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If I Don't Wake Up Dead

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The beating is bad.

Steve's body can stand up to a lot, can take a lot of trauma and shake it off, and so can Steve (the differentiation between "person" and "body" has always been important to Clint). Steve has a higher pain tolerance than ordinary people, and he heals so fast that even when Clint manages to bruise him during sparring, it's gone by suppertime.

Clint is of mixed feelings about sparring. Physical violence was some of the first physical contact he ever knew, so it makes him feel at home, grounds him in his form, but he knows that's fucked up. And thankfully he has Natasha, who understands how deep he could sink if it was the only contact he got now. The others think they're fucking; truth is they never have, but the intimacy of lying down together just to touch is much stronger, at least for him. He doesn't think Natasha particularly gets much out of it beyond reassurance he's fine, but she knows he does, and he's grateful for her.

Clint has no mixed feelings about what he sees in Medical. Steve took so much trauma that his enhanced healing has shut down. His nose bleeds and his eyes blacken while his body focuses on the broken bones, the bruised organs, the lost pints of blood.

Clint presses a hand to the glass observation window outside Steve's hospital room on the Carrier. Tony and Bruce are arguing with the doctor, Thor has gone down to the mainland to get some stuff for Steve from the Tower, and Natasha is standing next to him, her fingers twined in his the only lifeline to comfort he knows.

Clint feels sucked back down to his childhood, the one time Dad got to Barney so bad they had to go to the hospital. Clint isn't allowed to talk to the doctors at all, because he might tattle; he can't even ask if his brother's going to be okay, so he doesn't know. In the here-and-now they've already said Steve will be fine, that he is healing, just slowly; back then he didn't know if his brother would live or die, and Clint knows enough about trauma to know they can't promise him Steve will be okay either.

Above and beyond Barney being his brother, Barney protects him from Dad when he can, and Clint needs that. He's too small to fight back.

He inhales through his nose. He's not too small to fight back anymore. He protects people every day from the Dads of the world. Natasha squeezes his hand.

"We got him out," she says softly, and yes, they did; rescued him from the Hydra base where -- for reasons that are still not fully clear -- they'd been torturing him for days. When Hulk busted into the room it was Clint who'd followed, and even Hulk had gone quiet and still at the sight on the table.

Then Hulk had screamed, a sound Clint never wants to hear again. Hulk roars, Hulk bellows, and Hulk growls; Hulk screaming is an animal at the bitter extremes of torment. He'd gone straight up, through the roof, and Clint heard over his comm that he was destroying the second building in the compound, which they were pretty sure was a barracks.

Clint had clinically examined Steve for spinal trauma, determined that his legs and hands were broken, and summoned Thor and Tony while he unstrapped him from the tilted bed they'd had him on. Steve had been murmuring Steven Grant Rogers, Captain, Brooklyn, New York over and over until Clint got a hand under his blood-spattered head. One swollen eye had opened.

"Hey," Steve had said. "Rescue party."

"That's right, Cap," Clint replied, helping Thor ease him into Tony's arms.

"You're late."

"Forgot to set our clocks forward," Tony replied, settling him firmly into a safe carry. "I'll get him to medical, you guys -- "

He glanced around.

"Trash this place."

"Yeah," Clint said grimly, and went up into the rafters to pick off Hydra stragglers. Not many got out alive before they blew the base. He's not sorry.

They've been a team for a year now and they've had a couple of battles, some more significant than others, none as big as the Chitauri yet. Natasha understands him best and Tony is the most fun, but Clint adores Steve with the carefully hidden love of a little boy for his big brother. Steve is the bravest and strongest and nicest, and Steve is kind to him, always was, even when Clint was half an hour out from the thing he doesn't think about because he can't deal with what Loki did to him and you can't make him.

Steve trusted him with the innocence of family and Clint may have imprinted just a little on him.

"As much as I hate to talk shop, this isn't typical Hydra," Bruce says, joining them at the window, rubbing his eyes.

"It does lack finesse," Natasha agrees, all professionalism, because that's how she hides how fucked up she is, and Clint loves her for that. "Hydra is more subtle. Usually. In torture, anyway."

"I cannot believe we're having this conversation," Tony mutters.

"Not much else to do," Natasha points out.

"I know, just..." Tony looks in on Steve, and his own face twitches to hide whatever it is he's feeling. Tony is hard for Clint to read. Natasha often has to interpret him for Clint. "Okay," he continues, crossing his arms and turning back to them. "Hydra broke some bones. Are they usually more the bamboo-under-the-fingernails type?"

"Oh, they did that too," Bruce says. Clint knows that Hulk recognizes Steve as kin on some level; Howard Stark's "vita-rays" were, guess what, Gamma radiation. He wonders idly how much of Hulk's experiences Bruce remembers. He won't ask; he can tell from little tics in Bruce that Bruce had a Dad of his own who should have been put down. Now he looks calm, probably from exhaustion more than anything.

"Hydra usually works psychologically first," Natasha says. "In any normal situation they'd have taken one of us as well -- probably you," she adds to Tony, "and tortured you to get to him."

"Why me?"

"You're softest."

Tony opens his mouth to object, then shrugs and allows it. He's not soft -- Clint knows he's been tortured, knows he has metaphorical iron in his spine. But among them, yeah, if you catch him out of the suit he's easily the most breakable. Why argue?

Bruce hums to himself. "Here's a thought," he says. They all look at him. Bruce thinks strategically, like Steve. "What if this is the psychological?"

"Speak on, brother bear," Tony says.

"So they'd torture you to get to Steve. Who are they getting to by torturing Steve?"

"All of us," Clint answers. His voice is the quiet whisper of a child who isn't sure he wants to be heard, and he hates it.

"Gold star," Tony tells him. Clint knows he's joking but he preens internally under the praise anyway. He'll take what he can get.

"Why?" Natasha asks. "To get us to over-react? To get us off our feet?"

"Well, we did over-react at the base," Tony says.

"No, I think that was highly appropriate reaction," Clint says sharply, suddenly angry. "You hurt my Captain, you get an arrow through the lung."

The looks they give him tell him that he's been too vehement; sometimes he has trouble with that, with knowing the appropriate level of emotion for any situation, because his are all mixed up to start with. Natasha's thumb soothes the back of his hand.

"Look, the point is, if they did...that..." Bruce says, not looking at Steve, "to get to us, we need to stop and take a breath and be rational. If they're playing that big this is an important chess game."

Usually, if Steve's out or off comm for some reason, Natasha takes lead on the team. Now she looks at Bruce. "You call the play," she says, gracefully ceding control of this op to the guy who seems most like he knows what he's doing.

"We need intelligence on Hydra and we need to think hard about what this is meant to do to us," Bruce says. "Natasha -- "

"Intel. Got it. I'll speak to the SHIELD analysts, see what they have, and pull a few strings," she says. Clint recognizes the gratitude of a woman who wants something to do. She lets go of his hand reluctantly, but there's eagerness in the set of her shoulders, the straightness of her spine.

"Tony, work with her, try to figure out what's going on," Bruce adds.

"I'll pick up some food, meet you at the Tower," Tony tells her. "JARVIS can do some digging if you point him at the right anthill."

Clint gives Bruce an expectant look.

"You and I stay here in case they want to make some kind of second try," Bruce tells him. Clint suppresses a shudder. Long stays in hospitals are hard. Bruce can tell, somehow -- he gives Clint a gentler look. "We'll take him home the minute we can. Doctors say he'll be movable in a few hours, as soon as his blood loss stabilizes out."

"Stark Tower's got 24/7 medical monitoring anyway, and much lower chance of MRSA," Tony adds over his shoulder as he leaves. It's been suggested by some that Tony's germophobia is a faked quirk -- it's very Howard Hughes -- but Clint suspects it's actually a healthy reaction to having a giant gaping hole in your chest. Tony gets respiratory illnesses a lot more often than anyone else on the team or in the tower.

"Do you want to go in?" Bruce asks, when Tony and Natasha are gone. Clint chews his lip, trying to decide. He does, desperately, but giving comfort in public doesn't come easily to him. It wasn't something that was done in the Barton household, and the other children mocked the need for it at the orphanage. He knows that being able to sit by the bedside of a friend isn't a daring breach of the rules, not anymore, but panic still rumbles deep in his belly.

"I can come in with you," Bruce offers. Clint nods, and lets Bruce go in first.

Steve's on a heart and oxygen monitor, with a cannula blowing air into his nose, trying to help re-inflate his collapsed lung. The blood's been cleaned off his face, small patches of his head shaved where he had scalp lacerations. His hands are splinted and strapped down, though Clint knows that the restraints wouldn't do much if Steve genuinely wanted to get free. They tried sedating him, but they have no idea if it worked. He's resting, anyway. Maybe asleep. His skin is grey, lips pale and bloodless.

But when Bruce pulls a chair up to the bed, one blue eye flicks open. The other one's swollen shut. Steve's in there and apparently pretty alert; his lips curve up a little, weakly, as he takes in Bruce at his bedside and Clint standing near the foot.

"Guess we showed them, huh," he says in a hoarse voice.

"You sure did," Bruce says reassuringly. Steve rolls his eye at the tone, and Clint shoots him a grin.

"What's the damage?" Steve rasps.

"You want head to toe, or serious to minor?" Bruce asks.

"Dealer's choice."

"Mm. Well, you have a partially collapsed lung, bruised kidneys, liver trauma, and one of your ribs was broken so badly it was pressing on your heart," Bruce recites. Clint focuses on Cap's single, lucid eye, flicking intelligently back and forth between them. "Four broken ribs total, several broken bones in each hand; you'll need a cast or at least a splint on your left wrist for a few weeks, we suspect. You have a handful of breaks in your legs, including a cracked but not shattered kneecap, and a spiral fracture on your right leg that's also going to need a cast."

"I heal fast."

"Not that fast," Bruce sighs. "Though admittedly anyone else would need pins, and you won't. You had a dislocated left shoulder, which has been re-seated. Minor concussion, and when we reached you, you had some swelling in the brain which has since receded. Doesn't look like any permanent brain damage."

"Good. Haven't got that much to spare," Steve murmurs.

"You seem pretty lucid."

"Glad to hear."

"Other than that, some assorted bruises and lacerations. They've stitched up a few of the deeper ones, since they're not closing the way they normally do."

Steve does look mildly alarmed by that.

"You've just had too much trauma. Your body is prioritizing what to heal," Bruce assures him. "How much do you remember of what they did?" he asks.

Clint recognizes the gentle probe for what it is. Steve's body will reset itself. His mind might not, at least not immediately.

"Not much, to be honest," Steve says. He doesn't sound like he's lying, and Clint's a pretty good judge. "But that's par for me."

"How so?"

"Had the hell kicked outta me before now," Steve replies, closing his eye. "After a while you...you go somewhere else. You know?"

Clint blinks, because he does know, intimately, what Steve means. The look on Bruce's face says he does, too. When the pain gets too bad, when the humiliation of being small and weak is too much...Clint knows he did it because he remembers a place that was other, inside his own head, and he can still get there on the rare occasions he's hurt really badly. He doesn't think Steve had a Dad the way he and Bruce did, but Steve was little and loud, and Clint realises that when Steve mentions getting kicked around before the Serum, he might mean actual kicking.

What a trio they must make.

Bruce pats Steve's upper arm, probably really the only safe place to touch him right now, and stands.

"I'll get you something to eat -- you like pudding?"

"Chocolate," Steve requests.

Bruce grins. "Sure. Clint'll keep an eye on you till I get back."

Clint takes Bruce's place in the chair, but the old admonition still makes it a little hard to talk. Steve opens his eye and regards him again.

"How's the team?" he asks softly.

"Okay," Clint answers. "Tony and Natasha are doing research. Thor's bringing you some stuff."

"How are you?" Steve asks, and then, while Clint's still working out how to answer that, he says, "Glad you're here."

"Yeah?" Clint asks.

Steve's fingers twitch in the splints. "I know this isn't your favorite place."

Clint rubs the back of his head. He loves Steve, but it's hard to have all of Steve's focus on him. He never knows what to do with the attention. And right now, really, it should be the other way around.

"Well, we gotta get you fixed up," he says finally. "Bruce says you can probably come home soon."

"S'good," Steve says, and then sucks air over his teeth.

"What?" Clint asks, alarmed.

"Rib just set itself."

"Should I -- "

"No, it's fine. Doctors can't do anything anyhow."

Clint feels the panic crawling its way up into his chest. "What can I do?" he asks haplessly, because he wants to help somehow, and Bruce's order for him to stay here to help protect Steve is only going to keep him calm so long.

Steve tilts his head a little to look at him. "Keep me company."

Clint despairs.

"You don't have to talk or nothin'," Steve says. The concussion is slurring his words just slightly, and Clint can tell that Steve, who is normally pretty proper about grammar, probably grew up around people who mostly weren't. The filters are off. "I just like the company."

"I can," Clint offers, anxiety receding slightly. "Talk."

Steve's smile seems fond. "Got your phone?"

"Yeah," Clint says, puzzled.

"How 'bout reading me the news?" Steve asks. His voice trails downward a little, like he's fighting to stay conscious. "Used to love when Buck did tha'..."

Clint watches his eye slide shut again, but he flicks his phone to the newsreader and then to the sports page. The sports page is safe.

When Bruce returns, he gives Clint a nod, touches Steve's arm to see if he's awake, and then tucks the pudding into a minifridge in the corner when it's clear he's not. By the time Thor walks in with a duffel bag of Steve's clothes and (hilariously) a giant bouquet of flowers, Bruce is asleep in one chair, Steve is snoring around the cannula, and Clint has moved on to the Life & Style section.

***

The next time Steve wakes, a few hours later, the delicate little bones in his right hand have healed, and he eats a bowl of pudding in order to prove his dexterity. Bruce smiles; the doctors splint his left wrist and put a cast on his right ankle, load him up with likely-unnecessary medication that Clint offers to carry, and allow Bruce to call for a wheelchair to get him, as even Steve says, the hell outta here.

Clint pilots the quinjet to Stark Tower, setting her down light as a feather in order to keep from jarring Steve. Bruce looks over the reams of medical directives in the seat next to him, while Thor employs a traditional Asgardian healing technique that involves poking Steve all over his body and asking "Does this hurt?" until Steve bats him off with his good hand. Natasha is quiet and thoughtful next to Thor.

"He sounds happy but he looks like crap," Tony observes to Clint, as Bruce sets out Steve's things in the guest suite of the penthouse. He has his own floor, but the penthouse is where they all spend most of their time, and it's the easiest place for Steve to yell for aid if he needs it.

"Docs say bed rest; doubt he'll comply," Clint replies. "I don't know how he's going to take a piss at this point, to be honest."

"I can hear you," Steve calls. Tony and Clint exchange a guilty look.

Clint hovers for the rest of the day -- aimlessly as Thor helps Steve to the couch, worriedly when Steve tries to move around on his own, pointedly when Steve insists he can fix his own meal, which he clearly cannot do. Halfway through trying to break an egg one-handed (two smashed eggs, a third full of shell bits) Clint gently takes the carton away from an increasingly frustrated Steve and sets about making the eggs himself. Steve retreats to a kitchen stool, leg cocked out in front of him, massaging his bad shoulder with his good hand.

"Scrambled, fried, or poached?" Clint asks.

"Scrambled," Steve replies. "With milk in."

"Hah," Clint agrees, because that's how his mother made it, too. It stretches the eggs further.

He beats the eggs, adds a little of Thor's full-fat milk, tosses some salt and pepper in, and dumps the whole mess in a hot pan. He puts some bread in the toaster, too. Breakfast for dinner.

"I'm not used to someone helping," Steve volunteers, as Clint skims the eggs around the pan.

"I'm seeing that," Clint replies lightly. "Your ma raised you, right?"

"She had to work, so I shifted for myself. Bucky would come over when he could. Mr. Egrich next door always turned his radio up loud so we could listen to the ball game through the wall."

Clint feels a certain satisfaction suffuse him as Steve talks. He likes to be helpful, likes it when he has a set task he can do and do well. He knows, intellectually, that he won't be sent away or loved less if he isn't useful, but that's hard-won knowledge from a long time spent with a SHIELD shrink after Coulson realized his little fledgling was a lot more messed up than he let on. The knowledge hasn't yet hit the emotional parts of his brain. Maybe it never will.

After Loki, who took control without asking and let the threat of an empty, howling void hover at the edge of Clint's consciousness whenever he tried to fight it --

It's not a problem. It's not. He likes to be useful, likes that he still can be, that Loki lost. And most people are happy to give Clint orders whether or not they realize how he reacts to them. He leaves the eggs to firm up a little and takes peanut butter from the cabinet, spreading it on the freshly-toasted bread and handing it to Steve as a first course. The look of delight on Steve's face makes him smile.

He's seen old propaganda posters in books -- Tony's dad had a whole library of Captain America books, which Pepper brought to the Tower and Clint has raided on occasion. Peanuts were cheap, unrationed, and high in protein; Steve did at least two posters advertising how much CAPTAIN AMERICA LOVES HIS PEANUT BUTTER. It wasn't a lie, either. Steve goes through a jar a week sometimes.

Clint dishes up the eggs onto two plates, joining Steve at the kitchen counter. Steve offers him the second slice of peanut-butter-toast, but Clint waves it off and digs into his eggs.

"You don't have to look after me," Steve says, and Clint wonders if the eggs aren't any good, or if he's being annoying. But Steve is eating, slowly and steadily, so maybe he just wants to be alone.

"I can go if you want," Clint says cautiously. "But Tasha and Tony don't need me, I'd get in their way."

"I don't want, I just don't want to take up team resources," Steve replies.

"I can work from here," Clint offers, a little desperate.

"Yes, but what I mean is if you'd rather be somewhere else -- " Steve starts, and then stops, and a look of amusement crosses his face. He sets his fork down and sits back a little. "Gosh, JARVIS is probably laughing at us."

"Laughing at us? Why?" Clint asks, alarmed.

"Well, there you are trying to work out why I don't want you here, and here I am trying not to be a pain," Steve says. He raises a hand to rub his eyes, then winces; one's still badly bruised. Clint doesn't understand, and he feels a little frantic, confused. Steve reaches out and rests a hand on his neck, reassuring.

"Our crazy's just a little funny is all," he says. "I could use the help, Clint, I'm glad you're here. I'm just not used to someone being able to look after me without giving something up to do it."

"I'm not," Clint says in a small voice. "I like it."

"I know you do, son," Steve answers. His thumb rubs at Clint's tight jaw briefly before he lets go. "I used to forget when I got hurt it wasn't just me. My Commandos got worried too. Guess I still forget. Make you a deal," he says, returning to his eggs. "You stay here and give me a hand as long as you please, but if the others need you, you go help them and don't worry about me. That's an order. Sound fair?"

Clint nods. His world straightens out, sharpens, and settles into place. He sighs with relief. "Fair."

Steve hands him his plate. Clint shoves the peanut-butter toast slice in his mouth, grins, and eats it as he carries both their plates to the sink. He comes back to shove his shoulder under Steve's arm when he extends it for help, and together they make their way into the living room. When Steve tumbles down on the sofa he pulls Clint down with him, his arm still over Clint's shoulders. It's dangerously safe and warm there next to Steve, but Steve clearly wants him there so Clint doesn't try to pull away. Steve stretches out his injured leg, settling deeper into the sofa.

"JARVIS, pick up where I left off, please," he says. "What year are we on?"

"What're you watching?" Clint asks.

"JARVIS made me a playlist. All the Oscar-nominated movies from every year since '44, plus movies from reputable top-100 lists," Steve says.

"We have just finished 1973," JARVIS announces. A list of films appears on the screen. "Do you have a preference, Agent Barton?"

Clint studies the list. 1974 was a good year; he's got his choice of The Sting, American Graffiti, The Exorcist, and Last Tango In Paris, among others.

"The Sting," he says.

"An excellent choice," JARVIS replies, and the opening strains of The Entertainer come over the surround sound. Clint realizes too late that maybe watching a movie set in the Depression isn't what Steve wants to do, but Steve is easy and relaxed, leaning up against him. By degrees, Clint relaxes too.

The first time Natasha crawled into bed with Clint, after their first mission when he took a baseball bat to the ribs and was lying in his tiny SHIELD quarters feeling sorry for himself, he hadn't known what to do. Clint's never been good at identifying what normal is, because he's never had normal, but he'd known your partner sliding under the blankets and curling up around you wasn't it.

"Heat heals," she'd said, when he tensed. "Also touch."

There were other reasons he'd understand later, but he was a mostly rational man who accepted rational reasoning. That body heat and touch would help him heal was rational. That it was also comforting, that it soothed a lonely hurt inside him and reassured her of his safety -- it wasn't rational, but it also wasn't relevant. She had a good reason; that was all either of them needed.

Clint can provide touch and heat to Steve to heal him. If Steve will accept them, it isn't relevant that Clint draws comfort from the solidity of Steve's body and the trust being placed in him. Normal doesn't have to apply as long as reason does.

***

Clint wakes when he feels air displaced around him; he opens his eyes, fighting the urge to take a wild swing, and finds that someone has settled a blanket over him and Steve. Natasha, on the other side of Steve, is curling up with a second blanket, half over Steve's lap and half over her where she's lying on the couch, head on his thigh. On the television, The Sting has been replaced by what looks like some kind of murder mystery.

Tony and Pepper are at the little table near the big wide windows, eating something; Bruce and Thor aren't visible but clanking from the kitchen suggests one or both are fixing themselves a meal. Clint yawns.

"Hungry?" he asks Steve, then glances at Natasha to include her.

"A little," she says, not looking away from the television.

"I could eat," Steve says, sounding lazy. His hand is resting on Natasha's head. Clint wonders if Steve is aware that he is one of maybe four people in the world who can touch Natasha's hair without losing a few fingers. (Marks don't count; they'll lose more eventually.) "Popcorn?"

"Sure," Clint says, sliding out from under the blanket. "Back in a few."

Bruce is in the kitchen, cooking something that smells like molasses and spices and vinegar on the stove.

"Glaze," he says, when Clint sniffs the air appreciatively. "I thought I'd do a roast."

"I won't mind," Clint tells him, taking out a deeper saucepan and pouring some popcorn and oil in. He'd never had anything but microwave until he joined the Avengers, but Steve says microwave just isn't the same, and made everyone try stove-top, which did convince Clint. He sets the oil to heat, adds the corn, covers the pan, and goes for fixings: butter, paprika (learned from Natasha), salt.

"How's Steve?"

"Probably hurting more than he's showing."

"Gee, what a surprise," Bruce drawls.

"Tony and Tasha seem relaxed," Clint says. "Taking a break, or did they find something?"

"We think we found something. Thor's doing some recon."

"Thor. Recon."

Bruce shrugs. "He's too small to ping radar, puts out less noise than Iron Man, and we needed some eyes in the sky."

"What's the scoop?"

Bruce tastes the sauce and adds a little salt. "Well, we start from the theory that Hydra was trying to get a specific reaction from us. Anger, aggression."

"Fair," Clint allows.

"What did they expect us to do with that reaction?"

Clint shrugs. "Kick their asses."

"Prioritize," Bruce corrects. "It's a typical closed-community reaction, the same thing that happens if a policeman is killed. All the community's resources are reallocated towards preventing a repeat crime and ensuring retribution."

Clint narrows his eyes. Bruce is good at framing things in such a way that he can see the big picture, and Clint sees best when he sees everything at once.

"Someone paid them," he says.

Bruce nods. "That's what Natasha thinks. Someone wants us focused on Hydra. Someone wants the dogs off chasing a bunny while the fox gets into the henhouse. Maybe von Doom, but that's not his style. Maybe Advanced Idea Mechanics. Thor's checking on von Doom."

"No, that's backwards," Clint says distractedly, as the popcorn begins rattling in the pan. "Doesn't matter who hired them. It matters what they're going after."

"What?" Bruce asks.

"Well, if they want us specifically distracted...not SHIELD, not the military, not the government, what do we have that they..." Clint is hardly aware he's talking, he's just working it out in his head, and he knows he's not that quick, Bruce probably got there ahead of him, but -- "Oh. Someone's going after Stark Industries, huh?"

Bruce looks baffled and appalled.

"Is that right?" Clint asks hesitantly.

"I -- I don't know," Bruce replies. "We hadn't considered Stark Industries. That makes sense, though. I'll talk to Tony and Pepper about it."

"Oh. Okay," Clint says, shaking the popcorn pan and turning the heat off. The idea that he beat Bruce Banner and Tony Stark to the punch is a weird one. It's an uncomfortable, scratchy feeling, like when Fury frowned at him after he pointed out the Tesseract might be letting something in before it lets them out.

He puzzles this over as he fixes the popcorn up in a big bowl and brings it into the living room where Steve and Natasha are still watching the movie, whatever it is. Clint settles in with the popcorn, and Steve immediately leans again. He makes happy eating noises when he tries the popcorn, and tips the bowl over to share with Natasha, so Clint just huddles down in the blanket and basks for a while.

Chapter Text

Tony figures if someone is going after Stark Industries, which seems likely, and if they need to distract the Avengers, quod erat demonstratum, then it's probably not a corporate takeover, not anything business related. Between him and Steve, they've worked out that whatever is coming is probably a sudden strike, just waiting on the Avengers to take off after Hydra. A careful breadcrumb trail was left in the base the Avengers destroyed while freeing Steve, and Steve thinks Hydra wants the Avengers out of country chasing them down before whoever is after SI makes their first move.

"Do you suppose they think we're dumb, or just adrenaline junkies?" Bruce asks at breakfast, which they are having in Steve's room because Steve is stiff and sore and tired. Also, it's an excuse to gather on one of Tony's excellent giant Stark Tower beds to eat. Clint is sharing the foot of the bed and a plate of toast with Natasha, Bruce is pacing nearby, Tony is draped across an empty stretch of bed eating a granola bar, and Thor is next to Steve, eating from one of Tony's bags of dried blueberries. Steve, dark circles under his eyes, has his leg propped on Tony's thigh and is drinking some shake Tony gave him, which annoyed Clint for reasons he's not looking at too closely.

"We can't be dumb and adrenaline junkies?" Clint asks.

"You're not dumb," Steve replies.

"Well, Hydra seems to think we ain't that bright," Clint points out.

"Hydra is still laboring under several unflattering delusions, including the one that blondes have more fun," Tony says.

"Craven," Thor pronounces. "Any army worth fighting would not allow itself to be used as a distraction. These are foolish children."

"Yeah, but they're toddlers with Uzis," Tony says. "We can't just ignore them."

"Look, social analysis done with, this is a little outta my realm of expertise," Bruce adds, glancing at Natasha. "More your game."

It's unusual to cede leadership to anyone but Steve when he's in the room, but Steve looks battered and exhausted, and grateful to pass the baton on this one. Natasha sits up very straight, thoughtful.

"Well, we can send a decoy out, make it look like we've left the tower to chase down Hydra," she says. "But it won't do us any good if we don't know who's after Stark Industries or where. The company has plants or offices in four different cities in the US alone, and major manufacturing centers in China, Japan, and Germany."

"Do you memorize everything that way, or do you just do it with Stark Industries statistics to creep me out?" Tony asks. Natasha smiles mysteriously at him.

"Pepper could also be a target," Bruce says.

"I'm on that," Tony replies. "JARVIS upped her security detail and Rhodey's flying in to escort her around for a few days under the guise of getting some suit maintenance."

"So, let's do a target analysis," Natasha says. "And leave Steve to get some rest."

Clint goes to get up and follow the others, but she drops the plate of toast in his lap.

"You're on Cap detail," she says. Clint looks at her gratefully. He hates target analysis. It's all paperwork and statistics, two things he is especially bad at. Once, a particularly bad handler had said You're a sniper, you have to calculate wind shear and velocity and distance, how can you be bad at math? and Clint had given him a blank look, because no, he didn't calculate those things, he just knew, fuck you very much. Math is for people who graduated high school.

"Do you know what Tony put in this shake?" Steve asks, once they've gone. It's still half-full.

"Kale? Maybe?" Clint offers.

"It's. It's unique."

"You want me to disappear it?"

"Please," Steve says sadly.

When Clint comes back from disposing discreetly of the shake, Steve is half out of bed, clearly struggling with the other half. He doesn't even look frustrated; just resigned, like he's used to this, and Clint supposes that up until a few years ago (for Steve, anyway) he was. Steve spent more than half his life in a body that wouldn't or couldn't obey him. It must be hard to go back to that.

He gingerly lifts Steve's leg out of the bed, then pulls him up by one bicep and catches his weight when they overbalance. Steve grunts and straightens, muttering apologies.

"Where are we going?" Clint asks.

"Bathroom, I need to wash," Steve replies.

"Well, that should be interesting," Clint says. "You been thinking about the logistics of that at all?"

"Won't be the first time a washcloth and a bucket were employed," Steve says.

"You can't even get your arm over your head and you can't hold anything in one of your hands."

"I'll make do."

Clint does manage to help him hobble stiffly to the bathroom, but once there Steve just looks at the shower like it's a personal enemy. Clint eases him against the bathroom counter and turns on the water, shucking his shirt.

"Clint, I don't -- " Steve begins, but then clearly isn't sure how to end that sentence. "You don't have to...I mean, I can..."

Clint starts on the buttons of Steve's shirt, easing it down over his still-inflamed shoulder and the splint on his wrist.

"The cast is gore-tex, it's waterproof," he says. "Can you take the splint off?"

"Oh -- yeah," Steve replies, clearly out of his depth now.

"Pants first," Clint adds, stepping out of his own. He tests the water, which is at the upper edge of his own heat tolerance, and when he turns back, Steve is naked, tugging his splint off carefully.

Steve clearly has some issues being in a shower with another guy, even if it's a giant Stark Tower shower, even if Clint knows he must have shared showers in the army. Granted, that could be why he has issues; being the smallest guy in the cohort probably made communal showers pretty uncomfortable in boot camp. Steve lets his now-unsplinted hand hang casually in front of his groin as he gets in. He's not fooling anyone, Clint thinks drily. The only reason it's preserving his modesty at all is that the guy has big hands.

"Let me know if I'm hitting a sore spot," Clint says, pouring shampoo into his hands. He leans up to scrub what's left of Steve's hair carefully, avoiding the bare patches, working his fingers into the scalp. Steve bows his head and then slumps a little, the tension draining out of him as Clint presses his fingers into temple, crown, nape. He watches Clint through slitted eyes, then closes them when Clint maneuvers him under the spray to rinse. Clint tugs on his arm gently but he stays where he is, hot water beating on his skin, so Clint makes short work of soaping his shoulders, scrubbing his neck and jaw. Steve's eyes open when he lifts his hands away, and Clint's about to leave him to the rest, warning him not to use his left hand, but the look of sleepy pleasure in his eyes gives him pause.

"How're your ribs?" he asks, dumping more shower gel into his hands and lathering them.

"They healed first," Steve mumbles, and then, "S'ok to wash them," and Clint hesitantly scrubs the lather into his chest, looking for winces or flinches. There's no sign, so he crouches and works on his thighs and the one calf he can get to. Steve is passive, obedient, but he's watching again -- and when Clint straightens and turns him into the spray again, he gives an approving nod. Clint works his hands through the tight muscles of his back, kneading when he hits knots and going easy on the one or two occasions when Steve flinches.

Out of the shower, he towels down Steve's hair, fighting a grin over the way it sticks up when it's damp, and then straps Steve's splint back on his wrist before doing anything else.

"Thank you," Steve says, drying himself independently, if semi-ineffectively, with one hand while Clint dresses. He seems almost dazed by the attention, as if he's forgotten to be modest or uncomfortable. Docile, he lets Clint lead him back into the bedroom, leans on him to put on the pair of sleep pants Clint digs up, and lies down, rolling onto his side, arm extended to keep pressure off his splint.

He's so different from usual -- Clint wonders when the last time Steve had anyone to take care of him like that was, if he's ever had it. He doubts the forties were a time men did, especially in the war. Clint's had it rarely enough himself.

Steve's breathing is even and slow, eyes hazy, fair skin a little pink from the heat of the water. Clint cleans away the towels and Steve's discarded clothing, and by the time he emerges, Steve is making soft, even noises as he sleeps.

Clint, who is used to stakeouts and safe houses, settles in to watch and to think.

He's not exactly a veteran of the lifestyle but he's been around the block -- if it were a block on which sat several private sex clubs -- enough times to know that what he just saw looks a lot like sub space. He's been in it more than he's seen it from the outside, but the calm and the obedience is painfully familiar.

Clint isn't sure that's what he should call it. He's known subs who are kept for the purpose of being spoiled -- bathed, dressed, indulged -- and while it's definitely submission, it's not common, and honestly Steve doesn't seem the type. It feels more like Clint just played them into a little scene where he's a service sub and Steve is Sir, but Steve clearly didn't know that was happening and Clint didn't either, and he's never heard of a Dom hitting sub space. Then again, it ain't like he's been reading textbooks on this stuff.

Clint hasn't...done that, submitted to anyone in that sense, since it all went down with Loki. He wasn't sure he could and he didn't want to freak out in the middle of a scene with a stranger. He still isn't sure he can. Even if it's possible he just did.

One of the first people he ever did it for said, "You do what you do out of love. You serve because you love to serve or because you love your master or both, but it has to be at least one of those two, or you won't get what you need."

He may not love service anymore. He can't tell. But he does love Steve, in the way soldiers love each other at the very least.

He considers it the entire time Steve sleeps. Clint is good at that, at turning things over in his mind during stints in a sniper's nest or on surveillance. It's a meticulous, if not always methodical, dissection of everything attached to a specific problem. His main conclusion, by the time Steve begins the minute muscle shifts that generally signal waking -- Clint has watched a lot of people sleep -- has nothing to do with his own dilemma. Mainly he's decided that if Steve went to sleep in any kind of altered head space, he's probably not going to realize when he comes out of it, and Clint will need to be a little Dom-y, maybe, to ease the transition. Which frankly he sucks at, but whatever, he can rise to the occasion.

He ignores what's going on in his own head, puts it on a shelf and turns the label to the wall.

Steve's eyes open, immediately awake as he fixes his gaze on Clint.

"This looks a little weird," Clint says warily.

"Nah," Steve replies, shoulders hiking a little as he pushes himself to sit up in the bed. "You're on duty, I know how it is."

"You should get up, move around a little," Clint says, and Steve shoots him an amused look, like it's funny, Clint trying to boss him.

"Think I'll do a lap around the penthouse," he agrees, climbing out of bed before Clint can help. "You should check in with the others, see if one of them wants to spell you. Tony'd probably like that, he likes an excuse to sit around being a genius."

Clint feels a strange level of rivalry with Tony right now, and he honestly isn't sure why. Tony could beat him at pretty much any game he'd care to name, except darts.

"I don't mind," he says.

"Well, as long as you don't," Steve agrees. He looks good -- more color in his face than before, smiling, the pain lines around his eyes easier. Clint trails after him into the penthouse, then wanders over to say hello to Pepper while Steve pokes around in the kitchen.

"Clint, hi!" Pepper says, sounding pleased to see him. She always does; Clint isn't sure why. Maybe Tony talked him up, though that makes no sense either. "How's the invalid?"

"Clean and paid for," Clint says absently, a phrase his mother used to use about him and Barney when they were being well-behaved. Pepper laughs.

"I'm glad to hear it. Everyone's been worried. It isn't often Captain America gets decommissioned."

"Yeah," Clint replies, glancing absently at the kitchen. "He was a hell of a sight when he came in."

"So I hear."

"Tony talk to you at all about what's going on with SI?" Clint asks, and then realizes nobody else is around. "Where is everyone?"

"I'm on double-bodyguard when I leave the building. I managed to talk Tony out of sending a remote suit with me everywhere; he just wants an excuse to test the new movement programming."

"Little callous of him."

"I'm sure he fears for my life, he's just a very capable multitasker. Anyway, Tony and Bruce are in the workshop, and Natasha went up to the Carrier with Thor."

Steve limps into the living room, carrying a bottle of beer. "No trouble for you yet, Ms. Potts?"

"Not on the Avengers account, at least not this week," she says with a smile. "Just the usual gossip magazines, corporate raiders, labor disputes, budget crises, and prima-donna coders."

"Better you than me," Clint says.

"On the other hand, the might of a global megacorporation is mine to wield as I wish," Pepper says, a gleam of power-mad glee in her eye.

"Try not to crush the working classes too badly," Steve advises. He hands the bottle of beer to Clint, who pops the top and passes it back. "Thanks."

"Oh, I only punch up, which at this point means mainly the leaders of mid-sized countries and guys like Tony but without his charm."

"You think any of them…?" Steve asks.

"Not my job to think about that -- that's what I have all of you for."

"We'll make sure they never get as far as you," Steve says. "Whoever they are."

"I know." Pepper stands and pats Steve's cheek gently. "You still look pretty hard done by, Steve. Just remember nobody's expecting anything from you until you're better."

"Can't be better soon enough," he replies ruefully. "Clint's looking after me, though, I'll be back on both feet in no time."

Pepper shoots Clint a look, equal parts amusement, curiosity, and encouragement. "I'm glad. If SI can help out at all, let me know. Otherwise, I should probably get to my two o'clock."

When she's gone, Steve eases down into a chair and takes a deck of cards out of his pocket.

"Blackjack?" he asks with a grin.

***

That afternoon, the Avengers converge on the penthouse living room in a mob, Thor and Natasha landing outside at the same time Bruce and Tony barrel their way up from Tony's workshop. Clint, alarmed, is halfway out of his seat before Bruce says, "Wait! Stay there! You want to see this."

"See what?" Clint asks, still concerned.

"We have built a revenge machine," Tony announces. "Two, actually."

"A revenge machine," Steve says ominously.

"A pacifist revenge machine," Tony offers. "A revenge robot, really, and you know, there are laws of robots, robots can't hurt people -- "

"Tony…"

"It's fine, Cap, I've been keeping an eye on him," Natasha says with a reassuring smile. Clint knows that "Natasha is in charge" does not necessarily automatically mean "Nobody will be horribly murdered" but in her defense she only horribly murders the deserving.

Now, anyway.

"What's this all about?" Pepper asks, coming into the room. "Tony, I left a meeting with a Chinese distributor who is still angry over something you did ten years ago to see whatever this is, so you'd better hope our economic survival doesn't depend on China. Which, I have to inform you, it does."

"Pfft, one distributor, there are billions of people in China, someone's going to want to get into bed with Stark Industries," Tony replies. "Sit, light of my days. Who wants to fly the Quinjet?"

Clint raises his hand, because he is a Quinjet pilot, thanks. Tony tosses him what looks like the product of a Wiimote and a Starkpad getting stuck during sex.

"Here's how this goes down," Bruce says. "Clint, that's going to remote-fly the Quinjet to Latveria."

"Of course it's Latveria," Clint sighs.

"One of my suits will be flying escort with JARVIS at the wheel," Tony adds.

"As soon as we pass over international waters, we're pretty sure someone's going to hack Stark Industries," Natasha says. "Probably the first thing they'll do is put up a firewall to keep Tony out as long as he's not local."

"Not a literal one," Thor says to Steve, who looks aghast. "That was my thought too."

"It's a digital barrier," Bruce says. "But it's a pointless one if we have physical access to the SI servers. Which are…" he gestures at Tony, who whistles and points at their feet.

"In a super-secret hidden server farm below Stark Tower."

"Why are your company servers underneath Stark Tower?" Clint asks. This seems like madness to him.

"Initially, the Tower was just a cover to build the server farm. Usually they're out in the sticks somewhere where land is cheap, but Stark Industries likes to be different. We need talented people working there, and it's hard to lure good IT professionals to rural Idaho, as Google has discovered."

"So this is, wait -- " Clint frowns. "This is all about hackers? They wanted you out of the country so they could hack Stark Industries? Steve got the shit beat out of him for corporate espionage?" he demands, looking at Steve.

Steve shakes his head. "Correct me if this is wrong, Tony, but don't you keep the Avengers classified archives in the same computers that you keep the Stark Industries stuff?"

"Got it in one," Tony says. "Our files, email, shared server, Thor's J-pop collection he thinks I don't know about -- "

"I am not ashamed of my love for The B'z," Thor says, crossing his arms.

"The point is, the hackers are possibly after Stark Industries specs and diagrams, but because that server is hypersecure, it is also where the Avengers'...everything is kept."

"But it's still hacking," Clint says. "Hacking is what got us here."

"Look, I'm sure in addition to hacking they got a kick out of torturing an Avenger," Tony snaps. "What do you want? I'm not the one who planned it, I'm trying to fix the problem."

Clint holds up his hands. Bruce taps Tony on the shoulder, then makes a slicing motion across his throat.

"Sorry, this is -- stressful," Tony says. "My point is, once you get the Quinjet far enough away, we're expecting an extensive digital attack on Stark Tower. Bruce and I are going to handle that with some of my staff, they're already down there getting prepped. What we want to do is work out where the hack's coming from, and send them a message."

"This is where the revenge robots come in?" Pepper asks.

"You remember how I jump off high things and the suit catches me?" Tony says.

Pepper just gives him a look. Clint hears Steve stifle a laugh.

"A-ny-way, that gave me the idea for the Frontloader," Tony says, setting his Starkpad down and drawing a hologram up out of it. It looks to Clint like an old Looney Tunes missile, fat in the middle with a pointy end. When Tony taps it, it splits along the long seam, opening up like a coffin. "I might actually sell it to the military eventually. You fire this baby at a target -- "

He demonstrates; a tiny animated man runs around crazily in the hologram, until the Frontloader swoops down, scoops him up, and locks him away in a move so brutally efficient even Clint blinks at it. He looks at Steve, who seems concerned.

"Tony, tell me this isn't going to chop anyone in half," he says.

"Only if they struggle," Tony replies with a shrug.

"Tony -- "

"Seriously, no, it's not going to chop anyone in half. Here's my idea. While they're trying to hack my secure servers to gain access to our personal data, we trace them back to their origins and fire as many Frontloaders as we need at their HQ. Each of them has a clone of JARVIS with limited intelligence, so each Frontloader has a specific target once we know who they are. For that, we have this: the Frontloader Optical Executor, or F.O.X., which is a tiny flying camera that shows them where to attack."

"The fox leads the hounds. That's almost clever," Natasha remarks.

"I'm still working on an acronym for H.O.U.N.D. that'll work with the Frontloaders descriptively, but if I need help I'll give you a call," Tony replies.

"So…" Steve screws up his mouth, thinking. "We're going to pretend to leave town so the bad guys can try and break in, and when they do we're going to sic your robots on them."

"More or less."

"I like that. I'm surprised, but I do," Steve admits.

"And because of F.O.X. we'll get everything on film," Bruce adds. "I'll cut you a highlight reel."

"When do we do this?" Clint asks, because while they've all been jabbering about whatever, he's been learning how to remote-fly a Quinjet, which is awesome. Tony can take this controller back from him over his cold dead body, which would take considerable effort he's pretty sure Tony won't bother expending.

"Now, if you want. Well, not NOW, but very soon. The Frontloaders are finishing production. Limited run of ten to start with but I figure if there are more than ten, we'll just scoop up the ringleaders," Tony says.

"I'm sure it'll be a very pleasant experience for them, being locked inside a tiny flying prototype," Bruce drawls.

"What should I do?" Steve asks.

There's a moment of blank silence.

"Sit down and watch?" Tony offers gently. Clint's been basically staring at Steve all day, but now he remembers the others haven't. The still-unhealed scratches on his arms and face, the bright green bruising around his eye, the splint on his arm and the careful way he moves all make him look slightly pathetic, and very much like someone to be cared for. Clint wonders if he inspired the same kind of feeling when he was a little guy, a strange mixture of proud defiance and subtle vulnerability.

"But I could…" Steve looks around.

"With all due respect," Bruce says, "you're still not a hundred percent."

"Yeah, but I -- "

"We want to do this for you," Tony says.

"As a gift," Thor adds.

"A gift of violence and mayhem," Natasha nods.

"I'm not actually that big a fan of mayhem," Steve says.

"That's why the Frontloaders capture rather than dismember," Tony replies. "I could have programmed them to dismember."

"I guess…" Steve looks around again, then eases himself down into one of the living room couches. Tony and Bruce both beam as they link up the television screen to the FOX camera and the Quinjet controller.

It takes about an hour for them to get everything in place, during which Steve falls asleep. When he's still asleep after they've eaten dinner they have a brief awkward conference about whether to wake him (along with some old-man-nap jokes from Tony) but just as they're trying to decide he wakes on his own, snorting and startled like he's not sure where he is. Clint, along with the others, politely ignores his bewilderment until he's fully awake and lucid.

"We're ready to go," Bruce says gently. "You'll see everything up on the big screen. Tony's already down in the server room waiting to block the hack."

"And on radio," Tony's voice echoes through the room's surround sound. "Soon as I've rerouted the hackers to a decoy, I'll come up to help JARVIS pilot the Frontloaders."

"And eat popcorn," Clint adds. "He was big on the popcorn."

"I heard that," Tony's voice calls. "You ready for a show, Cap?"

Clint is genuinely happy to see Steve smile. "Sure."

"Okay, Ricky Bobby, fire it up," Tony says.

"Really, Stark?" Clint asks, as he opens up the throttle on the Quinjet and lifts off. "Talladega Nights? That's what you're going with?"

"Well, Cap started watching movies made after '43, I keep having to go more obscure with my references to confuse him," Tony says. "JARVIS?"

"Iron Man is pacing the Quinjet, sir."

"Bruce, I'll give you the high sign when they hit us," Tony says. Clint, focused on piloting, watches the camera feed from the Quinjet as it soars over New York, heading for the Atlantic. Natasha settles in next to Steve and pets his hair.

"I can wake you when things get interesting," she offers.

"No, thanks. It's just…" Steve gestures to his splinted wrist. "Everything's trying to heal a lot faster than it can. Takes it out of ya."

Clint listens to their murmured conversation as he pilots. If he were in the jet he'd be more focused, he never gives less than his entire attention when he's got passengers, but it's hard to take this little controller that seriously.

Which is why he doesn't see the missile before Iron Man's radar spots it.

"We have incoming," JARVIS announces, right as Clint yells "OH FUCK ME -- " and the Quinjet explodes. The last shot from the quinjet camera is of Iron Man pinwheeling off towards the water. Clint drops the pad as if it's going to explode. On the screen, the Quinjet's position over the eastbound gulf stream winks out.

"JARVIS, play dead," Tony yells over the speakers.

"Iron Man is 'down'," JARVIS confirms. The Iron Man helmet cam shows murky blue water. "Standby mode, sir?"

"Yeah, just keep me out of the Mariana Trench or whatever."

"That should be fairly simple, as it is on the other side of the world."

"Don't get smart with me, Commodore 64, we all just virtually died."

"Well," Clint announces. "Sure am glad you had me remote-piloting that, Stark."

"And we have hackers, so be quiet now," Tony replies.

"Tony, you need a hand?" Bruce asks.

"Once I switch them to the dummy, you can play with them if you want."

Clint glances at Steve, who is utterly pale, lips bloodless. He's staring at the empty ocean where the Quinjet was.

"You okay there?" he asks softly.

"How did they get an anti-aircraft missile?" Steve asks, looking at him. "How did they -- I just don't -- " he looks up at Clint. "If we'd been on that thing you'd all have died. I'd have gone back...down again."

Oh. Oh.

Steve looks back at the screen. "Would you get me a glass of water, please, Clint?"

"Sure," Clint says, heading for the kitchen. He gets a nod from Natasha as he goes, which is perplexing.

In the kitchen, Clint calms his own nerves by carefully, deliberately taking down the glass, putting some ice in it, adding some of the filtered water from the fridge. By the time he returns, his hands aren't shaking and Steve looks less like he's about to pass out.

"Thank you," he says to Clint, sipping the water, and then calls, "Hey Tony. I changed my mind."

"About what?" Tony asks, sounding irked and impatient.

"Mayhem is okay," Steve says.

"I knew you'd see it my way," Natasha beams.

Chapter Text

It's a little anticlimactic, after the Quinjet blows up.

On the one hand, for Bruce and Tony it's a great test run of new tech they slammed together in a combination of impatience and anger. They found the hackers without much trouble, F.O.X. worked perfectly, and the Frontloaders didn't maim anyone (one broken wrist doesn't count). The anti-industrial terror cell that arranged for Steve's torture, tried to murder the Avengers, and failed to capture Stark Industries and Avengers proprietary data is in SHIELD lockup being interrogated by Hill and her friends, who are not known to be gentle.

SHIELD has an investigation team looking into the Quinjet explosion. Initial reports say the anti-aircraft missile was probably a one-off stolen from a supply depot. Hydra, most likely. Steve's meeting with SHIELD command in a few days to discuss keeping Hydra from ever getting another one.

Clint feels wiped out, and even Tony looks tired. At some point they're going to need to address the fact that they all watched a Quinjet they were supposed to be inside of get blown up, but for right now sleep seems ideal.

Clint follows Steve along to his room and makes sure he's settled, but from the doorway this time rather than in a more...personal sense. Closing the door once Steve's in bed, he turns around and nearly runs into Natasha, who is still one of the few people who can sneak up on him.

"Jesus, lady, are you trying to kill me?" he asks.

"Not a lady, not Jesus, not trying to kill you," she replies, but she's amused, he can tell.

"Need something?"

She looks past him to the door, then back at his face. "You know I read people. I can't help it."

"Sure." He crosses his arms as he heads for the elevator and his own floor. This is an old conversation. Natasha's uncanny knack for knowing every emotional pressure point in every situation creeps people out. It's one of many parts of her that creeps people out. But back in the day, when he was bringing her in, Clint made a deal with her: he would accept her for what she is, weirdness and all, and in return she would never give him a reason to mistrust her. They've held the bargain up for years -- he's not likely to back down now. Besides, there's no rational reason to be disturbed by it; it's her training, and she can't help that.

"We all appreciate you taking Steve's injuries personally. Not everyone is processing what happened to him as well as you are. Or as well as he is," she adds, with a tilt of her head. "I know you're glad to do it. That's why I asked you to."

He nods, stepping into the elevator, and she follows. "Where's this going?"

She reaches out, rubs at his cheekbone like she's swiping dust off it. It's one of the things that bother people, when she does this, it's too personal and intimate. Somewhere in her distant past, she had a teacher who rewarded her like this, though, so it's the only way she knows to indicate affection in casual conversation.

"Steve isn't -- he might not understand," she says. "He might be afraid."

"Afraid of what?"

"We accept things he struggles with," she replies cryptically. Clint frowns. "He's a good man. Just...please don't get your heart broken if he can't adapt."

"Broken? By Steve?" he asks, laughing. "Come on, Tasha. It's not going anywhere, I just like the guy."

Her hand lingers on his face, then drops. "I'd like to stay with you tonight."

"Well, I'd like that too. I got the adrenaline shakes from that blow-up," he says. "Come on, I think you've still got a toothbrush in the bathroom."

"I wouldn't let you go to someone less than him," she says. "I know we aren't like that...but I wouldn't let someone less than he is have you, anyway."

"Well, good, I guess," he replies, baffled. Natasha isn't often ridiculous, but honestly. Even if Steve was into guys -- and Clint doesn't know, Steve doesn't seem to be into much of anyone -- Clint wouldn't bother making a play.

Clint might be kind of uppity in the field and he might have clawed his way into something passing for respectability, but he's on Captain America's team, not in his league.

***

Clint is just drifting off to sleep, wrapped around Natasha (who never sleeps until after he does), when the lights flicker on.

"Oh god," he groans, turning his head into Natasha's shoulder. "Please say it's not Avengers."

"It is not Avengers," JARVIS answers, voice muted but not that muted. "One or both of you are required in Captain Rogers' quarters."

"What?" Clint asks, rolling over. Natasha is already climbing out of the bed, finger-combing her hair back. He slides out the other side. "What's going on?"

"I believe Captain Rogers is experiencing distress, and have not been able to wake him," JARVIS says, while they hurry for the open elevator. "His heart rate and breathing are elevated and REM is extremely...vigorous."

"Shit. Night terror," Clint mutters, taking the lead through the penthouse. He doesn't knock; the lock snicks back -- "Thanks, JARVIS" -- and then they're through.

Steve is writhing on the bed, back arching, one hand clawing at the splint on the other, damn close to ripping it to pieces. His breath is a whistling whine, and veins are throbbing in his throat and forehead. Clint glances at Natasha, who circles to the other side, ready to try restraining him.

"Cap," Clint says, loud but firm. "Steve. Come on, man, wake up."

Steve reacts, at least; he leans away from the noise, body tucking into a protective curl.

"Steve, it's Clint."

Steve gasps but doesn't respond, breathing still heavy.

"Icewater?" Natasha asks. It's worked in the past -- on her, on him, on certain people they've known -- but it's messy and traumatic. Clint's reluctant to touch him in case Steve tries to snap his neck, which he probably could manage, but....

"Be ready to get his arms," he says, and she leans over the bed, nodding. Clint reaches out and firmly plants his fingers through Steve's mussed, sweaty hair, digging them into his scalp. Steve groans and shudders, but his breathing abruptly quiets. His body goes rigid, but at least stops twisting.

"Up and at 'em," Clint says, pressing firmly. Muscles ripple over Steve's back, and then there's a soft exhale.

"Clint?" Steve asks, sounding broken and young.

"Yep," Clint replies, one knee on the bed. "Tasha's here too. It's cool, you're fine."

Steve uncurls, though he still looks rigidly tense, so tightly drawn that he's awkward in his movements. "Why are you…"

"JARVIS called us," Natasha says. Steve's head snaps back around to her. "He was worried."

"Oh," Steve says. Clint can see him formulating a lie, but there's no real lying your way out of something like this. "Thanks."

Natasha glances up at Clint, a you got this? check, and he nods.

"No harm done," she says. "I'm going back to bed."

"I'll stay here a little while," Clint replies, withdrawing his hand and settling up against the headboard. Steve is a little less tense now, but he's still on his side, back to Clint.

"You don't have to," Steve offers.

"I don't mind. Wasn't asleep yet anyway."

Steve leans back then, turning over to look up at him. "I didn't -- " he makes a horrified face. "Did JARVIS interrupt you and Natasha -- "

"Nah."

"If he did -- "

"Hey, no, we're not even together," Clint says.

Steve slow-blinks at him. "You and Natasha aren't…?"

"Everyone thinks that. We let 'em. Keeps her from getting pestered, gives me an interesting reputation."

"Oh." Steve digests this. "Sorry I assumed."

"No problem. Like I said, everyone does." Clint grins. "We were just closest to your room."

"But…" Steve frowns. "Tony's down the hall…"

"I was given to understand Agent Barton was your primary choice of caregiver," JARVIS says. Steve startles. "My apologies if I was in error, Captain."

"No, no, that's fine…" Steve trails off, still a little bewildered.

"I don't mind." Clint looks down at him. "Tell me how I can help you out, here."

Steve pushes himself up to sitting, curling around his own knees. "If I knew that, believe me, I wouldn't be in this mess."

"What do you need?"

One broad shoulder shrugs. "I haven't worked that out yet. For JARVIS maybe not to wake people up to come save me like I'm a toddler," he says pointedly.

"You were in danger of injuring yourself," JARVIS replies.

"Yeah," Steve says morosely.

"I can't figure this happens that often," Clint says. "We'd have noticed before, right?"

Steve shakes his head. "No, not often." It sounds like a lie, but JARVIS doesn't say anything, so maybe it isn't.

Clint thinks about what he would want in Steve's place. It's not like he's never been somewhere similar. What he wanted most in the world was not to have to ask for help. There was a chasm between quietly licking his wounds on his own and finding someone to tell, and he couldn't do the latter on his own.

"Tell me what's going on," he says quietly. Steve's shoulders go stiff. "I won't report you or anything, c'mon man, you know me. Just tell me what's going on and I'll figure out what to do."

"You don't have to do anything. I don't want anyone to worry."

"Well, I only worry when I don't have all the information."

Steve huffs a quiet laugh. "That's fair."

"So tell me. Explain this to me. No judgment here, Steve, I promise you I have been a bigger mess than you are right now."

There's silence, but Clint just lets it stretch out. Steve, outside the field, has a sheer terror of awkward silence, and he'll talk to fill it if you wait long enough. In most situations it's a little funny.

"One of the things they….well, designed me to do, I guess," Steve says eventually, "is adapt. I memorize quickly. I scoop up languages. I found that when I was put down somewhere, Italy, Switzerland, France...I started blending into the culture without meaning to. I picked up physical cues, behaviors. I recover from shocks easier than an ordinary person. But that doesn't mean -- "

Clint watches him struggle, almost in pain himself from being unable to help.

"Just because I was able to see a friend die and get up the next day and go fight doesn't mean I didn't mourn. And coming here -- to this century -- I'm still scrambling to get back to level, even after a year." Steve turns a little, and Clint is relieved to at least see his profile, sharp-jawed face bowed over his knees, arms cording tightly around them. "I'm mostly fine during the day. It's all okay eventually. What they did to me -- Hydra, I mean -- that won't leave lasting scars up here," he says, tapping his head. "Not while I'm awake. It's no big deal."

"That must be strange, though," Clint says, because it does sound strange -- he's familiar with how to deal with a brain that's beyond control in the anxiety-and-bad-learned-reaction sense, but to have your mind out of your control in a way that erases things you've felt, dampens things you've seen…

"Well, that's the thing," Steve says with a brittle smile, still not looking at him. "I adapted. I remember, intellectually, the way my mind was before. But that's all. As far as it goes, it feels like I've always been this way. Mentally, anyhow," he adds. "I remember vividly what it was like to be little."

"Did you, uh." Clint isn't sure how to ask this politely. "Did SHIELD have you talk to someone?"

"Like a psychologist?" Steve nods. "They tried. Explained to me what I was supposed to do but...I wasn't raised...I mean, nobody where I'm from did that, at least nobody I knew. So I just sat there like a lump on a couch. I couldn't talk. I tried, I just couldn't."

"You're doing all right now," Clint points out.

"Well, that's different," Steve says. "You can tell a buddy. I know you can keep a secret."

Clint nods; he could tell Steve that the therapist would too, but it's different somehow. This he knows from SHIELD -- the keeping of secrets of this kind. It's a trust you put in your team, one you sometimes can't offer anyone else. He'll keep Steve's confidence; moreover, he's pleased to.

"You should try to sleep," he says. Steve nods, looking down at his hands, curled around his calves. "Do you mind if I stay?"

"Stay?" Steve asks, startled, turning his head to look at him for the first time.

"Sure. I'll sleep on the couch. Or by the door, did that before to keep anyone from bugging you."

"You slept on the ground," Steve says slowly. "By the door."

"Well, sat, I didn't sleep. Wasn't the first time, won't be the last. In a general sense. But if it wigs you out..." Clint shrugs.

"No, no...just, you can have the couch. You don't need to sit on the floor."

"Thanks," Clint says with a sunny smile, and Steve smiles back, hesitant but true. Clint grabs a pillow from the bed and accepts a blanket when Steve tosses him one, settling on the couch in the other room. The pillow smells like Steve, or at least like whatever old-timey hair stuff he uses. He settles into a light sleep, a doze he can wake from effortlessly if he hears anything amiss.

At some point he hears a soft sob, but it's only the one. He promises himself he'll get up if there are more, but by the time he realizes he should have anyway, it would probably just be awkward.

He aches to help, and reminds himself firmly that he is. He is protecting Steve's secrets, guarding his door, standing and waiting like a good soldier.

***

Saying he wakes would probably be overstating it; he never really went all the way into sleep, and he'll need to catch up later today. Still, when the sunlight starts peeking into the big windows of Stark Tower, Clint rises and checks on Steve. He's asleep, curled up protectively around a knot of sheets, knees drawn almost to his chest, his good hand gripping the cast on his leg. He twitches occasionally, but Clint doesn't think anything of it.

"JARVIS, tell me if he wakes up before I get back," he says as he swings the bedroom door mostly shut.

"Of course, Agent Barton," JARVIS answers, as Clint heads for the kitchen. There are voices there, raised in what sounds like amusement; he can hear Tony's motormouth-growl and Thor's boom at least.

"No, the hash browns are a garnish, I've seen this done," Tony is insisting. Clint peers around the doorway. Tony and Bruce are hunched over a pot on the stove, while Thor merrily works a frying pan next to them. He's not sure he dares to ask, but he's not sure how he could not.

"What's cookin'?" he asks. Thor looks up.

"Hashed browns and breakfast soup," he announces.

"Breakfast soup," Clint repeats.

"It's turning into a kind of egg drop number," Bruce says. "It started out as Avgolemono."

"Okay," Clint agrees, because he's not sure what's going on but now knows he wants no part of it. He grabs a box of pop tarts from the pantry, along with two cups of add-water-and-swish instant oatmeal, then raids the fridge for juice and begins assembling a tray as far from them as possible.

"Steve in a bed of sickness?" Tony asks.

"Asleep. Thought I'd shove some food into him when he wakes up," Clint replies, adding a banana to the tray.

"Probably for the best, he's in one of his downswings," Tony says, stirring the soup.

Clint's head snaps up. "What?"

"Captain Rogers has reduced his caloric intake significantly," JARVIS supplies helpfully. Clint stares at the ceiling.

"JARVIS monitors our eating," Tony says. "It's...medical or something. His idea. Anyway, once in a while Cap cuts his food."

Steve eats like a horse, most of the time, but Clint supposes most of them do. None of them have great table manners, and it's not like they're counting how many slices of pizza Cap puts away. Clint thinks about Steve sharing his popcorn with Natasha, offering Clint his second slice of toast.

"Is he getting enough?" he asks JARVIS.

"He sustains no lower than seventeen hundred calories at any time," JARVIS replies. "Currently he is eating approximately nineteen hundred per day."

Which for Steve is very light eating indeed, but Clint's seen the stats -- Steve's body might burn calories like crazy but it also extracts every morsel of nutritive value from his food. It's enough to get him by, but not much more.

"It always comes back up again in a few weeks," Tony says, sipping broth from a spoon. He makes a dismayed face. "I think this is a failure," he tells Bruce. "I figure, you know, Cap probably got used to going out in the field, getting low on rations, coming home and loading up again."

That makes sense, except for how it doesn't. Clint adds a third cup of oatmeal to the tray, the fills a thermal carafe with hot water and a mug with coffee. Natasha strolls in just as he turns to go and gives him a need anything face. He responds with the no thank you face and heads for Steve's room.

"No, you can't just put the potatoes in the soup like that!" he hears Bruce cry as he leaves.

JARVIS helpfully pops the doors open for him, and he peers into the bedroom to see if Steve's awake. He's shifting and stretching, so Clint knocks briefly against the doorframe with his foot and walks in.

"Thought you'd want breakfast, and you don't want to know what the others are doing in the kitchen," he says, kicking the door closed behind him. Steve pushes himself up, clearly only half-awake.

"Nnn, thanks," Steve mumbles, arms over his head in a stretch, eyes dazed and dark, and the blankets tumble to one side. Clint pauses, awkward, because Steve is only in low-riding sleep pants that aren't hiding anything.

Steve yawns, one leg kicked out, and Clint nervously looks away from the sleepy stretch of his body and the morning erection between his thighs, outlined clearly in the cotton of his pajamas. As he turns his eyes flick over Steve's body in a way they're probably not supposed to, but Steve doesn't seem to realize how much he's showing off, at least for the first few seconds. Then, as he finishes stretching, he reaches down absently to -- to adjust himself --

And then looks up at Clint, startled --

Clint avoids the instinctive urge to look down, because Cap's probably embarrassed. No, definitely. Here's Clint bringing him food like a lovesick idiot, and there's Steve half-awake and more than half-hard looking up at him in surprise. Nobody has any illusions about what's going on here.

Clint could just whip the embarrassment away like a magician with a cape. He could -- would, with someone else, someone who meant less -- crawl into Steve's bed and go down on him. Acknowledge what's going on here and take part in it. He wants to. It's been a long time since he's been allowed to with anyone.

But this is Captain America, and even if he's into guys, or if he's not-but-would-let-a-guy-do-that, Clint's pretty sure the guy he'd choose is not some subby carnie white trash from Iowa. He carries the food to the bed and says, in a totally even voice, "I brought oatmeal. I'm glad you're awake."

They stare at each other, Steve looking up at him, Clint looking down not-quite-at-him. Steve gives him a slow blink, finally, and says, "Clint, I'm about to do something that might make us both look like fools."

"Uh?" Clint manages.

"Put the food over there," Steve says, pointing to the bedside table. Clint carefully clears the clock-radio and the plugged-in cellphone to the back of the table and sets down the tray.

"Drop," Steve says, voice deep and hard and commanding, and Clint's legs go out.

Without meaning to, without thinking, Clint goes down on his knees, tucks his wrists just below the small of his back, and bows his head.

"Well," Steve says softly. "Maybe not so much like fools after all."

Clint's breathing is hard and erratic, and he tries to regulate it through his nose. He's trembling, not sure if what he did was right or if Steve is, in fact, freaked out right now, and what this will do to the team --

"I don't believe I gave you permission to think," Steve says. The air leaves Clint's lungs sharply, but when he inhales again it's steadier. Yes, he did the right thing, and Steve is not freaked out -- where did Steve Rogers even learn about something like this? -- so it's okay. Probably.

There's a rustle, but Clint can't see much from this position, head bowed and almost touching the bedside table.

"If you don't like something, say stop," Steve says. "I'll look after you, and I won't hurt you, but if you have needs I should think about, speak up now. Otherwise no more speaking unless it's to say stop. I know you take my meaning."

As negotiations go, it's efficient to the point of being possibly ineffective, but Clint's done more with less and not all the Doms he's met have been so considerate. (Bad Doms, but better than none at all, on the hard days.)

"Nosir," Clint says.

"Good boy. Come up," Steve says, and Clint turns. It's not far to the bed; Steve's spread his legs, kicking the sheets aside, slouched back against the headboard at a frankly indecent angle. When Clint reaches the edge of the bed, Steve taps him under the chin and tilts his head, inviting him into the bed. Clint slithers up, kneeling again between Steve's legs.

"I wondered about you," Steve says, eyes wide with something that looks almost like awe. "You do this much?"

Clint nods.

"Well, I haven't. Much. Some. If I do it wrong, you should stop me, okay?"

Clint nods again, and Steve matches it, noting it. He hooks his good hand into the waistband of his pants. "Help me outta these."

Steve's dick is large, flushed, and Clint thinks maybe not quite fully hard yet -- maybe nerves, maybe he's not that into this and just doing it for Clint, maybe --

"Am I going to have to order you to stop thinking?" Steve asks sharply, and Clint lets another breath go as he sets the sleep pants aside. "You got no call to think about anything right now. I do the thinking."

Of course, Clint's not a great military mind and he doesn't read like Steve does and he ain't much of an artist either, and --

"Clint," Steve says, thumb back on his chin, a calming gesture. Clint risks flicking his eyes up, but there's no disdain there, not even any disrespect.

(Not like Loki, but the thought rises and falls like a wave, outside of his control, and is gone quickly.)

"You're gonna be so damn beautiful once I get you there," Steve says softly. "You think fine, Clint, just a little too much is all. Don't fuss right now."

Clint nods, breathing slowly. Steve holds him there for so long he starts to worry, then taps him on the chin to remind him, and the worry abruptly ceases.

Steve is in control. He knows how to give orders and if he can cover Clint out in the field with murdering alien monsters, he can cover him here, in a quiet bedroom, just the two of them. He trusts Steve. Steve would never let him mess up, never make him do things wrong, never make him hurt someone.

Steve likes control, and part of him makes a note to come back and examine that, but the rest of him sinks down into the blissful calm of submission.

There it is, there it is, there's the --

"Yep," Steve murmurs. "I remember that look."

-- beautiful empty place, soft and comforting. A vague little voice points out that he's never gone down so fast before; usually by the time he's here he's under a whip or full of needles or aching to come, but he's not even hard, he's just...there. Staring at Steve's blue eyes. The whole world is a little blue-filtered, but he doesn't care. He doesn't have to. Steve will look after that.

Distantly, he sees Steve struggling with something, but Captain America would never let anything hurt him, so it can't be that important. He watches in dislocated fascination as Steve blushes.

"Not so good at the dirty talkin'," Steve admits. "I -- I want your mouth. There. And after, I'll explain everything."

Clint nods and slides down on his stomach, head resting on Steve's thigh, and Steve strokes his hair. Clint arches into it, every nerve sharpened.

"You can still say stop," Steve says. "Anytime. And c...come if you want," he stutters, sounding shy.

Clint nods, turns his face to nuzzle into Steve's palm briefly, and then mouths along his thigh. It'd be easier if he could use his hands, but Steve didn't --

"You can use your hands," Steve says, sounding amused. Clint smiles and buries his face briefly in Steve's stomach, shy and adoring. Steve's hand never stops touching him, rubbing at his hair, then dropping down to pop his thumb in Clint's mouth, guiding him to his cock. Clint grasps him by the base of his dick and takes all he can in a single swoop, then almost chokes and backs off.

"Easy," Steve murmurs. "You in some kind of hurry?"

Clint eases back down, filling his mouth carefully, hollowing his cheeks. Steve is thick, heavy and warm against his tongue, and Clint feels his eyes roll back a little. This is simple, if not easy -- something to work towards, a challenge he knows he can beat.

"That's good," Steve sighs. Clint warms with the approval. "That's real good, Clint."

There's something different about Steve's speech -- slower, less precise. Less grammatical, and then it strikes him. He sounds like he did when they first got him out, when the concussion relieved him of a few filters. Steve's guard is down, and he's hearing the poor son of immigrants in a neighborhood of immigrants, the kid who picked up his grammar from the street. Steve trusts him. There's Cap and there's a layer below, and that's Steve Rogers, and this is the layer below that.

"Planning on moving again anytime soon?" Steve asks pointedly. Clint thrills to the implied threat and challenge, and twists his tongue up as much as he can, tucking it against the head of Steve's cock as he pulls up. Steve makes a noise, a groan of pure sex. Clint just about sprains his tongue trying to get another one out of him. Steve's fingers tighten on the crown of his head briefly.

He should be hard, he could be rubbing off against the sheets as he bobs his head and gets more of the filthy noises out of Steve, but he got himself here so fast that he didn't have time to even get turned on before Steve put him down, and he rarely comes when he's here. Who needs to? The softened world and the floating sensation and the desire to please, the knowledge that he is, don't leave room for something as relatively simple as sex. He can get off some other time.

It doesn't take Steve long to start arching into his mouth, using him. Clint dreamily takes it -- breathes when he can, doesn't care so much when he can't -- and when Steve says "If you don't wanna swallow, back off now" Clint latches on greedily and chokes on Captain America's dick until he comes. He swallows, suckling until Steve gently pushes him back, and then rolls over onto the bed, arms over his head, blissfully peaceful and still. When he glances up at Steve, he's breathing hard, but looking down at him with a shared serenity.

"Well, that's something," Steve says quietly, petting Clint's hair. "You all right? You can talk now."

Clint doesn't particularly want to, so he just smiles and nods. He'll have to get up in a minute, Steve will want to sleep or maybe will want Clint to clean him up, but for now he can probably stay.

He'd startle if he was capable of it right now, but he's not, so when Steve slides down in the bed, rolls over and pulls Clint back against him, he just goes limply. The blankets settle over them both, and Clint adjusts to make sure he's not lying on Steve's bad arm. Steve noses into his neck and drops kisses there, like they're lovers and not just a couple of guys who had a scene.

"Stay where you are," Steve says. "Door's locked, nobody'll see. Stay there long as you like. I like you like this."

"Stupid?" Clint asks.

"Relaxed," Steve corrects, rocking his arm a little to prove to Clint how limp his body is. "You didn't….uh…" His hand drifts briefly down over Clint's pants, cupping his soft dick briefly.

"Usually don't," Clint slurs.

"That's fine." Steve nuzzles his neck. "This must have been a surprise."

"Li'l bit," Clint agrees. "Didn't think you…."

"Yeah, I know. Apple pie, fireworks, and virginity," Steve says, laughter in his voice. "It's not all the way wrong -- like I said, I haven't done this much -- but man…" he shook his head. "I went to every state in the Union, and the show ended at nine. It's not like I never got propositioned while I was signing autographs. This fella one time asked me for an autograph and handed me a naked snap of himself. I looked down and choked, and when I looked up he gave me the dirtiest smile I've ever seen on anyone."

"You take him up on it?"

"No -- wasn't really sure he was my type, something a little off about him," Steve says, voice a deep rumble in his chest against Clint's shoulders. "But then one time we were in San Francisco -- "

Clint laughs dreamily.

"I know," Steve says, humor in his voice. "When we finished the evening show, I thought I'd have a drink and a sandwich somewhere. I found a likely-looking place near the theater and ducked inside. Turns out I walked myself right into a sex club. There I was, twenty-two, more or less fresh from boot camp, in this body…"

"Bet you didn't last long."

"Five minutes into my very uncomfortable beer this sweet-looking dame comes up to me and says she'll do anything I say," Steve says, voice thick with nostalgia. "I told her I was pretty sure I was outta my depth. She asked if it was my first time, I asked my first time what…" Clint can feel him shrug. "She said we could play a little game. I wasn't sure, I didn't know what I was getting into, but I was...lonely. She was pretty, and I liked the way she looked at me. I liked the way I made her look, after she taught me what to do. I liked how it made me feel to do what I did with her. It was...simple."

"You aren't the whips and chains kind, huh?"

"No," Steve says. "Well, once in a while, but I don't like hurting people generally. I'd rather do it gentle. Like with you."

"Never dropped that fast in my life," Clint mumbles.

"Good," Steve says, sounding satisfied.

"So what do you like?"

"Right now? I like you," Steve replies. "I like that what makes you happy is looking after me. When I was sick...my Ma had to put food on the table, and I knew that. Buck was just a kid himself. Having someone take care of me, that's rare, and I like it. And I think you like it too."

"Yeah," Clint says hoarsely. The idea of this -- that it might last longer than a few hours, that Steve could do this regularly without the pain, but might give him pain if he asks -- it's terrifying and comforting at the same time.

"I like...leather," Steve says, voice dropping deep. "When we came back to New York I found a club and there was this boy -- well, probably my age, and probably older than me in experience -- anyway, he was performing, song and dance, but he had on this brown leather corset, thick, you know, like saddle leather. I just wanted to watch him all night. Thought I'd died and gone to heaven when he came off the stage and dropped himself right into my lap."

"What'd you do?"

"To my continuing embarrassment, I let him squirm all over me like a second stage show," Steve laughs. "Not a single person in that club couldn't see him tryin'a get me to shoot it in my pants. He finally asked me back to his dressing room, which turned out to be about closet sized, but we made do. Kept the corset on. He had me pull the laces so tight he could barely breathe, couldn't hardly move. We had fun." He exhales deeply. "It's only seven. You fixed to sleep a little?"

"I could."

"Think you should. I might some more. I think I slept wrong. I woke up sore this morning."

Clint nods, already drowsy. Steve feels solid and secure, breath ghosting against his shoulder, and the world and its worries seem very far off.

Chapter Text

Clint wakes to find Steve has shifted while he slept; he's sitting up now, broken leg dangling off the bed, one of the oatmeal cups from earlier in his hand.

Clint's head is resting on his other leg, one arm thrown over his knee. Steve seems content, but Clint can't imagine his leg's not asleep. Still, when he goes to move, Steve stills him with a hand on his head.

"Eat," he says, setting the oatmeal aside and breaking off a chunk of banana, holding it to Clint's lips. Clint accepts it quietly. He's not quite down anymore, and the chills and anxiety he generally gets coming out of it should have hit by now, but he's not going to question why they haven't. Steve hand-feeds him banana, some broken-up bits of pop tart, a careful sip of coffee. Clint sits up eventually, since Steve doesn't stop him this time, but he stays close.

"Feeling okay?" Steve asks.

"Sure. That was great."

"I thought so. Though I don't really pretend to get why," Steve says, handing him the rest of the pop tart and going back to the oatmeal. It's the third cup; the other two are empty on the tray. "Never appealed to me, your end of things. I like control. It helps...iron things out in my head. Maybe just because I never had much of it before…" he gestures at his body.

"Is that why you stop eating?" Clint asks softly, tactlessly he knows, but he can't help it.

"I don't stop," Steve replies defensively.

"JARVIS says you cut what you eat sometimes."

"But I don't stop. I wouldn't, that's not good for anyone," Steve says. "I just -- sometimes -- I need to know I control something. I didn't even control what I ate back when. Too poor at first, then the Army was telling me what to do. Now I can have as much of anything as I please, so...if I need to be in charge of something, if I feel -- "

"Lost," Clint supplies. "Weak. Flawed."

Steve gives him a sharp look on the third one, but nods anyway.

"I know I can control what I eat, that I get to, now," Steve says. "I make sure I get enough. I just need something nobody can make me do."

"I get that. Kind of," Clint offers.

"Good. I mean, I figure you would. I was worried -- when I told you to drop, I didn't think about Loki -- "

"It's fine," Clint says. "I didn't know if it would be. But I think it is. Loki...that was something different."

"I'm glad it's all right." Steve stirs his oatmeal aimlessly. "I didn't think before I spoke. I mean, I've done this with a grand total of three people ever. I wasn't even in a place to give them anything other than a good time."

Ah, there it is, the gentle let-down. Clint knew he'd be kind.

"But I am now," Steve says, and Clint goes still. "I...like...I liked that. I think we fit. I think you need to give it up as much as I need to take it. So I dunno if this is just because I've been hurt -- it's fine if it is -- but if you'd care to try for more...I've got nobody in my life like that, and I'd like to have you there. If that's all right."

Clint stares at him, uncertain what's going on. Steve stares back, looking equally confused.

"I'm not sure what you want," Clint says.

"Well, seems a little silly to call it being sweethearts," Steve says. "But that's really what it'd be. I'd like to...see you. Do this, but...all the usual stuff too, like movies and dinner and such."

"You want to date me," Clint says.

"If you'd like that."

Clint can't help it. He blurts, "Why?"

Steve sets all the food aside and then turns back to him, drawing his leg up on the bed. He leans in cautiously, but Clint doesn't move as he kisses just under his jaw.

"Why not?" he asks against Clint's skin.

"You're Captain America," Clint points out.

"Captain America's allowed to have a sweetheart," Steve says, leaning back.

"Not a kinky male ex-carnie spy he's not."

"Well, I'm Captain America and leader of this team and as a kinky male ex-dancing-girl soldier, I get to say who's my sweetheart. And I don't want any lip about it -- just because I ain't had much experience with a switch doesn't mean I ain't had any."

Clint shivers as Steve lays a very possessive hand on his chest.

"If you're not interested, that's fine and I won't make a racket. But if you are, and you just think you shouldn't aspire, well. You have the right to swing at any pitch you like, and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise."

Clint swallows, working on the right words for this. Steve lays his head against Clint's, eyes electric blue, patient.

"Don't say no on my account, don't spare me because you think you aren't good enough. Don't say no unless you mean it," he says softly, and Clint twitches and gives up, edging into the warmth of him, pressing his face into Steve's shoulder. Steve pulls him over and curls up in a tangle with him, sliding them both down into the blankets.

"Well, I'll take that as a yes," Steve remarks, and Clint laughs into his skin.

They do get up, eventually, clean up a little and wander out into the kitchen again, where the "breakfast soup" has been abandoned and Tony is asleep at the kitchen table.

Clint feels warm and satisfied; he keeps waiting for sub-drop to kick in, but the warm feeling just slowly rumbles through him all day, throughout the afternoon and into the evening. He's functional, he's lucid, he's just...settled. Happy. Natasha notices, and pats his head affectionately, and he can't even summon the negativity to be annoyed at her.

It occurs to him that maybe he won't drop this time. That's never happened before -- he always drops, usually alone, but he knows how to handle it, so he could. He finds himself hoping he will because at least right now, Steve is actually pretty close by. He has been all day. Clint finds himself gravitating back to him, accepting casual touches he wouldn't from anyone else (except possibly Natasha) and Steve doesn't seem to think this is at all extraordinary.

And Steve eats -- a giant sandwich and a fruit salad at lunch, peanut butter on crackers and apples in the afternoon, double helpings at dinner. Clint smiles as Steve beats Thor to the last spoonful of casserole, and Steve catches him doing it and give him a rueful grin in return.

After dinner, he hauls Clint into the kitchen to do the dishes with him. Elbows-deep in suds, he hands Clint a clean plate and says, "Stay with me tonight."

"Of course," Clint says, drying it.

"Not on the couch this time."

Clint nods, setting the plate aside. Steve ducks his head to look at him.

"This isn't normal for me," he says. Clint frowns. "I'm not. Forward? I don't normally invite people this way. But I want you to. Very much, Clint."

Clint almost points out that he said yes, but the look in Steve's eyes...it seems to be more about making sure Clint understands than any personal insecurity.

"You are a choice," Steve says quietly.

"So are you," Clint replies, and that seems to satisfy him.

***

When he follows Steve to his room later that night, with probably less discretion than he could employ -- maybe he wants to show off a little, subconsciously -- Steve waits until he's in the bedroom and then shuts the door with a certain air of finality. He comes up to Clint, who is standing in the middle of the floor, and Clint's knees bend to drop without even waiting for the command. Steve catches him around the waist, though, and holds him up with his good arm.

"Not yet," he says, steadying Clint on his feet. He steps back and tugs Clint's shirt over his head, then gestures for him to strip out of his pants. It's not like he didn't see him naked just yesterday, in a shower no less, but Clint is aware that Steve was probably at that point just trying to maintain what little dignity a naked man can have.

Now he examines Clint minutely, hands drifting over his skin, lingering on every scar and bump of muscle. Clint feels dissected -- examined. Like a belonging, something Steve is inspecting for scuffs or dents. He feels hyperconscious of every mark on his body. He's not ashamed; they were earned, every one of them. But maybe Steve doesn't agree.

"This is beautiful," Steve murmurs. Clint shivers. "Didn't expect anything less, though."

He rests a hand on Clint's waist, the other over his heart.

"Say stop, and we stop," he says, a repeat of that morning. "Tell me now if there's anything you need, anything you want. You asked about pain -- whips and chains," Steve says with a smile. "Do you like that?"

Clint shrugs. "Usually it's all that'll put me down."

"Surprising. You went earlier, no problem."

"That was unusual."

"Well, we'll see. You can talk to say stop or to tell me if you need something to get you there. You can…" he stumbles over the word again. "Come, you can do that any time."

Clint tilts his head. Steve clearly doesn't know what a safeword is, even if he knows enough to establish one, and he's barely able to articulate anything about sex. "How much do you know about the way we do things now?"

"Not a lot. I'll learn, though. Whatever you like."

"Just curious." Clint draws a breath. "I like...serving. Being useful. Doesn't have to be sex. Like with the shower yesterday. And the food and stuff."

"Providing what I need," Steve says.

"Yes," Clint answers, relieved he understands. "Stuff like -- needles, whips, restraints, all that's good, I do like it, and I'll show you how. But really I -- "

"Want to be cherished," Steve says.

"Well, I wouldn't -- "

"You want to be loved. You want to be able to offer something and get love back. It's hard when you think you can't just be someone that someone else likes," Steve says. Clint hurts, like a knife sliding right between the ribs. "You want to give it up to me," he adds, voice lowering. "Because you know if you're a good boy I'll protect you. And if you're bad, well." He smiles. "There's an old saying about punishing out of love."

Clint heaves in a breath, and Steve catches his chin in one warm hand.

"Down," he says, and lets Clint drop to his knees this time, pulling his head forward. "Breathe."

Clint focuses on his breathing, on the smell of Steve, on the solidity of his leg against Clint's chest. His face is pressed to Steve's groin, and with a fraction of a movement he can nuzzle into the bulge of his erection, warm even through his clothes.

"When I tell you, I want you to stand," Steve says gently, ignoring the caress. Clint strains to anticipate what he'll want. "Undress me. Get my pajamas from the drawer -- the top drawer, the blue pajamas. And a handkerchief -- they're in the second drawer."

His hand rubs the back of Clint's head, and Clint works hard to focus on what he's saying.

"I want you to get me off, any way you want," Steve continues. "I liked what you did last time. That was nice."

Clint snorts against him. Yeah, it was. Steve scruffs his hair warningly.

"Then clean up with the handkerchief, dress me, and we'll sleep," Steve says. "That sounds nice, doesn't it?"

Clint nods.

"You remember it all?"

Blue pajamas, handkerchief, any way he wants. Clint nods again.

"Good. Screw it up, and I will punish you," Steve says.

The man's a damn genius. Go down easy, or I'll put you down hard.

Clint rises when Steve tugs on his hair, and sets about stripping Steve down with care and attention. Shirt, undershirt, belt; he kneels again to take his socks off, then tugs his pants down. His boxer-briefs are obscenely distended, cock erect and straining against the fabric, and Clint feels an answering tug of arousal in his own body as he pulls them down as well. He ignores it, folding the clothes and setting them aside carefully.

He stands, feeling Steve's eyes heavy on him as he goes to the dresser. He takes out the blue pajamas, right on top, and then turns -- then quickly turns back. Handkerchief, right, but he can't remember where they were --

"It's almost like you weren't listening," Steve says, and Clint stiffens. It's so close to the wrong thing to say -- Pay attention, you stupid little shit and Just how dumb are you that you can't even do this right but it's not. It's right, and it knocks the breath from him, makes it easier to narrow his mind down to -- yes. Second drawer. He opens it, grasps a crisp white handkerchief, and turns back to Steve laden with his treasure.

Steve smiles approvingly as Clint returns, tucking the clothing to his chest to angle Steve back against the bed, pushing him down to sit. Steve goes obediently, and there they are again -- this strange reversal, where Clint is serving but Steve is the one getting guided around.

He finds he likes it.

He sets the clothing on the bed, going to his knees and pushing Steve's legs apart a little. Steve catches his chin again and leans in to kiss him, sweet and easy, something they haven't yet done.

"Couldn't resist," he says, shy as a schoolboy. Apologetic, like Clint might not have wanted it.

Clint can feel himself sinking, a part of him wanting to fight it, the rest waiting for that moment when the world outside goes dark and quiet. He bends to his task, figuring that one way or another, this will take care of the dilemma.

Steve is hot on his tongue and Steve's breath comes in short, catching bursts. His thick thighs cord with muscle under Clint's hands as his head bobs, eyes drooping shut.

"That's -- you're so good at this," Steve breathes, audibly straining, probably to keep still. "Never had anyone who could -- "

Clint free-falls for a moment, but the hand at the back of his head steadies him, anchors him down.

"You make me think things," Steve murmurs. "Dirty things, I don't...know how to say them, but -- " he breaks off with a grunt, hips almost bucking. "We'll do them together. It'll make you happy, I know it will."

Steve shifts then, pulling him forward and a little to one side, his good leg swinging over slightly until his ankle bumps against Clint's body. He's almost surprised to find he's hard, to find the nudge of Steve's leg against him feels good.

"That's it," Steve says, as Clint's body rolls against him. "Rub off if you want. You look awfully nice like this, Clint. Doesn't that feel good?"

Clint can't help the thrust of his hips, the deep vibration of a groan in his throat as he sucks. Steve, for all he says he isn't good at the dirty talk, keeps up a stream of encouragements, endearments, rough words at times. Clint feels himself come, almost distantly, and goes lax for a second as it thrills through him; he feels Steve take hold of his head and finally buck into his mouth, coming down his throat with a choked-off groan. Clint swallows, then slumps against Steve's leg to catch his breath for a second. When he looks up, Steve is looking at him expectantly.

Right; the handkerchief. Clint reaches for it, fingers thick and fumbling, and cleans come off his chin and Steve's leg, his spit off Steve's softening cock. He enjoys the simple task, petting Steve a little -- when Steve huffs, apparently sensitive, he stifles a smile. Sir did ask for this, after all.

He's at least steady on his feet by the time he stands, shaking out the pajama pants for Steve to step into. Once he's dressed, Steve pulls back the covers himself and gestures Clint into the bed. Clint hesitates; he doesn't usually sleep nude.

"I want you undressed," Steve says in his ear, his hand sliding down the curve of Clint's ass. "Easy access if I decide I want you in the night."

He can tell from Steve's voice it's an idle remark -- they definitely aren't at that stage yet, and they both know it -- but it reminds him that right now he doesn't belong to himself, doesn't have to worry about himself. Steve will do that.

He goes into the bed, followed so closely by Steve that he doesn't even get to figure out how to lie. Steve just arranges him how he wants him, asks "Comfortable?" and then nods when Clint does. "Good." His arm tightens around Clint's waist, pulled back against him, practically buried in the warmth of Steve's body. "You were so good for me, Clint. Exactly what I wanted."

Clint's body hums with the praise.

***

He wakes in the middle of the night, mind awash with terror, body shivering with cold.

For a second, he's not sure where he is or why he's naked; it flits through his mind that he might have been captured, but then sense reasserts itself. He's in bed, a brawny arm thrown around his waist. Steve's bed. Steve's arm. Steve behind him, breathing softly in sleep. He's pulled away just slightly, a little space between their bodies, and the free-floating fear asserts itself.

He was a fool to do this. Stupid to trust a secret of this magnitude to anyone on the team. Stupid to even try and be the guy who gets Captain America, the living legend, a national icon. He should slink away before he does any further damage, it's just he's so cold…

Steve huffs behind him when he tries to move. His arm tightens around Clint's waist and then his hand slides up to his chest, registering his hammering heartbeat. There is nothing more humiliating, nothing more painful than what's about to happen.

Steve wakes fully, and Clint steadies himself for the confusion, the disdain, the inability to cope with how fucking crazy Clint is, what a headcase Steve just climbed merrily into bed with.

Steve moves quickly, propping himself up, rolling Clint onto his back. He leans over him, but not all the way, and looks down worriedly.

"I've seen this," he announces, and moves one hand back to Clint's chest. Light, not pinning him, just touching him. "It's all right, Clint. You're here, this is my room, nothing's going to hurt you here. You're safe, I'm here. I won't let anything happen."

Clint shudders with the cold, uncontrollably, and panics at the idea Steve might try to warm him physically. Steve doubles his own half of the blankets back and lays them over him instead, moving his hand to Clint's face to anchor him.

"Deep breaths. That's it," Steve says, as Clint does his best. "Warm and safe. I've got you. Hey, who's gonna mess with me, huh? Nobody. There you go," he adds, when Clint finally manages to go limp, sucking up the warmth of the blankets. He gasps in air, greedy for it.

Steve just watches him, eyes alert but not worried. Clint feels his pulse slow, his breathing even out. Steve slides the blankets back around, settling down to carefully pull him close.

"You're the second person I've seen do that," he says. "She didn't get quite as intense as that, but I'm familiar. Does it have a name?"

"Sub-drop," Clint says. "Usually it's not this sudden."

"This happens to you?"

"It has, before."

"Not this morning, though."

Clint shakes his head. "Sorry. Usually I get away for it, so I'm not bothering anyone."

Steve looks horrified.

"I mean -- it's not usually this sudden, so it's not a big deal -- " Clint blurts, before Steve pulls him into a bear hug and his face gets mashed against one (admittedly very nice) pectoral. "Steve. Need to breathe."

"Sorry! Sorry," Steve mumbles, separating them just enough for Clint to draw air. "Why would you do that?" he asks. "Why would they let you? Have you seen yourself when it happens?"

"Not their job," Clint replies.

"Did they tell you that?"

"Some did."

"Well, then clearly I'm not the dumbest guy who ever did this," Steve says fiercely. "It doesn't stop just because I got what I need, Clint, Jesus Christ. I may not know much but I know I don't leave my boy alone after."

He's holding Clint's head in both his hands, so Clint can't look away from his face, and the dismay and anger there frightens him.

"Look, I get if you changed your mind," he starts, and Steve's expression turns incredulous.

"You think I'm mad at you," he says.

"Well -- "

"Clint, I'm mad at them. What kinds'a people...I mean, that's just nuts. Doing that? Catching hold of someone like you and then dumping you off when they're done? You've been sleeping with idiots."

"It's...just the way things are, Steve, they don't have -- "

"Well, it's done now anyway," Steve says. Clint flinches. "Not us! Them! You're done with them now. I'm here." He looks fierce, like he's in battle. "Buncha fools," he mutters. "You cold?"

Clint shakes his head.

"Hungry? Thirsty?"

"No," Clint mumbles, shamed by all this attention.

"You want me close or a little further off?" Steve asks softly.

"Close," Clint whispers, barely a breath. Steve inches them together, tucking the blankets close as well.

"This is part of my job," Steve says in his ear. "I enjoy it just as much as the other parts. I like having something to look after, folks to care for. You think this is an imposition somehow. It's not. Let me look after you like I said I would."

Clint nods against his shoulder.

"I'm kind of a mess," he offers.

"Well, that's two of us, so I don't imagine it matters," Steve replies. He nuzzles at Clint's hairline, splinted hand stroking broadly if clumsily against his back. "Maybe it's more common now, maybe I just haven't got that much knowledge. But the way it is for me is, this kind of thing is pretty rare. Finding someone that fits like you do. It's strange to me that nobody ever held onto you before. I would. I intend to."

Clint keeps his face pressed to Steve's skin, unsure how to respond.

"Don't you want to keep me, Clint?" Steve asks, and Clint would accuse him of manipulation but this is Steve.

"Yes," he replies.

"Then don't ever run off when this is coming," Steve says. "You stay with me and I'll get you through it. I want to. You're my responsibility now, like I'm yours. We might not last but by God it won't end because I neglected my duties."

Clint smiles. "You sound almost patriotic about all this kinky sex."

"I take it seriously. It deserves the attention."

Exhaustion settles bone-deep, and he's warm and almost hypnotized by the sweep of Steve's hand over his skin. "I don't want you to go," he says, helpless, like a child.

"I won't," Steve promises.

***

The next time he wakes is much, much better. It's slow, for one thing, and he's warm, and aware of where he is this time -- he can hear Steve speaking and JARVIS responding.

"No, let's just filter out any of...of that," Steve says, thoughtfully.

"Including instructional videos, Captain?"

"There are instructional videos?"

"Most purport to be, but may not be entirely honest."

"Can you tell?"

"Generally."

"Then use your own judgment," Steve says. "Photos are okay. Well, I mean obviously more instructional photos would be better. Yes, like that."

"What're you doing?" Clint asks, coming into the living room of the suite, wrapped in the blanket from Steve's bed. Steve's only wearing sleep pants, and the broad bands of muscle in his back are better art than Clint's ever seen in a museum.

"Apparently, looking at blue pictures," Steve replies. He's standing in front of the big TV screen all the suites came with, watching JARVIS filter through --

"Whoa," Clint manages. "That's a lot of porn there, buddy."

"I am attempting to compile useful instructional material in the fields of bondage, domination, and submission," JARVIS says. "It is proving problematic."

"Don't tell me Stark never asked you to compile pornography for him," Clint says, joining Steve at the screen. Steve shyly puts an arm around his waist.

"Sir prefers a more hands-on approach," JARVIS replies drily. "Searches of the internet for an academic or at least nominally useful definition of pornography, as opposed to instruction or artistic expression, have been especially unhelpful. Apparently humans know it when they see it."

Clint laughs softly, leaning into Steve. "Why are we doing this?"

"Lots I don't know," Steve says. "Lots to learn. Internet's got to be good for something."

"You have hit upon one of the prime purposes of the internet," Clint agrees. "Sex and how to do it."

"Do you like rope?" Steve asks, pointing to an image of shibari that appears briefly on the screen as JARVIS sorts through data.

"Sure," Clint replies. A leather corset appears and Steve taps it to pause it, giving Clint a querying, half-hopeful look. That dancing boy in the club, seventy years ago, must have left an impression. Clint nods, and Steve directs the picture into the save folder.

"You know I can teach you just about anything you need to know," Clint says, as Steve nudges him over to the sofa. Steve lowers himself, the turns and slides one leg up onto the seat, tugging Clint into the fold of his legs, head resting against Steve's warm chest.

"Well, I don't mind that, but a fella likes to surprise his sweetheart sometimes," Steve says, kissing him on the temple.

"You still interested?"

"Do I strike you as a liar, Clint?"

"Nosir," Clint murmurs.

"I strike you as someone who puts up with something he doesn't want?"

"Nosir."

"Then if it ever comes to it I will tell you in clear and simple language, but until then how about you assume I don't ask folks to step out with me unless I mean it?"

Clint flushes, embarrassed, but mostly embarrassed that he's so pleased with this answer.

Steve looks down at him, delighted. "You're blushing."

Clint turns his face into Steve's chest. "Am not."

"You are. I've never seen you blush. Big bad hard case Clint Barton," Steve teases, nuzzling his hair. "Don't stop, I like it. Never get to see you like this. I bet nobody does."

"Not really," Clint says, but he can feel himself tense up. Steve huffs.

"What is it?" he asks softly. Clint is silent. "I can't help if I don't know what it is, Clint."

He lifts his face just a little, but forces himself to relax. Reminds himself he can let his guard down here -- Steve has, after all.

"I'm not used to it," he mumbles.

"To what?"

"I like what you say. I like that you think you want me. I just can't...I trust you, I do, but I can't trust...this. That easily. I'm sorry. I can't make myself."

Steve raises a hand to hold Clint's head against his chest. "I've got time. No reason to hurry. Long as you trust me, the rest will follow."

"How can you be sure?"

"It's my job to be," Steve says, a smile in his voice.

Steve scrolls idly through the knowledge JARVIS is compiling for them. From somewhere outside the room comes the sound of what is apparently a second attempt at Breakfast Soup. Steve seems unbothered, so Clint doesn't fret.

They lie like that for the longest time, Clint bracketed by Steve's body, Steve's arm over his waist, as Clint listens to the slow-even thud of his heartbeat and the sun rises over Manhattan.

Chapter Text

It’s not that Clint doesn’t like corsets in theory. On women, yes. On men, yes, if they’re done properly. On him, hell yes. But he hasn’t had a ton of experience with this particular kink, and while he knows Steve has a thing for corsets, he’s sort of been saving it for a special occasion.

This isn’t ‘special occasion’ so much as it is ‘desperate measures’, but needs must. Because Bucky, Steve’s best friend since forever, Steve’s right-hand man in the war, Steve’s long-lost comrade, is back. And he’s all broken, and Steve loves taking care of broken people, and Clint’s happy for Steve but —

If anything has a chance of keeping Steve interested in him, it’s the corset. Clint doesn’t hold out a ton of hope; he can’t compete with James Barnes on basically anything outside of a firing range, or possibly a 'who has both of his original arms' competition (low blow, but Clint fights dirty).

He still has to try. He won’t go down without a fight. It’s both his greatest quality and his most tragic flaw. He never goes down without a fight. 

It’s really almost a relief that the guy’s in SHIELD custody, because at least Steve isn’t still searching for him, and he’s stopped looking so drawn and upset and tired all the time. Clint did what he could, but even Tony, king of smothering overly-grand gestures, admitted that there wasn’t much any of them could do while Steve was trying to find him and lure him in.

Clint would have been jealous of Sam, who got to go with Steve when he went looking, but Sam was clearly the best for this mission. He’s experienced in dealing with trauma, he’s encountered the Winter Soldier before, and anyway Clint likes him. Sam is sane and stable, and after meeting Clint he said Steve was lucky to have a guy like him to keep him grounded, which is one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said about Clint’s sex life. Sam is good for Steve in a totally Will Never Steal My Boyfriend kind of way.

Now that James Barnes is a guest of SHIELD, Steve visits him every day. He goes to help him recover himself, to reassure him that he’s safe — and to see his miraculously resurrected best friend.

Clint’s darker side points out to him that their love has literally spanned a century. He tries to ignore that. 

Some days are better than others. Often, Steve comes back to the Tower from a visit and crawls into bed with Clint like it takes all the energy he has. Clint pulls him close and tucks Steve’s face into his shoulder and Steve exhales like it’s the first clean breath he’s been able to take all day. 

Clint feels guilty that he finds it more worrying when Steve comes home glowing and pleased and talks about the progress Bucky is making. It’s not that he doesn’t want Steve to be happy. It’s just that he wants to preserve every last second before Bucky is well enough to come home and what Clint has with Steve fades off into friendship. 

He’s sure Steve will let him down gently, if it comes to that. 

So, as far as Clint’s concerned, what he's about to do is a desperate gambit. Even if it fails, he’ll have one last night he can remember as perfect, before it all went to hell. 

It’s been a good day, at least for Bucky. Steve was cheerful all through dinner, and Clint smiled at his enthusiasm, couldn’t help it. And now Steve’s on the couch, listening to the ball game on internet radio (he doesn’t like watching the game on TV, says there’s too many distractions) and Clint is standing in the bedroom, tightening the laces on the corset as much as he can.

Steve had a super-intense one-night stand, back in the day, with a burlesque dancer who wore a leather corset, like saddle leather Steve said. Clint opted for black instead of the traditional brown, but it’s thick and constricting and heavy like a saddle. He wasn’t sure quite what to wear with it, but he’s never gone wrong yet with the purple thong, and he thinks it looks good. Steve likes him in purple. 

"Hey, Steve," he calls, walking into the living room. Steve’s eyes are closed, long body relaxed on the couch. "Can you give me a hand with this?"

"What’s that?" Steve asks, opening his eyes. He sits up, ready to get up, and Clint fingers the deep purple laces on the front of the corset.

Steve’s jaw drops. His ears turn bright red. 

"It could go a little tighter," Clint says. 

"When — have you — " Steve stutters, drinking him in. "You look…good."

"I’d look better if you could give this a tug," Clint replies. 

Steve rises, eyes darkening, and takes the laces from him, pulling him forward by them so that his body is flush up against Steve’s. 

"How tight?" Steve asks, voice low and rough.

"Up to you," Clint replies lightly. 

Steve clearly has either studied this (internet porn: it’s for everyone!) or remembers a great deal from the dancer. He hooks his fingers in the laces just right, tugs and shifts them, and it pinches, it’s hard to breathe, but Clint wants to be good for Steve, wants this to be special so that at least he has a chance. 

"How’s that?" Steve murmurs. Clint smiles reassuringly at him. "You are somethin’ else, Clint."

"How do you want me?" Clint asks. 

Ever since they started, ever since Steve did all that research so that he’d get it right, Steve does this. It’s silly, Clint thinks, but he guesses the ritual makes Steve feel more okay with what they do.

"Safeword?" Steve asks. 

"Red."

"And right now you are?"

"Green." Even though he’s breathless, even though his ribs hurt. This can be green. A sub is supposed to endure what Sir dishes out. Within reason, naturally, but it’s nothing he can’t tolerate. Not if it lets him keep this precious thing. He’d do worse to keep what they have. 

Steve cups his face, traces fingers down his cheeks and over his bare shoulders, brushing past his nipples. Clint’s range of motion is limited like this, which is part of the thrill, and Steve turns him in a swift motion, pushing him over the arm of the couch. Clint’s body shifts forward, center of gravity different from usual, and the stiffness from stomach to chest pushes his ass up into the air. 

"Always so unexpected," Steve says, one hand on Clint’s thigh, the other tugging on the mainly-decorative laces at the back of the corset. It keeps Clint lightly suspended, the leather pressing into his breastbone, constricting his breathing further. "You’re such a surprise, Clint."

Clint huffs, trying to breathe. Mostly succeeds.

"I haven’t been — right, lately, I know that. I haven’t meant to neglect you," Steve says, spreading Clint’s legs a little with a tug on his thigh. "Soon it’ll be over, things will be better."

Clint knows what he means, but he can’t help the little voice inside him that wonders — surely Steve means soon he’ll be happier, soon they’ll be okay, but what if he means soon he won’t need Clint anymore?

The corset pinches his sides. His lungs struggle. Steve’s tugging down the thong. He knows sometimes Clint doesn’t get hard if he goes down fast, and Clint’s definitely not hard now, but he’s not down either, and he just hopes Steve doesn’t notice. 

"Clint?" Steve says, and Clint thinks he says, "Clint, what’s your color?" but his vision has narrowed way down, and not in the good focused-sniper way. What’s left is greying out, and there’s a steadily rising tone in his ears like a siren —

***

Clint wakes up with a start. He’s lying on the couch, and the terrible pressure — the endless, constricting pinch of the corset — is gone. He’s shirtless. Well, naked, but there’s a blanket thrown over his legs and Steve is sitting on the edge of the cushion, butt pressed up against Clint’s side, leaning over him worriedly. 

His face lights with a smile when he sees Clint’s eyes are open, and he looks relieved. 

"Hey," Clint croaks.

"Hey," Steve says, rubbing Clint’s hair with one hand. "This is gonna seem weird but I need you to tell me who I am."

"Steve," Clint replies, confused.

"And how many fingers?" Steve holds up three.

"Three."

"Take a big deep breath for me."

Clint inhales, obediently.

"Anywhere hurt?" Steve asks. Little rivulets of pain spark along his sides, but nothing feels broken or sprained. He shakes his head — and then he notices that the corset is lying in pieces on the floor nearby. He makes a soft, woeful noise. 

"Sorry," Steve says. "I had to cut you out of it. You passed out. You really scared me for a minute there."

Clint wants to cry. This was supposed to be perfect, it was supposed to help, and instead here he is, couldn’t even fulfill the one fantasy Steve really wanted, and now the corset is ruined. 

Steve’s hand comes to rest on his cheek. His eyes are a little too knowing as they study Clint’s face. 

"Clint," he says gently. "I’m not angry with you. Things happen sometimes. It’s okay. I’m just glad you’re all right."

He’s going to miss this, he’s going to miss it so much.

"But I need you to tell me something," Steve continues. "Did I tighten it too much?"

Clint looks away from his eyes.

"Clint, did you let me hurt you on purpose?" Steve waits for his reply, but Clint is much better than Steve is at sullen silence. "Did you know you should have safeworded?"

"I could take it."

"You passed out. You clearly couldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just — why? I don’t want to hurt you, I’ve told you that. Not unintentionally, I mean," Steve amends, which is sort of sweet. "That was dangerous. Why would you do that?"

"I wanted to take it. For you. I know you really like the corset. I just wanted it to be right for you."

"What we do here is supposed to be for both of us," Steve says softly. 

"I can’t lose you," Clint blurts. Steve blinks. "I thought, I thought if — if this was perfect — I thought maybe…"

"Hey, easy," Steve says, and Clint realizes he’s breathing shallow again, close to hyperventilating. He consciously takes a deep breath, then another. Steve just watches him. Clint can see his wheels turning. 

"So," Steve says. "I have been neglecting you.”

"No, you don’t. Never, I’m happy with — "

"Clint, one of these days I’m gonna acquaint you with the idea that you get to have what you want, not just what you can get from what you think I want," Steve interrupts. 

"But I want you to be happy. And Bucky — "

It’s the wrong thing to say, Clint sees that as soon as it’s out of his mouth, but he doesn’t know why. This is confusing, and his head hurts and his sides hurt, and he’s fucked this up so badly. 

"You thought I’d leave you for him," Steve said. Clint winces, nodding. "Okay. Well. I know you, so I know you think this is on you, and it’s not that you think I’m a faithless bastard who was just settling for you."

"That’s not what I think," Clint tries. 

"I know." Steve strokes his hair again. "You were afraid you couldn’t compete."

"You fought a war together. He’s your best friend."

"You’re my boyfriend. Bucky isn’t. Never was. Even if he liked what I like, which he doesn’t, it wouldn’t be right. I — I love him and I’m hurtin’ for him right now, but the way you do for family. He’s not for me, Clint, not the way you are.” 

A terrible little blossom of hope breaks through in Clint’s chest. 

"I’m sorry I’ve had my head up my ass," Steve continues. Clint opens his mouth to protest and Steve cocks an eyebrow in warning, so he stops. "I’ve been fretting. It’s hard, and I’m thankful you’re there to take that burden off me for a little while. Haven’t exactly been paying much attention to you beyond that, though. My fault. I’m sorry."

Steve’s hand leaves his hair, tracing over the red welts where the corset pressed too close.

"Don’t think you have to do this kind of thing to keep me," Steve says. "I couldn’t stand that. Being so selfish. Don’t ever put me in that position again." 

"Corset’s wrecked now anyway," Clint mutters, because he has no idea how to respond to this, how to contain the bright glowing feeling of belonging that’s threatening to break right out of his skin. 

"It just needs new laces," Steve says with a fond smile. "Next time, we’ll keep them loose. I don’t need it tight, Clint. I just like the look of you in it."

"Yeah?"

"Very much. For now…" Steve slides a hand under Clint’s neck, pulling him up to sitting. "Tell me what you want."

Clint looks at him blankly.

"Anything you want, sweetheart," Steve says. He doesn’t often use pet names. "What would you like?"

Clint leans into him, nosing at his shoulder, inhaling the clean scent of him. Steve waits. 

"Some soup," he decides. He likes soup when he’s not feeling well. "And," he starts, but it’s so much to ask. 

"And?" Steve prompts.

"I’d like to meet him."

Steve’s shoulders tense. “Bucky?”

"Forget it, I don’t — "

"No," Steve says, holding him in place when he tries to pull away. "No, I’d like that too. You’ll like him. You’ll understand him. Probably better than I do. I’ll take you there tomorrow." 

Clint nods into his shoulder. Steve pats the back of his head and leans back slowly.

"I’ll get the soup. You stay here," he says, and Clint watches him go with no small amount of wonder. 

***

Steve obviously really wants Clint and Bucky to get along and is obviously really freaked out about whether they will. About two minutes into the careful and awkward meeting in a SHIELD conference room, Bucky turns to Steve and says, “Will you stop hovering for Pete’s sake.” 

Yeah. Clint kinda likes Bucky.

They manage to get Steve to leave the room, with the excuse that Bucky wants coffee and Steve should go buy some. Steve just introduced him to Bucky as ‘a friend, my friend Clint, I told you about him’ but this guy is clearly not a moron and Steve is transparent like glass. 

"He talks about you a lot," Bucky says. "You’re his fella, yeah?"  

"Yeah," Clint replies, a little defiant. Who knows what Bucky Barnes thinks about Captain America having a boyfriend?

"He treat you all right?"

Well, okay then. “Yeah. I mean. He’s Steve, you know?”

Bucky nods. “He seems fond. You planning on runnin’ around on him?”

"Wow. Um. No."

"Then we got no problems. You play cards?" Bucky asks, and the most fearsome assassin of the twentieth century takes out a pack of playing cards and challenges him to a game of rummy. 

***

"I do like him," Clint says that night, flopped on the couch with his head in Steve’s lap. "He’s messed up, like me."

"Nobody’s messed up quite like you," Steve says, amused.

"Well, everyone wants to be special." 

"I’m glad you like him. I’m glad he likes you. Did I ever tell you about Gerald?" He says it with a French inflection, the soft G, the almost unspoken D. 

"No."

"He was a fella I met in France, after I was deployed. Buck never liked him." 

"You and he were…?"

"Yes."

"Why didn’t he like him?"

Steve is quiet, thoughtful. “Gerald was selfish. I didn’t have a lot of experience. No internet to teach me about safe, sane, consensual,” he adds with a low laugh. Clint smiles into his thigh. “Bucky didn’t like how he treated me. Turned out he was a better judge of character than me when it came to Gerald. It wasn’t like we were ever gonna last long, anyway, but we didn’t end particularly happy. Not like you and me.”

Clint feels warm all over. “So we’re going to end happily?”

"Well, we’ll do our best. Won’t we?" he adds, tugging Clint’s hair slightly.

"Sir, yes, sir," Clint replies, and Steve makes a blissful little sigh. 

Chapter Text

"He'll come for us," Clint said.

"I think he wants to," Scott said from the next cell over. "I don't think he can."

"No, he will," Clint said. "Wanda, you listen to me, he'll come for us. And it won't be long."

Wanda had mostly stopped talking when she was locked down. Sam talked to her often, and Clint and Scott had followed his lead. Sometimes she acknowledged them; this time she tilted her head and gave him a brief nod.

"How are you so sure?" Scott asked. Clint blew breath through his lips.

"I'm curious too," Sam said. "I agree with you, but do you know something we don't?"

"I just know he will," Clint replied. If he said it often enough and with enough confidence, he'd believe it.

Steve would come for them. He had to hold onto that. Not just for him, he couldn't bring himself to go that far, but Steve would need them. Clint could make himself believe Steve would come for them because he needed a team.

He felt twitchy and anxious, like his skin itself was too hot, uncomfortable in a cell where he couldn't run, couldn't walk more than ten feet, and couldn't focus more than thirty feet away. He'd read about men who stopped being able to focus on distance because they were in solitary for decades. He practiced focusing through the walls sometimes.

Steve would come for them, he had to, because Clint was hanging by a thin thread.

"Steve'll come for us," Clint said. "He'll send someone or he'll come."

Scott looked like he believed. Enough for now.

***

When the power to the Raft died everywhere but their cells, Clint's heart leapt.

Steve went to Sam's cell first, and Clint heard him say "Get Lang out" to Sam right before Natasha, oh god, Natasha appeared in front of his own cell. She did something arcane to the control panel and the barrier dropped; Clint hustled his ass out and was about to make an awesome smart remark to her when Steve's voice boomed -- "Clint, get Wanda."

"Yeah, boss," Clint called, every inch of him lighting up at the tone of Steve's voice, and together he and Natasha picked the locks on Wanda's cell, her collar, her straitjacket. The collar sparked and buzzed as it fell to the floor.

"They figured us out," Natasha said, as all three of them stared at the collar. Clint kicked it against the wall, where it exploded in a shower of sparks.

"Come on," he said, pulling Wanda against him and walking her away from the cells as Natasha started rubbing Wanda's arms and palms. Steve was already down the corridor, and Sam fell in behind them, taking rear point.

"Status," Steve barked, as they turned a corner.

"I'm good," Scott said, trotting hurriedly behind Steve. "Good, I'm pretty good now that I'm out."

"Good," Steve said. "Sam?"

"Better now," Sam said. They passed the crumpled body of an unconscious guard and Sam stopped to take his weapons and his helmet. "You got wings for me?"

"Waiting at our destination. Clint?"

"Been better," Clint called.

"I got some wings for you right here, you gonna be able to pilot us out?"

Clint heaved an internal sigh of relief. A job to do. A need to fulfill. And the way Steve said it made it clear that this was more than just a job.

"Yes sir, I can do that," he answered. It was perilously close to the things they'd only done in safety and in private but right now he needed the lifeline more than he needed to be subtle. "Wanda's not doing so hot," he added, as she stumbled.

"Lang, help Natasha, Clint, with me," Steve ordered. Scott fell back, and Clint stopped for a second to tip Wanda's face over so he could meet her eyes.

"You rest now," he said softly. "We're gonna keep you safe. None of that ever again. I swear."

She nodded, back straightening a little. Clint knew sometimes what you needed to be strong was to be told you didn't have to be.

He jogged up to where Steve was still walking, and Steve passed him a pair of knives.

"You're in here because of me," Steve said.

"Being fair, I said yes," Clint replied uncertainly.

"In the next two minutes this could all go to hell, Clint. I need you to get them out. If you have to leave me here, you make sure the others get to safety."

"If you stay, I stay."

"Clint -- "

"I'll get them to transport. Sam can pilot. But if you stay, I stay," Clint said.

"Mouthy," Steve said, but he shot Clint a genuine smile. "It's goddamn good to see you."

"Likewise. I told them you'd come."

"Did you believe it?"

"I tried to," Clint said, and Steve's smile widened. He stopped and kissed him; there was a surprised noise from behind them. Probably Scott. Natasha knew, and Sam and Wanda had clearly suspected. The public acknowledgement could probably have come at a better time, but he could use the boost right now.

Clint leaned back enough to see Steve's endless blue eyes, nearly luminous in the dim corridor, and then threw a knife past his head.

There was a wet thud and someone yelled "CONVERGE!" and the world got a little crazy for ninety seconds.

***

When they were clear of the Raft's surveillance and they'd lost the pair of fighters that had dogged them, Clint put the jet (Wakandan make, at least he assumed; it was like having really good sex, piloting something so intuitive and responsive) into autopilot on coordinates Steve gave him, then gently lowered his forehead to the console and shuddered.

He was going to give himself five minutes to collapse and then go check on everyone (Steve had been bleeding but upright when they made the jet, and Sam looked like he'd have some nasty bruises) but on minute two of five, he heard footsteps, and felt a warm hand on the back of his neck. He went still.

"Wanda's asleep," Steve said. "Sam's making sure nobody tracks us. Scott's eating. Natasha's calling some mutual friends of ours for the rendezvous."

"Good," Clint said. He heard the door to the cabin shut.

"Drop," Steve said, and Clint slid out of the chair, weak with relief. Steve caught him against his hip and held him there on his knees for a second before settling into the pilot's chair himself, Clint pivoting so his head fell into Steve's lap.

"We don't have a lot of time," Steve said. "You can't go down too far. But I -- I really -- "

"You don't have to," Clint said. "I can wait -- "

"I can't," Steve replied, voice wavering.

Clint tilted his head to look up, and he could see now -- the darkness under Steve's eyes, the way he looked almost gaunt, the bloodless paleness of his lips. Steve's hand shook as he lifted it to brush Clint's hair back.

"I really need you," Steve said. "I'm sorry I got you into this and I left you there so long, but Clint, I can't, I need -- something, I..."

This wouldn't necessarily be the craziest time or place they'd fucked, but Clint suspected sex wouldn't go down (ha!) well right now.

"Food," he suggested softly.

Steve's eyes flickered shut, a little hint of shame coloring his cheeks. He knew Clint understood his own forms of coping, but he knew understanding didn't mean liking, and that Clint took a lot of pleasure in feeding him.

"Go into the main hold," Steve said. "Get an apple from the cupboard and slice it. There's cashew butter in the cupboard too."

"Cashew butter," Clint repeated skeptically. Steve's hand tightened in his hair and Clint made a soft, pained sound. Steve's face relaxed a hint.

"Did I stutter?" he asked, voice more confident now.

"No," Clint said. "Sir."

"Get a water bottle and a cup of stew from the icebox. Heat up the stew -- there's a pull tab on it -- and bring everything back here with a knife and spoon. Tell me what I want."

"An apple, sliced, and a jar of cashew butter from the cupboard, water from the icebox. Stew from the icebox, heated. Bring it back here with a knife and a spoon," Clint repeated.

"Go," Steve said, releasing his hair, and Clint stood smoothly, not looking back as he opened the cabin door.

Sam and Natasha didn't look up; Wanda was out cold on a padded bench. Scott was shoving toaster waffles into his mouth.

"You ok?" he asked Clint, who guessed the cupboard for the fruit, smiled when he got it right, and took down an apple, slicing it with a knife he found in the drawer below the little food-prep counter.

"Yeah. We'll land in an hour or so," Clint said, voice perfectly even. He sliced the apple deftly and trimmed out the seeds and core. He smacked Scott's hand with the flat of the knife when he tried to grab one.

"C'mon man -- "

"It's for Steve, hands off," Clint warned, moving the apples to a tray he found and setting the entire jar of cashew butter on it as well. He put it carefully out of Scott's reach. "God knows when he ate last."

"Yesterday around two," Natasha called.

"I will genuinely stab your hand," Clint said as Scott tried another approach to the apple slices.

He rummaged in the icebox, found the stew, closed it, flinched, reopened it, and took out a bottle of water. The pull-tab on the stew was easy enough to open; while whatever chemicals were heating the stew did their work, he found a butter knife and a fork and sliced up a second apple.

"Give half to Wanda when she wakes up," he told Scott, offering him the second apple.

"Thanks," Scott said. Clint tested the stew, nodded, and picked up the tray. "So...you and Steve Rogers?"

"He's my Captain," Clint said briefly, faintly enjoying it when Natasha slapped Scott in the back of the head. "I look after him."

"Hey, no hating, just rampant and uncontrollable curiosity," Scott said, voice drifting after him as Clint went back into the cabin and closed the door. He made sure he had a good grip on the tray, stopped next to the chair, and knelt, tray still perfectly level. Steve took it out of his hands and put it on an empty stretch of console, opening the cashew butter. Clint watched, peace spreading slowly over him, as Steve broke off a half of an apple slice, smeared it with the nut butter --

Then reached down and held it to Clint's lips.

Clint opened his mouth obediently and took the bite, chewing slowly while Steve tested the stew and took a few spoonfuls. After prison food -- decent but uninspired, and certainly not fresh -- the apple tasted good. The sentiment behind it made his chest tighten. He blinked against tears.

"You were so good to wait for me," Steve said, holding the cold water to Clint's lips for him to sip. He sipped himself right after. "I know I shouldn't have taken the risk, getting all of you out, but we don't leave anyone behind and I needed you. For your skills, too, but."

He fed Clint another apple slice, then another sip of water.

"Between the fighting with Tony, and Bucky coming back, and getting all of you locked up, and now we're all fugitives...I barely know which way is up," he said. "My head's not on straight. It's not fair to ask, but -- "

"Anything," Clint said softly.

"Beautiful boy," Steve replied, just as softly. "I'm struggling. It's hard to admit. But I need you to be the strong one for a little while. I need to lean on you."

"Like when we started," Clint said. "I can. Take care of you."

"I shouldn't -- "

"I want to. It helps me too."

Steve fed him again, looking thoughtful.

"I'm not sure I deserve you," he said.

"Well, you kissed me in front of Scott and Wanda and the others, so it's kinda late to take it back now," Clint replied.

"Why do you think I did it?" Steve asked. Clint turned his face away from another apple slice, pressing into Steve's thigh, and otherwise stayed very still. He listened to the soft noise of Steve eating, waiting for when he was done, and then let Steve gently push him back.

"I'll take this back," Steve said, indicating the tray. "You'll need to check the flight coordinates and make contact with Wakandan air traffic. When we land, we can rest."

"I'll stay with you?" Clint asked. Steve nodded and bent to kiss the top of his head. "Gonna have to find someone in Wakanda to discreetly restock us."

"Oh, that's covered," Steve said, with a hint of a smile. "Turns out they're very good with leather in Wakanda."