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Coulson’s skin is warm against Clint’s back, the sole source of heat in this winter wasteland. They’ve lit a fire, but all it seems to do is make the icy air smell of smoke and ash.

“So I just stared him down and said, ‘I’m gonna count to three, and then we’re gonna have a problem’. I didn’t even get through fucking ‘one’ before the guy was running.”

Rescue will arrive at sunrise, and not a moment before. The winds are too high and the snows too heavy to risk a team in the dark. In the meantime, Clint and Coulson are back to back, skin to skin in a cocoon of sleeping bags and solar blankets, and they have to stay awake until morning.

“That is not what happened.”

Coulson’s voice is muffled by the layers wrapped around them, but Clint clings to it like a beacon in the arctic night.

“God’s truth, sir.”

“Barton, I was there. The suspect kicked you in the groin and ran for it.”

After I threatened him. Bastard was scared shitless, I guarantee.”

“Yes, you’re terribly intimidating. All five feet ten inches of you.” Coulson sounds amused, but he also sounds tired. Tired isn’t a good thing.

“What I lack in size, I make up for in enthusiasm.” Clint wriggles in the tight space, his shivering skin catching against Coulson’s. “I’d be happy to demonstrate for you.”

He can almost hear Coulson rolling his eyes. “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary.”

“Spoil sport.” The cold is insidious, soaking into Clint’s bones. “Fine. You tell me a story, since you know all mine.”

“I don’t have any stories.”

“Bullshit,” Clint says. “Most bad-ass you’ve ever been, and the convenience store in New Mexico doesn’t count.”

For a moment, he thinks Coulson is going to brush him off, that they will spend this sleepless night in silence. Then, a touch of bemusement in his voice, Coulson begins, “There was that one time.”

***

“My name is Phil Coulson, with the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Logistics Division. I’m here to negotiate the release of a priority hostage.”

There were six of them, surrounding him with guns drawn. The one directly in front of him, the one with a gun pointed between his eyes, was standing between Phil and the flimsy basement door.

It had taken SHIELD a week to find out where Barton was being held, and, as far as Phil was concerned, that was six days, twenty-three hours, and fifty-five minutes too long.

“You have ten seconds to surrender and release the hostage or there will be consequences.”

The man in front of him laughed. “Here’s some negotiation for you: I’ll be nice and let you see your friend before I shoot you in the fucking head.”

Phil looked the man dead in the eye and said evenly, “I will need to bring one of you in for questioning. It’s very kind of you to volunteer.”

The countdown in his head reached three.

Two.

One.

“I did give you a chance to surrender,” he said and, in the exact same voice, added, “Fire.”

He hit the floor as five bullets punched one by one through the window and punctured five heads. Well, four heads, but that was what happened when you had to bring in the second best sniper in the division. The fifth bullet clipped the target’s shoulder, and Phil grabbed the man as he reeled, twisting his arm up behind him.

The sixth man had his back pressed to the basement door, firing wildly around the room. Phil used his captive as a shield and felt the shock as the bullets punched into flesh. Bracing his shoulder on the dead man’s back, he charged the final shooter and the three bodies went crashing through the door.

***

Phil’s teeth rattle as he tells the story, but he can’t be sure if it’s from his own chills or Barton shivering so hard against him. They’ve done all they can to ward against the cold, and still it coils around Phil’s bones like a snake.

The only heat in the world is one soft place at the small of Barton’s back, pressed flush against his skin.

“That’s it? That’s your story?” Barton says, and his voice is shaking just as violently as his body. “You got some half-ass who wasn’t me to shoot the bad guys for you, and that’s your story?”

“I apologize for not being more entertaining. I suppose you have something better?” He needs Barton to keep talking, to stay awake and stay with him through this endless night.

“Damn right. I got dozens. Tales of fucking heroism and derring do and all that shit.”

He does, Phil thinks. Many more than anyone will ever hear or know of. “Just so you’re aware, my field report will reflect the fact that you used the phrase ‘derring do’ unironically.”

“It’s fancy talk for ‘badass’.” The sibilants slide and stutter off Barton’s tongue. “Though right now my bad ass is freezing. What’s the point of being buddies with a weather god if he can’t save us from the fucking weather?”

“I’m pretty sure precipitation would only make the situation worse,” Phil points out, and he’s superstitious enough to mentally knock wood. “Now I believe you said something about tales of heroism. Or was it hedonism? It’s hard to tell, with you.”

“Fuck you, sir.”

“Not tonight, Agent Barton. I have a headache.”

Barton laughs, his shoulders rubbing against Phil’s. “Alright, you want hedonism? I’ll give you hedonism.”

***

It wasn’t the worst kind of job. The worst kind of job usually ended with Clint stumbling to the extraction point soaked in someone else’s blood, nothing in his head but screaming. Still, it was the kind of job that made him get close, put him on the ground with a name that wasn’t his and made him sidle up to his target with a smile.

There was a reason Clint preferred range weapons.

Tonight, he was near enough to touch, to taste the champagne on the man’s lips as his tongue ran along the backside of Clint’s teeth. Tonight, his name was something simple and sweet and irrelevant because this asshole wasn’t going to remember it.

The man dragged his beefy hands up Clint’s back, tracing the lines of muscle and curling his thick fingers around the back of Clint’s neck. Clint shut his eyes and rocked against him, moaning, thinking of arrows and arms and someone else’s skin, shutting away the part of his brain that remembered too much.

“Down.” He gripped Clint’s short hair and added a sharp tug to the command. Clint obeyed, imagining someone else’s cock in his mouth as he licked and sucked and swallowed.

The taste was sour, the touch coarse, and the man held Clint’s head in place, fucking up into his mouth. Clint let him, let himself be used because he had a job to do, and he thought of other men and other skin and places he’d rather be.

He was relieved when the man pulled him up by his hair, kissing him roughly with teeth and tongue, but he did his best to smile dazedly, coy and game. He was less relieved when the man tugged Clint into his lap and thrust into him with little preamble. The hiss of pain he swallowed twisted into a moan of pleasure, and he tried not to think of having to get tested when he got back to SHIELD.

These creeps were always riddled with disease, and Clint didn’t want to get syphilis.

The man fucked Clint hard, without rhythm and without regard for any pleasure but his own. This was it, this was the moment, now while there was room for nothing in the target’s mind but his cock in a tight, hot ass. Clint ran his fingers through his own hair and pulled out the small device hidden there. Rocking forward on a vicious thrust, Clint cried out and braced his hands against the headboard, planting the bug on the back of it as the man came inside him, all mess and noise and big hands.

Clint rode him through it, rode him ‘til he was done, and he pushed Clint off with a grunt.

“Gregor will pay you,” the man said, and Clint gathered his clothes and left with a nod, his own cock half hard and aching.

He got his money and his clothes mostly on before he left, ducking into a utility closet on the next floor down.

It wasn’t the worst kind of job, but it was bad enough and he deserved a little reward for his troubles. He wrapped a hand around his cock and stroked slowly, dwelling on other touches and other places, other lovers he dreamed of straddling and taking with sweat and moans and willing kisses. When he was fully hard, he quickened his pace, jerking his hand in a steady rhythm, thinking of hands he’d never feel around him.

He did not shout as he came, just sighed and tucked himself away before fishing a comm from his pocket and fitting it into his ear.

“It’s done,” he said. “Now get me the fuck out of here.”

***

A steamy story is supposed to raise the temperature in their little cocoon, but Coulson is quiet for so long that Clint starts to feel a cold coiling deep in his belly that has nothing to do with the snow.

At last, Coulson says quietly, “I didn’t.... I didn’t know. You never said how you got to the target, and you were off the comm for so long, I thought....” He feels Coulson shake his head, back curving into Clint’s. “I was five minutes from calling in an emergency extraction when you came back on. I didn’t know.”

Even the shame that crawls up Clint’s neck is cold. “What did you think I was gonna do? Charm him with my dazzling wit?”

“No, you did.... You got the job done, no collateral and ahead of schedule. You did good. I just... didn’t know.”

There is a sadness in Coulson’s voice that makes Clint feel more frozen than he already is. He wants to make excuses, to say it wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last and it certainly wasn’t the worst, but he doesn’t think that will help.

He’s so cold. Everything is so cold. All he wants is warm skin against his back and Coulson’s voice in the darkness.

“Alright, that wasn’t the best story,” he admits. “You got any good, sexy ones, boss?”

Coulson hesitates, then says, “Those kinds of missions aren’t really my strong suit.”

“Not asking about missions,” Clint says, and when did it get so hard to move his lips? “Asking about sexy stories. Or love stories. You got a love story for me?”

In the dark, Coulson sighs. “There was one.... Barton, if you tell anyone about this, I will actually kill you, but there was one....”

***

His name was James - Jamie - and he was a geneticist. SHIELD had consulted with him regarding the eternal attempts to recreate Project Rebirth. He’d been helpful, and SHIELD had kept in touch. Or, at least, Phil had.

He was tall and wiry, with big, soft hands and a wide, unguarded smile. His brain moved faster than some computers Phil had seen, and he approached everything with a sense of wonder and discovery.

It had been a remarkable thing to be, if only for a while, the source of that wonder, a thing worthy of discovery. Jamie had learned and catalogue every inch of him with delight, had asked questions and drawn him out in a way that no one had ever bothered to try.

He’d been the one to find the final card, the 1953 Captain America revival series, produced in limited quantities and nearly impossible to get. Jamie had tracked it down, had given it to Phil as a birthday gift, and that was when Phil knew he was in love. Not because of the card, but because of the heart behind it, the understanding and devotion that went into a gift like that.

Phil had been young enough, then, to not see the hopelessness in that blush of passion, but he was cynical enough to not be surprised when things went south.

Jamie talked about his job, his life, his thoughts, his family, and everything else at length, and Phil devoured every detail like a blessed bite in a ten-course meal of normalcy and sanity. When Jamie asked about Phil, though - his job, his life, his thoughts, his family - there was no answer.

I can’t tell you that.

It’s classified.

I can’t talk about that.

Can we talk about something else?

All of which was true, and all of which drove Jamie, ever craving new knowledge, up a fucking wall. All the same, Phil held out hope for far too long.

That sweet, blissful tryst had ended, not with a bang, but with a quiet “I don’t think this is working” and a shy but insistent “Please don’t call me again”, and Phil had wanted so much to be shocked and hurt and somehow couldn’t manage it.

It had been good while it lasted, though, and that was the point of the story, really.

***

“In case you doubted whether I was capable of human emotion,” Phil says. “A disturbing number of agents seem to believe I’m programmed without it.

“They jus’ don’t know what a b-big sap you are.” Barton’s speech is slurred and slow, and his shivering has become intermittent.

That’s not good.

“Barton?”

“‘M fine, sir. Think it’s gettin’ warmer.”

Shit.

Turning around in the tight space is a challenge, and Phil does his best not to elbow his companion in the ribs. Finally, he presses his chest against Barton’s skin, folding him into his arms and exhaling hot breath onto his neck. Back-to-back, they can keep the warmth they have, but Barton needs more than that, needs Phil to give him heat.

“Thought you had a headache, s-sir.”

“It’s your turn,” Phil says, trying not to think of how Barton’s skin is cold as frozen metal, trying not to wish they could be wrapped up like this in a soft, warm bed. “How about a happy story, this time?”

“S-sure. See, there was this one time I got s-stranded in Alaska with my partner, and we had to cuddle f-for warmth.” Leave it to Clint Barton to find the humor in freezing to death. Phil smiles against the back of his neck.

“I said a happy story, Barton.”

“C-cuddling’s happy. I like cuddling,” he says.

“That’s also going in my report.” Barton is slowly relaxing into him, even as the shivering returns to a steady rhythm. Phil just holds on tighter and prays for a swift sunrise. “Come on, it’s your turn,” he says again. “Tell me a story. Tell me a....” This is not a road he should walk down, but he will. “Tell me a love story.”

Barton huffs. “Don’t got any of those, s-sir.”

The inevitable truth of that cracks Phil’s heart like an ice flow. He knows better than anyone that Barton has a lot of stories, but they all start in despair and end in heartbreak. “Make one up, then. I know you have imagination, despite evidence to the contrary.”

Barton squirms in Phil’s hold, but the shaking turns it into a violent shudder. “Wouldn’t know where to s-start.”

“‘Once upon a time’ seems popular,” Phil says. “Or ‘it was a dark and stormy night’, though that’s a little grim.”

“Once upon a time, there was a f-fuck-up named Clint who joined SHIELD because some asshole shot him. Then the asshole d-dragged poor, stupid Clint to the fucking north pole, and they both froze th-their asses off. Captain America found their naked bodies snuggling in a sleeping bag, and everyone thought it was really d-dumb and romantic. The end.” The humor in Barton’s voice is edged with something colder than the snow, but at least his speech is clearer. “How’s that for a love s-story?”

Phil swallows. This is not a road he should walk down, but he needs to keep Barton talking, to keep him worked up and awake. “It has potential,” he says, “death from hypothermia aside.”

Barton is still but for his shivering, and Phil is starting to think he has made a terrible misjudgement when Barton finally says, “We’re gonna die out here.”

“We’ve survived each other this long. I’m sure we can handle a little chill,” Phil replies, because dying here, like this, is not an option.

“That’s bullshit, sir. We’re gonna die out here and you can’t even....” Barton’s sigh is a rough, stuttering thing, and Phil feels it rattle through his skin. “Fine. You want a f-fucking love story? Here it is. Once upon a time, there was a fuck-up named Clint, who nobody cared about and nobody loved.”

“Barton....”

“No. Goddamnit, Coulson, just listen.”

***

Clint would never admit that he joined SHIELD because the asshole who shot him, who told him to take the job, had looked him in the eye when he said it. Clint would never admit that his change in career had anything to with a steady blue gaze and an undertone of Please take the damn offer and don’t make me kill you.

It took a long time to admit it to himself. He did, eventually, because his heart stayed pinned to his sleeve, and that was enough distance for him to see it clearly. When the understanding came, he sighed and hunkered down, because he knew enough to know that he would do what he always did. Any shadow of kindness, any hand not raised in rage, and he would give himself over, lay at the feet of whoever offered it like the worst kind of beaten dog.

He spent years waiting for a kick that never came.

The asshole who shot him just kept stopping other people from shooting him, kept giving him quiet orders instead of a kick in the side, kept backing him up every step of the way. And the one time some poor bastards got their hands on Clint and had him chained up in a supervillain basement, the asshole who shot him came down on their heads like a force of nature and took exactly one prisoner, just to find out where the bosses were hiding.

He found out. There were no survivors.

“You’re a scary man, sir,” Clint rasped through a throat scraped raw by days of screaming and dry from the painkillers being pumped into him.

“Nobody touches my people.” His voice was calm and even, as if there wasn’t evidence on record to show exactly what happened to anyone who tried.

Clint inclined his head toward the cup of ice chips, and the asshole who shot him slipped one gently into his mouth without a second glance, fingertips brushing against Clint’s parched lips. Clint swallowed the soothing cold and said, “Didn’t know you cared so much.”

The asshole who shot him gave him a look full of something strange and solid and wholly unfamiliar, and Clint could’ve died, could’ve curled up warm and safe in that look and stayed put for the rest of his life. “That’s because it’s classified.”

It hurt to laugh, but Clint did it anyway. That was about the time he stopped waiting for the kick and started looking forward to the rare, fleeting touch of hands that would never be raised against him.

Once upon a time, there was a fuck-up named Clint who froze to death. There were a few people who cared, but the asshole who shot him, who saw him first and kept him warm, was there with him at the end. So it sucked, but it was kind of okay, too.

***

“It’s not m-much,” Clint says, “but it’s the only love story I’ve got.”

He can’t feel much of anything, anymore. Even the cold has become a distant ache, saturating his blood and bones. The place that feels the most, that hurts the most, is the place on the back of his neck where Coulson’s mouth is pressed, breathing hot and shallow against his skin.

“Coulson?”

There is no answer, no movement, and Coulson’s arms are locked tight around Clint’s chest. Clint grabs at his wrist, feeling for a pulse, but his fingers are clumsy and numb, useless.

“Jesus fuck. Coulson.

Between the frozen arms around him and his own leaden limbs, Clint can barely move, but he twists himself slowly around. It’s pitch black inside their refuge, and Clint can’t see the color of Coulson’s skin, whether his eyes are open or his mouth is moving. He runs his hands roughly over Coulson’s face, feeling nothing but planes and angles. He traces the same path with the soft skin of his lips, dragging across the ice crystals that have formed on Coulson’s lashes, the unyielding dry curve of his cold mouth.

He slips his fingers into Coulson’s short hair and shakes him hard.

“Come on, Coulson, we’re n-not done yet.”

His shallow breathing is still warm on Clint’s face, but that is all.

“No. No way. Not now.” Clint’s heart is pounding, pumping sluggish blood. “I t-take it back. This is not okay. This is a terrible way to die, and you are n-not going to fucking leave me here.”

Coulson’s arms are still tight around Clint, as if, even unconscious, he refuses to let go, and Clint returns the embrace, pressing skin to skin along the full length of their freezing bodies and willing the life left in him to seep across the fragile barrier.

“You can’t. You asshole, don’t d-do this to me. Please.

There is no answer, and the spike of adrenaline is fading, leaving Clint even colder than before. Maybe it’s true, then. Maybe they really will die here, naked in the snow.

“There has to be m-more,” he insists, so soft he can barely hear his own words. “There has to be more to the story.”

Coulson’s lips are cold, but Clint kisses them anyway, mouthing at the icy flesh and feeling sick because this can’t be it, this can’t be all he’ll ever have.

Clint can feel his eyes drifting closed, so tired and heavy. He can’t use them, so why keep them open? Climbing out of the nest of blankets will release what little warmth there is and probably kill them both outright. He doesn’t have the means to restore the body heat Coulson has lost, and Coulson won’t wake up to help produce his own heat.

Clint can feel his eyes drifting closed, and he doesn’t fight it. There is nothing he can do. The frozen waste around them has won, has claimed a sacrifice of unsatisfied lovers as tribute to its relentless fury, and there is nothing he can do.

“There has to be more, though,” he whispers into Coulson’s skin. “Has to be.”

As the frozen night creeps inside him, an icy dawn begins to break outside, and Clint thinks that maybe, just maybe, he hears the faint, familiar hum of quinjet engines.

***

Barton’s skin is warm against him, and Phil thinks he’s dreaming. Then he remembers Alaska and the cold, endless night, and Phil thinks he’s dead. Then he breathes in and thinks that heaven smells an awful lot like a hospital room.

There is also the clean scent of Barton’s hair pressed against his face, the crisp whiff of stark linens, and the salty smell of bare flesh. It isn’t heaven. It’s better.

Only when he hears a throat being politely cleared does Phil realize that he is, in fact, lying naked in a hospital bed, cuddling with a sleeping and equally naked Clint Barton.

He sighs. “Agent Romanov.”

Natasha is outside his line of sight, but he can hear her smirking. “Welcome back.”

If he angles his head a little, he can see her, but he decides it doesn’t matter and just closes his eyes again, letting his head relax against the pillow. His lips brush against Barton’s forehead, and he figures he’s in for a penny, already. Wearily, he asks, “Status.”

“Forty seven hours. Mission accomplished,” Natasha tells him. Her tone is professional, but he just knows she’s still wearing that smug little smile. “Aerial teams found the beacons you left and secured the sites. As soon as conditions cleared, Stark and Thor hit the sky looking for you. Stark found the two of you wrapped around each other like octopi and couldn’t get you to let go. Potts is doing her best to keep the photos off the internet.”

Phil’s breath stirs Barton’s hair, and Barton shifts against him with a murmur. Absently, Phil runs a hand down Barton’s back, and he stills, easing into Phil’s arms.

“I’ve never seen him like that,” Natasha says quietly. “He sleeps like the dead, normally, but not like... that.”

It almost feels too hot in the room, under the sheets, with so much living skin pressed against him, but Phil’s not going to move unless the Thunderer himself comes in and carries him away. He thinks that maybe he’s spent his entire life freezing, and, for the first time, he’s finally getting warm.

Natasha goes on, “It’s about time, though. Even if this does mean the Engineering department wins the pool.”

Phil raises an eyebrow that she can’t see but he’s sure she can imagine. “There was a pool?”

“Thirteen grand,” she confirms. “Another five riding on the contents of your mission report. Sitwell’s convinced you’ll singled-handedly coin a new euphemism for fellatio.”

Phil rolls his eyes. “Charming,” he mutters, but his lips are on Barton’s skin as he says it, so it loses some of its venom.

He can feel Natasha’s eyes on him, on the set of his shoulders and the way his arm curls around Barton’s back. He can feel her constructing scenarios, weighing words, deciding whether her next move will be reconnaissance or threats. At last, she asks casually, “So what did he say?”

“What do you mean?”

This time, he can tell, she’s the one rolling her eyes. “He’s been mooning after you for as long as I’ve known him, and I’m guessing it wasn’t the brush with icy death that made you wise up. So what did he say?”

It’s hard to remember the cold with so much heat around him, but he remembers the warmth of words in the arctic dark.

“He told me a story.”

It was a true story, Phil thinks, but at least Barton was wrong about the ending.