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Timestamps [Kitty: life after]

Chapter Text

Summer brings warm nights and with it, an excuse for Clint to use the hammock. It's just like a big swing, only Clint can lie in it, take a nap. It's even better when James joins him.

They end up spending entire afternoons in that thing, James usually lying back, rocking the hammock, and Clint plastered over him like a pancake.

Speaking of breakfast, it's almost dawn. They've fallen asleep in the hammock and Clint doesn't remember, or even understand, how he ended up with James on top. But it's good, the night is silent and the grass makes the air smell like summer. There are still stars shining high in the sky, just a sliver of light toward the east.

Clint wraps his arms around James' form, carefully lowers a foot to the ground. He starts the hammock into a gentle swing, closes his eyes to enjoy the moment.

Just then, James shifts with a sigh, pushes his nose against Clint's shoulder.

"Morning, kitty," Clint whispers.

James' head snaps up and he blinks at Clint. But then he rubs his cheek against Clint's t-shirt, follows Clint's collarbone, trying to press his face into Clint's neck. His breath tickles and Clint squirms.

"Nh, keep still," James mumbles.

Clint chuckles quietly, pushing a little harder for the swing, just when James wiggles up, pressing closer against Clint. It upsets the balance, and they both roll off, landing in the grass with a heavy thud.

James groans loudly, and Clint laughs, leaning his forehead onto James' chest.

"That was the opposite of still." James wraps both arms tightly around Clint, pulls him closer.

"You were the one moving," Clint counters.

"Shh," James mumbles, eyes falling closed, "be quiet."

"Why?" Clint whispers.

"Wanna hear your heartbeat."

Clint buries his smile in James' shoulder. Sleeping on the ground is good, too, if James is there.

~

Chapter Text

"Clint, what are you doing?"

"I'm... um."

James scratches his forehead right above his nose, trying to give himself a moment to phrase his next question. "Why are you rocking... is that a diaper?"

"Of course not," Clint snorts. "It's a potato blanket." He carefully pulls the piece of cloth closer around the dusty skin of the vegetable.

Oh-kay. He's pretty sure there is no memory of this missing from his head. This can be classified as weird.

"What purpose does that have?"

Clint grins. "I wanna plant it."

"Wh..." James lifts a hand, unsure of what to say anymore. He settles on "Why?"

A full, hearty laughter comes back, Clint's eyes twinkling in the mid day light. "You should see your face!" he manages, leaning into the kitchen table.

James spends entirely too much energy on keeping a straight face. He crosses his arms and adds a glare for full effect.

Clint's chuckles eventually die down. "Oh, fine," he says, pout firmly in place. He raises the potato in both hands, looks at it with too much seriousness. "Daddy doesn't love you. Sorry, baby."

All James can do is growl to hide the laughter threatening to ruin his composure. He turns around and walks out as slowly as possible, but barely makes it into the bathroom before he can't stop it anymore. He ends up spending almost ten minutes laughing, tears streaking down his face.

Oh, but Clint's just asking for it.

~

"We are not watching The Martian again," James groans before sitting down on the sofa next to Clint.

"Why not, it's fun."

"It's the forth time in four days."

Clint offers him a grin, elbowing James lightly. James simply adores it when he's this cheerful. He's got bad days, just like James, and he's pretty level headed when it comes to serious matters. But sometimes, this glee of just enjoying silly, stupid things is making James' insides squirm with delight as well. He feels like a kid again, and perhaps that's just what Clint's been aiming for.

"All right, all right," James concedes and hands over the bowl of french fries he's been carrying. "Here, made you a snack."

"Aw, baby, no!" Clint shrieks.

James doesn't bother to hide the chuckles this time. But then, Clint's mouth is there, swallowing the laughter, and James' heart skips a beat.

Sometimes it's surreal, how Clint is still here, palpable. Sometimes it feels like a frozen dream. But Clint's warm hands slide under James' t-shirt, caress his skin, a gentle reminder.

This is real. He is free.

~

Chapter Text

James likes Clint's sofa very much. It's a bit lumpy, but there's this spot on it where, if he leans back with a leg along the backrest and one on the floor, Clint will invariably come to sit in the space in front of James, leaning back with his head on James' shoulder.

This is where a quiet winter night finds him, his metal fingers running through Clint's hair, the other arm wrapped around Clint's middle. He likes it best, to use the sensors embedded on the plates at the tips of his fingers to feel the strands give way under his caresses.

"Oh, hey," Clint says while clicking through something on the laptop precariously balanced on his outstretched legs, "found an interesting ask game."

James hums questioningly.

"Yep," Clint answers. He's always so good at reading James' non-verbal noises, it's always wondrous. "Listen to this. Question one: what color do you talk in?"

"Uh..."

Clint twists his head, looking up at James with a small grin. Fine, James can play.

"Grey?"

It earns him a chuckle as Clint turns back to the monitor. "What songs do you think people remember you by?"

James huffs at that. "They don't play around, do they."

With a scratch to his cheek, Clint shrugs. James leans forward to kiss that spot, and it makes Clint turn again. He catches James' lips for a brief moment.

"You haven't been listening to much music, have you?"

"Not particularly."

"Hmm." Clint turns back to the monitor, silent for a few seconds, before typing. "How about this one? It's called Antistar."

Something that's neither a strum of strings, or a beat, but weirdly both at the same time fills the air.

"And," Clint laughs, "the band playing it is called Massive Attack."

It pulls laughter out of James, too. The song is fitting, though.

"Sounds good," James offers.

Clint pulls at James' flesh hand from his middle to press his lips on James' knuckles before placing the hand back where it was. "If you could take claim for any invention, which would it be?" he continues.

"Oh. The can opener?" he grins against the shell of Clint's ear.

With a snort, Clint shakes his head lightly. "Radio or mp3?"

"What?"

"Yeah, we need to get you up to date on that. I guess they're asking if you'd listen to someone else's choices or make your own."

"My own," James says without missing a beat.

Clint hums in agreement. "What movie character would you choose to be your parent and why?"

"Wow," James huffs. He takes a moment to think of the movies he's seen so far, and Clint waits patiently. "Doctor Who."

"That's a weird choice, but suits you somehow. If people floated instead of walking, how far off the ground would you be?"

"How far would you be?"

A moment of silence, and then "Sap," Clint says.

It's one of James' favorite things, to surprise Clint with how James loves him. Sometimes, it feels like Clint still can't believe it, but James will always be ready to remind him.

"Choose a song to live off of," comes next and James shrugs. "Well, I guess we'll need to find you one of those, too," Clint clicks and types some more before another tune starts.

It's slow and sad and the lyrics are resonating in their quietude. "I like it," James whispers. "What's it called?"

"Titan by Phid... ugh how do you read that?"

James hooks his chin over Clint's shoulder to look at the monitor. "Phideaux?"

"Fido?"

The sudden laughter shakes James, and Clint's fingers grip James' over his abdomen as they listen. Slowly, Clint starts murmuring, "you are the one, makes me strong" the soft sounds turning into words as he hums along to the song, "all is known, all is you...", and James presses his face against Clint's neck, "as a rock, or the clouds, or a hill, here you be... with me still..."

Clint swallows audibly as the song tapers off and James kisses his skin gently.

"Who's the sap now," he rasps.

Clint has to clear his voice and James smiles against his neck. "Look, the next one fits. Would you rather have clouds for feet or suns for hands?"

This is... James looks at the metal fingers of his left hand that are now resting on Clint's shoulder, pondering. It's part of him now, but would he change it, given the chance?

"I'm sorry," Clint mumbles, drawing James' attention back to him. "That was a crap question."

There's no need for him to sound apologetic, though. "It's fine," James says. "I was just thinking. You know what, clouds for feet. Arm's grown on me," and he wiggles his metal fingers to tickle at Clint's ear.

"Fine, fine," Clint squirms. "Next one. Is your phone charged enough?"

"You know it is," James rolls his eyes, and Clint hums in agreement, squeezes James' hand.

"If you could choose one person to protect with your life, who would it be?"

"You."

Clint turns so fast to look at James, twisting his upper body half way, that he almost hits James in the chin. His eyes are wide and a little too bright. "What about Steve," he breathes.

"Steve will be the one getting us into trouble."

It earns him a roll of eyes, but there's pink high on Clint's cheek before he turns to lean back against James' chest. James shifts to wrap both arms around Clint's middle, pulls him closer.

"If you had to choose..." Clint huffs a small laugh, "one person to be protected by, who would they be?"

"Steve," James says, resting his chin again on Clint's shoulder.

"Aw, come on--"

"This way," he interrupts, "I can focus on protecting you."

"Agh, you really are a huge sap."

It pulls a chuckle out of James. "For you, always."

Clint taps James' temple with his own, the pink dusting his cheeks a little darker. "What book do you need to read?"

"Everything published after '42."

"Hah, no. I've seen you read, Barnes, you're a book worm."

"All right, all right. I need to read Dune again."

Clint smiles, looking at James from the corner of his eye. One time, a couple of months after arriving at the farm, when Clint's nights had gotten sleepless, he'd started reading it aloud. And James had constantly found himself sitting on the floor of the hallway, back against the wall next to Clint's open door, listening. That book had gotten him to sleep in those early days more often than not.

"Who saved your life?"

"Both you and Steve," he breathes, closes his eyes briefly.

Clint nods in understanding. "If you could only repeat words said by one person, who would you want to be echoing?"

"Meow," James says, and Clint's sudden laughter is loud in the silence. "I don't know," he continues, matching the mirth, "no idea."

"Do you like feeling tall?" Clint asks once he can speak again.

"I guess," James says with a shrug.

"Do you like wearing other people's shirts?"

"I like wearing yours."

"Sap. I don't own shirts," Clint mutters, and James responds by placing a peck on the back of his neck, drawing a shiver out of him. "If you could breathe music," Clint reads on the screen, "which artist would you choose to inhale and which would you choose to exhale?"

"Eh, more music."

"I'll make a list to start listening, if you want."

"That would be great, thanks."

"Sure thing. Next one. Would you rather have hair that changes color with emotion or get injured each time you're touched by the person you love?"

"Hair color, of course." It doesn't matter what others see, as long as he can have this, right here, with Clint. Besides, hair can be covered, and James rolls his eyes internally.

Clint smiles at the screen. "What are the promises you've made to yourself?"

This one is actually easy. "Remember."

It makes Clint draw a deep breath and James matches it. This is what has brought them together, and Clint always takes a moment when it comes up.

"If your family died," Clint continues after a while, voice raspy, "whose house would you go to for safety and reassurance?"

James huffs. "I am already there."

"Aw, kitty..."

"Shush," James whispers. "You know it's true."

"Yeah," Clint breathes before scrolling down the page on the monitor. "What wouldn't you do to help a friend?"

"Kill an innocent," he says and Clint nods in agreement.

"If you had to choose one music artist, actor, or author to become your mentor, who would it be?"

"Uh... tough one. Marie Curie, she succeeded against all odds."

Clint pats his arm. "Who do you admire most in the world? Why?"

"Steve," James says. "He's got that determination about him, you know? Punk was barely able to breathe and wanted to enlist. Now look at him."

"Yep," Clint nods again. "Would you rather be the night sky or the day sky?"

"Night."

"Would you rather be the sky or the earth?"

"Sky."

"Would you rather be the earth or the moon?"

"Moon."

"Would you rather be the moon or the sun?"

"Moon."

"Huh."

"What?"

"I'd choose the same," Clint says and James kisses his cheek. "If you had to change your name to something else, what would you change it to?"

James takes a moment to consider this. He's worked too hard for this name he's wearing. "I wouldn't," he answers. "Well, maybe to Kitty," he laughs and Clint matches it.

"Are your hands cold?" James sneaks both under Clint's t-shirt in reply. "That's a no and a yes, then," Clint adds. "If you had to choose three articles of clothing to keep for the next three years of your life, what would they be?"

"The jacket Steve gave me, that black scarf from Natasha, and those purple abominations of sweatpants you gave me."

"They're very comfy, aren't they?" Clint smirks and James grumbles. But the pants are his favorite to sleep in.

"Monet or da Vinci?"

"Monet."

"Van Gogh or Michelangelo?"

"Van Gogh."

"If you were a teacher, what would you assign to your class as their first project?"

James untangles a hand to scratch at his forehead. "How to sharpen a knife."

Clint shakes his head. "Have you ever wanted to be invisible?"

"Sometimes," he admits. Clint catches his hand, intertwines their fingers.

"Have you ever wanted to be everywhere?"

"No."

"Do you hear things in layers or all at once?"

"All at once."

"Neon light or natural light?"

"Natural."

"If you could choose one instrument to master overnight, which would it be?"

"The piano," he smiles.

"Nice. If you could change any one thing about your current surroundings, what would it be?"

"Nothing," James says. "I love it here."

It earns him another kiss to his fingers. It's like Clint doesn't even register his lips are touching metal instead of flesh sometimes, and it's quite astounding.

"Me too," Clint says quietly. "Last one."

He pauses, and James leans forward to look at the screen. "Read it," he nudges.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes," he breathes. "I am, thanks to you."

Clint shifts then, places the laptop on the floor before turning around fully in James' arms.

"Sap," he whispers, a little wobbly.

James smiles at him, runs his fingertips over the side of Clint's face. "Of course."

A beat, and Clint pushes closer, catches James' lips in a long press and a slow glide.

"Me too, kitty, me too."

~

Chapter Text

James loves the internet. It's full of wonderful treasures of information. His current interest is held by all the websites with videos of music, and he listens avidly to anything he can find. Some songs he likes, some he doesn't, but it's such diversity, so many beautiful tunes that fill his ears and soothe his soul.

The one thing he doesn't know, though, is how to dance to these.

James loves dancing. He remembers loving it. A few times he's tried replicating the moves he used to make, and he's found he still does. But this new music is more of a mystery. Searching online is not very helpful.

"How do you dance to this?" he asks Clint one evening as they lounge on the sofa, while Clint's telling him names of songs to try.

The one playing now is upbeat and happy, but no dancing styles James recalls seem to match with it, even if it's fittingly called 'Dancing with Myself.'

Clint looks at him with a smile before extending a hand. He raises to his feet, pulling James with him.

"Lemme show you?"

They push the coffee table aside and Clint grabs his hands, starts moving his torso in a wavy motion, while pulling James' hands with it. He's smiling and James forgets for a moment to move.

"Come on," Clint says and James follows.

The song is on repeat and it restarts by the time James gets a hang of it.

"Great," Clint says, "now the hips," and the wavy motion turns full body.

James stumbles into him, tripping over his own feet and Clint laughs lightly.

"This is very uncoordinated," he observes as he tries again.

Clint laughs harder. "Yeah, well the idea is to not follow a certain pattern. Just feel the beat, and move whichever limb you want in whichever order you want, like this."

He winks and lets go of James to demonstrate. It looks ridiculous, but the smile never dims on his face and James replicates his gestures. Clint slides over, bumping their hips together, and that pulls a full laughter out of James.

This is fun indeed.

Ah, but then Clint's motions turns fluid and yeah. He can see how this can be classified as dancing. It's a sort of ballet, but free of restrictions and with a lot less stretching.

He loves it.

The song plays two more times before Clint waves, breathing harder, and turns to the laptop. "Let's try this one," he says, and the clip on the screen proclaims 'Strong' to be its title.

It's slow, almost silent. Clint's arms wrap around his middle and he presses himself on James' front.

"Arms around my shoulders," Clint says and James complies.

Clint shifts them, then, just as slow as the rhythm of the melody.

It's a hug, this sort of dancing is like hugging. He leans into Clint, presses their cheeks together.

"Feels good," he breathes.

Clint hums in agreement. "This is for when in public," he turns his head, smiling lips on James' skin.

James' heart skips a beat.

"This," Clint continues, with a roll of his hips against James', "is not."

Oh.

Clint's hands travel down his back until they're caressing the globes of James' ass over his sweatpants. His body still shifts against James' front, languid and intimate.

Oh, this is better. James moves his hands too, grips one to the back of Clint's neck, trails the metal one on his spine. And Clint... Clint leans back with each vertebrae James touches, until he's arched against James. The column of his neck is extended and James can't help himself from licking at his skin. Clint shudders, lets his arms go limp to the sides, leans back fully. James has got him, and he wraps his metal arm around Clint's middle, moves it lower, lifts. Clint goes easily, his legs coming up wrap themselves around James' hips, holds tightly onto James' shoulders. He straightens his head, looks at James with a lick of his lips, breaths slightly shorter.

Oh, yes.

James lunges forward until he catches Clint's mouth. They're a little out of balance, so James walks forward, until he can support Clint against a wall.

It pulls another shudder out of Clint when he squeezes at his ass with metal fingers. He does it again, and Clint gasps. From where their chests connect, he can feel Clint's heartbeat increase, matching James' own.

"'s gonna bruise," he rasps.

Half a moan escapes Clint's lips and he swallows.

Oh, fuck.

James pushes Clint higher on the wall, changes his grip until he's holding with both hands onto Clint's hips. He squeezes tightly, watching closely as Clint's pupils widen until his irises are just thin circles of color.

Time stops around them, the gentle sounds of the song filling the air. With every tiny fraction of pressure James adds, Clint's body trembles, taught and hard, trapped between James' unyielding grasp and the wall. The way he succumbs to James fills him with want and James lets out a low growl through the grin that overtakes his face. It's entirely amazing how Clint gives himself to James, and James can't stave off the possessiveness. Clint seems to enjoy it as well, because he lets out a small sound chocked around a sudden intake of air, and his dick twitches against James' stomach.

James' grin widens and Clint's hands shift to fist in James' short hair. He leans closer then, noses at Clint's neck for a second, and then he bites. Not hard, just enough to pull a shiver out of Clint, rakes his teeth over the tendons there. He rubs his cheek against Clint's, until his lips touch the shell of Clint's ear.

"Tomorrow," James whispers, "you're going to wear my hands on you. Every time you'll feel the bruises, you'll remember this."

Clint shakes, his breaths coming in short gasps.

"You'll know you're mine. You'll know I'm yours," and James hums low, pushing his hips up so Clint can feel him, "you'll know I love you."

A small shout and James can see Clint very close to coming, he knows all his tells by now. So he shifts quickly, supports Clint with his flesh arm and grips at Clint's shaft with metal fingers.

"Nuh-uh," he grins.

Clint whines, body trembling visible, his hands gripping painfully onto James' hair. He's flushed, breaths short and irregular through his lips. James slides down then, to his knees, spreading his legs wide and sitting Clint onto his thighs. This way, he's open in front of him, back against the wall.

"Breathe," James croons, "long, deep breaths," he encourages and Clint complies.

Soon he lets go of James' hair with shaky fingers, interlocks them around the back of James' neck.

"Good," James offers, leans in to place a kiss on Clint's lips.

He slowly lets go of Clint's cock, too, stroking with light touches. Clint soon gets lost in watching the motions, and his inhales quicken again.

There are sounds coming out of Clint's mouth at times, and they could be words, but are lost among what Clint is feeling right now. James can't take his eyes off of him, drawn into the sensations as Clint lets himself be caressed.

He lets go then, runs his palm over Clint's abdomen, up his chest until his metal fingertips touch Clint's jaw, and Clint leans his head back, exposes his neck again.

"You're killing me here," James rasps. "Look at you."

Clint's mouth curls into a grin of its own, one softened by the pleasure he's feeling, and his eyelids fall closed.

"I never thought I'd feel like I'm fucking you without actually fucking you," James says, moves his hand around Clint's jaw.

A long inhale, and Clint rolls his head off the wall to look at James, rubs his cheek against the metal. One corner of his mouth is still curled up as he presses it against James' palm. He stays there for a long moment, eyes locked with James' before he licks.

Another kiss on the metal, another small flick of tongue. Clint follows the edge of James' hand until he's at the fingertips. And that's when he wraps his lips around the thumb, sucks lightly. The sensors there are alight with information, and it's James' turn to shiver. He pushes the digit in, and Clint lets his mouth fall open, lets James rub it against his tongue.

It's so innocuous, yet it seems so filthy, it's making James' heart flip in his chest.

"Fuck, Clint," he breathes.

With a renewed grin, Clint closes his mouth around the thumb, and this time he sucks, hard.

James shudders.

Clint's hands let go of him then, and he tugs at the string of James' sweatpants, while James pulls his thumb out, caresses Clint's wet lips.

Everything is slow and soft in Clint's movements. The melody of the song travels back to James' ears, and they're dancing, motionless on the floor, James' metal fingers on Clint's lips and Clint's warm fingers around James' dick.

It's beautiful.

He wants Clint, now.

James stops Clint's hand, brings it up to place a kiss in his palm before letting it rest on his shoulder. He pulls at Clint's hips until they're flush together, while Clint's other arms wraps itself around James. It's then that he places both hands on the wall on either side of Clint's head, and he pushes, with his entire body.

With a gasp, Clint slides up the wall, and the cloth of his sweatpants is caught between their shafts, soft and warm. His eyes widen, and he grips tighter onto James, legs trembling.

It's delicious, and James does it again, and again, and again. Clint's breath is back to shaky, and he grows close to completion with each thrust. James catches his lips, inhales his pleasure, and lets it carry him over, swallowing Clint's moan.

He wraps both arms around Clint's shaking form, pulls him closer. His metal hand finds its way onto the back of Clint's head, sifting through the strands there, as Clint buries his face against James' neck.

"I love you, too," Clint rasps.

James squeezes tighter, kisses Clint's temple.

"Dancing, huh?" he says, and it pulls a huff out of Clint.

The song keeps playing, and James listens to it for a while.

"Why aren't you afraid of it?" he dares ask.

Clint shifts then, raises his head to look at James.

"It makes you stronger," he says. "Makes you a survivor." A small frown overtakes his forehead and Clint runs his knuckles on James' cheek. "It will keep you alive."

Oh.

James closes his eyes, nods. A silent promise to Clint.

He promises himself, as well, to be stronger. For himself.

~

Chapter Text

It's been eight months since Ultron. Steve has been settling into the new facility that Stark had set up for the Avengers team, visiting during weekends, bringing his friend Sam along.

Clint's been sticking to James like a limpet, especially after some of the more extreme episodes, but James really doesn't mind that. He's woken up quite a few times already with the image of Clint's lifeless body burned behind his eyelids by occasional nightmares. But they're more and more rare with each day, and it helps a lot that Clint doesn't complain when James clings to him for hours, head on his chest so he can hear Clint's heartbeat, so he can make sure Clint's still there, still alive.

It's been eight months since Ultron and Steve calls with a help request. They've found one of Strucker's hideouts, a cabin in the middle of nowhere, but the new team is still too new. So he wants to take Natasha and Sam to check it out. They could use Clint's help.

"It's going to be fine," Clint says as he straps his vest in place. "The place is most likely deserted."

James has to frown to keep the glare in place, keep it from turning into panic. Clint stops in front of him, grasps his shoulders, smiles. It unwinds the tension in James a little bit.

"It will be fine," he says again, slower this time. "Let the kitty know I love it, ok?"

And that... that pulls at James' lips until he's smiling as well. He nods, suppresses the worry. Clint is skilled, Black Widow is skilled, and if Steve doesn't take care of them all, James is going to put two in his ass, see how fast it takes to heal.

"I'm sure it loves you back."

The last time they said this to each other, Clint was leaving to face Ultron. It gives James an aftertaste of apprehension, but he pushes it away. Clint needs to focus on the mission, not worry about James.

~

He's going to murder Steve.

James paces the length of the living room, back and forth, back and forth.

He's going to strangle Clint.

How can he go offline. His tracker is still moving, but Clint doesn't respond to messages, doesn't answer... hell, the call doesn't connect. James breathes out through his nose, watching the red dot moving over the map.

But then, the dot blinks out.

All blood drains from James so fast, that he sits down heavily right where he is. His knees hurt from hitting the floor, and it takes a while for him to convince himself that the tracker could have stopped transmitting for a number of reasons.

With a deep breath, he forces himself to look at the phone again.

Fuck.

Fuckity fuck. The phone looks back at James from its inert state, screen cracked between his metal fingers.

This is bad.

~

James has to force himself to keep his own heart rate down. Clint will be fine. He starts pacing the length of the basement, waiting for the comm system to connect to the quinjet. Nobody's answering so far.

It's maybe two hours before Steve's voice sifts through, crackling with heavy noise, barely there. The quinjet's been hit by an automated cannon part of the cabin's defense system. They'd taken it and two others down, but lost communications. The place is secure.

They're coming home.

~

James is waiting. He's sitting on the sofa, chewing at his lips so intensely that it's starting to hurt, when the front door opens and closes. Clint stops in the entrance to the living room, leans on the wall there as if he's been taking a stroll around the house. James can't believe this.

"Hey, ki--"

"Don't 'hey kitty' me," he grits, standing up. He has to force himself not to stomp, as he walks over. "What the fuck happened to your phone?"

"I dropped it," Clint raises his hands, but he's still lounging there casually.

How can he be so relaxed about this? He's been so fucking worried, and Clint's dropped it. Just like that. James crowds closer, grips the collar of Clint's vest with a growl. It makes Clint take a step back, James follows, and another step, until Clint's back hits the wall on the other side of the hallway.

"You just dropped it!" he repeats, the tendrils of desperation already swirling around him, taking hold.

"James," Clint starts, hands coming up between them.

"I thought you were dead," and he can't stop his voice from shaking.

"I'm sorry," Clint says, his arms coming up to wrap around James. "I'm sorry, I'll be more careful," he rasps.

James wraps himself around Clint as well, squeezes tightly, lets the warmth seep through.

A gasp, and suddenly Clint's fingers twitch where they're pressing into James' back. Clint lets out a sound that feels a lot like a shout, even though it's quiet and small and muffled against James' neck.

James lets go as quick as possible, and Clint leans heavily against the wall, chest heaving, wincing with each breath.

Fuck, no.

With a scramble, James pulls at the fastening and the zippers of Clint's vest until it hangs open, then lifts Clint's t-shirt from his middle.

There's a large bruise on his right side, extending up onto his ribs.

Something hurts inside of James at the sight.

"Clint..."

"It's ok," Clint says, but it sounds more like a wheeze, "I don't think I broke anything."

"You don--"

James growls, and Clint startles, gasping with a wince. Shit.

"Come on," James says, a lot softer, "let's get you cleaned."

He steers Clint into the kitchen, sits him on a chair, and goes to retrieve a washcloth, soap, and the first aid kit from the bathroom. By the time he returns, Clint's already taken off the vest, thrown into a pile on the floor, but there's a sheen of sweat on his forehead. He's in pain.

"What happened," James rasps as he helps Clint pull the t-shirt off as well.

"Ducked," Clint gasps, "from," another inhale, "gun," and his exhale is accompanied by a low sound.

James swears, fills a bowl with lukewarm water, adds a drop of soap.

"Sorry," he breathes, turning back to Clint. "Didn't mean to..."

He has to swallow, because he's hurt Clint on top of his injury. Fucking metal arm. But Clint smiles at him. It's wobbly, but it's a smile, as he leans with an elbow on the table.

"'s fine." He mouths the words more than he utters them.

James nods curtly, places the bowl on another chair. If he were in Clint's place, he wouldn't care that Clint's hugged him too hard either, especially after the scare he's had. It still doesn't excuse his outburst.

"This is gonna hurt more," he tells Clint before kneeling, and Clint closes his eyes, locks his jaw.

James' fingers shake as they skirt the edge of bone, and he tries to be as gentle as possible, running the wet cloth over skin. But Clint still ends up holding onto the table white knuckled.

"Nothing's broken," he says, with relief.

The bruising, though, it's massive. Clint must have fallen right over a rock.

"Gonna tape your ribs anyway, ok?"

Clint nods, face pale. James pulls out supplies then, hands over a couple of painkillers, then a glass of water.

He picks up the washcloth again, starts on Clint's hands this time. He passes over Clint's wrist, and leans in, presses his lips against the skin. He moves higher, and every few swipes, he offers a kiss. Soon, Clint's muscles start to relax, as the pills take effect, and his hand unclenches from the edge of the table, finds its way in James' hair instead.

James takes great care to be as light as possible where the skin is darkened, spends a longer time with his lips over Clint's heart. He's done with his chest too soon, but he moves onto Clint's shoulders, the rest of his back, kisses each vertebra.

~

James helps Clint lie down on the bed, draws the covers up. He moves to go, he'll sleep in the other room, because he can't take the chance he'll injure Clint further. But Clint catches his hand. He pulls, and pulls, wordlessly, and there's hurt in his eyes. It makes James' knees weak. He sits on the edge of the bed with an inhale.

Fuck, he's really caused Clint pain, and it's dawning on him how much more damage he could have done.

"I'm sorry," Clint says, shakily, before James has a change to utter one sound. "I know you're upset, but please don't go."

"What?"

Clint draws breath, and James hurries to push words past the lump in his throat.

"No, I... I hurt you," he manages.

Clint's mouth opens and closes a few times before he pulls at James. "Look," he rasps, "I did something stupid, and didn't tell you. It's my fault."

James frowns. Is he serious?

"But you agreed to take the stupid with the not-stupid, remember?" Clint sits up, winces through a smile.

It pulls a huff out of James. Fine, he can compromise.

"How about it's our fault?"

Clint's smile widens and he lays back down. "Deal. Now come here, please."

James complies, crawls in under the covers, wraps himself around Clint's uninjured side. Clint's arm comes around his shoulders, and he presses as close as possible, closes his eyes against the warmth of Clint's palm as it cups James' head.

It starts off muffled by the rustle of sheets, by the sound of their breathing, but it's there, a low thump that grows more clear the more James focuses on it.

He slides lower, little by little, until his ear's pressed over the sound, the surface of his metal fingertips right below Clint's last rib, where it reverberates into his skin. It evens out James' breathing, soothing the hurt inside, ebbing the pain away.

He's alive. Clint is still alive.

His heart still beats.

~

Chapter Text

It's James' second Christmas since he's broken free. The first one had been spent at the cabin in Russia, had passed by him unawares. But this one, oh, he's got Clint here, to snuggle against on the sofa, he's got books and movies and a lot of silliness to set into motion.

For the past month or so, Clint's been bringing him up to date with all the little customs and traditions people have around Yule, and James has been drinking it all up. Some are more interesting than others, some entirely too ridiculous, and some he plans on taking full advantage of in the next week. They've binged watched all the Hallmark Christmas movies Clint's been able to find, and wow, weren't those fantasies over the top, but when he looks at Clint he realizes that no, not at all. Here is James' little miracle, quite different from the films, but a miracle nonetheless.

He's been making gingerbread in the kitchen, humming to himself, when Clint trudges in, beelining toward the coffee maker.

"Ugh," Clint says with his first sip, and that is code for 'why are you up so early?'

James grins at him, waving toward where he's been trying to get the dough into shapes of stars and trees and snowflakes and stick figures.

"Mh," Clint returns with approval, smile softening his eyes.

It makes James heart flutter in his chest. He pulls at Clint's sleeve gently, and Clint follows, sliding against the counter until James stops his motion, stepping in front of him.

Perfect.

He points up, Clint following his gaze toward the mistletoe hanging over the cupboard door. Clint leans in then, his sleepy kiss nibbling at James' lips, and James loves it immensely.

~

It's the fifth time today! Where is all the mistletoe coming from, anyway, Clint sighs to himself, but leans into James as they stand in the middle of the hallway, enjoys the softness of his lips.

James lets him go without another word, and Clint smiles at his back before making his way upstairs to search for the stockings he knows are packed somewhere in the attic.

Tasha, Steve, and Sam are staying with them for the week, they've been here for a couple of days already, so Clint squints his eyes in consideration. Any one of them could be responsible for the mistletoe hanging everywhere. Tasha just to mess with him and see how they'll all squirm awkwardly if they end up under the mistletoe with her, Steve because he's the worst little shit ever, even though he hides it well, oh so very well, and Sam... actually, Sam doesn't have a reason, not that Clint can figure.

He with a pleased 'aha!' he retrieves the bundle of red and white and green, climbs down the attic stairs before pushing the door back up. Someone tugs at his shoulder, and Clint turns to be met with James' smile, a playful little thing brightening up his entire face.

James points up and Clint shakes his head with a small laugh, but leans in for the kiss.

"You put all these up, didn't you?" Clint asks and James chuckles.

"About half, the rest was Natasha."

"Ha-- you know what, I don't wanna know," Clint says, patting at James' chest.

"We have a bet," James laughs.

"Nope," Clint shakes his head adamantly, "don't tell me."

"Fine, fine," comes back and Clint loves the mirth sparkling in James' eyes.

"Just so you know," Clint adds as they make their way back downstairs, "if I catch Steve under, I'll kiss him on the mouth."

"Good luck with that," James says with louder laughter, "he's been avoiding it like plague ever since Sam bet Natasha on who can catch Steve first this morning."

Clint raises both eyebrows, but before he can reply, James stops him with a hand on his arm.

"Clint, I..." James starts, all too seriously, "I gotta tell you something."

"What," Clint breathes, stepping closer.

"We're standing under mistletoe," James grins.

Laughter bubbles out of Clint, and he smacks at James' shoulder. "Seventh one today," he says after the following peck to his lips.

"Gotta make it to fifty," James winks.

"Oh, boy," Clint sighs, eying the ceiling warily.

But it's perfect. He hasn't had this in years, and it's perfect, as it is, gooey gingerbread, dusty stockings, a crooked tree decorated with hand grenades and climbing rope, kisses at the ready.

~

Chapter Text

It's already dark by the time James' legs stop feeling like overcooked pasta and he makes his slow way through a shower. He's a little more refreshed, but not by much. The pain of the previous night still lingers, gripping tightly onto the sides of his head, where the... where the... he breathes in, breathes out.

Not hearing from Clint during the fight with Ultron had been triggering on so many levels, the feeling of hopelessness as he left Steve behind to go to war mixing with Zola's whispers as he worked on him. Both before Steve had found him that first time and overlaid on the sound of the saw as it cut through flesh and bone.

James shudders, his skin crawling as it breaks into goosebumps. His stomach turns, a lump lodging itself in his throat, and he needs out, right now, he needs proof he's not locked up under ice somewhere.

~

The night sky is almost alight with the sprinkle of stars above his head as James climbs up on the roof. He sits down, closes his eyes against the breeze. The place is silent, and James listens carefully. Clint is below him, on the back porch, sitting in the corner at the end. He's on the phone, talking softly to Natasha, and James lets him have his privacy, turning his attention toward the rest of the house. He can't hear Steve anywhere at first, but then a shuffling sound comes from the side as Steve climbs up, drops down on James' right.

It takes James a while, but he finally sneaks a peek at Steve. His cheeks are wet, eyes red and still leaking from time to time, and he's sitting there utterly still, with his fingers interlocked in his lap. The lump in James' throat dissolves a tiny bit when he realizes he's been sitting just as motionless for the past half hour. He blinks.

"Clint told you what's going on with me?" he asks.

"Yes," comes back crackly and hoarse and almost not a word at all.

It was a Wednesday when a sprained ankle kept him back to observe the latest mission alongside Peggy. He'd wanted to hate her, but he couldn't, not when she was so bright, so strong. The punk had clearly hit gold with that one. He remembers waiting, he remembers the moment they lost communications, when Steve's shout had cut off right in the middle.

He remembers being so afraid.

Continuously dying inside.

Steve had come back, then, just as Clint's come home last night. But unlike the past, this time he's been held and reassured. Allowed to return the affection.

"The stars in France were different than Brooklyn," he says, recollected images superimposing in his head. "These seem brighter," he tips his chin toward the sky.

Next to him, Steve draws a trembling breath through his nose, closing his eyes.

He remembers his love for Steve, he still feels it, but it's underneath the one he feels for Clint. It's a part of himself right now, and he'll always cherish it, just like Clint will always hold precious the memory of his wife. But Clint has made him feel things before he even understood what it meant. Is this why he's been reluctant to see Steve again? James doesn't really have an explanation, perhaps time will tell.

He does know one thing, though. Steve is important, and James can't hide from him forever.

"Hey," he says, and grips Steve's shoulder until Steve looks at him. "We're not there yet."

"Where?" Steve asks, wiping at his cheeks.

"The end of the line. Still got a ways to go."

Steve looks torn between more crying and laughing, and it hurts as much as it soothes James.

Clint's head pops above the edge of the roof then, and he soon settles down on James' other side. He gives James the mug he's be carrying, and James is about to protest, his stomach already turning at the thought of anything hot right now. The mug is filled with ice cubes, though. Clint's a fucking genius, and James turns to him to tell him as much before popping one in his parched mouth, but Clint just tips his chin with a small understanding smile.

James passes the mug to Steve, and that actually pulls a low noise of satisfaction out of Steve as he sucks on one of the cubes.

"Wow, Cap, didn't know you were so easy," Clint says with a soft snicker.

"Always know the way to a man's heart, Barton," Steve returns.

James almost snorts. Clint's surely found a way to his.

"Hiding his long lost best friend from him?" Clint asks. Steve stills. "No point in beating around the bush," Clint continues. "You'll stay here only for as long as James wants you to, and will return only if James okays it."

Huh. James had implicitly assumed that Steve's stubborn nature would keep him here until he'd crawl back under James' skin. But he has a choice now, and he's certain Clint will stand behind him on whatever he decides. He squeezes Clint's hand quickly in thanks where it lies between them before turning to look back up at the stars.

"You can stay, leave, come back whenever you want," he says. "Just don't be near me when I have an episode."

Because he still doesn't really know this Steve, still missing a lot of their past. James is not ready to put blind faith in anyone but Clint right now. He's had it with Steve, before, and he hopes he can have it again, but it won't happen over night.

"All right," Steve says, nodding.

"So what are we doing up here?" Clint asks.

"Stargazing," James returns.

"Let's find the North Star," Clint says before he points out formations, distances, directions...

He has a vague feeling of doing this before, but he's too tired to chase the memory right now. So James settles back to watch Clint and Steve as they argue about Orion.

There was never moonlight, or warm elbows brushing on his arms. There were never stars inside his frozen capsule, a night so black it almost had weight. But above him, they shine now, a feathery presence of soft light, and James floats.

~

Chapter Text

A year ago James was waking up in this house for the first time feeling like he had a chance.

At existing.

Today, as he lays in the comfort of their bed, Clint's warmth pressed against his side, he feels real.

Sunlight is streaming through the window, slanted from a corner. It draws a thin line across the wall and James follows it with his eyes until it meets the diffuse burst of light visible from under the door.

This year the trees have blossomed early with an unexpected warmer weather. The leaves on the branches are already open, still small and not yet whispering under the slow breeze, but promising of the dark greens of summer, of shade under the scorching sun of midday, of protection and comfort.

James leans closer, lets his lips press against Clint's forehead and his eyelids fall closed.

Across the hall the doors to the other bedrooms open, footsteps next and soft voices. The kitchen cabinets opens and close, the faucet runs for a bit. The clatter of mugs on the table is soon followed by the aroma of brewing coffee.

Clint stirs with a low sound.

A soft chuckle travels out of his throat at that, and James slides away to bring Clint a mug. They've spent most of the night talking about little nothings, like debating the merits of painting constellations on the ceiling of the bedroom. But Clint wraps his arms around James' middle with a disagreeing mumble. He hasn't even opened his eyes, hasn't even lifted himself from the mattress. With a smile, James scratches the back of Clint's head with his fingertips.

"I'm just gonna bring you some coffee, ok?" he whispers.

A few more mumbles and Clint finally nods, letting go.

In the kitchen, Natasha and Sam are filling two mugs that they set on the table with an exchange of good mornings, and James takes one.

"Where's Steve?" James asks, looking around.

"Here," comes from the doorway.

Steve is there, holding a poorly wrapped package with a crooked bow.

"You remembered," James says.

"Of course he did," Sam groans. "He hasn't let us forget, either," he moves a fingers between him and Natasha.

"Come on, Wilson, it wasn't that bad," she bumps his shoulder with hers. "Anyway, go get Clint, he said he wants to see your face when you open that."

James scowls at her. That's not very reassuring. But he snatches the other full mug as well, makes his way back into the bedroom.

Clint stirs even more at the smell filling the room until he finally cracks an eye open. James sinks on the edge of the bed, pulls at Clint until he's more or less in a sitting position against the headboard.

The first sip makes Clint moan in that way that says he's entirely too pleased with the coffee, but he's also burned his tongue on it a little. James huffs with laughter, and that makes Clint look at him. His mouth may be busy blowing into the hot drink, but his eyes are smiling.

"There's a package downstairs," James starts and Clint raises his eyebrows at him.

Yeah, the bastard knows something and he's feigning innocence. James squints his eyes at him.

"It's a sex toy, isn't it?"

Clint sips methodically from his coffee.

"Please don't tell me you had something to do with it," James groans.

There's a smug smirk forming on Clint's lips, but it breaks halfway, as Clint laughs with a head shake. It makes James smile and he presses a kiss on Clint's cheek. Clint can't really play pretend while he's half asleep. So it's nothing concerning, given the way Clint is utterly relaxed, and James exhales, letting the tension out of his shoulders.

They stay like that for a while, quietly drinking their coffees, while the sliver of light on the wall widens, bathing the space in warmth.

"Happy birthday, kitty," Clint rasps, the same husky tone that sounds just like the rustle of leaves in the wind.

James' chest fills to the brim with it.

This sunlight.

~

James rolls his shoulders as the leather jacket settles on his back. It's fitting him perfectly. He grins, running his fingers on the sleeves.

"Told you," Natasha says.

Sam whistles.

"Yeah, yeah," Steve mutters, rubbing the back of his neck.

That's so like him, that James wraps his arms around him, lifts him off the ground like he used to. Steve's much bigger now, but he still squeals like a kid. "Thanks," he says after he places Steve down and that earns him a smack to the shoulder.

Sam adds commentary, making Steve's cheeks pink up, but James is not listening anymore, caught in Clint's gaze as he watches from across the kitchen.

The thing in his chest overflows.

And it aches in a sweet swirl.

Like petals, like leaves, like love.

Like life.

~

Chapter Text

Tony stares at the farmhouse, arms crossed, and tries to not run away. Behind him, the quinjet's motors have already cooled down, that's how long he's been standing here. He doesn't even know exactly why he though it would be a good idea to come back, but he vaguely recalls apologizing was a part of it.

And being an adult, just like Pepper's insisted he should behave.

Weeeeell, he could always tell her he's dealt with this, but she'll know. Ever since the Extremis serum, she knows everything. Tony scratches at his chest, where the arc reactors used to sit, the scars itching with imagined ache.

"You gonna come in?"

"Aaagh!" Tony jumps and stumbles, but thankfully he regains balance.

Barnes watches him with that impassive face of his, eyes too sharp for Tony's liking. Kinda like Steve, sometimes. A lot like dad, really. Exactly like mom. Maybe dad had a type, but Barnes is staring and Tony shakes off of the ridiculous assumptions path his mind tends to wander into.

"You need a bell, Terminator," he manages.

But Barnes raises an eyebrow. "Name's James and dinner is ready."

Then he's off and Tony looks around. When did it start getting dark?

~

It's awkward as he sits there across from Barnes, with Barton on his right, and tries to chew, then swallow past the lump in his throat. Tony's never been good at this sort of thing. Maybe he should have begged Pepper to join him.

"I didn't do it," Barnes says and Tony startles.

"What?"

"I was sent on a mission to assassinate Howard, but I couldn't do it. They opted to tamper with his breaks later."

"What?"

"I was punished severely for it, and maybe I deserve that, because if I did my job, your mother would still be alive today."

Tony blinks. "What?" is all that he can manage, again.

Barnes shakes his head, looking back down at his own plate. "Eat your food."

And Tony shoves a forkful in his mouth mechanically.

Only then, does his brain catch up.

"I'm sorry," he says, almost sending bits of food everywhere.

"What for?" Barnes returns, his eyes pinning Tony again.

"For being an ass last time."

Instead of the glare Tony's been expecting, he receives a small smile.

"You're just like him, you know," Barnes says. "Howard used to make so many rude and wrong moves, and then he'd come back weeks later to apologize. Can't tell you how many times Peggy socked him for it."

Tony snorts. "That's now how I remember him."

"Yeah? How do you?" Barnes--no, James--asks, leaning his elbows on the table.

So it seems Tony's forgiven, and they spend long hours, as dinner drags on well into the night, swapping stories while Clint asks for details from time to time.

It's refreshing, to see another side of dad.

~

"So," Tony starts and James hums, "dad's journals have a mention of supersoldiers kissing no differently than normal folk. Was wondering, did you and dad ever..." and he makes a few smooching sounds, lips puckered.

Clint chokes on his own spit where he's been washing the dishes at the sink, and James laughs.

"Not me," he says. "He tongued Steve one time."

It's Tony's turn to choke on nothing, coughing what feels like an entire lung. Soon, Clint thrusts a glass of water at him.

"How so," Tony wheezes while wiping at his eyes.

"Peggy dared him," James grins.

Clint almost spills the water in Tony's lap as laughter overtakes him as well, shoulders shaking. Tony covers his eyes, because that image is now forever burned into his mind.

"You're welcome," James tells Tony when he dares look back up, a smirk in place as he pops one of the apple slices he's prepared earlier in his mouth.

So that's how he plays the game. Oh, it's on.

Tony crosses his arms, leaning back into his chair, while James' smile turns wider.

This is good. He can do this.

That night, Tony learns how much of a little shit Steve really is, and that the whole 'mind the language' thing is just Capsicle trying to see how long it takes Tony to snap. James teaches him a few swear sentences from his childhood, the nastiest ones that he and Steve had learned as boys. They seem innocuous in today's language, but James assures him that particular order of words will have an effect.

Tony leaves in the morning with a smile on his lips and something lighter in his chest. It felt good to hear stories, to know dad wasn't always as heartless as he remembers.

~

"You kissed Howard, didn't you?" Clint asks as they're watching Tony go.

"Both of us did," James grins. "Peggy dared me and Steve. First one to do it in front of her got to use her modified pistol for practice."

Clint smiles at him questioningly.

"I won," James continues. "Should've seen Howard's face, wiping at his mouth in horror, when Steve strides in, all confidence, dips him like a dame and kisses him within an inch of his life."

James chuckles with the memory while Clint wraps an arm around his middle.

"Just then Col. Phillips walks in, takes a look at all of us, says 'You're not kissing me' and he goes faster than he came."

"Really," Clint says and James nods.

"But then it gets funnier. Steve drops Howard on his ass, runs after him shouting 'But what if you kiss me instead' and right into two generals, a reporter and the head of local resistance."

"No way," Clint laughs.

James kisses him in reply, enjoying his mirth.

All that pain the memories come with... it's all worth it.

And he can't wait to hear of Steve's reaction to what Tony will most certainly do to mess with him.

Today's a good day, he thinks as the sun rises over the horizon.

~

Chapter Text

Steve has to blink, twice. As if that will rewind what Tony's just said and have it make sense.

"Brushes. On your bone box," Tony repeats, enunciating the words one by one. "I hear you got a thing for that?"

Yep. Steve's heard it just fine, all right. "What?"

Tony looks up at Steve from where he's sitting on the sofa, sipping his overly strong coffee out of his overly small cup. His face is so innocent, it's gotta be fake. Gotta.

Oh.

Oh, Bucky.

Steve's gonna kill the jerk. But first, to deal with Tony.

"Sure thing," Steve smirks and steps closer. "On the stretcher and the chops, too."

He pushes Tony's arms apart slowly, watching as Tony's eyebrows slide up his forehead. Steve doesn't give him time to react, though, before he sits in Tony's lap.

"I bet yours is softer than Howard's," Steve says, then runs his thumb over the hair on Tony's upper lip, as slowly as he can, trailing the tips with a soft sound. "Where do you wanna start?" he whispers, low and soft, just as he leans in.

Their lips are almost touching when Tony shakes himself out of his stupor with a shout and shoves Steve off.

There's coffee everywhere, and Steve's ass hits the floor a little too hard, but it's all worth it. He laughs until tears spring from his eyes, until he needs to curl in on himself with an ache in the muscles of his belly.

Tony's chagrin takes a while to dissipate as well, and by the time they've both calmed down, at least half an hour has passed.

"So what did that asshole teach me?" Tony asks while he brings them both glasses of water.

It makes Steve chuckle again, and that earns him a smack to the shoulder as Tony sits next to him.

"He told you I like to kiss men with mustaches," he says.

Tony rolls his eyes.

"Well," Steve continues, "I wouldn't take anything he says about our youth seriously if I were you. He likes to mess with people."

"And you don't," Tony deadpans.

Steve can't hold in his grin. "It was funny, though."

Tony grumbles before taking a sip, but doesn't deny it. Steve downs his entire glass, then sets it on the end table.

"So dad didn't kiss you after all," Tony muses.

Good thing Steve's swallowed all the water already, because Tony's words almost make him choke. Oh, Tony. It's too easy. Maybe he won't have to get back at Bucky after all.

"Actually," Steve starts and Tony stills with apprehension, "all commandos tongued Howard at one point or another."

Tony looks at Steve, eyes squinting. "You're messing with me."

"Not this time," Steve shakes his head. "Peggy dared everyone to do it. She had something to repay Howard for, as she put it."

"Steven," Tony states.

"I'm not messing with you," Steve raises both hands. "She shot at me for thinking she and Howard were going steady. She was feared, believe me."

Tony eyes him warily for a few moments, but then he slumps into the sofa. Steve waits for him to drink again.

"He had a hell of a mouth, your dad. Sucked harder than a baby from the nipple."

... and now there's water everywhere.

Steve laughs, patting at Tony's back as he coughs. But when Tony finally looks up at Steve, he's smiling, eyes bright.

"Tell me more about dad," he says, and Steve nods as he moves to fetch more water for Tony.

Ah, this is how memories of friendship form. Steve inhales, planning a trip back to the farmhouse over the weekend. The new Avengers facility is still under construction and he isn't needed for his input right now. Maybe Sam wants to join again.

Bucky has remembered more of their past, it seems, and Steve feels lighter. Today's a good day.

~

 

Chapter Text

"Clint's down!" Thor hears through his ear piece.

"I'm close," he says and hurries over to where he's last seen the archer somewhere to his left.

He finds Clint lying on the ground, bleeding from his middle. He's still moving, so that abates Thor's fears.

"He's alive, but wounded" Thor tells the others. "I'm taking him to the quinjet."

Relieved replies follow over the sounds of fighting, while Thor bends down to check on his team mate. Clint is gasping in short breaths, eyes unfocused.

He needs care, quickly, so Thor drops the hammer to pick Clint up in both his arms. He squeezes Clint tight against his chest so that he jolts Clint as little as possible. He doesn't fly because the trees offer him better cover and he might be able to take a few bullets like they're papercuts, but he doesn't want to risk Clint.

The fingers that are gripping at Thor's armor on his chest loosen their hold just as they near the quinjet, and Thor hurries.

"Do not fall asleep," Thor says as he lays Clint on the floor of the aircraft.

"Gotta," Clint mumbles.

Or at least that's what Thor thinks he's saying. "No such thing," he returns and pats Clint's cheek. "Look at me, brother Hawk."

Clint blinks at him. It's slow, but his eyes are open, so Thor starts undoing the clasps of Clint's vest. His mother taught him the basics of caring for fallen brothers and sisters on the battlefield. His heart pangs with the bittersweet memory. It's because of that he was able to aid others, even when no healing devices were available. They aren't today, either, but there is a midgardian medkit under a chair, so Thor drags that over before pushing Clint's t-shirt up.

"Pho'e," Clint slurs, fingers sluggishly gripping at the inner pocket of his vest where it lies thrown open between them.

Thor shifts on his knees to remove it, places it in Clint's hand. He focuses on unwrapping gauze, then presses on Clint's wound. It's makes Clint gasp, and the phone slips onto his chest.

"Kitty," comes next in a rasp.

"No, it's Thor," he replies as he listens for signs of the fighting coming to an end through his ear piece. "We need to get help for Clint," Thor tells his team mates.

"We're trying," Steve says, right before a loud explosion sends tremors through the ground.

Clint groans weakly and Thor shushes him.

"Tell 'im," Clint mumbles again. "Tell 'im I love'm."

Thor's eyebrows shoot up in surprise. Ah, it makes sense now. Clint has seemed a lot brighter lately. Even more so when they've met this morning to debrief. So he has someone dear in his life. Thor smiles kindly.

"I will," he tells Clint. "But perhaps you'd be better suited for such a task."

"Kitt..."

And Clint's eyes fall closed this time, the word faint on his breath. Thor's heart hammers in his chest with worry while the fingers of his free hand scramble to find Clint's pulse on his wrist. Thor counts sixty eight of Clint's own heart beats before the familiar thump of Tony landing outside the quinjet drags his attention away.

Clint will get help, soon, and Thor inhales deeply. He's not losing someone else today.

~

Thor watches Clint slurp with a grimace from the no doubt disgusting concoction Dr. Cho's given him before he makes his way over.

"It's good to see you healing," he says.

Clint nods and Thor helps him put the glass down. The machine hasn't finished mending his flesh yet.

"Thanks by the way," Clint returns.

"Think nothing of it."

A nurse shuffles closer, fiddles with the controls, then moves away and Thor is reminded of the healing rooms back home. He misses her dearly.

"Uh... what exactly did I say while I was... you know..." Clint waves his hand, but that must cause him pain, because he winces.

"Plenty, my friend," Thor offers along with Clint's phone.

It earns him a wide eyed look as Clint opens and closes his mouth a few times. His fingers are tight around the phone.

"Fear not, I haven't said a word," Thor whispers, leaning closer.

A beat, and Clint swallows, nods again. "Thanks," he breathes.

Then he's engrossed in typing on the device for a while. Thor drags a chair closer, makes him drink the green-blue thing to keep the nurse away.

"Why not?" Clint asks suddenly and Thor blinks.

"It's not my secret," he says. "But I am pleased you have found a companion, even one of the feline variety."

Clint chokes a little and Thor grins.

"You're such a troll," Clint wheezes.

"I've told you many times before, warrior Hawk, I neither eat hobbits, nor turn to stone at dawn."

"You've been reading it!"

Thor's smile widens. "Lady Jane is passionate about these stories. You should show me how to use a bow, so I could surprise her," he adds.

The corner of Clint's mouth raises in a smirk and Thor clears his throat.

"Don't worry, your secret's safe with me, elfling," Clint says with a snicker.

Thor shakes his head, a chuckle leaving his lips despite himself.

The phone in Clint's hand pings and Clint's face brightens so fast, it gets the breath stuck in Thor's throat. This is why he fights, and the sight warms him from the inside. He has a video call with Jane in an hour and he waits for it with little patience.

"How is he?" Bruce's voice drifts over from the doorway and they both look up.

"Looks like Barton's still kicking," Tony's head pops up behind Bruce's shoulder.

"Awful," Bruce returns with his best serious face.

Clint flips them off before slurping more of the medicine. The message chime floats from the phone, but Clint's hands are both busy and in his scramble to get to it, Clint almost spills the contents of the glass and sends the phone in the air. Thor catches both, sets the drink down and hands over the device.

But it's not before he sees it. Clint's last text and the reply.

'don't shred the couch or you'll be sleeping on it'

'meow'

He laughs, which makes Clint laugh as well, then pulls another grimace out of him, under the tutting of the nurse.

~

It's not much later that Thor meets him. Clint's cat.

And it surprises Thor, the pain in his eyes. He's an old soul, a suffering one. Thor chest is infused with sympathy, just as he makes plans for leaving. It's too abruptly for his liking, but times are dire and Thor needs more information.

They fight Ultron and they win.

Before the dust even settles, Clint and Steve are gone to Clint's home while Thor is wrapped up in helping bring down safely some of the crumbling buildings. When he finally manages to make his way off the battlefield, he finds himself landing on the roof of the farmhouse. He's gritty, covered in more than dust, but the need to check on all the Avengers is greater than anything right now. He's already left Tony and the Scarlet maiden in Vision's hands. After he leaves here, he'll inquire about Bruce's well being with Heimdall.

Thor listens carefully, but the place is silent. They must be asleep already.

"It's not nice to spy on people," a voice comes from below.

Ah. Thor makes his way onto the back porch where James is curled up on the steps.

"Indeed it is not," Thor agrees.

It earns him a pat of the wood next to James and Thor sits down heavily. The night is cool around them, but not uncomfortably so under the cold light of the moon. Minutes pass slowly and Thor finds himself relaxing against the banister, the weight of their recent battle washing over him.

"Why are you here?" James finally asks.

"I should've recognized the stone in that scepter."

A non-committal grunt follows and Thor closes his eyes. Perhaps all of this destruction could have been avoided, but it's not how the world works.

"Sometimes bad things happen despite our best intentions," James says.

Thor nods while he straightens, looks at James. There's something about this man that breaks Thor's skin into goosebumps. Much like... oh. Much like Steve when they first met.

"You are not mortal anymore," he breathes.

James' jaw locks as he stares ahead, unmoving. He looks like Thor feels when he is reminded of Jane's mortality.

"Asgard's gates will be open for you when you'll need it."

A sharp inhale makes James' nostrils flare and he finally turns to Thor. He ducks his head in grateful understanding.

"You should get some sleep," James shrugs a shoulder toward the house. "I can get you something to eat, too."

"Thank you, but lady Jane is expecting me," Thor returns, standing up.

James follows suit, walks a few steps on the grass with him. "Then visit another time," he says, hand extended.

Thor locks his fingers around James' forearm, a smile pulling at his lips. Behind James, Clint is leaning on the doorframe blinking sleepily. He matches Thor's wave and then Thor takes off.

It's all too close. This reminder of mortality.

But it's the little moments that make it all worth it, because no matter how fleeting midgardian lives are, they carry with them eternity in grains of happiness.

So he lets his mind wonder, devising how to bring Jane more smiles as he makes his way home.

~

Chapter Text

Clint blinks repeatedly, despite his face being smooshed against the pillow. The bed is empty next to him, he discovers, when he pats at it with a hand. The lack of warmth from James makes him shiver even though it's June already and the air carries the summer hotness as soon as the sun is fully visible over the horizon.

There was something he was supposed to do. Clint sniffles against the pillow case and drops the phone. Why'd he set the alarm?

Ugh.

It's that day.

He rolls over, trying to slide back to sleep, but his bladder decides to announce it's time to get out of bed.

Negotiations are unsuccessful and Clint soon finds himself sleepily brushing his teeth, then sluggishly making his way downstairs.

Hm.

Something is off.

But coffee.

Hot of it. No, lot of it. Hot on the counter.

And Clint watches the trees outside, blinking slowly as he finishes the mug. He gets a refill, walks toward the door leading outside so he can sit on the back porch... movement catches at the corner of his eye.

The hairs on the back of his neck stand with apprehension and Clint carefully maintains his sluggish composure. He mimics stumbling into the table, sets the mug down and snatches the gun taped under the wood.

A creak.

Someone moves through the house.

Where is James? Clint strains his senses, but he is not as good as James is, so, heart thumping in his chest, he slides against the wall toward the door leading inside.

The living room is still, but there's motion permeating the air. Don't ask Clint how he knows, it's a gut feeling, and he trusts his gut. With an inhale, he advances, gun ready.

Hallway clear. Stairs seem clear, the upstairs landing banister clear.

Front entrance lock is in closed position, just as he left it last night.

But.

In the living room.

There's a box where the coffee table usually sits.

A cursory inspection reveals the small table has been moved over to a corner, but nothing else is out of place. The layer of dust on the shelves is undisturbed. He should really clean that, but see, in moments like these, it comes in handy.

Clint rounds the box.

It's cardboard, thirty by thirty by thirty inches approximately, perfect cube. Its upper flaps are only being held together by a small piece of tape at the center, slightly bulging upward. There's a box cutter there too, precariously balanced on the edges.

Clearly he is meant to open it and Clint goes through the options in his head. Biological agent means he's already infected because the box is not sealed. Bomb means arming it or setting it off if he cuts, but there's no visible wire under the clear bit of tape that he might accidentally cut. Also, there's no way someone installed a pressure plate under the box to set it off while Clint was sleeping, it would've waken him.

Where is James?

His heart pounds in his chest as, with a last look around, Clint bends down and lifts the box a little with his fingers.

Huh.

Very light.

No explosive device is that light. He should know, he tried to control the weight of his arrows and it wasn't that easy to keep power and balance at optimum.

With an inhale, Clint picks up the cutter and nips at the piece of tape, immediately taking a step back.

He readies his gun as the flaps open slowly, pushed from the inside to reveal--

--a bunch of balloons?

They're carrying something up.

Oh. Fuck him.

Relief and laughter flood Clint suddenly and he falls to his ass, not even caring how ridiculous he looks. He drops the gun in favor of grabbing the pizza slice hanging off the balloons. It's cold and there's a post it note stuck to its back.

'Happy birthday.'

"Thanks, Kitty," Clint says out loud.

There's warmth behind him as James settles on the floor and soon his arms wrap around Clint, followed by a peck to his neck.

"Welcome," James mutters and Clint can feel a smile forming against his skin.

"How'd you know?"

"Asked Natasha."

Clint swallows. "I don't celebrate--"

"I know," James interrupts. "Hence the scare."

"Yeah, about that," Clint starts, shifting around enough so he can look at James and is met with his satisfied grin.

"It has all the things you like," James says. "Coffee, cold pizza, adrenaline, and a mystery."

Clint kisses his forehead.

"I didn't know about it last year," James continues, his hand coming to caress the side of Clint's face, "and even if you don't want to celebrate, I can't ignore it. Not after everything. So let's choose another day to do this if you don't want today. Let me cherish you."

Ugh. Clint pushes at James' shoulder and James laughs.

There are kisses to his temple, nice and gentle against the pounding of his heart. Clint leans into the embrace, allowing himself, for once, to enjoy this day. It used to be a reminder of his solitude, but no longer.

"Today's good, let's do today."

James is here and Clint feels safe.

Cherished, indeed.

~

[inspiration]

Chapter Text

James rolls first his head, then his shoulders as he watches Clint stretch. He's let himself be convinced to do this... sparring. Practicing.

Not that he doesn't think Clint to be competent, but he's wary of breaking bones accidentally. Or knocking a tooth out.

"Aren't you gonna warm up?" Clint asks, eyebrows raised, amusement already shimmering on his face.

James grunts at him "I'm good" and Clint raises his palms.

"All right then, bring it."

He does "bring it" with swats and kicks, but maybe not the way Clint expected because, five minutes later, Clint shakes his head with a sigh.

"You're pulling your punches," Clint accuses.

"Of course."

A scoff. "That's insulting."

"I don't want to hurt you," James explains.

Clint squints his eyes, mutters under his breath, frowns, exhales loudly, then finally walks closer to kiss James' cheek.

~

The matter is shelved, or so James thought.

A week later, Steve arrives with Sam. They've been coming around for the past months, staying a few days, leaving again. The new Avenger facility is being built, the Ultron events are being investigated in DC, the new SHIELD needs help sometimes. James deems it lucky that Clint's avoided being roped into testifying in front of this and that committee, and he takes advantage of this time to reinforce what he has with Clint. It's important, he's been reading about it.

His connection to Steve, however, is still shaky. They're wary of each other. Also, Steve being unaware of the full extent of his ties to Clint is both funny and sad, but James doesn't know how to let himself be vulnerable. Not yet.

Spending nights together in the living room as they watch movies and catch up on culture is good for the moment.

But now there's this.

James shakes his head where he stands on the porch, arms crossed. Next to him, Sam laughs in his fist quietly, while Clint and Steve and stretching on the large expanse of grass.

The assholes made a bet on who's going to win in a fight because of course Steve would insist Clint can't take him down even if he has the shield. All Clint had to say is call Steve "gramps" and here they are.

James grits his teeth and hopes Clint still has his left when they're done.

The sky is already dark after the sunset, the only light falling on the space coming from the kitchen window. Steve circles Clint, while Clint stands there, resting the shield between his toes and his palms in a precarious balance.

Steve lunges, Clint jumps, throwing the shield upwards. He lands behind Steve, catches the shield, and slams it hard against Steve's side, sending him sprawling.

For a second, James' heart stops, his throat closes, because Steve isn't moving, but then--then--

Steve laughs as he picks himself up and James looks at Clint and--

Ah, fuck. His heart rabbits in his chest. Want, he wants. He inhales slowly, controlling the reaction of his body, mindful of Sam's presence, but Sam's busy laughing at Steve.

And they're back to it.

James exhales, his skin thrumming with the image. The shield lies in the grass forgotten while the other two flips each other in the air and on the ground, kicking and hitting with what James assumes is almost the entire extent of their strength.

It's beautiful and dangerous and it floods James with adrenaline.

Steve swipes at Clint's legs, causing him to fall face first onto the ground, sits on his backside. He buckles under the weight, ass against Steve--and James--

He blinks fast because first, Clint is with James, not with Steve. And second, James finds this way too appealing, which is not fair to either of them.

So he jumps the railing of the porch, tackles Steve.

~

Steve and Sam are in the kitchen by the time James finishes his shower, but Clint's stretching his body in the bedroom. He's naked and James doesn't stop himself from running his metal hand over the red areas around his arms and torso, likely to bruise.

"Did you and Steve spar often?"

Clint smirks at him.

It takes a second to click and James scowls. "You did that on purpose."

"Does this mean you'll train with me from now on?"

"If it stops Steve from rubbing his dick on you."

Clint laughs. He dares laugh. James shakes his head with a growl, planning on finding something equally ridiculous in retaliation. It fills him with wonder, the lengths Clint will go to help James shake the past, so James wants to give something back.

Slowly, though, Clint's face falls and he takes a step back. "Sorry," he says. "I crossed a line."

What. Oh. James inhales. "No, actually, I think I liked it too much."

Clint blinks for a moment, confused, but then his eyes widen and his mouth it stuck between a grin and opened. So very kiss worthy. James walks closer, Clint stumbles back again until, with a thud, he hits the door. James leans his palms on the frame, blocking his escape. There are footsteps on the stairs, climbing up. Steve. Hm.

"I mean," James says, lowering his voice to barely a whisper, lest he is heard from the hallway, "all I could see was pounding and pounding--"

A knock on the door pulls a yelp out of Clint as he startles.

His face is so red, it's too good, and James doesn't bother to hold his laughter in.

"Yeah," Clint answers the knock.

"Where do you keep the ketchup?" comes Steve's voice from the other side.

James bites his lip hard as he tries not to make sounds and Clint gives him a dirty look. And a pinch to his side, which does little to alleviate the mirth.

"Fridge door," Clint yells back.

There's a thanks, followed by Steve's footsteps again, and more of Clint's fingers jabbing into James' ribs.

"You're horrible," Clint mutters.

"You started it," James says.

"I just wanted to let you see you can't hurt me."

"I know now," James returns and leans in to peck at Clint's cheek.

His fingers pull at James' chin, though, until their lips touch, once, twice, a full kiss, then a nip. Clint smiles and James kisses him again.

"How worried should we be," Clint whispers, "about this Steve fantasy?"

James shrugs. "In his defense, it's your fault."

Clint raises an eyebrow and James hums.

"All that agility, strength, skill. I had to really focus on not popping a boner with Sam there. Kept thinking about how wide you can spread your legs."

Ah, perfect. Clint's face is red again.

"Never should've let you watch porn," Clint whispers.

The laugh that shakes James once again sounds more like a snort than anything. Clint's still blushing, but now he also grins mischievously.

"I love you so much," James says.

Clint whines. "Now that's just cheating."

~

James rolls his shoulders while Clint stretches.

"Ready?" Clint asks as he picks up a staff and James nods.

It's just circling each other for a few seconds. James counts steps, watches Clint twirl the staff at every four, then two; he will be striking soon.

Clint smirks. James ducks.

From the porch, Steve and Sam make bets on who'll win, shouting encouragements. Sparring can be fun, after all, and James lets these new sensations overlap memories of metal bars, blood, stench, punishment. This here, is much better.

~

Chapter Text

The beginning of November with a few cold rains and its eternal overcast are forcing James and Clint to spend more time indoors than usual. It's giving them both a sort of restlessness that doesn't seem to go away, especially if Steve and Sam are visiting.

So when Steve slaps a flier on the coffee table about the opening of a laser tag range a town over, the four of them are dressed and out the door in forty two seconds flat. Steve keeps commenting, all the way there, "see, Sam, being nice and taking fliers pays off," while Sam rolls his eyes so hard, James thinks they might pop out. Or do that devil thing in that movie with the rotating and the spinning.

When they get there, the place is almost deserted. Well, Clint says it's to be expected on a Monday morning when people are at work and kids are at school.

The armor the yawning employees provide is flimsy at best and James eyes it critically until Sam reveals that it's not an armor at all, but a way to get tagged. James sighs. This will be too easy.

"At least now we're all cyborgs," he comments, waving with his metal hand to the contraptions on the others' chests.

Steve sputters, Sam grins, and Clint inconspicuously taps his right buttock. James narrows his eyes. So that's how it's gonna be.

~

James inhales slowly as a lull in the music allows him to sense his surroundings better. He almost got Sam earlier, then lost him behind a badly patched half wall. The guns don't work through objects, which is annoyingly inaccurate, but it gives him more of a challenge.

This is harder than he thought, which increases his satisfaction of putting his skills to use in order to coerce laughter out of the other three. Much better than death and misery.

The air shifts behind him and James spins, grabbing the muzzle of Clint's gun and pointing it upward before Clint has a chance to fire.

"Hello," James says.

"Hi," Clint returns, big grin so wide on his face it's blinding even in the dark space.

Clint looks around, then rocks himself onto the balls of his feet to place a peck on James' cheek. Footsteps fall in quick succession toward them, and James pushes at Clint until they're safely tucked between a barrel and stacked crates. It gets Clint to lick his lips, then bite the lower one. James' throat releases a sound that might or might not be a growl, but he stifles it by taking Clint's mouth.

There are times when James can't believe how good he tastes.

Especially when Clint makes that small huff that tickles James' cheek while their heads shift their tilt.

They release each other, breaths shortened.

And James fires.

Then walks away.

"Really," Clint says, disbelief in his voice.

James can't contain the smirk. He stops, looks back. "I trust you too, you know."

"Ngh," Clint groans before leaning back against the wall. His cheeks are an obvious, delicious red even in the low light.

Another laser gun fires, and another, and James is hit multiple times as he stands there, Sam and Steve's hoots and cackles fading into background noise. No, James can't look away. Not when Clint looks at him like that.

"Another round?" someone asks.

Clint licks his lips again, lifting a challenging eyebrow.

"Another," James says.

There are plenty of corners in this place.

~

Chapter Text

James frowns, blinking at the red dot that's dancing on the wall. Next to him, Clint flicks his wrist, making the laser pointer of the scope jump from the wall to the ceiling, then down onto their feet that rest on the coffee table. James leans further back into the couch.

"What are you doing?" he asks again, unsure if he wants to know the answer or not. It's the eighth time Clint does this. The first, James tackled him to the ground because red pointers mean snipers and bleeding and James' heart almost beat its way out of his chest.

"Just," Clint says with a shrug, "y'know, playing."

He keeps giving the same answer. Except that first time, when he also apologized for hours for scaring James.

The red dot flickers over James' knee. He grunts at it because it's distracting and James is trying to watch the movie. Clint complies and moves the thing away.

Not two minutes later, it's back and this time James doesn't muffle the growl. He bats at his own leg where the pointer is drawing shapes. It seems to be working, because Clint moves it, but by now James is so fed up that he keeps swiping at it, over Clint's own leg, then thigh, then his chest.

Soon enough, they're sprawled over the couch, Clint under James and laughing his ass off. James bites at his nose.

"Ow," Clint says, still chuckling, but drops the scope in exchange for wrapping both hands around the back of James' head.

"Why are you doing that?" James asks.

Clint kisses him instead of answering, a sweet slow thing, nipping at his lips, and James is almost distracted.

Almost.

He tickles at Clint's sides, smiles at Clint's laughter.

"Because," Clint finally says, "you're a kitty. And you won the laser tag last week, so—" he shrugs as best as he can under James.

"It still makes no sense," James shakes his head.

"Huh. Well," Clint says, eyebrows raised, "let me show you."

They lean back up, Clint grabs the laptop, opens a clip online, clicks play. There's a kitten, small and precious, jumping after—

James gasps, but by then Clint's already rushing out of the room, cackles loud as he runs up the stairs. James rubs at his forehead, snorts, and then he's laughing so hard, he needs to put the laptop aside so he doesn't crush it.

"I'll get you back," he yells when he manages to get his breathing out of control.

"Counting on it," drifts over.

James shakes his head, smile still on his lips, before he makes his way into their bedroom. He wonders if a hickey is a good enough replacement of the red pointer on Clint's skin. Only one way to find out, and he grins as Clint wiggles his eyebrows, already naked on the bed.

~

Chapter Text

Sam is sulking. He'd like to say he isn't affected, but he can't help the childish pout that comes with crossing his arms. He turns his head away from Natasha's unimpressed look, but still watches from the corner of his eye. Grams used to give him that same stare. He rolls his eyes and Natasha smirks. Damn. He can't stay mad at her for long.

Even so, not all is forgotten. Nope, no way. He's been busting his butt running around the world looking for Barnes' ghost when he's been with Clint for who knows how long.

Nevermind the fact that all of them, not more than eight days ago, went though the fight of the century against a sentient robot, barely coming out with the planet intact. All while Sam was holed up in a motel up in Alaska waiting for this lumberjack crew to show up. Of course, there was a Barnes look-alike there, but not the man himself.

And now Natasha's flying Sam to Clint's super secret hideout in the middle of nowhere. Actually, it's not that far away from New York, but it is in the countryside. Sam's looking forward for the fresh air and ass whooping.

"He didn't even tell me," Natasha says.

Sam raises an eyebrow. Huh.

~

Sam's been expecting—well, he isn't sure what he's been expecting, but it wasn't this. Steve looks like he hasn't slept in days and not even the serum can keep up with it. His eyes are red rimmed, lips bitten red, nostrils twitching like he's been sniffling too much. Sam shivers at the sight but says nothing, not about Steve's stillness, not about tiredness visible on Clint's face.

Natasha strolls in like she owns the place, drops her backpack on the floor and beelines to the kitchen.

"Hey," Clint says.

Sam nods at him, gripping the handle of his duffel bag tighter.

"Um," Clint gestures to the living room visible from the hallway, "you can share with Steve, or I'll get you a cot if the pull out couch isn't enough..." He drifts off, frowning at himself, then shrugs. "Coffee?"

"Sure," Sam says.

The kitchen smells of eggs and the french toast shoved in front of him is the best he's eaten in a very long while.

"This is great," he says, mouth full, as he gets ready to sip from his hot coffee.

"Thanks," comes from next to him and only quick reflexes keep him from sending the contents of the mug in the air with his flinch. "James," Barnes says.

Sam swallows and chokes before he can offer his own name.

"This is Sam," Natasha says, then adds something in Russian, which makes James snort.

So that's how it's gonna be. Sam squints his eyes, but Natasha smiles at him, a genuine half-smirk, not that fake sweet thing she bestows on her marks. Sam relaxes against his chair, but still sticks his tongue out at her.

More food makes its way on the table, then some tea replaces Sam's coffee, then there's a bunch of kiwis that Steve wrinkles his nose at, as they all discuss the ups and downs of shaving versus waxing—

The scene is so mundane and domestic, that it's ridiculously surreal.

And that's when he sees it. A look between James and Clint. Natasha knows, given by the way she watches Sam observe, but Steve is—well, he's Steve.

Sam spends the rest of the day staring with incredulity at the back of Steve's head, for missing what's right in front of him.

"He'll never figure it out by himself," James tells him later, patting at his head, and Sam bats his hand away with a scowl.

Steve notices nothing, not then, not through the afternoon, not even when James follows Clint inside one of the bedrooms upstairs and locks the door behind them. Sam shakes his head, pondering if he should say something or let things unfold as they may.

~

Nobody sleeps here. Sam lies on his back, eyes closed, while Steve sits up against the pillow, fiddling with his phone. He is trying to shield Sam from the screen light at least, utterly quiet.

Sam sneaks a peek at Steve's phone. Half past 3AM.

A door opens and closes upstairs, then silence, but Steve tenses.

The next sound comes from inside the living room and Sam is impressed by the stealth of movement. Steve shifts his legs, then the edge of the mattress depresses as someone sits.

"You and Clint need to come in for briefing," Natasha says.

Steve sighs audibly, but says nothing.

"Will you be ok here on your own?" she asks and it takes a moment for Sam to realize it was directed at him.

"Sure," Sam says.

Well, he's up anyway, so he rolls off the sofa and shuffles into the kitchen. He gets himself a glass of water, then follows the open door outside. The air is still warm enough for mid September, but Sam still shivers at the sight. On the porch, a little off to the side, James is huddled against the wall, eyes closed and head leaned back. He's holding his left arm against himself, with trembling flesh fingers around the metal elbow. Sam swallows, stuck between wanting to say something and wanting to disappear back inside.

"Gonna stare all night?"

"Nah," Sam says and waddles closer. He sits down next to James, drinks his glass of water slowly.

Minutes stretch slowly and at some point he can hear Steve and Natasha's voices as the talk, muffled inside the house. It's quite peaceful out here. Simple.

"Ask already," James' voice snaps him from his musings, and Sam looks at him.

There are many things one would want to know, most too invasive, and Sam bristles on James' behalf. He's been there, he knows how it gets.

"What's for breakfast?"

James snorts. He even rolls his eyes, or at least Sam thinks he does. But when he speaks again, his voice is a lot softer. "What do you want?"

"Pancakes."

"I can make those."

Sam nods in reply, then turns his head toward the horizon. Sunrise is still ways away.

"So Steve doesn't know about you two."

"Nope."

"You gonna tell him?"

"Nope."

"Just gonna let him walk around oblivious while you two sneak gropes behind his back."

From the corner of his eye, Sam can see James raising an eyebrow.

"He is blind to these things and I wanna see if I remember it right," James explains.

Oh. Sam inhales deeply and lets the air slowly through his nose.

"All right then, operation Innuendo is in play," he says with a grin.

James scoffs. "Who said I need your help?"

"You do, oh how you do."

James shoves at his shoulder and Sam elbows him. Next thing he knows, they're in a poking war, while three worried sets of eyes watch them from above.

"He started it," Sam says.

Natasha looks upward with a head shake, Clint laughs so loud he disturbs the sleep of birds, while Steve stands there, wide eyed.

"I think Steve needs to see Lilo and Stitch," James says.

That's how the five of them end up spread out in the living room watching cartoons before dawn. Could be worse. They could all be broken beyond recognition, but they aren't.

This place reeks of healing and Sam likes it already.

He likes it a lot.

~

Chapter Text

Sometimes, when the night is too still, James can't sleep. Sometimes, like now, in the early days of December, the fallen snow is keeping everything too quiet, and James can't slip off into slumber. It's not just the lack of life animating the patch of trees that surrounds them.

It's—tranquility.

And at times, when Clint's even breaths rasp softly next to him, when his warmth is so calming, a shiver of fear runs down James' spine. Keeps rushing through him, again and again, until it fills his chest.

He slides off the bed and out of the house, jacket forgotten but boots tied tightly in place. He's going for a run, he tells himself, staring up with a stride around the porch. On the third, he's already jogging toward the trees, still doing a loop, still trying to fight it off.

This fear.

Everything could fall apart in the space that spans from dusk 'til morning. Heck, even in daylight it's not safe. Heart pounding, he stops pretending he's not out here to check on the sensors and the cameras, that he's not looking for sniper rifles that could shoot Clint. That could rip apart this small piece of comfort he has here.

He's sniffling by the time he's through with the outer perimeter, but his chest is still aching, low and deep. He keeps wiping at his cheeks while he tracks a winding path through the trees, looking for something—anything—out of place.

When he finally makes it back toward the house, he's calmer and a lot colder, but he can't make himself slide back under the covers.

Clint is lying on his side, right at the edge of the bed, facing away from the empty space behind him. And James just can't—not yet. So he huddles on the floor next to the bed, legs drawn to his chest and shoulder leaning into the mattress. He rests his chin on his knee, lets his eyes travel down Clint's arm that dangles off the bed in front of James. There's a slight twitch in his thumb as he breathes, in and out, in and out, and James carefully matches it. When he looks up again, Clint is watching him.

So quiet.

So serene.

Nothing moves for a while but their chests in tandem. And then, when the fear starts swirling back, Clint's other hand pushes the hair off James' forehead.

Sometimes, in this tranquility, when Clint's face is so relaxed that there's no emotion to see on it—sometimes, like now, in the darkness, James doesn't know how Clint can read him so well. Yet, here they are, James teetering on the edge of panic and Clint caressing him away from it. He can feel every single callous on Clint's fingers as he runs them over James' cheek, his forehead, his head.

James closes his eyes, inhaling, and that's when Clint's hand rests on his shoulder. He moves—James expects to be pulled in bed, but Clint lies back down and next James hears is the tinny sound of a call ringing. He looks at Clint again and the hand is back while Clint puts the phone on speaker just as the line connects.

"Yeah," comes through is a harsh rasp.

Clint drops the phone on the mattress between their heads. "Hey Steve," he says and his voice is so heavy with sleep it's almost a rumble. "Can't sleep?"

"How'd you know?" Steve asks with something that sounds like a chuckle but it's too tired to be humorous.

Clint gives off a noncommittal sound as he shuffles closer to the phone. "Where are you?"

"New York right now, with Tony. Getting some permits before we're going back to the site in a couple of days. You should see it, it's coming along nicely."

"Mh," Clint grunts again. "Nat?"

"She dragged Sam to DC to keep Wanda and Vision company."

"Not over with the interrogations, huh."

Steve snorts. "Every once in a while some committee decides they want a go at them, too."

"Well," Clint says, not stopping his rhythmic caress through James' hair, "soon they'll have a place to hide."

"Yeah. Construction guys are saying it's gonna be ready by July, but Tony's pushing for earlier."

"That's good. So where exactly are you now?"

"Bedroom, at the Tower. Thinking..." He trails off, like he's considering what to say, but doesn't follow with anything.

"Get in bed, Steve," Clint says.

He smiles at James in that warm way that makes his eyes wrinkle at the corners and James' chest starts tightening with something else besides worry. So he leans his temple against Clint's palm and gets a kiss to the forehead for it. The rustle of the sheet here is matched by Steve turning in his own bed.

"Comfy?" Clint asks.

"As much as possible," Steve mutters and that pulls a huff out of James.

"Did I tell you about the time there was a cherry tree out back?"

There's a sort of half no, half grunt coming from Steve along with what sounds like him punching his pillow into shape.

"I almost broke my leg twice falling out of that tree, but that's not the story."

"It's not?"

"Nope," Clint says.

His voice is still thick with sleep as he speaks but James is not listening anymore. The cadence of the words is enough as he watches the move of his lips, feels the tenderness of his touch.

It must be a while because at some point Steve yawns.

"Thanks," he says with an exhale loud enough to be heard through the phone. "Good night, Clint."

"Night, Steve," Clint tells him, smiling again at James.

"Good night, James," comes through in a whisper right before the call disconnects.

James doesn't have the reserves to be surprised right now, not when relief is flooding him. Not when Clint still smiles like he knows all of James' secrets.

He does, though, James supposes.

With a shiver, he presses closer, catches Clint's lips.

"Better?" Clint asks when they part.

James nods.

"Come up here?"

"In a bit," James breathes, his own voice scraping against his dry throat. "Go back to sleep."

Clint's eyes are already closing as he shifts to his previous position, one hand dangling off the edge. The other, though, is wrapped around the back of James' neck, tangled with the chain resting there. His face is closer, on the mattress instead of the pillow, the phone silent between them. James moves it out of the way, careful not to dislodge Clint, before leaning his cheek on the bed.

Like this, in the quietude and stillness, he can feel Clint's even breaths puffing over his forehead.

He can hear Clint's heartbeat through the mattress.

He can take the fright, bit by tiny bit, and wrap it in Clint's love, just like his chest is secured by it, tightness prevailing.

Clint guards James, those pieces of him that are impossible to take out into the light. Clint does the hard things for him, so James can do the easy ones. He guards Clint's rest.

Sometimes James can't sleep, but that's fine. The tranquility settles around him, from one moment to the next, softly, gently, darkly—serene.

~

 

Chapter Text

The door to the dining room has been closed since this morning and James eyes it warily. There's some light banging going on in there, at times, interspersed with Clint's soft aw-no's and aw-yes's. James tries not to listen, he's promised Clint he'd stay away and wait for whatever surprise Clint is preparing.

He scratches his head, an eyebrow raised, and checks the calendar. No birthday today. Checks his texts. No visitors, either. The stubble on his chin scrapes against his fingertips as he tries to come up with an explanation to Clint's behavior. There's nothing else to do in here but be tempted to snoop, so he decides to get a shave.

Clint yells "Stay up there" mid-slathering, and apparently the tension and the curiosity have made him jumpy, because James startles. Ends up with foam on half his face. With a sigh, he pushes everything away from his mind.

It's hot today.

Upstairs the house is hotter, too, even with all the windows open and a nice breeze rushing through.

By the time evening rolls in, James has taken two showers, a nap, and has refrained from listening in on Clint for more than a confirmation that he's still around. Something is weird, though, niggling at the back of his mind, as he waits.

Focus comes better when his hands are busy. James cleans two guns and a knife by the time Clint's footsteps on the stairs break him from his daze.

"Hey, kitty," Clint calls as he passes through the corridor, "gonna take a shower."

James replies with a "meow" and... oh.

That's today?

To be fair, a lot of crap has happened last year around this time, and James has been too absorbed with watching out for Clint's distress that he hasn't noticed. Or forgot.

Heck. Forgetting is worse. He shudders, skin breaking in goosebumps. James shakes himself and packs his weapons quickly. Clint has known, though, all day. Even before, and James rewinds the past couple of weeks.

Double heck! Clint's been distracting James. Make new dishes, try new arrows, change the outer perimeter sensors. They even cleaned the gutters for fuck's sake.

The shower turns off and soon Clint is standing in the doorway, dripping on the floor. James narrows his eyes at him. Clint grins. Oh, hell, he's not getting off this easy. James crosses his arms with a frown, causing Clint to shrug.

"How else was I supposed to surprise you, hm?" he asks instead of an explanation.

Well, he has a point. James shrugs one shoulder, aware he's pouting. But Clint walks closer, and he smells nice, and James is weak. He accepts the kiss with a sigh, unwinding to wrap his hands around Clint's arms, before resting their foreheads together.

"I don't like forgetting," he mutters, closing his eyes.

"Fuck." Clint's fingers dig into his hips. "I didn't think "

When James looks at him, the mirth is gone from his face and James wants it back.

"It's ok," he breathes. "Just don't do it again."

Clint nods, lower lip caught between his teeth.

"Come on, show me what you got."

The grin is back and Clint scrambles to get himself a pair of pants and t-shirt.

~

Downstairs, the living room lights are off, but the dining room door is open. Soft light flows from there as they make their way inside. After Clint finished the renovations, they didn't bother furnishing it with more than an old table and a bunch of mismatches shelves. Besides, whoever thought of putting the dining room all the way across the living room and the hallway hasn't really considered the logistics of carrying food across a landscape of couch and coffee table and other opportunities for stubbed toes. So they don't have much use for it right now.

Except, tonight the room looks—

James breathes out. There's fairy lights hanging from the ceiling over the table set for two, with flowers in the middle, food and drinks ready.

"Happy anniversary," Clint says as he motions for James to take a seat. "Thought we'd have a dinner date since we never, you know." Clint scratches the back of his head. "Like in the movies." He clears his throat.

"Like in the movies," James echoes.

"What, you watch those all the time."

"And you don't."

"Shut up and let me woo you."

The laughter that leaves James is as loud as is relieved. The tension of the day leaves him with it, especially when Clint tries to look offended but is instead pleased with himself.

James shivers. "Woo away, handsome." There's a dusting of red on Clint's cheeks as James takes his hand over the table.

~

It's still early when they finish eating the meal, and for a cold one—"How was I supposed to cook with you in the house?"— Clint has managed to make it an absolute surprise. Some stuff he's never eaten before, like the little biscuits with the weird fisheggs, but it's been tasty overall. Except for the pickled horseradish. He's never putting that in his mouth again. Thankfully Clint hasn't laughed, but they both agree Natasha will never know; and her jars of the stuff in the pantry will never be touched again.

While James brings their glasses to the living room, Clint fiddles with the laptop and soon there's slow music flooding the air. The space not exactly dark, caught in between the distant light from the kitchen and the soft glow of the dining room. It's perfect for the slow dance Clint pulls James into.

Perfect for the kiss they share.

"Ready for your gift?" Clint asks, a sparkle in his eyes, voice raspy in its whisper. It goes straight to James'—

"Yeah." He clears his throat. "Definitely."

"Great. Sit down. Close your eyes."

James does so and soon Clint's weight presses onto his side as he joins him on the couch. A patch of warmth follows, resting on his thigh in a familiar sensation—Clint has set the laptop on their legs. A movie then?

"So," Clint says, "I thought we'd do something romantic today."

James hums, and Clint intertwines their fingers. He brings James' hand to his lips, kisses his knuckles. There's a squirm in his belly, anticipation thrumming.

"And everyone says that recreating your first date is very romantic."

"But we've never—" James begins, and is immediately cut off by a loud moan.

He looks. Blinks. Looks again, tilts his head. On screen, there's pornography. What the hell are they doing? Oh! It's the same clip from that night. James turns incredulous to Clint, who's shaking with silent laughter, gripping tight at his fingers.

"I thought—" Clint gasps "—we could—" a wheeze "—recreate—"

His eyes are leaking and he's laughing with his entire body, in a way James has never seen before. So carefree, right in this moment, making James' chest constrict with it. The world sheds away until there's only the two of them, in the dark, on the sofa. James pauses the video, sets the laptop aside, before returning to Clint. He peppers his laughing face with as many pecks as he can, trying to taste the mirth, this untainted little shard of innocent happiness.

"I love you, too, kitty," Clint breathes on the trail of a chuckle, and that's when James realizes that he's been muttering it all along.

Clint's hands come up to the back of James' head, rubbing gently at his neck. He smiles and James smiles with him, searing this image to memory.

"Thank you," he says, and Clint nods, thumb tracing James' lower lip. "Next year is my turn to surprise you?"

"I like that."

James pulls Clint closer, and closer, and then he raises from the sofa as he lifts him over his shoulder. Clint yelps, flails a little even, but James keeps his balance.

"What are we doing?" Clint asks, although he's already laughing again, a hand sneaking under the waistband of James' sweatpants.

"We're going to recreate that movie."

"But we don't know the ending."

"I'm sure we'll think of something when the time comes."

"Did you just make a pun, James? That was so bad."

James smirks as he sets Clint on the bed. He shifts closer, kneels in between Clint's legs. He whispers, "How about we recreate our first night instead?"

Clint's breath hitches and that's answer enough. A sweet pangs travels through him, awash with the memory, butterflies in his belly.

James shivers.

James loves.

~