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The Ranger And The Stray

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Cover image courtesy of Ruminational on Tumblr; find the original post here.

"Phil! Hey, Phil!" Tony called, and blew a sharp whistle through his teeth across the noisy restaurant.

"Whistle me like a cab again and I'll make it impossible for you to whistle at all," Phil Coulson announced, as he reached their table. Steve kicked out a chair, grinning, and Phil settled into it.

"My dad's your boss, you wouldn't dare," Tony replied.

"Your dad's a figurehead at best, and all your friends work for me," Phil said, gesturing at Steve and Natasha. "Oh look, there's another one," he added, as Sam arrived. "To what do I owe the honor of this dinner?"

"We're celebrating everyone's graduation to full agent," Steve said. "Seemed like you should be invited, if you're going to be our handler."

"And how did you hear that? I only got the news myself two hours ago," Phil replied.

"Blue-flamer," Tony said. "You're going places in this outfit, Phil. People talk."

"Mmh. Well, you four had better not be talking too loudly. The strike team is still top secret," Phil said sternly.

"Lips zipped, promise," Sam said. "But we thought we could at least celebrate getting out of training."

"I won't say no, especially since it's going on Stark's tab," Phil said, ruffling Tony's hair across the table. "Who all is coming?"

"Rhodey can't, and Carol's got midterms," Tony said, ducking away from him. "Jan's on her way, Bucky picked her up."

"Jan is here!" Jan announced, sliding into a chair across from Natasha. "AND I brought Clint! Well, Bucky brought Clint, but you know."

Clint, who had adjusted with almost chameleon-like ease to high society but could still be a little wary around strangers, hung back awkwardly, glancing between the seat next to Tony (clearly reserved for Bucky) and the empty chair next to Phil.

"Oh, hey, you haven't met Mom's latest project, have you?" Tony asked Phil, who turned to regard Clint with a smile. "Clint Barton, Phil Coulson. Phil's a SHIELD agent, his dad and mine go back. Clint's a sharpshooter, he's helping SI with advanced testing."

"Nice to meet you," Phil said, offering his hand. Clint shook it, eyes big in his face, and let himself be guided gently into the chair by Jan. "Are you sure you're old enough to be out on a school night?" he added, but his tone was kind, and Clint just gave him a sidelong grin and stole a sip of Tony's beer as Bucky arrived.

"Heard about your promotion, congrats," Bucky said, sitting down and gently but firmly lifting the beer out of Clint's hand. He took a sip himself before passing it back to Tony.

"You people have heard of germs, right?" Tony asked, making a show of wiping the rim of the glass with his sleeve.

"Isn't that a kind of breakfast cereal?" Phil asked. Clint made a noise like a suppressed laugh. Tony gave him a quizzical look, but he got distracted as Jan waved a waiter down to see about a drink and some appetizers.

Tony noticed, in an offhanded way, that Clint was quiet throughout the meal. It wasn't that unusual; the kid had a mouth on him, but he also had excellent self-control, probably more than Tony'd had at his age. Maybe he was chewing over some new problem at SI. He had a head for math and physics, and very little formal training, but Dad said an on-the-job education was as good as any. Sometimes Clint left work smelling like gunpowder and oil; sometimes he left with a couple of notebooks and a huge physics text under one arm.

As surrogate little brothers went, Clint made a pretty good Stark.

It wasn't until dinner was over that the truth became evident. Sam and Natasha said they'd walk home, which meant they were probably going out for another drink somewhere; everyone else crammed into the car, Bucky at the wheel and Jan in the front seat, leaving Tony, Steve, and Clint to crowd up in the back. As soon as they were moving, Clint slouched down in the seat, covered his face with his hands, and let out a heartfelt groan.

"Something wrong, Clint?" Steve asked. "I told you not to get the shrimp pasta."

"My life is over," Clint announced.

"That was fast," Jan said, twisting around in her seat. "Your life barely started."

"I was such a dumbass at dinner," Clint said, then whacked Tony on the arm. "Why'd you let me be such a dumbass?"

"Hey, mister, there's a lady present," Steve said sternly.

“Really? Where?” Jan asked.

"You literally said nothing," Tony added, bewildered. "You said hello, you said you wanted the shrimp pasta, and you drank my beer."

"EXACTLY!" Clint threw up his hands. "I froze up! I couldn't say anything!"

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. "Why did you freeze up?"

"Because he's perfect and it's awful," Clint said.

Tony glanced up at the rearview mirror. Bucky caught his eye in the mirror and winked. Before Tony could interpret that, Bucky said, "Phil Coulson's a nice guy. I wouldn't call him perfect."

"Ohh," Jan said. "Clint has a crush!"

"It's not a crush," Clint said sullenly. "It's LOVE. At FIRST SIGHT. And I couldn't say anything and he's like...he's the Company Man, and I hate the Company Man! And he's old!"

"...he's twenty-five," Tony said.


"I'M twenty-five," Steve reminded him.

"Not the best example," Tony murmured.

"You know what I mean," Steve said.

"This was a disaster. I'm moving back to Iowa," Clint said.

"You're not moving back to Iowa, it's full of corn and regret," Tony said. "Look, I like Phil, but his laserlike focus doesn't extend to social situations outside of work. I doubt he noticed."

"That's not better," Clint said sullenly. "And I have to complain about it now because if I complain about liking a boy to Maria it'll be weird."

"She'd probably be okay with it, but yeah, it'd be weird," Tony agreed, petting Clint's hair. "Look, it's fine. You probably won't see Phil much, and if you do, you'll get to know him and see that he's very definitely not perfect."

"Boys are awful. How'd you even end up with Bucky?" Clint asked Tony.

"Oh, are we having frank discussions about this now?" Bucky asked sardonically.

"My father literally chained him to a table," Tony said solemnly.

"That won't work well with Phil," Steve put in.

"You're all cruel," Clint complained.

"Tell you what," Tony said, "We'll drop Jan off and you can stay over at the penthouse tonight. We'll open the scotch and drink to the end of innocence or something, and Bucky will give you boy advice."

Bucky shot Tony a murderous glare in the rearview at the same time as Clint turned huge pleading eyes on him. Tony winked back.


Clint's crush, like most adolescent fantasies, was deep but fleeting; Tony was right, and he rarely saw Phil, even though several of the others worked with him regularly. When he did, he was quiet, but Phil paid very little mind anyway, and usually they didn't have anything much to talk about. As far as Tony could tell, the attraction clung, but Clint was also the baby of a social set that moved in the most exclusive circles. He had his pick of beautiful people, if he wanted them, and between seventeen and twenty-two he didn't lack for companionship. Steve had somehow appointed himself guardian of Clint's delicate feelings, and vetted any boy Clint seemed interested in (which Clint did not always appreciate) but other than that it was mostly smooth sailing.

It wasn't until Tony was kidnapped -- until after he was found, actually -- that Clint crossed Phil Coulson's path again in any meaningful way.

The second Tony and Bucky went missing, the strike team went into action: SHIELD mobilized Steve, Sam, Carol, and Natasha to go on the search. Howard called in Rhodey and his Air Force connections, too, but SHIELD and the Air Force were both at a loss as to how to even start looking for them. Tony and Bucky had simply vanished from Manhattan late one night. There had been a ransom demand, and Howard had paid promptly, but the money was never retrieved and no further word had come in.

Clint, now twenty-two, with a GED under his belt and a practical doctorate in physics learned at the knee of Howard and Anthony Stark, not to mention a social education that had included Maria Stark's gentle mentorship, quietly and unobtrusively slipped into the shadows to conduct his own investigation. He passed along what he found to Steve, but it was Clint who found the radical domestic terrorism group that had taken Tony and Bucky, and it was Clint who was already on his way to the midwestern compound the terrorists had settled into when Tony and Bucky blasted their way out -- Tony in a flying suit of armor, repulsors blazing, and Bucky clinging to his steel-plated neck.

And it was Clint, a rangy, whip-muscled man in a skintight stealth suit, who came into the hospital where they'd brought Tony and Bucky and ran straight into Phil Coulson.

Phil was on the phone at a nurse’s station, Steve and Rhodey hovering around him, all three of them trying to explain things to Howard at once, when Clint arrived. He saw the chaos, strode straight through it, took the phone from Phil, and gave Steve a firm shove in the gut, which backed him up into Rhodey.

"Howard, it's Clint," he said. "Sorry for the confusion."

"What in the hell is going on? I'm on the way to the jet now. Where's Tony?" Howard demanded. "His mother's about to pass out from all of this."

"Tony's being seen by the docs, he's fine," Clint said. "Buck's in with him, not a scratch on him that I saw."

"Then what are those chuckleheads yelling about?" Howard asked.

"Couldn't say, sir," Clint said, letting himself sound amused. Tony and Bucky were safe, and that was what mattered. He felt lighter than he had in weeks. "All this excitement's got everyone on edge."

"Well, at least someone's keeping their head," Howard said. "Tell Tony we're coming. Got to hang up now, Clint. I want you to take charge of this until I get there. Get Phil to help you out, tell him I said so. He'll wrangle the others."

Clint was skeptical about this, but he snapped off an affirmative and hung up the phone.

"Howard's on his way, I guess Maria's with him," he said. "He says I'm in charge until he arrives. Steve, for the love of God, sit down and stop looking like a wounded moose. Take Rhodey with you. Where the hell is everyone else?"

"Natasha talked her way in, said she was Bucky's girlfriend," Coulson said. "Carol's securing the hospital."

He was staring at Clint in a way that made Clint feel uncomfortably...visible.

"Well, that's more useful than trying to yell your way onto a phone call," he said, casting a glance at Steve and Rhodey, who had retreated as far as the waiting room but had yet to sit down. "Howard will want a report when he lands and I'd like to know more than I do, too. Is the site secure?"

Coulson nodded. "SHIELD's locking it down -- Sam's supervising. Everyone's in custody. Whatever Tony did, it was...highly effective."

"And that contraption he flew out in?"

"In the trunk of my car," Phil said with a slight smile.

"Who knows it's there?"

"You and me."

Clint nodded, rubbing his forehead. "Odds of me getting in to see Tony or Buck?"

Phil shrugged. "Fifty fifty. They say family only, but you are..."

"Infamously a surrogate Stark." Clint nodded. "Five years at SI and I'm still Maria's pet project. Well, might as well leverage what I can. Wish me luck and, I don't know, slip Steve a Benzo, huh?"

"If I had any I'd be keeping them for myself," Phil told him.

"Yeah, I know the feeling," Clint agreed, and trotted off to find a nurse. He really honestly didn't think any more about it. His crush on Phil was a relic of his teenage years, and he was focused on the mission, on keeping Tony and Bucky safe now that they were out, on securing the armor he'd seen and on getting a full report for Howard and Maria when they arrived.


Once they'd determined that Tony and Bucky were fine, that Tony was just a little dehydrated and Bucky needed tune-up work on the arm, Howard mandated a round-the-clock guard and then went to, presumably, bring the full weight of SHIELD to bear on the radicals that had taken his son and heir. Maria had stayed long enough to watch Tony eat a meal and fall asleep, but the weeks of waiting to hear that her son had died had taken their toll, and soon enough Rhodey and Carol agreed to take her to the nearby hotel that Howard had commandeered so she could rest. Sam was running the local SHIELD agents, Natasha was still patrolling the hospital like if she didn't it might explode, and Steve was having a tiny little breakdown, which he was pretty much owed -- but that left Phil to take the first shift guarding Tony and Bucky, while Clint slept.

Tony had drifted off after eating, but he woke a few hours later and demanded Phil entertain him. Bucky had woken briefly, looked bored at the idea of playing cards, and gone back to sleep in the bed next to Tony's.

"I think it was harder on him than on me," Tony said, shuffling the deck. "He kept trying to...protect me. It, it wasn't great."

"I'm sure you both did your best," Phil replied.

"Yeah, well." Tony's fingers rose to tap the housing of the light in his chest, the one he still hadn't fully explained to anyone but Howard.

"If you want to talk about it..."

"No," Tony said. "No offense."

"None taken. Offer stands." Phil picked up his cards. "Lousy hand, by the way."

"I cheat," Tony agreed. "So what's new? While I've been gone."

"Not much. I can give you a news rundown if you really want, but..."

"God, no thank you. Not having to watch the SI stock ticker was one of the best parts of captivity," Tony said. "Come on. Nobody broke up, nobody got together?"

"Well, our lives were somewhat put on hold by the disappearance of two close friends," Phil said neutrally.

"Bullcrap. Life goes on. That's not humility, just fact." Tony peered at him. "You're hiding something, I can see it in your perfectly composed poker face."

"No you can't," Phil replied, keeping his tone level.

"Yes I can. Come on. I've been alone with Bucky and a bunch of very, very unstable people for two months, Phil. Gimme something," Tony coaxed.

Phil laid his cards on the blanket, face-down. Tony's eyes widened in anticipation.

"When did little Clint Barton turn into that?" he asked, and Tony cackled with glee.

"I know, right?" Tony laughed. "One day he's running around in my hand-me-downs, the next thing I know he's acrobating his way around Stark Industries combat firing ranges in skintight leather."

"I just remember him as some little kid always tagging along with your crowd. And in he comes today, like the bad boy incarnation of Steve Rogers -- "

Tony howled with laughter, clearly trying to keep quiet for Bucky's sake, but Bucky just snorted and pulled a pillow over his head.

"I honestly had no idea how to react. The man had a quiver full of arrows on his back and a recurve bow under one arm, Tony," Phil finished.

"Well, he loves his archery. Dad indulges him. I think he’s grooming him for something in SI, I don't know what," Tony said.

"Terrorizing your rivals?" Phil suggested.

"Howard moves in mysterious ways. Mom wants to marry him off to a debutante, but that's a lost cause," Tony said, and Phil almost didn't catch the casual way in which he slipped it in.

"So little Clint grew up while nobody was looking," Phil said.

"Clint does a lot when nobody's looking," Tony sighed. "I saw him running in as we were flying out."

"He'd do well at SHIELD."

"No offense, Phil, but SHIELD's a step down from the private sector, at least for Clint. On the other hand," Tony said, apparently seeing the chagrin in Phil's face, "I think you, personally, should do your utmost to recruit him."

Phil raised his eyebrows. "Oh, you do, huh?"

"Absolutely. And even if he isn't interested in SHIELD, it never hurts to be friends with one of the heirs to Stark Industries," Tony pointed out, which was very true.

"Well, I'll offer to buy him breakfast when his shift is over. Steve should be calm enough to stand guard over you two while we get a bite," Phil said.

"There you go. A solid plan. Now, pick up your cards and make a bid, it's your job to keep the invalid entertained," Tony decreed.


"My life is an unmitigated disaster," Phil said, two days later, on a secure line with Nick. Technically he shouldn't be using a secure line to consult his best friend on his love life, but he also had a report to transmit, and SHIELD wouldn't look too closely at two extra minutes of gossip on the end of a thirty-minute long-distance call.

"Three days ago you were one of SHIELD's top analysts," Nick said. "What the goddamn did you do between then and now? Did you punch Howard Stark in the face?"

"No! It's my personal life. My professional life is fine," Phil said.

"You don't have a personal life."

"I have a personal life!"

"You are infamous for not having a personal life."

"Well, it's not like I can bring my nonexistent girlfriend to the company picnic," Phil said. "I prefer workaholic to known homosexual in our line of work, thanks!"

"SHIELD doesn't have a problem with homosexuals," Nick said. "Director Carter's got a very helpful live-in female roommate, and Howard Stark's practically anointed Barnes his son-in-law."

"Look, the point is, I am a mess, he's twenty-two and he looks better in leather than anyone has any right to, I'm going to hell."

"Twenty-two is a decent age. You and I were hot shit at twenty-two. Who is this punk anyway, is it some SHIELD trainee?"

"You have to swear you won't laugh," Phil warned.

"I won't swear that, man, do you know who you're talking to?"

"Did you ever meet the kid the Starks picked up? Barton?"

The phone line crackled with Nick Fury's laughter.

"Little Clint Barton? Damn, he's on the society page, Phil. Got the cutest little bowtie you ever saw on a kid too young to shave."

"He's old enough to shave now," Phil said darkly. The scruff he'd been wearing when he walked into the hospital had not gone unremarked.

"You don't aim low. You gonna do anything about it?" Nick asked.

"Well, I bought him breakfast day before yesterday, and we had dinner on Howard Stark's dime last night, but we're both playing bodyguard on Tony, so I don't know if he thinks this is a work thing or a dating thing or what. Tony's been encouraging but Tony makes mischief the way other people breathe."

"Stark’s a good man though, he wouldn't jerk you around about this," Nick said, which was true. Tony might be a troublemaker, but he knew first-hand how hard it could be. Phil knew Tony walked a fine line, as the heir to Stark Industries and someone who was expected, at some point, to continue the family line.

"Yeah," Phil agreed. "Maybe not, but dropping hints never gets any easier."

"Pretty sure you can take him in a fight."

"Before this week I might have agreed. Look, I need to get off the line," Phil said. "I'm riding back to New York with the Stark entourage, so I'll see you in a few days."

"I'll keep the home fires burning."

"Please don't set anything on fire, Nick."

"No promises. Bye, Phil."

Phil hung up the phone, tucking away the documents they'd spent most of the call reviewing, and stepped out into the hallway to come face to face with Clint Barton. They nearly collided, and only Phil's free hand catching Barton by the shoulder prevented it.

"Ah!" Barton managed, straightening and flailing, which knocked the file out of Phil's other hand. "Oh, Jesus! Sorry!"

"Nothing broken," Phil said, avoiding a second collision by allowing Barton to crouch and gather up the paperwork, which was handed back to him breathlessly. "In a hurry?"

"Not especially, just a million miles away," Barton said ruefully. "Sure you're all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Phil said, shuffling the papers into order in the folder, then tucking it under one arm. There was a beat of incredible awkwardness.

"I, ah, the Starks want me to take them home tomorrow," Barton said. "I guess the team's cramming in too. Are you coming with the team?"

"So I've been told. I thought we were flying, though."

"Oh, we are. I got my pilot's license about a year ago, Howard's got this hot private jet, kind of on the small side, handles like a dream though...and this is boring," Barton said. "Sorry, Howard said I either had to learn to fly the jet or go to college, jets turned out to be a lot more fun."

"Probably faster, too," Phil agreed. "I should start packing. I thought we might be here a few more days."

"Tony hates the hospital," Clint said, shuffling along at his elbow as he started to walk. "I can take you to the hotel if you want, I gotta get the car back to load up for the trip to the airport."

"That'd be great, thanks," Phil said. "Guess that's your evening, huh?"

"Well, I guess. I'm not really needed once I throw my own bag in. I was thinking I'd go see a movie, actually, there's a cinema down the street from the hotel. I w...was wondering if you'd like to go? You said you wanted to see that new science fiction flick."

"Yeah, actually, that'd be nice," Phil said with a smile. "Let me check and see if I'm on duty -- "

"You aren't," Barton blurted, then looked embarrassed. "I checked the duty roster, it's why I was going to ask."

"That was thoughtful, thank you," Phil said.

"There's a six o'clock, which would leave you time to pack after, so I could drop the car off and we could go," Barton said in a rush.

Phil paused, took stock of what was really going on here, and gave Clint a bright smile.

"Sounds perfect," he said. "I'll buy the popcorn."


Clint Barton honestly wasn't sure what was going on, but the last five years of his life had involved a lot of that, so he'd also gotten very good at bluffing his way through.

He knew, objectively, that Phil wasn't a particular specimen of beauty; he was attractive, but in a sort of forgettable way. For some reason, the very first time they'd met, Clint had fixated on him, fascinated with the air of mystery that came from working for SHIELD and the deft way Phil just seemed to handle everything. Clint had known he liked boys, it wasn’t a surprise, but he met Phil and some unknown engine in his head had just turned over and started growling.

He never tried to get Phil's attention, though, half because he wasn't sure what the man would do if another man made a pass, half because he knew he was too young to be of any interest to someone so grown-up and professional. He stayed in the background when Phil was around, and was just happy if he was noticed, if he got a smile and a "Hi, kid!" as an acknowledgement.

And besides, there were other boys, less intimidating playmates for Clint to practice on. He wasn't really sure what he was practicing for, but maybe someday something like Tony and Bucky had, or Sam and Natasha. Something real and substantial. And Natasha said it never hurt to understand seduction anyway.

But he'd broken his policy of not being noticed when he'd taken charge of the situation a few days ago, and since then his plan to fade quietly back into the scenery had been thwarted by Howard, who had leaned on him to run the show and then appointed him chief cat-herder, making sure everyone got where they were supposed to be. He'd had to work with Phil to coordinate schedules, and then he'd been put in charge of scheduling, and also Phil was...

Phil was being really nice. He'd always been nice, but he'd never been friendly like now, seeking Clint out. They had half their meals together, talking like real adults about real adult issues, and also things like Captain America comics and science fiction books. Clint hadn't had a lot of comics growing up, but there'd always been tattered dime-store pulp novels floating around the circus or the rooming-houses he'd lived in as a teenager.

Phil had said he wanted to see some new movie called Star Wars, and Clint had impulsively arranged the schedule so that they'd have the time free before they had to go back to New York. Phil would probably be really busy once he was home, and Clint would undoubtedly have to handle some of Tony's duties at SI for a while. And if he didn't take the chance now....

He might have strutted, just a little, as they walked into the movie house.

Phil had let him pay for the tickets without protest, and he'd also bought one giant bucket of popcorn instead of one for each of them. Clint harbored a suspicion that most of Phil's first dates were probably a lot more sophisticated than this, but being fair, Clint's first dates had formerly involved being propositioned behind the carnival, and these days usually meant being chaperoned to a nightclub by Tony or some of the other Young Ults. This felt strangely innocent, the way few things in his life had.

And then the movie started, and most of Clint's anxieties and hopes and feelings went straight out the window with the roar of spaceship engines.

Two hours later they stumbled out into the evening together, Phil casually cleaning popcorn butter off his fingers with a handkerchief, and Clint blurted "We gotta take Tony to see that!"

Phil gave him a grin. "I was just thinking that."

"That was great. Did you love it? I loved it," Clint continued, turning to walk backwards, facing Phil so they could keep talking. "When the guy in the helmet showed up? And the robots, and the bit in the trash compactor, and -- oh my God, the big race battle thing at the end!"

Phil laughed. "Yeah, it was a thrill. Good movie. Wonder if he'll make another, seems like it's sequel-bait. Here, calm down -- shouldn't have bought you a Coke, you're all hopped up on sugar now -- "

He stood still and caught Clint's wrist, stopping him too, and Clint looked down in surprise at the strong fingers and the broad palm wrapped around his arm. Phil gave him a steady look and then bowed his head to clean the popcorn grease off Clint's hand as well.

"There, now you're presentable," Phil said, cupping the back of Clint's hand briefly, then letting go. Clint froze, looking down at his still-outstretched hand.

"Was...that weird?" Phil asked, after a moment. "I'm, um, strange sometimes."

Clint looked up at him. "Me too. Strange. I mean pretty much all the time, I'm...strange."

Phil's eyebrows rose slightly. "Like Tony is strange?"

"Like Tony and Bucky are strange. Together. Like that," Clint said hesitantly. His voice sounded very small in his own ears. "Was that uh, was that what you meant by strange?"

"Well, it wasn't originally, but yes, I understand your metaphor," Phil said. He took Clint's hand again and used his own to curl Clint's fingers into his palm, easing it down to his side. "They'll be wondering where we are, and I should start to pack. You need a full night's sleep if you're piloting tomorrow."

"Yeah, definitely," Clint agreed, hop-trotting along next to him so he could keep looking at him, because Phil seemed so calm, like this was all just...a foregone conclusion, when Clint knew nothing about what it meant. "So -- so does that mean this was a date? In your opinion."

Phil shot him a sidelong smile. "When we get back to New York, I'd like to buy you dinner. In a strictly non-work capacity. Would you like to?"

"Yes!" Clint agreed immediately. "Uh, yes, I mean. Was that too eager?"

"Gratifyingly so," Phil said. "Good. We'll set a time tomorrow."

"Good," Clint said, and then, because he couldn't help himself, "What was your favorite part? Definitely the jailbreak, that was mine."

"I think I liked the robots the best. Just in general."

"The little wheely one that squeaked!" Clint agreed, and found himself making easy small talk about the movie for the rest of the walk home. He didn't stop until he realized they were standing in front of his hotel-room door.

"I really liked it," he said, trying to sum up all the crazy emotions in his chest. "And I really liked going with you."

He saw Phil's eyes dart sideways, one way and then the other -- checking sightlines, he realized -- and then Phil tucked his fingers up under Clint's chin and kissed him.

Clint hadn't ever believed you saw fireworks when someone kissed you, but this came damn close.

"Goodnight, Clint," Phil said, and Clint absently unlocked the door without looking and backed inside. "Get some rest. Please don't crash the plane tomorrow."

"Have...a good...packing," Clint managed, and then covered his eyes with one hand. Phil laughed.

"I will. See you in the morning."

Clint shut the door as gently as he could, then turned and staggered to bed, collapsing across it.

Star Wars and Phil Coulson in one day was a lot to handle.


The door had just barely closed behind Clint when someone cleared their throat, and Phil jumped about six feet.

"Sorry," Steve Rogers said, and of course it was Steve. Technically Phil was Steve's boss, but Steve was Captain America, and Phil still held a tiny little place in his heart in idol worship of the man.

Steve was leaning in the doorway of his room, a few doors down. Phil strolled down the hall as casually as he could and crossed his arms. "Spying, Rogers? I'm impressed."

"Hey, I was just going to go get an evening paper, you're the one showing off in the hall," Steve said with a grin. "Finally noticed him, huh?"

"I've always noticed Clint."

"Not like you did just now."

"Well, he's good at blending in," Phil admitted. "I might have overlooked his potential."

"I think this is a matter of form, but I did swear to Maria when he moved out of the mansion and in with us that I'd look after him," Steve said. "So it's my duty to warn you that if you're toying with him I will have to kill you."

"I'm not."

"Yeah, I know," Steve said. "It's just, with getting Tony and Bucky back and all, everyone's emotions are..." he held a palm just above his head. "Easy to get swept up."

"Do you think it's inappropriate?"

"Not at all. They're safe, it feels like life can move forward again," Steve said, and the weariness of the last two months was evident even when he smiled.

"He encouraged it. My...attention towards Clint."

"I'm sure he did. He thinks the world of you, and he wants the very best for Clint."

"High standards," Phil said, a little worried now.

"Well, you like challenges," Steve replied.

"I don't like challenges, I am just constantly faced with them," Phil said, and Steve laughed.

"Good. You've had excellent practice. Seeya later, Phil, I'm gonna go get that paper now," Steve said, and walked off down the hallway, whistling.

Phil let himself into his hotel room, taking in the disarray that came from mostly living at the hospital for the past few days and hanging a Do Not Disturb sign on the door so the housekeepers wouldn't be upset by the small armory he'd brought with him.

He sighed and started gathering up various bits of hardware and clothing, throwing out takeaway cartons, humming one of the catchy tunes from the movie as he worked.


They arrived back in New York to a mob of journalists, despite Howard's best efforts to keep the return under wraps. Tony, still visibly not entirely well, played off the wheelchair like a champ. To Phil's surprise, Clint stepped up to deflect most of the attention; in a moment that must have been orchestrated beforehand, Tony gave credit for locating him to Clint, who looked very somber and official and clean-cut as he fielded questions. Phil made a note to speak to someone at SHIELD about compiling a research dossier on Clint Barton. Not in a creepy way, he told himself, just because obviously Clint had a lot of experience in front of the cameras and that might be something he'd like to study in more detail.

It was probably creepy. Well, Clint knew he was having dinner with a SHIELD agent.

"Look, the upshot is, this was a team effort," Clint said, winding down the impromptu press conference. "All of us care about Tony, obviously, and we all worked to bring him home. Now, we'd like to actually get him home, so if you gentlemen and ladies would disperse a little..."

Phil went with them as far as the car waiting at the end of the airfield, driven by Mr. Stark's man, Jarvis; there was a second car with Jarvis's apprentice, Hogan somethingorother, and Clint went to that one, sliding into the shotgun seat. Phil leaned in the open window.

"You'd better get Tony settled in," he said.

"I'm thinking Bucky'll be doing most of that," Clint drawled.

"Well, regardless. How does seven o'clock tomorrow sound for dinner?"

Steve clapped Phil on the back as he passed, climbing into the back seat. Phil ignored him.

"It sounds great," Clint said, face lighting up. "Where do I meet you? I'm staying with Tony at his folks' place," he said, as if his folks' place wasn't one of the most expensive mansions in Manhattan.

"I'll pick you up there. Don't dress fancy, I'm on a government salary," Phil said, and Clint grinned.

"Seven o'clock," he repeated. Phil leaned back as Clint rolled up the window.

"Bring flowers," Sam said as he passed.

Natasha, right behind him, said "He likes pizza."

"Am I the last person to know about this?" Phil asked the air.

"Yes," Natasha told him.

Phil stepped back as the car's engine turned over, and watched the convoy -- the Starks in one, most of his team in the other -- as it pulled away, headed for the mansion. He had a report to make to Director Carter, and he should probably fill Nick in as well.


The following day, at around five past seven in the evening, Maria stood in the dining room of the mansion, arranging the flowers that a very nice young SHIELD agent of her son's acquaintance had brought. The nice young SHIELD agent and her informally-adopted child were currently on their way to what sounded like a dreadfully low-class dinner, but Clint did love pizza.

"God dammit," Howard said. Maria smiled at the flowers.

"Well, I suppose that does put the crimp on any heirs from Clint," she said. "Phil seems like a nice boy, though. Is he any good?"

"Any good?" Howard asked, annoyed.

"At what he does. I suppose he'll never be the breadwinner so long as Clint's at Stark Industries, but if he's half competent he might make upper management at SHIELD, which would be respectable."

"Making up the wedding invitations a little early," Howard growled. "Coulson's fine. His father's a senior agent. Phil's a company man. Runs with that Fury boy Peggy's got her eye on."

"That's excellent. I've always told you Clint had an eye for talent. Shame about the grandchildren, though. I had hoped just a little that Clint would make up for Anthony's interests lying elsewhere."

"I don't see why Tony can't find a workaround. Peggy managed," Howard pointed out.

"Don't make it sound so transactive, dear," she said. "Besides, she had the equipment built-in; Anthony will need to outsource some of that."

"I'm just saying, he could put a little bit of effort into the family line."

"I'll have a word with him," Maria said decisively. "In the meantime, be nice to Phil. It must be very difficult, dating the boss's son."

"If he can't take it, he shouldn't have tried it," Howard said.

"Darling," Maria said, abandoning the flowers to lean over Howard, wrapping her arms around her seated husband's neck and resting her chin on his nearly-combed hair. "Is Clint useful to you?"

"Of course."

"And he's a sweet boy we love very much, don't we?"

He growled, annoyed.

"And someday, our two boys will run Stark Industries, hopefully with their own native wisdom guided by experience?"

"They'd better."

"Then the rest will take care of itself. You can't boss everything."

"I can damn well try."

She kissed his hair. "Come along. We'll watch some television and if Clint's not home by the time the Late Show comes on, I'll let you yell at him about responsibility in the morning."