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Just Keep Trying 'til You Run Out of Cake

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SHIELD works with private contractors all the time so it isn’t a surprise to Clint when he comes into a briefing, and there’s a scary looking dude already at the table.

The mask over his face is a little bit of a surprise, but some of the people they work with like to keep their identity a secret so he can’t blame the guy. The man has long brown hair that’s been pulled into a man bun (Clint wants to grow his hair out for one but Kate tells him he’s not cool enough) and he’s dressed in full tactical gear like he doesn’t realize quinjet flights are for changing.

If he works with SHIELD enough he’ll figure that out.

Oh, and there’s also a metal arm.

“Nifty,” Clint says with a nod to the arm. “You shoot rockets out of it or something?”

Agent Coulson sighs. “Tact, Agent Barton? I’m sure we taught it to you at some point.”

Clint holds his hands up. He didn’t mean to offend anyone. “Just trying to make conversation with the new guy.”

He sits down next to Mr. Muzzled and Scowly.

“I’m Agent Barton,” he says, “But I’m sure you knew that since it’s your mouth that’s covered and not your ears.”

He gets a glare from the contractor and from Coulson. Two-for-one.

Nice.

“Agent Barton, this is the Winter Soldier,” Coulson introduces.

“Shit,” Clint says, looking the guy over again. No wonder he’s dressed like he’s ready to kill someone. That’s what this guy does . “The same one Natasha tangled with?”

Coulson looks like he’s got a headache and the briefing hasn’t even started.

Normally, Clint would be proud of himself for that, but suddenly, another thought has occurred to him.

“Wait, isn’t this guy a sniper?” he asks.

~*~

So, Clint’s getting sent on a mission with the Winter Soldier who is either the best sniper in the world or second best depending on who you talk to.

“You’d tell me if you were shopping around for my replacement, right?” he asks Coulson, on the jet ride to their mission location. “I’ve got a dog to think about, you know. If I’m gonna be unemployed -”

“No one’s replacing you,” Coulson interrupts. “The Winter Soldier is lending his expertise for this mission.”

“Uh huh,” Clint says. “Same way I ‘lent’ my expertise my first few missions?”

Clint had been wary of SHIELD when they first approached him. He’d been on his own long enough that any kind of permanence made him jittery, and it didn’t help that they were a government agency even if they pretended they weren’t.

Clint was definitely doing things that wouldn’t be approved by the law or even most people comfortable stretching the law.

SHIELD offered him his first job in exchange for not turning him over to the FBI.

The second time he killed someone for them it was so they didn’t turn him over to the CIA.

Around mission five, Coulson told him that if he signed a contract then not only would they clear his record but they’d pay him.

He signed the contract.

He’d been a pretty good asset to recruit, but him signing onto SHIELD would be nothing compared to them getting the Winter Soldier. Anyone Natasha’s tangled with who lived, anyone Natasha’s afraid of, is someone SHIELD wants on their side.

Clint hopes they’re not pairing him up with the Winter Soldier hoping that Clint will sway him to SHIELD. Recruitment isn’t really Clint’s forte. He’s better at hanging out on rooftops and shooting things.

Clint hazards a look over at the Winter Soldier. He’s sitting upright in his chair like he’s getting paid for perfect posture and not to shoot people. Clint’s not eager to go on a mission where he’s going to be directly compared to a notorious assassin, but those are the facts, and he might as well make the best of it.

He reaches a hand over. “We missed this part in the briefing.”

The Winter Soldier’s eyes flick down to Clint’s offered hand then at his own flesh hand.

There’s a moment of hesitation, and Clint immediately feels like an idiot.

“Oh,” he says and digs through his pocket until he procures a medical glove. He snaps it on. “Better?”

The Winter Soldier quirks an eyebrow but he does shake Clint’s hand so Clint counts it as a win.

Some people refuse skin-on-skin contact on the off chance that they soulbond with a person. Some people are eager for as much skin contact as possible. Clint doesn’t fall into either category. He was born without a name or a symbol on his wrist, not entirely odd because soulmates are rarely born at the same time, but what happened after Clint was born is what was odd.

Sometimes he’d have a name - James - on his wrist.

Sometimes he wouldn’t.

It would fade in and out, like a ghost or maybe a memory, and there were long stretches with no name when Clint was convinced he’d made up the fact that there’d ever been a name. And then the letters would come back, and Clint would get his hopes up, think maybe this meant he was on the cusp of meeting his soulmate.

It never happened.

The letters would inevitably fade again.

Clint’s given up on finding his soulmate.

Natasha thought he was stupid for believing in the first place.

Apparently soulmates aren’t a big thing in Russia. Or, not a big thing in the Red Room.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. Clint doesn’t have a soulmate (today at least) and the Winter Soldier doesn’t want a soulmate. Clint thinks about telling the Soldier that his wrist is blank, that there’s no one out there for him, but that’s too personal to tell a stranger.

Besides, they’re going to be stationed in different places. The Soldier probably won’t even come to the post-mission debrief. There won’t be any opportunities for them to accidentally touch.

~*~

Clint should have known better than to jinx himself.

He’s got a good set-up on a roof, and the Winter Soldier is on a different roof.

It’s so they can cover each other’s blind spots.

(Clint knows it’s so one hit won’t take them both out. He’s stupid but not in that way)

The plan is controlled chaos and once the streets are full of wild, panicked people, a couple gunshots won’t seem out of the ordinary, and Clint and the Winter Soldier can take out their targets.

Only, there’s no such thing as controlled chaos.

Again, Clint’s stupid but way smarter than the people who are in charge of missions apparently.

Clint was given a list of faces to memorize on the quinjet, and he’s taken out three of them (and wounded an innocent) when his perch rumbles , and he has time to think only, ‘oh shit’ before the building begins to slide.

Someone blew up the basement of his building.

Clint packs up his gear and scrambles down the fire escape, managing to get close enough to the ground to jump before the building tips over, crushing a bunch of the people in the street.

That’s when the chaos really kicks up, and Clint feels a bit like Mufasa in the herd of wildebeests. At least there was no dramatic moment with Scar up on the building where he was betrayed by someone he trusts.

(that’s already happened too many times in his life)

If he gets trampled by panicking citizens or panicking hostiles then he’s going to be very displeased.

He slings his gun case over his shoulder, hopes no one notices that he’s carrying a high powered rifle, and lets the crowd sweep him up and carry him out of the alleyway.

It works for approximately three minutes.

And then he gets dragged into a nearby building, the strap of his gun case used to choke him and lead him along.

It’s not very dignified but that’s how Clint’s life goes.

“Secret tunnel?” he asks when he’s led into the basement and then through a door behind a bookcase. “Really?”

The man in the front mutters something to the man in the back, and Clint doesn’t understand the language.

He gets the meaning just fine, though, when the man behind him yanks on his gun case, pulling the strap tight across his throat.

He chokes a little, decides to wait until there isn’t something around his throat to run his mouth again.

~*~

Unfortunately, the men who kidnap him are onto his plan.

He’s tied to a chair but as soon as the pressure of the strap is off his throat, there’s a makeshift gag tied around his mouth.

It’s like they don’t appreciate his running commentary.

That hurts his feelings.

It also worries him, because if they’re gagging him then they’re probably not going to torture him for information and if they don’t want information then he’s being used as bait.

Honestly, he’d rather be tortured.

He starts humming.

It’s a great song - from some video game and it’s about cake and staying alive (two things he wants right now) and there’s a 10 hour version of this song on Youtube so he can keep this up for a while. Ooh, speaking of 10 hour versions of songs on Youtube - Taking the Hobbits to Isengard .

He knows what he’s doing if he’s stuck here for more than 10 hours.

He gets slapped across the face for his musical efforts.

“We need you alive, not conscious,” the man with his gun says.

If Clint had his bow he wouldn’t be in this situation.

(lie, but one he’s telling Coulson anyways when he gets out of this)

“I’m humming,” he says, words garbled by the gag, “You can’t even tell I’m tone deaf.”

He’s not at all surprised when he gets hit again. Harder, this time.

At least the gag keeps him from biting his cheek. Or his tongue. Or his lip.

Small victories.

~*~

He’s on his eighth rendition of Still Alive (in his head, not out loud this time) when the door to the basement flies off its hinges.

Not a SHIELD rescue then.

Coulson likes his rescues more...subtle.

The flying door takes out one of Clint’s captors.

The gun takes out the other three.

When it all settles, there’s a man with a metal arm staring down at him. Clint offers up a winning smile, the best he can with a rag tied across his mouth.

The Winter Soldier unties the gag, then Clint’s bindings.

“Thanks, man,” Clint says. He stretches his mouth out. “I’m not cut out for the silent life.”

He rubs the corners of his mouth for good measure.

The Winter Soldier, predictably, doesn’t say anything.

Clint rolls his wrists next. He hadn’t been tied up for long, not like that time in Kabul, but it’s still good to get the circulation going again.

“Was your nest compromised?” Clint asks.

The Winter Soldier nods, a sharp jerk of his head.

“Okay,” Clint says, scooping his gun case up off the floor. “I know a safe house we can go to. We’ll make contact from there. You fight anyone getting in?”

Another nod.

Clint takes a handgun off one of the dead guys on the floor. A sniper rifle isn’t going to do him much good in close quarters, and if the Soldier needed to fight to get in then they’re probably going to need to fight to get out.

They get into a firefight, stand back-to-back to watch each other’s weak spots, and Clint can’t help but think that they work well together.

(also, the Soldier is ripped . Clint can appreciate muscle)

Two bullets ping off the Soldier’s arm, and a bullet grazes Clint’s shoulder but other then that they’re injury free. Which makes it all the more embarrassing when one of the guy’s Clint thought was dead stabs Clint in the calf when they’re walking over the bodies.

There’s a sharp sting of pain and then Clint’s leg gives out on him, and he lands hard on his knees.

“Fucking fuck,” he says.

(eloquent, as always)

The Soldier shoots the man, point blank, and then offers his metal hand to Clint.

Clint grasps it, grateful for the help, and there’s a quick spark, and then a buzz under his fingertips.

“Your arm electric or something?” he asks, already knowing the answer.

The Soldier’s eyes are wide, scared .

“Aw, hell,” Clint says.

~*~

They make it to the safe house without too much trouble, and Clint’s not sure if the panic bubbling just under the surface is his own or if there’s some of the Soldier’s there too.

Clint’s soulbonded.

He’s soulbonded to The Winter Soldier .

Coulson’s going to fucking kill him.

Unless Natasha gets there first.

Clint busies himself with safehouse duties. He checks in with SHIELD to let them know where they are and what little he can remember happening, and they tell him to stay put until things settle down, and then he patches up his leg.

It’s a stab wound so there’s blood, but there’s not much damage.

(amateur. Clint would’ve gone for the Achilles or maybe hamstring if he was slashing someone with a knife from the ground)

Once that’s done there’s not much to do besides look at his growly guest.

“You check the perimeter?” Clint asks. He could get up and limp around to do it, but he’s pretty sure that’s what the Soldier was doing while he was on the phone with SHIELD.

The Soldier slants him a look.

That’s a yes, then.

Clint sighs. “Look, man, I didn’t know that was going to happen. I didn’t know you could bond through metal.” He frowns at the arm. “And I don’t even have a name.”

He shows off both wrists, both of them clear. There’s no name, no symbol, not even initials.

The Soldier turns over his metal arm. There’s something scratched into the metal at his wrist.

An arrow.

Clint rubs at where there’s sometimes a name on his wrist.

It doesn’t magically appear.

Would it be rude to ask if the guy’s name is James? Probably. Not like it matters anyways. They’re soulbonded. Clint can feel it. He didn’t even know there was a part of him missing until it slotted into place when the Soldier helped him up.

They touched hands and -

Fuck, this is veering into dangerous romance novel territory.

“We should talk about this,” Clint says. He winces. “I hate talking, but this is kind of a big deal.”

“Stay out of my head,” the Soldier says, his voice distorted but perfectly understandable through the mask.

Clint’s mouth drops. “You’ve been able to talk the whole time?”

The Soldier rolls his eyes.

“Out,” the Soldier repeats, firm, a glint of something Clint’s eye that reminds him that his soulmate is really fucking dangerous.

And apparently doesn’t want Clint in his head. Well, anymore than Clint’s already there.

Clint tells himself it’s fine.

(it’s not fine)

There are spaces in people’s heads for their soulmates, a little corner of your brain dedicated to someone else, a tiny missing piece that’s waiting for the right person to click into place. It means, if they wanted, Clint could poke around the Soldier’s head and the Soldier could poke around his.

It’s supposed to mean Clint never has to be alone again, but he doubts a soulbond with the Winter Soldier is going to be anything like what he’s read in textbooks or seen in movies.

There’s a little piece of Clint in the Soldier’s head, and Clint knows it’s there, but he focuses on shutting that piece down, on disconnecting it from the rest of himself. He can’t remove that piece, not unless he’s dead, but he doesn’t have to peek into the Soldier’s head.

He knows how to respect someone’s privacy.

He can feel the Soldier doing the same, can feel a part of his brain pulling away and -

“No,” Clint blurts out.

The Soldier goes still.

“I mean,” Clint wants to laugh off the moment, wants to let the Soldier do what he wants to do, but Clint just realized what if feels like to be whole. He doesn’t want to be missing a piece again. “You don’t have to. You can - I’ll respect your boundaries, promise. I won’t go poking around your head. But if you want to skim the top of mine, that’s fine.”

The Soldier considers this. Then, “Just the top?”

Clint crosses his arms over his chest. “I’m allowed to keep things private, too.”

Clint still feels the hum of not-him but right in his head which means the Soldier doesn’t pull out.

Heh, pull out .

He can feel the Soldier’s displeasure before he says, “Your lack of maturity is alarming.”

“Buddy, you have no idea.”

~*~

Clint takes a nap and when he wakes up the Winter Soldier is gone.

To say Clint’s pissed is an understatement.

He’d be throwing things if he didn’t know better than to attract attention to a safehouse.

He isn’t surprised the Soldier left. Honestly, he’s surprised the man stayed as long as he did. No, what Clint’s mad about is that he slipped out while Clint was sleeping. It’s not cool to leave your mission partner while he’s sleeping. What if someone had slipped in? What if the Soldier hadn’t covered his tracks when he left? What if someone had been watching the building?

There’s a hint of affront in Clint’s head.

I’m not that sloppy , the Soldier thinks at him.

Clint lets his rage bubble up until the Soldier withdraws. Clint doubts the man is chastened but Clint still feels better.

He feels even better when he gathers a small arsenal and some food and makes himself a nest in the best defensive position in the safe house.

I saved your life , the Soldier points out when Clint doesn’t stop thinking uncharitable thoughts.

Could’ve saved yourself a lot of trouble .

Clint hums Still Alive until his pick-up arrives.

~*~

“Where’s the Winter Soldier?” Coulson asks when Clint gets on the quinjet.

“My leg’s doing great,” Clint tells him, “Thanks for asking. And my throat’s only a bit bruised from when I got choked with my own gun case. Speaking of guns, I fucking hate them and whoever picked that perch for me was wrong, because the building collapsed. Also, fuck The Lion King .”

Coulson waits out Clint’s mini-rant, patient, then asks again. “Where’s the Winter Soldier?”

Clint sighs. “Hell if I know.”

A thought slips through, safe , and then an image of a room that flashes into then out of Clint’s brain.

Clint ignores it and the anger that follows it.

“We have intel that reports he launched a one-man rescue,” Coulson says.

“He did,” Clint says. He has a headache. “And then he left. You did tell him we don’t kill contractors when mission don’t go according to plan, right?”

Failure. Not my fault.

“Maybe he just didn’t want to debrief,” Clint says. His eyelids are heavy. He hasn’t slept since the Soldier abandoned him.

You were in a safe house. Safe house.

Just because you’re in my head doesn’t mean you get to judge the way I think , Clint tells him.

I didn’t abandon you.

It seems to be an important point to the man, but Clint’s not feeling generous right now. He’s feeling tired, he’s feeling like his leg hurts, and he’s feeling a little bit like his soulmate abandoned him.

If you don’t like what I’m thinking then get out , Clint says.

The Soldier doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t leave either.

Clint’ll try to sort this whole thing out later.

~*~

Clint, because he’s an agent of SHIELD and not an independent contractor, has to debrief before he’s allowed to take a nap. But once he’s answered the preliminary questions to Coulson’s satisfaction, Clint’s allowed to sprawl out in the back of the quinjet with a rolled up blanket for a pillow.

You didn’t tell them , the Soldier thinks, surprised.

None of their business , Clint responds.

You don’t seem to want people to know. Clint doesn’t push that thought, but it rises up anyways, and he doesn’t doubt that the Soldier catches it.

Clint closes his eyes and lets the purr of the engine put him to sleep.

~*~

Clint could not tell you what number his apartment is if he had to. All he knows is he goes up three flights of stairs and it’s the second door on the left.

He’s not sure if there was ever a number on his door but now there’s a wooden carving that says Home Sweet Home in stylized cursive. Framing the words are two purple birdhouses.

It was a present from Kate a while back, probably meant to be a joke, but like most things that are supposed to be a joke, Clint’s fallen in love with it. Plus, it’s a good way to distinguish his apartment from other people’s.

That’s what the numbers are for , the Winter Soldier thinks at him.

Clint waves a dismissive hand, trusting that the gesture will get through their bond.

Clint actually has his keys (it’s always embarrassing when you have to break into your own apartment) and as soon as he gets his door open, he’s charged by an over enthusiastic dog. Clint obediently crouches down and lets himself be bowled over, ignoring the pain in his calf.

The slobbery kisses make up for it.

Gross , the Soldier thinks.

Dog , Clint thinks happily back.

“Who’s been a good boy?” Clint asks, scratching between Lucky’s ears and under his chin.

“Not Lucky,” Kate says with a laugh. “Not that it matters. You’re going to spoil him anyways.”

“Dogs deserve to be spoiled,” Clint tells her. He turns back to Lucky. “Isn’t that right?”

Lucky drops his not inconsiderable weight onto Clint’s stomach, then rolls over for belly rubs. Clint grunts but obliges. This is an important part of his post-mission routine.

“At least get out of the hallway,” Kate sighs.

It takes Clint a moment to realizes that he’s on his back in the middle of the apartment hallway which’ll make him a difficult obstacle to get over.

Your self-awareness when you’re not on a mission is reprehensible .

Just while I’m not on missions? Clint can’t help but tease.

He gets off the floor, and Lucky makes sad noises at him until they drop onto the couch to continue their snuggles.

“I’m not cooking for you,” Kate tells him.

“Take out?” Clint asks, hopeful.

Kate throws her cell phone at him. He catches it before it can hit Lucky in the head.

“Careful of the dog!” Clint scolds.

“I have confidence in your ability to catch,” she tells him.

There’s a dirty joke on the tip of tongue, but it feels - weird? like a betrayal? - to make now that he has a soulmate. Of course, the fact that he even thinks it means that the Soldier probably picked up on it.

Um , Clint thinks.

Your soulmate is a man. It’s not a shock that you think about sex with men.

It’s a fair point. Still, Clint gave up on the idea of having a soulmate a while ago so it didn’t really matter whether he had sex with men or with women. He slept with who he was in the mood to sleep with and tried to ignore the blank spot on his wrist.

This whole soulbonded to a dude thing isn’t weird for you? Clint asks.

The fact that I’m soulbonded at all is weird , the Soldier admits, hesitant. I haven’t given much thought to the fact that you’re a man.

Right, Clint thinks to himself. He’s slept around a bit (a lot, he can hear Kate accuse him) but it was never anything serious, because the people he hooked up with had soulmates waiting somewhere for them. Clint’s never been anyone’s first choice, just a convenient one.

It should figure that not even his soulmate wants him.

“Uh, Clint?” Kate asks.

Her face is about two inches from his, and he flails, because - what the hell? when did she get that close? - and Lucky’s dislodged from his lap and huffs his displeasure.

“How’d you do that?” Clint demands. “You were in the kitchen a second ago.”

Kate frowns. “Did you hit your head on the mission?”

He slaps away her hands when she tries to feel his scalp. “I’m fine. Just a scratch on my leg.”

Stab wound , the Soldier correct.

“I gave you the opening for dirty joke and you didn’t take it,” Kate tells him. “And then, instead of calling for pizza, you spaced out. Do I need to call Coulson for a rundown on concussion protocol again?”

“I’m fine,” Clint says. “I’ll be better when I eat.”

“Right,” Kate says, not believing him, but she doesn’t push either. She’s the best apprentice ever.

She’s a good kid , the Soldier thinks.

Yeah , Clint thinks, a wave of fondness, protectiveness, pride accompanying the word.

~*~

Later, after they’ve eaten and Kate’s gone, and Clint’s taken Lucky out for a walk, he collapses into bed. He should probably take his shoes off, but if he takes off his shoes then that means he should probably change into pajamas or something and that seems like too much effort.

Instead, he uses the last of his energy to flip onto his back so he can look at his wrist.

Still blank.

He touches where the letters should be and wonders if he’s somehow soulbonded to a ghost.

Might as well have .

The thought isn’t his, but it lingers in his head, keeps him company until he falls asleep.

~*~

“Aw, sun,” Clint groans, because in his laziness last night he didn’t close his curtains.

He puts his pillow over his face to block out the light and concentrates on going back to sleep.

You’re inviting someone to suffocate you .

I’m inviting the sweet embrace of sleep.

The sweet embrace of death, maybe.

Clint presses his pillow into his face, and it’s finally dark again, but there’s low-grade stress coming from the Soldier, and Clint tosses his pillow away.

It’s too bright.

But once he gets up to close his curtains; well, he’s awake and there doesn’t seem much point in going back to bed.

It’s not even noon. What am I going to do with my whole day?

The Soldier doesn’t say anything, but Clint can feel the judgement coming from him in waves.

Clint takes Lucky for a jog (his leg doesn’t hurt that bad) and then stretches in the park while he tosses a stick for Lucky to fetch. Or not fetch, depending on how the dog feels. They stop for hot dogs on the way back to his apartment, a plain dog for Lucky and then two loaded with chili for Clint.

You’re judging me again , Clint says as he wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. It’s better than his shirt, right? I can feel it.

SHIELD doesn’t have a diet plan for you to follow?

As long as I check out at my physicals, they don’t care what I do .

It’s not quite true, but there’s no one hovering over him with a detailed meal plan. That does lead to an amusing image of Coulson standing over him with a taser, demanding that he eat his vegetables if he doesn’t want to get zapped.

It makes him laugh, and a couple people on the street give him a weird look and then a wide berth.

What happened to NYC being a judgment free zone? Clint wonders.

You’re too much for it, apparently.

Clint grins and decides to take that as a compliment, despite the Soldier’s insistence that it’s not.

~*~

Clint remembers to close his curtains, and he wakes up at a much more reasonable 1pm the next day. The Soldier has a lot of objections to Clint’s idea of a reasonable wake-up time.

Clint ignores him to go and brush his teeth.

He doesn’t make it as far as actually brushing his teeth, because when he pulls his toothbrush out of the holder, he realizes he has the letter ‘J’ on his wrist.

Huh, Clint thinks.

There isn’t even an echo of the Soldier in his head.

Clint goes to eat breakfast instead.

~*~

There’s a ‘Ja’ on his wrist when he realizes the biggest issue with him being soulbonded.

He’s a SHIELD agent.

He’s a Level 5 SHIELD agent with security clearance that the Winter Soldier definitely doesn’t have.

Shit.

I’m instituting a blackout , Clint thinks at his soulmate. No peeking at what I’m doing until I give you the all clear. I’m serious.

I know , is the immediate response.

It’s weird not having another set of thoughts, another person hovering in his head as he sits through a debrief on the consequences of destabilizing the Middle East. It doesn’t change the fact that the US government is going to continue to destabilize the Middle East or that apparently they’re gearing up for the Cold War Part II.

For Clint, what it means is that there are Ten Rings sects that are taking advantage of the conflict to not only get their hands on military grade weapons but to also recruit people to their cause.

It also means that Clint, and some other agents, get to go to Syria and convince people that the side of the Ten Rings is the wrong side. Clint’s not sure how more shooting and more guns is going to descalate the situation, but his job is to point and shoot, not to ask questions, so that’s what he’s going to do.

You’re not planning on spending any time in the Middle East in the near future, are you? he asks on his way out of the briefing.

No.

Good. I’d hate to look through my scope and see you.

There’s a moment of quiet in Clint’s head that means he’s managed to surprise the Soldier.

Didn’t think about that? Clint asks. We’re not always on the same side. At least, that’s the impression I get from what we’ve got of your kill list.

I’ll steer clear of the area until you’re back from your mission.

Thanks.

~*~

By the time Clint gets back from Syria (with three new scars, ten more kills, and the respect and admiration of two junior agents and a Level 4) his wrist is blank again.

He tries not to let it get to him too much.

Back Stateside, he tells his head partner and then he wraps himself around Lucky on the floor of his living room and sleeps for ten hours.

He wakes up at 3am with dog fur in his mouth and cold.

He’d been chilly in Syria too, despite the blistering heat, but it hadn’t been a physical cold. Is there such thing as mental cold? He pokes the part of his brain that’s supposed to house his soulmate. It’s like its own freaking fortress of solitude - impenetrable and surrounded by glaciers.

Clint grabs the throw blankets off his couch and goes back to sleep.

~*~

When he wakes up his letters are still missing and there’s still an echoing chamber in his head.

He breaks his promise to the Soldier by poking at his place in the Soldier’s head and boy, is that a mistake. It’s like being dunked into a frozen lake (something Clint unfortunately has experience with) and the breath is knocked out of his body - shock and cold and something a little bit painful.

Only, unlike the time Clint was thrown into a frozen lake as part of his training, he can’t kick to the surface. He’s stuck, lungs needing to breathe, legs too heavy to move, and when he looks up, the ice at the top of the lake is reforming.

No, he tries to shout, but when he opens his mouth ice pours in, freezing him from the inside out.

~*~

Clint wakes up to Lucky whining and pawing at his shoulder.

His shirt’s ripped where Lucky’s clawed it up, and the sting of the scratch marks and the noise in his ear is enough to drag him out of whatever hell he’d landed himself in.

“Good dog,” Clint mumbles, distracted, because what the hell happened to his soulmate.

He’s still sitting on the floor with Lucky when Kate bursts into his apartment, bow up and ready.

She pauses when she sees him. “You were late to training,” she says. She looks around, then lowers her bow. “You didn’t send me a cancellation text. You promised , after last time, that you would. I - Clint?”

Clint realizes, about the same time that Kate does, that he’s shivering uncontrollably.

“Shit,” he says, and then he has to stop talking because his teeth are chattering so bad he’s afraid he’s going to bite his tongue off.

Kate drops her bow and helps him onto the couch and wraps him up in every blanket she can find. Clint’s sweating in seconds, but that doesn’t stop the damn shivering .

“What happened?” Kate asks.

Clint shakes his head.

Lucky whimpers.

“I’m going to make hot chocolate,” she says.

In a matter of minutes, Kate joins Clint in his blanket nest and between the cuddling and the blankets and the hot chocolate, they’re both sweating through their clothes. He’s going to have to wash all his blankets.

Somewhere between their first episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians and the second, Clint stops shivering.

He doesn’t stop feeling cold until a week later when something wakes up in his brain.

Where the fucking hell have you been? Clint demands, too worried to be patient or kind or any of the things you’re supposed to be when your soulmate reappears after disappearing without warning.

I don’t ask about your missions , is the huffy reply.

You - Clint forces down all of his uncharitable thoughts - it didn’t feel right.

I’m fine.

I don’t think you are, Clint thinks, and even if he can keep himself from thinking it at the Soldier, he can’t keep the Soldier from picking up on it.

Nevertheless, the Soldier doesn’t respond.

~*~

Clint has a hard time shaking the phantom cold, and he’d only experienced it second hand, so he does what he can to make the Soldier’s life better following his disappearance.

Clint starts by hosting a rooftop barbeque. And by host he means he shows up at Grills’s apartment with a shit ton of raw meat and says, “You wanna cook this?” and then things fall into place quickly.

There’s a constant presence in Clint’s head as he greets his neighbors (tenants) and makes little kids giggle and rescues Lucky from two year olds that like to pull his tail. The presence is there when Clint easily puts away a burger, two hot dogs, and a sausage.

How? is the Soldier’s faint disbelief.

I’ve got a lot of skills , Clint replies and demolishes the rest of the sour cream & onion chips in order to prove a point.

You’re dog’s going to be walking you by the end of this.

Clint just laughs and goes to do cartwheels with Jenny and Johnny, twin six year olds who have decided they want to be Olympic synchronized gymnasts. Clint’s pretty sure there’s no such thing, but he’s not  going to be the one to rain on their parade.

They cartwheel until Clint thinks he’s going to throw up and then it’s time for clean-up and by the time Clint gets back to his apartment, he’s feeling happy. It’s a good feeling. He should be happy more often.

Just so you know, Clint thinks as he gets ready for a nap, You don’t have to just do the vicarious living thing. You can come over and we can do shit together. Jenny and Johnny’ll love you. I bet you can act as a human jungle gym longer than I can.

I’ve got a metal arm.

Not the kind of thing that kids get worked up about.

Kids usually come with parents.

I’ll introduce you to Becky and then she’ll trust you. No pressure, though. If you want to keep doing it this way that’s fine.

He doesn’t get an answer before he falls asleep.

~*~

Clint’s eating pizza in his boxers when there’s a knock at his door.

He grabs a pair of sweatpants off the floor, but there’re no dirty shirts lying around for him to put on so he answers shirtless.

Becky’s eyes sweep up his body, a faint blush on her cheeks when she realizes she just checked him out, and he feels a flicker of irritation from the Soldier.

“Uh, my sink’s leaking,” she says.

Right, landlord. “Okay,” Clint says.

He puts his pizza back in the fridge and grabs his toolkit before follow Becky to her apartment.

Jenny and Johnny are sitting in front of the TV, transfixed on a show that -

“Are those dogs?” Clint asks, coming over to where they’re sitting.

“That’s Skye!” Jenny says, pointing to the puppy that’s got pink wings strapped to her so she can fly. “She’s my favorite.”

“I like Chase,” Johnny says. “He’s the police dog.”

“Huh,” Clint says. “You think Lucky’ll like this show?”

Both kids nod.

“We’ve got DVDs,” Johnny says.

“We can come over and watch with him sometime,” Jenny says.

Both kids look at their mom.

“I see you two angling for more screen time,” Becky says, “and it’s not going to work. Clint, the sink’s this way.”

Right, he came here for a reason.

In his head, the Soldier’s laughing at him.

Clint wanders into the bathroom, toolkit in hand, and Becky leaves him with the sink that is, in fact, leaking.

You know anything about plumbing? Clint asks.

Seriously?

I can always Youtube it. That’s what I usually do.

NO, the Soldier thinks then, more sedate, I can help. Why do you even own an apartment building? You can hardly take care of yourself.

Flashes of memory pop up in Clint’s head - Simone crying over a rent increase, the tracksuit mafia prowling through the neighborhood, Lucky being thrown out of a car. Memory after memory until the Soldier thinks, Ah. Then, you want to try something?

Always , Clint says.

You don’t even know what I’m suggesting. I can fix this.

Okay , Clint says.

I can fix it through you , the Soldier elaborates.

Clint’s heard of soulmates being able to not just communicate with each other but able to act through each other.

Okay , he says again.

The Soldier is distressed for reasons Clint doesn’t understand. You do realize you’re giving your body over to my control, yes?

Just long enough to fix a sink.

Clint gets the equivalent of a mental shrug and then the Soldier’s presence in his head expands, and Clint can feel a familiar chill spread through his head, through his body, until he tries to lift a hand and doesn’t succeed.

Huh , Clint thinks. It’s a little freaky, but it won’t last long.

Pay attention , the Soldier tells him. You’ll probably have to do this again.

Clint watches as his hands sort through his toolbox, feels himself crouch down to get a look at the plumbing. It’s weird, piggybacking his own self, but it’s kind of cool at the same time. Even cooler when the Soldier finishes and the sink doesn’t leak anymore.

Go team , Clint thinks.

The Soldier huffs something that might be a laugh before he pulls back.

Clint runs a hand through his hair. You wanna head back to my apartment and watch Paw Patrol?

You’re seriously going to watch children’s cartoons?

It’s for Lucky. Dogs like TV too, you know.

The Soldier’s judging him again, but he doesn’t pull out of Clint’s head when Clint gets back to his apartment and curls up on his couch with his dog and the DVD he’d borrowed from Jenny and Johnny so Clint counts it as a win.

~*~

Things have been going well. There was one small Avengers mission where Clint got to jump off a building but got caught by the Falcon so he didn’t get hurt, and there were two small SHIELD missions where he also escaped without major injury.

He’s due for a disaster soon.

Which makes it all the more embarrassing that he doesn’t expect to be grabbed off the street. He had the random inspiration to go grocery shopping (he’ll never do that again) and he’s coming back from the corner store with milk, eggs, and Bisquick so he can make waffles, and he’s just turned onto his street when he realizes he has friends.

Well, friends isn’t quite the right word for them.

Adidas sweatsuits, Puma shoes, and Clint thinks he spies a Nike swoosh on one of the guy’s socks.

“Not Adidas all the way?” Clint asks, because it’s him and his sarcasm against four tracksuit mafia dudes. Not the best odds. “No brand loyalty these days. It’s a shame.”

Nike Socks Bro growls.

“You gonna let me get my bow?” Clint asks. “Because right now you’ve stacked the odds in your favor. Or, you know, you cheated.”

“Someone shut him up,” the guy with the greased hair says.

Ever since this whole tracksuit mafia thing has gone down, Clint hasn’t been able to trust people who put product in their hair.

Clint dodges the first guy that comes at him, and that’s when he realizes it’s not just him and his sarcasm.

He starts chucking eggs.

His aim’s as good as it is with his bow and within minutes each of the tracksuit guys have egg on their face. Literally. Clint takes a moment to laugh, because it’s always the time to appreciate a good joke, and then he has to stop laughing and start fighting.

He takes down all four guys, and then it’s just him, a couple unconscious bodies, and his ripped grocery bag. His milk carton broke so there’s milk spilling across the sidewalk, but his Bisquick seems to be okay. The box is dented, but the contents should be fine.

He’s bending down to pick it up when he hears the click of a gun.

“Don’t move.”

Aw, hell, he thinks.

A moment later, the gun is pressed against his back. “You’re coming with us.”

‘Us’ appears to be a second contingent of his sweatsuit friends. They’re all in black sweats with the three white Adidas stripes. Clint has a joke about the Backstreet Boys that he’s dissuaded from sharing by the gun digging into his spine.

“Mouth shut,” he’s ordered.

He keeps his mouth shut.

Hey , he thinks at the Soldier, Could you have SHIELD contact Kate Bishop and tell her there’s a Hawkeye situation? Unless you’ve been stalking Kate and can contact her directly.

He doesn’t get a reply.

He doesn’t let it bother him.

He’s gotten himself out of a dozen scrapes on his own before. He can do it again now.

He gets dragged into a basement (always basements) and tied to a chair (always chairs) and there’s a single flickering overhead light like that’s going to scare him. He was there for the 2002 Incident of Phil Coulson’s Missing 1st Edition Captain America Comic. Clint has never faced a more terrifying interrogation, and he hadn’t even been guilty.

“You took my apartment building,” Ivan says, coming out of the shadows. His sweatshirt is unzipped, revealing a dirty white t-shirt and a thick silver chain with some kind of pendant on it. He thinks it might be a hockey team logo. “You took my dog.”

“You’re making it sound like we got divorced,” Clint says. “I get the dog, the trailer, and you get the mistress, right?”

He gets slapped. He doesn’t understand why slap fights are always portrayed as this weak, ineffectual girlfight thing. Because a backhand with some force behind it? That shit hurts .

Ivan is close enough now that Clint can confirm that the pendant on his chain is the Team Russia logo. He and Natasha have watched enough Olympics that Clint knows what Russian hockey jerseys look like. Personally, he thinks curling is cooler than hockey (it’s all about accuracy, okay?) but he knows enough to say, “Gretzky was better than Kharlamov ever could’ve been.”

He gets hit hard enough for that one that he blacks out.

~*~

Being unconscious is actually pretty good for him in this situation, which is why he he pretends he’s still knocked out when he starts to come to. He’s not sure what Ivan wants from him, but whatever he wants, he wants Clint’s participation, so Clint’s been left alone while unconscious.

He’s been captured by people who don’t have a problem torturing him while he’s knocked out (rude) but this thing he’s got with Ivan and his bros is personal. Which means they want Clint awake and aware for whatever they’ve dragged him here for.

Clint’s best bet is to continue to sit here limp until Kate realizes he’s gone missing and comes to get him.

He doesn’t let himself hope the Soldier will come.

Too dangerous.

~*~

“Think you hit him too hard, boss,” one of the henchmen says, coming to poke at Clint’s cheeks. Clint lets his head loll to the side as he’s poked.

“It’s fine,” Ivan says. “I can be patient.”

Henchman kicks Clint’s shins a few times before walking away.

Clint wishes he had a few more eggs to throw. Or his hands free. Or his bow. Or -

His revenge fantasies are interrupted by Henchman 2 opening the door. “Uh, Ivan,” is as far as he gets before he’s shoved aside by -

Clint sits up straight, no longer pretending to be unconscious, because that’s the Winter Soldier.

Observant, he hears, No wonder they call you Hawkeye.

Clint grins and settles back to watch his soulmate work.

For all the humor in the Soldier’s tone, there’s nothing soft about the way he holds himself, standing in the doorway of the basement. He stands at attention, danger written into his gaze, into the hand casually resting on his hand gun.

“The Winter Soldier?” Ivan asks, all the blood gone from his face. “You’re - you’re not real!”

The Soldier’s lips peel back into a feral smile. “I’m very real,” he promises. “And you’ve taken something of mine.”

Clint’s stomach swoops. He probably should not find this as hot as he does, because the Winter Soldier is a killer, and he just named Clint his , but, well - Clint’s going to find this as hot as he wants. Because he deserves it after being kidnapped and slapped around.

Ivan looks at Clint, betrayed. “You know the Winter Soldier?”

Clint shrugs. “I meet all kinds of people in my line of business.”

“I didn’t know,” Ivan says, and he’s talking - pleading, really - with the Winter Soldier now. “I would have left him alone. I swear .”

Panicked and scared for his life is a good look for Ivan, in Clint’s opinion at least.

The Soldier doesn’t seem to agree, because he turns away from Ivan and stalks over to where Clint’s tied up.

“Are you hurt?” the Soldier asks, cutting through his bonds.

How do you talk through the mask?

That’s what you’re worried about right now?

Clint shrugs. “Not badly. This is pretty minor in terms of injuries from Ivan and Friends.”

The Soldier helps Clint get to his feet then holds him up when Clint’s legs try to give out - too much time tied up, not enough circulation.

“Do not bother him again,” the Soldier orders.

Ivan nods and then, because he has a death wish or something, blurts out, “He insulted Kharlamov!”

The Soldier frowns. “Who the hell is Kharlamov?”

~*~

Clint wakes up in his bed, and when he stumbles out into the living room, the Winter Soldier is sitting on his couch, petting his dog.

“Huh,” Clint says and goes to make coffee.

“Kharlamov was a hockey player,” the Soldier says.

Clint’s way too tired to have a conversation, but since the Soldier took time out of his busy, murderous schedule to come rescue him, Clint can at least try.

“He was,” Clint agrees.

He gets the coffee started and goes to get the eggs out of the fridge. He can handle scrambling eggs.

There are no eggs.

Because he threw them at the tracksuit mafia.

He grins. Good times.

“He was a very skilled hockey player,” the Soldier continues, like he’d been on Wikipedia while Clint was napping.

“He was,” Clint agrees again. Then, “ Oh . I said he wasn’t, because I wanted Ivan to hit me.”

“You -” the Soldier pauses, takes a deep breath. “You wanted him to hit you?”

“Seriously,” Clint says, “How do you talk through the mask?”

The Soldier looks like he might hit Clint.

“That might be the bigger problem than the arm,” Clint continues, because he’s never learned how to shut up. No matter how many times he’s been hit. Or who hit him.

He can feel the Soldier draw back, angry and a little guilty.

“I think the mask would freak out the kids,” Clint says. “That’s probably going to be a no on the BBQ then, huh?”

“I wouldn’t be good with kids,” the Soldier says.

“You wouldn’t hurt them.”

The Soldier doesn’t say anything.

“You won’t hurt me either,” Clint says. His coffee is done. He pours himself a cup then looks over his shoulder. “Coffee?”

“Sure,” the Soldier says and Clint pours a second cup.

Clint brings the coffee over to the couch and they sit side by side and drink their coffee while Lucky dozes between them. It’s almost domestic.

When the Soldier finally speaks, Clint isn’t expecting him to say, “I can take off the mask.”

Clint wants him to. That doesn’t surprise him; how much he wants it does. Clint’s soulmate is a mystery to him. His place in his soulmate’s mind is all but abandoned, they’ve never talked about their lives, and Clint doesn’t even know what he looks like.

It hurts, all the secrecy, but Clint tries to make up for it by being as open as he can on his end. His mind, his life, he leaves it all open for the Soldier to drop in whenever he wants.

But Clint’s openness isn’t a demand for the Soldier to match it.

“You don’t have to,” Clint tells him.

“You couldn’t make me if I didn’t want to,” the Soldier says.

The way he says it makes Clint think there is someone out there that could make him. But he pushes the thought away, because Clint isn’t going to make the Soldier do anything, and right now is about the two of them.

“I’ll get a cookout going,” Clint says, “and if you want to swing by you can. No pressure either way.”

“Okay,” the Soldier says.

They go back to drinking their coffee.

~*~

I know this is last minute, Clint thinks , but the weather’s nice so we’re having a cookout today. Feel free to come.

He takes Lucky for a walk, does some half-hearted cleaning, and he’s puttering around his apartment when the Winter Soldier climbs through his kitchen window.

“I have a door,” Clint says, as if he doesn’t use the windows for fun sometimes.

“You need better security,” the Soldier tells him.

Clint shrugs. “I’ve got my bow if I was in real trouble.”

The Soldier huffs.

“Hey,” Clint protests. “I’m a good shot.”

“Almost as good as me.”

The mask hides the Soldier’s mouth, but Clint can see the smile in his eyes.

“Better,” Clint says.

“With a bow,” the Soldier concedes.

Clint takes the win where he can get it. He nods towards the mask. “Ready for the big reveal?”

The Soldier rolls his eyes, but his hands are hesitant as he reaches for the mask. Clint finds himself holding his breath (his nerves or the Soldier’s?) and then the mask’s being popped off and -

“I have no idea who you are,” Clint says.

The Soldier - he has a mouth now - pauses, expression frozen for a moment, before he laughs. Clint’s not sure which one of them is more surprised.

“Good,” the Soldier says. He puts the mask on Clint’s kitchen table. “Roof, now?”

Clint nods. He thought after all the build up, after all the secrecy, that he’d recognize the Soldier when he saw his face. The man is attractive, certainly, but he doesn’t ping as familiar.

They walk up to the rooftop together, Clint in fraying jeans and a faded purple t-shirt with a bulls-eye on it, the Soldier in dark wash jeans and a lightweight long sleeve shirt. His metal hand sticks out of the sleeve, but unless you knew the rest of the arm was metal you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking.

His hair’s pulled back into a half-bun. Clint kind of wants to run his hands through the Soldier’s hair. He shoves the thought away as fast as possible but there’s a hitch in the Soldier’s step that means he probably picked up on it.

“Sorry,” Clint says.

The Soldier shrugs. “If I don’t want to hear your thoughts then I’ll stay out of your head.” He slants a look at Clint, a little mischievous, “I’d stop looking at you while I’m at it. You’re not good at hiding what you’re feeling.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Clint says. “Like you haven’t stared when I’ve wandered around shirtless.”

Not even the Winter Soldier can convincingly lie his way out of that. Clint grins, a little smug, and then they’re on the rooftop, twenty or so people milling around.

“Clint!” two voices shout and then Jenny and Johnny are running full speed at him, and Clint crouches down so he can catch them then lift them up, a kid on each hip.

Forget superheroing, lifting children is the real reason he has to stay in shape. They’re heavy .

“Jenny,” Clint says, nodding at her. “Johnny.”

They give him almost suffocating hugs before twisting to look at the Soldier.

“Did you bring a friend?” Johnny asks.

“Mom says he doesn’t have friends,” Jenny says.

The Soldier laughs, and Clint has an ‘oh shit’ moment, because it’s not like he can introduce the Winter Soldier as, you know, the Winter Soldier.

He gets a wave of exasperated and fond before the Soldier says, “I’m James.”

Clint almost drops the kids.

Luckily, they think it’s a game and they shriek as they cling to him, because all Clint can do is stare. He knew the Soldier’s name was James, that’s what Clint’s wrist says (sometimes at least) but to hear him say it. To hear him trust Clint with his name.

Well.

Clint’s beaming as he brings the Soldier - James - around and introduces him to his neighbors.

Sometime between coming up to the roof and getting their burgers, the Soldier melts into James. He doesn’t hold himself quite so stiffly, his shoulders relax, and he’s even got himself a bit of a Brooklyn twang when he talks.

“You grew up around here,” Grills says when James thanks him for the burger and then stays to chat about who the best butcher in the neighborhood is.

James tenses up, just a fraction, and Clint’s ready to go and intervene when James says, “Yeah, guess I did.”

“So, James ,” Becky says, sidling up to them, three hot dogs on her plate. Two have ketchup and little nibbles taken out of them. One is loaded up with relish and onions and has a bigger bite taken out of it.

Clint’s immediately wary. The tone she’s using means nothing good.

“How’d you meet our Clint?” she asks.

He can feel James’s hackles go up, displeased with the ‘our’, and possessiveness should not be a turn on, but it turns out that it 100% is.

“Work,” James answers.

“Really?” Becky asks. “I don’t remember seeing you on the TV. Are you the one with the shield?”

James, to Clint’s utter astonishment, laughs. “I’m not Captain America,” he says. “I’m not an Avenger.”

“Oh,” she says. “Um.”

“I sometimes do boring saving the world stuff,” Clint says. “The kind of things that don’t end up on the TV. James saved my life on our first mission together.”

Becky’s frown vanishes, replaced with another eager smile. “Really?” She looks between them, absolutely delighted. “Was it romantic?”

Clint thinks about being kidnapped and how his throat was sore from being choked. He thinks about the Soldier blowing the door off the hinges, and how he swept into the room, deadly and competent. Clint thinks about getting stabbed in the leg and the spark when their hands touched. How after establishing that they’d bonded, the Soldier had vanished.

“This is me we’re talking about,” Clint says. “Romantic isn’t really my style.”

Jenny bounds over for a bite of her hot dog before she’s off and chasing Noelle again.

“I hope she doesn’t throw up this time,” Becky says, watching her daughter run away.

James looks alarmed.

“Want more food?” Clint asks.

Both their plates are empty, and it’ll be a good way to escape Becky’s inquisition.

They load up with a hot dog each and James gets another burger, and they’re at the condiment table when Kathleen joins them.

“Becky tells me you two work together,” she says with the air of someone who thinks she’s being fed a line.

“News sure travels fast up here,” Clint says.

Kathleen’s eyes flick down to Clint’s wrists, exposed as he reaches for the ketchup bottle, and he sees the moment she realizes his wrists are empty.

“Hmm,” she says. She grabs one of the individual bags of chips and wanders off again.

Clint thinks he should start wearing his cuffs again. They’re a pain when he has to shoot without warning, but at least it keeps people from fucking staring. If he didn’t have a hot dog to eat then he’d shove his hands into his pockets.

“Sorry,” James says, quiet enough that Clint almost doesn’t hear him.

“That other people can’t keep their noses in their own business?” Clint asks. “You start apologizing for that you never stop.”

He glances around, notices that a lot of people are directing stares their way. Some of them, like Becky are a little curious, a little hopeful. Some, like Kathleen, are dismissive. There’s Joel who looks...envious? And there are a fair share that are outright staring like Clint’s going to plant a big wet one on James’s mouth.

Clint has more class than that.

“So,” Clint says after a moment. “Wanna see how suggestively we can eat our hot dogs?”

And James, to Clint’s stunned surprise, shrugs and says, “Why not?” and that’s how the story of how his neighbors find out that Clint has a boyfriend even if most don’t think they’re soulmates.

~*~

The morning after the cookout, Clint wakes up to JAMES in big, bold letters across his wrist.

He pumps his fist in the air and hopes James wasn’t eavesdropping for that particular moment.

~*~

Clint’s at the Mansion, sitting in the lounge with some of the other Avengers when he feels like someone’s dunked his head in a bucket of ice water (as it happens, this has also happened to Clint before in his life).

The shock of it makes him gasp, and he shakes himself, like that will get rid of the phantom hand on his neck or the chill that’s spread through his body.

Part of his brain shuts down, and the chill stops spreading, but it’s replaced by a different kind of cold - a terrifying, no please no when Clint looks down at his wrist and finds it blank.

He ignores Wanda’s questions and Falcon’s concerns and goes straight to the kitchen where Logan’s lounging against the counter with a beer and sneering at whatever cause Cap’s trying to get him to care about today.

“I need to talk to your psychic professor,” Clint says, not caring that he’s interrupting.

“He’s a telepath,” Logan says.

Clint really doesn’t care about the difference between a psychic and a telepath right now. The extent to which he doesn’t care must show on his face, because Logan holds his hands up.

“Woah there, no need to get snippy. What do you need the Professor for?”

Clint gives him a flat look that feels more like the Soldier than himself.

“Alright, alright,” Logan mutters. “Someone pissed in your coffee this morning.”

“I’ll drive you,” Cap says when Logan produces a number and an address for the Professor.

Clint wants to do this alone. It’s his soulmate in danger and after James has come after him twice without any need to, Clint needs to repay him. More than that, he needs to get his soulmate back. James is in the place he was before, the place that made Clint cold, the place that he needed Kate and Lucky to get himself out of.

He’s not sure who’s going to get James out of there if Clint doesn’t go and find him.

“I can handle a drive upstate,” Clint says.

“I’m driving you,” Cap says, and Clint knows better than to argue with Cap when he gets his Captain America voice going.

“Whatever,” Clint says. He goes to retrieve the spare bow and quiver he keeps at the Mansion.

He puts them in the trunk alongside Cap’s shield.

“Expecting trouble?” Clint asks as he gets into the passenger seat of the car.

“Are you?” Cap counters.

Clint blows out a breath and puts his feet up on the dash. “A friend of mine is missing.”

“We’ll find him,” Cap promises.

“Maybe,” Clint says.

~*~

The Professor lives in a mansion even bigger than Tony’s.

“Don’t tell him,” Cap says when Clint mentions this.

Clint laughs. No way is he helping Tony get into a ‘whose dick is bigger’ contest with the leader of the X-Men. That seems like inviting unnecessary trouble.

“Also, I think this might be an estate,” Cap adds.

A man in a wheelchair greets them at the doors. “Professor Xavier, at your service,” he says. “Logan was not very clear on your reason for stopping by.”

“I need help finding someone,” Clint says.

“I think that’s more your agency’s forte,” Professor Xavier says.

Clint’s smile is tight when it stretches across his face. “The only clues I’ve got are up here,” he says, tapping his head.

He can feel Cap’s surprise, but Clint doesn’t look over at him, doesn’t acknowledge it.

“Ah,” Professor Xavier says. “In that case, come in and let’s discuss your problem.”

They end up in a formal sitting room, the Professor next to the couch that Clint’s sprawled out across. Clint feels a little bit like he’s in therapy.

Would you like to talk about your mother? Professor Xavier teases.

Only, Clint doesn’t laugh. He sits straight up, because there’s a voice in his head, and it isn’t the right voice, because the right voice has disappeared and -

“Ah,” Professor Xavier says, out loud this time, “Apologies. Your soulmate is missing.”

“You have a soulmate?” Cap asks.

Clint shows his wrists to the Professor. “I’ve met my soulmate, and we’ve sparked. I had his name on my wrist, but it disappeared this afternoon.”

Cap sucks in a sharp breath.

“He’s still alive,” Clint says. “This has happened before. Only, I don’t know where he went. His mind’s pulled back from mine and last time I tried to look in on his when this happened I almost got lost.”

“This is an interesting puzzle,” Professor Xavier says. “Do you mind if I take a look?”

That’s kind of why Clint’s here. He opens his head up to the professor’s prodding, and tries not to recoil at how not-right it is. It’s the wrong presence in his head, the wrong person sifting through his memories and his thoughts.

He feels the professor poke at James’s corner of Clint’s brain, but it doesn’t open up to him the way Clint’s thoughts do.

“Strange,” Professor Xavier says, pulling back. “He’s protected.”

“So you can’t help?” Clint asks.

This had been his first option, but he can always fall back on his second - tell Coulson that he’d bonded to the Winter Soldier and then ask for SHIELD’s help finding him. There are about ten different reasons why Clint would’ve preferred option one.

“I can,” Professor Xavier says, “Though not in the way you were hoping. You still have access to your soulmate’s mind.”

Clint shakes his head. “I told you. I tried that before. It was -” bad is an understatement.

“I’m here,” Professor Xavier tells him. “I’ll be your anchor.”

Clint thinks about the frozen lake, how it had dragged him down and down and - “I’m not sure an anchor is what I need.”

“Ah,” Professor Xavier says, like he can see what Clint’s seeing. “Poor wording. I’ll pull you out before you can sink too deep.”

Better. “What am I looking for?”

“Where he is,” Professor Xavier says. “Find when he was last conscious and work backwards until you can find a location. You can start your ground search there.”

“He told me he didn’t want me in his head,” Clint says.

“Is he in enough danger that you’d break that promise?” Professor Xavier asks.

Clint thinks about how the letters disappeared from his wrist, how James has all but vanished from his mind, and then he takes a deep breath and searches for their connection.

Cold, cold, cold.

There’s the frozen lake again, and he’s breaking through the surface, plummeting down and down and -

I’m here, Professor Xavier tells him, You’re safe.

Safe.

Clint swims back up to the surface. There are hands grabbing at his ankles, trying to pull him down, and his lungs burn but he doesn’t open his mouth to breathe. He swims up to where the ice stops him from reaching air, and he pounds on it until it finally breaks.

He bursts through and -

Gentle hands easing him into the chamber.

Time to sleep.

He’s good and now it’s time to rest.

Looking down at the chamber, feeling fear, feeling peace, feeling nothing at all.

Rough hands now, digging into his shoulders, into his arm, wrestling him into the chair.

Not the chair.

Not the chair.

Please , not the chair.

Relax, don’t fight. Fighting makes it worse.

They’re going to take everything.

They’re not .

They don’t know about Clint. They don’t know about the little piece that’s safe . They don’t know that all their work will be undone as soon as I wake up again. Stop fighting. Let them trust. Let them believe. Sleep and when I wake up again I’ll fight.

Gentle hands again.

A face - dark goatee, dark hair that’s going white near the ears.

Lukin.

“Are you ready to come in, Soldier? Are you ready for a rest?”

There’s only one answer. “Yes.”

Gentle. Rough. Screaming. Pain. Gentle. The chamber.

Sleep.

Clint’s gasping as he comes out of the memories, and there are tears in his eyes, and his fingers are digging into Cap’s arm, but -

“I’ve got a lead,” he says, voice raspy like he’s been screaming.

“Okay,” Cap says.

“We’re going to need more than the two of us,” Clint says.

~*~

It’s not the most pleasant conversation he’s ever had with Fury or Coulson before in his life, and he’s had a couple doozies over the year.

“Lukin,” Clint repeats. “What do you know about him?”

“Aleksander Lukin,” Natasha says. “He’s Russian. Dangerous.”

“Can we go back to the part where you soulbonded with the Winter Soldier and didn’t tell anyone?” Fury demands.

“Can we do it after we rescue my soulmate?” Clint asks.

“I should bench you for this mission,” Fury says.

“Good fucking luck,” Clint fires back which, yes, means he should definitely be benched.

~*~

He isn’t benched.

He’s up in the air while Cap and Logan storm the compound where they think Lukin is keeping James. He wanted to be on the ground with them, wanted to be the one who ripped the door off James’s prison, but that’s not where Clint’s strength lies.

He’s better up here where he can see everything, where he can keep trouble off Cap and Logan.

“We’ve found him,” Cap says through the comms. “It’s some kind of cryochamber. It’s - Bucky ?”

Things get a little chaotic after that.

~*~

“I can’t believe you didn’t recognize Bucky Barnes,” Coulson says when the Avengers get back from their mission, and Clint’s being forced to debrief while his soulmate is down in Where’s Your Head At With Dr. Rikash .

“All your comics had him as a little kid in spandex,” Clint says.

Coulson sighs, disappointed.

~*~

Some days, Clint wakes up with James across his wrist. Other days, Bucky is there. Still others, there’s nothing at all.

Clint doesn’t panic on any of those days, not even the latter, because there’s always someone in his head, mocking him for spoiling his dog or for watching cartoons on Saturday mornings. Sometimes, James-Bucky-The Winter Soldier hangs out in Clint’s apartment to mock him in person.

“I can’t believe I was ever scared of you,” Clint says as they watch Scooby Doo with Lucky.

James is covering Lucky’s eyes, because he thinks that if Lucky sees Scooby leap into Shaggy’s arms then Lucky’ll try to copy him. Clint doesn’t think his dog is that smart, but it’s kind of cute to watch James coddle his dog so he doesn’t say anything.

I can hear what you’re thinking , James reminds him. Dumbass.

“And you’re still scared of me,” James says.

“Nah,” Clint says with a grin.

He puts his feets in James’s lap and laughs when James shoves him off the couch.