The blinds are half drawn on the bedroom window, making the sunset light spread diffusely in the hot summer air, and Clint inhales deeply from where he's laying face down on the rumpled bed. Next to him, James is lost in thought, eyes unfocused on the ceiling. The swarm of feelings rushes in again when Clint recalls the morning and he moves his hand over James' chest, presses it against his increasing heart beat.
"Since when?" Clint asks, still a little thrown by the night and this day.
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.
"I didn't know how else," James says when the chuckles die down, runs his hand over Clint's back. "I wasn't sure if you'd..." he trails off, a tinge of vulnerability drawing a crease between his eyebrows.
Clint turns to face him fully. "But you suspected?" he asks, curiosity unabated, because Clint hadn't even been letting himself think about it.
James nods, the crease turning into a half frown, and Clint raises his eyebrows in a silent question.
"That day you cut my hair," James continues, watching his fingertips move over Clint's shoulder. "I knew when you kissed me, last night," he whispers, his frown deepening, and he closes his eyes. "It's true, right?"
Fuck. This is it. This is where Clint jumps.
"Yeah." His voice cracks just as his heart is trying to crawl up his throat.
James looks back up at him, and there's so much relief on his face, Clint's chest constricts painfully. He lifts a hand to James' cheek, matches his smile. Yeah, it's true.
Clint's taken back to when he first saw the Soldier, that man with no grasp on his own soul, but brave enough to trust someone else. Clint can be brave, too. And now, as he looks at James, he sees all the ways in which he's changed and all the ways in which he's been the same. For months James has been digging a place for himself around Clint, and Clint's never noticed. He tries to remember, when was it that happened, but there's no definite moment in time. Maybe it was when he'd smiled at that pendant, maybe that first night when Clint had drawn his bath for him, naked, lost, and alone. Maybe it was the very moment Clint had seen his file.
The feeling is unmistakable, though, this exuberant fullness, wrapped inside an almost painful tightness.
"You've felt this before," Clint says, curiosity getting the better of him, but it turns more into a statement than a question. James has recognized it for what it is, no doubt there.
"Mhm," James leans back with a hum, lets out a long exhale.
Who, Clint wants to ask, but he doesn't want to know the answer, so he leans closer instead, rests his temple on the metal plates of James' arm. A shift, and Clint is drawn closer, held tightly. The minutes pass, extending in the silence, James' heart beating incrementally faster under Clint's ear, his muscles contracting, his body more and more rigid.
"I keep remembering," James whispers. "Wasn't like this. It hurt."
The waver in the words makes Clint pull himself up, and he hurries to wipe at the wetness on James' cheeks. His eyes are too full of things, too alive, but he's watching something in another world, another time.
"It wasn't returned," Clint murmurs and James shakes his head.
He grabs at Clint's wrists then, swallows. "Memories, Clint, coming all at once," he gasps, eyes wide with panic.
There's nothing much to do except hold him, through the shaking, and the sobs, and the screams. There's nothing much for Clint to do but let James cling too tightly to him, soothe him until the tremors settle, kiss his sweaty forehead when he rasps a thank you.
"You're not afraid of it," James says later, both of them freshly showered, as he rubs medicine with his flesh fingers on the large bruise running across Clint's back.
It starts on Clint's right, below the ribs, then goes upwards, the outline of each metal plate visible to end in a hand shape where James had been gripping at his left shoulder. Clint's weirdly proud of it, but James is understandably not pleased, as he sets the tube on the bathroom sink with a little too much force.
"You should be," he continues in almost a growl, but it's bitter.
Clint can't stop it, the smile that accompanies the fizzle of warmth spreading through his limbs, and he turns to look at James. "Won't."
James deflates. "Stubborn," he mutters with a nose exhale.
He grabs Clint's hand then, places his fingertips on a metal plate that's right below the connecting articulation between the arm and shoulder, and Clint can feel a series of very fine ridges there.
"One, two, two," James says, pressing Clint's fingers into them, in order, "four, three, one."
There's no time to even ask what it means, because, with a low whir, the arm goes inert. James leans precariously to the side under its weight, but regains his balance.
Clint finds it hard to draw enough air in his lungs. The way the metal pulls, heavy and useless, if this were to happen in a fight, it would be death.
"Got it?" James asks, still holding onto Clint's fingers.
"Yes," he breathes, unable to tear his eyes from the arm.
"Good," comes back and James presses again, same sequence, before there's movement in the plates again.
He lifts to the side, makes a fist and the plates shift, then resettle. Calibration, Clint's brain supplies, and he startles out of the stupor.
"You're lucky you didn't crack a rib," James huffs.
"Kitties have claws," Clint returns, "this is like," he waves at himself, "complimentary scratching."
James raises his eyes at the ceiling with a deep, patience-tested inhale, but he's smiling. They both drag jeans on before making their way downstairs.
The tendrils of morning start lightening the horizon as Clint joins James on the steps of the porch, hands him a mug of coffee. The air is cool now, raising goosebumps on Clint's skin. He's tired, but James looks like he wants to talk, a little restless after the long night. So Clint drinks his coffee, watches James play with the pendant for a long while. It's still dark outside, enough to shade James' features, but something has definitely changed in him.
"I need to ask you something," James finally speaks, grabbing the mug at his feet.
"Sure," Clint turns to lean on the banister.
"If I happen to die," James says, staring into his coffee, "I want you to destroy my brain."
Clint ignores the way it stabs into his chest. This sounds important. "Ok," he rasps, "but why?"
James inhales. "I'm afraid it might keep on living."
"How so?" because that is ridiculous.
"Think about it," James swallows, "I was theirs for seventy years and not once have they fed me."
"Oh," Clint breathes.
"Yeah," comes back in a humorless chuckle.
James takes a moment longer looking over the horizon, but then he twists to lean against the banister on the other side. He faces Clint, touches their toes together. He smiles again, and Clint returns it, again. Clint likes this, very much so.
"I remember a lot more, now," he starts. Clint listens. "Not everything, just enough that I can see the holes. There's still years missing, from before."
Clint hooks his leg around James'.
"I remember ma, smell of fresh bread," he rests his head back, inhales with a smile. "That sort of love was..." he looks up at the sky trying to find his words, "safety?" he turns back to Clint, searching for understanding.
Clint nods in acknowledgement. Motherly love should feel like it, yes. James is satisfied with that, because he leans back, rubs at his forehead.
"Steve was painful to love," he adds, pressing his palm over his eyes.
God, no. Not Steve. Clint can't compete against Steve. He makes himself keep perfectly still, though, even if he can't quite stop his fingers from shaking, and forces himself to listen, to not jump to conclusions.
James exhales with a self deprecating laugh. "I think I was just as invisible to him as he was to the world. Not that I had any courage to say anything."
"If you don't remember everything," Clint has to swallow against his dry throat, "how can you be sure?"
"Because when I was falling, the only thing I kept thinking was that I never told him."
"Well now you can," Clint mutters before he can stop himself.
The palm covering James' eyes comes off and he looks at Clint with surprise. "Why?"
Clint rotates his hand in an 'isn't it obvious' gesture, and James' eyes grow wider by the second. Fuck. James kicks him in the shin, hard. Wrong conclusion, then. Clint draws both legs closer, and hides his face behind his knees with an "ow."
"Wish I had something to throw at your head," James grumbles. "You really think I'd leave now?"
Clint dares look up. "No?" he says, but it turns out more like a question.
"First off," James raises a finger, "despite him triggering me to start remembering, I still don't know who he is now, and he doesn't know me."
There's a pause, and Clint nods, it makes sense.
"Second," James continues, "I didn't go to him. I stayed with you," he says and scoots closer on the step. "You were never my mission, you were my choice." Metal fingers wrap around the back of Clint's head, drawing a shiver out of him. "Old memories won't erase this."
"I'm stupid," blurts out of Clint's mouth before his brain catches on.
"I know," comes back with a laugh, low and deep.
James' mouth is there, though, swallowing the rest of Clint's words. It brings back the giddiness, expanding his chest with delight. Clint leans his forehead on the other's shoulder when James lets him go, holds onto his arms.
"It's been a very long time for me," Clint says as an explanation.
James shifts to wrap his arms around him. "I saw inside that room you keep locked," he whispers and Clint shudders. Just as well, it saves Clint the energy. "I'm not..." James trails off, but Clint gets what he's saying. Who could ever compare with a dead pregnant wife?
"Old memories," Clint repeats, and he feels James nod against his head.
It's been time to let the past go for years. Natasha's been constantly on his case about it, the reason why she'd so easily let Clint's check-ins pass without a word. Clint had just refused it, stubbornly. Old memories, indeed, dusty and painful and sad.
Clint lets go, leans back, but grabs James' flesh hand.
"You and me, kitty," he kisses the knuckles, "let's make this work."
Now that's an awesome smirk. Seems like James has reminded him right back, of how to love.
A week later, another call comes, with a lead on a base in Sokovia. James doesn't know that one.
'found the scepter' Clint texts, still eying his new patch of skin after dr. Cho's machine has healed his gaping wound. James is going to give him hell for that one.
'good' comes back and then ' look what i learned' accompanied by an image of James grinning to the camera.
'mastered the selfie i see'Clint returns and almost drops the phone at Steve's voice behind him.
Clint spends the night inconspicuously sending James photos of everything. Natasha keeps smirking at him.
Things go sour really fast before the night is over, Ultron bent on world destruction for the sake of its salvation, and Clint finds himself too soon in another fight. The devastation the Hulk leaves in South Africa is staggering. Clint keeps up with updates at every possible moment he's able to take his eyes off his surroundings, because he knows this is covered by the media, knows James will watch it on the laptop.
They need a place to retreat, off the grid, and he tells James as much.
'waiting' comes back and Clint draws a deep breath.
Clint lands at a safe distance from the house, but still inside the security grid.
"Stay here," he tells them, and ignores Natasha's frown along with their protests. "I mean it," he presses, before making his way into the house.
James is standing there, near enough to the door, but not so that he can be seen from outside. His face is blank, body relaxed, but Clint's learned to recognize this as James' soldier controlled calm, the one that shelters storms inside.
"I'm ali--" and he's drawn into a tight embrace. Clint clutches back, his fingers in James' hair.
"Can we let them wait for a few hours?" James speaks against the skin of his neck, and Clint would like nothing more, right now.
"You know we can't," he sighs.
James lets go to bring their mouths together, just a long, silent press of lips, that's still conveying quite a bit.
"Steve's here," Clint says after they let go of each other and James squares his shoulders. "Look, they don't need to know you're here, if you're not ready," he adds. "You can go upstairs, I'll keep them down here."
With a small frown James actually considers this, but then he gives a head shake.
"Just a request," he breathes, and Clint nods, "don't leave me alone with him, in case my mind decides he's still a target."
Yeah, Clint can do that.
He calls for Natasha first, under the protests of his team mates, and there are guns pulled in less than a second after she enters the house. Clint doesn't even want to know where James had been hiding that one.
"Put those down," Clint demands, but no movement follows. Well, drastic times call for drastic measures, so he steps between them. "Nat, put the gun down," he looks to his right.
"He shot me," Natasha grits, "twice".
"I shot you, too," Clint returns. "How about you shoot him back later, hm?"
A disbelieving sound comes from Clint's left, and he looks at James with an eye roll and a smirk. But James lowers the weapon, puts it away, and then so does Nat.
"Natasha, this is James," Clint waves a hand in introduction, "and James, this is my other cat."
There's a moment of silence, a small frown on James' forehead as he takes Natasha in. "You come on her face, too?"
Nat looks at Clint for a beat, but then she's laughing so hard, she needs to grip the half wall separating the living from the entryway to keep herself up. "He sneezed," a wheeze, "in my cleavage," and a gasp, "during a mission."
Could the ground swallow Clint? Now-ish?
James smiles smugly at Clint, but he's still in his controlled mode, and Clint knows he's laughing inside. Shortly, Nat settles, and she takes a longer look at James, only to turn it toward Clint. She shakes her head, knowing, as she always does.
"As long as you're happy," she says, and Clint nods. "I'm still going to shoot you, though," Nat tips her chin at James.
Raising his palms, Clint takes a step back. "Don't kill each other." But fun's over, and they have more dire things to care for. "Steve needs to come in first," he tells Nat, "and we're keeping this under wraps."
She goes to get him without a word.
They've talked about this. With HYDRA still out there, the less people know, the smaller the chances that Clint could be hunted down for leverage. Besides, it would be unfair to throw this on Steve right off the bat, so they're going to wait.
Steve stops inside the door, frozen, face caught between hope and disbelief. The metal plates of James' arm shift and resettle, catching Steve's attention. He startles, and looks at James, like his mind has finally caught up with what his eyes are seeing.
"I've been looking for you," he rasps.
"I know," James returns.
"You kn--" Steve stops himself, as his takes in their surroundings. "You've been here this whole time?" he asks, incredulous.
"Not the whole time," James offers and Steve turns to look at Clint. "It's a long story." James speaks again, and that saves Clint from the impending accusatory stare. "Besides, I hear it wasn't really you doing all the searching, punk." Yeah, no, the stare is right on Clint, double the wattage.
"Hurry up, the boys are getting restless outside," Natasha says from the doorway.
Steve twists, brusquely. "You know what, Romanov--" and he catches himself, turns back around. "You remember?"
James nods. "Not all, but enough."
Steve doesn't smile. He grins, as if the sky has split and granted him every single wish he's ever had as a child. It's devastating, against the telling shine of his eyes. But he's still rooted on the spot, so James walks to him, grips his shoulder with his right hand.
It takes a moment, but Steve collects himself, finally nods at James, who lets go and steps back.
"I think I need to sit down," says Steve, and Clint waves toward the living room.
The others file in soon after. Thor's polite as always, despite the tiredness etching his features, then Bruce says hi and bye and somehow finds his way into the kitchen. Tony though, he stands there confused for a minute before he manages to place James.
"You killed my parents," is the first thing he says.
Clint takes a step back, Natasha stills in the kitchen door and Thor looks confused between them.
"That wasn't me," James replies, calmly.
"You still need to pay fo--"
"No." Steve rises from the sofa, stalking toward Tony with heavy steps. "You don't have any actual proof," he gets right in Tony's face when the man opens his mouth to argue, "and even if you did, he was a weapon at the time." Steve's voice is louder with every word. "Look around you, Tony, see what revenge for dead parents has done to the world. Because of your weapons. So no! This is not the time! Or the place! Or your fucking right!"
He ends in a shout so loud, that it makes Tony stagger back half a pace. But Steve stalks out, the door swinging closed behind him.
It takes only a fraction of a second for Clint to understand the look James gives him, one that's worried for Steve and reassuring that he's got a handle on things in here. So Clint follows, finds Steve sitting on the wood chopping block, head in his hands.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he says when Clint approaches.
"It wasn't my secret to tell."
Steve lets out a huff and fists his fingers in his hair.
"Why you," he says, and not me hanging silent at the end.
"Again, not my place."
"I get it," Steve nods, so dejected, that Clint wishes there is something he can give him.
"He's making progress," Clint offers after a long moment and Steve looks at him, eyes too bright. "How about we go clean up, get something to eat? We still have a bigger issue on our hands."
There's that determined press of lips on Steve, displaying his uncanny ability to put his own troubles aside for a greater purpose. He rises, then, nods. "I'll call Fury," he says, "we're going to need help."
"Tell him to bring pizza," Clint adds as they make their way back to the house.
On the porch, Thor stands looking up at the sky. He says he needs answers, and then he's gone in a light gust of air.
Inside, the atmosphere is heavy, Tony and James still where he'd left them, but Natasha stands between them now.
"All right," Clint says, "only one bathroom, so I'm going to take a shower first. Give me fifteen and it's all yours. Nat," he looks at his friend, "you know where the towels are, and there might be spare clothes in the guest bedroom."
She acknowledges with a nod. "Second," Clint hears her say as he climbs the stairs, followed by Bruce's "third" and Tony's "hey!"
James follows silently, collects Clint's gear when he strips in the bathroom. The water is refreshing, but it also reminds Clint of how utterly tired he is. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he makes his way into the bedroom, the one he's now sharing with James, and finds the other sitting on the edge of the bed. Clint closes the door behind him, twists the lock.
"It's not over, is it?" James asks, and Clint shakes his head, but then James' eyes focus on the lighter patch of new skin on Clint's middle.
"It's healed," Clint offers.
When James looks back up at him, it's with such sorrow, Clint's breath hitches. Gone is the controlled facade he's been putting on for everyone else, James again open raw in front of Clint.
"Don't die," is all he says, but it conveys everything anyway.
"I won't," Clint whispers, and moves closer to pull on the hem of James' t-shirt. "Take this off, kitty, let me hold you for a bit."
James complies, and then they're lying chest to chest, limbs entangled, Clint with his head on James' flesh arm. Metal fingertips run the length of his spine, and Clint closes his eyes, revels in this quiet moment. James' lips are soft when they cover the side of Clint's face, from his temple to his chin, and Clint follows them, catches James' mouth. This fullness, it throbs through his entire being.
There's a knock on the door, Natasha's voice drifting in. "Fury's almost here."
"I'm coming with you," James says as Clint buttons up his jeans.
"No," it's the immediate response that leaves Clint, and he doesn't even bother suppress it.
A determined hardness takes over James' eyes, a growing frown pulling at his forehead, and Clint matches it. He moves closer, places his hand on the side of James' neck.
"The girl, Wanda," Clint says as he rubs his thumb over James' jaw, "she got into their heads, and look at the destruction she's caused. Do you really want her in yours, to show you your fears?" He knows his voice is breaking and something stings behind his eyelids, but Clint pushes on. "Make you live through that again?"
The metal hand moves so fast to grip onto the pendant beneath his t-shirt, it startles Clint. James' frown is replaced with shock, his eyes wide.
"I won't come," he breathes, so very small.
Fury does bring pizza, and beer, but everyone is more keen on James' tea. They're on the third pot. Even Tony, who gripes about the lack of stronger beverages, drinks the tea like it's air. It doesn't stop him from glaring at James all the way through dinner and shop talk. Clint's kitchen's never been this full, but Fury leaves when they have a plan. They move out in the morning, so now they can rest for the night.
"Hey, Tony," Bruce says in the semi-awkward silence that settles after Fury's exit, "do you think I should be blamed for all those people who died yesterday? For the ones permanently injured?"
Tony huffs. "Don't get started on that again, it wasn't y--" He stops, eyes wide, when Bruce nods at James.
From his place leaning against the counter, James watches over the rim of his mug, takes a long drink. He's tense, even if he's not showing it. Clint counts eight seconds before Tony slumps in his seat, elbows on the table.
"Fine," he says, and it's like the strain in the atmosphere has lifted. "But," Tony continues, raising a finger, and Natasha sighs softly next to Clint, "I'm still getting my revenge. This one actually comes from dear dad," and he's talking too fast for anyone to stop him at this point. "You, gramps," he points at Steve, "are not the only 90 year old virgin in the room anymore."
Tony snaps his fingers and leans back smugly. Everyone turns to looks at James, but he just shrugs and takes another sip of tea. He doesn't meet Clint's eyes.
"I thought you were a ladies' man," Bruce mutters at James, just as Natasha turns a "How would you know?" at Tony.
"Dad had stories," Tony says, "about this one," he throws a thumb at Steve, "waiting for his one and only, and that one," he points at James now, "having all the chances and never taking any."
"Bucky's always been a gentleman," Steve defends, with a small smile, half lost in the memory, "the girls complained all he did was take 'em dancing."
Well, fuck. Did he know? How blind had he been, really? James goes perfectly still, he's not even drawing breath, and Clint's inhale stops in sympathy. A beat, and James slips out the kitchen window without anyone noticing, the rest of them too busy talking over each other with various degrees of incredulity.
Clint sneaks away, too, through the door, and follows the porch around the house until at its farthest end around corner from the kitchen side. James sits, back to the banister, elbows on his bent knees. Clint joins him.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asks, and James looks up.
"What difference would that make?"
"I should've made it better," Clint returns with a smile and James matches it, but shakes his head.
"Even if I wasn't, I still don't remember sex, so..." he waves a hand in explanation.
No difference after all, and Clint nods.
"He sounded like he knew," James whispers next. "Do you think he knew?"
This is terrible. "No idea," Clint admits, and there are footsteps falling on the boards of the porch, too heavy to be Nat's. "Let's find out."
Steve turns the corner then, and he looks small despite his height. Clint shifts to lean against the wall, making room in front of James. That's where Steve stops, kneels heavily. He looks tired.
"What'd you put in that tea?" he asks.
James turns a smirk at him, lifting his chin. "Chamomile, supposed to be calming."
Steve looks stricken. "You used to make me that all the time." His hand lifts like he wants to touch James, but he withdraws it quickly.
"Ah, come on," James huffs, and shifts to his knees, wraps his arms around the other.
Steve holds onto him with a relieved half laugh, hands fisted in the back of James' t-shirt, chin hooked over his shoulder, eyes screwed tight.
"You died," Steve rasps, "and two months later I was here, without Peggy, or the boys, or anyone. I'm so fucking glad you're alive, Buck."
"Yeah," James returns, and Clint understands why he sounds like he isn't. Steve doesn't notice, luckily, it's too much for an already exhausting day. James lets go then, with a pat on Steve's shoulder, and he returns to his previous spot.
Steve shifts to sit more comfortably as well.
"So," Clint begins, partly to alleviate the tension, partly to make good on his intention of digging for the truth, "virgins, huh?"
It pulls an expected laugh out of Steve. "What's wrong with that?"
Clint lifts both palms in defense. "Nothing," he says, "just wondering. Looking like you two do, hard to believe."
"You remember this?" Steve turns to James, and it earns him a head shake. "You told me once," he explains then, "that you were waiting for the right partner. Made me wanna wait, too. It was your idea in the first place," he smiles.
James' eyebrows are half raised on his forehead, and Clint knows exactly what he's thinking. Those are not the words of a man who's known about his friend's secret infatuation. Well, at least that's one less heartache. Clint nudges James' foot with his own.
"Hear that? You're a sap," he chuckles.
A 'tsk' and James slaps Clint's knee with the back of his hand.
They manage to avert any awkwardness in sleeping arrangements, using the general chaos to avoid letting on that they share a bedroom.
James kisses Clint's face until they're both asleep.
"Come on, Clint, what are you waiting for?" Steve says, fixing the shield on his back.
They're all geared up, ready to go, and Clint wants to say goodbye to James, but he can't because everyone's still there. So he's been looking for a reason to linger behind.
"My kitty," he mutters and almost palms himself, but Tony jumps in.
"You have a cat? Why didn't I know that?"
It's actually the perfect opportunity. Clint turns to James.
"Let the kitty know I love it, ok?"
There's a glimpse of pleased surprised on James' face before he recovers. "Will do. I'm sure it loves you back," he adds, and it makes Clint's insides squirm.
"Where is this cat?" Tony continues.
"Somewhere around the house," Clint returns.
"What kind of cat is it?"
Natasha bites her cheek as she's walking next to Clint, and he grins at her.
Clint loses his encrypted phone somewhere in the midst of battle, and between passing out from exhaustion and hurrying home, he has no easy way to contact James. The device he's given James only receives from Clint's pair, and so Clint rushes back. He doesn't even have the energy to stop Steve from coming with him, not when the captain's putting on his stubborn face. They're still dirty, covered in dust, in their gear, when they make it through the door of the farmhouse, late evening.
The place is too quiet, too still, too dark.
Clint runs up the stairs, Steve right behind him, and he halts in the bedroom door.
James is sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed. He's clutching the phone in his flesh hand, the tips of his metal fingers embedded slightly in the floorboards beside him, at the end of long, deep grooves. He breathes heavily, hanging onto the last tendrils of coherence and Clint's legs buckle.
How long has he been waiting?
Clint moves toward him, slides on his knees. They both know what's coming, immeasurable agony already palpable in the air. But James' eyes shift somewhere behind Clint, widening further, and of course he wouldn't want this vulnerability seen.
"Get out," Clint says, turning to Steve who's advanced into the room.
"I can help," he starts, but this is not the time.
James' breath quickens in harsh draws, he's barely hanging on.
"Steve!" Clint yells as he jumps to his feet, "get the fuck out!" and he pushes the other out of the room, slams the door shut, locks it.
It's not the tears.
Clint rushes back, helps James' shaking fingers to deactivate the arm.
It's not the sobs or the tremors.
He wraps himself around James, holds on tightly, with every single soothing word that comes to mind.
It's the screams. Vivid, terror filled screams that leave James until his throat is raw with it.
This is what gets to Clint every time it happens. And it's been happening, since that first night, but in smaller, manageable bouts. The pain of remembering is physical, augmented with remembering the pain of his years under torture.
So James screams, muffled against Clint, until there's no air in his lungs, and, eventually, he passes out. But he shakes awake with a gasp and they start over, until the tears are dry, until his voice is replaced with a faded rattle. Clint hurts so badly, he feels like he's being torn apart from the inside out.
It's almost dawn when James finally falls asleep.
When Clint slips out of the bedroom for a wet cloth to wipe James' face, Steve is there, across the hall, sitting against the wall. He has both hands over his mouth, his face wet. His shoulders shake intensely under the silent sobs and Clint empathizes. He crouches before Steve, runs his hand through the other's dusty hair. They're both still carrying the dirt of the battle on them.
"I know," he says, "I know."
And Steve wraps his arms around Clint's torso, pulls him closer, and pushes his face against Clint's chest. Shit. Now Clint's going to start collecting super soldiers, as well. But he can't deny Steve the comfort, either, so he soothes him, waits patiently.
It's late afternoon when Clint wakes to James watching him sleepily as he lies next to him. His hair is damp, droplets of water still drying on his neck. Clint reaches out to touch his cheek, and James rubs the side of his head onto his palm.
"Really like a kitty," Clint murmurs.
"You like it," James whispers, voice hoarse.
"Yeah," and he wraps his hand around the back of James' neck, pulls him closer.
James kisses with increasing desperation, and Clint finds himself matching it, hands trailing down James' body, hugging him closer, tighter. But Clint still feels gritty after the fight, even if he's washed the debris off before collapsing in bed.
"Let me take a shower, first," he manages when they stop for breath, and James lets him go, visibly reluctant.
Clint winks at him before sneaking quietly into the bathroom, because he has a plan, and it involves... aha. He digs out the spare bottle of lube from the depths of the bathroom cabinet, and takes the time to prepare himself after his shower. He shuffles back just as silently, careful not wake a still sleeping Steve in the guest bedroom.
From where he's leaning against the headboard, James watches him expectantly, and Clint crawls up to take back his lips, licks into his mouth until they're both out of breath. Their towels soon hit the floor, and Clint lays back, pulling James on top of him.
He wraps him legs around James, drags him closer, fisting both hands in his hair, and his back arches under James' wondering fingers, going lower, and lower. James lets go to look at Clint in surprise, a question on his face.
"Yeah," Clint breathes, and that's all he manages before James swallows his moan.
He moves slowly, excruciatingly so, stretching Clint's pleasure to the limit. The delight on James' face is enough to make Clint burst, but James nips at his lips, licks on the tendons of his neck, pushes into him with a faint tremble that has Clint shaking. It's the longest and shortest moment of Clint's life, this delicious agony that James revels in, tasting with sharp bites the length of Clint shoulders, the most delicate of whispers tickling the lobe of his ear. He doesn't need to understand the words to know what they mean.
They're both sweaty again, but James is smiling against his chest. Clint kisses the top of his head.
"Thought we'd make sure you weren't a virgin in all the possible ways," he grins.
James laughs hoarsely, eyes half closed. "You think you're funny."
"I love you."
Oh god. It's the first time he's hearing it so directly, and what is that whine coming out of his throat.
James raises on an elbow to look at him. "Wow, I broke you."
"Ngh." Clint's meant to say something witty. Mhm. Witty.
"Thank you," comes next in the same raspy sound, "for this," a kiss on Clint's cheek, "for last night," his forehead, "for everything," his lips.
Clint's can't breathe, but it's good. It feels like a wonderful start.
Steve comes down right when Clint's finished cooking the last slices of french toast. He still looks half asleep, and accepts the food and a cup of coffee gratefully. The three of them eat in silence for a while, before Steve blinks at little too many times at Clint.
"How'd you get a bruise on your neck?" he asks, frowning.
James chokes on his toast.
Sam comes over a week later, and he throws Clint and James a knowing look, after the first five minutes he's there. He spends the rest of the day staring with long suffering sighs at the back of Steve's head.
James pats his head. "He'll never figure it out by himself."
Sam bats his hand away with a scowl.
Clint doesn't go back to avenging, but Steve does, training the new team is their shiny new facility. Every other weekend, it's either him and Sam, or Natasha stopping by, but after a while they start overlapping. Clint sets up another guest bedroom, by finally clearing the locked room of his old memories, carefully storing them in the attic, put away, still cherished, but not a burden anymore. James unravels his own, bit by bit, each time less and less painful.
Steve still hasn't figured it out.
James stands up from the sofa, abruptly, cutting off the back and forth between Nat and Sam. They've been trying to see which one can come up with the most blatant innuendo before Steve catches on. They've been doing it for hours.
"This is it. I'm done," James says, raising his arms in defeat. Clint lets out an undignified yelp as James picks him up and throws him over a shoulder. "I'm going to fuck my boyfriend, Steve," he yells as he stomps up the stairs.
"Already knew, Buck," Steve shouts back, making James pause. "Just wanted to see how long you'll last."
"You little shit," James returns loudly, but carries on to the bedroom.
By the time Clint's back hits the bed, he's laughing so hard, there are tears in his eyes.
James' bare skin looks beautiful in afternoon light, just as his eyes look the most alive at dawn.
"You're letting him call you Bucky," Clint remarks, tracing shapes on James' spine.
"It's easier on him," he says, looking at Clint from where he's lying face down on the bed. "And some days I do feel like him, just a little."