At the Welcome Week party hosted by Queer Union, PJ ends up in a circle of tipsy strangers sharing stories about when they first knew they were gay. When they get to him, he shrugs and says that he never had one defining moment. It's a lie, and a boring lie. PJ likes it when people assume he's boring.
And speaking of lies. When he applied to NYU's Early Decision program, he told everyone it was to show them how committed he was. He doesn't say that his parents didn't want him to go out of state for school. He doesn't say that signing himself up for a promise his parents couldn't break was the only way to get out of Nowhere, Ohio and into New York City.
(He loves New York in all its dirty, vibrant, overwhelming richness; when he visited it for the first time to see the campus, he never wanted to leave. But most important of all, New York is the home of the Avengers Tower. PJ remembers squinting up at the tower when he stepped out of Grand Central Station, that first visit, and thinking yes. this is where I need to be.)
PJ learns very quickly, from upperclassmen and locals, that Avengers sightings are Not a Big Deal. If Ms. Marvel whizzes overhead or lightning crackles around the tall blond guy striding down Third Ave, you just keep doing what you're doing, snickering at the people who pull out their cellphones to take pictures. Tourists. PJ's always been good at fitting in, so within a week, he doesn't even look away from his conversations when he hears the distinctive whine of Iron Man's rocket boosters.
That's around other people, though. Sometimes, PJ likes to find a bench in a little park he discovered, right by the Tower, where the view lets him see the sunset shimmer perfectly off the tiny figures flying in and out of the penthouse. The park's quiet and well-manicured, with a single clean fountain in the shape of Captain America's shield, water bursting up from the center of the star.
So when his classes get stressful, PJ leans back in the bench and tries to identify the figures flying above, based on the quick flashes of color. He never conclusively sees Hawkeye go in or out, but he bites his lip every time to hide the disappointment, telling himself that Hawkeye's job is to avoid being noticed. Besides, he gets to see Cap almost every time, which is almost as good.
Once in a while, PJ rubs the brass dedication plaque as he enters the park for the evening, like greeting an old friend. Phillip J. Coulson Memorial Park, the sign says, Dedicated 2012; it's what originally caught his eye about this park. He's always wondered what happened to him, why someone decided to dedicate a park to a guy with PJ's name.
Having Hawkeye as his hero didn't make PJ gay. Hey, lots of little kids looked up to the Avengers.
Meeting Clint Barton's eyes when he was ten years old and clutching a photo to be autographed, and seeing his hero stare at him with so much emotion that PJ couldn't begin to untangle it, and knowing that he wanted to curl up next to Hawkeye and never ever leave, just to clutch onto a fragment of that emotion -- maybe it didn't make him gay, either, but that was when PJ knew.
PJ doesn't like to think of it as stalking. "Information gathering" sounds much more legitimate. Regardless, when two months in New York pass, and he still hasn't caught a glimpse of Hawkeye, he decides to hone his efforts with data-gathering. PJ starts to collate online sightings of Hawkeye, looking for patterns and oddities. After a week of researching in his spare time, this is what he has:
- Hawkeye's never seen in public with people other than the Avengers and other SHIELD personnel. Sometimes he'll go out alone with a SHIELD agent named Darcy Lewis, but the two have repeatedly denied dating.
- On days without a major Avengers crisis, Hawkeye often patrols the rooftops at night. Based on the occasional spottings and (much more frequent) criminals pinned in place by an arrow, he changes his patrol circuit daily, but PJ thinks he can start to see some long-term patterns.
- Hawkeye normally doesn't respond to run-of-the-mill crime beyond his patrols, leaving that job for the police, but he makes occasional exceptions. The most recent was a coffeeshop near the Avengers Tower; during a minor fire last year, Hawkeye was spotted helping customers out through the smoke, and reports differed on whether he was in uniform at all.
PJ may not be good at making friends or picking up guys, but he knows he kicks ass at this kind of work, and his gut tells him that the coffeeshop's his best lead. (It's also a perfectly legitimate place for him to spend hours at a time; even if PJ's always been able to coast through his classes, he'd much rather beat everyone's expectations than get by.)
So PJ develops a new routine: get out of class, head uptown, buy a mug of coffee with two shots of espresso, and finish his homework while keeping an eye on the door. His roommates make fun of him for having a boring schedule, and PJ doesn't bother to explain. He's learning, and he's waiting, and both of those are things he's proud to do.
PJ finally gets results two weeks into his stakeout (as he likes to call it in his head). The coffeeshop door jangles, and a man walks in. PJ can see why nobody's been recognizing him; a loose hoodie disguises Hawkeye's infamous arm muscles, and a baseball cap and sunglasses cover his face. But Clint Barton's been capturing PJ's attention for the past eight years, and even the way he walks up to the counter (the slightest limp on the left side, a remnant of his Skrull abduction six years ago) would be enough.
Hawkeye orders a low-fat berry muffin, and then a coffee with two shots of espresso. PJ's breath catches. It's coincidence, he tells himself, because the alternative is some ridiculous notion of Fate.
Once his drink's ready, Hawkeye takes a seat -- corner table, his back to the walls, line of sight to all exit routes -- and pulls out a battered Cormac McCarthy novel. PJ can't help but smile at the sight, but it still takes several minutes before he summons up the courage to stand up and head to the table.
"Hi," he says, trying not to ogle (too obviously). Even a baggy hoodie can't disguise the thick, rugged tone of Hawkeye's body.
Hawkeye looks up, casual and slow, then stops, a sharp tremor passing through his body. His book falls haphazardly to the table. "Phil," he exhales.
PJ stares back. Of all the reactions he anticipated, this wasn't even on the list. He says the first thing he can think: "I go by PJ."
Hawkeye stands up abruptly, knocking a splash of coffee onto the table, and grabs his book. Before PJ can say another word, he's already vanished out the coffeeshop door.
PJ visits the coffeeshop every day for a week, even though he's pretty sure after the first day that Hawkeye won't be back. The week gives him time to think through his next step. PJ's not the type to romanticize his failure with adolescent angst, or to toss aside his interest out of cynical pique. Unflinching persistence has served him well in life so far, after all. But the more he replays Hawkeye's reaction, the more he recognizes fear in the man's abrupt retreat.
"Phil" has to be a clue, so it's a place to start. Nobody's ever called PJ "Phil" -- even new teachers called him "Phillip" -- so Hawkeye can't have meant him. Searching online for someone connected to Hawkeye and named Phil doesn't turn up anything at all. Patience, he tells himself, a familiar reassurance. You'll find a way around this obstacle. You always do.
The end of the week finds PJ walking home after the coffeeshop closes, looking forward to the chance to stretch his legs. He takes some shortcuts, cuts through a dark few alleys, until he hesitates at an unexpected footstep.
He turns, slowly, to see a guy pointing a gun at his chest. "You know the drill," the man says, hand steady around the pistol's grip. "Wallet, phone, all your shiny tech from Mommy and Daddy."
PJ nods, as reassuringly as he can. He's been studying a range of martial arts, ever since the local Aikido dojo advertised "LEARN TO FIGHT LIKE BLACK WIDOW AND HAWKEYE!", but every instructor warned him that saving his cash wasn't worth risking a bullet. Slowly, calmly, he reaches into his pocket for his wallet.
Something streaks through the air between them, less a whistle than a breath, and suddenly the mugger is pinned to a nearby dumpster by an arrow through his wrist. The man screams in pain, dropping the gun, but PJ's already searching the shadows for the arrow's origin. Nothing, not even a flicker of movement. PJ shakes his head, runs to the nearest well-lit street, and pulls out his phone to call police.
Later that night, unable to sleep from all the adrenaline still pulsing through him, PJ consults his map of Hawkeye's patrol circuits. The mugging wasn't near any of them.
Weeks pass in an increasing blur of homework and exams. PJ's taking Chinese, foreign relations, psychology, a jumble of classes with little connection other than feeling right somehow. Hawkeye's face and arms and beautiful battle-rough hands still fill PJ's fantasies, but they're enough. They have to be enough.
As his schedule fills and the weather turns to gray slush, PJ finds less and less time to visit his park by the Avengers Tower. One Sunday in November, though, he's finished early with his weekend work, and bright sunlight has thawed the air into something pleasantly crisp. PJ decides it's time to go back and watch the Avengers fly.
His fingers brush the familiar bronze, now chill to the touch, and he pauses. Phillip J. Coulson Memorial Park, Dedicated 2012.
Phillip, as in Phil.
2012, as in his birth year -- and the year the Avengers were founded.
PJ yanks out his datapad and starts to research.
. . . Five of the six so-called Avengers were present for the dedication, with Thor a prominent absence. Tony Stark, codename Iron Man, led the ceremony. "Phil Coulson died believing in heroes," Stark concluded, "but he was the greatest hero of us all."
[Above, from left: Bruce "Hulk" Banner, Natasha "Black Widow" Romanov, Clint "Hawkeye" Barton, Tony "Iron Man" Stark, Steve "Captain America" Rogers. No photograph of Phillip Coulson was available for press.]
That night, PJ rubs at a sore spot on his thigh, bruised from where he bumped into an unexpected drainpipe on his way up to the roof. The wind isn't too bad when he settles down into this corner, and he's brought a thermos of hot coffee to sip while he waits. It's too cold to type on his datapad, so he rations out his coffee, listens for movement, and wonders what Phil Coulson must have been like, to inspire that much love.
Two footsteps crunch lightly on the roof's gravel. When PJ looks up, there's an arrow pointed at his throat. "What the hell are you doing up here?" a voice says, and it sounds like mistrust and frustration and every taste of gritty heroism that PJ's ever wanted.
He puts up his hands in a gesture of surrender, standing up slowly until the roof's security light illuminates his face. He's rewarded by a quiet curse from Hawkeye, but at least the guy doesn't run away this time. "I repeat. What the hell are you doing up here?"
"Looking for you," PJ replies, infusing his voice with as much calm as possible. "Phil Coulson -- that's who I remind you of, isn't it?"
"You're not him," Hawkeye says. It sounds like he's talking to himself more than to PJ.
PJ waits until Hawkeye's muscles start to unclench, then reaches out his hand and pushes the arrow's point away. He meets Hawkeye's gaze head-on. "Maybe not. But you've been my hero since I knew what the word meant, and I'd do anything to help you."
"Fuck," Hawkeye murmurs to himself, a soft broken sound.
"We can figure this thing out together," PJ says. Acting as the voice of patient reason to a superhero feels surreal -- surreal, and utterly right. Familiar, even. "But right now, it sounds like what you need is someone to talk to about Phil. So here I am." A gust of wind blows by, and PJ laughs lightly. "Although we'd probably be more comfortable talking somewhere inside."
Hawkeye releases his bow's tension completely and lets it drop to his side. "Okay. Fine. We'll talk. Just keep in mind that those are some damn big boots that you're stepping into."
PJ nods. "I know." There's so much layered emotion on Hawkeye's face, and all PJ can think is how terribly, terribly young eighteen feels right now.
They talk. Some of it is awkward small talk about PJ and his parents, his classes, his roommates; some of it is PJ trying to fanboy Hawkeye without making an idiot of himself, and failing spectacularly. But most of it is Hawkeye -- no, "Clint," that's what he told PJ to use -- talking about Phil Coulson.
Halfway through the conversation, PJ realizes that Phil Coulson wasn't just Clint's mentor and role model; he was his lover. It's clear that Clint thought he was getting the better deal out of that, and PJ wants to tell him no, you're wrong, how could anyone know you and not love every pain-chiseled inch of you?, but he knows it wouldn't help.
Near the end, when the waitress is pointedly nudging the bill toward them so they make space for the breakfast crowd, PJ musters up his courage and rests one hand on top of Clint's. Clint stops talking, halfway through his sentence, and they sit in silence for a long minute, but neither of them pulls away.
By the end of the semester, PJ's pretty sure that he has a superhero as a friend. He and Clint are always, always busy, but he'll still get the occasional text inviting him to try out a new coffeeshop, or he'll be eating his lunch outside and be joined by Clint, dropping out of a nearby tree like it's perfectly natural. (It should probably feel creepy, being stalked by a forty-something assassin. Mostly it just makes PJ feel safe.)
Their touches last longer, these days, but they're always within the bounds of friendly comfort. And that's okay, PJ tells himself. Just because he's gay --
-- and apparently so is Clint --
-- and Clint used to be in love with someone who looked just like PJ --
-- and PJ can't be near Clint without wanting to straddle his body and rub against him like a cat in heat --
-- and sometimes he catches Clint's eyes and they're utterly devouring him, like he's a gourmet meal and Clint's been ravenous for decades --
-- and Clint's arms look strong enough to suspend PJ against a wall and fuck into him like he's a helpless doll, limp and absolutely dripping with sweat --
-- and --
-- all right. Maybe things aren't entirely under control, when PJ lets himself think about it. So as much as he possibly can, he doesn't.
The semester ends in an espresso-fueled haze of projects and exams, and then it's five days before Christmas, and PJ's packing his bags to head home for the winter. He'd mentioned going home to Clint, a while ago, and it had made Clint wince; PJ thinks he sometimes forgets that PJ's still a college freshman.
(He forgets sometimes, too. He'll be thinking about a conversation he had with Clint about East African warlords, then be jolted back to reality when his friends ask his thoughts about American Idol. He'll watch soccer players repeating their drills, and all he'll see is the laughable holes in their defense, thanks to Clint's lessons in tactics and sparring. It sucks, sometimes, but then he thinks I get to hang out with Hawkeye, and everything's worth it.)
An icy gust rumples the top shirt in his suitcase, and PJ's already begun to straighten it when he realizes that he'd left the window shut. He looks up. Clint's leaning back on the wall next to the open window, giving him a fond smirk. "You know, most college kids bring home dirty laundry, not crisply folded ensembles."
"Most college kids don't care about making a good impression when they travel," PJ shrugs, then adds (just to see Clint wince), "old man. Think you can keep New York from blowing up while I'm gone?"
"Trust me, it'll be a piece of cake without you distracting me from my job."
Clint's tone is playful, but there's something under it that makes PJ take note. "So I'm a distraction, then?" He sets down a half-folded shirt and starts to advance toward Clint.
"Yeah, absolutely. Taking up time when I could be patrolling, scaring me away from my favorite coffeeshop ..." PJ steps closer, one cautious step at a time, while Clint talks, until Clint's voice trails off when they're less than a foot apart.
"I'll try to be less ... distracting, then," PJ says innocently, and he leans forward to kiss Clint on the lips.
Clint makes a desperate sort of whimper, mouth opening helplessly. He threads one hand through PJ's shaggy hair, holding them tight against each other, and they kiss, wet and fierce and messy, until PJ has to pull apart to breathe. "Something to remember me by," he says, giving Clint a small smile.
Clint's eyes flutter shut. "This can't happen again," he says, and there's a painful tone in his voice, as if he couldn't bear to say it while looking at PJ's face. "It shouldn't have happened at all. Go home. Find someone your age. Get over your childhood crush."
PJ exhales and tries to focus. This isn't right. What can he do to fix --
"I'm old enough to be your father, PJ. Forget about me."
PJ shakes his head. "I won't. I know I'm not the person you want, Clint, but I couldn't possibly forget about you. It'd be easier to forget myself."
Clint's response is quiet, so quiet that PJ's not sure he hears it right. "You already did that." Then he turns away, slides through the window, and vanishes down the side of the building.
"Forget about me."
Clearly Clint's never seen PJ's bedroom at his parents' house. Hawkeye watches him from every corner of the room, from the poster on the door to the action figures on the bookshelves to the signed photograph in treasured place near the window.
To PJ. Thanks for being my #1 fan! Hawkeye
"You have no idea," PJ says quietly.
All his most detailed fantasies have always been about Hawkeye; the flood of crisp images always feels like it's springing forth fully-formed, so vivid that part of him feels like he knows exactly how Clint looks when he's coming. Most of the images are hot and urgent, set after fierce battles or in dark corners, but sometimes he'll envision a slower, quieter dance.
PJ's first night at home falls into that category. When he closes his eyes, he can see Clint straddling him and tipping up PJ's chin to look straight into his eyes. "I'll always be yours," Clint says, and then he's working his way down PJ's body with kisses and achingly soft caresses. He imagines Clint cupping his cock like it's something precious, kissing it softly before he takes PJ into his mouth. Clint's lips slide up and down his length, so slow that PJ shudders with want, and Clint never stops looking at him with shadowed eyes.
The fantasy builds until PJ's coming all over his hands, bucking, sobbing quietly. PJ wipes himself clean with an old t-shirt. Then he buries his face in his purple-and-black bedsheets, and he tries to calm the ache in his heart.
His first day back in New York, PJ visits the regional SHIELD office. (It's not in any directories, of course, but it's not hard for him to track down.) He walks up to the receptionist and greets her with a pleasant smile. "I'd like to apply for a summer internship with SHIELD, please."
The woman raises one eyebrow. "Sorry, but we don't take applications. Study hard, and we might recruit you someday."
Five minutes of negotiation later, she's taking him to the office of someone named Director Hill. PJ steps into the doorway cautiously, followed by the still-skeptical receptionist.
Judging by the receptionist's gasp, it's not normal for Director Hill's face to turn that pale.
PJ walks out of the SHIELD building, much later that day, with the promise of a paid internship. He'll be sifting through reports of potential terrorist cells from a cubicle in the Avengers Tower. He can't wait.
Spring semester floats past. PJ's at the top of all his classes. He spends his evenings doing homework or practicing at the dojo, and he spends his weekends taking the Metro North out to Connecticut so he can learn to shoot -- revolvers, pistols, anything the range will lend him.
PJ still keeps his Hawkeye map up to date, although Clint's gotten better at randomizing his patrols since PJ pointed out the patterns. PJ could probably still find him within a few tries, but he doesn't.
Everything is a solvable problem, you see. Clint thinks that PJ's too young, too different from this Agent Phil Coulson. So all PJ has to do is change the first part with time, and the second part with work.
Sometimes PJ dreams himself into an older body. When he scratches his head, his hair's close-cut and thinning on top. He dreams about driving through the desert with Clint, bickering, debating the idea that the world still needs superheroes.
Here's the strange part: in the dreams, PJ never plays his trump card. He never tells Clint, Of course the world needs superheroes. Just look at how much we've needed you.
The food in the Avengers Tower is pretty much a hundred times better than school cafeteria food; PJ thinks he might have to see about getting a special dining-only entry permit during the year. He's picking at a falafel plate when he notices Clint -- just Clint, no Hawkeye uniform -- step into the cafeteria. PJ can see Clint scanning over the room automatically, but his survey stops abruptly when he sees PJ.
The other diners at PJ's table give him a look that's both fearful and impressed when they realize that Hawkeye's striding grim-faced in his direction. He, meanwhile, tries to use the moment as practice for his "of course you're not phasing me, I'm a SHIELD agent" smile.
"PJ," Clint says flatly. "What are you doing here?"
"Doing my best to protect and improve the world as we know it," Phil replies. "Though if you want more specificity, I'm currently achieving that by refueling myself with some delicious hummus. Want a bite?"
PJ can see the moment on Clint's face when he gives in. He sighs then. "Since when are you the one who's a sarcastic smartass?"
"Always have been." PJ lets one corner of his mouth curl up, a confession of a smile. "Maybe you just didn't notice."
"Maybe I didn't."
Clint ends up eating lunch with PJ, asking about his internship with apparent interest. It feels like they're back to the way things were before Christmas, which is both good -- Clint's no longer ignoring him -- and bad. There's a place on Clint's neck, on the taut cord of muscle just below his ear, and PJ knows somehow that biting Clint there will make him whimper and melt, and restraining himself from leaning forward and claiming it between his teeth is the hardest thing in the world.
But he does it.
PJ ends up running into Clint regularly that summer, but never when they're alone. Once, he tries inviting him to a coffeeshop that just opened, but Clint just looks away and says, "I don't think that would be a good idea." PJ doesn't try a second time.
It's probably better that way, anyway, because PJ discovers that he genuinely loves his job, and he's damn good at it. By the end of the summer, his supervisors are giving him self-guided projects and encouraging him to come back the following summer, maybe even do some work over winter break.
The best part of it, though, is coming to work every day in the Avengers Tower. Some mornings, he'll just wake up and repeat to himself, "I get to save the world today."
Summer internships turn into part-time training, which turns into a full-time job the instant he graduates. The mandatory new agent training bores PJ out of his mind, given that he already knows everyone there and everything they're covering, but at least he makes some spare cash by betting with the newbies about how fast he can incapacitate them, or how far away he can shoot through a hanging wire.
(Clint drops by one day, after PJ's reputation has grown to the point that nobody takes his bets any more. "Heard there's a sharpshooter in the new recruits," he grins, twirling an arrow between his fingers. "Think he needs a lesson in humility?"
"You'll always be better than me," PJ replies, completely matter-of-fact. Clint's arrow stills; he looks like he doesn't know what to say to that.)
They send PJ on undercover assignment in Chicago, working his way up through a minor drug-trafficking operation that SHIELD suspects is selling synthetics made with alien tech. The year is ... eye-opening. All the reckless crap that PJ was too busy to do in college -- getting wasted on cheap beer, learning to play pool and poker, picking up pretty bodies at a bar -- becomes virtually mandatory. PJ learns how to drink socially without getting drunk, and how to have an amazing orgasm with someone he'll never see again.
Two months in, one of those one-night stands turns into a weekend fling, which turns into ten months of excellent sex alternated with quiet, sympathetic silences. PJ honestly likes Clarkie; he's a smart British chemist who got into the drug trade to pay off student loans, then decided he liked the lifestyle it afforded him. Clarkie has plush lips that promise excellent cocksucking (and deliver), and he's got an apartment stocked with really shiny StarkTech and really well-aged brandy. PJ doesn't think he's in love, but it's nice. It's a chance to experience new things, to explore and set aside lives not lived.
He breaks things off with Clarkie the week before the planned drug bust, and Clarkie gives him a sharp smile. "No hard feelings; we had a good run of it. Give my regards to your 'Clint,' whenever you and he get your acts together." PJ keeps his face blank, but he doesn't deny it.
When PJ returns to SHIELD headquarters for the first time in twelve months, Clint's waiting for him, leaning on the wall outside Director Hill's office. He shoots PJ a teasing smirk. "I hear somebody's in trouble."
PJ stiffens up. "In trouble? I thought I accomplished all the objectives."
"Oh, absolutely, 100% success," Clint says. "But they sent you to some obscure operation where you couldn't get in too much trouble, and by the end of the year, it's the most lucrative drug trafficker in the Midwest. Next time, you might not want to rock your cover identity quite so hard."
PJ tries very, very hard not to beam with pride. "Next time, maybe they'll listen to me when I say that paperwork is my strength."
Clint laughs and gets out of PJ's way, patting his shoulder as he leaves. It's a casual gesture, the kind of thing PJ's seen Clint do to all his teammates, except for the part where Clint has scrupulously avoided touching him ever since that awkward kiss. Maybe, PJ thinks, he won't have to be patient for too much longer.
PJ gets assigned to Agent "for serious, just call me Darcy" Lewis after he gets into active duty. When he reports to her office the first time, she has the wide-eyed stare that he's learned to expect from anyone who knew Phil Coulson, but she covers it up quickly with a bright smile.
After the expected introductions, she fixes a dangerously innocent gaze on PJ. "So. There's something very important that we need to take care of. See, you never know when you might get replaced by an imposter, so I assign all my agents unique musical passphrases to confirm their identity."
"Yes, ma'am," PJ says. He really should give his crazy new boss the benefit of the doubt, after all.
"Awesome! How's your Katy Perry?"
PJ blinks. "Um. I think my parents like her?"
"God, they're sending me children. Okay, then your homework tonight is to memorize 'Teenage Dream.' There will be a test. Got it?"
PJ nods emphatically.
Misgivings or not, he practices late into the evening, until he's sure he has every note down perfectly. The next morning, he looks askance at the video recorder that Darcy pulls out. "Doesn't recording this reduce its efficacy as a security protocol?"
"You let me worry about that, Agent," Darcy says lightly. "All right: three, two, one, go!"
To her credit, Darcy manages to let PJ get all the way through the song before she erupts into absolute tears of laughter, shaking so hard that she has to support herself against the wall. "You are so totally forgiven for those thirty songs," she says, which makes no sense to PJ.
To his credit, PJ manages to avoid using any of the two dozen potentially lethal objects in the room to murder his new boss. Barely.
The next time that Clint runs into PJ, he starts whistling "Let you put your hands on me in my skin-tight jeans, be your teenage dream tonight. . ."
"I hate you so much," PJ grumbles -- but he doesn't, because somehow he made Clint smile. That's worth everything, even the agonizing way that seeing that smile without kissing it twists in his gut.
Three months into working with Darcy, who turns out to be shockingly competent when she isn't teasing him, PJ drops by her office without warning. He stops when he hears Clint's voice through the door.
"They're not the same person, Darcy. He'll never be -- he's just a kid with a familiar face."
"Bullshit. He's a kid who looks identical to Phil at that age -- don't deny it, I know you've looked up those photos too. And he was born on the exact day that Phil died. And he has the same first and middle names as him, and the same set of talents. And he's advancing even faster than Phil did, because he has a sixth sense about how SHIELD works. And he's in love with you."
"He's not --"
"He really is, and the only reason you can't see it is because you're too busy telling yourself to stay away. Jesus, Clint. We spend our lives interacting with aliens, magicians, and gods, and you're saying that it's impossible that Phil came back to us?"
There's a long pause before Clint says anything. "Even if you're right, he doesn't remember us. He doesn't know me the way that Phil did."
"That's because you keep holding yourself to such a distance that he can't! God, you're such a moron sometimes. You know as well as me that he would leap for any opportunity you gave him."
"And then he'd have to watch me die eventually, just like I watched Natasha and Phil. I can't tie him to me like that, right at the start of his life."
"That's his choice. Would you have wanted Phil to decide that for you, when it was you at the start of your life?"
Another silence, stretching longer this time. Darcy speaks at last. "Think about it. Really. It's been almost twenty years; I want to see you happy again."
PJ's heard enough, and he doesn't want to be caught in the hallway. With careful footsteps, he hurries away.
PJ waits another month. He bumps into Clint every so often, searches for a decision in his face, sees nothing but the usual tangle of friendliness and fear and desire. Once or twice, he contemplates talking to Darcy about it, but he's not sure what more she could say, and going to his boss about his love life feels vaguely inappropriate.
He has a dream, one night. Like many of his dreams, it stars his older self and a younger Clint. They're sharing a couch in front of a television; news headlines are flickering in the background, but PJ barely notices them, because he's bent over Clint's undone pants with Clint's cock thick on his tongue. He sucks Clint off, wet and slow; every sense feels sharpened, from the weight pressing into his mouth to the bitter hint of precum. PJ slides his lips up and down Clint's shaft and teases his tongue over his head with the sureness of familiarity. He can feel himself hard, but it's a secondary thought; more important are the quiet gasps coming from Clint's throat, the way his fingers curl around PJ's scalp, more tender than possessive.
They move together, warm and intimate, until Clint twines his fingers with PJ's, holding his hand tight. It feels strangely like they're completing an electrical circuit, desire and love flowing back and forth between them without inhibition or limit, and then Clint's jerking fast into PJ's mouth, a warm familiar flood slick on his tongue.
PJ swallows everything down and licks his lips, then slides up to kiss Clint deeply. They rest against each other for a few moments, feeling their heart rates slow and stabilize. Eventually PJ tilts his head to the side and takes in the news story scrolling across the screen. He raises an eyebrow. "Hunh. They managed to get same-sex marriage through the legislature." Somehow -- and this is weird, because of course same-sex marriage is legal -- the news feels like a pleasant surprise.
Clint's smile quirks against PJ's cheek. "Why, you have someone in mind?"
PJ lifts an eyebrow, rising to the bait. "Why, you offering?"
"You know I'm not the marrying type." But Clint cups PJ's face between his hands, raising it to kiss him on the lips, soft and sweet. "If I did, it would be you."
"I know," PJ says. He burrows more deeply into Clint's arms, sleepy. "Might be worth it, just to see you in a tux."
"That'll be the day," Clint chuckles lightly.
PJ presses a kiss to his neck. "You know that if I ever get you into one, I'll enjoy dressing you, but you'll enjoy me undressing you."
"I am the luckiest guy ever," Clint declares.
"Nope," PJ says, and means it. "I am."
Then he wakes up.
At this point, he's well familiar with the bittersweet aftermath of these dreams, a mixture of lingering contentment and unavoidable loss. This time, though, PJ thinks he knows what to do next.
PJ's too new to have many strings to pull at SHIELD, so he enlists Darcy and explains his plan. Unsurprisingly, she's delighted to cash in a few favors to help.
His request had been simple: a mission alone with Hawkeye, in a country where he'd never worked with Phil. (Drawing on old memories and associations, no matter how positive, is always going to read as manipulation to Clint -- and PJ knows that the slightest whiff of emotional manipulation will send Clint running.) A week later, PJ gets summoned to Hill's office and told that he'll be running an undercover op with Hawkeye in Sydney.
The mission's just challenging enough to need a senior agent. An arms dealer has been stockpiling weapons, and intel indicates that they're reverse-engineered from Kree plasma guns. This dealer is particularly good about guarding her secrets, though; all the blueprints and research data are kept in paper copies only, and the whole facility (not to mention the surrounding half of Sydney) is rigged to go up in flames at a single mental command. SHIELD needs PJ to go in as a fresh young intern and retrieve as much data as possible; Clint will be providing security in case things go belly-up, then quietly arresting or assassinating the dealer once PJ's got the files.
PJ makes sure to send Darcy an extra-large box of the French caramels she adores.
They fly to Sydney. When the flight attendant comes for their drink order, PJ asks for ginger ale with no ice. He can feel Clint's body go rigid next to him, making PJ oddly nervous. "I only drink it on planes," he explains. "It helps --"
"-- settle your stomach when there's turbulence," Clint finishes. They stare at each other for a minute, a silence only broken when the flight attendant hands them their glasses.
Clint doesn't say anything for the rest of the trip; his eyes stay shut, his earphones on. So when PJ ends up dozing off with his head tilted toward Clint, it's (mostly) unintentional. Simply sharing space like this, knees bumping against each other, feels so familiar, so comfortable. He wakes up as they're preparing to land. Opening his eyes to see Clint's face, inches away, isn't even a little bit jarring. Clint's eyes are still closed, so PJ allows himself a small indulgence, and he doesn't stop his lips from relaxing into a warm, sleepy smile.
Clint and PJ share an apartment, and PJ drops a couple of comments at work about his fellow American flatmate, just in case he's being followed home. Occasionally Clint goes out with him, too, but more often he's a silent presence shadowing PJ from above. (The precaution isn't just in case PJ's cover gets blown; the other arms dealers in the region aren't very happy about the upstart operation in their midst.) PJ's reminded of those weeks in college when Clint was tracking him, but he's also reliving more distant memories, going out to face enemies with the warm knowledge of Clint watching his back.
The best part is the evenings -- and the worst part, too. Their bodies dance a careful harmony. PJ will curl his fingers around Clint's shoulder while offering him a coffee, then let go when he realizes he's pushing boundaries; Clint will hand-feed PJ a fried dumpling, then flinch at the touch of PJ's lips, avoiding his eyes.
Even television's a minefield. When Clint finds PJ up at 3am, watching Playboys and Poolboys: Australia Edition, he sighs fondly and says, "Figures."
"Oh?" PJ asks, glancing at Clint. The Amazing Hawkeye is wearing nothing but faded purple boxers and a thick shadow of stubble; it's disarmingly cute.
"Trashy reality TV. You always --" But then Clint breaks off, turns abruptly, and vanishes back into his bedroom. PJ doesn't get the chance to ask a single question.
He thinks he knows its answer anyway.
They eat breakfast together the next morning, neither mentioning the exchange. Partway through, Clint gets a text; he scans over it, then looks up with serious eyes. "R&D finished working through the blueprints you've gotten so far. Looks like it's enough; we can finish things up here."
PJ nods, processing. "What about Sanders?"
"Based on the psych profiles, they think she'll activate the mental kill switch if we try to bring her in, so they're asking for a one-shot take-down."
"You mean, my psych profiles," PJ says. His hand's trembling slightly around the cereal spoon.
"Yes," Clint acknowledges, and his eyes are sympathetic. "Were they wrong?"
"No. I just --" -- I've never been the one to make that call, PJ wants to say. It's not his first kill -- hell, it technically isn't his kill at all -- but it's the first time that his assessment meant the difference between one person's life and death.
Clint looks him straight in the eye. "I trust your judgment, PJ."
It shouldn't matter that Clint used his name there -- but PJ can feel himself glowing anyway. "Okay. Then let me walk you through her schedule, and we'll work out a plan of action."
It's a good plan, dammit. The trick is to eliminate Sanders before she can react, so they focus on ensuring lines of sight for a clean shot. Clint's part goes perfectly, too; the arrow pierces her brain, precisely positioned to cut off any warning signals before she can even think them. As soon as Sanders falls to the sidewalk, PJ radios in their success, so a team of agents can start raiding the warehouse, where they've doubtlessly started shredding blueprints just as quickly. PJ exhales slowly, trying not to focus on the pool of blood spreading below her head. They've done it, and with no civilian damage: success.
Then the building across the street -- the one where Clint was positioned in an empty office -- explodes.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. PJ fights to keep his thoughts focused. Nothing he can do about the explosion from here, so he scans the scene. Two of Sanders' bodyguards are crouched over her body, two scanning the crowd around them, but Miller -- PJ recognizes him in an instant; competent man, sharp enough to worry PJ -- is standing in the shadow of a bus stop, his oversized rifle still trained on the explosion's aftermath. Without even hesitating, PJ trains his sidearm on Miller and fires; he crumples to the ground. Then PJ's rushing out to the street, calling for medical backup, searching the explosion's wreckage for the sheen of Clint's body armor. "Hawkeye," he repeats over the comm. "Hawkeye, can you hear me?"
PJ finally spots him, half-buried in a pile of rubble. Blood trickles down Clint's scalp, but he's breathing, and his eyes focus on PJ when he crouches at his side. "Caught the worst of it with my EM shield," Clint says in a raspy, thin voice. "'S just a flesh wound."
"Hawkeye, if you lose any limbs on my watch, I will personally ensure that your prosthesis is even tackier than Winter Soldier's." PJ keeps his voice calm, light, even as his eyes are scanning the crowd for the paramedics to arrive.
Clint coughs out a laugh. "Always wanted to have a neon purple leg."
"Pink," PJ says firmly. "Pastel pink, with tropical flowers in orange and green. Don't think I wouldn't."
"Damn, you've convinced me. Just as long as --" Clint’s voice fades, and his eyes flutter shut. PJ's fingers dart to Clint's throat, searching for a pulse and -- finally, finally -- finding one.
PJ exhales a long, anxious breath. "Don't die on me, Clint," he says, too soft for anyone but himself. "I could never forgive myself."
When the paramedics finally arrive, PJ's glad that they're city employees, not SHIELD agents. It means he won't get ribbed for the fact that he refuses to let go of Clint's hand.
They fly back to New York by SHIELD heli-plane, so that Clint can stay hooked up to his IVs in a hospital cot. The damage is far less than it could've been, but it's still significant: broken leg, broken ribs, shattered shoulder, minor concussion, heavy bruising, and some slow internal bleeding. PJ tries to write his field report while sitting at Clint's bedside. It's hard to focus on anything but the slow rhythm of heart monitor and breath.
Clint drifts in and out of consciousness; during one of his more lucid periods, PJ looks at him seriously. "I'm sorry," he says.
"For not protecting you better. For endangering you with a minor op that wasn't worth an Avenger's time. You wouldn't even be here if I hadn't --" PJ breaks off.
Clint gives him a small smile, meeting PJ's eyes even though it's a clear effort to do so. "You think I'd have gone if I didn't know exactly what I was getting into?"
PJ can't say anything.
Back at the hospital floor in the Avengers Tower, PJ spends every free hour at Clint's bedside, and nobody tries to stop him. (Nobody tries more than once, anyway.) He's still expected to keep up his duties as a SHIELD agent, though, and one evening he gets out of work to overhear voices in the corridor outside Clint's room. Tony Stark -- that one's easy -- and Bruce Banner, whose voice takes PJ longer to trace.
"Just offer it to him, Tony," Banner says quietly. "As long as he knows the risks, it's his choice."
"I don't like using people as guinea pigs," Stark says.
Banner laughs. "Unless it's you undergoing the experiment?"
"Exactly. I was always going to be the first test subject for the process."
"Only because I couldn't persuade you otherwise." There's a note of affection in Banner's voice. "Anyway, you've heard the diagnosis. They took a man who was already worried about keeping up with the team, and they told him his limbs would never heal to the same performance level. I think he'll leap at the opportunity, and I think it's cruel not to give him the chance."
"I don't want to see another friend die," Stark says, and it's so faint that Clint can barely hear.
"Tony. You won't."
Clint looks up at PJ when he visits the next evening, his expression firm with intent. "Got a question for you."
PJ sits down at his bedside. "Anything."
"I need you to tell me the truth." Clint's giving him his best I'm-an-Avenger-so-be-honest gaze, but there's something vulnerable underneath. "Do you remember things from Phil? Things that happened before you were born?"
That wasn't the question PJ expected. "Some things. Yes." I remember the first time I saw you cry. I remember when you barely made it home from Budapest alive, and I couldn't stop touching your skin.
"Here's the thing," Clint says. He's looking away from PJ, eyes trained somewhere on the hospital wall. "When Phil died, I was a mess. I only kept going because I figured that the world had given me a few good years, so I might as well pay it back by doing what I could to help. I wasn't Captain America, but I knew that Phil would've wanted me to try, so I did. Dying pointlessly seemed stupid, because it wasn't like I'd get to see Phil again, but living forever wouldn't get him back either."
Clint glances at PJ, who nods in silent acknowledgment. He's not sure what to say.
"I've seen some unbelievable shit since joining the Avengers -- some of it you know about, some of it never went public. So the possibility that the man I lo-- that Phil could somehow get reborn into a baby? Not exactly the weirdest thing I've witnessed. I guess what I'm saying is that I do believe you."
"I'm glad," PJ says, and he smiles, awash with something pure and joyful. "So do you --"
"Let me finish," Clint interrupts gently. "I believe you, and that's why I'm making a decision that I thought I'd never make. Have you heard of Stark's Project Jordan?"
"Only rumors." PJ recalls the conversation he'd overheard the previous day. "It works?"
"Supposedly. Tony and Bruce stopped by yesterday. They say it's never been tested on a human, but they were about to start the first trials on Tony." Clint shoots PJ an amused smile. "I still think he only developed it because his fangirl numbers started to drop with every wrinkle. Anyway, Tony offered to let me go first."
PJ tries not to react too much to the words never been tested. "What does it do, exactly?"
"Tony told me the dumbed down version. They tailor a retrovirus to my genetic sequence, ease its way with various drugs and nanites, and let it rewrite my body. It resets everything to a state of peak maturity; my bones would reset perfectly, and I'd look your age. Your basic fountain of youth."
"And the downside?"
Clint laughs shortly. "Downside is that I have an uninhibited, untested virus running around in my body. This is the kind of science that created Red Skull. I wouldn't even consider it, except --"
"-- Except that you'd have to leave the Avengers otherwise?" PJ finishes.
"That too, yeah. But I was gonna say: except for you."
Watching Stark's virus tear Clint apart is one of the hardest things that PJ's ever done. Tony warned him that it'll be bad, but PJ didn't realize just how bad. It's worse because they have to keep Clint in a sterile unit, so PJ can't touch him, and they can't give him any painkillers, because they might interfere with the process.
Captain America sits beside PJ in the observation room, telling him about how he went through something like this, how the pain eventually stops and then the mind helps you forget. Mostly, PJ's glad because he can clutch Steve's arm as hard as he wants during the screaming, and Steve doesn't do anything but look at him with sympathy.
Darcy's sitting on PJ's other side. She clasps her hands together so tight that the skin turns white, but she doesn't say a word.
It's hard to see the process at work; Clint's moving too much, writhing and arching against the restraints that Tony grimly suggested. As soon as he gets a green light, though, PJ rushes into the room.
Clint is ... beautiful. There's no better word. Instead of a craggy-faced, graying man, he's a smooth-skinned youth with a confident swagger in his eyes. PJ's struck by a sense of deja vu so strong it nearly overwhelms him, and a flood of unlived memories.
He cradles Clint's cheek in his palm. "You look like you did when I found you in Belgrade," PJ says softly.
"Hey now," Clint chides. His voice warms PJ with its intimacy, even hoarse from screaming. "I'm pretty sure that I found you."
"Only because I'd decided that you'd been running for long enough. You needed to know that the choice to come in was always yours."
Clint nods, and he turns his head a couple inches, just enough to press a kiss to PJ's hand. He meets PJ’s eyes. "And I chose you."