It's a sunny afternoon, the late summer landscape interspersed with the first few orange leaves. Sam lounges on the sofa, sprawled like he doesn't have a care in the world, but James can't stop fretting internally. He has nothing to worry about, Clint and Steve will just be visiting the Avengers facility. They've been using it for almost half a year now, and they've all gotten a full week of vacation, even the staff has been let loose to unwind.
Besides, this will be a great opportunity to get Sam alone, so James is staying behind. Sam's 'chill' according to Clint, except when Steve frustrates the hell out of him, but he notices things, he's good at reading people. And that's what James needs right now, because Clint has been worried about Steve lately. James can't see what Clint sees, but he trusts Clint when he says Steve seems sadder than usual. Hence, talking to Sam. James isn't really good at that, but Clint's left a list of questions should he need it.
"You sure you don't wanna come," Steve asks again, looking between Sam and James.
"Look man, I told you already," Sam says without moving, "all I wanna do is nothing. All day nothing, for the whole week."
"All right," Steve raises both hands, turns to James. "Bucky?"
"Nuh-huh," Sam intercepts, "he's staying. Someone's gotta cook, ain't that right, Bucky?"
"Don't call me that," he grits at Sam before looking up at Steve. Behind him, Clint is rolling his eyes with gestures mimicking Steve's stance, hands on hips, and James barely refrains from laughing. "I'm good," he says.
"Maybe next time then," Steve returns, like he doesn't believe James would go with him to the ends of the Earth and back. Yet another thing Steve's been doing, treating James like he'll disappear without notice.
"Definitely next time," he says.
The smile Steve gives him is small, but it reaches his eyes. James leans back in the armchair, returns Clint's peck when he comes close for a kiss.
"I'll see you in two days," Clint says, and then they're gone.
James listens to the low whir of the quinjet's motors as it lifts off, then to the soft rustle of leaves against the breeze outside.
"I'm sorry," Sam says, breaking the silence in the room. He's still in the same position, eyes unfocused somewhere on the wall in front of him.
"Calling you Bucky."
James doesn't know what to say, so he offers a hum.
"I know you don't want that," Sam looks at James then, "but Steve talks about you 'Bucky this' and 'Bucky that' all day. It kinda slips sometimes."
James leans his head back at that, follows the hairline cracks in the ceiling paint with his eyes. He gets it, but it doesn't mean he has to like it.
"I'm not Bucky," he tells Sam in hopes he'll understand and that will be end of this topic. James refrains from squirming.
A beat, and a small "yeah" comes from Sam before silence settles between them again.
The ceiling could use a fresh coat of paint. He'll talk to Clint about it, maybe they can do it together.
"You know, I accidentally outed you to Steve," Sam's voice drifts through the air, and James rolls his head against the backrest to look at him, raises an eyebrow. "That you and Clint are together," he says, watching James through half closed eyelids. "Sorry about that, too."
James waves him off. "Told you he wouldn't figure it out by himself," and it pulls a huff out of Sam.
"The man can have infiltration plans ready in seconds," Sam straightens, palms raised by his sides, "but he couldn't see this."
Sam rolls his eyes. "Natasha's deemed him hopeless."
"Speaking of," James says, "where is Black Widow? Steve never said." Sam and Steve had been at the farm for only an hour before Clint had suggested Steve take him to the facility for a tour.
"She and Fury took Wanda and Vision to a tropical island," Sam half snorts at the ridiculousness of that, "but Rhodey's disappeared into the depths of his day job. He should take a break, too."
James hums. He's never met Rhodey, but from the stories he's heard, he sounds long suffering because of Stark. James admires the man's patience, it reminds him of Peggy putting up with Howard during the war.
"We're coming together," Sam says with a pleased little smile, and James nods.
And that earns him a sharp look. Sam studies him for a brief moment. "You've seen it, too?"
"Clint did," James says. "I can't tell, it's all jumbled sometimes," he adds quietly.
It's Sam's turn to nod in understanding.
"Clint says he's sadder every time he comes here," James explains.
"Man, he's sadder every time he leaves," Sam counters and it sends a pang of hurt through James.
So the reason Steve's been off is here, perhaps it's James himself. He swallows and it's audible in the silence. "Do you know why?" he asks, and it takes considerable effort to keep the wobble out of his voice.
Sam looks at James for a long beat, as if debating whether to answer or not. "He blames himself for what happened to you," he finally says.
Ah. There it is. James inhales slowly, steadying himself.
"It's not his fault."
"I know," Sam returns, "and he knows. But I don't think he actually believes it. I heard him tell Natasha once, that he should've gone after you, like you jumped after him."
James' eyebrows raise in surprise at that. "What'd she say?"
"She smacked him over the head," and Sam shakes his own head. "Thought that was that, but I guess it's not." With a heavy sigh, Sam runs both hands over his face, then leans with his elbows on his knees. "Wish I could take it all away, make him a little happier. He's breathtaking when he smiles," he whispers toward his clutched hands, and perhaps it wasn't meant to be said out loud, because Sam stills at his own words.
"Wanna shoot Clint's bow?" James says instead, because this is so far out of what he can deal with, it's not going to do anyone good if he tries to continue the conversation.
Sam's shoulders slump, and it seems it was the right thing to say. "Sure, lead the way."
James is just going to tell Clint about all this later. Maybe he'll know what to do. Sam would be good for Steve.
It's the middle of the night when James' phone pings with a message, and it's a jumbled string of letters coming from Clint. A fraction of a second later, Sam's phone blares an alarm. James is up and into Sam's room just as Sam's about to fall off the bed.
The facility is under attack, and they hurry to gear up. James keeps trying to call Clint and Steve, with no luck.
"Natasha's on her way in with the kids, they're twelve hours out," Sam says, zipping up his vest. "Couldn't reach Rhodey, but he must've gotten the alert, too."
James nods curtly, focused on tying his boots, on keeping his breathing steady. It's both Clint and Steve in trouble and something slices painfully at his insides.
"If we take the highways, we can be there in six," Sam says.
"I can't carry your ass all the way over there, I got limited battery power!"
James doesn't stop the growl coming out of his throat as he turns to Sam, and it makes Sam take a step back.
"We have another quinjet," he says, a little more sedated. "I'll have us there in two hours."
"Yeah, ok," Sam says, relief palpable.
James sets the auto-pilot before joining Sam in the back of the aircraft.
"I'm locked out of the base's systems," Sam says and throws the tablet he's been using on the seat next to him.
"Do you know the layout?" James asks and Sam nods.
They huddle around a piece of paper as Sam draws plans. The lines are wavering as Sam explains the entry points, and James catches his shaking hand with metal fingers. He wants to be reassuring, but what comes out of his mouth is a clipped "Calm down."
Sam, though, he takes a deep breath, eyes locked with James' for a long moment, and then his body is loose again. He rolls his neck with a crack, continues the sketch.
Good. He'll be fine.
"The quinjet has infrared sensors," James says after they finish going over the plans. "We'll do a sweep before landing, see where our guys are."
"All right," Sam nods. "The skeleton crew has six agents, four posted on the perimeter and two in the command room."
James moves to take weapons out of the armory rack, counts ammunition.
"You're going for the kill," Sam comments from the side.
James ignores him. Of course he is.
"You shouldn't," comes next and James turns a glare at Sam. "Look, we don't know who did this, what they want or even how they found a highly classified facility. Nobody knows where our base is," he continues, "and I surely wanna know how they got that information."
This discussion is pointless. "You don't need all of them alive," James growls.
Sam stumbles back, palms raised. "Fuck, James. You're fucking terrifying. Didn't know Clint means that much to you," he murmurs.
James takes a step toward him, because now is not the time. Can't Sam see? He grabs at Sam's vest, pulls him closer. "Anyone going after him and Steve, or you, or Tasha, is dead."
He lets go and returns to the weapons, making a mental list of what he needs. Stealth and speed are the most important in an infiltration like this. He ends up pushing the guns aside, only keeps one, but grabs all knives he can find, a couple of garrotes as well. He can rip their throats out with his bare hands if necessary.
"I love you, too, man, but we need to interrogate them."
Deep, steady breaths. Focus on the mission, not on Clint's lifeless eyes, not on Steve's bloody body, not on the way Sam's words make their friendship feel more like a family than ever.
"Fine," he manages. "I'll try to wound."
"All I ask," Sam says.
When James finally dares look at him, he's inspecting the release mechanism of the wings, but there's a softness on his face that James has never seen before. He moves to the cockpit quietly. Mission first, feelings later.
"I count six over here," Sam points to the corner of the command room on the screen, where a few bodies seem huddled together. They're all moving, though, limited motions, probably bound. "Must be the agents. Two hostiles guarding them, another at a workstation."
James acknowledges with a hum, and returns his eyes to his own monitor to search for other heat signatures.
"Found them," he says and Sam leans over from the co-pilot's chair.
On the other side of the main building, two figures are fighting several others.
"I count twenty total," he says. "Five on guard, three in the command room."
"Big team," Sam adds, "this was planned."
"Can we go through the window?" James points at the outer wall of the room the fight's taking place in.
Sam shakes his head. "Glass is reinforced, not even bullets will break it."
James takes a moment to mentally go through the layout of the base. "Landing on the roof," he says. "We're going in through the north stairwell, two floors down, and approach through the range."
"Sounds good," Sam agrees.
There's no one on the roof, but there is a guard on the stairs as they move down, and James takes him out with a knife to the throat before the man even sees them.
They don't encounter another one until they reach the main entrance of the range. James looks at the back of the guy's head through the crack in the door, before making his way out silently. One twist, a snap, and he lowers the man's body quietly to the floor.
Sam gives him a pointed look before they move on, and James glares at him. Not the time.
A few turns later, they can already hear noises as they approach the end of the corridor. There are heavy doors between them and the fight, between James and Clint and Steve. The room they're in leads to the entrance of the underground bunker that hosts a lot of Howard's old tech, as Sam's already explained. It's got triple reinforcements.
James hooks the edge of a metal finger under the side of the electronic lock's cover to pull it out, but Sam pushes him aside with a roll of his eyes. He rests his fingers above the keypad, signals James to be ready. Oh, he knows the combination. James glares at him again, but gets into position, gun drawn.
Ten soft clicks later, the doors slide open with a hiss, and James takes out a kneecap, puts two in hands holding weapons, another one in a neck. Most of the attackers are piled up on Steve, and Sam ducks under a flying chair, runs toward him.
James turns to where Clint is fighting his own, holding a goon in a headlock. The guy goes limp, and Clint looks up, smiles brightly at James.
"What took you so lo--"
Clint goes down, another attacker behind him with a gun held by the nozzle. It takes James .2 seconds to put a bullet through his head. But it's .2 seconds too late, and he curses as he rushes to Clint's side shooting everyone left around him.
His heart is trying to beat its way out of his chest as he checks for Clint's pulse, and all air rushes out of him when he finds it.
Clint is alive.
He turns then, drops his weapon when the trigger clicks empty, grabs the first goon he can. The snap of bones is quite satisfying. He snags another.
James blinks at Steve. He has a long scrape on the side of his face, the collar of his t-shirt torn and red.
"Put him down," Steve says.
It takes a moment, but he unclenches his fingers from the grasp he has around a neck. Blood drips along the edges of the metal plates, and he stares at it. What...
His heart kicks back into frantic motion as James turns to Clint's unconscious form on the floor, runs his hands over him gently. There's no other visible wound, except for a bump to the back of his head.
Gunshots reverberate from across the building loudly, but they end abruptly and silence settles. Sam steps between where James is kneeling next to Clint and the door, gun raised. They count seconds, and soon heavy footsteps fall increasingly louder as they get closer.
From around the corner, Rhodey slides to a stop, all the weapons of his suit trained onto them. A beat, and Sam relaxes his stance just as Rhodey packs his guns away, slides off the front of his helmet.
"What happened here," he starts, but James interrupts.
"Doctor first," he says, carefully picking Clint up.
"There's no medic on site," Steve returns.
"Take him to the tower, you can be there in twenty," Rhodey says, and holds up a hand when Steve opens his mouth. "I got two strike teams with me, we'll secure the base. Go."
The blood on his hand seeps into Clint's sweatpants where James grips, but he can't make himself let go.
"Clint," he whispers from time to time, "wake up."
"Almost there," Steve says from the pilot seat.
Sam looks up at him encouragingly from where he's holding his fingers on Clint's pulse point, his phone wedged between his shoulder and ear.
"Natasha's diverting to the tower," he announces after he hangs up.
A team of doctors and nurses are already waiting for them when they land, and it takes both Steve and Sam to get James to release Clint onto the gurney. They whisk him away, and James wants to follow, but Steve wraps his arms around him, holds him there.
"Hey, hey," Steve whispers low in his ear, "they'll take care of him. Let's get you cleaned up first, ok, so you can see him when he wakes up."
James follows numbly, scrubs the blood off himself, dresses in the clothes Steve gives him, sits where Steve tells him to sit, drinks what Steve tells him to drink.
The sun is up when they're called down to the infirmary, and James rushes to Clint's side, still out on the hospital bed.
"Why isn't he awake?" he breathes, the events of the night crashing down on him at the sight of bruises marring Clint's skin. His knuckles are scraped where James clutches at his hand and he struggles to keep his own heart rate down, matches it to Clint's beeping steadily on the monitor next to them.
"How is he?" Steve asks a little louder behind him.
"He got a pretty nasty blow to the head," the doctor says. "The good news is that there's been very little swelling, but he needs monitoring until it resolves. We had him hooked to an oxygen line for a while, and we expect him to regain consciousness soon."
James would very much like to question this doctor on their methods, but he can't bear take his eyes off of Clint.
"For now, I need you to go, let him rest."
That, James cannot do, but Steve's hand lands on his shoulder before he even has a chance to turn.
"We're staying here," he hears Sam say, followed by Steve's "We'll be quiet."
He waits, unmoving, but Clint doesn't stir.
A stomach rumbles loudly and it takes James a few seconds to realize it's his.
"I'll get you some food," Steve says before James can stop him, his insides twisted with worry.
"Grab some coffee, too," Sam adds. He approaches after Steve's gone, rests a warm hand on the back of James' neck. "He'll be fine."
James wants to believe him, but he won't until he sees it with his own eyes.
Sam's phone pings, and he steps out into the hallway. James listens to him for a while, he's talking to Rhodey. He shifts his attention back to Clint, and that's when he notices it, the tiniest of flutters behind his eyelids.
With a soft sigh, Clint blinks slowly against the morning light, eyes taking in the room before settling onto James.
There's so much relief flooding him, that James expects an adrenalin rush to match the incoming euphoria. But no.
It's worse than falling.
Worse than cryo.
Worse, when Clint opens his eyes and the first words out of his mouth are "Who are you?"
Perhaps he's lost his mind in that chair a long time ago.
"Who the hell are you?!" Clint almost shouts, struggling to free his hand from James' too tight grip. "Where am I?"
The kick to his sternum takes him by surprise, and James slides in his chair until his back hits a table full of medical instruments, sending everything to the floor.
Sam rushes in through the door while Clint pulls at the wires monitoring his vitals. The next moment, there's loud beeping accompanied by an alarm, and more people run in.
"What the fuck is this place!" Clint sends a nurse flying before two others manage to pin him down. "I wanna speak to Coulson..."
His words taper off and Clint slumps back on the bed, just as one of the doctors withdraws a needle from his arm.
James can't breathe.
Clint doesn't know him.
They keep Clint sedated until Natasha arrives.
Steve sits next to James as they wait outside Clint's room. The doc didn't want to take any chances on Clint not recognizing Steve either and hurting others or himself in the process.
Retrograde amnesia, they say. And they're waiting for Natasha's return to have more tests, see how far back it extends. James has read up all about that while researching his own condition. The hopes of Clint remembering are slim, and he shakes with it. Steve snakes an arm around his shoulders and for a while that's the only thing holding him up.
The doc closes the door behind him as he follows Natasha out of Clint's room, and James holds his breath.
"He's missing almost five years," she tells him, "before Loki, but after..."
"Yeah," James swallows. After her death, plenty after. At least he's spared of reliving that pain.
"So he doesn't remember us," Steve concludes.
Natasha shakes her head, lips pressed tightly together. "As far as he's concerned, he and I have just returned from a mission in South America and Clint is scheduled to leave for New Mexico in a few hours."
"When Thor first appeared," Steve crosses his arms.
"I can help him," comes from the side, and James watches Wanda approach slowly.
"Me too," Vision adds, following right behind her.
"No," James says. Steve opens his mouth to protest, but James cuts him off with a raised hand. "That thing there," he points at the gem adorning Vision's forehead, "brainwashed him. You'll stay away from him. And you," he turns to Wanda then, "I don't know you. Clint's had enough fucking around with his mind, no more."
"He's right," Natasha says in the sudden silence. "Clint wouldn't want this."
"Ms. Romanov," the doctor speaks then, "if they can help..."
"We said no," Natasha returns. "We'll follow standard medical procedures."
"Very well, I'll send you the forms, make sure you both sign."
James watches the doctor's back for a beat before looking at Natasha questioningly.
She shrugs. "Clint's made you my co-proxy, gave us power over his medical decisions."
Huh. His heart twists with a pang and he turns his eyes to the door of Clint's room. Sam shuffles closer, squeezes James' shoulder.
"So what's the plan?" Steve asks, slumps back down. He sounds tired and a little defeated.
"Taking him to familiar places will help," James murmurs. Clint is behind that door and he wants to be in there, but he can't. He can't.
"Right," comes from Natasha. "They wanna do an MRI, and tomorrow we can take him back home. He's going to need someone to help him through, provide triggers for his memories. Doc agrees it's best that all of you stay away for the time being. We should introduce you gradually, and let him settle for a few days first."
James nods at that. It's fitting that Tasha goes with him, she's Clint's best friend. He just... he wishes he could help. Something burns behind his eyes and he has to blink fast to chase the sensation away.
"We won't tell him the events of the last years, it's best that he tries to remember on his own first," Natasha continues and it's met with an array of acknowledgements. "James will go with him, the rest of us--"
"What?" James turns so fast, that Sam snatches his hand away with an ow.
"What." She looks at him quizzically for a moment before both her eyebrows go up in mild surprise. She moves then, pulls him away from the others by his arm. "You've been living with him for a long time, you're his boyfriend for fuck's sake," she says quietly in Russian.
"He doesn't trust me," James whispers, and why does it hurt so much more when said out loud.
"Let me handle that. What you need to do is keep loving him, care for him. Can you do that?" she asks, all seeing eyes searching James' face. It makes him feel naked.
"Yeah," he nods.
Another beat, and she matches his nod. "All right. Come on. It's time Clint meets you."
"We should go back to the base," Steve says after they turn toward the team. "Will you be ok here?"
"Yes, we'll be fine," Natasha answers for him, but James nods along anyway.
He's not fine, not by a long shot, but if he doesn't think about it too much, it doesn't feels as sharp inside his chest.
"I can fly faster than a quinjet," Vision says then, raises a hand when James frowns at him. "No mind tricks, I promise, but I can be anywhere quickly if you need anything."
He sounds sincere, and James believes him. "Thanks," he rasps.
"The short run down is this," Natasha continues, fingers still gripping tightly at James' flesh arm. "Fury's gone underground to dig for information. We talked to Coulson, and he said he'll put someone on it, but he's got a lot on his plate right now. Rhodey's called Stark, there was no intrusion on his end. Someone, somewhere, leaked information, and we have no idea how."
"It's dangerous," Sam adds.
"Let Wanda interrogate the prisoners at the base until I get there," Natasha tells Steve.
Ahead, Wanda grins slowly, the tips of her teeth barely visible between her lips. James stifles a shudder. She's going to be ruthless in the future, he can sense it, much like Steve seems to be these days.
"Hey," Tasha says as she pulls James in the room behind her.
James takes a deep breath before looking up at Clint. He's sitting more upright on the bed, fiddling with an empty water bottle. He seems alert, also a lot calmer than before.
"Hey," Clint returns and raises both eyebrows at James.
"This is James," Natasha pulls him over, "he's our friend."
Clint studies him for long moments, eyes just as penetrating as Tasha's. "Really," he says, crossing his arms. "Where'd you find him?"
"You found him," she returns. "Don't be an idiot," she mutters in Russian.
"Don't call him that," James responds automatically.
"Yes, please, speak Russian in front of the amnesiac who doesn't," Clint throws the bottle at Tasha.
She deflects, sending it toward James' forehead, and he snatches the bottle in mid-air. Clint lets out a low whistle.
"He's quite skilled," she adds with a pat to James' arm before moving to fetch more water from a cupboard in the corner.
Clint continues to watch James curiously, and grabs the bottle Natasha extends without taking his eyes off of him.
"Do we like him?" Clint asks.
"We trust him," she says, and that startles Clint enough to look sharply at her.
A few seconds pass, a silent exchange between them that James doesn't even begin to comprehend, and finally Clint turns his eyes back on him. This time, he feels judged, weighted and measured. The burning around his eyes returns, and James schools his breathing to a low rhythm, waits, just like Clint had waited that first time they'd met each other.
Finally, Clint extends a hand, and James grips it. Clint's fingers still feel weak, even if he seems lively, but Clint can hide his injuries like no other.
"I'll let you get re-acquainted," Natasha breaks the silence, "going to take care of paperwork. Be nice to James," she tells Clint and he makes a face at her.
"So how long have we known each other?" Clint asks after James sits in one of the chairs next to the bed.
He's been trying so hard to stop the shaking of his hands, that control is slipping away from him, so he shoves both palms under his thighs.
"You need to try and remember, doctor's orders," James returns. The grimace Clint displays pulls at the corners of James' lips, and he lets the smirk form, raises an eyebrow for effect.
"What's your code name?"
James shakes his head with a hum.
"Who's the president?"
Clint huffs. "Can I at least know your last name?"
"Wow, you're meaner than Tasha. At least she told me what year it is."
He smiles. Clint smiles along with his words and the air in James' lungs is hot. Heavy and stuck. He doesn't dare move, lest the pain in his chest turns into tears.
"All right, grumpy, I get it," Clint continues with an exaggerated sigh. "Say, how about we ditch this joint?"
"You're not going anywhere," comes from the door as Natasha walks back in, nurse in tow.
James lets himself be distracted by paperwork, watches as the nurse preps Clint for an MRI. Apparently Stark has three functional machines in his labs throughout the tower. Huh, look at that.
He slides on the sofa lining one of the walls of Clint's room after he's wheeled out, leans his head back. This ceiling has no cracks in the paint, it's all white and pristine. But the sofa is much more comfortable than Clint's armchair back home, yet another perk of being in Stark's private infirmary. Home. He huffs at that. Will it still be home if Clint considers him a stranger?
"You should get some rest," Natasha says, extending a blanket his way, but James shakes his head.
With a sigh, she sits down on the sofa next to him. "He'll remember."
James wants to believe, but he can't. He can't afford to spare the hope, dreads the moment he'll be crushed, Clint lost to him forever.
"Why do you trust me?" he asks instead. He's felt this before, from her, but had always been reluctant to ask. He's still not sure he wants to know her reasons.
She leans back as well. "I met you twice before."
James rolls his head to look at her, but she's staring out the window, unseeing. He has no recollection of her from his past, and she looks way too young... James hadn't been out of cryo for a long time before his last mission.
"How old are you?" he asks.
The words are frail, barely there, but he catches them.
"Once in Odessa, about forty years ago. Nobody else knows, not even Fury. Well, except for Clint and director Carter. She figured it out long ago and recreated my past so no one else can," she whispers, the cadence of her Slavic tongue falling rhythmically through the air.
"Peggy," he says, and she nods. But Natasha's diverting. "Tell me about the other time."
She stills even further, if possible, eyes wide, lips barely moving as she exhales the words more than she speaks them. "I was eighteen. They gave me and other girls like me a test: take down this opponent and graduate, or fail and die. The girls kept dying, there were rumors he had a metal arm... Didn't realize who you really were until Steve recognized you."
"You let me win," Natasha continues, "and they punished us both for it. I got the easy part, shot all the other girls in my group in the head, one by one, poof, poof, poof," she raises her arms in a simulacrum of holding a gun, mimes pulling the trigger. A deep breath, and she lets her hands rest back on the blanket in her lap. "They made me watch as they put you in an electric chair, and I've never seen terror like that in my life."
She sounds small, innocent. James forces air into his lungs.
"I think that was the first time they did that to you," Natasha looks at him then.
"I don't remember."
"You wouldn't," she rasps, switching back to English, then clears her voice. "Point is, you saved my life when you were still you. I will fight for you."
And that's... James doesn't have a word to describe it, but he receives it with a nod. He's reminded of Clint's reaction during that first time he'd cut James' hair, when James had told him how Clint's changed things for him.
"What did they do to you?" he asks.
She rolls her eyes with a huff. "I searched for you, during my missions, and found that chair once, years later. It meant you were close by, right? But they caught me, strapped me to the thing." She takes a deep breath. "The first jolt nearly killed me. From what I read in my file later, I was in a coma for half a year. That's when they started experimenting, and they gave me a serum synthesized from your blood."
James raises both eyebrows at her.
"Yup," she pats his leg. "You're my other daddy."
It makes James scowl and she laughs. "How are you so calm about this?"
"I made my peace with it a long time ago. I don't age, forever twenty five. Eventually, everyone around me will die," she says, the words just as soft as before. "But now there's you, and Steve, and Bruce, and Thor. None of us is alone anymore."
The blanket wraps itself around James, just as Natasha stands up.
"You need sleep, take a nap, only until Clint returns. Sleep, I'll be here."
Only until Clint returns. She'll be here.
With a huff, Clint slides off the table of the MRI machine, pulls the hospital gown back on top of the scrubs they'd given him to wear. The nurse comes back into the room, wheelchair in tow, and he waves at her.
"I can walk," he says.
"I'm armed with sedatives," she shakes her head, "and under orders to use them. Get in."
With a put upon sigh, he takes the seat.
He watches the objects they pass through the corner of his eye, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he's lost five years of his life. Yet, there are unaccounted scars on the backs of his hands, and the mirror in the bathroom didn't lie. He is clearly older.
It just... it doesn't feel real.
By the time they reach his room where Natasha waits, he's inexplicably tired. He would've escaped medical by now, but the way she looks at him, with a seriousness she only reserves for dire occasions, it stops him from being an idiot. Natasha's words, not his. Ah, well.
The man, James, is asleep on the sofa when they enter the room, and Clint relaxes minutely when he sees him still there. Strange. Clint's out like a light, though, as soon as his head hits the pillow, while Natasha pulls the covers up around him.
The next time Clint opens his eyes, it's dark outside. In a chair next to the bed, Natasha reads a magazine, and James is still asleep on the sofa. He straightens up somewhat against the pillows, and that draws her attention.
"Thanks," he says, and then busies himself watching the skyline outside. "We're in New York, aren't we?"
"Yes," comes back along with a bottle.
"I recognize those skyscrapers there, but I can't figure out where we are. There's no building tall enough where we're supposed to be."
"True," Natasha sits on the edge of the bed with her favorite enigmatic smile, and Clint squints her eyes at her.
"It's been built in the meantime."
"Mhm," she hums, before turning her face to the windows as well.
They watch the night lights in silence for a while before she speaks again.
"Listen," she says, "in the morning James will take you home."
That means she's not coming. The doctor had said he needs familiar faces to get him to remember, and he looks at James' sleeping form. How could he be more familiar than Tasha? But there's something calming about watching him sleep, and Clint doesn't feel inclined to refuse, on the contrary.
"Ok," he returns. He trusts her, even if he doesn't trust himself right now.
It earns him a smile, a genuine one this time, and he matches it.
"Clint," she leans closer, grips his hand, "I need you to do something for me."
"Be good to him. Be kind. None of that idiot crap I know you pull on purpose," she fixes him with her eyes, squeezes his fingers.
He opens his mouth to protest, but the pointed look she gives him stops him. "Why?" he asks instead.
"You love him."
Her words are quiet, but clear. It startles Clint.
"You've never loved anyone else more in your life," Natasha adds.
"Even more than..."
"Even more than her."
Oh. A shaky breath leaves his lips and Clint's eyes are drawn back to the face of the complete stranger sleeping there on the sofa, infusing the space with calm and safety and warmth.
"I moved on," he comments, and Natasha hums in the affirmative. "When?"
"You need to remember that yourself," she says.
Clint turns back to her with a frown. "Then why tell me this?"
Natasha lets out a long exhale through her nose, glancing at James. "He loves you, too, and he doesn't deserve this. He's been through enough already, more than you and me combined."
His eyes settle on James again. "But he's so young," he whispers. What kind of life did he have, Clint wonders.
"So, you'll be nice to him, yes?"
"Yeah," he breathes.
"Good, go back to sleep," Natasha whispers, and he complies, slides back down.
But he lays there, face turned toward the sofa, watching James. Something is missing, the space between them too large, too open. Clint tries, but nothing comes forth, no memory of James, just a general sensation that he's important.
Rain taps on the windows, a few drops at first, then it turns into a soft patter. Water falls down Clint's face as he swings with the wind, but he still pulls at the string, lines a shot, waits.
The voices of agents underneath him sometimes travel up to him between gusts, skipping from one raindrop to another until they're distant shouts, diluted through the water. A man runs desperately through the mud, taking out agents like they're beginners, and Clint finds himself smiling. He's starting to root for this guy. Clint blinks the water out of his eyes, opening them against the gray light of early dawn.
Natasha's already gone, and James is slumped in the chair on the left side of the bed. He's holding onto Clint's hand, head leaning on the edge of the mattress beside Clint's shoulder. Something pangs inside of him, and Clint twists around, curls himself toward James. Before he knows it, his hand is in James' short hair, petting lightly, and it makes him relax instead of waking him. So Clint doesn't stop, and he lets himself drift again.
When he wakes up, the sun is shining, but there are drops of rain drying on the outside of the window. He didn't imagine that, then.
"Morning," he hears, and Clint turns to find James watching him from the bathroom door.
"Ngh," Clint returns. He needs coffee.
James shakes his head with a huff. "Here," he approaches, hands over a plastic mug.
Coffee. Hot, amazing goodness.
He watches over the rim as James pulls a pair of boots on, they look combat. He has a sort of clipped efficiency to his movements, the kind military people have. There's also a ball chain running around his neck, most likely his dog tags, that disappears beneath the oversized hoodie he's wearing. Clearly both that and his sweats are not his, but borrowed. He's got a glove-like weapon on his left hand, probably another Stark invention, and at least two blades on the insides of his boots, one more strapped to the small of his back. It's entirely too discreet to notice. Clint's impressed.
There's stubble on James' face, his lips red from chewing on them. But his eyes... blue, electric and metallic at the same time, burning cold and sharp. His gaze seems able to cut through anything and everything. And when he turns those eyes on Clint, they become fluid, until they're almost boiling mercury. It's entrancing, and it presses at Clint from within.
He finishes his coffee, accepts more borrowed sweats and a pair of sneakers, then follows James out to the landing pad on the roof. Huh, his own personal quinjet. Well, not all's bad in the future, it seems.
Cat, he thinks as he sits in the co-pilot seat. Something something cat. But what?
Sam stops next to Steve as he surveys the room they've been fighting in the previous night. There's blood spattered everywhere, among the bodies left there. They only took out the survivors, and the air already stinks. Steve stands in the doorway, arms crossed, one hand pressed over his mouth. He's staring right at an exposed trachea, but Sam can't find it in himself to feel sorry for those guys. He can't even make his stomach twist or his throat gag at the sight.
Sam hasn't been lying, he loves them all to pieces. It feels like an extension of family, this group of assassins and soldiers that have attached him to themselves. And they're different than his mom and pop, because he can't go back home telling them about the death and the violence. He can talk to these four, however, and they get it, Clint most of all.
It hurts to be a stranger to him. That's why he's almost pleased about the destruction James has caused.
"He shot that one," Steve points to bodies, "that over there was you, those two me, and that one Clint. We're lucky we still have who to interrogate. Those three..." Steve breathes, "he did that to them..."
Steve though, Steve might need the time to process this, to get his head around his best friend ripping out throats bare handed.
"He's not Bucky," Sam offers, trying to explain what James has been saying all along, but only now has become clear.
Steve stands unmoving for a while, a little too still, a little too quiet. "That's the thing, though," he whispers, "that was Bucky."
Sam turns to him, surprised. "But--"
"You should've seen him in the war," Steve shakes his head. "Only time he lost it like that, though, we were kids. Both scrawny and breakable, but he fought like a storm, even if we got the shit beat out of us. He started growing, I didn't. One day this guy broke my arm, Bucky went crazy. Guy landed in hospital, got stuck with a limp."
"He keeps saying he isn't Bucky," Sam returns.
"I know. He doesn't remember this part." With a deep inhale, Steve runs his palm over his face. "What's the count?"
Right, back to business. Sam pushes everything else aside for later.
"We got four badly injured from here, they won't be talking soon, though. Wanda's already started on one of the three Rhodey secured from the command room. From the other five that were guarding the perimeter, the strike teams captured two, Rhodey took out one, James the other two," he reports.
Steve nods. "They took us by surprise. We were having coffee in the mess hall," he explains as they turn away and walk down the corridor, "tased us, brought us here," he throws a thumb over his shoulder. "They wanted badly inside Howard's vault."
"They had to know the base was understaffed," Sam comments, "and they didn't trip any alarms on their way in."
"No, I activated the team alert," Steve adds, pointing at his phone, lying broken in a clotting puddle.
"Vision has been checking the computers, they're waiting for us."
A few minutes later, they make their way into the command room. On the large screen on the far wall, the file of a base scientist is open.
"They entered using this man's access codes," Vision says when they come on. "I found his ID in the corner over here," he adds, hands over the piece of plastic.
"Got hold of all personnel on vacation except for one," Rhodey says as he walks in, but stops at the photo of the scientist on the screen. "That one."
"Retrace his steps, see if he got grabbed or if he sold us out," Steve returns. "I spoke to Natasha, Clint's MRI looks good. He's asleep now, and she's coming back here at dawn." His hand goes to his forehead and he almost sways.
"Hey there," Rhodey grabs Steve's arm. "Did you get any sleep since last night?"
"Neither of us did," Sam says before Steve can pretend he's fine. Clearly he isn't, and the only thing keeping Sam upright is the ungodly amount of coffee he's been drinking.
"How about you two take a few hours, at least until Natasha returns," and Rhodey shakes his head when Steve opens his mouth to protest. "We'll look into this," he nods at the screen.
"I don't need sleep," Vision supplies, "I'll keep working."
That seems to be convincing enough, because Steve's shoulders slump with a sigh. "Fine."
After a shower, Sam slips into Steve's quarters to make sure he's following up on rest and not working from his tablet. He finds Steve sitting on the edge of his bed, sleep pants on, but bare chested, water still dripping from his hair onto his shoulders. He's clutching at a towel, elbows on his legs, staring unfocused at the wall.
Sam's too tired to stop himself from noticing the vast expanse of skin in front of him, but luckily he doesn't dwell. This is really not the time to pursue Steve. He'd slipped up, back at the farmhouse, but James had let it slide. So Sam takes the towel from Steve, rubs the water out of his hair, and Steve accepts all of it unmoving. He fetches a t-shirt, pulls at Steve's limbs until he cooperates enough to put it on. Sam rolls the hem down to Steve's middle, then raises back up. He's standing really close, right inside the space between Steve's knees, and Sam's arms itch to wrap themselves around him.
He forces himself to move back, though, because it's not his place, no matter how willing he is to offer physical comfort, no matter how much he wants at least a hug from Steve. But just as he shifts, Steve's hand comes up to grab at the front of Sam's sweatshirt. He look up at Sam, eyes too wet, and Sam doesn't hesitate. He wraps himself around Steve, until his face is pushed against Sam's chest.
There is no outward noise, nothing that betrays Steve's sobs but the shaking of his shoulders, the way his fingers press too tightly into the muscles of Sam's back.
Gradually, his grip turns lighter, the tremors less evident, until Steve goes limp against Sam. He's asleep, and Sam lies him down. He pulls at the covers, and the space left on the bed next to Steve beckons him. He shouldn't stay, but he doesn't want to go. And it wouldn't be the first time they've slept in the same bed, they do it at Clint's all the time...
Sam slides in before he can change his mind. The last thing he remembers before falling asleep is Steve's heavy arm wrapping itself around his middle, Steve's warmth at his side, Steve's breath on his cheek.
"When did I get a retracting barn roof?" Clint asks, leaning forward in his seat.
"You never said," James replies as he carefully lowers the quinjet inside.
"What else didn't I say?" Clint continues as they make their way toward the house.
James throws him a look, and Clint smirks at him. Right, he's joking. "You never said not to call you Francis."
The appalled look Clint turns at him is precious, his mouth hanging open, eyes wide, fingers twitching in mid air. James wants to kiss him silly.
"You wouldn't," Clint says, following James through the front door.
He soon forgets about their exchange, as he takes in the space. He wanders through the living room, then into the kitchen, running his fingers on furniture edges, picking up objects to inspect them, placing them back down.
"It's... the same, but different," Clint says as he joins James in the hallway. He looks up the stairs and James tips his chin at him in encouragement.
With every step Clint takes, James' pulse increases a tiny notch. He hasn't moved one item, everything left the way it was when he and Sam had hurried out. That means the unmade beds, the open doors, the clothes and personal things strewn all over the place.
Clint stops at the top of the stairs with a sharp intake of breath, and James knows what he notices first. The door to the room at the end, the one that should be locked, isn't. Clint beelines to it, and James climbs after him, stops to lean against the banister as Clint stands there, hands on the door frame, looking inside.
"It's all in the attic," he says, and Clint nods slowly before stepping in.
James follows, watches him inspect the space. Natasha usually stays here when she comes over, and in time she's left plenty things behind, a hairbrush, some jeans, a bag full of weapons that James forgot to lock away.
"I moved on," Clint concludes from where he's crouched over the duffel, drops a garrote back in before zipping it up.
"Yes," James says.
He expects Clint to ask more questions, why and how and who, but he doesn't. He stands up and walks out. James moves with him. The bathroom and the bedroom Sam's slept in get a cursory run through, and then Clint steps into their room. James watches silently from the door, heart lodged in his throat, because it's obvious a couple lives here.
Clint is quiet as he opens the drawers of the dresser, the ones of the nightstands. He runs his fingers over the clothes hanging in the closet, pauses longer on James' side. Then, he moves to the bed. One of James' favorite hoodies lies there, a black one with an abstract drawing on the front and the softest lining on the inside. Clint picks it up, runs his fingers over the loose threads right below the hem of the neckline. It got torn when Clint had pulled it off of James frantically one night, and James hadn't bothered to fix it. He swallows, wondering if Clint will ever do that to him again, if he'll ever get to touch Clint again.
With a hum, Clint brings it up to his face, pushes his nose into the material and inhales. James' heart beats slowly, painfully against his ribs, and he feels it reverberate all the way into his throat.
"Ok," Clint says as he moves toward the door, "let's settle this," and he slips between James and the frame, climbs down the stairs.
James is frozen for a few moments, but then he runs after Clint, catches up just as Clint inputs the code that unlocks the door to the basement. As they move further down, the lights come on, and Clint pauses, eyes fixed on the half of the space that holds their gear. They've gathered quite a few racks of weapons, but what stands out are the suits. James has one spare there, but Clint has three sets, his extensive array of bows and arrows stored neatly around them.
Clint turns around, eyes carefully cataloging the rest of the space, the desks with the monitors of the security system, the radios piled up in a corner, and he finally moves toward the metal shelves full of knick-knacks that line one of the walls. He returns with a beat-up metal box, full of scratches. He's still holding onto the hoodie, James notices.
"Come here," Clint says, placing the box on a table.
James complies, he trusts Clint even like this, even if his actions make little sense.
"Open it," Clint says, tipping his chin at the box and taking a step back.
There's a fingerprint lock on the lid, James finds when he takes a closer look. With a final glance at Clint, he presses his thumb on the reader.
A soft click, and the mechanism releases, pushing the lid slightly upward.
"Looks like I trust you," Clint says and sits heavily in one of the nearby chairs. "Do you trust me?"
"Yes, Clint," he returns with pause.
Clint searches James' face again, but this time he's more like himself, without the cold guards he's had in place at the tower. He's showing his soft sides, and James relaxes minutely. This is good, they're on the right track.
"What's in there?" he asks with a nod toward the box.
Placing the hoodie on the table, Clint leans over, drags the box closer, and James pulls up another chair.
"My life," Clint says and opens the lid all the way.
It's full of nothings, a torn piece of purple cloth, an arrow tip, two feathers and a marble, a few twigs, a stack of photos on one side.
Clint picks up the first photograph, looks at it for a long while before placing it on the table. It's James, sleeping on the sofa, sun falling on his face at an angle. The next picture follows, gray and grainy. A still from the security cameras of that cabin in Russia shows the Winter Soldier. He looks lifeless, and James' fingers move of their own accord to run over the edge of paper.
Another follows, this one of Natasha. Clint looks in the box, puts Nat's picture back in. "The rest are old," he says. So he remembers those.
It's a little jarring, for James to see the difference between then and now. He can't take his eyes off the photos.
"Something happened to you," Clint says, and it's not a question.
James doesn't know what to say to that, so he pushes the pictures away. Clint gathers them back, locks the box, and then moves to hide it among the junk on the shelves. When he returns, he picks up the hoodie, chews at his lips.
"I'll remember," he breathes. "I promise to do my best."
He's gone, then. A few minutes later, the shower turns on upstairs and James lets out the breath he's been holding. It's shaky and painful and hurts from inside out.
Clint comes down barefoot, wearing his own sweatpants and James' hoodie, his hair still damp.
"I started some coffee," James points at the coffee maker. "I'll grab a shower, too, and then I'll get us something to eat. That ok?"
Clint nods, absentmindedly looking out the kitchen window. James leaves him to it. He desperately wants to touch Clint, hold onto him, make sure he's still in there somewhere, but he can't.
Instead, he tries to re-balance himself, searches for focus under the hot stream of water. It works, somewhat, but it's not enough. He's off kilter, and he fears another episode soon if he can't get himself under control. It's been over two months since the last one, and it had been a small one, barely painful. Now, James is not so sure what would happen. Why did Natasha entrust him with Clint again?
He makes his way into the bedroom, rubbing the water out of his hair, drags a pair of jeans on.
"Whoa," comes from right behind him and James startles so badly, he almost trips himself over while turning around.
He should have expected Clint moving silently, but Clint's never done this around him. He wonders then, how much self control Clint has if he never jolts outwardly when James forgets to make sounds.
"I thought it was a glove," Clint says, wide eyes fixed on James' metal arm.
He shifts and the plates re-arrange themselves.
"No, it's..." How does he explain this? "It's all me. Why a glove?" he asks, trying to distract himself from the way Clint's fingers hover in mid air between them.
"Um, you know, how Stark built that Iron Man suit that got everyone's panties up their asses?" and James offers a nod. "Well, thought it was something like that."
James snorts, and it earns him an eye roll.
"Hey, give a guy some credit. Didn't think it was entirely metal. How are you not tipping over, how... does it hurt?" Clint finishes quietly, eying the scar tissue around James' shoulder.
"Not for a long time," James offers, then extends the arm, palm up, takes a deep breath. "You can touch, if you want."
Clint's hand moves so fast, James barely registers it, but he runs his fingertip from James' wrist to the tip of his index finger so lightly, that it causes an automatic calibration response in the arm, and the plates shift in unison.
"You can feel that," Clint says, amazed.
"There are pressure and temperature sensors, and I've got a neural connection to them."
Clint grips James' metal hand between both of his, looks up at him with a small smile. It's then that he seems to notice everything else beside the arm, he lets go quickly.
"I didn't mean to..." he rotates a finger in the air in front of James' bare chest, clears his throat. "I'll wait downstairs."
Right. Clothes. James grabs a t-shirt and an overshirt, slips the pendant chain back around his neck before following.
The kitchen is filled with the smell of french toast, Clint's favorite thing in the world. He wouldn't even eat veggies if it weren't for James.
"I took the liberty," Clint gestures to the table where two plates await, then scratches the back of his head awkwardly.
This is a glimpse of him, the same Clint that James knows and loves. It infuses him with so much warmth, that he almost suffocates.
"It's perfect," he rasps, takes a seat.
They eat in silence, but after a while Clint starts looking around as if searching for something.
"What's wrong?" James asks.
"I don't know," he says with a frown. "Do we have a cat? I feel like there should be one. Something something cat."
It stabs right into the core of James' chest.
He stifles it quickly, between one blink and the next, releases the air trapped in his lungs carefully.
"We don't have pets," he says.
With a hum, Clint returns to his food, glancing at James and the rest of the kitchen from time to time, as if waiting for a cat to suddenly appear.
They're soon finished, and James announces he's going to check the security grid. It's fortunate that Clint doesn't insist to tag along, but perhaps he knows its layout. He knew about the basement and this is his house, after all.
So James walks out, focuses on keeping his steps steady, but barely manages to reach the tree line before everything flows out of him.
He slides to the ground against a tree, a sob ripping his chest open.
A fucking cat.
Something something cat.
He's never felt like one before, but now he does.
Like a stray cat.
He wants Clint back.
Clint stares at James' tense shoulders through the kitchen window as he walks away from the house toward the trees. It's understandable, that James wants time for himself. Clint has been watching him all day, and James has been giving a lot of effort to not seem affected by Clint's memory loss.
Well, if Clint were in his place, to have his partner not recognize him, he'd be kicking and screaming by now.
The cat though, that's significant, more than anything else. It's the thing that was enough for James to freeze completely.
Clint pulls the hem of the hoodie over his nose, takes a deep breath. It smells like safety, it fucking smells like home. He shudders, rubbing at his arms with his palms. There's been a yearning in him, ever since they landed, to huddle close to James, have James' arms tight around him.
He'd thought of asking for a hug, but would it be fair to James? Maybe it would just be cruel, and Clint doesn't want to take that chance.
James feels too important to him.
James feels like home.
A loud ringing fills Sam's ears before a heavy weight settles right on top of him. He opens his eyes with a groan, blinks against the bright light of mid day. Steve's sprawled half on top of him, reaching for the phone on the nightstand and Sam has to blink a few times to make sure he isn't dreaming.
"Yeah," Steve says, "got it. Sam's with me. We'll be right there."
He hangs up and drops the phone, but doesn't roll over. Instead, he leans on an elbow, right above Sam. His face is so close, his lips right there, and for a fraction of a second Sam is tempted to close that distance, throw caution to the wind.
"Sam?" Steve breaths, and Sam manages a mumbled sound.
Steve's eyes are dark blue like this, with light falling in from behind him.
"I'll find them," comes next in a raspy whisper, "and do horrible things to them."
Sam couldn't agree more.
"If you can't stomach that, I'll understand, I'll stay away from you."
Sam swallows, trying to make his tongue form sounds in his mouth. This is so not a conversation to be had without coffee.
"Fuck that, I'll help you," he manages.
The smile Steve gives him is relieved, and he buries his face against the side of Sam's neck. "Thanks," he says, and his breath tickles Sam's skin.
It's all he can do, to wrap his arms around Steve, pet the back of his head with a hum and ignore the butterflies squirming in his belly.
Something's shifted between them, the night of the fight, and Sam can't figure out what, because his own hidden hopes are impairing his objectivity. So for now, he'll do this, provide comfort, wait.
Sam and Steve join the others in the command room, and Sam beelines for the coffee cups set up on a table in a corner. Whoever's brought them in has all his gratitude.
Natasha's there in her pj's, hair in disarray and the largest mug Sam's ever seen, while the men in Rhodey's strike teams are giving her a wide berth. Yeah, that's right, the woman's even scarier while wearing Clint's purple pajamas. Oops, he wasn't supposed to know they're Clint's.
"How much sleep did you get?" Sam joins her to watch the video feed running on the large screen at the front of the room.
"About four hours. You?"
Sam checks the clock on the other wall. "Six?"
They share a commiserating groan.
On the screen, a grainy parking lot hosts a single person, male, carrying what looks like groceries. A van stops next to him, and he's taken away in less than ten seconds. Pros, then. The video restarts on a loop, just as Steve approaches with Rhodey.
"Norman Jones," Rhodey says, "works in the electronics lab here, he's in charge of maintenance for some of our weapons. They grabbed him twenty four hours before the attack, used his credentials to infiltrate the base."
"Vision lost track of him a few blocks away from that," Steve adds, pointing at the screen. "He's gone over there to see if there's something he can find that's not on camera."
"Wanda?" Natasha asks.
"Still in interrogation," Rhodey says.
"I'll join her," Natasha returns with a nod.
"What do we do?" Sam asks.
"You're going to Jones' house, see if there's anything there," Steve tells him. "I'll talk to our returning agents, and Rhodey's getting some sleep." That earns him a scoff, and Steve raises an eyebrow. "Don't even think about it," he warns, "you look like shit."
"Fuck you too, Rogers," Rhodey says, but he's betrayed by a yawn he's unsuccessful in stifling, "I outrank you."
"We're not flying."
Rhodey points a finger at Steve, but then he sighs. "Call if you need me," and he's gone.
Sam runs into Vision on his way out of the base.
"There was nothing at the parking lot, or nearby," he tells Sam.
"All right," Sam says. "Going to Jones' place, care to join me?"
Vision gestures an 'after you' and follows toward a car. Sam calls Steve with the update before buckling up. Next to him, Vision's purple body shimmers as parts of him change color enough to create the illusion of civvies on him and Sam has to blink a few times. He'll never get used to that.
"So," he says as he drives toward the nearby town, "if you were to help Clint, what would you do?"
Vision looks at him for a long moment. Sam keeps his eyes firmly on the road.
"I'd give his memories a nudge," comes back, and Sam nods, waiting for more information. "I read all the research on retrograde amnesia I could find," Vision continues. "Humans don't really know much about their own bodies."
Sam snorts at that.
"I'd take a look inside his head, loosen things up."
Sam turns a raised eyebrow at him. "Loosen things up."
"For a lack of a better word," Vision offers, and he sounds slightly amused. "He'd remember gradually, but at a quicker pace than if left as it is."
"So no fuckery."
"No fuckery, Sam. I know what the stone did to him last time, it retains events in its memory banks."
Ok, so it's doable, not as invasive as James seems to think it will be.
"I can help the other one, too."
"Don't," Sam returns, a little too fast, and he can feel Vision's eyes bore into the side of his head. "Don't go there," he whispers.
"All right," comes back with a nod.
"Clint might agree to it," he comments, and already feels a little vile for thinking of it, but he wants Clint whole, he wants James and Steve whole, and this entire thing has affected all of them in ways that gnaw deeply at Sam. Clint's been their focal point and now it feels hollow.
Vision says nothing.
Jones' house has one story, in the middle of a quiet suburb.
"He lives alone," Sam reads from his file after he parks in front, "no immediate family that we know of. His friends are other scientists on base, leftover from SHIELD."
Inside, the place is neat, but looks lived-in. It's pretty bland, nothing stands out. Sam walks around the space, opens doors and checks closets, while Vision stands in the middle of the living room. Sam watches him after he finishes his round, raises an eyebrow.
"There are listening devices hidden in here," Vision finally says, and then moves to retrieve a few bugs from light fixtures and behind picture frames.
"He was being watched," Sam surmises. "Can they hear us?"
"I disabled them," he answers and stares at the bundle of electronics in his palm for long seconds. "I have a lock on where the signal is transmitted."
"Ok, let's go."
They reach a router box a few blocks over, mounted on a power line pole. There isn't anything else to do from here, so they head back to the base, where Vision can track the signal more precisely.
It's an hour before Clint gives up and moves to the basement. He tracks James' movements with the sensors, but refrains from turning on the video feeds. James deserves the privacy. Clint just needs to know he's fine.
He busies himself with the multitude of weapons in there, and the bows are especially captivating. The custom arrows look incredibly expensive, not like something SHILED would provide. Did he go back to a life of crime? He's about to search for information, but he stops himself. Natasha, and James, and the doctor, they all insisted he needs to remember things by himself. He can do it, he can be good, he's promised James.
It's dark out when the monitoring system alerts Clint of James' approach, and he returns to the main floor, goes to rummage through the fridge for dinner. Salad, salad... a potato in a piece of cloth, what the hell... ah, a can of soup. Nope.
James' eyes are red rimmed, but his face is dry. He, apparently, is the one doing the more elaborate cooking around here, and Clint watches James work silently. Soon, the amazing smell of lasagna in the oven is filling the kitchen. Clint moves to the sink, starts washing the pile of dishes there. One of the kitchen windows is right above the sink, his reflection in it catching Clint's attention. Behind him, James stands, looking at Clint with so much hurt on his face, it flips Clint's stomach.
"So what's the plan after dinner?" he asks.
"We can watch a movie, or go to bed if you're tired."
"What do we usually do?"
"Variations of the same," James says as he sits at the table, "movies, music, books."
"Aren't we bored?" Clint looks over his shoulder at James and he receives a smile in return. It's small, barely there, but a smile nonetheless.
"Sometimes we go shoot at the trees."
"In the dark," Clint deadpans.
"I'm a very good shot," James returns.
A yawn overtakes Clint and he stifles it against his shoulder. "I guess you're gonna have to prove that tomorrow. Looks like it'll be an early night for me."
James hums in agreement, and Clint returns to the dishes.
The lasagna is monumentally delicious. He tells James as much, and he doesn't imagine the light dusting of pink on James' cheeks at the compliment. He looks good like that.
James takes the bedroom right across from the one that's clearly theirs. The bed feels too large to Clint, but James has left his door open, and Clint's followed suit. He drifts off wishing James was closer.
The house is dark and silent, its little creaks the only sounds that overlay Clint's steady breathing. He's asleep, but James waits a few more minutes between making his way into their bedroom. Clint is curled on his side, a hand dangling over the edge of the mattress. He's still wearing James' hoodie, and James takes a moment to pulls the sheets over Clint's bare feet. If he doesn't cover them, he'll wake up with them cold, and then shove them under James' thigh for warmth. And when Clint's feet are cold, they are fucking cold. Except... except this time Clint won't come to James.
He takes a deep breath before sliding quietly to the floor. He scoots as close as he can next to the bed, hugging his legs to his chest, and buries his chin between his knees.
James keeps watch.
Four days pass like this, with Clint going through each room of the house more methodically than his first run.
"I think I'm dreaming of missions I don't remember," Clint says after dinner, as he lays on the sofa, watching the ceiling.
"I can check some facts for you, or call Natasha?"
"Guess she's the better choice."
James leaves Clint on the phone with Natasha, goes for a perimeter round. When he returns, the phone is sitting on the corner of the coffee table, Clint laying in his previous position, and James wonders if Clint is finally starting to remember.
"I didn't use it for anything else," Clint says and James startles.
He must have been silent for longer than he'd thought. "What?"
"The phone. Talked to Tasha and that's it."
Oh. "Ok," he rasps.
"I promised I'd try, didn't I?"
He did, yes. James offers him a smile and hopes Clint can't see the way it wobbles. It's returned, though, and that gives James a spark of hope.
"So? What's the verdict?"
"I'm remembering," Clint's smile grows wider, and he sits up, wiggles his fingers in front of him. "It's jumbled up, people in wrong places, but it's part of missions."
James' knees go weak and he moves to sit in the armchair.
"That's great," he manages, and the corners of his lips are more firmly locked upwards. His smile is less forced.
But Clint's smile slowly turns into a frown as he watches James. He tilts his head to one side, then to the other, mouth gradually forming an 'o' and then he snaps his fingers.
"Got it!" he points with his index at James a few times before stumbling up and over the back of the sofa.
He rushes to the shelves in the corner, a mangled array of books in various stages of dust gathering, most of them well leafed through, dog eared and faded.
"It's been bugging me since yesterday," Clint says as he comes back with a wide book, hard covers scratched beyond recognition. "Figured out who you reminded me of, look," he grins, opens the book to a black and white picture of James and Steve from back in the war.
James raises both eyebrows at Clint.
"It's Bucky Barnes," he pokes at the page, "Captain America's sidekick!"
James blink. What does he say now?
"Didn't you read comic books when you were little?" Clint asks, sitting on the armrest next to James.
"Actually, no," James says and takes the book from Clint. His own face looks foreign to him. "But I know about history."
"Aw, James, no," Clint says, leaning into him. "We gotta get you some. Oh, wait," he reaches over to turn the page, points at a line, "his name was James, too."
Clint laughs like it's funny. Well, it is, a little bit, and it's good to hear his laughter. Steve would make his pinched face if he were here, Sam would laugh his ass off at James. Heh, Natasha would give Clint even more to chuckle about. Well, James can, too.
"Hm, you know what? My friend's name growing up was Steve."
Clint gives him a bright look, eyes wide. "No way."
"Yes," James smiles. "He kept running his mouth where he shouldn't, got his ass kicked all the time."
He remembers little about being children with Steve, but he knows the general events, partially remembered, most of them from Steve's stories.
"What's he grown up to do?"
"He's a captain, fighting the fight."
Clint smacks at his shoulder. "Stop messing with me," he says, but he's still laughing.
James turns the page back to the photograph. It's one that's in the Smithsonian exhibit also, a still of Steve and him overlooking a camp. They were exhausted that day, tired after tracking through woods for hours, but the reporters had insisted. The boys were falling off their feet, so he and Steve got to sit for a few pictures. James doesn't recognize the man of then.
"You know what's different," Clint says, a lot more quietly, "between you and him?" and James offers a questioning hum. "Your eyes," Clint says.
It makes James look up at him.
"Yours are alive, his are dead."
James stills. Clint is still looking at him, at his eyes actually, for long seconds. His hand comes up, fingers nearing James' cheek, but he withdraws it at the last moment, stands up quickly.
The book creaks where James is holding it too tightly, and he is painfully aware of how fast his heart beats in his chest.
Clint , he wants to scream, come back, please .
"I'm turning in," Clint says, disappears up the stairs.
James follows shortly, waits for Clint to fall asleep as always, sitting on the edge of the bed in the spare bedroom. If he concentrates hard enough, he can almost make out Clint's inhales and exhales, but it's more in his head than in his ears.
A jolt of pain runs along inside his skull from one temple toward the back. It's gone by the time James' gasp dissipates, one neural connection restored, one single memory brought forth. Oh, but he sees it with such clarity. It's him and Steve, smaller than anything, bony arms thin as sticks, black and blue all over. Steve is crying, rubbing his nose on his sleeve, and Bucky can barely hold it back as he wraps his handkerchief around Steve's scraped knee. Ma's gonna yell, Steve's ma's gonna yell. Bucky offers to run off with Steve and that sends them laughing, arms around each other. It's the first hug he's gotten from Steve, the very first ever.
James blinks, wipes the wetness off his cheek.
Does Steve feel hollow when James can't remember him? Is it just as agonizing for him to be forgotten?
He covers his mouth with both hands, stifles the sounds spilling from his lips, pushing and pushing behind his eyelids, making everything overflow.
What the hell is Clint doing... he keeps himself motionless, listening to the sounds James makes as he retreats to the other bedroom. The doors are still open, and that makes Clint feel closer to James. He lets out a long exhale through his nose, fixes his eyes on the dark ceiling, locks his body into stillness.
He's almost kissed James earlier. It's uncanny, this need for him. Clint has never felt anything like it, and it scares him somewhat. He wonders if James feels it, too.
He wants to remember so badly, it almost hurts. If this is what it feels like, even without touching, even without remembering... something presses inside of Clint's chest, expands achingly from within until he can almost taste it.
A gasp, a pause. It's unmistakable, what he hears. He doesn't dare move, but his chest is heaving in tandem with James' muffled inhales.
Clint is off the bed before he can talk himself out of it, stops in front of James. And his hands twitch to touch, pull at him to hold on tightly, to comfort, the draw of muscle memory stronger than the blankness his mind provides.
The darkness shifts in front of James soundlessly. Clint is there, and his fingers touch James' temple before they slide through his hair. He presses against it, unable to resist.
It calms the sobs swirling in his chest, until they taper off into a shaky exhale. It's a while before he dares look up, but Clint doesn't stop the caresses until their eyes meet. It's then that Clint moves his hand to James' shoulder, down his arm, grips his fingers.
"Come on," he whispers, tugs him up.
James follows easily, into the other bedroom, slides into bed when Clint pushes him toward it. Clint lies down, too, facing him, and he rests his palm over James' cheek, rubs the tears away with his thumb.
"How do we sleep together?" Clint asks quietly.
James swallows. "Sometimes like this," and he leans in, rests their foreheads together.
With a hum, Clint scoots closer until their knees touch. Calmness grows stronger around them, and James' heartbeat steadies to a low thrum for the first time in days. Clint's hand slides down the back of his neck, rubs at his shoulder soothingly, and James suddenly feels just how tight his muscles are. He lets the warmth of Clint's palm bleed it away, allows himself to relax.
"You can..." Clint starts, but he pauses, the hand on James' back pressing tightly into his muscles, "you can sleep here from now on."
His words are hushed, his breath tickling at James' lips.
"Ok," he rasps.
Clint inhales. "Thank you."
"You don't have to thank me," James returns, wraps his metal arm around Clint's middle. Clint doesn't push him away.
"I can see how hard this is on you," comes next and James takes a deep breath. "I don't want to make it harder," Clint whispers.
James blinks his eyes open, leans his head back to look at Clint.
"You want me to sleep here?"
"Uh... yeah?" There's a small frown of confusion forming on Clint's forehead.
"Oh." It pulls a smile out of Clint and James blurts it out, doesn't even register the words until they're out of his mouth and caught by Clint's ears. "I'd do anything for you."
Clint's smile doesn't falter, even though he blinks in surprise.
"Then, can I ask you something?"
James offers a nod.
"If I don't... if I can't..." He draws a breath then, and it feels shaky. "Would you be willing to start over? Teach me about us?"
It sends James' heart into frantic beats against his ribcage again. He hadn't dared hope Clint might consider this.
"Yes." There's no question about it, Clint's done the same for James over and over. "Of course."
"Good." Clint smiles at him again, snuggles closer.
Sleep settles over James without notice, Clint's warmth soothing against him, his fingers gentle as they trail down his spine.
It's somewhere between breakfast and lunch, so the mess hall is sparsely populated. The morning had unfolded around another unsuccessful attempt of Vision's to track down Jones' kidnappers and Sam's feeling pretty weighted down by now.
He watches Steve sitting next to him from the corner of his eye, pushing his food around, lost in thought. Steve's knee rests against Sam's, and Sam is trying very hard not to shift closer and press their entire sides together. Thing is, Sam doesn't know what to make of this. Steve's not one big on touching people. Of course, he'll shake hands or pat backs, but in his personal time he's reserved. Now though, a week after the intrusion, Sam's found himself at the end of a lot of contact. It's not much, nothing out of the way in which close friends share space together, but it's a lot more than before.
He doesn't dare ask Steve about it. Despite Sam's best efforts, this new behavior is giving him hope, and he doesn't to crush it, not just yet. So he hasn't been by Steve's room in the last five days either.
Natasha sits down across from them, pulling Sam out of his musings.
"We finished the interrogations," she says, takes a sip out of the mug she's brought over. It smells like tea.
"And?" Steve asks.
"They know nothing," Natasha grits. "Same story, they were each hired via their own contacts, anonymous source, money trail goes cold. Their objective was to go in, retrieve a package, go out."
"Without knowing what the package was," Sam huffs. It's been the same with all their prisoners.
Natasha nods and Steve rubs his hands over his face.
"We need to speak to the leader," she continues.
"He's in a coma," comes from Steve as he looks up at her.
"Yes," Natasha returns, "but in the last twenty four hours his cerebral activity has increased. Wanda thinks she can get in."
Sam's eyebrows raise at that. The girl is already scary enough without being able to do that on top of everything.
"If it's too much for her--" Steve starts, but Natasha raises a palm.
"She can do it, but she needs rest first."
Steve ponders this for long moments, but eventually he nods. "Ok."
"How was it on your end?"
"Rhodey and I finished talking to the rest of our agents, nobody looks suspicious," Steve says. "The biometric sensor system from Stark didn't read any insincerity."
Natasha hums in understanding before turning to Sam.
"We found another router near the parking lot Jones was taken from," Sam says. "Vision's trying to track down the receivers, but they must have a very good hacker on their side. Vision's checked all broadcast frequencies in the area, all technology looks man made."
"So no aliens," Natasha says and Steve snorts. "No word from Fury or Coulson either."
"Tony doesn't know what could they possibly want from the vault," Steve adds, leaning back. "Everything left behind is disassembled crap, according to him. I had someone in research check it out, they agree."
They spend a few moments in silence, staring at the table between them.
"Did you speak to him?" Natasha asks quietly.
Sam shakes his head, but Steve just sits there unmoving, eyes unfocused.
"Did you talk to James at least?"
"Yeah," Sam says, "they need groceries. I'll arrange a delivery."
"Why don't you go down there instead?" Natasha returns and that makes Steve look up. "It might help jog his memory."
Steve looks unconvinced, ready to refuse, and Sam opens his mouth to counter, but Natasha speaks first.
"There's nothing to do here but wait. I'll reach out to Fury in the meantime, so go there for a couple of days. Least you can do is let Clint make fun of you for looking like Captain America," she adds with a small smile.
A beat, but Steve matches it. It's the first one in days, and Sam takes a deep breath. Nat's told them all about Clint associating James' face with the historic figure of Sgt. Barnes. It's funny and sad at the same time, but he'd rather focus on the former.
"I'll team up with him," Sam nudges Steve with his elbow, "laugh at your fossil asses."
James pockets his phone before calling for Clint. His answer comes from upstairs and James follows his voice into their room. The image he meets stops him in his tracks, thins out his inhale as it lodges somewhere in the back of his throat.
Clint is there shirtless, trying to reach places on his back as he spreads medicine on his skin. There are bruises on his arms and shoulders from the fight, already starting to yellow, but what draws James' attention are the ugly marks left behind by the tasers, in two places on his back. It's the first time he's seeing them, Clint had been adamant he can handle applying the cream himself. It never fails to hurt when Clint is injured.
"Hey," Clint says, "what's up?"
James moves forward, extends a hand for the medicine tube. Clint squints his eyes at him, already stubborn, but James can be more persistent. They've had bets in the past. He bends his fingers in a 'gimme' gesture, and Clint scowls. Oh... perhaps Clint doesn't want James to touch him, he's been too absorbed by the bruising, by the need to care after him, to consider this.
"Sorry," he whispers, withdrawing his hand.
Clint's frown falls away as his eyes widen with realization, and it makes James feel naked. But then the tube is slapped into James' hand and Clint turns around. It takes a moment, but James recovers, even though his fingers want to tremble as they touch skin. He concentrates on the scabbing wounds, matches his breathing to the rise and fall of Clint's chest, lets the task clear his head. Clint is still alive, and willing to stay with James, even if he doesn't remember. This new sort of hope is a little twisted, but palpable.
"How do you feel about some visitors?" James asks while Clint retrieves a t-shirt, and he turns to James with a questioning look. "Two friends, Steve and Sam."
"Your childhood friend Steve?"
James hums with a nod. "He's your friend, too. Actually, you've known Steve longer than you've known me."
"Huh," Clint says, and takes the shirt James hands over. "And Sam?"
"Unexpectedly, he shares your sense of humor. You wouldn't think by looking at him, he appears to be an adult," he returns with a smirk.
Clint rolls his eyes, smacking the back of his hand on James' arm. "You think you're funny."
"I know I am," James quips. This is familiar, and it sends warmth creeping under his skin.
"All right," Clint smiles, his eyes soft in the morning light.
James' heart skips a beat. "Just don't tease Steve too much, ok?"
"Why would I do that?"
"Oh, you'll see."
The midday sky stretches blue ahead of them, and Sam lets himself be drawn by its expanse, lets his mind rest from the chaos of the past few days. The last time he had seen Clint, he was unconscious, on a gurney, being rushed away. He's giddy. Next to him in the pilot seat, Steve clears his throat. He's laying back, fingers loose on his thighs. He hasn't seen Clint either, Sam realizes.
"I don't get it," Steve says, "I can't see it," and the frustration is palpable in his voice.
"You need a break," Sam returns, "take your mind off of things."
Steve's jaw clenches, his fingers fisting the fabric of his pants. He is silent for a long while, and Sam lets him, because what else can he say right now? He's just as upset.
"Know what's funny," Steve says, voice breaking, "Clint's best at that, clearing my head."
Sam swallows. He reaches out, squeezes at Steve's shoulder before he can stop himself. But he's not shaken off. Instead, Steve's own hand presses over Sam's fingers.
"You know those trees that you can see from the kitchen?" Steve rasps and Sam nods with a hum. "When I needed it, I called him, and he used to talk about the damn weather and those fucking trees," he lets out a wobbly breath. "But it worked, pulled me out of my head."
"Vision can help him," Sam blurts and Steve looks at him with a frown.
"Sam--" he starts, but Sam shakes his head.
"I just think we should tell Clint, let him make his own choice."
Steve blinks slowly, considers this for long moments. "Ok, I'll keep Bucky distracted so you can talk to Clint."
Sam lets out a relieved breath.
"But, Sam," Steve continues, "if Clint agrees, we don't go behind Bucky's back."
"Of course," he nods. He will never admit he's been ready to do just that, should it have been necessary. But he wants Clint back. "He helps me, too, you know," Sam adds quietly. "He lets me rant about things, never judges, stops me when I veer off."
Steve squeezes Sam's hand harder in sympathy, and Sam lets out a long exhale through his nose.
"I don't know how he finds the strength to carry all our burdens," Sam breathes, and this time it trembles along with the blurring settling over his eyes. Because that's what Clint's been doing, he's been supporting them.
Sam leans back in his seat, turns his head away. This is not the time to bawl. Steve catches his hand though, as he shifts away. It's surprising enough that his breath hitches in his throat. Clint would know what to make of this, Clint notices and has plenty insight into a lot of things, but right now he is worlds away.
So for the moment Sam lets Steve dangle their arms between the seats, fingers intertwined. He soaks up the warmth, ignoring the mix of excitement and fear that sends his heart pounding against his ribs.
"Do they hand these out now instead of cars?" Clint asks as the back door of the quinjet slides open.
Sam and Steve walk out, introductions are made, and then Steve moves to hand out the boxes of groceries they've brought. He also extends a duffel at James.
"Had it cleaned," he says, and it must be James' gear.
"Did you put trackers on it?" James grumbles.
Steve shakes his head with a 'no' just as Sam rolls his eyes.
"He did, but I took them out," Sam says and Steve throws him a dirty look.
From the side, Clint eyes them all curiously. James just hopes that he's going to start remembering, and not put things together through observation alone.
They carry everything inside, and it's a little too much food, but James won't comment. He understands being worried.
Clint pokes at James' side as he watches Steve and Sam climbing up the stairs to unpack. "He really looks like Captain America," he whispers.
Clint shakes his head, incredulous expression on his face. "What are the chances..."
James shrugs, moves to the kitchen to shelf things away. Luckily, Clint doesn't press, and he breathes in relief.
Five minutes later, just as the other two return, 'Star Spangled Man' blares. James looks up to see Steve frozen in the kitchen doorway, a look so comical on his face that it swirls through James unexpectedly. He can't stop the bubbling laughter, and he shakes with it so hard, that he has to lean into the table. Next to Steve, Sam's already taking pictures with his phone. Behind them, Clint grins widely, throwing a thumbs up James' way.
Fuck, this is so like him, that James' heart flips painfully in his chest.
"So Tasha says it's safe to assume we're all working for SHIELD," Clint says as they move to the living room after lunch. Steve opens his mouth, but Clint raises a hand. "I know she's not telling me everything, I get it, gotta remember, but for confidentiality's sake, she said SHIELD topics are open for discussion."
"Yeah," Steve nods.
James sits in the armchair, Steve and Sam take the sofa while Clint waves his arms, a giddy smile forming on his lips.
"Good," he returns, "cos I just gotta say, man," he shakes his head with a grin, "director Carter would've had a field day with you."
Steve chokes on air and Sam pats him on the back.
"You knew her?" Sam asks.
"Yep," Clint nods, "she offered me my job. Still don't know why she took pity on a broken kid with a bow and a stick."
"How did that happen?" James asks, because Clint's never told him this and curiosity's getting the better of him.
"Well," Clint sits on the coffee table, shoulders slumping, "you know I was in the circus?" It's met with acknowledgements, so he continues. "Took some shady jobs after that, got caught." Clint shakes his head with a small laugh. "I thought I was saving an innocent woman's life, but then she knocked me over the head and I woke up at SHIELD. Turns out I saved Tasha's mission," he raises his eyebrows along with his hands. "Peggy Carter took an interest in me and here I am."
Steve smiles and James holds his breath.
"What was she like?" Steve asks.
"Phoah," Clint mock shudders, "worse than Tasha."
"Nobody's worse than Tasha," Sam laughs.
"Carter was," Clint points a finger at him, but then his face takes a wistful note. "They've been like second parents to me," he adds with a small smile, "in a drill sergeant kind of way."
"They?" and Steve shifts to the edge of the sofa.
"Yeah, her and her..." Clint pauses, looking between the three of them, "partner." He stops with a frown.
James can see Steve vibrating in his seat, because nobody talks about who Peggy had married, who it was that kept her company throughout her life. It's one of the best kept secrets of the century, and James knows this because he's checked it for himself. Historians are speculating wildly about it, and even with Alzheimer's, Peggy's not divulging anything. Clint, however, seems to know this. James exchanges a look with Steve, and it's clear Steve understands, just as James does, that if Clint's never said anything, it's because that's not his secret to tell.
"Don't ask me who it was," Clint anticipates.
Steve swallows with a nod, and it looks painful from where James is watching him. He wonders if that partner is still alive, wonders about their pain of being forgotten, and he shivers with it, more so when he realizes that the only ones Steve's known from before don't really remember him either. James is getting better, true, but the thought of what Steve must have been going through turns his stomach.
"So hey," Sam says, distracting Clint by standing up, "think I can use one of your bows again?"
"Again?" Clint grins, eyes sparkling. It seems Clint's always game about both showing off and teaching them about archery, even without the memories.
A trip to the basement, and a few minutes later Sam and Clint walk out of the house, laden with bows and arrows.
Steve leans back, eyes closed, and James takes a moment to study his face. He looks tired.
"I understand," he rasps. With a blink, Steve looks at him without moving. James leans forward, elbows on knees. "How it is to be forgotten."
Steve closes his eyes at that, like it pains him to hear it.
"I'm sorry," James continues, because he's left this unsaid for too long, and Steve deserves the courtesy.
"Not your fault," comes back in a whisper.
"No, I mean to apologize. Clint's trying to learn about me, but I hid from you."
With both eyebrows raised, Steve turns to James, straightens in his seat. He opens and closes his mouth a few times before finally finding his words. "That's fine."
"No, it's not," James insists. "I don't think I could take it if Clint were to run off now."
"This is different," Steve says, "he has Tasha to steer him, but you had no one you could trust. It's fine," he presses.
James' shoulders slump. "But I'm still sorry," he says.
"Already forgiven," Steve counters, the corners of his mouth raising wobbly.
James is pretty sure the smile he offers in return is bitter, but Steve says nothing of it. The seconds tick away, and the silence between them becomes thicker somehow.
Sam nocks an arrows, takes aim and steadies himself before releasing. It lands on the side of the target hanging off the tree instead of the center, where he'd wanted.
"That's pretty good," Clint comments.
Sam smiles. "Well, it's my second try, and last time it was James showing me."
"Huh," Clint tips his chin up. "Where was I?"
Ugh. Sam should not put his foot in mouth like this in the near future. "Getting attacked," he says, pointing at Clint's head.
It makes Clint pat the back of his own head with a wince, but he doesn't question Sam further, like Sam's expected. Instead, Clint lines his own shot, hits the target dead center. He winks at Sam, nudges him to draw again. They continue in silence for a while, and Sam's getting better, but his arms are starting to hurt worse than when maneuvering his wings.
"So how are you holding up?" Sam asks, leaning against a tree.
Clint breathes in and out, releases another arrow. "It's weird," he says. "It's like I know things, but I don't know them."
Sam nods, waits patiently because it sounds like Clint isn't finished.
Another shot, and another.
"You know what the worst thing is?" Clint finally turns to Sam. "There's this beautiful man that I love and I keep hurting him," he sucks in a breath, gestures toward the house.
"You love him," Sam repeats.
Clint stills, blinks once. "I do," he breathes, eyes wide. "Wow, I really do."
It brings a smile to Sam's lips, and he moves closer, grips at Clint's shoulder.
"Look," he says, seizing the opportunity, "what if I told you there is a way for you to remember faster?"
Clint regards him for a few seconds and it makes Sam want to squirm on the spot. "What's the catch?"
"If you had your memories, you wouldn't go near that in a thousand years." Sam has considered lying, but that wouldn't do anyone any good. As he's told Steve, the best thing is to let Clint decide for himself, but nobody can fault Sam for hoping that Clint accepts the help.
With a hum, Clint turns back to the target, and Sam steps away. He watches Clint shoot until the arrows in the quiver next to him are all gone and the target looks like a porcupine.
"James doesn't want me to do this," Clint finally says.
"He is trying to protect you," Sam tells him, and joins Clint when he walks toward the tree with the target.
They pull out arrows in silence. Sam can't decipher anything on Clint's face, all his tells carefully hidden. His muscles are slack, no twitch visible, no movement of his features betraying what he's thinking. It's unnerving.
"I'll talk to Tasha," Clint says, squeezes at Sam's arm with a small smile. "Thank you."
All Sam can do is nod and hope.
James moves to the kitchen, starts pulling out ingredients for dinner in an attempt to distract himself. Steve joins him and they both end up watching Clint outside as he juggles arrows while Sam waves his arms in a frenzy. Steve lets out a small huff of laughter.
"It's still him," he says.
"Yeah," James mumbles and turns to the fridge.
"It's not your fault, you know," comes next from Steve and James stills.
Of course it's not his fault. There is always a chance something will happen to all of them, given their lives and occupation, and it will never be one of their faults, unless they actively betray each other. It appears, though, that Steve is really sucking up the guilt these days.
"Like it's not yours that I fell," James returns carefully.
Behind him, Steve shifts, but then the air goes motionless, no other sounds follow. He turns back, and is met with so much sorrow on Steve's face, that his knees go weak.
Sam was right and this is really not something James is good at fixing. He wishes Clint were here to help.
He chews at his lip, trying to come up with something to say. He finds nothing, so he moves closer, grips onto Steve's shoulders. He presses a kiss on Steve's cheek before wrapping himself around Steve, squeezes as tight as he can. A beat, and with a long exhale, Steve's arms come around James as well.
It's a while before they let go of each other, but James doesn't move away. Instead, he takes hold of Steve's face, keeps Steve from looking away.
"I thought we had this covered," he says and Steve sighs.
"I can't help it," comes back in a mumble.
James hums. "I remembered something," he offers. Steve looks at him expectingly and James nods. "We were covered in bruises, your knee was hurt, and we planned to run away to New Jersey."
Steve shakes with a choked off half-laugh, and his fingers lock around James' wrists.
"Ma whooped our asses," he says, "and when Mrs. Barnes came home and you complained, she took us both over her knee again." He laughs fully, eyes wet, and it pulls smile a from James. "We missed school for two days and never tried to climb the fence into the junkyard again."
"Is that what we did?"
"Yeah," Steve sniffs, and a fat tear rolls down his cheek.
James wipes it off. "Whose fault was it that day?"
"Oh, that one was all you," Steve is still laughing lightly, and James joins in, keeps swiping through his tears.
"Hey, punk," James whispers, "it's still not your fault." Steve draws in a breath, his smile fading.
"No. Stop that," James moves his hands, interlocks his fingers around the back of Steve's head. "It's not," he presses, "but if you insist, and if you need it, you got my forgiveness."
Another sniff, and Steve's shoulders slump.
"Damn right," James mutters, "now stop hogging all the stupid. Gotta leave some for me."
Steve snorts with another huff, and James lets him go, shoves a tissue at him.
"Thanks," Steve rasps.
With a roll of his eyes, James ruffles his hair, then turns back to the fridge. He hopes it will get through Steve's thick skull this time.
Clint brings the phone back down to James before jumping in the shower. Tasha has confirmed, there is a way to do this faster, but James won't like it. Hell, Tasha doesn't like it, she's made that abundantly clear. She hasn't given him details, but whatever's happened before, it's serious enough to make her bring out her soft voice, the one that creeps under his skin, through his muscles, until it settles right inside his bones and shakes him from within.
He turns his face into the spray of water, goes through the facts one by one. There is a man named Vision that holds an item that can help Clint. There is James that is suffering, but he doesn't want the item used on Clint. And then there is Clint who doesn't know what the fuck he's doing.
When he was little, Barney made him pancakes once. They were home alone, cold and hungry, their parents gone for two days straight. Barney got his ass kicked so hard for messing up the kitchen. But then, a short while later, he did again, for Clint, who had a broken arm and couldn't stop crying. Idiot got another beating. Clint huffs. This isn't that much different.
It's a choice between hurting himself and soothing James.
He lets out a shaky breath before turning the water off. He's going to wait, for now, but if he isn't progressing, it's no choice at all.
Thing is, though, if he damages himself in the process, if this breaks him to pieces, if it kills him... it's going to cause James much more pain that the current situation.
Clint needs more information.
He calls Tasha again after dinner, he wants to meet this Vision.
Sam is curled up on his side when Steve enters the bedroom after his shower. He moves quietly for a while, the rustle of clothes soft in the silence, before he slides in bed behind Sam.
A beat, and then there's warmth pressed along Sam's back, Steve's arm coming around his middle. Sam's breath gets stuck in his throat and he has to force it out. It resounds in the darkness a little too loudly, but Steve says nothing, just pulls Sam closer.
He's baffled. Steve hasn't given any indication he might want to start something with Sam. The thing that's changed between them hasn't expanded into their interactions, except for the way Steve gets touchy when they're alone. Is this what Steve is like when it comes to his close friends?
It's the most reasonable explanation, and even though it makes Sam happy he could be that sort of friend, it also hurts deeply, crushes his hopes.
His throat is dry, but Sam forces himself to stop thinking about it. Instead, he leans into the warmth, lets it carry him into sleep.
James blinks his eyes open against the morning light, and his hand finds its way unconsciously into Clint's hair, where he's still sleeping sprawled all over James, cheek pressed right in the middle of his chest. Clint squirms and James shushes him softly, continues the caresses. For a moment, he forgets that Clint's forgotten, and the reminder sets off his heart to pound against his ribs.
With a mumbled sound, Clint raises his head, blinks sleepily at him. James' lips burn with the need to kiss him, so he tries to shake it away.
"I'll make us coffee," James says, gently nudges Clint off.
He brushes his teeth and washes his face before stepping down. The house is silent, Sam and Steve still asleep in the other room. Something weird is going on between those two, but James doesn't have the energy to spare it any more thoughts right now.
Clint joins him just as the coffee maker stops dripping, and James fills two mugs, hands one over.
The way Clint moves around him, the slant of the light coming in through the windows, the smell of the kitchen, the warm tingle of his skin, it's all so normal, so familiar, like any other day he's woken up next to Clint in the last year.
The chain is tangled around his neck and he pulls it off, untwists it from around the pendant before sliding it back on.
"Oh," Clint says from where he's leaning against the counter next to James. "It's not dog tags, it's cat-tags!"
James stifles the chuckle and growls at Clint like usual, because that always brings Clint mirth. As expected, Clint laughs. It's short, but it lights up his entire face.
"Kitty," Clint returns, eyes bright, and the air rushes out of James' lungs.
Is it... is this...
"You sound just like this cat that kept coming by when I lived in New York, years back," Clint adds, smile on his face.
Everything fucking hurts, every cell on his skin stretched taught. The inside of his throat closes painfully and the sudden burn behind his eyes stabs sharply into the middle of his forehead.
Clint's face blurs.
A mug lands on the counter with a clatter.
"No," he hears, muffled, "no no no, fuck! James, look at me!"
Clint's fingers are warm on his face and James draws air in too short gasps.
"Please, please, no..."
Clint pulls at him, until James' face is pressed against his neck, Clint's fingers fisted in his hair. He inhales, lips grazing the skin there, and he clutches back at Clint.
"I'll fix this," Clint says around a sob.
Why the fuck is Clint crying...
"I promise, I'll remember."
But James shakes with it, and the tears don't stop, no matter how hard he squeezes his eyelids shut, no matter how tightly he grips at Clint.
James sits at the table while Clint refills their mugs. They've both had to wash their faces at the kitchen sink, but Clint's eyes are still red around the edges. James suspects his are as well. Fortunately, they didn't wake the others.
Clint brings over the coffees, takes a seat next to James. He extends a hand on the table top, and James places his flesh one over it, receives a squeeze in return. He watches Clint's thumb run rhythmically over his knuckles, unable to form any coherent thought.
"James," Clint says, voice hushed, and he looks up.
Clint clasps James' hand with both of his, then lifts it to his lips. Something expands inside James and he inhales with it.
"Even if I don't remember," Clint continues, lowering their hands back, "I still love you."
It forces more air in James' lungs, and the exhale trembles. Relief.
"I feel it," Clint pats his own chest, "somehow. I know it."
James nods, shakily. "I love you, too."
Clint smiles for a moment, but then he grows serious, swallows. Apprehension fills James and he's tempted for half a second to cover his ears.
"I'm told there's a man, Vision," Clint says, "that can help me."
James' jaw clenches painfully, and Clint's fingers come up to rub at the side of his face. He forces himself to relax, breathes in through his nose.
"I asked Tasha to bring him here when she can," Clint continues, doesn't stop the caress and James leans into it. "She's busy interrogating whoever attacked us, but once she's free, we can set it up."
An exhale rushes out of him, and James presses his metal fingers against Clint's hand. He pulls it away to place a kiss on his palm, squeezes his fingers. "I can have Steve send him the coordinates when he wakes up. I'm sure Vision can make his way here on his own."
"I know you don't want this," Clint returns, shoulders slumping.
James shakes his head. "I don't, but if this is what you really want, I'll help you."
It earns him a smile. "Thank you," Clint whispers. He shifts then, drinks from his cup and James follows suit. "What can you tell me about him?"
"Well, he's an android, for one."
Clint's eyebrows shoot up his forehead.
"And from what you're told me, his worth has been weighed by the powers of the gods."
Clint snorts. "I did not say that."
"Not in those words, no," James returns and he allows a smile to pull at the corners of his lips. "But his virtue is not in question. It's the stone I don't trust."
"The stone," Clint repeats.
"He carries it here," James places an index finger at the center of his own forehead. "I can't explain it properly right now, but it's the thing that..." he waves his hand in the air, helpless in finding the right words.
"I get it," Clint says.
"Yeah," James breathes.
A door opens, followed by footsteps down the stairs. Sam and Steve soon make their way into the kitchen, and mumbled good mornings are exchanged. The both of them huddle over the coffee maker, Sam brings over mugs, Steve pours sugar, Sam gets the coffee, and they're moving with ease and comfort around each other.
Clint watches them with interest, raises his eyebrows at James. "They make a nice c--"
James stops Clint with his flesh fingers over his mouth. This is really not the time to out Sam. He shakes his head at Clint, and that's when Steve turns around. He looks at them with a frown before sitting down.
"I don't wanna know," he says, buries his nose in his mug.
James rolls his eyes at him, lets go of Clint. Behind Steve, Sam eyes them all with an expression of mild panic on his face. It takes maybe five seconds for Clint to realize what's going on, as he looks between Sam and Steve. His mouth forms an 'o' that he turns at James. All James can do is shrug, just as Sam rubs at his forehead with a sigh.
Vision arrives right before noon. He lands in front of the house, stands there patiently under the gaze of the other four gathered on the porch.
Clint breathes. "He's..."
"Purple," Steve says.
"I like purple," Clint returns.
"We know," comes back in unison, and Clint rolls his shoulders.
He makes his way down, approaches carefully. There's a yellow gem glinting in sunlight on Vision's forehead and Clint studies it as he walks. It's giving him goosebumps.
"Hi," he says.
"Hi," Vision repeats.
Seconds tick away as they look at each other and Clint's unsure how to continue. But then Vision raises a fist in front of him, knuckles facing Clint.
"Purple bros," he says.
It pulls a relieved exhale out of Clint. He bumps his own fist against the other's. "So I know you."
"Yes," comes back with a tilt of Vision's head.
"How would this work?" Clint asks.
Vision's irises shift, their mechanical components spinning before they settle back.
"I'll first look inside your head," he says, "and if possible nudge you to remember faster. It will take days instead of months."
"So it might not work after all," Clint comments.
It's met with a nod. "It might not."
Clint swallows. "What are the chances you'll turn me into a vegetable?"
Vision blinks. "Approximately 4.72 percent."
It's... it's better than he's thought. And there is something genuine about Vision, something other worldly that settles in Clint's gut with confidence. He looks behind him, smiles at James.
"Do it now," he says, turning back at Vision.
Footsteps pound down the wooden stairs of the porch, and Vision's hands are unexpectedly warm as they grip the sides of Clint's face. A cold jolt runs runs from the middle of his forehead all the way to the back of his neck, down his spine.
There's dust. Clouds upon clouds of fine particles suspended in the air. Something pulls, and sound stretches slowly back in, voices intertwined, until the dust forms images, and Clint spins.
Something calls his name. It's right behind him, vibrating, ominous. Clint turns slowly, floating in the imponderability of space. Thanos sits there, on his throne of stone, weaving webs of wars. Oh. Loki's been terrified of that one.
He shifts away, back to the other images, listens to the other sounds. Most of them are rushing by too quickly to be caught, but he finally takes hold of one.
Kitty... he's going back home.
And Clint lets himself slide through the dust.
Warm, known hands grip at his shoulders.
He blinks against the blue of the sky, then around him, but the world sways.
"Hey, look at me," James' voice draws his attention.
Clint smiles at him. "Hey..." He leans heavily against James, knees week.
James catches him, and lowers them both to the ground, pulls Clint close against his chest. Clint exhales, leaning his forehead on James' shoulder.
"How long?" he rasps.
"Four and a half seconds," Vision's voice floats from above.
"Felt like longer," Clint mumbles, just as Sam and Steve stop near them.
James' hands move then, push Clint's face up, and the look in James' eyes makes Clint shudder.
"I'm ok," he says, "I'm ok. I remember things."
A sharp intake of breath, and James stills. "Really?"
Clint offers him a smile, and then he leans in, lips over James' ear.
"Yes, kitty," he whispers as low as possible. This is theirs, and he doesn't want to share it.
James trembles as he exhales at the words, and Clint backs up to look at him. The smile that James gives him, eyes fluid in sunlight, is dazzling.
He wonders why he's never noticed James' eyes like this before, but then lips are on his, and Clint's been missing this without knowing it. Everything else can wait.
Vision leaves shortly after making sure Clint's fine, and Sam drags Steve away to go fetch Natasha. Clint throws him a grateful look as they walk out the door.
"You scared the shit out of me," James rasps from behind him, and Clint turns around, leans against the wall of the hallway.
"Sorry," he says as James' palms come to rest on either side of his head. He wraps his fingers around James' hips, pulls him closer. "Vision says it will be a few days before I get everything back. But I know Russia, and the bunker, and the first time we kissed."
James' face softens. "What else," he breathes.
"Reading Dune, dancing in the living room," Clint leans in to press their cheeks together, "your screams."
With a shiver, James lowers his forehead to Clint's shoulder.
"I'm sorry this happened," Clint adds. "I'm sorry you had to suffer through it."
James nods before straightening to look at Clint. "You're back now. And you were still you."
It pulls a smile out of Clint. James' eyes are shining like electrified steel in the shade of the hallway, piercing through Clint right into his core. How has he never noticed...
"James," he whispers, "your eyes. They really are alive."
The quinjet lands back just as dusk settles in.
Clint hugs Natasha the moment she's inside, and she allows it for two whole seconds before she starts smacking at his shoulder with a hiss. Clint laughs, despite her glare. But she's happy about it, given the way the corners of her lips curl slightly upwards.
She's brining news. Wanda's foray into the comatose attacker's head brought forth a bunch of new information. They've found Jones being held in a run down warehouse a couple of towns over, badly hurt but still breathing. Wanda's also learned why breaking into the vault was important.
"They thought we were holding Strucker in there," Natasha huffs, arms crossed, as they all sit around the kitchen table.
"But he's dead," Steve gapes.
"Apparently these guys never got the message. They're in a small compound out here," she adds, pulling a satellite image of mountain terrain out of the folder she's brought. "And it's so few of them, they had to hire mercs for the job."
Clint groans and Sam sighs.
"We should move in asap, use non-lethal force. I wanna know why they weren't in Strucker's list of facilities, how they got to us undetected, what software they used that Vision couldn't find," she finishes.
"All right," Steve says. "Lift off in thirty."
"I'll call Rhodey," Sam stands up and walks through to the living room.
"Steve," Natasha says and, judging by her tone, it doesn't sound good. "If you don't want me strangling both you and Sam with your own shoelaces--"
"We already said we're sorry," Steve interrupts.
"Tash," Clint starts, but she raises a hand.
"They ate all the almond cookies in my quinjet stash," she grits between her teeth.
James slides his chair back, pulls Clint with him, and Steve eyes them warily.
"Tell you what," Natasha says, "you let them come with," she tilts her head Clint and James' way, "if they want."
"That's a given," Steve raises both hands.
It earns him a huff and a smack on the back of his head, before she stands up. Steve watches her back as she walks out of the kitchen, rubbing at his scalp.
"Grandma used to do that all the time," he mumbles.
Clint tries, he really tries, but he can't hold off the laughter. James joins in like he knows why that is so funny, and Clint's surprised that she's told him. From the other side of the doorway, she looks at him with a wink before moving away. Ok then, so James is important to her as well. It's soothing.
Clint stops next to James outside the gates of the compound, breathes in the smell of the forest. He does feel a little vindicated, even though it's taken them less than an hour to gather everyone up, even though they took all of them alive. Well, the Avengers can deal with the interrogations now. James looks a little irritated, most likely because of the same reasons, given the way he scowls at the taser in his hand. At least they got to shock the hell out of a lot of baddies. He surveys their surroundings, eager to get back home.
That's when he sees them, small and blue, hidden between the roots of a tree. They shouldn't be in bloom this time of year, but there they are nonetheless. Clint walks over, crouches down next to them, and gently removes one of the tiny flowers from the bunch on the stalk.
"What are you doing?" James asks from behind him as Clint raises.
He gives James the flower, and it looks incredibly small between his gloved fingers.
"Forget me not," he smiles, before making his way toward the quinjets.
It takes a few seconds before James follows, and Clint can't stop smiling at the way James cradles the flower carefully in his palm.
"You know," Clint says, tipping his chin toward where Steve and Sam are talking in the distance, "we gotta do something about that."
"I'm staying out of it," James returns.
"I'll give you a blow job if you help me," Clint offers.
"I'll give you a blow job if you don't make me help you."
James growls at him.
"Yes, yes," Clint pats his arm. "You're my meanie."
~Continued in Part 2~
I know, I know, you'll hate me for the TBC. More soon. I have no idea when, but we left some things unresolved, haven't we? :)
Thank you for reading!