In the second week after several blocks of Manhattan were ripped open, Clint says to Natasha, “Does doctor Banner remind you of Stephen at all?”
“I was wondering when you’d say that.” Like most of her smiles, this one doesn’t reach her eyes. “I thought the same thing the night I met him. But the more I look at him, the less I see it.”
Clint sees everything, and with a clarity that would drive almost anyone else to distraction. He finds echoes of the man he knew in the planes of this almost-stranger’s face, the breadth of his shoulders, the quirk of his mouth, the curl of his hair. Before long, Clint can barely stand to look at him. It doesn’t stop him from thinking, comparing. He tries to distance himself, in his observations; he thinks of them only as ‘the con man’ and ‘the scientist.’ The con man’s deceptive laugh lines against the scientist’s worry-brushed forehead. The con man’s calculated sprawl and the scientist’s unconscious tightness. The con man’s dark hair versus the scientist’s greying. But he stops to think—it’s been years. Maybe if Stephen were alive, his temples would be brushed with silver.
“You’re obsessing,” Natasha says. Clint doesn’t contest the fact, or ask how she knows despite his usual drily witty remarks. He won’t insult her like that. “You should stop. Nothing good can come of this.”
She’s right. He knows she is. Stephen was a mistake he stubbornly refuses to regret. They met in Bruges on a foggy morning. Stephen drank Clint’s coffee before introducing himself, though he gave a different name. His accent was very good, and might have fooled anyone who hadn’t so recently been to Belfast.
(Bruce stammers when he speaks Bengali and his street-learned Portuguese is so colloquial that no one on the Iberian Peninsula would understand him. He’s so earnest when it comes to language that it almost hurts to listen.)
Clint called him on it rather than killing him because no spook would directly engage using a cover that was anything less than perfect. Stephen smiled and told him he was clever and walked off back into the fog with Clint’s wallet, though Clint didn’t notice until he went to pay for his coffee. He didn’t want to be impressed. He was anyway.
They met next in Annecy. It was a week after Bastille Day and there was some kind of nocturnal street performance festival. Stephen’s French sounded native, local. Clint asked for his wallet back.
“Personne ne m’a dit ça, auparavant,” Stephen admitted. He didn’t have it with him, of course, so he invited Clint back to his apartment. If he’d been on assignment, Clint wouldn’t have bothered, but he had three days to himself. If things went badly, he had plenty of time to kill the thief, frame a neighbor, and eliminate all traces that he’d ever been there.
Things did not go badly.
The search for a wallet became a friendly drink (though Clint made sure to watch his host take a sip first), and a friendly drink turned into friendlier touching. The early morning descended into that base territory of hot mouths and warm bodies that he’d missed for some time. Stephen kissed like a hurricane.
(Bruce kisses the way you’d expect a scientist to kiss. It’s gentle, thorough, a little different every time. Brief, tender experiments. Clint starts to hate himself.)
The hours after dawn were something of a train wreck. Clint woke up to the sound of a key turning in the lock, conditioned to be combat-ready. It wasn’t another killer. It was a tall, thin younger man with large, sad eyes. Betrayal was writ large across his features. The conclusion Clint drew from that—lovers—kept him from bringing in two of the most notorious grifters in the Western world. Stephen cursed, threw on a bathrobe, and ran out into the hall before the door had time to slam. Clint listened, half-interested, as he got dressed.
“—brought him to the place we live, Stephen, I can’t believe—” and the only thing Clint got from that was the pickpocket’s real name and that the presumed-boyfriend was probably American. Clint left through the window.
He pieced it together in the months that followed. Idle chatter from contacts. By their third meeting in Istanbul, Clint was certain that he’d slept with Stephen Bloom of the infamous brothers Bloom. This time they locked eyes from opposite sides of the street. Stephen grinned and took off running in the split second before a small explosion. Clint was on assignment and catching a con artist was not a priority. They didn’t see one another again for over a year.
It was spring in Tübingen. Clint hid his injuries under long sleeves and scarves anyway. Stephen sported his usual waistcoat and rakish smile. The sky was shifting from velvety night dark to near-cloudless sky and seemed momentarily stuck in hazy grey. Not many people were awake.
“Convalescing?” Stephen asked. He wasn’t expecting Clint to punch him, but he laughed through slightly bloodied lips when he was hauled in by his lapels for a kiss. A petite Asian woman coughed pointedly (and when had she shown up in the deserted park?). Stephen tossed her two keys on a hotel keychain. “I’m taking the week off. Look after Bloom and tell him not to worry.” She rolled her eyes. When Clint looked over again, she’d gone.
“Not unless the thought of infidelity makes it better for you—in which case, we’re married.” Stephen’s smile settled into something knowing, almost coy. He leaned in again, but Clint held him back by the grip on his jacket.
“Now that you’ve altered your plans, I should just leave you here.”
“You should turn me over to INTERPOL, if we’re going to get technical. But you’re not going to.” He was right. Clint had no plans to deliver him to the proper authorities. His focus translated easily into fixation, and something in him had already decided that the strange rapport they were building took priority over international law.
They spent the morning wandering the city. Stephen talked about historical anecdotes and personal histories and Clint had no idea which, if any, were true. They stopped to eat lunch and Stephen dropped subtle hints that he might be a restaurant critic. The waiter didn’t bother bringing them a bill. He was so utterly, consistently charming that Clint wondered if he cultivated it out of necessity or if it was that innate magnetism that made confidence games so easy for him.
Another assignment came up and Clint left, without warning, on the fourth day. He could have left a note. He opted not to. Half-asleep on a train to Warsaw, he thought about watching Stephen dance with other people and open bar tabs in taverns they’d never go back to.
(Bruce, despite what people might think, is not passive. He doesn’t just let things happen to him even as he never takes center stage. He often chooses the path of least resistance, moving in parallel to what is suggested, but he doesn’t allow himself to be pushed.)
The last time they saw each other was the least spontaneous. Clint called an unlisted number that went straight to voicemail.
“I’m in Budapest,” he said. Taking a deep breath, he added, “I think I’m going to die tomorrow.”
Four hours later, Stephen knocked on his hotel room door. They went to a restaurant near the National Museum.
“If anyone looked at me the way you’re looking at that stuffed cabbage, I might have to marry them,” Clint said gravely. Stephen glanced up at him with no change in expression and he wondered if he might actually be in love. They lay together afterward and shared more of themselves than they should have.
“Lying is the only thing I’ve ever been good at. It’s the only way I know to tell the truth.” It did and didn’t make sense.
“I’m sorry I never got to know your brother.”
“I’m not.” Stephen’s smile was bitter, knowing. “I wouldn’t have let you near him. You’re a dangerous man, and that’s a mistake I won’t make again.” He had a cigarette burn on the side of his neck. It was the only scar he didn’t have an outlandish story for. Clint whispered apologies between his shoulder blades and told him he had to leave before four a.m. It was the first time in a long time that he let himself fall asleep first.
When he woke up at three fifty-five, there was a note on the pillow. Three words.
À la prochaine.
He almost did die in Budapest, but his aim was flawless even as he bled out and the voices in his earpiece disappeared into radio silence. When it was over and his hands were numb and cold, he talked softly to the woman who was trying to help him keep his insides on the inside. The world lost its clarity and he stopped repeating the contact information for his next of kin and instead talked about a man who’d stolen his wallet and made him very briefly happy even as they never really understood one another.
Later, after a return to lucidity if not full health, Natasha Romanova told him that she’d met the brothers Bloom. She didn’t say much more, except that she would be perfectly happy to never see them again (and was certain that they felt the same way), and that she could see Stephen’s charm, for a given meaning of the word. She didn’t elaborate on what that meaning was. Clint couldn’t help but feel insulted.
He dwelled on it, because there wasn’t much else to do while he was convalescing. He lined up pieces of evidence that he was just another mark, then counter-arguments for each. In the end, it boiled down to one question: what did Stephen stand to gain? The whole thing was a conundrum. There was nothing to be done about it, though. Clint knew without checking that the phone number had been a one-time deal.
He healed. He did his job, as always. Sometimes he’d get hurt again, but never like Budapest.
“Maybe you wanted to die. Maybe you always have, and saying a goodbye gave you a reason,” Romanova suggested carelessly. “I’ve read the reports. You’re a reckless man, agent Barton.”
“Then ask to work with someone else,” he said.
“Never reckless with the safety of teammates. Only your own.” She smiled at him. “It’s a wonder they sent you on so many solo missions without regular psych evaluations.” He knew then that it was a test. She was pushing him.
“Better not get too close to me. If I start seeing too many similarities, I might decide that you deserve to die, too.” He wasn’t sure if he was being serious or sarcastic, but she seemed to know. He could pinpoint that conversation as when they went from tolerating each other to working together; the moments where they shifted, outside the field, from Barton and Romanova to Clint and Natasha.
Three years later in Asunción, a petite Asian woman sat next to him at the bar and ordered a Campari. She downed it in three gulps, carefully wrote on the back of her cardboard coaster, and left. Clint picked up the coaster. Coordinates, with (S) next to them, and an address with (DD) next to it. He called Natasha the next night and asked her how she’d feel about going back to St. Petersburg. Her response was about four minutes of very fast Russian, much of it profane. In the end, though, she agreed.
“Never say I didn’t do anything for you,” she said.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
The coordinates led them to an unmarked grave. Even though he knew who he’d find there, Clint had to be sure. His brother will never have a place to visit, he thought, and he must have said something to that effect because Natasha offered him a very elegant way of looking it that made such an injustice seem not only bearable but proper. He had expected something more in the way of pointing out how many families they’d left in a similar situation. He was glad she didn’t say it. He was thinking it anyway. She probably knew that.
At the address they found a run-down flat with peeling paint and splintered furniture and a thirteen-year-old boy in a closet with a shotgun. Natasha took it very gently from his hands and replaced it with a wad of bills. She whispered to him, eyes hard, and the boy nodded and left without a word. Clint carefully considered the stories he’d heard about the Diamond Dog while he and Natasha waited.
Three minutes past seven p.m., an old man in a shabby suit and an eyepatch walked in the door. Between the hours of seven fifteen p.m. and five thirty a.m., he confessed to a lot of things, many of them unforgivable and all of them true. At five thirty-one a.m. the Diamond Dog was killed by an arrow fired at relatively close range through his remaining eye.
That was the end of it. Bloom and the heiress, according to Natasha, had settled in Buenos Aires. She did translation work under a pseudonym and he wrote outlandish globe-trotting adventures that may or may not have been fictional. They were a couple of strictly local and strictly literary renown. They seemed safe, comfortable. The thought of anyone so closely attached to Stephen living that way was foreign to Clint. A few months later, Bloom and the heiress abandoned that comfortable life for a similarly calm existence in Sweden. He didn’t understand it at all. He stopped bothering to keep tabs on them and let the work become his whole life again.
Four years have passed, made different from the years that preceded them mainly by Natasha’s presence. They work well together—so much so that they begin to talk less. It becomes unnecessary hen they have so many ways of communicating. Sometimes, though, they still need words.
“This isn’t healthy for either of you,” she tells him. “He deserves better.” From what Clint has heard, Bruce has never gotten as good as he deserves.
There is no defining moment. He doesn’t know when they went from the scientist and the archer to Banner and Barton to Bruce and Clint. Nothing concrete marks the transition from teammate to friend to lover. Very little has changed, from his perspective. They share everything and nothing.
He tries not to think about Stephen, and frequently succeeds.
“Do you believe in an afterlife?” he asks one night, looking out over New York’s lights. It’s not until Bruce answers that he hears the echo of Tübingen.
“It’s not a possibility that I necessarily discount, but I think that it’s what we do while we’re alive that should matter.”
“The present life isn’t an opening act; it’s the main event.” Bruce hums, taking it for agreement. Clint can’t look at him because he knows he’ll be disappointed by Bruce’s calm openness with Stephen’s fierce joy overshadowing him.
It creeps up on him unexpectedly.
Bruce is vegan, which seems to involve eating a lot of raw almonds and staring longingly at Natasha’s plain yoghurt. Clint is struck one night, as he watches Bruce quietly demolish a bowl of steamed edamame, by the thought that Bruce takes no great pleasure in eating. He doesn’t look at his food like he wants to make love to it. He wouldn’t appreciate the restaurant by the National Museum.
Sex with Bruce, when it occasionally happens, is as much balancing act and negotiation as it is passion. Clint has to be careful that Bruce is never in a position to feel trapped. He’s mildly claustrophobic and has nightmares about vivisection, so being pinned down has to be avoided. He responds enthusiastically but rarely initiates because his focus is split between sensation and awareness of his physiological responses. He communicates his pleasure in the interruptions to his deep, even breathing—short, stuttered gasps and rushing sighs. Bruce always thanks him afterward, as though it’s something he thinks Clint merely endures for his sake. It’s more than a little sad.
Clint doesn’t remember generalities about having sex with Stephen. It varied enough that what sticks in his mind are the details—a kiss to his ankle, his left eyelid. Fucking like a challenge, like a fight, and touches so tender that professions of love would have been superfluous. Clint might have tried to thank him, once, and got punched in the ear for it.
Bruce is thinner than expected under his slightly oversized clothes. As he reaches with a trembling hand to turn off the bedside lamp, Clint studies the shadowed contours of his ribcage. Some days he eats something small every three hours, to regulate his metabolism, but just as often, he’ll sit down for one meal and get so involved with a project that he forgets the rest. He drinks a lot of tea, though it’s almost never black tea and frequently something herbal. He avoids alcohol at all costs.
Most days, that’s all Clint sees. Once in a while, though, he’ll remember Stephen laughing, all teeth, faking drunk after a single glass of sour cherry liqueur. He’ll catch a glimpse of Stephen drinking his coffee in Bruges or leaving several recently-emptied glass cups of Turkish-style brew on a table for him to find minutes later. Sweet-talking the owner of a boulangerie into selling them stale croissants hours after closing.
It’s worst when he gathers Bruce into his arms and finds belatedly that he expected Stephen’s more substantial body. He goes to kiss a cigarette burn and his lips meet smooth skin, or his fingers meet a scar he doesn’t remember until he takes stock of the grey in the overgrown curls and the sharpness of the hip-bones and the freckles on the shoulders.
Stephen owned every bed he slept in, whether or not he paid for it. Anywhere he laid his head was his, and anyone else who might be sleeping there with him was a guest. Bruce makes himself as small as possible when he sleeps, as though he feels he’s intruding. Stephen slept like he was blameless. Bruce has had so much practice dealing with nightmares that he bites a pillow or a blanket or his own curled fist to muffle the sounds he makes until the conditioning takes over and his breathing evens out—all without waking.
Clint isn’t sure if he has a weakness for geniuses with tired eyes and sharp edges or if he’s still in love with just the one.
He wakes in the early morning to a grey sky and heavy rain. He closes his eyes and listens, imagines flaking French doors in place of plate-glass windows. Stephen confides that he likes to situate his cons near water because it confers a sense of poetry with its myriad symbolism. Stephen’s been dead for almost five years. Clint has spent more time face-to-face with Bruce than he ever did Stephen. This is a kind of madness. He walks out into the world with eyes wide open for the first time in a long time.
Clint requests a sabbatical from the Avengers Initiative and all but demands to be put on active full-time duty as an agent again. Sitwell looks at him like he’s lost his mind, but Hill signs off on it. Clint writes a note to Natasha that explains nothing. She’ll know.
He spends his last night in the country with Bruce.
“What’s wrong?” Bruce is pale and worried. He doesn’t know that Clint is leaving, but he knows the look of grim resolution on his face.
“Please, just listen.” Bruce sits and Clint tells him everything. Bruges, Annecy, Istanbul, Tübingen, Budapest, Asunción, St. Petersburg. Bruce doesn’t say a word. The worry becomes something harder. His back straightens and he is a statue carved from wood, stone. When Clint runs out of words, he leaves.
He doesn’t look back. He focuses on the work and makes no snide comments. Three weeks on, in Kiev, he gets a message from Natasha.
Don’t come back.
He knows he won’t hear from her again. She has made her thoughts known and it’s up to him to interpret and respond accordingly. He’s honestly not sure whether to take the message as complete, or whether there’s an unspoken until you get yourself together tacked on the end.
Only the voices of his superiors keep him company. Before Natasha, he at least had Coulson. Now he is unmoored, but he makes every shot. No one asks him if he’s alright or worries that he isn’t cracking jokes. Clint spends most of his time in his own head.
He remembers. He dwells.
It isn’t Stephen he thinks of on a rooftop in Bahawalpur. He’s not sure anything has changed. But he sees the news in Manila, and it’s faces he knows standing amid the wreckage. Faces he misses.
Fourteen weeks in, he gets another message.
It isn’t from Natasha. He wonders if he’s lost the right to call anywhere home. The rain thunders insistently on the tin roof. He closes his eyes and imagines freckled shoulders and wire-rimmed glasses placed on the nightstand by hands that don’t shake unless he kisses those freckles, and knows where he wants to call home.
Clint isn’t sure he’s earned going back to any of that. He’s damned well going to try anyway.