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A Comforting Presence

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Before:

They go for shawarma after the battle. But they’re all too exhausted, the high of adrenaline so completely depleted from their veins that it takes a grumpy look from Agent Romanoff and a barked order from Stark for the waiting staff to take their order.

There are some murmurs, but in the end, they decide to order everything and as much of it as possible. The help are only too pleased to serve the city’s heroes and so Steve had his first bite of Middle Eastern food. It tastes amazing (he never imagined so much flavour and spices in one bite) and he would have had more but he’s so tired that he can’t finish his and ends up falling asleep in his chair.

Later, he’s roused awake by someone shifting his body over, lifting him up and dragging him to the car. Steve groans a little, prompting a chuckle from behind (Agent Romanoff), a teasing remark (“Look at our tired momma bear,” says Stark) and Thor (“The great captain has earned his rest!”)

Steve groggily opens his eyes just as Clint sets him in the backseat and murmurs, “Thank you, Hawkeye... you’re a good guy...”

Barton, he thinks, gives an amused smile. “Thanks Captain, but you’re a better man than me.” He remarks bitterly.

At this point, Steve hasn’t had much interaction with Agent Clint Barton. He knows that the man is dependable, a great archer and excellent at reconnaissance. Barton appears to be rather stoic, save for when he is near Agent Romanoff, and then his demeanor softens. But he is distant.  He was originally put under Loki’s spell but recovered thanks to Agent Romanoff. Steve looks more closely and can see the fatigue written on the man’s face, the self-guilt that seems to weigh him down.

Agent Coulsen and Barton knew each other, Steve realizes... and now Barton feels the weight of his actions (actions that he can’t be blamed for, but he still feels guilty for nonetheless) since the battle is over. An image flashes before Steve’s eyes, of Bucky, falling down into the snowy mountains and Steve being unable (so helpless) to reach him.

He’s been so busy trying to soldier on in this new world that he’s forgotten how to truly look at the people around him. It makes him feel so ashamed to let his own conflicts cloud his thinking, especially when he recalls the things he said to Stark before Loki escaped, things that he had no right to say.

“No,” he replies, though it comes out as a sleepy moan, “No, you’re better. Honest... And if you ever need anything... any help... just come by my place... I’ll listen.”

There’s a lengthy pause, but Steve misses it as he drifts off in his sleep. He doesn’t hear Barton’s answer but he hopes that the archer will consider it, or at least, confide in someone else.

-

Now:

With a smile for the first time in days, Steve sets down his duffle bag and observes his new apartment. It is spacious, much larger than the rooms that he and Bucky used to room in together. The living room is open and spacious with windows lining from the top to bottom, showing the large view of New York City and the waters beyond. To the left is the kitchen and circular dining room table, separated from the living area only by a small counter wall.

Steve has two rooms, one he intends to use for his art supplies and sketching, the other as a guest room (though he doubts anyone will ever visit. He has no one close anymore.) He’s more comfortable with the idea of sleeping with his sketchbooks in his sleeping bag, staring out at the city in the night. Steve can’t quite get used to sleeping in a soft bed after spending years in the army resting on hard ground.

There is an area downstairs that also belongs to him, which has been set up as a gym and training area. Steve peeks in and sees that there are punching bags, weights and a closet for his uniform and shield already set up. There is even a large blackboard (just as he prefers it) for him to pin up tactics and different training scenarios. When he looks at the cupboards, he sees a toolbox that he can use when he wants to fix up his bike.

By the time Steve has investigated each inch of the house and determined that all Tony has done is buy him training equipment, he makes a mental note to thank the young billionaire later. He owes Tony so much for convincing Fury to let Steve live in the city, to get a job like a normal civilian (as an art teacher) to help him when there are no S.H.I.E.L.D. missions. Steve is glad that Tony took his warning not to shower him with charity (and ridiculous furniture) seriously.

They’ve formed a tentative and strange acquaintanceship (he’s not sure if Tony still dislikes him or not) since Steve apologized and they spent a few lunches together. It still embarrasses him that he once thought Tony to be a selfish person when he can see that the man is anything but.

Quietly, after Steve takes in the emptiness of his new living quarters, he goes downstairs to haul up the old couch and coffee table he acquired from an antique shop. He likes them because they look like they are from the Victorian era, out of time, just like he is. The sofa has interesting threaded and leafy patterns, like Celtic crosses linked in vines and the table is old chestnut, little etchings of angels and knights on the legs and edges.

He also brings up a bed for the guest room, finding a cheap one in one of the bargain stores that wasn’t too hard or soft. He buys plenty of sheets, soft silks and cotton of different brightly coloured patterns, anything to fight off the cold and the dark. He has fun piling them up on the new mattress and then in his artist’s room. Steve likes the idea of getting blots of paint on his blankets by accident. More colour to chase away the bad dreams.

Steve gets himself an old fridge too, since he finds them useful but he doesn’t bother getting a microwave (oddly enough they gives him the chills.) He is fine with cooking with the oven and stove (ones that work! His mother would have loved that!) There is also a kettle he manages to save from a thrift shop.

When he is done, he sets up boxes of candles, matches and emergency supplies (first aid kits, these perishable food items that he read up on) and then he brings up a box of ratty old books. They are filled with the ‘classics’ that he never got to finish—Tender is the Night, The Bell Tolls—and they’ll keep him company when his muse is absent.

Finally, Steve rests against the couch, looking at the empty walls and wondering how he will paint them when the nightmares keep him awake.

There is a package that he hadn’t noticed, sitting on the coffee table, and when Steve looks to the window, he sees that it is open.

Slowly he picks it up and peels off the paper, like it will shatter if he isn’t careful.

A brand new sketchbook, along with a tin box of charcoal and sketching pencils greet him. There is a note on the first page and it makes him grin.

Enjoy your new place, stars and stripes. Just do me a favour and get better furniture, I feel like I stepped into my grandfather’s place!

It isn’t signed, but Steve already knows who it is.

-

The next month is quiet. There aren’t many missions, none involving saving the world. Steve takes his bike out every morning for a ride, finding it peaceful and surreal, to stare at all the new signs and neon lights, wondering how fast the world can change in a blink of an eye. Sometimes he still expects to wake up but then he sees the moving advertisements for plastic surgeries or explosive films that don’t make sense to him and he knows that this is the world today.

He trains at the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters after his morning rides, to get updates about the newest threats. Sometimes Agent Romanoff is there if she is finished with her latest assignment (“Call me Natasha”) and they spar. She is very skilled and beats Steve in more cunning ways than he could ever come up with.

Then he goes to the community college where he teaches lessons to senior citizens--how to draw still-lifes and human figures. It’s peaceful and familiar to him, another way he can zone out and pretend that nothing has changed. Helps him pretend that he isn’t obsolete, isn’t entirely useless in this time.

When he goes home, he trains more or he bakes until he gets sick of eating cinnamon rolls and has to give them to the men’s missions. Then he paints. He has already covered all the walls of the house. The living room has more extensions of the city, only it’s Brooklyn during his youth. The broken alleys, the trolleys and dames with their long skirts and men with their suits taking them to dance.

The kitchen is the ocean, littered with shells and fish that don’t exist, fish with fins as transparent as light or jellyfish with bodies like feathers. There are birds too, swimming in the currents as if they have gills, while more of the angel fish flip upwards as if they have wings. The kitchen is for his mother, who always wanted to live by the sea. His mother, who he paints in the clouds, with wings of her own.

He makes the dining area an aura of bright colours, like the aurora borealis and sunrises overlapping together. In between the dancing lines of light, he puts in tear drops of navy blue and black, warring with the luminescence.

His hallways are fields of poppies, dressing the green grass and rows of crosses. He writes down every name he remembers in the war, every sergeant, every agent, every woman and man who gave their lives. They are the petals of the flowers, bleeding on the marble grave markers.

The training area has images of broken buildings and explosions. There is a gaping hole in the sky, filled in with the stars and nebulas of space, flashing in bright warmth. A beam of light rushes down to the crumpled Stark Tower, where Loki stands looking down at the streets with eyes half mad in despair and triumph. He paints the other avengers as he remembers them.

The roads are littered with raining cards, cards with a familiar blue costumed figure on them, stained with blood. If one squints, they can see a silhouette in the backdrop of smoke and sky, reaching out towards the avengers. They can see that he is smiling.

Natasha is brilliant with her red hair, driving one of the Chitauri vehicles while shooting down at the enemy. Her face is blank but it is her eyes that tell her story, wild and desperate. Below is Hawkeye, shooting down any of the enemy that dare to come near his comrades, in particular Agent Romanoff. The Hulk rushes and jumps from building to building, carrying people in his free arm, as if they are fragile glass figurines. Thor is on Stark Tower, a floor below Loki, summoning lighting and thunder when it seems all he wants to do is bring a hand up to his brother.

Then there is Iron Man, chasing a nuclear missile, brighter than all of them despite the stains and rust spreading from his heart to the rest of his armour, reaching up to the picture of space in the sky.

And at the bottom of the mural, hidden in the corners, is a crumpled and cracked shield.

Steve fills the guestroom with images of the forest, strong and healthy. The leaves have words etched on them, words that don’t make sense (star, shell, hand, lotion) and words that do (fear, belief, doubt, failure.) They’re trees of blue and orange, like autumn and wonderland mixed together. He doesn’t have many trees yet, but he will add more.

His room, his artist’s room, is painted with wings. He puts in black wings, grey wings, black wings and brown. He paints until he has nowhere else to paint but the ceilings.

All the ceilings are filled with constellations, and he puts in the names and figures of his fallen comrades, his Avengers, in the stars.

And when he falls asleep, he can’t feel the tears running down his cheeks anymore, only a great emptiness.

-

He wakes to the sound of loud banging and is immediately up, reaching for his shield and ready to aim it at the nearest enemy. It takes him a moment to realize that he is about to attack his easel and that his blankets are still wrapped snugly around him and that there is paint stuck on his cheek and in his hair.

There is someone knocking at his door.

Steve gathers up his checkered quilt and another dog patterned sheet around his shoulders. He’s tired and not really thinking when he stumbles to the hallway and turns his door knob.

What greets him is a bloodied Agent Barton, who has his eyebrow raised in amusement at Steve’s disheveled state.

“...Is this a bad time?” Barton grunts, holding his side that is dark with crimson.

Before Steve can answer, before the situation can catch up to his brain, Barton topples over.

-

Steve immediately places the unconscious assassin in the guest room and pulls out a medical kit from under the bed. He methodically rips off Barton’s shirt and rushes to the bathroom to get a basin of water. Barton is groaning and shivering from the cold. Instinctively Steve puts a hand on his comrade’s arm, rubbing soothing circles in the same way he remembers his mother used to, when he was ill.

“It’s going to sting,” Steve warns, and he presses a wet cloth against the wound.

Barton howls, nearly kicking Steve in the head, but Steve is able to evade it. He continues murmuring calming sounds, petting Barton’s arm and makes sure to clear the injury thoroughly. In a haze, he numbly notes how serious it is (a few bullet wounds, nothing too deep, he just removed them all) and doesn’t realize he is speaking out loud until he sees Barton nodding along with his observations.

“We should call Fury,” He mutters, reaching for his phone.

But Barton grabs his wrists and shakes his head ‘no.’

“I’m not calling that bastard. I don’t trust him. Just, just stitch it up, captain.”

“No, I can’t, I’m not qualified—” But he remembers doing just the same for his fellow Howlers during the war, when there was no chance of a medic rushing in through the gunfire.

Barton forces him to look at his eyes and says slowly, “I trust you.”

They are only three words, but they are his greatest weakness. He can’t refuse this request and he gives a short nod.

The needle is steady in his hands, but his heart is not.

By the end of the hour, Steve is shaking on the floor, and Barton is sleeping peacefully on the bed, bandages hiding his injuries.

-

He washes off the blood and puts the medical kit away. He feels like he is a bystander, watching his body move by itself in clinical patterns. Steve hovers by Barton’s side for a bit longer, changes the bandages hourly and puts a wet cloth on the man’s forehead. Then he wanders into the kitchen and starts making breakfast, making a light soup for his patient and decides to bake bread.

It helps him forget for a while, helps him not to ask the questions (Why are you here? Why didn’t you call S.H.I.E.L.D.? Are you compromised? Are you alright?) But he keeps his promise and does not contact anyone. He does make sure to lock the doors and windows, keeps his shield with him in case.

The eggs are almost done and he has checked the oven. Just as he is pulling the bread from its pan, someone speaks behind him, “Interesting place you got here, Captain” and he nearly hits Barton in the head with the bread pan.

Barton is fast for an injured man and escapes unscathed. In fact, he has a mild smirk on his face, “Whoa there. Sorry for sneaking up on you.”

Steve couldn’t care less about that. “You should be resting, in bed, Barton. Go back to your room. I’ll bring you breakfast.”

“It’s Clint. And I’m fine with dining here with you,” He shrugs.

“You’re injured. You were shot.”

“And I’m feeling perfectly fine now, thanks to you. Now, could we sit down and try some of that soup you have on?”

It’s the strangest morning he has ever had. After a contest of wills (involving a lot of glaring from himself and amused smirks from Clint) Steve relents, telling Clint to inform him if anything should bother his wound.

They settle into a peaceful silence, with Clint closing his eyes appreciatively over ‘damn good food’ and Steve only humming in response. It’s strange that they aren’t awkward around each other when it’s the first time in weeks that he has seen Clint since they’d seen Loki and Thor home.

“What happened?” Steve asked when he finishes his plate.

Clint shrugs, grabbing a third helping of eggs and some of the cinnamon bread.

“Mission.”

“...Right. And why didn’t you want to go to Fury again?”

Another shrug. “He’s a bastard.”

Steve senses that there is more to this, but decides not to pry. It’s not his place.

“Well... you can stay as long as you need to. I’ll do my best to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. off your back. Do you want to inform Agent Romanoff of where you are...?”

The archer looks up, as if he is surprised by Steve’s courtesy and maybe he is. “No,” he says quickly. “Don’t tell her.”

He nods, “Alright,” and gathers up the plates.

Clint sits up and takes them from Steve, “No, I’ll take care of it. Least I could do. And Steve?”

“Huh?” He blinks, for its the first time that the assassin has called him by his first name.

“Thanks, man.”

-

Surprisingly, Steve is alright with leaving Clint in his apartment once he demands that the archer call him if there’s any emergency. He goes on his bike ride and trains at headquarters, noting Natasha’s absence. Then he goes to teach his three classes and rushes back to the apartment to check on his guest.

There are groceries sitting in the dining room, he is surprised and pleased to note. This means he won’t have to go out into the noisy supermarkets tomorrow (and he has an aversion to crowds these days.) Steve checks the guest room but Clint isn’t there, then he wanders downstairs and sees the archer staring at the mural decorating the training room.

His breath leaves him.

Clint is standing by the section of wall with the raining bloodied cards, where the silhouette watches the painted avengers with careful and proud eyes. The archer’s mouth is in a tight line and Steve thinks that if he touches him, the archer might shatter into broken tears.

Steve moves nervously beside him, unsure of what to say (I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken liberties, I can paint it over if you want—but he really doesn’t want to—and I know you knew him, treasured him, it’s not your fault—)

But Clint surprises him, by throwing one arm around Steve and murmuring, “Thank you.”

-

From there, Clint takes a hammock and sets it up in the training room, sleeping under the watchful eyes of the painting.

“I like high places,” he tells Steve, when he argues that Clint should rest in a proper bed, “or do you want me to complain about how you sleep on the floor? Yes, I do know about that.” Steve doesn’t argue after that.

It continues like that for two more weeks. Steve will cook meals and come home to paint, while Clint trains and watches Steve work. Sometimes they’ll play some card games and Clint will laugh when Steve tells him some war stories. The dark lines under the archer's eyes vanish then, and he looks years younger. The groceries continue to show up on the table along with notes with suggestions for paintings and meals.

Clint buys an old radio and sets it up in the gym. “I like the music,” he shrugs. “I play the cello, you know.” And so when Steve paints, Clint brings in his old cello or puts on the music. It fills the silence between them and yet they don’t really need too many words to understand each other.

Steve isn’t sure what Clint is running away from, but he hopes that he’s found some peace here, even if he leaves when his wounds close up.

-

“So Fury is pretty pissed at me and is convinced that I’m hiding Barton in my closet back at the mansion, or something,” Tony says when Steve finally figures out how to open his cell phone to receive the call.

“Oh,” Steve mumbles, as he is walking out of the community college, partially because it’s strange for the billionaire to call him... ever, when he sends random text messages that Steve can never find out how to reply to. “...I see.”

“As if I’d kidnap Legolas. He’s not nearly as good looking as my man Bruce or as attractive as Pepper or, wait, never mind, I’ll stop talking now,” Tony mutters. “Anyways, point being, do you have any idea where Barton is? Fury is seriously on my ass about this and I hate to see the reaction of Barton’s girlfriend when she gets back from god knows where. Maybe another assassin mating ground.”

“Huh,” says Steve, deciding to play the ignorance card. “I have no idea what you just said.”

“Don’t play stupid with me, honey. Are you shacking up with Barton? Because, darling, I don’t think the Black Widow will be pleased, unless you’re having a threesome, oh my god, you are, aren’t you and you didn’t even invite me and Pep over, that’s it, this relationship is over—”

Tony!” Steve stammers, turning completely red, “Tony. Stop. There are people around here!” He whispers furiously into the phone when he notices an elderly couple staring at him oddly.

“I bet they tie you up, don’t they? Because you’re the innocent one, and they probably make you scream for it and—”

“Okay, okay, stop, please,” he’s going to turn into a tomato at this rate, “just, can you keep a secret?”

Tony immediately quiets and is gleeful, “If it’s to piss off Fury, I couldn’t be more pleased.”

“...Right. Well. Barton was injured on a mission of some sort, so he’s been staying at my apartment for a while. He doesn’t want anyone to know. So can you...?”

“Distract our papa bear by being as obscene as possible? Of course I can! Who do you think I am?” Tony snorts. “Consider it done, cap.”

“I... Thanks Tony. I really appreciate it.”

“Hey, if you’re hiding Barton, then you must have a good reason, right? Anyways, I’ll call you later. I think Bruce blew up something in one of the labs, Pepper is not happy right now...”

Tony hangs up and Steve doesn’t notice until one of his students asks him the tune, that he has been humming one of Tony’s annoying hard metal songs on the way to the parking lot.

-

“They didn’t tell me that Phil was dead,” is what Steve hears when he looks at the door, noticing that Clint is hovering at the entrance to the artist’s room. “Not until then we had to stop Loki, and even then, I couldn’t really think about it until we were done fighting.”

Steve drops the paintbrush from the easel and Clint takes it as a sign to come in. The archer sits next to Steve in the mountain of blankets, taking in the traces of feathers on the walls.

“...I didn’t know that... I’m so sorry,” he says, though he knows that the words mean nothing. Not really.

“I went on several missions. I just didn’t want to come back to S.H.I.E.L.D. and I keep seeing him, everywhere I go. My new handler is that chick Maria Hill. She’s a cold one, but she’s not him. They keep telling me to get over it, but I can’t... he’s always there, no matter where I go and... and you know what, Captain?”

“...What?”

“Fury was using us, the whole time, using Phil and his so-called death. I found out when I snuck through Hill’s papers... Phil is alive.”

He freezes. “No, that’s not possible... Fury said...”

He lied to us, Steve,” Clint snarls. “Phil is alive but he won’t wake up. In some sort of coma and when I found out during the mission I got so distracted that I was shot by the enemy. I couldn’t stand having S.H.I.E.L.D. patch me up, fuck, they own my living quarters and Nat's, so I went to you... and now you know.”

It’s cold, so cold that Steve thinks that he might be frozen again. But he’s not, the ice is far away and yet it hovers on the edges of his mind...

“...Well, captain?” Barton asks with a hollow smile, “Are you going to tell Fury where I am? Go on as his usual boy scout?”

“No,” says Steve. “You can stay. You can both stay, as long as you want. I won’t let Fury use us as he likes.”

Clint stills, “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, we should find Phil and bring him here. Set up a sick room. I don’t care what Fury says. Phil is one of us, an Avenger. And we’ll take care of him.”

It’s crazy, Steve knows it is. But he’s always done the crazy thing, no matter what the odds. It’s why he got beaten up every day of his youth. Why he almost got his hands chopped off by the dealers who tried to take advantage of his mother. Why he flew a plane into the ocean to save the ones he loved.

But when Clint grins at him, he thinks that he’s probably found people just as crazy as he is

“So, what’s the plan, cap?”

-

Before:

The cards feel like coals, burning in his hands. But he can’t let go of them, can’t stop staring at the red stains on the figures there.

He spots Barton, staring at the empty locker where Coulson used to leave his things. Romanoff is standing by him, a quiet presence. Steve looks at the cards again and then back at Barton’s stern face, one that refuses to show the cracks that despair has given.

Then he’s standing up, handing the cards to Barton and mumbling, “These were his.”

Barton looks at him with surprised eyes.

Steve tries to smile, but stops when it realizes how painful it feels.

“I think he’d want you to have them.”

-

Now:

After they go over plans to free Phil and set up the proper medical supplies for him, he sees something sitting on the coffee table, a frame of some sort.

The Captain America cards are there, still dotted with blood, but encased in glass like they’re something precious.

Steve makes himself look away.

“Alright,” he says, “When do you want to leave?”

“As soon as possible,” Clint replies. “He can’t stay there any longer.”