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Until I Get My Teeth In You

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He’s five years old and sitting at the little table in their kitchen when he asks her, "Mama, what does being an omega mean?"

She pauses, lips pursed as she stares out the window just over their kitchen sink, pale green eyes watching where Barney is playing cops and robbers with Billy Hollingsworth by the barn. "What makes you ask that, pumpkin?" She says finally, turning away from where she'd been doing the washing up to give him one of her sweet half smiles. 

"No reason," he fibs, shy all of a sudden. Edith waits him out, drying her hands on her apron front and not saying much of anything at all. He glances back up at her, eyes lingering a little longer than necessary at the top of her turtleneck. He can see the angry red teeth marks peeking out over the edges of the dove gray material. "Well, you're an omega," Clint starts and his mama smiles encouragingly. "And Barney's an omega," he keeps going, not quite as nervous any longer. "So I think that's what I'm gonna be, y'know?"

Edith stays quiet, tapping her chin with her index finger thoughtfully while she tries to work something out. "Could be," she concedes, coming to sit next to him and smoothing a stray bit of hair away from his forehead. “Or you could be an alpha, like your daddy.” 

Clint scrunches his nose up and pulls a sour face. He doesn’t want to be anything like his daddy.

Edith laughs but it sounds sad. “Oh, Clint.” She pulls him into a hug and they’re the best, because they feel so soft and safe, like being all wrapped up in a sunbeam. “It doesn’t have to mean anything.” She presses a kiss into his hair. “Or it can mean everything,” she keeps going, giving him another squeeze. “It doesn’t have to mean anything that you don’t want it to mean, Clint.”

Clint’s not sure that makes a lick of sense, but then she’s kissing him again and asking what kind of cake he wants for his birthday next Wednesday so he forgets to ask any more questions. 

*

 She dies on that Sunday, so she never does get around to making him that birthday cake. Daddy lives and ain't that just his luck?

*

"Jesus Christ, Nat!" Clint absolutely does not shriek, clutching the towel tighter around his waist in an attempt to suppress a flinch. He fails. "Warn a guy before you materialize from the abyss, yeah?" Natasha opens her mouth to respond but Clint puts up a hand to stop her, then gestures vaguely at the side of his head. "Gimme a sec, let me get my ears in."

She jerks her chin in an abrupt nod, green eyes tracking him as he crosses over to the nightstand to scoop up his hearing aids and tuck them into his ears. It takes a moment of fumbling to turn them on since his fingers are still slick from the shower, but after a second or two he gets everything back online. "Alright," Clint starts, collapsing next to where the other assassin is sitting neatly on his bed. "What's the problem?" He can tell something's wrong because Natasha's got her eyebrows all crinckled up the way she does sometimes when there's a puzzle she can't work through. He reaches over to smooth out the wrinkle between them.

"Cut it out," she grumbles, batting his hand away. "We've got a situation." There is an energy of unease about her that is so uncharacteristic Clint is becoming nervous by proxy. "I think James may have gone feral."

"What makes you say that?"

"He seems to have...commandeered Bruce."

"Commandeered," Clint repeats. His eyebrows begin their ascent towards his hairline. "Meaning...?"

Natasha purses her lips. "Meaning that Bruce dropped his coffee cup, cut his finger while cleaning up, and the next thing I know James is scooping him up and sprinting to the elevator."

"Holy shit," Clint says before saying again with more gusto, "Holy shit!". The blond bolts up to yank open the top drawer of his dresser, rifling through its contents until he manages to liberate a pair of boxer briefs. "Why wouldn't you lead with that? Is it a code green? Shit, shit, shit ," he curses, hopping from foot to foot to shimmy into his underwear. His towel gives up the ghost at the last second and falls away before Clint can manage to snap his skivvies into place.

It's a testament to the seriousness of the situation that Natasha doesn't make a single quip about his spectacular tan lines or even more spectacularly white ass.

"No code green," she says from her perch on the edge of the bed. The redhead picks at the rumpled covers absentmindedly and manages to look put together even amongst the unmade bed sheets. "I had Friday pull up the feed for James's room and so far everything looks under control. Tony even patched through some meditation audio for Bruce," Natasha continues, the edge of her mouth ticking up just a shade. "He seems to be managing. For now."

Clint blows out a long exhale, shoulders relaxing as he tugs on a pair of sweatpants. "Good. That's good, right? Do we have a plan?"

"That's what I came to get you for," she answers, finally standing. "We're going to have a meeting in ten minutes. Living room," she pauses, reaching out to give Clint's arm a squeeze. "Don't be late," she finishes before walking out the door.

Clint stares after her for a second before scrubbing his hands over his face. He really, really doesn't want to have to deal with this situation, but as far as he can tell there's no way to weasel out of it. Plus he likes Bruce, knows that the other man wouldn't hesitate to help Clint if the tables were turned.

So he uncovers his face, squares his shoulders, and pulls on an old t-shirt. Reminds himself that there's nothing to be afraid of and tries to walk out the door not feeling like he's headed to the gallows.

It doesn't work.

*

"Well I hope you're both settled in for the long haul because Frozone really screwed the pooch on this one." Tony looks down right manic as he paces the room, still clad in his pajama pants and a faded Led Zeppelin shirt. The bags under his eyes are bruised violet and Clint hopes Pepper gets back from California soon so she can make him get some shut eye. "Friday, put the feed up on the flat screen for us."

"Right away, boss," Friday responds, the AI's voice silvery and lilting all at once. The screen flashes and the interior of an apartment comes up in crisp HD. Bucky looks just as deranged as Tony does, stalking back and forth in front of his bed while Bruce sits in the middle of it, stock-still with his eyes screwed shut.

"Okay, now do me a favor and patch me through."

"Of course, boss."

"Hey Jolly Green Giant, how're you holding up in there?" Bucky's head snaps up at the sound of Tony's voice coming through the speakers. "Tall, Dark, and Gruesome giving you any trouble?"

"I'm fine, Tony." Bruce resolutely does not open his eyes. "You should stop talking through the intercoms though. You're antagonizing him."

As if to prove the good doctor's point, Bucky snarls, baring his teeth at the spot in the center of the ceiling where the speakers are located.

"Jeez Fullmetal, no need to get hostile." Bucky's scowl only deepens. "Alright Banner, let us know if anything changes or you start feeling green around the gills." 

Bruce flashes the 'O.K' symbol from where one of his hands is planted on his knees. Tony has Friday cut their audio and the soothing sounds of birds and ocean waves filter back into the apartment Bucky and Steve share. The two occupants visibly relax.

"Right, so I say we just suit up and storm the place," Tony offers, like it's the only logical conclusion. "If Banner goes green it's no big deal. I don't mind a little property damage. It might actually be nice, it'd give me a reason to redecorate."

"Tony," Clint starts and he honestly can't believe he has to be the voice of reason here. "We’re not doing that. This building is only like three or four years old."

“Get with the program, Barton. Out with the old and in with the new.” Tony gives him a sidelong look, whiskey brown eyes thoughtful. “Are you just saying that because you’re afraid Winter Snowflake is gonna maul you again? Because if that’s the case I’ve gotta say, you’re being a real pussy.”

“Sexist,” Natasha deadpans, arms crossed and clearly unimpressed. “My pussy is very offended right now.

Clint sticks his tongue out. 

Natasha rolls her eyes.

“What? No, that’s not what I meant!” Tony runs both his hands through his hair and blows out the most annoyed puff of air Clint’s ever been privy to. “I’m just saying he needs to get over it. That happened like what, five months ago? It’s all water under the bridge at this point. He didn’t even break the skin.”

"It's not because he bit me." Well, it's not the only reason. "I just don't think we need to risk Bruce Hulking out or millions in property damage. I mean, look at them." Clint gestures at the screen. "They seem to be getting along fine to me. What's the harm in leaving it until tomorrow when Steve and Sam get back?"

Bucky is sitting on the bed next to Bruce, holding the finger Clint assumes got cut and gently twisting to inspect it. Bruce is saying something that looks like, "It's okay, Bucky," but could just as easily be, " Let's parlay, Ducky." Bucky doesn't look convinced and starts to push at Banner's shoulders, manhandling him until he has the doctor horizontal.

Natasha's hands twitch, hungry for a blade.

But Bucky doesn't do anything nefarious at all, just gathers all the blankets on the bed and tucks them around Bruce until only the doctor's eyes are visible. Bucky presses his lips together in what Clint figures is a shushing noise and pets a hand over Bruce's neck before going over to the door to recheck the locks.

They all collectively breathe a sigh of relief. 

"I'm not leaving him in there," Natasha says, her tone leaving no room for argument. "And we're not charging in guns blazing."

Tony throws his hands up, resigned. "Then what's the game plan here, red? Because in case you hadn't noticed, we're running out of options."

"I think," she hesitates, jaw flexing before continuing once more into the breach. "That we should make a den."

The room goes quiet. Tony cocks his head and strokes his beard. Clint wrinkles up his nose at the very notion of denning up with an alpha he doesn't trust, let alone one that's prone to biting unprovoked.

"It wasn't James that bit you," Natasha tells him, like she can read his mind. "It was the Winter Soldier. That's not who's in there worrying over Bruce like a mother hen."

Clint glances back at the screen just in time to see Bucky dump an armload of towels onto the bed and then start arranging those over Bruce too. The doctor is slowly being buried alive under a mountain of linens.

"Hydra never gave him time to get used to what they'd done to him." Her eyes are on the screen too, looking soft where he expects her to be barbed. She knows more than anyone what it's like to have your second gender changed against your will. The Red Room did the same to her when they made her omega. "They made him as frightening as possible and then after every mission put him back in cryo before he had time to process anything."

"He doesn't need us to go in guns blazing," she continues, voice steady. "He needs us to be his friends."

The living room is silent again before Tony groans and stares up at the ceiling tiles like they have personally offended him. "We're really doing this, aren't we? Fuck, I haven't made a den since college." 

"I haven't made one since the circus," Clint chimes in so the guy doesn't feel bad.

"Let the record show that this was not my idea." The billionaire rolls his shoulders before turning his head one way, then the next until his neck pops, like he's gearing up for a bar brawl instead of making a glorified blanket fort. "You gonna be den mother then?"

Natasha smirks. "Seems like I have the most experience, so that makes sense. Plus somebody's got to keep you boys in line."

*

“I don’t know what I expected from a den with you as mother,” Tony begins as they stand back and survey the fruits of their labor. “But this wasn’t it.”

They’d relocated because Natasha had insisted that the closer quarters of her room would be more soothing than the open spaces of the living room. Tony and Clint had brought the linens off their own beds to add more of that homey, sleep mussed omega smell and strung them up using a length of rope Natasha had pulled from her nightstand ( 'Kinky,' and 'Good for Bruce,' Clint thought simultaneously) to form a canopy over the bed. It was dark out now and the room was only illuminated by the muted glow of the bedside lamp. 

It was horribly domestic. Clint kind of loved it.

"Next time I'll string it up with garrote wire," Natasha teases, but the tone she used made it hard to tell. "Now strip."

They're both at a loss of words. It's impressive, really.

"Come again?" Tony asks, once the ability for speech has returned to him.

"You heard me." Natasha is visibly miffed at having to repeat herself. "We're trying to overwhelm his urge to protect Bruce with this whole sweet, harmless omega act and the best way to do that is by looking defenseless." She shoots them both a pointed look. "So like I said, strip."

"This is ridiculous," Tony grumbles, like he's not the patron saint of absurdity. He still complies though, reaching behind his head to pull off his t-shirt. "This is going to look like something straight out of an, 'Omega Play,' magazine."

"Nah," Clint huffs, already out of his shirt and working on his sweatpants. Why'd he bother getting dressed at all? "It'd be in, 'A/B/O Arthouse' , 'cus y'know, we're classy like that."

Once everyone's down to their underwear Nat points at Clint then Tony before bringing her hands together and lacing her fingers. When they don't immediately move she gives them a look like she's dealing with preschoolers and would rather be anywhere else.

"This is like pulling teeth. Do I have to spell everything out for you two? Scent each other."

"Do we have to?" Clint asks. He's not whining. "It's not like I can get my smell on him."

"Bring it in here, Barton," Tony says, holding his arms out wide. "Smell or no smell, it'll get you in the right head-space."

That's what he's afraid of, which Natasha must be able to see because she's telling him a heartbeat later, "I won't let him do anything, Clint. Trust me."

"Alright," Clint relents, because he's never been good at denying Natasha anything. If she says she'll keep him safe then that's that. He walks over and carefully loops both arms around Tony, pressing his nose into the olive skin of his teammate's neck and inhaling deeply. The other man has a woodsy pine and clover smell that Clint has always thought was hilarious, seeing as how Tony's not really a rugged, outdoorsy type person at all. Stark hums and Clint can feel it reverberate against his chest. He can also feel the smooth glass and heat of the arc reactor as Tony's hands glide over his back, trying to imprint as much of his own scent on the blond as possible.

Clint eyes droop and the tension leeches from his body. He goes boneless, hands petting lazily over Tony's sides to return the favor. It won't work, Clint doesn't smell like anything so he won't trigger those safewarmhome feelings, but it seems like the polite thing to do.

Tony chuckles. "You know, Merida, you're kind of cute when you're all doped up on nesting hormones."

"Shud'up," Clint slurs, but he thinks it missed the mark because Tony laughs again. He gives the archer a final squeeze before letting him go so Natasha can take her turn.

"Tasha," he murmurs, gathering her up and burying his nose into her silky hair. She smells incredible, better than anyone he's ever encountered and Clint's not sure if it's because the Red Room biologically engineered her that way or because he loves her so much. Regardless, Natasha smells like cedar chests and kept promises and all it takes is a couple whiffs along with a careful squeeze to the back of his neck for Clint to feel everything else fall away. 

"Perfect," she whispers and it makes his chest ache. "That's perfect, Clint," Natasha says again while pulling away so she can catch his eyes. Her hand comes up to cup his cheek. "You with me?" 

"Mmhm," he hums, leaning into the touch.

"Good." She smiles, tracing his cheekbone with her thumb while giving him an impossibly fond look. "Then I want you to get into the den. All the way to the back, against the headboard."

"Yes ma'am," Clint answers cheekily. Natasha gives the back of his neck one last squeeze, releasing endorphins and all sorts of other feel good, lovey dovey emotions before letting him crawl into bed. 

Once he's finally situated, Clint turns his attention back to where Tony and Natasha are speaking together softly, their arms wound around each other in an embrace. Stark's eyes start to glaze over too, undoubtedly hit by the same pheromone high as Clint, before Natasha pushes him away and back towards their den.

Stark clambers in after Clint, pressing up close until they're sitting side by side with no space between them. Tony lets his head loll over onto the marksman's shoulder while at the same time reaching out to lace their fingers together. Clint angles his head down and breathes deep.  Exhales and watches Tony's dark hair shift under the onslaught of air.

Clint can feel the other man's breath ghost across the column of his throat. That's where Natasha's scent is most concentrated, so it makes sense that Tony seems fixated on it. "D'you ever want to do this sort of stuff with Pepper?"

Tony squeezes his hand. "I wouldn't mind it," he admits and that's how Clint knows the hormones are getting to him too because Stark's being honest and unguarded in a way that is completely at odds with his normal persona. "Pep's a beta though, so I'd have to get someone else in on it."

Clint can hear the longing in that and knows down to his bones that Tony will never initiate it, too afraid of rejection to risk something like that. Clint understands, he's the same way.

Still, it doesn't sit right with him to watch someone else struggle with demons that might as well be kin to his own. "Nat wouldn't mind," Clint offers, then hesitates. "I wouldn't mind either, if it was for you and Pepper."

"Aw, Birdbrain." Clint can feel the smirk where it's pressed against his neck. He'd roll his eyes if it didn't seem like too much effort. "I didn't know you cared! You're so mushy right now, it's adorable." Tony uses his spare hand to pinch Clint's cheek, the little shit, but before Clint can bat it away the other man has already moved it to pat his chest. He leaves it there. “Thanks though, we might take you up on it sometime.”

They stay quiet after that, soft and pliant, leaning against one another in companionable silence until Clint hears the door open. He tenses up when that smell hits him, can’t help it because it’s fucking Pavlovian at this point and even the security of the den can’t hope to suppress it.

Gunpowder.

Blood.

Grave Dirt. 

It seems like Hydra's aim was to make Bucky Barnes as terrifying as humanly possible, which is tragic, sure, but it doesn't change the fact that the man smells like a fresh murder scene and Clint would give anything, anything to be somewhere else right now. He fists the sheets tighter in one hand, nesting high all but obliterated in the wake of Bucky's, 'I will kill you and every puppy I can get my hands on,' smell. Clint does his level best to sit still and not crawl out of his skin.

"Calm down, Hawkguy," Tony whispers, sidetracking Clint from forming an escape plan. "Your heart feels like it's gonna come right out of your chest. Elsa's really got you worked up, huh?"

"S-shut up." Clint tries to snap, but he suspects his stuttering messed up the delivery.

"No, you shut up," Tony shoots back, because he's a child. "You're messing with my buzz. C'mere."

Stark tugs at Clint's hand until he's got them rearranged so the archer's sitting between Tony's spread legs, Clint's back pressed to Tony's front. From here it's easy for the darker haired man to rope an arm across the front of Clint's shoulders so it rests just above his collarbones. The blond catches on fast and ducks his head to press his nose into the skin of Tony's wrist gratefully.

Clint inhales. Clover and pine. It sort of smells like he's stumbled into a ritual blood sacrifice in the middle of a forest now, but it comes with another hit of endorphins, so it's marginally better. They watch as the others come into view at the base of the bed, where the sheets are clipped back so there is an opening. Bruce climbs in, shooting Clint and Tony an awkward smile while Natasha and Bucky stay back and continue talking in quite, dulcet tones.

"Glad you could join the party, Banner," Tony says as Bruce settles in next to him, leaning over to scent the doctor.

"You know what they say," Bruce starts, taking a moment to return the favor before dipping his head so Clint can catch a whiff of him. Star anise and cardamom. Clint feels himself fall a little deeper into the den's comfort, but Bucky is still lingering on the edges of his mind. "Out of the frying pan and into the fire."

"Did he mind his manners?" Clint asks and he must be more out of it than he thought because he tilts his face so his cheek is brushing against Bruce's without a second thought.

"He wasn't bad," Bruce admits, chuckling as Clint continues to nuzzle against him. The doctor's five o'clock shadow itches. "I thought I might have a heat stroke under all those blankets though. Wow, you're really sweet like this. Has he been this way the whole time?"

"Yep. Who knew, right? He's been all candy and sunshine since we got in here. I'm pretty sure I caught him purring earlier."

"I was not!"

Had he been?

"Of course not," Natasha answers as she makes her entrance, Bucky trailing behind her. "See, James?" Natasha says, settling on Tony's other side and leaving Bucky to sit at the end of the bed by her feet. "We're all safe now that you and Bruce are here with us. Don't you feel better, alpha?"

Jesus, she's laying it on thick.

Bucky nods, but his eyes are flitting around like a bird caught in a greenhouse. Clint can sympathize, he feels like he could bolt any second too now that everything stinks of copper and fresh dug earth.

"We're so glad you're here to keep us safe." Natasha reaches over to take Bucky's hand, pulling at him until he's leaned over her. She rubs her nose against his and the tension melts right out of him. Who would have figured the Winter Soldier had a soft spot for Eskimo kisses? Bucky's still not all the way back to himself, but he's a far cry from the feral creature that was snarling at the ceiling a few hours earlier.

It doesn't make Clint feel any better.

"Did you want to scent them?" Natasha asks, sweet as a lullaby. Bucky nods vigorously and she gives him a slow smile. "That's good, James." She pauses to tidy a strand of hair behind his ear. "But this is my den, so I have some rules you have to follow. Do you understand?"

Bucky swallows. Clint watches his throat work. "I understand, Natalia."

"Excellent." The corners of her mouth tick up just a shade more, obviously pleased. "You are not allowed to hurt anyone in this den. That includes biting. If you try to bite anyone here you will never," she stops, making sure Bucky is looking at her before finishing, " Ever set foot in one of our dens again. Do I make myself clear?"

Clint's breath catches as Bucky's blue grey eyes slide past Natasha to burn a hole in him. "Yes ma'am," he tells her, but he doesn't take his eyes off Clint. "No biting."

"Breathe," Bruce reminds him. "You've got to breathe, Clint."

Clint tries and for a moment he thinks his lungs have failed him, but then he manages a stuttered inhale through his nose and everything is fine, it's fine.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

It's a double edged sword. Every breath is tainted with nitroglycerin.

"I'll hold you to that." Natasha takes Bucky's face in her hands and guides him so he's looking at her again. "The other rule is that there are no clothes in my den."  Her tourmaline eyes glide over to find Bruce. "That goes for you too, big guy."

Bruce moves so fast to comply that Clint's honestly worried he's given himself whiplash. It's funny enough to cut through the tension and Clint wheezes out a giggle before he can even hope to stop it. "That's the spirit, Barton." Tony holds him tighter and Clint lets himself lie back to rest his full weight against him. Soon enough everyone is down to their underwear and Bucky is sitting back on his heels, seemingly waiting for permission to touch.

"Come here, Clint," Natasha orders, timbre honeyed. Clint goes, helpless not to, but idly thinks this den isn't big enough for all the people that are stuffed in it. He ends up settled in front of her, tangling his long legs with her dainty ones. Natasha gives Bucky the green light and soon enough he's crawling into Tony's space and running his hands all over him, spreading that fucking murder scent wherever he touches.

Clint closes his eyes, leans all the way over so he's folded in half, and presses his nose against Natasha's knee. He breathes deep. It helps a little.

Natasha sinks a hand into his hair, scratching behind his ear soothingly. "You're doing great," she tells him and Clint feels so grateful he could cry. "He's not going to bite you. None of us will let that happen."

Rationally he knows this, but knowing and believing are two different things entirely.

A millennia passes, or maybe just a couple of seconds, Clint's honestly not sure. The next thing he's aware of besides Natasha's careful touch is a voice, gravely and low, asking him, "Is it alright if I scent you?" 

Clint sighs and kisses the rosy skin of Natasha's knee before he straightens to meet Bucky's stare. "Alright," Clint agrees, giving the brunet a watery smile. "But no biting, yeah?"

Bucky smiles back, equally tentative. "No biting," he agrees, so Clint untangles his legs from Natasha's and crawls to him. Tries to pretend it doesn't feel like a funeral march.

Quick as a viper Bucky reaches out and it's a matter of seconds before he has Clint where he wants him, tucked in close and tidied away against his chest. The metal of his left arm is skin warm at this point, so it doesn't even goose Clint when it loops behind his back. Bucky's got his head bowed, long hair tickling Clint's cheek as his nose digs into the junction where his neck meets his shoulder. Clint screws his eyes shut and forces his head back to make himself vulnerable, let's Bucky press his face against the delicate skin of his throat and leave his insidious smell all over him.

Clint holds still, waiting for the bite that never comes. 

Bucky's still nosing around the underside of Clint's jaw when the brunet makes a small, distressed noise in the back of his throat. If Clint didn't know better he'd call it a whimper. "S'alright," Clint mumbles thickly. "I don't have a smell. It's normal."

Bucky shakes his head and doesn't respond to that. Asks instead, "Do I know you?'

"No," Clint lies, easy as breathing. "We don't know each other."

Bucky's grip tightens briefly before he relaxes again, smoothing his flesh and bone hand across Clint's back reassuringly. It's only now that Clint realizes he's shaking. "Steve told me, about what I did to you." Clint opens his eyes and stares at the ceiling. Feels Bucky's broad chest expand against his. "Told me about how wrong it was." Bucky licks his lips, tongue sliding accidentally over Clint's collarbone. Clint shudders, fingers spasming against Barnes's shoulders.

"I've been wanting to say this for a while now." Bucky hesitates. Clint thinks maybe he's trying to be brave. "Wanted to tell you I'm sorry."

And Clint just doesn't know how to answer that right now, so he closes his eyes again and thinks about that rooftop in Mumbai, pinned down under a sky with no stars.

Thinks about the Peruvian foothills on fire and how he couldn't breathe for all the smoke in his lungs.

Thinks about his old carnival caravan, staring up at the sheets of a different den when he felt the brush of teeth against his neck for the first time.

"I'm trying, Bucky," Clint says, his voice wet and eyes hot all of a sudden. "I'm trying." It sounds lost.

"Okay," Bucky whispers, hugging him tighter before letting him go. "Okay."

Chapter Text

"Geronimo!" A seven year old Clint shrieks as he launches himself from a tree branch to dive bomb his older brother. To his credit Barney doesn't even seem startled, just starts swearing up a storm while dropping his textbooks abruptly so he can get his hands free to catch the tiny blond projectile.

"Fuckin' hell, Clint!" The twelve year old's knees buckle and Barney almost goes down under the additional weight, but at the last second regains his footing. "You coulda broken your neck, ya twerp! What if I hadn't caught you?"

"But you always catch me, Barney." Clint gives his brother a gapped tooth grin, pleased as punch.

"Yeah, but I usually know you're comin'," Barney admits before suddenly dumping Clint on his ass. The younger boy yelps and goes down in a heap. "You're turning into a sneaky little shit."

Clint rubs his head, glaring at his brother before breaking out into another grin. "Hey, let's go swimmin'!"

"We ain't going swimmin', Clint. We don't got our suits and I ain't walking all the way home in wet underwear again." Barney gathers his books up and starts back towards the house, which is the last place Clint wants to go right now.

"Daddy's home already," Clint admits, just a shade louder than a whisper. Barney stops, the muscles in his jaw tensing like he's just took a bite out of a big 'ol lemon. 

"Dammit. It ain't even dark yet." Barney's got his books hugged tight to his chest and looks about like someone let all the air out of his tires. Most nights daddy didn't come home till after two, because that's when last call was at Sal's bar. Barney and Clint had taken to sleeping in the hayloft so he couldn't find them when he came back reeking of scotch.

But if he was already home they'd have to sleep in the house or risk him finding their hiding spot.

"You know what Clint, I think you're right," Barney says at the last second, changing his direction so that he's going towards the pond that's tucked away at the bottom of the pasture.

"It's hotter than a pepper sprout. Let's go swimmin'!" Clint giggles, the Johnny Cash reference not lost on him. Mama's favorite song had been 'Jackson', and she used to sing it constantly when she was hanging the clothes out to dry.

He'd realize the heartbreak in that someday, standing outside a laundromat in Little Rock and humming the same damn tune, but that's not for another ten years down the line.  

Daddy's not in the house when they get back but his truck's under the carport, so it's only a matter of time. Barney scrounges up a can of vienna sausages and half a sleeve of saltines that they eat in silence, scarfing the shared meal down between sips of lukewarm tap water. It's not bad, as far as dinners go in the Barton household these days. When they're done Barney makes him take a bath even though he doesn't want to ("You've got pond scum behind your ears, ya doofus!") and then he starts getting him ready for bed.

Instead of tucking him into the actual bed though, Barney pulls the pillow and blankets into the closet, shoving Clint's shoes and legos over so he can make a pallet on the floor. "You should sleep here tonight," Barney tells him, jaw set. Clint longs for the safety of the hayloft, but knows they can't risk it. "Don't make a sound, okay, Clint? I need you to be as quiet as a church mouse on Sunday mornin'."

"Okay, Barney," Clint mumbles, staring down at the patchwork of the quilt below them. There's a small hole in the corner that needs looking after. "Are you staying in here too?"

"Nah," Barney answers, ruffling Clint's hair to try and cut through some of the dread that's been building ever since they got home. "I'm gonna be in the closet in my room. That way if he finds me he won't find you too."

Clint chews at the corner of his mouth and balls his hands up in the hem of his oversized sleep shirt.

"Go to bed." Barney gives his head a final pat. "I'm serious, Clint. Quiet as a confessional booth."

*

Clint's luck runs out a little after midnight.

He was fast asleep, curled up in his blanket pile when the door jerked open and Clint had been drug out by his arm. He gasps, tries to wrench free and get his feet back under him but ends up stumbling down onto the floor of the bedroom once daddy turns loose of his arm.

"There you are," Harold grumbles, punctuating the sentence by taking a swig from his bottle of Johnnie Walker. "You been hidin' from me, boy?"

"No, s-sir," Clint answers, dropping his eyes down to his lap to avoid his daddy's sneer.

"Sure," Harold agrees, easy as you like. Clint doesn't pick up his eyes, keeps them trained on the worn leather boots in front of him. Clint hears daddy take another gulp out of that black label bottle. Listens to his ragged mouth breathing as the pit in Clint's stomach opens up bigger and bigger until he feels like he's gonna fall through it and never see the sun again.

"Where's your brother then?"

Clint's shoulders hunch up around his ears. "I don't know, sir."

The blow is expected and open palmed against the side of his face. Clint's teeth sink into his bottom lip to stop any sounds from coming out, knows the louder he is the harder daddy hits.

"I don't know," Harold laughs but it don't sound like a laugh, sounds more like a monster that's hungry. "Aren't you good for anything?"

Clint screws his eyes shut, can feel the tears building and desperately tries to keep any of them from falling. Clint doesn't want to answer because he knows it's a trap, he'll get a smack no matter what, but he has to do something so he gives a little shrug, the barest twitching of his shoulders upwards.

He doesn't get hit though, instead Harold takes him by the ear and pinches hard, twisting and pulling at it until Clint gets up with a yowl. "Answer the question, Clinton." Harold twists Clint's ear more viciously until he can't hold back the sob anymore.

"I ain't good for nothin'," Clint manages, because he sure don't feel like he's worth much of anything right now.

Harold takes one meaty hand and clutches at Clint's arm to keep him from going anywhere and slams the other one down, closed fisted this time, against the side of his face. Harold's class ring catches on Clint's eyebrow and the pain is so bright and sudden that the boy can't hope to stop his pained cry.

"That's right. You ain't worth the slop it takes to feed you," Harold growls, before shoving Clint away from him. "Now get the fuck back in bed." Clint scrambles to comply, rushing over to the side of his bed. "If you see your bitch of a brother, let him know I'm lookin' for 'em."

Clint pauses halfway into crawling up on the bed and flicks his eyes over to his daddy, who's taking another slug outta that damned black label bottle. Clint feels the anger swell up inside of him, graveyard dark, and grits his teeth to keep from saying anything that might get himself hit again.

Harold has his back turned to Clint when he mumbles, "It was just like that hateful woman to do somethin' as rotten as givin' me a bitch for a son."

And Clint knows better, honest to God he does. Knows nothing good will come from doing what he's about to do, but he reaches for the lamp anyways. There is a split second where he tries to talk himself out of it, tells himself that this is a special kind of stupid that'll only lead to a worse beating.

But nobody's ever accused Clint of having an over abundance of brains, so he does it anyways.

"Hey asshole," Clint says as he winds that lamp back like he's Sandy Koufax about to pitch a perfect game. "The only bitch in this house is you."

He hurls the lamp as hard as he can, grins ferociously when his aim is true and he hits his mark. Harold goes down with a yell, stumbling all over himself in an explosion of porcelain and lightbulb shards. It feels like victory, like fireworks, like holy scripture. In the five seconds of silence that follows where Clint is finally the one towering over daddy for a change, where the devil at his feet is the one laid out and bleeding instead of him, everything is worth it.

But all good things must end. Mama had taught him that.

Harold comes up snarling and aims a fist at Clint's belly. He falls hard, hits the ground on his knees and he can't breathe. He tries gasping, struggles to take in air any way he can get it, but Harold has knocked the wind out of his sails and left him heaving. Clint's so preoccupied with trying to get his lungs working again that he doesn't realize the boot's coming until it's too late.

Clint screams when it crashes into the side of his head, right on top of his left ear, and the pain is white hot and blinding. It makes an awful crunching noise so deep inside his own head he gags, retches at the same time he's trying to get a breath in and Clint thinks he must be drowning. Harold snatches him up by his hair, fisting both of his hands into it and drags Clint across the floor, heedless of his youngest son's wailing. When Harold gets him to the end of the bed he uses one hand to grab Clint's chin, keeps the other threaded through his hair and viciously cracks the right side of his head against the edge of the footboard.

And then there's nothing.

*

He opens his eyes and for a little while daddy is looming, eyes burning clear through him with a rage the likes of which Clint has never seen before. His mouth is moving but Clint can't hear much of anything at all, can't even feel it when Harold pulls his head one way to expose his neck. Doesn't notice when daddy's teeth dig into the delicate skin until he bleeds.

He does see Barney though, casting a shadow over the both of them. Notices the white knuckle grip he's got on the baseball bat, can spot the fury on his face when he slams it down over the back of daddy's head.

And then there's nothing.

*

When he opens his eyes this time he's still in the same spot on the floor, in a tacky pool of his own blood. He can see that daddy is up on the bed, his back to Clint while he's crouched over Barney. His brother is lying there all glassy eyed, staring straight at Clint while Harold sinks his teeth into his neck.

Everything's quiet and muted, but Clint can tell Barney's trying to say something. His mouth is moving in the same pattern over and over again, eyes far away but still trained on Clint's. The younger boy moves his mouth too, mimics the shapes his brother is making with his lips again and again until he understands.

Run.

Clint doesn't know how he does it, but somehow he manages to get to his feet. Barney stops moving his mouth and closes his eyes, tears tracking down his face and rolling off his chin. It's just as well, Clint can't stand to look at his brother either, doesn't ever want to remember him looking so vulnerable.

Clint is out the back door and running through the yard before he knows it, lungs burning as he makes for the corn field. He's hoping that it will take daddy long enough to follow him that Clint can make it to Billy Hollingsworth's house to call the sheriff, but if Harold heard him slam the screen door on the way out then Clint knows he doesn't have much time. Clint's bare feet are tender from sprinting through the rows unprotected, but he can't stop, he has to keep goi--

Something hard and unyielding grabs him around the collar of his shirt and jerks him to the ground. Clint goes down like a sack of bricks, whimpers at the sudden impact but doesn't hear the sound. For a fleeting moment Clint thinks Harold has caught up to him, but then his eyes adjust and Clint realizes it isn't Harold that's got him at all.

There's a man crouched down next to him, long and dark like a shadow with an arm that gleams in the moonlight. His hair is shaggy and he's got a knife dripping blood in his metal hand and oh god there's blood on his face too and he's a nightmare, he's the bogeyman, he's--

He's setting the knife down, careful and slow. He's taking his metal hand and gently cupping Clint's face, angling his head up and tracing the fingers of his other hand over the ruins of his neck. 

The shadow moves his mouth, but there is no sound.

Clint wails, sobs so hard he can feel his chest rattle with it, but still there is no sound. He's got blood in his eyes and snot running down his face when he finally manages to hiccup out, "I c-cant hear so good." The shadow's expression doesn't change, studying the boy intently until all at once he's whipping his head up, eyes focusing on something in the distance back towards the house.

"I'm gonna die," Clint tells the shadow between the tears and knows it's true. "He's gonna kill me."

The shadow looks back at Clint to meet his gaze and shakes his head. Brings his flesh hand to his mouth and holds a finger up to shush him before grabbing Clint's hands and pressing them over his eyes. Then the shadow lets go and Clint doesn't know if he's alone or not.

Clint sits there with his head buried in hands and tries his best not to make a sound. He's got no option left but to trust the shadow.

He waits.

It is quiet.

*

The shadow's hands are back, prying Clint's away from his face so he can get a good look at him. Clint doesn't know what the man is looking for, but whatever it is he must have found it because in the next heartbeat he's scooping the blond up and cradling him against his chest before trudging back towards the house.

Clint attempts to turn his head so he can watch where they're going but the shadow stops him, redirects his face so it's pressed into the man's neck and he can't see anything at all.

"Barney" Clint says, but he can't hear it. "We've got to get Barney."

The shadow keeps walking.

*

When Clint wakes up he's tucked into Barney's bed and his brother is right there next to him. The twelve year old is covered in blood and bruises, but his chest is steady rising, still breathing in spite of Harold Barton's best attempt at killing them both.

Clint gets up and limps for the phone. Calls 911 and everything is quiet. He repeats his name and address over and over until the cops show up.

*

They say his daddy was killed trying to save his boys from some unknown intruder and Clint doesn't correct them. He's not sure how to say it was the shadow that was the one doing the saving and doesn't figure they'd believe him anyways, so he keeps his mouth shut.

*

"I have missed the denning?" Thor booms, expression so obviously stricken that it physically pains Clint to look at him.

"Yeah, you missed it. Sorry, big guy," Clint says and isn't surprised to find that he means it. Thor had been steadily worming his way into Clint's heart for months now, but the interview he gave with 'People' a few weeks back had really sealed the deal. When asked what he thought his second gender would be if Asgardian's had them the God answered, "Omega" without a moment's hesitation. The interviewer had pushed for a reason and Thor responded with unguarded sincerity, "Most of my fellow Avengers are omega and they are some of the bravest and most fearsome warriors that I know. I would be honored to be counted amongst them."

So yeah, Clint had a soft spot for Thor.

The other reason Clint loved hanging around Thor, soft spot aside, was the fact that he was some sort of magical scent sink. Whenever the god was in a room he sucked all the alpha and omega smells right out of it, which made Clint's lack of smell unnoticeable because, well, nobody smelled like anything. Clint knew that was one of the reasons Wanda like hanging out with the god too, since she didn't have to be on guard all the time.

( Clint had only smelled Wanda once when they were training together, tucked away alone in the gym. Clint had been shooting at targets and Wanda was deflecting them back towards him with her magic, forcing him to shoot those arrows mid flight with new ones to change their course. It was great practice and Wanda kept a steady wall of shimmering red energy up around Clint to keep him safe, just in case he missed any of the projectiles.

It wasn't necessary, but it was appreciated.

"I'm out," Clint says once the quiver at his hip is empty. "Gimme a breather and I'll be ready to go again in like five, ten minutes tops."

He doesn't wait for an answer before flopping down on one of the practice mats next to them. He closes his eyes, puffs out a sigh, and when he opens them next Wanda is standing over him, obvious affection warring with something else.

"What's up, Wanda?" He asks, cocking his head as he stares up at her from the floor.

She looks like she's steeling herself. "Don't freak out, okay?"

"What?" He answers right before she drops the magic and the scent hits him full force.

It's staggering, so much smell he can hardly think straight. It's like standing in a sugarcane thicket so dense you can't see anything else for miles, stalks tall enough to black out the sun.

"Wow," Clint laughs once the magic slides back in place and she's beta neutral smelling again, just like him. "That's fucking colossal."

"Mmhmm," Wanda hums, plopping down so she's laid out next to him. Clint reaches out to wind a rust colored lock of hair around his finger, wonders idly how come he keeps collecting redheads. "Pietro smelt like bamboo."

And there's a sadness there that's still aching, so Clint gives Wanda's hair another tug before letting it go to roll over and face her. "Hey," he says, face split in a shit eating grin. "Does this mean I get to call you sugar?"

Wanda rolls her eyes. "If you start calling me sugar than I get to call you mom."

Clint opens his mouth to give a witty retort but then Wanda's using her magic to yank him up by one leg and he squawks indignantly instead. "Breaks over, old man!" She laughs before dumping him back down onto the practice mats.)

"We could make another one?" Wanda offers, perched on the couch next to Clint. She has her feet in his lap and the marksman is steadily working his thumb against the arch of one of them. "I wouldn't mind nesting with you two."

Thor looks up, ice blue eyes so damn hopeful that it breaks Clint to have to turn him down. "Sorry," Clint mumbles, suddenly sheepish. "It's not that I wouldn't want to, because it could be nice, but it, um, takes a lot out of me," Clint flounders before giving Thor his very best apologetic grin. "Rain check?" 

Thor claps a hand down over Clint's shoulder. "There is no need to apologise, brother Hawk. The day you chose to share your den with me will be most cherished."

Clint goes just about as pink as he can get and Wanda falls over with a cackle. Thor's eyebrows draw together as he asks, "Was that not right?"

"No Thor, it's fine." Clint sends Wanda a pointed glare to get her to hush. "Wanda's just laughing because it sounds like something out of an omega bodice ripper." Thor looks horrified, so Clint adds quickly, "But like, a super classy one, y'know?"

Thor still looks thoroughly chastised and Clint hates it. "We could do something else?" Clint offers, grinning when the god looks up excitedly. "Hey Friday, can you order us some pizza?"

And after a beat, he adds, "And can you call up, ' The Enchanted Florist' for me, please?"

*

They've worked their way through a six pack of Blue Moon and two and a half pizzas before their flower delivery arrives. They end up with three boxes overflowing with a multitude of blossoms, but the majority of them are daisies.

"They're you're favorite?" Wanda asks, nimble fingers deftly winding stems together in a rough outline of a crown. It takes Clint a second to answer because 'Thelma & Louise' is playing on the TV behind her and Brad Pitt is shirtless in a cowboy hat. 

It's distracting.

"Yep," Clint finally responds once he can tear his eyes off the screen, finger combing Thor's hair before starting on his first braid. They're sitting all in a row, Clint on the couch with the god bracketed between his knees and Wanda in front with Thor working careful braids into her long tresses.

"But they're filler flowers," Wanda protests, weaving a couple of peonies through in an attempt to give the crown more panache.

"I wasn't trying to spend all of Tony's money," Clint points out from around the elastic between his teeth before using said elastic to tie two braids together. Clint is determined to make Daenerys Targaryen herself jealous of Thor's crown of braids. "They were my mom's favorite too. Me and my brother used to pick them on the way home from school and give them to her."

"That is a very good tale, my friend!" Thor exclaims while artfully staggering daffodils into the braids of Wanda's hair. "I too would pick flowers and present them to my mother when I was a boy."

"Aw, how sweet!" Wanda practically coos, setting the finished flower crown down beside her. "You guys were both mama's boys."

"Mmhm," Clint hums while peppering a final splattering of giant, floppy sunflowers through the plaits under his fingers. Maybe it should still sting a little, talking about his mom, but the scar tissue over that particular wound is so thick that it doesn't hurt like it used to.

The elevator dings and Clint doesn't even glance back at it, instead focusing on putting the finishing touches on Thor's hair. "All done, big guy," Clint tells him, giving his shoulders a friendly pat. "Pretty as a picture."

Thor makes a pleased noise in the back of his throat at the same time someone behind them makes a strangled one. All three of their heads swivel around, looking more like a pack of meerkats than three superheroes at rest.

Steve's standing there and his eyes are darting between them frantically, like he can't figure out where to look first. He opens his mouth, shuts it, waves his hands in a flappy, jerking movement before stuffing them under his armpits, like he can't trust them to not do something stupid. Clint snorts, because Steve's reaction to omegas doing anything remotely domestic never gets old.

"Hey, Steve," Clint greets, cheek dimpling as he shoots the other man a knowing grin.

"Hey." Steve shifts his weight from foot to foot, visibly fretting. "Is it okay if Bucky's here too?"

Clint leans over to crane his head around Steve and sure enough Bucky is standing outside the elevator, hiding behind his hair with his hands shoved in his pockets. Clint inhales, tries to catch a whiff of copper or grave dirt, but everything just smells like flowers. 

Clint feels a thump and glances down to see that Thor has flopped his head back against his thigh so he can peer up at the archer. The god is watching intently and Clint notices all of a sudden that he'd started bouncing his leg anxiously the second he'd seen Bucky was in the room. Clint wills himself to stop fidgeting and thumps Thor's nose to get him to quit worrying so much. "It's fine, the more the merrier."

Clint had told Bucky he'd try, so he figures the least he could do is mean it.

"Come on, Steve," Wanda says as she gets up to drop the flower crown on Clint's head. "I'll make you one too."

Steve turns ten different shades of pink, but he's grinning ear to ear and looking all kinds of pleased. He goes back to get Bucky and then it takes a moment to get everyone settled, Wanda and Steve sorting through what's left of the flowers to pick out what to put in the crown and Thor going over to supervise the whole operation. Bucky stands by the couch Clint's on, obviously uncomfortable, until Clint finally has mercy and wonders, "Did you want braids too?"

Bucky goes rose red and looks just about as pretty as one. "Is that something that alphas like?" He asks, so completely unsure of himself that some of the ice melts away from around Clint's heart.

"That doesn't have anything to do with it." Clint ducks his head to try and catch Bucky's eyes. He's still hiding behind his hair. "All that matters is if it's something you like or not." Clint pauses and watches the other man subconsciously rub at his metal arm. "Do you want me to braid your hair for you?" Clint offers again, tone as gentle as he can manage.

"Yes." Bucky's voice is raspy but steady. "I want you to braid my hair."

"You got it," Clint answers, aiming for light hearted and unbothered as he nods down at his feet. "Take a load off, Barnes, and I'll get right on that."

Bucky eventually slinks over, head still bowed as he turns his back to Clint and hunkers down between his knees. Clint's hands hover before he wills himself to initiate contact and buries his fingers in the other man's hair. It's softer than Clint would have guessed, not quite as silky as Natasha's but it's a close call. Clint starts at the bottom, easing the tangles out with careful touches, softening the longer he pets through Bucky's hair and nothing bad happens.

Clint can tell Steve is watching, standing sentry maybe, but when Clint chances a glance all he sees is earnestness and hope in those baby blues. And wow, okay, that's a lot of pressure to read into this interaction so Clint ignores it because he can't deal with all of that weight on his shoulders right now.

"Are you tender headed?" Clint asks as he parts Bucky's hair down the middle. It's not super sharp without a comb, but it'll keep.

"I'm not sure…?" Bucky responds, like he's not even certain what those words mean.

"That's fine," Clint reassures, tying off one side to keep it out of the way for now. "Just let me know if I hurt you. Hold your head up for me. No, no, like this." Clint lets a hand wander down under Bucky's jaw to give it a careful nudge. "Perfect."

Clint gets to work, being as gentle as he can manage while still keeping the braids tight. Bucky seems content to watch the television and let Clint work in silence for a while but eventually breaks it when he grouses, "This is a weird movie."

Clint looks up just in time to see Geena Davis plant one on Susan Sarandon while surrounded by FBI agents under an Arizona sky. "A little," he concedes with a chuckle. "It's kind of cheesy, but I like it."

"Why?" Bucky asks, his nose scrunched up as he watches the protagonists link hands before they race off to their inevitable demise at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. 

"They spend the whole movie trying to save each other," Clint says with a shrug as he ties off the remainder of Bucky's hair with his last elastic. The finished product is two dutch braids that run into a high bun at the crown of his head. "It's romantic."

"If you say so." Bucky looks like he's trying to bite back a laugh at the whole slow motion, cheesy music, over dramatic ending. 

"I do say so," Clint huffs, but he's holding back a smile that bleeds into his tone. "Now turn around so I can check the front."

Bucky obliges, twisting around until he's half turned at the waist and peering up at the blond. Clint takes a minute to smooth away some of the wispy baby hairs that are too short to stay in the braid. "Almost," Clint starts before leaning over to pluck a daisy out of the box next to his feet. He tucks the little white bud behind Bucky's ear and then pulls back to get a good look at him. "Very handsome," Clint admits. His stomach feels fluttery. He ignores it.

Bucky's mouth gives a trembly quirk before settling on a slow, crooked smile. "You think so?" He asks, but apparently rhetorically because then he's turning towards Steve and saying, "How do I look, punk?"

Steve looks their way, a ring of blush pink garden roses in his hair, and flashs them that all American megawatt smile of his. "You're as pretty as a peach, Buck."

Chapter Text

Clint is twelve years old and tucked away in one of Ms. Peterson's spare bedrooms when someone lays a hand on his shoulder to wake him. Clint blinks, trying to clear the blurriness out of his eyes before finally making out his brother's face peering down at him. Barney, who is just two weeks shy of turning eighteen and finally growing into his shoulders, makes a show of dangling Clint's BTEs at him before reaching to loop them over Clint's ears.

"Everything alright?" Clint asks anxiously. They'd been with Ms. Peterson for all of four months now and so far everything seemed fine. Which was to say that they had three square meals a day and no one had tried to beat on them yet. Honestly it was the best run in a foster home they'd had in a long time.

"I overheard Phyllis talkin' on the phone," Barney explains, refusing to call Ms. Peterson by anything other than her first name. "They're fixin' to try and separate us," the older boy pauses, expression grim. "And they don't intend to let me have custody of you."

"What!?" Clint exclaims, sitting up in a rush and not the least bit sleepy anymore. "Why?"

"Jesus, Clint, keep your fuckin' voice down," Barney rushes, covering Clint's mouth with his hand and listening closely. When Ms. Peterson doesn't come to check on them Barney relaxes and then lets his hand fall away. "They said I wouldn't be able to make enough money to take care of you," Barney admits, quiet. Ashamed. "They said I'm too violent."

And in reality, Clint knew that maybe both of those things were a little true. Barney really was violent towards anyone that so much as looked at either one of them wrong (Hell, he'd given their last foster dad a black eye just for implying Clint was lazy) and it was hard to imagine how an eighteen year old could be financially responsible for both himself and a twelve year old. 

That knowledge, however, did nothing to dampen the sense of dread Clint was currently experiencing.

"You shouldn't cry in front of other people, baby brother," Barney lectures, but at the same time he's tugging down the sleeve of his shirt and using it to mop up Clint's tears.

"'Cause it's a weakness, right?" Clint guesses, sniffling pitifully.

"Nah, that ain't it," Barney corrects, patting Clint's head. "Everyone cries and if they say otherwise they're fuckin' lyin'. It's just that if you do it in front of the wrong person they'll use it against you somewhere down the line. Now quit with the waterworks and pack your shit, kid, 'cause I ain't about to leave you behind."

*

They end up leaving just after one o'clock in the morning and steal pretty much all the dry food they can get their hands on. They take Ms. Peterson's oldsmobile too and Clint's stomach is so knotted up with guilt that he feels sick.

"We're not takin' it far," Barney tells him as they're crossing into Illinois. Clint stares out the window and frets while they're driving over the Comanche river bridge. "I swear we're gonna dump it in a few hours, Clint, then we can call Phyllis in a few weeks and tip her off. Don't pout, ya twerp."

"I ain't poutin'," Clint grumbles, sinking down lower in the seat and putting his feet up on the dash.

*

They make it to Saint Louis in about six hours and Barney decides it's as good a place as any to ditch the oldsmobile. They pull into a Walmart parking lot and Barney stops the car next to a decrepit looking Chevy Blazer. 

"Lesson one on liftin' cars," Barney instructs as he's fussing with Clint's hoody to make sure his face is covered. "Is that you gotta pick a heap of junk. Cops are fuckin' lazy and nobody wants to chase you down if the car ain't worth nothin'."

"That one doesn't look fit to drive," Clint points out as Barney turns around to rummage through a bag in the backseat.

"It don't gotta get us far, we're gonna switch again here in a coupla hours anyways," Barney tells him as he frees a slim jim.

"You just carry that around with you?" Clint wonders, eyeing the thin length of metal.

"No, but I do keep it in my, 'Get the fuck outta Dodge,' bag. Remember, Clint, you--,"

"Always gotta be ready to run," Clint finishes, exasperated. "I know, I know."

"Smartass," Barney groues. "Okay, so it's gonna go down like this. We're gonna lean up on that car like it already belongs to us, casual like, and while we're chit chattin' imma jimmy open the door."

"What are we gonna talk about?" Clint asks, perplexed.

"It don't fuckin' matter what we talk about, baby brother. We're only doin' it so if somebody sees us from across the parking lot we look natural and not like we're fixin' to steal this rig," Barney explains while gesticulating wildly with the slim jim. "Now once I get in there you need to pay attention to what I'm doin', 'cause you're in charge of the next one."

"You're gonna teach me how to hotwire a car?" Clint gasps, eyes wide as dinner plates. He's practically vibrating with barely contained excitement.

"Yeah, I'm gonna learn ya," Barney laughs. "I can't do all the work, now can I?"

The plan goes off without a hitch and Clint watches, enraptured, as Barney fiddles with the innards of the steering column until the blazer sputters to life. "See?" Barney says with a wink. "Piece 'o cake."

Later, when they've been on the road for a while it occurs to Clint to ask, "Where're we goin'?"

Barney shoots him a grin, blue eyes alight with mischief and something that looks a lot like hope. In lieu of answering, he starts to belt out the first couple of lines of, 'Jackson'.

Clint smiles so hard his face hurts. He joins in, a shade off key but enthusiastic nonetheless. Clint thinks that maybe, just maybe, their luck is finally changing.

*

They make it to Jackson, Mississippi by nightfall and Clint manages to convince Barney to take him to the circus that's passing through. They like it so much they never leave.

*

Thor goes off world the day after their hair braiding party and Bucky goes back to stinking up the place, only now it's so much worse because he seems to have taken Clint's olive branch as an invitation to live on the community level. Everytime Clint wants to grab something from the shared kitchen (Tony always keeps it stocked with the best snack food) or he just wants to hang out, Bucky is always right there and it's freaking annoying.

So Clint spends the next little while holed up in his room. It's lonely in his self imposed exile and his favorite redheads are both out on a mission so there's no one to come visit. He starts to go a little stir crazy at the end of the first week and by the end of the second he’s ready to start scaling walls. 

Then one morning he wakes to find that he's run out of coffee grounds and realizes he's going to have to brave the community kitchen if he wants his caffeine fix. He's wearing his softest sleep pants when he makes it to the door, but quickly doubles back to pull on a slouchy tank, because if Barnes is there then the last thing Clint wants is to walk around with his belly exposed. It's only when he's in the elevator and halfway down that Clint registers the fact that he'd forgotten to slip in his hearing aids.

He fights down a surge of panic as the doors come apart with a ding and schools his expression to be as neutral as possible. Sure enough Bucky is camped out at the bar next to Steve, both of them shoveling down breakfast food like they're getting paid for it. 

Clint keeps his head down and takes a whiff, catching a hint of Bucky but mostly Steve is overpowering it, which is pretty typical. The other blond’s smell is overkill and exactly what you’d expect out of an alpha, all vintage leather and bergamot. Clint makes a beeline for the coffee pot, not even glancing up to make eye contact with anyone, which turns out to be an egregious error. 

Clint’s focused on stirring sugar into his coffee, head still fuzzy with sleep, when an arm, a motherfucking metal arm, reaches around him to snatch a spare mug. Clint turns sharply and realizes with growing hysteria that Bucky is right there, inadvertently caging him against the kitchen counter. The other man is saying something, brows creasing with an indeterminable emotion but Clint can't make himself focus on how Bucky's mouth is moving or what words he might be forming because he's trapped.

Clint just about loses his goddamn mind. 

He's got Bucky slammed down against the kitchen tiles before either one of them knows what's happening, straddling the other man and bowing over to snarl in his ear. Clint has both of Bucky's arms pinned down in a punishing grip for now, but he knows it's only a matter of time before the left one breaks loose. In fact, he can feel the metal arm whirling under his hand, the plates shifting in preparation for something and Clint's so freaked out he can feel his own heart pulsing all the way down in his fingertips.

Clint doesn't want to take his eyes off Bucky but he doesn't have a choice, gaze flitting around hurriedly in search of a weapon. They land on his overturned coffee cup and Clint lets go of Bucky's metal arm to snatch it up before smashing it against the counter hard, the porcelain shattering like fireworks. Clint's hand is immediately cut to shit, but he doesn't even process it as he takes the biggest shard and presses it to the thin skin on the underside of Bucky's jaw.

Bucky's eyes widen and then his expression instantly closes off, deliberately going limp under Clint while tilting his head so the expanse of his neck is exposed. Which is really fucking weird, right? Clint's got something sharp jammed up under his chin and Bucky's reaction is to give him more room to make the killing blow? Why would he do that?

The only thing Clint can figure is maybe Bucky is going for non-threatening, which is the exact opposite of what usually happens. Normally when Bucky gets him trapped he bites, and if Clint fights back Bucky just pins him down and bites that much harder. Clint's nose twitches and Bucky's scent shifts, the gunsmoke dissipating, the blood going cold, the soil drenched in rain water. Bucky smells sad, devastated even, like he's so remorseful he can't stand it.

"Shit," Clint begins, swallowing thickly and letting the broken coffee cup slip free as Bucky's rainy day eyes slide back his way. "Shit, Bucky, I didn't mean, damnit, I'm sorry--,"

A hand, warm and calloused, fits under the fabric of his shirt and squeezes high on his shoulder, fingers barely brushing up against his neck. It's enough to send Clint back into a panicked tailspin and he twists on instinct, sinking his teeth mercilessly into the offending hand. Blood wells up in his mouth before the hand manages to tear away and Clint uses the opportunity to scramble to his feet and vault over the kitchen counter.

When he looks back Steve is standing there, bleeding hand held tight to his chest and cornflower blue eyes conflicted. Bucky stays on the floor, but he's picked up his head and is saying something to Steve that Clint can't make out at this angle.

"The next time you put your hands on my neck," Clint starts, glaring at Steve while using the back of his hand to wipe the blood from his mouth. "I'll tear them off you."

Then he flees.

*

Natasha opens the door and stares down at him, arms crossed and tremendously unimpressed.

"Go away, Nat," Clint grumbles from beneath his blanket cocoon at the bottom of the closet. 

"You're sulking," Natasha accuses, squatting down and resting her weight back on her heels. Her leathers creak with the movement and he belatedly realizes she's still in her all black mission outfit.

"Yeah, I am," Clint concedes, not even the least bit ashamed. "I acted like an animal at breakfast, attacked a teammate for no reason, and then bit Captain America," he lists with a hiss, hunching further into the heavy duvet wrapped around him. "That's practically a war crime, Nat. I deserve solitary confinement."

"So this is your way of punishing yourself?" Natasha asks curiously, no judgement in her tone. She reaches out and searches until she finds his bandaged hand, pulls it into the light and turns it this way then that way to examine it.

"No," Clint snaps, before he amends, "Yes," followed by a very dejected sounding, "I don't know, maybe?" He tolerates her inspection of his first aid skills for approximately five seconds before tugging his hand back.

Natasha hums, like all of that made perfect sense. "Well, Steve's distraught," she informs him and the subsequent pang of guilt gives Clint a stomach ache. "James is worried too."

"I can't do this," Clint complains, shuffling the covers all the way over his face to block everything out. "Just take me out back and shoot me. Put me out of my misery."

"You're pitiful," Natasha acknowledges, pushing aside the blanket until Clint reemerges. "But why don't you save the drama and just go apologize?"

Clint fusses with the fabric between his fingers. "I'm trying, Nat, honest, but he smells like a nightmare," the blond confesses, feeling his ears heat up in mortification. Natasha would never hold it against him, but it's still a hard thing to admit.

"I actually might have a solution for that."

"Really?" Clint perks up, all ears.

"I was talking it over with Sam and we thought if I scented James a few times a day it might help,” Natasha informs him, her smile turning sly. “You do like how I smell, don’t you?”

“Don’t go fishing for compliments, Tasha, it’s unladylike,” He teases, sticking out a foot to try and pinch her with his toes. Natasha swats him away before he can follow through. “You know you smell incredible. So what, we're hoping I'll associate his smell to you?" She nods. "Oh God, you're conditioning me!" Natasha grins, all teeth, and Clint groans. "I'm the dog."

"You'll be the dog," Natasha agrees as she reaches out to flick his nose. "James will be the bell." As Natasha says this she signs the shorthand version they'd come up with for Bucky's name, flashing the sign for the letter, 'B' before tapping her left arm twice, right over where the star would be on his metal arm. "And I'll be Pavlov," she finishes with a smirk, pointing back at herself. 

Clint sighs and burrows back into his cocoon. "Fucking Pavlov."

*

Natasha and him draw up an apology plan and Clint goes to execute it the next morning. He sets his alarm and crawls out of bed at six o'clock sharp, right when Bucky and Steve usually go out for their morning jog. Clint pulls on his grey , 'Mirkwood Archery Club', shirt that Tony had got him last Christmas and a pair of his nicer jeans, the slim cut black pair that he had bought with holes artfully cut out of the knees. Natasha hated that he bought distressed jeans when he already had a plethora of beat up and holey pants, but Clint had a disaster aesthetic to maintain, damnit.

He stops to grab Natasha on the way down to the common room and then they make their way to the kitchen. Natasha perches on the counter, legs swishing, and Clint fetches her an apple to munch on while they wait for the coffee to brew. Few knew it, but Natasha was actually pretty crabby on an empty stomach.

He lets her nibble the apple all the way to the core before pressing a mug of coffee into her hands. It's made to her taste, no sugar and entirely too much cream. The redhead hums appreciatively and leans over to brush her lips against his cheek in a ghost of a kiss. Clint returns the sentiment before going to fish a cast iron skillet out of the cabinet and turning the burner on so he can start browning the sausage. 

He's got the gravy made, bacon fried, biscuits in the oven, and is in the process of scrambling the eggs by time Steve and Bucky get back. Steve takes one look at them and blushes all the way down his chest, which Clint can see because they're both shirtless. "What's got you flustered this time, Steve?" Clint asks conversationally. He watches a bead of sweat track down Bucky's neck to pool in the well of one of his collarbones. 

Clint chews at the corner of his mouth and goes back to minding the eggs.

"I'm not flustered!" Steve protests. Bucky snickers.

"It's because you're barefoot in the kitchen makin' breakfast." Clint glances down and huh, what do you know, he is barefoot. He flexes his toes against the cold tiles. "It doesn't help that Natalia's barefoot too," Bucky supplies and Clint thinks maybe he's a bit red from more than just his morning run too. "You both look like a 1940s cutout of omega housewives."

"Should we go?" Steve asks, ignoring their teasing and going straight to the heart of the matter. "We don't want to make you uncomfortable, Clint."

He's so sincere that it's heartbreaking. "Sit down and shut up so I can make it up to you," Clint huffs in feigned indifference to cover up the overwhelming guilt that's been eating away at him since yesterday morning.

Clint starts plating the eggs when he hears Bucky ask, "...Did you make us an apology breakfast?"

"It's an apology breakfast," Natasha confirms and Clint's grateful. He uses the opportunity to slip on some oven mitts (Steve barely restrains a gasp and really Steve, oven mitts?) and pulls the biscuits out of the oven. "But it's also a strategy meeting."

Natasha hops down and leads the two super soldiers over to the table, leaving Clint to get breakfast squared away. He serves Natasha first, then Steve. He goes back to the kitchen to grab the last two plates and Clint doesn't even flinch when Bucky's fingers brush his during the trade off. It's still a little frightening, sitting across from this man who has spent the last two decades haunting him, but the bergamot is sweet, the promises are well kept, and the soil is resting, like the gun has been put away and the corpse long buried. 

"So," Bucky starts, drawing Clint out of his musings. "You're the dog, huh?" 

Clint gives a startled laugh, his insides swooping at the crinkles that form around Bucky's eyes when he smiles back at him. 

"Woof," Clint says in agreement.

*

Clint is eighteen years old and going over the new routine with Barney when he feels it for the first time. A sharp, angry sensation that gnaws at him from behind his belly button has him shooting wide and missing the first balloon.

"Stop," Barney hollers up at him and Clint listens, cradling his bow to his chest as he lets himself free fall from the circus swing to land in the nets below. Clint lays there for a moment, just taking stock, and grimaces when the feeling spreads, his whole stomach aching and sore. "Blugh," Clint grumbles, pulling the blindfold off and staring up at the ceiling of the bigtop, wallowing in the pain before making himself roll over and off the safety net. 

He walks over to where Barney is dismounting Acorn, a high spirited buckskin they used during their shows. She was a little honery, but she was steady under pressure and never got skittish when Barney fired flaming arrows off her back, so Clint didn't mind her prissy personality.

"What's the matter with you?" Barney asks, hooking a lead to Acorn's bridle and tying her to the hitching post closest to them. The bells in her tail sing as she stomps irritably. 

"Fuck off. Why's something got to be wrong at all? Maybe I just missed," Clint snaps, surprising both of them. His belly twinges again and he grunts, pressing a hand against it.

"Don't go to gettin' too big for your britches, baby brother," Barney shoots back, coming over to stand by him. After Clint's latest growth spurt they're almost the same height. "Just because you ain't a pipsqueak no more don't mean I can't still string you up by your toenails."

It's such a ridiculous thing to say that Clint laughs, which makes Barney chuckle in turn. 

"But seriously, Clint," Barney sobers, giving his brother a once over. "What's going on with you? You haven't missed that bad since you was sixteen, even with the blindfold."

The ache becomes more persistent and Clint's skin is starting to feel about two sizes too small. He envies the way a snake can shed its skin when it gets too tight and grow a whole new one and, huh, that's a really fucking weird thing to be thinking about right now.

"I might be comin' down with something," Clint admits, scratching at his stomach. Barney frowns before wiping his hand on his blue jeans and pressing a hand to his forehead.

"I think you caught a fever," Barney tells him, eyebrows knitting together in worry. "I better let Trickshot know so he can get another show lined up."

"No, don't do that, I'll be fine," Clint protests, even as he starts to feel weak limbed and fuzzy. "It's our first time doing this set and--,"

"And you're sick, Clint, so cut the back sass. They'll survive a night or two without us. 'Sides, you're white as a sheet and look like a stiff breeze would blow you over."

"I ain't doin' that poorly," Clint grumbles, but in the same breath he's reaching out and bracing himself against his brother's arm to stop from doubling over. "Ouch. Jesus, maybe you're right, Barney." Clint blows out a breath that morphs into a pained wheeze halfway through. 

"Quit hammin' it up, you're actin' like you're dying or something."

"I'd have to feel better to die," Clint bitches, both arms wrapped around his middle and his teeth gritted together. There's a hollowness inside of him, steady and persistent in it's attempts at making itself known.

"You're the biggest drama queen alive," Barney teases, but Clint can tell he's fretting about it because he gives both of Clint's arms a squeeze before helping to straighten him back up. "You head on back to the caravan, I'll see to Acorn and let Trickshot know you're out of commission."

Clint doesn't have to be told twice. The trek back to their caravan is miserable and takes about three times longer than it should. By the time Clint gets the door shut behind him and climbs into bed, his hair is drenched in sweat and he feels weary and restless all at once. He twists around to crank up the window unit behind the bed before collapsing on top of the covers.

Fuck, his skin is crawling. Clint shifts as that hollowness becomes all encompassing, squirms until it feels monumental, like he can never hope to overcome it.

Clint's got his shirt off and is working on losing his pants when the door clangs open. "Barney," Clint pants, unmoored, adrift in the agony. "Barney, I think I'm actually fucking dying."

Barney takes one look at him and starts swearing, but then he's also laughing, which is just plain confusing. "It don't look like your dyin' to me, Clint. It looks like you're startin' to heat up."

Well that wakes him right up. "The hell I am!" Clint protests, sitting up in such a hurry it makes him light headed. His stomach spasms in retaliation, abs visibly flinching. "I'm a beta!"

"You're a late bloomer is what you are," Barney corrects, grinning ear to ear. Clint would punch him if it didn't seem like too much work. "This is a good thing, baby brother, because I can fix it. Now stand up so I can get the cover on the bed. I don't want you ruinin' the mattress."

"That's so gross," Clint laments. He's so far gone that he doesn't think he's actually processing this turn of events. He feels simultaneously like he's wracked with fever chills and also like someone has stuck hot needles in belly.

"Natural," Barney huffs as he pulls the sheets off to snap on not one, but two mattress protectors. "What you meant to say is that it's fuckin' natural."

"The two aren't mutually exclusive, you jerk," Clint spits out, hunching down into himself like if he can somehow get small enough everything will stop being on fire.

"Quit whining, it ain't that bad," Barney tells him and Clint really wants to disagree. Barney lets him back on the bed before going over to the cabinets on the other side of the caravan. He goes through them and pilfers a couple of things before coming back over to sit by Clint.

"I think I'm about to have a come apart," Clint tells his brother while he tries to hold on to his last shred of sanity.

"Clint, I got sympathy for you, honest, but you have got to knock it off with the theatrics. I only have so much patience and you're steady workin' on wearin' it thin."

"Everything hurts," Clint says plainly, vulnerable.

"I know," Barney softens, patting Clint's shoulder. "It's gonna suck, but we'll make it manageable. Take these," Barney instructs, passing over three ibuprofen and a bottle of water. Clint's stomach twists at the very notion of ingesting anything, but he complies. "Good. Now two of these," he continues, popping open the lid on a bottle of Fire Extinguisher and doling out two blue pills. "They work better if you start takin' 'em three days before your heat's supposed to start. They'll still help keep you from gettin' too wild though." 

Clint swallows them down gratefully.

"Good," Barney turn to fiddle with alarm clock next to the bed. "That'll go off in six hours," he says when he's finished. "That's when I expect you to take another dose of both of those. If the pain gets too bad in the meantime you can stagger it with these two in three hours." Barney punctuates this statement by rattling two different bottles at him, one is Tylenol and the other is Heat Douser. "There's food in the cabinet and more water, but you probably won't be hungry for a while. I'll lock you in and stay close by to make sure nobody messes with you."

"Thanks." Clint lays back and shudders, rolling the water bottle against his head to try and cool himself down. It doesn't work.

"No problem." Barney claps a hand over his knee before standing and heading for the door. "Give that medicine thirty minutes to kick in and you'll start to feel more in control, I promise."

"Alright," Clint responds, even though he doesn't believe him.

"You're gonna be fine," Barney tells him, blue green eyes both irritated and full of affection. "Just holler if you need me. I'll come runnin'."

"I know you will, Barney."

* 

He aches. 

* 

He yearns. 

*

Chapter Text

Two days later, when Clint finally cools off enough that Barney deems him fit for public, they walk across the fairgrounds to the KOA on the other side of the highway. The man that runs the place almost doesn't let them use the showers on account of them being carnies, but Barney manages to sweet talk him into it. It's always funny to watch Barney flirt his way into getting what he wants when Clint knows for a fact he'd rather just deck the guy and get it over with. 

Barney comes back twirling the shower key and positively beaming. Clint can't help but roll his eyes. Maybe he's still a little grouchy from the last two days of hell, sue him.

"I just got us free reign over these here showers for the entirety of our stay here in the lovely city of Tallahassee," Barney tells him, sounding very much like he thinks Clint ought to be impressed. "So quit cuttin' them eyes at me, baby brother, or I might be disinclined to share." But in the same breath he's tossing the keys his way, so Clint figures he doesn't actually mean it.

Clint goes to wash up and Barney leaves him to it. Once he finally starts to feel a little more human and a lot less like a swamp monster, Clint makes his way back to their caravan.

(And that's exactly what it is. Not an airstream, not a camper, but an honest to God, hand on the Bible, gypsy style caravan. Barney had sold a heat to buy it and then sold another one four months down the line to get it fixed up. Clint asked him about it once, pausing from painting vines against the frankly alarming teal paneling to ask, "Why a caravan?"

Barney, who had been stenciling sunny daisies across the baseboards, just looked up at him and answered, "Why the fuck not?")

By the time Clint gets back inside and his shoes kicked off Barney has the sheets changed and is frowning into the laundry hamper.

"These weren't that dirty," Barney says, no preamble.

"Um, alright?" 

"You startin' to smell anything yet?" Barney asks, just as abruptly.

Clint sniffs the air before pursing his lips. "I don't know," he mumbles, but it sounds like a question.

"Come try."

Clint's not sure on the etiquette here, seeing as three days ago he was beta and didn't have to worry over this sort of thing, but he steps up into his brother's space anyways. Barney's got his head tilted to the side in an offering and Clint leans closer for a whiff.

"It smells like I know you," Clint starts, nose wrinkling. "Is that because we're both omegas or because we're family?"

"Dunno, it's your nose." Barney's smiling, his eyes crinkling into happy half moons. "What else?"

Clint tries again, inhaling slow before blowing it back out. "It doesn't make sense."

"Smell like something what don't normally have a smell?"

"Yeah, exactly," Clint says, simultaneously relieved and frustrated. "That normal?"

Barney shrugs. "Some people are like that. Mama smelled like a sunbeam," he says, voice soft.

"What the hell does a sunbeam smell like?"

"Like her," Barney says, like it's obvious. "Like summer."

"Well, you smell fuckin' fancy," Clint accuses and Barney laughs at him. "Like diamonds, I think?"

"So I've been told. Always nice to have an unbiased opinion though."

"What do I smell like?" Clint asks, endlessly curious all of a sudden.

Barney pulls a face, jaw flexing as he sways into Clint to try and catch his scent. He makes a small, irritated noise in the back of his throat before switching sides and nosing around Clint's pulse point. When he pulls back, Barney looks stumped.

And that's when Clint starts to piece together that there's something not quite right about him.

"I can't smell you," Barney whispers, like if he says it quiet enough it'll all come together. "I couldn't smell you when you were heating up, either. This place should reek with how you were couped up in it, but I can't smell a damn thing."

"That's not normal, is it?" Clint asks, even though he already knows the answer. 

"Maybe you just need a couple more days," Barney says, but he doesn't sound so sure.

"Let's look at the facts," Clint snaps, and he realizes he's angry. At who or what, he isn't certain. "I'm a late bloomer, I apparently don't get the sheets wet enough when I go hot, and I don't smell like anything," Clint rattles off viciously. "Anything else?"

"Heats usually last a day or two longer than what yours did," Barney adds, because he's fucking unhelpful. "Could just be 'cause it's your first time and your cycle ain't lined out yet."

"That's great." He sounds unhinged. "Pretty sure that means I'm broken."

"You ain't broke, Clint."

"All signs point to otherwise."

"Give it a minute, Clint. Even if it turns out you run a little different, it don't make you broke."

"Yeah, okay, but it still means there's something wrong with me." Clint's on the precipice of something and he's struggling to keep hold of the ledge. Everything that's been building, every emotion that he's shoved back to deal with at a later date is threatening to send him over the edge.

"Ain't nothin' wrong with you," Barney says stubbornly. "I'll prove it to you."

So Barney sets off, yanking open drawer after drawer in their too small caravan until he finds what he's looking for, two ancient quilts that they only bust out when the weather turns cold. He stalks over to bed and starts to tie them to the curtain rods without a word, forming a makeshift roof over the bed. Barney is like Harold in the way he responds to something he can’t fix with barely contained rage.

How he’s different is that instead of resorting to beating on people, Barney utilizes overly aggressive mother henning as a coping mechanism.

“What’re you doing?” Clint asks, more than a little leary.

“I’m makin’ a den,” Barney gripes, tying the quilt off with more gusto than strictly necessary. “I’ll be the fuckin’ mom, or whatever. Now c’mere.” Barney makes a grab at Clint’s shoulder and hauls him in. “You cool with that?”

“Alright?”

“We both have to be in complete agreeance or it won’t work.”

“...huh?”

“I swear you’re tryin’ to be contrary. You’re such a mule, Clint.” Barney stops and takes a breath to refocus. “Are you cool with me bein' the den mother?”

It sounds so silly that Clint can’t choke back his laugh in time. “Alright, Barney,” Clint says, aiming for serious and missing by a mile. “You can be the fuckin’ mom.”

"Twerp," Barney grumbles, but he still pulls Clint in for a bear hug. "Take a couple deep breaths. Lemme know if you start to feel different."

Clint complies and sure enough he does start to feel different. With every exhale Clint's breathing out all of the fear and anxiety and with every inhale he feels a little more safe. It's all accompanied by a weightlessness, a sense of no longer being a corporeal being that is sort of disconcerting.

"Woah," Clint says, wobbly as Barney pushes him onto the bed. "I don't know if I like this."

"Weird, right?" Barney agrees, settling down next to him. They're laying side by side, staring up at the blanket canopy with their arms almost touching. 

"I feel like I'm gonna float away if I don't hold on to something." 

"Here." Barney reaches out and threads their fingers together. "Better?"

"Yeah, thanks." Clint gives his brother's hand a squeeze. "I think I like it? It's vulnerable, but in a nice way." 

"Don't know if there is such a thing, but I catch your meanin'. It's kinda like a good bite."

Clint's hand comes up on its own accord, tracing the skin above the neck of his t-shirt where he knows the scar sticks out. It's healed well enough and isn't even raised. It's hardly noticeable at all in the winter when he's paler, but in the summer months the white outline stands in sharp relief against his tan skin.

"Don't know if there is such a thing," Clint echos softly.

"There is," Barney assures and Clint snorts in answer. "I'm serious, Clint. It can be nice if you want it." Barney stops to elbow him. "It can be all kinds of nice when you're burnin' up."

"Ew! I do not need to hear about your gross, kinky sex life." 

"Eh, biting during heat is pretty vanilla."

"Barney, I don't care how relaxing this is, if you keep at it I'm gonna leave."

"Sure you are, Clint." 

He sounds like he's barely holding back a full on laughing spell and Clint realizes he's got Barney's arm clutched to his chest like a teddy bear. "The hell…?"

"I wasn't gonna draw attention to it, but yeah, your doin' a good impression of a koala bear."

"This is surreal," Clint says, but he makes no move to relinquish his brother's arm. "Does it still feel like this when you're then den mother?"

"Nah, it's different. When you're the den mom you get real protective, so you don't go all loopy and relaxed. You also feel...satisfied, I guess? I ain't ever had no babies before, but I reckon it's kinda like the feeling you'd get if your kids did somethin' that made you proud of 'em."

Barney goes quiet and Clint can tell by the way he's gnawing at his lip that something is bothering him. "What is it, Barney?"

"It ain't like that now. I feel normal," Barney admits. "I can see that the nesting hormones are workin' on you 'cause you're way more clingy than usual and your pupils are wider than backhoe tires, but I don't feel anything at all."

"Oh," Clint says, and it sounds small even to him. "Maybe I'm not triggering any hormones because you can't smell me."

"Maybe."

"So I really am broke." It doesn't sound as scary, here in the safety of the den, knowing that his brother is keeping watch.

"Not broke," Barney grumbles, turning on his side so he's facing him. Clint mirrors the position, keeping Barney's arm hugged to his chest. "But we might should see about takin' you to a doctor."

"With what money?"

Barney purses his lips. "Don't worry about that, baby brother, I'll get it figured out."

They lay together for a long time in companionable silence before curiosity gets the better of him and Clint asks, "What'd dad smell like?"

"Dad," Barney pauses before adding, "May he burn in hell."

"May he burn in hell," Clint repeats dutifully.

"He smelled like a house on fire," Barney tells him, his smile all wrong. "When he was happy it smelt like someone was toastin' marshmallows." He swallows thickly and Clint holds his arm that much tighter. "And when he was mad it smelt like he was burning everything you'd ever loved."

The silence yawns on for too long and Clint can't help but blurt out, "If ever there was a man who deserved to be murdered in cold blood, it was him."

"A-fuckin'-men," Barney agrees, wholeheartedly.

*

At some point Clint must have fallen asleep, because he wakes up to Barney gently shaking his shoulder. Everything’s quiet and Clint didn’t realize Barney had taken his hearing aids out until his brother is gently hooking them back over his ears. "Hey Clint, I've gotta go." Clint grumbles something nonsensical and pulls the blankets tighter around himself. Barney chuckles. "I'll be back tomorrow afternoon. You gonna be alright?"

"M'fine," Clint tells him, half asleep.

"Okay," Barney agrees, ruffling his hair. "I'll lock you in. Sleep tight, twerp."

Clint dozes for a while longer but is eventually woken up by his stomach's residual cramping. He groans, reaching under his shirt to press a fist into his belly. The counterpressure helps and soon enough the pain passes, but with it Clint realizes that his underwear is damp again.

"Sick," Clint complains to the empty room, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes before glancing at the clock. 12:38 am. Was that too late to take a shower?

Clint doesn't waste much time debating it before he's up, shoving his shoes on, and rummaging for a clean set of clothes to stuff into his duffle bag. He grabs his brother’s bowie knife and clips it to the top of his jeans before heading out the door. Better safe than sorry.

He’s glad for it when his stroll through the KOA is interrupted by a loud BANG and the winnebago next to him lists dangerously to one side. Clint scrambles back, but after teetering precariously the camper manages to right itself at the last second. "The hell...?" Clint whispers, his train of thought derailed as a middle aged man is bodily thrown through the RV's front door. Clint stares in shock before flicking his eyes back towards the open door.

A man stands in the doorway, backlit by the lights inside. He is wearing all black and has an arm that gleams in the moonlight.

The shadow is back.

The middle aged man on the ground yells something in a language Clint doesn't understand and pulls a handgun from his waistband. Clint doesn't even think about it, just pulls his knife free and lobs it at the gun's barrel to dislodge it from the man's grip. The shadow uses the opening to press his advantage and closes in on his target, stalking forward and grabbing the now babbling middle aged man around his neck. Clint ducks his head to avoid seeing it but can do nothing to dull the sickening crunch as the shadow snaps his neck.

"Oh God," Clint warbles, overwhelmed with nausea. He barely gets a moment to look up before he's thrown against the side of the camper and pinned down by an unforgiving metal hand against his throat.

"Why did you do that?" The shadow growls, hitching Clint higher until he's up on his tiptoes. Clint's heart is racing in double time as he scrambles for purchase, his vision darkening around the edges as his air supply is steady choked off. He's on the verge of losing consciousness when the shadow drops him in a heap at his feet. Clint retches, chest heaving as he gasps for air.

"Why did you do that?" The shadow repeats, running thin on patience.

"Because you helped me," Clint manages to croak, voice rough as he looks up at the shadow. "You helped me before and I didn't want him to hurt you."

The shadow cocks his head at that, dark hair falling in his eyes as he considers the blond at his feet. Clint can tell by the light of the security lamp that they're a piercing shade of stone blue. "Have we met?" The shadow asks, hesitant in a way that Clint doesn't expect.

"Yeah," Clint swallows, trying to soothe his aching throat. "Yeah, of course we have. You might not remember me because I was smaller then, but you killed my dad."

The shadow cocks his head even further to the side and Clint suddenly realizes exactly how fucked up that must have sounded.

"Oh don't worry, it was a good thing. Like a REALLY good thing. Honestly, you did me a huge favor,” Clint reassures, and why is he working so hard to comfort a man who just snapped someone’s neck?

Speaking of, Clint’s eyes flick towards the corpse before they land back on the shadow. “Um, shouldn’t we do something about that?” It’s a wednesday in late September, so the KOA isn’t packed, but Clint can’t imagine leaving a dead body out in the parking lot is a great idea.

The shadow stares at Clint for a moment longer before grunting and going over to the dead man. He loops his arms under the corpse’s armpits and starts dragging him towards the camper. When he gets to the doorway he struggles up the stairs, his victim's head lolling bonelessly from side to side. Clint hesitates before making to grab the body’s feet, but the shadow interrupts him by hissing, “Stop!”

“Sorry,” Clint grumbles, shoving his hands in his pockets to keep from doing anything else stupid. “You just looked like you could use a hand.”

“Fingerprints,” The shadow tells him and Clint is suddenly so, so happy that he interrupted him. “Don’t touch him,” The shadow warns, before continuing to drag the corpse inside.

Clint isn’t sure why he waits around other than maybe he has some kind of death wish, but the shadow comes back outside after not one, not two, but three ominous sounding thuds from inside the winnebago. Clint watches the other man come down the steps, his face and neck now covered in blood splatter.

“What happened in there?” Clint asks, chewing at the inside of his cheek. “He give you trouble or something?”

It’s not especially funny but the shadow snorts regardless. “Smashed his face in,” the shadow says with no infliction and wow, alright, this guy is one scary motherfucker. “It’ll take longer to identify the body that way.”

“Is the camper under his name?”

“No,” The shadow answers. "You said you wanted to help?"

"Yeah," Clint answers, licking at his bottom lip anxiously.

"Put these on then," the shadow orders, tossing a pair of leather gloves his way. Clint practically trips all over himself in his attempt to comply. "Good." The shadow jerks his chin towards the door behind them. "Get in."

And honestly, Clint's mama probably taught him better than this, but he figures she's not here and Clint's got a debt that needs paying, so he steps up into the winnebago and let's the shadow crowd in after him.

"Je-sus," Clint hisses when his eyes land on the corpse that is currently draped over the bed. The face has indeed been caved in (not that Clint thought the shadow was a liar, but hearing and seeing are two different things, y'know?) and is now reduced to a cavern of gore. 

"Don't get sick."

"I ain't gonna get sick."

...he might get sick.

"I need you to hold his mouth open," the shadow tells him while sorting through a sleek crossbody bag at the foot of the bed. He pulls out a pair of pliers and a plastic ziploc.

"Cool, cool," Clint answers, even though it's the opposite of cool. "You wanna tell me why though?"

"Got to pull his teeth." The shadow punctuates the sentence by snapping the pliers at him menacingly.

"Obviously." Clint tries for nonchalant but ends up squeaking instead. He clears his throat and attempts to recover by asking, "So how do you want me to do this?" 

"Behind him," the shadow says, gesturing to the bed. "So you won't be in my way."

Clint thinks about saying no, but the shadow is standing between him and the way out, so he resigns himself to his fate. Clint clambers up onto the bed and slides in behind the dead man, pillowing his head on his thighs and reaching under his chin to press into hinges of his jaw and keep his mouth open.

"Hold him still," the shadow tells him as he kneels down and gets to work. The gears in his metal arm make a whirring noise as he starts to pull a molar free.

"That's nasty," Clint complains, grimacing as he holds the corpse's head steady so the shadow has something to pull against. The molar comes free with a pop and flecks of blood speckle Clint's hands. The shadow looks up to pin him with a glare, but it's got less animosity in it than before so it looks down right affectionate coming from him. "How were you gonna do it if I hadn't been around?"

"I can do it myself," the shadow says, the pliers squelching around as he fishes out another tooth. He drops it into the plastic bag to join the molar. "But it is easier this way."

"Glad I could help," Clint grins and it's the wrong thing to do because the shadow tugs an incisor free and somehow blood manages to ricochet onto his face. "Oh God, I got some in my mouth," Clint whines, stomach churning as he turns his head to wipe his face on his shoulder.

The shadow laughs like it's been punched out of him. It takes them both by surprise.

"Don't get sick," the shadow repeats after a moment of silence, then gets back to work liberating the dead man's teeth.

"Just hurry up," Clint gripes back. The corner of the shadow's mouth ticks up, but Clint thinks maybe it was just a trick of the light because it's gone in a flash.

It turns out tooth removals don't take that long when you've got a super powered metal arm to do the pulling and five minutes later the shadow has a ziploc with a full set of teeth. He goes to stash them in his bag and as Clint struggles out from under the corpse he notices another ziploc that appears to be filled with something that looks an awful lot like severed fingers. A quick check proves that yep, the dead guy is totally missing his. 

"When'd you do that?"

"Before I did his face." The shadow waves a set of bolt cutters at him before dumping them back into the bag too. "Extraction isn't until morning. I need a place to stay out of sight until then."

"Oh." Clint forces himself not to fidget. "Are you asking to stay with me?"

"You still want to help?" the shadow counters, brow quirked.

And honestly, Clint's probably done enough at this point for his debt to be considered paid in full. One dead father is equal to assisting in the murder and dismembering of a complete stranger, right? He doesn't really owe the shadow anything anymore. They should definitely go their separate ways.

"Sure," Clint says with a slow smile. "I've got a place."

*

Clint makes them both shower first, because they're covered in blood and he's really not trying to track any of that back home. They take turns since it's a single stall and Clint goes first so the shadow can steal a new set of clothes from the campground.  When the shadow gets out he's wearing brown corduroy pants, of all things, and a blue and white checkered button down. Both are about two sizes two big and combined with his damp hair and flushed, shower fresh face the shadow looks more adorable than menacing. 

"You should burn your bag," the shadow says as Clint fumbles with the key to the caravan. Clint glances down at his duffle bag and nods with a grimace. It's his only one, but he'll do it to avoid incriminating himself. "And the clothes too."

"Burn it all, got it," Clint says while stepping over the threshold, the shadow right behind him. "So this is it. I know it's not a lot, but make yourself at home."

The shadow doesn't move and when Clint looks back the other man is staring at the canopy of blankets over the bed. "What…," the shadow starts, hands flexing at his sides. "What is that?"

"Oh." Clint feels himself flush and wishes he'd had the foresight to tear the thing before he'd left. "It's just a blanket fort now, but it was a den earlier."

"A den," the shadow says, like he's testing the words. "What does it do?"

Clint's ears are burning. "It's a thing omegas do with each other to calm down. Or just for fun." He picks at the hem of his shirt, a pale green thing that's so old the restaurant slogan that used to be scrawled across the chest has faded into obscurity. It's soft though, so he keeps wearing it. "Back in the day I think it was used for courting or something? If an omega was into an alpha they'd get their omega friends together, make a nest, and then invite the alpha to den up with them."

"Which one was it for you?" the shadow asks, shifting his entire focus to the blond. The other man's stare is so intense that it has Clint looking away only seconds after meeting it.

"Huh?" Clint says, articulate as always.

"Did you need to calm down?" the shadow elaborates, looking vulnerable in his oversized clothes. "Or was it just for fun?"

"Calm down." Clint sits on the edge of the bed so he doesn't squirm. "I'd just had my first heat and I was panicking. Just a little though!" Clint defends. "I wasn't hysterical or anything like that."

The shadow scrunches his face up and if possible looks even more confused. "What's a heat?" he asks, sitting down closer to Clint than is strictly polite. Their thighs are squished together and between the question and all the body contact Clint's not sure where to begin.

"You've never heard of a heat?"

The shadow shakes his head and looks to Clint expectantly. 

"What's your secondary gender?"

The shadow gives a tiny shrug, like he's never stopped to consider it. The guy's got to be Barney's age at least and he's never taken the time to figure out which way he presents?

Weird, but seeing as how he moonlights as a serial killer it's certainly not the strangest thing about him. "I might be able to tell," Clint offers and the shadow seems to light up at the prospect. "Don't go getting your hopes up, I'm new to this whole smell thing, so I might not be able to figure it out."

"How do we try?" 

"Here, let me just…," Clint trails off and brings a hand up, giving the shadow time to pull back if he wants to. He doesn't, so Clint curls his fingers around the back of his head, swiping his thumb curiously through the stubble on his jaw. It's scratchy. Clint tilts the shadow's head and shoots him one last questioning glance before pressing his nose into the crook of his neck. He sniffs searchingly before exhaling noisily against the other man’s collarbone. The shadow shudders, fingers twitching against the corduroy fabric covering his thighs. “You smell like...garden soil?” Clint tries, inhaling again. “And copper. I thought it was just blood from that guy earlier, but I think it’s you too. There's something else, I don't know what it is though," Clint hums, pressing closer--

He gasps, doubling over as another residual cramp ripples through his midsection. "Ah," he whimpers, folding his arms over his stomach protectively.

"What's wrong?" The shadow asks, resting a careful hand against Clint's back, fingers running over the knobs of the blond's spine in a comforting gesture.

"It's nothing. I guess I'm still getting over my heat." When the sensation passes Clint straightens up, but the shadow keeps his hand on the middle of his back, thumb brushing lazily over the cotton of his t-shirt. "I'm pretty sure you're an alpha though, 'cause your smell is making me lightheaded."

"You still haven't explained what a heat is," the shadow points out, his hand feeling warm and large between Clint's shoulder blades.

"Right," Clint laughs nervously. He can do this. He's eighteen years old for God's sake, he can talk about sex. "An omega has one about every four months. It's a time when they're fertile and they really want to," Clint stops to wave his hands in a vaguely pornographic gesture, "You know, do it."

Yep. He's a grown up.

"And that hurts you?" the shadow asks, frowning. "Why?"

"I dunno, it's your biology trying to motivate you I guess," Clint fumbles, certain his face is fire engine red. "It just keeps hurting until enough time passes or you get an alpha to help you with it."

"I can help you?" the shadow whispers, eyes wide.

"What? No, not really, my heat's already--mph!!" He's interrupted by two hundred plus pounds of serial killer lunging for him and the only thing that stops Clint from pissing himself out of fear is the soft set of lips that crash into his. The shadow's tongue enthusiastically skims over the seam of Clint's mouth and the blond can't help but moan, kissing back with fervor until he loses himself in the velvety slip and slide of their lips brushing together.

It's not perfect. Their noses keep bumping and there's too much teeth. But it's still fucking fantastic.

"Did I do it right?" The shadow asks, his words barely above a whisper and his breath hot against Clint's face.

"I don't know. No one's ever seen fit to kiss me before," Clint admits, pressing his fingers against his lips. They're tingling and his heart is racing and he can't stop looking at the other man's mouth. It's all pink from Clint nipping at it. "You could do it again," Clint tells him, shy. "For practice."

"Okay," the shadow says, pupils blown and looking wrecked. "For practice."

Their excited scramble to come together ends with Clint's back hitting the mattress, the younger man giggling as the shadow plants lightening fast kisses on his nose, across the freckles of his cheekbones, against the corners of his mouth. The shadow gives him a bashful half smile that changes how his whole face looks and, oh, Clint realizes for the first time how devastating handsome the man above him really is. Clint reaches up to cup the shadow's cheek, thumb dragging feather light against the chin dimple he's trying to hide under two days worth of stubble. The shadow turns his face to press his lips into the palm of Clint's hand before leaning back in for more.

They kiss until their lips are red and swollen, like that's all they know how to do. The shadow shudders when Clint leaves imprints in the shape of crescent moons on his back and in retribution slips clever fingers under his shirt to trail them over the delicate skin of Clint's belly. Eventually they come apart, the shadow turning his head to break the line of saliva connecting their lips before dipping his head and nuzzling into Clint's neck, the rough drag of his bristles making the younger man tremble.

Clint sighs when the shadow starts pressing kisses there as well and is too blissed out to do more than nod when the other man growls, "You smell so good," into his throat. But then he starts tracing the scar tissue peaking out over the neck of Clint's shirt with his teeth, lapping at it with a hot tongue and that cuts through the fog a bit. 

"Hey," he pants, trying to pull back but the way the shadow drags his fingernails over his hips has Clint arching up into the other man, thoughts momentarily derailed as he focuses solely on pressing them together as tightly as possible. Another nip to his neck has him paying attention again. "H-hey, wait, stop--,"

The bite is swift and oh so sweet.

Clint gasps, every muscle tensing up before he goes completely boneless. "Oh," Clint whispers but it sounds so far away, like someone else is talking. The shadow bites down harder before swiping over the abused flesh with an apologetic tongue and Clint's eyes flutter closed of their own volition. He's aware that things are happening, that their legs are slotting together, that Clint's hands are fisting into the shadow's button down and clutching it tight, but he feels powerless to stop any of it.

Clint knows on a visceral level that he's safe here, because the scariest thing for miles around is currently on top of him and he hasn't shown any signs of wanting to hurt him. Still, the fact that Clint couldn't stop him if he wanted to is what's freaking him out. Or it would, if thinking didn't seem like such a monumental undertaking. Clint knows it's an alarming situation, but anytime he tries to latch onto it the idea gets snatched away from him and replaced with waves upon waves of pleasure.

The shadow doesn't take it too far, even though Clint couldn't hope to stop him at this point. He keeps his hands above the belt, petting over the blond's sides with careful touches and goes right back to kissing him. Clint's aware that he's kissing back, knows that he's licking and humming and quivering, but he's also lost to it, consumed completely by this feeling.

And everytime Clint starts to come back up, when he manages to break through to breathe out, "wait-wait," or push feebly against the body above him, the shadow leans back down to sink his teeth in once more and Clint gets lost all over again.

It's perfect and it's a nightmare, all wrapped up in one.

*

Later, when Clint wakes up and the shadow is nowhere to be found, he covers his neck and cries and cries and cries.

*

Chapter Text

It’s been a week since the kitchen debacle and in that time Clint and Natasha have had breakfast with Bucky and Steve every morning. The first few days were rough, but they get easier the more used to it Clint becomes. It’s not half as difficult to be around Bucky now that he gets doused in Natasha’s cedar and promises scent on a regular basis.

This morning Clint didn’t even jump when Bucky had leaned over him to refill his coffee mug so, y’know, winning.

Tonight's different though, because Natasha has scheduled a movie night for just the three of them in her room. Clint shows up with his hair still dripping from the shower and a lilac Buc-ee's shirt he picked up a few years ago when he and Natasha had been passing through New Braunfels.

"Really?" Natasha asks, hip cocked and pressed against the counter. Behind her the microwave is emitting the tell-tale 'pop, pop' that means she's already got a bag of popcorn going.

"Well. His name is Bucky and his name is Buc-ee," Clint says, gesturing to the beaver decal printed over his chest. "It seemed appropriate."

"He won't get the reference."

"Yeah, but I'll get it. That's why it's funny."

"You're a dork," she tells him, long suffering and fond. There's a knock on the door and Natasha abandons her position to go answer. The time between pops gets too long, so Clint rushes to rescue the popcorn before it burns, yanking the microwave door open and grabbing the bag. It's scorching hot, so Clint fumbles it from hand to hand in a one man game of hot potato until he can dump it onto the counter.

"Ow," Clint mumbles, popping a finger into his mouth to soothe the burn with his tongue. When he looks up he's go two ex Russian assassins looking at him with so much exasperation it hurts. "Hey," Clint says sheepishly, releasing his finger to give an awkward wave.

"Hey, Barton," Bucky responds, setting down a six pack. "I brought beer."

"Thanks," Clint says before his eyes even catch the Blue Moon label. "Oh hey, that's my favorite."

"I thought you might like it," Bucky says with a easy grin. "It's what you were drinking the last time we watched a movie together."

Huh. That was strangely thoughtful. Something warm and fuzzy unspools in Clint's chest. "Thanks," he says again, averting his eyes and scratching at his cheek. "Lemme just go grab the oranges."

Clint rummages around the fridge and when he gets done peeling oranges Natasha is already scenting Bucky and tucked up under his chin. She's wearing a shirt that's hanging low on one shoulder while Bucky's in one of Steve's shirts in an attempt to smell safe. The both look so soft and touchable that it's overwhelming, so Clint shifts focus to getting the popcorn in a bowl. 

"So what're we watching?" Bucky asks once he and Natasha have detangled from one another.

Clint says, "Miss Congeniality," at the exact moment Natasha hisses, " Not Miss Congeniality."

"Aw, Tasha, no," Clint complains, giving her his very best puppy dog eyes. Natasha is unaffected. "He's never seen it and Gracie Hart is my soulmate!"

"Absolutely not. It'll be Kill Bill or it'll be nothing at all."

Well, Clint can't really argue with that. The Bride was definitely Natasha's soulmate. "I accept your terms," Clint says after pretending to consider it. He goes to sit on the couch but instead of the middle spot Natasha perched herself over on one of the edges. Clint hesitates, eyes darting from Bucky to Natasha then back to Bucky at a breakneck pace.

Natasha raises an eyebrow at him challengingly.

"C'mon, puppy," Bucky says while snatching a beer. "Let's get your mouth watering."

It's such a stupid thing to say that Clint forgets to panic. "Yeah, okay," Clint agrees with a laugh, taking his seat in the middle of the couch. Bucky settles next to him, leaving plenty of space between them, and Natasha starts the movie.

It doesn't take long at all for Clint to remember to freak out though. Nancy Sinatra has barely finished crooning about how her baby shot her down and Clint's already got his shoulders screwed up as high as he can get them, eyes flitting over to Bucky every other minute to make sure he hasn't moved any closer.

They make it all the way to Uma Thurman stealing the Pussy Wagon before Natasha can't stand it any longer. "You're ruining my favorite movie with all your fretting," she accuses and it'd be mean if she wasn't saying in the same breath, "Come here, Clint."

Natasha tugs until she gets him sideways, Clint's head cushioned against her thighs. She cards a hand through his hair while covering his neck with the other one and the relief is instantaneous, a balm for his frayed nerves. Clint sighs and melts into her touch, eyes fluttering shut to better bask in the safety of it.

"Hey," Bucky says and Clint opens an eye to squint at him. He reaches out and catches Clint's foot in a gentle hold, pulling on it until he gets it into his lap. It's very reminiscent of what Natasha had just done. Clint wonders if it's a Russian thing as he lets Bucky arrange his other foot against his thighs as well. "This alright?"

"S'fine," Clint says and he's rewarded with a crooked smile that makes him feel warm all over.

They stay like that, Natasha petting him while Bucky mindlessly runs his thumb back and forth over the jut of his ankle and it's so nice Clint can't help but fall asleep.

*

"Where's Tasha?" Are the first words out of Clint's mouth when he comes to and realizes his pillow has abandoned him.

"Bathroom," Bucky informs, giving Clint's foot a squeeze before going back to lightly tracing the arch of his foot with a metal finger. The ghost of a touch has Clint squirming and biting his lip to hold back a laugh.

"Ticklish?" Bucky asks, grin turning fiendish as he trails an even lighter touch over the underside of his toes.

"Yes and I will absolutely kick you in the face if you don't knock it off," Clint hiccups between barely suppressed giggles.

"You got it," Bucky says, tone kind and not the least bit facetious. He gives Clint a parting pat before letting him go.

"This is coming along nicely," Natasha interrupts, lounging in the doorway with her mouth quirked up.

"You think so?" Clint asks.

"A month ago you'd have had a mental breakdown with him being that close to you. Five months ago you'd have burned the whole tower down trying to get away from him," she tells him and okay, fair point. 

"I better go," Bucky cuts in before Clint can dwell on anything long enough to turn somber. "Steve's 'prolly waiting and pacing up a storm."

Natasha gives him a hug and he's almost out the door when Clint calls out, "Hold on a sec." Bucky stops, eyebrows raised as Clint gets up to jog over to him. "You forgot something." 

Before Clint can talk himself out of it he catches Bucky in a hug of his own. Clint holds tight as Bucky freezes, but right as he starts to think that maybe he'd overstepped his bounds Bucky wraps his arms around him and pulls him closer.

There's grave dirt here, as well as blood and gunsmoke, but it's layered under faded bergamot and sweet promises, so it's okay.

"Thanks again," Clint says when they finally come apart.

"What for?" 

"For trying, I guess. And being so patient."

"It's not any trouble," Bucky says and Clint can tell he means it. "I don't mind at all, Clint, honest. Whatever it takes."

And Clint's not going to analyze that because something's been growing in his chest this past week and he's not trying to give it any more fodder. "Well, thanks all the same."

"No worries." Bucky fidgets, tugs at his ear, then says, "So, I wouldn't mind watchin' that movie with you. The one with your soulmate or whatever."

"Miss Congeniality?" Clint supplies helpfully.

"Mmhmm," Bucky agrees and finally stops fiddling with his ear. "I'm free tomorrow, if you wanted to come over? Steve'll be there too."

"Yeah," Clint says and that thing in his chest that he's trying not to feed blooms that much bigger. "Sounds like a plan, Bucky."

*

It's only been two months since his first heat and Barney had made good on his promise to get Clint to a doctor. The circus is performing in all the suburbs surrounding Houston, so they'd had time to have testing done downtown and come back for the results a couple of weeks later. An MRI, some blood tests, and one very uncomfortable pelvic exam later and here he was, alone and cold in an exam room while waiting for the doctor to come explain exactly what the fuck was wrong with him.

At least Barney had stayed in the waiting room. Clint didn't want any witnesses for this particular moment in his life.

Clint glances at the clock for the third time in as many minutes when Dr. Abara finally comes through the door. "Hello Mr. Barton," she says with a warm smile and a clipboard tucked up under her arm. She's got the biggest pair of doe eyes Clint's ever seen and the way she has her hair tucked away under a pale blue headwrap makes them that much more noticeable. "I trust you're feeling well today?"

"Yes ma'am," Clint answers, using his best manners.

"Excellent. Well then let's get down to business, shall we?" She flips his folder open and Clint holds his breath. "The blood tests came back saying you've got hyperprolactinemia, which is just a big word that means you're making too much prolactin. Most commonly this is caused by benign tumors on your pituitary gland."

Clint's exhale is shaky. Are benign tumors the okay ones or the bad ones?

Dr. Abara must sense his stress because she pats his knee reassuringly. "But the MRI showed no such thing. I'm fairly sure an underactive thyroid is to blame, but we'll need further testing to be certain."

Clint starts to bounce his foot. More testing means more money and he has no idea how they're going to pay for any of this in the first place. "So what's all that stuff mean for me?"

"Well, your cycle will most likely be sporadic, and you'll probably experience some degree of dryness during intercourse. It can also affect your fertility, but with proper hormone treatment it can be very manageable."

"That don't sound so bad," Clint admits, more than a little relieved. He'd been half convinced that he had some kind of incurable cancer or something when he'd come in today. So what, he just needs to use lube and can't get pregnant? Clint had already been prepared for both of those things when he was beta, so this development is really no skin off his back.

"Not so bad at all, Mr. Barton," Dr. Abara agrees.

"What about me not having any sort of smell? Is that a symptom too?"

"Now that," she starts, galaxy eyes growing darker. "Is something else entirely. If you'll look here I've got the MRI scan of your scent gland. Yours is extremely underdeveloped for someone of your age. I have to ask, have you had any substantial injuries to this area?"

"Um," Clint hesitates, frowning down at the printout. He doesn't want to ask and give away his lack of education, but he can't answer the question otherwise, so he bites the bullet. "That's somewhere in your neck?"

"Yes Mr. Barton," Dr. Abara tells him, no judgement. "Right here, on your right side." She taps her own neck to demonstrate.

"Oh. Yeah, my dad bit me back when I was, erm, six or seven, I think? Bled so much I needed a blood transfusion."

"Do you still live with your father?"

"No ma'am, he's dead now."

"Well," she says with a small smile. "I'm very glad that your circumstances have changed, Mr. Barton."

And wasn't that just about the nicest thing anyone has said to him all week? "You and me both, ma'am."

"That explains the state of your scent gland. The trauma it sustained at such an early age has caused it to be stunted."

"Alright," Clint says, voice quiet and eyes trained on the shiny tiles under his feet.

"The MRI and blood tests shows that it is still producing low levels of pheremones, Mr. Barton." Dr. Abara gives his knee another pat before letting go. "It's likely that you do have a scent, but it is so miniscule that no one can smell it."

"I got it." Clint swallows. "Thanks, doctor."

They finish up the session with Clint promising to make a follow up appointment before he makes his way into the lobby. Barney is already propped up against the counter talking with the clerk when Clint gets close enough to hear her give a total that is just north of ten grand. Clint feels nauseous but then he damn near swoons when Barney starts counting out thousand dollar bills like it's nothing.

They barely make it five steps out the door before Clint's asking, "What the hell, Barney? Where'd you get that sort of cash?"

"Don't worry about it, baby brother," Barney responds, scanning the nearby storefronts. "You hungry?"

Clint's worrying about it. "C'mon, Barney, tell me."

"I'm hungry," Barney says instead of answering. "Come on, Clint, I think I saw a sign for barbacoa down the street." Barney's already halfway to the taco truck before Clint can protest, so he grumbles and trails off after him. 

The food is delicious, but it's sort of tragic how neither one of them realizes it's their last supper together until it's too late.

*

Another week goes by and Clint's lounging on the couch with Pepper while Sam tries to teach Bucky and Steve how to play the first Borderlands. The key word here is, 'tries,' because they can't even seem to get past the character selection screen.

"So you're Roland?" Steve asks Sam, brow furrowed like he's trying to figure out calculus equations.

"Cause he's black? Wow, Rogers," Sam says, but judging by his grin Clint figures he's just fucking with him.

Steve, to his credit, doesn't so much as bat an eyelash. "No, because he's a soldier."

"I'm picking this guy," Bucky interrupts, cursor hovering over Mordecai.

Clint snorts and Pepper swats his arm. "Stop moving!" She laughs, brown eyeliner pencil stilling so the lines don't go wobbly. 

"Sorry, it's just predictable. He picked the sniper," Clint tells her. "Keep going." Clint's got his shirt off and Pepper has one hand braced on his chest while the other one is playing connect the dots with the freckles over his heart. Right now it looks like...mountains, maybe? He'd done her's earlier as evidenced by the trio of misshaped stars on her shoulder.

Clint collected redheads like some people collect baseball cards, but that wasn't the only reason he liked Pepper. He adored her because she was vibrant, whip-smart, and a member of his very niche, 'Freckles and No Scent' club.

They were an acquired taste, so they tended to stick together whenever they were around one another.

"You just picked him because you like his pet hawk," Sam teases, shit eating grin splitting his face.

"Shut up, Wilson," Bucky scowls, hunkering down further into his seat. He shoots Clint a glance before looking back at the flat screen just as fast.

Sam wrinkles his nose as Bucky's scent shifts to mostly gunsmoke. "Don't get pissy, Barnes, it was a joke." 

"Yeah? Well it ain't funny," Bucky grumbles. 

"See, this is why Clint's my favorite," Sam says, gesturing in Clint's general direction. "I never have to smell his bullshit."

Clint goes to give a shrug, but Pepper grabs his shoulder to stop him. The mountains are starting to look like something else. "Geez, you really know how to sweet talk a guy, Sam," Clint says, trying to stay still.

Steve's looking at them now with his eyebrows screwed together. "What do you mean you don't have to smell his bullshit?"

Sam looks incredulous. "Exactly what I said. I don't have to smell his bullshit because he doesn't have a smell. He's neutral, like a beta."

"But Clint does have a smell."

Clint's head jerks up at the same time Bucky growls out, "Steve."

"No, he doesn't," Sam protests.

"Yes, he does," Steve argues right back.

Clint gives Pepper, who has stopped doodling for the moment, a questioning look. She shrugs in answer. "You don't smell like anything to me."

"Can I scent you, Barton?" Sam asks, as if to prove a point.

Clint blinks rapidly before replying, "Knock yourself out, I guess?"

Pepper moves and Clint tilts his head invitingly, letting Sam settle a big hand on his shoulder and snuffle around the hollow of his throat. The other man smells like alpha and thunderstorms, which is both lovely and wild, so Clint doesn't mind getting doused in it. Clint stutters out a laugh when Sam's huffing starts to tickle.

Bucky scowls even deeper.

"I've got nothing," Sam says as he gives Clint's shoulder a squeeze and pulls back. "He's neutral."

"Is your nose broke or something?" Steve's eyebrows are flirting with his hairline. "He's definitely got a smell."

"What do I smell like?" Clint asks, because the curiosity is killing him.

Bucky shoves himself up with enough violence that Clint can't repress the flinch. "I gotta take a leak," Bucky grumbles before stalking towards the stairwell.

"What crawled up his ass and died?" Sam grumbles.

An awkward silence falls over the room and for a long time no one breaks it. Eventually Steve says, "I'd better go check on him," in true worrywart fashion before chasing after Bucky and avoiding Clint's question completely.

"Hey," Pepper says, tapping the eyeliner against his left pec and stopping him from stewing. "Check it out."

Clint squints. "What is it?"

"Can't you tell?" She asks, coral lipstick making her smile more brilliant somehow. "It's a bunny!"

Clint takes in the wonky design and forgets all about Bucky and Steve walking out on them. "Yeah," he says, grinning back with equal brilliance. "I can see it now."

*

Clint figures out how Barney got all that money a little later that night. 

Apparently Jacques and Barney had been stealing from the show's profits but Trickshot was starting to get suspicious. So Jacques decided the only logical solution was to pin the whole thing on the Barton boys. The problem with that was said Barton boys weren't keen on it, so Jacques had to get creative.

Which is how they ended up here, in an abandoned grain silo outside of Houston, with multiple stab wounds and nowhere left to run.

"Barney," Clint says, every inhale an agony. He presses tight to his stomach where Jacques's sword rended it to shreds. The blood keeps coming anyways, slick and gushing between his fingers. "Barney, I've got to try."

"Don't," Barney pleads with red frothing from his mouth. "Don't. I'm already gone."

"I've got to try," Clint says again, even though he knows it's hopeless. Every breath Barney takes is wretched and wet.

"Please," Barney begs and Clint's eyes go hot. "Please don't leave me."

"Okay." Tears are rolling down his face when Clint runs unsteady fingers through the auburn hair under his hands. "It's okay, Barney. I ain't about to leave you behind."

Barney tries to say something, but blood comes out instead. Clint holds him and keeps petting his hair until he stops breathing.

*

Clint makes it to the highway and flags down an eighteen wheeler. By the time the ambulance gets there he's already passed out from blood loss.

*

When he wakes from his coma three weeks later with insurmountable debt and one less brother, Clint stares up at the ceiling and doesn't cry at all.

*

Chapter Text

The common floor is eerily quiet three days later when Clint wanders down, its sole occupant staring forlornly into his coco puffs. "Hey Buck," Clint says, caffeinated, chipper, and in search of poptarts. "How was your run?"

Bucky shoots him a half smile before glaring back at his cereal. "Didn't go." His next spoonful is massive enough that his cheeks puff out comically. "Steve's busy," he tells Clint between crunches.

Too busy for Bucky? That doesn't sound like Steve Rogers at all. Clint catches a whiff of blood as he rifles through the pantry, but it doesn't so much as dull his appetite anymore. Natasha really is a genius. "What's he got going on?" Clint asks as he hops onto the counter next to Bucky, his legs swishing back and forth while he takes a bite of poptart. Mmmm. Blueberry.

"Helping Natalia and Bruce." Bucky stuffs another spoonful into his mouth and chomps at it aggressively.

"With what?"

Bucky's ears turn pink. "Natalia is starting her cycle."

“Ah.” Clint swipes his tongue over the corner of his mouth, chasing crumbs. “Lucky guy. Still doesn’t explain why you didn’t go on a run by yourself though.”

Bucky tips his bowl back and swallows the last of the sugary milk. He’s sporting a pretty adorable milk mustache now. “Can’t. I’m not cleared to leave the tower without an avenger escort.”

Clint is caught off guard by that, but now that he thinks about it he's never seen Bucky leave without Steve, Sam, or Natasha in tow. "I'm sorry," Clint says and is surprised by how much he means it. "You could hit the gym if you wanted?"

Bucky taps his spoon against the bowl idly before saying, "It's only one floor up from Steve's." The tapping comes quicker now, the little, 'Ting, Ting, Tings,' getting progressively louder. "I can still smell her."

Clint blinks, because what? "You can still smell her from a floor away?"

"I can still smell her now and I'm as far away as I can get."

"Fuck," Clint says to himself, which is apparently the wrong choice of verbage because Bucky visably recoils. "You gonna be alright?"

"I can keep it in my pants." Bucky stops clanging his spoon against the bowl. "But," he pauses, rolling the spoon through metal fingers. "I started to remember--,"

Clint stops breathing.

"--the Red Room had me take care of the girls whenever they'd go into heat."

Clint exhales, relieved that that's what Bucky remembered, but then feels like a grade A asshole, because that right there? That must be an awful memory. Bucky won't look at him, he smells like wet earth again, and Clint hasn't got a clue what to say to make it any better.

So he goes with distraction. It's an old standby.

"Come on, up you go," Clint says, hopping off the counter and manhandling Bucky until he gets him on his feet. Clint yanks the hem of his shirt up and uses it to wipe off Bucky's milk mustache.

Bucky looks like a rabbit in the headlights. Perfect.

"Where's your shoes?" Clint mumbles, before locating said shoes and dropping to his knees to grab them.

"What are you doing?" Bucky asks and when Clint looks up he tracks how his throat is working, like he keeps swallowing. Weird. 

"I'm busting you out of this joint. Now gimme your foot, Cinderella."

"I can put my own shoes on," but he laughs and let's Clint help him into his tennis shoes anyways.

"Sure you can," Clint says with a wink before bouncing to his feet. "Now come on, let's go on that run. I could use some fresh air."

*

Running with Bucky turns out to be a horrendous idea.

"You're deranged," Clint says thirteen miles later, when they finally stop. "A psychopath." Clint flops down on the grass. He uses the bottom of his shirt to mop up the sweat on his brow and then leaves it rucked up because it's fucking hot out here and he's dying. "A madman."

For his part Bucky isn't even winded, just flushed ever so slightly and glistening like a damned fitness model. God, Clint hates super soldiers. "Natalia's right," Bucky says with a cheeky grin. "You really are pitiful."

"I'm in good shape," Clint defends, but he's so out of breath it's not helping his case. "I just don't run thirteen miles a day like a lunatic."

"Uh-huh," Bucky hums, smirking when he stretches his arms over his head. Clint catches sight of sharp hip bones when Bucky's shirt rides up and abruptly shifts focus to literally anything else.

"Go get me a popsicle," Clint demands when his eyes land on the ice cream cart by the fountains. Bucky gives him an unimpressed look. "You just tried to kill me with unnecessary amounts of running, it’s the least you could do."

Bucky must see the logic in that because he leaves Clint to lie on the grass and melt in peace.

Time passes and he is almost lulled to sleep by the shade of the tree when Bucky comes back and plops down next to him. “Here,” he says, holding a cherry popsicle between metal fingers. Clint snatches it out of Bucky’s hand and makes a sound of pure bliss when he finally gets his mouth around the tasty treat.

Bucky does not look at him.

“Can I ask you a question about dynamics?” Bucky says eventually, voice rough.

“Fire away, cowboy,” Clint answers after pulling off the popsicle with a wet pop. He licks at his lips to chase away the sticky residue.

Bucky swallows loudly. It sounds painful. “When someone says they’re helping someone with their heat or rut does that just mean they’re,” Bucky stops to itch his nose, "Y'know, doin' it?"

It’s so reminiscent of their time together in the caravan that Clint can't help but chuckle. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up,” Bucky grumbles, but the way his mouth quirks lets Clint know he’s not upset.

“Sorry, sorry.” He’s not. “Helping doesn't always mean bangin'," Clint says and Bucky tilts his head. "The first time I met Natasha she was burning up. I helped her through it, no sex required."

(He's out of breath and she is too, on her belly and pinned down under his weight. Her red hair is soaked but she's still calmer than she has any right to be with her heat scent pouring out like that.

She's lovely and smells so sweet. Clint knows better than to be fooled.

"They thought you'd be alpha," she tells him, turning her head to affix him with an emerald stare.

"That why they did this to you?" Clint asks, not easing any pressure off where he's got her hands wrenched between them. From this angle he can see the track marks from the Heat Starter on the inside of her arm. He wonders how many times they'd done this to her, forced her to burn to make it that much easier to slip a blade between unsuspecting ribs.

She doesn't answer, only watches with sharp eyes.

Clint grins, tastes blood from when she'd split his lip. "Seems awful mean. How about a little revenge, Widow?"

When she finally smiles back, it's all teeth.)

"...but," Clint continues once he shakes free of the memory, "Steve's absolutely getting laid right now, 'cause Nat and Bruce have a theory. Speaking of, after the serum, did Cap's dic--,"

"I ain't talkin' about the size of Stevie's dick," Bucky says with a glare. "He's like my brother. That's gross."

"But it's for science!"

"Then you're gonna have to wait for Banner and Natalia to give you the final results," Bucky says, before nodding towards Clint's hand. "Better mind your popsicle, it's fixing to melt."

Sure enough sugary rivulets have started to meander down his arm. Clint licks a path to his wrist and flicks his tongue between his fingers to clean the red liquid that's pooled there too.

Bucky makes a sound like he's hurt. Maybe he has a cramp?

"Medical thinks it'd be a good idea for me to have a plan." When Clint gives him a blank look Bucky elaborates, "For if I go into a rut."

"If?"

Bucky shrugs. "There isn't a manual for how a Hydra Frankenstein alpha is supposed to work." Bucky doesn't look at him, attention focused squarely on where he's pulling up fistfuls of grass. "I was wonderin' if I could put you down as my medical assistance person."

Clint blinks. "Why not Nat?"

Bucky shakes his head. "I love Natalia, but after what they had us do in the Red Room, I'd rather not. Too much history there."

Clint thinks there's too much history between them too, but Bucky doesn't know that and Clint has nobody to blame but himself. "Steve?"

Bucky pulls a face. "Like I said, he's my brother." Bucky finally meets Clint's eyes. "We wouldn't have to do anything, you could just help me like you did with Natalia. Or you can say no. No big deal."

Clint watches the clouds drift by. "Let me sleep on it," he says before sliding the rest of his popsicle in his mouth and chomping it down in one go. Bucky chokes on his spit and Clint thumps his back. "C'mon, let's get back to the tower so I can whoop your ass at Mortal Kombat."

*

They spend the rest of the day playing XBox, eating an exorbitant amount of pizza, and doing just about anything Clint can think of to keep Bucky's mind off Natasha's heat. When midnight rolls around and he can hardly keep from yawning Clint starts to head upstairs, but Bucky looks so sad he can't bring himself to leave. In the end they make a pallet and sleep on the floor like a couple of kids at a slumber party.

Not that Clint's ever been to a slumber party, but still, he imagines they'd be a lot like this.

So when he wakes up and they're chest to chest, sharing breathes with their fingers intertwined, Clint understandably panics. He closes his eyes just as quickly as he'd opened them and takes a shaky breath, willing his heart to stop beating so fast. He's terrified that when he looks, he'll see that Bucky's been awake this whole time. His stomach is fluttering, a riot of butterflies, and Clint gives himself to the count of three before he makes himself be brave.

One.

Two.

Three.

He opens his eyes and Bucky is staring right back, soft and sleepy and heartbreakingly beautiful.

"Shit, 'm sorry," Clint slurs, face hot and tongue heavy as he tries to free his hands.

But Bucky tightens his grip, winds their fingers that much closer. "Wait," Bucky says, mouth slow and purposeful so Clint can read it. "I like this." He squeezes Clint's hands. "You're always braiding someone's hair, or kissing Natalia's cheek, or drawing on Pepper." Clint's eyes stayed glued to Bucky's lips, because this feels important. He doesn't want to miss anything. "You're always touching someone."

Bucky drags his thumb deliberately over the delicate skin of his wrist and Clint shivers, knows he can feel his pulse jumping. "I'm happy," Bucky says, lips curving unevenly, "That you trust me enough to touch me too."

If that thing in Clint's chest gets any bigger he's afraid there won't be room for anything else.

But instead of ignoring it like he's been doing lately, Clint lets the feeling get away from him. He studies Bucky's eyelashes, how they're dark and longer than they have any right to be. Clint pays special attention to the laugh lines around his smile, the way Bucky's blue grey eyes seem like they can see straight to the core of him.

Most importantly, Clint breathes. It smells like garden soil, simple and innocent. Lying here, tangled up with Bucky in the early morning sunshine, Clint feels completely safe.

"Okay," he says, loudly judging by the way Bucky jumps. "Okay, I slept on it. You can put me down as your assist on those medical forms."

Bucky's answering smile is blinding.

*

Clint is twenty two when he first stands amongst the foothills of the Pachatusan mountain range. It's dark out, but the moon is full and there are so many stars that he can see the fog of his breath clear as day.

He's here for a kill.

It's not his first, that privaliage had gone to Jacques Duquesne, but he can count the folks he's murdered on one hand, so his assassin career is still in its infancy. He's careful about what contracts he takes, keeps them south of the equator and spread over several countries so it's harder to track him. This one came from a village that collectively scraped every bit of money they had to fund his fraudulent paperwork and plane ticket.

It's not enough to be worth it, not by a long shot. But Clint figures they must need this guy dead real bad if they're willing to go to all this trouble.

The man in question's name is Matias Alvarez, and he waits until the men leave to guide the tourists up the mountain before he steals their omega spouses and children. What happens to them afterwards is a mystery, but whatever it is ain't good and the police either don't care or he's bribed them to look the other way. His latest victim is Chirapa, a sixteen year old omega who hasn't been seen for days.

Clint's been doing his best to track them, which is why he's bedded down behind a knoll in a meadow of dead grass, eyes trained on the lone shack at the base of the cliff face. He can tell it's been a long dry season because the plants are brittle and brown and crunch anytime he has to shift his weight. Clint's about a hundred and twenty meters out by his estimate, so he doesn't fret much over the noise.

The door bangs open and Matias pulls a struggling girl with dark curls out into the night. Her hands are bound and she's screaming in Quechua, but Matias bears her no mind and there isn't anyone around for miles to hear her cries. Clint nocks an arrow and draws it back until the fletching tickles the corner of his mouth. He aims, exhales, and then hears the crunch of misplaced footfall behind him. He turns with every intention of loosing the arrow into the interloper's neck, but hesitates when he sees them.

The man who is advancing on him is tall and dark, dressed in all black with a metal arm that gleams in the moonlight.

The shadow is back and it throws Clint for such a loop that he isn't sure what to do. The shadow doesn't pause, plates of his metal arm shifting as he winds back for a punch. Clint comes to his senses fast enough to roll and the shadow connects with the hillside where his head had been a millisecond earlier. The crater he makes is monstrous, earth crumbling with the ease of a sand castle, and that wakes Clint right the fuck up. 

"Hey," Clint hisses, aiming for something non vital and releasing the arrow. The shadow catches it in his metal hand and snaps it with ease. "Hey, knock it off," Clint says, hushed and half begging. The shadow had saved him from his biggest monster once, covered him in soft kisses in the glow of his bedside light. They hadn't exactly ended things on the best of terms, but Clint has never wanted to hurt him.

The shadow doesn't seem to share this sentiment and keeps coming, pulling a knife from his belt and swiping at Clint's chest. Clint stumbles back and tries to knock the other man's feet from under him, but the shadow gets his arm down to block it and damn near catches Clint's ankle with the move.

"Cut it out," Clint tries again, but to no avail. He strikes with his knife and Clint grabs his wrist to immobilize him, but the shadow drops the weapon and catches it with his other hand, slashing the blade between them. The pain is sharp, instantaneous, and blooms somewhere close to Clint's hip. He gasps and manages to connect his next kick, putting some distance between them. The shadow yanks the bow from Clint's grip when he falls back, metal hand merciless as it snaps the weapon clean in two.

And that really pisses Clint off.

"I said stop, goddammit!" Clint says, freeing the knife from his boot and throwing it with deadly precision. The blade buries itself clean up to the hilt in the connective tissue of the shadow's flesh and blood shoulder. Clint's sure that'll get the other man to back off or at least buy him a little time to beat a hasty retreat.

What he's not expecting is for the shadow to pull the knife free and toss it to the ground without so much as breaking his stride.

The punch to his gut is lightning fast and leaves Clint gasping. He takes a step back only for his feet to get tripped up and then he's falling, an ungraceful heap against the yellowed grass. The shadow takes his time, settles a knee on either side of Clint's hips while tossing the knife up and catching it lazily before making a show of twirling it around in a flourish. Clint might have considered it artful if he wasn't bracing for the worst.

The shadow turns out to be a vindictive motherfucker and buries the blade in the exact spot Clint had hit him, the vulnerable join of his right shoulder. Clint yelps, his whole body jerking as he tries to get away, but the shadow ignores him and twists the knife until Clint is screaming underneath him. The shadow pulls his arm back and the mechanical buzzing of its inner workings sound like a death bell. Clint closes his eyes and prays for a swift end.

But God's not there, or if they are they've never been on Clint's side.

The wind shifts, the breeze brisk as it ruffles Clint's hair. A small eternity passes and when death never comes Clint opens his eyes to see the shadow staring back at him, nostrils flared. Clint squirms and that's the wrong thing to do because the shadow growls, taking Clint's wrists and pinning them over his head. The pain of the movement against the knife that's still embedded in his shoulder has Clint howling, black spots clouding his vision.

The shadow's metal hand holds both of Clint's in a punishing grip while he uses the other to pry his chin up. Clint tries to jerk his head down so his neck isn't exposed, but it's no use, he can't do anything but shudder while the shadow buries his nose in his throat and breathes. His breath is hot where he exhales and the shadow's grip on Clint's chin softens, petting his jaw as he presses closer.

Clint's pulse is thundering wildly when the other pulls back, the shadow's pupils so wide they black out the entirety of his irises. "Have we met?" the shadow asks, low and gravely.

"Yes," Clint tells him, blinking back the blurriness in his vision. When had he started crying? "You killed my dad," Clint says. The shadow tilts his head and Clint adds, "You saved me from him."

The shadow stays silent and thumbs at the tear tracks thoughtfully. When he trails a slow finger over his mouth Clint whispers, "You were the first person to kiss me."

As soon as Clint says it the shadow presses their lips together, hurried and clumsy. Clint lets it happen, sobs when he feels the first brush of tongue against his. The shadow moves away, eyebrows drawn together like he's worried, which is fucking stupid because he was all set on murdering Clint not even two minutes ago. "What else?" He asks, still tracing his jawline. "What else have I done to you?"

And Clint doesn't want to say it, can't say it, so he uses the knee he's been steady working loose and drives it into the shadow's groin as hard as he can.

The shadow wheezes, grip faltering as he curls in on himself and Clint uses the opening to punch the other man in the side of the head. The shadow yells as he lists to the side and it's enough that Clint can scramble out from under him. He reaches for the knife in his shoulder, ignores every instinct that's screaming at him not to and pulls it out, aims for the shadow's neck and stabs. 

But that stupid, hateful metal arm stops him.

The shadow grabs the blade of the knife and pulls the weapon from Clint's grip, crushes it like it's made of paper before tossing it over his shoulder. The shadow digs vicious fingers into the wound on his shoulder and Clint screams so loud he hurts his own ears.

He ends up right where he started, on his back with his wrists pinned under a cruel metal hand. "What else did I do to you?" The shadow asks again, but Clint thinks he knows because he's tracing the white outline of his scar with plush lips.

"Please," Clint begs, small. Broken. "Please don't."

The shadow sinks his teeth in.

It's so, so lovely.

Clint gasps, the sound sweet as all the fight bleeds out of him, his body soft and yielding under the shadow's hands. He laps at where his teeth have been and Clint blearily thinks that he might have broken the skin this time. The shadow bites down again and Clint mewls, gets lost somewhere in the bliss.

The shadow moves to peer down at Clint curiously. There's blood on his mouth and Clint thinks it should be scary, but for some reason he can't bring himself to worry about it right now. The shadow lets go of his hands and Clint leaves them where they are, blinks heavy eyes at the man above him and waits.

The shadow swallows. Licks his lips. His pupils eclipse the rest of his eyes. "I want you," he starts, hesitant for the first time all night. "To stay where you are," he finishes, running gentle fingers through Clint's hair.

Clint opens his mouth and tries to work it into the right shapes. It's a chore, but eventually he manages to get out a hushed, "Okay."

The shadow nods, brushes a thumb over Clint's cheekbone. "Okay," he agrees as he gets up. "No moving until I come back."

Clint nods. Then he's gone.

Clint lies there, staring up at the sky while he tries to be as still as possible. Eventually, he seeks out the North Star. Barney told him once that it was the most important one, because it would always guide you home.

 

But where is home? 

 

Does he have one?

 

He used to think he'd lost it, but now Clint thinks his home is right here, on this ancient Peruvian mountain. Because that's where the shadow wants him to stay.

 

It's a nice home, he thinks. Maybe if he's good enough he can keep it.

 

He doesn't move and stays as quiet as he can manage. He aches in places but it's dull under the low thrum of serenity that's coursing through him. In the distance he hears shouting followed by a gunshot. The next voice is high, lilting Quechua broken up by desperate sobs and Clint thinks he should be upset, should be trying to do something, but he stays still like the shadow asked him to, even when the second gunshot rings out and the pleading goes silent.

The wind picks up and it's frigid, but Clint tries to keep his shiver small. He's staying still. He's not moving. That's his job and he knows it's important. He continues to stare up at the night sky and pretends that he's fourteen again, laid out in a field in some backwater no-name town with Barney and they're racing to see who can name the most constellations.

The great bear is the easiest, so he picks her out first.

There is smoke in the air. Clint coughs as softly as he can manage.

He finds Sagittarius next. It was a favorite of his growing up, loved how his arrow always pointed to the middle of their galaxy.

He hears a crackling somewhere far off. What could it be? Does it matter? He's not moving, so it shouldn't matter.

Next he seeks out Virgo. Remembers how for years after they'd planted her in the ground he would gaze at this particular set of stars and pretend it was mama, that she was still watching out for him and giving him more of those sweet half smiles that he loved so much.

It's starting to get hotter now and the crackling even louder. It's harder to see the stars for all the smoke. 

Harder to breathe, too.

Cygnus, the swan, and something's not right. Clint coughs, sputters loudly, less concerned with being still and more concerned about how the foothills are on fire all around him. He's choking on the smoke as he wills himself to move through the fog in his head. It's slow work and by the time Clint gets on hands and knees his eyes are stinging and he can't see very far in front of him at all.

But then the shadow's there, a reassuring weight against his back, metal fingers stroking over his uninjured hip. "I told you not to move," the shadow says low against his ear.

"I know," Clint responds, relieved to find that it's easier to speak. "But I had to try. There's a fire."

"I know," the shadow echoes, breathing deeply against Clint's neck. "It's okay, I've got you. I won't let anything hurt you."

But you hurt me, Clint thinks and can't bring himself to say.

His arms are trembling. Everything's hazy, but Clint knows what's coming. "Wait." He tries to swallow the lump in his throat but can't. "I'll be good. I-I won't move, I swear. Please, don't--,"

There are teeth against his neck once more and everything else falls away.

*

When Clint comes to next he finds himself in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Cusco. He's all patched up and someone has left him a backpack full of supplies and water. He blinks, eyes trained on the hole in the ceiling before pawing at his neck until he finds the bandage there. 

Clint closes his eyes and wishes he'd never woken up at all.

*