see you try to find him in the air ducts after he’s had a temper tantrum and went into hiding.”

Fury carefully steepled his fingers in front of himself while he stared at Phil. “You made your point, agent. Don’t push it.”

“Understood,” Phil nodded again, then stood up. Clint slid out of his seat immediately and grabbed Phil’s hand. He smiled down at the boy and made his way slowly over to the office door.

“Don’t disappoint me, Coulson,” Fury’s voice rang out behind them before Phil could open the door. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder, any trace of humor gone from his face.

“I won’t, sir,” he promised not only to Fury, but to Clint as well. And, if he was honest, also to himself. Fury might not like it, but Phil would rather die before he let anyone hurt Clint, and he was sure that the rest of the team was on board with him there.

Fury gave them another long, penetrating stare before he nodded and looked away, reaching for a tablet and starting to work. Phil took it as the dismissal it was intended to be and left the office with Clint in tow. They entered the elevator and on their way back down to the lobby, Phil went over several scenarios in his head, making a mental list on who to talk to first to ensure that he really wouldn’t let Director Fury down. He was interrupted in his thoughts when Clint pulled on his hand and, when Phil looked questioningly at him, asked, “Are we coming back?”

Phil shook his head immediately. “No, Clint. We’re not coming back here. Not for a while. We’re done for now.”

Clint seemed relieved over that and smiled up at Phil.

The elevator doors opened and they stepped off, making their way back to the exit. As soon as he spotted Stark’s limousine and Pepper walking up and down the sidewalk with a phone pressed to her ear, Phil knew he’d made the right choice. Clint didn’t belong in a lab, he belonged with people who cared about what happened to him.

With that thought in mind, he swung open the doors, smiled at Pepper when she noticed them, and made another mental note for the impending shopping trip to a toy store. Maybe Clint deserved a few other things than just educational toys. His childhood had been crappy the first time around. Phil didn’t see the harm in making it a good one this time.

Their trip to the toy store was preceded by a quick trip to the bathroom for Clint. Phil, remembering that morning’s accident, added a few other things to his mental shopping list for the toy store. Before they hit it though, they decided on lunch, which was when Phil realized that Clint was drooping considerably, so he put him down for a nap in the back of the limousine after his meal. Clint slept soundly for an hour, which both Pepper and Phil used to do some much needed work. Phil gratefully used the StarkPad Pepper had handed him to do some of the preliminary reports of yesterday’s incident with the bald blue aliens, while Pepper conducted a few more business calls.

Phil had just finished another report when he heard Clint stir next to him and blink his eyes open. He looked confused for a moment, but when his eyes came to rest on Phil, he gave him a sleepy smile. It was pure reflex to smile back.

“Sleep well?” he asked quietly, and when Clint nodded and yawned Phil couldn’t help but ruffle his hair a little. It only made Clint smile wider and lean into the touch.

“Ready to hit the toy store now?” Pepper asked with a barely hidden hint of amusement in her voice. Phil just nodded at her while he helped Clint back into his car seat. Pepper hit the intercom and quietly conversed with Happy before she turned back around and fiddled with her phone.

It didn’t take them long before they stopped, and when Phil looked outside he was grateful for Pepper’s insightfulness once again. They were in front of a moderately sized toy store instead of Toys R Us as Phil had secretly dreaded. He was sure that if Stark had been in charge, they would’ve hit that one and probably bought out most of the store.

As if Pepper had read his mind, she said, “I thought it better to stay low key for his first shopping trip.” Then she smiled and got out when the door opened. Phil shook his head after her, but turned around and, when Clint had unstrapped himself, took his hand and got out as well.

The shopping trip itself was... a surprise, to be quite honest. Phil would’ve thought that Clint would go for the flashier, louder toys, maybe try to find a bow and arrow (because let’s face it, it was in his blood, whether he was three or thirty). Instead he peeked shyly around every shelf, his eyes growing wider and wider with every newly revealed wonder, and when they hit the shelves with books upon books, he stopped in the middle of the aisle and stared slack jawed at them. He let go of Phil’s hand and slowly made his way over to a row with books about the circus. Phil had to suppress a snort. It figured that this would be the first thing to grab his attention.

Pepper watched Clint closely, and when he reached out his hand to touch the books tentatively, she looked over at Phil and said quietly, “Why don’t you go find the potty training equipment and I’ll keep Clint company?”

Phil hesitated, his inner pragmatist piping up that it would be the fastest and most efficient way to do the shopping, but the other part within him that didn’t want to leave Clint out of his sight was significantly louder. He squashed it relentlessly.


Clint looked over when Phil said his name, and he knelt down to be eye level with him. “Will you stay with Miss Potts for a bit?”

Clint’s brows furrowed suspiciously. “Why?”

Phil smiled at him and poked him in the chest. “Remember this morning in the bathroom?” When Clint nodded, he added, “I’ll go find something that’ll help you not have another accident, okay?”

Clint mulled that over for a moment, biting his lip, before he nodded. “Okay.” Then he looked up at Pepper and, with a sudden shyness that made Phil’s heart constrict in his chest, pointed at the circus book. “Can I look?”

Pepper smiled at him and knelt down beside him. “Sure,” she said, reaching for the book and opening it. Phil was seemingly forgotten when Clint looked at the page with huge eyes, his finger stroking over a painting of a high-wire circus artist and his female partner, frozen mid-movement.

Phil stood up, took one more look at the pair who was totally engrossed in their book now, then walked down the aisle and went in search for the potties. When he came back ten minutes later, Clint and Pepper were surrounded by five other books and it didn’t seem like Clint was ready just yet to go anywhere else. Pepper sent him an encouraging look to go do the rest of the shopping, and Phil did just that. They left the store thirty minutes later with several age appropriate puzzle books, Legos and about thirteen books about various topics, all handpicked by Clint. Judging by his happy, blissed out face, the whole trip was a raging success.

True to Pepper’s words, the furniture had been delivered and brought up to Phil’s set of rooms by the time they came back to Stark Tower. Apparently there’d been an extra room that was now functioning as a nursery. From Clint’s wide eyed wonder, he seemed to approve of the new room, and Phil had to give it to the man: Stark certainly knew how Clint’s dream room as a child must’ve looked like.

The room still smelled of fresh paint, but Phil would’ve bet that all of it was already dry. They were looking at a beautifully detailed jungle forest running over every wall, with lianas curling over tree trunks and through tree tops on each wall, colorful birds hiding between the leaves. The furniture itself was a cheerful white, also adorned with various plant life that camouflaged it against the jungle backdrop. And, of course, in one corner near the ceiling was some sort of widow’s peak. A rope ladder was leading up to it, but thankfully it was secured on the bottom of the nest where Clint wouldn’t be able to reach it.

“Well,” Phil said, at a loss for words at the thought and money Stark must’ve put into this room. They still didn’t know how long Clint’s condition would last so this was all a little... much. It was very thoughtful, but what would they do with this room if Clint went back to his normal self tomorrow?

“Is this for me?” Clint’s hushed voice piped up from Phil’s left side and he looked down at him. One look at his face made Phil berate himself for even thinking that this much work could ever be considered wasted.

“Yes, this is your room,” he answered, ruffling Clint’s hair. When he looked up at him with a question in his eyes, Phil just nodded. He wasn’t even surprised when Clint’s first order of business was running over to his bed and jumping headfirst into it, laughing with a carefreeness that adult Clint had never possessed.

Phil had to take a few deep breaths and swallow around the lump in his throat before he could smile at Clint who was beaming at him from between the dark green sheets. It was fine, Clint couldn’t remember his first childhood. As long as this lasted, Phil would do anything in his power to make it the best possible childhood he could have.

They fell into some sort of routine after that. Phil may not have been an expert on child raising, but even he knew that a routine was essential for the stability of a kid, especially if said kid was Clint Barton. Clint was surprisingly amenable to the whole thing. He got up when Phil came into his room to wake him, and he washed up and got dressed without a fuss. He even ate his breakfast without complaint. The only thing that was new was his constant chatter. It amused Phil a little how much such a small person had to talk about, especially this early in the morning. He let him though, and Clint appreciated it and paid it back by being obedient.

After Steve had fessed up to being the creative mind behind the jungle design of Clint’s room, he became sort of a fixture at their breakfast table. As had become custom in the last few months, where Steve Rogers went Tony Stark wasn’t that far behind. By the second week after Clint's transformation into a child, everyone was congregating in Phil’s kitchen for a team breakfast every morning. While Dr. Banner and Stark were on the wrong end of the morning most of the time, Steve and Natasha almost always appeared freshly showered after their morning exercises.

They did most of their unofficial briefings over bowls of cereals and cups of coffee, with Clint watching them with interested eyes and asking a lot of questions. To Phil’s surprise, Stark was the one who seemed to be the most delighted by Clint’s seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge and patiently answered any and all questions the boy had.

(It still didn’t excuse that the man went and custom designed a bow for Clint to use in the indoor practice range. Phil yelled at him for an hour, then shut up when he saw that Clint hit the targets each and every time. He knew that Clint had only learned how to use a bow when he was with the circus, long into his teenage years, so that gave him pause for a moment. Something of the old Clint had to still be in there somewhere, which was a relief and also rose up a whole set of new questions.

Still, small children and sharp objects should not mix, so he told Natasha that if she even so much as thought about getting Clint his own set of knives, he would eviscerate her. It spoke of their mutual affection for Clint that she didn’t even point out how unlikely it was for him to succeed in that endeavor.)

After they were done with breakfast, Phil either took the time to engage with Clint in various learning exercises, or let the kid play by himself and asked JARVIS to keep an eye on him while Phil sifted through mountains of files and paperwork. Clint never really strayed far from his side, just sat next to him on the floor and either looked at his brand new picture books or engaged in one of his puzzles. Phil slowly learned that Clint apparently had always been patient enough to be the exceptional sniper he turned out to be. No other three year old would’ve been able not to get bored within an hour and demand attention. Clint was extremely self sufficient and only bothered Phil if he needed his help.

They ate lunch around the same time every day, and then he put Clint down for a nap. He used that time to make all the phone calls he couldn’t take care of while looking after Clint. Afternoons and evenings went much the same way as the mornings did, and at eight Phil put Clint back to sleep, reading him a bedtime story before dimming the lights.

After it became apparent that Phil didn’t mind having the team over for breakfast every morning, people started to stay well into the mornings or dropped by in the afternoons to engage Clint and ask him questions about his books or his puzzles. He slowly opened up to the rest of the Avengers, and it didn’t take long before they encouraged Phil to leave Clint in their care and go to the office to take care of the business they knew he needed to be physically present for. Phil really didn’t like the thought of leaving Clint alone, but he dreaded the thought of taking him back to HQ even more. They’d been lucky Fury had let them go the first time around, he’d be stupid to risk repeated exposure.

It took a call from Fury himself about three weeks after Clint had turned into a child to finally make up Phil’s mind. He was still not a fan of the idea, but when the call came, Steve was explaining baseball to Clint who was a surprisingly captive audience. Phil had a lot of faith in Steve, and there was still JARVIS to alert him if anything went really wrong.

“Go,” Steve urged him, giving him an encouraging smile. “We’ll be fine.”

Phil wasn’t convinced, not really, but he had to go and be an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a while instead of Clint’s caretaker. So he sighed, knelt down and poked Clint playfully in the chest. “I have to go to work for a bit. Will you be alright with Steve until I’m back?”

Clint looked about as enthused by the whole thing as Phil felt, but he nodded. Then he surprised him completely by jumping up and wrapping his arms around Phil’s neck. It was pure reflex that had his arm come up and encircle the small body.

“I’ll be back,” he promised quietly into Clint’s hair, and he felt him nod before he pulled away from the embrace, plopped back down next to Steve and demanded to hear more about the girls playing baseball. Steve threw another encouraging smile Phil’s way before launching into the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s.

The meeting at HQ was grueling and mind-numbingly boring, and it didn’t seem to want to end. When it was nearly dinner time and it became painfully obvious that he wouldn’t be back home anytime soon, Phil excused himself under Fury’s watchful eyes and dialed the tower to let Steve know he would be a while.

“Do you want me to take care of dinner and the bedtime story?” Steve asked tentatively, as if he didn’t want to encroach on Phil’s territory. But he knew he wouldn’t be back in time for Clint’s bedtime, much less dinner, so he just sighed and ran a weary hand over his face.

“If you could, that would be great.”

“It would be my honor,” Steve replied, and he was the only person on this planet Phil believed when he said that. Clint was in good hands, he knew that. It still sucked that he couldn’t be there to tuck Clint in himself.

“I have to go back in, Steve. Thank you for doing this.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said, then hesitated. “Do you want to say goodnight to Clint before you go back in?”

He really didn’t have the time, but to hell with it, why not? “Yes, please.”

There was a shuffling noise on the other end, then Clint’s voice asked, “Where are you?”

The innocent question was like a punch to the gut. Phil had to close his eyes briefly and take a deep breath before he could say, “I'm sorry, Clint. I'm still at work. I have to stay a little longer. I wanted to say goodnight though.”

There was a silence, then a hesitant, “You come back?”

“Yes,” Phil replied without hesitation. “I promise I’ll come back. But you’ll be asleep when I do, so I wanted to say goodnight.”

Another silence before Clint’s shy, “Goodnight,” rang over the line.

Phil smiled. “Sleep well.”

Another shuffling noise could be heard, then Steve was back on the line. “He doesn’t look happy, but I have it under control. Go back to your meeting.”

“Thank you, Steve. See you later.”

He hung up and pressed the phone to his chest for a moment before he could make himself go back into the room. Fury was still looking wary and suspicious, but Phil ignored him and sank back into his seat. “Where were we?” he asked nobody in particular, and apparently that was enough incentive to start the meeting up again.

It was way after midnight before Phil was back at the tower. He found Steve asleep on his couch, the Discovery channel playing on mute in the background. He leaned over the couch to shake Steve’s shoulder lightly. He came awake almost instantly and blinked up at Phil, and when he realized who it was he ran a hand over his face and sat up.

“Clint’s been really great,” Steve said, standing up. “Ate his dinner, brushed his teeth and went to bed without a fuss. He’s been asleep, I checked a couple hours ago.”

Phil couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks for the sitrep. And thank you for helping out.”

“Anytime, Phil.”

Steve nodded at him and went over to the elevator. As soon as he was gone, Phil’s feet took him to Clint’s room. Some inner voice compelled him to check for himself that Clint was okay. He opened the door quietly and peeked into the dark room. He could barely make out Clint’s form on the bed, the sheets mounting up on top of him. But as soon as Phil’s eyes adjusted, he saw the even breathing and something in his chest unclenched. He retreated as quietly as he’d come and made his way to his own bedroom.

He was woken the next morning by something touching his shoulder. Only years of training to differentiate between hostile and friendly intend prevented him from unleashing deadly force. He opened his eyes and turned his head until he could make out Clint on the bed, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the mattress and smiling at him as if Phil had hung the moon.

“Hey buddy,“ he greeted him with a smile of his own. Clint seemed to take that as an invitation to crawl closer and wind his way under Phil’s arm until he was hugging the small body to his side. He ruffled his hair and laughed quietly. “You’re cuddly this morning.”

“You are back,” Clint said simply and beamed up at him.

Phil forced himself to continue smiling or else he might forget himself. “I said I would be,” he answered softly. “I promised.”

Clint nodded, still beaming, and accepted Phil’s words. It was probably a rare thing for him that adults kept their promises and he was relishing it whenever his trust was proven right. Phil still wanted to go back in time and beat the crap out of these people for doing this to their child.

He swallowed down that violent thought and instead hugged Clint tightly before he proposed, “What do you say about pancakes for breakfast?”

Phil took Clint’s whoop of joy as a yes.

Ever since Loki had stabbed him in the back - literally - Phil had been on desk duty. His heart would never be the same, much less his lungs, and you had to be in prime physical condition to go out in the field. While he’d mostly been coordinating behind the scenes these last few years anyway, he had gone out on tricky operations once in a while. Usually, if agents survived an attack that left them incapable of field work, they retired. But after everything with Loki and the miracle of heart surgery that kept Phil alive and kicking, plus the fact that he was too much of an asset, they’d put him on permanent desk duty these days, rifling through report after report of potential new recruits.

Well, and he was the sole handler for the Avengers, but that one was an exception. As soon as they’d found out Phil was, in fact, still alive, they’d insisted on having him at their end of the comm lines. He still wasn’t out in the field, though. He never left the command center, actually, except for that last operation that had left Clint de-aged. It wasn’t just direct orders from Fury keeping him out of the thick of things, oh no. Because as much as Phil babysat the Avengers most of the time, they babysat him right back and had benched him to ensure he wouldn’t get stabbed again while trying to be a hero.

Phil was oddly touched, if slightly exasperated by the whole thing.

At any rate, Phil hadn’t thought much about how his desk duties might be affected by his absence after Clint had turned into a kid. But the hasty summon back to HQ the other day had shown him that things really did fall apart without him organizing the shit out of everything. He would’ve taken pride in that fact if he hadn’t been annoyed by it. How hard could it be to keep track of requisition forms and recruiting notes? Apparently very hard, because S.H.I.E.L.D. declared his leave of absence from the office as finished after that first meeting.

Thank god that the Avengers were all happy to chip in with the babysitting duty for Clint, but something in Phil still ached whenever he had to leave the evening routine to someone else. Clint, it appeared, got used to it, even though he was still the happiest when Phil was around to tuck him in. Phil took a guilty sense of pleasure in that.

It was about two weeks later, five weeks ever since Clint's de-ageing, when Thor came back. Phil was in one of his daily staff meetings and only found out about it when he received a frantic phone call from Steve, claiming they’d lost Clint somewhere in the air vents and even JARVIS couldn’t find him.

Phil swore his heart stopped beating for a second or two before he shot out of his seat, bellowed into his phone that he would be right there, and hightailed it out of HQ. He was back at the tower in record time.

Later, after he’d calmed down again, he would concede that the scene he was met with had been hilarious. Apparently the group had isolated Clint’s whereabouts after all and were standing around an air vent looking up, with Steve talking soothingly and Thor looking guilty and apologetic while Stark patted his arm. Natasha, Phil noted, seemed more amused than anything by the whole spectacle and surveyed it from her place leaning against the wall.

Phil was not amused. Phil’s heart was still beating rapidly in his chest from the panic of something happening to Clint while he wasn’t there even though he’d promised he would protect him. So he walked briskly over to the group gathered under the air vent and barked, “What happened?”

They all turned as one, Natasha straightening up from her slouch at his tone. Nobody said anything for a moment, then Thor spoke, “Son of Coul, my sincerest apologies. It was I who scared young Clint into hiding.”

Phil’s eyebrows shot up and he threw a quick look up at the air vent. He couldn’t see anything, but if he knew Clint even a little, he could be certain they were being watched right now.

“What did you do?” he asked, inching forward carefully so he could get into Clint’s sights. Maybe it would calm him down enough that he would leave his hiding place.

“He was a little too enthusiastic with his greeting, that’s all,” Stark explained, crossing his arms over his chest. “You know the guy, Coulson.”

“I was merely surprised by Clint’s new state of being,” Thor explained, still looking like he’d accidentally hit a puppy with Mjölnir. “I was excited as I have never witnessed the gift of replacement before and expressed my curiosity to him.”

That stopped Phil right in his tracks.

“What do you mean, ‘gift of replacement’?” Phil asked very carefully, his tone oddly calm. Everyone else had frozen up as well.

Thor looked confused, eyeing all of them. “I do not understand.”

Phil took a careful breath. “A couple of weeks ago, there was an alien invasion -”

“It wasn’t an invasion,” Stark interrupted.

“Not now!” Phil snapped, and to his surprise Stark actually did shut up. “I admit they behaved very strange for an invading force as they weren’t attacking anyone so much as they seemed to be... looking for something.”

“Of course they were,” Thor said, sounding so serious and matter of fact that Phil lost his train of thought for a moment. “They were searching for a perfect heart.”

Something cold wrapped around Phil’s chest at the words, and his hand moved to his own heart without his conscious decision. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Stark do the same.

“Who were they?” Steve asked.

“And what did they do to Clint?” Natasha added.

Thor eyed them all, and finally seemed to understand that they had no idea what had happened to their teammate. His whole face softened all of a sudden, easing a tension in Phil’s shoulders that he hadn’t even known was there.

“I believe you have encountered the Rodaq,” Thor started, but was interrupted immediately by Stark saying, “Tall, slender, blue, bald, all look the same?”

Thor nodded. “They are a peaceful folk. They are very old and they do not travel out of their realm very often. My father has encountered them only once, and I had not yet been born at the time.”

Thor stopped and Phil took the opportunity to look up at the air vent quickly. He could see Clint’s small face through the slits, his eyes glued to Thor’s massive frame. Apparently the story was riveting enough to coax Clint out of complete hiding at least.

“So what were they doing here?” Steve asked, obviously intrigued.

Thor shook his head slightly. “I am not sure, my friend. The Rodaq do not venture out of their realm to search for the perfect heart unless it is of great importance.”

“Don’t they have their own special hearts from where they’re hailing?” Stark grumbled, his hand still rubbing absently at a place slightly to the right of the arc reactor.

“They do,” Thor confirmed. “They must have been unable to locate the perfect heart in their own midst. You must understand, it is a sacred ritual and bestows the donor of the heart with the greatest honor of their kind.”

“What does that mean for Clint?” Phil asked quietly, steeling himself for the worst case scenario. The word ‘donor’ really didn’t bode well.

But Thor was smiling. “It means that the Rodaq considered him to be the purest heart of all, trading his life force with that of one of their young. He received a great honor from their people.”

“But what does that mean,” Stark barked. “Will he stay pint sized for the rest of his life? Will he grow up again? What?”

Phil was glad Stark had asked these questions. He wasn’t sure he would’ve been able to get any words past his tightened throat right now. This was all too close to what Loki had done to Clint before, taking his free will away from him.

Using his heart against him.

Thor shook his head vehemently. “Oh no, my friends. Young Clint will see no harm, I can assure you. The gift of replacement is not permanent. The Rodaq only use it in their greatest time of need. They will return his essence to him as soon as they have accomplished what they sought out to do.”

Everyone looked a little dubious and also a little relieved. They knew more about Clint’s situation than they'd had this morning, but Phil was still skeptical that it should be this easy. And he still had no real clue what exactly had possessed these people to... swap Clint’s life force.

“You’re sure he’ll be his old self in no time?”

Apparently Steve was a little skeptical himself.

“On my mother’s name, you have my word,” Thor swore solemnly. That was a pretty big oath for the guy, so Phil was inclined to believe him for now.

All their attention was diverted by Clint’s voice suddenly saying, “I’m brave?”

They all looked up as one at the place where the air vent used to be. Clint was sitting in the open vent, his legs dangling and his gaze glued to Thor. Thor nodded. “Indeed you are.”

Clint’s sudden smile took them all by surprise, but it was hard not to smile back immediately. Thor certainly wasn’t immune to Clint’s charm. The boy slowly slid out from the vent, dangling in mid air for a moment before Thor stepped forward and raised his arms. “Allow me to assist.”

Clint looked at him briefly, then nodded and let go, falling right into Thor’s arms. He giggled when Thor stuffed him under one arm and declared he 'shall not put him down now in case he took it upon himself to vanish yet again'. Phil looked at the whole scene with bemusement while relief coursed through his body.

So they would get their old Clint back, even though they had no real time frame as to when that would happen. But he was glad that this was just some form of weird switcheroo instead of something permanent.

Oh god, he’d have to debrief Fury on this new development. Great, he was really looking forward to that.

“I have to get back to HQ,” he said to nobody in particular, but Steve turned his head and nodded in acknowledgement. “That is, if you’ll be okay here by yourselves.”

“We’ll be fine,” Steve promised with a quick smile, and Phil nodded in return.

“Okay. I don’t know how long I’ll be.” His gaze wandered back to Clint and Thor who was holding the boy upside down by his feet right now. “I have to debrief Director Fury.”

“We’ll be fine,” Steve repeated, giving him an encouraging nod. Phil nodded back, took one last look at Clint before he turned and left them to it.

On his way back to HQ, he mulled over what he would say to Fury, how he could explain this whole thing from the limited understanding he had of it after Thor’s explanation. It was then that he noticed another set of emotions underlying the relief he felt about Clint coming back to them in one piece. Under the relief was a note of regret, but for what Phil had no idea.

He ignored it for now, making a mental note to revisit that topic later.

It hit him that night when he stood in front of the mirror in his bedroom while he was undressing: he was enjoying taking care of a kid. Phil was more than glad to see Clint go back to his old self, no doubt about it, but he couldn’t deny the pleasure he’d felt in taking care of a kid that age, especially a kid like Clint who was charming and a little shy but also a joy to have around.

He stopped moving altogether when another realization hit: he missed Clint. His Clint. Phil had always been good at compartmentalization, so he'd put the fact that the Clint he knew might never come back into a distant corner of his mind, to be perused when the time was right. Apparently that time was now. After Thor's reassurance that Clint would go back to normal, now that he didn’t have to deal with the possibility of never seeing the old Clint ever again, he missed him so bad it almost hurt.

He stared at his mirror image, at his naked shoulders and the long scar on his chest. His hand moved to it automatically, rubbing over the still pink flesh, wincing in remembered pain. This was more than just missing a colleague, Phil wasn’t stupid. This was something else, something he hadn’t dared think about in depth for a very long time. But with his weakened heart and the fact that he’d never really thought about the possibility of losing Clint before now, things were about to change; had the potential to change into something completely different.

Phil had no idea if he was brave enough to even entertain that thought.

A small sound behind him startled Phil out of his thoughts and made him turn. Clint was standing in the doorway to his bedroom, a Hulk plushie pressed to his chest while he was blinking up at him. Someone had thought it funny to stuff him into a Captain America onesie. Probably Stark; this had his infantile humor written all over it.

He did look adorable though. Phil had to give them that.

He shook himself out of his confusing thoughts and smiled at Clint. “Hey there. I thought you were asleep.”

Clint rubbed a fist over one eye in answer, then padded over to Phil and mumbled, “Bad dream.”

Something in Phil’s chest melted at the small voice telling him so matter of fact that he'd had a nightmare. He crouched down and ruffled Clint’s hair carefully. “I’m sorry. Do you feel better now?”

Clint didn’t say anything, but after a long moment he shook his head minutely. Phil didn’t even think about it before he scooped him up and, balancing the small body on his hip, stood back up. Clint’s face was pressed against his neck, the Hulk plushie smashed into Phil’s chest. He ran a soothing hand over Clint’s back for a while, uttering nonsense words to calm him down. After a while he mumbled into Clint’s hair, “You wanna sleep here tonight?”

The nod came almost immediately and Phil couldn’t help but smile. “Okay, buddy. Okay.”

They stayed like that for another moment before Clint’s head raised again, but instead of looking into Phil’s face, he was staring down at Phil’s chest. He swallowed hard, knowing instinctively what Clint was staring at, and he fought the urge to cover himself up. He’d hoped Clint hadn’t seen his scars when he’d entered the room, considering that he’d been half asleep. But he should’ve known better; Clint was perceptive, even as a three year old kid.

A small hand touched the biggest scar, the one where they’d opened his chest to repair his heart. Clint had a look of utter concentration on his face while his hand slid carefully over the puckered flesh, up and over to Phil’s side, curious like only children could be. Then his hand came to a stop directly over Phil’s heart and he looked up. “Are you hurt?”

Phil had no idea what made him think that Clint was mad, considering he couldn’t remember the whole story with Loki, but he still got that impression. So he shook his head and mumbled, “No, Clint. I’m not hurt right now. I was, a while ago, but they fixed me.”

“Who hurt you?”

It was an innocent question, completely legitimate after he’d received an answer like that. Nonetheless, Phil had no idea how to answer it.

“A troubled young man,” he finally settled on. “It was a troubled young man who had a lot of hurt and anger in his heart and didn’t know how to let it go without hurting everyone around him too.”

Clint’s face clouded over in the beginnings of a temper tantrum so Phil added hastily, “Don’t worry. He won’t hurt anyone anymore. He was Thor’s brother, and Thor took him home and got him some help.” At least that’s what he keeps telling us. “He won’t hurt me anymore. They wouldn’t let him hurt me.” He nodded up to the ceiling and Clint’s gaze followed him. It took a moment but then he seemed to put the pieces together in his mind. He looked back down and into Phil’s eyes, his hand still resting on his heart clenching into a fist.

“Me too,” he said with conviction.

Phil smiled. “Yes, they won’t let him hurt you either.”

But Clint shook his head. “No,” he said a little louder, his small chin raised defiantly before his hand unclenched and he pressed it against Phil’s chest. “I protect you too.”

Phil never would’ve thought that a few words would be able to reduce him to tears, but Clint and his determined little face almost proved him wrong. Before he could lose it completely, he pressed the small body against him in a fierce hug and pressed a chaste kiss on top of Clint’s head. “Yes, you’ll protect me too,” he whispered, his voice sounding wrecked from emotions.

It took him a moment to get himself back under control, and when he did he loosened his grip on Clint until he could look into his face and smile. “Okay, buddy. Let’s get you into bed.”

Phil put him on the bed and held up the covers until Clint had crawled under them before tucking them around his small body. “I’m going to brush my teeth. I’ll be right back, okay?”

Clint nodded, his Hulk plushie still pressed to his chest, the big head resting under his chin. Now that his head was lying on a pillow again, his eyes were drooping already. Phil bit down on an indulgent smile before he grabbed his sleeping gear and made his way to the bathroom.

When he came back out ten minutes later, Clint was fast asleep curled up on his side, the covers every which way. He looked so vulnerable and yet completely trusting like that. Phil’s breath caught in his chest for the umpteenth time ever since Clint had been turned into a kid.

He wanted children. He wanted to tug them in and soothe them after they’d had nightmares. He wanted to kiss skinned knees and help them with their school projects. And yes, he wanted to scold them when they did something stupid and try to raise them to be the best adults they could possibly be. Up until Loki had stabbed him, he’d never really wanted a family of his own, had never wanted kids because his job was his everything. But so many things had changed since then, and this one was the biggest of them all.

But he didn’t want to raise Clint. Taking care of him over the last few weeks had been a challenge and a reward as well. It had shown him that he wanted kids, but he didn’t want that kid to be Clint. He wanted...

He killed that thought before it could fully form, even though he knew exactly what it was he wanted. But he wouldn’t indulge in it. Thanks to Thor they knew that Clint’s state wasn’t permanent, but they still had no idea when he would go back to normal. There was no sense in indulging in silly fantasies that might never come to pass.

Phil bit back on a weary sigh and instead climbed into bed. He put the covers back over Clint’s sleeping form, then stuffed his arm under his pillow and, watching Clint sleep for a moment, finally closed his own eyes and willed himself to sleep.

Three days later, Phil and Natasha got summoned to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters for training and evaluation of a whole host of new recruits. It was a quarterly thing they’d gotten used to over the past year since Phil came back full-time, and it involved five days of intense training (Natasha) and insane amounts of paperwork (Phil). The good thing was that they had enough down time to sleep and eat and be on their own throughout the day. The downside, however, was that they weren’t allowed to leave the premises the whole time.

It was a foregone conclusion that Phil missed Clint terribly, but didn’t think it prudent to take him with him to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. Nick Fury usually was a boss who gave his agents free reign as long as he was satisfied with the end result. But in this case he'd made his reservations very clear, and if he didn't trust Phil so much, he wouldn't have tolerated that level of disobedience.

Not that his reservations had been proven correct in any way except for Clint’s ability to still hit every target. In any case, Phil would rather not risk it.

They were on one of their breaks between training sessions when Natasha found Phil on the roof of headquarters, trying to get some air and get his thoughts in order. Ever since his epiphany about his wish to have a family, he’d been distracted and a little terrified. He still did his job impeccably, of course, but the niggling doubt that this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life grew steadily louder. He was no more than a glorified paper pusher. And the handler for the Avengers, yes, but even that didn’t have the level of physical exertion he was used to. He missed it, and yet he knew that he would never get it back thanks to Loki and his weakened heart.

Maybe it was time to move on.

That thought scared him. He’d been with S.H.I.E.L.D. for eleven years at this point, and he never would’ve thought he would want to give it up. He’d resigned himself to leaving the premises in a coffin, and he very nearly had. Coming out of it alive but too broken to be of much practical use had never been in his plans. So maybe it wasn’t such a strange thought to have. Knowing Fury, he’d probably anticipated Phil’s change of heart a lot sooner. Maybe he’d known that he could keep Phil in line if he let him be the handler for the Avengers. God alone knew that nobody could force Nick Fury to do anything if he hadn’t planned on doing it in the first place anyway. He may have let the Avengers think that they’d forced his hand in this matter, but Phil (and probably Natasha and Clint) knew better.

Natasha’s silent presence next to him brought him out of his glum thoughts. He didn’t want to think about leaving this behind. Quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. usually meant a memorial service, not a retirement party. So he shoved all these thoughts away into a box in his head to be perused later, and turned his head to smile slightly at Natasha.

“How are the new recruits doing?” he asked her to distract himself.

She shrugged elegantly, looking over New York City just like he did. “There are a few with potential. Right now they are all rather weak.”

“Everyone’s weak in comparison to you,” Phil pointed out, giving her a lopsided grin.

Natasha bowed her head. “You weren’t.”

That shut him up. They fell into a companionable silence for a while, both of them watching the bustling streets of New York, noticing the building repairs still going on after the Chitauri attack. Phil was mentally keeping tally on how many more minutes he would have before he had to go back to his desk and the massive amount of paperwork, when Natasha said quietly, “You’ve been introspective these last few days.”

Only his training kept Phil from tensing up. He’d always known Natasha was perceptive, but he’d thought he’d hidden his doubts well. He shook his head, scolding himself a little.

“What’s been eating you, Phil?” she asked, voice soft and devoid of any of her coaxing techniques. She could’ve tried to manipulate him into giving her the information she wanted, but she didn’t. She was trusting him to trust her with whatever was bothering him.

He didn’t want to let her down.

“I don’t think I can do this any longer.”

He knew he’d taken her by surprise with that by the sudden stillness of her whole body. He clamped down on the urge to laugh and continued, “Did you know I was this close to giving up my career in case Clint wouldn't get back to normal?”

He chanced a look at Natasha and her carefully neutral face. She shook her head, but didn't voice any of her surprise.

Phil nodded. “It's true. If Thor hadn't assured us that Clint's state isn't permanent, I would've handed in my resignation that very moment and taken Clint to raise him somewhere else, somewhere safe. I didn't know how much I'd come to terms with that decision until Thor told us it wouldn't happen. That Clint would be fine.”

Phil still felt that undercurrent of regret at the news, still felt a little adrift at the thought that Clint wouldn't need him anymore after he'd gone back to being an adult. But it had only been part of the problem, and Phil felt like he owed Natasha an explanation, so he added, “Seeing Clint turned into a kid, taking care of him for six weeks. It made me realize something.”

He paused, deliberately not looking at her and instead fixing his gaze on Stark Tower that was visible in the distance. “My time with S.H.I.E.L.D. is coming to an end no matter what. My goals have shifted. I want a family.” He paused, swallowing hard. “But the funny thing is that I don’t want to raise Clint, even though I would've given up my job for him. No, I want to raise kids with Clint.”

This time, he was unable to keep the small, bitter laugh to himself. He rubbed a hand over his face. “It’s stupid, I know. S.H.I.E.L.D. was my life. It still is. Until Loki I’d never even thought about leaving all this behind and get myself a house with a white picket fence.” His hands gripped the railing hard and he stared at the Tower in the distance, steeling himself for his next words. “I never wanted to have kids of my own, and now I want to raise them with Clint. Hell, if I could have it my way I’d want to raise Clint’s kids. They’d be a handful and a daily challenge, but they sure would be worth it.”

The silence from Natasha was almost deafening by this point, but he didn’t dare look at her. He knew she had a soft spot for Clint, knew the two of them had been something to one another prior to their status as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and maybe once in a while as comfort in between. He’d never asked; never dared to ask. Laying his wishes and intentions plain as day at her feet could go either way, he knew.

When she moved, Phil tensed in anticipation, ready to take a blow if necessary, but hoping for a pat on the shoulder instead. He received neither, only more silence. It was apparent now that Natasha was sifting through a whole host of information in her head, deciding what to say and how to say it. Phil remained where he was, not looking at her and giving her the time to think that she so obviously demanded from him.

“Phil,” she finally said, prompting him to turn his head. She wasn’t looking at him, but at the door leading back into the building. He knew that she knew she had his attention, and only surmised that her pause was deliberate.

“When this is over,” she finally continued, “when Clint is back to his normal self.” She stopped again, her head turning until their gazes met. If he hadn’t known her quite as well as he did, he wouldn’t have been able to see the tiny smile curving her lips when she finished, “You should ask him out for coffee.”

Time seemed to stop for a moment, a long drawn-out moment in which Phil neither knew how to breathe nor how to move. All he could do is look at Natasha, rewind her words and the meaning of them. Then the moment was broken and something warm, something tender unfurled in Phil’s chest while he smiled helplessly at her. “I might just do that,” he promised, knowing that so many things had just transpired in this short conversation, things that would never be spoken aloud but had been sent and received crystal clear.

She nodded, then pushed off the railing. “Break is over in two minutes,” she said over her shoulder while she walked gracefully over to the door. He watched her go, not acknowledging the information. He didn’t have to, the same way he didn’t have to ask Natasha for confirmation about Clint’s possible feelings for Phil, or what would happen to him if he ever broke Clint’s heart.

He took one more look back at Stark Tower before he followed her back into the building, his mind wandering back to the paperwork.

It was a little over a week later when two things happened simultaneously and ripped him out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night: JARVIS’ alarmed voice informing him of intruders, and Clint’s blood-curdling scream. Phil was out of bed and down the hall, his Glock pressed to his thigh before he’d even registered what was going on. He didn’t think, didn’t dare think; he just reacted. He pushed the door to Clint’s bedroom open, pointing his gun at two vague shadows and bellowed, “Don’t move or I’ll shoot.”

There was a beat of silence before a melodious voice said, “Greetings, Protector of the Heart.”

Phil frowned, confused by that ominous statement. His gun didn’t waver though. After a moment, he said quietly, “JARVIS, lights.”

The room brightened immediately, revealing two blue-skinned, bald aliens - aliens Phil had last seen when Clint had been turned into a kid. They were looking at Phil with expressionless faces, but their dark eyes seemed kind. The shorter one was decked out in regal, dark blue robes with shimmery embroidery around the hem, as well as some sort of headband. The taller alien wore just plain blue robes and held a staff in his right hand.

Phil lowered his gun slowly.

“You okay, Clint?” he asked the boy without taking his eyes off of the intruders. Knowing JARVIS and the security system of the Tower, it was only a matter of moments before the rest of the Avengers would storm his abode. Phil better made sure they were all on the same page so he could handle them before they started shooting instead of asking questions.

“‘m fine,” came Clint’s mumbled answer, his voice high and a little breathless. Phil risked a quick glance at him to make sure he really wasn’t harmed. His heart ached when he saw the kid pressed against the headboard of his bed, his child-appropriate bow clutched in his fist with an arrow nocked. Even at the tender age of three, he was always prepared for a fight. It made Phil so sad and mad about the childhood Clint had so obviously never had.

“We do not mean you any harm,” the alien with the staff suddenly piped up, bringing Phil’s sole attention back to them. The alien was staring intently at Phil while his companion looked down at Clint. After a beat of silence, the alien added, “We are here to return what is rightfully yours.”

Phil saw Natasha lower herself from the vent in the ceiling out of the corner of his eye, then he heard the rest of the Avengers make their way through the corridor. Looked like JARVIS had alerted the whole tower of the intrusion. Before anyone could say anything, he held up a hand and, looking at the aliens, asked, “What does that mean?”

The alien’s gaze wandered over Phil’s shoulder and he nodded at someone. It became clear who when he said, “Greetings, Son of Odin. May peace and prosperity be your guide in all your ventures.”

Thor said something in a language Phil had never heard, but he suspected it was some form of acknowledgement because the aliens both nodded and didn’t look like they wanted to attack them anytime soon.

But Phil was out of patience, which was a first for him. “I repeat,” he ground out between his clenched teeth, “What does that mean?”

The alien’s eyes were back on him in a flash and Phil felt like he was looking into Phil's soul. He shivered, but didn’t budge.

“My folk is a peaceful one,” the alien with the headband answered. He'd been staring down at Clint the whole time. But now his gaze lifted until he, too, looked at Phil before he continued, “We do not have many disputes. We do not like to fight. But if we have to, we are not afraid to do what is necessary.”

His gaze swept over the Avengers behind Phil and then nodded his head, regal and poised.

The taller alien took over again and said, “War was brought to our border. We had no choice but to take up our armor and face it. We do not fight without a leader. We cannot fight without a leader. The Prince must lead us in our endeavor, or we are doomed to fail. But our Prince, our Leader, was but three years of human age. He could not fight our battle.”

A few things clicked into place for Phil then. Thor had said they swapped life energy or something along those lines. It made sense now that Clint was three, and the alien standing before him seemed to be a grown man. The only thing he still didn’t understand was why they’d come to earth, and why they’d picked Clint.

“We searched our realm for a True Heart,” the alien continued, “but we were not successful. War was coming and we could not fight without our Leader. We had to expand our search. We came to earth to find hope.”

His gaze slipped over to Clint. “And we found it.”

The alien with the headband - and at this point it was safe to say it was the Prince - looked down at Clint as well and murmured, “You have heart.”

An icy chill ran down Phil’s spine at the words, and he felt more than saw Natasha stiffen next to him. They’d both read the reports; they both knew that Loki had said the exact same thing to Clint before he mind raped him into killing his colleagues. Phil had no idea how much Clint could remember, or if he maybe knew instinctively that the words had bad memories attached to them, so he readied himself for the eventuality that Clint whipped his bow around and shot the Prince square through the eyes.

But he didn’t. Instead, he just stared at him, and something seemed to pass between Clint and the Prince. Suddenly the alien smiled, his mouth closed, and nodded at Clint when he lowered his bow. “You have heart. You have spirit. You have devotion. You are pure. You are deserving. We are indebted to you for life. Accept our gratitude.”

Phil wasn’t sure if Clint even understood half of what was said to him right now, but he nodded nonetheless, and the Prince raised a hand. Everyone in the room tensed immediately, but Phil raised his own hand to stave them off. The last thing they needed right now a dead alien and another crisis on their doorstep.

The Prince waited until everyone had settled back into an uneasy parade rest, then put his hand on Clint’s head and closed his eyes. Clint did the same, his chin going down slightly. That’s when the humming started. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, a deep, resonating sound that thrummed in his blood and made it sing. Phil felt exhilarated and alive in a way he hadn’t felt since Loki had stabbed him through the heart.

And then a blue mist enveloped Clint and the Prince, getting denser and brighter in sync with the humming getting louder. There was something like a snap, and the light flared so bright that Phil closed his eyes instinctively, turning his head away so he wouldn’t be blinded. The silence following the spectacle was almost deafening, and Phil honed back in on Clint immediately.

But it wasn’t the Clint he’d gotten used to over the last two months. In his stead was the adult version of him as he’d last seen him before they’d gone out on their mission. He was naked now, his footy pajamas in shreds around him on the bed, his lap covered only by his bedspread. The sight of him back to his adult body took Phil's breath away for a second, drinking him in and feeling a tenseness bleeding out of his body at last. Up until now he'd still held a shred of doubt in Thor's assurance that Clint would go back to normal, but damn was he glad to be proven wrong for once.

In front of Clint, hovering a few feet over the ground, was a child sized version of the alien Prince. Both their eyes were still closed, the alien’s hand remaining on Clint’s head. They didn’t seem inclined to part anytime soon, and Phil was getting concerned that this might do more harm than good at this point. Who knew what the alien Prince was doing to Clint. They might've appeared friendly so far, but none of them really knew. He'd rather not take any chances with Clint's health, mental or physical.

He didn't dare think about the fact that, now that Clint was back to being normal, Phil wouldn’t have anyone anymore he could care for. Something painful still clenched in his gut at the realization that Clint wouldn’t need him the same way he’d needed him for the last two months. Ever since Thor’s explanation, he’d known it would come. He still wasn’t prepared for it, though.

It was like a stab to the heart. Again.

The sudden gasp from Clint alerted him that something was happening. Clint’s eyes were wide open now, staring in disbelief and wonder at the child Prince, whose eyes were open now too. He lowered his hand and pressed it to Clint’s chest. “You have heart, Clint Barton,” he said, his voice high and melodious in a way it hadn’t been before. He increased the pressure on Clint’s chest before he added, “You are good.”

Clint flinched as if he’d been zapped by something, and his gaze flew over to Phil for a brief second. He looked confused and surprised, but before Phil could discern what exactly it was that had Clint so confused, his gaze was back on the alien. His helper, or maybe his babysitter, had plugged him out of the air and held him in his arms while the Prince still held eye contact with Clint.

He looked shell shocked, his hand coming up to cover the one the alien was still holding over his heart. There was a beat of silence, everyone holding their breath. And then, in a rusty voice that flowed through Phil’s body like honey, Clint rasped, “Thank you.”

The child Prince nodded, and within one blink and the next, both aliens were gone.

It was only befitting for the Avengers that hell broke loose after that.

The debriefings were hell. Clint was still a little confused as to what exactly had happened to him that made him de-age in the first place, and he wasn’t very forthcoming with his insights as to what had happened when he got his true age back. Phil couldn’t really contribute much, except for what he’d observed and what the aliens had said. One thing had been clear, though: their intentions had always been peaceful, and apparently they’d liked Clint’s spirit so much that they'd borrowed it for their battle.

It gave Phil no little amount of pleasure to hear it like that, and see it written down in the files like that as well. Loki had done a lot of damage, not only physically, but emotionally as well. Clint had never gotten over the fact that Loki had singled him out to take mind control over, and the fact that he’d obviously done it because of his spirit had fucked him up real good. Clint had issues a mile wide, brought them with him to S.H.I.E.L.D. and had quadrupled them during his time with the agency. He’d never explicitly said so, but Phil was pretty sure that Clint was convinced Loki saw something inherently evil in him that made him take Clint instead of someone else.

The aliens who swapped ages with Clint and their Prince? Had inadvertently done good, had helped Clint see that Loki and his control over him had never been his fault. Phil saw it in the set of his shoulders, and how he carried himself wherever he went: some burden had been lifted from him, and Phil was ever so glad about it.

It would make leaving S.H.I.E.L.D. so much easier.

He’d given it careful thought, but even now after Clint was back to being his adult self, Phil’s decision hadn’t changed. He was done being a paper pusher for the agency, sitting on the sidelines and always feeling his heart constrict whenever he heard his team getting into trouble over the comms without being able to help them by diving into the thick of things himself. It killed him, slowly and without anyone seeing it happen. He had to stop it. It was time for him to leave.

No matter what would happen between him and Clint.

He hadn’t forgotten Natasha’s suggestion. How could he, with the pointed glances she was throwing his way ever since Clint had regained his usual size? She hadn’t said anything yet, but it was only a matter of time before she cornered him and demanded he made good on his promise.

As it was, the decision was taken out of his hand when Clint tracked him down in his office, about a week after he’d gotten back to normal. He knocked, which was a surprise in itself, and actually waited until Phil issued an “Enter”.

Clint was holding a pad, and judging by the pained look on his face, it was probably from the psych department. If Phil had to guess, he'd say it was Clint's evaluation for his return to active duty. Phil nodded at him to enter, and Clint did, carefully closing the door behind himself.

“How is your status?” Phil asked while he reached for the pad Clint was holding out to him.

Clint shrugged. “Ready whenever you give the green light for field ops, sir.”

Phil nodded. “I see.” He swiped a finger over the screen to activate it, but didn’t read what was on it. He already knew what it was saying, having received a digital copy as soon as Clint had left the psych department. But he needed to not look at Clint for his next question. “How are you really doing, Clint?”

There was heavy silence following that question, and Phil was fully prepared to get a flippant, “Fine, sir” from him. But he didn’t. Instead, he heard Clint move, and he looked up in surprise when Clint sat down in the chair opposite his desk.

“Honestly, sir?” he said, meeting Phil’s eyes with a surety that Phil had always admired. Clint never backed down from a challenge, always met what he feared head on. Phil wasn’t sure in which category he was falling right now, but he hoped it wasn’t the latter. “I feel relieved.”

That surprised him. It must’ve shown on his face somehow, some minute tick of his eye or his jaw, because Clint smirked at him. “Didn’t expect that, did you, sir?”

“Can’t say that I have,” Phil admitted, putting the pad down on his desk and giving up any pretense that he’d been reading it. “You want to clarify?”

Clint hesitated, which in itself was something Phil had very rarely seen before in their entire time they’d been working together. This seemed important, and Phil held himself very still in case Clint might get spooked.

“When he gave me my life force back?” he started, sounding unsure how to phrase what he was trying to explain. “It felt like... I don’t know, like he was keeping some of the hurt, and the grief.”

“About your past?”

“About what Loki and his actions did to me.”

Phil froze, surprised that Clint spoke about it voluntarily. He hadn’t talked about it ever since it had happened. They’d all mostly done guess work, with Natasha and Phil probably coming closest to what was really going on in Clint’s head.

“He didn’t take the memories away,” Clint added after a moment, rubbing his eyebrow. “Just the guilt I associated with them?”

Phil nodded. He had no idea what he could say that wouldn’t sound cheap or meaningless. No matter what Phil thought, Clint probably saw the removal of his guilt as a blessing.

Phil kind of had to agree.

“He also gave me a bit of knowledge,” Clint said out of the blue, looking unsure all of a sudden.

Phil waited for him to elaborate, but when nothing came, he prodded, “Something we need to be concerned about?”

An odd look passed over Clint’s face at that, and his eyes were intent on Phil for a moment before he shook his head. “No, just something personal that I need to puzzle over first before I decide what to do with it.”

That... sounded ominous, but not threatening. So he nodded and reached for the pad. “Let me know if you need anything, Agent Barton.”

He felt more than heard Clint get up, but his attention was already back on the pad in front of him. He distantly heard Clint walk to the door, but when he didn’t open it, Phil’s curiosity made him look up.

Clint looked hesitant for some reason, and that more than anything made Phil ask gently, “Something else on your mind?”

Clint swallowed, his throat clicking, then his gaze snapped up to meet Phil's gaze head on. There was a small smile around his lips, and Phil was asking himself what that was about when Clint said quietly, “I remember you taking care of me.”

Phil had to do everything in his power not to blush at the soft admission. He remembered every day, every minute he'd been Clint's guardian. He wasn't ashamed of any of his actions, or how he'd treated Clint. He'd treated him like he would've treated any kid that had been ripped out of the environment they'd known their whole lives.

Clint didn't seem to gear up to scold Phil, though. Instead he looked down at his feet and mumbled, “It's weird. The memories of my actual childhood and how you treated me... they've merged. If that makes sense?”

“I guess it does, in a way,” Phil replied quietly.

Clint nodded, not meeting his gaze. “I remember you putting your foot down in Fury's office, and insisting of taking me off base. Insisting on taking care of me yourself. I just... I'm glad my trust in you wasn't misplaced.”

The words ripped into him like a knife, and Phil swallowed hard in order to not let out an embarrassing sound that could betray him. Clint didn't seem to notice. He just rubbed the back of his neck and added, “Thank you for everything. For being kind to me. And patient.”

Something weird happened in Phil's gut at the words, something that made him want to go over there and hug Clint, just like he would've done if he were still three and vulnerable.

No, Clint was still vulnerable. He just hid it better, now that he had his carefully acquired masks of deflection back. But Phil knew him now, knew his tells before he'd been able to cover them up with defensive masks. He was like an open book to Phil now.

But he wouldn't tell him that. It would make Clint shy away from him, and that was the last thing he wanted. So in lieu of calling him out on his vulnerability, he just replied quietly, “I'd do it again in a heartbeat. You were worth it, Clint.”

Clint's gaze snapped up at that, surprise alight in his blue eyes. Phil couldn't help a quick smile at that and turned his gaze back down to Clint's psych evaluation. The paperwork wouldn't do itself, after all.

Clint still didn't leave, made no move to get out of his office. Phil looked back up and saw Clint facing the door, his hand on the doorknob. He was white knuckled and obviously debating something with himself. Phil was just opening his mouth to ask if there was a problem when Clint cursed under his breath, mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, “Fuck it,” and turned his head.

Their eyes met, and something changed between them in that moment. Phil couldn’t say what exactly it was, just that something passed, some sort of unvoiced understanding, and Clint’s face smoothed out immediately.

Clint almost smiled when he asked, “Would you like to go get dinner with me sometime?”

To say Phil was surprised would’ve been an understatement. But then the words sank in, and his heart thumped hard in his chest for a beat. Disbelief and adrenaline coursed through his veins, making his hands twitch and his mouth run dry.

Clint had just asked him out. He wanted to go on a date with Phil. For whatever reason, Clint had chosen this moment to make his intentions known, and he was putting himself out there in a way he probably hadn’t done in a very long time.

Phil’s heart was still beating heavily in his chest when he put down the pad. His face was softening and he had an answering smile on his lips when he replied, “I’d like that very much, Clint.”

Clint looked surprised for the fraction of a second, but then he smiled, wide and open and happy, and Phil had no idea what to do with that.

“Great,” Clint said, opening the door. “I’ll talk to you later?”

“I'll look forward to it.”

Clint smiled even wider and nodded, mumbling another, “Great!” before walking out of Phil’s office and closing the door behind himself.

Phil stared at it for far longer than he would ever admit to anyone in his life. But he was too floored, and giddy, and yes, too happy to care right now. He had a date with Clint Barton. It may not lead anywhere, but right now it seemed like they were on the same page at least.

For now, that was everything Phil could ask for.