Since Tasha was attending a ballet studio on full scholarship based purely on merit, Clint was pretty sure Phil understood. Clint and she had fought about it, but she’d won. Surprise.
Clint was nearly twenty by the time he finished. Parker was the only one still in high school by that time, and she was almost three years younger than Clint. Phil didn’t seem to notice, instead just told Clint how proud he was every time a grade card came, despite most of Clint’s grades being in the C+/B- range.
The good thing about school was that through it, he was able to compete on the regional archery team. He’d tried out for the school team just so he could shoot on school hours, as well as with Peggy, but the coach had pretty quickly turned him over to the more competitive clubs. Phil had come to every single meet. Okay, there was one he missed, but he was also recovering from kidnapping at the time. And boy, had that news not gone over well. Clint apologized to Sara—who'd been the one to tell them Phil was missing—every time he saw her for years afterward.
Colleges in Arizona and Michigan contacted Clint about their archery program, but he didn’t want to go that far. If he was going to college, he’d probably go wherever Tasha went. She was good at deciding things like that.
That theory was how he ended up in Virginia, on the James Madison archery team, while Tasha majored in dance. They had to live on campus the first year and females and males weren’t allowed to room together. Clint almost gave up when he heard that, but Tasha’d taken his face in her hands and said, “We’re going to try this. And if one of us decides it’s not working, we’ll leave. But—but we deserve this.”
Clint’s first three roommates were all seemingly nice guys, but they left after a couple of Clint’s nightmares, which had ratcheted back up in the unfamiliar environment. After that the school upgraded him to a single for free. Tasha’s first roommate complained that Tasha was a psychopath after she tried waking Tasha up one morning and ended up with a bruised larynx. That was all it took for the school to upgrade her.
Phil called every day. He told Clint, "You know you don't actually have to pick up for your dad, right?"
Clint agreed to disagree.
Then Tasha committed a highly unlikely and unforeseeable type of treason by making a friend. Her name was Jen and she was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and one of the dance TA's. She was not the kind of friend Clint would have expected Tasha to make, if he'd expected anything. It was hard not to like Jen, though. She was an amazing listener and she had her own broken pieces, jagged enough to notice, if not understand.
When Clint said, "She's hiding something," Tasha answered, "No, she just doesn't tell anyone and everyone that her sister killed herself almost two years ago."
"Oh," Clint said.
Tasha looked at him and said, "I can—if it really bothers you, I won't do…friend things with her."
And fuck, Clint wished he could take Tasha up on that, but it wasn't her fault he wasn't any good and the only friends he really had were either forged by traumatic experience or old enough to have been his parent. He wasn't going to steal her whole life. He'd taken quite enough. He shook his head, smiled. "It's good. You should have friends."
Her eyes had darkened at the assertion, but she'd just knocked his shoulder with hers and changed the subject.
Emily, the international studies fellow who was teaching one of Tasha's 101 classes, was the second friend. Emily had grown up largely in the Czech Republic while her mother had worked as an ambassador at the Hague. She spoke Czech, Polish and Russian, was insanely smart, and had great taste in tapas bars.
Her boyfriend, Aaron, was a graduate student in psychology, and, so far as Clint could tell, never smiled. Ever. He didn't talk much, either, and when he did, his voice was soft, but the kind of voice you listened to instinctively.
For his dissertation, Aaron was working with a computer sciences graduate who was the exact opposite of him. Oh, Jake was a genius, but he was also a complete goof who never stopped talking. His best friend was named Spencer, and was a doctorate student at only nineteen years old. Occasionally, Pen, who Jake had met through hacking, so far as Clint could tell, would show up in all her goth glory and strange, seemingly unmatching kindness. Clint had no idea what Pen actually did with her time, but she wasn't in school.
They were an odd bunch, but Clint couldn't deny that they were each cool and engaging in their own way. They were also Tasha's. He knew she was trying to share, he got that, but when he went out with them, he felt like an intruder. He was struggling to get by in most of his basics, using tutors for everything outside of physics and calculus.
Often, when Tasha asked him to go with them, he told her he needed time to practice at the range, which was true. Coach Laurent had dropped a few hints about how the school was really depending on him this year, and other less subtle ones about Clint's scholarship. He had an off-day after getting a terrible grade on his latest comp and rhetoric assignment and Laurent kept him after practice, had him shoot for an hour without an arm guard so that he would, "Get his act together."
He actively avoided Tasha after incidents like that, not wanting to explain how much of a fuck up he was. Clint could lie to Phil and Peggy pretty easily: they weren't around to see the bruises. At one point, in early spring, when things had gone well-past the point of punishment sessions, stressed and tired and scared, he snapped at Tasha when she tried to get him to go out with her and her nice, smart friends, "I'm too busy for you, okay?"
Her body had gone stiff in a way he knew too well, and he almost, almost apologized. He made himself not.
After that, she stopped asking. After that, she mostly stopped speaking to him, period.
Later, Clint would look back and see exactly how things had fallen into place, how he'd made himself easy prey. Aaron would tell him in a quiet, understanding tone about how abusers found persons susceptible, isolated them, made them believe there was no way out. Clint would ask, "So, they find the stupid ones, huh?"
Aaron would say, "They find people who don't know their own worth."
By the time Coach made his move, Clint was used to after-practice sessions, whether for punishment or just because the man decided Clint hadn't put in enough time that day. Clint knew he was being picked on, but every time he tried to assert his rights, Coach would point out how much better he could be, how he was clearly wasting potential and how this was the only thing he was really good at, so it served him well to concentrate. Clint missed Peggy's balance of challenge and praise something fierce. He didn't allow himself to think about it. Peggy wasn't here, Coach was.
Clint was going to get a D in his comp and rhet class, he knew he was, and then he would lose his scholarship. And sure, maybe Tasha and he weren't getting along all that well, but the thought of not being near her still made his stomach go cold with panic. And while he knew Phil wouldn't chide him for it, would let him come home, he couldn't bear the thought of disappointing him.
When Coach intimated that he could maybe help with that, Clint knew better, he knew everything came with a price, but he'd been living with Phil, training under Peggy, a little too long, because he thought he'd be able to pay the price. The next day, Clint's comp and rhet professor offered him some private tutoring sessions and a chance for some extra credit with a smile and the sentiment, "Coach Laurent really thinks you're something, huh?"
Clint might not have been very smart, but he had enough street smarts to know Coach wasn't allowed to intimate that Clint had better be good for him, good on his knees, good with his mouth. Clint knew he could tell someone. But for anything to change, someone in charge would have to believe him. Clint was nearly twenty-one and close to failing in two of his classes. Aside from Phil, Tasha, the kids, and the other parents, nobody had ever believed Clint when offered a more suitable option, and Coach had been with the school for seven years, winning them five national championships.
He told himself it wasn't a big deal. Neal had done it to save them, that time. And he knew some of the others had done it for other reasons, or simply because they hadn't been given a choice. It wasn't like he was a kid anymore. And if he hadn't experimented when he was one, well, that was on him.
He wanted his scholarship. He wanted Phil to smile at Clint the way he didn't smile at anyone else besides Natasha. He'd never been unwilling to work for what he wanted.
The first time was hard, worse than he expected. Coach had no interest in being gentle, in letting him learn. Clint was a mess of vomit and tears by the end, and Coach just said, "Clean up before you leave for the night."
Clint mopped away the evidence and stood under the shower water for so long the sensor-activated lights turned off. In the darkness, he promised himself he'd do better; he wouldn't let this happen again.
It happened again. At some point the reason behind the blackmail, the threats, became background noise. Clint was doing this because he needed to stay in school and this was the price, and that was that. The first time Coach ever shoved Clint against the wall and pushed his way inside of him, Clint got himself through the pain by reminding himself he'd been through worse, by going to the place in his mind he'd forgotten existed, but was right there waiting for him, vast and empty and safe. He thought, at least I can shower after, at least I have a bed to go to.
He almost gave in that night and called Tasha, pretty sure that even if she didn't like him much anymore, she'd at least help get him out of trouble one more time. Maybe he wouldn't even tell her, he'd just ask her to stay with him for the night. Clint actually laughed aloud at himself at that thought. He'd found excuses not to go home for Christmas because he couldn't stand to be that near to her and not keep her, not beg for forgiveness.
He allowed himself a call to Phil, and when Phil said, "You sound off, kiddo," he said, "Been pulling too many all-nighters. College and all."
He suspected Phil didn't fully believe him, but he didn't push, either. Clint wasn't sure whether he was disappointed or relieved.
Clint won state championships in April and Phil, who made sure he could be there, hugged Clint and said, "You're amazing."
He also side-eyed Clint and Tasha, and asked, "Everything all right?"
Tasha, who'd always been the better liar, covered for Clint. It was the most concern she'd shown since he'd essentially told her to fuck off. Clint deserved it, he knew, but the three of them being together made him want to break, to tell someone, to beg for help, for things to go back to the way they were. He reassured himself with the fact that she looked good, settled in her own skin. And if once or twice he caught her looking at him when she thought he couldn't see, well, she'd get past that, too, he was sure. She had other people to be her sidekicks now.
Clint stole another hug from Phil before they parted ways after dinner. He murmured into his shoulder, "Miss you."
Phil tightened his grip and said, "You can always come home. It'll always be there for you, you know that, right?"
Clint did. He also knew it wasn't that simple.
Clint stayed at school through June, because he'd taken first at regionals in May and nationals were in the middle of June. He placed third in nationals. Peggy, who'd come to see him compete, congratulated him, hugged him and said, "Pretty soon you'll be teaching me."
He had the feeling he could have done better, but he'd been having trouble eating and sleeping. Nothing tasted right and everything made him sick to his stomach. When he slept, he was back in the cages, only Tasha wasn't there and he didn't know why.
He'd made it through his first year though, and could go home. Tasha had gone home at the end of the spring semester, so she was already there. He was torn between desperately wanting to be near her and being petrified she'd figure it out if she was around too much. He thought maybe he could spend a lot of time at the range, and do his best to avoid the others who were most likely to call him on anything. No matter how much he wanted help, he wasn't going to cause trouble for the others. All of them had enough shit going on in their lives.
It was hard not to flinch at unexpected touches, cringe at hands that held him where he was in any way. But he did it. He kept everything under cover all day and at night, after Tasha fell asleep, he gagged himself and set his phone to vibrate at six in the morning and put it beneath his pillow, so he could wake up and be gone by the time she woke.
He should have known he'd get caught in some way. Maybe he'd even wanted to. By the time it happened, he was too tired and worn to really know. One morning he slept straight through his alarm and woke up in the bright shine of almost mid-day still feeling tired, but maybe a little better. The nightmares had only made him restless the night before, and he'd gotten some actual sleep.
He turned over and his brain clicked on, because Tasha was sitting on her bed, staring at him. Clint unfastened the gag, worked his jaw a bit and said, "Kinda creepy."
Her eyes were wet, even if she wasn't actually crying. She said, "Emily and Aaron and Jen, even Spence, they all told me. They told me it was some kind of defense mechanism I hadn't run into, but I—I was so sure I knew all of yours. I thought, I don't know, I told myself you'd just been waiting for me to have others so that you could do your own thing. I mean, I listen. They're talking about how you could go to the Olympics. I thought you just wanted me to get out of the way."
"Tasha," Clint said, because he was not ever going to tell her that. Saying he was too busy had been enough of a lie to her for one lifetime.
"You've lost weight. I thought maybe you were just training too hard, that I didn't know what you needed to do, but now I'm remembering that I know some things about you. Some important things. I was going to talk to Phil about it, because he's worried too, and he doesn't know how to make things better because you won't talk to him. Only then I woke up this morning and saw…" she gestured to the gag. She took a deep breath. "The fuck, Clint?"
Clint opened his mouth without being sure of what he was going to say. He didn't know how to tell her that he'd let Coach use him so he could stay, so he could be what everyone wanted him to be. To his horror, his breath caught on a sob. He shut his mouth and eyes tightly. He was fine. This was his own mess, he wasn't going to blubber like some stupid crybaby. He was in his twenties, for fuck's sake.
"Clint," Tasha said, sharp and maybe a little bit afraid. When he opened his eyes, she was standing in front of him, worry painting her expression.
She touched her fingers to his cheek and no matter how hard Clint tried, he couldn't keep the tears from falling. She said, "Okay. We're going to—it's going to be okay."
Clint buried his face in his hands and cried until he was sick. She stayed the whole time, a hand on his arm, his back, his neck. She stayed, and never stopped telling him they were going to fix things.
Natasha called Phil, who was there within the hour. He brought ginger ale, peppermint tea, and a few cans of chicken and alphabet letters soup. Clint nearly started crying again, but managed to pull it the fuck together at the last second. They sat at the table and Clint said, "I messed up."
"Tell us what happened, Clint. Tasha and I get to decide on who messed up," Phil said.
Clint wasn't sure where to start. The timeline had gotten tangled somewhere along the way. He tried, "I didn't want them to take my scholarship."
Tasha frowned. "Why would they take your scholarship?"
Clint rolled his eyes at her. "I'm pretty dumb at everything that doesn't relate back to trajectory."
Phil kept his expression clear, but said, "You're a largely kinesthetic learner and usually need to approach things from a different way. That doesn't make you dumb."
Clint shrugged. "At the school stuff, I am. The writing and stuff. And I wasn't gonna make the grades I needed."
"Okay," Phil said softly. "What happened?"
Clint shrugged. "Nothing's free, is all."
He wasn’t even looking at her, but he felt Tasha go stiff. Then she was in his space, her fingers on his face, as if she could get answers just by touch. She growled, "Who?"
He swallowed, because her reaction confirmed things he'd suspected but never wanted to know. "I didn't fight. I…I didn't tell you, and I could have. You would have believed me."
Flatly, Tasha said. "I would have. Me, huh?"
"Was it a professor? A grad student? A classmate? Who was it, Clint?"
"Tasha," this time it was Phil. He'd come to stand on the other side of Clint and was now putting a calming hand on Tasha's shoulder.
Tasha took a breath, but didn't take her eyes off Clint. He forced, "Laurent" out of his mouth, but that was all he could manage. Tasha's eyes went cold and she hissed, "I will kill him."
Clint grabbed her wrist and said, "My word against his, Tash."
"Fuck that," Phil said, shocking both of them. Clint was pretty sure he'd never once heard Phil swear. Phil's eyes were burning as he said, "I'm not an FBI agent for nothing."
"Where there's one," Phil explained to them later, "there will be others. Predators don’t stop at one." Then, pinning Clint with a look: "This wasn't about you. This was about him knowing exactly what to look for, and how to manipulate it. How long's he been at the school?"
Clint thought of the trophies lining the glass case in the rec center. "Seven years."
"Then we start with every scholarship student for the last seven years. There are only three given out at any time, so it shouldn't be that much." Phil paused. "Clint. Can I—can I talk to Harvey about this? And maybe someone in the DC office?"
Clint wanted to say no. He'd never seen Harvey with a hair out of place. And Mike, fuck, Mike had graduated high school at sixteen and started on a public policy Masters just before he turned twenty. He really didn't want either of them knowing that he'd bent over just to keep himself from failing.
On the other hand, Harvey was the reason the people who'd put him and Tasha in a cage weren't on the streets anymore. And Eliot had long ago told Clint that every time Mike came around Tasha and Clint, he tried so, so hard to be cool, because he thought they were. Whatever else, neither Harvey nor Mike had ever done anything cruel or even vaguely mocking to Clint.
He shifted in his seat. "If I'm Harvey's client, he can't tell anyone, right? Not even Mike?"
Phil nodded. "He won't, though, if you don't want to talk to him about this, just want me to ask him not to."
It was so tempting to let Phil take care of everything, but Clint wasn't a kid anymore, and he'd already dragged him into an investigation that would take time and money he wasn't being paid for. He shook his head. "I'll handle it. And DC…if you need to, yeah."
Phil looked uncomfortable for a moment before he asked, "What about Sara? Confidential, I promise. If Ez or the others find out, it won't be from her. But she's my partner. I—I don't want to keep her out of an investigation."
Sara had been around for every birthday since Phil had adopted them; sent them both Christmas gifts; invited them to different kinds of sports games when she had extra tickets. More than once she'd listened when Clint or Tasha was afraid to tell Phil something. She wasn't his mom, but she filled a similar space.
He didn't want her looking at him differently, but he wasn't going to put that over the needs of Phil's working relationship. He nodded tightly. "Sara's fine."
Phil said, "Thank you."
Clint wasn't sure what he'd done to make Phil grateful. He should probably ask, but he was so tired. He wanted to close his eyes and make this all go away.
Telling Sara, as it turned out, facilitated a connection to DC, since one of her Quantico classmates was pretty high up in a unit designed to hunt down child pornography rings. They were then able to narrow down the list of possible past-victims easily. Of the twenty one who had preceded Clint, only a total of six had indicators that made it likely: broken homes or no family, academic problems without readily available resources, previous victimization, or some combination thereof.
Of those six, one had been killed in action and another had committed suicide. Clint had a sick feeling in his stomach about both of them. The remaining four were contacted by the DC agent, Morgan, since he had experience in handling witnesses who did not want to talk about what had happened to them.
Meanwhile, Clint made an appointment with Harvey and showed up to his office. It was a mistake. Harvey's office was all smooth lines and windows. It made Clint feel on display and trapped. Harvey took one long look at him after they'd both sat down, then stood. "Come on."
Clint blinked. "Where're we going?"
"Somewhere you won't feel like you're going to have to fight your way out of," Harvey said, leading them to the elevator. Clint hunched up his shoulders, but didn't argue.
They were quiet for a walk that spanned about three city blocks, to a building that had a courtyard at its center. The trees were festooned with bird feeders and all manner of birds swooped in, chittered at each other for a bit as they ate, and took off again. Clint bit his cheek. "Phil told you I like birds."
"Phil told me about the trip you guys took to Yosemite. I extrapolated."
For a second, just one, Clint allowed himself to think about that trip. They'd camped, spent all seven days of it under a sky wider than anything Clint had ever seen, the birds free to fly through any of it as they so pleased. He made himself focus. He'd practiced what he was going to say to Harvey at least thirty times so that he wouldn't fuck it up, but here he was and none of the words wanted to come. He ended up with, "I let my archery coach fuck me."
Harvey, to his credit, covered his moment of shock well. Clint didn't miss it. Harvey said, "And when you say 'let,' I'm going to assume, given that we're having this conversation, that it was not entirely consensual?"
Clint focused on a pigeon with one leg, working to scrounge what the other birds knocked to the ground. "I didn't say no."
"What would have happened, had you said no?"
Clint shrugged. "Dunno. Maybe he wouldn't have."
Harvey paused. "What else?"
"Probably would've lost my scholarship," Clint said, the words making something tighten in his chest.
Harvey stepped in front of Clint, making Clint look at him. "Clint. Is this something you want to prosecute?"
Clint made himself not look down, but he couldn't help hugging himself. "Not…not really. But I don't think I can let him do that for another three years, and Phil says it's probably not just me, so there'll be someone after me, probably younger, probably more easy to hurt."
Calmly, Harvey said, "There is no question of us letting him do anything. He's going to lose his job and have paid for the next three years of your schooling by the time I'm done. But he won't go to jail unless you want to pursue this."
Clint felt the tears build in his eyes, but refused to the let them drop. He squared his jaw. "I want him to be the one in the cage. I—I want the nightmares to stop."
Slowly, Harvey nodded. "Okay, then, kid. That's what we're going to make happen."
Special Agent-in-Charge Derek Morgan found that three of the remaining four possible victims had suffered some kind of sexual abuse. Evidently Laurent had started out by demanding handjobs or having the kids jack themselves off in front of him. One of those three declined to be involved in the proceedings.
Thankfully, the last two were willing to come forward. They set up an appointment to meet with SAC Morgan, with Harvey in the room along with any legal representation the others might want to bring.
James "call me Bucky" Buchanan Barnes came with James "call me Rhodey" Rhodes, who was JAG. Despite what appeared to be a prosthetic arm, Bucky was serving in the Air Force. Clint made himself not look, because he might have been raised in something very like a barn, but Phil had given him manners. Bucky, though, just laughed and held out the hand that was mechanics and circuits. "Say hello to Luke. Luke's a DEKA design, made for Armed Forces personnel who lose arms."
Clint shook the hand and kind of wished he could show it to Tony and Heero, even if they probably already knew. It was awesome. Bucky eyed him and said, "So, I pretty much figure that after nearly a year of being held behind enemy lines and slowly taken apart, there's not a lot that frightens me anymore. But here you are stirring this pot."
Clint wasn't sure what to tell Bucky. In the end, he settled on, "I had an unusual upbringing."
Rhodey, Bucky, and Harvey all made a similar sound at once, although Clint imagined it meant different things from each of them. He was saved from having to sit in silence when the third guy entered the room.
Clint knew that Carlos Alvarez was a Green Beret, but he hadn't really expected him to show up in dress uniform. Thinking on it, Clint figured he might do the same. It kept people at a distance. Morgan said, "Welcome, Mr. Alvarez. Did you bring counsel?"
Alvarez shook the offered hand. Quietly, he said, "Cougar, please, and no."
Clint recognized deep in his bones someone who'd been through the same kind of things Clint had survived, but without a Natasha at his side. Even so, Cougar's expression wasn't cold, just carefully analytical. Morgan nodded. "If you wish to procure one at any time, just say."
The six of them settled into chairs around a large round conference table within the FBI offices. Bucky had been stationed in California, Cougar in Texas. Since there was no good middle ground, they'd decided DC was the best place to meet. After a moment, Morgan said, "I want to reiterate that the three of you are free to leave or change your mind at any time. This will not be easy. Sexual coercion and rape cases are hard to prove under the best of circumstances, and with no physical evidence, these are not the best of circumstances. This is going to take a toll on you, possibly one even larger than the actual abuse, and there will be times, particularly in depositions and court, when you feel as though you are being violated again."
The three of them looked between each other. Clint said, "I started this. I'm gonna finish it."
Bucky shrugged. "Like I said. Time behind enemy lines gives a guy perspective."
Cougar tilted his head for a moment. He gave a single nod. Morgan said, "Okay. Let's start with explaining the process of this, and at what parts I will need your presence or assistance."
Tasha and Phil were waiting for Clint in the hall, despite the meeting lasting near to five hours. Clint wasn't even sure how his legs were still working, how anything about him was. Cougar hadn't said more than five, maybe six words the entire time, but had agreed to write up testimony. Bucky said, "Just me and Rhodey. I need the room to be clear of everyone else."
Clint understood the feeling. He didn't really even want Harvey in the room. He would have to come back tomorrow, give Morgan his statement. Morgan was going to give the case over to the state of Virginia, since it had original jurisdiction, but he told them, "I know someone in the department, someone I've worked with before. And I'll be consulting the entire time."
Bucky had been the one to tilt his head and ask, "Why?"
Morgan blinked. "Why?"
Bucky shrugged. "Not your job."
Clint nodded. "And this is bigger than the favor Sara called in."
Bucky picked up with, "But you've dedicated a fair amount of time and resources and plan to continue to do so, not to mention calling in an ask with your police friend. So, yeah, why?"
Morgan was quiet for a moment before saying, "Because I've been where you've been. And I have the resources to help. And the desire to kick the ass of every single bastard who thinks he can take what he wants because someone is less wealthy or secure or fortunate than other people."
Into the silence, it was Carlos who said, "Gracias."
Clint was busy looking at Morgan, the rock solid FBI SAC, and wondering if maybe he could be something better, someday, too. Something good. Someone good.
They were in bed one night, Tasha tucking herself over Clint, as she'd preferred recently, when she said, "We're living off campus."
Clint sighed. "Scholarship doesn't cover it, Tash."
"I'll get a job. The local dance school needs evening teachers anyway. Lots of students do it."
Clint rubbed a hand over his face. Evidently they were doing this now. "You have a chance to be a college kid. Phil—he's done his best to see that we get this, get time to not worry about everything."
"Which is why I'm doing this," she said.
Clint struggled free and turned to look at her. "You have friends, people you hang out with. Don't cut into that time."
Tasha sat up and after a second, got out of bed, turned on the light and then came back to sit down on it. She tucked her knees to her chest and spoke slowly. "I like my friends, Clint. I like having them. And it's…nice to enjoy the company of people who aren't my friends because they were kept in a cage with me. People who just like me."
Clint nodded. "I know, that's why—"
She shook her head. "But they're my friends. They never took a beating to keep me safe or held me while I was sicking up. I know we're not, I mean, we weren't born siblings, but you're my brother. I've only got one, I don't need any others, and there's nobody who can take that place."
"Okay," Clint said, also making his words stretch. "I—that's—we can be siblings in the dorms, and then there's no money problems."
"No," Tasha said.
Clint opened his mouth, but she slashed a hand through the air. "No. That's how this happened. One year and I wasn't there—"
"This is not your fault—"
"I don't care. I care that I didn't catch it. And maybe, maybe someday there'll be someone who makes me want to have a home just with them, or you'll have that. Or maybe those people will have to understand that we're a package deal. But right now? We're not living apart from each other anymore."
It was one of the grand truths of Clint's life that Tasha was Always Right in the end. He yawned. "Guess we should start looking at places tomorrow, then."
The shit storm of Laurent being fired hit the archery community in early August. Clint found himself glad he didn't play football. The archery community existed, but it didn't have the kind of following mainstream sports did, which limited the exposure of the story and the media's interest. He was also sickeningly, but honestly relieved that big sports programs had set the precedent for what happened when sexual abuse was reported and not acted on, because Clint knew he was a coward, but he couldn't have gone back with Laurent still there.
He'd been texting with Cougar and Bucky. Not about the case so much as sharp-shooting, and which board games were the best, and what it was like serving. But a few nights before he was set to go back, he texted, "idk how u guys wnt back."
"Desperation," was Cougar's answer.
Bucky followed quickly with, "too scared to tell anyone back then."
After a moment, Cougar added, "jst keep breathing."
Clint was trying, he really was.
Phil insisted on coming down to help them move into their new apartment, even though they both assured him he didn't need to take the time off. He just said, "I never need to spend more time with you guys."
Tasha rolled her eyes at that, but she also allowed herself to be pulled in for a sideways hug. Clint hoped he wouldn't beg Phil to stay at the end of the weekend. No sooner than they'd gotten the keys and put their bags down did Jake and Pen show up. Jake was carrying a pack of strawberry soda. Pen's hair was electric blue. They both smiled in a slightly overeager way and Jake said, "We thought we'd hotwire your interwebs until cable's set up."
Tasha grinned. "Jake, Pen, meet my dad, federal agent Phil Coulson."
Pen went a little pale. "And by hotwire, we mean—"
Phil was clearly too distracted by the fact that Tasha had introduced him as her dad to care, if the look on his face was any indication. He just stuck out a hand and said, "Good to finally meet you."
An hour later, Emily, Aaron, and Jen showed to help the unpacking process along. Spence hadn't returned from his summer fellowship yet. Emily came in the kitchen with Clint, assisting him in figuring out where to put the dishes and silverware and other odds and ends he and Tasha had scavenged from garage sales and thrift shops since deciding they were going to have an apartment. She said, "You know Tasha doesn't go three sentences without mentioning you?"
Clint's ratio was more like two, but he wasn't sure where this was going. He forced himself to lower the plate he was holding in front of himself like a shield. "We've been through a lot together."
Emily nodded. "Which is why we'd like you to give us a chance."
Clint frowned. "What?"
She shrugged. "If you're not going to talk to us, we haven't got a prayer of making you like us. And Tasha has great people sense, so we all figure you're pretty awesome."
"I don't steal things from Tasha," he told her. He tried not to steal any more at all, but when he did, there was a whole list of people that it would never be from.
"No," Emily said slowly. "No, if what she says is true, you share everything with her. But she's not allowed to share back?"
Clint opened his mouth to tell her she didn't know anything. But she wasn't looking at him like she was judging him. Mostly, she just looked a little sad. He said, "I'm not good with people."
"Good," Emily said. "Because Aaron's shit with them three-fourths of the time."
Clint woke from a nightmare only a few hours after he'd finally managed to sleep. Tasha turned over and pulled at him, but he kissed her forehead and said, "Gonna grab a drink of water. Need anything?"
She shook her head. He climbed over her and left the room, shutting the door behind him. It was a one bedroom apartment, so Phil was staying on the sofa that had been a "housewarming" gift from pretty much everyone who knew Phil or Clint or Tasha. The card that had come with the signatures had been nearly as large as the couch.
He wasn't on the sofa, though. Clint looked over to where he was headed, the kitchen-breakfast nook area, and saw him sitting at the small kitchen table that had been one of their garage sale purchases. Phil smiled. "Nightmare?"
Clint shrugged. Phil said, "C'mon, sit down."
Clint did as told, and Phil stood, rustling a hand through Clint's hair. He brought back a glass of water and set it in front of Clint before sitting back down across from him. Clint looked at the tablet in front of Phil and asked, "Were you working?"
Phil shook his head. "Not really. Answering some emails, but just because I couldn't sleep."
Clint took a sip. "You could have the bed. Tash and I'd share the couch."
Phil laughed a bit. "I appreciate it, but that couch might be more comfortable than my bed."
Clint smiled. "Yeah, that's what happens when you let Pepper Potts organize things."
"It's genuinely amazing she hasn't taken over the world."
"Too much work. She's already got Tony."
"You have a solid point."
"Happens occasionally," Clint mumbled.
Phil gave him a Look, but all he said was, "Wanna talk about the nightmare?"
Clint was basically an asshole when cornered, so he came back with, "Wanna talk about why you can't sleep?"
Clint really should have known better, because he couldn't remember a time when Phil hadn't called one of his bluffs. Calmly, Phil said, "I don't like having you out of my sight. Parenting books inform me that this is a normal occurrence, but they also tell me that it will lessen in time. Only it doesn't.
"I call every damn day, because I wake up panicked that I've left you somewhere or that you've run again or, I don't even know, but my heart doesn't calm down until I've at least gotten a text back. And the thing is, Clint, it was bad enough when I thought I was being paranoid. When I thought, well, you know, you get your kids from an illegal fighting hellhole and there's gotta be some psychological repercussions, but I promised Clint, swore that I would never let another person harm you or Tasha. I mean, maybe you'd get your heart a little broken by friends or girlfriends or boyfriends or whatever, but not—nobody was allowed to cause you the kind of harm you'd survived ever again."
"Don't," Phil said. He didn't snap it, just said it softly. "Don't use how happy you know that makes me feel to distract me. You asked. So listen."
Clint swallowed and nodded. Phil took a breath. "You and Tasha, you've never really needed me, not in the way children traditionally need their parents. By the time we found you, you could take care of yourselves and each other, handle anything life threw at you. The only thing, only thing I could give you was safety. Somewhere you didn't have to handle anything. And I didn't, Clint."
Clint took several sips and tried to make his words pretty and sensible, like Tasha would be able to do. In the end, though, he sighed. "Yeah, bullshit."
Phil just raised an eyebrow. Clint figured that was fair. Phil had never played the parent card when it came to little stuff like language, and when it came down to the big stuff—like Tasha's tendency to end fights once they began—it had never been about punishment with him. He'd taken the time to find out what was going on with them, to help them figure out solutions to the problems, instead of just assuming whatever they were doing was wrong.
"Maybe we didn't need a…keeper. Someone to make us lunches and I don't know, whatever it is parents who have kids and raise them without interruption do. But we sure as fuck needed someone to give a crap about us. Someone who was going to at least put up with our damage. And you did us a million times better, so just—if this isn't my fault, it doesn't get to be yours. The way you told me the cages weren't our fault, or how they trained Tasha, or why nobody liked me at the circus. None of that was your fault either. Sometimes, bad things just happen."
Clint ran a hand through his hair. "Honestly, they happen a hell of a lot more often than good things, and you're—you're our best thing. So don't. And I can call you 'dad' whenever I want to. You told me that years ago."
Phil's eyes were wet. "I didn't mean you could use it as emotional manipulation and you know it."
Clint tilted his head. "I do. Tasha does, too. What we don't know is when that means we can use it."
"Oh." Phil blinked.
Clint laughed, a wet, tired laughter. "You say things all the time. You say you love us like you remind us to pick up butter at the store, or whatever. Like it's not the most important thing either of us has ever heard, the thing we're most afraid of losing."
"And you say things like that," Phil retorted.
Clint frowned. "What?"
"Clint. Outside of walking into that next room, murdering Tasha in her sleep and desecrating her remains, I can't think of anything you could do that would make me not love you. And honestly, if that happened, I'd want to hear why from you first, before making any assumptions."
It was Clint's turn to blink. "Well, that's—not been our experience."
Phil looked down at the table for a moment, then back up at Clint. "Could you stop loving Tasha?"
The thought was so alien, Clint had never even considered it. "No."
One thing Clint had always liked about Phil was how he was willing to be brave for the three of them. He would assume where the other two couldn't, would allow them silence where he never held it himself. Clint shook his head. He'd never told Phil he loved him, so it was something of a relief to find out he knew anyway.
Phil nodded. "That's what real love is like, Clint. It doesn't just go away. You don't do something to make it disappear. And I wish I could explain to you why nobody who was supposed to ever loved you like they should have, why everyone until Tasha failed you. But I can't. All I can tell you is that it was their failure, not yours. You have always known how to love, you just weren't given a chance for so long. But you know how to just fine. You don't have to always question it. I never do."
Clint took the last couple sips of water. The only way he knew to respond to that was to ask, "Can you, maybe, stay in the room with us tonight?"
Phil reached across the table and pulled the hand Clint had wrapped around the glass into his, covering it with his other hand. "Not sure I'm going to sleep any other way."
The new archery coach was a woman named Ziva David. She had the same way of moving as Tasha, a confidence in her strength that Clint found calming. There were four Olympic medals hanging in her office, one of them gold. He called Peggy and asked if she knew anything about her.
Peggy said, "Not much. She competed for Israel. She was really young at the time, just over the age of eligibility, and she kind of fell off the map for a while after her last Olympics."
"Any idea how she ended up teaching at a college in Virginia?"
"No, not really."
"But?" Clint asked.
"From the rumors that went around the community about her, I wouldn't be surprised if she needed a fresh start."
Clint chewed that over. He didn't ask about the rumors. He didn't like when people believed stories about him and tried to extend others the courtesy of not listening to ones about them. He made himself say, "She's probably okay, though."
"I'm coming down there monthly, and you're living with Tasha this year. If she's not, we're going to catch on real quick. I think she is, though. I think she's going to help you take back some of what he took away."
Clint closed his eyes for a second. "Miss you."
He could hear her smile. "See you soon, munchkin."
Spence and Emily would show up at the range without mentioning they were going to drop by. Spencer would rattle off dynamics theory that was lost on Clint, but weirdly soothing. Emily was mostly quiet, just there, in a fashion very similar to Heero or Vin. Coach David had raised her eyebrow the first few times they'd come around, but she didn't disallow it, and by the end of the first month, she was teaching Emily archery basics.
Clint asked Tasha, "Did you set your friends on me?"
Tasha shrugged. "Guess it depends on your definition."
Tasha smiled. "I don't like that I work while you're at the range. They just wanted to help me feel better. But last I heard Spence was planning up some new side-project regarding trajectory and Emily was looking in to getting her own equipment. Besides, they suggested it, not me."
And maybe they were still doing it for Tasha, but Clint had something to talk to them about when they came over, now. Emily, in particular, was good at turning a little archery talk into a full-fledged conversation. A chat between friends.
Harvey kept Clint apprised of the status of the case. Clint only had to be there for the actual trial and even then, he would testify and leave if he so chose.
The conversations between himself, Bucky, and Cougar had turned into email chains atop texts. Neither Bucky nor Cougar had any family outside their units, and despite meeting the way they had—or, Clint acknowledged, maybe because of it—familiarity had just been easier than it usually was, at least on Clint's end.
He came home from class one day and called, "Tasha, did you steal my phone?"
He'd discovered it missing when he'd left the classroom. Tasha poked her head out from the bedroom. "Yup."
Clint frowned. "Yours not working?"
"Mine works fine."
There was nothing, nothing in the world, more piss-your-pants frightening than a Tasha who was just-forthcoming-enough. "Can you just tell me what you did to ruin my life and let us both move on?"
She gave him a disappointed look. "Drama queen."
"Fire-starter," he replied easily enough.
She grinned, as if it was a compliment. She wasn't entirely wrong. "I just wanted to have a conversation with your new friends."
Clint blinked. "Did you, at any point in this conversation, mention that you weren't me?"
"At a point, yeah."
Clint tried to find his righteous anger. He rooted around for it a bit and, when he couldn't, said, "I didn't pretend to be you with your friends."
"Yeah, well, you've always been the nicer of the two of us."
Clint glared. Tasha held his phone out to him. "I like them."
"So glad you approve."
Tasha was tactful enough not to point out that her opinion actually was a dealbreaker for him. Instead she kissed his forehead. "See, now we both have friends to share."
"Mine kind of like me because I was in a cage with them, sort of."
"No," she said softly. "That's the thing, Clint. They like you even though you were in that cage, and you dragged it out where everyone could see, and pulled them into that light with you."
"Oh," Clint said.
"Oh," Tasha agreed.
Halfway through the semester, Peggy had visited twice—she and the coach got along almost too well; if Clint hadn't been symbiotic with Natasha he might have been a little frightened—Spence was designing a new bow model, Emily could hit the target, if nowhere near the center, and Laurent had been arraigned, the trial date set.
Natasha really liked her job and had even been casually flirting with one of the other instructors. Clint's classes were going decidedly better than the year before, with Aaron tutoring him in Clint's psych 101 course, Emily patiently working him through beginning Spanish, and Pen, Jake, and Spence taking turns whenever Stats or Calc 3 was getting ahead of Clint.
He was still talking to Phil every day, but Clint was ninety-nine percent certain that was a lifestyle choice, rather than a recovery technique. He missed Phil.
In the middle of gearing up for States, Clint had a bad day. He hadn't slept for a few nights, nightmares of the cages crowding-in the way they sometimes still did for no obvious reason. His head hurt, Phil hadn't been available that morning because of something going on at work, and Natasha's studio was gearing up for recitals, so they'd been missing each other for the better part of the last week.
After nearly six arrows went wide by a few inches, Clint was already on edge. So when Coach David came up behind him and watched for the next few arrows—no better than the ones before, but at least no worse, given that he could feel her watching—and said, "Why don't you call it a day, Barton? Your head's obviously not in the game," Clint didn't exactly have a panic attack, but he wasn't sure what else you'd call it, either.
He was on his knees, apologies tumbling out of his mouth, when he was shocked out of the mind-blocking anxiety by David's sharp, "Barton!" and two quick, loud claps of her hands. His own breathing was too loud, but as everything took shape he had to fight not to curl in on himself, hide his face in his hands.
He might have lost the fight, if not for David crouching so that she was of a height with him. She said, "I'm going to count to four repeatedly, you are going to time your inhales and exhales to each count. Nod to show you understand."
Clint nodded. It took several tries to actually get his lungs to cooperate, but when he managed, the edges of things began fitting together again. He ran a hand over his face. "I'm, uh—that was—"
"A trigger reaction," David said.
He blinked at her. She rolled her eyes. "I served in the IDF and a few other things before deciding to make this a career. I'm sure you've heard the stories."
Clint shook his head. "Didn't ask. People tell stories about me, too."
David looked at him then, in a way he couldn't remember her doing before. "You're something different, Clint Barton."
"Yeah," Clint agreed, feeling tired down to his toes.
Her smile was unexpected. "I meant that in a good way."
He gave her his best doubtful expression. "I'm a mess."
Her lips widened into a grin. "We all are. It's those of us who know it that have the ability to make something new and interesting out of the disorganization."
Clint had gone home and fallen asleep on the couch, fully clothed. He woke to his cell ringing with Phil's ringtone. He swiped it on and mumbled, "Hi, 'lo."
"I wake you?"
"Long day," Clint said.
"Wanna talk about it?"
Mostly, Clint just wanted to sleep again. But he also didn't want to hang up. "Dad?"
"Can you tell me a story?"
There was a second of silence. Then Phil said, "Want me to start reading you 'Great Expectations' again?"
It had been the first adult book Phil had ever read to him and remained, by far, his favorite. "Please?"
"Go brush your teeth and get in your pajamas and call me back."
"How do you know I haven't?" Clint groused.
"Because I'm your father, young man."
And yeah, that was a pretty good reason.