When Natasha's call comes, Clint is north of Moscow, running down a lead on the deepest end of 'hush-hush' for Fury. For months they'd been running all over the world searching for any proof that could back Fury's suspicions that something was rotten within SHIELD. It means no orders, no records, no backup, but also that his identity isn't burned. Everyone thinks he's on leave. So he chooses to keep moving north, tracking down a scientific facility that had been in SHIELD's records for exactly four hours before being hastily removed, the only reference to it found in a recently deceased administrator's effects from the '60s. That's suspicious enough to keep going, even if Fury is dead, even if Tasha's been attacked, even if HYDRA is everywhere.
When Natasha's second call comes, Clint already has an infiltration plan, surveying the entry to the off-the-map underground bunker he's found. Fury is not dead, after all, but SHIELD is going down. They'll be on their own for a while, lest they put each other in danger. Clint takes a few minutes to remotely trigger his safety protocols back home, but decides to go in anyway.
The horrors he finds make him go for kill shot after kill shot. He counts thirty eight bodies when he dumps them in the incinerator powering the facility's boilers. Nobody's escaped, he's made sure using the security system with its cameras and sensors. He doesn't burn the place down, there might be valuable information here, but he changes all protocols. Only he can open it now. When he leaves, he only carries one file, containing the greatest abomination HYDRA'd been hiding.
He checks the information released to the public, and the man in the file is mentioned nowhere. Just as well, he deserve peace. So Clint moves further north, to an outpost of sorts listed in the facility's documents. He finds a single building, a strange mix of cabin and farmhouse, one guard stationed there. And let it never be said that he's never learned anything from Natasha. It takes almost a week, but he finally confirms that no one else is coming. Everyone left out of the information dump was already in the bunker, hiding.
Clint is wiping the blood off his hands when he hears a creak from the next room's floorboards, on his right. From where he's crouching, he can see the security monitors up ahead in the other room, and on them, the man in the file. He's seen the footage, he doesn't stand a chance in a close fight, not when Tasha'd barely escaped him.
"I'm not HYDRA," he says and moves to roll the body in the plastic tarp he'd laid down.
No answer comes. When he's finished, he removes his gun and knife, placing them on the floor. There's no escape route other than past by the Soldier.
"I'm also not armed."
He counts the minutes, waiting. He's good at that, waiting unmoving, and he puts all his training in it, barely breathing. Another creak, light footsteps, and a knife joins his weapons on the floor.
"Not armed either." The Soldier says nothing else.
Clint lets out a relieved breath. "Why are you here?" he asks, turning around.
His eyes are cold, more lifeless than Clint's had been after Loki. The Soldier stares, no answer coming from his lips, but there's something shifting incrementally in his gaze.
"They're all dead," Clint offers.
Apparently it's the right thing to say, because the Soldier nods.
They bury the body and eat soup. The Soldier doesn't leave, and Clint can't seem to want to, either. He's not curious, or fascinated, but tired. And he's pretty sure this is the safest place to be right now. Clint watches him across the kitchen table. He's in tac gear under civvies, definitely not inconspicuous.
"How'd you get here?" he asks.
Oh. Interesting, he can fly one. Clint wonders what else he's been trained to do.
"Did you cloak it?"
And that earns him a glare. "Yes."
Clint raises both palms in defense. The silence stretches, and Clint washes their plates and spoons. The Soldier follows his movements with his eyes, but otherwise doesn't even twitch.
"My name is Clint Barton," he starts, and he's not sure why he's saying this. Perhaps, to offer the other man a sense of how he's not the only one life's fucked over? After what he's seen in his file, he sure needs it. "I am an assassin. I have worked for myself, for others, and for SHIELD. I have been paid to take lives, there's a lot of blood on my hands, but I chose that. Last year, I was forced, against my will, to kill my colleagues. Brainwashing in its purest form, all control taken from me."
That earns him a head tilt, the Soldier's eyes slightly more vivid. Clint's not sure where he's going with this.
"Look, man," he sighs, "I don't think anyone in the world can understand what you're going through right now. But shit happens to everyone. And you might not be ok right away," he lifts a finger when the Soldier frowns, "yes, that includes wanting to shut me up violently," it gets him a blink, almost surprise, "but you will be ok later. Maybe not totally, like partially," okay, this is not going well, because the frown is back, "or not at all, you might never be ok," fuck, Barton, shut up, shut up, "like me, you might think I'm ok, but I'm not, as my mouth is proving right now," the scowl deepens, and Clint lets out a strangled laugh, "and you should take a shower, you fucking stink, man," he's done, so done, he's going to get murdered and Natasha's going to kill him, "fuck, fuck, fuck!"
Deep breaths. Steady, deep breaths.
The Soldier raises from his chair, Clint is still alive a second later, and he hears the other moving through the house. A couple of minutes pass, then the bathroom door closes.
Clint sits back down to bang his head on the table, and decides to lay there. He'd thought he'd be able to talk about Loki. But nah, his brain's decided to crap out on him now, while insulting the deadliest assassin of the century. Awesome job.
The air moves slightly and Clint senses a presence next to him. This guy needs a bell.
"I don't remember how."
Clint's head snaps up and whoa. Naked, naked, and a lot of naked. But the guy's filthy, like he hasn't had a good scrub in months. It's disconcerting.
"How the hell did they wash you," he mutters as he raises from the chair.
"Hosed the blood down," comes from behind as the Soldier follows him toward the bathroom.
Clint almost screams right then and there.
The Soldier doesn't sleep. He keeps watch. Clint's mouth continues to talk nonsense well into the night.
Natasha shows up at dawn. For some reason Clint can not fathom, he hides the Soldier, sends him into the basement with an order to keep quiet. He gives Tasha the file along with an abridged version of how he'd secured the facility, while she loops him into recent events. He needs to lay low for longer, a few months perhaps, and Tasha needs a break.
"Why'd you do what I said?" Clint asks the Soldier, surprised to find him silent and immobile, almost like following orders.
"The stupid must be rubbing off," he answers, moving past Clint to return to the main floor.
"What do I call you?" Clint asks.
He hands over a can of beans and an opener, before returning to search the pantry for something more meaty. They have food for about a month, he reckons.
Silence. Of course, it's silence.
"I don't remember."
"Your name?" Clint asks, turning around, but the Soldier slams the can on the table.
"No. How to use this," he throws the opener down as well.
"What do you remember then?" Clint is now curious how the gaps in the other's memory work. He's able to feed himself, for instance. Clint would like to know how much they've damaged him.
"How to kill you," the Solder growls, glaring.
Well, at least that's a little more life in his eyes. He sounds endearingly like the cat Clint used to feed on his fire escape in New York, though.
"Aw, kitty," Clint says, because he has no sense of self preservation, at all, "it's not like we all didn't have to learn to use it at some point."
The metal fingers of the Soldier's left hand clink softly as he makes a fist, but no further movement follows.
"First Bucky, now kitty," the Soldier mutters, and then closes his eyes as if he's done with this shit.
"It was your name," Clint offers with a shrug, and, when nothing else comes, he moves to open the can.
The Soldier watches.
"I remember how to tie my boot laces," he says when Clint's heating up the beans, side of sausage.
Clint nods and waits quietly for a change.
"How to use weapons. War and pain. Fear. Steve's medicine."
It's been two weeks and it's snowing. Clint decides for a grocery run, the cold making it easier for them to hide their faces, gloves necessary. Clint's going to make scrambled eggs and bacon and pancakes because breakfast food is the best and he's tired of canned crap.
"I don't remember how to break these," the Soldier says, examining an egg. The discrepancy is dire, between the deadly metal fingers and the fragile eggshell.
It's a common occurrence, him not remembering little, trivial things. Clint thinks he's held onto the important bits, through the mind wipes, and has let go of the insignificant, re-learnable ones. He tells the Soldier as much that night, bellies full, listening to the wind howling outside. The house is cold, as there's only one stove in the kitchen, and a ceramic one in the living room, so they've been sleeping on two mattresses there.
"I guess," the Soldier rubs his chin, "would've been mighty smart of him."
"Of who?" Clint asks, although he already has a suspicion.
"This Bucky fella."
"Dissociating much?" Clint snorts.
The Soldier shakes his head, and is quiet for a long time before he speaks again. "My names is James Barnes," he says, "I was born on March 10th, 1917." The metal plates of his arm shift and re-lock. "But I am not Bucky. I don't remember how to be him."
He doesn't remember being a child, but he recalls Steve and scraped knees.
Clint writes 'Kitty' on a piece of paper and raises it.
"Fuck you," Barnes says.
"So you know how to read," Clint chuckles.
"Sure, make fun of the amnesiac," comes back with a twist of lips that's almost a smile. Almost.
"History says you used to be a ladies man," Clint follows. The books always had this picture of Bucky Barnes smirking like he knew the world's secrets.
Barnes tilts his head, as he often does when trying to dig deeper into his scattered memories. "There were some," he nods, "pretty."
Clint raises his eyebrows. "That's it?"
All he gets is a blank stare.
"No chu-chu?" Clint makes kissing noises, lips puckered.
Barnes squints his eyes at him. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
It's funny. That's why Clint laughs, for at least a minute. "Kissing," he sighs, trying to calm the chuckles.
Barnes meets this information with an expression of interest, both eyebrows raised. He continues to look at Clint expectingly. Huh. But no.
"I'm not teaching you that," he snorts, and kicks Barnes' knee where he sits next to him.
He has nightmares. It's not visible, no agitation or other external sign, and when he wakes, he's controlled, his body taut and unmoving.
It's been two months. Clint is more than reluctant to leave this strangeness and return to the world.
"I want to go there," Barnes says and Clint complies.
They take the quinjet. Inside the bunker the air is stale, the smell of dried blood giving it a lingering odor as they pass through, and Barnes stops by each stain, as if he can somehow watch their deaths. But there is only one room that holds his interest at this point, the one with the chair. It's large, packed with cabinets and tables along the walls, the machinery in the middle, sinister in its solitude.
Barnes walks the room, reading labels off of boxes and doors. With each pass, he circles closer to the chair, and Clint stands back, leans on the wall near the entrance. It takes Barnes a while, but he finally gets there. He runs his flesh fingertips over the arm rests and the heavy shackles there, but then he sits down in it, leans back.
There's a beat and Clint watches Barnes' chest inflate suddenly, moving under quick and sharp breaths. He jumps out then, walks away for a few steps, heaving, his body so tense, Clint can see the tendons strain in his neck.
Clint would like to approach, but he doesn't take that risk. He doesn't like his chances, so he watches, listens. Clint's never seen this much raw terror before.
But, after a minute, Barnes inhales deeply and, suddenly, his body stops moving. No tension, no more fear, but motionless and loose, steady breaths. He's a sniper, Clint reminds himself, and at least for Clint himself this much control over his own body is freeing. Satisfying. It's also horrifying how good Barnes is at this shift, the switch sudden, and not gradual. How much pain must have taken to learn that particular skill, Clint wonders, and the thought alone hurts.
Barnes moves then, large steps toward the chair, and embeds his metal fist in the machinery around the head rest. It goes in smoothly, with a crackle and a spark, until he's almost elbow deep in it. Then again, and again, ripping it apart from the inside out, every piece larger than a coin crushed to bits between the metal fingers. And Barnes is not even breathing heavily, laying this destruction with utter calm, a stillness that by all accounts should be filled with rage and not this beautiful serenity.
When done, he turns back from the chair, eying the rest of the room, then moves to open drawers and cabinets, drags out boxes. He looks like he knows exactly what he wants to retrieve, and Clint approaches, curious. There are schematics, electric it seems, some mechanical diagrams, bits of electronics, a few tools.
It's then that Barnes pulls off his coat and shirt, then rests his metal arm on the table in front of him. He removes one of the panels, connects a tool, measures something and seems satisfied by the result, because he closes it back up. He continues with another panel, but this time he unscrews something before grabbing a pair of pliers and he pulls.
A piece comes out, and Clint can recognize trackers anywhere. It's not active, though, fried from a puncture right through the main chip.
"There's another one near the shoulder, in the back," Barnes says and extends the pliers.
The sliver of metal falls easily in Clint's hand when he touches it. "How are these coming off so quickly?" he asks while copying Barnes' earlier actions.
"I tell them to."
This tracker is more damaged, like it took several tries to break it. Clint replaces the plate when he's done and it clicks in its place with ease. Barnes gets dressed while Clint examines the schematics more closely.
"You remember this, but not kissing?" he muses, and it must've been the wrong thing to say, because Barnes is looking at him now, eyes harder than Clint's ever seen.
This guy, this mutilated man here, he's chosen to forget human contact in order to keep control over a part of his body forced on him.
Clint is stupid like that, sometimes. He's also known for taking ridiculous chances with his life, like jumping off buildings, or kissing deadly assassins in the very bunker where they'd been tortured.
There's only a moment of surprise before Barnes catches on, and it doesn't take him long to wrap his arms around Clint, clutching at his sides. The kiss is awkward, their noses bumping, but Clint keeps at it, just lips on lips, tiny pecks and longer slides. It's enough, like this. And Barnes must be remembering something, because he's moving with purpose after a while, crowding Clint against the table, mouth more and more demanding.
It feels like a victory, of sorts, and Clint grins. Barnes stops, an expression of revelation on his face as he looks at Clint. And then... then he smiles.
It's the tiniest one Clint's ever seen, but a smile nonetheless.
"Why did you kill them?" Barnes asks later, as they pack tools and folders into boxes.
Clint could lie. "For you." He doesn't.
They haul back several crates of tools, papers, supplies, and spare parts. Clint is glad he didn't burn the place down. They leave most of those safely tucked in the cloaked quinjet and Clint takes the time to check all its tracking devices are turned off, under the offended scowl of Barnes. But hey, he's gonna check, because he feels like an idiot for not doing so sooner.
It's almost three months since arrival when Clint's peaceful assassins-r-us vacation is disturbed. It all starts with one teeny tiny event: a camera in the security grid around the house shorts out. Barnes offers to fix it, and Clint figures he's got at least half an hour before he's back. That's why he's not in the bathroom. That's why he's on his mattress in the living room near the ceramic stove where the warmth is. And that's why Barnes is currently staring at Clint holding his own dick.
Couldn't get much better.
"Aw, kitty, no." Clint shifts to cover himself, but Barnes is there in no time, pulling the blanket out of Clint's reach.
"I wanna see," he says and Clint hits his head on the wall behind him.
Maybe he'll pass out. Wait, why is he still hard? But his thoughts are derailed when Barnes sits cross legged in front of him, fingers interlocked. His entire, very serious, clinical focus is centered on Clint's nether regions.
"I'm gonna regret this," Clint sighs, but moves his hand. He closes his eyes, but doesn't need the earlier pornish fantasy that had got him started. He doesn't even recall what it was about. See, things like these make one wonder if dicks don't actually have brains of their own.
"What are you thinking about?" Barnes asks.
Clint huffs a laughter on the exhale. "Nothing, now. Just feeling."
"How often do you do this?" The air shifts. Ohgod, did he lean closer?
"Hm, not very," Clint digs his fingers right where he knows will speed this along. It makes his voice waver. "Once every couple of weeks or so."
"Should I do it?"
No, Clint did not need to have that image in his head, not now. He whines, strokes faster. "If you think you need to."
The air shifts again, this time right on the sensitive skin beneath his fingers and Clint's eyes snap open. It's a bad thing to do. Very bad, because Barnes is leaning so close, his lips are right there, way too near. That's all it takes, though, and Clint doesn't even have time to shout a warning. Of all the things Clint could do in relation to a deadly assassin, coming all over his face had definitely never been on the list. Barnes looks deeply confused and Clint can't stop the laughter, shaking with it.
Barnes retaliates by tasting, and he's probably not doing it on purpose, but Clint's breath hitches.
"Don't do that," he says, and grabs the tissues he'd prepared to wipe Barnes' face before he pops another boner. "You know what?" he says as he buttons up his pants, "you really are like a kitty. You've imprinted on me!"
It gets him a good natured fist bump to the shoulder and Clint sports the subsequent bruise in silence. Barnes had actually laughed at that.
"So what happened to the camera?" Clint asks after Barnes has washed his face at the kitchen sink.
"Something chewed the wire, fixed it."
Clint moves to the monitor room to check the feed. Something is off with the image, and Clint concentrates on the one he remembers from before the camera had blacked out. There it is, of course, a branch bent somewhat upwards, a small splinter on the bottom of the concavity. It's too unnatural.
"Shit," he whispers when he notices the pattern of the tree bark slightly askew.
A low whistle moves through the air, puncturing the screen in front of him and Clint's body hits the floor, hard, under Barnes' weight.
"Sniper," Barnes says as they retreat behind the wall next to the door. Another shot embeds itself in a chair. "I saw no one out there," Barnes adds, on alert.
"Because it's remote controlled," and it earns Clint a look, "saw it on the feed."
Another shot, this time it hits the door frame.
"No other way out," Bares says and stretches on the floor to pull over the rifle leaning on one of the desks.
"Ten seconds between shots," Clint counts.
Barnes gets ready to roll into the open, but Clint grabs the muzzle.
"Let me do it," he says.
Of course there's a tug of war through the next two bullets.
"I never miss," Clint grits and he must look serious enough that Barnes relents.
All right, why did Clint insist on doing it again? He's got ten seconds to roll, aim, and fire. But he's good and he knows it. He turns a smug smirk at Barnes and puts the rifle down before making his way out of the room, cautiously.
There are no other threats, no activity visible outside, no troops storming in. For now. But whoever's mounted that weapon out there is sure to come after them soon enough.
"Ideas on who and why?" Barnes asks as he looks out the window.
"Nope," Clint says as he starts gathering his things, "and no intention to stay and find out. Could be HYDRA, coming for their assets."
It's HYDRA, Barnes confirms when they stop briefly to examine the weapon. He's seen one before.
"How the hell did they find us?" Clint huffs as they make their way through the snow toward the quinjet.
"Took out all the trackers," Barnes says, so that's not the reason.
Clint flies over the facility, on a hunch, and there's activity there.
"Someone else must have known of this place," he comments, "or that chair had a locator in it that activated when you trashed it."
To Clint's right, Barnes is looking through the windshield with a frown. It's not his fault.
"We could blow them up," Clint offers, watching the attempts of ingress the men on the ground are making.
Barnes is silent for a long time.
"Or we could alert the authorities, let them deal with each other."
That gets Clint a reaction as Barnes' eyes snap to him.
"Authorities it is."
Barnes remain silent. Clint is appalled at himself for being ready to cause so much destruction just to stop him from frowning. Aw shit. Natasha would be so proud right now. Clint's adopted yet another assassin.
"Thanks for having my back earlier," he says and it earns him a flick on the ear lobe.
Yeah. That's why.
The good news is that they have a quinjet that is invisible to the radar. The bad news is that they're running out of power. In their infinite wisdom, SHIELD had replaced the liquid fuel in quinjets with high tech battery packs, and those last for a trip around the world and back. But running the cloak for months has drained it severely, it might not had even been fully charged when Barnes had stolen it. They don't have enough left for the trip across the Atlantic, that's for sure.
So Clint turns to Sweden. There's a SHIELD base there that might have what they need. He lands at a safe distance, then they make their way to the nearest vantage point. Of course, the base is filled by the local military, and Clint can't access the SHIELD databases for blueprints from the quinjet without alerting someone of their presence. They're going in blind, but Clint's been in enough bases that he has a general sense of these spaces ingrained. He also counts it as a lucky draw that the quinjet is an attack one, equipped with an weapons and tac gear.
"Here," Clint says as he pulls icers from their rack in the armory drawer, tosses two at Barnes. "Will put 'em to sleep," he explains, "not kill."
The suits are inconspicuous, save for the insignias, and they rip them off before gearing up. They pull up the face covers, too, because there's no need to get themselves stupidly recognized and Clint doesn't need the full extent of any government on his ass for consorting with the enemy. Barnes glares for two full minutes at the gloves he has to wear, but eventually puts them on.
They're in and out in less than half an hour, because Barnes is a genius. All Clint has to do is point in a direction, and Barnes finds the best route. It only took them five seconds to work this out, too. So they move through rafters, down corridors, pausing in broom closets, then out on ledges, but they do it silently, and, most importantly, invisibly.
In all, Clint is damned impressed by Barnes' skills, the way he moves with finesse, lack of waver, no hesitation. He's also rather floored that they'd managed to synchronize without a word, without knowing each other, their strong suits and weak points, their capabilities. It took a lot longer with Nat.
They're over the Atlantic when Clint thinks to ask.
"Wanna come with me?"
Barnes opens his eyes slowly, otherwise motionless in his seat next to Clint. "Where?"
Up ahead, the sky is blue and Barnes stares at it for an increasing amount of time. It makes Clint want to fidget in his pilot chair.
"Like a stray cat."
"Like a friend," Clint corrects without missing a beat.
Barnes nods shortly, but definitively. He shifts then, drawing a leg up for a better position, head leaning back, and closes his eyes again.
"I have internet," Clint chimes, not bothering to hide his grin.
"Shut up," comes back, muttered.
"Oh, and there's this awesome patch of trees round back, best target practice ever."
"Let me sleep."
Was that...? It definitely was! Clint has made the Winter Soldier whine.
Clint likes his farmhouse. It's in the middle of nowhere, but not far enough to be completely cut off. He's got two stories, a work in progress, and a state of the art security system. He's also immensely proud of his barn with a retractable roof, and he smirks at his companion as he lands the quinjet inside. All protocols transmit a green light, meaning that there had been no disturbances, but Barnes insists they do a sweep of all cameras and sensors first and foremost.
It's mid spring this part of the world and Clint busies himself with his dining room project, wood paneling and painting, while Barnes pours over the files they'd retrieved from the facility.
"I don't understand this," Barnes says, two weeks in. He pushes the papers on the coffee table from where he's been sitting on the floor with a huff.
Clint grabs two beers from the fridge before joining him. Everything's in Russian, but there are drawings of molecules, formulas and anatomic schematics. It's nothing electric, so it's not about the arm. Perhaps it's about what they did to Barnes.
"What's this word," he asks, on a hunch.
"And this?" Clint points at another.
Clint has established a while ago that Barnes is pretty smart, can understand things easily, a fast learner. "Do you know what a neuron is?"
Barnes looks at him sharply. "That word's in there, too."
Huh. So maybe it's not the science, but the lack of basics.
"I have an idea," Clint says and retrieves his laptop. "Here," he pulls up a wiki page, because Clint's no scientist and he figures that's as good a place to start as any. "I think you're just missing the primary info. Start reading, and let me know if it makes more sense later."
It still baffles Clint what Barnes remembers and what he doesn't.
By the time Clint finishes painstakingly scraping off all four layers of old wallpaper from the dining room, Barnes has accumulated a stack of notes two inches high. The weather's getting warmer, too, spring slowly giving way to the first tendrils of summer.
"I need one of these," Barnes tells Clint one day, turning the laptop toward him. On the screen there's a machine with electrodes connected to a patient's forehead.
They break into a medical supplies warehouse just as easily and harmoniously as their previous stint in Sweden.
Barnes hooks it up to himself and measures things for days. The living room is in chaos, notes and papers everywhere, even some taped on the walls. Clint just shrugs and goes to bed.
One morning, as he comes down yawning, he has to blink twice before believing his eyes. The place is spotless, no paper in sight. Barnes is sitting at the kitchen table, mug of coffee in his hand, and there's another one waiting for Clint. He downs all of it, and gets a refill without asking. Interesting. Also, Barnes looks tranquil, but not in a sniper-calm, controlled way.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" he asks.
"Yes," comes back before Barnes leans over with his elbows on the table. "My brain's healing itself."
"Well that's good," Clint says and busies himself with drinking more coffee. Does this mean Barnes will leave? Go to Steve perhaps? Why would Clint care, though? "So it worked," he comments to distract himself.
Barnes nods. "You were right, I needed the info. Still don't understand everything, but enough." He stares into his coffee, half a frown in place. "The machine permanently disrupted some neural pathways," he says, "so some things I'll never recover. I managed to hold on to others," and his voice is getting more and more dry. He swallows. "Zola gave me a serum, kinda like what Steve got, and it heals me, heals my cells. They kept using that machine, kept freezing me, so I couldn't recover. Now I'm out and the neurons are regenerating, re-connecting."
"Fuck, Barnes," Clint breathes.
When he looks up at Clint, there's a half a smile in place on his face, bitter and sad, but his eyes are the most lively he's seen so far.
"You can call me James."
It's nearing that time of year for Clint again and his nights are getting more and more restless. The sudden infusion of documentaries for the New York attack are taking over the swarm of stories that have been keeping the media in a frenzy over SHIELD's fall for almost half a year. James doesn't sleep much either, and Clint spends some nights watching the ceiling and listening to him move around the house. Clint suspects he's making noise on purpose, given how he can exist in utter silence. Some mornings, Clint even forgets he's there, that's how companionable his presence is.
They're on an evening run around the perimeter when Natasha calls. They have a lead on Loki's scepter. James watches him shoot for two hours, even brings Clint's arrows back to him, and Clint recounts the events surrounding the Chitauri invasion.
"Which base is it?" James asks over dinner and Clint tells him, somewhere in Canada. "I know that one," he adds, and proceeds to list its weak points.
By their estimation of access routes, personnel and compound size, the team should have it under control in less than twenty four hours.
It takes five days. And that's only because Stark is a complete pain in the ass, Thor wants to do everything by himself, Rogers is moping and Natasha's strangely on a short fuse. Oh, and they manage to lose Banner somewhere in the Canadian forests. To make it all worse, the scepter isn't there.
When he returns, Clint finds James in his bedroom, in full combat gear, packing himself with weapons.
"Hey, kitty, I'm back," he says.
James glares at him for a long moment before throwing his goggles at Clint's head.
"Ow," he returns, rubbing at his forehead, and James starts undressing. Could it be that... nah, impossible. "Were you coming to get me?" he asks, not bothering with masking his surprise.
James is silent all through pulling jeans and a t-shirt on.
"You're late," he growls, grabbing a paper from his nightstand, and turns to Clint, glare still firmly in place. "New protocol," he says, and slaps the paper on Clint's chest before making his way out of the room.
There's a list of code phrases, ranging from 'all's well' to 'kidnapped' to 'mortally wounded' to the check-in time frame at the bottom of the paper, six hours, twelve at most. Clint's tired, really exhausted, but he can't wipe the smile off his face.
"You missed me!" he shouts, making his way down the stairs.
James sulks for a whole week.
The next location is somewhere on the east coast and Clint sneaks off during clean-up to a small jewelry shop. In the window, a metal pendant had caught his attention earlier and, for some reason, he must have it. It reminds him of James, a stylized cat head, with slits for eyes, looking dangerous and endearing at the same time.
He flips it at James as a joke upon return, and it earns him a scowl, but James pockets it anyway. A few days later, he's wearing it around his neck, hanging on an ball chain. Clint calls it cat-tags, and James ignores him for three days for that pun, but Clint catches him smile at the pendant.
A few missions later, Natasha's definitely noticed something, given how Clint's almost religious in his check-ins. She says nothing, thankfully. One time, Clint winks at her, pocketing his phone, and she rolls her eyes. Well, now she thinks that Clint's got a someone, and Clint doesn't want to examine why it doesn't feel like he's lying to her.
"I tried and it didn't work."
"Tried what?" Clint asks from where he's been sanding the dining room floorboards.
James leans into the door frame and makes an up and down motion with his fist. Clint sighs. He should have known better. He rubs at his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand.
"What else do you--" James starts, but Clint stops him with a palm up. Now he's going to have the image of James with his hand on... ookay.
"You know what," he says, after getting to his feet and grabbing the laptop from the living room, "teach yourself," and opens up a porn website, clicking to the videos of guys rubbing it for the camera.
If Clint has a moment with himself late that night in the confines of his bedroom, who's to know.
The missions continue, the scepter ever elusive, and while Clint's getting quieter, James is slightly more chattier.
It's only when Clint's holding a straight razor near James' neck, during a long overdue first shave, does he realize the trust he's been gifted.
"That first day," he says while scraping the blade along the line of the other's jaw, "you trusted me. Why?"
There's a moment of silence, filled with the shift of Clint's hands.
"I watched you torture him."
It surprises Clint enough to look up. James' eyes are clear, unguarded, but Clint can't read him from this close. He goes back to shaving, instead.
"You were precise," James continues, "talented. But you made his agony as brief as possible."
Silence returns once more as Clint drags the razor near James' lips. He wipes the rest of the shaving cream off when he's finished, and he turns to leave, but metal fingers wrap around his arm.
"The hair, too," James rasps.
Clint swallows and nods. He feels like his mind is completely blank. He moves to fetch a pair of scissors from a drawer, and takes a moment to look at James, still a few steps away.
"So?" he asks, a little wary of the answer.
"You're human," James returns, looking him straight in the eye, "not a killing machine".
He gets it now. Oh, how he gets it... he takes a shaky breath and accepts it with a nod. It's a little humbling.
It takes Clint a while to get used to James' new look, but it suits him better.
"I sure don't remember this," James says one hot summer night as he lounges on the sofa, laptop on his knees.
Clint's just out of the shower, in his soft sleep pants, getting a cold bottle of water before bed. He moves closer, looking over James' shoulder and, yep, he must have been talking to himself. Clint huffs a laugh at the blow job video on the screen. James looks at him then, and Clint can see the exact moment his eyes light up.
"No," Clint says and walks away.
"Why not?" comes at him from behind just as he climbs the stairs.
Clint almost trips. Almost. He shakes his head.
"Come on," James insists, "why not?"
He's never been this persistent about anything before, but Clint can't, because then he might have to face all these feelings crawling under his skin.
"I can't, kitty," he sighs.
It's a disaster waiting to happen. James is out of a 70 years long torture hell, and he's only attached himself to the first person he'd met that wasn't evil incarnate. Clint doesn't need that disappointment.
"Please, Clint," and James has never said his name out loud.
It makes Clint turn around.
"Meow?" James adds, the corners of his lips turned upward in a smirk.
Aw, fuck. Clint is so going to regret this. "Go shower," he says, rubbing his forehead.
He waits sitting on the edge of James' bed, rolling the water bottle between his hands. When James returns, he's only got a towel around his waist and that stupid pendant around his neck. He pats the bed, "Lie down," and James complies.
He stretches out like a starfish, wrists hanging over the edges of the bed. There's a pleased smile on his face, openly putting himself in Clint's hands. It's been years since Clint's last done this, more than a few, but he thinks he can provide a good enough experience for James.
Clint moves to kneel between James' legs, runs his hands over his towel clad thighs. It's just a blow job, he's going to do this, and get out. Most importantly, he's not going to think about it, ever again. So when James tries to sit up, he stops him.
"Stay there," he pleas, because he knows he won't be able to deal with James's hands on him.
Again, James obeys the request, and Clint runs his palm over his belly in thanks. He smiles at James reassuringly before sliding his fingers down the towel and then beneath it. James watches him attentively, bends one leg to allow for better access, and Clint leans on it.
It's like they're lounging on the sofa, that's how calm the air is between them, a slight increase in James' breathing the only other sign that he's getting hard under Clint's fingers. He could speed it up, find the most sensitive spots, but he likes this, doesn't want to take control away from James.
Slowly, James gets lost in what Clint's doing, his eyes drifting unfocused, his body almost immobile, as if his entire being is centered around that single point of contact. So Clint pulls the towel open, leans for a taste. James' inhale is sharper, and Clint does it again, and again, in between small pecks. Soon, he's taking James in his mouth, and Clint has to hold his breath to stop himself from moaning at how James' entire body trembles.
Clint looks up then, and fuck, James is licking his lips, biting at them like he's tasting it. Everything Clint didn't want rushes in to tighten around his chest and pool low in his belly. It drives out the moan stuck in Clint's throat despite himself, and the mattress edges creak where James clutches at it. He's shaking all over, and Clint swallows him down through his orgasm.
With a soft sigh, Clint leans back up, wraps an arm around James' bent leg to rest his cheek on the knee. He should go, like now, but he doesn't want to. There's a storm in his lungs and it makes his throat hurt when he draws air, so he watches James breathe instead, in shorter, stronger gasps, but still eerily calm. It's soothing.
Too soon, though, James lets go of the mattress, leans up on an elbow. He's got a small pleased smile on his lips and Clint finds himself matching it.
"Do more to me," James rasps, sitting up further, enough to reach Clint's cheek with his hand.
His fingers are warm, and Clint lets out a half bitten laugh. He shakes his head, closing his eyes, and hugs the leg closer.
"Please," James whispers and Clint shivers when his knuckles run over Clint's erection.
"You don't know what you're asking," Clint murmurs.
"I know how it's done, I researched it," James returns, misunderstanding, "watched videos. Please," and Clint can't deny him anything at this point.
James leans back, twists and shuffles briefly.
"I found this in the bathroom," he says and places something in Clint's hand. "Please."
It's lube, Clint notices when he opens his eyes, and he wants, fuck almighty, how he wants.
It's like swimming through gelatin, nice and slow and fuzzy around the edges. His fingers shake when they breach a pliant James, they shake when he pushes down his pants, shake when he grips tightly onto James' hips. Clint wants to cry at how good, how perfect it feels, with metal fingers wrapped around his neck, James' other hand clutching at Clint's back. He wants to scream with the fullness of this moment, James' breaths hot and quivering right against Clint's lips. And he closes that distance, tasting that mouth after months of denying. Clint breaks apart more than James does.
He stays there for a long while, wrapped up in James. But reality is coming back, and all things must end. Clint sighs and slips out of bed. He's going to see this through, though, so he comes back with a wet cloth, cleans James.
He doesn't want an abrupt disconnection, doesn't want to return to his own bed, so he stops by James' open door when he's finished in the bathroom.
"You want me to stay or go?" The words tumble out of his mouth before he can stop them, and James looks at him, surprised.
"Stay," comes back without pause, James' hand extended.
He grabs Clint around the middle when he approaches, pulls him down next to him on the bed, and leans over. He's smiling, wide, before taking Clint's lips with his own.
Morning comes and Clint wakes up in James' embrace. They've fallen asleep between slow kisses, but now Clint's unsure of what the day will bring. He's given in, and he's sure it will hurt like a bitch when they go back to their previous friendly dynamic.
He slips out quietly, goes to the kitchen to turn the coffee maker on. He's leaning on the counter, trying to put his thoughts in order when the air shifts behind him. Clint's breath lodges itself in his throat for an interminable second, but then James' arms sneak around him, and he plasters himself, skin on skin, onto Clint's back. There are lips on Clint's shoulder.
"You know what else I didn't remember?" James asks, voice rough with sleep.
"Nh," Clint manages.
"How to love."
The short, relieved laugh that escapes Clint is painful. His heart hammers wildly in his chest, and James moves his metal hand over it.
"Yes," he says with another kiss on Clint's neck, "just like that."
Clint's pretty sure he's crying, but he doesn't give a damn right now, because he's already hard when James snakes his hand down his pants.
"Since when?" Clint asks, as they lounge sweaty and sated between rumpled sheets.
James turns to him, leans on an elbow and lifts the pendant still around his neck. "This," the corners of his mouth rise in a small smile.
Clint blinks a few times. "That was a while ago."
James nods, licking his lips. "I tried, but you gave me pornography to watch," he groans and leans his forehead on Clint's shoulder.
"What." There's laughter bubbling out of Clint. "Are you serious? Who does that?"
"You don't express intention like that, kitty," and he's still laughing, but James laughs with him.
A week later, another call comes, with a lead on a base in Sokovia.