A/N: Well, here you are. Thanks again for following along for this, my most difficult story to write yet. Thanks to the OP who threw this idea out there; I think it was a great idea and I hope I've done it some service. Thanks again to dysprositos, who had to give above and beyond the usual beta duties here and become a motivator as well. The reviews and support from everyone kept me in this, and while I'm glad it's finished, I'm also quite pleased with how it turned out and I hope you are, too.
Six years gave Clint a lot of perspective on what happened that Thursday night at the record store. He still remembered the look of betrayal in Barney's eyes as they stood on separate rooftops and the police clambered up the stairs to take Barney into custody. He still remembered Barney's glare in court as the judge sentenced him to a year in a juvenile detention center. Clint had gotten out of it, thanks to Coulson's lawyer, and a year later, when Barney was released from jail, Clint wasn't all that surprised when Barney disappeared. Clint was turning eighteen next week and hadn't heard from his brother since then.
He'd gotten in a few fights with Thor's brother Loki over the years, but never anything serious. Loki started to take school seriously as a way out of the life he was stuck in and didn't bother the boys all that much anymore.
Clint sat at on the steps of the orphanage waiting for Bruce. It was a beautiful sunny day with that crisp fall air that made even the city feel refreshing, and he and Bruce were going hiking. Tony might come along, but only if he could make it in time from MIT. Clint wasn't sure when his flight was getting in. Steve and Thor were coming over the next day for graduation, which was easy since they shared an apartment only a few blocks away from the orphanage. Steve was going to art school and Thor had a full time job with a shipping company.
Bruce had skipped a couple of grades over the years and was graduating with Clint tomorrow. Natasha had one year left, but she was thinking about getting her GED over the summer so she could skip senior year. She hated high school.
Clint couldn't blame her. They had discussed maybe joining the army together in the fall, although Coulson was trying his hardest to convince both of them to go to the local college and join their ROTC program instead. He said they were too smart to pass the opportunity up. Clint wasn't sure about college, though. He'd applied and been accepted, but he was still trying to work out the money problem.
He heard the door open behind him and Bruce sat down next to him with a sigh.
"Hey Stanford dude," Clint said with a grin and threw his arm around Bruce's shoulder.
Bruce slapped it away playfully and said, "Shut up, idiot."
"What? It sounds good. 'Stanford. Dude.' Don't you think?"
"No. It sounds stupid. Are we going hiking or what?" Bruce asked.
Clint stood and slung his backpack over his shoulders. "Yeah. The last bus comes back by six, so we can still make Coulson's dinner and have a couple hours in the woods." They had gotten the city bus schedule down like clockwork over the years, and they had a route that took them right to the edge of a park and back pretty easily. They'd all made a habit of going out at least once a month together, and Clint and Bruce tried to go whenever they had the chance. Both boys had weekend jobs, so it was hard sometimes, but they spent a lot of time out there regardless.
They both had fewer nightmares the more time they spent in the woods. Bruce still talked about his parents' deaths sometimes, and Clint knew the night of their death still plagued Bruce's dreams. His temper flared uncontrollably sometimes, like it did that night soon after they'd first met, but the more times Clint could drag his friend into the forest, the calmer he was day to day.
Clint also had nightmares. They covered the time with his father and the night of the record store, but the longer they spent in the woods in a month, the fewer sleepless nights he had. It had become routine for both of them.
It was a beautiful day to be hiking, and they took advantage of it, barely catching the bus they needed back. They made it, though, and had time to clean up and put on khakis and sharp button downs before meeting Coulson in front of the orphanage. Their former teacher drove up in his same old beat up sedan that Clint kept fixing for him over the years. As soon as Clint had been old enough to take auto mechanics at school, he had been tinkering with the car, and between him and Tony, they kept the thing in top form for Coulson, who never failed to thank them for it.
Coulson took them to dinner at a nice Italian restaurant a few miles away, and they filled the meal with easy conversation and jokes. Clint loved joking around with him, but Bruce always dragged him into political conversations or conversations about big ideas, and they had a tendency to talk for hours. Tonight, though, Coulson stopped them after they'd ordered their desserts.
"I have something for both of you. I wanted to give it to you tonight instead of tomorrow so we could have some privacy," Coulson said, smiling mysteriously. Clint knew he had given Steve and Thor a gift when they graduated, and he sent Tony care packages every month, so he wasn't surprised that there was a gift for him, but when he opened the envelope Coulson gave him, his jaw dropped and he had trouble catching his breath.
He stared up at his former teacher and saw Bruce having a similar reaction. "Coulson," he said weakly. "This. This is crazy." He took a breath. "I mean, thanks, really. Thank you. But this is crazy."
Bruce just sat there wordless, and Clint could only assume he had a check in his hands as well.
Coulson loosened his tie a little and took a sip of coffee. "Boys," he said, with his full-on mentor-grownup-parent voice that he pulled out whenever they needed it. "I don't have any family. I was in the military before I was a teacher, and I have this money. You both deserve to succeed, and you don't deserve to have money stand in your way. Bruce," he said, smiling over at Clint's best friend. "You have scholarships, but you're going to need this for room and board. Even if you don't need it right away, you're going to need it eventually. It will help."
He looked at Clint. "You should go to college, Clint. You're smart and you deserve it. This should get you started, and after you have a couple successful terms I'll help you get the scholarships you deserve. I still think you should go for an archery scholarship if you can. You had a couple early setbacks in school, but they shouldn't ruin your chances."
Clint looked down at the fifteen thousand dollar check and felt tears spring to his eyes. He suddenly realized how Steve and Thor afforded their apartment on top of Steve's schooling. They all sat in silence for a few moments.
"Thank you," Bruce said quietly.
Clint nodded as Coulson said, "You're welcome," and then Clint looked away for a minute.
"Clint?" Coulson asked, his voice tentative.
Clint looked over at him with a sheepish grin. His voice caught a little as he said, "I always wished you'd adopt me, when I was a little kid. When you helped me that night at the hospital, I started to wish you'd adopt me." He had, too.
He spent some nights, when he missed Barney so much his chest hurt and he felt so guilty about turning him in that he just wanted to beat his head against a wall, wishing that the kind teacher would just take him home and get him away from the orphanage and its constant reminders of what he'd done. Then when Coulson had introduced him to archery when he was fourteen, he would go to the nearby archery club where he worked to pay for a membership and shoot and shoot, trying to get the burning of his wish to fade a little.
It did fade as he realized over time that even if Coulson hadn't officially adopted him, he was still the closest thing Clint had to a father. He'd dropped the 'Mr.' in his head by the time he was fifteen because that was too much distance, kept him too far away from the man he'd grown to admire and respect and, if he were being clear, love like a father.
He knew his friends felt the same way.
Coulson sighed. "I know. But I couldn't adopt all of you, and you all deserved help. I figured I could do more good just being there for you throughout. I'm sorry."
Clint laughed weakly and shook his head. "No, it's okay. I just—I mean, this," he said, holding up the check, "This is more than some parents do for their kids. You're amazing."
Coulson smiled and shrugged as Bruce added, "You're our family."
Coulson looked startled at that, and then he nodded. "Yes, I am. And I'll do whatever I can to make sure you get what you deserve. All of you."
They finished their meal and Coulson took them back to the orphanage. Clint had another week to live there before he moved in with Steve and Thor until he knew what he was going to do next fall. Before he climbed out of Coulson's car, he leaned over and enveloped the man in a bear hug. "Thank you," he whispered. Coulson nodded and returned the hug, and then Clint climbed out and he and Bruce went inside to get some rest before their graduation ceremony the next day.
Clint lay in his bed that night thinking that, despite his regrets about losing Barney, he had found a family here, and that family was going to help him get a life that he wanted no matter what. "I'll be goddamned," he whispered in the dark, basking in his realization, and Bruce, who had been bunking in the same room for the last few years, whispered back, "Stop cussing, Clint."
They both fell asleep with smiles on their faces.