It’s a true love story—that’s what they say.
There are obstacles and pain and even death, but nothing gets in the way.
It’s a true true love story.
That’s what they say.
“Jesus,” Clint gasped, half hanging off the bed. He was wrecked and made a glorious picture sprawled across Phil’s bed, messy and sweaty and smiling.
Phil rolled his eyes but he was smiling too, leaning against the head board and trying to catch his breath. Clint was, hands down, the best sex of Phil’s life. He was a fearless lover, creative and without a modest bone in his body. Phil had done pretty well for himself in his forty-five years, thought he’d had some pretty good sex, but then Clint became his lover and Phil knew he hadn’t even begun to have sex. Sometimes, when they were quiet in the aftermath and Clint drifted off, soft and easy in a way he never was awake, Phil felt a little sad for the younger man, sad for what all that experience meant. Clint had been giving away pieces of himself for a very long time, letting people take and take, and yet still Clint could be so generous with Phil. Could give him everything and always come up with more.
Before Clint, Phil thought there was sex, and there was making love. He thought they were separate things, done totally differently. Sex he had in overheated houses during crowded parties, in the cramped back seat of his first car, or in one-night increments in seedy motels. Sex was dirty and fast and hard and left him feeling empty after. Making love was done within the confines of a committed relationship. It was soft and slow and involved big comfortable beds. He’d had sex. He’d made love. He thought he knew the depths of his sexuality.
Barton came back from a long op in Libya, wild-eyed and hungry, hurting and angry and betrayed. In his nine years with SHIELD he’d never been on an op run by anyone other than Coulson or Coulson’s second, Sitwell. But Libya was Montgomery’s op and Montgomery ran Clint into the ground, keeping him in the field far past even the best sniper’s endurance, until finally calling the op and closing up shop in Berdi. Only problem: he didn’t tell Barton. Instead, Montgomery abandoned his asset in the field, making tracks to the extraction point just across the Egyptian border.
“Phil,” Fury said, and Coulson knew it was Bad News. Fury only used first names if he was breaking Bad News. “Barton’s…not coming back from this one.”
Coulson was perfectly still. “Excuse me?”
“Montgomery called for emergency evac. The op in Berdi was blown. Barton hadn’t checked in for days.”
“So he assumed Barton is dead?” Perfectly still. So still. He couldn’t move because obviously this was a bad dream. He could never move in his bad dreams. That’s why they were the bad ones. Because in those dreams, he always got news like this, that Barton or Sitwell or Hill or Romanov were dead, captured, compromised—gone from him—and he couldn’t help, couldn’t save them, couldn’t move. So he was not moving. If he moved, this became real.
“Phil,” Fury said softly. It was all that was needed. He didn’t actually need to say, You know that even Barton doesn’t break check-in protocol. You know he’s never blown an op, or missed an evac. You know what this means. Don’t make me spell it out.
Coulson nodded stiffly (oh God, it was real) and rose, leaving without a backward glance. In his office, he opened his bottom drawer and pulled out a form 116-A. Clinton Francis Barton, he wrote, his penmanship clear and precise. MIA, presumed dead.
Two weeks later, the Navy radioed. They’d picked Barton up in a makeshift raft in the Mediterranean. He was dehydrated, half gone from exposure and heat stroke, but he was very much alive. Montgomery was shit-canned and Fury promised Barton would never be loaned out again. He was too valuable, to important to SHIELD’s larger plans to lose to careless handling. He was too good a friend to Coulson to be left behind like that. For his part, Coulson took a little too much pleasure in burning the 116-A in the sink of his private bathroom.
“Barton,” he said weakly, sagging in relief when he saw his erstwhile sniper, safe in the small apartment he kept in the Bowery.
Barton was still a little sunburned, still a bit thinner than Coulson was used to, but he was okay. And he was clearly surprised to see Coulson on his doorstep. “Agent Coulson.”
“Montgomery’s gone. Busted down to Archives at Langley. They’ll bury him there.”
Barton snorted and stepped aside, letting Coulson enter. For a moment, they stared at each other. Coulson met Barton when he was twenty-one, barely more than a boy. He’d watched the younger man grow into one of the most fearsome operative in all of clandestine ops. He was proud of Hawkeye and his accomplishments, and along the way, the angry young man who bucked every one of Coulson’s orders settled into something stronger, more resilient, more reliable. They became friends, or, as friendly as two men defined by a power structure like SHIELD’s could be. He was fifteen years older than Barton and higher-ranking than Barton would ever be, and while SHIELD didn’t exactly enforce the fraternization rules, neither did they turn a blind eye.
“For fuck’s sake,” Barton snapped. He stepped up to Coulson and grabbed his tie, pulling him in for a hard kiss. There was too much teeth and not enough tongue but Coulson didn’t care.
He got Barton’s clothes off, noting the prominent ribs, the sun burn, the healing bullet graze in his side. Coulson lost patience with his own clothes, leaving jacket, tie and shirt on, and pushed Barton into his own carpet, spitting in his hand and roughly opening Barton up. Maybe a little too rough, but Barton didn’t complain, just groaned under him and braced his forehead on his hands, pushing back into Coulson. The first push was instant relief and they both moaned, a chorus of alive, you’re okay, I’ve got you. It was over too quickly but they didn’t care. They were too desperate, too needy; Barton too in need of the comfort of a heavy body along his back and Coulson too desperate to reassure himself that Barton was really there.
Barton dragged himself a few feet away, sliding out from under Coulson so he could roll over and regain his breath. He panted, his chest heaving with each labored breath, and the sight of him sweaty and wasted and with come smeared across his abdomen was too much for Coulson. He stripped off the rest of his clothes and lunged onto Barton, rolling him back over and doing it again.
The second time, Barton laughed when it was over. He stayed under Coulson, letting the other man run his hands along his arms, his back, his ribs. He was quiet as Coulson whispered I’m sorry and never again and thank God you’re okay into his neck, pressing penitent kisses along Hawkeye’s famous big shoulders. “Clint,” he whispered, a little bit reverent. “You’re not allowed to go away from me again.”
They were Phil and Clint from then on, except when at work. Then it was business as usual, but as soon as they were off the clock, they retreated to the loft they shared in Soho—strictly off SHIELD’s books—and were happier than either of them thought possible. Phil gave Clint a home, a place where he was always wanted, not for his uncanny ability to kill things on command but for all the other things that made up Clint Barton. Dirty socks under the coffee table, wet towels on the bathroom floor, a tendency to hog the blankets—none of it phased Phil because all of it was Clint. And Clint opened doors for Phil, introducing him to a whole new level of intimacy—fucking.
Before Clint, Phil had never fucked. Fucking was hot and sweaty and sometimes dirty, but it was also fun and sensual and connected in a way he’d never been with a lover. Fucking meant trust and devotion, it meant a willingness to push boundaries and let’s just try. Fucking was pressing Clint up against a wall, twisting his head around so they could share breaths and moans. Fucking was sprawling across the bed and never looking away from each other’s eyes. Fucking was hard or soft, fast or slow, sweet or filthy. Fucking was what he did with Clint, the thing he’d never had before.
“But I want to see your face,” Phil said, maybe whining a little.
Clint’s only response was a low, throaty groan as he lowered himself onto Phil, leaning against him, back to chest. “Whatever,” he huffed. “You always like the view.”
It was true. Phil always did like this view. Clint sat forward, his back ramrod straight. Phil watched in glazed satisfaction as the muscles in Clint’s back and across his shoulders shifted as he rolled his hips, riding lazily. His biceps bulged as he braced his hands against Phil’s legs. Sweat gathered and slid down the deep furrow of his spine.
“Beautiful,” Phil murmured. He never looked away.
The problem was, they never defined their relationship. They never talked about what they were to each other, or what kind of future they imagined. The problem was, in the privacy of their own minds, they had very, very different views not only of themselves, but of each other.
“I put your name in for the Avengers’ Initiative,” Phil said. They were in bed; it was late. He drew slow circles across Clint’s back.
Clint’s eyes opened and he stared across the surprisingly hard plane of Phil’s chest. Those Dolce suits hid quite a body by any standards, not just a forty-six year old’s metric. “Why?”
“You’re the best of the best. That’s what the Initiative is looking for.”
“I’m not super-powered, or super smart like Stark.”
“No one is smart like Stark.” Phil’s voice was a mix of annoyed and amused, maybe even a little affectionate. He would deny it with his dying breath, but Clint knew Phil liked Stark, just a little. The man wasn’t completely insufferable.
Clint wanted to ask what that meant for him, for them. The Avengers was a big deal. It was a game changer. If he was chosen, it would be the end of his covert career. Would it be the end of him and Phil, too? No, he thought. Phil said I was never to go away from him. That’s a street that runs both ways.
A year passed, then two. More names were added to the roster of potential Avengers.
“You’ve been selected.” There was pride in Phil’s voice.
Clint froze. There was only one thing he was eligible for. “What?”
“The Avengers. You’re in.” Phil smiled at Clint’s stunned expression. He knew Clint had never really expected to be chosen. To be thought good enough.
“What does this mean?” Clint sat at their kitchen table, staring in bemusement. He’d been so convinced he wouldn’t be selected and that one day, Phil would go on to be the Avengers’ handler and he would be left behind. But now, they could have this together. Be heroes together. He broke into a huge grin.
Phil grinned back. He was just so proud.
“Phil?” Clint sat next to his hospital bed, death grip on the bed rails, frowning deeply. He looked older, worn. Used up.
Phil worked to swallow and sipped gratefully from the straw Clint angled at his lips. “Wha…?”
“You’re going to be okay. Okay? Nod if you understand me.”
“Loki…stabbed you, do you remember?” It was Clint’s turn to swallow.
“You’ve been in a coma for three weeks, but you’re going to be okay. He missed your heart, just barely. The doctors were able to revive you.”
Phil’s brows rose. He’d been dead?
“Phil,” Clint whispered hoarsely, and he put his head down, choking on the sobs he refused to let loose.
“You?” Phil whispered, eyes shutting. He was very tired.
“Natasha slammed my head into a metal rail and then punched me in the face. Did the trick.”
“Oh,” he said, more a shape on his lips than an actual sound. “Was that…all?”
Clint forced out a laugh. “Just rest, Phil. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Six months after the helicarrier and New York and Loki, Phil was sitting up unassisted, doing paperwork at the kitchen table. It was a first. Not the sitting up part—he’d been doing that for weeks. It was the paperwork. They had a strict no-SHIELD policy in the loft, to which they actually mostly adhered.
“Hey,” Clint said, frowning. “None of that here.”
“Sorry.” Phil signed his name to a form and moved it into his complete pile. “They’re easing me back in.”
“So you’re going to do it? Take on the Avengers?” Clint still talked about the team like he wasn’t really part of it. Like he expected to be thrown in the brig at any moment.
“I’m done for field work.” And he wasn’t bitter, he really wasn’t. “Running herd on you guys, though, that’s all comms and command from base. That, I can do.”
Clint flinched at you guys but otherwise said nothing. They’d had that argument a hundred times already and he wasn’t up for round one hundred and one. That night he watched Phil ease into bed, still moving a little gingerly. He slipped down Phil’s body, settling his mouth around Phil’s cock, like he’d done every night since Phil was cleared for sex. For some reason, Phil wouldn’t let Clint do any more than that—and he’d fought even that much at first. There was an odd distance between them, one Clint was increasingly desperate to bridge. But he only knew one way to talk to Phil, because they’d never talked about things like what to do if one of them was compromised, or worse, killed. They’d just lived in a bubble, like Soho and the loft were a completely different world where nothing could touch them.
And they had been in a bubble, Phil knew that now. Playing house, crossing some lines they should not have crossed. Clint was his lover, but Phil could not love him. Not anymore. Not after nearly throwing his life away because Clint was compromised. What were you thinking, Fury asked, whisper-yelling in his hospital room. And Phil didn’t really have an answer, not then and not now. Nothing but Clint was gone from me, and that was not acceptable for an agent of his rank and responsibility. Do your best to protect your assets, but sometimes assets were lost. He knew that, and he’d forgotten it for Clint. To have Clint. But no more. Not only did he acutely not want to die (again), he had seen the footage of Hawkeye with the Avengers.
He was spectacular.
Phil knew he’d be good. Knew he’d be great. But seeing Hawkeye so focused and determined, even in grainy cell phone footage, was something else entirely. The Avengers were going to be so much more than anyone thought. Hawkeye would be so much more. Which meant it was time for their focus to be cognitively recalibrated. Tomorrow. They could recalibrate tomorrow. Right now he couldn’t think. Could only feel.
Phil eased up in bed, sitting against the head board. Clint was still asleep next to him, sprawled on his stomach, face mashed into the pillow. He looked impossibly young and Phil smiled, reaching out to smooth his hair back off his forehead. It was getting a little long, and needed to be trimmed back to regulation. They’d had five good years together, Phil thought. Five years he never thought to have. He always knew there would be an end. He didn’t know, when they started, that it would be because of the Avengers, but once he put Clint’s name in for consideration, he knew the clock was ticking.
He wondered if Clint knew it, too.
The Initiative was live now, they were go and green. Public, even. Phil couldn’t afford the kind of emotions that lead him to think taking on a demigod by himself was a good idea. He couldn’t be so ready to give up again. Because it wasn’t just Clint depending on him now. It was Natasha and Banner and Stark and Thor and the Captain, too. All of them fragile in their own ways, all of them in need of someone who would always be there, always be on the other end of the comm. He had to let Clint go to be there for all of them.
“Hrmph.” Clint shifted, cracking one eye open. “Mrgh.”
“Good morning,” Phil said, amused. It wouldn’t be easy, he knew. It would hurt, probably for a long time. He cared about Clint, after all. They’d been lovers for five years, had shared a home for that long, in between ops. But it had only ever been that—in between ops. The end written in the beginning. No happy endings for agents of SHIELD. They both knew that.
Clint stretched, scratched his belly lazily. “You look thoughtful.”
“I’ve been missing something.”
“Yeah. My favorite view.” Phil’s smile was wolfish.
“I thought you’d never ask.” Clint grinned. He swiped the lube off his nightstand and rose to his knees.
They fucked slowly. Phil still wasn’t a hundred percent but that was okay. He wanted to savor it anyway. He held Clint gently, murmuring praise and trust in his ear. He could feel Clint unwinding, slowly letting go of the hard knot of tension that plagued him since Loki. When it was over, Clint angled his weight off of Phil but rested his head against Phil’s shoulder. They lay together for a while, Clint finally accepting a little peace and Phil steeling himself for what was to come. Eventually, he nudged Clint away.
“Work,” he said. “We’ve got to report soon.”
“Hey,” Clint called, tossing his keys into the bowl on the table near the door.
Except they fell onto the floor.
Clint stood just inside the loft, gaping. It was empty. Everything was gone. There was a folded piece of paper on the floor. He picked it up and opened it, reading with a scowl.
Report to your quarters in the Tower.
Well, if Phil wanted to live the superhero clubhouse, so be it. With a shrug, Clint left and headed back uptown. Stark had offered him an apartment in the Tower in the immediate aftermath of the invasion but at the time, Clint wasn’t in any kind of state to even think about moving until he had Phil safely at home. Stark hadn’t brought it up since, but if Phil was up to it, then Clint could handle it.
But Phil wasn’t anywhere in the large, full-floor apartment Stark showed him. Clint’s things from the loft were there, his clothes in the closet and his books on the shelf. But he only had the standard furniture Stark provided, and Phil’s stuff was gone. He called Phil but it went straight to voicemail. So Clint went to the one place he knew he could always find Phil—the office. He threw open Phil’s door and stormed in, annoyed.
“Phil, what the fuck?”
Coulson looked up from his report and raised his brows.
“I mean Coulson. Jesus, I mean Coulson.”
He went back to redacting information from the form in front of him. “Is there a problem, Agent Barton?”
“Yeah, there damn well is, and you know it. Our stuff was moved to Stark Tower without my knowledge, but your things don’t seem to have made it.”
“Sounds like your things were moved, then.”
Clint was silent for a long time. “What are you saying?”
“I think you know.” He slanted a look up at Barton.
“Are you…leaving? Is this you leaving?” Clint couldn’t breathe. This was a nightmare. There was no way Phil was leaving him like this. That he was leaving him at all. You’re not allowed to go away from me again.
“I think we both know that things have run their course.” He was calm and collected, like the robot the junior agents thought him to be.
“No,” Clint said mulishly. “I don’t know that.”
Coulson put down his redacting pen and folded his hands. He looked up at Barton, and spoke softly. “Barton, things have changed. You know that. There can’t be a hint of favoritism or preferential treatment, not now. This can’t keep happening. It compromises us both.”
“What can’t keep happening? I can’t keep being in love with you?”
Twenty-eight years of covering his feelings with an inscrutable poker face held him together as he watched Clint Barton, the toughest, strongest man he’d ever known fall apart. Barton didn’t cry or beg or create any kind of scene. He just stared in disbelief, which slowly hardened into anger and bitterness.
“Fine,” Barton bit out. “If that’s how you want it, Agent Coulson.”
“It’s what’s best. For everyone, not just us.”
Barton snorted and turned without waiting to be dismissed. At the door he paused and looked back at Coulson. There was something dark and awful in Barton’s eyes, and Coulson remembered how he’d looked at twenty-one. Maybe this was the worst part, that ultimately he had to betray Barton like this. But he was convinced this was for the best. His recklessness after Barton was compromised, Barton’s bedside vigil while he was in the hospital—Fury and Hill were giving him looks. They’d turned a blind eye when they were just Agent Coulson and Agent Barton, but now Barton was Hawkeye in a whole new way. A way that meant a lot of publicity, a lot of scrutiny. It was enough to keep his involvement with Loki, unwilling though it was, out of the official reports. Any hint of impropriety could cost Barton his spot in the initiative. That couldn’t happen. He’d worked too hard.
“You’ve made it, Barton. You’re the best of the best and no one can take that away from you. No one will take that away from you. Especially not me.”
For a moment, it looked like Barton might say something. But he just shook his head and left, the door closing behind him with a sense of finality. Coulson exhaled slowly. All things considered, that went surprisingly well. Maybe it wouldn’t get any worse than this, and one day, they could find their way back to being friends. He could make that be enough, as long as Barton had the things he’d worked so hard to achieve, the things not even Loki could take away from him.
And he would be fine, one day. He’d been run through, died for two minutes, then came back to let the love of his life go. But he’d gotten five years first. More than he ever expected. Enough to hold onto.
Coulson paused. These berths were supposed to be empty. A distinct moan wafted through the berth’s door. Definitely not empty.
“God Clint, yes.”
Was that Natasha?
When they took in Natasha, they all knew her reputation, so one of the ways they offered her security, one of the first lures thrown out to gain her trust, was to promise her complete agency over her own body. No one at SHIELD would ever ask, let alone expect, her to use her body to gain intel. It’s not that they, as an organization, had any particular issue with that tactic, it was just that they all recognized a traumatized person when they saw one. Natasha’s trauma ran deep, and letting her be in charge of her sexuality for the first time in her life was one step in restoring her self-worth and giving her a reason to want to remain with them. So it was that she had not slept with anyone in the seven years she’d been with them.
Oh sure, she’d put on a slinky dress and bat her lashes to win over a mark. She’d been known to sit on a lap and whisper sweet nothings. But no one ever touched. If she got a mark alone in a room, the mort was less petit and more finale. Her code name was Black Widow but they called her Mother Superior behind her back. Barton teased her about her “second virginity”, but it was gentle teasing, as he was always a little softer for Natasha than he was for anyone else. Those close to her knew it was actually a point of pride with her, that she was just as effective at gathering intel without resorting to seduction as she had been when that was her M.O. And over time, it simply faded into the background, as she built a new reputation, one of ruthless efficiency without the qualifying edge other operatives sneered at.
Panting and the unmistakable squeak of bed springs echoed from the berth. Then there was a gut-deep groan Coulson would recognize anywhere. He closed his eyes and pressed his lips together. He resumed walking, a little more briskly than before. It had been three months. Whatever Barton was doing—whoever—was not his business. Not now. He reminded himself that he’d done the right thing. The best thing, for both of them.
“You should not have left him.” Natasha’s voice was cool.
Coulson said nothing.
“I will not apologize.” Defiant.
“I don’t expect you to.”
“I love him, too.” Earnest.
“I know you do.”
“I will never betray him.” Assured.
“I know you won’t.”
“I will make him happy.” Promising.
Three years later, he found Barton sitting next to another hospital bed. He was leaning against the bed rails, gently stroking Natasha’s hair. She would be fine, nothing worse than a mild concussion and some contusions that didn’t even require stitching, but it was a bad fall and one terrible minute in which she was unresponsive. He was looking at her with an expression Coulson almost, but not quite, recognized. Barton sensed him and looked over his shoulder, smiling a little.
“She’ll be okay,” he said, nudging one red curl back on the pillow.
“Yes, the doctors apprised me of her status.” Coulson turned to go. He wasn’t needed.
“I never did thank you.”
He stopped, looking back at Barton.
“You said it was for the best. At the time, I hated you for that, but now…I think you were right.” Barton’s smile was heartbreakingly sweet and he held Natasha’s small hand in his own bigger, rougher grasp.
“Yes, well.” Coulson didn’t know what to say. He wanted to scream, I was so wrong.
“I think we could’ve been happy, you and me,” Barton went on. “But you were right. It always would have been a secret kind of happiness. With Nat, I’m…free.”
He made an inarticulate sound and left, closing the door quietly behind him. It was more than he could bear. He wanted to go back in time and undo his terrible mistake, put the world back on a course he recognized. Because this was like living in some awful alternate universe that he could never escape. He wanted to go back to when Barton was his—when Barton was Clint.
But Coulson had had his five years. More than he ever expected.
It’s a true love story—that’s what they say.
There are obstacles and pain and even death, but nothing gets in the way.
It’s a true true love story.
That’s what they say.