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Dream of Caramel: or, A Recipe for Disaster

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It won’t do
To dream of caramel
To think of cinnamon
And long for you

By pretty much any yardstick you might choose, the measurable progress in Bucky Barnes since he came back with Steve Rogers was huge. The dead-eyed, trip-wired assassin is, for the most part, gone, replaced by a loose-limbed, sweet, quiet guy who mostly likes to chill with his new friends. Clint Barton isn’t entirely sure why he’s at the top of said friends list, but Barnes seems to like hanging out with him, either at Avengers Tower or Clint’s place in Brooklyn, despite the creeping hipsterism in what were his old stomping grounds. Even the idiot dudes with their bespoke artisanal beards and the chicks with their insipid baggy knit caps and vintage frocks don’t seem to bother him much, whereas Clint mostly wants to shoot them with exploding arrows. The only comment Bucky’s ever made about the changes to his neighborhood was, “What the fuck is with all the cupcakes and the tattoos?”

Cap stuck with his friend when he was at his stabbiest, and all of them have helped, too, but it’s mostly on Barnes, on the fact that he’s an amazingly resilient guy who’s come out the other side of a pretty spectacular hell to be a good bro. Quiet and weird, sometimes, almost disturbingly so, but still a pretty good guy. So, yeah, they’ve gotten to know each other, and they hang out or do things, and it’s cool. Clint likes it.

But none of that explains why right now Clint’s pants are literally on fire and Barnes is pitching an entire five-pound bag of pastry flour straight at Clint’s crotch with his metal arm. Carmina Burana plays ominously in his head as he holds his hands up to try to stop Barnes in the wind-up.

“JARVIS, fire suppression now!” Clint shouts, just as the bag of flour explodes against his junk. The fire briefly flares up before it’s hit with magenta foam coming from panels in the ceiling and underneath the countertop.

He’s covered in flour and foam and pain slowly marches through his groin like some tiny little army in hobnailed boots, while Bucky stands there staring at him in horror and confusion. “I thought...” Bucky says, his eyes as big and round as silver dollars.

“Kitchen fires, man,” Clint tries to explain through gasping breaths. “Sometimes flour can make it worse, not put it out.” He flicks some of the foam off and collapses on the floor. He’s really rethinking this whole cooking with Bucky thing now. Clint moans.

AW, TESTICLES.

 

~~~~

What did explain why Clint’s pants had caught fire was, in retrospect, the kind of thing that really only happens to him, at least if you believe Kate Bishop. And probably Bobbi. Maybe Natasha, too. But it starts innocently enough, really--Bucky is still kind of getting comfortable with the tower, and the two of them do have a lot in common, what with the whole marksmanship thing and working in shadows and palling around with Avengers even when there aren’t threats to the world. Barnes doesn’t have an Avengers ID, but he’s pretty much an honorary member now and he shows up for duty with Steve when he’s needed.

Still, he’s got a lot of downtime, and when Clint’s got downtime too they get together, go to the range or work out or play video games or catch up on media. Clint’s still pretty old school himself, so he doesn’t mind Barnes using his self-education process to bring Clint up to speed as well. Stark keeps offering to update all Clint’s media equipment, but he doesn’t see the point; when they need to watch a movie in hi-def or play video games they just head to the communal floor in the tower. Even though he doesn’t live there, he could if he wanted to; he’s got a floor and access to everything in the building.

The food’s better at the tower, too, because Steve and Bucky order in or go out nearly every day, and some of the others have private chefs (well, Stark does, Clint’s never bothered to check with anyone else). The only thing Cap and Bucky seem to make for themselves is breakfast; everything else comes from the nearby deli or whatever restaurant they’re in the mood for. Barnes says Steve could cook just fine if he were so inclined, but he refuses to, like this is one of those things about modern life and having lots of money and free time he’s going to mine for all it’s worth because it’s Not The Damn Depression or The War anymore and he doesn’t fucking have to if he doesn’t fucking want to. Clint can identify with that.

And if he times it right, he can almost always get free sandwiches and free dinners, because they almost always invite him to eat with them. One night after dinner Steve had to go out to a public gala or something, the kind of thing that struck terror in the hearts of both him and Bucky, and they’d been clearing the table when Clint had turned around to see Bucky leaning against the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest, his face that frowny-sad, Café Grumpy logo face he got from time to time--Clint had bought Bucky both a t-shirt and a mug, because how could he not?--staring at the plates and the leftover food.

UH-OH. THIS COULD BE BAD.

“I never had time to cook much,” Bucky says. “Working two jobs back before the war when we were on our own.” The corner of his mouth twitches. Sometimes things go south really fast when Bucky starts remembering things like that; most of the time it’s just wistful, but every once in a while there are tears and a breakdown and they have to call Cap, and Clint has a feeling this could be one of those times. All Clint’s ever had was a basic Steve Rogers bro-hug and that was pretty warming, so the ones he gives to Bucky when he’s in a breakdown phase must be astoundingly restorative.

Bucky sighs dramatically. Clint wipes his hands on a towel and waits. It’s always best to just wait, since he doesn’t really coax easily and tends to mumble if you try, and even though Clint turns his hearing aids all the way up, he can’t hear when Barnes does that. “He shouldn’t be living like this.”

Like...how? In a luxury Park Avenue building with an entire floor for an apartment and seventy years of back pay plus interest and investments? With an artificial intelligence butler and your best friend from a hundred years ago back in your life? Clint eyebrows him and holds his hands out in a weak gesture.

“Eating fucking takeout every day. Like he’s some kind of--vagabond.” That isn’t a word you hear every day in casual conversation. It probably isn’t the word Bucky wants, but he has a kind of noun aphasia, there are parts of his brain still trying to catch up with the rest of him. He just says strange things, but most of the time you can figure it out if you listen for context. The first time Stark had teased him about that, Banner had almost Hulked out on him. That had been unnecessarily tense, so absolutely no one makes fun of Bucky about anything anymore, except Steve, and there’s something between the two of them the rest of the team can only guess at. Sometimes Steve’ll say the most jaw-dropping, appalling things to Bucky, and then the two of them laugh and laugh--it’s a side of Steve they had never seen before Barnes came to live with him, and it’s reshaped the picture of him they’d created and it makes Bucky seem somewhat less fragile and a lot less scary.

Bucky kind of collapses onto a chair and folds in on himself. Is he doubled over from despair, or is he injured? “He deserves better. He deserves to have someone cook nice meals for him and take care of him.” Oh, okay, Clint thinks. Doting on him. That was something Barnes did for Rogers before the war, if he recalls correctly. Clint shifts nervously from foot to foot. Eventually Bucky raises his head and looks at him. “He’s been taking care of me for so long. I should take care of him.”

It’s sort of sweet. Beats killing people for Steve and leaving them on his doorstep, a lot more romantic, too.

“JARVIS, are there any cookbooks in the apartment?”

“No, Sergeant, I’m afraid I’ve never cataloged any that I’m aware of. Captain Rogers never seemed to have much use for them.”

He snorts. “Okay.” Then he frowns. “Well, I know a few things have changed since my day, but I can probably figure it out from the Internet.”

“If I may, sir,” JARVIS says, always so smooth, “I’ve noticed that your preferred learning style is a combination of immersive experience and reading about the topic at length. I’ll put together the appropriate tools to help you get started.”

That earns a smile. You didn’t have to be gay or bi to notice that Bucky is a really good-looking guy, and when he smiles, he’s drop-dead gorgeous. “Thanks, JARVIS,” Bucky says. “Good idea.” He fixes Clint with a conspiratorial look. Oh, man, that’s bad, he knows Bucky well enough by now to know that look. In the back of his head, he hears Night on Bald Mountain start up. “We’ll start tomorrow.”

~~~~

 

By “start tomorrow,” Clint was pretty much figuring that Barnes would have been hunched over a laptop, looking at recipes online, in his own apartment. Not standing at Clint’s door expecting to be let in with a shopping list as long as his arm--figuratively, anyway, because the list is on his phone. Clint grabs the pot of coffee he’d just brewed and pours Bucky a cup before drinking his own.

“I want to pick up all the basics we'll need for a while, stock the pantry, and ingredients for colcannon. That was Stevie’s favorite when we were kids, and it’s as simple as you can get. It would be hard to fuck up ham, so I’ll get that, too, and that goes well with the colcannon. Plus I want to make him an apple cake.”

It’s always sort of cute when Barnes calls Cap “Stevie” and Cap calls him “Buck,” like they’re little kids again.

Clint scratches his belly. “What the hell is colcannon?”

“Irish peasant food, basically. Mashed potatoes with cabbage in ’em.”

It’s way too early for this. Clint’s stomach is doing somersaults. “That sounds disgusting. Why are you here?”

“I--I want company shopping.” Nobody talks about the meltdowns Bucky had the first few times he went into a supermarket, or the complete shutdown that took him days to recover from after he went to Chelsea Market. Nowadays Steve mostly takes him shopping at tiny bodegas and the Greenmarket on occasion. Clint thinks Barnes is solid enough that he could handle a Food Emporium or something bigger now, but if he doesn’t want to risk it, then Clint’s not gonna push him. That way lies pain. “I want to get a lot of stuff he likes. I want to surprise him.”

Clint makes more coffee. After a few minutes, while Barnes is finishing his second cup, Clint pauses. “Wait, what?”

“Just, you know, I want to surprise him,” Bucky says, loudly and slowly. Clint points at his ear to indicate that his hearing aids are in fact in.

If mashing potatoes and boiling cabbage is Bucky’s idea of a culinary surprise, that’s one of the saddest things Clint’s ever heard. A food surprise is a gorgeously decorated custom-made layer cake or maybe beignets that were just flown in from New Orleans, still warm and greasing up their paper sack. Illegal caviar or something. “Are you trying to make me cook with you?” He frowns, trying to follow Bucky’s line of reasoning here. “But I mean, seriously, why me?”

“You’re my only friend, outside of Steve,” Bucky says, matter-of-factly. That’s sweet, but even sadder than his idea of a food surprise sad. Certainly the rest of the team thinks they’re his friends? The idea that Clint’s anyone’s only real friend would make Kate snort, and he can almost hear it in his head. Along with some light jazz, like maybe Take Five.

There’s something in Bucky’s eyes, some kind of anxiety, that Clint hasn’t seen in a long time. Like this means more to him than just learning to cook something Cap loved as a kid. He really wishes Kate was here now, or Tasha, so they could tell him what to say. As good as Clint is at reading people in a work situation, this sort of personal thing is outside his wheelhouse. He’d gone out of his way to avoid creating relationships through most of his life and he’d never really had a good handle on the trust and intimacy you needed to have one, enough so that when there were problems with Bobbi, he didn’t have the capacity or wisdom to deal with them. Natasha had been an anomaly in most respects; everyone else, he’d pretty much failed. And Bucky had been in a lot worse shape than Tasha was when she came in. He likes to think he’s pretty familiar with people who’ve lost touch with their humanity, but Bucky isn’t exactly someone who can afford to have Clint fail him.

“Um. Okay. We could use my kitchen in the tower to cook? I have a floor, too, you know.” Maybe he just wants help helping Steve, maybe it’s like when the two of them were trying to learn how to use the media center on the communal floor. They should definitely avoid a repeat of that week’s mess. “That would maintain the element of surprise.” He’s very proud of himself for thinking of that, considering he’s not even remotely awake yet.

Bucky considers the idea. “Okay.” He gives Clint’s kitchen a disdainful glance, probably hoping his apartment in Stark’s building is nothing like this one. “Let’s get going,” he says, and tugs Clint in the direction of his bedroom to put on what Bucky calls grown-up clothes. For a guy who spent most of the last seven decades as a Popsicle, he’s a bit of a metrosexual. That’s one reason Clint likes this place he lives in, even if it is a little rough around the edges--no one cares what he wears, but at the tower there are always fans and paparazzi around, so he has to look more presentable when he’s off duty and not in his ops uniform. It’s made undercover work a hell of a lot more difficult, but Clint is pretty sure he wouldn’t trade Avenging for that, if he had to choose--that’d mean giving up this quasi-family he’s made here.

Cabbage stinks, Clint remembers, once they’ve finished the shopping excursion, set up the kitchen, and started cooking. They made the apple cake first because Bucky had the least amount of confidence in making it, but the lovely warm, autumnal smell of that is now subsumed under the putrid cabbage odor. The potatoes are bubbling away on the other burner and Clint’s cleaning up some of their mess, and they’re trading stories about places they’ve both been to (keeping well away from, of course, why they were there), drinking some nice beer. Cooking is kind of fun when you have company. Who knew?

Eventually Bucky checks with JARVIS to see if Steve’s home yet--he’s not, but is on his way--so he puts everything into containers to take it up to their floor. The noise from Clint’s stomach is epic. He makes Clint set the table--for three, yay--and then Steve comes home, immediately stopping inside the door, face frozen in a rictus of a half-smile and his eyes up and off to the side.

“What’s...happening...with his face?” Clint whispers to Bucky. He looks like the waxworks figure of Captain America at that creepy Madame Tussaud’s.

“It’s his figuring things out face. Give him a couple seconds.” They wait.

“Is that colcannon?” Steve asks. Bucky nods. “Wow. That brings back memories. Did you make it special for me?”

Clint is just about to open his mouth to brag up Bucky’s way with a whisk when Bucky blurts out, “I found a place that makes it!”

WHAT THE HELL.

Clint stares at him, open-mouthed, but Barnes seems to be as surprised by his response as Clint is. “And I asked them to make apple cake for dessert,” he adds in a mumble.

“Oh wow, Buck, that is just...so sweet. Thank you. I hadn’t really realized how much I missed this.” His eyes are kind of misty. Steve gets that way a lot about Bucky. “I’m gonna go wash up. Why don’t you crack us open some beers?” Clint downs the one he was working on really fast.

As soon as Steve is out of the room, Clint turns to Bucky. “What the hell, man?”

“I don’t know! I just didn’t want him to think I made it for him!”

Clint rolls his eyes. “Why the hell not? He’d be over the freakin’ moon about you cooking for him.”

“No, he wouldn’t. He fucking hated it when his ma or me fussed over him when he was little. I mean little little, not young. That’s why I was happy to let him do the cooking when we lived together, and the cleaning and the washing--because it was something he could do where no one questioned his limitations, where he was doing for us instead of us doing for him. He’d be offended. I don’t want to offend him after everything he’s done for me.”

Clint doesn’t even know what to make of that. Barnes couldn’t be more wrong, he can’t really see Steve with clear eyes, everything’s tinted by a complicated history, but Clint isn’t in any kind of position to argue with him about it. Steve lives to make Bucky happy. If taking care of Steve makes Bucky happy, then Steve would probably have a brain aneurysm from the sheer joy of it.

It doesn’t take an emotional genius to notice the two of them are always staring at each other like lovelorn idiots. Tasha had told him something after the whole Insight disaster, that Steve had consistently rejected her efforts to set him up with what she called “very compatible women.” He’d claimed it was hard to find someone with shared life experience.

“Don’t you dare tell him,” Barnes hisses, right as Steve comes back. Clint pulls out some beers from the fridge.

Turns out colcannon and ham is a pretty good meal. Clint had thought it would taste like dirty feet, but it reminds him of being a carny. And the apple cake is superb. Bucky seemed so comfortable in the kitchen; he liked measuring things out and prepping the ingredients, treating it with a focus that he showed in combat, and Clint supposed that made sense. While it was a simple meal, Clint knows people who can burn water, so he gives Bucky props for doing it--silently, though, because he values his kidneys.

Steve wants to clean up after the meal is done, but Bucky won’t hear of it, makes Clint take Steve to the living room and shoot the shit while Bucky putters around, putting everything away. Clint’s noticed they don’t always use the dishwasher, they seem to like doing dishes by hand together when they use any at all. Probably feels old-timey, familiar, even though they both love all the Technology Of The Future stuff they have.

When Barnes joins them in the living room, Steve’s gaze is so adoring that it almost makes Clint laugh. “Thanks again, Buck, for finding that and getting it for me. It brought back a lot of memories.”

They must have had such a rough life if Irish peasant food makes him this nostalgic. Steve once told him that he was poor even before the Depression and it seems so freaking sad that he has such incredibly fond memories of scraping together enough pennies for mashed potatoes and cabbage and a really basic cake. But they had each other, back then, and Steve had his mom, and Bucky’d had a family, and Clint supposes that was what mattered most. It makes him feel weirdly tender toward them both, knowing what they’ve been through, what they’ve overcome. He hopes that eventually Bucky will let Steve know how he feels, or Steve will let Bucky know, so they can go through the rest of this journey together instead of trying to spare the other one their emotions. Because if they don’t, Clint might have to murder them, tenderness or not.

When he’s leaving, Clint opens his mouth to say something to Bucky while Steve’s back is turned, but Bucky actually growls at him, low in his throat, teeth slightly bared. Okay, then. “My lips are sealed.”

~~~~

For a few weeks, Clint’s on a mission over in Singapore and Manila for the decidedly not dead Nick Fury. When he gets back, he heads over to the tower to check in with everyone, and Barnes texts him an invitation to dinner. Much to Clint’s surprise, Bucky is still using the kitchen on his floor and he greets him at Clint’s own door wearing a paisley apron, wooden spoon in hand. Clint sighs.

HOPELESS FUCKING IDIOTS.

They’d been roping up the side of a high-rise when he’d told Natasha about the whole dinner, and she’d laughed, that low throaty laugh he loved so much. “Now you see what I’m dealing with.”

“They’re morons,” Clint had said.

“Love makes fools of us all,” Tasha had said. Couldn’t argue with that.

“Well, I’ve done worse things than make myself the leader of Team Moron, I suppose.”

“I guess that means we’re both on the team, then, since I’m still working on Rogers. He just doesn’t get it.”

“Are you Red Leader and I’m Purple Leader?” He kind of liked that, actually. “Maybe we should make t-shirts: You could be on Team Moron. Ask me how.” At least he wouldn’t be in this alone.

The smell that greets Clint when he enters his apartment is--holy shit. Whatever Bucky is cooking, it’s gonna be good.

“It’s nothing much,” Barnes says as Clint lifts pot lids, checking everything out. “Just a poached sea bass in a citrus and herb sauce and some ginger-glazed carrots, bamboo-infused rice on the side.”

“Nothing much, sure,” Clint says.

“Here, you can try these appetizers.” Appetizers? He’s graduated to appetizers? Clint takes a deviled egg and pops the whole thing in his mouth. FUUUUCK. “Shit, that’s good. What is it? Bacon and...”

“Applewood-smoked bacon and a little brown sugar.” Clint wants to eat all of them right now and not save any for Steve. The yolk part has little swirly ridges; Bucky must have made them with a pastry bag. Wow, he is hard-core about this. “We had ’em in a restaurant a while ago when we were down visiting Peggy, and Steve loved them, so I thought I could re-create them for him.” Bucky slaps Clint’s hand when he tries to take one more; crap but that metal hand hurts.

“Why are you still pretending you’re not doing this for him? He would be ecstatic to know that you remembered he liked them.”

“I just--it’s easier this way.” Bucky looks miserable, so Clint leaves off asking how this could be easier for anyone--he’s making fancy meals down in Clint’s apartment, pretending they’re takeout. It’s the counter-definition of easy.

“Look, I don’t want to pry, I really don’t, but have you actually thought this out? How long you can keep up the pretense?” He sighs when Bucky goes into a thousand-yard stare. “What is the end game here?”

“There’s no end game. He’s my friend. I’m trying to make things nicer for him, that’s all.” Bucky doesn’t believe that any more than Clint does, but it’s clearly no use pursuing the topic.

“Tell me if this mousse is okay,” he says, and spoons out a portion of a little round caramely thing.

“Oh god,” Clint says. “It’s like an orgasm for my mouth.”

“Eucchh,” Bucky says sharply. “I did not need to hear that.” He shakes his head. “It’s three different mousses, caramel and pear and chocolate, but I had a lot of trouble with the chocolate, it kept wanting to seize. I had to beat it into submission.”

Just then, Natasha slips into the kitchen and grins. “Mmmm, smells divine in here. Can I help?” she asks Bucky. Clint’s glad to see her, because they didn’t get much time together on the op outside of actually working. As casual as their relationship is, he misses her when she’s not around, and she’s been such a rock for him since the whole Loki thing. And who knows, she might have more sway with the Team Moron starting lineup.

“I’ve made quadruple portions of everything, but I’m worried it’s still not enough,” Bucky says, chewing the inside of his lip.

“I promise to take modest portions,” Clint says as Nat pokes him with her finger and snorts. “Hey, I might not be a super enhanced whatever, but I’m an active guy.”

“You’re still not getting another deviled egg yet,” Bucky says.

“Can’t fault me for trying.” Though Bucky does pointedly hand one to Natasha. Her eyes roll back in her head when she eats it. “See? It’s not just me.”

She puts her hand on Bucky’s arm. “Steve would be thrilled to know you’re doing all this for him.” Her voice is totally neutral, her face a study of calm.

But he still shakes his head. “I don’t want him to think he’s being fussed over.”

Clint sighs heavily--like amazing food magically appearing every time Steve comes home won’t get him thinking that Bucky’s fussing or going out of his way for Steve. What happens on the days he doesn’t have appointments and appearances? What’s Barnes going to do then?

There’s a knock on the door and then Sam Wilson pops in, saying, “Hey guys, what’s up? JARVIS told me you were here in Clint’s place.”

CRAP DAMMIT, MORE PEOPLE TO SHARE THE DEVILED EGGS WITH.

Bucky is practically pinwheeling his arms, his face twisted with panic. “Is Steve with you? I wasn’t expecting you! Where’s Steve?”

“Geez, calm down, man. Steve’s not with me. I just got here on the train, I haven’t seen him in days. Hey, J, where’s Steve?” he says, looking at the ceiling.

“Captain Rogers is currently near Lincoln Center.” Bucky mutters darkly at that.

“What is going on?” Sam asks. Clint’s never seen him annoyed like this. It’s refreshing. “What is this?”

“Bucky’s been cooking for Steve and pretending it’s from fancy restaurants because he doesn’t think Steve should know.” Clint shrugs as Tasha scowls. WHAT. I’M JUST BEING HONEST.

“Because Steve hates being fussed over, and James knows Steve best,” Tasha says, a warning in her voice as she narrows her eyes.

“That’s crazy, dude,” Sam says. Clint wants to high-five him, but he also wants to keep his balls. “Steve’d be over the freakin’ moon if you were doing nice things for him. It’s so sweet and domestic.”

Barnes’s lip curls back as he flips the paring knife in his hand around, and Clint doesn’t know about anyone else, but his heart rate shoots up. He’s about ninety-nine percent sure that Bucky wouldn’t hurt any of them, but he will not forget for a very long time the night JARVIS had alerted them all to an emergency in Steve’s place--thank god Clint had been staying with Nat and Sam had been in town. Bucky was actually trying to tear Steve’s throat out with his teeth by the time they’d rushed in to break it up, Steve having disarmed him of all the kitchen knives. Stark had finally gotten all of his suit on and pinned Barnes to the floor, bucking and flailing. He spat out “I’ll fucking kill you!” at Steve when Steve insisted that it was all right, Bucky wouldn’t hurt him any more. Steve had apparently woken up to find Bucky sleepwalking, and when he finally got through to him, steering him to bed, Bucky was convinced Steve was taking him back to Hydra. Although Steve said Bucky was fully aware of his surroundings then and everything would be okay, none of them felt good about leaving in case there was more mortal combat. Bucky was sobbing softly against Steve’s chest when they had all eventually left. There’d never been another incident quite as dramatic with Bucky and Steve again, fortunately--not that there hadn’t been incidents, but nothing where Bucky had clearly forgotten completely that Steve was the most important person in his life.

Now they are all watching the knife in Bucky’s hand with singular focus. UH-OH. THIS COULD BE BAD. Ride of the Valkyries is playing in Clint’s head.

“Whoa, whoa,” Sam says, using his careful counselor voice, “it’s okay, I’m just teasing, everything’s fine. If that’s how you want to play it, that’s cool with me. I didn’t understand how important this is to you.”

Bucky arches an eyebrow and sets the knife on the counter. “I’m not gonna hurt anyone, geez,” he mutters.

“But you can see why we’d be nervous with you flipping knives like that. We’re here to support you, Bucky. You know that.” Sam is always so good at this.

Bucky nods and starts fussing at the dinner, embarrassed. “I don’t know if I have enough food, but you can stay, Sam, Steve will be glad you’re here. Now get out, I have to box this up and take it upstairs.”

Sam drifts past Clint and whispers, “What is happening here,” in a slightly alarmed tone.

“Let us help,” Natasha says to Bucky, but he shoos her away and asks them to set the table in his place. As soon as they file out of Clint’s apartment, Natasha slaps Sam on the arm. “What is wrong with you?” she seethes. “You counsel people with PTSD, for Christ’s sake.” She glares at Clint again for good measure and makes a vaguely threatening gesture. Dammit, why does that turn him on?

“I didn’t know!” Sam shakes his head. “How was I supposed to know it would upset him? Come on. He’s gotta know that’s just stupid. How could he not?”

“Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest soldiers and tactical minds of this and the last century. I don’t think either one of them can rub two brain cells together when it comes to the other,” Clint says. It’s entirely possible his elective position as Purple Leader of Team Moron is wearing thin already. “They get these notions stuck in their heads and they can’t see reason. They’re convinced they’re not in love with each other.” He glances up at the ceiling and sighs.

Almost at the same time Bucky gets everything laid out on the table, Steve arrives in his Cap uniform, that tired smile on his face indicating he’s had a long day of being on, playing up his Capness. He’s thrilled that everyone is there, though, and goes to wash up while Sam opens the wine.

Dinner is nice, and there’s enough food after all, but of course the supersoldiers hog most of the appetizers. Maybe Clint could force Bucky to bribe him for his silence with a steady supply of those bacon and brown sugar deviled eggs, or the caramel-pear-chocolate mousses. As tipsy as the normal humans are getting over the evening, Clint is still sober enough to see the way Steve looks at Bucky. His face is almost incandescent. Once, when Clint had gone with Cap on a children’s hospital appearance, he’d seen something like that look, a kind of grace that radiated out of him. Steve was just such a decent, good guy and he wanted to make the world a better place for everyone, but especially so for Barnes. He’s so clearly, ardently in love with Bucky that it almost makes Clint’s teeth ache.

UGH NO MORONS ON PARADE WHY.

~~~~

 

“Baking is science, not art,” Bucky says, and hands Clint an itty-bitty blowtorch and a bunch of sandwiches wrapped in butcher paper--he knows now that his sandwiches can motivate Clint to do almost anything. “Which is why we get to play with fire.” AWESOME. Barnes knows the way to his heart.

“So, what do I do? Just set fire to the top?” Tonight’s dinner is a bigger affair than Barnes has ever cooked for, because not only are Sam and Natasha joining them again, but Tony and Pepper and Dr. Banner. Sometimes it’s hard to get the science kids out of the lab and the CEO out of the office without world-ending catastrophes.

“No, you don’t set fire to the top. You slowly move it around so the sugar caramelizes and burns enough to make a crackling crust. You don’t want to melt the custard and fruit underneath. Gently, like the trigger on a Colt Python .357, okay?” He sighs, like Clint’s the dumbest guy he’s ever met, and fixes the setting, shows him how. “Steve asked if this was a new tradition now,” Bucky says, whipping up the sauce for the vegetables while Clint finesses the torch. “Me ordering in and having dinner ready for him on the days he has to go out.”

FINALLY! LIGHT AT THE END OF TEAM MORON TUNNEL. I LOVE THE SMELL OF VICTORY IN THE MORNING.

“What did you say?”

“I told him it was no big deal. Gave us a chance to try different restaurants without having to go out and deal with people.”

Well, what do you even say to that? Clint wonders. Christ on a cracker.

“I know you guys think this is stupid. But I just want him to have nice things without feeling beholden to me.” Never let it be said that Clint Barton can’t understand some intense rationalization, but still.

“Nah, it’s just...I don’t think he’d ever feel beholden to you. I don’t think that’s even possible for him. You didn’t see his face, Barnes, when he got the alert that you’d been spotted. I don’t think there’s a single thing you could do to make him feel anything but happy you’re here.” He thinks for a minute. “Well, maybe use little kids as target practice, but other than that...”

Because of their conversation, Clint hasn’t been paying attention to the itty-bitty blowtorch, and hasn’t realized he’s holding it a little too close to the towel, which is right at the edge of the counter and right in front of his crotch. Since he’s wiped up some spilled booze--a nice, smoky, peaty Scotch that Bucky’s using in the dessert--the towel flares up like a candle and next thing he knows, there’s a small conflagration on the fly of his jeans. It isn’t big, but there’s something about seeing flames on his junk that momentarily puts him in a blind panic. When he looks up, Clint sees Bucky winding the metal arm up to throw an entire unopened bag of pastry flour at him and he suddenly regrets that he never had children before this.

Thank god for JARVIS, is all he can think when he’s sitting on the floor covered in magenta goo, the tiny army of pain marching in their heavy boots across his groin. If he could just catch his breath, that’d be great. Then he could check to see if there’s anything left of his manhood. Bucky has slumped down to the floor, too, his hands over his mouth and his eyes so big and round Clint’s afraid they might pop out of his head. He’s shuddering and wheezing as Clint flicks goo off his hand, reaching over to touch Bucky’s shoulder. “It’s okay, man, it’s okay. I’m all right.” He checks the counter. “And look, none of it got onto the tarts.” But it doesn’t seem to de-escalate Bucky’s terror. “Are you okay?” He reminds Bucky to breathe, take sniper breaths, deep down in his lungs, slow exhale. Focus on the breath. It takes some time, but gradually the shudders subside.

“What was it?” Clint asks gently, cleaning himself off with a new towel.

“I thought...I thought I would be punished.”

God. God it just makes Clint’s blood boil when he thinks about what those fuckers did to the guy. After the throat-tearing incident, Steve had shared the in-depth files that he and Natasha had dug up in a Hydra facility in what was formerly East Berlin, boxes and boxes of the worst things Clint had ever seen--and he’d seen some pretty bad things in his years as an assassin and SHIELD operative. He’d blown people’s heads completely off their necks, he’d watched invasive mental torture techniques dreamed up by some serious sadists, he’d heard Natasha’s stories about growing up in the Red Room. He’d been tortured pretty extensively himself. Yet he still couldn’t believe those fucking files. Steve wanted everyone to understand why Bucky could break like that and try to kill him, just what level of torture and dehumanization they were dealing with.

And Clint knows there’s nothing for it, that all any of them can really do is keep trying to wipe Hydra off the map, but it’s such a helpless rage when you see the lasting effects. Steve had told him once about what Bucky was like after the first time Hydra had tortured him, and knowing this is a logarithmic scale worse just makes Clint want to kill everyone. He thinks about how Rumlow and Rollins were involved with it, how they contributed to this horrific violation, guys Clint had worked with and admired. Christ, he’d run ops with Rumlow for years and trusted him to have his six like almost no one else--well, Rollins was always a twitchy fucker on his best day, but Rumlow, he was a buddy.

At least Clint can be Bucky’s buddy as a nice fat fuck you to all those slimy, world-domination Nazi traitor sons of bitches he’d trusted, and if that means playing along with this ridiculous cooking scheme, then so be it.

“Welp, let’s put everything aside while we clean this up. We’re okay on time, I think,” Clint says, and offers Bucky a hand up. There’s a knock on the door and they both look at one another, before JARVIS says, “Sir’s lab assistants wish to help you clean up.” Clint says, “Thanks, JARVIS, that was really nice of you to let them know we needed them,” and it gets a smile out of Bucky.

“Always my pleasure, Agent Barton,” he replies, as Clint opens the door to find Dum-E and U trilling and beeping. When they come into the kitchen, Bucky holds his metal arm out and they do some kind of weird little scan of it and bump fists, or what passes for fists, and Bucky wiggles his fingers at them. It’s so cute you could vomit.

“I don’t know what it is, but they like the arm,” Bucky says, and shifts things around so there’s room to clean up. “I think they might be communicating with it or something. Stark says they recognize a kindred spirit.” Clint watches him for a while, trying to asses whether this is one of those “call Cap” times or not; he still seems kind of shaky. He could take Bucky to their quarters, concoct a cover story for what happened, and let Steve ease Barnes through it. Though Clint will certainly need to change his pants first.

But after a while, they get back in the groove, and before long they’re ready to take everything upstairs. Nat’s briefed Pepper on Team Moron Theatre, so Clint assumes that Pepper’s briefed Tony and Bruce in turn. By the time Steve gets home, cocktail hour’s in full swing and Bucky’s got Sam helping him put the finishing touches on the table. After a bit of small talk, they sit down to eat--Clint’s got to hand it to Bucky, he does an amazing job of plating the fake delivery meals, everything’s just so, sauces carefully drizzled, edges wiped. Conversation is nice, Clint always enjoys hearing about the world Steve and Bucky grew up in, but Steve seems to be in a strangely melancholy mood, especially when they’re discussing modern times vs. the olden days.

“I think it’s just that...I don’t know, like there’s hardly anything positive left in the world, I guess,” Steve says, his eyes roaming toward the window as if he sees his old life outside, just out of reach.

“But there are good things these days, you have to admit that. You could, say, marry a guy if you were so inclined, and people are a lot freer to be on the outside who they feel they are on the inside,” Clint points out, and Sam mouths “pathetic, bro” at him. Can’t blame a guy for trying.

“I know things weren’t perfect; especially for people on the margins of society. It’s not that I believe life was a bowl of cherries or anything back then, but somehow it felt like what I wanted to fight for was clearer. Now we’re waging war on people and destroying their countries and we’re not even there--we can launch missiles from thousands of miles away, we can send drones to bomb them out of existence.”

“Ah, ah, careful, Steverino, you’re getting dangerously close to offending me,” Tony says.

Pepper waves her hand. “You were out of the business when he woke up, I hardly think he’s referring to you.”

“Relax, Tony, for once I’m not morally indignant about your legacy.”

Bucky says, “He was always like that, though. Everything pissed him off, even when we were little kids he’d rail about the injustices in the world and why were people acting like things were fine and ignoring what was in front of their faces. I mean, he was the only kid in the world who could hold forth on the anti-union violence that had happened when we were still only babies or tell you what everyone was fighting about in the Spanish civil war. He got a job at a newsagent’s I think mostly so that he could read the papers, not so he could make some money.” He smiles indulgently at Steve. “He was Captain America long before that was even a jingoistic phrase in Senator Brandt’s head.”

“But what about you?” Pepper asks. “If you were so close...”

“Hell, I didn’t have the time to be indignant. I had two little sisters and a brother and had to help my mama out with them when I wasn’t in school or playing sports or working. Whereas Steve was abed so often, he had time to read all that stuff and listen to the radio programs and get all worked up.”

Steve gives him a look, like he’s just about to tell everyone some deep dark secret of Barnes’s, but Bruce cuts in with, “You know, if you’re interested, there are some good movies that came out while you were gone, about a lot of those things you were talking about. There’s a really good one about the Matewan massacre, and you’d probably love Chinatown, because the heart of the story is about the manipulation of water rights in California in the thirties. And you have to see Norma Rae. Have you read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia? I think it was only published here after you’d crashed, after the war.”

“That’d be fun, I’d love to see the movies,” Steve says, and Clint doesn’t really know him well enough to judge whether he’s pretending that sounds fun or he really does want to watch movies about people getting their heads bashed in for unionization or water rights. Natasha smiles at Clint across the table, probably thinking the same thing. “And I have read Orwell’s book, it was one of the first ones I picked up when I came back.”

“I have a lot of other things I can loan you or recommend,” Bruce says, a little sheepish because everyone’s looking at them around the table.

“I don’t know,” Pepper says, pushing the last bite into her mouth. “Maybe Steve has had enough of political stuff lately? We could suggest entertainment that lets him forget himself sometimes, too.”

Bucky makes such a grateful face that Clint’s momentarily afraid there could be tears.

“Good point,” Sam murmurs.

Pretty soon they’re all throwing out film and book titles to Steve right and left, as if he didn’t already have enough trouble catching up, and laughing, and drinking more of Tony’s really expensive wine. It’s just...warm and friendly and like having a family, Clint thinks. When it’s time for dessert, Clint is absurdly smug about having participated in making it, at great personal peril. Bucky makes Clint help him carry the tart things out and pour the port that Sam brought for after dinner, like he’s Bucky’s head waiter or something. Steve’s watching Clint when he turns around, and points a very j’accuse finger in his direction. “Buck, are those your pants?”

“Mine were a bit of a fire hazard,” Clint says and Sam cuts in quickly with, “Mm-mm, doesn’t this look good.” Steve’s giving Clint the one-eyed squint.

There’s total silence around the table as they take their first bites of the tarts, and since Clint’s eyes are rolling up in his head, he assumes everyone else’s are, too. No one speaks until they’ve scraped away the last of the sweet perfection, the silence broken only when Tony says distractedly, “You have really outdone yourself with this, Buckminster.”

Everybody freezes. Bucky looks like he’s planning to launch his fork straight into Stark’s forehead, his eyebrows pulled together, lips in a straight line. Thank god Steve still has his eyes closed, rolling the last bite around in his mouth with his O face on. Natasha reaches across the table and slaps Tony upside the head. Before he can shout, “What!” Pepper claps a hand over his mouth and violently shakes her head.

Finally Steve opens his eyes. “Outdone himself with what?” Steve asks, interest piqued that there’s some new story about Bucky he hasn’t heard yet. They are a bunch of very abnormal people trying desperately to act normal.

“With picking amazing places to get catering from,” Pepper says smoothly. That right there is probably the most amazing save Clint’s ever seen in a noncombat, nonsports situation. He would bow and scrape if it wouldn’t call attention. “Honestly, even I could not get this kind of meal from that chef, and god knows I’ve tried.” She smiles beatifically at Steve.

“Yeah, what am I saying,” Tony says, attempting shame. “I didn’t mean to make it sound like Bucky cooked this or anything. I meant that he picked the place to order in from.” Every word is punctuated with an exaggerated eye roll and Pepper mouths “Tony, stop!” at him. Tasha keeps making these little warning lunges in her chair. Fortunately for Stark’s short-term health outlook, Steve is completely oblivious to everything, because he’s staring at Bucky like he just found the winning lottery numbers in his pocket on laundry day.

“Bucky sure does know how to pick ’em,” Steve agrees, nodding. “He’s always been the best at taking care of me.” He beams across the table.

Clint glances at Sam and Natasha, and they share a look--this has got to stop.

HELL OF A PARTY, TEAM MORON. HELL. OF. A. PARTY.

~~~~

 

Unfortunately, no one gets a chance to figure out how to fix it, because next thing they know, they’re all suited up to answer a call. A combination of Hydra and AIM that are calling themselves RAID--seriously, Radically Advanced Ideas in Destruction? are they fucking kidding?--have taken out half of a town in northwestern England. They’re wildly outnumbered, now that it’s just the core Avengers team and Thor’s dealing with his own messes on Asgard or the realms or something, but at least they have Hulk and the Winter Soldier on their side in this one. Steve’s always worried when Bucky faces off with any arm of Hydra, fearing that someone will deliver some kind of deactivation code or trigger phrase, but Bucky just scoffs at him and grimly sets off to watch Steve’s back.

Clint’s had a sense for a while that Bucky doesn’t like this very much anymore. That it’s too close to murdering people again, and it’s a concern Clint understands all too well. There’s a time--or two or five hundred--in every assassin’s career where the realization of what you do corrodes your soul, even if you think you’re doing it for the right reasons. And Barnes didn’t have the luxury of reflection before; now that he does, a lot of his life is about redemption, or squaring things. Sometimes Clint wonders if that comes from wanting to do right by Steve or if it’s Bucky’s intrinsic nature; he thinks he knows the answer, but the thing about Steve is that he makes you dread disappointing him, and he and Barnes have some weirdly complicated history. But Bucky does what’s needed, because he always had with Steve before, and that hasn’t changed despite what Hydra did to him.

Once they think they’ve got the fighting contained and the sort of robotic tank that’s rampaged through the town is a smoking heap, they round up prisoners, but all hell breaks loose off in the distance. Bucky raises his spotting scope and makes a sound deep in his throat, choked off, panicked. “They’ve got Steve.” How is that even possible? Clint snaps his fingers and Bucky passes the scope to him just as Natasha runs up, breathless, to tell them that Steve’s been taken and that he’s unconscious.

“What happened?” Bucky grinds out.

“I don’t know!” she snaps, obviously thinking it’s her fault. “One of them, they were wearing a biohazard suit, stepped in front of Steve, I didn’t even see where he came from. He sprayed some kind of--I don’t know, weird yellow mist at Cap and he dropped his shield, wobbled forward. They grabbed him and shoved him in the passenger side of that SUV.” The vehicle’s booking it across an open field.

Bucky says, sounding deader than Clint’s ever heard him, “He has a Skorpion pressed up under the hinge of Steve’s jaw. I used to carry one of those myself. There’s almost no recoil.”

Stark is up above the SUV. “I got him. He can’t drive and keep an eye on Cap, he’s distracted.”

“No,” Clint says, “if you hit him with a repulsor blast it’ll probably cause him to pull the trigger. Cap’s unconscious, we can’t risk that.”

“Can you get us up on that roof?” Bucky asks Stark and points toward the building behind them. He turns to Clint. “Spot me?”

“Of course.” Wilson and Stark pick them up and drop them on the roof, where Bucky whips out the bipod legs on his rifle and steadies it in front of him on the low wall. It’s been an awfully long time since Clint has felt this tense, watching that car drive away and none of them have any idea what the hell was in that mist, if Steve’s even still going to be alive in a little while. Apparently they are never going to stop trying to take him apart so they can make more.

“Bucky.”

“I know.”

“You’re gonna have to hit him in the brain stem. He even twitches...”

“Yeah.”

“What are you zeroed at?” Clint says, looking through the scope.

“Fifty degrees. Wind?”

“Full value. Three o’clock.”

“MOA?”

“Two mils.” Bucky makes his adjustments, inhales and exhales, squeezes the trigger. The glass in the back window explodes, the bad guy’s head bursts onto the windshield like a Gallaghered watermelon and slams forward, and the gun under Steve’s chin drops. The SUV veers out of control, but fortunately Stark is right there and grabs it by the back bumper, slowing it to a stop as the rest of the team races forward. Bucky yanks the rifle back and snaps the legs up.

“I think I just came in my suit,” Tony says, and Clint makes a note to have Tasha make him pay for that later. “That was some durn fine shootin’, Barnes.”

“Copy that,” Sam says. When Clint glances at Bucky, he’s slumped against the half-wall of the building, looking like he’s going to vomit. Clint slides down next to him.

“He’s okay. He’s gonna be okay.”

Bucky’s shaking like he has a fever, his eyes are wet. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

For a second Clint wonders if he’s talking about cookery theatre, but then he realizes Bucky means going on missions. “That’s okay. You don’t have to. They’ll understand.”

“It’s just...it’s too much like before. I don’t want to kill people. I’m tired of hurting people, even if they’re trying to hurt us. I don’t want to fight anymore.”

“We understand. We do.” There is way too much commotion on the comms while they try to help Steve, so Clint yanks his earpiece out.

“He’ll...I’ve been doing this for him for years. He won’t--”

“I ever tell you about what happened when I got my brain back?”

“Yeeeaahh,” Bucky says with skepticism. Clint should be affronted, his parables are pretty great, he thinks.

“I got up to splash some water on my face and wash off, and Steve comes into the med bay. He asks Nat if she can fly one of the planes, and I step out of the washroom and say I can. So far all he knows of me is that I’ve led Loki’s little army onto the helicarrier and blown it up and killed half the crew. He looks at me for a heartbeat, then flicks his eyes over to Nat, who he’s known only slightly longer than about twenty-four hours and has basically no idea whether he can trust her or not. She gives him this tiny little head-nod, and he says, ‘Then suit up.’ I mean, just like that, I’m flying him into a war zone, and then we’re fighting and he completely trusts me to have his back and not stick an arrow in his eye socket.”

“He can be a lousy judge of character,” Bucky says, and gives Clint a half smile.

“Yeah. And you know what? If I’d been in DC when the shit went down with Hydra? They’d have sent me out to kill him. And then they’d have had three operatives working against them.” Clint grins.

“There a moral to this story?” Bucky runs a hand through his hair, still shaking.

“Just that, you know as well as anyone could what I found out that day, that Steve Rogers doesn’t judge people on shit like that. He judges them by their actions and their character. Whether you choose to kill people or not because he’s got this perpetual grudge match with Hydra is not gonna matter to him. He knows who you are. He’s known you his whole life, and he believed in you when there wasn’t another human being on the planet who would.”

Bucky sighs, like he hears the words, but he can’t quite accept them. “He’ll be so disappointed.”

Were these two always like this? TEAM MORON: ABANDON ALL HOPE. Clint puts his earpiece back in.

“No, he won’t. Christ, Barnes, can’t you see how much everyone just wants you to find a way to be happy here? If you can’t do this anymore, there’s not a person on this team who’s gonna make you try. Least of all Steve.”

“Least of all Steve what?” Rogers’s voice comes over comms, and then suddenly Tony’s dropping him on the roof next to Clint and Bucky.

“Steve!” Bucky shouts, springing to his feet. “Are you okay?” He pats Steve, touches his face, the way a parent whose toddler had just run off would do. “God, are you all right? Don’t do shit like that to me.”

“Yeah, I’m just...I don’t know what happened. They sprayed something in my face and it was like my whole body and mind just went numb. I could hardly even breathe and everything was sort of blurry for a few minutes. Felt like I was having an asthma attack again!” He groans. “My head is fucking killing me. Whatever that was had a nasty kick.”

“They must not have any idea how to adjust for your physiology,” Stark says, and Banner grunts. When he’s normal size again, the two of them can figure out what the mist was, but right now, Clint’s worried about Bucky.

“What were you talking about?” Steve asks Bucky, before adding, “that really was amazing shooting.”

“He’s afraid you’re going to hate him if he doesn’t want to do this anymore. Avengering.”

“You don’t want to be on the team?”

Bucky stares at the ground, his metal hand clenching and unclenching. “Oh, Bucky, no,” is all Steve says, and puts his arms around him. “You want to stop, you stop. No one is ever going to make you do anything you don’t want to, ever again. And if they wanna try, they’ll have to go through me.”

Bucky’s voice is completely muffled by Steve’s shoulders. “I can still help when you really need me, and I’ll train with you, but I just...I’m so tired of this.”

Steve presses his forehead to Bucky’s, and he repeats, “You want to stop, you stop. I’m with you one hundred percent.”

YEAH, THEY’RE TOTALLY NOT IN LOVE.

On the way back, Bucky keeps to himself off in a corner of the jet, pretending to sleep, though Clint knows he’s faking it. He needs to process everything, Clint figures, and fortunately Steve seems to respect that.

Unfortunately, however, Clint is having another one of those conversations where he’s stuck playing yenta. Steve’s fussing about Bucky’s mental state, worried that this event freaked him out too much and he’s been so squirrelly lately. Clint’s tried before to very subtly point out that maybe Bucky cares a bit too much about what Steve thinks of him for reasons. Natasha has vacated the co-pilot’s seat to Steve, since he seems to want to talk to Clint, despite Clint’s best efforts.

“I generally try never to know about people’s love lives. Or their lives. Or their feelings. Generally,” Clint says, though whenever he says that, people laugh at him. Kate once told him he had a soft, gooey heart under the hard candy shell.

“Then why are we talking about this?” Steve asks, ever the master of obtuseness. He wants to point out that Steve started it, but he doesn’t know how without sounding like he’s eight.

“Were you this stupid in the war?” Lately every time he talks to Steve, he hears Yakety Sax in his head. It definitely makes it more hilarious.

“Excuse me?”

“Were you this dumb about Agent, you know, Carter? Did you dick around about her, too, and long for her and believe she couldn’t love you back and oh the tragedy?”

“I don’t--that’s none of your business.” Steve narrows his eyes. “Why are you asking me this?”

“Because I can’t believe you can live with the guy day in and day out and not see that he’s madly in love with you, too.”

“But he’s straight. He’s the straightest guy I know--he was always with girls when we were growing up, he had more dates than he could manage. Girls literally fought each other over him, there was hair pulling and biting. And in the war he was the one guy I knew who always used up his condom rations for more than just his rifle--”

Clint holds his hand up. “No! I don’t need to know this!”

Steve gives him a scathing glare. “It’s not a euphemism. Fellas used their condom rations to cover their rifle barrels so they wouldn’t get wet. You have to know that, you were in the military.” He stares at the controls, lost in thought. “But Bucky was always with gals, as soon as we were standing down in London, he’d be at the USO and dances and pubs. He used his rations, believe me. He’s not--homosexual.”

“There’s a lot of different -sexuals now, Cap.”

“Wait a minute. What do you mean in love with me, too? Are you saying he’s bisexual? I mean, it’s not for me to judge, but I just don’t think--”

“That’s an understatement.” Clint sighs. “The dude’s been in love with you for forever. It’s just now he can do something about it.”

“He’s not--why would he be in love with me?” Steve’s practically sputtering now, and his entire face and neck are an adorable shade of pink, the blue of his eyes more intense.

“Are you freaking blind?” Clint shoves his hands in his hair and pulls. Maybe they deserve each other. So he takes a different tack. “You know, after I got back to DC, I had a hard time figuring things out. You kind of blew up my life that day. I didn’t have a job, didn’t know where I was gonna get my next paycheck, didn’t have many friends and co-workers left anymore. What I did have was a lot of time on my hands, and even though I was sort of pissed off at you, I went to that exhibit at the Air & Space Museum. It was absolutely jammed, of course, with everything that happened, but I remember after a while feeling like I had a better handle on things, why they happened the way they happened. And I was glad that I hadn’t been around after all, because they would have ordered me to kill you.”

“Would you have?” Now Steve is smiling, though, so that’s good.

“You know the answer to that. You don’t need me to butter you up like a piece of toast.” They’re coming into New York airspace, so he focuses on the flight, but then he turns back to Steve. “The thing is, I wasn’t there to see what they did to you and to Tasha. Those events all felt very abstract in a way. It was easy for me to forget at that point how much Hydra had already taken from you and what they planned to take from all of us, because you stopped it before we had to find out. And I had no idea what the thing with Barnes meant. But at that exhibit, I went into the little room with the documentaries that play on a loop, you know that one?”

Steve nods, and Clint continues. “Every frame of film I saw...even I could see how you were looking at each other. You and Agent Carter looked at each other the same way. Just friends don’t look at each other that way.”

Cap doesn’t seem to know what to say about that. They’re quiet for a time, and Clint starts prepping for landing.

Steve says, seemingly confused, “How do you know about all this--his--sex stuff?” He’s pretty sure he can hear Sam cackling behind them.

SEX STUFF. WHAT.

“Sex stuff?” That’s what Steve’s taking away from this conversation, from Clint baring his soul?

Steve huffs. “Why are you talking about his sexuality? Is that the kind of--is that what you two talk about when you’re together?” What he really means is is that what you do when you’re together. Funny, he never thought of Cap as the jealous type.

“No, it’s not what we talk about. But sometimes we do talk about you.” Clint decides that’s as good a place to leave it as any, and anyway, he needs to focus on landing. Being on Team Moron is exhausting.

When they’re all filing out of the jet, Steve hovers until Clint gets up and throws his duffle over his shoulder. He can tell Steve wants to ask him something, but Clint won’t give him the satisfaction of inviting the question. They’re walking down the ramp when Clint says over his shoulder, sliding his sunglasses on, “You know, most people don’t get a lot of second chances in life. Seems kinda sad that you’d squander one.” Steve freezes and stares at him, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.

GAME, SET, MATCH FOR TEAM MORON PURPLE LEADER. AW YEAH.

~~~~

 

True to his word, Barnes keeps his skills up and trains with Steve, and when Clint’s not doing not-really-but-sort-of-SHIELD stuff or out of the country, they get together to shoot or Clint gives Bucky lessons in using the bow. Naturally he takes to archery like a duck to water, but one day Steve decides he wants to join them and learn to shoot a bow too. You’d think a guy as graceful and balletic as Cap is when he fights could handle a bow, but you’d be wrong. For a little while Clint contemplates filming the whole thing and posting it on YouTube, creating a pool with the team for how long it’ll take to go viral, but he also kinda wants to keep what little semblance of a job he has now, and Fury would live up to his name.

While Clint teaches Steve the fundamentals, Bucky heckles from the sidelines; when they graduate to hitting moving targets, he yells, “Remember to throw the target up and away from your body this time,” making elaborate throwing gestures. Steve glares at him, slooowly raising his middle finger, and Clint really doesn’t want to know what that’s about.

Watching them in this environment is enjoyable. Nothing’s changed, as far as Clint can tell, because Bucky still hasn’t told Steve the truth about the culinary shenanigans and Steve still hasn’t done anything about what he heard on the plane, but they both seem relaxed in a different way since Bucky asked to quit the team. Like the air’s being let into their life, opening a window onto something new and fresh.

After they’re done with Steve’s archery lessons, he waves off lunch because he says he has appointments uptown. Clint really wants to go to the shawarma place that’s become a regular stop since the Battle of New York, he’s absolutely starving, but Bucky mumbles something about having too much cooking to do--Thor is in town with Jane Foster and Darcy Lewis. “I made a lot of stuff ahead of time, but I’ve got a million pounds of meat to cook and the sides, and I have to segment a ton of blood oranges for the honey panna cottas and shell the pistachios, and then--” Clint doesn’t think he’s actually talking to him anymore at that point, as Bucky mutters about chickens and plums and racks of lamb like he’s planning to take them into the alley and murder them with a double-tap to the back of the head.

“Okay, okay, no lunch.” Clint realizes he’s going to have to break down and actually ask Bucky what’s bugging him. “You haven’t given any more thought to telling Steve the truth? I thought you were going to.”

“It doesn’t matter now. I’ll tell him at some point, but...”

He rolls his eyes so hard they hurt. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Bucky twitches his head, shrugs, as if he doesn’t want to answer, then looks sadly off in the middle distance like he’s posing for an album cover and says, “Steve’s not going to ‘an appointment.’” Nothing else says they’ve embraced modern life like the way those two use air quotes. “He’s got a date.”

FLAG ON THE PLAY. ONE MORON IS OFFSIDES.

Why do these things only come up when none of his lady friends are around? “Wait. What?”

Bucky sighs. “A date. He’s been seeing that lawyer who used to live in his building before he moved to the tower, I saw it in his calendar. Bernie Rosenthal. Half the time when he’s gone and I’ve been cooking? It’s because he’s out with her, or with Peggy’s grandniece. He’s been seeing both of them. I don’t know if they know about each other or not. I mean, good for Stevie, I guess, even if it is a little weird. It was so hard for him to get gals back in the day, he was so shy with ’em. And he never got to have anything with Agent Carter, not really, because the jackass had to go and ditch a plane in the Arctic Circle.”

“Huh.” What is he supposed to say to that? It doesn’t sound right, but he can’t exactly tell Barnes he’s being a ninny and making it up. So he just lets Bucky talk about it as they shop, and then they devolve into sad silence. Clint texts Natasha and Sam while they’re in line, asking them to text Pepper. TEAM MORON SYSTEM FAILURE. SITUATION CRITICAL.

And they’re all there, waiting when they get back with the shopping. Since Bucky says this has to be a feast fit for an Asgardian king, they troop up to the big kitchen in the communal floor. “I knew this would come in handy someday,” Pepper says brightly. Bucky directs them in doing prep work for him, sending Sam and Tasha off to the balcony to fire up the grill for the figs and prosciutto and steaks; he sets Clint and Pepper on sauces and soup. Eventually Darcy joins them--she’s always a lot of fun, and Clint thinks she and Bucky should hit it off pretty well. Steve adores Darcy, says that despite how young she is, she’s an awful lot like the dames he lived with on the USO tour, and she kind of reminds Clint of a less-spoiled Kate.

While everyone’s stirring and chopping and grilling, Clint spills what Bucky told him about Steve dating. Darcy wrinkles her forehead and narrows her eyes. “Have all these ‘dates’ been in the afternoon and early evening like now, or am I missing something?”

Bucky’s studiously avoiding the conversation, stirring his sauce with Winter Soldiery intensity, hunched in on himself. But when he turns around to see them all watching him, he looks at Sam and says, “Afternoon and evening, yeah. Right?”

Sam holds his hands out. “I don’t know, man. I thought he was at meetings or doing his appearances. Interviews, shit like that. But yeah, I guess.”

“James, wouldn’t he want to, I don’t know, take them out at night once in a while?” Natasha asks, looking at Darcy and the two of them nod at each other. The ladies are on this, so much better than Clint is. “Has he ever gone out at night without you?” They all know the answer to that.

Pepper asks gently, “Who is this woman he’s dating?”

“Women,” Bucky says. “Plural. One of them is Peggy’s grandniece, Sharon Carter. One of the women Natasha tried to set him up with, remember? The other one, I think the one he’s been dating the longest, is Bernie Rosenthal. The lawyer.”

Pepper and Natasha burst out laughing, and the rest of them stop doing whatever they’re doing to stare helplessly at each other. “Oh, James, I’m sorry, I’m not laughing at you,” Pepper says, and Tasha cuts in with, “That’s the lawyer on your case!”

Bucky gets his Café Grumpy face on again.

“She’s heading up a team we put together to ensure no government can bring charges against or file for extradition of you, and you can get the back pay you’re owed and your discharge papers from the Army. Honorable discharge.” Pepper puts her hand on his shoulder. “We thought we’d handle it behind the scenes, to avoid triggering anything painful for you. Steve figured if he could avoid dragging you into it and get it done, that would be best, and it might be a nice surprise for you.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “I’ve seen my files, the film they took. I don’t need to be coddled.”

“I know, but--we just wanted it to be safe.” Pepper looks like she wants to hug him.

“Sharon’s part of the team, too--she’s liaising through her position in the CIA,” Natasha adds.

Bucky looks like he might pass out. He glances back and forth between Sam and Clint, like he thinks the ladies are in cahoots to pull the wool over his eyes. “No, man,” Sam says. “As far as I know, there’s no actual dating involved. Steve is dateless.”

“But I saw him with Sharon. At a restaurant. They looked--very intense.”

“Well, the dude’s still gotta eat when you’re not cooking for him,” Clint says. “And this whole situation is pretty intense. He’s worried for you.” He’s absolutely not going to ask if Bucky was stalking Steve.

“Is that a--is that going to happen? Is someone trying to make me--I thought being on the team would show--” Bucky crosses his arms over his chest. “Fury said I was good to go.”

“Oh no!” Pepper says. “No, I didn’t mean to worry you. There’s no action being taken, we just wanted to--well, it’s like building a big safety net around you. And Ms. Rosenthal always told Steve that she owed him one, so I put her together with some SI lawyers.” She rubs Bucky’s back. “We just want to make sure that you’re here with us for good, and no one’s ever going to hurt you again. Never to be lost again, to Steve or to us.”

Bucky opens his mouth but then Sam suddenly blurts, “Oh, shit!” as he stares at his phone. “Steve’s on his way.”

“What?” Bucky almost shouts.

Sam holds up his phone to show them the texts--first Steve says his meeting ended early, then he asks where they are, and then JARVIS says you’re all up on the communal floor. What’s going on? and last but certainly not least, Should be there in 5, whatever you’re doing save room 4 me, sent two minutes ago. “Shit!” they all shout in unison, kicking off a frenzy of activity as Bucky directs them to gather everything up as fast as they can. It never fails to freak Clint out when Barnes picks up things right off a flame with that metal hand. He knows that it doesn’t burn him--the guy deflects bullets with it--but it’s still just weird. Finally they’re out in the corridor with most of the dinner, running to the elevator.

WHEN IN DANGER, WHEN IN DOUBT, RUN IN CIRCLES, SCREAM AND SHOUT.

“Why are we doing this?” Pepper wails, attempting to run in her high heels carrying a full stockpot. Clint and Bucky had once agreed she’s got some of the best gams they’ve seen in a long time.

“I don’t know!” Natasha shouts in response. Flight of the Bumblebee is playing loudly in Clint’s head.

“This is cray!” Sam and Darcy shout at the same time. There is entirely too much shouting going on.

Barnes suddenly brakes at the elevator and shouts, “He’ll smell it!” He runs back toward the stairwell and they all switch directions to follow like a freaking school of fish. “No, wait,” Bucky says, “he takes the stairs sometimes!” They swarm back to the elevator again.

“JARVIS, lock down elevator cars two and three,” Clint says. “We can use car one,” he adds, running for it with a tray full of chickens, then skids to a stop. “Wait. No, JARVIS, tell Captain Rogers that I set something on fire on this floor. We’re dealing with the mop-up. Tell him we’ll meet him down at my place.”

“Oh, that’s a great idea!” Darcy says, and stops to high five him. “He’d totally believe that of you.” They all troop back to the kitchen, a bit more slowly this time, to reset everything and attempt to calm down.

“I have literally not eaten anything today in anticipation of this meal,” Clint confesses to Darcy, and she gives him a sympathetic pout. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

Barnes grimly focuses on his cooking, unaware that they are staring at each other.

“James, are you okay? We’ll go down and distract Steve while you finish up, if you want.” Pepper rubs his back again.

“Okay,” is all he says, barely audible.

OH NO. THIS LOOKS BAD.

When Steve and Sam first brought Bucky back from Ukraine, where they’d rescued him, he’d been like this--monosyllabic and drawn in on himself. Everyone was afraid of him coming to the tower, even Natasha, which had shocked Clint. One day she’d snarled at Bucky in Russian, “If you touch Steve the wrong way, I’ll kill you in your sleep.” Barnes had responded with his first full sentence since he’d been there, “Well, I can’t fucking sleep, so good luck with that.” Clint had known right then the kid would be okay eventually--but right now it’s as if he’s sliding back to that broken, wrecked guy, and Clint is definitely out of his league here about how to deal with it.

“Bucky, man, don’t you think this has gone on long enough?” Sam asks gently. “I love your cooking, I really do, and I don’t want to mess this up, whatever this is you’ve got going, but...it’s obviously making you miserable. It seems like you’re just working so hard and getting nothing out of it.”

He glares at the pots and pans as if they’re ganging up on him with the humans and he’s psychically warning them shut up, pots and pans, you traitors. “I’m not making myself miserable. I’m just cooking. It’s not a big deal.” He tucks his hands up under his armpits.

Darcy rolls her eyes and snorts. “Oh, if only that was true.”

Pepper and Sam and Natasha surround and pet Bucky. “We’re just worried about you.”

Bucky sighs. There’s about eighty years of baggage contained within that sigh. The kid looks so helpless. “I just want--I just want things to be nice for him.”

“Well, you know what?” Clint says. “We’d like things to be nice for you, too.”

Bucky nods as if he doesn’t quite believe that, but he allows them to keep petting him. Darcy flaps her arms and says, “Oh, for crap’s sake, come here,” and hugs him, while Barnes makes little flaily T. Rex arms before finally relenting and hugging her back.

Then he straightens and says, “Some of you go keep Steve busy, find Thor and Jane and get them down there. Some of you stay and help me finish this shit. God, I still have all the sides to do. And get Stark started on a cocktails menu so he can mix drinks and stay out of my hair.” Atta boy.

All things considered, dinner turns out spectacularly well. It truly is a feast, the amount of food is kind of staggering, and it makes Clint think that Bucky’s found his next calling in life--and maybe Clint will try to con the rest of the team into giving him classes at some sort of culinary school for Christmas or send him to France or something. He’s privileged to see the way people react to Bucky’s food, how sensual it all is, and he wishes Bucky could really understand what it is people are experiencing--and that it’s all because of his talent. He wishes that Bucky could see how much Steve gets into it, an aspect of modern life he’d never really appreciated before Bucky had come back to him and begun this whole drama. There might even be tears.

Clint turns back to the conversation he and Natasha were having with Jane and Thor, catching the last bit of Natasha’s story. “There was a terrible accident with Clint’s kyudo bow and a stack of hats, and my mantilla comb went flying, and then...kapow!” She makes an explosion motion with her hands and it’s the cutest thing Clint’s ever seen. He’d like to pull her into one of the side rooms up here and make out for a while.

Stark interrupts, bearing drinks. “Guys, guys, I have to tell you about what happened in the office today--” Natasha glares and Thor gives him a kind, patient smile, as if Tony’s self-absorption was sweet instead of infuriating. “Or we could talk about your thing!” he says, and Natasha continues her story. They smile at each other, and Clint drifts slowly over to where Bucky and Steve are talking to Bruce and Darcy and Colonel Rhodes.

“But he was always like that,” Bucky says, “he’d just sit around on what passed for a couch in our apartment, stuffing his face, food flying everywhere. I’d be picking up cabbage or green beans off the floor the whole time he was eating. When I griped about it to my family, they’d wave their hands, like, ‘Oh, you know those artists, they can just throw cabbage around.’ It drove me fuckin’ nuts.”

“You are absolutely making that up.” Steve fixes him with what Clint’s taken to thinking of as his trolling look. Man, if Cap’s fans only knew what kind of a shit he really was.

“You’re starting to believe your own press, Rogers, if you think you weren’t a little pain in the ass to live with.”

“Well, I won’t be throwing food around anymore, the stuff you’ve been getting is too good to waste. What restaurant catered this? It was fantastic. Or was it Pepper and Tony’s chef?” Steve gazes at Bucky with such a ridiculous amount of fondness he never catches the panic in Bucky’s eyes.

Clint steps in. “Hey, Cap, I ever tell you about the time Tasha was kitted up as a flamenco dancer?”

Darcy catches Clint’s eye as he starts in on his story, and mouths the words just kiss already.

AND A BIG ASSIST FOR TEAM MORON PURPLE LEADER.

But they’re still losing the game, he says to Tasha in bed that night. He’s more than a little snockered, because goddamn but Tony Stark can mix a drink.

“I know, I’m trying,” she says, shaking the last drops from the bottle of vodka she’d brought home with her into her mouth. “I love those crazy kids.”

“Stay on target, Red Leader,” he slurs and wraps her in his arms. She dissolves into helpless giggles. The sight of Natasha Romanov giggling never fails to astonish him, drunk or sober. “Stay on target.”

“I copy, Purple Leader.”

~~~~

Clint’s gone for another Fury job again, but this time he’s able to check in with Barnes off and on throughout the trip. Steve is apparently becoming completely addicted to the club sandwiches Bucky makes on these huge croissants (“I’m getting better at pastry, they’re not flaky rocks anymore”) and Clint can totally sympathize. You wouldn’t think sandwiches were that big a deal, but Barnes is a freaking artist. Bucky loaded him down with a cooler full, but they disappeared pretty quickly.

When he finally gets back to New York late one night--well, really, it’s pretty early in the morning--he falls asleep on his face half on, half off the couch, even though there’s still a pizza box there and the place smells like month-old sweat socks.

He’s startled out of his slumber by a familiar voice. “I found a store that carries the kinds of bananas we had when we were young,” Bucky says, sneaking into his apartment without even knocking. So they’re that kind of friends now, Clint supposes, the ones who can pick each other’s locks or climb in each other’s air vents. He briefly wonders what it would be like to be normal.

Clint sits up and rubs his hands over his face. Christ, he’s crossed the international date line twice in less than a week and he feels like ass. “Make me coffee,” he mutters and heads off to the shower. When he comes out Bucky’s staring at him and holding out a mug of--whoa, whatever it is, it’s good. Damn. Probably some schmancy roast from some tiny organic fair-trade women’s collective in Guatemala. “What,” he says, and Bucky points to the makeshift sutures on his right abdomen. “Oh yeah. Madripoor. You know.”

Bucky nods. “Yeah. I know.” They both shudder.

“What was that you were saying about bananas?” Clint asks, once he’s got a couple cups into him.

“I wanna make bananas foster for Steve tonight. But not with these sorry-ass excuses for future bananas. They’re horrible. There’s a place near here that carries the old kind.”

“How can future bananas be different from--you know what, never mind. Don’t tell me.” But Bucky does anyway, the whole time he’s getting dressed and they’re walking to the store, complete with an advisory to not discuss with Steve anything about the banana industry unless he wants to hear how they destroyed countless acres of rainforest and treated their workers horrifically and the massacre in Colombia in 1929 and how the banana barons--like, who ever thought there were banana barons? But he supposes the phrase banana republic had to come from somewhere--got what they deserved, except as to how now we don’t have bananas that taste good and the kind we do have are also being eradicated by piss-poor practices and the same damn fungus that killed the Gros Michele. Clint tries to make a joke about yes we have no bananas for Steve, but Bucky gives him a look, the kind that probably shriveled his enemies’ testicles back in the day.

Seriously, it’s amazing that Steve ever made it to adulthood, the things he gets worked up about. It must have been absolute hell on Bucky and Steve’s mom and anyone else they knew, trying to keep him from bursting his weak heart over every little thing.

“Also, you’re off the hook for cooking today,” Bucky says, a malicious little grin on his face, “since making these involves fire.” He makes patting motions around his crotch.

“Hardy-har, asshole,” Clint grumbles, but he’s kinda glad about being teased. Means Bucky’s feeling good, and that means whatever he cooks tonight will be out of this world. Yay.

When they’re in the market, there’s a guy who’s ranting at a wide-eyed lady friend about, apparently, another lady, swearing like Clint hasn’t heard since he was a carny. He and Bucky just kind of stop what they’re doing, listening to the guy spewing invective, and Clint can actually see Bucky’s hackles rising. Every other word out of the guy’s mouth is fuck or fucking and various lady slurs that Clint has learned to never use around the team, and when he talks about how much he’d like to kill the bitch, Barnes starts inching toward the aisle, flexing his metal arm. Clint reaches out and hauls him back. “Uh uh,” he says. “You cannot go around beating people up just for talking about stuff you don’t like.”

“I don’t care what that dame did to him, he shouldn’t be talking like that,” Bucky says with a frown, “especially not to another dame.”

“We’re not the language police,” Clint says, though he’d love to thump the guy, too. “Let’s just pay for our stuff and go.” He drags his reluctant supersoldier up to the counter, and when they pass the guy, Bucky growls deep in his throat. The guy stops talking long enough to look at Bucky, somewhat taken aback, and the woman he was talking to takes his momentary silence as an opportunity to beeline away from him. SMELLS LIKE VICTORY. TEAM MORON FOR THE WIN.

“Man, you wouldn’t expect that level of potty-mouthed hostility from such an average little guy, would you?” Clint says conversationally as they’re leaving, but before Bucky can answer, all hell breaks loose up the street.

The first thing they hear is a woman screaming, then a child scream-crying, and what sounds like a...roar. It’s so loud it shakes the ground under their feet. People race past them, quickly followed by a creature that Clint almost can’t be certain he actually sees. It’s enormous, with giant antlery things, and a hide like a rhino, only a sort of mottled purple-blue, and it must have at least five eyes but only one cavernous mouth full of very sharp shark-teeth. Held in one long arm with claws that are as big as Clint’s middle finger is the scream-crying little kid, whose mom’s chasing it, bellowing at it to let go of her baby. He’s seen the Chitauri up close, he knows from ugly, but this is a new level of disgusting--ooze that seeps out between cracks in the monster’s skin and it drools when it moves, so that’s fairly constant because it’s sort of, well, capering is the word that comes to mind.

Clint looks over at Bucky, who’s paralyzed, mouth hanging open. The kid’s never actually seen a non-humanoid alien up close and personal, Clint realizes. And crap dammit, neither one of them have weapons. Something shakes loose and Barnes kicks into action, dropping his bag of groceries and yelling at Clint, “Don’t squash my bananas!” when Clint drops his bag.

“Seriously, that’s what you’re worried about right now?” Clint says as he pelts after the monster.

Bucky races over to a bike rack on the sidewalk and, using his metal arm, rips it out of the concrete. Onlookers gasp. Sprinting to the coffee shop across the street, Clint grabs one of the chairs out front and the umbrella. Might as well make these hipsters useful for something. They flank the creature, who’s attempting to stuff the kid in its mouth. Bucky jumps up on the roof of a car and proceeds to pummel the creature’s head with the bike rack, swinging it like a baseball bat, as he attempts to tear one of its arms off and free the kid. Boy, did it pick the wrong guys to fuck with. Clint slams the umbrella top down to turn it into something like a spear. The creature is fighting like crazy to keep hold of the kid while Bucky’s thrashing the shit out of it with his hand and the rack. Clint’s gotta give the guy credit, he’s clearly scared, but he’s not going to let that kid get eaten. The mom is kicking at the monster, but its tail is huge and whipping around like crazy, so Clint yells at her to move back, thrusting the umbrella up under what looks like a skull plate.

He tries, he really does, to stay out of the way of the tail, but no good deed goes unpunished, at least not in Clint Barton’s world. The tail broadsides him and he goes flying back into a delivery van.

Just then, there’s a crackle of lightning and the air swirls around them like a desert dust storm. He’s not entirely certain that he’s seeing what he thinks he’s seeing, because there are also little bluebirds and sparklers and maybe a unicorn or two. He reaches up to his head--oh yeah, there’s blood running down his face. Staggering to his feet, Clint wipes it away and stumbles toward the monster, picking up the chair for a weapon. Thor appears in his field of vision and shouts, “Friends! Move away so I will not hurt you!” The kid pops loose into Bucky’s arms, Clint ducks as the umbrella-spear swings in his direction with the creature’s frenzied movements, and then Thor slams Mjolnir into its face. Boom. It collapses like a ruined soufflé.

Unfortunately, as it goes down, the umbrella-spear smacks Clint right in the back of his fucking head. Everything goes dark for a while, until he groans and lifts himself up on his elbows.

Bucky’s sitting against the wall of the cupcake shop they’ve ended up in front of, holding the little girl up to the tearful mom. He’s been reduced to a gibbering, blubbering wreck, his eyes wide and little hiccupping sobs coming out of his mouth. Next thing Clint knows, Steve and Tony are flying up the street toward them. Of course. The cavalry always arrives after the fighting’s over.

Thor flips the hammer around in his hand and grins. “You loosened him up for me,” he says, “and I thank you.”

“What the hell?” is all Clint can sputter out, trying to catch his breath and get to his knees, at least. Thor reaches down and hauls him up to standing, then puts an arm underneath him. Thor really is a good bro. There are plump little drops of blood plinking onto the sidewalk around Clint’s feet.

“Are you okay?” Steve shouts at Bucky. “Thor called us.” Tony stares at the creature’s corpse--is it dead? Maybe it’s just unconscious--and mutters, “Holy shit.”

“I’m okay. Thanks for asking,” Clint moans. But he’s really not, everybody’s twinned in his vision and the blood is coming faster now.

“I am so sorry, my friends,” Thor says, reaching down to pull Bucky up. “There are still cracks in the fabric of space that were created during the Convergence. Heimdall watches for creatures entering Midgard, but I was in the Antarctic with Jane, so I’m afraid I was rather delayed in rounding this one up. You prevented a terrible occurrence.”

Bucky’s still having trouble forming sentences, and Steve rubs little circles on his shoulder while he tries to get himself under control. “I’m just gonna...” he says, pointing in the direction of the store they came from. Steve watches him walk away, asking Clint with his eyes if he should follow, but Clint just says, “Stay here and help Thor. I got this.” Thor lets go of his arm, and Clint catches up and then leans on Bucky as they walk back to the store. Shit. He feels like he’ll throw up any second.

The woman that Potty-Mouth Hostility Guy was talking to is holding their bags. “I thought you might want these. Thanks for before.” Bucky peeks into the bag to see if everything survived, holding Clint up with his metal arm.

“You did good,” Clint says, breathing deep to quell the nausea. “Considering that’s your first face-to-face with an alien, you did really good. ”

Bucky kind of collapses in on himself and the two of them slide down the wall. “I just wanted some bananas,” he says in a small voice.

Steve stays and does damage control with Stark and Thor. Someday, Clint hopes they can go to Asgard and meet all the people Thor talks about, but today is most definitely not that day. Bruce shows up with a Town Car to take Clint and Bucky back to the tower.

Bruce lays Clint out on Steve and Bucky’s sofa and gives him some really good drugs, then proceeds to patch him up. He confabs with Barnes for a while. “I’m okay,” Clint calls from the couch, “I can go home. I just need to walk it off.”

“Yeah, no, I don’t think so,” Bruce says. “Why don’t you stay here for a while and let Steve and Bucky keep an eye on you. You really shouldn’t be alone right now.”

Crap dammit. Well, there is dinner and bananas foster to look forward to. No way is Bucky going to let all that effort go to waste, or let Clint languish on his sofa without sustenance.

When Bucky gets out the pots and pans and bangs around in his own kitchen, it takes Clint a few seconds to realize that means he’s cooking there. Where Steve can find out. He’s going to cook in front of Steve.

GOOOOAAAALLLLL. IT’S VICTORY IN AVENGERS TOWER DAY! Clint passes out on the couch.

When he wakes up, there’s a tray of food on the coffee table, which someone has conveniently pulled up next to the sofa.

The ice pack on his head has gone warm and slightly drippy, so he pulls it away from his eyes, straining to see if Steve and Bucky are talking, but Steve’s nowhere to be seen. Well, crap, that means Bucky is finished with cooking and Steve won’t even see it?

“Thanks, Buck,” Steve says, sounding like he’s been home for a bit. Maybe he’s the one who left the tray for Clint--he can’t see very well, but it looks like Steve’s hair is wet, so he must have come from the shower. “I feel a thousand times better.”

They sit at the table and Clint lays his head back on the sofa pillows. He hurts everywhere, and the drugs are starting to wear off. For a minute he contemplates asking for more meds, but that might interrupt whatever...this is.

“So what were you guys doing there?” he asks, apparently picking up the thread of a conversation Clint missed.

“Bananas,” Bucky mumbles. Shit. Clint turns his hearing aids as high as they’ll go, but reaching up is murder on his shoulders.

“Bananas? As in, yes, we have no?” Steve says, his voice light and teasing. Aw, vindication!

“I found a place that sells the kind we used to have when we were young. Not that we ate them that much, but they were a shitload better than future bananas.”

“Yeah, I hear you on that.” There’s a long pause. Clint tries to see again. “Hey, is that--are you making something with them?”

“Bananas foster for dessert.”

“That’s--oh.” There’s a really long pause while the fog lifts for Steve. “Did you make this, too?”

Bucky sighs. “Yeah.”

“Oh. I wondered. I kinda had this feeling like you were making some of these meals. But it just seemed like you’d have told me.” He coughs. “Why didn’t you--why wouldn’t you say anything?”

“You hated it when people fussed over you. When anyone tried to do things for you, even in kindness. Like it was an insult.”

“I never minded when it was you fussing over me,” Steve says quietly.

“Your memories are faulty.” But there’s a teasing tone in Bucky’s voice.

“And having you back now...having you back and fussing over me would be the most wonderful thing. Is the most wonderful thing. Geez, you’ve been cooking all these incredible meals all this time?”

“I wanted to learn.” Clint’s gonna cry if they keep this up. After all this time as Purple Leader of Team Moron, it’s not much of a payoff if he can’t see the whole show.

“Well, you definitely did that. I thought I’d died and gone to food heaven when you started--wait. So everyone knew about this but me?”

“It was just Barton at first,” Bucky says. “He’s a good guy. But then everyone found out. They didn’t want to lie to you. I asked them to cover for me.” Barnes owes him soooo many sandwiches for this.

“Okay,” Steve says in a tight voice. That sound is very much the sound of Steve Rogers climbing on to his high horse.

“What?” Bucky asks.

“I just...it hurts to think that you felt you needed to make them all keep it a secret from me. That you couldn’t tell me the truth.”

“I wanted to. I kept thinking I’d tell you, and then something would come up and I’d chicken out.”

“Never known you to be lily-livered about anything, Barnes.”

“Well, I’m a new man.”

“You sure are.” Clint leans up on one elbow and he can see that Steve has his hand on the side of Bucky’s face. Aww. “You’re never who I thought you were,” Steve says in a broken voice. “You’re always something more.”

“So are you,” Bucky says, as Steve leans over the corner of the table and kisses him.

In his head, Clint can hear At Last playing.

The two of them are really, really going at each other, eighty years of repressed, pent-up passion finally bulldozing its way out as they kiss and paw at each other. Do they even remember Clint’s still here? And would they give a damn if they did?

Next thing he knows Steve’s pulling Bucky down on top of him on the floor and they’re yanking at each other’s clothes in between kisses. Okay, much as he wanted this, it’s awkward now. Really, really awkward. Clint considers clearing his throat. Minutes tick by. They’re shirtless now, with their jeans halfway down their asses.

You don’t have to be gay or bi to appreciate that they are both incredibly well built. He wonders if he could sneak his phone out of his pocket and take a few pictures, see how long it takes for a financial offer for them. But oh crap, his phone got smashed in the fight, so instead he just stays there on the couch, listening to the smacking sounds.

So incredibly awkward.

“We should take this into the bedroom, maybe?” Steve asks.

Low in his throat, Bucky says, “Yeah.”

They take their sweet damn time, macking and groping all the way down the hall. He waits till he hears the door snick closed and slowly, carefully gets up. Dammit, no dessert, he thinks, gazing longingly at the bananas. He briefly considers sticking around till they’re done in the bedroom and Bucky comes back out to cook them. Clint can’t remember ever having bananas foster.

The quiet is shattered by Steve moaning, with some serious volume behind it, “Buuuuuck,” so Clint quickly writes a note on a paper towel and sticks it to the fridge: “Save me some dessert?”

As he’s making his way out the door, he hears Bucky shout, “Yes, Steve!”

TEAM MORON PURPLE LEADER DROPS THE MIC. OVER AND OUT.

He always thought those two crazy kids would make it.