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"Weekly Date Night" -- James is all healed up and almost ready for the new arm. To celebrate, Clint surprises him with a change in their usual 'date night' routine.

~*~

James pulls on his shirt and nods at the doctor. The neural interfaces they'd implanted have fully integrated into his nervous system and his reflexes and reaction times continue to improve daily. With just a few more points of improvement, he'll be deemed ready for the new arm.

Stepping out of the exam room, he's greeted by the sight of Clint leaning casually against the corridor wall, one knee bent, seemingly unconcerned and merely there out of happenstance. As if he'd paused to text someone. James knows better and he's crazy grateful for Clint's support. He's been a welcome distraction and constant support through all of the surgeries and James honestly doesn't know what he'd have done without him.

"Hey!" Clint greets, phone going into his pocket as he beelines for James, smile sweet and genuine. "You cleared for sparring?"

James takes his outstretched hand, happiness fizzing in his veins. "Of course," he says, smirking just a bit as he adds, "I don't need two arms to beat your ass."

Clint bounces on the balls of his feet, his eyes sparkling. "You keep telling yourself that, Grandpa."

"It's showing, not telling," James corrects. He walks beside Clint easily, their shoulders bumping, his balance no longer compromised. "Where are we going?" he asks as they turn away from the engineering section of the compound where their range is located.

Clint smirks and James rolls his eyes. "I've got a surprise!"

James absolutely does not pout. He is a grown man and can handle changes in his routine. Besides, Clint's eager as a puppy and James finds that ridiculously adorable. So he isn't about to douse Clint's fun even if he had been looking forward to their usual 'date': sparring, trip to the range, and a picnic by 'their' spring in the gardens. Instead Clint leads him to a small two-door coupe convertible with the roof down and a large bundle under a purple blanket on the back seat.

James whistles at the ride and Clint whoops as he vaults the side instead of opening the door like a normal human. James arches an eyebrow and gets in the usual way.

"What?" Clint asks as he starts the car. "It's fun."

"You got your sneakers on the seat," James says, deadpan.

Clint's eyes go wide and he swipes at the seat before buckling in and turning away from the curb.

James startles at the movement because he hadn't realized the car was actually 'on'. He must look confused about the lack of engine noise because Clint explains, "It's electric."

"Huh," James muses. "Might not fly, but this is pretty cool."

"Who said there aren't flying cars?"

James cocks his head. "I've never seen one."

Clint shrugs, eyes going back to the road. "They're classified. Or at least the one I know of is."

"You've seen one?"

"Ridden in it."

"There's a story there."

Clint chuckles. "Little bit," he says, slightly evasive but grinning.

"But you'd have to kill me if you told me?" James teases.

Clint glances over, his eyes sparkling, lips curled up in a smirk. "You got it in one."

"Smart ass," James retorts, tipping his head back and closing his eyes to bask in the sun and light breeze. And the company if he's honest with himself.

"Damn straight," Clint says. "But you wouldn't have me any other way."

"I wouldn't," James agrees without opening his eyes, certitude reaching down to his toes.

The drive is pleasant, Clint humming then breaking into song as they escape the city and the mid-day traffic thins. Clint's voice washes over James, adding to the near-perfect warmth settling into his bones.

He must have dozed off because soon enough the car stops and Clint is cautiously nudging him. "Up and at 'em, beautiful. We're here."

"Where?" James asks, waking slowly. He blinks up at Clint who's standing outside the car, purple bundle resting on his shoulder, with what can only be described as a shit-eating grin on his face. Asshole's fucking beautiful, is James' first thought.

Huh. He must really trust Clint if he can so easily fall asleep on him and not give a damn about being so vulnerable.

"C'mon," Clint says. "I'll show you."

James lets Clint tug him up and out of the car, even leans a bit as he unfolds and comes fully awake.

He's scoping the area, trying to figure out what's beyond the trees.

Clint just nudges him. "It's safe. I promise."

James isn't surprised he got caught and he's not ashamed of being wary. They might be somewhere in the middle of Wakanda and completely safe, but he is still alive because he is ever vigilant. Which is why he doesn't fail to notice the mesh shielding poking out just above the trees. He's curious but he'll find out soon enough.

The path weaves through trees for about a hundred yards, then comes to the mesh barrier he'd noticed. There's a door of sorts that Clint opens with a press of his palm. He gestures James through, the door closing silently behind them.

They step forward and James gapes. He looks at Clint who's practically vibrating beside James.

"You like?" Clint asks.

"What's not to like about a massive obstacle course and training range?" James asks, his voice dry, but he doesn't actually succeed in keeping his own excitement from leaking out. "How in the hell'd you do all this?"

"Me?" Clint looks sheepish, rubs the back of his neck, then shrugs and points. "I didn't. Apparently, this is a thing."

"A thing?" James repeats.

"Well, I mean… I talked to Okoye," he says, as if that explains anything. James raises an eyebrow. "Okay, I admit, I whined about being bored! I told her that I was going stir crazy and if they didn't want two halfway-ex assassins going bonkers on their watch, they'd do something!"

James snorts, lips pursing to hold back laughter. "Halfway-ex?"

Clint's fingers twitch at his sides. "We are?"

"Speak for yourself," James says, deadpan. "Or was that a dig at the one-armed guy?" He tries to rattle Clint, but his eyes must give him away.

"You are such a dick," Clint says. "No digs at the one-armed guy or the guy that uses a paleolithic weapon. And the logic worked, though it took some convincing. I was insulted that they didn't consider either of us a threat."

"You can be insulted for the both of us," James says, and once again Clint has surprised him, though, by now, he shouldn't be surprised at anything Clint pulls off. The guy has the biggest heart and wears it on his sleeve. "They built this for us?" he asks instead of pondering the pleasant warmth in his gut.

"Nah. It's where the Dora Milaje recruits train."

James surveys the area. They're utterly alone.

Clint grins. "The kiddos are off doing something called ‘protocol, linguistics, and international governance.’"

James groans. "I do not envy them."

"Yeah, but it gives us free reign."

James chuckles. "It does," he agrees, then realizes that Clint's got this smug grin on his face and James cannot let that stand. "Race you to the climbing wall!" he blurts out as he takes off. "Loser has to carry the other through the razor wire section!" he adds. It only takes a couple of strides before he's hit speed and eating ground despite his uneven center of gravity.

"Hey!" Clint cries out. "That's cheating!"

James doesn't look back. He's only got one arm. The wall might be his undoing. But he hears the bundle clatter to the ground and Clint swearing at him as he gives chase.

James just laughs, joyous and free. It's a beautiful, sunny day, with light wind and not a cloud in the sky. And he's running, lighter than he's been since he and Steve had to hightail it away from an accidentally broken window pane.

In the end Clint wins but he refuses to let James carry him anywhere.

"Nuh-uh."

"You know I can do it."

Clint's got his arms crossed over his chest and is giving James a mulish glare. "Don't care. Fucking razor wire."

"'m not gonna drop you." Despite his outward fixed expression, inside he's chuckling. Clint's a grown man, an assassin, and a superhero, but he's still got the most beautiful eyes and this boyish charm that James finds irresistible.

Instead of answering Clint shoots off, leaving James flat-footed and swearing while Clint snickers. "Turnabout's fair play!"

Clint has the clear advantage through most of the course, but James holds his own. As they turn the last lap and head toward the end, James gives Clint a sly grin before putting on a burst of speed and leaving Clint in the dust.

Even bastardized super-soldier serum is good for stamina.

"Asshole!" Clint swears as he catches up, lungs heaving, palms on his knees as he bends to catch his breath.

"Always," James says, drawing Clint up.

"Yeah?" Clint asks, pupils growing wide as James tugs him close. "I'm sweaty," he protests, but doesn't push James away. "And you're a cheater."

James kisses him to shut him up.

Chapter Text

"Stargazing" -- Clint talks about sleeping under the stars with the circus and Bucky talks about the rare nights during the war when all was quiet and they'd sit around a fire telling stories until it was just he and Steve, the fire long died out and the sky awash in stars.

~*~

Despite being unenhanced, Clint more than holds his own throughout the entire day, even taking James to the cleaners a time or two. But in the end, even sheer stubbornness—and Clint is the epitome of stubborn—can't begin to compete with James' enhanced metabolism.

James is sweaty, pleasantly spent, muscles warm and bordering on tired, but Clint. Well. James laughs as he dramatically collapses to the ground, groaning and bitching. He's doing his best impression of a beached starfish, arms and legs spread wide, lungs heaving.

Never let it be said that James is a pushover.

He kneels over Clint, blocking the setting sun, then waits for Clint to open his eyes. Once he does, James smirks. "I win."

James shouldn't have underestimated his lover because he finds himself flat on his back, Clint straddling him, forearm pressing into James' neck. "Fuck!" James hisses.

"I might not be a supersoldier, but I paid attention to Nat's lessons," Clint says, then leans close, breath brushing James' cheek. "Uncle?"

James is a stubborn bastard, too, but he grew up with Steven 'cussed' Rogers and he knows exactly when it's better to concede than to keep fighting. "Uncle," he admits.

Clint's smile is blinding and his kiss is salty but as sweet as penny candy. When Clint shifts, releasing James' arm, James reaches up and tugs him closer, holding on and kissing until they're both seeing stars.

Clint grins then flops to the ground at James' side. "Damn."

James agrees.

"Hungry?" Clint asks.

"Starved. Too tired to move."

"I call bullshit," Clint says. "I bet you could do the obstacle course another five times."

"Only if I'm being chased by someone with a big gun," James replies, eyes watching the sky slowly darken as the sun sets behind the trees.

Clint rolls to his side, rests his head on his hand. "I brought a picnic, if you want to eat here?"

"My calendar's kinda full, but I'll fit you in."

Instead of moving to get up, he uses his right arm and both legs to overbalance Clint until they're chest to chest.

"Ass!" Clint breathes, his eyes going dark blue in the gathering gloom.

James has to kiss him. Couldn't stop himself if he tried. They get a little lost in each other, kissing as the sky turns first fiery and then midnight blue. James would have continued kissing Clint but his lover's stomach grumbles loudly and they both laugh. "Guess we should eat, huh?"

"Yeah. I slaved over it!"

Despite being simple fare: crusty bread, savory meat and cheese with bottled water and sweet, flaky pastries, it's one of the best meals James has eaten. He knows it's the company more than the food; it helps that there's no guillotine hanging over his head, no threat of losing himself or being forced to hurt others. A warm body pressing against his, shoulder to knee, a bit of conversation, and comfortable silences combine until an unknown and all too rare feeling steals over James: contentment.

He sighs and Clint turns to him. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah," James says, lip curling in a smile. "Thanks."

"For?" Clint asks, genuinely confused.

"Today," James answers. "I know you planned this just in case my checkup wasn't so great."

Clint shrugs. "Nah. More like I just wanted to see you in all your tall, dark, and scary glory." He leers. "I had an ulterior motive."

"Riiiight." James doesn't believe him for a second, but he's not going to push it. It's not like Clint's the only one who has trouble with praise.

"You have to get the car back soon?" he asks to distract Clint.

"Nope," he answers. "The king said that I could keep it. I guess we've been given the Wakanda seal of approval."

"Less that and more that you were being an annoying pain in the ass, I bet."

Clint wraps an arm around James' shoulder. "You know it," he says, and drops a big wet kiss on James' cheek.

James elbows Clint hard enough to make him flail. While he's off-balance James pushes him over. "Hey!" He follows Clint down, presses close, nips at his jaw, barely-there kisses fluttery against his skin.

"Oh!" Clint moans, arms pulling taut to wrap them together, sweet drugging kisses leading to more. Sex out in the open as the nearly new moon rises is pretty risky but neither of them are particularly shy or risk averse. And there is something in the air because James finds himself with eyes fixed on Clint's face as James swallows him down, teasing him until he's crying out and coming with a shudder and a shout.

If James' vision goes a little hazy when Clint returns the favor well, he's still mostly human, right? And Clint is far more than just a smart-mouthed, spectacularly talented archer.

Laughing, Clint twists and tugs until James is wrapped up in his arms. They're mostly decent, breaths mingling, asses covered and groins pressing close. It's surprisingly more intimate than the sex. "You're bold as brass, aren't you?" Clint asks and the way his eyes sparkle, James has to kiss him again.

"You said we had the place to ourselves," he says then licks the taste of himself off Clint's tongue.

"We do," Clint says, arms tightening. "Just…"

"What? Didn't think the old guy was up for public sex?"

Clint aims an elbow at his ribs, but doesn't do much more than slide it over James' shirt. "Not exactly an exhibitionist if we're alone."

"Pedant."

"Ohhhh, that's a mighty big word for this uneducated--"

"Clint," James warns.

"What?"

"Don't you dare finish that thought. You're one of the smartest men I know, and that includes all these Wakanda doctors, engineers, and scientists."

Clint blinks, a mulish expression warring with honest surprise, but he doesn't argue. Or can't come up with anything at the moment.

"I don't want to argue, but you gotta know that book learning ain't all there is, right?"

"Whatever." Clint shrugs.

James has hit a nerve, one that he should have been ready for, but he wasn't and now he needs to change the subject. "How about we see how many constellations we can name?"

"'M not an astrophysicist," Clint says, but James has piqued his interest.

"Me neither, but I loved looking up at the sky and hearing the stories about how the constellations got their names."

"Who told you the stories?"

"Gabe and Jacques," James answers. "We'd sit in the dark, between ops and tell stories. Mine were always the most embarrassing stories about Steve. Dugan told great ghost stories." Clint snuggles close and James pulls him down, sprawling on his back with Clint halfway laying on him. "Gabe was the smartest of all of us. He could speak four languages, at least, and had a university education…"

Clint nudges James with an elbow. "Now who's fawning over book learnin'?"

Snorting, James shakes his head. "Jacques was no slouch, either."

"I bet none of you were," Clint adds. "Phil -- Coulson -- always said that the Howling Commandos had to be natural strategists. Geniuses, everyone. Else you wouldn't have been as successful as you were."

"I'd say that success was all Steve, but it wasn't. We made a good team," he says, voice laced with a quiet nostalgia. Then he smirks. "But then Coulson wasn't there when the Howlies had beans for dinner. Bet that never made it into the history books."

Clint snorts with laughter.

"What about you? You ever just lay outside at night and look at the stars?"

"Yeah," he answers. "But I didn't get no lesson on the ancient Greeks or anything like that."

"Oh?"

"Nah, we'd just lay up on top of Madame Salazar's camper and make up stories," he says, voice subdued as he shrugs. "Just kid stuff."

Clint rarely mentions the circus, or any of his life before SHIELD, so James treasures that tidbit for the trust that it is. He blows a raspberry on Clint's cheek before humming softly. "I call bullshit. The ancients were just making up the same kind of stories. Gods turning women into bears and tossing them into the heavens? Or bards becoming swans? Or queens sitting on their thrones but spending half the time upside down?" James chuckles. "I bet your stories weren't any worse than those."

Clint lifts his head as James recounts some of the more ridiculous stories he recalls. He's quiet, watching and listening until James stops. "What?"

"I like your stories better."

James doesn't fidget under Clint's intense gaze, but it's a near thing. "Ain't mine," he protests.

"But it is you: your voice, your words, your company," he says, then leans down and drops a kiss on James' nose. "Just you makes it better."

James doesn't know what to do with that. He's forgotten how to react normally to pretty much everything, and Clint doesn't help. He pushes James, sends all these emotions coursing through him, and usually he just shrugs it off, swallows down the words and looks away. But this time he doesn't want to hide.

"I think I should be saying that to you, sweetheart."

"Sweetheart?" Clint grins.

"Yeah. This has been a fuckin' perfect day."

"Wow, you are such a romantic! Way to woo me." Clint pokes James in the ribs.

"Thought you were a sure thing?" James retaliates with a hard squeeze right above Clint's knee. He's rewarded with a curse and Clint jerking away. He chases after Clint and their perfect day ends with wrestling and takedowns until they're both grass-stained and sweaty. Again.

Chapter Text

James wakes to Clint's weary smile and a bevy of doctors babbling at him. Without thought, he reaches for Clint with his new hand and the room goes silent. Clint takes it as though he'd expected nothing less.

The surgery is a complete success even if James grows quickly tired of the constant parade of engineers, neuroscientists, and therapists. He keeps quiet, grits his teeth and takes it. They'd given him the new arm without question; the least he can do is allow them to learn all they can from it.

Clint notices, though, and is quickly shoving the remaining people out of James' room, growling in the back of his throat as he leans against the door, "Fuckin' hell. They're like ghouls."

"Ghouls?" James mutters, eyes fixed on his hand as he moves it, clenching and releasing a fist. The metal plates are gone, replaced with a clever vibranium mesh that looks like skin on casual observation. It's still metal. He's still a tin man, but this arm gives him the chance to hide in plain sight. He swallows as Clint wraps his hands around James' fist, the very real, very there pulse of Clint's heart a visceral reminder of something he'd nearly forgotten: the sensation of blood-warm skin.

"Hey," Clint says, voice quiet but intense. "Hey, look at me, babe."

James blinks, then focuses on Clint.

"There you are," he says, smiling. "Been a big day. It went good, but you were under a long time. That's exhausting. Trust me, I know."

James nods, voice lost to a deluge of emotion.

Clint pushes his hand down, then presses a kiss to James' forehead. "Sleep. I've got you," he murmurs against the skin and James' eyes close without thought.

~~*~~

James would have been content with half the functionality, just to be rid of the reminder, but the scientists keep tweaking, improving, enhancing. He doesn't want to be a bother, but he is experimental tech and too grateful for words, so he lets them prod and poke all they want. After all, his new arm is significantly lighter than his old one, relieving the strain on his back, shoulder, and collarbone. That, in turn, allows the scientists to reduce the volume of metal shoring up his skeleton. Thus he is literally lighter in body as well as mind. With all they'd done for him, he'll take whatever they dish out even if he sometimes feels more lab rat than human.

His memories of being the Winter Soldier are sometimes slippery and hard to grasp, but he clearly remembers his bones aching regularly, his body heavy and uncoordinated every time they woke him from the ice. Now he is pain free more days than not, his bones so light he'd had to relearn how to move. He still catches himself tripping on air, usually whenever Clint's near.

The funny thing is that Clint's smile makes his insides feel the same way, light and breezy. "You're beautiful. Like a sunrise," James thinks.

"Now I know they've got you on the good stuff," he hears whispered at his ear followed by a rumbling chuckle.

James blinks, the world is a bit hazy, blurry around the edges as he turns his head to glimpse Clint who's wearing a wide grin.

Before James can reply, Clint snorts. "You said that out loud."

It takes James far longer than it should to make sense of Clint's words. When he does, he groans, brow furrowing and face heating.

"Yep." Clint's too damned smug, but James still finds himself returning his smile, James' more than a little bit crooked if the numbness on his left side is any indicator.

He stutters out a rough, "Ass," but Clint's smile doesn't dim. Instead he's leaning closer and drops a kiss on James' nose.

"This is the last one, babe," he murmurs, breath brushing James' face. "You did it." His voice is warm, encouraging as he reaches up, palm a ghostly touch on James' still numb neck.

"They did it," James argues. "I just laid there."

"So modest," Clint snorts. "The doctors might do the surgery, but you're the one strong enough to get through all of this." His thumb moves until James can feel the gentle strokes.

"Not gonna argue," James mutters, doubtful that lying on a table is an accomplishment.

"Right," Clint nods. "Now sleep off the drugs so I can take you home."

James likes the sounds of that. He lets his eyes drift shut and the world fade away, Clint's humming sending him along peacefully.

~~*~~

James is soon released and Clint has him planted on the sofa in their little cottage before Clint's admonishments to 'fuckin' ask for help' stop ringing in James' ears.

James would argue, but Clint is holding up one finger. "Nope. I know what I'm like, how Steve was after that Insight shit. I've helped Natasha out of more hospital rooms than I can count." He leans forward and James can't stop staring into his eyes. They're a sparkling blue and green and gold but the humor is bolstered by steel. "You will stay put. Follow doctor's orders for the remainder of the week and then I will consider freeing you from house arrest."

Despite not wanting to antagonize Clint, James snorts.

Eyes narrowing, body tensing, Clint challenges, "Fine. Try me."

And Bucky would, just to be an ass and prove some stupid point, but how would that ever make his case that Steve took all the stupid with him?

He sags deeper into the sofa with a shrug. "Not challenging you. You're just asshole enough to shoot me with some glue arrow that I'd have to get help to get out of. I ain't in the mood for being humiliated."

Clint relaxes, smile curling his lips. "Good boy."

"Oy!" James jerks up and pins him with a glare which is far less effective than it used to be. "Fuck you, Barton!"

"When the docs clear you, it'd be my genuine pleasure," he smirks and James ponders how he got so damned lucky.

~~*~~

James tries to be a good patient, to allow Clint to wait on him, do for him without complaint, but James has always been the caretaker or the one who sits alone in a corner to lick his wounds. Stoicism, thy name is James Buchanan Barnes. Having Clint hovering is a test, one he's not sure he's going to pass.

And, of course, James loses it at the worst possible time. He should keep quiet, bite his tongue when he sees the dark circles under Clint's eyes, he should appreciate the effort Clint is putting into his recovery -- it feels like he's working harder than James himself -- but James is an independent, stubborn asshole. And Clint needs to get out of his face.

Clint pops into the living for the millionth time, interrupting James' reading, the only quiet he's had in a couple of days and it's the last straw. He jerks upright, overcompensates for the extra weight he no longer carries and trips -- fucking trips -- and falls, catching himself on the coffee table with his left arm. The table cracks and Clint is instantly there with a ready hand and a concerned frown.

"Let me check your stitches," he says, voice quiet.

James cannot.

He shoves Clint back, growling as he storms away, fleeing to the bedroom, "For fuck's sake! I'm not an invalid! I did take care of myself before you were around!"

He turns back to Clint and points at the door. "Just get out! Leave me alone for a few hours. Go spar. Do something -- anything -- so I don't have to see your face!" James slams the door and presses back against it, sagging to the floor as he tries to catch his breath. He pretends he didn't see Clint flinch away from his outburst, pretends that Clint is fine and needs space as much as James does. His stomach is tied in knots when he throws himself on the bed, burying his face in Clint's pillow.

~~*~~

James falls asleep, but doesn't rest. His sleep is fitful and he wakes less than an hour later feeling groggy and disoriented and still irritated. He rolls to his back and lies there, staring up at the ceiling as he strains to hear what Clint is doing. But the little cottage is silent.

His investigation turns up that Clint, his gear, and the car are all gone. James could kick himself for still being annoyed. Clint had done exactly what he'd demanded.

Huffing out a frustrated breath, he collapses heavily to the sofa, ignoring the sting along his shoulder as he reaches for the tablet.

Instead of Steve, James' call nets him Sam. "You."

"Good to see you, too. I cannot with this lovefest."

For some reason, Sam being Sam eases some of the prickling under James' skin. "Steve around?"

"He's out for his morning run."

"Oh, right."

"Yeah, you woke me up, jerk."

"Shouldn't you be out there chasing Steve? Keeping an eye on him?"

"Not this morning. He rode me hard last--"

"La la la!" James interrupts, loudly talking over Sam. "That is T fuckin' M I!"

Sam cackles. "Serves you right for calling at the ass crack of dawn."

Before James comes up with a retort, Sam is sobering. "What's up, man?"

"Not a damned thing," James lies, the words easy.

But Sam snorts. "Sure. And if I didn't know Steven Grant Rogers as well as I do, I might believe your bullshit," he says, tone dry. "How 'bout I call Clint and ask him?"

James gasps and backpedals. "Nope!" he says, too quickly, giving himself away.

"Oh," Sam says, as perceptive as ever. "So that's how it is?"

"Fuck you, Wilson," James retorts.

"That position is taken," Sam says back. "What'd you do?" he continues, as unimpressed with James as ever. Steve got himself a great boyfriend. But James would never admit that. Not in a billion fucking years.

And James could keep stalling and trying to divert Sam's attention, but that never works and he really could use some advice. He huffs out a breath and sags back into the sofa. "Clint's been hovering and I kind of lost it at him," he admits.

"You haven't before now?" Sam whistles. "Look at you, being all adult and using your words."

"Asshole," James bites back. "I'm serious. I told him to get lost and he did."

"I'm honestly impressed. There's no way Steve wouldn't have snapped in less than a week."

"Steve hates being looked after."

"Oh, believe me, I know," Sam says. "But that tendency and the argument he started after--" He pauses. "Um after the Insight incident--"

James interrupts. "You mean after I nearly killed him?"

"Don't," Sam scolds. "I'm not your therapist and am not about to deal with any of that right now." He barely takes a breath before continuing. "I was simply telling you that Steve's temper and him hating to be laid up led to a big argument and that is the reason we both pulled our heads out. So I get what happened. It's not that surprising, really."

"Not the same thing. Steve has history with hospitals," James answers, voice sullen.

"And you don't?" Sam huffs, his disbelief audible. "Don't matter. The outcome's the same no matter the reason. Now you're a grown man. Apologize and quit sulking about it."

"It's not that easy."

"The hell it's not," Sam says and James is sure he's rolling his eyes. "I know for a fact that Clint hates hospitals and being laid up as much as either of you. It's no secret," he says. "So you're telling me he's not going to get it?"

Sam goes silent like he's waiting for James to agree or try to argue. Something.

"What's really going on, Barnes?" Sam asks when the silence stretches.

"I told you."

"No, you told me what you said. A recounting of events. But there's more to it than you being a whiny dick while you heal up."

James hates that he's so obvious now. Sam's clear around the world and he can read James like a book. James sighs. He drops his head back and rubs his eyes. "I hate it," he says, quiet and raw.

"Yeah, it sucks to be human," Sam says, his typical sarcasm ramped up to eleven.

"Not that," James says. "Clint being stuck here. All of you being fugitives. For fuck's sake, Wilson, his kids had to leave their home! Clint hasn't seen them in six months! All because of me." He swallows, throat closing around the guilt.

"I didn't know Peggy Carter, but Steve talks about her a lot," Sam says and James frowns at the non sequitur.

"What does that have to do--"

"Hush," Sam interrupts. "I'm giving you some good advice, but you need to know the whole story."

James has no clue where Sam's going with this but he makes some noise that pacifies Sam, who continues. "After you fell. It seems she told Steve that it was okay to mourn but it wasn't okay to disrespect your choice to be there," Sam explains. "And just like then, don't disrespect Clint's choices. He knew what he was getting into. He knew we were going against Ross and the Accords and it didn't stop him."

"But--"

"There's no but to it. It sucks," Sam says and James knows he talking about himself, wonders how long it's been since he's seen his family. "Ask him if you don't believe me. Just be prepared for him to be pissed at the question."

"I don't," James stops.

"Yeah, I get that," Sam says, voice sincere. "We do what we do because it's the right thing. Not the popular thing. Not the easy thing. We've all made sacrifices, but not a one of us has sacrificed as much as you and Steve."

James makes a noise of protest and Sam almost growls. "Just shut up, Barnes, and trust me for once."

"Trusting you is likely to get me in more trouble," he says, trying for light-hearted, but he misses the mark. Some metaphorical sniper he is.

Sam snorts. "Just apologize," he says. "It's not hard."

"Says you."

"Yeah, says me. What the fuck is hard about apologizing?"

"It's not--" James starts, "just everything is different now. A dame would just take flowers and be happy."

"I don't think Clint's the flowers kind of guy. What would you have done for a guy back then?"

James shakes his head. "Nothing. You didn't 'date' men, Wilson. You fucked 'em or got fucked. It was simple."

"Jeezus, your mouth," Sam says, but he's humming, sounds thoughtful through the phone. "Well, just do something nice for him, then."

"Like what? If you recall, I'm stuck in the outskirts of Birin Zana, basically under house arrest."

The huff of breath that rings down the phone line says all the James needs to know. "Sorry," he apologizes. "Just frustrated--"

"And crawling up the walls?" Sam interrupts. "I get that. Just… I don't know. Cook him dinner. Play some music. Cuddle."

"Cuddle? I do not cuddle."

Sam snorts. "Sure you don't."

There's an alert going off somewhere near Sam and the sound mutes for a few seconds before he comes back on. "Gotta go, but I'm sending you a playlist. Talk to Clint or I'll send Steve over there to knock some sense into you."

Before James can reply the line goes dead. He tries to ignore the twist of worry in his gut.

~~*~~

His email chimes before he bothers to move off the sofa.

'Quit wallowing.' is basically the extent of Sam's note and James would try to deny that he was doing any such thing, but he is sprawled on the sofa in sweats and a tee. He's barefoot and hasn't showered.

Of course not. He needs Clint's help to wrap his stitches.

'Shit.'

Trying to take Sam's advice, he opens the playlist and loses himself with the opening beat of the tom-tom.

Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong

The names come fast and furious as the music wraps around him, takes his breath away and reminds him of all that he's had taken from him.

More than a little lost, halfway through a second run through when the music stops suddenly and he jerks upright, left arm grabbing the intruder. Luckily, Clint is fast, avoids James' reach before he darts back in, palms on James' cheeks, breath huffing out.

"Sweetheart?"

James blinks, gaze finding Clint's. His face falls. "I'm sorry," he's saying before James can blink his red-rimmed eyes. And then Clint's there, kneeling in front of him, all furrowed brow and downturned lips.

"I'm an ass," James rasps, his heart tripping over as Clint brushes the streaks off his cheeks.

His face is serious, eyes filled with concern, but his lips curve up and he nods. "You are. I am too. So I get it. I'll do better. Give you space."

James reaches, presses Clint's palm against his cheek, eyes sliding shut as the warmth and nearness of him eases the knife from his ribs. "I'll use my words," he says, "I'll try," he adds and Clint huffs.

"I'll believe it when I see it, baby," Clint says, voice fond. "Didya get a little lost?" he asks, hand still pressed to James' cheek.

James opens his eyes and Clint's smiling, but it's false bravado, a bit brittle at the edges.

James shrugs, looks away as he admits, "Just," he pauses, "well, things came back."

"Oh, baby," Clint sighs, but he leans forward, wraps James up in a comforting embrace and James goes with it, buries his face in Clint's neck. His throat's tight and there's a bittersweet ache to the memories: trying to teach Steve to swing dance, winning the dance marathon with Doris 'Dot' O’Meara -- his share of the prize money helped buy Steve's meds for nearly three months, sneaking into the Café Society club to hear Billie Holiday, sharing Steve's asthma cigarettes in the back alley behind the movie theater, sitting beside Steve at his mom's funeral and marveling at how stoic and composed he is.

James swallows, grits his teeth, tries not to shake apart, but the more he fights the building wave the tighter everything becomes, the shattering inevitable.

"Shhhhh," Clint shushes, twists and moves until he's got James pressed into the sofa, his body both shelter and an anchor for James to cling to.

James has no idea how long they stay like that, but Clint doesn't complain or fidget, he's just this perfect blanket, soothing and warm.

When James opens his eyes, he meets Clint's gaze. Before he can dredge up words or an explanation, Clint's there already, understanding without judgement.

"Sam sent you his playlist, didn't he?"

James nods.

Clint shakes his head. "I don't know what the hell he was thinking."

"We, I called him," James stutters out. "After I, after I lost it. He was trying to help."

"By sending you his seduce Steve Rogers playlist?" Clint grins. His eyes are still tight like he's afraid of overstepping, but James huffs out a breath and rolls his eyes.

"So that's what got Steve into his bed?"

"Probably," Clint agrees. "Though Sam's very fine ass and show stopping smile might have helped."

"Hey," James protests.

"Too soon?"

James shakes his head, tugs Clint back down. "'s weird, is all."

"Weird?" Clint says, breath tickling James' ear.

"Feeling jealous."

"Yeah?" Clint asks and James swears he sounds a bit smug. "Well, you don't got to worry, ain't no one turning my head but you." Clint shifts to rest his weight on one arm then wriggles a bit and pulls his phone from his jeans. "Want you to hear something," he says. The song that begins to play is in sharp relief to the sounds of James' youth.

It starts with a guitar, plunked instead of strummed and then a man begins singing, his voice low, but hypnotic. James glances at Clint, "What is this?" he mouths.

The Book of Love

Clint ducks his head and there's a bit of pink on his cheeks making James more curious. He tilts Clint's chin up. "What?"

"It's our song."

'Our song' James mouths, confused but warmed by the thought. "Start it again," he asks, "please?"

Clint does and James listens.

And then he laughs.

"Long and boring?" he chuckles. "Some of the songs are dumb?" he snorts. "Not exactly romantic, is it?" he asks, his heart tripping into overdrive at the end.

Clint sees his eyes widen at the mention of wedding rings and he scrambles. "No! um, not yet! I mean, it's just… well we're us not exactly romantic, right? Not typical anyway. We spar for a date and have shooting contests and we sneak up on each other to test reflexes and there's like weapons all over the place. Then there's the whole assassin thing--"

He hasn't taken a breath, the words coming out fast and furious until James stops him with a kiss.

When they finally part, Clint's lips curl up into the sweetest, shy smile. It's James' favorite of his smiles. "Idiot," he says fondly.

"No roses for us," Clint says.

Clint is smiling at him, that little genuine grin with his eyes sparkling. He's the most beautiful sight and James blurts out, "I want to take you dancing."

Clint blinks slowly, then laughs. "Awesome!" he says. "But we still have to wait until you get the all-clear. I know the best nightclub in the world. It's in Frankfort." He's babbling again and it's even more adorable, so James has to kiss him again. And again.

Until they're both breathless.

"Nah, sweetheart," he begins. "I want to take you swing dancing. Like I used to do."

"You remember?" Clint asks, voice breathless with hope.

James nods and Clint's smile grows impossibly wider before curling into a smirk. "You'll have to teach me."

"I can't wait," James says and it's true. He remembers so much that made him who he used to be, and now the memories have depth and real emotion behind them. They're more than images on a screen. That's a bit terrifying because James knows he'll never be that man again. But at least now he remembers a lot of what made him Bucky. And with Clint at his side, there's no judgement, only support for whoever and wherever he ends up. Bucky or not.

Chapter Text

"Last box of chocolates" -- Natasha sends along her favorite chocolates while James is healing. He gets more than chocolates.

~*~

The doctors insist that he's healing at an amazing pace, but he's done with waiting, wants to be able to fully embrace the new arm and the other changes that come with it. He's cleared from bed rest and even 'house arrest' but he's not yet cleared for heavy lifting, sparring, or firing any weapon. Clint keeps to his word and gives James more space, allows him time to sit and 'contemplate his navel' as Clint says. It's not exactly true, but James does feel a need for quietude where he can sift through his memories, linger on the newly returned ones, poke at the gaps, and ponder just who he is now.

But even with that and him taking on the domestic duties of their little cottage, he's at loose ends most of his days.

And just when he's had enough, when he's ready to say 'Fuck it', grab Clint and steal a jet, a courier delivers a package. James would be lying if he claimed he isn't more than a little gobsmacked at getting a present. Who besides Steve and Clint bothers with him? And Steve is too busy trying to get the Accords modified and their names cleared to bother with such a thing. And Clint, well, Clint himself is a present most days, as corny as that sounds. Luckily, it's said only in James' head.

His curiosity means he doesn't wait for Clint to return before he opens the outer box and carefully removes the shiny blue and silver paper only to sit and blink in stunned silence as he contemplates Natalia's note. To him.

Natalia Alianovna Romanova. The most successful Black Widow the Red Room had ever created and the only one that made it out.

His memories of Natalia are mere shadows that sit in the cracks where his brain hasn't healed. They might never be more than wisps of memory, but even the few that he has are more than he wants: a determined child with huge eyes and deceptively delicate limbs; a bruised pre-teen who refuses to cry; a waif-like body, battered but still wielded like a blade; a smothered grin when James sasses the matron, poise belying her years, and a resilience and ferocity that always amazed him. Those qualities must be why she survived when so many others didn't.

The recollection of his era in the Red Room, when he'd been predator and prey, target and tutor, is something he refuses to chase, wishes that the images had stayed out of his reach. He knows what he'd been, what he'd done, how he'd been used. Children were collateral, none spared if they interfered with the success of his mission. But the young girls who were chosen for the Black Widow program were different. They were his mission and his handlers had been no less cruel. He was forced to teach young women how to use their bodies, shaping them into a deadly weapon before taking pleasure from them, giving it back. He was punishment for failure, reward for success. He'd executed his mission with the same skill and determination he'd performed on every other one, but never counted on finding a kindred spirit in a system designed to crush the emotion and steal the heart and soul of them. He cared for Natalia, tried to protect her, shield her from the worst of their life, but they were caught and both paid the price. He'd never seen the resilient young woman again, not until she was in his scope and he took out his quarry through her.

He strokes the card, debates opening it even as he ponders the irony that Natalia was saved by Clint and now, maybe, he had been, too.

Yasha,

I know this comes out of the blue. It is a long overdue thank you and an apology. You saved me and for that I owe you more than my gratitude. Forgive me that I did not save you.

You taught me how to fight, how to best a stronger opponent, how to outwit a smarter one, but more than making me a warrior and an assassin, you taught me how to be a spy, even against our masters. You taught me how to hide myself, taught me how to be what they believed I was, while still retaining a piece of myself deep inside, where they couldn't wipe it. If you hadn't given me that, there wouldn't have been anything left of me for Clint to save.

And Clint did save me. SHIELD and Phil Coulson helped me rebuild, helped me find all those pieces of me that the Red Room thought they'd carved out. I remembered you, but told no one. You were mine. I assumed you were dead and buried, a part of my past that there was no way to reclaim. The masters had always taught us that we were the invaluable ones. That we were the ones that would change the world and save Mother Russia. But that was just another lie in a never ending string of them. I grieve that I might have found you if I had not believed.

I didn't know who you were when you shot me. I never made the connection that my Yasha was the Winter Soldier, that the ghost was real and I had loved him. I blame my inability to truly see you as anything but my beautiful Yasha on the the theft of my memories of you. I now know that they stole more than me from you. I am sorry that I didn't look for you, that I didn't try to save you once I was free. I am sorry that you suffered for so much longer because I was blind. Forgive me.

Clint told me that it's been hard, but you're very strong, in body and spirit. I took his words as an opening to send you a few things. I haven't told him anything about us. I leave that up to you. Tell him as much as you want or as little. I even included a generic 'get well' card signed by me, Steve and Sam if you'd rather explain away the gift. But you'd be surprised at Clint's capacity for understanding. That man has the biggest heart of anyone I've ever known.

The package is a care package from home, a reminder of the few good times we were allowed. The chocolates are my way of sharing one of my favorite memories with you. Remember when we went to the Bolshoi? The entire evening and what came after is the one memory from that time that always makes me smile. I hold it close to my heart because of you.

I am happy. You deserve to be happy. Don't push Clint away, he deserves to be happy more than anyone. And even if you don't believe it, you do make him happy.

Natalia

James swallows, but a silent sob bursts from his lips despite his best efforts. He'd known he was a monster, never thought he deserved forgiveness, hadn't cried because he hadn't earned the release. But having Natalia apologize to him breaks something inside. He weeps for the redheaded girl whose childhood was stolen from her. But mostly he cries for Yasha, who'd had everything taken from him, including his beautiful Natalia.

~~*~~

By the time Clint returns, the riot of emotions swamping James has mostly dampened down to wistful longing. He's staring at a photo and where or how Natasha found it, he can only imagine. But it's real. It's a group shot, he, Natalia and Yelena on the left of the photo standing opposite of Petrovich and Matron Rada with a new 'class' of young girls between them. His finger lingers on his own face, surprised by his smile and the lack of shadows in his eyes.

He'd been the Red Room's property for nearly two decades and, in his long life, those were some of the best he'd had before now. Especially the time with Natalia.

"You okay, babe?" Clint asks, voice easy, though James can hear the undercurrent of worry.

"'m fine," he answers, voice little better than a croak.

"O-kay," he says, steps measured as he walks to James. He drops a kiss on James' upturned lips before sprawling beside him on the sofa. Before James can react, Clint has plucked the photo out of his fingers.

"Huh," he muses. "Didn't know you knew Nat."

James shrugs.

"That is Nat, right? Must be. She looks the same."

"Serum'll do that to you," James says, noncommittal.

Clint snorts. "Yeah, okay. Wouldn't know about that shit." He's still looking at the photo but he keeps darting glances at James.

James can feel his eyes and he turns. "What?"

"Nothin', just… you know."

"No."

Clint huffs out a breath, then waves the photo at James. "You two knew each other and didn't say," he says. There's more hurt than accusation in his tone.

"I don't remember everything," he tries to explain. "They built Yasha to keep me tied to them and the girls. Then I crossed a line and they took it all away."

"Oh." Clint's chastened, sad, but not pitying. Thank fuck.

James takes his hand. "Yeah, it's hard to explain."

Clint squeezes their fingers. "You don't owe me--"

"I want to," James interrupts, words tumbling out in a rush before he forgets. Again. "I was mostly in cryo until the Red Room. They built me. Made me believe I was Yasha, a Russian orphan like the girls. I honest to god thought Ivan was a good man. That he'd adopted me out of kindness. I followed his lead docilely. Trained until they thought I was ready and then they unleashed me on the girls, made me--"

He stops, stomach churning and throat closing up.

But Clint just leans close, rests his chin on James' shoulder, his voice a quiet breath on James' neck. "It's okay, babe, you don't have to."

"But I do," he says, emphatic. "I believed and that allowed me to be… barbaric. Cruel. The things I did to those girls--"

He shudders.

"None of that was on you," Clint says, waves the card under James' nose. "Tash doesn't blame you." He pauses and he's probably reading Natalia's words. James swallows, gut twisting.

"Oh," Clint breathes. "That's." He chuckles before taking a deep breath. "Well, that's ironic or some small world shit."

James ducks his head, eyes on the knuckles of his new arm before he feels Clint nudge his cheek with his nose. "Look at me, babe. Please?"

As if James could deny Clint Barton anything. He blinks, then looks.

"There you are," Clint says a smile lighting his face. "Guess I have a thing for former brainwashed Russian assassins."

"I'm not actually Russian," James replies dryly.

"Maybe not, but it still applies," he counters. "Besides, looks to me like Yasha was better than the alternative."

Clint's brain flits from topic to topic, but luckily James' enhancements let him follow. Mostly. "How? You don't know what I did."

"I can guess," he shrugs. "After SHIELD helped Nat sort through her memories, figure out which ones were real, which ones weren't, well, we talked a lot. She… she didn't trust the SHIELD therapists. Not that I did all that much at the time, either." He pauses, before shaking his head. "Did you know she was never a ballerina?" he asks, out of the blue.

James shrugs one-shouldered. He still isn't entirely sure which of his memories are real and which were constructed and implanted.

Clint continues, "I guess Nat though I was safe enough. A sounding board for what was 'normal'. Ha!" He laughs, all self-deprecation and self-aware irony. "Me? Normal? I was raised in a circus for Christ's sake!"

James shakes his head. "Doesn't mean you couldn't help."

"Right back atcha, babe. From what I hear, Yasha figured pretty prominently in Nat's life, so whatever happened, whatever you did, own the good stuff and pretend the bad didn't happen."

James frowns. "It doesn't work that way."

"Why not?" Clint asks, but his attention has been caught by the box and he's digging into it before James can answer. "Oh, man! Tash must really love you if she sent you Бабаевский!" He's pulled out the chocolates and is opening them before James can object. "She never shares these with me, always hoards them for herself."

James grabs the chocolates after Clint has already shoved one square into his mouth. He's moaning obscenely and James can't decide if he wants to tackle him to the ground from annoyance or because he sounds like he's in a porno. "Mine," he says, taking one of the bars himself.

Clint reaches over James to grab the chocolates again, but James pulls them away, holds them out of Clint's reach. That just encourages him. He's trying to climb over James and up his arm before James has had enough and dumps him to the floor, but Clint's fast and ends up taking James with him. James doesn't let go of the chocolates and Clint isn't dissuaded so they wrestle, rolling on the floor, until James gets the upper hand, literally.

He's got Clint's arms pinned above his head with his right hand and is straddling Clint, knees pressing tight against Clint's thighs. With a wicked grin, James leans down and whispers, "I said mine."

Clint huffs out a resigned sigh and goes limp. He gives James the saddest puppy pout but he can't hold it long. He smirks. "I'll blow you for half of 'em."

James leaps at the offer. "Deal." He doesn't tell Clint that there are three other bars in the box under the Captain America t-shirt.

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

"Cooking a meal together" -- They're just being utterly, ridiculously domestic

~*~

James opens the door and is greeted by Natalia standing there, head cocked, eyes assessing him and he laughs. Can't help it. He's tugging her into a hug which she reciprocates before he even realizes.

With a regretful sigh, he releases her and asks, "What are you doing here? I thought you were out there watching Steve's back?"

He points to the sofa and they sit.

"Steve is taking a break from antagonizing world leaders, so I thought I should come and check on you and Clint," she explains, crossing her legs.

"Steve's taking a break?" James says, disbelieving. "Is he sick?"

Natalia snorts under her breath, her eyes fill with mirth. "Sam's taking him to meet his mom."

"Да ладно!"

"What I wouldn't give to be a fly on that wall," he murmurs.

"I told Sam to record it for me."

"He won't," James shakes his head, but he can't help smiling.

"No, but it's the thought that counts." Natalia smirks and James' grin grows.

"I see why Steve took a shine to you."

Natalia's expression is one of faux innocence layered with a 'who me?' arched eyebrow, making James chuckle. "I can see why you and Clint get along as well."

"Clint needs a keeper as much as Steve," she says then she's looking at him, assessing again. "You up for doing that?"

"Watching out for Clint?" he asks, to clarify and to buy some time.

She nods.

He shrugs. "So far it's pretty easy and more like him watching out for me, not the other way 'round." He hesitates. "Is this some kinda shovel talk?"

She shakes her head, but it's fond as she reaches over and pats James' knee. "Hardly. You're both grown men. Well, you're supposed to be adults anyway. I just expect you both to act like it."

"Do you approve?" James asks softly, suddenly aware just how much Natalia's opinion matters to him.

She gives him a smile that makes her eyes shine. "Yes. Most definitely. You two are my favorite men in the whole world. Having you together makes it easier for me to watch out for you both."

"Good. That's… good," he stammers out. "Thank you."

She cocks her head at him. "For?"

"Everything. Your approval. The package. The memories. The support. I just… they took so much and there was too much that I was sure I'd never get back. I was resigned to that. Now I feel like I don't have to be."

"Oh," she breathes, scooting closer to lean against James' shoulder. "I wish I'd gone looking."

He puts an arm around her shoulder and draws her in. "Don't," he says, voice a bit strangled. "It's bad enough that I can't get Steve to let go of that shit, there's just no sense you guiltin' yourself over it. What's done is done. You had no expectation that I was alive. Just like Steve. Neither of you had the time or ability to hunt for me, let alone find me."

She nods, a bit of the tension in her shoulders releasing. He kisses the top of her head and they start reminiscing, which is how Clint finds them: heads bowed together, rapidly chattering in Russian, interspersed with laughter and groans.

He's standing in the doorway for more than a few beats when James finally turns his attention his way. He's got this bemused grin on his face, eyes bright and happy. It's a good look and James needs to taste it, to share his own joy so he stands.

Clint meets him in the middle of the tiny room, arms going around James' waist as they kiss. It's lingering and sweet, makes James' toes curl and his spine heat. He tips his head back before things get inappropriate, but it's near impossible to pull away when Clint makes a little disappointed whimper.

"Enough," Natalia huffs from beside them. And when did she move?

"Oh!" Clint startles, looks at Natalia with wide eyes, his cheeks pink and lips red. "Sorry, Tash. I didn't see you."

"Right," she says, pulling Clint into a hug. "Idiot," she says, fondly, then taps him at the back of his head with an open palm. "You promised you were going to cook for me."

Clint doesn't even flinch, but he does duck his head and shuffle a foot. "But, Naaaat," he whines.

She crosses her arms over her chest and just stares at the back of his head. James can see the top of his ears turning a bit pink.

When Natalia doesn't say anything, he finally looks up, all sheepish, guilty and wide-eyed. Too fucking adorable for words, really. But James just stays back out of the way, wondering what he's missed.

"They don't have Velveeta," he says.

"Velveeta?" James interrupts, both of them turning to look at him.

"You know about Velveeta?" Clint asks.

"Why wouldn't I?"

"Um," Clint starts, hand rubbing his neck. "Guess I thought it was a Midwestern thing and like new."

"New?"

"Newer than you, anyway."

James snorts. "There's probably a fuck ton of stuff that was around back in my old neighborhood that they've just dressed up with new labels and brands, but it's the same shit."

Natalia's smile is small but lights her eyes. "I don't care whether or not they have Velveeta, make it with local cheese."

"It's not the same," Clint protests.

"What's not the same?" James asks, eyes flicking between them.

"Mac-n-cheese," Clint answers. "Made with Velveeta. We ate a lot of it growing up. That and beans with fried taters."

"Well," James begins, "I'm pretty sure I can help you make it even without Velveeta."

"You what?" Clint's eyes are boggling and his mouth is hanging open.

James taps Clint's chin with the index finger of his new hand, gentling it closed. "Until I was big enough to earn more than pocket change I stayed at home while mom worked. That meant feeding my sisters."

"Oh," Clint breathes.

"C'mon, you," James says, tugging Clint's arm toward the small kitchen in the cottage. "If you promised Natka food, let's make sure you keep that promise."

Clint still looks more than a little gobsmacked, but he stops, cocks one hip against the small counter that serves as both a room divider and an eating bar, reels James in by his belt loops before he's pressing his lips against James'. James smiles against Clint's lips at first, then dives in. He's got his new hand tugging on Clint's hair, the pale, messy strands slipping through his fingers while the other pulls Clint close, a low, possessive growl burbling up from inside with each of Clint's little whimpers and moans. James loves kissing Clint, loves having this strong man wrap himself around James, surrendering to him. It's intoxicating sweetness with enough bite to have him utterly addicted.

Behind them Natalia clears her throat. Loudly. "No sex until I'm out of earshot."

James drags himself away from Clint's lips, but not far. They're still sharing air, eyes locked as he says, provoking Natalia, "You could join us, Рыжик."

"I agree!" Clint adds, red lips curling up in a smirk to match the challenge in his eyes as though he's daring James, expecting him to back down. As if.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Natalia huffs. "I'm not getting in between you two for all the money and history in the world!"

James turns, has to see Natalia to know her mood. She's thrown herself onto the sofa, arms crossed over her chest, a glare on her face, but her eyes are twinkling with mirth. Honest to god twinkling.

Clint's arms wrap around James' waist, his chin settling on James' shoulder, right at the seam. A place that should make him twitchy, but it doesn't. He's fine with Clint's presence, his touch a comfort instead of an itch. "But we'd be so pretty, Tash!"

Natalia shakes her head and points behind them. "You promised you'd feed me. You owe me Clinton Francis Barton, so put a cork in it until after you've kept your promise." To anyone else, she'd look fearsome, utterly terrifying. But James and obviously Clint can see the humor in her eyes, the way her limbs are relaxed. She's enjoying seeing them together.

So he nudges Clint with an elbow. "You heard the lady," he says. "Hop to it."

Clint holds on tighter, turns his head and lets his lips run along James' neck. "But, babe," he protests, a whine in his tone.

James closes his eyes and inhales deeply. Clint tempts him, makes him want so many things that he still isn't sure he deserves, but he's growing accustomed to the idea. He opens his eyes and gives Clint a dark lust-filled leer. "Later," he whispers against the shell of Clint's ear, taking great delight in the shudder that runs down Clint's spine.

He swallows but nods as James steps back.

"Alrighty then," Clint says, clapping his hands together. "Let's get this show started."

It is a show, a vast, ridiculous production with Clint singing and dancing, shimmying his hips as he moves around the tiny kitchen. Natalia has to make a run for ingredients and James follows behind Clint trying to keep the mess contained, the food palatable, and Clint still smiling. It's more work than he expects, but he's laughing and the kitchen smells like home, filling a hole he hadn't realized was still there.

Natalia sets the tiny table, pours a rosé she must have bought, and they sit down to basic fare, but the company and the possibilities that James sees makes the food some of the best he has ever had. He's knocking knees with two of his favorite people in a cottage which might still be a cage, but a pleasant one. Instead of being antsy, or needing to seek vengeance, James is taking advantage of the quiet. He's healing, left with new scars on his skin, but it's the ones no one can see that still trip him up. Almost daily. Luckily, he has Clint who is ridiculously understanding, somehow knows when James needs solitude, or when he needs to be pushed into socializing, or even when he needs to let off some steam.

James has no idea what he did to get so lucky after everything, but he'll take it and hold on with both hands.

Clint taps James' ankle with his toe. "You okay there, babe?" he asks, mouth half-full with a string of cheese dangling out of his mouth.

James blinks at him and has to fight laughter.

"You zoned out," Clint explains, completely serious and totally oblivious to the picture he makes.

"Dork," James murmurs, but he's leaning over and kissing the tip of Clint's nose.

"What's that for?"

Instead of answering, James just swipes at the bit of cheese on Clint's lip with his new index finger and pops the finger into his mouth. He doesn't mean to tease, but he still has trouble with saying the words, with admitting out loud how much he cares for Clint. In some ways, it's easier with Natalia. They share a painful history, neither expecting anything from the other. But Clint? Well, he's the future, means that James has hope and, even more than that, that James has to figure out how to atone for his past so that they can move on together.

Clint's eyes cross a little before they focus on James' finger. He swallows and shakes his head. "You're a tease."

"No more than you waggling your ass all around while supposedly cooking," James retorts.

"I do that to keep myself focused!"

Clint's argument makes no sense, but it's a very Clint-like thing to say.

"Whatever you say, dollface." James takes great delight in using that endearment. It makes Clint's mouth snap closed and a light flush hit high on his cheeks. It's a good look on him; one James likes very much.

Natalia clears her throat, drawing James' eyes away from Clint. "You two are ridiculous," she states, matter of fact, but with a hint of amusement coloring her tone. "At least wait until I'm in one of the other cottages."

"We weren't doing anything!" Clint protests.

"Just mooning over each other like characters out of a bad Regency novel!"

James tries hard not to chuckle, but doesn't fully succeed.

"What?" Clint turns his gaze to James. "I'm no Victorian maiden!"

"You fit the description to a t. Right down to how prettily you blush, sweetheart." James lets his thumb brush along Clint's jaw, just a hint of touch skating over his skin. His eyes darken and he swallows, color heightening.

"Asshole," Clint mutters, but he's leaning into James' touch and then sticks his tongue out at Natalia.

She rolls her eyes at him, or both of them, James isn't sure and doesn't care. He's right where he wants to be for the first time in a very long time.

Chapter Text

"Person A had an allergic reaction to flowers Person B got them" -- James brings Clint flowers and it goes badly

~*~

Natalia stays for almost a week, giving them time to bond over bad movies and ever escalating one-upmanship. Clint doesn't always lose, but he does always whine when he does. Natalia just ignores him and James humors him; though she rolls her eyes at him for it. But then she leaves and the ringing silence of their enclave feels more pronounced for the Natalia-shaped hole in it.

James adjusts, finds himself chatting with Sam more than Steve and even willingly attends therapy twice a week. It's as though Natalia's forgiveness and subsequent visit was exactly what he needed in order to forgive himself and move on. There's still others that he needs to come to terms with, but Natalia was a big one. Stark is probably a lost cause so James isn't going to hope for that.

Clint seems to deflate a bit, withdraw and go quiet once Natalia's visit is behind them. He's having trouble letting her go, clinging to the one bit of family he still has access to. He'll likely recover soon enough, especially once he starts teaching archery classes again, but James misses his goofy smile and laughter. He especially misses his antics before he's fully caffeinated each morning. Instead of waiting for Clint to get over it, James vows to try to cheer Clint up. Speed the process up a bit.

With Jiru's help, James sets up a picnic -- complete with chilled beer and cold pizza -- in 'their' clearing. He's got a square of colorful cloth draped over the bench, two pillar candles holding it down and a large bouquet of Jiru's violets sitting in the center. The cooler's tucked off to the side and the rising moon gives everything a silvery sheen.

James stands back and surveys everything, a pleased smile lighting his face. He's not really sure how he pulled all this off without Clint getting wise, but now's the moment of truth.

He hears voices, Clint and Jiru chatting about whatever excuse Jiru had concocted to get Clint here.

Straightening, he smiles as the two men enter the clearing. Jiru winks at him and uses Clint's stunned silence as an opportunity to sneak off. James waves before stepping up to his lover.

"James?" Clint asks, eyes darting to the flickering candles.

Stepping up to his lover, he wraps an arm around Clint just as music begins wafting through the clearing. Jiru's a magician, he'd swear. "Dance with me, dollface?" he asks, holding out his right hand. Clint takes it with a small smile. This close James can see the blush on his cheeks.

They're dancing, nothing fancy, just a slow sway, Clint gaining confidence as they move around the clearing.

"You're making me look like I know what I'm doing," Clint says after a third circuit.

"You do."

"Hardly," Clint scoffs. "So what's all this for? Did I forget an anniversary or something?"

"Can't I do something nice for my best guy just because?"

Clint ducks his head, the blush on his cheeks growing when he looks back up. His eyes are shining and James can't help but to kiss him. That distracts them both and they stop dancing, lost in each other.

When they part, Clint's lips are red and he looks even more desirable. Edible. But that's not what James intends for this evening. Well, not right now.

"Best guy?" Clint asks. "I like that. Does that mean we're going steady?"

James tugs him down to sit beside the bench, their thighs brushing. "Sweetheart, you've been my steady for a long time."

He reaches into the cooler and pulls out two beers, popping the tops with his new hand before passing one to Clint.

"I'll never get tired of watching you do that."

"What?"

Clint takes a drink, licking his lips before he answers. "It's a great party trick," he answers pointing at the top of the bottle.

James shrugs. "Hadn't thought of that," he grins. "Think I could win money in bars?"

"I don't think you need any money, but sure, you use that amazing piece of tech to scam idiots in bars. I'm sure T'Challa wouldn't mind." His voice is full of sarcasm.

"Oh, don't give me that, doll. I've heard stories about you and darts."

"Nat is a dirty liar."

"I'll tell her you said that."

Clint's grinning, his whole body relaxed as he leans against the bench and tilts his head up to the sky. He takes another sip and sighs before turning to look at James. "I really don't have any idea what I did to deserve this. To deserve you, but thanks."

James drops a kiss on the corner of his mouth. "You're you."

"Like that's ever made a difference before."

"It does to me." James reaches back into the cooler and manages to plate a couple slices of pizza.

"Wow," Clint says. "You thought of everything. Not sure I'm worth all this."

"Of course you are."

"I mean there's flowers." Clint points to the violets. "They're purple! Like you know me."

James chuckles as Clint kneels up and sniffs the bouquet. "Jiru's the magician. I just mentioned that I wanted to do something and he helped me with all this."

"They don't smell." Clint frowns a bit and James won't say it aloud, but he finds the expression adorable.

"Guess they're just for looks."

Clint strokes the petals, rubs one between his fingers. "They're really soft," he muses. "Delicate."

"I think they're pretty hard to grow. I mean, I have no actual clue," James says. "Not like Hydra thought I needed a green thumb to go with the metal."

Clint straightens and rubs the side of his nose. "Well, plants are hard."

"Yeah, I guess you'd know that, running a farm and all."

"Riiight," Clint snorts. "I don't run the farm. Hell, Barn didn't run the farm. That's all Laura."

"Whatever," James says, a bit skeptical, but he stays quiet on the subject and pats the ground beside him. Clint turns and sits, brushes their shoulders as he gazes into the trees and takes a large sloppy bite of pizza. James rolls his eyes, but he has to admit, all of Clint's little quirks are more endearing than annoying.

"This is nice," Clint finally says. He rubs his eyes and then sneezes. Sniffs a time or two. "Huh."

James glances up sharply. "You okay? Coming down with a cold?" he asks, because, of course, the first sniffle reminds him of Steve.

Clint looks up at him, expression quizzical. "Just sneezed, babe. It's not the plague."

James cringes. "Sorry."

"No worries," Clint says, voice all smiles as he leans over James and keeps going instead of kissing James like he expected. He grabs another slice of pizza and smirks. Like he knew exactly what James thought he was doing. Then he darts back in and does kiss James.

"Ass." But James is smiling. He's relaxed and Clint looks more like himself than he has in days.

Then Clint sneezes again. Three times in quick succession. And he's rubbing his eyes and sniffling.

James reaches for his face and turns it up to look at in the candlelight. "That's not nothing."

Clint tries to bat him away, but gives in. "I'm fine."

"Your eyes are red and puffy."

"Okay, so they're a little itchy. No big."

"Anything hurt? Do you have a sore throat? Are you having trouble breathing? Should I call the doctor?" All James can see is Steve fine one minute and gasping the next. He might be panicking, just a bit.

Clint puts a palm on James' cheek. "Stop it. I'm fine." He sneezes a couple more times and blows his nose into a napkin. "I might be allergic to the flowers," he suggests. "Maybe."

"Oh!" James stands up and moves the flowers away from Clint, over to the edge of the clearing. "Crap!"

"James," Clint calls.

But James is tugging his phone out and scrolling through the contacts when Clint places his hand over the screen. "Stop, babe. I'm fine."

James looks up and Clint is grinning at him. His eyes are a bit red, nose is running, but he isn't any worse than he was. James swallows. "You sure?"

Clint chuckles. "I'm sure."

"You don't need to go home and take some medicine? A shower maybe?"

Clint shakes his head and rolls his eyes. "I'm fine. And I'm not leaving until we've had our romantic dinner. You went to all this trouble and I'm not going to spoil it."

Relieved, James leans forward and nuzzles Clint's cheek. "You can't spoil it, sweetheart," he murmurs. "But promise me, no fondling of any purple flowers."

Clint turns his head and kisses James, smile bright against James' lips. "I promise."

He takes James' elbow and leads him back to their picnic where they eat and drink and try to dance until Clint's hands and arms start itching too. They pack up and return to the cottage where James tends to Clint: showers with him, scratches his back, puts antihistamine cream on the hives on Clint's arms. When the medicines kick in, James holds Clint, stroking his hair until he falls asleep and James listens to him breathe through the night.

Chapter Text

Clint drafts James to help with his classes every once in awhile. He's not comfortable working with the kids, especially the little ones, but he is okay sparring with the Dora Milaje recruits, with Okoye and the rest of her guard, even enjoys the spectacle when Clint convinces him to spar with him. But the idea this could become a regular thing, that he has anything of value to teach anyone is just crazy talk and nothing he can agree to. And, yes, he is a master at ignoring Clint's puppy eyes. Though he's less good at turning Shuri down when she blindsides him during a 'tune up' on his arm.

Somehow he ends up agreeing, despite himself.

He's crazy anxious about it. Can't sleep the night before. And his 'murder' eyes are on 'full strength' according to Clint as they're driving to the training facility, but it ends up being a good day. A very good day; filled with laughter and James getting his ass handed to him more than once.

When they return home as the sun sets, James sighs softly, a smile on his face as the wind hits his face.

"That's a good look on you," Clint says from behind the wheel.

"What is?" James asks, turning to look at his lover.

"A real smile."

"I smile," James counters. "All the fucking time." And even he can feel the frown creasing his brow.

Clint reaches over and bops him on the nose without taking his eyes off the road. "Sure. Just like now."

"Well, I was smiling. Until someone had to go all nosy noozer on me."

Clint snorts a laugh. "Nosy what?"

James shrugs, unashamed. "It's a word Cooper taught me. He's got a crush and Lila's overly invested, but he doesn't appreciate her interest."

Clint pulls up in front of home and switches off the car, gaze locked on the side of James' head. "Wait. Back up. Coop's got a crush? Since when? And why am I the last to know?"

James pretends nonchalance as he gets out of the car and opens the front door. He'd forgotten he wasn't supposed to reveal this shit.

"Oops," he says to the empty cottage, knowing that Clint can't possibly hear him.

Clint elbows him. "Spill it, buckaroo. What's going on with Coop? And how come he hasn't asked me?"

James shrugs. "I had sisters, too. And I remember how, um, well, intrusive they can be." He looks at Clint, one eyebrow raised so he'll get the hint.

"So? What's that got to do with me?" Clint crosses his arms over his chest.

"Coop and I bonded," James further elaborates, though Clint's still not getting it. "I totally understand having younger siblings, which neither you nor Laura get."

Clint frowns. "And?"

"And furthermore," he pokes at Clint's bicep. "Furthermore, we both enjoy bitching about all the rules parents lay down."

Clint snorts, then breaks out into laughter. "And that works for you? You're like old enough to be his great-great granddad!"

"Whatever. I don't harp on homework versus baseball, or worry about college," James says. "I ain't invested in that way."

Clint rolls his eyes at James, but he's grinning. "What? Like a concerned adult?" he asks, before dropping a kiss on James' cheek. "Like hell you're not invested in these kids."

"I didn't say I wasn't invested, just not, you know, like a father."

"You keep telling yourself that," Clint replies and James flushes at being caught out, but then Clint wraps his arms around James's waist and leans into him for a gentle kiss that quickly turns intense, making James's toes curl.

James has trouble catching his breath and he clings onto Clint's arms.

Clint's eyes shine up at him and James can't help but kiss him again. And again.

"What'd I do to deserve this?" Clint asks.

"You are ridiculous and perfect, and you make me happy."

Clint beams and his cheeks go pink, but he doesn't shy away from the compliment which is a huge improvement in James's mind.

"Oh!" Clint says, moving past James and into the cottage. "We got a package!"

He sounds ridiculously excited and James can only smile indulgently before he catches himself. "More like you got a package. Everyone I know is here or a fugitive from justice," he replies, voice dry as the Mojave.

"I bet Steve'd send you a postcard if you asked him to."

James snorts. "Yeah, that's a great plan for a guy wanted in how many countries?"

Clint holds up the box and points at the label. "We got a package!" he shouts and does a ridiculous shimmy with his hips as he brings it to James.

James tries so hard to keep a straight face, but it's next to impossible when confronted with his oh-so-enthusiastic and childlike lover. His joy is infectious so James rolls with it. "All right, all right, keep your shirt on," he says and pulls a knife out of his boot. "Let's open this baby up, see what we got."

He's already slit the packing tape before it dawns on him that he should probably check if the thing is a bomb or not. "Who's it from?" he asks, then looks at the label. It's handwritten and doesn't have any postage information or a return address. All of those things should cause suspicion, but he recognizes the handwriting and the little hearts circling "Uncle Clint and his bf James" throw all intrigue out the door.

"What's in it?" Clint asks, chin resting on James' shoulder.

"No idea yet, but any clue why Lila'd be sending us a package?"

James can feel Clint shrug. "Open it! Then we'll know!"

Clint is vibrating with excitement and James has a twinge of guilt for keeping him here. But then his conscience is berating him in exactly Sam Wilson's voice for being an idiot and not allowing Clint his own agency. He pushes away the guilt and the asshole that is his conscience and opens the box.

Red, white, and pink heart-shaped confetti goes flying everywhere.

"Cool!" Clint grabs a handful as it's raining down on their shoulders.

James shakes his head to try to dislodge some of the mess. "Lila did not just glitter bomb us."

"It's not glitter."

Helpful, Clint. "She's not even nine. She did not booby trap the package on her own."

Clint gives James a sheepish shrug and then his eyes dart away.

"She did?" he asks, flabbergasted.

Clint does the "I'm an awkward, yet endearing goofball" dance with his hand on the back of his neck and the toe of his boot digging at the floor while his ears go pink.

"Well, it was a whole thing," he explains. Badly.

"And?"

"There were crafts and glitter and macaroni art."

James sets the box on the coffee table and crosses his arms over his chest. He's not even glaring, but Clint ducks his head anyway. "Lila was having a bit of a hard time of it," he says and now he might be actually explaining in enough detail for it to make sense. "After, well, after Barney died, and Laura's birthday was coming up along with the science fair, so I taught her how to make a glitter cannon."

He glances up at James from under those stupidly long eyelashes and James melts. He can feel himself practically go boneless from just how much he loves this man. His expression must be doing something complicated because Clint adds, "She interpolated and shrunk the cannon?"

"Goddammit," James mutters and tugs Clint close.

"Sorry?" he says, but he goes easily, lets James wrap him up tight as James presses Clint's head to his shoulder.

"You're a menace and your kids might not be your blood but they are all you: whip smart, devious little fuckers, who I can't help but love."

Clint stiffens and then looks up; the only way to describe the expression on his face is "hearteyes". "You love 'em?" he asks, voice more than a bit smug. "Thought you weren't invested?"

James walks right into that one. He shoves Clint away and snags the box, leaping over the sofa and heading for the kitchen. If there are anymore booby traps at least they'll be easier to clean up in there.

"Hey!" Clint shouts and gives 'chase'. Well, as much chase as their tiny cottage provides.

He knocks into James and the box goes flying, up and up and then hits the floor hard, the contents spilling out everywhere.

There's more heart shaped confetti floating in the air, those annoying foam peanuts, and bubble wrapped items rolling on the floor. It looks like Cupid's boudoir exploded, especially when two stuffed kissing bears, one pink and one white, land at James' feet. He picks them up and tugs them apart, but the white one ends up stuck to his arm. Damned magnets.

Clint glances up from the box and starts laughing. James flushes, but takes one look at the stuffed bear with red hearts for eyes and a big red heart sewn onto its chest and he joins in when shaking his arm doesn't dislodge the ridiculous creature. And that move apparently looks as ridiculous as it feels and makes Clint laugh harder. He's flat on his back, one arm holding his stomach and James pounces. He has to, it's imperative.

"Oof!" Clint exclaims as James blankets him, his laughter subsiding as his hands grip James' waist.

When James shifts, metal arm taking most of his weight, the bear whacks Clint on the side of the head and that sets Clint off again. He's snorting and shaking with laughter and James tries to growl and appear put out, but he's warm and happy and in love and has been accepted by Clint's family. There's no way he's maintaining a hard outer shell. He tugs the bear off his arm, has to slide it off to get it to budge and what kind of magnets are they putting in these things anyway? He bops Clint on the nose with it and slides it along the floor to its companion. The bears immediately lock lips and Clint snorts. James waggles an eyebrow down at Clint.

"And you tell me I'm the ridiculous one?" Clint comments. He then tugs James down and James drags his lips along Clint's jaw.

"You are," he whispers against Clint's ear. "Sooooo very ridiculous and I love you for it."

"Oh my god!" Clint tries to push James away, but James can be an immovable force when he wants to be. And he really wants to stay here, blanketing Clint from knee to shoulder, mouth teasing at his ear lobe and making him shiver.

"Think we can show those bears how to really kiss?" he hums before nipping at that place behind Clint's ear that makes him go limp with a full body shudder.

"Fuuuuuck," Clint moans.

Then he demonstrates that James will never have him fully at his mercy by pressing both palms against the floor and wrapping one leg around James' calf before flipping them. He's up and off toward the bedroom like a shot, leaving James blinking after him.

"You coming?" Clint shouts from the bedroom.

"I hope so!" James replies, hastily standing and ripping off his shirt as he follows.

They're still finding confetti in the most unlikely places weeks later and every time they do, James gets a soft smile on his face as he glances over at the bookshelf where the two kissing bears are lip locked. They can't get enough of each other and he can't get enough of one Clint Barton.