Chapter 1: Warmup
“That’s not how it goes,” Clint says impatiently, wincing as the song falls apart around him. Again. “Look, Thor, I know you like to jam, do your own thing, whatever, but we really need to get this down before the show.” Clint makes a point of checking his watch. “That’s in forty minutes, in case anyone was wondering.”
“You’re bitchy when you’re stressed,” Tony says, pausing with a grin etched firmly in place before giving himself a loud rim shot. Clint rolls his eyes and pretends not to hear Steve snicker.
“I think the song would benefit from-” Thor starts, but Clint narrows his eyes and shakes his head.
“Look, big guy, normally I’m all for you making it up as we go along, but this is a new set for us,” Clint explains as patiently as he can manage. From the look he can see Steve shooting him out of the corner of his eye, it’s not very patient at all. “I’d really rather not have the crowd throw vegetables at us, okay?”
“That was once,” Tony and Steve say at the same time, and Thor grins.
“And it was before I became the pianist,” Thor adds. “My music has never been the cause of anything being thrown at us.”
Clint raises an eyebrow. “Your lead groupie threw condoms at us once.”
Thor shrugs. “It is Loki’s way of doing things. It was harmless, and caused no damage to anyone or anything.”
Clint opens his mouth to object – condoms, really, Steve’s innocence had been damaged irrevocably when he’d realized what they were – but he’s cut off by the sound of footsteps. Clint turns to the door just as Phil walks into the practice room, eyebrow already at his hairline, and levels Clint with a look.
Clint can feel the goofy smile spreading across his face. He can’t help it.
“Okay, Avengers,” Phil says in his mildest tone, “are we ready for the show?”
The show isn’t an unmitigated disaster, which puts it in the stunning success column. Clint isn’t sure quite how the math works, but he’s willing to roll with it, especially since asking had gotten him a patented Tony Stark Raised Eyebrow and a lecture about math so far above Clint’s head that he hadn’t even been able to nod along and pretend. Tony had known it, too, if the smirk he hadn’t even tried to stop had been any indication. Tony is the kind of smart that goes past impressive and well into terrifying; Clint is secretly glad that Tony’s a musician, not some sort of weapons dealer, because the world would be a vastly different place if he had used his powers for evil.
Clint had asked him, just once, why he’d decided to become a drummer when he had all that knowledge. Tony had stared at him for a while before answering, and Clint still thinks it’s the most honest thing Tony’s ever said to him.
“Music is just math out loud,” he’d said. “Beats per minute, crescendos, the way notes sound together – math, physics, all of it.” He had shrugged. “This way, it makes sense to other people.”
Steve had given him an awed sort of look when Tony had said it. It’s a look that Clint sees a lot, the sort of adoration that Steve seems to throw at Tony like a baseball or a Frisbee or something. Tony is probably the only one who doesn’t see it, and Clint constantly wonders if it’s because he doesn’t want to hurt Steve’s feelings or if he just honest-to-God doesn’t notice. Given the looks Tony sometimes gives Steve, though, Clint is betting on the latter.
Steve is the kind of guy that Clint would toss looks at, too, if he wasn’t already spoken for. He’s the kind of guy that a lot of people toss looks at, really – tall, strong shoulders, a smile that you can’t help smiling back at, ridiculously classic good looks. That’s enough for admiration on its own, but Clint has known Steve for years, so he knows that Steve is honestly one of the nicest guys there is, too – he does work for half a dozen different charities in his spare time, and is constantly coaxing the rest of them to join him. The fact that he plays the bass like the second coming of John Entwistle is just icing on a ridiculously amazing cake.
That’s probably half of the problem, Clint muses as he absently checks over the gear once more. Tony has a past, and Steve is well on his way to canonization. Add in Tony’s habit of denying himself the things he really wants, and there you have it.
Clint frowns down at the keyboard as if it’s going to solve all of the problems in the world. He narrows his eyes as he leans in; there’s a small crack in the plastic casing of the keyboard. Clint sighs. Thor’s an excellent pianist – a virtuoso, really – but he plays too damn hard for a keyboard. He’s used to playing on a weighted Steinway, a beautiful baby grand that’s been tailored to take the abuse that a man of Thor’s size tends to impart upon things just by the virtue of being himself. Yamaha keyboards, as nice as they are, don’t really hold up as well.
“We’re going to need to replace Thor’s keyboard,” Clint calls towards the door. “He’s busted this one.”
“He needs to learn not to play like a thunderstorm,” Phil sighs, standing from the bag of cables. He winces as he twists to pop his back, which in turn makes Clint wince.
“Speaking of thunderstorms,” he says, nodding at Phil. “Make one of the roadies do it, Phil. I prefer you when you’re not Snap, Crackle, and Pop, and that’s what we pay those people for. Managers shouldn’t have to do that shit.” Clint pulls out his phone and taps out a quick text as he talks.
Phil snorts. “So much for ‘in sickness and in health,’ I guess.”
“We’re not married,” Clint shoots back. He’s got a ring, he’s kind of got a plan, he just doesn’t have a timeline. He’s working on it, that’s all, and he firmly shuts the door on that train of thought. “And you know I say this with all the love I can muster, but you’re not exactly twenty any more, so it might be a good idea to leave the bending-over things to the people who are.” A young woman that Clint doesn’t recognize strolls into the room, and Clint motions to her. “Like her, for instance.”
Phil rolls his eyes as he shows the woman the bag he’d been inspecting. “I can still put you on your back, Barton.”
Clint leers. “You say the sweetest things, baby.”
Phil rolls his eyes again.
Their current tour is somewhat of a whirlwind; the new album comes out in a little less than three months (eighty-seven days, not that Clint is counting), and they’re doing a preemptive sales-pitch kind of tour with an EP release of four songs available after each concert. It had been Phil’s idea, and Clint has to admit that the man has some sort of business-fu that’s undeniable, because every show is packed to the brim. They’re not playing really huge venues, but they’re decently sized; The Avengers are slowly making their way into the big time, and Clint knows that Phil is a big part of why.
Clint strums his guitar and hums a few bars, absently playing with the tuning pegs until it sounds right. He’s got almost-perfect pitch, which is both a gift and a curse, because close to perfect means that he’s occasionally flat, and that inaccuracy kind of pisses him off. It doesn’t happen often, though, and Clint tunes his guitar to the rest of the band’s instruments for actual shows, so he’s content to tune to his own ears for now.
He’s not really paying attention to what he’s playing until Phil walks in and sighs. “Clint, play something else.”
Clint looks at his fingers, listens to the chords he’s playing, F-B flat-C-B flat, and abruptly stops. “I’m fine, Phil.”
“You’re playing Billy Joel, you’re not fine,” Phil says evenly, settling onto the couch next to him. Clint lets his fingers slide from the strings as he shrugs. Phil raises an eyebrow, apparently waiting, and Clint sighs a moment later.
“We need a guitarist who’s not me,” he says. “I don’t suck, but it’s not my thing. I don’t really want to bring it up to the guys, but-”
Phil shrugs one shoulder. “We’ll make sure whoever we find knows it’s not a permanent position.”
“Bruce will be back,” Clint says stubbornly. “He and Betty are gonna work things out, and then Bruce will come back and we’ll be good again.”
“I know,” Phil says, completely calm. Clint knows that Phil doesn’t really think that Bruce will return, but Phil’s got a divorce in his past from a wife who hadn’t understood that on the road didn’t mean sleeping with the band. Well, Clint amends, it hadn’t at the time. He and Phil hadn’t gotten together until almost a year after Elizabeth had served him with divorce papers.
Betty doesn’t think that Bruce is sleeping with someone in the band; she thinks that the tour and the general excitement of being with a group like The Avengers is too much stress for her husband. It’s not that Clint can’t see her point – Bruce hasn’t exactly led an easy life, and as such, his reactions to things aren’t always ideal. High-stress situations can turn ugly if he loses his temper, and Bruce always feels terrible about freaking out afterwards. Betty seems to think a few months at home and a few months at some sort of Buddhist retreat center in Vermont will help, and Bruce would never say no to her.
Things will work out, Clint repeats to himself, and Bruce will be back. They just need to find a guitarist until that happens.
“You’ve been doing fine,” Phil says after a few minutes of silence, both of them thinking about the same situation but from vastly different viewpoints. “If it’s only for a month or two, you really could just stick with it.”
“I hate playing on stage, and you know it,” Clint replies. “I’m a singer, not a guitarist. You also know that we’re looking at a year until Bruce is ready to come back, if not longer.”
The shadow of a smile passes over Phil’s mouth. “You can do it.”
“You just like watching me play,” Clint tosses out, and the smile on Phil’s face grows. Clint grins in response. “Anyway, I’m not really sure how to put an ad out for a full-time guitarist with an end date, you know? It just seems like a shitty deal – ‘hey, come play with us for a while but don’t get too attached, because we’re throwing you out at the first opportunity.’ It’s not exactly a dream job.”
Phil shrugs again. “Someone will fill it. You guys aren’t playing in shitty bars any more; being an interim guitarist with The Avengers is going to be someone’s foot in the door somewhere.”
Now it’s Clint’s turn to shrug. “If you say so,” he allows. He’s still not used to The Avengers being a band known to more than the MySpace crowd, but given the size and diversity of the crowd at the show last night, they’re clearly getting well-known.
“I do,” Phil says, clapping Clint on the knee. “Look, I know a guy who knows a guy. I’ll line a few people up, and I’ll have Pepper vet them before I send them in to meet the rest of you. Give me a week.”
Clint smiles and props the guitar up against the coffee table before slouching into Phil. “Oh, Pepper will love that.”
Phil shrugs. “She’s officially the musical director of this operation,” he points out. “Not that I couldn’t do it myself, but-”
“Your love of delegation is really sexy,” Clint cuts in, and Phil smiles and slings an arm around his shoulder.
They’re all awful.
“Pepper and I are going to have words,” Tony says as the third guy walks out, his shoulders slumped. “Seriously, the woman went to Julliard, she plays nine different instruments, and she sends us that dude?”
“I’m sure she had her reasons,” Steve allows, and Tony must make a face at him, because Steve flushes and looks away. “Look, he wasn’t that bad.”
It’s Thor who answers Steve’s obvious lie. “Would you have him as our guitarist?”
“God, no,” Steve blurts out, then promptly blushes again. “We need someone who can pick up the songs we’re doing, especially since this is an album tour. That guy was okay, but…”
“But he’d never pick up the songs in time to do the tour,” Clint finishes. “Look, that’s just the guys that Phil could pull together on short notice, okay? We’ll find someone eventually.”
“You could just-” Tony starts.
“No,” Clint says shortly. “We’ll find someone.”
Clint looks up when he hears the sound of high heels approaching. Natasha pokes her head in and looks around, unimpressed. “I take it that went well?”
“We have decided to look elsewhere,” Thor says, beaming at her. “To what do we owe the honor, Madam Romanova?”
Clint sometimes wishes he had some sort of handle on what the hell is going on between the pianist and the band’s head technician, but most of the time he’s content to sit back and watch it happen.
“I was just wondering if Barton and Stark managed to scare off all of the recruits, or if one of them actually had the balls required to fit in with you guys,” Natasha says. Thor laughs, and Clint sees Tony scowl.
“If they can’t keep up-” Tony starts, but Natasha shrugs a shoulder and he cuts off mid-sentence.
“I’m not saying you should let someone incompetent in, I’m just saying that you should maybe aim a little lower,” she suggests, crossing her arms across her chest. “Also, if you don’t look at this as kicking Bruce out, it’ll probably be easier.”
They all wince at the words, and Clint knows that it’s true, at least partially. None of them want to do this, necessary though it might be. It’s Thor who breaks the silence.
“We are trying,” he says. “Perhaps not as much as we could, but we are trying.”
Natasha sighs and nods. “You have anyone else to torture, or are you done for the night?”
“Done,” Steve says. “Unless we were going to practice that chord progression at the end of Stilted-”
“We’re done,” Clint says over the end of that sentence. Clint is good on the guitar, okay, but Bruce is some sort of genius, and that chord progression is, without exaggeration, a nightmare. Clint can do it in practice, but when it comes time to do it on stage, he cuts half of the chords out and mellows the ending. It works, but it’s part of the reason that they’re looking for someone who can comfortably play on stage.
“Then Thor and I are going to see what we can do about finding a new keyboard,” Natasha says. Thor’s face brightens as he stands, talking happily about a Casio that he’s been eyeing. Natasha nods, whipping out her phone and typing away, and their voice trail off down the hallway.
“Dinner?” Tony says, and Clint opens his mouth to say that no, he and Phil have plans, but when he turns to Tony, Tony’s eyes are on Steve.
Steve nods. “There’s a Vietnamese place that looked good on the main strip,” he volunteers. “I could go for some banh bao and milk tea.”
Tony nods. “Give me ten,” he says, slipping his drumsticks into their case and setting them on his stool. “Meet you out front?”
Steve nods and Tony walks away, and when Steve turns back to set his bass on its stand, he has a small, private smile on his face.
“Seriously,” Clint says, and Steve jumps like he’d forgotten that Clint was even there – which, to be fair, is probably exactly what had happened. “You guys are so…”
“What?” Steve asks blankly. “Oh, hey, did you want to come? I guess I sort of assumed you were eating with Phil, but if you’re free, you’re totally welcome.”
“I’m not going to be the third wheel on your date, Rogers,” Clint says mildly. As predicted, Steve’s face flushes.
“We’re not,” Steve starts.
Clint cuts him off. “You should be.”
Steve shrugs, tracing the tuning pegs at the top of his bass. “Tony just flirts,” he says. “He doesn’t mean anything by it.”
Clint sighs, and wonders if it’s even worth trying to tell Steve about how very wrong he is in this case. He’s seen Tony flirt and charm and really lay it on when he wants to get in someone’s pants, but he’s never seen Tony this easy with someone. He’d give it up for a lost cause, but Steve is at least part of the reason that he and Phil had gotten together, so Clint figures he at least owes it to Steve to try. “Think of it this way, Steve. You try something, it crashes and burns, is Tony going to hold it against you in any way?”
“No,” Steve says slowly.
“Is he going to treat you any differently?”
“No,” Steve repeats.
Clint nods. “So what do you have to lose?”
Steve opens his mouth, frowns, and shuts it.
“Think about it,” Clint advises, clapping Steve on the shoulder as he walks for the door. “Also, bring me back some banh bao. Those things are delicious.”
Thor is already in the practice room when Clint wanders in the next day, bent over a sleek Casio keyboard with more buttons than could ever possibly be necessary. “Hey, man,” Clint greets, picking up the drumstick case and sitting on Tony’s stool. “Tell me this one has metal in the casing or something. Our piano budget is starting to run a little short.”
Thor shrugs. “As I told Natasha, I will do my best to play carefully.” He flashes a smile. “It is longer and longer between each new keyboard.”
“I’ll give you that,” Clint says with a grin as he stands and heads for his guitar. He can hear Steve and Tony coming down the hallway. Curiously, there’s no banter between them; there’s no talking at all. Clint feels his stomach drop. If Steve had taken his advice and things had turned out badly-
“So,” Tony says as soon as he and Steve walk into the room, “remember when you and Coulson started sleeping together and we had to have that big, awkward talk about how it wasn’t going to affect how we performed, everything’s still professional, so on, so forth?”
“Yes,” Clint says cautiously.
Tony grins, wide and happy, and turns to plant a kiss on Steve’s lips. By the time he pulls back, Steve’s face is cherry-red, but he’s smiling down at Tony, who has turned back towards Clint. “Same here,” he says.
“Excellent,” Phil says dryly from the doorway. “Congratulations, it’s about time, all of that.” He ignores Tony’s spluttering and turns to Clint. “So, what’s on the agenda for today?”
“More potential guitarists?” Clint says hopefully. Phil shakes his head, and Clint sighs. “Then I guess we’re gonna play Stilted until I get that progression down.”
It’s not long before they’re all lost in the song, Clint’s voice singing against the piano, guitar and bass and drums blending together for support, and Clint closes his eyes and plays and plays.
Chapter 2: Opening Set
The bass is loud and the lights are low, and part of Clint aches for a cigarette. He hasn’t smoked in years and it’s illegal to light up in here now anyway, but something feels innately wrong about sitting in a bar without a smoke in his hand.
Phil finds it hilarious that Clint likes to unwind in karaoke bars, but there’s something almost soothing about the atmosphere. There are a lot of drunk coeds, sure, but it’s not really the company that makes Clint seek the place out. It’s the feeling of near-freedom, knowing that everyone in the bar is there for the same reason, and that even if you get up on the stage and forget half of the words to Sweet Caroline, you’ll still get claps and cheers and catcalls when you take that bow at the end.
And hey, occasionally someone gets up and sings an Avengers song, and that always puts a smile on Clint’s face.
The guy up there now is actually talented, which is a nice change from the normal drunken warbling. He’s singing something dark and angry, and it sounds vaguely familiar. Clint frowns and tries to place it as the guy goes on, voice gravelly and almost grating. He’s got one hand wrapped around the microphone and the other hanging loosely at his side, and he’s got his eyes closed and his head tilted a little to the side. He looks the part, Clint thinks idly. He’s either been in a band at some point, or he’s been practicing to be in one for a long time.
The guy finishes the song and opens his eyes slowly, and it’s like watching someone crash down from a high. He doesn’t slump off the stage, but there’s definitely something unhappy in the guy’s stance that hadn’t been there in the performance, despite the depressing lyrics.
“Hey,” Clint says to the bartender, a guy named Fury who looks every inch like he fits the name, “what’s his deal?”
Fury narrows his eyes and shrugs a massive shoulder as he swipes at the inside of a glass with a dishrag. “You can ask him if you’re that curious,” he says, and yeah, that’s about what Clint as expecting.
“What was he singing?” Clint tries, and that gets a reaction out of Fury, a quirk of the lips that wouldn’t be a smile on anyone else.
“Song is called Night Over Night,” Fury replies. “The band broke up last year, but they were good, almost great. Winter Soldier.”
Clint nods and sits back. That’s why it had sounded familiar, at least; Steve had had some sort of infatuation with Winter Soldier, something that had started before Clint had met Steve, and something that nobody has really ever been able to understand. Steve’s music collection includes a lot of big band and Rat Pack types, plus two Winter Soldier albums that sit at the end of his shelf of music and are almost never played.
“Thanks,” Clint says to Fury, who snorts and puts the glass he’s been manhandling down onto the counter.
“Stop,” Phil says, leaning over the couch and clasping his hands together loosely. “Seriously, Clint, there’s no need to break out Leningrad. The show went fine.”
“I fucked up three songs,” Clint says, not looking up from the guitar strings, D-E minor-G-A. “And hey, it could be worse, at least I haven’t busted out Captain Jack.”
Phil winces. It’s been a long time since Clint has been that low, and he knows they both hope he doesn’t get there again. It’ll take more than a shitty show to bring him that far down, and Clint knows that Phil’s aware of that, but still.
Clint is well aware that his relationship with Billy Joel’s music is unfathomable to most; hell, he’s barely got a grasp on it himself. Mostly all he has are fragmented memories, his mother singing as she tucked him and Barney into bed at night, his dad frowning and yelling in a drunken haze when Clint had started singing along one night, four albums and a concert ticket that he’d managed to hang onto through moves and orphanages and foster homes for years after his parents died. He’d gotten through his first audition with New York State of Mind, and he and Tony had first jammed with Bruce over a rendition of Goodnight Saigon.
The music is just tied to him in ways he can’t explain. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, but it’s all got some level of meaning that is, when he looks at it objectively, fucking ridiculous.
He strums the progression again and hums absently.
“Clint,” Phil says, breaking into Clint’s thoughts. “Look, we’re working on it, okay? I know this isn’t your favorite thing, but you really are doing well with this. Nobody expects you to be perfect.”
“I just want to sing, Phil,” Clint says, leaning his head against the back of the couch and staring up into his partner’s eyes. “I get that the crowds we’re playing for right now don’t really give a good goddamn if I fuck up a few chords, but it bugs me. I have fun singing, and I hate doing more than that.”
Phil sighs and moves so he can sit next to Clint. “Look, I know you hate it, and you know that I know. I wish I could say that I had some sort of miracle solution for you, but these things-”
“If you’re going to end that with ‘take time,’ I’m leaving you,” Clint warns, and Phil grins, brief and bright.
“I’ve put Pepper and Natasha on the hunt,” Phil says instead. “If they can’t find someone in the next few weeks, we’ll broaden the search.”
Clint leans over to press a kiss to Phil’s temple. “Thanks,” he says, closing his eyes and letting his forehead rest against the side of Phil’s.
Phil hums and rests his hand against Clint’s neck, rubbing absently. They don’t get enough time to themselves, Clint thinks absently. No wonder Bruce had taken some time off to be with Betty. Phil is rarely more than a mile from wherever Clint is, and he still feels like they should run away for a few days.
“We’ll figure it out,” Clint says quietly after a few minutes. Phil hums again and squeezes Clint’s neck gently, and Clint sets the guitar down and leans in to kiss Phil properly.
It’s not that Clint has a favorite karaoke bar, but he shows up at The Shield more than most. He tells himself it’s because Fury mixes a mean whiskey sour, but it’s probably got more to do with the way Fury doesn’t even have to ask what Clint is in the mood to drink on any given night, or maybe that Fury can somehow tell when Clint is or isn’t in the mood to deal with someone who recognizes him.
It’s not exactly common for him to show up two nights in a row; it happens from time to time, but it’s not often that The Avengers have two nights in a row without a gig, and rarer still that Clint doesn’t want to spend most of that time with Phil. He’d needed this last night, though, and Phil’s doing something terrifying with an accountant and the legal team tonight, so Clint heads back over.
Fury takes one look at him and pulls a Guinness, setting it down without saying anything. Clint takes a sip and sets it down with a grateful nod, and Fury walks away without saying a word.
The people singing tonight are more drunk than the normal crowd; they’re not good at all, but they’re having a great time, and they’re mostly butchering the karaoke classics. Clint lets the music wash over him, closing his eyes and listening for good notes and bad notes and right and wrong. It’s soothing in the way a cacophony like this shouldn’t really be, but Clint sighs and leans back before too long. He glances up at the stage just in time to see its very inebriated occupants totter off, and the guy who takes their place looks familiar for half a second. He’s got a guitar hanging loosely off of his shoulders, and Clint raises an eyebrow at Fury.
“He’s good,” Fury says, as if that explains anything.
“This is a karaoke bar,” Clint points out, but Fury either doesn’t hear him or does an excellent job of pretending not to as he walks away.
The guy strums a few chords before leaning into the microphone. “I’m gonna play a few,” he announces to nobody in particular. “Hope you guys don’t mind.”
“Just sing,” someone from the crowd hollers, and the guy shoots a brilliant smile in that general direction. He adjusts one of the tuning pegs on his guitar, strums again, and starts playing an intricate picked-chord progression that leaves Clint staring.
Fury is right; the guy is good. It doesn’t take three bars for Clint to realize that it’s the sad song guy from last night, partially because he’s singing the same song, and partially because the guy’s voice is really distinctive. That’s memorable enough, but Clint can’t look away from the guy’s fingers as he plays apparently effortlessly, like the music is an extension of him. It’s fast and smooth and something that Clint knows he’d never be able to pull off, and before the guy finishes the first verse Clint is already picturing him playing the chord progression from the end of Stilted with no issues.
“Okay,” Clint says when Fury walks into range again, “okay, who the hell is that guy?”
Fury smirks. “He’s playing a set of six. I’ll flag him down when he’s done.”
“You did this on purpose,” he half-accuses. Fury raises an eyebrow.
“I heard from a friend that Ms. Potts and Ms. Romanova were looking for a semi-permanent guitarist, and I happen to know of one who’s looking for a semi-permanent gig.” He swipes at the bar with a rag. “Call it putting the puzzle pieces together.”
“I’ll call it anything you want if the guy works out,” Clint promises. “Hell, Fury, if he steps in for Bruce, I’ll let it slip on our Facebook page that the band will be stopping by next week.”
Fury’s face breaks into a smile of unholy glee. Tony’s the only one who really drinks, but the band is well-enough known locally to bring in more than a few extra heads.
Clint listens and watches as the guy transitions seamlessly into a new song. It’s not one he knows but it’s of a similar style to the last one, and the guy plays and sings and never once looks out at the crowd. It’s captivating, and Clint can only watch as the guy moves through his set.
Fury jerks his head when the guy finally stands and smiles, waving as he makes his way off the stage. In less than a minute he’s sliding onto the stool beside Clint and grinning over the bar at Fury.
“Excellent, Nick,” he says, leaning and handing the guitar to Fury, who sets it below the pit. “Seriously, man, thanks for letting me play.”
“Don’t mention it,” Fury says easily, jerking his head at Clint. “Barnes, this is Barton. Barton, meet Barnes.”
“Wait, holy shit, you’re Bucky Barnes?” Clint asks, the pieces suddenly clicking into place. “Lead singer and guitarist of Winter Soldier, that’s you, isn’t it?”
Barnes smirks and nods. “I see that what’s left of my reputation precedes me,” he says, offering a hand. “Bucky Barnes indeed. And you are?”
“Clint Barton,” Clint says, shaking Barnes’ hand and grinning. “Dude, that’s why you looked so familiar. One of the guys in the band-” Clint stops. He’s pretty sure that this guy doesn’t need to hear about Steve’s slight obsession with Winter Soldier’s music. “He’s a fan,” Clint amends.
Barnes nods, clearly pleased. “Awesome,” he says. “So you’re the guy looking for a guitarist?”
“It’s temporary,” Clint says hastily. “I mean, now that I’ve seen you play, I can say that you’d pretty much be a sure fit. You’re leaps and bounds better than anyone else we’ve had audition. It’s not a permanent gig, though, and I’d hate to tie up your time when we can’t offer you-”
“Barton,” Barnes says, tone amused. “I’m not looking for forever. I’d like to play with someone for a little while, but I don’t need a promise and a ring.”
Clint grins and sticks his hand out. “Come by the studio tomorrow afternoon around three,” he says. “And call me Clint.”
Clint debates whether or not to tell the guys who his mysterious recruit is, but settles for just telling them that he’d invited someone to play with them in the afternoon. He tries not to bounce on his heels as three o’clock draws nearer and nearer, but even Thor notices how jumpy he’s getting as time drags by.
“Is this guitarist a friend of yours?” Thor asks as Clint checks his watch for the fifth time. “Is she attractive?”
“One,” Clint starts, “he, not she; two, yes; and three, if Natasha hears you asking me about attractive women, we’ll both go to sleep and never wake up. Understood?”
Phil rolls his eyes at Clint over the piano. Clint just grins as Thor breaks into laughter.
“Indeed,” Thor says when he calms back down. “Madam Romanova is quite… possessive, is she not?”
“Damn straight,” Natasha’s voice comes from the hallway. A moment later, she and Pepper walk into the room. Natasha has an armful of cords, and Pepper’s carrying her briefcase. Clint is willing to bet that she’s got at least three different contracts already drawn up, just waiting to hear the new guitarist’s terms.
Clint grins again, mostly just for the hell of it, and Natasha sets her cords down and starting rigging up the amp. Barnes had asked what kind of amps they had available for him to audition with, and his eyes had gleamed when Clint named the old Fender Mustang that hasn’t been used in years.
“That one,” he’d said. “Man, if I can rock it with a Mustang, then you’ll know I’m good, right?”
Clint had just grinned and made a note to tell Natasha to switch out the amps. It takes her less than five minutes, and most of that is spent viciously scowling at a patch cord that keeps popping loose.
“It’s the damn jack,” she says. “I mean, I can rig it up for today, but if this guy ends up staying and he wants to keep using this thing, we’re going to have to talk about replacing the jack.” She looks like she wants to kick the amp and is only just refraining.
“I’m sure he’s got an amp of his own,” Steve pipes up. “I mean, it’s a pain to haul one across town for an audition, but if he sticks, he’ll probably bring his own.”
“He’ll stick,” Clint says confidently.
Tony snorts. “You’re pretty sure of that.”
Clint levels him with a look. “He got up on stage at The Shield two nights ago, and last night Fury let him play.” Tony blinks at him, impressed beneath the apparent nonchalance, and Clint smirks.
Tony opens his mouth, but Clint’s phone starts ringing before he can get a word out. Clint barely glances at the caller ID before picking it up. “Hey, man, what’s up?”
“There are sixteen doors on your building, Barton,” Barnes complains. “Where the hell do I go in?”
Clint laughs. “We’re in the southwest corner,” he directs. “There’s a set of double doors at the top of the hallway. You can’t miss them; some asshole painted them purple last year.”
Barnes snickers in his ear as Tony snickers in the room. Clint just grins, and he hears the echo of the door banging shut down the hallway just before he hears it over the phone.
“Okay, clearly I’m here,” Barnes says into the phone. “Give me a drum roll or something, okay?”
Clint hangs up the phone with a grin. “He’s here,” he says unnecessarily.
Natasha rolls her eyes and cranes her neck to glance down the hall. Her head whips around a second later, eyes wide in her head. “Clint, is that-”
“Yeah,” Clint says, grin so wide he’s afraid his face is going to split in two. Natasha laughs, and it’s somewhere between amazement and sheer delight.
“Who is it?” Tony asks impatiently, but then Bucky Barnes is striding into the practice room, guitar case slung over his shoulder.
Clint opens his mouth, ready to make the introduction, but he’s cut off by a strangled sound from Steve. “Bucky?”
The cocky smirk on Barnes’ face is gone in an instant as he zeroes in on Steve’s face. “Steve,” he says, sounding like someone gut-punched him. “Oh my God, Steve, babe.”
Chapter 3: Intermission
“So I’m guessing you two already know each other,” Clint says into the awkward stillness that follows. “Care to share with the rest of the class, or should we just gossip about it in the locker room?”
“Steve,” Barnes says again, which is about the least helpful answer that Clint has ever heard. He’s got his fingers twisted up in the straps of his guitar case, and he’s looking over at Steve like he’s some sort of Holy Grail.
“Locker room gossip it is,” Clint says cheerily, tapping Thor on the shoulder and gesturing to the door. “We’ll just leave you guys to it for a few minutes, okay?”
“Call one of us when you guys get past the can’t-stop-staring phase,” Natasha adds, breezing out of the room just behind Pepper. Phil hesitates before grabbing Tony by the arm and following.
“This is bullshit,” Tony says fiercely as soon as the door closes. “What, some famous guy comes in and makes faces at my boyfriend, and we decide it’s a good idea to just leave them alone together?”
“Um,” Clint says, blinking. Tony isn’t usually a jealous kind of guy, but he’s clearly upset over Barnes and Steve knowing each other. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, Tony. I don’t think Barnes would want to hurt Steve, and we both know that Steve isn’t the kind of guy to get with someone behind your back.”
Tony crosses his arms and narrows his eyes at the door of the practice room.
“What can you tell us about him?” Thor asks, jerking his chin at the room. “It’s clear that Steve knows him, but if he is going to be trying for the temporary position-”
“Like hell,” Tony snaps. “I vote no.”
“Stop thinking with your dick, Stark,” Phil says levelly as he turns to Thor. “His name is Bucky Barnes, and until last year, he was the lead singer and guitarist of a band called Winter Soldier. They’re not quite the same style of music as The Avengers, but Barnes could be good for the band.” Phil is wearing a slight frown, which Clint has learned indicates him thinking really fast. “He’s extremely talented, and he’s got a following that would probably boost our sales, if he fits with the band.”
“He still has to try out,” Tony says acerbically. “We’ll see how that goes.”
Clint opens his mouth to reply, but before he can, the door to the practice room opens and Steve pokes his head out. He’s smiling widely and his cheeks are a little pink. “Um, sorry about that,” he says. “Bucky is ready to play if you guys are.”
Natasha grabs the door and pulls it open. “I’m sure we’d all love to hear Mr. Barnes play.”
Barnes looks up from where he’s fiddling with his tuning pegs. “Bucky, please,” he says. “Or James, if nicknames aren’t your style.”
“Bucky works,” Clint puts in before Tony can say anything. “You clearly know Steve, and you and I have met. Tony and Thor are the rest of the band, and these three are our main support staff – Phil, Pepper, and Natasha.” Clint gestures as everyone makes their way in.
Bucky nods. “What are we starting with?”
Clint has the tabs for four of their songs; it’s not that it’s not all notated, but Clint figures that four should be enough for a preliminary tryout, and they can break out the rest of the sheet music if things go well. “Let’s try More Than I Can Tell, and we can work our way up from there.”
Bucky nods and scans the tab sheet quickly. “Looks good,” he agrees. “I’m ready when you are.”
Bucky is good.
Bucky is, in fact, a seamless fit into the band. Clint had given him a demo CD with a few of the band’s older songs on it, and he’d clearly listened to it, because the guitar riffs in the bridge of Untitled #7 are effortless, and he nails the tricky timing at the end of Windswept. Clint sort of wants to see if he can play the damn chord progression from Stilted on sight, but he’s not cruel.
“Awesome, man,” Clint says when they finish the session. He grins at Bucky, who grins back. “I mean, that was really great. You’re way better than I am, and I’ve known these songs for years.”
“You wrote most of them,” Steve says mildly, grinning when Clint and Bucky turn to look at him. “I have to agree, though. This is definitely the best audition we’ve heard since Bruce went on break.”
“I agree as well,” Thor adds. “Clint, I appreciate the times that you’ve filled in, but it will be good to have someone comfortable with playing the guitar on stage again.”
There’s a stunning silence from the drums, and when Clint clears his throat, Tony looks up from his drumsticks and shrugs. “Sure, yeah,” he says, not even trying to fake enthusiasm. “Sounded great, welcome aboard, rah rah.”
There’s a moment of silence as Tony slips his drumsticks into their case and leaves the room.
“I’ll talk to him,” Pepper says with a sigh, standing to go after Tony.
“No, no, I will,” Steve says, heading for the hallway. He glances back at Bucky, a soft sort of smile on his face for a moment before he shakes his head and heads out.
“Uh,” Bucky says, frown firmly in place. “Did I kill his puppy or something?”
Clint sighs. “Tony is being Tony,” he says. Bucky raises an eyebrow, and Clint grins. “Come on, let’s talk to Phil and Pepper about signing some paperwork, and then we’ll go out for drinks.”
The paperwork doesn’t take long; one of the sets that Pepper had drawn up agrees with Bucky, so the whole process takes less than an hour. Clint invites Thor and the administrative staff out for drinks to celebrate; he’s not surprised when everyone bows out.
“You and me,” Clint says, slapping Bucky on the shoulder. “Want to head to The Shield?”
“Only if you’re buying,” Bucky replies, flashing a crooked grin. “You might have noticed that I’ve been between gigs.”
Clint snorts as he shrugs into his jacket. “You’re buying next time,” he says, which earns him another grin.
The trip to The Shield is short; there’s not really time for conversation before Bucky is pulling the door open and making a beeline for the bar. Fury takes one look at him and pours him a double, which Bucky tosses back before Clint slides onto a barstool. Clint raises an eyebrow. “I thought we were celebrating,” he says to Fury as he slides a beer in front of Clint, “but I might be wrong about that.”
Bucky snorts as Fury delivers a second beer. He grabs it and pulls it closer without taking a sip. “When you said you had a guy in your band who liked my old gig, I wasn’t expecting…” He trails off, but Clint can see Steve’s shocked face in his head, the smile that Steve hadn’t quite gotten rid of the entire time they’d been playing.
“If I’d had any idea,” Clint starts, but Bucky waves him off.
“It’s not like you can reasonably expect me to know even a fraction of the people who liked Winter Soldier,” Bucky replies, “and Steve has no reason to tell anyone he knows me.”
Clint takes a sip to give himself a chance to think. He has to ask and he knows it, but he’s not sure how, not really. Luckily, Bucky saves him the trouble.
“We grew up together,” he says. “Met when I was in fifth grade and Steve was in fourth. He was a grade ahead in math and I was just not getting it, so when they pushed him up into my class during math time, he’d spend most of it trying to explain shit to me.” He snorts and shakes his head and he lifts the beer for a sip.
“Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Clint quips.
Bucky nods. “We stayed pretty close up through high school,” he says. “His mom died his senior year, less than a week after he turned eighteen. I was still around, so he moved in with me to finish up school.” Bucky shrugs a shoulder. “We got closer.”
Clint blinks a few times before connecting Bucky with Steve’s mysterious ex-boyfriend, the nameless guy that Steve had lived with for years before they’d parted ways for reasons that had never really been clear in the few details that Clint had managed to glean over the years. “And then you got farther apart,” Clint says when Bucky stares into his cup. “And now you’re here.”
Bucky shrugs a shoulder. “It’s a little more complicated than that, but yeah.” He lets out a tired-sounding laugh. “It figures, you know? I’ve spent the last year looking for the kid I left behind, and when I finally find him, he’s got this great life for himself.” He takes an almost aggressive swig of his drink. “I mean, I wasn’t hoping he was sitting there pining or anything like that, but I really didn’t think he’d be with someone when I found him again.”
Clint frowns. “Your band breaks up, so you go looking for your ex?”
“My band broke up because I decided I’d rather have my ex than a band,” Bucky corrects, giving Clint a morose little smile. “Steve and I called it quits when Winter Soldier signed with a label. He said he’d wait for me, I said he’d better not.” Bucky shrugs. “Part of me figured he would anyway, which is selfish and pretty stupid, but there you have it.”
“Huh,” Clint says. He doesn’t have much past that, except – “So what did you do when we all left the room earlier?”
Bucky’s laugh is nothing but self-deprecating. “I kissed him.”
“Ah,” Clint says wisely. He takes another sip, because really, what’s he supposed to say to that?
“He stopped me,” Bucky goes on. “Explained that he was happy to see me again, but that he was with someone new now, and he hoped we could still work together. I’m guessing that’s Tony, given the context clues.”
“Yeah,” Clint confirms. “It’s, ah, kind of a new thing, but they’ve both been pretty happy with it, I guess.” He winces a little. “Sorry, man. That sucks.”
“My own fault,” Bucky replies, staring at the wall. Really, there’s no way to respond to that except to take another sip of beer.
“Ow,” Clint says when he wakes up. There’s a fuzzy outline of light spilling around the edges of the blinds in the window, and Clint squints at it for a moment before deciding that pulling the blankets over his head and hiding probably isn’t necessary.
“Yeah, I bet,” Phil’s amused voice says from the doorway, and Clint winces. Phil hands him a few pills and a bottle of water, and Clint downs them without even looking. Long experience tells him that it’s a painkiller and a few multivitamins, Phil’s personal favorite hangover remedy. He’ll probably get a too-strong cup of coffee when he finishes the water, and scrambled eggs after that. “Do you want to tell me why you showed up at three in the morning singing Vienna with your guitarist?”
“Uh,” Clint says, frowning.
“Don’t get me wrong, it was nice,” Phil says when Clint doesn’t add to that. “The man can harmonize, and he’s got the right kind of voice to sing Billy Joel. I’m just curious about things like song choice, and why you felt our living room was the appropriate location for said sing-a-long.”
Clint has a pretty good handle on the night before, to a certain point. Things get a little fuzzy after beer five, and past that he’s just got random snippets of conversation, the image of Bucky slipping further and further down into his bar stool, his stories about his childhood with Steve getting more and more maudlin. “Shit, did he get back to his place okay?”
“He’s on the couch,” Phil says calmly. “He passed out almost as soon as I got you to stop singing.”
Clint groans and rubs at his forehead. “Apparently he and Steve were somewhat serious before Bucky got signed with Winter Soldier, and finding out that Steve was with Tony hit a little low,” he sums up. “I’m assuming the jam session was me trying to make him feel better, but I can’t really be sure on that front.”
“Is it going to be a problem?” Phil frowns. “I mean, he did sign the papers yesterday, but I don’t think any of us want to make life difficult for anyone involved.”
Clint understands what he isn’t saying just as well as he hears the words. “It’s not going to be a problem on his end. As long as Steve can keep Tony happy, everything will be fine.”
Phil snorts. “Well, there’s a job,” he says dryly.
Clint briefly wonders if he can get away with going back to sleep, but after a quick silent discussion with Phil, he drags himself towards the shower. Bucky is up when Clint makes his way to the dining room, blinking blearily over the largest coffee mug that Phil and Clint own.
“Morning,” Clint says, pouring himself a mug and sitting at the table. It looks like tar, which is about what Clint was expecting. “The shower’s all yours, if you’re up to it.”
Bucky grunts into his coffee. It doesn’t look like he’s actually drinking it so much as he’s inhaling the fumes.
“Eat first,” Phil instructs, coming into the dining room and setting a plate in front of Bucky. “All of it, Barnes. Trust me when I say you’ll feel better when you finish.”
Bucky glances from his coffee to his plate. “Won’t feel worse,” he says when Phil comes back in with a plate for Clint and one for himself. “Thanks.”
“Eat,” Phil repeats, digging into his eggs.
Breakfast is mostly silent; Clint is grateful for it, and he’s willing to bet that Bucky is, too. Phil finishes first and clears his dishes away before returning to the table with a few file folders. Clint shoves his plate back and grabs a pencil and some paper, jotting down fragments of songs and lyrics as they flit through his head. Sometimes a song just strikes, but in Clint’s experience, honing the pieces until they fit together precisely is a much more effective way to get a song written.
Bucky yawns when he finally finishes the last of his eggs. “I’m gonna take you up on that shower,” he says, and Phil disappears with him for a few minutes, presumably gathering a towel and toothbrush for Bucky to use. He peeks over Clint’s shoulder when he gets back to the dining room.
“Got something good?”
Clint looks at the chords on the page and tilts his head. “Maybe. It needs tuning, but it could be the start of something.”
“The next big hit,” Phil says, just like he says every time Clint starts writing. Clint grins up at him.
“Our first big hit, you mean,” he teases, and Phil smiles and squeezes Clint’s shoulder before gathering up the rest of the breakfast dishes and heading for the sink.
Bucky wanders down as Clint is wrestling with the words for the end of the second line in the chorus. He’s got the distinct feeling that he’s going to have to swap some of what he’s already got to the first verse in order to make the chorus flow together, but it’s something that he can deal with later. He sets the pencil down as Bucky sits back in his seat.
“Feeling better?” Clint asks, and Bucky grins.
“Yeah, thanks,” he says. “For the company, the couch, and the cleanup, all at once.”
Clint grins. “Don’t mention it,” he drawls. “Just so you know, though, drinks are on you next time.”
“Works for me,” Bucky replies.
Phil leans into the kitchen before Clint can reply. “I’m heading to the studio,” he says. “Since you two took a cab here last night, I’m assuming you need a ride in?”
“You mean you’re not going to make us catch a cab back to the studio?” Clint asks with mock surprise, grabbing his papers and tucking the pencil behind his ear. “You’re a good man, Phil Coulson, and anyone who says otherwise is obviously a lying bastard.”
“It’s not nice to talk about yourself that way,” Phil says evenly, heading for the door. Bucky snorts as he follows.
“It’s all part of the charm,” Clint says breezily as he walks out and locks the door.
“What if you tried,” Bucky says, and instead of finishing the sentence, he plays the chorus again. The difference is, this time it sounds right.
“Well, that’s one way to do it,” Clint says, scribbling on his papers again. “You replaced the E flat I had in there.”
“Nah, just suspended the fourth,” Bucky says with a shrug. “I figured the chord could use a little dissonance there. It tracks better with the lyrics.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Clint says absently, adjusting what he has written down. It’s actually shaping up to be a chorus, which is better than he gets out of most of his morning breakfast-and-scribbles routine. “Here, play it through again, and let me listen.”
“Are we working on a new song?” Thor asks as he walks into the practice room. He drops down to the piano bench and tilts his head. “Please, play what you have so far. I can pick it up.”
Bucky grins and plays his part through, and when he starts again, Clint sings what he’s got so far. Thor nods thoughtfully, and when he starts playing along, the chords seem to resolve perfectly. Clint is grinning before they get to the end of the second line.
“Oh, this is good,” he says, tossing his pencil to Thor. “Write that down, will you? I need to work on the verses, but this is more than a solid start.”
“I agree,” Thor says, catching the pencil and pulling some blank sheet music from the piano bench. “I’ll write down my part. Bucky, would you accompany me?” He shoots a significant look at Clint, who frowns. He’s clearly being dismissed, but he’s got no idea why.
“Clint,” Tony says from the doorway, and oh, that’s not a good voice, especially when Clint turns and doesn’t see Steve anywhere. “Can we talk?”
“Tony,” Clint says, glancing at Bucky and Thor, who are studiously not looking back at him. “Uh, sure.”
Tony walks down the hallway and ducks inside one of the spare offices at the end of the hall. He puts his hands in his pockets and lets out a sigh, but doesn’t say anything else.
“Tony, you know I’m here for you, but you’ve gotta give me something to go on,” Clint says after a few moments of silence. “Is everything okay? Where is Steve?”
Tony laughs a little unsteadily. “See, that’s a really good question, and it’s one I’d love to answer for you. The problem is, I’m not exactly sure.”
“You lost Steve?” Clint asks, hoping he doesn’t sound nearly as panicked as he feels. Steve’s one of the most Boy Scout-y people out there, but in more of an I can survive a week in the wilderness with a knife and a matchbook way than an I’m really good at directions way. Clint thinks it’s fair to panic a little bit; Steve has honest-to-goodness gotten lost for six straight hours in New York, land of cabs and clearly marked public transit.
“I think I pissed him off,” Tony admits, color high in his cheeks. “We, ah. We might have had a bit of an argument last night, and he might have left to clear his head, and he might not have come back after that.”
“Jesus, Tony,” Clint says, sighing and sitting down. “He told you about him and Bucky.”
Tony nods. “Apparently Barnes kissed him yesterday, too.”
Clint nods. “Okay, well, let’s see if we can find him. I’m assuming you’ve tried calling?”
“I don’t know if he’s just avoiding my calls, or if he doesn’t have his phone with him, or if something happened,” Tony says, pulling his own phone from his pocket and dialing Steve’s number. Clint listens as it rings through to Steve’s too-cheery voicemail message before Tony disconnects the call.
“Well, we can check that first theory,” Clint replies. He’s about to dial Steve’s number when his phone starts ringing.
“Hey, Steve,” Clint says brightly as he picks up. “We were just talking about you.”
Steve sighs on the other end of the line. “I’m on my way to the studio,” he says. “Don’t let Tony leave before I get there, Clint. He and I have to talk.”
“So much for it not affecting the band,” Clint replies. He’s not sure if he’s saying it to Steve or to Tony, but they both snort before Steve hangs up and Tony sighs.
“It’s not that I don’t trust him,” Tony says just as Clint opens his mouth. “I mean, he’s Steve. I’m sure that his report on the incident is exactly what happened, and I’m sure that when he says he’s not going to leave me for him, he means it.” Tony shrugs. “It’s just – well, people change their minds all the time, and – Clint, you know how he feels about Bucky.”
“Yeah,” Clint agrees. “The thing is, though, I know how he feels about you, too.” Tony looks up, confusion written plainly across his face, and Clint claps him on the shoulder. “You need to stop freaking out, man.”
“It’s just,” Tony sighs, but then Steve is walking into the room, and nobody says anything for a long moment. Then Steve crosses the room in three long strides, and he pulls Tony up and hugs him close.
“I’m just going to,” Clint says, jerking his thumb at the door. Steve nods slightly, his chin brushing Tony’s hair, and Clint slips out of the room.
Thor and Bucky are playing when Clint gets back to the practice room. The song is familiar, but Clint doesn’t place it until Bucky starts to sing. It’s a Winter Soldier song, but it sounds completely different without percussion, slower and almost sadder than the original.
“Not bad,” Clint says when Thor lets the last of the song die away. “Not quite how I remember it, but it sounded nice.”
Bucky shrugs. “The way I see it, the drummer for my band currently hates me, so I’m getting my songs in how I can.” He grins, but there’s a tightness in his eyes as he carefully doesn’t look at the hallway. “What’s on the agenda for today?”
“Practice,” Clint says with a grin. “I’ve got music for you, man. We’ve got a show in three days, and I would really love to not have to play it.”
Bucky’s grin is a little more natural this time. “I’m sure we’d both enjoy that,” he drawls, setting his guitar in its stand.
“We have to get it out of Phil’s office,” Clint says. “Let me explain something to you, Barnes: if I never have to play the chord progression at the end of Stilted again, it will still be too soon.”
Bucky laughs and picks his guitar up again. He strums a few chords and frowns, grabbing a capo and sliding it on before trying the chord again. He looks up and grins at Clint, and then he plays the chord progression from memory without missing a note.
At double speed.
“I think I might love you,” Clint says with feeling. Bucky just sets his guitar down again, grin spreading into a smirk as he walks out of the practice room.
“So,” Bucky says as they head for Phil’s office, “is my being here going to be a problem in the long run?” Clint opens his mouth to protest, but the look that Bucky levels at him stops him in his tracks. “If it is, man, let me know now. I can at least duck out of the room when I’m making things worse.”
Clint hesitates for a moment before shrugging. “I don’t know,” he admits. “Tony is Tony, but Steve is Steve, so things could go either way.”
Bucky blinks. “The scary thing is that I think I know what you mean by that.”
Clint snorts. “Tony thinks you’re a threat, so he’s freaking out as quietly as he knows how to do. Steve is doing his best to keep him from freaking out, which is actually just winding Tony up further. They’ll keep going until the problem resolves itself.” He shrugs. “Really, it depends on whether Tony can get over the fear that Steve is going to leave him for you or not.”
Bucky doesn’t reply when Clint finishes, so Clint turns and roots around Phil’s desk until he locates the file folder marked guitar. He turns back to Bucky and offers the folder.
“Thanks,” Bucky says as he takes it and flips it through. “You make it sound like they’ve been together for a while, but Steve told me that they just got together.”
Clint rolls his eyes. “They’ve been together for ages,” he replies. “They only noticed it a little while ago, though.”
Bucky shakes his head with a rueful smile on his face. “Boy, do I know that feeling.”
“Might be best not to bring that up in front of Tony,” Clint advises, clapping Bucky’s shoulder as he heads back to the practice room.
“Got a question for you,” Bucky asks as they walk. “If I approach Tony and tell him that I’m not going to try to steal Steve away from him, will that make him more inclined to believe me or less?”
Clint opens his mouth to reply, but there’s a cough from behind him before he can get a word out. He and Bucky turn to look at Tony as he leans out of the room that Clint had left him and Steve in.
“Actually,” Tony says hesitantly, “I was hoping that I could talk to you.”
Bucky stands still for long enough that Steve makes his way to stand by Tony’s shoulder. “Please, Bucky,” he says softly, putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder and looking at Bucky as if Clint wasn’t even in the hallway.
“Right, Thor and I will grab some lunch, and we’ll see you guys this afternoon,” Clint says, walking backwards as he speaks. The last thing he sees before turning around and heading into the practice room is Bucky’s hesitant steps towards Tony and Steve.
Clint really, really hopes that this isn’t going to end with another search for a guitarist. He’s had enough of that shit, and besides, he actually likes Bucky.
The afternoon is weird because it isn’t weird at all.
Clint takes Thor out for lunch; Natasha shows up at the sushi place less than five minutes after they get there, and Clint is absolutely unsurprised when Pepper and Phil argue their way over to the table before they place their orders.
Lunch is uneventful until their waitress recognizes Thor, and after that there’s a definite sense of awkwardness every time the woman shows up. Phil’s amusement is countered only by Natasha’s more and more open hostility, which comes to a boiling point when the waitress asks for Thor’s signature and Natasha responds by leaning over the table, grabbing Thor by the face, and planting a solid kiss on his mouth. The waitress leaves, flustered, and Thor spends the remainder of the meal with a goofy grin on his face.
Clint is surprised to find Steve, Tony, and Bucky in the practice room when he and Thor get back from lunch. He tells himself that he wasn’t actively expecting Tony to have run Bucky out the door, but he is somewhat surprised that the three of them are joking around without any of the tension that Clint had been expecting.
“So,” he says, grinning when Tony jumps and turns at the sound of his voice. He continues talking over Tony’s scowl. “We’ve worked out our issues and we’re ready to play some music, right? That’s the vibe I’m getting, anyway, and it would be really nice to-”
“Asshole,” Tony says, but he’s definitely amused, and he’s not throwing drumsticks, so things are probably fine. “Yes. We’ve talked, things are peachy keen, and we’re ready to work together to make some beautiful music. Happy?”
“Thrilled,” Clint replies, grinning widely. “Also, ‘peachy keen,’ what the actual hell?”
“You do not get to mock,” Tony replies, pointing a drumstick at Clint’s chest. “I’ve read some of the lyrics you come up with when you’re drunk, Barton. You could only wish for the imagery that ‘peachy keen’ evokes.”
“Peachy keen, peachy keen,” Clint sings as Thor sits on his piano bench and flips through his sheet music. “Peachy, peachy keen.”
“Rewriting ‘Jingle Bells’ to make fun of Tony isn’t going to get us on the charts,” Steve says mildly, but Clint can tell that he’s fighting a smile. “Maybe we should practice some of the stuff that has a chance of doing that, huh?”
“Spoilsport,” Clint sighs as melodramatically as he can. From the smirk on Bucky’s face, it’s pretty melodramatic. “Fine, fine. Let’s make some music.”
They practice pretty seriously for a few hours, running through the set that they’re playing for the show in a few days’ time and then going through some of the more popular requests. Bucky doesn’t seem to have a problem with any of the songs; it doesn’t take more than three tries for him to want to move to the next piece. By the time the sun starts to set, they’re mostly just messing around, playing random phrases out of different songs for the hell of it. It feels nice, Clint thinks, to just sit back and relax and love his job. It’s been a while since he’s been able to do that.
“Okay, let’s find some pizza,” Phil says out of nowhere. Clint looks up to Phil’s faintly amused glance and, when he checks the clock on the wall, finds that it’s nearly nine at night.
“Awesome,” he says with feeling, and Bucky and Steve both laugh, and yeah, Clint thinks, things are going to be okay.
“Hey,” Clint hears, a word and a laugh all at once as he’s locking up for the night. He hesitates before peeking into the practice room.
Bucky is sitting on the stool behind the drum set. He’s looking up, a soft sort of smile on his face. Clint can’t tell what he’s looking at – or, more precisely, whom – until he hears Tony’s answering laugh.
“This is ridiculous,” Tony says, but it’s his amused voice, the tone he breaks out when he’s saying things just to say them, not to actually convey some sort of meaning. “I have a perfectly serviceable apartment less than ten minutes from here. The benefits of going there include a bed, for one, and less of a chance of someone walking in and seeing us.”
Bucky snorts, and his smile goes a little wider. “And they say that romance is dead.”
“I’m a pragmatist,” Tony says airily. “Seriously, though. I’ve got things at home that would make this a lot more fun.”
Clint can hear the leer in Tony’s voice, and it’s that more than anything else that snaps him out of listening. There’s a big part of him that can’t believe what he’s hearing; sure, Tony and Bucky had talked earlier, but the two of them getting together behind Steve’s back wasn’t exactly what Clint had had in mind when he hoped that they’d work things out.
He’s halfway to the door of the practice room when he hears Steve’s quiet laugh and stops dead in his tracks. “Lay off it, Bucky. If we’re going to make this work, it might help if we’re somewhere where nobody’s going to walk in on us.”
“Fine, let’s get going,” Bucky says, standing and shrugging into his jacket. Clint stands still as the three walk out the back door of the practice room and into the parking lot.
Clint stares at the empty room, blinking as he processes what he’s seen and heard.
Well, he thinks, if it makes them happy, so be it.
Chapter 4: Closing Set
“Hey,” someone says, and Clint is already grinning as he spins around. Bruce is smiling hesitantly by the door, looking in as Clint sits at the piano and scribbles on his writing pad. He’s not really writing, not at the moment, but it never hurts to have something to work with nearby. It’s a habit he’s had for years, and by the look on Bruce’s face, he knows that Clint is pretty much wasting time.
“Hey, man,” Clint says, hopping up and moving to the door to catch Bruce in a hug. Bruce barely hesitates before clapping Clint on the back and laughing. Clint pulls back and looks at his friend. “Wow, look at you with the hugging. I take it the Buddhist retreat place worked out for you.”
“That it did,” Bruce says, still smiling. “I’ve got my head on mostly straight. It’s nice.”
“That’s excellent news,” Clint says, still smiling widely. “Hey, let me call Phil – they’re all out to lunch, but they’re only around the corner. I’m sure everyone will want to see you.”
“You’re not at lunch with them?” Bruce asks, one eyebrow reaching for his hairline in an expression that Clint hasn’t seen in almost eighteen months.
“I’m working,” Clint says solemnly, and Bruce cracks a grin. “Nah, they all wanted to go out for Indian food, and you know me and Indian food.”
“Not friends,” Bruce agrees. “You’ll eat anything as long as it hasn’t been near tikka masala.”
Clint laughs and dials. “I’d say ‘you can’t blame me,’ but as I recall, Indian is your favorite ethnic food.”
“Guilty,” Bruce says, just as Phil says, “What, you missed me so much that you can’t let me eat in peace?”
“We have a visitor,” Clint singsongs into his phone.
“We get lots of visitors,” Phil says patiently. “Is this one of the ‘Phil, I can’t handle this guy, please come be amazing in my place’ visitors, or is it someone that I’m actually interested in talking to?” There’s a pause before Phil sighs. “Is it someone from the label? If so, show them to my office and don’t talk to them, for the love of God.”
“I’m not that bad,” Clint protests. Phil snorts, and he can hear the sounds of Phil asking for his food to be wrapped up. “Hey, wait, bring everyone with you.”
There’s a moment of silence as Phil puts the pieces together. “He’s back.”
Clint lets his smile spread across his face for a moment. “Yeah.”
“Give us ten minutes to settle the bill and walk back,” Phil says, and that’s definitely his Getting Shit Done voice.
“See you soon,” Clint says before shutting the phone and turning to Bruce. “So, hey, it occurs to me that Bucky is with the rest of them. Is it going to be awkward, you know, meeting the guy we got to fill in for you?”
Bruce shrugs a shoulder. “No, it’s fine. I’m-” And he hesitates, like he’s not sure how to say what he’s thinking. He shakes his head and smiles crookedly at Clint after a moment. “Don’t worry about it.”
“This is me, not worrying,” Clint says cheerily. They spend the next few minutes talking, catching up on aimless details that they’ve missed out on in the past eighteen months, and before long, the sound of the door opening and feet pounding down the hall interrupts their conversation. Bruce has just enough time to brace himself for the inevitable when Thor swoops in and picks him up, laughing and clapping him on the back.
“Bruce!” he says, face and voice practically glowing with how happy he is. “It’s been too long, I’m glad to see you again.”
“You too, big guy,” Bruce says, patting Thor awkwardly on the shoulder. Clint snickers. Bruce might be better with hugs these days, but there’s just no way to prepare for one of Thor’s.
The rest of the hugging goes much more smoothly, and before long, everyone is crowded into Phil’s office. It’s not the coziest space, but there’s a lot of seating, so it seems appropriate.
“So,” Phil says when they’re all settled. “You’re doing better?”
“I am,” Bruce confirms. “Between the retreat center and spending more time with Betty, I’ve really been doing well lately.” There’s a quiet sort of smile on his face, one that Clint has never seen there before. Bruce looks happy.
“So you’re ready to come back?” Bucky’s voice sounds casual, but Clint is good at picking tones out of things. He can hear the way Bucky is already pulling back, already trying to seal himself off so it won’t hurt as much when he’s made to leave. When Clint glances over at the couch that Bucky had commandeered, Steve has one of Bucky’s hands held between his own, and Tony is completely leaning into his space, almost like he’s trying to keep Bucky there with his presence alone. Bucky’s shoulders are tense beneath his smile.
“Well,” Bruce says, glancing down, “not exactly.”
There’s a moment’s pause before Pepper speaks. “What do you mean, Bruce?”
Bruce’s smile is brilliant when he looks back up. “Betty and I,” he says. “We’re, well, she’s-”
“Congratulations,” Natasha interrupts, smiling back at Bruce. “When?”
“We just found out,” Bruce says, at the same time as Steve says, “Wait, are you guys having a baby?”
Bruce nods, and there’s a tiny moment of silence before Thor lets out a whoop and gives Bruce another full-contact hug. There’s a lot of congratulating, and when they settle back down, everyone is grinning.
Bruce clears his throat and looks at Bucky. “I don’t know what your arrangement is with the band,” he says carefully, “but I wanted to let you know that I’m not going to try to take the position back from you.”
Bucky tilts his head to the side, and it’s like a switch has been thrown. The mood is suddenly tense again. “You’ll be gone another year,” he says. “You’ll stay home with your wife while she’s pregnant, and then for a little while after. What then?”
“I’m not going to take the position back,” Bruce repeats. “I think – I think I’m done, you guys.”
“Done,” Steve echoes. “Done forever?”
“Never say never,” Bruce quips. “But for now, yeah, I’m done.” He shifts in his seat. “I mean, I’ve been gone for a year and a half, and I’ve acclimated to not being on stage. Not having all that pressure has helped me, I think. Now I’m looking at the next year out of the limelight, too, and by that point?” Bruce shrugs.
“Done,” Tony repeats, shaking his head briefly. “Man, I never thought I’d see the day.”
“I wish you luck,” Thor says, leaning forward to grab Bruce’s hand. “I’ve enjoyed working with you, and I hope that you achieve everything that you see fit to attempt in the future.”
“Uh,” Bruce says, “thanks, Thor.”
“Including baby things,” Clint jumps in. “Seriously, man, good luck with that.” He tries for a grin and thinks he mostly gets there. “And, y’know, good luck with whatever you’re going to be doing instead of playing with us. What’s your degree in?”
“Something crazy,” Tony puts in. “Quantum mechanics, right?”
“Nuclear physics and molecular biology,” Bruce corrects, rolling his eyes. “I’ll probably teach.”
“Oh, that’ll be good for the stress levels,” Bucky drawls. Clint shoots him a look, but there’s no malice in it. Bucky’s whole frame has relaxed back into the couch, and he and Steve and Tony are all leaning into each other, hands and legs twisted together. Bucky grins at Bruce. “I taught guitar to thirteen-year-olds for pocket cash while we were in college. Steve can tell you how enjoyable I found that.”
“Not enjoyable at all,” Steve says firmly. “Incidentally, I learned several new ways to swear while we were in college.”
Bruce smiles back at them. “Luckily for me, I’ve been accepted for a position teaching in the Graduate School of Physics at Columbia, so the people I’m teaching will want to be there.”
Clint whistles. “And they’ll be looking to get their money’s worth.”
“It helps,” Bruce agrees. “Anyway, I wanted to come out here and tell you guys in person.” He smiles briefly at Bucky. “And I wanted to make sure the new guy was fitting in okay. It looks like I can toss the ‘dealing with the crazy people’ note cards I wrote up on the plane.”
Everyone laughs. Bruce smirks and raises an eyebrow, and Clint is suddenly reminded that this is the man who prepared diligent note cards for every show, so he could tape the set list to the back of his guitar. Just in case, he’d always said. Clint can’t remember Bruce ever looking at the cards.
“Will you be in town long?” Phil asks, and Bruce shakes his head.
“I’m heading out in the morning,” he says almost apologetically. “Betty and I are meeting The General at the end of the week to break the news to him, and we need a little time to make sure we lay it out in the best possible way.”
Clint winces. He’d met Betty’s father once and only once, when the man had stopped backstage after a show to radiate disapproval at his son-in-law’s choice of career. Clint has always privately thought that half of Bruce’s anger issues could be traced back to General Ross.
Phil nods and continues. “Well, he ought to take your change in professions well,” he remarks.
Bruce just shrugs. “We shall see,” he says wryly, and Clint snorts.
“Well, we were going to practice a few things if you want to hang around and jam for a while,” he offers.
Bucky jumps in before Bruce can refuse. “Yeah, man, hang around for a bit. I was listening to some studio tapes the other day, and I was wondering why you changed the bridge on Up High and Down. I liked the original.”
Bruce perks up. “Yeah? I liked both of them, but we were working on that around the same time we were working on Stilted, and a lot is a lot, you know?”
“Got it,” Bucky says. “Still, if you’ve got a few hours to kill, I’d like to play with you.”
“Sure,” Bruce shrugs. “Give me fifteen minutes to call my wife, and I’ll meet you in the practice room.”
“You’re calling Betty?” Clint asks, standing to follow Bruce to the door. “Can I talk to her? I’ve got some suggestions for names for the baby.”
“We’re not naming it Clint.”
“Well, not if it’s a girl,” Clint says, grinning. “If it’s a girl, you can name her Frances.”
Bruce groans as Natasha laughs, and then they’re all making their way to the practice room, talking about what songs they want to run through and what they can skip for now. They get through the pieces that they agree on, and from there they just play. Clint convinces Bruce to play The Entertainer, and Thor joins in halfway through. By the end of the song, Bucky is singing harmony and Steve is doing something crazy with the bass. Tony is happily drumming away, and Clint closes his eyes and smiles as he belts out the lyrics.
Bruce leaves with a promise to email and send updates about Betty and the baby, and life goes back to normal.
Bucky and Pepper spend a furious three days in her office, talking contracts and deals and paperwork, and at the end of it, Bucky is a permanent member of The Avengers. There’s a moment of nostalgia that’s soon overwhelmed by the celebration – and by Fury’s smirk.
“Told you he’s what you needed,” Fury says smugly as Clint watches Tony and Bucky serenade an intensely blushing Steve from the karaoke stage. “He’s a good fit with the rest of you crazies.”
“You love us,” Clint replies automatically. Fury raises an eyebrow, and Clint amends himself. “Okay, you love Pepper, you like Phil, and you deal with the rest of us because we bring you customers. Still.”
Fury nods, but there’s a definite smile in his eyes as he sets a fresh beer in front of Clint. “Damn right.”
“Right,” Clint agrees, taking a sip of his beer and hiding his smirk in it when he notices Bucky and Tony trying to drag Steve up on the stage. “And on that note, I’m going to go save everyone from the tragedy that is Steve Rogers trying to sing.”
Fury laughs and nods, grabbing Clint’s beer and bringing it back below the bar. “I’ll just watch this until you get back.”
“Thank you, sir,” Clint says, throwing Fury a mock salute as he makes his way up to the stage.
“-but we love it when you sing,” Tony whines, thankfully far enough away from the mic that Clint only hears it when he gets close enough. Bucky is just laughing as he tugs at Steve’s arm, trying to yank him onto the stage. Thor is watching from the front row, and Clint can’t tell if he’s cheering Tony and Bucky along or just enjoying himself.
Clint throws a look at Natasha, who shrugs as if to say well, what did you expect, really, and lends him absolutely no support at all as he grabs for his friends and tries to convince them all that they really, truly want to leave the stage.
Practice the next day is its usual bout of half-organized chaos; Steve and Thor decide they’re going to rewrite the acoustic version of Round Round while Clint, Tony, and Bucky work on the timing on the bridge of Clint’s new, as-yet-untitled song. Both tasks are more or less finished by the end of the day, but even so, Clint can’t quite shake the feeling that something is off.
“You coming?” Tony asks, sticking his head back into the practice room after they all decide that enough is enough for one day. Clint had heard Tony talking about going for dinner at a local Italian place, and from the sounds of it, Thor and Natasha were going, too. “You and Phil are always invited, man, I thought you knew that.”
“Nah,” Clint says, distractedly tapping his pencil against his notepad. “I’ve got a thing I’m doing.”
Tony snorts. “You and your thing have fun,” he drawls, and he just laughs and leaves when Clint flips him off.
It’s not that he doesn’t like change, Clint thinks when Tony’s footsteps have faded. He’s fine with things changing in general; it’s when changes make him think that he needs to change other things that he gets testy.
Clint’s minds drifts to the false bottom in his sock drawer, to the plain black box tucked into the corner, behind his passport and social security card and emergency cash. He can picture it if he closes his eyes: smooth platinum band, mostly flat with rounded edges. It’s nothing showy or fancy, but Clint had known when he started looking for something to give to Phil that he’d prefer something understated.
Clint has been telling himself that he has a plan for giving Phil the ring for months now, but when he thinks about it, his plan is pretty much wing it. It could use a little finesse, he decides, but he’s not quite sure how to go about that.
“What’s with that face?” Phil asks, and Clint jumps and spins. Phil smiles but thankfully doesn’t laugh.
“Thinking,” Clint says, tapping his pencil against his notepad again. Phil shakes his head and sighs, mock frustrated.
“Supper now,” Phil says, “thinking later.”
“There’s a plan,” Clint agrees, standing and tucking his things into his pocket. He’ll think about it later.
There’s a steady stream of traffic going in and out of Phil’s office over the next week or so. Clint recognizes as many faces as he doesn’t; for the most part, they’re clerks for record labels. Part of Phil’s job is to deal with those people, to get them the demo tapes that they all want but never listen to, so it’s not weird, not exactly.
“There’s a lot of them,” Clint comments over his red beans and rice. “I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that kid from Warner every day this week.”
“Peter wants an internship,” Phil says dryly. “I keep telling him no, but he’s rather persistent.”
“Do it,” Clint advises. “You can dump the rest of the clerks on him and free up some time for lunch breaks.”
Phil rolls his eyes and doesn’t answer.
The stream of people doesn’t slow, but it does change; Peter brings a woman in a business suit with him a few days later, and Phil knocks on the door to the practice room that afternoon. Clint tilts his head at Phil. “What’s up?”
“You’ve got an audition of sorts,” Phil says without preamble. “Wanda Maximoff from Warner is coming tomorrow morning.”
There’s a moment of absolute stillness before Steve asks, “Warner as in Warner Music Group?”
“Yes,” Phil confirms. “I sent her a demo of that song you’ve been working on, and we’ve been corresponding ever since.”
“Um,” Tony says, “Warner Music Group?”
Phil sighs, but there’s a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “No, Tony, Warner Middle School. Ms. Maximoff is the principal there.”
“Consider your sarcasm duly noted and ignored,” Tony says cheerily. “This is – this is awesome. Isn’t this awesome?”
“Awesome,” Bucky confirms, grinning widely. “Maximoff wouldn’t be getting involved if the label wasn’t seriously interested.” He laughs, a little disbelieving. “This could really be it, guys.”
“This is excellent,” Thor beams. “I assume she will want to hear the song that you gave her, of course. What else should we play for her?”
The rest of the afternoon passes with hammering out what they’re going to play and practicing the set. Clint is feeling pretty good about things by the time Wanda Maximoff strolls in the next morning.
“Good morning,” she greets, sitting in a chair in the practice room. “I want to put you all at ease here, as unlikely as that is to happen. I have heard a great deal of your music over the years and have always liked it well enough, but the latest demo tape that Mr. Coulson sent had something special on it.” She tilts her chin. “I’ll hear whatever you have prepared, of course, but I would like to request that song in particular.”
Clint nods. “We had planned on it,” he says, and Maximoff smiles.
“Excellent, “she says, leaning back in her chair. “Pretend I’m not here.” Bucky snorts indelicately, and Maximoff grins and waves her hand. “You know what I mean. Get to it.”
Clint takes a breath, turns to Tony, and nods, and they’re off.
Forty-five minutes later, Maximoff is nodding her head with narrowed eyes as they finish the acoustic version of Round Round. “Impressive,” she says thoughtfully. “You took some risks with some of those songs, but I’d say that they paid off rather well.”
Clint doesn’t want to hold his breath, but he can tell the rest of the band isn’t much better off as Maximoff stands and walks towards them, offering a hand. “My people will be in touch with your people,” she says with a laugh. She makes her way around the band, shaking everyone’s hand, before walking out the door.
Tony barely waits for the sound of Maximoff’s heels to fade before bursting into speech. “That went well, right? I mean, she didn’t look like she hated us, and that didn’t sound like I’m-laughing-at-you. Right?”
“Tony,” Steve says, grabbing him by the arm. “It went fine.”
“We’ll know for sure soon, anyway,” Bucky says, staring down the hallway.
“Indeed we will,” Thor agrees. “I would suggest breaking for lunch now, unless anyone has something they need to address right away. It would be good to settle our nerves a bit before continuing.”
“Agreed,” Phil says from his place near the door. Clint jumps and spins. “I expect we won’t hear from her for a few days at the very least. It might be longer, depending on several factors.”
“Not helping,” Clint groans, already heading for the door.
“I’m just preparing you for the possibility-”
“Prepare me for lunch,” Clint directs, guiding Phil out the door. “That’s all I need right now.”
It’s not that Clint is keeping track, but he doesn’t see Peter-the-intern around all that much over the next few days. He tries not to let it get to him. He’s pretty sure that he fails at this, but he doesn’t bring it up, and Phil doesn’t, either.
Phil knocks on the door to the practice room nine days later. His face gives absolutely nothing away, but he’s holding an envelope in his hand, and when he holds it up, the band goes completely silent.
“So this is from Wanda Maximoff at Warner,” Phil says, and Clint feels physically sick at the neutral tone of his voice. Phil lets the silence hang for a moment before taking a breath. “You’re going to need an actual agent, you guys. Now that you’re big time, I can’t be agent and manager all rolled into one.”
“Wait,” Clint says after a few seconds of stunned silence. “Do you mean-”
Phil’s face cracks into the biggest smile that Clint has ever seen there as he walks in and hands the letter to Clint. “Congratulations, Avengers. You’re signed.”
“Holy shit!” Tony whoops, grabbing Bucky and pulling him into a sloppy kiss. He’s laughing as he pulls away. “Oh my God, guys, this is awesome!”
“This is wonderful,” Thor beams, reaching out to manhandle Steve into a full-body hug. “When do we sign the contract?”
“Maximoff is sending her lawyers over tomorrow,” Phil says as Clint reads the letter again. “Pepper will go over the terms. She’ll undoubtedly have a few changes, so it’ll probably be another week, given the back-and-forth.”
“This is great,” Steve says, grinning. “Hey, guys, I’m going to go call Bruce and let him know.”
“Clint?” Phil asks. Clint has been rereading the letter since Phil had handed it to him. “Are you okay over there?”
Clint looks up and laughs. “I’m just not sure what to say here.”
“That’s a first,” Phil says dryly, brushing his fingers against Clint’s hand as he tugs the letter away. “Share with the rest of the class, okay?”
“We’re totally framing this,” Bucky says as he and Tony read over the letter. “Phil can hang it in his office.”
“I don’t think-” Phil starts, but Thor cuts him off with a laugh.
“Grant us this one,” he says, and Clint can see Phil smiling at Thor.
“Phil,” Clint says, and when Phil turns around, he’s still got that smile on his face. Clint swallows past the sudden awkward lump in his throat and tries to smile back. “Can I, uh. In the other room?”
Phil snorts and follows him out of the changing room. “Eloquent,” he quips when Clint leads him into one of the offices and shuts the door. “I’m assuming you’re not going to tell me you’re leaving the band, right?”
“What?” Clint asks, frowning. “No, of course not.”
“Good,” Phil replies, still smiling. It’s smaller now, a little softer, more happy than it is amused. “What’s on your mind?”
“I just,” Clint says, and suddenly he’s not sure he can get the words out, not sure how to say much of anything at all. He swallows hard, does it again, and sticks his hands in the pockets of his jacket. His right hand closes around the box that he’s been carrying since his bout of thinking, and before he can talk himself out of it, Clint pulls the box out and tosses it to Phil.
He turns and walks out the door before Phil can get it open.
Phil walks out of the office a few minutes later. Clint hasn’t made it far; he’s leaning against the wall beside the door, curled slightly forward and staring at the floor. Phil doesn’t hesitate before reaching out and tapping the edge of the box against the back of Clint’s head. “You realize this means I can make all the ‘in richer or poorer’ jokes that I want, right?”
Clint looks up at that, and Phil still has that gentle, even smile on his face. He’s also got the ring on his finger, and Clint can’t help the smile that breaks across his face at the sight of it. “I think you’re entitled, yeah,” he replies, straightening up and reaching for Phil’s left hand. He brushes his thumb across the top of the ring before tugging Phil in. “You sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” Phil says, looking like he’s only just resisting the urge to roll his eyes. “I’ve been sure about you for a long time, Clint.”
“Yeah,” Clint breathes out, “same here.”
Chapter 5: Encore
The crowd isn’t silent; crowds never really are. They’re quiet, though, a bated sort of tension running through them as the band stills on the stage. Thor has his hands poised perfectly over the keyboard; Bucky and Steve are angled towards each other on either side of Tony’s drum set. Clint is standing by the lead mic, and he taps his foot against the stage as the lights come on, counting out the beat for Windswept. Tony comes in a measure later, and Clint closes his eyes and smiles as the band explodes into sound around him.
The crowd noise rises to a roar as the band hits the last chord of the intro and holds it, and Clint takes a breath and starts to sing.