The funeral is beautiful. A quiet, small ceremony in the unlabeled cemetery where SHIELD’s soldiers go to die. A gravestone that simply says, “Natasha” and “2015.” Bruce lays a bouquet of flowers at the foot of the stone; Pepper cries quietly in Tony’s arms. Steve stands apart, eyes cast down.
Clint tries to remember the detachment that had come when he was being controlled by Loki, and wishes someone was there to take him out of himself.
When the urn of ashes is lowered into the ground, Clint sees Steve’s fists clench out of the corner of his eye.
There is a memorial dinner planned at Stark Tower. Clint isn’t ready to go back to the tower, and he can tell that Steve isn’t either. He bumps Steve’s arm and jerks his head, and Steve follows him to the subway station with no words.
They end up in a sports bar near Times Square, sitting on creaky stools next to a group of frat boys wearing I <3 NY T-shirts. Clint stares unblinking at the football game on TV as the Giants make a touchdown and the crowd cheers. When he turns to Steve, Steve is staring intently at the bar, tracing his fingers over a crack in the wood. “I can’t get drunk,” Steve says, “but you should.”
Clint orders two beers and passes one to Steve. “I don’t like to drink alone,” he says, and tips the bottle up to his lips.
After four beers, Clint switches to shots. Steve matches him, drink for drink, eyes clear and hand steady as Clint begins to wobble.
After four beers and two shots, Clint starts talking. He tells Steve about life in the circus. He tells Steve about his parents, and the orphanage. He tells Steve about everything except Natasha.
Three hours later, Clint stumbles into the street, knees buckling as Steve holds him up with a steady arm around his waist. “Let’s get you home,” Steve says, but Clint shakes his head.
Steve hauls Clint several blocks, mostly carrying him, until they find a hotel with a vacancy sign lit up. Clint tries to fumble for his wallet but Steve beats him to it, handing over a Stark Industries-branded Mastercard.
The room is small but clean, two double beds and a tiny desk. Clint lays back on the bed where Steve drops him and stares at the ceiling, counting the holes in the tiles. He can hear Steve moving about the room, running water in the bathroom, and then there is an arm behind his shoulders sitting him up and a glass pressed to his lips.
“Drink some water,” Steve says, “or you’ll have a hell of a hangover tomorrow.” When Clint has finished the glass, Steve sets it on the night table and moves Clint so his back is against the headboard. “I’m going to go get some food. I’ll be back soon.”
His shoulders look enormously broad from the back as he heads for the door. “Steve,” Clint calls out, as Steve’s hand touches the doorknob. Steve turns and looks back over his shoulder, eyebrows raised. “You were good for her,” Clint says, closing his eyes.
The sound of the door opening wakes Clint up, and he staggers out of the bed and to the bathroom to empty his bladder. He’s not sure how much time has passed, but he is still unsteady on his feet, still lightheaded, even though he is more in control than he was before.
Clint stares at himself in the mirror, bags under his eyes, and listens to Steve moving around in the room outside the bathroom door. He splashes cold water on his face, then puts his mouth in the stream and drinks.
When he comes back into the room, Steve has stripped down to his shorts and is standing beside the second bed. He turns to look at Clint, and there is something broken in his eyes. Clint recognizes it; his eyes look the same in the mirror. Clint takes a few steps forward, and lays a hand on Steve’s shoulder. His skin is warm and smooth beneath Clint’s fingers.
Before they were friends, Clint and Natasha had been lovers. After, Natasha and Steve had been lovers. Clint touches Steve’s shoulder, and thinks about Natasha doing the same. He slides his hand up to the back of Steve’s neck and tilts his head up, pulling Steve down.
Steve’s lips are warm and dry. Is this what it felt like, when Natasha kissed Steve? Did she have to tilt her head back farther, rise up that much higher on her toes?
Steve’s hands close around Clint’s hips, and for a moment Clint thinks that Steve is going to push him away. Instead, he pulls Clint closer, mouth opening, tongue tracing the inside edges of Clint’s lips. They kiss for a long time, bodies pressed against each other. Steve tastes like cheap Chinese food and Clint still tastes like alcohol. Natasha liked to drink vodka. Clint wonders if Steve is remembering what Natasha’s mouth tasted like.
“Clint, I want--” Steve says, pulling back. Clint looks up at him, one hand on Steve’s shoulder and one on the side of his ribs. Steve blinks, looks away. “I want you to hurt me.”
Clint understands, then, a little of Steve’s guilt, guilt for not keeping her safe. Guilt enough to want punishment. Clint nods; he’s still a little bit drunk, but he thinks he can give Steve what he needs. “What do you want me to do?” he asks, stepping back.
Steve reaches toward him and pulls the knife out of the holster on Clint’s belt, presses the knife into his hands. “Please,” he says, and slides his shorts off, sitting on the edge of the bed. Clint kisses him again, kisses down Steve’s neck, down his chest. He kneels on the floor, kissing Steve’s stomach and hips. Clint is an expert in knives, but has never used one in the bedroom before. Still, he knows where all the major veins and arteries are, and how much depth would cause permanent damage. He tucks Steve’s discarded shorts under Steve’s thighs to keep the sheets clean, and shifts his grip on the knife. Steve is looking down at him, breathing rapidly. His dick twitches when Clint touches the knife to his thigh.
Clint drags the knife down, making a shallow cut in Steve’s flesh. No worse than a papercut, really, and a few tiny beads of blood well up. He looks up at Steve, and Steve nods for him to continue, breathing deeply. Clint drags the flat of the blade across Steve’s other leg, then slices another tiny line to parallel the first. Steve breathes harder, spreading his legs slightly. Clint draws two more lines with the blade, a little further up Steve’s thighs, then two more. Steve’s hands grip the sheets tightly, his head now thrown back. Clint rests the flat of the blade against Steve’s inner thigh, less than an inch from his balls, and Steve jerks slightly. Clint sets the knife aside then, leaving it on the night table, and closes his hands over the cuts, pressing down lightly. “It wasn’t your fault,” he says, but he knows Steve doesn’t believe him.
Steve reaches for Clint, pulls him up, and kisses him again, hot and urgent. “Please,” he says again, tugging at Clint’s shirt. “I need to . . . need you to . . .” Clint’s shirt is off, and Steve’s hands are at his belt, unbuckling, pulling down his pants. Steve backs Clint up into the night table, mouth sucking at Clint’s jaw, his earlobe, his neck, and then he’s moving down Clint’s body. Clint wonders if Steve is looking for the same thing he is -- some ghost of Natasha’s presence on another man’s body.
The thoughts flit about his head, then dissipate when Steve’s mouth is on him all of a sudden, licking and sucking along his length, hands closed on Clint’s hips. Clint’s hands grip the edge of the night table as Steve takes him into his mouth and sucks him until he’s fully hard.
He’s halfway there when Steve reaches for his hand. He lets Steve maneuver him, and then his hand is in Steve’s hair. Steve squeezes his hand, and Clint takes the hint and tugs hard. Steve makes a noise in the back of his throat, and reaches down to work on himself. For a few moments that is all, Steve’s hair soft in his grip, Steve’s mouth hot on his cock. Then Steve reaches out again with his other hand, and pulls Clint’s hand to his face, closing the fingers over his nose. Clint almost refuses, but Steve is making encouraging noises, and he can see Steve’s hand speeding up where he’s stroking himself. Clint closes his hand over Steve’s nose, and a memory from many years before comes flooding back to him.
Natasha, fresh out of the Red Room, telling him how the Red Room had taught her to like being hurt. Natasha, on her knees, asking Clint to pull her hair. Natasha, with her mouth full of Clint, bringing his hand down to close over her nose because the Red Room had taught her to like running out of air.
Steve, and his guilt over Natasha’s death.
Steve is sucking urgently at Clint with closed eyes, but Clint reaches behind him with his free hand and grabs the knife from the table. He moves slowly to avoid alerting Steve, instead closing his fingers more tightly on Steve’s nose and cutting off his air supply. Steve jerks, tongue moving frantically over Clint, and comes when the edge of the knife touches his throat.
Clint lets go of Steve’s nose and grabs his hair tightly, pressing the knife to Steve’s throat with his other hand as he slowly pulls out of Steve’s mouth. “I’m pretty sure being a super soldier doesn’t make you immune to having your throat slit open,” Clint says, tugging back on Steve’s hair. Steve is still breathing hard, eyes wild. “But I think that was all a display for me, wasn’t it? You were trying to tell me something.” Clint feels a cold knot in the bottom of his ribcage. “I’m going bring you in to SHIELD. I don’t think you’re going to fight. Am I right?” He lets go of Steve’s hair, and Steve nods.
Clint slowly backs away, and Steve stays on his knees, head down. He stays there, not saying a word, not moving, while Clint first gets the gun that he discarded with his clothes, then gets dressed and gathers Steve’s clothes. Clint hands Steve the clothes with one hand, the other aiming the gun at Steve’s head. “There’s just one thing I need to know,” he says as Steve pulls on his pants. Steve pauses and looks up at him with fractured blue eyes. “Did you kill her?” he asks, grip tightening on the gun. “You, personally, did you strangle her?” For a long moment, he thinks that Steve isn’t going to answer, that maybe he can’t answer.
“No,” Steve finally says. He looks like he wants to say more, but nothing else comes.
Clint watches through one-way glass as Steve is brought into the interrogation room and chained to the floor with kevlar restraints originally developed for the Hulk. He remembers this room -- it is the same room they had brought Natasha to when she defected. He hadn’t been allowed to watch the interrogation, but Natasha had told him about it, after. “The Red Room programs you not to say certain things,” she had said, facing away from Clint and looking out the window. “It takes a lot to break down those walls.”
Clint wonders how much more it will take to break down Steve’s walls.
They send in a standard SHIELD agent first. He asks Steve simple questions: name, date of birth, place of residence. He asks about Steve’s service in the war. He asks, “What year was it when you were first brought out of the ice?”
Steve hesitates, then answers, “2011.”
The agent makes a note on his sheet, then asks again. Steve sighs and leans back in his chair. He looks at the mirror, as if he can see through it to the people on the other side. Fury shifts his feet next to Clint. “Why are we doing this?” Steve asks. “We all know where this is going to end up. You want a loyal soldier. You’ve done this before.”
Fury pushes a button on the screen next to the window, and the agent in the room gets up and leaves. Another agent comes in, carrying a large duffel bag. She unzips the bag and begins to lay out a series of tools on the table. Clint recognizes her. Agent Helms has been with SHIELD for a very, very long time, and Clint remembers her instructing him in how to use and resist all of the implements she is placing on the table in front of Steve.
Clint moves forward slightly so that he’ll be in Fury’s range of view. “Sir,” he begins, “traditional methods may not work on the Captain.” Helms sets out a row of scalpels, followed by a row of serrated knives. Steve doesn’t even blink. A strong man would be nervous, but Clint knows that Steve can handle more pain than anyone he’s ever met; he’s seen Steve keep fighting through injuries that would take even Natasha down. He knows that Steve has no fears, because he has nothing to lose.
“I know,” Fury replies. His voice is calm, but there is tension in the lines at the corner of his eye as he reaches up to activate the comm link in his ear. “Ms. Frost,” he says, “you’re on, too.”
A second woman enters the room, and Clint sees Steve’s eyes widen. The woman sits down at the table and narrows her eyes, and Clint knows that Steve isn’t really in the room anymore. Steve’s hands begin to tremble slightly, and Helms picks up a long, curved knife.
Clint turns and walks out of the room before she can touch it to Steve’s skin.