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Clint had only been at SHIELD for seven months, but he knew enough not to trust what was going on. Oh, the rest of his training squad gave him the side-eye for his caution, but he wasn't naive. Clint had been a circus run-away and an assassin - he knew how the world worked.

So no one should be surprised if they find him in the vents again, Clint reasoned to himself. He was sliding his way through the ceiling of the twelfth floor at the moment, almost to his favorite resting place above Fury's office. The Director had summoned him to a face-to-face in half an hour, but Clint didn't know why. He had been paying attention in his courses (even though they were either way too easy or basically Greek), had only started one minor food fight, and no one had discovered his nest above the archery range yet. Hence his current mission: reconnaissance prior to meeting the mark. That's how they put it in "spy 101", anyway.

Clint drew near to the spot he had previous selected. It was far enough away from Fury's desk that Clint was unlikely to draw attention, but close enough that he could hear everything going on and get a good look at anyone Fury was meeting with.

He had just settled in when the door to Fury's office opened, and the Director himself walked in with a plain man in a suit who moved like a predator. This must be the Agent Coulson he'd heard so much about. People said he was boring, but only a high-level agent would have that kind of fluid grace.

"Are you sure about this, sir?" Coulson was asking.

"Yes, Coulson, I'm sure," Fury said, confirming Clint's suspicion. "You told me yourself, he's perfect." He strolled around his desk and slid into his chair.

"I'm not sure I said that in so many words," Coulson cautioned, coming to a neat stop at the corner of Fury's desk.

"For the last time, I need someone I trust on this."

Coulson's face didn't betray any emotion. "There are dozens of more qualified agents fully trusted by this organization--"

"And each and every one of them trusts the system," Fury told Coulson flatly. "I need someone outside the box. Barton's it."

"Yes, sir," Coulson agreed. "When will you be telling him?"

Fury glanced at his computer monitor and clicked his keyboard once to dismiss the bouncing SHIELD logo screensaver. "Three minutes."

Clint jerked back from the grate and started shimmying silently back the way he came. He'd spent more time than he'd thought getting into place, lost track of time, and now Fury was going to skin him for being late. As he backtracked to a branch above a deserted hallway, Clint turned over what he had heard in his head. As he dropped lightly to the floor from a strategically placed vent, he tried to come up with what SHIELD could need from someone used to working out of bounds. As Clint knocked a few stray dust bunnies off his uniform and straightened himself up outside Fury's office, he wondered what exactly Coulson had against him. Maybe it was his entire circus-assassin thing. You know, something completely outside his control.

With that depressing thought, Clint knocked on the door.

Coulson opened it. "Agent Barton," he greeted with a faint smile. "Please come in; the Director is expecting you."

Clint hadn't seen Fury's office from this angle before, but it looked about as expected. He tried to pretend the whole room was new to him, without looking like a rank amateur. He wasn't quite sure how well he pulled it off, but neither Coulson nor Fury looked like they thought his quick glances around the room were the result of a head injury, so it probably worked.

"Take a seat, Agent Barton," Fury invited, gesturing to the lone chair sitting abandoned in front of his desk.

Clint sat. Coulson settled himself behind Clint to his right, just out of his line-of-sight. Clint immediately felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and had to make a conscious effort not to fidget.

"Agent Barton, do you know why you are here?" Fury asked.

Clint hesitated for an instant, but shook his head.

Coulson made a small amused sound. "You weren't able to glean anything useful from your recon?" the other agent asked.

Clint couldn't stop his eyes widening for a moment in surprise. Fury looked a little surprised too, but to his credit, the Director didn't let it stop him. "Something to share with the class, Agent Coulson?"

"Just noting Agent Barton's distaste for lacking all necessary information for a given situation, sir. Combined with his tendency to locate unorthodox perches. And the dust on the knees of his uniform," Coulson added. "I've been telling maintenance they need to clean the air ventilation system more thoroughly, but it appears they haven't been doing as complete a job as we would like."

Clint attempted to sink into his chair without looking like he was sinking into his chair and wondered if this was what most people experienced when they were called to the principal's office.

Fury just laughed. "'More qualified', my ass."

Since it seemed like he wasn't going to be kicked out of SHIELD for his extracurricular excursions, Clint ventured a question. "Sir?" Fury nodded at him to continue. "About that." He hesitated. It seemed like shooting himself in the foot, but-- "If there are so many more agents better than me who could do whatever you need done--"

"--why are you here instead of them?" Fury finished.

Clint nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Agent Barton, if SHIELD and I didn't trust you to be the best goddamn agent on Earth, you wouldn't be here right now. And I'm not talking about my office," Fury clarified. "I'm talking about the whole goddamn organization."

Clint got a warm, glowy feeling inside and wondered if this was what most people experienced when their parents said they were proud of them.

"And don't look at me like that, Coulson," Fury added to the man behind him. "You know he's your favorite."

"Yes, sir," Coulson agreed placidly.

"Now that we've gotten that out of the way," Fury grumbled. "To the matter at hand." He looked at Clint seriously now, all traces of levity gone, and Clint could suddenly see the stone-cold Directory Fury that terrified all his classmates. "Barton, you're here because you're one of the best we've got, no matter that we just got you. You've been screwed over by the system and that makes you reluctant to trust it again. Normally, that would be a problem," he admitted. "Because no matter how covert we are, SHIELD is a system and if you don't trust your handlers and fellow agents, people get killed." He fixed his eye on Clint. "I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about other organizations. I'm talking about the US government at large. You don't trust it. You've also been in the circus and on the streets. I'm thinking that's made you immune to shock factor."

"Yes, sir," Clint said, wondering where Fury was going with this.

Fury's lone eye bored into Clint. "Aliens are real."

Clint lifted a single eyebrow. "Is that all?" He had been expecting something much bigger, of the "earth-shattering revelation" variety, the way Fury had been hyping it up.

Fury snorted. "They said you were a sarcastic son of a bitch, Barton, but I need you to know I'm serious."

And that's when Fury told him. Sandwiched between Director Fury and Agent Coulson, Clint was regaled with a story about a race of shape-shifting aliens called the Skrull and their struggle to evade the Kree, another race of aliens hell-bent on destroying them. Apparently there was also an alien woman named Carol Danvers who used to be a USAF test pilot before she got crazy alien superpowers and was now a galaxy and a half away helping the Skrull find a new home planet. Clint would have thought Fury was totally yanking his chain, but the serious look in his eye never abated. As Fury started describing the three Skrull stragglers who had been found recently in Missouri - a mother and two small children - Clint started to get a sinking feeling that he knew where this was going.

"You want my help protecting them from the Kree?"

"Yes," Fury said. "I want you to pose as Loras's husband and Copen and Lalon's father."

That's not quite where Clint had thought this was going after all. "Really?" He'd been picturing more occasional-stakeout with a health dose of keeping-an-ear-to-the-ground.

"Yes." Fury didn't look like he was joking at all. "We can give them solid aliases, a safehouse, the works, but we need an agent on the inside to keep them safe."

"And how long would that assignment be?" Clint asked, watching his hopes of a long and exciting career at SHIELD vanish in a haze of PTA meetings and fighting over blankets with a woman he'd never met.

"Indefinite."

Clint nodded and fixed his eyes on the near edge of Fury's desk, willing his face not to show his disappointment.

"It wouldn't be a 24/7 assignment," Coulson spoke up from behind him, the first words the agent had said in half an hour. "You would still be based in New York."

"Really?" Clint couldn't help but blurt out.

"Of course," Fury exclaimed. "You're worried about that? Barton, did we not just get done telling you that you're one of the best damn agents we've got?"

"Yes, sir," Clint admitted.

"Good. Because I don't want to have to tell you again." Fury shook his head. "Goddamn idiot," he muttered. Then he looked square at Clint. "It's not a demand, agent. It's a request. Are you in?"

For the first time in an hour, Clint could hear Coulson shift behind him.

Clint swallowed and gave Fury his most winning smile. "When do I get to meet the wife and kids, sir?"

Fury smiled at him. "I knew I could count on you, Clint."