sparsenicjade
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AN: Huge thanks to my beta, Spatz, and to foxxcub, for sponsoring the "forced marriage" square on my hc_bingo to support Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

*


Clint met his first obeisant in the circus. Back then, the government hadn't been so picky about to whom it gave an affixation contract. The ones he knew in the circus—Trevor, the illusionist, and Danya, who rode the horses—were working off debt. Carson bought up Trevor's debt and had his lead barker take Danya's.

There were rules about what a principal could do to his or her obeisant, but the only time they were enforced was when the principal was caught doing something else, like embezzling, and the crime of obeisant-abuse could be heaped on the list of charges.

Clint had hidden, watching Danya go through the garbage for something to eat, once. He would have given her food, but he'd already stolen what little he could find on people's plates after dinner. Danya was fed, he knew, but just enough to keep her performing. Her skin was always tinged pale yellow, her bones too sharp. And on travel days, Clint often saw her walking with a limp that reminded him of his mother.

Clint never saw Trevor. Carson kept him locked up and away from everyone until the night he managed to sneak in a couple of paper clips, pick the lock, and jump from the moving train. Clint can't imagine he survived the jump, but he likes to imagine he did and hid away safely, never caught.

Clint wasn't in the circus anymore when the laws changed, the product of society's hue and cry about slavery, largely over a series of very publicized cases of principals torturing obeisants to death. That was when the government redrafted the Affixation and Alliance Act, creating more stringent rules for who could be put into an obeisant position (read: very bad people with very desired skills) and who could serve as principals. In most cases, that narrowed down to highly-placed officials or armed forces commanders.

Things quieted down, since there was no use getting worked up over murderers and rapists being put into a position where repeated abuse of all forms was a serious daily possibility. Oh, the ACLU and some other "radical" organizations still tried fighting it, but the average Joe was willing to let it lie.

*


Clint's in Abu Dabi when the army tries to affix him. He's just finished a job he had pretty deep doubts about, but was in no position to turn down. He has a couple of rivals gunning for him, along with a few people he has turned down. He's low on food and supplies and just about everything, really.

So, of course, his exit strategy on the kill goes wrong and he ends up dealing with pissed off bodyguards. By the time he makes it to his hidey-hole, his left arm has a gash down the bicep and he's pretty sure two of his ribs were broken. He's not pleased to find Sergeant So-and-So there, with an affixation "offer."

Clint breaks a few more ribs and a finger while getting away. He considers it totally worth it.

*


He gets food poisoning in Belfast from dumpster diving. It's not the first time, and Clint doubts it will be the last. He spends twenty-four hours in his nest, because it's the only place he knows neither the law nor the mark will find him. It's arguably the grossest thing he's ever done.

He does the job going into hour twenty-six, packs up, and falls down about four flights of stairs trying to get to street level.

He's damn lucky the mark was on his own, because if there'd been back up, he'd be toast. He finds the nearest cheap inn and gives up the last of what he's been living on. The other half of the payment for the job will be due upon check in and proof of death. That'll keep him in decent shape for a while, but he's aware he needs to be taking more jobs than he is.

Clint's just tired. In the last eighteen months, he's had to rob a hospital three times, and had to actually risk being in one twice. Most jobs go fine, but if one out of every ten goes to shit, and Clint's doing eight to nine a month, depending on if he can double up, well. Half the time it's not even getting caught that's the problem, so much as weather that fucks with his nest, or something like this time, with the food poisoning.

Clint had been taken once in the last year, though, and even if he'd gotten free and happily taken a contract on everyone who'd had him tied down and helpless, it had sucked. A lot. Clint shied away from memories that were all too close to childhood of having nowhere to go and nobody to turn to and knowing nothing but pain.

He misses Barney. He doesn't allow himself to admit it, cuts the thought off with the same precision he uses in shooting. But it was nice, having someone else to…having someone else. Clint goes to a bar when he feels well enough, picks up a twink who's no threat, but not much of a thrill, either. For a couple of hours, though, there's skin against his, and it's been a long, long time since that happened outside of applying force or pain.

He sneaks out as soon as the kid's asleep. There's a text on his cell about a job. He'll probably take it.

*


Clint is back in a low-on-cash phase the first time SHIELD extends Clint an affixation contract. He dreams for a quick second of a hot shower and place where the heat actually works before he thinks about the gaunt curves of Danya's face. Then he politely refuses and gets the hell out of Dodge. His version of polite might be a bit different than some people's, but that's his story. The thing is, SHIELD really does present it as an option. Clint knows his limits, and if the guys they'd sent wanted to take him down, they would have.

He purposely doesn't think about it a whole bunch.

*


He hits a period of good luck. A client who likes his work and pays a little over Clint's going rate. Then, after the fourth job for the guy, he's assigned a woman in semi-rural Arkansas. It's a weird enough assignment that Clint makes himself look into it, despite the overwhelming urge to just turn the other way. His suspicions prove correct, in that she's politically and economically inconvenient for some large corporations.

Clint turns down the job and is informed that's not how it works. He's glad he's saved up some, because the client's organization is good, and he spends the next four or so months keeping a low profile, trying to wait things out.

Another for-hire assassin catches him off-guard one night when he hasn't slept well in a while. He hears something off a second before and feints to the left, meaning the shot only catches him over the ribs, little more than a scratch. It's enough that he's losing more blood than he can afford to, and the running he's doing isn't helping.

He doesn't even see the police car until he's halfway in front of it. It stops quickly enough that Clint is only tossed to the ground, bruised a little, but when he tries to get back up, the combined factors make him dizzy long enough for one of the cops to take his arm, ask, "Are you all right?" and get a look at his face. Clint doesn't know how many Wanted posters he's on internationally. He doesn't need to know. He knows that for the moment, he's fucked.

*


The second time SHIELD offers an affixation, he's been in solitary confinement for three days after a week of non-stop attempts to get the fuck out of the cells and fences caging him in. The stitches on his side keep popping open, much to the annoyance of the prison doc. Clint will take fever and death from a stupidly small wound over being locked up. He doesn't think of Trevor.

Clint looks at the contract for a full minute before asking, "Who would the principal be?"

The man with the eye-patch and—if Clint's honest, bitching—trench coat, Fury (because that is somebody's real name, sure) said, "One of our senior agents. If you have a preference of gender, we can try to accommodate."

Clint's preference is for meeting the person who'll be taking over his life, thanks. But he also knows what it looks like to be out of bargaining chips. It's the way most of his life has looked. He says, "Biological and self-identified male," and signs the contract.

*


The biological, self-identified male who meets Clint in processing and holds out his hand politely is…not what Clint had imagined. For one thing, Clint guessed SHIELD would show him who's boss by sending some guy twice his size and made out of pure muscle. He doesn't doubt they have one or two lying around. For another, he wasn't really expecting whoever they sent to have manners, or bother much with acknowledging Clint outside of exercising his control over his affixed obeisant.

Clint knows how this works: he's the piece of trash they picked out of the gutter and dusted off; the agent is a golden boy. And nobody will ever hear Clint's screams. Clint gets the implication: if this is who "Fury" picked, there are at least a hundred things Clint doesn't know about him, and every one of them is a threat.

The agent in question is a man roughly Clint's height who looks very much like he should be discussing how to finance a household loan or something like that. Clint's never actually dealt with legitimate institutions since his time in the foster system, and that didn't really endear him to governmental entities. The man holds his hand steady until Clint takes it and then says, "I'm Phillip Coulson. It's a pleasure to finally meet you."

"Finally meet me?" Clint asks, his stomach doing a slow flip. Coulson's handshake is firm, but he doesn't so much as squeeze too hard. Maybe this guy is the one who's been tracking him, who's had to deal with each failure to bring him in. Maybe this guy wants his pound of flesh and is just smarter about how to enact revenge than Clint would prefer. Clint's met people who could play the long game before.

Coulson smiles. It's a small expression, but strangely straightforward and genuine. Clint reminds himself he's probably being played by someone really, really good. Coulson says, "We don't bother with affixation if an asset's reputation hasn't preceded him, Specialist."

"Obeisant, not asset. And Barton, not Specialist."

Coulson raises an eyebrow. "As you prefer. But for now," his gaze flicks around the room at the unrelenting gray, "let's get out of here."

*


If Clint had thought about it, he would have anticipated Coulson driving a government-issue car, or at least something that looks like one. The car Coulson walks up to is…not. Coulson must catch something in Clint's expression because he says, "First thing I ever really bought myself. Drove the director crazy. He didn't think it was very pragmatic, but he's come around. Even allowed some modifications here and there."

Clint finds himself snorting, "Can't imagine why," before he remembers he doesn't want to like this man. But it's already hard, watching the careful way Coulson handles the sweet little cherry-red vintage piece. Clint's touched bows like that.

Coulson curls his lips in acknowledgment of Clint's response and said, "Barton, meet Lola."

Clint can't stop himself from thinking, Nice to meet you, ma'am.

*


Clint guesses Coulson will either take them to the office and show Clint what is expected of him, or drive them to wherever it is Coulson lives and have Clint move in whatever scant belongings he's brought. Instead, as he drives out of the parking lot, Coulson says, "I wasn't sure what to do about living arrangements."

Clint stiffens. He isn't going to play games. "You're the principal, you make those decisions."

"True," Coulson says easily enough. "But if I'm contractually obligated to share a home space with another person, I would prefer that space fit both of us, creating a much better non-work atmosphere. I don't get to go home as often as I would like, but when I do, I like going home."

Clint shrugs. He might be lonely, but he's not stupid. Believing this man, learning to be at ease with him will only end with Clint in pieces—maybe literal pieces—hurt and unable to go anywhere. "Never had a place, really. Long as it has a toilet and heating, it'll be a step up from some of the places I've bunked."

"And while your abominably low level of maintenance is endearing, we are affixed. You are mine and I am yours and will be until legal dissolution, which, as you know, requires a five year minimum of affixation and can take a year to fully process. Or alternately, death. As such, it would be helpful if you could try and aid me in making this not completely miserable for both of us."

Clint forces himself not to scream. Under the law, a principal can do things to an obeisant that make Clint's blood curdle, and be entirely within his rights. Granted, it's not really much more than Clint's experienced once or twice—or a million times—under the rule of his father or the men of the circus, but Clint paid for his freedom from that with blood and broken bones and more than a few nights of starvation and shivering in the cold.

The affixation system, however, was reincarnated specifically for people like Clint: persons too valuable to be incarcerated and too dangerous to let go. Only government agents within the top two clearance levels are allowed to become principals. Clint doesn’t let himself think that maybe prison was the smarter choice, that maybe he's only given himself up to the sort of abuse he swore never to take again.

As calmly as he can manage, Clint says, "You are not mine, no more than you are your gun's."

There's a moment of silence and then Coulson asks, "How do you feel about BLT's?"

It takes Clint a second. "The sandwich?"

"Yes."

The last substantive meal Clint ate that was not from prison, where nothing ever tasted quite like food, was so long before, he can't even precisely recall it. Coulson could have been offering clam chowder, which Clint hates, and he probably would have been on board. But honestly: "They're delicious?"

"Okay," Coulson says, and flips a bitch right in the middle of traffic. Clint looks the other way and reminds himself that competent driving is no reason for his pulse to be elevated, especially not when the driver in question is so dangerous to him.

*


Coulson takes them to a burger joint that has seen better days. He orders the BLT with a side of tater tots and a cup of coffee. Clint considers the menu. It's been a long time since he's had red meat, and for the sake of pure, if meaningless, defiance, it seems like a burger might be a good idea. But he hasn't had bacon or fresh bread in a while either. Also, Coulson has given up the corner seat to him, so that he doesn't have to spend the meal watching his back, and is maintaining a polite distance with his feet underneath the table. It probably is a mindfuck, he knows that, but he's almost tempted to let his mind be fucked with for the few days of comfort it might provide. And if that made the eventual turn of events worse, well, Clint can admit there's a reason he's in the position he's in. The universe has ways of evening things out, he supposes.

In the end, he orders the BLT as well, side of cottage fries, vanilla milkshake.

Ordering out of the way, Coulson hands him a pill. Their hands brush and Clint hates the surge of desire for simple contact that rages through him. Coulson's hand is roughened by calluses and tiny scars, which comforts Clint, even though it shouldn't. He forces himself to pay attention when Coulson asks, "They told you about the marking chemicals?"

Clint nods. The pill will dissolve into his bloodstream, the chemicals binding themselves to his cells for about six months at a time. The binding causes the chemical to be unique to him and traceable over a distance of 500 miles. He swallows it down.

Softly, Coulson asks, "And the penalty for running?"

Clint can't help glaring. Everyone knows the penalty for an obeisant who runs. Originally it was the death penalty, but when that turned out not to be enough of a deterrent, and life in solitary hadn't worked either, they moved onto surgical removal of the part of the brain that supposedly causes violent urges. The thought of lobotomization keeps all but a very few in check. Clint doesn't want to know what makes those few choose it. He doesn't want to consider that it might be a valid option for him at some point in the future.

Coulson just looks impassively back at him. "So we are in agreement that we will be living and working together for the next five years, minimum?"

Clint cants his head and asks, mockingly, "They told you about your rights in regard to your obeisant?"

"I have not, I will admit, gotten entirely through the handbook, as I was only accepted into the program two days ago, but I read the parts about being allowed to control, among other things, your food intake, your access to any room in a dwelling, up to and including bathrooms, the amount of sleep you get and how you are punished for any infractions. And I can easily read between the lines to see where I could use that power to manipulate you into serving not only SHIELD, but me."

Clint frowns, focusing in on the bit of information that's new to him. "Two days ago?"

"When it was clear you were agreeing and preferred a male partner."

The food arrives and Clint takes a minute to chew on one of the fries, seeing how it settles in his stomach. "You the only person Fury trusts with me?"

Coulson takes a sip of his coffee. "No, just the one he thinks can bring out the best in you."

Clint nearly coughs on the bite of sandwich he's just taken. When he recovers, he says, "Kind of presumptuous."

Coulson shrugs. "Maybe. But you've had a rough time of it. Solid meals, somewhere to call home, people you can depend on to have your back? Might make all the difference in the world."

Skeptically, Clint says, "And that's what you're gonna give me."

"Having control over things does not only allow me to make them unpleasant. And I'd rather not live and work with someone who hates me for an extended period of time."

Clint knows that what looks and sounds too good to be true invariably is, but he's eating tasty, good food for the first time in months, enough of it that there will be leftovers. He's bone-deep tired, and the thought is too seductive for the moment. He'll figure out what to do when he can see where the trap is set to spring. All he says is, "We'll see."

"Sure," Coulson says agreeably. "In the meantime, I accept that you haven't had any stable homes, but is there something you would like to have in a living space?"

In for a penny, in for a pound, Clint supposes. "My own room. With a bed."

Coulson's expression is hard to read, but his voice completely even, "Necessary, I imagine, if we aren't going to drive each other to madness. What else?"

Clint didn't expect to get that and is now sort of at a loss for what else to request. "Um. I guess I like windows. Big ones."

Coulson nods. "Have a preference of single-family housing, multi-family or apartment complex?"

Clint starts to shake his head, but then says, "Something quiet'd be nice."

"Does it need a tub, or will a shower do?"

Clint can't help but laugh a bit. "I don't think I've taken a bath since it was my ma doing all the washing. Unless you count the times Barney and I'd sneak away from the circus to a nearby creek."

Coulson's answering smile is a little enigmatic, but doesn't seem faked. "Very well, then. Let's see what we can find."

*


Evidently there's someone in SHIELD HR who deals with the real estate needs of agents who are on long-term assignment or otherwise moving due to the demands of the job. Within a few hours, before Coulson has really even been able to show Clint all around or explain what's desired of him, they have four listings to their specifications.

They check out three but stop there, because the third one is definitely the right place. A townhome in College Point, it has not only two bedrooms, but two full bathrooms, a set of bay windows in the main room, an open floor layout, and best of all, a balcony. Coulson signs the lease and the HR employee schedules a moving date for the furniture and things from Coulson's current apartment, which is evidently a studio near to headquarters.

Clint admits, privately, to being curious as to why Coulson's moving into such a different environment to make an obeisant comfortable. He tells himself it's just because the man is ready for a change, and Clint provides a handy excuse to make it. That reasoning does nothing, though, to explain why Coulson takes Clint to a mattress store and makes him try out different ones. Or why he has Clint shop for a dresser that suits him, and some other basic bedroom furniture.

Because Clint prefers to see what's coming around the bend, he asks, "How do you expect me to repay you for this stuff?"

"What?" Coulson asks, still distracted by his serious consideration of the options for shower curtains.

"Money or services?" Clint doesn't make money and all services are actually considered part of his contract, but Coulson seems like a guy who could be reasonable. Clint's starting to hope, at least, which is stupid, but Clint has moments like that.

Coulson settles on a shower curtain that has a quilt-like appearance with the patches showing different sea-shells. Clint has to acknowledge that it'll go well in the bathroom, but it isn't what he would have expected Coulson to pick. Coulson says, "Like one for your bathroom?"

Clint is on edge in the store. It's been a while since he's spent significant periods of time in retail establishments in broad daylight. There are kids playing tag that keep flashing in and out of his peripheral vision and he's gotten up to seventeen ways to use a shower curtain to kill or seriously maim. Clint picks up the first thing that calls to him, faux-silk in shades of purple. He realizes what he's done and dares Coulson to say a word with his expression. Coulson nods and continues toward the kitchenware. Evidently they need more plates. Clint says, "Seriously, I get that I don't have a choice or anything. I'm not trying to figure a way out. I'm asking you to go against my expectations and give me some hint of what I'm getting myself into with every curtain and bedsheet I decide I like."

Coulson says, "Seriously, I don't know what you're talking about. All essentials for you go on SHIELD's account as an obeisant's expenses fall to his principal, and in the case where a principal is a stand-in for an agency, it is that agency's duty to cover all necessary costs."

"I don't technically need a bed," Clint argues.

Coulson stops walking for a moment and looks over at Clint. "For now, you need what I say you need, and I'm starting to think that might be to your benefit."

Clint shutters his face with a glower that has made more than a few people run like the wind, sometimes screaming, away from him. Coulson doesn't blink. Instead, he says, "You've taken care of yourself for most of your life, there's no arguing that, but you've done it under circumstances that haven't led to a great understanding of what it means to be comfortable."

"Comfort isn't a need," Clint tells him tightly.

"No, but as humans, we do better when we have it."

Clint narrows his eyes, expecting to see pity in Coulson's expression, but it only holds a mild hint of sympathy. Not sure how to respond to that, Clint says, "Yeah, well, then SHIELD can pay for a big thing of hot chocolate. The good kind that you make with milk."

The corners of Coulson's lips twitch for a moment. "Sound planning, Barton."

*


When Coulson finishes prodding Clint to have an opinion on common area décor that evening—and seriously, Clint grew up in a circus, even he knows that's a bad idea—he makes the hot cocoa with whole milk, which Clint has never tasted. He has to keep himself from gulping.

Coulson sits down with his own mug, across the room from where Clint has barricaded himself into a corner of the sofa. He asks, "What's it feel like, firing a bow?"

Clint blinks. Nobody's ever asked him that before. Then again, aside from trying to get information from him about his jobs, very few people talk to Clint. He hadn't even realized he missed casual conversation. He doesn't want to give much to this man he hardly knows and who holds enormous power over him, but so far the guy has been stand-up and it's a good question. "Some snipers, they talk about how the gun becomes part of them?"

Coulson nods. Clint says, "It's kind of the other way around with a bow: you become part of it."

Coulson takes a sip. "And you like it? When you're part of it?"

Clint frowns. "Does it matter?"

"To me," Coulson says. "So, yes."

Clint isn't going to talk about how those moments are the only times he's been safe, how that feeling is the only thing people can't take away from him. Instead he offers, "I like being the best."

Coulson's eyes warm. "I can see that."

Just to see how far he can get, Clint presses. "What about you? Do you like being a…dude in a suit?"

Coulson makes a soft sound of amusement and says, "I like that moment when people realize just how stupid underestimating me is."

Something hot and wild sparks in Clint's stomach, something he hasn't felt in a long while. He pushes it away and smiles. "I can see that."

*


To Clint's surprise, the two of them work well together. Coulson makes sure he has the details he needs in any given situation, and listens when Clint points out problems. He doesn't get on Clint when he feels the need to relieve the boredom by way of razzing command. Clint went at that pretty hard the first few jobs, testing to see where Coulson's breaking point was, and what he did when pushed to it. Evidently, though, Coulson's breaking point is Clint not getting the job done, and Clint took the affixation contract for a reason. Not getting the job done would be a good way to get himself put back in jail, and Clint isn't stupid enough to push that far.

Also, his professional pride throws a hissy fit at the thought.

When he does push far enough, it's actually a complete accident. Normally, during an op, if Clint needs to change things up he notifies Coulson, gets the go ahead. They might argue for a while and Coulson might win, in which case, Clint would stay put. It's saved Clint's life twice now, and he isn't enough of an asshole to deny that.

This time, though, there are lives on the line—kids' lives—while Coulson is dealing with a problem on his end, so Clint makes the decision to abandon post on his own. He gets the kids to safety, but the target escapes. Coulson asks, "What the hell was that?"

He doesn’t even yell it, just asks, like it's an actual question. Clint isn't an idiot, though. He'd tried, when he was little, with his dad, with Trickshot, tried answering, but all that did was get a person hit more or punished worse. Clint stands still, staring out ahead of him, and doesn't say anything.

Coulson takes a step toward him and Clint curses himself for the instinctive flinch he's unable to stop in its tracks. Coulson, though, just moves back and puts his hands where Clint can see them. "Whatever you're thinking is about to happen here, you're wrong."

"I screwed up the mission, sir. On purpose." He wants to sound nonchalant, impudent and uncaring. There's an ache in his chest, though, that tells him how much he's gotten used to Coulson's small encouragements, statements of pride in the debrief or follow-up paperwork. And fuck, Clint is always getting himself into this; no matter how much he promises next time will be different, he won't need anything from anyone.

"Yeah, I got that, Barton. What I'm asking is why?"

Clint frowns. He's been living with this man and working with him for nearly three months. He should know Coulson never follows script and yet it still knocks Clint off his game, every time. He turns the question over in his head. It's so simple and yet paradigm shifting. Finally, Clint goes with the truth. "There were kids in the line of fire. Actively, as a sort of defense mechanism. I could get the kids or I could get him and you were handling the civilian issue and I made a choice."

Coulson tilts his head. "Do you stand by that choice?"

Echoes of his father, how many do you think you deserve this time, eh, boy?, of Trickshot, and why did that shot go wide? clamor in Clint's mind. He squares his jaw. He isn't a kid anymore, even if he doesn't have much more power than one. "Yes. Sir."

"Well, then. That makes two things I know about you."

Clint blinks at that, startling out of his rigidness. Coulson shrugs. "You like purple and you still value human life. The latter wasn't completely evident before now. It's a good thing to know."

Frustrated by whatever game they're playing, Clint says with a calculated dullness in his tone, "I disobeyed an order from my principal."

"Also your superior officer, and the mission went pear-shaped and that's more than a little unfortunate. But if SHIELD wanted a sharpshooter, we didn't have to go to prison to find one. The specialist you are is in the person you are, and that person made a decision he stands by in the midst of a moment left without support. I think this might be considered progress."

The problem is, despite what Coulson is saying, there's never been a time in Clint's life, outside of the ones when he was on his own, when initiative hasn't been punished. He tries for a moment, but in the end cannot accept that factor suddenly changing. Tired, he says, "Look, can we just skip ahead to the part where you belt me a few or put me on a water diet for a few days, or whatever?"

Coulson watches him impassively for a moment, then says, "C'mon."

Finally.

*


Less than an hour later, a thoroughly confused Clint is soaking in a—admittedly, really glorious—hot bath with jets specially placed to release stress. The lady at the front desk of the spa Coulson took them to said a lot of words about therapy and pressure and Clint was too busy trying to figure out what the fuck was going on to pay the slightest bit of attention. It's hard to hold on to the fear, though, when the heat is soaking up into his muscles, wringing and pounding the stress out of him in a way no shower ever has.

Clint thought they were headed home when they got in the car. That was the direction they'd gone. But about ten minutes away, Coulson turned into a parking lot and told Clint to follow him, taking them into a building that smelled fresh and somehow calming. Coulson conversed with the lady at the desk, pulled out his credit card and said, "Go with her," nodding to another woman.

She took Clint into a dressing room, where he was given a robe and some "spa shoes." When he'd changed, belting the robe tightly and hunching in on himself because he hadn't really expected humiliation to enter into the picture, she took him to a room and explained, "We're starting with a cold treatment. It soothes inflammation."

She led Clint into a room that was a little bit warmer than a refrigerator and left him there. Clint was mildly perplexed by this choice of punishment, but he didn't mind it just yet. It numbed him up a little bit, helping with the bruises and strains accumulated over the last weeks. And before he could get to a place of discomfort, the girl came back, leading him to the pool and leaving him alone to soak.

The contrast in temperature is almost uncomfortable at first, but it melts away into the sheer pleasure of the water, and Clint is starting to suspect this isn't punishment. Or if it is, Coulson is really bad at it.

When he's ushered from the bath, given fluffy towels to dry off with and climbs into the pair of clean clothes Coulson evidently swapped for his field uniform, Clint walks out to see Coulson in the waiting area, working at what looks like a post-mission analysis. Coulson asks, "Ready to go?"

Clint shrugs. He still isn’t sure why he's there. When they're in the car, he forces himself to say, "I don't understand."

"Positive reinforcement. I wasn't sure how you'd feel about someone touching you enough for a massage, so I went with this."

Clint raises an eyebrow. "Positive what?"

"Do something well, you get rewarded. It's the flip side to punishment for bad behavior, and tends to work a lot better. Clearly you've never encountered it before."

Clint scratches behind his ear. "Not so much. Also, disobeying orders was a good thing?"

Coulson shakes his head slightly. "No, but that's not your fault and I'm not punishing you for my mistakes."

"You were off-comm for like, thirty seconds. They were important, sure, but it's not as if—"

"That wasn't the mistake," Coulson says, his voice filled with nothing but patience. "The mistake was in not forming a level of trust with you. You need to be able to trust my orders for them to hold any weight. And you need to trust that I will always listen to your reasoning afterward. I might not agree, and I might put you in suspension or training duty or anything else I would do to a junior agent if you go ahead with a decision I've over-ridden, but I'm going to listen."

Clint thinks for a while before saying, "Trust and listening haven't so much been things for me."

"Yes. I should have realized."

"What are you, G-d?" Clint smirks.

"Still working on the necessary resources for that takeover."

*


When a mission goes well—or, at least Clint's performance is good—Coulson finds little ways to reward him. Sometimes it's a meal at a place that serves a fantastic steak or pasta del mar. The bakery that has a million flavors of cake with two million flavors of frosting is also a good one. Food has never been enough of a luxury for Clint that anything beyond regular meals could be used as a reward. He likes the feeling a dangerous amount.

Coulson comes up with other things, too. He takes Clint to the Museum of Natural History, which Clint was highly dubious about, but ends up having to come back to four times, because he can hardly bear to leave. He teaches Clint cribbage, another thing Clint hadn't been so sure about, but that he soon finds an easy way to spend time together and have fun without the pressure of talking.

There are punishments, sometimes. Clint and authority are an uneasy mix at best, and especially when put with another handler, he can act out. But after about the fourth time something like that happens, he cautiously stops expecting pain and humiliation. He doesn't like doing dishes in the mess or dealing with other people's paperwork or being suspended with nothing to do for two days. But those punishments don't make him feel worthless, either. Mostly, they make him feel like someone cares enough to slap his hand and make him do better.

The whole situation requires a lot of processing. When he gets a chance, Clint goes and sits on his balcony—bundled up if it's winter—and attempts to regain some sort of equilibrium, recover the white noise in his mind that helps him get from day to day.

One night, when both Coulson and he all-but drag their asses home and collapse on the couch, Coulson asks, "What do you think about learning to fly the jets?"

Clint forces himself not to squeal like a prepubescent. Instead, he asks, "Did I do something good?"

He would wince with how child-like the question makes him sound, but whatever else, he's learned Coulson won't ridicule him for things he doesn't understand. He does tend to get pissed when Clint refuses to ask a question because he feels stupid about it.

Coulson glances over at Clint in that quiet way he has, the one Clint hasn't quite figured out yet. He says, "Arguably, half a year of above-and-beyond service to SHIELD, but in this particular instance, no. Sometimes you get to have fun just to have fun."

It is said entirely without condescension or mockery, but Clint still feels the flush of embarrassment crawling up his neck. Coulson, who hardly ever touches Clint out of the field, and then only after he's telegraphed his intention, puts a hand on Clint's shoulder and squeezes. "I'm gonna order dinner. Preference?"

Clint shakes his head and concentrates on not following the touch when it is pulled away. It isn't a big deal, really, that he likes it. The last time someone other than Coulson touched him in a way that wasn't purely utilitarian or actively intended to harm, it had been a Canadian guy Clint met in a bar in Oslo. Clint's pretty sure they'd both been more excited about each other's ability to speak English than each other. It was clumsy and not particularly good, but Clint is a pro at taking what he can get.

He allows himself to sit until the last phantom sense of Coulson's hand disappears, then he forces himself to get moving.

*


Less than a month later, Coulson's comm goes down when his vehicle is located and shot at by a second mark who wasn't even supposed to be on scene. Clint…well, okay, Clint loses his shit. Because "proportional response" is Clint's middle name, he shoots everything in sight that might be a hostile. Granted, the only ones he shoots fatally are definitely hostiles. Everyone else is just for security.

Satisfied that the ground agents are secure, Clint hops three roof tops and uses one of his grappling hook arrows to descend a brick wall. He flat out runs to where he knows the vehicle should be, almost a mile west, precisely because there was no good location for it at the hub of the mission. When he gets there, he finds local medical personnel pulling Coulson out of the twisted metal and wiring that was once a car.

Clint never thought he'd use his status as obeisant for any good purpose aside from getting out of jail. However, when the local law enforcement tries keeping him back he says, "He's my principal," first in English, then in Spanish, and they let him right through. He contacts SHIELD while riding in the ambulance to the hospital.

Woo tells him, "Keep guard over him and sit tight. We'll be there as soon as we can."

It's fortuitous, since that's the only order Clint plans to obey. They're in Maracaibo, Clint's Spanish is basic at best, and while he manages to get across their affixation, they have to find someone to tell him what is going on with Coulson medically.

The translator says, "He lost a lot of blood from a gunshot that hit his arm. It went through, so the damage is repairable, but first we have to get him stabilized. We know he's bleeding internally somewhere in the abdominal region and we're worried about head injuries. We're taking him up to surgery, when we know more, we'll let you know, sir."

Clint drives his nails so far into his palms that he breaks the skin, but just nods and thanks the man. Then he parks himself in the waiting area and determinedly does not freak out. Really, there's no reason to. SHIELD can't possibly fault him for this, not when there were two agents on the ground still alive. The intel sucked, which happens. Clint knows all this logically, but it isn't helping.

For some reason, the incipient panic doesn't seem to be about what will happen to Clint if Coulson dies. It's more about the plain fact that Clint really doesn't want Coulson to die.

Clint's not actually all that bloodthirsty to begin with. His job involves killing, so he takes a somewhat practical view toward ending life, but that's professional, not personal. Aside from his lack of need for death and dismemberment, there's the fact that Coulson's treated him better than anyone in his entire life and Clint's never even said 'thank you.'

Clint knows he only has about four years more where Coulson has to keep him—and fuck, it had seemed so long when he'd signed the contract—but he wants that time. He wants to have all the memories of seeing an actual live play because Coulson has been making noise about how he should, and being made to eat things that seem disgusting only to find them delicious, and being…being looked after. It's a child's wish, Clint knows, but he hasn't asked for it since he was eight and getting thrown out of his second foster home.

When Agent Michaels shows up, Clint relays what little he knows, finishing with, "I kinda doubt we can get him out of here just yet."

Michaels, one of the agents whose life Clint probably saved earlier that day, tilts her head and asks softly, "Want a cup of coffee?"

Clint bites the inside of his cheek at the casual kindness and nods.

*


Michaels is sleeping in a chair and Clint downing his third coffee when the doctor and translator reappear. Clint gets to his feet and asks, "How is he?"

The doctor speaks for a few sentences. Clint catches words, but nothing more. The translator says, "He's stabilized, but shouldn't be moved for another twenty-four hours."

Clint nods. "That means he's going to be okay, right?"

The translator relays the doctor's, "To the best of our knowledge."

Clint takes a deep breath and lets that sink in. Then he asks, "Can I see him?"

The doctor smiles, evidently having heard that one before. In slow English, he says, "Just for a minute."

Clint will take what he can get.

*


Coulson isn't awake when Clint gets to the room. Clint supposes that's not a surprise, given that he's just had his insides rearranged. Clint mutters, "When you wake up, we are having a serious talk," even though he knows he'll never be able to make himself talk about this.

They kick him out, so he hides in the ceiling until Michaels gets authorization for him to stand guard. Coulson wakes up for a little bit at points, but he's not really there, just semi-conscious. When SHIELD has the go-ahead to transport him, Clint stays by his side in the jet, not daring to hold his hand, aching from the inability to do so. Just because Clint is his usual dumb self, though, and needs the physical reassurance that Phil is with him, is safe, that doesn't mean Coulson wants Clint's hands all over him. Hell, if he were awake, he'd probably be assigning Clint inventory duty or something for leaving his post before orders came. Or getting him a tasty pastry. It's hard to call with Coulson.

Clint is sitting with a just-settled Coulson in medical when Fury comes in. Clint stands. This is no time to have the head of SHIELD pissed off with him, there are way too many things Fury could do to make Clint's life miserable. He says, "Director."

Fury shuts the door behind him and Clint has a distinct moment of panic before Fury says, "Relax, Barton. I'm here to check on a friend."

Oh. "Oh." Clint barely suppresses a wince at his lack of brain-to-mouth-filter.

"What happened?" The question is asked softly. Fury doesn't want a report, he wants to know what his friend went through.

Clint's been thinking about this a lot. "Best I can figure, bad intel was fed to us, so I hope the agent is out of there already. Coulson was at a spot convenient for evac, I think they cased the meeting spot and had people at multiple points of entry and exit. He got pretty far, especially since they think the bullet wound was probably in him before he even started driving. And the other guy is very dead."

Clint isn't precisely happy about that last part. He kind of wishes he'd had the honor himself. He would have made it slower. Arrows can be a bitch in certain body parts.

"Tomlinson's report has you at the vehicle in about five minutes after ceasefire."

"I, um. I don't know. I couldn't—I lost track of time." Clint's head hurts. He's been awake for days now, and he got to Coulson as fast as he could. He knows it won't matter in the end. His best has never once been good enough. But he wishes this could wait until he's gotten some sleep, has made sure Coulson will wake up and be fine.

"Barton," Fury says, his tone is firm, but it's not a bark. "You did good, back there. When things settle, I'm going to put a recommendation in your record that the affixation be terminated at the five year mark and you be offered a field agent position at that time."

Clint blinks as reactions explode inside his head, none of them particularly coherent. He knows he should be thrilled. He wonders, for a crazy second, what he'd have to do to overturn that decision. Then he pulls it the fuck together enough to say, "Thank you, Director."

Fury looks at him for a long moment before saying, "I'm going to get some work done in here, where nobody is stupid enough to interrupt. How about you use Phil's old base quarters to shower, change and get some rest? Swing by the mess before you come on back."

Clint does not want to leave. He also knows the Director's words are not precisely a suggestion. And he knows he smells. Coulson probably doesn't want to wake up to that. He nods. "Thanks, sir."

Walking away is every bit as hard as standing up after every beating he's taken in his life.

*


Clint showers and changes into sweats. He plods down to the mess and piles his tray half with mac-and-cheese, half with corn flakes drowning in milk. He makes himself eat slowly. The last thing he needs is to get sick from being stupid. He goes back to Coulson's old quarters, still held for him in cases of emergency, and curls up on the bed, hugging the pillow that smells of the detergent Coulson uses.

He's trembling from exhaustion, practically catatonic, but when sleep comes it is not as dark and deep as he needs it to be. The second time Clint wakes screaming, he mutters, "Fuck it," and gets up. He sweeps by the mess again to get the largest cup of coffee available and makes his way to Coulson's medical room.

Fury is no longer there, but Sitwell is, and Clint's feelings come at him from so many directions it makes him dizzy. He's glad they haven't left Coulson alone, jealous of the people who have been sitting in that chair, jealous of Coulson, with his parade of friends and wanting, more than anything, for Coulson to wake up. He tells himself to grow up and asks, "How is he?"

Sitwell is basically good people. Like Coulson, he's never mentioned the circumstances under which Clint joined SHIELD, never used his authority in any abusive manner. Clint still wants to punch him in the face when he says, "He finally woke up a little while ago."

"Lucid?" Clint asks.

Sitwell's facial expression is hard to read. "Asked about you. Told me I needed to tell you 'good job,' which, for the record, I would have done anyway."

Clint blinks. "Thanks."

"Yeah, I'm gonna go work at my considerably more comfortable desk chair. Your turn."

Clint settles into the chair Sitwell has just vacated and curls up, wrapping his arms around his knees. He needs to contain himself, so he won't do something like holding Coulson's hand.

*


Coulson wakes up again a few hours later. Clint is trying to concentrate on the reading he's supposed to be doing pre-flight lessons, but his attention is, at best, scattered. He notices when Coulson's breathing shifts, asks, "Sir?"

Coulson forces his eyes open and looks to where there's a cup of what used to be ice chips sitting. Clint says, "It's just water, do you want it?"

Coulson nods and Clint valiantly restrains himself cradling Coulson's neck to give him the angle he needs to sip for too long. It's their first skin-to-skin contact in days. When Coulson has had enough, he touches his fingers to Clint's wrist and Clint has a hard time pulling the cup away, sitting down. Coulson says, "I think, seeing as how you saved my life and live with me and all that, you should consider calling me Phil when we're not at work."

Phil. Clint rolls the name silently over his tongue. He's not ready to say it aloud just yet. "How're you feeling?"

"Very fuzzily like someone took my insides out and replaced them with fire. I imagine it will get even more pleasant as they begin to wean me off the drugs."

Clint can't help himself, he smiles. It's part relief, part amusement. "You're the only person I know who can put together full sentences while high."

"Practice, Barton," Phil says, slightly less dry than usually, but Clint's pretty sure that's the drugs.

"Clint."

"Mm?"

Clint shrugs. "Just, if I'm gonna call you Phil in our off hours, you should call me Clint."

"I like it. Less syllables than Barton."

Clint snorts, because that is definitely the drugs talking. He pushes down the ripple of heat in his belly that comes with Phil saying his first name. Sometimes, Clint really doesn't understand himself.

*


Phil checks out of medical once they've ascertained that the internal damage is healing properly. He asks Clint, "You know where I keep the keys?"

In one of his less-smooth moments, Clint responds, "To Lola?"

"Well, unless you've bought a car in the past seven days."

Right. Clint does know where Phil keeps the keys, so he grabs them while Phil and the Director—who one of the nurses has called in—have a staring match over whether Phil can walk to his car or not. When Clint gets to said car, Fury is helping Phil in, but there's no sign of a wheelchair. Score one for Phil.

Fury looks up at him and says, "Keep this asshole in bed."

Clint would find the energy to be worried, but at the moment, his mind is on other things. He settles into the driver's seat and asks Phil, "Are you sure? Because I can check one of the cars out of the motor pool."

"You made seven pitch-perfect shots and ran a mile in less time than it takes some marathon runners to save my life. I think you can handle not crashing Lola on the way home."

Clint turns the key and closes his eyes to feel the hum underneath his hands. When he opens his eyes again, Phil is looking at him with a strange expression, but all he says is, "Yeah, I knew you'd get it."

*


Two days later, Clint gets called in for a mission under Woo and refuses to go. He gets all of thirty seconds before Phil comes to find him, looking as annoyed as he ever does. Clint just keeps staring at the television—he's not even sure what he's watching—waiting for the yelling to start. Only, after a moment, Phil sits down beside him carefully. Clint bites the inside of his cheek and does not feel guilty for making Phil get up and walk around.

"I'm guessing you don't want to talk about whatever's going on," Phil ventures.

Clint just stares at the television screen. Phil sighs. "Is it Woo? Has he done something?"

Clint knows a perfect out when he sees one, but Woo's a decent guy and Clint doesn't want his ass put back in jail, he just wants to force an extension of the contract. He clenches his jaw and doesn't say a word.

Phil tries, "If it helps, I'm not thrilled about you being in the field without me either, but sometimes that's the job."

That gets Clint to look at him. "What?"

Phil tilts his head a bit. "You're my asset, I'm your handler. We've achieved a level of trust. It's hard to go into these situations without that, but Woo will have your back. You're not alone out there."

"But only for the next four years," Clint bites out unintentionally. He's so tired in a way he can't seem to fix.

It's Phil's turn to say, "What?"

"Fury's going to have the contract dissolved at the end of the minimum time span."

Phil nods slowly. "I know, I read the notation in your file. It's pretty glowing, for Fury, actually."

Clint tries to smile. He should be happy; he's not used to nice things being said about him. Phil frowns, an actual turning down of his mouth and says, "Clint, contract or no, you have a place at SHIELD. It won't be like before. You're not on your own anymore."

Clint looks away. He wants to believe Phil. As of yet, the other man hasn't lied to him. But the possibility is too good, and Clint knows all about too good. Sure, this past year has fallen under the "too good" category, but that just makes it more unlikely to continue, not less.

Softly, Phil says, "Clint, look at me."

Clint doesn't want to, but he often finds himself helpless when it comes to the things Phil asks of him. When the two of them are looking at each other, Phil reaches out and pulls Clint to him. At first Clint stiffens, unsure of what's happening. But Phil just keeps on, carefully arranging Clint in a hug. It's been so long since Clint has been given one it takes him a second to clue in to what is happening. Then it takes everything in him not to cling.

Phil runs a hand up and down Clint's back and says, "I need you to believe I won't let anything bad happen to you, not if I have the power to stop it."

Clint mumbles, "While I'm yours."

"That just makes it easier for me. But you'll always be my friend, and I look out for my friends."

Clint aches a little at that statement with no idea why. Friendship is so much more than nothing, more than he's used to and he says, "Sorry. I'll go."

Phil squeezes him a bit and says, "Be safe. Check in when you can."

Clint lingers just a moment longer. Pulling away is painful. Clint ignores it with the (un)ease of long experience.

*


The mission with Woo goes smoothly, and Clint returns within ten days. By that time, Phil is back in the office. They spend a series of months with no more than a day or two at base and Clint loses track of time. It's honestly a surprise, then, when the two of them are making their way out of the Sudan after what has turned into a very long mission, and Phil asks, "You have any Christmas traditions?"

It's incongruous. They're hiking to a safe house, from which they'll contact SHIELD and set up an evac plan. The air is nothing but bone-dry heat, an oven Clint is almost used to baking in at this point. "Um. I think my mom used to get a tree? I kinda remember putting popcorn on it, like, strings of popcorn."

Phil gets a fond look in his eyes. "I haven't made popcorn ornaments in forever." He pauses. "What about…anything in the circus, or—"

When Clint realizes Phil doesn't actually have anything to follow that "or" up with, he shakes his head. "Nah. Christmas in the circus was a rare day off. There was a lot of drinking, even more than usual, really. I, uh. I'd try to sneak into the nearest town or find a good hiding place on the train."

Phil's expression is impossible to read. "Do you prefer to be alone during the holiday?"

Clint shrugs. "It's kind of just another day, y'know?"

Phil is quiet for several strides. "You have the right to say no to this without repercussions or any ill effect. I would like to take you home with me for Christmas, and show you that it's really not, but only if you feel comfortable."

"Home?" Clint doesn't understand, they live in a townhome together.

"To Chicago, to my parents' place. My younger sister Amelia and her husband will be there with their kid, but it would be just the seven of us. It's not the big celebration some families have, I know. It works for us, though."

Clint ached with want at the prospect. "I'm not really good with families, I don't think."

"Maybe you just haven't met the right families," Phil counters.

Clint subdues his flinch at that assessment. "It's your holiday. You shouldn't have to watch over me. I can stay here, take care of the place, be on call."

"Do you know what the actual text a principal signs says?"

Clint thinks back, but he only paid close attention to the obeisant parts of the contract. "No."

"With this affixation I pledge myself to my obeisant's containment and care."

The obeisant's verbs are, 'protection and discipline.' Clint takes a deep breath. "I think they just meant you shouldn't starve the obeisant, or anything."

"Maybe," Phil concedes. "But you're not just my obeisant. You're my asset, roommate and friend. And in at least a few of those relationships, care includes seeing that you have somewhere comfortable to be for the holiday."

"I don't want to intrude," Clint lies. Well, no, he doesn't want to intrude, he wants to be part of this family that still has a tree and likes each other enough to come together. But that's not what this would be.

Phil looks as though he's going to nod and take Clint at his word. Instead, he says quietly, "I want you to. Please."

Clint can't remember the last time someone said "please" to him when not begging for his or her life. The pleasure of it is intense enough to be almost sexual. There isn't a chance in hell his answer is going to be anything other than, "Yeah, all—all right."

*


Phil looks absolutely nothing like his father, but Clint can see a shadow of his facial structure and build in his mother. She has white hair elegantly pulled back into a bun and is wearing slacks and a cardigan set that are too well-tailored and sedate to be anything but outrageously expensive. His father, although still supporting a shock of brown hair, completes the matching set in his trousers and tasteful sweater. Clint forces himself not to panic. He can't get on a plane and just go back. He's going to have to see this through and make sure not to be inappropriate or upsetting with Phil's family.

He's brought presents, he knows that much protocol, but seeing these two, he doesn't feel terribly good about their quality. Phil had been adamant that SHIELD pay Clint a fair wage and that wage be set aside in a separate "allowance" account for Clint. Most obeisants don't have access to funds, so it's a significant show of faith. In return, Clint out-stubborned Phil into letting him pay half the rent and utilities.

He has a decent amount of money, but it's clearly nowhere in the range of what Phil's family is used to. His stomach churns, and he forces himself to breathe out and concentrate, focus the way he would in the field. Phil introduces him: "Clint, this is my father, Trent, and my mother, Janine. Mom, dad, Clint, my co-worker."

It is only because Clint is a professional at masking his feelings that he does not turn to Phil in surprise. He considers the possibility that he should have asked Phil exactly how much his parents knew about his life. For the moment, though, he smiles, shakes hands and lets himself be ushered to the car.

*


Upon reaching the house, it becomes apparent Phil grew up in a mansion so large it might as well be a castle. Clint allows himself a short second to curse himself out for not just staying at their cozy little two bedroom in Queens. He startles when Phil touches a hand to his shoulder and squeezes. It calms him enough to come inside, to hand over the box of Christmas shortbread cookies he'd made as a host gift. They're pretty much the only thing he knows how to bake, but they're always tasty.

Sister Cecilia Clare, who'd at least tried to give the orphans some personal attention, taught him. The recipe in her handwriting is one of the few things he still has from his childhood. Janine's eyes light up, and she picks one out immediately. Chewing and swallowing, she grins. "No need to accompany this one next time, Phillip."

"Love you, too, mom," Phil says, gesturing for Clint to follow him. He settles them into adjoining bedrooms, explaining, "That was Amelia's growing up, but she and her husband will stay in the guest rooms. I'm right through this door if you need anything."

"Phil," Clint says, before the other man can slip away to the next room.

Phil turns. "Clint?"

"You haven't told them what I am."

Something in Phil's expression hardens just a bit. "Yes, I have, Clint. You're my co-worker."

Clint rolls his eyes, "Asset, at best, and don't you think they have a right to know who's under their roof?"

Ever-so-calmly, Phil asks, "Are you suggesting I'd bring someone who might harm my family into their home?"

Clint just crosses his arms over his chest. Whether he had good intentions or not, there's a reason Phil and he are affixed. Phil's muscles loosen after a moment and he asks, "Know why I didn't tell you that I grew up with more money than most developing country's GDPs?"

Clint hazards, "It was none of my business?"

"Because people act differently when they know. Nothing has changed about me, and it's not a circumstance I could have influenced one way or another, but all of a sudden there's distance or a solicitous approach that wasn't there before."

Clint takes Phil's point, but, "I could have changed it. I could have chosen differently."

"Maybe. But who the fuck was ever helping you out to see that?"

Clint blinks. He's never heard Phil swear, not even in the field. Looking away, Clint says, "You."

Phil huffs out a laugh, but it's not mocking. He says, "Well then, you just answered your own question as to why I'm not having you treated as anything other than an honored guest in this house or any place where I can control the circumstances."

Clint is starting to think this is his real punishment, being so near to this man who is so far out of his league they're not even in the same sport. He resists the urge to put a fist to his chest, where he is aching out of all proportion to the situation. He releases a slow breath and says, petulantly, "You could've at least mentioned that my presents were all gonna seem stupid."

"Have I ever lied to you?" Phil asks.

"Not that I know of," Clint hedges.

"They're not going to seem stupid at all."

*


Since they haven't got a lot of time off from SHIELD, Clint and Phil fly in the morning of Christmas Eve. By the time they're unpacked, Janine is yelling at them from down the hall that dinner's ready. It's four, but Phil told Clint Christmas dinner is always a half-day affair in the Coulson household. Phil pops his head into Clint's room. He's clearly taken a shower and is now wearing khakis and a navy Henley with a v-neck that Clint has to look away from. The temptation to lick is far too strong.

Phil asks, "Ready?"

Clint looks down at himself, in dark jeans and a button down. Outside of the one suit he has for just-in-case situations, it's the nicest outfit he owns. "Yeah. Yeah, coming."

The house is decked out in holly, white and green wreaths, a tree in the living room and the front hall. Everything is gold and red, green and snow-white. It's like a fairy tale and if Clint knows nothing else, it is that he does not belong inside a fairy tale.

Suddenly, something hurtles itself at Phil and Clint is mere seconds from bodily removing it when his brain catches up to his protective instincts and he sees Phil throwing a girl who can't be more than three or four up into the air. She is giggling and saying things that have no evident relation to spoken language as Clint knows it. Phil says, "Well, hello there, Bug."

"No bug!" Bug says.

Phil acts surprised. "Did you change your name again?"

Bug makes a face. "Minamis Maaaaaaaaay-Belllll."

"Oh," Phil does a good version of surprised and informed, "Mabel, is it?"

Mabel sticks out her tongue, a non-verbal "you know it is." Phil laughs and kisses the top of her head. He says, "Well, Mabel, I'd like you to meet my friend Clint. Clint, this is Ms. Mabel."

Clint isn't around children very often, and they scare him in the way anything fragile scares him. He drags up his best smile and bows a little, remembering how the barker would entertain the younger kids sometimes. "A pleasure, Ms. Mabel."

Mabel watches him with wide eyes and Clint's certain he's done something wrong until a woman who has to be Phil's sister—she looks nothing like him, but has the features of his dad written all over her face—walks into the room and says, "Looks like someone has a crush on you, Clint." She extends a hand. "Amelia Vanderheit, Phil's sister. You must be the coworker he can't stop talking about."

Clint shakes her hand, glad the action is rote. "He's, um. He's a great boss. It's nice to meet you."

"She hasn't even said hello and she's already poking for vulnerable points in the armor, huh?" A tall, somewhat gangly man with incredibly Nordic coloring and the dorkiest glasses Clint has ever seen walks in.

Mabel shouts, "DaDa!"

The man takes his daughter even as he holds out a hand and says, "Brand Vanderheit, Phil's been complimentary about your work."

Clint shakes Brand's hand and says, "Clint."

Brand glances over at Phil. "And how is the world of security consulting these days?"

Phil smiles, warm and open in a way Clint has never seen. "As dangerous as ever. Good to see you, Brand."

"You all should be warned," Trent's voice comes from down the hall, "that Janine and I will feel no guilt at eating everything while the rest of you are jabbering away."

"Yeah, yeah," Amelia laughs. The five of them turn, though, to make their way toward the dining room.

*


Clint's worries about a crazy formal dinner are assuaged the minute he walks in and sees the family-sized dining table and food set out buffet style on the sideboard. He knows he still doesn't fit in with this group of polished, bright, whole people, but he knows how to pretend in this situation, and that's all he needs.

When they're all settled with plates piled high, Phil takes a bite and makes an appreciative sound. "New cook?"

His mother nods. "Rose's great-nephew. He actually went to chef school. He likes the gig evidently because I let him do as he will."

"Rose," Phil tells Clint, "was the housekeeper and basically our second mom. She's been retired for a while."

The thought of having staff is kind of breaking Clint's brain, so he goes with a safe, "The food's delicious."

"So where are you from, Clint?" Amelia asks.

Clint stiffens for a moment, but then reads in her face that it's not an attack, just simple curiosity. And this may be the weirdest rodeo Clint's attended in his time, but it's not his first. "I was born in Iowa, but I spent a lot of time traveling with the circus?"

Unsurprisingly, eyes everywhere go wide. But there's no derision in it, only interest and a bit of prurient fascination. Clint glances over at Phil, who's very carefully not smiling at him. Clint feels something loosen inside of him. He tells stories from the circus, ones that make it seem like he had a family, or at least a tribe. He talks about the vet they had for a while who taught Clint things that were useful for helping the animals—if a bit more useful for cleaning himself up after a beating—and the Chinese tumbling family who invited the whole circus to their celebrations, which meant food. He tells stories about the barkers who actually bothered to teach Clint some showmanship and the vendors that would give him merch that was no longer saleable, but could be used well enough for bedding or all sorts of other things.

When Brand and Janine ask questions about what he did, he talks about knife-throwing and juggling, setting up the tents and taking them down, caring for the animals, helping the cooks, anything and everything except shooting. He knows he's allowed to talk about it, but Clint also feels how acutely he betrayed his bow, the one thing that has always been safe for him, by using it the way he later did. He doesn't want to go there tonight. Tonight, he just wants to be another security consultant with a strange background and unusual skills.

He helps clean dishes afterward, even though everyone protests. Mabel falls asleep on the playroom floor and Brand goes to put her to bed. They have after-dinner drinks in the living room, listening to choral music. Clint is warm and surrounded by people who aren't looking at him as either a criminal or a victim. It's not perfect, but it's a damn sight closer than Clint's used to.

By the time Phil pulls him off the couch and they stumble toward their rooms, Clint has maybe had a few more drinks than he should have and wow, he doesn't even remember the last time he allowed that to happen. He finally figured out that he isn't a mean drunk about a decade back, when Trick and some of the others had gotten him drunk as part of a hazing—and that had cleared up any need he might have had to drink in the first place—but there are too many bad memories associated with alcohol for him to have much interest in it.

The wine with dinner, though, and the brandy after, were both strong and Clint thinks he might have had more than he realized. It makes it easy to tell Phil, "Your family's nice, real nice."

Phil says, "They like you."

"Maybe not as smart as I'd thought." Clint laughs a bit. "It—it was nice of you to bring me."

Phil's smile is impossible to read. "Get some sleep, Clint. Christmas morning comes very early."

*


Six is evidently the Christmas version of 'very early,' though lord knows both Clint and Phil are used to shipping out at two or three in the morning. And Christmas comes with Italian roast piping hot with a touch of eggnog and cinnamon, a couch Clint could easily live in, a fire and warm blankets for everyone. Basically, Christmas is legitimately awesome when done properly. Who knew?

Mabel is practically pacing around the tree by the time everyone has tumbled into the room and arranged themselves in the multitude of sofa and loveseat choices. Clint watches with a sort of fascinated wistfulness as she pulls her presents out and rips into them. When she is done, and happily playing with her new set of under-the-sea themed Connectagons, the rest of the family each picks a box.

Clint's stomach clenches from the nervousness of not having any idea what he's doing. The last time he gave someone a present it was his mom. And he's pretty sure it was some stupid arts & crafts thing he made at school. This is the first time in his life having discretionary cash and someone to spend it on.

He's distracted, though, by Phil setting a gift in Clint's lap. Clint blinks down at the object, wrapped in a stylish green and white paper with a bow atop. Sure enough, it is labeled, "Clint."

He's noticed the stocking over the fireplace next to Phil's, sure. It's a shade of royal purple, which is awesome and it looks heavy. Phil has already told him, though, the stockings are full of fruits and sweets and maybe something small like a keyring, or a magnet. This is different. This is something other people would have had to go out and think about and pay money for.

Amelia says, "Phil was a little last moment in mentioning that you were joining us, but they all have gift receipts, if you hate them."

Clint isn't sure he can get air in his lungs. He somehow says, "This wasn't—you really shouldn't have—"

"We should have had you sit there while we all opened up presents, some of which are noticeably from you?" Janine asks with a raised eyebrow.

Clint may not belong here, but that doesn't mean that his understanding of the world is completely wrong. "You're feeding and housing me for the holiday. That's a gift. That's…that's a big gift."

With the exception of Mabel, who is well and truly entrenched into crustacean modern art, everyone in the room is looking at him now. Their expressions are a mixture of soft and bewildered and Clint could scream in frustration. Phil is the one to speak up, quietly saying, "I said I wanted you to have a normal Christmas."

Clint nods and tightens his jaw hard enough to hurt so that he'll stop saying the stupid shit he wants to say. Things like pointing out that this is a normal Christmas because it has food, a tree, a safe bed and people who aren't mistreating him.

Carefully, like he can sense the landmine, but isn't sure of its exact location, Phil says, "Presents are part of a normal Christmas. You got us presents."

"Because—"

Clint's glad when Phil cuts him off, since he was probably about to say something acutely humiliating. With a curt shake of his head, Phil says, "Because you came and you're part of this, and that is that."

Clint takes a breath. "Sorry. It's just, um."

Just that nobody has ever given him a Christmas present. He vaguely remembers toys that came from an agency, maybe, when he was five or so. But there wasn't money in the Barton house for kids' stuff, and the orphanage had always given out necessary things, like new socks or new blankets. The first year there, the year that wasn't so bad, they'd all gotten oranges, but the older kids had confiscated Clint's when he'd foolishly tried to save it. In the circus, Christmas was nice because it made stealing food easier—people tended to throw more out during the holiday. But there'd never been presents.

"New," Phil says.

"Yeah," Clint nods.

"Good," Phil says. "Now open that before we let Mabel open it for you."

*


Clint receives a microplush heating blanket from Phil and it is harder than he would like to admit to put it aside and open the others when all he wants to do is fire that puppy up. He does, though, since he has something from Phil's parents and another package from Amelia's family.

Phil's parents had given him Neuhaus' Tin Box, which reeks of Phil giving suggestions, because Phil is the only person Clint has ever told about how he had to leave Belgium before he started pulling heists on the different Neuhaus chocolatiers.

Amelia and Brand gift him with a nicely framed photo of what looks like a bow and arrow coming up from the ground. Clint grins. He's illicitly climbed the statue before. "Rincon Park!"

Amelia's face lights up and it occurs to Clint she was worried about whether he'd like it or not. He runs a finger along the light, smooth wood of the frame and says, "Thank you."

"Phil mentioned that you like archery and not much is on your walls," she tells him.

This is the first time Clint's really had walls to put stuff on since he was seven, so he doesn't think that's weird. But he will admit, the thought of putting the picture where he'll wake to the bright, sun-dappled landscape it captures and memories every day is heady and seductive. "I never really got used to decorating. Circus and all. I love it."

Janine reaches for her gift and Clint's heart just about stops right then and there. He suddenly painfully understands Amelia's expression of relief. Phil had given him tips about each family member as well, but just because he knew a few things doesn't mean Clint did this right. But Janine peels the paper and lifts the top of the jewelry-sized box only to exclaim, "Oh. Clint, how did you ever—"

Janine collects buttons and if there is one skill Clint has that is not shooting things, it is used and antique shopping. Trick had taught him that. Granted, Trick was just making sure Clint didn't buy crappy used bows or other necessities for the show, but Clint taught himself how to apply it to goods-searching in general. He'd liked the mother-of-pearl and metal buttons with flowers he'd found, and he knew they were genuinely from the 1930s or so, but he'd had no idea as to whether Janine would find them interesting. Clearly, she does, though, because she's examining them one by one, almost as enthusiastic as Mabel with her toys.

The rest of his gifts are more pedestrian. He's gotten Trent a pair of handmade Green Arrow cufflinks, since it turns out Phil comes by his superhero thing honestly. Amelia is serious about gardening and likes to use everyday objects to make her garden seem magical and unique. Antique stores are rife with odds and ends like that, and Clint found her a set of votives made from Depression-glass jars and tumblers. Brand, as a die-hard Cubs fan, is the easiest. Vintage Cubs wear is easy to root out, if a person knows what he's looking for.

Clint thinks he likes the excitement of others over his gifts more than he does actually getting stuff. Although, don't get him wrong, that part is pretty sweet as well.

Phil's gift from him is still sitting under the tree. Clint thought long and hard about what he could get for Phil that would adequately convey Clint's gratitude at being given a Christmas, a home, a stable job, and for Phil never once taking advantage of the power imbalance between them. In the end, unable to come up with anything material that relayed all of that, Clint spent a few hours finding every non-collectable older edition Captain America comic in Queens and commissioning a decoupaged wooden box. If nothing else, it is something nobody other than Phil will have.

Clint opens his mouth to explain this as Phil is staring at the box, but Phil cuts him off with, "Where did you even find this?"

"I found a nearby artist and had her make it." It had been pretty easy, actually. He'd noticed a shop with decoupage art in it while searching for the comics, had gone inside and found that the girl working the cashier made the pieces. She'd been thrilled at the idea of a commission.

Phil looks up. "So this is the only one of its kind?"

Clint considers the box. "I'm not sure anyone could replicate it if they tried."

Clint can't read Phil's silence as he studies the box from different angles. When he's finished, he takes a deep breath and says, "What do you know? You're a Christmas natural."

*


After breakfast, when Brand is putting Mabel down for a nap, Phil's in his room checking in with SHIELD, and Janine and Trent are also "napping"—Clint's pretty sure that's a euphemism—Amelia finds Clint in the living room, doing his best to straighten up what is basically a disaster area. Amelia says, "Mom has someone who does this," but she helps him pick up and put things away, or at least in a semi-orderly fashion.

As Clint is folding a blanket, she says, "I'm not quite sure what to do with you, Clint Barton."

Clint stays silent. If she wants to tell him more she will. He's not sure he wants to hear. She keeps talking, her tone careful. "You're the first guy my brother has brought home since he was in high school. You look at him like he poops kittens and he looks at you like you fart unicorns. Normally, this would just be the part where I told you if you hurt him, I'd kill you, but I don't think the two of you are anything other than coworkers, which I'm bamboozled by."

Clint debates what to say, but in the end, his status isn't classified. It is, in fact, on public record, as all affixation contracts are by law. "I'm an obeisant. He took me on out of mercy and the belief I could be someone better given the chance. Breaking it down, your brother's stuck with ex-carnie street trash for the next three-and-a-half years because he's a stand-up guy."

"Huh," Amelia says. "Well, that explains why he's not acting on it. He's probably freaking out that even smiling at you is some kind of abuse of power. Poor guy."

Clint thinks she's missing the point here. "I was going to go to jail for several counts of—"

"I don't care, Clint."

"Murder."

"And yet, you're working with my brother, and I might not know much, but I know that whatever he does, it's bigger than making sure companies' alarms work. Corporate guys don't have the kind of clearance necessary to take on an obeisant, and before you freak, I'd figured it out well before now. Not to mention, he brought you into his house, with his niece, who, you might have noticed, he adores."

Softly, Clint just says, "I was a bad person, Amelia. I deserved to be put in prison. Phil intervened, but that doesn't erase who I was or the things I did."

She sighs, standing up straight to glare at him. "You were, what? In your late teens, early twenties when you fell into whatever the hell it was you were doing? On your own, no family, I'm guessing, given the confusion over Christmas. Very probably didn't have a lot of education or way to access it. You made choices, again, guessing here, to survive, and some of them were terrible choices. But who we were does not define who we are or will be, it merely helps to shape our present and future selves. And you don't want to be that person anymore, are actively working not to be."

"He deserves…" Someone smarter, better, someone he's not forced into caring for.

"He deserves someone who's figured out he's the best damn thing since sliced bread. Most people don't see it, Clint. You do."

"He's the only person who has ever seen anything in me other than a dumb hick with a few useful skills."

Her face twists at the statement in a way he can't read. "All I know is this: if it's a piece of paper saying he has your life in his hands that's bothering you, then yeah, this isn't a good idea. But if it's just because you think he'd be settling? Give him the chance to decide for himself. He's earned it."

She fluffs one last pillow and walks off in the direction of Mabel's room. Clint watches her go and sits down, his mind a whirl of confusion.

*


Clint and Phil have a flight back to New York that evening, so Janine takes one more chance of stuffing them to the gills with endless bouts of delicious deliciousness, and Clint is surprised he can walk out the door. He feels like rolling would be easier.

They both sleep on the plane. Clint doesn't even think either of them is particularly tired, it's just habit. Plane time is down time is you-should-probably-grab-some-shuteye-now time.

Clint finds it strange, how much he's looking forward to getting back home. It's not that he didn't love the Coulson house or the hospitality extended to him. But this is the first time he's ever really had a home to return to. It's novel and there's a deep sense of safety to it that he can't describe.

After they've both dropped their luggage off in their respective rooms, Clint shuffles out to make a cup of instant soup. They turned the heat down when they left and the place is a little chilly. Also, it's kind of awesome, being back in a kitchen where he knows where everything is and has the right to use it whenever.

Clint makes a cup for Phil almost by habit. Hot beverages and foods are meant to be shared. Phil appears a few minutes later and says, "We'll have to hang your picture up soon."

Clint smiles and hands him the cup. "Yeah, I'll get to it by this weekend." Then, cautiously, "Thanks for…letting me into your family."

Phil's responding look is impossible to read, and after less than a second he hides it behind his cup. When he's swallowed and tipped the mug back down, his, "You're more than welcome," is sedate, even.

Clint has the sense they're still in some type of bubble created by the holiday, by Phil's family, so he forces himself to take the chance and ask, "Can I—why'd you take my contract?"

Slowly, Phil says, "The thing about files is that they're never really complete. And the parts that are generally encapsulate the worst of people or their lives. So I knew all about the early childhood abuse and the confirmed kills, but there was a lot of space in that file, Clint. I kept looking. I talked to people who would have been in Carson's at the time you were. I talked to the nuns and to some of your elementary school teachers.

"And the person behind the file on Clinton Francis Barton evidently left an impression on quite a few people. Caddy Dyers, the kitty girl? She told me you once put yourself between her and a bunch of townies who thought it might be fun to see how it felt with a 'freak.' Sister Mary Constance told me about you giving up food to some of the smaller kids when you were worried they weren't getting enough, despite the fact that you probably weren't.

"The point is, everyone I could track down who seemed worth talking to? They all had at least one good memory of you, if not more. I guess you could say I was reading between the lines of the file, and hoping the guy who was between those lines could be coaxed out. Because he was someone I wanted to know. He is someone I'm honored to know."

Clint swallows his last bit of soup slowly. "I wouldn't have thought people'd remember me."

"Yeah," Phil nods, "you have shitty self-awareness when it comes to the good parts of yourself."

*


Clint has a nightmare a couple of months later, the first one he's had in half-a-year, which is a serious record for him. Until he'd settled into SHIELD, they'd been a twice-weekly occurrence, at least. This one is bad, though, as if Clint's subconscious has just been saving itself.

Phil and he have just gotten off a three week mission which involved long stints of boredom interspersed with rapid decision-making and shooting. It wouldn't have been that challenging, except one of the field techs caught some kind of local flu and the rest of them had fallen in its wake. Clint spent two days in a nest that stank of his own sick, as he didn't have anywhere far enough to put it, and the heat of the climate wasn't kind when it came to odors.

Medical had put all of them on protein shakes, just to help their bodies recover from the rapid weight loss that four to five days of sweating, vomiting and shivering caused. The first thing Clint does once in the door is to take a shower, moving from just-this-side of cold to hot as his body temperature stabilizes. He pulls on some sweats, makes himself drink one of the shakes and goes to bed. Sure, it's seven o'clock at night, but he hasn't slept in thirty-six hours and none of the sleep while he was sick did any good.

He dreams of Barney and Trick. It's not exactly a memory. The beating and leaving for dead didn't happen the way it does in his nightmare, and Phil sure as shit wasn't there, helping. He wakes himself, screaming useless pleas and sits up in bed, once again soaked to the bone in sweat. "Fuck."

He's not going right back to bed, so he decides on another shower. When he opens his door, though, Phil is there. Clint startles. "Oh, um. Did I wake you? Sorry."

Phil shakes his head once. "Are you all right?"

Clint rubs a hand over his face. "Probably just the last of the delirium working its way out, or something."

Phil considers him for a long moment. "Come to the kitchen when you've showered?"

Clint almost frowns at the hesitancy in the question, but in the end he just nods. "Sure."

He emerges from the shower to find that Phil has changed his bedsheets and even laid out a fresh pair of boxers and an undershirt. Clint slips into them and pads his way to the kitchen. Phil looks relieved and hands him a steaming mug. Clint glances down. "Hot milk?"

"With honey, cinnamon and nutmeg. It'll help, I promise."

Clint has never liked warm milk, but he shrugs and takes a sip. It's pretty good. And Phil's right, by the time he's halfway through the cup, what was left of the fear and tension after the shower is seeping away. When he's finished, he's flagging, his eyes drooping. He glances at the couch, considering. His heating blanket is right there, and Clint thinks it might help to have the background noise of the TV.

Phil takes his cup and says, "I'm going to make an offer that I would make to a friend, but that is less appropriate in my role as principal. I want you to say no if it makes you uncomfortable, understood?"

Clint's tired and Phil's being weird, but, "Sure."

"There've been a couple of points in my life when I was actively healing from trauma where I woke up every night, screaming my lungs out. Got to the point where my voice was hoarse. The nurses wanted someone to stay with me and of course I was very clear that I could take care of myself, but word got back to N—a friend, and he came and stayed in bed with me a few times now and then. It helped, but I also trusted him to have my back and my experiences were different."

Clint blinks. "Are you offering to let me sleep in your bed?"

Phil shrugs. "Or I could come sleep in yours, whichever you'd be more comfortable with."

"You realize that makes it ten times as likely I'll wake you up?"

"Kind of the point, Clint. To be there."

"I've never—the last person who slept next to me was Barney." He's had hookups, but he's never stayed the night. He can't sleep next to people he doesn't know.

"You don't have to, I just wanted to offer."

"I—I want to try. But. I might not be good at it."

Phil sighs. "You have other qualities that make up for it. C'mon."

He herds Clint back to his own bed, which Clint appreciates. Clint hesitates a second before he says, "Stay. Um, please."

And yeah, his voice definitely shakes, but Phil doesn't call him on it. Phil just climbs in and lets Clint decide how much space he wants.

*


Clint sleeps through the rest of the night. Over the following months, they fall into an unspoken pattern. If one of them has had a rough day or mission or just isn't feeling up to being alone, he will make the couch into a bed. The other one will refold the sheets, and follow the one needing company to his room.

They almost never wake up together. Clint, for his part, always has business to take care of with a shower and his right hand when he wakes next to Phil. Phil's usually dressed and working by the time Clint has showered and come out to seek breakfast.

It is the first time in his life Clint can remember having something comforting he doesn't have to ask—beg—for. He decides to take it as he has these five years: as an oasis period of his life. It will end and he'll have to look after himself again, even if he can stay on with SHIELD and earn enough for necessities and a little more on the side without having to run.

Phil will still be his friend. Clint has figured out that Phil's code of honor practically requires it. But Clint won't have a home anymore. He won't have someone there who gives without taking, or at least, without taking more than Clint has to give. It seems to Clint that going back to being on his own should seem like things just reverting back to normal, but Clint suspects this will be an instance of you-can't-miss-what-you've-never-had. And once you've had it, well, you can't go back to lacking the knowledge of what it's like, either.

*


The sex happens ninety-four percent accidentally. Consensual sex requires enough agency on behalf of both partners for that six non-accidental percentage to exist, but mostly, it comes as a surprise to everyone involved.

It starts, Clint thinks, when Clint makes a terrible decision. He actually tries not to make those decisions regularly, but in the sight of his scope is a woman probably ten years his junior who carries herself like a person who has never known the comfort of having someone at her back. Clint knows the posture: he used to wear it.

Clint can't shake the feeling she knows he's there. Beyond her reputation, Clint's been watching for a few days, staking out a nest, and she consistently does six impossible things before breakfast. She's too good not to know he's there. He's good, but he doesn't kid himself. There's always someone better.

She doesn't acknowledge him nor try to harm him. Maybe death by bullet is the quickest and most painless option she's come up with for herself. He's read her file. Seventy-four confirmed kills, dozens more attributed to her. She probably deserves the bullet.

But then, so did he. And even under orders he cannot, is unwilling to, pass judgment on someone so very like him without the benefit of choice. If she won't come in, he'll kill her. He doesn't have it in him, though, to shoot first and ask questions later.

He goes off comms with a, "I'm so sorry, I have to try," knowing it could cost him his freedom, fuck, his mind. Clint doesn't really think Phil will press for the harsher punishment, but he could. The affixation contract has very specific rules written into it, and ditching one's principal is a huge no-no, probably the biggest one. Clint really does expect to be shot the moment they see him approach her, whether by her or by SHIELD, he's not certain.

She just frowns as he sits at her table, a small café-front piece for two. He lays his hands on the table. His rifle is broken down in the pack he's carrying on his back, no different from a million other backpacks seen on these streets. "I cannot promise you safety."

She twitches at that. It's faint, but it's a reaction. He says, "I am affixed myself. All I can offer is a chance."

"And if I prefer the bullet?" she asks coolly, blowing over the surface of her tea.

Clint swallows, but he nods. "Then I will respect your wishes."

He thinks it’s the fact that he gives her a choice, acknowledges she might rather make a decision, even a bad one, that makes her say, "Then let's try it your way, first."

*


Clint takes her to the safe house. If this goes wrong, they'll have to burn more than the location of their hidey-hole. Phil is already there, looking as unruffled as ever. He acts as though it was a foregone conclusion Clint would bring her in, making the two of them tea and talking quietly with her about her options.

Clint is restricted to the bedroom, where he showers for as long as he can drag it out, then slips on sweats and curls up in the bed. His mind is too busy to read or do work or sleep. Clint has no idea how long it is before Phil walks in the room, arms full of a sleeping Black Widow. Clint asks, "Sedative?"

"I didn't think cuffs were going to be effective in this instance. Extraction in ten, debriefing when we get back."

"Sir—" Clint starts, but Phil just shakes his head.

"When we get back."

*


Clint waits in Phil's office while Romanova is benignly but securely locked away. When Phil comes in, he looks like he's had the big brother of a migraine for days. All the same, he sits at his desk and says evenly, "You're on suspension until further notice."

Clint has a moment where he thinks he might cry or puke or do something else terrible to express his relief. He pushes past it. "That's it?"

Phil's gaze bores into him. "That's it? Do you have any idea how thin the ice is with you on suspension? How easily you could end up back in prison?"

Clint isn't expecting this particular angle of third degree. It's mostly shock when he admits, "Of course I do. I—"

"You knew and you still went ahead with that?"

Clint closes his eyes for a brief moment and conjures up his very coldest tone. "What were my other options, sir?"

"To tell me, Specialist. Tell me, and get my go ahead and at the very, very least, it would be both of us in this clusterfuck."

It occurs to Clint at that moment he doesn't doubt Phil's word he would have listened to Clint, approved the attempt. Clint growls, "Hell fucking no."

"As your SO, your principal, it is not only my job, it is my role to protect you."

Clint runs a hand over his face, trying to beat back his frustration and find words. Verbal communication has never been his first choice for lines of defense. "I understand you feel that way, and that my actions made that all-but impossible." He makes himself swallow, slow down, keep talking. "The thing is, sir…Phil, the thing is, you only pull out the affixation argument when I've done something that makes you worry. Otherwise, you treat me as an asset and a friend. And as you're the only person who's ever been a true friend to me, I'm never going to make the choice to screw you if there's another option."

For a second, Phil looks as though he's contemplating shaking Clint to death. Then he lets out a breath and says, "That loyalty was why I recommended you be brought in. I'm not sure why I'm surprised it seems to be biting me in the ass."

Clint grimaces. "I'm sorry you're pissed and worried and I don't know, lots of things. But I'm not sorry I did it. I'd do it again given the chance."

Phil gets an expression on his face that is one-third amusement, one-third exasperation and one-third completely unreadable. "Okay, well, can you not mention that to the agents who are going to be deciding when you're fit to return to service?"

Clint mimes zipping his lips, locking them and throwing away the key. Phil gives him something that is almost a smile. Clint thinks they're done.

*


He keeps on thinking that right through until about three in the morning the next night, when he wakes to the sound of Phil screaming what sounds like, "No, you can't," and other random phrases. Clint's got his bow and is on his feet before he even consciously thinks about it. By the time he gets to Phil's room, his brain has caught up and he realizes it is most likely just a nightmare, which is proven the moment he slips inside.

He sets his bow against the wall, but his presence is enough that Phil has woken and is training the Glock he keeps in a holster on the headrest right at Clint's head. Clint puts his hands up. It takes Phil less than a second to click the safety back on, but he holds onto the gun, his entire body shaking, for longer than that.

Clint just means to get him to give up the gun, see if he can get Phil lying down again or into a shower, or something to help. Instead, when his hands close over Phil's, Phil says, quiet and with a tremor that is never in his voice, "You can't do this again. Risking your life is part of the job, I get that. But every time I start to consider you on the inside for the rest of your life or walking around with sections of your brain missing—" He cuts off, his breathing too quick. "You can’t, Clint."

Clint has no idea who moves first, only that somehow the firearm disappears and their mouths are on each other and he thinks he should probably pull away, but he can't remember why. Phil's good, so good at kissing, the way he is with everything, sheer focus and skill and competence.

It's too frantic for either of them to get naked. Phil pulls Clint in tight and Clint lets himself be pulled, strangely reassured by the control Phil's exerting. He moans when their still-clothed cocks press together, mumbles, "Phil, Phil," into the kisses.

It's been a while with someone else for Clint, and the last few were nothing to write home about. It is over well before he'd like it to be, but at least Phil is not far behind, rambling about how, "fucking gorgeous you fucking are," to Clint. Clint's never heard Phil curse. If he were younger, it would make his cock sit up and pay attention a second time. As it is, it twitches, as if to make a point.

They hold to each other for several minutes when finished. Clint says, "I, uh, I know we're gonna have to talk about this," even if, really, Clint thinks they should just keep doing what they're doing, "but can we maybe just sleep, first?"

Phil kisses the space between Clint's eyes. "Yeah. Just sleep. I've got you."

*


They don't talk about it for a while, because Phil is pulled for a mission and Clint is essentially on house/base arrest, unable to accompany him. It sucks a lot. After the first few days, Clint goes to see what he can find out about how Natasha's doing. He doesn't actually expect to learn much, but when he goes down to where she's being held the guard at the door just opens it for him.

She's lying on her bed, stomach down, barefoot with her hair pulled into a messy half-ponytail keeping it out of her eyes. She's reading a paperback and takes the time to finish the page before turning it upside down and fanning it out to keep her spot. Clint is kind of taken aback by how young she looks. He's not sure what to say, so he starts with, "Hey."

She rolls to a sitting position in one fluid motion. "I thought they might have broken your contract."

Clint shrugs. "My principal talked them down. And you haven't led an enemy into our den just yet, so I suspect I'm on probation."

Natasha nods. "He's a very steady man, your principal."

Only person I've ever leaned on who hasn't just let me fall. "Yes."

Natasha tilts her head. "Will mine be like that?"

"Have they given you names? They just sent Coulson to me. If you've got names we can discuss them."

"Victoria Hand."

Clint leans against the wall. "Don't know her. Professional reputation is immaculate, but there's a strange lack of any personal buzz about her. Granted, personal buzz about Coulson is mostly bullshit, but it's still there."

"Abigail Brand."

"At odds with the higher-ups a lot," Clint tells her succinctly, because that is the last thing she needs.

"Maria Hill."

"If scuttlebutt is true, Hill's looking to leave field action and handling and move into a directorial position. Unfortunate, because she's fantastic in the field, but understandable. It might be great to have that much authority behind your contract, but it also might be a way to end up grounded. Can't say for sure."

Natasha's expression is blank, but Clint is pretty sure that's a default cover. "Sharon Carter."

Clint thinks. "I've only met her once or twice, but she's up there with the others in terms of competency and skill. She's like a strangely pessimistic optimist? Coulson says she has her reasons, and I believe him. But she's never treated my input as less valuable because of my status and she can be a smartass. All-in-all, I thought she was pretty decent."

"Alisandra Morales."

"Top notch at infiltration. Not much of a team player, which, coming from me is saying something."

"Sally Blevins."

"Mutant, so, power you're not gonna get from the others. I've never known her to have much of a sense of humor, but then, I don't know if you do, either."

Her smile is—purposely, no doubt—enigmatic. "I'll sleep on it."

Clint realizes she does look ten times as rested as the last time he saw her. It hits him that this is probably the safest place she's had to sleep in years. He quirks his own smile. "Sweet dreams."

*


Phil gets back looking like the last time he ate was before he left, over two weeks earlier, so Clint steals him away from HQ and bullies him into the shower while whipping up a baked ziti. It's one of the dishes he's been teaching himself, easy and filling. He has the ingredients on hand, so he goes to.

Phil falls asleep on the couch while it's baking. Clint debates, but Phil really does look like he needs the sustenance, so he wakes him and makes him eat a plate. Phil doesn't argue much. When he's done, he stumbles into his bedroom, leaving the door open. Clint puts the leftovers away, changes into PJ pants and gets into Phil's bed.

Phil murmurs, "Just, I just—"

"Yeah, no, I know," Clint tells him. "Get some sleep."

*


Clint wakes before Phil and showers quickly before brewing the coffee and frying up some frozen hash browns and eggs. Phil manages to show up right as Clint is about to call for him. He pours both of them coffee and hands Clint two plates.

When they're both sitting at the table, Phil says, "We still need to talk."

Clint sighs. He knew better than to think Phil might have forgotten. "Mm."

Phil pinches the bridge of his nose but then looks straight at Clint and says, "I'm not trying to be insulting here, but I need you to tell me if there was any part of you that did what we did because you were worried about going back to prison or being assigned crap jobs or anything within my power either as your boss or your principal."

A small bark of laughter escapes Clint. "Phil, I essentially went AWOL on SHIELD and you got me paid time off from work. I feel pretty fucking confident you're not gonna screw me if I refuse to screw you. If you are willing to slum it—and it turns out Amelia was right about that—I'm one hundred percent in."

Phil takes a long draw of coffee. "Okay, we're going to deal with those last three statements in turn, but before we do that I have to ask how much you know about Stockholm Syndrome."

"Enough to know that's not what's happening here. Stockholm is a captive's mistaken belief that lack of abuse is kindness, or that sympathizing with those in power regains him some of his own." Clint holds his hand up, "And before you say it, yeah, I know, both of those could describe me, but for one thing, I've wanted to have sex with you since long before I trusted you, and for another, if I want to be with a guy who has shown me actual, true kindness on several occasions where he could have chosen otherwise and has never abused his power over me for as long as he's been interested? I'm a damned adult, Phil. I get to make that choice."

Phil stands up and pours himself more coffee. Clint eyes the cabinet where Phil keeps aged Scotch, Jamaican rum and French brandy. Phil raises an eyebrow and Clint actually considers it, but then shakes his head. Phil nods and sits back down. "I'm going to say this out loud because it needs to be said. If you decide this isn't working for you, there will be no repercussions in your contract or your career."

"I know," Clint says. Then, because he's helpless not to, and it's key: "I trust you."

The smile he gets in return is breathtaking, the first time he's ever seen Phil quite so open. Phil says, "Then trust me when I say I am not slumming it. I don't know what Amelia said—"

"She just made it clear that you wouldn't kill me if I tried to sex you up."

Phil's mouth forms a silent wow. "Right. She wouldn't have mentioned that if she thought, for a second, that I would be lowering my standards to be with you."

"I think she might just have been looking to get you laid," Clint says.

"That's because your family failed at every single obligation they had to you. If Amelia wanted me to get laid, she'd tell me to my face and send me to the nearest sexuality-appropriate bar."

"Okay," Clint agrees. "But people don't end up in obeisant contracts for no reason, and you know so many of my reasons. You know my whole file and you still aren't aware of some of the crap I've done."

"So you think what Natasha has done makes her unworthy of care and affection?" Phil asks.

Clint opens his mouth and then shuts it. "Sneaky."

"You signed the contract to be granted a second chance, Clint. For your sake, for my sake, give yourself that chance."

At that moment the warmth of the apartment is tangible, the comfort and safety he has only ever known in its walls. He takes a breath. "I'll try."

*


A day later they're deployed for a run-of-the-mill target elimination. Clint would be surprised Phil's even assigned it, but the target is on enough Most Wanted lists to warrant SHIELD's best. With the exception of the fact that the weather in Atlanta has, in a new and fun twist, dropped below freezing, the whole thing goes off exactly as planned.

Clint's blind is well hidden but not nearly as well-sheltered as the weather really calls for. The target is late, and when he shows there are a few complications (read: witnesses) who Phil has to work at gently dispersing. All in all, he's up there for about sixteen hours. It isn't long, but it's long enough he's stopped feeling everything but the muscles necessary for shooting, and he's only maintained feeling in those out of sheer stubbornness and being aware of what is at stake.

He's not really sure if he's running to the car or not, but he makes it. He shuts the door and Phil takes off, using one hand to reach over and buckle Clint in without even looking. "Well done, Specialist."

Clint wants to ask if they can turn the heat up, but he can see it's at its highest setting. Phil must notice the glance because he says, "Sorry. We're only fifteen minutes out from the safe house."

Clint nods and doesn't say anything, because his teeth are chattering too hard for him to feel like opening his mouth is a good idea. Phil makes it to the house in twelve minutes and hustles Clint inside. He strips him down efficiently and puts him in a shower that feels like it is scalding but Clint knows is probably just this side of lukewarm.

Phil says, "Stay in there for as long as you need. Preferably until you can handle at least the warm temperature."

Clint has no idea how long he stays in the shower. By the time he gets himself dried off and into the sweats and wool socks Phil has laid out for him, Phil has gotten the gear inside, done the safety check, and heated a can of soup. He puts a bowl of it on the table and Clint doesn't have to be told twice.

He eats the whole can slowly. When he's spooned up the last bit, Phil herds him into a bedroom and climbs into the bed with him. Clint's grateful; he isn't in the mood to ask for things he needs right now.

Phil undresses him again, and Clint mumbles, "What?" but Phil just says, "I've got you," and that's enough for Clint. He watches in a sort of hazy enjoyment as Phil strips down himself and then climbs back under the covers, fitting himself to Clint.

"Body heat, sir?"

Phil kisses him, long and slow and hot. "Something like that. Let me."

"Yes," Clint agrees. He doesn't regret it at all when Phil uses his mouth to explore Clint. Teeth and tongue make their way carefully over jaw and throat, the insides of his elbows, the line of his sternum. It's a surprise—even if maybe it shouldn't be—when Phil gives the head of Clint's cock a firm suck. Clint almost arches and can't keep himself from groaning, "Fuck, fuck fuck."

Phil sits back a little and looks up at him. "Tell me what you like."

Clint blinks. "You."

Something that might be a smirk passes over Phil's face. "You stop talking, telling me what's good, what's not good, what could be better, anything, and I stop sucking."

Clint whimpers, half at the order, half at the easy dirtiness of Phil's words. Phil lowers his head again and goes down a little further, wrapping his hand around the base and Clint, who is really, totally willing to take whatever Phil will give here, obeys the order. "Ah, ah, tighter? Yes! Yes, like that, and, um, more tongue, fuck—"

Clint works to be good, to do what he's told, but occasionally his brain can't form words, and, true to his promise, Phil stops, causing Clint to all-but sob. It feels like forever, like Clint's throat is sore and achy, like he doesn't even know what he wants anymore, when Phil takes him all the way down, hums and Clint finds himself riding an orgasm so intense it's nearly painful.

He comes back into his skin to the feel of being wiped down with a warm washcloth. He looks up at Phil, only faintly aware that he should try and hide his utter-and-complete-worship. "I didn't—"

Phil definitely does smirk at that. "Your voice did all the work for you."

Clint looks down at Phil's cock which, yes, is limp. "Huh."

Phil gets back in bed and herds them away from the wet spot. He curls around Clint and kisses him a few more times gently without any intent. He pulls back with a, "Night."

Clint isn't sure he answers, he's so close to sleep.

*


They go to HQ for several hours when they get back to New York. Phil wants the ends tied up neatly on the op sooner rather than later, and Clint is willing to do pretty much anything Phil asks at the moment. He's mostly sure the feeling will pass.

They pick up Nepalese take out on their way home and sit at the table to start inhaling. Clint realizes neither of them probably had breakfast. Or lunch. When his intake of food has begun slowing, Phil says, "I'm not saying we can't have sex, all right? But I think I need to do this right."

Clint forces himself to calm, to trust Phil. "I don't know what that means."

"Mm," Phil says, swallowing. "Further cementing my belief. We're going to take each other on dates."

Clint swallows too suddenly and it hurts. "Um. Dates?"

"I'll plan the first one, since I'm getting the feeling I have more experience with this, but then the ball's in your court."

Clint doesn't mind being put in charge of something—although, admittedly, this is a pinch terrifying—but, "I don't understand why you think we need to have dates. We live together."

Phil stabs at a rogue vegetable with his fork. "Because you don't understand why I think we should have them."

"That's just because—"

"Because nobody in your life has taken the time to show you how very much you are worth," Phil finishes for him.

"I was going to say because I had an unusual upbringing."

Phil grants, "Not untrue, but mine applies more specifically and correctly to the current situation."

Clint laughs a little. "Ever get tired of always being right?"

"Only when you refuse to listen," Phil says drily.

Clint nods his head slightly in acknowledgment of the humor. "A date."

Phil says, "I promise it'll be fun."

With his mouth full, as if it makes the words mean less, Clint tells him, "I trust you."

*


Phil tells Clint, "This Sunday, ten am-ish, barring a mission, we're going on a date."

Clint asks, "Should I, uh, dress up or something?"

Phil shakes his head and says, "Just be at the apartment when I'm ready to leave."

The date is almost derailed by an incident on Saturday involving a scientist whose grant committee clearly hasn't been doing the proper amount of oversight, but between the two of them, Natasha and Clint shut the whole thing down faster than anyone is really expecting. Sharon Carter, to whom Natasha is affixed, does the handling and Clint expects to be chafing at the bit the whole time. Even though her style is very different from Phil's, she's smart and knows when to listen. Clint is definitely willing to work under her again.

Early Sunday morning, Clint goes for a run to bleed off some nerves, then cleans up and dresses in a pair of jeans and a button down. It's the most non-ratty casual wear he has. He's relieved, even having been reassured, to find Phil in jeans and a fall sweater.

They train into Brooklyn and walk a few blocks. Clint sees the sign from further away than Phil—or, you know, any other human being in the world—and laughs. "You're taking me to a beer festival for our date?"

Phil smiles. "Well, I plan to buy you dinner once you're good and trashed, if it's any consolation."

This is cool. Clint likes beers and people watching and fall weather, and this means he can have as much of it as he wants. Still, "How is this different from before, when we did things?"

Phil thinks for a moment. "Before I was planning events for a friend who needed some fun in his life. Today I chose something I thought we'd like doing together, that would mean time between us, and that I could pick up the tab for."

"So," Clint rolls the word out slowly, "now that it's my turn to plan, I've just gotta pick something we'll like doing together and that I can afford?"

"Pretty much, yeah," Phil says, heading toward a booth with a microbrew he wants to sample.

"That's not too hard." Clint is always suspicious of things that come easy. There's usually a catch.

Phil nods. "With the right person, it never is."

*


Epilogue

Clint and Phil have been together as more than just principal-and-obeisant for a little over two years when Clint's affixation terminates. Clint has lost count of the fights they've had. At first, he kept meticulous track, certain each one would be the last, be Phil's breaking point. Instead, the fights always ended in some kind of compromise pounded out between them and pretty fantastic making-up sex.

Fury does as he has promised, and offers Clint a full-time, non-affixation contract with SHIELD. Clint knows he should say yes, knows he will never get another chance like this. He says, "I need twenty-four hours."

Fury narrows his eyes. In the end all he says is, "Take forty-eight. Be sure."

*


Clint goes to Phil's office. Phil doesn't even look up when he walks in, just says, "Hi."

"Can—can we get out of here?"

Phil does look up at that. "You okay?"

Clint doesn't want to lie. "Phil. Take me to dinner, yeah?"

There's a pause and then Phil says, "Yeah, all right."

Phil doesn't ask where he wants to go, just takes them to the Italian place down the street from their apartment run by two brothers who have a serious passion for finding ways to make old-style, American-Italian food new and interesting without taking away the comfort in it. It's where Clint comes when he's feeling off. Phil knows him.

Clint orders a glass of the house red and drinks half of it before even starting in on the bread. Phil asks, "Do you want me to poke?"

Clint shakes his head. Taking a breath and wishing he were drunk, he says, "Fury offered me a full-time contract today."

"Of course he did. Your affixation ends in seven days, SHIELD wants to secure you and it's only logical on his part. Do you want to say no? Is that what this is about? Because you can. SHIELD will not block attempts to find employment elsewhere and will, in fact, provide reference."

Clint shakes his head. "I want—um, I mean, it's been pretty convenient for you, these last few years to just, take me up on the offer of companionship? And it's not like I think you don't think of me as a friend or enjoy the sex or anything, but when we're no longer contractually obligated to live together—"

Phil's face is blank but his eyes are a roadmap of hurt and anger. "Are you breaking up with me because you no longer need to keep a principal happy?"

"What?" That doesn't even make any sense. "No. I'm giving you the chance to move onto bigger and better things. I just, I don't think I can be at SHIELD if that's how it's going to be. And I need to know, is all."

Phil closes his eyes for a long moment and when he opens them he's regained some measure of control over his own emotions. "Let me get this straight. You think I've been taking you home to my parents and spending the few days we have off in bed and considering getting a dog just because you were there and convenient? And furthermore think that now that I no longer have to be around you I'll just go out and find myself someone…better?"

It makes Clint want to scream, that Phil is making this harder than it already is, playing dumb. "You're a good guy, Phil. I get that. You took on my contract and you felt like you had a responsibility to me and these last five years have changed everything for me. But at the end of the day, I'm still the guttersnipe you fished out of a prison cell. And you're still a college graduate, ex-Army Ranger who's headhunted by every major agency in the country and a few outside every three to four months."

Phil smiles. It's not his normal smile, it's the one he gets when he's contemplating world dominance. Or something, Clint's not actually sure what the smile portends. Phil says, "That's funny. Because from where I stand you're a hot young superstar in the intelligence community with everyone practically slavering to have you. A guy who was dealt shit cards in life and managed to retain more than a strain of decency anyway. Someone who makes me laugh, and can actually figure out what I'm saying and—fuck, Clint. I'm so in love with you it hurts half the time."

"Oh," Clint says, and finishes the rest of his wine in one long, draining sip. "Um, in that case, would you consider marrying me? Because I'm kind of freaked out at the thought of not being legally bound to you, which is pretty screwed up, but—"

"I deserve a better proposal, but pending the effort, yes, of course, let's do it."

Clint can't breathe for the better part of a minute. When he manages again, he's dizzy. "Y—you're serious?"

Phil shrugs. "I would have asked a year ago, but it seemed unethical."

Clint stares at Phil until his brain reboots. "You're not even gonna believe the proposal I come up with."

"Big words."

"In the meantime, though," Clint's smile is one-fourth snigger, three-fourths seduction, "I'm gonna make a call to the Director, and then I think you should take me home and we should celebrate."

Phil's grin is slow and so, so sincere. "Sounds like a plan."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile