Like most of the crazier things that've happened to Steve since waking up in the 21st century – a stranger in a very strange land that still manages to baffle him with its idiosyncrasies and foibles, everything at once familiar and yet so foreign he may as well have woken up on another planet – he can pretty much lay this latest one at Tony Stark's feet. (Tony's so much like his father in some ways, and Steve counts it as healing or whatever you want to call it that the comparison no longer feels like it's a laceration on his heart.)
The Avengers are in Beijing, hot on Victor von Doom's trail, and Steve has just finished giving his initial deployment orders to the team when Tony stops and spins to face the group. "I think I'm gonna need a kiss for luck for this one, Cap," he says and, before Steve's even finished processing the rapid-fire words, Tony's flipped his face shield up and then Tony's lips are on his, firm and dry and slightly ticklish. It's over almost as soon as it begins, and then Tony beams at him like Steve's somehow solved world hunger. It's almost...giddy.
And a little disconcerting. But then, every time Tony smiles, Steve has to resist the urge to check around him to make sure nothing's about to blow up. (Which isn't just hyperbole. Things honestly have a distressing tendency to go boom, as the kids these days would say, whenever Tony's around.)
"I have heard of this Earth custom of kissing for luck," Thor states, with his own jovial grin. "Although I did not know it applied to warriors in this manner."
"It doesn't really –" Steve starts, only to be interrupted by Tony.
"Oh no, in this case, it totally does. Have at it, Lightning Bolt."
Once again, before Steve can sputter out a protest, Thor's grabbed him by the shoulders and has bodily lifted him off the ground. Which is still odd. Every time Thor does this (and he tends to do it quite often), it feels like Steve's back in his pre-serum body, like he really is that 98-pound weakling all over again. Thor's kiss is a lot more thorough than Tony's – his lips are surprisingly soft, but the beard is scratchy as hell – and by the time Steve's set back on wobbly feet, his lips are numb.
But, hey, he can cross being kissed within an inch of his life by a Norse god off his nonexistent bucket list now. That's gotta count for something. Be a story for the grandkids he's probably not going to have.
Tony turns to Bruce, who's watching the proceedings with a sort of amused befuddlement, which is his go-to look where Tony's involved. "Now you, Doc."
"Uh, I don't really think –"
"No, c'mon, it'll be great. You're really getting into it now, aren't you, Rogers?" Tony asks, thumping Steve's back with a metal hand. Steve doesn't flinch; he knows better than to give Tony any sort of ammunition or attention. "Besides, I'm not flying off to go fight the Big, Bad Robots of Doom – you see what I did there, right – until you lay one on him."
"What're you, five?" Natasha asks, with a raised eyebrow, arms crossed in a perfect gesture of disdain. (Steve's pretty sure she's patented that look. He's never known anyone who can radiate so much disapproval without even moving a muscle. She'd have made a terrifying boarding school mistress.)
"Emotionally, yes, or so my therapist tells me. At least I'm in touch with my inner child, unlike you."
"You're in touch enough with your inner child for the rest of the world," she replies, and Steve honestly can't tell if she's truly annoyed at Tony's antics or merely bored with the world and everyone in it. He has a feeling he'll still be asking that same question in a decade. All women may be mysteries wrapped in enigmas as far as Steve's concerned, but even he knows Natasha's secrets have secrets, and every single one of them is armed to the teeth.
"Fine, but I'm still not playing well with others until Bruce does his part for the team activity," Tony retorts and taps (well, it's more of a clang) his foot on the pavement for good measure. Steve thinks comparing him to a five year-old is an insult to five year-olds everywhere.
Bruce glances helplessly at Steve, and finally, Steve takes pity on him. Best to get this over with, so they can get on to the more important business of saving the world again. "It'll be fine," he says. "Tony thinks this is making me uncomfortable, which it isn't, by the way."
"Are you sure, because you looked a little –"
Steve continues talking over Tony, because someone's got to shut him up every once in awhile and somehow, either by default or maybe that no one else had wanted it, that job seems to have become his. "What Tony seems to be forgetting is that I was in the Army for years and no one knows how to pull a better prank than bored grunts. But let's not give him more ammunition. It's fine, Bruce. I promise."
Bruce half-shrugs, as if resigned to his fate, and leans in just far enough to brush a quick kiss to Steve's cheek. "Good luck, Captain," Bruce smiles, and Steve returns it. He likes Bruce and his calm demeanor and quick mind and how human he still is, in spite of everything that's happened to him. Bruce, who in many ways, reminds him of Morita, right down to going off the rails in battle. Berserker tendencies, Morita had once called it. Which definitely fits the Hulk to a tee.
He supposes it's also progress of a sort that thinking about Morita doesn't hurt quite as much as it used to.
"Lamest kiss ever, Banner, I can see I'm going to have to give you lessons," Tony proclaims, then flicks his face shield down. "Natasha, Clint, I expect better out of both of you. Don't let me down."
With that, he jets off to his position, Thor and Bruce following right behind him.
Steve turns to Natasha and Clint, apology already forming. "You don't have to –" Steve's words are cut off by Natasha's lips on his. It's unexpectedly gentle and knocks him for an even bigger loop than Thor's kiss had.
"Be careful out there, Captain," she tells him, then disappears around a corner. Steve resists the urge to put his fingers to his lips like some love-struck teenager.
He clears a suddenly dry throat and looks at Clint. Who hasn't moved. Steve's already resigned himself to the inevitable smartass remark, followed by what's sure to be a completely inappropriate lip-lock (because Tony and Clint are both not-so-secretly twelve when it comes to trying to outdo each other, and this is so up Clint's alley that Steve's surprised Clint hadn't thought of it first) when Clint simply snaps to attention and offers him a salute.
"Captain," he says, "good luck out there." Then he heads off to his spot on the roof, leaving Steve momentarily dumbfounded.
Clint resisting the urge to needle Steve? Acting downright professional and stoic? Steve checks around to make sure pigs are not, in fact, flying.
It becomes something of a ritual after that – before every skirmish or battle, whether they're still in one of the quinjets en route or they're getting ready to head into position, every member of the team stops just long enough to give Steve a quick kiss. Everyone, that is, except Clint.
At first, Steve thinks nothing of it. It's not as if he'd asked for the honor of being the team's good luck charm, and most of the time, he chalks it down to soldiers and their superstitions. Everyone's got their own methods of keeping everything in check, and if Steve can help his friends get squared away, his dignity and the use of his lips are a small price. He'd done far weirder things during the Howlin' Commando days.
Besides, he has to admit, if only to himself, he kinda likes that the team actually has a ritual. That they're bonding as a group, no matter how unorthodox the method. Which probably makes him a sap, but he's far too old to change at this late date, so he may as well go with it. And it's not like it's hurting anyone.
But, after awhile, it's apparent that Clint's avoiding the whole thing, which seems somewhat out of character, because Clint and Tony tend to have a shared sense of humor most of the time, and the same disregard for personal space. By all rights, Clint should be the first person in line behind Tony to try to make Steve as uneasy as possible, and cracking all of the world's worst jokes while he's at it. And it isn't that Steve's not grateful for the reprieve, it just...isn't like Clint to ignore such a ripe target, pun absolutely intended.
He wonders if maybe he's missed something. He also wonders why Tony, at the very least, hasn't been giving Clint a hard time over the fact that Clint's not pulling his weight in the using-Steve-as-a-personal-kissing-booth department until he realizes that Clint is always the last person standing in front of him before they all take their positions. So no one else has witnessed Clint's odd behavior.
And it is odd.
Not that Steve is even remotely pretending to understand the inner workings of Clint's brain – frankly a terrifying prospect – but Steve's not stupid. He knows something's off-kilter, even if he doesn't have any idea how to approach it without asking a lot of awkward questions. The last thing he wants is to pry into another man's personal business, and he knows if he tries to say anything, it's just as liable to come across like he wants Clint to lay one on him, when the reality is exactly the opposite. (Clint's a great guy and all, but not exactly Steve's type. Not that he's judging. He'll leave that to a much higher power than the ones he possesses.)
It's times like this – when a subtle approach is needed – that he misses Bucky and Bucky's easy charm more than words. Bucky would have gotten to the heart of the matter in about ten minutes, most likely after a few beers and some carefully steered conversation. Bucky had always been the one to suss out any morale or personal issue within the Commandos. Small talk's never been Steve's forte.
Well, it's a new world order, Steve reminds himself. Bucky's been gone a long time, even if it only feels like a few short months to him (and he wonders when he'll ever get used to the time disconnect of it all), and he needs to think of another way to get to the bottom of whatever this is, if there even is anything to get to the bottom of. Best to find out for sure one way or another before the team unity is affected. Not that he thinks it would be – it's just...well, letting things fester doesn't sit right with him.
He tries asking Natasha about it first, reasoning that Clint probably trusts her more than anyone else, and if something is bothering him, she'd be the first to pick up on it.
He finds her in the boxing ring with another SHIELD agent, practicing some complicated bit of footwork that looks both brutal and balletic, working up a no-nonsense sweat. Like everything else involving Natasha, there seem to be layers building upon layers of what looks, on the surface, to be a simple exercise routine. He's never seen anything like it, and wonders where she learned it. And is struck once again by how much he still doesn't know about the members of his team, these people he's trusting to have his back and to have their backs in return. They all have complicated pasts, and secrets, himself included.
But it doesn't stop him from watching in fascination as she nimbly navigates a path around her much larger opponent, laying him flat on his back in short order. (Steve feels no small amount of sympathy for the fella – he'd been humiliated by her the few times they'd sparred. In fact, the only person who could even remotely match her in the ring is the reason he's seeking her out in the first place.)
He gives a small wave as she wipes at the sweat on her brow with a towel. "Uh, hi." One day, he thinks, he'll learn to talk to her outside of a combat situation. But it's clearly not going to be today. "You, uh, that looked pretty keen. What you just did, I mean."
"Thank you." Her voice is soft, but the tone is matter-of-fact, not cold, but certainly not inviting further conversation. Steve thinks even Bucky would have had a hard time trying to finesse her (unless she wanted to be finessed, of course.)
"Has, uh..." Her stare is like looking down the barrel of a .45, and probably more deadly. Steve has a sudden vision of the different ways she could flay him alive without even using a weapon if he asks about Clint in a manner she finds unacceptable. Especially if this is just him making a big deal out of nothing. "You know what, never mind. It's fine."
Her delicately arched eyebrow speaks volumes, but otherwise, there's no movement.
Steve can't turn tail and escape fast enough. He's certain no one would blame him.
After a little while, he forgets about the whole thing, because he's frankly got other things to worry about and other concerns taking up his time, and if Clint wants to keep some distance from him, there's not much he can do about it. They still work well together, so it's all fine and dandy, until he realizes that Clint's starting to outright avoid him unless someone else is around to act as a buffer. It's so subtle it takes Steve a few weeks to figure out that it's happening. But when it does, he starts wondering if it's him, if he's broken some new unwritten rule, and even though no one else has said anything to him, he must be doing something wrong. A good leader would fix the issue, and one thing he's always prided himself on is being a good leader. Especially now that whatever is wrong has clearly grown large enough to bleed into other areas. Maybe Clint no longer trusts Steve – which is a pretty big problem, if true, and Steve has no idea how to even start to get that back.
He decides to try Bruce and Tony next to maybe see if they've noticed anything or have any advice (if it's a 21st century protocol issue, then Tony's definitely the man to see) and finds them in the lab, after getting assurances from Jarvis that they aren't, in fact, working on anything of a sensitive or volatile nature. (Steve and Tony are getting along as well as they probably ever will, but Tony still has proprietary issues where the lab is concerned, and after so much time with Howard Stark, Steve has a healthy respect for mad geniuses at work.) They might not be as close to Clint as Natasha, but the three of them've had a standing weekly poker game for the past few months, and maybe Clint had let something slip.
When Steve steps in through the sliding glass doors, he winces at the mess. If there's an order to the chaos, he has no idea what it is. Bruce and Tony are hunched over a computer screen, Tony gesticulating wildly, Bruce calmly pushing his glasses further up his nose. It's still amazing how well they get along, considering their disparate personalities. Opposites really must attract.
He clears his throat. No response. He hadn't really expected one. "Uh, hey fellas. So, I was wondering –"
"No time, Cap," Tony interrupts, not even looking in his direction. "Hard at work on a very sensitive project here. Even having another body in the room could affect the ambient temp to a degree that could affect the experiment in an adverse way."
Steve lifts an eyebrow. Like he's supposed to be confused by that very obvious bit of obfuscating. "That's not what Jarvis said."
"Jarvis," Tony says reproachfully, glancing up at the ceiling. "Remind me to infect you with a virus from now on that will make you play nothing but Debbie Gibson whenever you try to tell anyone what I'm doing."
"Who's Debbie Gibson?" Steve asks.
Tony opens his mouth, then closes it. "Never mind. I'd hate to violate your ears like that for the sake of proving a point, although, ask me when I'm drunk, I might change my mind. I'll warn you, though, it's ugly."
"What did you need, Steve?" Bruce asks, swiveling around to face Steve. He's wearing his usual amused expression. Steve is sure that Bruce is the only person on the planet patient enough to put up with Tony's brand of aggro-hyper-active energy. Well, except for Pepper, who's possibly applying for sainthood, and definitely deserves a medal of valor.
"Have you guys noticed anything unusual with Clint lately?"
Tony shrugs. "No, why, is he making passes at you? Because I specifically covered that in orientation. I'm the only one allowed to harass you and make you feel uncomfortable."
"Except you really don't." Why everyone's been so insistent on treating him like he's a cotton-batted virgin to be scandalized by the oh-so-naughty new modern age is a puzzle he's yet to work out. It's not like sex and porn and guys busting each other's balls hadn't existed back in his time – and honestly, the guys in his unit had been a lot more inventive and way more pornographic. Especially Bucky.
Bucky... Always, it comes back to Bucky. A gaping wound in his heart that would never heal, no matter how long Steve lived or how many lives he saved. Even now, he finds himself turning to tell Bucky something, and is always, always shocked that Bucky's not there beside him with a quick comeback and his trademark sardonic smile. (Although, to be honest, Steve's somewhat glad that Bucky and Tony never had a chance to meet, because, frankly, the idea of the two of them teaming up is more terrifying than anything Doom or Loki or anyone else could throw his way.)
"I haven't noticed anything," Bruce replies. "But if you think there's something we should be on the lookout for..."
"No." Steve shakes his head. It's his problem. He'll handle it. No sense in dragging anyone else into it. "It's probably nothing. I'll let you two get back to blowing up the lab."
"That was one time, Rogers!" Tony calls after him. "Alright, maybe twice, but that other time was on purpose."
Tony, Steve thinks, really is his father's son. Even if Tony will go to his grave denying it.
He doesn't intend to talk to Thor about what's going on with Clint – but not because he doesn't think Thor would understand the situation or why Steve's so concerned with getting to the bottom of it. Contrary to the baffling array of insults Tony tends to direct Thor's way, Thor is possibly one of the smartest men Steve's ever met. He's just not smart in a way a man like Tony would appreciate. But then, Steve's noticed Tony tends to associate pop culture references and obscure science data for actual intelligence. Geniuses, it seemed, never remembered that there are all kinds of smarts in this world.
But Thor, for all the fact that he possesses a keen intellect and unparalleled tactical skills, has been having some of his own difficulties dealing with inter-planetary customs, or whatever Fury is calling it these days. Steve doesn't want to add to them. Bad enough he's still having his own issues adjusting, and what if this is all that it is for Clint? Growing pains while adjusting to a new team, a new leader, a new dynamic. It's probably nothing worth worrying over.
But after a couple of beers and watching the last few innings of the Mets/Dodgers game (which still hurts, thinking about his team on the west coast and not just up the road) at a local sports bar, it sort of slips out.
"Has Clint seemed...normal to you?" Steve asks, striving for nonchalance, and certain he's failing miserably. Bucky had always been so much better at this.
"You're concerned because he hasn't been acting like himself lately," Thor says, and laughs when Steve gives him a startled glance. "I'm Asgardian, not blind, my friend. I've noticed that he avoids you, yet he's always the last person to leave your side before missions. And I may still be learning your customs and ways, but the look of a leader who's troubled by the actions of a warrior under his care is a universal one. And one I know well."
Steve instantly feels his face heat. So much for subtlety. Not that he'd ever been particularly good at it. "I'm sorry, I keep forgetting you've led more armies than I could probably count."
"We're all still learning our places. It isn't like the Warriors Three and the Lady Sif and I didn't have to get used to each other in our early days, both on the battlefield and off." Thor polishes off his beer and motions to their server for another. "It takes time to become a true team."
Steve stares at the foam lining the edges of his mug. He can still hear the echo of Dum Dum's laughter mixing in with Falsworth's, and sometimes, he can almost feel the solid warmth of Bucky sitting beside him, offering commentary on this strange new world with his usual brand of wry wit and genuine insight. "Do you miss them?" he asks, looking up to meet Thor's compassionate, knowing gaze. "Your team on Asgard, I mean."
"Sometimes. Do you still miss your old team, Captain?"
"Sometimes," Steve echoes. "Not as much as before." Except for Bucky. But then, Bucky had never been part of Steve's team – Bucky had been family. And a loss like that could never be replaced, because Bucky himself would always be irreplaceable. No matter how long Steve lived, he knows the best part of him died the same day Bucky fell.
"Then I'd say we are both learning our place in this realm. Perhaps that's all Barton is doing as well – learning his place on the team and what's expected of him, Losing Agent Coulson had to have been hard on him and Agent Romanov."
"I dunno, somehow, I think there's more to it than that." Unless Clint thinks that Steve's trying to take Coulson's place...
"Perhaps you need only to ask him. My Lady Jane informs me that it is definitely the custom of your people to inquire about the emotional well-being of others. In fact, she is most insistent on it."
Steve hopes like hell he's keeping a straight face. He's yet to exchange more than a few words with Jane Foster, but already, he likes her. "She's not wrong."
"Then perhaps you should heed her advice as well."
Steve takes a sip of his beer. "I suppose it couldn't hurt."
At this point, even if it did nothing except satisfy his curiosity, he'd call it a day.
In the end, Steve decides to take Thor's advice. If there is a problem between himself and Clint, it's one Steve would like to solve sooner rather than later. Maybe Clint doesn't like the idea of taking orders from someone with an admittedly old-fashioned moral code, maybe it really is that a stranger has essentially taken over the spot that Coulson had so ably filled for so long, maybe it's simply a personality clash. But, regardless, Steve wants to deal with it and hopefully come to some agreement and move on. The Avengers Initiative is supposed to be about unity in the face of overwhelming odds, which means he and Clint should try to get on the same page as soon as they can.
It's no secret that Clint prefers to spend most of his evenings on the roof, and after a late night of training (Thor's been teaching him a few different fighting techniques, and it's nice to be able to use his full strength against a sparring partner without worrying about injuring them), Steve decides that's probably the best place to have the conversation.
It's a clear, cold night, but when Steve spots Clint sitting on the ledge, bow at his side, Clint's wearing only a well-worn tee and a pair of jeans. He's probably used to far worse conditions, Steve thinks.
"Did 'Tasha send you up here?" Clint asks when Steve comes up to his side. He'd been careful to make enough noise to announce his presence – the last time he'd tried stealth around Natasha and Clint, only his heightened reflexes had saved him from getting a knife to the throat.
"Nope, I'm here all on my own." Steve gestures at the space next to Clint. "Mind if I join you?"
Clint shrugs. "Knock yourself out."
Steve swings his legs over the ledge and peers down. From this high, it's impossible to see down to the sidewalk, even with his excellent vision. But the view of the city, all glittering lights and impossible towers, is beautiful in its majesty. No matter what century he's in, nothing will ever feel quite like home as much as New York. No other place has the same vibrancy.
"Do you mind if I ask you something?"
Clint's profile is shadowed, and his jaw granite still. "Go ahead."
There isn't a delicate way to say this that won't make him sound like an egotistic ass, so he settles for the direct approach. "Why have you been avoiding me?"
Clint stiffens slightly. "I haven't."
"C'mon, Clint, I may not be hip to the new millennium, or whatever the current culture is, but I know people. And I think I'm getting a pretty good handle on all of you. And, well, seems to me you've been acting...out of character."
Clint doesn't move. "And what makes you think I have been?"
Steve should have guessed a world-class agent wouldn't make this easy. But it's alright. Steve's used to difficult – if he'd wanted an easy life, he'd have never joined the Army. "Well, for one thing – and I'm not saying it's something I want, mind you – but you haven't been doing the, uh, y'know, the before battle ritual. Like everyone else."
"You mean the whole bit where everyone gives you the old liplock before the fighting, you mean?"
"Certainly a, uh, colorful way of putting it, but, yeah. I mean, I don't want to pry, and I'm sure you have your reasons, and maybe that sort of thing makes you feel embarrassed, which is fine –"
Clint's sharp, ironic laugh stops Steve in mid-word. "You gotta be kidding me. I don't care which way you swing, no one's turning down a chance to mack on Captain freakin' America. You're a living legend."
It takes Steve a few precious seconds to decipher what Clint's saying. "You have," he points out, quietly. "And it's not just that. You've been avoiding being in the same room with me for weeks now. Is it something I did or said or an order I gave? You can speak freely, you know. You're part of the team. My team."
"Am I?" Clint swings his head and his gaze pierces right through Steve like a bolt of lightning. "I dunno how you can even be in the same room with me, let alone have me on your team."
"What're you –?"
"I turned traitor, Captain. I killed my own men and what's worse, I enjoyed doing it."
It honestly takes Steve a moment to figure out what Clint's talking about. Clint's capture and brainwashing had never once crossed Steve's mind as a potential source of contention. After all, it had happened months ago. He'd thought that they'd all moved on. And maybe that made him naïve or foolish, but...
"That wasn't you. That was Loki."
"Yeah, well, it sure felt like my hands on the friggin' bow."
"Clint..." There are so many ways for this to go sideways, but Steve's never backed down from a fight, and he's not about to start now. "None of us have earned the right to a decent night's sleep. You think Bruce's hands are clean? Or Tony's? Mine? Natasha's or Thor's? Our ledgers are all red."
"Not yours," Clint says, with an ugly-sounding scoff. "You're the great Captain America, poster child for truth and fairness and morals. How the hell would you know what it's like to be the one responsible for good men dying? To know you've killed one of your own. How could you possibly understand."
"The hell I couldn't, son." Steel creeps into his voice. He can hear the ghost of Bucky's laughter in his ear and feel the winter chill of air rushing through his fingers. "Just because there were a few comic books written about me doesn't mean that you know a damn thing about me or what I've had to do or the hard choices I've had to make."
Clint closes his eyes, like it hurts too much to keep them open, and Steve goes with instinct again. This could fail spectacularly, but maybe it'll help. God knows he gets full well what self-recrimination can do to a man if left unchecked. "I forgive you," he whispers, and brushes a light kiss to Clint's cheek. "You are forgiven, Clint Barton."
With a small, wounded noise, Clint drops his head in his hands. Steve simply wraps an arm around him, and pulls him close. Offers absolution and sanctuary as Clint's shoulders shake and wracked sobs, muffled by Clint's hands, fill the air. Steve may not know much about this new world of his, and he may still be feeling his way around a cityscape that's grown and changed, but a steady hand and an comforting arm still translate to this new day and age. Some things are universal.
After a few minutes, the shaking stops, and so do the sobs. But Steve doesn't remove his arm – not yet. "No one blames you for what happened. And if they do, that's just their own grief lashing out. What happened wasn't on you. You need to remember that."
"Knowing that doesn't make it easier to sleep at night." Clint's voice is shaky, but Steve takes it as a good thing that he's even talking at all. "And it sure as hell won't bring anyone back."
"No, it won't, and believe me, I speak from experience there, too," Steve says. His own eyes sting with unshed tears. "But you can't let this eat you up. If you need an ear, I'm around. And so is everyone else. If the team didn't trust you to have their backs..." Steve knows he doesn't need to finish the sentence.
"Yeah, I get it," Clint says, then, lower: "And, um, thanks. I mean it."
"And, uh, sorry. I mean, for... You're right, you know. I don't know you."
"Well, maybe we can work on that, too," Steve replies. "Getting to know each other, I mean."
"Yeah, alright. I think I'd like that," Clint smiles, then goes quiet, but the silence is easy now. Comfortable. Steve knows one conversation won't cure whatever demons Clint's got in his head, but hopefully it'll help start the process of healing. They've all got a long way to go in that department, and maybe they'll never get there all the way, but they've got each other now. Steve will take what he can get, and hope for the best moving forward.
Somewhere, he hopes Bucky's looking down on him with pride.