Actions

Work Header

The End of Sadness

Chapter Text

Clint sighs in defeat and rubs a hand over his face. Shit. He has to do this, so he takes a deep breath and turns over to the shelves of the hygiene section. He looks over the colorful options before a shudder passes through him. It's that time again and he can't stop an internal gag when he thinks about the little compressed pieces of dread. It's not even that he has to use them, not even where they have to go, but what really drops his mood is that they have to come out at some point.

He shudders again, wonders if there's any other option. Actually, he knows there are plenty, but he's not ready to take that step yet. He's not even 5% ready to think about taking that step. So, tampons it is. He considers himself relatively lucky for having sharp features, a hard jaw and thick eyebrows, enough to let him pass, and most of the time he's comfortable in his own skin, at peace with himself. Thinking back, he's also grateful he had managed to accept himself the way he is now. It's been painful and he's irreversibly lonely, but he's started a new life at college for over a year now. The accusing looks and the turned backs of his former friends are a thing of the past. Even with his not-quite-self-enforced solitude (he's aware the levels of mistrust he has in his fellow human beings are through the roof right now, thank you), he still thinks it was all worth it.

Fuck, he's being emotional. He swallows past the lump in his throat and braces himself. He is happier being true to his nature than to sell himself for what... a few conversations and outings? Human touch is overrated. He closes his eyes, suppresses the crap that threatens to bring tears to his eyes, because bawling in front of tampons in an empty corner store at midnight wouldn't be very lifting for his miserable spirits.

He's about to reach out to the shelf when a shuffle catches in the corner of his eye.

"What the hell does this even mean!" a guy exclaims with something that sounds like half frustration, half desperation.

He's tall, taller than Clint, well built, but not exaggeratedly buff, thirty-ish, messy brown hair falling all over his face and shoulders as he pokes at his phone. Clint can't stop a snort at the scene, another guy sent out by his wife or girlfriend for one of those runs and getting lost in the options. Suddenly, Clint wishes he didn't know as much as he does about tampon choices.

The guy hears him and turns around. The store is small, but deserted at this time of night, so his eyes stop to look at Clint with one of those measuring stares that usually mean people are about to call Clint something awful. Instead, he laughs, short and full, shaking his entire frame twice, before he shakes his head. He has a pleasant face, dark eyes and pale skin, like someone who's used to spending most of their time indoors, like Clint.

"Sorry, man," he says, "I just don't understand all this crap," he wiggles his phone.

"'s fine," Clint shrugs, pleasant tingle warming him. Acknowledgement is always nice. "Girlfriend, huh?" he offers as some sort of reward. For what, he has no idea, but the way this guy stands there lost is making him want to be at least not-rude.

"Nah, sister," he waves his hands, one gloved and one not, Clint notices. "She's had a bad week and an even worse day, so I was trying to do something nice for her, ya'know, but fuck me," he turns the phone toward Clint, "can you read this?"

There's a text that says 'rosey blue and purple NOT green 3 drps + cloud black and yellow med 2 boxes' and yeah, Clint knows exactly what she needs. He wants to say no and sorry, walk away, but when he looks back at the man's face, there's a sort of sadness settled there as he stares at the back of his phone. It's the kind that Clint understands, even though its causes are definitely different for this stranger, and it tugs at him in a way he doesn't want to ignore.

He lets out a big sigh. Here comes the pain, he thinks as he picks up the items from the shelves, pushes them at the guy, then quickly snatches a box for himself and rushes away.

"Hey, wait," he hears when he's two steps away from the register.

Clint chooses to ignore it and the footsteps that follow as the night attendant - a grumpy man in his fifties that actually owns the small store - rings up his purchase. He's almost at the door when he remembers the fucking toothpaste. He nearly lets it go, but he can't brush his teeth with floss for two days in a row and he hates not having that minty taste in his mouth right after he wakes up.

He turns around and walks into a solid wall of six feet, sending the guy on his ass on the gray tiles of the floor. Clint saves face with a pretty impressive balancing act, and manages not to fall on top of the other.

"Ugh. Sorry," he says and extends his left hand to help him up.

It earns him a laugh, followed by "I guess we're even now." He does accept the help, and hauls himself up awkwardly, gripping with his ungloved, right hand. Huh, weird, Clint thinks. "What did you forget?" he asks, picking up the dropped bag.

The bag of tampons. That Clint has selected for him. That makes his face heat instead of sending the guy sprawling. He rubs over his forehead again.

"Toothpaste," he mumbles and walks further into the store. He's a mess tonight.

"That reminds me, I should buy shampoo."

The voice behind him almost makes him jump out of his skin, but he soldiers on, past the soaps and baby diapers. One more step, and he can get out of here.

"You know what else you forgot?"

"What." He snaps. He can't believe this guy, there's only so much closer to mortification he can get in one night, and he'd rather not do it today.

"To ask me for my number," he hears and it makes his head turn so fast, that he makes himself slightly dizzy.

"What!" he squeals, and no, voice, no, go down. He clears his throat. "Are you hitting on me?" This never happens to him. Literally, never, and this guy is too good looking for Clint to believe it's happening, not after their previous interactions.

He's expecting an even cockier and cheesier line, but the man's eyes go wide, eerily akin to the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. His cheeks flame red after a second and he presses his gloved hand over half his face.

"Shit, I don't... I mean, I don't do this," he tries to look everywhere else but at Clint, rustling the bag he's holding. "Crap, I'm so bad at this. I'm really really sorry," he raises both arms, almost hitting Clint with the bag.

It's so endearing, how the blush he's sporting extends through his stubble and he's chewing at his lips as he talks, as if he's trying to make himself shut up. He looks so natural, imperfect and awkward, that laughter, real laughter, bubbles out of Clint for the first time in two weeks.

"'s fine," he manages between chuckles, and it must be contagious, because the guy laughs, too. "I needed that," he breathes once he can. "Thanks."

He gets both eyebrows raised in return. "I'm James," the man says extending his hand and Clint takes it automatically. His palm looks so small in James' that he has to resist the urge to pull it back too quickly.

"Clint," he offers, clears his throat in the silence that settles.

"Nice to meet you, Clint," comes back, and he's surprised at how relived he feels to have that acknowledgement again from this stranger.

"You're ridiculous," Clint blurts before he can stop himself.

"And awkward," James agrees. "Look, sorry about earlier, but can I at least buy you a cup of coffee? For the help," he adds when Clint raises an eyebrow at him, "no nefarious intent, promise. I didn't even stop to think if you liked guys," he mumbles almost inaudibly, rolling his eyes at a spot on the floor beside them.

"I don't discriminate based on gender," Clint says, truthfully.

It pulls a smile out of James, filling the air with pleasantness, and Clint finds himself matching it.

They make their way out of the store, with newly acquired toothpaste and shampoo, and exchange numbers in the chilly early December air. Clint goes to sleep with a coffee not-date for the next day on his mind, interspersed with remnants of lightheartedness.

~

It hadn't been easy for Clint to apply to college, not with the life choices he's made for himself, but he'd pushed through the fights with his parents, his brother and the cohort of judgmental assholes that his highschool friends had turned out to be.

To this day, he has two things he's constantly thanking his grandfather for: his name, and the trust fund that Clinton Barton Sr. had set up for him.

It has always been a sour topic in the Barton home the name that's ended up on Clint's birth certificate. His grandfather, after his son had refused to name his first born after him, had finally turned it around (here Clint assumes there had been threats or bets, but nobody that had witnessed his birth has been willing to discuss it), so Clint has ended up with it instead. Whenever he takes out his ID card, the F stamped on it seems less damning when he reads his name. It feels like a blessing.

Around the '70s, the Barton Milling business had taken off, and now his family has quite a bit of wealth accumulated. Not enough to own huge mansions and private jets, but enough for comfortable living, or for ensuring the best education possible for their young. Clint, like his older brother, has never been spoiled to the point where he didn't realize the value of living or of his education (and it all comes back to his grandfather, he supposes, long summer internships throughout the company, even when they had been too young to do much of anything than trail along the mail cart). But when, at 18, his father had refused to pay for college unless "Clint sets her mind straight and stops fooling around", it had been a moment of desperation that had extended to three years living with his grandfather, until the old man had put a trust fund in front of him and told him to be happy.

So now Clint is almost 23 and in his second year of college. He looks younger than he is, wears hoodies that are a size too big, orders binders online and feels at peace with himself. He's studying what he likes at a good university, but he has to live off campus, for obvious reasons. It's been putting a damper on socializing with his peers in cafeterias and libraries, and he's not a fan of parties. When he's feeling generous, he's willing to admit that he's been avoiding making connections with the college kids around him, and it mostly suits him fine, this imposed solitude. But there are moments when he yearns for human interaction, even the small touches that accompany friendships. He's not hoping for relationships, though; he still remembers the boyfriend he's had before he had chosen this path, and he doesn't want to see disgust like that again.

So what the hell is he doing trying to find something to wear to a stupid coffee date-that's-not-a-date with a ridiculous guy that he's only met the night before? He rubs at his hair until he's sure it's all standing up at odd angles and randomly picks up something that looks clean out of his closet.

He lives in a reformed industrial area, with ex-factories turned into condos and apartments. It's preferred by artists and writers generally, so it's sprinkled with coffee shops and tea houses and the occasional 24-hour corner store for the absent-minded night owls. He's meeting James at the cozy 'Cup' a few blocks from his place, so he walks there, enjoying the crisp Sunday afternoon air.

Clint actually gets there early, and he orders a cup for himself before settling in a corner. He leans back into the armchair and watches the slow shuffle of the space. The soft piano notes that pour from the speakers in hushed tones lull him into gentle warmth, and he lets himself close his eyes, enjoy it with a smile.

Eventually, he opens them to drink from his coffee and is met with James standing there, hands in the pockets of his coat, watching him.

"How long have you been standing there?" he asks with a bout of self consciousness. Has he been drooling? Nope, he checks.

James startles. "Coffee!" he says and turns to the counter, only to come back after two steps. "Do you want any..." he trails off when Clint points amused to his full cup. "Right."

He's back in a minute, though, sets his order down before taking off his jacket. He's in a hoodie proclaiming that science is the ultimate sin, and he sits down. His hands close around the cup, again one gloved and one not. Clint's definitely curious now, but it's not the place or time to ask, so he shifts his attention to James' face. He's clean shaved, his hair tied almost neatly and disappearing into the hood of his sweater.

"Hey," Clint offers when James just manages to stare silently, a small crease forming gradually between his eyebrows.

"Hi," James shakes himself. "I don't know what's wrong with me, I'm usually a bit more eloquent," he actually frowns fully this time.

"I've swept you off your feet?" Clint says with a wince because that's ridiculously cheesy and jokes like that never hit the right spot when he tries.

But James laughs, that short thing that racks his shoulders, making Clint grin. "Hah, yeah. Good one. Wow, I feel like a teenager again, which is awkward and fumbly."

"And ridiculous," Clint adds for good measure.

"That, too," comes back before James blows into his drink. "You live around here?"

"Mhm, right off Alsen," Clint tips his chin in the general direction of his street.

"Two blocks down that way," James returns with a thumb thrown over his shoulder. "Moved here a few months ago."

"You like it so far?"

"Yeah, it's surprisingly quiet," and Clint laughs a bit at that.

"I know what you mean, you'd think the art population was more rowdy, but apparently they like their peace."

James smiles and takes a careful sip from his cup. "So what do you do with your time when you're not loitering around coffee shops with dashing young men?"

Clint huffs. "Who said you're dashing?"

"So you think I'm dashing?" James grins with childish glee and Clint kicks his boot under the table.

"Student," he says, "at uni here."

"Really?" James asks and Clint nods. "I went there, too. What's your major?"

"I wanna do robotics."

What he receives are raised eyebrows and a grin so wide, all of James' teeth are showing. "Did you get Simion in electronics?"

And that's what someone who's been there, done that, sounds like. Clint's giddy when he answers. "Actually, I have him this semester. He's so monotone, half the room's asleep in the first five minutes."

"Careful, he's a devil at exams," James adds before a small frown settles on his face. "Simion only teaches 2nd year. You look older than that."

Most of Clint's colleagues are nineteen, and Clint's been blending into that, so the comment surprises him.

"Actually, I turn 23 the day after tomorrow," he says with a shrug. He hasn't been celebrating it lately. "Took a break between highschool and college," Clint adds, feels awkward all of a sudden, "there were family complications."

"Mh," James returns noncommittally, "big party or quiet gathering?", and Clint's grateful he's not asking more about his family, but dreading to speak of his birthday just as much.

"Didn't make any plans," he shrugs again and hides his face behind his cup.

James doesn't ask 'how so' or 'why not', just remains silent. So when Clint looks back up at him, he's resting his chin in his band, watching Clint with interest, as if he can peel off layer after layer, strip Clint bare and peek into the darkest corners of his mind. It's unnerving, how James focuses on him, a small smile on his lips. It's also exhilarating and so incredibly comforting, that it shakes Clint to the core, how easy it is to just sit there in silence, being watched.

"Do you have classes on Tuesday?" James finally asks.

"Yeah, until four." Clint's not sure why he's answering.

"Meet me here at six," comes back next and Clint's already shaking his head. "Hey, look," James scratches at his forehead, "I know I probably sound creepy enough to give you an impression of your friendly neighborhood stalker--" he bites his lip, interrupting himself. "Ugh, let me try again," he starts over, and Clint suppresses the smile that's tugging at the corners of his mouth, "my name is James Barnes, I work for Stark Robotics, I'm 34 and six years ago I've been in an accident that gave me a whole lotta scars," he wiggles the fingers of his gloved hand, "and too much metal in my arm, I haven't been on a date since then, I'm told I tend to stare at people until they're too creeped out to be near me, I'm so fucking bad at human interaction it's tragic, and I got nothing good to offer," he looks into his coffee cup for a moment. "You're probably thinking I'm too old for you, or you're too young, or I'm too-- fuck, I don't know what," he runs his fingers through his hair, making strands stick out and fall over his face messily, "but I don't know how to do this except with extreme bluntness."

James leans back into his chair, crossing his arms over his chest and he looks at the table with such a deep scowl, that Clint can't help but find it utterly adorable, lets a smile form on his face.

"Wow," he breathes and James muffles a curse into his shoulder, looking away.

Clint is fascinated. He suddenly wants to let James know him, really uncover all the things Clint's made of, and it's not a shock that he wants to do the same. James has really gotten to him in the entire hour they've interacted in a way nobody else has. He wants to meet him again, that's for sure, but he's a little more than wary of dating, he's admitting that freely. What gives him pause, though, is the irrefutable layer of kindness sitting right below the sadness in James' eyes. It calls to Clint with determination, and suddenly he wants to try, wants that chance.

"Are you asking me out?"

James looks at him sharply, biting his lower lip hard enough that it turns white under his teeth, as if trying to figure out if he's being mocked. Clint knows the feeling.

"Yeah," James answers after a long while, a little challenging, and Clint knows that feeling as well.

"Ok," he says, "but I'm..." he stops, because there is never an easy way to explain.

"Do you enjoy hurting living things, kill people for fun, mutilate animals, molest children?" James asks in the silence that settles.

"No!" Clint defends, where did that come from?

"Then I don't care," James returns, the corners of his lips tugging upward, "whatever it is that you think is turning people away from you."

"You say that now..." Clint starts, self deprecating laugh spilling from his throat.

James' smile turns sad, dimming the life in his eyes, and Clint wants to wipe it off his face. "I have my hang-ups, too. Not perfect, you know," he points at his left arm.

"Ok, Tuesday at six," Clint says quickly, before he can change his mind, because no matter how bad James' arm might look, it doesn't even compare with breasts and vagina. But he wants this, so it's time to put on his big boy pants and stop hiding.

The smile that James turns at him is small, but brilliant, lighting up his entire face.

Chapter Text

Tuesday morning greets Clint with a warm phone call from his grandfather, and he decides to treat himself with a cupcake on his way to class. It's mostly a day like any other, although he finds himself giddy with anticipation at the prospect of meeting James that afternoon. They haven't made any promises, there are no expectations, just agreed to go along with whatever will develop, and Clint's fine with that. He might at least make a friend if nothing else. James is smart, entertaining and comfortable, shares Clint's passion for all things robotics.

It's already dark outside, the cold air nipping at his cheeks as he comes to a stop in front of 'Cup' with less than a minute to spare. He looks around and sees James rounding a corner, before his phone chirps. There aren't many people that could text him, so he opens the message absentmindedly.

'have you come to your senses yet, you ungrateful little bitch? we had to tell everyone you're in the nuthouse, hope you're happy.' he reads, underneath his mother's phone number.

It's the first time in four years that he's heard from her, and on some level he's expected continued hostility, but it shocks him nonetheless. He's more angry than hurt that she'd send this on his birthday, of all times, and he can't stop gaping at the screen in disbelief.

Clint startles when his phone gets plucked out of his hand unceremoniously, and sees James reading his text with a frown. Before Clint can say anything, he turns off the screen and slips it into his own pocket.

"Hey," Clint protests, reaching out.

"No," James says and catches his hand. He leans in, presses a peck on Clint's cheek. "Happy birthday," he adds, and Clint forgets about the phone until they're two blocks away, James dragging him at a brisk walk. Clint is shocked at himself for how easily he follows, but there's something about James, a familiarity that stretches in the air around them, wrapping Clint in a bubble of safety. He should be more wary, but, for some reason, he can't find it within himself.

"Where are we going?" he asks when they stop in front of a car that James unlocks.

All he gets is a smirk and complete silence. James drives slowly, carefully, takes uncrowded streets, and it adds to the general comfort James emanates. Soon, they enter the underground parking of the Stark Robotics building. Clint knows it, he wants to work there someday, but it's a distant dream at the moment. James winks at him with a grin and Clint can't scramble out of the car fast enough. If he gets killed tonight, it's going to be so worth it.

He needs to fill out several forms before the security station gives him a visitor's badge, and then they're going up in a shiny metal elevator. He grins widely at James.

"Don't get too excited, it's nothing fancy, just my lab in the department," he says.

"I'm sure it's going to be incredible," Clint can't stop his hands from fluttering at his sides. "I can't believe this," he cackles and James laughs. "What department is that?"

"I work with prosthetics, we do the programming and control part here."

The doors ping open and James leads the way down a long corridor.

"Is that because of your arm?" Clint asks, tactless, but James is still smiling when he shakes his head.

"Nah, been doing this since I finished college," he talks as he swipes his card through a reader and punches a code in the pad attached to it.

The large room that opens up is everything Clint's ever dreamed of, long work benches filled with electronics and tools, a couple of glass encased rooms to the back with various robotic arms and manipulators on their mounts. James leads them to the side, where a few paper clad desks are shoved to the walls, and they discard their coats on one of the chairs.

"What can I look at?" Clint asks, eyes roaming.

James laughs behind him. "Everything, but ask me if you wanna touch something."

"Aren't you supposed to, I don't know, protect the company secrets?" he wonders as he makes a beeline to the glass rooms in the back.

"Current projects get locked away at the end of the shift," James explains, "what you see here are just standard industry items. As I said, nothing fancy."

Clint begs to differ, and he catches himself in time before pressing his nose to the glass like a little kid.

"Come on," James says and pulls the glass door, making his way inside. "This," he opens a panel on a large robotic arm when Clint gets close, "is a hydraulic system. Did you take a gripper class yet?"

"No," Clint shakes his head trying to take in what he sees.

"You will," comes back. "This is basically oil under high pressure obtained by varying the volume in two chambers of this cylinder," he points out as he talks. "You've got a controller circuit here, opens and closes the bypass so it creates an output force as the fluid pushes the piston inside. This baby can crush concrete," he pats the side of the robot with a fond grin.

Clint finds himself matching it. "Could you help me choose the classes for next year?" he asks, because James sounds like he knows what's what and Clint's even more fascinated.

"Sure," James looks pleasantly surprised, "if you want."

"Thanks," Clint nods. "So how do you program it?"

"I'm gonna show you that at the other station," he points into the next glass room before crouching down behind the base of the arm and opening another panel there. "This one we use for testing the electronics," he pulls out a circuit board and starts a long explanation while poking at it.

Clint listens, captivated, both by the tech and by James' glee as he shows the little bits and pieces that Clint's mostly just been drawing in his Introduction to Digital Circuits class notes. He's been scooting closer and closer to James for a while now, without realizing, leaning into him shoulder to elbow as they bend over a board.

"I like this birthday," he mumbles, content, and James' head snaps up, his cheeks turning pink.

"Yeah?"

Clint nods.

"Then you're gonna love this," he pulls Clint out and into the next room.

The space is smaller, and in the middle of it there's a high stand, a three segment arm mounted on it's side, dark gray and sleek, ending in a five finger palm. Underneath it, a table holds bits and pieces of oddly shaped and colored plastic, with marked areas on it. Outside the yellow protection line on the floor, there's a smaller table with a computer station on it, and James turns that on before walking around the stand and flipping switches there.

Clint moves in front of the monitor, where windows pop open, holding graphs and sensor readings, a narrow one to the side with short lines of code in a column. There's a chair rolling sound before a nudge to the back of his knees, and he's suddenly sitting on one of James' legs.

"This ok?" he asks quietly as he pulls the keyboard closer to them.

James is warm behind him, but he doesn't pull Clint flush to him, doesn't put his hands anywhere but on the table. It's not that unexpected, after Clint's plastered himself to James earlier. It's whole lot more contact, though, more than he's had with anyone in a long while, but he likes it.

"Yeah," he whispers.

"If I'm being too pushy tell me, ok?" comes back, same hushed tone and Clint nods. "Alright," he clears his throat, "so this is your basic set of instructions," he points to the code, "this is how you make it move from these coordinates to these..."

Clint listens, James even lets him change some things in the code before running it. It's exhilarating to have the arm move as Clint's instructed, and he can't stop grinning to a point where his cheeks start to hurt.

It's almost midnight when James stops his car in front of Clint's building.

"Thank you," Clint says, trying to put all the gratitude he's feeling behind the words as he unbuckles.

"My pleasure."

James smiles that small sad smile again, and Clint can't really have it right now, so he leans in, wraps both arms around James' shoulders and kisses his cheek. It has the intended effect, he notices as he pulls back.

"Is it too soon to ask you out tomorrow?" he grins, and it makes James laugh.

"How should I know?"

"Well, I haven't dated anyone since I was 18, so." He waves a hand vaguely in front of him.

"So we both have no idea of any rules of dating conduct, right?"

Clint shrugs with a laugh.

"Then screw the rules," James declares and Clint wholly agrees.

It's only then that James fishes Clint's phone from his pocket, and wow it has completely slipped Clint's mind, but instead of handing it over, James turns it on, forgotten text message re-appearing on the screen.

"Who sent you this?" he asks.

"Mom," Clint says, voice barely audible. "That's the first time I heard from her in a long time," he adds, and he's not sure why he's telling James this, but he hasn't felt this safe around someone in years.

James nods and hands over the phone before looking at Clint. "I imagine it's a long story and you don't have to tell me, but I hope you put that aside and remember everything else about tonight, ok? When you're laughing, I forget about all my shitty insecurities."

Clint stares, clutching the phone, unsure what to say, watching as James' cheeks color from pink to red, until he turns his head and rests his forehead on the wheel.

"Oh my god," he groans, and that pulls yet another laugh out of Clint.

"You're ridiculous," he repeats. "You're lucky I like you," he pokes at James' shoulder. "Tomorrow at six?"

James catches his hand and squeezes it before letting go. "Yeah. Here or the coffee shop?"

"Here, we're walking," he smiles as he gets out of the car. "'Night, thanks again."

"Good night, Clint."

Later, he stares at his ceiling for a long while before deleting the message. Afterwards, he dreams of dancing with robots and he wakes up refreshed and warm, finding it very hard to stop smiling.

~

"Hey," Clint says as he walks out of his building to find James there. "Been here long?"

"Hi, no. Just a couple of minutes." He comes closer and kisses Clint's cheek again before eying the case slung over his shoulder. "What's in there?"

"My bow and arrows," Clint offers.

"Fine, don't tell me," James raises his hands. "Where to?"

"This way."

He leads them a few blocks through the darkened winter afternoon to an indoor range shoved between a dance studio and an empty lot filled with seasonal pine trees.

"You really have a bow in there, don't you?" James asks after Clint pays entrance and they stop at the far lane.

"It's my turn to impress you," he winks.

"By all means, impress away," James laughs.

Clint takes off his jacket, and he knows he looks good in his gear, a sleeveless vest that's tight, but thick enough to cover his shapes. He's wearing it for protection against backlash, not for style, but he doesn't stop the smug smirk when James turns his focused gaze on him. He's proud of his arms, has put a lot of work into them, and it gives him a boost of confidence to be appreciated.

The silence that settles as he readies his bow is just comfortable, instead of oppressive or awkward, and he finds that he enjoys it. He's always liked the quietude, always hoped to find people to share it with him. He sneaks a look at James and finds him relaxed where he leans against the wall, watching.

He lines a shot, breathes slowly and releases, watches as the arrow hits the center of the target mounted at the far end. He does it again, takes his time before releasing. He shoots four more arrows before he turns to James, grinning at the star he's drawn on the target.

"Well?"

"I'm impressed," James declares and pushes away from the wall. He's close enough to touch, and he skirts the tips of his gloved fingers over the curve of the bow. "You're good."

"Thanks," Clint grins wider. "Wanna try?"

"Hah," James huffs, "my arm can't take this sort of pressure," he says with a wince.

"You can draw with your right, yes?" he asks and receives a half nod, half shrug. "I'll hold it for you, come on."

He takes his spare glove from the case, shows James how to grip the string and arrow before he brings them both into position at the edge of the lane. He settles behind James before he realizes he hasn't thought this through, as he needs to plaster himself to James' back for this to work.

"Ugh," he starts, "I have to..." he wiggles a finger between them and it earns him a laugh when James looks over his shoulder.

"Go ahead," James says, "you have my blanket permission to do whatever you want to me."

"What if I'm a killer?" Clint blurts to hide how this warms his face.

"And you promised you weren't," James returns all too serious and hurt, that it takes Clint a beat to realize he's being teased.

He laughs despite himself, and slaps lightly at James' side. "You're--"

"Ridiculous, I know. But you like me anyway."

Clint huffs and pushes James back into position. This time, he presses close, holds the bow wide enough to match the length of James' arm. He has to brace himself, so he snakes his other arm around James' middle, locks his feet in. He presses his cheek into the other's shoulder as James nocks the arrow, adjusts their aim.

"Release," he whispers and doesn't miss how James shivers before the arrows flies to land somewhere at the edge of the target.

He doesn't want to let go, so Clint stays there, closes his eyes. After a while, James' hand comes to cover Clint's over his stomach, intertwines their fingers.

"I think I like you," he confesses, too quietly even for his own ears, but his other hand is squeezed by gloved fingers where they're still holding the bow.

"I think I like you, too," James says, amusement in his voice.

But instead of being pleasant, it just brings Clint back to the cold reality that James doesn't really know the most important thing about Clint, and he's suddenly too aware of how this all might go wrong once he finds out. He lets go a little too quickly, retrieves another arrow from his case, shoots, and he does it again and again. James says nothing, but goes back to watching, leaning against the wall.

Half an hour later, he's breathing heavily from the effort and his nerves are a little bit less frayed. When he finally looks at James, he's the saddest he's seen him yet, and he offers a smile. It's returned, and James shakes himself out of it before coming closer again.

"Here," he says and pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket.

Clint takes it and reads over curiously. "Dinner, movie... bowling? What?"

"It's what young kids these days do on dates," James smirks.

"And you made a list." It's not a question.

"It will be fun, admit it," comes back with a pointing finger and a raised eyebrow.

Just like that, all the tension drains out of Clint and he can't remember why he's been worried. "Might be."

"Also, my sister tells me normal people don't meet two days in a row."

"Eh, normal's overrated," Clint shrugs as he repacks his bow.

"That's what I said," James adds and then follows him to the lane where Clint presses the call button for the target.

Clint smiles to himself as he plucks arrows. James moves to help, pulls at a shaft, but it seems to be one of the deep ones, stubborn to remain embedded in the material there. Clint's not sure if James is doing it on purpose or not, but when he closes his fingers over James', it comes out easily enough. He shakes his head and laughs when James sticks his tongue out at him.

"You got any other siblings?" he asks when they step back out into the cold air.

"Nope, just the one. Her name's Natasha," James says, "and we're actually both adopted."

Before Clint can reply, James' phone rings and he mutters a short 'speak of the devil' before answering. Clint tries not to listen, but James doesn't even move an inch away for privacy. It's oddly comforting.

"We have cake," James says and extends the phone so that it's close to Clint's ear.

"You're coming for cake," a female voice says over the line before it goes dead.

"I don't know why we have cake, but we do and apparently you're coming for cake," he shrugs with both his shoulders, a little bewildered.

"Huh," Clint says intelligibly.

"If it freaks you out, you can say no, but you should come, she makes a mean cake."

"We don't even know each for a whole week," Clint gapes.

"Crap, what was she thinking, you're right," James fumbles with his phone to call back, but Clint finds he really wants that cake, really wants to see more of James' life, learn about the people close to him.

"Wait," he reaches out to grip James' wrist, "I'll go."

"You sure?" comes back searchingly and James looks worried.

"Yeah," he smiles, "I'd love some cake."

It doesn't take them long to get to James' building, and he finds that James and Natasha have moved in with their childhood next-door-friend, Steve, in his too big apartment. Apparently Steve loathes living alone. They make their way up to the second landing's only door to be met with a brown paper bag taped to frame, 'For Clint' scrawled over it in black sharpie.

James shrugs when Clint raises an eyebrow, but he snatches and opens it. He can't stop the laughter when he pulls out a taser along with a note saying 'We make a wrong move, feel free to use it.'

"You're both ridiculous," he exclaims over James' long suffering groan.

It might be a joke, but he appreciates it for what it is, and he decides he already likes Natasha.

Chapter Text

James unlocks the door and Clint takes a few moments to look at the taser. What's scary isn't that it looks heavy duty, but that its handle is worn and well used.

"Um," he asks as he follows James inside, "what does your sister do?"

"Super secret spy agent," the female voice from the phone says right over James' "Cop." Clint looks up to be met with a young face, green eyes and red lips, framed by dark red curls. She's about Clint's height and is standing there barefoot in jeans and a ratty t-shirt, hands on her hips.

James takes off his boots and places them on the rack that lines the wall around the door, so Clint follows suit. The small space opens up into a large expanse, divided almost evenly by a half wall, kitchen on one side, living room on the other, a couple of corridors leading further into the apartment. There are wide sofas around a few coffee tables, then a multitude of tightly packed book shelves. Reconditioned factory windows open up the far wall of the darkened living to the night lights of the city. They move to the kitchen side, brightly lit with an impressive table taking up most of the space near the half wall. Along it, a cushioned bench on one side, and a bunch of mismatched chairs on the other. The rest of the kitchen is lined with long counters, cabinets, and appliances.

It seems more like a home for a dozen than for three people and he has a niggling sense of apprehension when he eyes the huge platter of chocolate cake on the table, big enough to feed twenty.

"I'm Natasha," the woman says after James takes his coat and case to set them on a sofa.

"Clint," and he shakes her extended hand.

"Do I smell cake," a deep voice says from somewhere and a tall man pops up behind Natasha. He's well built, Clint can notice that thank you very much, standing there in boxer shorts. He's rubbing at his eyes with the worst case of bed hair Clint's seen.

"Oh my god, Rogers. Get dressed!" she demands when she sees him.

"But cake," almost-naked says, already taking steps toward the table.

James laughs from the side and then wraps an arm around the guy's middle, physically dragging him away. "Clint, this is Steve," he hears from around the corner.

"I'm making coffee," Natasha adds before turning toward Clint.

Her scrutiny has a different kind of focus than James', but is just as intense. She's looking at him like she knows all his secrets. Maybe she does, it occurs to Clint.

"You really a cop?" he asks.

"Yes," she answers, short and clipped.

Clint swallows. "Did you look me up?"

"Yes," comes again before her face softens. "I didn't dig, just wanted to make sure you are who you say you are."

"Um..." he doesn't know how to respond to that, and she rolls her eyes at him.

"Not this," she waves a hand in front of him, and yeah, she definitely knows, but for some reason the mortification and the dread are yet to come. "We just want to avoid trouble."

Clint raises an eyebrow. "What?"

She looks at him for a long moment before her shoulders slump. "Who is he?"

"What?"

"James," Natasha waves cryptically.

Clint knows who James is, comfortable and warm, quiet and a little too sad. It's not all that James is, he's sure, but it's all he needs to know right now. "He's the most ridiculous guy I've ever met," he shrugs and doesn't hide his grin.

He's suddenly got a handful of Natasha as she grips him in a tight hug, and he pats her sides awkwardly.

"You're adorable," she says after she lets go. "Happy birthday," she adds with a wink.

The conversation is entirely too confusing to decipher before James returns, and drags Clint away. They're in a bedroom with a large bed on one side, James rooting in a closet before he turns and waves a hoodie at Clint.

"I figure that must be uncomfortable," he points at Clint's vest, "so you can wear this if you want."

He has a point. Clint nods his gratitude with a small "thanks."

"Bathroom through there," James points to another door, "come back when done," and he's out, leaving Clint alone.

The hoodie is well worn, a washed out black in his hand, soft and comfortable as he puts it on. He spares a look around what must be James' bedroom. It's not too tidy, not messy either, illuminated only by a small lamp near the bed that leaves the space in near darkness. It's cozy and it tugs at Clint the way James has, warmth and sadness and quietude. He takes a deep breath, finds that Natasha knowing doesn't make him panic. Here, in James' space in which he's being let willingly, he wants to curl up and spill all his secrets, tell James everything. It's scary, but not as nauseating as he's been expecting. So he washes his hands, steels himself to tell James the worst of it with the first chance he gets. No backing out, no being a coward, he promises himself.

He wonders briefly what Natasha had meant earlier, but he lets it go. If James has something to tell him, he will, it can't be worse than what he's already admitted at their coffee non-date.

So he makes his way back and is directed to seat on the bench, James plopping down next to him. In front of him, blond and now-dressed Steve is inhaling the steam from a coffee cup, eyes half closed.

"Finally," he mutters, "I want cake," he tells Clint as if Clint has any say in this.

"What is it with you people and cake?" Clint asks and James snorts beside him.

"You'll see."

It's not until Natasha sets a small plate with a large piece in front of him, followed by the rattle of a handful of forks being unceremoniously dropped in the middle of the table, that he begins to understand. The thing looks like it's melting, all cream and different textures. He fully gets it after he takes a bite. It's almost bitter from the dark chocolate, an underlying sweetness that's there just enough to tease and make him want more.

"Oh, wow," he says, mouth full.

"Can I, please, have some now?" Steve almost whines at Clint.

James is shaking with silent laughter next to him, as Natasha answers his questioning look with a shrug and "It's your cake."

"Stop laughing," Steve glares at James.

"So if I were to take this thing home with me right now, you wouldn't stop me?" Clint asks, warmed by the way James leans into him as he chuckles into his shoulder.

Natasha raises her hands palms up as if to say it's his choice, Clint gestures a by-all-means at the platter, and Steve throws a balled up napkin at James that ends up hitting Clint in the forehead.

"You're an awful friend, Bucky," Steve says and that gets Clint's attention.

"Bucky?" he asks and he has to put both hands on his mouth because the nickname is hilarious and so fitting that he's afraid he's going to spit cake all over the table.

James picks up the napkin and throws it back accompanied by "Fuck you, Rogers."

"That's my job," comes from near the door as it closes, and a man makes his way in. He's another tall one (and what is it with these guys and height), well built, the overhead light catching gently on his dark skin. "Hey babe," he says and wraps himself from behind over Steve's sitting form, kisses his cheek.

"This is Sam," James tells Clint, and Sam waves.

There's a knock on the door, Natasha moves to open, and then a lovely brunette files in, followed by a another blond guy with long hair that looks twice her size. Introductions are short, they're Jane and Thor (yes, his parents still have an unhealthy obsession over Norse mythology), because apparently cake is more important to these people.

Thor starts a tea pot, Sam carries all their coats to the sofas, and Jane talks softly to Natasha in a corner. James is quiet through all their interactions, so Clint leans back with him, enjoys cake and hot tea and the way James' gloved fingers catch onto his. They engage Clint occasionally, enough to not feel left out, but not overly persistent. They leave James alone, mostly, but he is still part of conversations, which is pretty incredible. Clint wishes he had friends like these.

Half an hour in, they've made a dent in the monstrosity of a cake, not enough to even polish off half, yet nobody seems interested to stop having piece after piece. It's then when a whirlwind in a business suit crashes in, leaving a train of coat, bag and shoes from the entry to the kitchen. She's tall and wiry, forty-ish, looks gracefully authoritative in her attire, her dark blond hair neatly tied in a bun.

Natasha stops her with a palm against her chest before she can reach the table.

"Shoes," she says.

"But cake," the new arrival tries to walk around Natasha. She's not having it.

"Pepper."

One word, two syllables and the woman actually pouts like a small child before she walks to pick up her discarded items. She seems vaguely familiar, although Clint can't put his finger on where he's seen her. Pepper is back soon enough and she notices him with glee just as she snatches the plate with a half eaten piece in Sam's hands from where he leans with his hip onto Steve's shoulders.

"Oh, you must be Clint," she chirps and takes the fork that Steve lifts for her over his shoulder. "Heard so much."

"Um, you have?" Clint blinks.

"Someone couldn't stop talking about you," she points her fork at James after she swallows without chewing.

"Oh my god," James groans beside him, covering his face with both hands, "Pepper..."

"We've all heard everything about you," she grins and she's doing it on purpose, not even trying to hide it. Clint huffs a laugh.

"And contributed to the list," Natasha adds from where she's sitting on the counter.

"Guys," James starts, but the conversation erupts around date activities and best places to have them.

It's chaos, and he can't follow all of their comments at once, but they're not actually loud. Their voices are low enough that if he wants, he can concentrate on tidbits at a time, could pitch in.

"You doing ok there?" James asks softly, pulling Clint from his silent observation. He looks nervous and it makes Clint smile reassuringly.

"Yeah, it's nice," he admits. "A little overwhelming, but nice."

"Good," comes back and then Clint's distracted by a refill of his plate when Steve pushes it in front of Clint.

On the other side of James, a guy with curly dark hair (and where did he come from, Clint's never noticed, but James says his name is Bruce) is flopping papers on the table, engaging James into a discussion about some tech Clint doesn't really comprehend. He watches while chewing slowly on the creamy bits of cake, until a they pull out a sheet with half finished calculations.

"Aw, man," James says, "I can't remember this crap, been too long since I did this by hand."

It looks like a polar transformation and Clint knows those, so with a short 'mm' he snakes his right hand underneath James' bent arm resting on the table and scribbles the few lines that end the calculations. James moves his arm around Clint's shoulders and he doesn't think anything of it until the curly guy plucks the page from the table.

"This is actually helpful," he says, eying the sheet with interest. "Thanks," and then he snatches both the pencil and Clint's cake laden fork. He almost puts the pencil in his mouth and the fork in his pocket, but he realizes it in time and avoids the impending mess.

On the other side of the table, he hears vaguely "oh, another one of them," and "top five of his class," but the words fade into the background when he sees the way James is looking at him.

It's a smile, so small that it's barely there, but it softens his entire face. Clint swallows against his dry throat.

"Was that wrong?" he whispers.

James just shakes his head minutely. His left arm is still around Clint's shoulders, and then he brings his other hand to rest on the side of Clint's face, caresses cheekbone with his thumb.

"Ok?" James asks so quietly, it's almost inaudible, but it makes Clint's heart leap into a fast rhythm in his chest.

He nods and lets his eyes fall closed, before James' warm lips press to his. It's only for a second, and he doesn't push or take, just gives a little bit of his smile, and Clint doesn't stop the small sigh that makes it out of his throat when he opens his eyes.

Someone calls James' name and he turns, but his gloved hand remains on Clint's shoulder, clutching at the bone there. He remembers suddenly, that they're in the middle of a crowded room, but there's no ominous silence, no one's paying them any mind. Only Steve's watching them from across the table, still looking half asleep. "Fucking finally, Barnes," he mutters, then smiles at Clint with an encouraging nod.

It's almost midnight when James is engaged into an animated conversation with Pepper on the other side of the kitchen, that Steve tugs at his sleeve. He leads them into the dark side of the living room, near the windows.

"I wanna say something to you," Steve starts as he sits on one of the foot stools crammed in the corner there.

Clint follows suit and nods. "Ok?"

"Natasha said you don't know about James," Steve continues, raises a hand when Clint opens his mouth in a silent plea to let him finish, "so maybe you'll understand better later. But this here, needs to be said now."

After Natasha's scrutiny, and seeing how they all interact, he's been expecting something of a veiled threat to treat James properly. It warms him, and he smiles at Steve.

"Alright," he nods, waits patiently as Steve watches him for a few seconds.

"James is fragile. He's not going to admit it, but we'd all want to spare him the heartache if possible."

"Any pointers," Clint blurts and Steve smiles kindly at him.

"Don't lie," he answers and Clint nods. It fills him with trepidation, but he's already decided to talk to James about himself. "In the past years," Steve continues, "he hasn't been interested in anything outside of work, not money, not cars, lovers, gadgets, you name it."

"Now he's interested in me," Clint nods, understanding, but Steve shakes his head.

"I'm not finished," he says. "It's inevitable we all get hurt at some point or another, it's life. No one can actually protect him forever. Ugh," he presses his fingers into his forehead, "I'm going about this all wrong." He takes a deep breath. "James doesn't care about wealth to the point where he only keeps enough for basic necessities and the rest of what he earns gives away. This apartment, he's bought it, not me."

Steve locks his fingers in front of him.

"He will always, always, lie about the money he makes."

"Yet he expects complete honesty?"

As Steve nods, Clint understands that his is not about protecting James, but warning Clint against future disillusions, by James' best friend of all people. It makes his chest constrict.

"Does he lie about anything else?" he asks.

"No, that's the only one."

He believes Steve. Clint considers it, and finds that he doesn't care about something like this. If James accepts Clint with all that he is, the rest is irrelevant. Money's always been an ugly thing, continued fights between his father and grandfather echoing in his mind, always centered around gain and greed and stupid social status. He looks back at the kitchen where Pepper, who looks like she owns several small countries, licks chocolate off her fingers while slow-dancing with Jane, Thor has James in a headlock, Sam's snapping pictures of dirty plates and Natasha threatens she's not cleaning it up while Bruce writes on her arm with a red pen. These people don't look like they care about social norms and proper-ness and he can't help the small smile that settles on his lips.

"If it's just that, I don't mind," he finally says and hears Steve let out a big sigh. "Anything else?" he asks while he can.

"No alcohol, of any kind, ever," Steve counts on his fingers, "no bars or clubs, no huge crowds. And he also likes his anonymity, so no pics online, stuff like that."

"Not a drinker," Clint replies, "dislike bars, hate clubs, I can do without the crowds, and I really like my anonymity as well."

"Figures you would," Steve winks, more brotherly than friendly, and do they all know?

"Should you be talking about your friend behind his back?" he teases, but Steve turns a serious look on him.

"Actually he asked me talk to you," and points his chin to where James is now sitting on the corner of a counter, watching them with patience.

"Anything else?" Clint asks without taking his eyes off James. He really wants to go there right now.

Steve's sigh sounds long suffering this time. "You know how Stark has two VPs, one for administration and one for research."

"Yeah," Clint says absentmindedly, remembers reading about this in a brochure, "Virginia Potts and James..."

What. Clint's head snaps back to Steve incredulously.

"Barnes," Steve finishes for him. "Pepper is Potts, Bruce is head of their mechanics department, Jane of neurophysiology, Thor's a writer, Sam's retired AirForce, you know Nat's a cop. Oh, and Darcy's not here, flying in tomorrow morning, she's studying sociology."

"And what are you?"

"Comic book illustrator," he says with a goofy grin, making Clint smile.

He suddenly feels inadequate to be among these people, and it must show on his face because Steve's large hand rests on his shoulder.

"Spit it out," he says and Clint can't resist it.

"I don't know, you all seem so settled, have done something with your lives already."

Steve laughs at that. "Oh, boy, if you'd know the kind of crap we put up with from each on a daily basis, you'd run now and never look back." He scratches his nose. "If it's an age thing, well, Darcy's 20, Bruce is 46 and the rest of us somewhere in there. But age is never an issue." He tips his chin at Pepper and Clint gives him that, yeah.

"Thanks," he tells Steve before making his way to where James is perched on the counter, and he leans into the 'v' of his legs.

"All good?" James asks.

"Perfect," Clint smiles up at him and is rewarded by a wide grin as James rests his wrists on Clint's shoulders.

Chapter Text

Clint dreams of James laughing next to him, of warm embraces, an overall feeling of lightness. He dreams of falling asleep next to James, waking up next to him before dawn. His eyes open as his head hits a pillow, sees James saying a quiet 'thanks' to Steve. Has he just been carried to bed?

"What time is it?" he mumbles.

"About 2am," James says and sits on the edge of the bed.

Clint can't focus on where he is, his mind swirling with sleep. "Where..." he starts.

"You're in my room, everyone's crashing here tonight. Go back to sleep."

Clint hums when James places a peck on his forehead, but then he stands to go.

"Where are you going?"

"I'll sleep on a couch," he whispers, and his fingers are gentle in Clint's hair.

"No, stay here," he catches James' wrist. He manages to open his eyes, tugs a bit. "Bed's big enough."

"Alright," James smiles. James has a very nice smile. "Wow, you're not awake at all, are you?"

No, he wants to be asleep with James.

There's a short quiet laugh. "You should change into something that's not gonna chafe by morning then, at least take your binder off," comes next and Clint agrees he has a point.

James pulls Clint up before pushing something soft in his hands. "Sweats and pullover," he whispers.

It takes Clint a few seconds to remember what he's doing upright with the clothes. He hears water running in the bathroom and he changes quickly. What was James saying? Oh, doesn't matter, he's back in the cozy bedroom, and James' weight settles next to him, his nose pushed into Clint's shoulder.

~

A soft beeping sound pokes at the edges of his consciousness and Clint opens his eyes slowly. On the night stand next to him the alarm clock shows 8:30 and he presses the off button. The room is empty, bathed in gray morning light, and a small laugh escapes unabated at the memories of the night before. He doesn't remember how he ended up in James' bedroom, but he remembers changing his own clothes.

The pullover he's wearing is so ridiculously large that Clint's swimming in it, and he's grateful for its thickness. The alarm clock starts again and this time Clint looks closer to turn it off instead of just snooze. There's also a note next to it, along with a fresh toothbrush.

'Morning. Natasha's waiting for you.'

Clint rolls his eyes, but he brushes his teeth, uses the adjoining bathroom, before he makes his careful way out. He remembers he's in James' clothes only when he almost walks into Jane as she makes her way to curl up next to Thor by the large windows with a steaming cup.

Fingers snap at him. "Sit," Natasha says and shoves a mug at him. She looks way too awake for how late they must have gone to bed last night. It's still all a bit hazy. "James had to go into work early," she tells him. "Suuuuper glad I wasn't the one waking Pepper before dawn," she drawls and smirks into her own cup.

Clint snorts, takes a mouthful, and the coffee is amazing. Dark and bitter and thick. "This is great," he points at it and Natasha nods in acknowledgement.

"Where is everyone else?" he asks after a while.

"Steve's drawing, Bruce is still sleeping, Sam went for a run." She checks her watch. "Oh, and..." she pauses until there's a loud bang at the door, "that should be Darcy now."

The Pepper whirlwind from last night is nothing compared to this one, Clint thinks as he watches the young woman that goes by Darcy try to balance herself taking her boots off, two messenger bags slung over her shoulders, a few paper bags in one hand. She almost falls over her roller, but Natasha actually helps her patiently.

Darcy is talking all this time, too fast for Clint's sleepy mind to try to understand, and then she's making her way over to him, arms wide open.

"Oh my god, is this him?" she squeezes Clint hard enough that he's momentarily afraid of being chocked to death. "Look at you, Natasha he's so cute! Wow, sorry, I smell of airplane. But you, boy, and there has been cake." She turns sharply at Natasha. "Where's the cake?" she demands.

"Darcy," Natasha tries to slow her down.

"Wow, your eyes, no wonder James is crazy about you," she continues, her attention back to him, and Clint suddenly wants to hide.

"Darcy." comes again from Natasha, a little louder this time.

"I mean, I don't want to assume, and I'm sorry," she extends a hand, "being real rude here, I'm Darcy, do you prefer he or sh--"

"Darcy!" Natasha snaps loudly this time. "How much coffee did you have?"

"A lot," she says and leans into Natasha, "I missed you."

There's a long sigh coming from Natasha's lips before she wraps her arms around Darcy. "Jesus Christ," she mutters. "Sorry," she says to Clint over her shoulder. "Go change."

And Clint runs out of there as fast as he can. He didn't understand all of Darcy's babble, but he got enough to realize that they all know. Yet, no one's said anything the whole evening. Usually people go with the recoil from the start, so he doesn't know whether to feel terrified or exhilarated. They didn't seem cruel enough to lure him into a sense of safety and strike later.

He freezes in the middle of pulling his jeans on. Does James know?

A soft knock on the door interrupts his thoughts, followed by Natasha's voice. "Come on, we're gonna be late."

"Late where?" he asks as soon as he finds her back in the kitchen, twirling her keys on a finger.

It must be a family trait, because she just smirks and leads the way out. Minutes later, she parks her car in front of his building.

"Chop, chop," she snaps her fingers at him and actually follows him all the way inside his apartment.

"What are you--"

"Shower, change," she interrupts, "I'm driving you to class." Then she starts to methodically open every cupboard in his small kitchen.

"You're gonna snoop through my stuff, aren't you?"

"Shamelessly," she grins. "Come on, move, I don't have all day."

It doesn't occur to Clint until he's under the stream of water that she's not under any obligation to drive him anywhere and how the hell does she know he has class? He looks at the clock in his bedroom as he dresses, almost 10. His class starts at 11, there's enough time for him to make it there on the subway.

He tries to tell Natasha as much, but she won't have it. She drives fluidly, with precision, and Clint finds it fitting her, along with her leather jacket and tight black jeans.

"Sorry about Darcy," she says when she parks at the edge of campus.

Clint shrugs. "Do you... I mean do you all," he tries again, but not even he knows what he's trying to ask.

"Hey, look at me," she demands and Clint's eyes snap up. Her hand comes around to grip tightly at the back of his neck. "Did we give you the impression we were all assholes?"

Clint feels his cheeks heat as he shakes his head. 'Cos they didn't, not for a moment.

"If any of them is, feel free to tase their asses," and he matches the smile she offers.

"Thanks," he says before making his way out of the car and to class.

~

Clint is absent minded all through his first class. He's got a free hour between one and two, and he plans on finding a dark corner to hide in and panic in peace. His week has been more than overwhelming and he's not even processed the previous night properly yet. He suddenly finds himself into this chaos of new people, new information, new feelings. The scariest of it all is how they've made him feel welcome, a part of their interactions, instead of ignoring him into an awkward corner. His chest constricts again, and then even further with a flutter when he recalls James' lips on his, sleeping in his bed all natural and comfortable.

When the class finishes, however, he runs into Thor and Sam in the hallway.

"Hey, man," Sam says, and Clint shakes their extended hands automatically.

"Why are you here?" he asks.

"Lunch," Thor says and pulls him along between them.

They stop at the coffee shop on the other side of campus, the one that serves sandwiches, and Sam orders for all three as Thor sits Clint down at a table.

"I can feed myself," Clint frowns. What the hell are they doing here.

"It's our turn, so you're stuck with us today," Sam says as he sits down.

"Your turn?" What even.

"Oh, we got your entire schedule," Thor adds, pulls his phone to poke at it.

"How!" Clint squeals because this is more and more surreal.

"Minor hacking," Sam waves a hand with a grin.

Thor pats him on the shoulder with a sweet smile that's more terrifying than reassuring. "Eat."

The conversation that follows is strangely entertaining, as they discuss weightlifting and types of training. Clint finds himself learning something new and giving advice in return. It's pleasant, overall.

~

'your friends are creepy stalkers that stalk' he texts James during his next class.

All he gets in return is an enigmatic ':)' and he keeps himself from huffing out loud as their professor explains something up front. Ten minutes later, his phone vibrates again with 'don't panic, please, they mean well' and it brings a smile.

'how's your day so far?' he sends back.

'boring meeting' comes back, and then 'can i call you later?'

'finishing at 6 today' then pockets his phone when nothing else follows.

An hour later, as he stares unseeing at a slide about convex functions, he realizes that the sweet dream he's had last night wasn't entirely imagined, and remembers with sheer clarity James' comment about his binder. He panics for another hour, chewing at his lip until it hurts.

James. Knows.

It's only when he digs into his bag for a pen does he snap out of it, as his hand comes out holding the taser Natasha must have sneaked in there.

James knows and fuck, he must have known for a while, Clint realizes as he rewinds bits and pieces of conversation with all of them last night and even Darcy this morning. James has known, and he's still kissed Clint and looked at him with warmth. He can't stop the prickling behind his eyes and the tears that follow, not this time, so he gathers his things as quickly as possible and sneaks out of class quietly.

He finds a well hidden bench outside and he curls up on it, pushes his face in his knees and lets it all out. It's relief, so much relief, that his entire body shakes with it.

He doesn't register how long he sits there, the campus is dark around him, when he's startled by his phone vibrating in his pocket. It's James calling and he answers without thinking.

"Hey," he says a little too wetly and wipes at his cheeks with his sleeve.

There's silence for a beat and then "what happened?"

Oops. "Nothing, 'm fine," he reassures.

"Clint. What the fuck happened." James sounds more worried than pissed and it makes Clint huff with a laugh.

"Honestly, nothing bad. I'm..." how does he says this? "I'm..." he tries again. "You're real right?" he swallows.

There's another pause. "Yeah," James' voice cracks over the line. "Where are you now?"

"School," he says, and he wants to tell James not to come, but he wants to see him more. "Outside the Bohr building."

"Wait there," he hears before the call disconnects.

He's still trying to dry his face when James stops in front of him, all too soon.

"I was coming to get you," he says sheepishly and so ridiculously that a fresh wave of tears hits Clint. "Hey, hey," he whispers and kneels on the ground in front of where Clint leans with his elbows on his knees.

James pulls at his hands where they cover his face and brushes the wetness away.

"Nobody's ever this kind to me," he manages when James shushes him softly.

The glove he's wearing catches on Clint's skin and he curses under his breath before removing it. The skin is hotter, smooth and rough at the same time and Clint feels his eyes grow wide. His own hand moves up to press it to his face of its own accord, and James looks sad again, his forehead creased in the middle. When he pulls at his hand, James lets him, so Clint looks. It's horribly mangled, the skin traced with scars, bits of muscle missing in places, and Clint can feel the edges of the screws that hold it in place when he traces his fingertips over the joints. He's been wrong, whatever Clint's problems, James has suffered more for his body. He brings it to his lips, kisses gently every inch that's not hidden by the sleeve of the jacket. It calms him down a bit, and when he looks back up, James' cheeks are wet, too.

"What are you crying for?"

"Tell me yours and I'll tell you mine," James' voice is rough and low.

Clint doesn't have to think twice about it. "Some might say I was born a woman, but I'm not. I'm a man."

James smiles. "I was born whole, but now I'm broken."

"I still like you," Clint whispers.

"See, that's why I'm crying."

"I thought you had something in your eye," he returns and it startles a laugh out of James.

The tension is diffused, like that, and then dry lips press to Clint's again, this time with a slow slide that brings the comfortable warmth back all the way into Clint's bones.

~

They take the slow way around campus, Clint letting the crisp air cool his heated face. He's lighter, still overwhelmed, but giddier. A while later, James parks his car in front of Clint's for the second time in three days.

"Can I ask for a favor?" comes softly as James stares at the wheel.

"Sure," Clint turns to look at him better. There's that sadness creeping over James' face again.

"I'd like to spend more time with you today," he says, "so can I come with you? No pressure for anything, just..." he shrugs.

"Yeah," Clint agrees immediately, it's something he can easily do, and he wants James' company as well. "But it's going to be boring, I have a paper to finish."

James turns a smile at him. "No, that's actually perfect. I have some work to do myself. I'll go get my stuff and come back in half hour?" Clint nods. "I'll bring dinner, Steve cooks enough for an army.

Clint takes his time with a long shower, trying to clear his head enough to be able to concentrate on the paper he needs to turn in the next day. It's nothing complicated, he's already gathered the material he needs, but it's tedious and it requires a certain amount of pushing himself to actually write the damn thing.

James returns in sweats and the oversized pullover Clint's worn the night before, with something packed in plastic containers, still hot. It looks inedible, but tastes great, and they eat in silence. Clint hasn't realized how hungry he was.

When they move to the living room soon, James curls up in Clint's sole armchair, laptop on his knees and nose in the hem of his shirt. He's extremely quiet, his touch gentle on the keyboard, but still softly there in the background that Clint relaxes further into his own work, focus easy to find. He likes this, he's been yearning for it more than he's wanted to admit.

He doesn't register when the clicking tapers off, but when he raises his eyes, James is watching him again, just like before. He doesn't bother to hide the smile that tugs at his lips as he returns to his paper. It's way past midnight when he finishes, saves and prints. He stretches with a pop of bones.

In the armchair, James is asleep, and Clint remembers he's slept way less the night before. He retrieves the laptop balancing precariously in his lap, sets it down on the coffee table, when James startles awake. He relaxes immediately when he sees Clint, though, and rubs a hand over his face.

"What times is it?" he asks.

"Um, almost one."

"I should go," he says, but doesn't move a muscle.

"You can sleep here, if you want," Clint offers.

James chews at his lip, clearly wanting. "I shouldn't," he sighs.

"What's keeping you?" Clint is genuinely curious.

"If you're not careful," he responds as he straightens, pulls Clint closer, "I'm gonna attach to you like a limpet. And then you'll get sick of me too soon." He wraps his arms around Clint's middle, rests his forehead against him.

Clint snorts. "I think your friends already attached themselves like limpets to me."

It's unexpected, the quiet laughter that shakes James' shoulders at that.

"You're enjoying this!" Clint realizes and smacks lightly at his back.

James raises his head after a while, a smile still playing on his lips. "I want to stay. Couch looks comfy enough," he adds after a beat, but Clint's already shaking his head.

"Stay with me," he lets his fingers sink into James' hair. The smile is still there.

"Ok," he says after a long pause, "but I'm warning you mister," he adds with mirth, "no funny business."

"Ridiculous," Clint laughs and bends down to steal a quick kiss.

~

Clint's lying on his back when James crawls into bed, and he curls up against Clint's side, pushing his face against Clint's shoulder. It's easy enough then, to wrap an arm around James, hold him close, and he suddenly understands Steve's comment about being frail.

"Do you use Steve a lot to speak for you?" he asks.

"Hmm," James hums. "Not for a long time, now. Did that upset you?"

"No, just curious."

"Well," he explains, "I told you I was bad at this, and Steve usually has more tact. And then there are things I'd like you to know, but I have no idea how to talk about them."

"Like what?" Clint asks.

"The accident, for one." He looks up for a moment before resettling. "If you ask Steve, he'll tell you."

"Thanks," Clint says, surprised.

"That doesn't sound very mentally stable said out loud," James laughs into his shoulder. "I promise, I went to therapy."

"Therapy's overrated. Parents forced some on me," he continues at James' questioning hum.

"I think you're good," comes back with a kiss pressed into his shoulder. "You know, we're doing this backwards."

"Doing what?"

"Usually the sleeping together comes after the dating," and it makes Clint laugh.

James is solid and fragile, amazing and ridiculous, smart and childish, so very sad. Clint's warm, as he drifts away, determined to end this sadness.

Chapter Text

"Why is it so early..." James whines, pushing his face into the pillow, just as Clint presses the snooze button for the second time that morning. 6:40 blinks at him front the night stand and he should get out of bed soon or he'll be late.

"Got class, sorry," Clint runs his hands through the mop of James' hair peeking out from under the comforter.

"Who the hell puts classes on 8am Friday?" come back muffled.

"Want coffee?" Clint asks instead.

"Yes, please."

He moves to roll out, but James catches him around the middle.

"Clint," he says, eyes still closed, "good morning," and only then lets him go.

"'Morning."

He smiles through brushing his teeth, keeps smiling through making coffee, can't really wipe it off his face, and James matches it when he joins him.

"What's your day looking like," James asks after he gulps down almost half his coffee in one go.

"Hm, I get out early today, then groceries, bit of cleaning," he looks around the apartment, though it's not really that messy, "training."

"Gym?" comes next and Clint shakes his head.

"Can't." Clint's apartment has two bedrooms, one of which he actually uses and another that's half storage, half impromptu gym, with a bike, weights and a couple of pull-up bars mounted on the wall. "Have to do it at home," he tells James and receives an understanding nod.

"There's a specialized gym at SR with equipment I need," he says looking at his own arm, "so I mostly use that after hours."

James yawns widely into his coffee before Clint's phone beeps with a reminder. "Oh, crap, gotta get dressed."

"Take your time," he hears as he runs into the bedroom, "I'll drive you."

"You don't have to do that."

"I want to."

Clint pops his head back out. "I can take care of myself, been doing it for years." James' face falls and a pang of hurt runs through Clint. He bops his head on the door frame. Evidently, it's not about underestimating Clint's abilities to be a functioning human being. "Sorry," he says. "I'd love it if you drove me."

James slumps back into his chair.

"I'm going to screw this up," he mutters to the table.

Clint pulls a hoodie over his t-shirt and joins him. "How?"

When James raises his head, he looks lost again, like he did in the store when they first met. "I don't know what I'm doing," he whispers, "and I'm terrified that somehow I'll say or do something to irreversibly upset you without meaning to."

Clint barks out a laugh despite himself, throat tight. "I'm afraid of that, too," he says and then wiggles between James and the table, pulls at his chin. "Last relationship I had ended in a fist fight," and James raises both eyebrows. "Don't worry, I broke his jaw," Clint adds quickly. "Long story for another time. But the point is, I'm out of my depth here. Hasn't been a week yet, but since I met you, I've laughed more than in the last five years."

Shit, he's going to cry again. James closes his eyes, leans his cheek into Clint's hand.

"I don't wanna go back to eating dinner alone," Clint confesses.

James' eyes snap open and he pushes the chair back, stands up. He hesitates for half a second, but then he wraps himself around Clint, pulls him close, and so tightly, it's almost hard to breathe.

"This ok?" he asks against the side of Clint's neck.

"Yeah," Clint huffs, and clutches at him right back. "Yeah," he says again, louder.

"I don't think I can stop the others from hounding you," James adds, "but if it really bothers you, I can try to talk to them."

"No, actually, let them. It's fun," he offers, truthfully. After getting over the initial shock, he's found that he'd rather be having company than not.

"Alright," James says and lets go enough to look at Clint. "But if we're going too fast, if it gets too much or you need space for yourself, you have to tell me, ok? Please."

"I will," he promises, "but you do the same."

It earns him a nod and a tentative smile.

"Drive me?" he asks and the smile grows bigger.

Clint gets dressed, packs his bag and his finished paper. The sky is dark with thick clouds as they make their way to campus. James' hair is uncombed and he still looks like he just rolled out of bed. Which he did. It's endearing.

"So what are you doing today?"

"Well, if it's not raining when I get back, I'll go for a run with Sam. He should be up by then. Work after."

That reminds him, "How many people actually live there?"

James looks at him guiltily.

"Me and Nat, we did move there just a few months ago," he says. "We had a place over on Levington before that," so on the other side of town, Clint thinks, "but Bruce needed a place to stay last year, so he ended up on Steve's couch, which meant Pepper was there almost all the time, driving Steve up the walls, so..." he trails off looking into the distance.

"So?"

"Shit."

"James."

"Someone," he says with emphasis, "bought Steve's entire floor and turned it into that huge place and now Bruce has his own bedroom, and Jane and Thor's lease expires in February, and Sam's there more than at his place anyway, so I kinda dragged Nat with me." He takes a deep breath and studiously keeps his eyes on the road.

"Ok, wow," Clint laughs. "Steve wasn't exaggerating."

James sighs and his shoulders slump as much as they can with his hands on the wheel. It escapes Clint, right this moment, how close this group really is, too preoccupied with finding James adorable. He tells him as much just to see him blush.

~

Clint's stomach already rumbles when he takes a seat in the room hosting his second class, and he startles at Darcy dropping down next to him.

"Hey," she says, pushing a banana at him.

"Why are you all trying to feed me?" he asks, but eats the fruit anyway.

Darcy smiles with hidden meaning before she sobers up. She checks his watch, and there's still about 10 minutes left until class starts.

"I am really really awfully sorry about yesterday morning," she says with a deep inhale. "I get crazy when I don't sleep and then overdose on caffeine."

Clint takes a closer look at her. Her young face is framed by soft brown hair, her glasses hiding the dark circles under her eyes. She seems tired. "Don't worry about it," he says. "Try to sleep more, yeah?" She nods. "What are you doing here anyway?"

"I came to suffer with you through the class that sounded the worst," she wraps her arms around one of his, grins wide.

It's then that the TA comes with handouts, tells them the professor's got a bad cold and wishes them happy holidays after gathering the assignments.

"Well, looks like your suffering is over," he says and now Clint has a couple of hours off with an armful of Darcy that drags him to the coffee shop closest to his next class' building.

"Who did you get for your first time?" she asks when they sit in a corner with their orders and Clint's eyebrows go so up his forehead, he's afraid he's going to lose them in his hair.

Darcy laughs.

"I meant the guys, or did they not pester you yesterday?"

Ah. That. So it's a thing. "Don't tell me, your turn today?"

"Nuh-huh," she says while she drinks, and that coffee's going to end up all over her, Clint can see almost see it, "I get Tuesday. No idea who's today. So who did you get," she kicks at his boot under the table, all childish glee on her face.

"Sam and Thor," he answers and she grins.

"You were lucky. I got James first and he scared the shit out of me. Just sat there for an entire hour without moving or blinking, right at that table," she points to the side. "I thought I was getting murdered for sleeping with his sister."

Clint can easily picture that, and he laughs. But, "do they all do this?"

"To everyone new they like," Darcy nods. "It's like a tradition or something. It's the first time for me," she claps her hands, excited, and Clint rolls his eyes.

"Do you know how it started?" he's curious.

"Hmm," she thinks for a moment, "they all have different versions of that story, but what I got was that, a long long time ago, during the age of dinosaurs, which is when James had just started working at Stark, Steve and Nat thought he was going out with Bruce, who's a bit older, as you know, and they kinda freaked, nobody's clear here why, or they won't tell me, but that's what I understood from it all, so they did this overprotective sibling thing, but ended up friends."

Darcy finally breathes. Clint wasn't sure she'd remember how by this point.

"Did he?" he asks.

"Did who what?"

"Go out with Bruce."

"Awww," she coos at him, "no, he didn't." Clint scoffs when she smirks knowingly into the rim of her cup.

~

When he exists his last class of the week, he finds Natasha waiting for him this time. She's in uniform, her hair neatly tied in a bun under the cap.

"Looking good," he says when he's near enough and gets a peck on his cheek and a smirk.

A colleague is passing by them and he gives them a side gaze until Natasha snaps "Move along, citizen!"

Clint laughs lightly. "What's the occasion?"

"Oh, my shift extended and I didn't have time to change."

"You didn't have to come," he starts, but the way she's smiling at him tells him it's already a lost battle. "Fine," he sighs.

"Good boy," she smirks again and takes his arm, pulling him along.

Clint finds himself warming as they walk across campus to the subway station.

"You're taking all this incredibly well," he says pointing at himself as they wait on the platform for their train.

She hums, studying him for a while, as if trying to decide something, but she shakes her head. "It's a story for another time and I just came off a twelve hour shift. What are your plans for today?"

Clint nods with a small 'ok' and lets her change the subject. "Well, groceries first."

"I was going to take a nap, but we need those as well. You got a driver's license?"

"Yeah, I just don't use the car much."

They step into the next train after it pulls to a stop and huddle in a corner near the door.

"How about we eat something and then I join you? I'm way too tired to drive," she says, expression turning serious, "but Steve is never, under any circumstances, allowed to buy food."

"Sure," he agrees, "why not. Do I wanna know?"

"Nope," she pops the sound between her lips.

Natasha feeds them both with salad and leftovers from dinner, the weird looking mix of rice, vegetables and meat that actually tastes heavenly. Her car definitely has the larger trunk, so they take that and hit the nearest store that's bound to be most deserted at this time of day. It turns out, Natasha shares Clint's dislike for shopping, but it's a necessary evil, and the afternoon is more pleasant than expected.

They bring his share home first, then Steve comes down to help when Clint parks in the garage underneath their building.

"Tonight is movie night," Steve says, "you should come."

"Aren't you sick of me, yet?" he jokes, but Natasha smacks him over the back of his head. "Ow. Fine, point taken. What time?"

"Movie starts at nine, but get here whenever," Steve answers.

He checks his watch, it's not even five, so he's got enough time to carry out his cleaning and training plans. If he doesn't do it today, he's going to feel like an immense slob, and that always makes him miserable. He promises to try.

On his way back to his place, he texts James with 'got invited to movie night, is that ok?' because, no matter how welcoming his friends are, James matters more.

His phone rings just as he's locking his door behind him.

"Hi," he tells James after accepting the call.

"Hey," comes quietly over the line, "of course it's ok. But don't feel pressured."

Clint smiles. "I'll come. How're you doing over there?"

"Still at work and going into one last meeting in 5," James inhales and exhales slowly. "It's been a long week. Ah, listen, before I forget. Movie also means sleepover, and I'm going to be ridiculous for you again and ask you to spend the night."

A slow beat and then Clint's heart rabbits in his chest. He knows what James means, but the way he's said it, softly and intimately, it makes him wonder what it would be like, with James. It's a little less scary thought, but only just minutely. He clears his throat.

"Alright," he smiles again, hopes James can hear it. "I'll see you later, then."

"Mhm, later."

~

He's pretty sure that if he were to talk to someone about these new developments, they'd tell him things are progressing too fast. But in actuality, they've only kissed three times, and not even open-mouthed. Clint feels like they're moving just perfectly, thank you. They did spend a lot of time together, but they didn't spend all time with one another, and they didn't talk each other's ears off so that they'd run out of things to say.

Given, adding eight new people into the mix, still feels overwhelming for Clint, after being almost completely alone for five years. But he's grown up in a full house, has had plenty friends, before, so he finds himself adjusting to all the new additions quite easily.

He cleans and does his routine, takes a shower afterwards. He steels himself as he rubs water out of his short hair, and then goes to stand in front of the large mirror on the wall of his gym corner, like he does every week.

He has to take a few breaths before he can properly look.

His muscles are developing nicely, just the way he wants them. He's been doing chest sets a lot lately, so the breasts don't sag from the binders, and he pokes clinically at them, tests tissue firmness. He doesn't feel like they belong to him, but they're there, so he's going to take care of all that's attached to his body. He finally lets the towel drop to see his middle.

Last Friday, an unexpected drop of blood had made its way down his thigh and he'd screamed into the towel until his throat had felt raw.

Today, he thinks about James. About his arm and how he probably hasn't been allowing people to see him naked, just like Clint. About how he might just understand.

He takes a shaky breath and leans his forehead on the glass.

"Please," he whispers to the universe, "please, please, please, let me keep him. Please."

Chapter Text

Movie night is actually an excuse to lounge on the floor of the living room in sweats and pajamas, and play with throwing popcorn into empty glasses. Clint wins every round, he's better even than Steve and, afterwards, can't stop smirking, though he doesn't even remember the name of the movie.

Saturday morning finds James with his face pushed again into Clint's shoulder. He sleeps curled up in a way that cradles his left arm, keeping himself a few inches apart. It should be distancing, but Clint finds the contact reassuring and the space comforting.

They finally decide on an actual date for that evening, and although it's just dinner at a nearby hole-in-the-wall pizza place, Clint finds himself a little too excited. So he works to finish the project that needs turned in on Monday as fast as he can. He keeps expecting to see James in the armchair and that actually helps him focus instead of distracting him. He's done earlier than planned, so he decides to brave the Saturday traffic, and goes searching for an open flower shop. He settles on a red rose, both for the cliché and the traditionalism, and hopes that it will make James laugh. He manages to dig out an actual shirt for the evening, puts on his newest pair of jeans and heads out with a grin.

He feels ridiculous for a second, before knocking at James' door, but he enjoys the feeling. Natasha opens, and her mouth curls into a small 'o' when she sees him, immediately followed by a grin.

"James," she calls, walking back into the apartment, "your boyfriend's here."

Clint steps in, closes the door behind him, and a few seconds later, when James emerges, Clint pulls him close by his middle, unable to contain his own grin.

"Hey doll," he drawls, "what do you say you and I blow this joint?"

James laughs, full and bright. "That's awful."

"I know," his cheeks hurt a little.

"Really awful," and his face softens in a smile, wraps an arm around Clint's shoulders and accepts the flower with his other hand. "I like it," he whispers.

"I'm glad," Clint says, just as softly. He presses closer, pushes up on the balls of his feet to place a peck on James' lips.

They stay like that for a beat, and then James lets go. "I'll get my coat," he says and, as he walks away, he hears a cackle. "I got flowers!"

"I knew it," he hears Darcy screech, "pay up!"

"That's one flower, one," comes back from Natasha, "not flower-zz."

He stops paying attention when James returns, and they keep their fingers entangled the entire way to the restaurant.

The place is small, softly lit, quiet and unpretentious. They choose a table in a corner, but Clint can't hide the grimace as he goes over the menu.

"You don't like pizza either," James observes.

Clint blinks at him for a second. "Then why are we here?" he laughs.

"'Cos," is all that he gets beside a grin.

"You like fruit right?" Clint perks up with his sudden idea.

"Oh, no, don't you dare--"

"But it will be awful," he smirks. "So which one of them put pizza date on the list?"

"That would be Sam. He even managed to make Steve eat a slice once," James explains. "I assume you're a healthy eater, too?"

Clint shrugs. "I want things from my body. And pizza has too much dough."

"Steve's almost fanatic about what he eats, about what we eat, too," James adds with a nod.

"Well, from what I've tasted, his cooking is good, though--"

"It looks like slime from hell?" James takes over with a laugh. "Yup, we know."

It's then that the waitress pops up beside them, pencil at the ready.

"What will it be?" she asks, turning to James.

Clint doesn't have time to feel insulted, because James keeps silent, puts aside his menu and just looks at him expectantly. It's such a small gesture, but such a big thing for Clint, that his chest constricts pleasantly.

"We'll have a pineapple," he looks at the waitress, "and two greek salads."

"Oh, honey, people don't come here for the salad," she leans forward. "You'd better choose something that hasn't been sitting in the fridge for two months."

And yeah, he forgives her all unintended transgressions and offers a small smile.

"Then a vegetarian, make it white, hold the cheese, mushrooms and onions, and double the other toppings."

She beams at him. "Well, cook's gonna enjoy this, been boring lately. To drink?"

"Water, thank you," Clint says and she leaves.

When he looks back across the table, James is watching him again, chin in hand and the small smile on his lips, like he knows a secret that he's keeping all for himself.

Clint's cheeks heat and he resists squirming in his seat. He clears his throat.

"We can just eat the veggies off of it," he offers.

"I figured," James says, his smile growing warmer. "When's winter break?"

"Officially Thursday," Clint hums, "but I have no classes on Wednesday, so I guess I'll be free by Tuesday evening."

James is quiet for a minute. "I have to confess, I have this irresistible urge to plan your holiday," he sighs.

Clint raises an eyebrow at that. He hasn't been doing anything special for years, his grandfather not a fan of commercially induced gift giving. He'd just planned to spend the break like any other days.

"But we don't celebrate Christmas," James continues, "so you'll probably want to go see family?"

"What do you do then?" he asks, choosing to ignore the second part.

"Cake," James grins, showing teeth.

"What's with the cake," he shakes his head, but James just grins wider. "Do it," he decides, chewing at his lip.

"Do what?"

"Plan the break for me," he smiles encouragingly when James gapes a little. "It ends on the 4th, so that's about two weeks. I'll have to study a bit, though, so leave me some time for that. Otherwise, I'm yours." He mocks a bow in the chair as he finishes, bending his head forward with a rolling motion of his hand in front of him.

James gapes a bit more and then thinks it all over. Clint can see when he realizes the unspoken avoidance of family, but he never comments on it. Clint's grateful. He's going to talk to James about it, but tonight is not the time, and it seems James understands. A slow smile comes back to his face and he rubs his hands like a cartoon villain. "Goody."

Clint rolls his eyes. "Do you get any off days?"

"Mhm, 25th, 26th and then first and second. It's just business as usual in between."

Their order arrives and the grilled vegetables are really good. They eat for a while, plucking at zucchini and peppers with their fingers. The conversation with Steve comes back to Clint, and their visit on his birthday.

"That lab I saw, do you really work in there?" he asks, curiosity getting the better of him.

James chews and swallows, then bites at the inside of his cheek. "It's actually my lab. I get a couple of technicians to help once in a while, but it was all my mess," he jokes.

Clint raises his eyebrows questioningly at him and James scratches the back of his neck.

"I do my own work there, exactly what I told you I did, oversee everything else from a distance. It's not like I asked for it," he mumbles with a frown.

"Oh?" Clint wants to know more about it, but he doesn't want to push either. "Um, you don't have to tell me--"

"Nah, it's fine," James smiles, smaller this time. "Actually, it's a pretty funny story how I ended up with the job."

Clint leans closer to listen and picks at the pineapple on the other plate.

"Shortly after graduating," James starts, "I landed this internship at SR. It was all programming microcontrollers, not at all what I wanted to do, but it got me a foot in the door, so to speak. I got caught up in it, though, because even if the act of sitting on my ass in a chair all day was tedious, what I was actually programming was amazing, and I had to learn about stuff I hadn't heard of before. I ended up staying after hours on a regular basis."

James extends his right hand palm up over the table and Clint gives him his own, lets him play with his fingers.

"So one night, must have been 3 or 4am, this guy comes in all pissed. He's wearing ripped jeans, some old t-shirt, he looks pretty much unshowered for days, hair sticking up in all directions, over caffeinated and awake for way too long. Much like me at the moment. He's looking for the ass that wrote some program all wrong, which was me, and there might have been shouting, before he saw it my way and left." James takes a drink from his glass. "Two days later I get called up to Stark's office, I'm thinking bye bye dream job. Guess who's sitting behind the desk, tailored suit and hair still sticking up."

"The guy?" Clint grins.

"The guy," comes back with a nod, "Tony fucking Stark in person, before he went all playboy media crazy. Pepper was his assistant at the time, and she was there trying to actually comb his hair. Didn't really meet her until a year later, but that's another story."

"So what did Stark say?"

"To pack my bags," James pauses, "'cos we're going to Florida. I spent the next ten months in Stark's lab there, working on that exoskeleton prosthetic that made the news."

"I remember that," Clint says, "the one they use for recuperation. It actually got me crazy about robotics then," he grins and James smiles, surprised. "How was working with him?"

"He's a genius, I'll give you that, but he got caught up in it so much, that he forgot to eat or sleep for days. Even passed out from exhaustion a couple of times before I started keeping an eye on him. Bruce came by for weeks at a time, to adjust calculations, and it turned out great," he waves with his free hand. "Afterwards, I got a job in Bruce's department. I learned a lot from him," he grins at the memory. "But I got so psyched and excited all the time, that Nat thought he was giving me drugs or something."

"Really," Clint laughs.

"Yeah, really. Nat was a rookie back then, and she dragged Steve on actual stakeouts. When Bruce realized it, we pranked them for two months before they figured they were being played."

"Darcy said your friendship started with Bruce," Clint says.

"Mh," there's a nod before James takes another drink. "Wanna hear the short version of how we all got together?" he asks and Clint nods enthusiastically. "Alright. It actually fits with my journey through SR," he continues. "I stayed at Bruce's for a year, met Pepper in the meantime. She and him are joined at the hip, but they're not together. Nobody knows what's that about, 'cos they're still keeping a tight lid on it," he shrugs. "Anyway, after that, I got shuffled around all departments, before I realized that Stark was 'grooming me'," he air-quotes. "To this day I don't know what he saw in me, we keep arguing about almost everything, but Pepper insists that I balance him. At 26 I was promoted the youngest VP in the business," he looks down, shrugs, and Clint tugs at his hand.

"Smart is sexy," he smiles.

It makes James' cheeks pink slightly and he squeezes Clint's hand before continuing.

"During that time we met Jane, she and Pepper hit it off like they were molded from the same womb. She was a low level then, but she made her way up since, she's pretty smart. Steve met Thor at a comicon, dressed like a god and reciting Shakespeare for money. He slept on our couch for a long while before Jane decided to... how did she put it," he looks up for a moment, "take the puppy home. They've been together ever since."

James stops, spends a few moments looking at their joined hands, and the sadness starts creeping back. Clint squeezes his fingers gently.

"Sam and Darcy?" he asks quietly, though he can already gauge the answer.

"After the accident," James whispers, and raises Clint's hand to press his lips on his palm.

He replaces his mouth with his temple after a beat, closes his eyes with a deep breath. Clint lets the subject go, and treads his fingers through James' hair. The accident seems like a very sensitive topic, and he's willing to be patient about it, just like James has been when it came to Clint's family.

Clint gets absorbed by how James sits there, receiving the caresses silently. His hair is soft under Clint's fingertips, flowing free in wide waves over his shoulders. He breathes slowly, the little crease between his eyebrows back under the sad memories he's no doubt reliving, and Clint wants to take it all away.

"James," he whispers.

"Mm," comes back in a questioning hum.

"You've got pizza in your hair."

James straightens abruptly, pulls at the edges of his locks, and his shoulders slump when there's nothing there. He looks wide-eyed at Clint laughing silently on his side of the table, before it turns grateful, and then fond, in a way that makes Clint's breath catch in his throat.

~

"How does a date with flowers and dinner end?" James asks when they reach the door of his apartment.

Clint hums in thought. "We make out against the door like teenagers," he winks.

It earns him a laugh, and then James leans on the doorjamb, extends a hand. Clint follows, lets himself be pulled closer between James' open legs. He slides a bit lower, so that his face is a couple of inches below Clint's.

"Like this?" he asks quietly, wrapping his arms around Clint's middle.

"Yeah," Clint breathes and swipes the hair out of his face.

He sinks his fingers in the long strands and tips James' face upward before pecking lightly at his lips, once, twice. He presses longer the third time, and suddenly he wants more, angles their heads for better access. The slide of lips catches dryly before Clint presses his body closer, coaxes James' lips apart. He's pliant, his mouth hot under Clint's, and he clutches tightly to Clint's jacket with a shiver.

Clint gets lost in James, sensations swirling to settle low in his belly, then dripping achingly around his thighs with desire. He breaks off when air's not enough, rests his forehead onto James'. His chest is heaving and James inhales just as heavily, as they try to catch their breaths.

"Do you want..." he asks haltingly, his voice cracking.

"Yeah," comes back in a rasp.

"Not tonight," he says around a sweet pang that travels from his chest to his throat at the admission.

"Not ready either," James whispers.

He straightens, then, wraps himself around Clint and they hold each other tightly for long minutes. Occasionally, they hear the clatter of dishes from the apartment, bits of voices flowing muffled through the door.

Clint finds himself savoring the tendrils of happiness for the first time in a very long while.

That night, when he gets home, he lays himself naked on the bed and lets his hands explore. With the touch of James' lips fresh in his mind, he wonders how they would feel on his skin, on him, as his fingers follow an imaginary trail. The quiet, slow orgasm takes him by surprise, and he lays there, shaken, his body forgotten, his head full of James, his acceptance and his warmth.

Chapter Text

Sunday morning Clint spends an hour on the phone with his grandfather trying to connect him to Skype, and then another two hours in a videocall. They talk about Clint's school, his grandfather's long-suffering board of directors, about James and his friends.

"I'm happy for you, sweetheart," Clint Sr. says over the line.

"Grampa," Clint starts, but the old man cuts him off.

"No, no. You get to let me have that. You'll always be sweetheart to me, no matter who you are."

It's the first time in his life that Clint's seeing his grandfather this emotional. Clint Barton Sr. has always had a reputation of stone cold with everyone, and although his family has seen his softer side, he'd been always stoic, conservative in expressing emotion. He's held Clint close, however, and maybe that had contributed to the discord between his father and his grandfather. Clint sighs internally, pushing the thoughts away. Some things are better left in the past.

"If I ever get a child, I'll name them Clinton," he says and his grandfather scowls.

"Oh, shut up. No need to get all girly with me now, boy."

But underneath the abrasiveness, he's smiling, pleased.

~

A little after noon Clint answers his door to find James on the other side, covered in snow flakes.

"I come bearing food," he raises the bag he's carrying.

"It's snowing?"

"A little bit," comes next with a shake that sends water drops Clint's way.

"Egh," he grimaces and James laughs.

Clint leads them in, takes the food to unpack. James follows after leaving his jacket and boots by the door. It's only when he wraps his arms around Clint from behind, does Clint realize he's forgotten to exchange his sport's bra for a binder. The t-shirt he's wearing is a little thinner than his usual hoodies, and he freezes, staring down at his chest.

"No," James says.

"What?" he blinks, confused.

James hooks his chin over his shoulder, looks down and Clint wants to hide, now. "Steve's pecs are bigger than that."

"How do you--"

"You said smart was sexy," James says, pecking at Clint's cheek. It's distracting.

"But--"

"You should see Thor's, looks like he's nursing," James turns the pecks into noisy kisses, "if we'd have a pecs competition you'd come in last," and Clint doesn't even know what they're talking about anymore, laughing with a yelp when James tickles his sides.

Twenty minutes later, Clint's halfway through his plate when he remembers his binder, or lack thereof, and he lets his forehead hit the table with a thump. When he looks back up, James is sporting a smug smirk. It looks so good on him, that Clint doesn't change, only adds a hoodie when the room gets too chilly.

The afternoon unwinds quietly, a couple of books and curling up on the sofa, until Pepper shows up looking haggard and paper laden. There's an issue with a product and that's all Clint allows himself to listen to. It's not his place, and James throws him a thankful look when he plucks in his headphones. He doesn't leave, though, and Pepper never even hints at moving their conversation to another, more private, location. It makes Clint wonder at how included he feels.

They take over his coffee table, curled on the floor. Clint lays on the sofa, listening to music, his fingers brushing along James' hair and shoulders where he leans into the couch.

Their conversation is animated, there are phone calls and Pepper even stabs a pen through a piece of paper once. Clint fixes them dinner, spends an hour in his gym corner, takes a long shower. Midnight rolls around and they don't look even remotely close to finished.

"You should go to bed," James tells him when they take a break.

Clint wants to protest, but the yawn that he has to hide in his fist disagrees. "Alright," he blinks sleepily. "But when you're done, stay?"

"If you want," comes back softly, followed by a kiss on he lips.

"Of course I want," Clint smiles and it's matched. "There are towels in the closet by the bathroom," he adds, "if you wanna take a shower."

"Thanks," another soft kiss and Clint's soon asleep.

~

Clint wakes to his beeping alarm to find himself plastered over James' back, his arm asleep under the other's head. He moves to shut it off, and jostles James in the process.

"'Morning," he blinks, completely unfocused.

"Hi," Clint whispers. "Sleep ok?"

"Yeah," he turns around on his back, "though too short."

Clint nods. "Coffee?"

"Please," James rubs at his face. "I'm sorry about yesterday," he mumbles, still half asleep.

"Nothing to be sorry about," Clint says, because he's enjoyed James' presence nonetheless. "Don't," he adds when James opens his mouth, most likely to protest, "or I'll kiss you with morning breath."

James shoves at his shoulder playfully, but he laughs and lounges for a kiss anyway.

Clint finds Pepper asleep on the sofa, his spare blanket draped over her, and he prepares a larger pot of coffee. He hovers over her unsure what to do, when James emerges, finishing a phone call. He grabs one of the full coffee mugs and joins Clint in watching her sleeping form.

"Watch this," he says. "Ms. Potts, call on line three!" he adds a little louder and Pepper springs up.

"What, where," she starts before noticing them. "Fucking, fuck, who the f--" and James brings the coffee right under her nose.

She grabs it and everything is silent again as she inhales the steam, sips slowly. Clint and James share theirs in the kitchen. About ten minutes later, there's a knock on the door. On the other side there's Sam, laden with garment bags and toiletry kits.

They exchange good mornings, and Sam drops everything on the armchair in the living room.

"Good morning, sunshine," he smiles brightly at Pepper.

"Fuck off, Wilson," comes back with an almost growl.

Sam actually takes a step back at that. "That's her first cup, isn't it?" he asks, eyes wide, and James nods with a hum. "I'm outta here, going to be late for work anyway." He leaves with a hurried bye.

"What's with the..." Clint gestures at the bags after he closes the door behind Sam.

James rubs a hand over his face. "Board called a meeting last night at 2am. I wasn't really in the mood for their sour faces today. But," he sighs and leans into Clint, "gotta looks presentable. I'll take that shower now, if that's ok."

"Sure," Clint says, "need anything?"

"Nah, I'm good." He retrieves a small bag before turning to the sofa. "Pepper!" Her head snaps up with a glare. "Be nice to Clint, he's the one with coffee."

"Fuck off, Barnes," she mutters into the mug, but it's with less heat this time, and James leaves with a wink at Clint.

Clint retreats to the kitchen, dishes out some quick toast and scrambled eggs, and refills Pepper's coffee when she joins him. She eats slowly, and by the time James re-emerges, she looks a little more like herself again.

"I can't wake up, James," she says, and she sounds wrecked. Clint hadn't realized she was this tired.

"How long did you sleep?" James asks her, and she looks at the clock on the wall, showing 8:30.

"Less than two hours. Hong Kong called right after you went to bed. I have some caffeine pills at the office," she adds, "I'll be fine for the meeting, but--"

"You can't drive."

"Sorry," she winces and James grimaces.

"What's wrong?" Clint asks.

"I'm not driving in this weather," he says, "not getting in a cab either. I'll see if Steve's up."

"I can drive you," Clint offers. His classes don't start until noon today and he's already finished his assignment.

The way James drives, the alcohol ban, the carefulness of it all, it must have something to do with the accident he keeps hearing about, so he understands his reluctance. James looks at him for a long moment before Clint realizes he must not trust him enough for that yet, and his shoulders slump.

But James asks, "you have a license?"

"Uh... yeah?" he utters, sidetracked.

"Great," he receives a bright smile and a peck on the cheek, "thanks."

"We'll take my car, it has winter tires," Pepper says. "Mind if I take a shower, too?"

James finishes eating while Pepper's in the bathroom, and then there's a shuffle as one of them takes his bedroom, the other takes the spare room to change. It's the first time he's seeing James in a suit, and he looks good, fitting around his hips, draping perfectly over his shoulders.

"Now you're dashing," he grins and James smiles at him.

As he drives slowly toward SR, he asks James about his preferred route along the way and takes his suggestions. When he parks under the building, James has that small smile on his face again, the one that's preceded their first kiss. Clint has to take a deep breath to ease the tightness in his chest.

Pepper insists he take her car to use throughout the day, and tells him to come back for them when he's finished with classes, with a muttered 'it was my turn anyway'.

~

He's back at SR a little after seven, traffic jams and the weather making it even more gruesome to drive in the city. When he gives his name at the front desk, they already have a badge for him and then he's being led onto an elevator and dropped off by a polite security guard in front of a stern face with piercing eyes.

The middle-aged woman looks at him, blinks, and then drawls a "yes?" with so much disinterest that he almost recoils. "The Queen or the Demon?" she asks, sounding like she's using capitals.

"Queen or demon," he mutters uncomprehending.

"Left or right?" she points her index fingers to her sides.

Clint looks around then, large doors on other side of the woman's desk, Pepper and James' names on each of them. The nicknames are interesting, though, and he makes a mental note for them.

"Either," he shrugs with a smirk.

She squints at him. "Demon's alone right now. You want that first? Side of burning flames of hell?"

"Yes, please," he says, barely managing to contain laughter. He can't tell if she's doing it on purpose or not.

She picks up the phone, presses a button, and after a conversation of 'name?', 'you have a visitor' and 'right away', he is gestured to go in. She is watching him now like she expects him to be chewed a new one, maybe James' really is that scary, and it gives him a pleasant tingle to know his hidden faces. So he's feeling generous, and smirks at her like a brat as he knocks on the door.

"Mr. Demon, sir?" he asks loud enough to be heard on either side of the door as he opens it, "Mr. Devil sent me for those souls."

Judging by the way her jaw hangs open and her eyes open wide, he guesses the nickname is real. He turns his head into the room, enters, and James is there, sitting at his desk, a hand over half his face, caught in sheer disbelief.

Clint's face falls because, fuck, he's just undermined James' authority like an asshole who doesn't think. Aw, fuck, no. What was he thinking...

"Sorry," he says, a little too desperate.

A loud laughter cackles over the speakers of the tablet that's sitting on a stand in front of him. "That's just precious, who is that? Is it him? Show me, snap snap," actual fingers snap.

James' shoulders shake for a second before he buries his face in his hands. He laughs with his full body, small gasps in between, and it's catching enough that, once relief washes over Clint, he has to press his hand to his mouth to keep from being heard.

"Don't make me come down there," he hears again, but James wheezes and there are tears in the corners of his eyes.

He motions for Clint closer and around the desk, before getting up and trying to calm himself. From the tablet, Tony Stark's face stares back at him.

"Did you shock Dolores into silence," he asks, fast, like he's wired on caffeine, "please tell me you did."

"Um, yeah," he offers.

"Awesome," he says, "I'll leave you two to it, then. Nice to meet you, Legolas."

"What," he turns to James who has managed to suppress the last remaining chuckles with a glass of water.

James' eyes settle on him, and then he's there, pulling Clint tightly against him. He clutches like he's drowning, pushes his nose into Clint's neck and inhales a long breath.

"It's been such a long day, you have no idea how badly I needed that," he whispers, and Clint squeezes him back.

After James finally lets go and Clint takes a look around the sleek, shiny office, he apologizes, more eloquently this time.

"I'm glad it made you laugh, always like you laughing," he says, "but I didn't stop to think if I was, I don't know, damaging reputation or anything."

James snorts. "Nah, I know the nickname. Some are afraid of me, some not," he shrugs, "like any other boss. So don't stop doing that. I'd much rather laugh with you."

Clint offers a smile with a small 'ok'. James looks worn out.

"Do you have to stay for much longer?" he asks after James sits them both down on the sofa along the wall.

"Depends on how Pepper's meeting goes. I was going to call you after." He leans back with a long exhale. "What time do you start tomorrow?"

"Nine," he says. Clint's phone rings then, and he pulls it out to stare at an unknown number. He raises an eyebrow before answering. "Hello?"

"Hey, it's Steve," he hears, "are you allergic to anything?"

"Huh?" he manages unintelligibly.

"Allergic. To. Anything," Steve enunciates.

"No?" What even.

"Are you asking or are you telling, 'cos if I kill you, James will never forgive me."

"Um, no, not allergic."

James makes grabby hands then, and Clint passes him the phone. "Hi. No. Sounds good. Maybe. Alright, later. There's dinner," James tells him as he hands back the device, "and you should go even if I have to stay longer."

Clint opens his mouth to protest, but the pointed look turned at him makes him reconsider.

Fortunately, everything is wrapped up in half an hour, and they're back at James'. Rewinding the day, he has a niggling feeling that Tony Stark has been the one to hack his schedule. He sighs into his soup, but lets it be. Ever since meeting James, his days have turned around, and he really really wants them to continue like that.

~

Tuesday unfolds uneventfully, impatience for the upcoming vacation on both the sides, professors and students alike, and lunch with a rested Darcy is actually pleasant and funny.

He doesn't realize nobody's expecting him there until he knocks at James' door right after class and crap, he's probably not even home. But Steve opens up with bed head again, like it's a normal occurrence, and Clint makes him coffee. It looks like both he and Thor sleep during the day, when Thor follows the smell of coffee, hair tangled worse than Steve's.

He ends up perusing the long rows of books in the living room. Clint finds what must be James' shelf soon and he curls up on the stools in the corner with a history of automation.

A gentle caress on his cheek makes him open his eyes, and he must have fallen asleep. James is sitting next to him, smiling softly. He smells like snow and cold.

"Hey," James says and Clint smiles back at him.

But James' smile doesn't dim, only turns deeper, more rooted.

"What," he whispers.

"I'm happy you came here on your own," he says.

Clint's cheeks heat. "I didn't realize until I was here."

"You're addicted," James chuckles quietly.

If he thinks about it, he is, indeed. "I guess so," he mumbles and pulls at the lace of James' hoodie. "Is it weird that it feels like more than a week already? Feels like years to me."

James leans down to kiss his forehead. "Time is relative," he smiles.

~

James makes good on his planning intentions and Clint finds himself at his weekly range trip on Wednesday evening, the aquarium on Thursday, a quiet teahouse on Friday. He spends his days studying, working out, or popping over at James'. He helps Steve cook once, joins Natasha for groceries again. He and Darcy get sent out with lunches for those working during the day, and it feels incredible to be included. He doesn't notice how easily he slips into their rhythm. By Saturday morning he's got all their numbers and schedules saved in his phone and he doesn't remember putting those there.

He goes home to train and shower, leaving James asleep to catch up on his rest. When he returns, he finds Natasha, Steve and Sam staring morosely at a round box and a pair of latex gloves around the kitchen table.

"What's going on?" he asks.

"Pain day," Steve and Natasha say at the same time.

Clint's eyebrows go up. That doesn't sound good. But then, Steve looks up at him, his eyes squinting, and that is even more ominous. Steve picks up the box and the gloves, shoves them at Clint.

"This is an analgesic cream," he says, "and he refuses to use it. Make sure you wear the gloves," he adds as he drags Clint toward James' bedroom, "it'll make your hands numb." He shoves him inside then, and closes the door.

The room is dark, curtains drawn tight, and James is bundled up beneath blankets, only a mop of hair visible on the pillow. He places the box and the gloves on the nightstand and sits on the edge of the bed.

"Go away," he hears muffled from under the cover.

"It's me, James," Clint says, pulling gently at the covers.

"No," he hears, "you have to go. Please... can't think straight, y've t'go."

Clint pulls a little harder, tries not to yank, but James is holding on tightly. "Does your arm hurt?"

"Yeah."

"Would you look at me?" Clint moves his hand to card through James' hair, wiggles the blanket lower with every stroke. "Please," he whispers, "look at me? Come on."

It takes a while, but he finally manages to pulls the covers low enough to cup James' cheek. He winces with every other inhale, his eyes unfocused in the dim light.

"Why won't you use the cream?"

"Can't feel my arm," he frowns, but presses into Clint's hand.

"That's the whole point of it, isn't it?"

"No," James licks his lips, draws in a shaky breath, "it feels like it's been cut off."

A pang of hurt runs through Clint. "Ah, baby..." he murmurs. Well, Clint's never given up easily, that's for sure. He can't think of something else to do right now, so he takes off his hoodie, leaving him in the t-shirt underneath. He grabs the box, snaps on a glove on his right hand.

"What are you doing," James' eyes grow wide when Clint takes a bit of the cream on his index finger and then drags it in a line on his left forearm.

It's pretty fast acting, and he can already feel a his fingers growing heavy. "Well," he says, "now we just have to time it and see how long it takes for the effects to pass." He shakes his left hand, contracts and extends his fingers, but the movement is sluggish.

"Why?" James asks, but he's already pulled the covers down to his shoulders.

"So we know how long I have to distract you after we put it on, silly," he says with a smile.

It pulls a laugh out of James' throat, but he hisses sharply when that jostles him.

"Come on, you owe me some making out," Clint tugs at the covers again, and this time James lets him.

He must have taken his sweater off at some point, because Clint is met with a vast expanse of skin. He's well defined, the lines of his body sinuous and balanced. His left arm looks much like his hand, long scars running through it and up all around his shoulder. It shouldn't be this beautiful, and Clint suppresses a shudder. He pulls the other glove on his uncooperative fingers. When he shifts his gaze to James, he's facing away, eyes screwed shut, so he works as fast as he can, making sure to spread the cream evenly.

Slowly, James starts breathing easier, and his face relaxes gradually. Clint removes the gloves, puts the box away and lays down on his side next to James, waits for him. It takes long minutes, but James finally turns his head, looks at him. There is too much in his eyes than Clint can decipher, and then James' body convulses with a sob, as he turns on his side toward Clint.

But Clint is there, wraps his arms around him, pulls James' face to his chest. He shushes him softly. "I'm here," he whispers, "I got you."

"You don't deserve this, I'm so damaged, Clint," James' voice shakes.

"You're not," he assures, "you're beautiful, so smart. You know, that night we met, I was about to cry in the middle of the store. You're only allowed to cry at tampons," he says as seriously as he can.

James laughs in between sobs. "Clint," he rasps.

"I'm here," he squeezes.

But James still trembles, even though silently now, and Clint doesn't know what else to do to reassure him that he's there, he's not leaving. So he lets go long enough to pull off his t-shirt and binder in one motion, and he wiggles back down, until their chests are pressed together. They're face to face now, James watching him with wide eyes.

"I'm here," he says again, pulls at the blanket to cover them both.

James still trembles, but now Clint trembles with him.

He must have fallen asleep, because when he opens his eyes next, James is looking at him, infinitely calmer. He's running the fingertips of his left hand over Clint's cheek, barely touching. He swallows when he sees Clint watching, sinks his fingers in Clint's short hair and then moves, with purpose, presses their mouths together. Clint opens up beneath him and it's slow, hot and wet, pulling the air out of his chest with every swipe of James' tongue, every drag of his teeth over his lips.

When he runs out of breath, James lets go to place small kisses over his cheeks and forehead. It's a thank you, Clint figures, and he closes his eyes, accepts it gladly.

"You asked me," James says after a while, his voice gravelly, "if I was real."

Clint hears the unvoiced question.

"I'm real," he says, pressing closer. "I'm here."

Chapter Text

Sunday is Christmas Eve for the rest of the world, but, after he wakes up again in James' bed, and follows him out into the kitchen, it's the weirdest he's seen of his new friends yet.

They take a seat at the table there, others already sitting, some joining them minutes later, until they're all together, staring into their coffee cups. They must have all spent the night, then. Clint looks around in the silence that settles, immutable and thick, sees each of them caught into whatever it is they're seeing, eyes in various states of unfocused. In the middle of the table there's a small battered cardboard box, and, after a long while of sipping their coffees quietly, Bruce drags it toward him, opens it up and spills the contents on the table.

A small red candle that's never been lit rolls out, followed by a ceramic plate that looks like the tip of a pine branch. It's less than ten seconds before, from next to Bruce, Jane snatches the items and goes to place them on one of the living room shelves. She returns, retakes her seat.

"Done decorating," she declares, and around the table shoulders slump in unison.

"Happy cake day," Steve says and is greeted with muttered agreement.

It's like time restarts, the atmosphere animated again.

"Ok, here's what we've got," Natasha says and slaps pieces of paper of various sizes on the table. "We're doing the trio, chocolate, lemon and red velvet," and wow, that's a lot of cake. "You will pair up to do my bidding like good little minions," she smirks.

Natasha collects a few folded pieces of paper in her hands before she offers them to Steve next to her, and he picks one out.

"James," he reads, followed immediately by "Cleaning," from James.

"Noted," Natasha agrees and turns to Darcy.

"Pepper," Darcy grins, and changes places with Bruce so that she and Pepper can bend their heads together and whisper conspiratorially. It doesn't bode well, judging by Natasha's long-suffering sigh.

Next is Bruce and he gets Sam. Jane pulls out Natasha's name and follows it up with "Mm, frosting..."

Natasha ignores her with a roll of her eyes, and offers the last piece to Clint, holding Thor's name's on it. Thor gives him a wide grin from where he's sitting next to Clint.

"So," Natasha raises and leans her hands on the table, looming over them, "we got cleaning covered, we got the cakes covered. We have the toy run, the groceries and the actual food left."

"Toys," Darcy raises a hand and gets a muttered "Figures" in return, right before Bruce declares "Groceries."

Thor leans into Clint. "I can't cook, man."

Natasha's eyes zero in on them at the whispered admission, her eyes squinting. Clint finds himself rubbing at his forehead. "I'll cook," he sighs.

"That settles it, then. Go see what you need and make a list for Sam and Bruce. Oh," Natasha adds, "there has to be dinner for us, choose whatever, and then you need to make about thirty casseroles or something nutritious that doesn't spoil too fast. Sam and Bruce will buy the trays for those as well."

And oh, Clint realizes what they're doing.

"Make sure to get some clothes, too," Natasha is telling Pepper now, who nods patiently, "wrap nicely," and turns to Bruce, "we want more fruit this time."

They scatter then, and Clint gets wrapped up in the chaos of the day. Thor is extremely helpful, does everything Clint directs, and they squeeze around Natasha and Jane in the kitchen. There's actually two ovens in there, and somehow they make it work. Cleaning means Steve and James do everything from vacuuming to washing the dishes they're using. Clint feels giddy every time he crosses paths with James and receives a furtive caress or a gentle peck to his cheek.

He asks Natasha at some point, why do they shop for the toys in the 24th, it would be easier to just buy in bulk before the craziness starts, but she explains that they raid a few small mom-and-pop stores that are struggling and empty their shelves. Clint's impressed, and his chest is tight throughout the day. Early afternoon, they pile into four cars and make a run of the eight orphanages in the city, and Clint discovers they all know them there.

~

Everyone retreats to clean up for dinner after they make their way back. Clint's used James' bathroom and they're exchanging playful kisses sitting on the edge of James' bed when there's a knock on the door.

Natasha enters when given permission, holding a shoe box with a crooked ribbon on it.

"We don't exchange gifts," she says, offering him the package, "but I thought you might like this."

Clint raises his eyebrows in surprise, and she nods with a pleased little smile at him, encouraging him to open it. He raises the lid to peek inside, and suddenly it's like all the blood drains from his being.

"It's new, but I sterilized it anyway," Natasha says, rocking on the balls of her feet with glee.

He can see his own hands shaking, as he stares at the harness with attached dildo inside the box. He's distantly aware of James saying his name with a warm hand on Clint's back.

"This isn't funny," he manages, "it's just cruel."

He looks up at Natasha then, but instead of the smirk he's expecting, her eyes are open in shock.

"It's not a joke," she says, but the sound that rips out of Clint's throat is closer to a sob than a laugh.

"Can you give us a minute," James says and turns to Clint after Natasha leaves. "Why is it cruel?" he asks in a whisper. Clint can't explain, not really, and he ends up shaking his head. "She gave that to you," he continues, "because she thinks we'd both enjoy it."

"What." Clint's head snaps up.

"Really," James presses and then grips the silicone shaft in the box, "it's actually the size I like." He coughs, cheeks turning pink. "Don't ask me how she knows that, it's embarrassing as hell," he adds quickly.

Clint's mind is reeling. Would James really...

"She knows what she's doing, too," comes next when Clint's silent, unsure how to ask, "I think she has like a dozen of those. Maybe you wonder how I know? Funny story," he laughs, tight and strangled, "she made me go with her--"

He stops when Clint places his palm against James' mouth. James looks worried, very worried. Clint takes a deep breath.

"Would you actually let me..." he tips his head at the box.

"Of course!" James exclaims from behind his hand, tickling his skin with warm breath.

Huh. And that's a lot of trust, right there. Clint's heart leaps with a pang, lodges itself in his throat. He needs to return it, finds that he can, more so, that he wants.

"I'd let you, too," he whispers, closing his eyes, swallowing around a lump.

James holds him, kissing his temple and rubbing his back, until Natasha returns, apologetic. But Clint re-assures her, thanks her for the gift and can't stop blushing for a whole hour, as images of James splayed on his back, squirming in the sheets, pop up unabated in his head.

~

They all eat dinner together, and Clint's kept it light, when he's seen the size of the cakes. They're having fun, including Clint in their banter, and he keeps smiling and laughing.

Everyone has been milling around the apartment all evening, so Clint thinks nothing of it when he can't see James or Natasha or Steve around for a while. It's only when Natasha pulls him quietly aside and into the corridor leading to their bedrooms that he feels the beginnings of worry. She looks a little bit too serious, so he follows silently through the door at the end of the hallway.

The room behind it is wide and narrow, large windows on the side with a desk next to them, drawings all over it and on the walls, a small shelf with a myriad of pencils and brushes above it. This must be Steve's study, he thinks. On the far left of the space, through, there are only a few thick cushions lining the floor. Steve and James are sitting there, their backs to the wall, pressed together from shoulder to knee. James looks wrecked, his hair falling haphazardly around his face, Steve not far behind, and he wants to go there, but Natasha pulls him down with her across from them. If they extend their legs, their toes could touch. The air feels already thick, the corner barely bathed in the soft light coming from the street lamps outside.

Natasha puts a picture in his hands, and it's dark, but he can see a couple in wedding attire, smiling brightly at the camera.

"Our parents, John and Sandra" she says, tapping the picture, "were both orphans, so after they got married, they wanted to adopt so badly, that they'd put aside everything else, sacrificed a lot to have us."

She draws her knees up and rests her forearms on them, another picture dangling from her fingers. Clint looks at James, but he's closed his eyes, his head resting back against the wall. This feels important, so Clint says nothing, waits for Natasha to continue.

"I was two and James was three when they brought us home, so we don't remember anything before then. They nurtured us, raised us, loved us." She swallows. "When I was 16, Sandy got diagnosed with cancer. It was something in the brain, no hope for surgery, so the docs gave no more than six months. They sat us down then, explained the difference between gender and sex," she gives him the second photograph, and he can see the outline of two men in tuxes in it. "Sandy had wanted us too badly to risk child services taking us away, so he chose to remain as he was in the eyes of the law and society. But when he got sick, things changed."

Natasha pauses to drink from a bottle of water and Clint doesn't know what to say.

"The three of us, we were there through it all. I wanted to keep his memory with me, remember everything he'd chosen for us, so I even started doing everything with him, from binders to short hair. He put the foot down at hormones," she laughs, short and halted, "and yeah, he was right about that one. Still, we all learned a lot then. A year later, we buried him."

She presses her palms to her face, takes a deep breath. Across from them, James' head has slid from the wall to Steve's shoulder.

"My mom and I," Steve says then, "we used to live right across the hall, our parents were friends, we practically grew up like brothers. A few years after Sandy died, John and my mom got married."

"I guess it was a natural progression," Natasha adds with a small smile. "They were happy."

"Were?" Clint whispers before he can stop himself.

"We were all living here already, with good jobs and great friends," Natasha nods, "a year like any other when they flew over to visit. I was home trying to cook and failing miserably."

"We went to pick them up at the airport," Steve says, squeezing James' hand.

Clint feels his eyes grow wide. He can see where this is going.

"A semi hit us," Steve adds and James turns and curls into Steve, pushing his face in his shoulder.

"Drunk driver," he hears Natasha this time. "Steve got thrown out of the car, hit his head pretty badly, and James got trapped under the wreckage."

"I was in a coma for two months," comes next in a whisper from Steve as he wraps an arm around James' shoulders. "John died on impact, mom on the way to the hospital."

They fall silent. Clint draws a deep breath and finds his fingers shaking around the photos. Nobody in his family has died, except for a great great aunt that he'd never met. He turns everything over in his head, trying to make sense of it.

"The others," Natasha pulls him out of his thoughts, with an eyebrow raised toward the rest of the apartment, "most of them have been with us through it, hit us all pretty badly. Spending one Christmas Eve in a hospital waiting room cut all our taste for it," she breathes. "They don't know the rest, though."

Clint nods slowly, taking that in. "Not about Sandy?"

"It was never significant to them, so no. We haven't even told Sam or Darcy," Steve says.

This opens up a lot of questions for Clint, and he feels his heart speed up when the most scary one surfaces. "James?" his voice is barely a whisper.

"He can't hear us," Steve returns and parts James' hair slightly to show the orange ear plugs he's wearing.

Natasha grabs his arm and pushes him down when he tries to move. "Please," she says, and she sounds tired, "wait." So Clint sits back down, waits. "If you're thinking he's with you because of Sandy, then don't," she actually voices what's spiked with fear in him. "That's just a happy coincidence, an experience that allows us to understand you better. For that matter, if you ever need to talk to someone and you can't talk to James, you can come to me and Steve. I'll help you let it out, I can teach you to fight, Steve's great at boxing. Or we can stuff with icecream, whichever you'll need."

She is so sincere, and Steve nods in agreement, that it floors Clint.

"You'd do that?" he asks.

"Yeah," Natasha says, squeezes his hand.

He wants to ask why, but just then James moves, curls even tighter around Steve, until his head is on the other's chest. Steve brings both his arms around him, shielding with soft strokes of his hair.

In all, this discussion doesn't seem to have been planned in the middle of the cheerfulness of the evening, so something must have happened.

"What's wrong," he asks, a little too desperate to comfort James himself.

"He wanted to wait until after the holidays for this talk, see how you two were doing, but it can't," comes from Natasha.

Steve speaks quietly "he likes you, a lot."

"So much so," she adds, "that he had a full blown panic attack earlier. "

"Why..." Clint's voice is shaking, but he doesn't care.

"Nobody wants him, Clint," he hears Steve say, saddened to the core and his head snaps up. "We've tried setting him up before, but people either balked at how close we all were, or at his disfigurement. And he's not the easiest person to hang around, you noticed how silent he is."

"But I like that," Clint whispers and Steve smiles.

"He knows."

"And I don't care about his arm," he stresses.

"He knows that, too."

"Then what!" he snaps. "What could possibly turn me away now?"

He realizes what they're saying before he even finishes the question and he slumps against the wall.

"We got lucky with Sam and Darcy," Steve mumbles.

"Thing is," Natasha says, "the three of us had been always together. We've helped each other through so much, and then everyone else gravitated."

She turns to Clint then, grips his shoulders.

"We are always going to be in each other's lives. If you two want to move in together someday, it will most likely involve living with one us, as well. Do you understand what I'm saying? We're at a point where, after all the crap that's happened to us, we can't function without each other."

"So if I stay with him," he swallows past the lump in his throat, "I get not only a great guy, but also friends that understand me and want to help?" He tries to blink away the wetness in his eyes. "What's not to want..."

Natasha's smile is brilliant, showing all teeth, much wider than he's ever seen on her. The embrace she pulls him in is gentle, though, and Clint buries his face in her neck, tries to calm his rapidly beating heart. She rubs at the back of his neck until he lets go. When he looks over, James is still curled up, fist clenched in the front of Steve's t-shirt, but he's looking at Clint, tentatively hopeful.

"Any other day, he would have told you at least parts of this himself," Natasha says, "but it's been... a hard couple of days." She pushes a strand of hair from his forehead. "Don't take this the wrong way, but when you laugh, you're beautiful. I haven't seen James this happy in a very long time."

It brings a smile to Clint and he doesn't bother hiding it, turns it toward James.

"Why the earplugs?" he asks.

Steve sighs. "He didn't want to hear. In case you said no, he wanted us to ask you to pretend until tomorrow."

"What. James!"

Clint waves his hands in a flutter, and James winces. He straightens and removes the plugs.

"Sorry," he rasps, his voice thick with more than disuse.

"You're ridiculous," he says with disbelief and amusement and relief.

"But you still like me?" comes back small and too unsure for Clint's liking.

"Yes!"

Steve and Natasha are both nodding when James looks at them, and Clint waves his hand in front of him, willing him to believe faster, to smile, to-- fuck, to wipe that sadness off his face.

Instead, he crawls closer to Clint, takes his hands. "I'm sorry," he says, "this was all extremely immature and cowardly."

Clint has to laugh. "Ridiculous and awkward," he counters.

"Thank you," comes back so genuinely, that Clint curses under his breath.

"Come here," he pulls until James is leaning against Clint, held tightly to his chest. He closes his eyes for a second, lets himself breathe, feel James warm and real. But when Natasha and Steve shift to leave, he stops them. They've shared so much, and Clint so little, he has to give something back.

He accepts a sip of water before he begins. Here goes.

"I turned 18 when I was in my last year of highschool," he says. "That day I cut my hair. It was long, down to my thighs, my mother was so very proud of it. Well," he swallows, "I told my parents that night, and it ended up in a lot of yelling and hurtful things."

He feels James shift to look at him, and he closes his eyes, holds tighter.

"My friends were all gathered at my boyfriend's house, waiting for me to celebrate. When I got there, I was already crying, so I told them everything. He-- the boy I was dating, he slapped me hard across the face. He was shouting and when he came at me again, I defended myself, punched him hard enough to dislocate a finger and break his jaw."

James moves, not far, just enough to wrap his arms around Clint's torso, squeeze tight.

"They dragged me out, beat the shit out of me," his voice is wobbly, but he pushes through. "The kick that broke a rib and laded me in the hospital with a punctured lung was from my brother, while I was down on the sidewalk. Shit," he breathes. "It took me two years to get over that, almost didn't graduate. I was supposed to be valedictorian, had gotten early acceptance at several universities. But people are crappy like that, you know?"

He opens his eyes to see their faces set grimly.

"My grandfather helped me through that, gave me a trust fund later so I can come here," he huffs. "I have his name..." Clint chokes, overwhelmed by the memories and how much his grandfather has done for him.

Natasha smiles gently at him, understanding, and Clint finds himself between three bodies, in a tangle of limbs and comforting touches. They stay like that for a while, until there's a soft knock on the door, followed by Sam's voice.

"You all doing ok in there?"

"We'll be right out," Steve says and they disentangle, straighten themselves out before re-emerging.

Steve and Natasha go through toward the kitchen, but James pulls Clint into his bedroom.

"I'm an idiot," he says once he closes the door.

"Did you really have a panic attack?" Clint places his hand on James' chest.

James slumps against the door, exhales sharply. "Yeah..."

"What caused it?" Clint asks, receives a half shrug.

"You were so upset by Nat's gift, and I didn't think anything of it, 'cos it's like that with us, you know," James looks at the floor as he talks. "It didn't occur to either of us that she was invading your privacy. But then, I realized that won't stop happening, ever. It's who we are. And I panicked..." he finishes in a whisper.

"I was only upset when I thought it was a joke," Clint offers and leans closer. James' arms wrap around him immediately and Clint closes his eyes with a small shiver.

"She was trying to thank you for yesterday."

"For the cream thing?" he asks, a frown settling on his forehead. He didn't think of it as such a big deal, maybe he was wrong.

"I think they tested you," James presses his lips in Clint's hair. "They usually just hold me down and get it over with. It involves a lot of kicking, screaming and embarrassment," he adds quietly, "but I was so relived they'd left me alone yesterday, that I didn't see what they were doing."

"I'm glad they sent me in," he offers.

"Really?"

"Yup. Got to see hot naked guy," he grins into James' t-shirt and gets a pinch to his side for it.

"Tsk, flatterer," James chastises, but pulls him even closer.

Chapter Text

Monday is spent in much of the same way, lounging around and finishing off yesterday's leftovers and the massive cakes. Clint is still amazed by how easily they've welcomed him.

"It's incredible," he mutters under his breath.

"What is?"

He startles as Jane leans over the back of the sofa he's been sitting on, watching the snow falling outside. James is asleep with his head in Clint's lap. Across from them, Steve and Thor are going on about a plot for a comic, Sam's on his laptop in a corner. Pepper and Bruce are playing cards at the kitchen table, and Natasha has dragged Darcy out into her bedroom earlier.

Clint looks up at Jane. Her presence is always soft, and even though she rarely laughs out loud, she smiles a lot, her eyes alight with mirth every time someone does something silly.

"This," Clint says, shrugging. "You're all so tight, can't really believe it's been so easy."

She hums before squeezing herself next to him. James stirs, but doesn't wake.

"You've been vetted early on," she pats his knee, whispering conspiratorially, "it's not every day that James comes home all blushing like a schoolboy."

"Well," he scratches the back of his neck. "We've had some nice dates."

"Nah-huh," she shakes her head. "I was on the phone with Nat when he came in all flustered first time he saw you."

Clint can feel his cheeks heat at that and he looks down at James to hide it.

"Oops," Jane squeaks, but that's when Thor decides to come over and he stops in a crouch in front of her.

"Lady Jane," he says, gripping her knees, and she pinches his cheek. "Why are you making Clint blush?"

"I was spilling the beans," she huffs with a smile.

"Don't worry Clint," Thor leans over and whispers, "I'll save you from the wicked witch!" and then pulls up, lifting Jane easily over his shoulder.

She yelps and Clint laughs silently, trying not to jostle James. Thor and Jane disappear into the corridor that leads to the second set of bedrooms, and when Clint looks around, they're alone.

"Hey," James mumbles, blinking sleepily, "what's going on?"

"I think everyone's having sex." It's still pretty early in the evening, and he doubts they all just went to sleep all of a sudden.

"Oh my god," James groans and shifts to bury his nose against Clint's abdomen.

"It was bound to happen," Clint offers.

James rolls back to look up at him and exhales in a long rush of air. "The walls are pretty much soundproof, but we can go to your place if you want."

"It's fine," Clint shakes his head. "Can we go to your room instead?"

There's a long look from James before he nods, and Clint smiles sheepishly. "I don't mean..."

"I know, come on," James stands and pulls him along. "What did you have in mind?" he asks once the door is closed behind them.

Clint shrugs. "Nothing really, just--" he rolls waves his hand trying to materialize the words. "I like this room," he offers.

It gets him a pleased smile before James lays down on his side over the covers and pats the bed beside him. Clint joins him silently.

"Do you have any other secrets?" Clint whispers before he can stop himself because that's just... too much. He hides his face in the pillow.

James' gloved hand comes up to pull at his chin. "I have to confess, that shampoo, I didn't really need it," he smiles, surprising a chuckle out of Clint.

"Sorry," he whispers, biting his lip.

"'s fine," James sighs. "I imagine it must be overwhelming for you, all this crap. We've just met and I've already pushed you into all of this."

"I don't mind," Clint presses, catches James' hand and starts pulling at his glove. "Look, I--" He has to swallow, take a breath, but James waits for him patiently. "Before now, the only person I had in the world was grampa. And when I ran into you at the store, that was the only human contact I had besides handshakes in two years. I know it's lame," he finally pulls the glove off and raises James' hand to press it to his cheek, closes his eyes. "You can't imagine how incredibly painful that is," he breathes, so low he can barely hear himself.

"You're right, I can't," comes back just as quietly.

"This is terrifying," he admits, "all these new people, you."

"It is, isn't it," James agrees and Clint opens his eyes to find that small warm smile curving his lips.

He shifts closer until their knees bump and James extends his other arm on the pillows so Clint can lean his head on it. He gathers James' left hand between his, brings it close to his lips.

"I know this might go to unhealthy or whatever crap people think, but I don't want to be alone anymore," he says, wobbly.

"It's not unhealthy," James offers. "It's a bit fast, but not that weird." There must be something on Clint's face, because he lowers his voice to a whisper. "I asked Sam, he's more knowledgeable in these things. I was actually really worried I was pushing you." His eyebrows crease in the middle.

"What'd he say?" Clint breathes.

"That I was being an idiot," James closes his eyes. "I told you I was bad at this."

Clint kisses his fingers. "I'm worse."

"If you want to spend time with me," James looks at him again, "and I want to with you, then I don't see why we should hold back, conform to unfounded dating rules," he bops Clint's nose with his index finger. "Time is short, it passes by faster than you can imagine."

~

It's dark when Clint startles awake, the clock on the nightstand showing a few minutes past three, and he's alone, still laying over the covers. He takes a few minutes to register the sounds of the apartment, but when he's met with silence, he makes his way out carefully.

The kitchen is dark, the only light coming from a small lamp in the living. From where he stops to lean into the edge of the hallway, he can see James sprawled on his back on a sofa, Steve plastered on top of him, head on James' chest. They're both asleep, Steve's fist tight into James' sleeve and Clint shivers with a pang at how painful the past day must have been for the two of them. The way Steve has comforted James, he's grateful that it's returned. Clint's not surprised to find that he'd offer the same to any of them. They've gotten under his skin and he wants them all to find solace when they need it.

That, and they're adorable snuggled together, Steve drooling into James' shirt, and James cradling Steve's head, his fingers making the blond hair stand up at angles. Clint suppresses a chuckle.

Soft footsteps fall on the carpet and Sam stops next to him.

"Hey," he says, voice low.

"Hi," Clint keeps his just as quiet.

Sam is silent for a long moment, as he leans into the wall next to Clint.

"That doesn't bother you?" he finally asks, tipping his chin to the sofa.

It didn't even cross Clint's mind to be bothered. "No," he says and doesn't hold back a smile.

Sam shakes his head, looking at him like he's grown two heads. "Wow, you're really something," he mutters and Clint frowns. But Sam turns a toothy grin at him, and "you're gonna fit right in."

Clint likes that, he wants that, and it's nice to hear the encouragement. He smiles again with a nod.

"Does it bother you?" he returns the question.

"Used to," Sam answers, "blew a gasket over it." Clint raises an eyebrow inquisitively, doesn't want to press, but Sam continues. "I think we were dating for two months? Yeah, when I met Natasha and James. Was supposed to see a movie at Steve's. Actually," he rolls his head around, "it was here, but much smaller. Natasha lets me in, and I find those two," he tips his chin at the sofa again, "kinda like they are now, all snuggly."

"What'd you do?"

"Ran the fuck out as fast as I could. The next day, I start getting all these people dropping in on me for lunch." Clint grins at him and Sam rolls his eyes. "Almost called the cops, 'cos after a while they started dropping in at my place."

"You caved, didn't you?" Clint chuckles.

"Hell, yeah," Sam says, his expression turning fond. "Weirdos spoiled me for good. Come on," he adds, nudging at Clint's shoulder with a smirk, "let's see if we can wake them up by staring."

Clint follows him to the other sofa, sits down and curls his knees to his chest. James' face is slack in his sleep, and Clint gets lost in following the lines of his mouth, the curves his eyebrows, the tiny flutters of his eyelids as he dreams.

He doesn't remember falling asleep, as awareness comes to him. There's white morning light spilling in from outside, James warm behind his back, an arm holding him close around the middle. He hums as he stretches, blinks his eyes open.

On the floor next to the sofa, sitting cross legged elbow to elbow, are James, sipping coffee, and Steve, scribbling on a sketch pad, with various degrees of amusement and concentration on their faces.

"Ugh," he groans, when he sees the dark skin of Sam's arm under his cheek. But he's sleepy and comfy and warm, so he snuggles back, sticks his tongue out at James.

He smiles at Clint, brilliant and wide in the morning light. Steve chuckles, continues drawing in short strokes of the pencil. There are voices in the kitchen, some soft clanging of dishes and soon Sam stirs awake.

"Don't move," Steve commands, just as Clint's about to get up. Sam lets out a long sigh behind him, while James is busy looking interestedly over Steve's shoulder at his work.

"Sorry," Clint says, "fell asleep on you."

Sam pats his side, placating. "If it makes you feel any better, Thor ended up spooning me once, and I screamed like a little girl when I woke up."

Clint snorts.

"True story, Jane has pictures," Sam adds, and then yawns long into his hand.

"She does," he hears James say. He crawls closer, then, enough to hook his chin over Sam's dangling forearm. "Morning," he says softly.

Clint raises his hand to push a strand of hair out from James' cheek. "Hi."

"Don't you dare," Sam starts just as Steve says "that's it, if you're not gonna sit still, get off my boyfriend," right over Sam's "kiss on me!"

There's sudden movement and shuffling. Clint can't stop laughing the moment his ass hits the floor, along an array of elbows to ribs, tangled legs, and muffled curses. James has retreated a step back, and he's chuckling into his hand, while Natasha looks unimpressed at them, arms crossed and face stern.

"Children," she says, chastising, and Clint laughs until there are tears in his eyes. He's not the only one.

~

Wednesday is back to work for most of them, and Clint takes the morning to study. It's a little after noon when Darcy pops in, drags him out. They're seeing Bruce for lunch 'cos, apparently, it's his turn. They meet outside a restaurant that's a little too upscale for Clint's tastes, but Darcy insists that they've got the best seaweed salad this side of town, so Clint lets himself be convinced.

Bruce leads them in, the space filled with business suits, and Clint's a bit conscientious of his washed out hoodie and worn jeans. Nobody pays them any mind, at least not until their waiter shows up, young man with a smug little smirk. He takes a look at them, and he's probably imagining that he's not getting a big tip from this lot, given the way he measures them. Bruce is not crumpled, for a change, shirt pressed and jacket tight, but Clint and Darcy look like they've just rolled out of bed.

"Would you and your daughters like to order now," the waiter asks, clearly trying to get a raise out of them, and that's why Clint dislikes places like these.

There's half a beat and Bruce's face loses all its softness, in a way Clint's never seen before. His eyes turn hard, and the cold glint that forms in them sends a spike of fear down Clint's spine. Just then, Darcy's hands wrap around Bruce's arm, and she leans into him, distracting.

"Please daddy," she whines, loud enough to turn heads around her, "take it out, it huuurts..."

Clint doesn't know if to be mortified or amused, but Bruce loses that dangerous air. Clearly Darcy knows what she's doing, and when Clint looks up at the waiter, he's gaping, all blood drained from his face.

"No, pumpkin," Bruce says, short and halted, playing along.

Around them, people are trying to stare inconspicuously, but a few are already leaving their tables. The waiter's eyes skitter between them with panic, and when they turn on him, Clint puts on the most innocent expression he can muster and nods slowly, pleadingly.

The guy takes a step back, hits a chair. "I'll give you a moment," he mutters and runs off.

"Hey, Brucie," he hears Darcy whisper, "calm down, ok?" She's holding his hand, caressing it gently over the table.

"I'm calm, I'm calm," Bruce says, takes a deep breath. His free hand flexes into the cloth, and Clint finds himself grabbing for it, matching Darcy's movements. "I can't believe the little shit," he grits, "who the fuck he is judging us...", a few more deep breaths. A shudder follows, then all tension is gone. "Thanks," he adds, and he's back to soft, amusement playing at the corners of his lips.

Darcy grins, winking, and Clint tries to suppress the laughter that's bubbling out of his throat.

"You brat," Bruce smacks her gently over the back of her head, "I'm actually old enough to be your father!"

"Sir," another man in a waiter's uniform says, this one older, "I'm going to have to ask you to leave, if you insist on abusing your children."

And Clint can't help it, he howls into his palm with laughter. It's so silly and mortifying, that he's passed over the waiter's first comment, didn't have time to be hurt by it, and he's grateful. The way Darcy smirks at him, she's done it for both Bruce and Clint's sakes.

His chest tightens with warmth as they eat hot dogs on a frozen bench, and Bruce gives him a half hug around his shoulders, tells him all about judgmental bullies and getting kicked out of school for refusing to write homework for the son of some shmuck lawyer who'd decided to ruin his life for abiding the rules. He's made it through, but it had left him with a few issues.

Natasha cackles for two hours when they tell her that evening, while Sam shakes his head and keeps muttering something about weird people.

He falls asleep curled up around James, that evening, sated by the friendship he's been given, shaken by acceptance, contented by their closeness.

Chapter Text

It's snowing again, as Clint opens his windows the next morning, inhaling the clean wet air of winter. There's a thick layer of white over everything, the sky still light gray and he does his morning routine with a smile. A refreshing hour in the gym and a shower later, he gets dressed. There's a book at James' that will help him with a class.

He's almost out the door when his phone rings.

"Hi," he answers with a grin.

"Hey," James says over the line. "What are you doing?"

"Was just about to go raid your library," he says.

"Listen, I need you to come over to SR," and there's something in James' voice that stops Clint in his tracks. "Steve's on his way over to you now to pick you up."

"Um, sure," he frowns. "Something wrong?"

"We're good, don't worry. I'll explain when you get here, ok?"

"Ok..." Something is definitely wrong and it gives Clint an unpleasant feeling in his gut.

They say their goodbyes and then Steve's there, Thor in tow. They make their way in silence to SR, the guys exchanging glances Clint doesn't miss. There, they're deposited in front of Dolores (who makes her way out silently, stopping just outside the glass doors in the hallway) once again, only this time, James is there waiting for him. He's wearing the hoodie and jeans he's pulled on this morning, his hair falling haphazardly onto his shoulders.

He presses a kiss on Clint's lips before gripping his shoulders with a long inhale.

"Don't panic," he whispers. And now Clint wants to panic.

"What's going on?" he asks, dread seeping into his bones.

"Whatever happens," James presses, squeezing his shoulders, "I'm here. We're all here," he nods at Steve and Thor, who've taken seats on the chairs along the wall across from Dolores' desk.

There's a sound making its way out of Clint's throat that he can't stop, because this doesn't sound good. Not good at all. It's then that Bruce comes in, gives a nod as hello, and settles next to Steve.

"Clint," James says, catching his attention again, "whatever happens, you're ours now. We're here, do you understand?"

Clint believes him, he knows it to be true. "Yeah," he rasps, clears his voice. "Yes," he says again, clearer, and it pulls a shaky smile out of James.

"Good, good," he breathes. "Tony had some unexpected visitors, and he refused to talk to them without you present."

"Me," he states.

"It's your father and your brother."

Clint can't stop the grimace and James moves his hand to the back of his neck, warm and solid.

"What do they want?"

"All I know is that it involves you somehow. They're waiting for us," he tips his head toward Pepper's doors.

A deep breath, and Clint closes his eyes, tries to steel himself. "Alright, let's go."

As they enter, the room opens up to a large desk, Pepper sitting behind it fingers steepled in front of her, that air of imposing authority clear in the lines of her face. On the corner of the desk, Tony Stark leans on his hip, tapping absentmindedly at a tablet, and across from them, his father, Richard, and brother, Barney. The visitors chairs they're occupying are angled, so he can see the sides of their faces, can see when they notice, but not acknowledge, them.

"This conversation would have been less embarrassing for you," his father addresses Stark, "if done in private, but your choice." He crosses his legs, shifts in the chair. "It has come to our attention that my daughter is dating one of your VPs."

"Finally got yourself a squeeze, good for you, Pepper," Tony offers without looking away from poking at the device.

"Not me," Pepper counters, just as Barney says "It's Clint, she's dating what's his name."

Tony's head snaps up then, eyes wide and he gasps, turning to Clint and James as they stand near the door. "You don't have a dick? And all those times James came in limping..."

He sounds so genuinely hurt that Clint almost recoils for a second. He has to press his lips together to stop the chuckle that wants to bubble out, and almost fails at the affronted grimace set on his father's face. James squeezes his shoulder and when Clint looks at him, he's biting his lip, trying just as hard not to laugh.

"Mock all you want," Richard continues, "but this girl has serious mental issues. To our shame, we've let her con my father out of a lot of money and shares of the company, and I can't, in good conscience, let her do it to you, too."

This time, he really takes a step back, and only James' hand on his shoulder keeps him from running. Pepper's face is blank as she watches, but Stark is looking at Clint with interest, eyes skittering all over him, measuring.

"We should have gone to the authorities," Richard adds, "but she's family, and you understand how these things go."

That's it. Hot anger rushes through Clint, and he stops himself from shouting with a shudder. He really wants to say his mind though, but before he can open his mouth, Tony speaks again.

"First of all, Clint's a boy. I know 'cos he said so. Second--"

"There's an order to things in this world, Mr. Stark," Richard interrupts. "An order without which we have chaos, and anarchy, and deviants filling our streets. It would be very damaging for your company should this come out."

"Damaging, huh?" Tony says and Clint can see the exact moment his eyes light with glee. "Pepper?" he asks, without taking his eyes off of Clint's father.

"Sure," she says, unmoving.

"Watch this," Tony grins and pulls up his tablet, pokes a few times. "Ahem," he clears his throat, straightens his tie. "This is Tony Stark. You might all know me as genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist," he speaks to the tablet, holding it in front of him as he's filming himself, "and today I want to say this: Stark Robotics fully endorses, without discrimination, all orientations and genders. And whatever else is out there, except if you're creeps, please don't be creeps."

"Tony." Pepper warns.

"Right," he backtracks. "So, to show my support, I'll be wearing heels for a month. Red and sparkly. Stark out." He stabs at the display a few times, grins at the wide eyes of the visiting Bartons. "Uploaded for the world to see. Pepper--"

"Buy your own shoes, Tony," she cuts him off.

"But you have such good taste."

"This is not a laughing matter," Richard stands up, visibly upset. "We had planned to do this discreetly, but since you insist on being such a pompous ass," he shouts, "you can count yourself warned. We're starting procedures to have her institutionalized, she's not fit to make her own decisions, and you, asshole, just put yourself in the middle!"

Clint's knees go weak. No, he didn't hear it right. It can't be. Someone is saying something, might be his name, but everything is so fuzzy all of a sudden. There are hands on his arms, gentle warm hands, and he's sitting now. He tries to drink from the glass of water, but it sloshes and spills half on the floor. He can't breathe, can't breathe, can't hear, warmth pushing his head down between his knees. There's a poke at the edges of fuzziness, and he follows, until it turns into inhale and exhale and inhale...

"I'm here, I'm here," James whispers into his ear, pressing Clint against his side, with an arm around him.

It must not have been long, because his father and brother are still in the room.

"It's obviously a ruse, look at her," Richard gestures widely.

"Yeah, whatever," Tony puts up a hand and comes closer to the sofa, closer to Clint, just as Pepper takes over, engages the other men.

"You ok there, Legolas?" he murmurs and Clint nods, shakily. "You really got shares in your company?"

"Grampa put half of his in my name, but he's controlling them, I didn't want--" he has to breathe cos there's not enough air, inhales and exhales, just as James tells him to do.

There are more voices, muffled, before he hears his grandfather's baritone.

"This is Clint Barton," the voice coming from speakers somewhere.

"Mr. Barton, this is Tony Stark, of Stark Robotics."

"And?" Clint chokes on a half laugh, his grandfather's always been abrasive.

"And I want to buy Barton Milling." What?

"What the hell for?"

"Your son's paying me a visit," Tony continues, unconcerned, and raises a hand when Richard opens his mouth to speak.

"What's he done now?"

"Dad!" Richard exclaims over Tony's "you're on speaker."

"Mr. Barton," Pepper takes over, "your son has threatened us with a lawsuit through which he wishes to commit your grandson, Clint, to a mental health facility."

"Boy!" the voice over the speakers is loud, very loud, Clint's only heard his grampa this upset when he's been in the hospital. "I've had it with this nonsense!"

"You," Richard pokes the air with his finger downward, "are not into your right mind. I won't be surprised if we find dementia," he grits.

"I'll give you dementia alright," Barton Sr. mutters. "Stark!"

And Tony startles into straightening up with a "yes, sir?"

"Why the hell would you want to buy my company?"

"I just wanted to piss him off," Tony grins and there's a full bout of laughter coming in from the speakers.

"We'll all talk in a minute," comes back in his grandfather's stern tone, and then, gentler, "is my sweetheart there?"

Tony throws his phone across the room and Clint catches it with a fumble. His hands are shaking, but James helps him turn the loudspeaker off.

"I'm here, grampa," he says, and curls into James, buries his face in his hoodie, blocking out the room.

"Don't you worry," he hears, "I'll fix this, Clint, I promise. You're not going anywhere."

"He said--" Clint's words wobble as he draws a breath.

"I'll have a talk to your boy's boss," his grandfather assures, "and then I'll let you know what we can do to disconnect you from this insanity forever. I'll see that you're taken care of, you can bet on it."

"But--"

"No buts, sweetheart, I promised you to help with school, didn't I?"

"Yeah," he breathes.

"Then I'll do at least that. I'm sure you're strong enough to make it on your own, son, just giving you a push."

"Grampa," Clint starts, unsure how to say how grateful he is, for everything his namesake has done for him.

"None of that, now. Give the phone back and go cool your head. Gonna be a long day," he sighs.

He complies, and then makes his way out of the office. He's leaning heavily on James as soon as the doors close behind them. James leads them down to his lab, and their three friends follow silently. He plops Clint on a chair in the quiet room and crouches down in front of him, takes his hands to press his lips into Clint's knuckles.

"I'm here," he says, eyes dark.

Everything drains out of Clint at once and he slumps forward until James catches him with his arms around his shoulders. He holds Clint there, rubbing gently at his back until Clint sighs with a long exhale and a shiver.

"I have to go back up there," he says, "but Steve and Thor and Bruce are gonna stay here with you. That ok?" he asks softly.

Clint nods and makes himself let go, straightens up.

"What happened?" Steve asks and rolls a chair to take James' place in front of Clint, grips his hands tightly.

"They want to commit Clint," James replies as he roots into a closet near the back of the room, pulls out a garment bag. Judging by their lack of surprise, the other three must have known already who was waiting for them in Pepper's office. "They barely even looked at us," he rips the zipper of the bag open a little too forcefully, "didn't recognize me there."

He changes quickly, with efficient moves, into the suit he has stashed there. Thor ties his hair in a bun as James curses under his breath, knotting a tie around his neck. It's a fully black suit, and when he turns to Clint, he looks like this is what has earned his Demon nickname.

James stops next to Clint, drawn at his full height, like a predator on the prowl. He grips Clint's chin, presses his lips gently on his, before making his way out of the lab.

Clint's just a little bit more in love with him.

Wait. What?!

Steve pushes a mug into his hands and he gulps from it because, what? It's tea, he notices when it burns his tongue a little and he chokes.

His heart flutters in his chest trying to crawl its way up his trachea, and he looks around the room. He knows he's flushed, his cheeks impossibly hot, but given how Thor pats him on his back and Steve's "easy there," they've put it on his coughing.

Bruce sits on another chair next to them, and Thor leans into the desk behind Clint. They're quiet for a while, before Clint grabs for the mug again. His throat feels raw and he is thirsty, but this time he sips his drink carefully.

"What do you need?" Steve asks him after he's finished.

Clint shrugs, his father's words coming back to him in full clarity.

"More space or less space?" Bruce asks and Clint doesn't know that either. "Why don't you go wash your face, first?" Bruce nudges him toward a door in the opposite corner, and then into the small bathroom there.

He's numb for a while, splashing his face with cold water, but then he wonders, what if they succeed, what if he's locked up, all alone, trapped in his head, screaming to be heard... He's already shaking when he makes his way out and he nearly collapses into Steve.

"Less space," he croaks, "less please."

Steve catches him, slides with him to the floor. He's warm against Clint, arms coming around to cradle him to his chest, just like he had done with James. His fingers are hypnotizing as they run through his hair, over and over, and Clint focuses on that, matches his breaths with the steady strokes. He's saying something, murmuring low, Bruce and Thor standing close, and Clint closes his eyes, lets their presence envelop him.

Chapter Text

It's maybe two hours before James returns. Clint, after another cup of tea and a lot of encouragement, has retreated to the partition holding the robotic arm that James had showed him how to program before. The others have checked in from time to time, but otherwise they've let him chew on his own thoughts in peace.

His chest is tight, so very tight, he can't shake it when he thinks about James, but he decides to just enjoy the feeling instead of fretting over it, lets it wash over him. He's got other things to panic over right now, and he's trying very hard not to do just that.

"Hey," James says and sits down on the floor next to him. His hand hovers in the air between them uncertainly, and Clint scoots closer, leans into James, lets himself be embraced.

"Hey," he breathes.

James pets the side of Clint's face before he places a kiss on the top of his head.

"I found out what they really wanted," he says, and he sounds drained.

Clint feels a frown forming between his eyebrows when he looks up at James. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," James presses the tips of his fingers over his eyes for a moment and Clint nudges him with an elbow. "Your father wants full control over the company, for some reason, maybe to leave it to your brother, no idea," he shrugs. "The point is he wants it, and he's got into another argument with your grandfather over it a couple months ago. That's when he found out you actually own some shares. It escalated from there."

"He can have his stupid company, oh my god," Clint mumbles, a little desperate and a lot hurt.

"Your grandfather disagrees. He said he'd run it into the ground before he lets it go, and that's a direct quote."

Clint nods, understanding. "He's built it from nothing," he offers in explanation.

"Now you're caught in the middle because of those shares," James continues. "If your father gets them, he gets control."

"I'll give them back to grampa," Clint says, because that's so very simple.

"And if he leaves them to you in his will, this is going to happen all over again."

"Ugh." James is right. It will never stop.

"So, the solution we've come up with is to have Barton Milling taken over by SR. Your grandfather will remain in full control until he decides to retire, but all your part and his goes to SR right now."

"Ok," Clint says. It sounds like a good future for his grandfather's life work.

"Pepper's really good at what she does, she's going to take good care of it," James continues, "and if you ever wanna reclaim it, it's going to be in the contract."

"Ok," he repeats.

"If you decide on that, and then lose the rights to it, for example if someone tries to commit you," James grits between his teeth, "control goes back to SR, since Stark's buying it fair and square. Your father can keep his shares, but they're not even enough to make twenty percent, and your grandfather assures me the board will agree with him."

"Ok." Sounds like a good deal.

"I think we might be able to delay them until tomorrow, so you can think it over," James finishes and buries his nose in Clint's hair.

Clint pushes up to look at James then. "I said ok," he smiles.

"Really?" James returns, raising his eyebrows, and Clint nods. "You can take your time," he adds, "Pepper will answer any questions you have."

"I'm sure," he breathes, "I want this over and I trust grampa to decide what's good for him and I trust you."

James looks at him for a long moment, considering, and Clint smiles at him. "You do, don't you?" he says, so quietly Clint almost misses it.

"Yeah," he nods, and James' hand grips onto the front of his hoodie. Clint's smile widens.

"I wanna ask why, but that's stupid," James laughs. "Shit. Kiss me. Now. Kiss me now," he whispers, tugging lightly.

Clint complies, happily.

~

As they make their way through the hallways of Stark Robotics, Clint realizes he's always seen James in his private environment, surrounded by intimacy, his friends and his hidden sides. Right now though, as he leads the way for their small group (Bruce has retreated to care for his own duties), he can see his interactions with people outside of the comfort of his home.

Most of them scramble off, and some brave enough stay to say hello. James replies with short, efficient words, and then even those retreat out of his way. It's interesting in the least, to see him move this fluidly. For a second, Clint imagines a secret agent, expecting James to pull out a gun any second, and he stifles the giggle that threatens to come out. He's a little afraid it might turn hysterical at this point.

It's not until they enter the conference room where they'll discuss the terms of the deal with his father and brother, does Clint grasp how much power James really exudes.

The room is wide, hosting a long table with chairs around it. To the side, his father and brother are talking to a third man, and Clint recognizes him as his father's lawyer. A young woman sits next to the wall, poised to take notes, and another young man is bringing glasses and a carafe of water over to the table.

"Out," James says after they enter, and the two SR employees hurry to leave. The lawyer though, stays. "Out," James turns to him this time, looking at him pointedly.

It doesn't take long for the man to cave. "I'll give you a moment," he mumbles, apologetically. Richard glares at him as he leaves.

There's a mutter, then, from Barney, that sounds a lot like 'rabid dog'. James turns to him and just stares, his face set blankly. He doesn't blink, doesn't twitch, doesn't move a muscle. Less than thirty seconds later, Barney actually stumbles back a step.

Clint can't wipe the smugness off his face. He doesn't want to, because this man, as he sits down like he owns the building, this man who looks like he's capable of snapping necks, with his commandeering presence that fills up the space until it's thick with unease, this man has allowed Clint to see him at his most vulnerable. James has trusted Clint, has laughed with him and appeased his worries, admitted his insecurities, caressed Clint's very core.

Richard takes a seat, too, but Clint remains standing. Behind them, Thor pulls the door closed, stays there, drawn at full height, while Steve moves to the other end of the room, shuts the other door as well.

"What is this," Richard sneers, "are you pulling out the guard dogs? Threats are not going to work with me."

"No threats, Mr. Barton," James says in calm monotone. "They're Clint's friends and are just here to observe on his behalf."

Barney snorts from where he lounges against a wall, as far enough as he can go and still be in hearing range of the conversation.

"This is what is going to happen." James states, ignoring Barney, "Stark Robotics is buying out Clint Barton's shares."

"Which one?" Richard asks mockingly, clearly expecting the answer to be Clint Jr.

"Both of them," James returns.

Richard falters, going pale, but he says nothing. He considers it quietly, jaw clenched. "We're still going through with the trial," he finally speaks. "For both of them, if they insist," he adds with a pleased smile.

Clint takes a deep breath.

"You can try," James acquiesces, "but do you think you can win against our lawyers? Think about it, in this day, even gay marriage is legal. All those deviants running the courts," he adds with derision.

Richard leans into the table sharply. "Is this what this is about, sonny?" His voice raises gradually as he speaks. "You like taking it up your ass, but need a woman to do it for ya?"

"That's enough," Clint hears his own voice and it's not even shaking.

James' fingers twitch on the table minutely, but otherwise he doesn't move. Clint places a hand on the back of his neck, comforting, and is pleased when James accepts it, leans back into his touch.

"Enough?! That's enough?" Richard shouts as he stands. "Do you have any idea what you put us through, how your mother has suffered? How you shamed us," he slams his palm into the table. "We were ostracized, your brother had to change schools to another city, and for what! So you can go play bitch for men twice your age!!"

Clint's heart hammers in his chest like it's about to break off, and he's flooded with memories of that night, the pain and the anger and the betrayal.

"First of all," he says and now his voice is trembling, but he pushes through, "what I do and with whom is none of your business." His father's yelling something again, but Clint tunes him out and continues, same low tone. "Second, Barney didn't suffer, you sent him away for what he did. Third," he swallows, pressing his fingers into James' skin like it's a lifeline, "Mrs. Johnston, you know, the one who lives across the street from where I was beaten, her security cameras caught it all on tape. She didn't come back from her cruise until months later, and I wanted to spare you and mom, so I didn't say anything. But I still have it. Grampa has a copy. James has a copy."

Clint had wished, during those painful nights in the hospital, that there had been a video, fantasizing about how Mrs. Johnston would return home and rush to him with a tape... something, anything, but, as it were, it would've been his word against the others, and he'd doubted he'd have been believed.

Richard doesn't know that, fortunately, given how he slumps back in his chair, eyes wide and skittering between Barney and Clint.

"You will accept this," James says.

"I want to see it," comes back, gritted.

"If you see it, the world sees it," Clint counters.

James nods along, taps the tips of his gloved fingers slowly on the surface of the table. "Mr. Stark is willing to buy your share as well."

Richard snorts at that.

"Take the money," James instructs, "start a business elsewhere. Or are you really willing to risk this?"

He's met with a glare, Richard's lips pressed together until white. He turns the chair to look at Barney, who's trying, but failing to not look guilty. His jaw clenches a few times before he speaks. "Fine."

"We'll negotiate price after assessment of Barton Milling," James stands up and catches Clint's hand when it falls from his neck. "Ms. Potts will be by shortly to discuss details."

Clint is relieved, beyond relieved. He follows quietly, James gripping his hand a little too strongly, but he holds back just as tightly. He's shaking, part from the adrenaline rush, part from the relief, but he puts one foot in front of the other, lets James' presence guide him. The conference room is on the same floor as his office, so they soon make their way inside.

"There's no tape, is there?" Thor asks as soon as the door is closed behind them.

"No," Clint says and sneaks a glance at James, who's now looking like he wants to strangle someone. "Sorry," he tells him, "I wasn't thinking--"

"Oh my god," James stops him, exasperation in his voice. Warm arms come around Clint shoulders, gentle hands cradling the back of his head. "That was brilliant. Don't say sorry, it worked."

"What if it hadn't?" he whispers, voicing his fears.

James lets out a short laugh. "Then we would have called Pepper in. She's the negotiator, not me, and she's ruthless. You did good, so proud of you for standing up to them," he adds quietly.

Clint hides his face in the crook of James' neck, warming. "Thanks," he rasps.

"I have to let Pepper know what happened and then we're calling your grandfather. He's going to fly in tomorrow morning. We want to sign as fast as possible, don't give them a chance to reconsider. "

"Ok," Clint says, but holds on tighter.

"You're going to have to let me go."

"In a minute," he mumbles and James laughs lightly.

~

It's several long hours before things settle, and they pass in a flurry of phone calls and lawyers and papers. It's only a little after six, but Clint is exhausted to the bones, so he's grateful when James nudges him toward the parking garage.

"Your place or my place?" James asks as they settle in the back seat, Steve driving and Thor next to him. Steve's been very quiet, Clint notices.

"Mine, please." He doesn't think he can take any more interactions, not until he can clear his head. He wants a peaceful moment with James, recharge from his strength.

"Ok," James agrees and tells Steve their destination. "Do you want to be alone," he asks Clint much quietly.

Clint shakes his head immediately. "No, I..." It didn't occur to him that maybe James wants a moment to himself as well. "Can you come, please?"

He gets a peck on the cheek for that, and a smile. "Of course, I was coming anyway."

Clint's smile is small, but it softens James' eyes, and he wants to keep making that happen.

~

After a long, hot shower, they're sharing the dinner that Natasha's brought over.

"Does it bother you, the age difference?" James asks.

"I don't care about that," Clint answers, truthfully. "You?" he returns and receives a head shake. "Though..."

"What?" James' head snaps up from his plate.

"How old is Natasha?" he asks, because that difference there is larger and he's too tired to keep his curiosity in check.

"Ah," comes with a small huff of laughter, "that." He takes another bite before continuing. "They've been together for about a year and a half. Nat had a call on campus and Darcy, literally, fell naked on top of her."

Clint shares James' laughter, he can imagine Natasha's stern mortification.

"There's about thirteen years between them. I know it's a lot, but I don't blame Nat. Darcy's brilliant, a great judge of character. I think, from all of us, she's the voice of reason."

"Huh."

James smiles, wide. "Didn't see that one coming, did you."

~

Soft morning light sifts in through his blinds when Clint blinks his eyes open. Head heavy with sleep, he stretches slowly. The bed is empty next to him, but it smells like coffee and eggs, and his stomach gives an angry rumble. He makes his sluggish way out after brushing his teeth and stops to lean on the wall separating his kitchen from his living. James is cursing under his breath, berating some poor innocent eggs as he dishes them out.

Clint chuckles and James turns.

"Morning," he says.

"Hey," Clint's voice is thick with sleep. "How long was I out?"

"About twelve hours," James returns, checking the clock.

"Wow. I don't remember falling asleep," and he takes a seat at the table.

"You were out before your head hit the pillow."

"Ugh," Clint scratches the back of his head. "Sorry, left you on your own," he blinks at the table and James puts a coffee down next to his hand.

"It's fine, I occupied myself," he pulls Clint's chin up, pecks at his lips.

"Did you watch me sleep like a creeper?"

"Yep." James laughs and Clint matches it.

It's amazing, Clint thinks, scary but easy how James fits in the spaces next to him. They eat in silence, eggs a bit on the burned side, but tasty. Clint can't stop touching him, and keeps finding his fingers on James' arm, his hair, his cheek. James smiles, a little wider every time. It so soothing, that by the time they finish breakfast, Clint's sure he can push through the day.

~

James keeps himself no more than an arm length away, but time still ticks slowly, viscous with the stubbornness to extend the wait. Steve and Thor are again there, and Clint thanks them for their presence and support, gets a pleased smile from Thor and a grumpy 'shut up' from Steve.

Clint Barton Sr. shows up with two of his executives and the representative of the employees that are shareholders in the company. There's long hours of negotiations and talks, but Pepper just wants their input, assures them nothing is changing in their daily operations and management.

Clint observes for a while, but is too jittery to stay cooped up in the same room as his father and brother, so he ends up pacing the length of James' office instead.

"Sylvia Rowes," Steve says and Clint stops.

"What?"

"First kiss," comes back with a smirk. "I was seven and she was eight, we were on the playground and she thought I was a girl," Steve laughs. "I was tinier than Nat when we were little, blond mop of hair that grew too much 'cos I couldn't stand still long enough for my mom to cut it."

Clint feels his shoulders slump and he sits down, lets Steve distract him. "And?"

"And that was that. Then, when James and I were twelve, we went to this birthday party, played spin the bottle. You know, kids," he wiggles his shoulders with a smile.

"Awh," Clint anticipates. "You reconnected?"

Steve puffs a laughter out of his nose. "No, James got to go with her in the closet. His first kiss," Steve grins and James winks.

Clint laughs. "Ok, nice."

"That's not all," he continues. "Guess who Nat's first girlfriend was?"

"Oh, come on," Clint can't believe this.

"No, it's true," Steve's still laughing, quiet bouts shaking his shoulders, "her first kiss, also. We didn't know it was the same Sylvia and Nat didn't know either. We figured it out years later."

"You're messing with me," he says, looking between James and Steve, but still laughs.

"I've heard this one, man," adds Thor, "it's true."

"Fine, fine," Clint raises his hands in surrender. "Who was yours?" he turns to Thor.

"Simon," he says, "forgot his last name. Summer camp, was about nine. We made a bet with the girls that we knew how to do it," he smiles, "boy bravado and all. A counselor saw us and called our parents."

"What'd they do?" Clint can't stop a grimace and Thor shakes his head.

"You know of Horizons, the human rights activist group?" he asks and Clint nods. "My parents founded that, and got huge publicity out of their son being gay. What can I say, it did a lot of good, for a lot of people, but it was based on a lie. By the time I figured out who I was and what I liked, it was already too late. They asked me to pretend, hide, and I just couldn't."

Clint nods, he knows how that feels.

"It wasn't about repulsion, I've been dating boys the whole time 'cos everyone around me acted as if I should. But it felt like I was making a mockery of all those who've been fighting for their rights to be who they are. I just couldn't," he shrugs. "Hey," Thor grins, "it was a long time ago." He bumps Clint's boot with his own. "What about you?"

Clint scratches his nose. "Mine's not that funny," he says and Steve waves a hand in a 'go on' gesture. "Archery competition, I was fourteen, participated in those in school. Eric Geller, after I won against him," he grins.

They keep taking his mind off of things with silly stories and childhood shenanigans. Somehow, it gets more bearable, the wait and the pressure.

His grandfather joins them for a late lunch, and he not so subtly interrogates James while Clint tries not to squirms in his seat or bang his head on the table. By nightfall they've had signed the preliminaries, any other additional papers to be handled by mail.

They ask his grandfather to stay over for New Year's, but the company and the employees need the reassurance, so he is adamant on flying out that evening. It's his style, his life, and Clint gets it. He wouldn't be his grampa otherwise, and the old man is already looking brittle around the edges from all the chaos of the day. He likes his peace and he's always been better at relationships from afar. At the airport though, as they're waiting for the flight, he pulls Clint aside, tells him it's not his fault. Then proceeds to talk about baseball like he hasn't just severed all ties to his only son, and Clint lets him, blinking away the wetness in his eyes.

That night, James feeds him soup and holds him quietly until he's asleep.

Chapter Text

Clint inhales, letting the aroma of the post lunch coffee invade his nostrils. Everyone is in different stages of sluggishness, lounging on the soft surfaces of James' living room. He's told them, in short, about the events of the past day, even though they've already known the outlines. He's been met with understanding and encouragements, and now he basks in laziness of the afternoon, soft spoken conversations around him.

It's stopped snowing at some point the day before, and stray rays of winter sun gleam through the windows to cover the room in gentle tones. Clint turns his head toward the light, eyes closed, and lets a smile settle on his face, filled to the brim with the warmth that's been brought into his life. The New Year starts the day after tomorrow and he welcomes it, with a sentiment that the life that's been interrupted five years ago is finally resetting, allowing him to feel.

James shifts, where he's leaning against Clint's legs on the floor. His fingers squeeze Clint's knee after a moment and he looks down. It happens slowly, the air in his lungs gradually thinning, when Clint forgets how to breathe. James is looking at him eyes wide, expression caught in rapt wonder. His fingers dig into Clint's leg as if he's afraid Clint will disappear if he lets go, and Clint knows, right in this very moment, he knows just how far he's fallen for James. He moves his hand to sink it into James' long dark hair, wills him to know, just as Clint does, and James' breath catches in his throat. It's the smallest of things, and Clint wants. He's suddenly on fire, sucking in air in a rush, as his fingers flex between the soft strands. James is his, he wants James to be his, make him so in every possible way, wants for James to want, for him to let Clint give himself wholly.

There is a smile blooming on James' lips that alights his eyes with delight. He digs into his pocket and taps quickly at his phone before putting it away. A few seconds later, Clint's vibrates.

'I want you' says the message.

Clint tries not to whimper out loud.

~

The lax afternoon unwinds with its softness and Clint can't take his eyes off James. There's something utterly relaxed about him, an easiness that Clint's never seen before.

They start scattering about along with the drifting light of the early setting sun, when James brushes by Clint with a quick peck on his cheek and a mumbled 'gonna take a shower'. It means nothing special, just an interaction like any other, but Clint still feels his cheeks heat. He busies himself with washing his coffee cup when Natasha pops up at his side.

She looks at him with a smile that's half all-knowing, half canary-eating, and Clint has a brief flash of her picking her teeth with a claw, then spitting out a feather. He sighs in defeat as he dries his hands and turns to her.

"Ok, let's hear it," he says.

Her smile turns into a smirk. "Did you know," she asks in a whisper, shifting just so that her hand is shielded from the rest of the room, "that the bedrooms are soundproof?" She slips something crinkly and foily into his pocket and--

"Oh my god," he mumbles, covering his eyes with a hand.

Natasha pats his shoulder. "Atta'boy," and then wonders off, leaving Clint alone to cool his heated cheeks.

~

James is rooting in the closet when Clint makes his way through the bedroom, grabbing the change of clothes he's brought with him earlier. He closes the bathroom door behind him before digging into his pocket. He stares at the condoms Natasha gave him for a long moment, but he finds no uncertainty, and the pleased little smile that settles on his face stays with him through his shower. He puts his binder back on under his t-shirt -he's not that adventurous yet-, and slips the condoms into the pocket of his sweatpants before returning into the bedroom.

He stops for a moment to take in the view, the space bathed in soft muted light, the same almost dark that keeps making him comfortable. James is leaning against the headboard, legs crossed at the ankles above the covers, pushing the hair out of his face while poking at his laptop.

"Tony's video made over a million views already," he says without looking up.

Clint hums in acknowledgement, climbing on the bed with his knees on either side of James' stretched legs. That draws his attention, and James looks up, closes the lid and lets Clint set the laptop aside.

"Hi," Clint says, scooting closer.

"Hey," comes back with a smile, "what brings you around these parts?"

"A dashing young man," Clint returns before catching James' hand to bring it to his lips.

"Yeah?" James swallows.

Clint's heart speeds up in his chest, but he lets his knees shift on the mattress until he's pressed against James, who looks up from where he's leaning. His face is open, watching Clint as if trying to commit him to memory, waiting. So Clint gives, he leans down, brushes their lips together. He does it again, and again, before pressing down in a light touch. He takes his time, and James allows it, his hands holding onto Clint's legs. Pecks turn into slides of lips, tiny licks and nips that uncoil warmly around Clint's spine to settle hotly along his thighs, making him rock forward. James is hard against him and Clint swallows the gasp that passes through his lips at the contact, letting it quell the last of his nervousness.

He lets go to tug at James' hoodie. "Can we take this off?"

"I told you," James breathes, raspy and low, "you can do whatever you want to me."

"Whatever I want, huh?" he says as he drags the zipper of James' hoodie open, pulls it off his arms and shoulders to reveal the t-shirt underneath.

James pushes it aside before removing his glove as well. His fingers return to grip tightly at Clint's legs. "Clint," he says, "yes."

There's no waver in the word, but it sounds a lot like a plea, so Clint obliges, sinks both hands into James' hair, takes his mouth. He pushes closer, James pliant underneath him. Clint likes it, he likes it very much, how James receives openly, lets himself be angled and touched and caressed. There is a sort of calmness that falls down onto them, their breaths faster, but not frantic, in the silence of the room. The comforter shuffles softly beneath them, adding to the quietude, as Clint slides back, tugs at the hem of James' pants with a questioning look. A lift of hips and Clint pulls them off, along with the boxers. He pauses for a moment to take in James' body, lets his fingertips run over his cheeks, his shoulders, and his arms before he settles them on James' hips.

He leans forward, places his lips on the ridge of James' ear. "I want to keep my t-shirt on," he whispers. "Yours on or off?"

"On please," comes back.

Clint breathes an 'ok' that pulls a rushed exhale out of James, then leans back. He draws in a long breath, lets it out slowly, before plucking a condom out of his pocket. James' eyes widen in surprise, but he doesn't move or protest, as Clint shifts to the side to pull his own pants off. James sucks in a sharp breath when Clint touches him lightly, then wraps his fingers around him. He helps Clint roll the condom on, but then lets his hands fall to his sides, waiting again, so patiently that it makes Clint's chest tighten with renewed intensity.

"I want you, too," he says softly, pulling James' chin up.

He comes back closer, then, and James straightens up to wrap his arms around Clint's middle, pressing his forehead to Clint's chest. He takes his time, waiting to adjust, sliding down inch by inch, as he cradles James to him. He runs his fingers through James' hair when they're finally flush together, savors the hotness that swirls up through his body to settle over his shoulders.

Clint leans James back, runs his thumbs over his cheekbones, and rocks forward. The small, quiet gasp that meets him sends a shiver through his spine and Clint wants more. He braces an arm against the wall, his other hand tilting James' face toward him, and he moves, slides through the heat, again and again. Each shift makes the air catch in James' throat, little breathless noises that lodge behind Clint's ribs. He's doing this, giving this, and James accepts it, his fingers clutching tightly at the back of Clint's t-shirt.

Suddenly, it doesn't feel like he's moving around James, but as if he's pushing into him, little bits of himself scattered behind in the silence. And James takes them all, pupils blown, eyes never straying from Clint's face. As he presses down, his muscles strain around his shoulders and thighs, and Clint feels real.

It's such a rush that he slides down with a heavy shudder, eyelids falling closed, gulping air as the orgasm washes through him. When he opens his eyes again, is to James watching him with fascination, his breaths coming in halted, small draws. A beat, and James moves a hand around to settle on Clint's abdomen. His fingers are shaking, but he splays them, warm against the t-shirt, before he presses his thumb just in the right place. It drags a sound out of Clint that's more of an inhale, and he's coming again, flooding with warmth.

"Baby," Clint whispers with wonder and places a gentle kiss on his lips, making James twitch inside of him. He does it again, gets the same response, another light touch of his lips to a temple and there's a hitch in his breath.

James likes this, and Clint watches his eyes falling half closed, his head lolling back against the wall. So Clint gives him this, revels in his reactions. He tightens and drags himself up in between kisses, lets himself fall down. He moves in increments, gentle and slow, until James trembles beneath him, watching Clint through his eyelashes.

"Please," he rasps, his fingers digging into Clint's middle.

"I'm here," Clint says against James' lips, repeats it until it turns into kisses. "I'm here," he moves even slower, tightens harder around him.

He feels James pulse hotly as he's sliding down, and Clint takes his pleasure, lets it ride him through the remnants of his own, stops flush against James.

Even the air stills around them as they inhale each other's shivers, foreheads pressed together. Clint's heart quiets in his chest under James' caresses, and he matches his movements, trails the tips of his fingers along James neck, his shoulders and back.

They finally clean up a long while later, snuggle close over the comforter in just their t-shirts and boxers. They're facing each other, heads on the same pillow, noses almost touching.

"You like that," he whispers, and James smiles softly, warmly at him.

"Mhm," he hums, so sated and relaxed, that Clint can't stop himself from stealing his smile with a kiss.

There's a crinkle and James pulls the foil wrapper from between them where it'd fallen, forgotten. He looks at it with interest for a moment.

"Where'd you get this?"

"You don't wanna know," Clint hides his face in the pillow.

"These are Steve's," he says, and Clint mutters an 'ohgod' under his breath, making James laugh. "So how did that conversation go?"

"It was Natasha," Clint mumbles and James laughs harder before putting the wrapper away.

"Thank you," he says, bright and genuine.

Clint doesn't stop the contended laughter that bubbles out of him. "You're ridiculous," he grins.

"But you like me anyway."

"I do. I really, really do," he nods, and opens his lips when James claims them.

~

Sunday unfolds in a lazy haze of activities. There's silliness and games, jokes and meal preparations, light fun and embarrassing stories of New Year's past. A little after eleven, Pepper pulls out two bottles of kids sparkly, cartoon wrappers and fruity flavors. They do their own things at midnight, dispersing to the roof, the balcony that lines the bedrooms facing west, or to their own rooms.

James pulls Clint with him into the small space between one of the sofas and the large living room windows. They exchange Happy New Year's and slow, gentle kisses, then watch the glimpses of fireworks that appear between the outlines of the surrounding buildings. They're pressed together shoulder to knee, sharing a glass of strawberry champagne, when it occurs to Clint, that the joy he feels has settled deep into his bones, is there to stay.

"I'm happy we met," he tells James, squeezing his fingers.

"Me, too," comes back with that small smile that never fails to warm Clint to the core.

"What made you come after me, at the store?" Clint asks, curiosity getting the better of him.

James' shoulders slump at the question, and he stares out the window for a long moment.

"I have a confession to make," he says, treading his fingers between Clint's, who raises his eyebrows inquisitively. James sighs. "First time I saw you was on December 12th," he starts, pauses.

That's Clint's birthday.

"...last year," James continues and Clint feels his eyebrows knitting in a frown. "It was already dark out, and I was passing by 'Cup'," James adds. "You were sitting at a table near the window, looking out. I don't think you ever saw me, you were lost in your own thoughts," he swallows. "I hadn't seen anyone so beautiful as you before that, it just-- Your eyes were mirroring the lights from outside, and there was this deep sadness inside of them..."

Clint stills.

"I forgot how to breathe. By the time I shook myself, you were gone." James brings their joined hands up to his lips, presses them against Clint's fingers. "We kept crossing paths, once every few weeks, but I don't think you ever noticed. And all this time, you carried the same sadness with you, that I started wishing you'd find something or someone to make you happy."

Clint's heart twists with a pang.

"Nat kept encouraging me to try and talk to you, but there was never a good moment. When we met in the store, I didn't realize it was you until I looked up," he huffs a small laugh. "Man, I kept my cool for exactly ten seconds before I asked you about tampons. I mean, what the hell, I wanted to shoot myself in the leg."

Clint inhales, slowly, through the fluttering against his ribcage.

"But then you laughed and wow. When I met you at 'Cup' after that, the wishing for something to make you happy suddenly turned into wondering how I could make that happen, and fuck, you are everything I've ever imagined and more."

James pauses, draws in a breath and Clint finds himself clutching so tightly at James' fingers that their knuckles are white.

"I heard you talking to Jane, the other day, about how easily they've all accepted you. Well, they've heard all about you for a year now. That list, the one that I gave you, has been pinned to the fridge since August."

Clint blinks, floored.

"Wow, now I really do sound like a creepy stalker," he laughs and it sounds a little pained.

It doesn't belong there, not on James. Clint can't remember how to form words, but he knows how to kiss. So he does just that, swallowing James until there's no more air, until his heart tries to crawl up his throat, until he can feel the rapid beat of James' against his palm pressed into his chest.

"A year, huh?" Clint finally manages, his voice breaking.

James nods, eyes closed, lower lip drawn tightly between his teeth.

"Looks like I have some making up to do," he says and James' eyelids snap open. "Your turn, baby."

"My turn?" he asks, pulls Clint closer.

"To do whatever you want to me."

That night, Clint lets James peel him out of all his clothes, lets himself be laid out on the bed, James' mouth hot on him. Clint holds him tightly, pressing gentle kisses on his lips and he thinks that this?

This feels like the end of sadness.

~End~