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Prolonged Exposure

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Clint sits on the washed out bar sofa pulling in breaths too full of smoke, trying to even them out as he fights the nausea swirling inside. He startles when a water bottle is placed in front of him on the low coffee table.

"You ok, man?"

Clint looks up and is met with the concerned face of what's his name, Bucky, Sam's friend.

"Yeah," he rasps and winces at the sound of his own voice. He grabs the bottle and gulps down a few mouthfuls. "Thanks," he adds.

Bucky nods and sits down with a beer, releasing a long exhale. He leans back, before raking his fingers through his long hair to pull it out of his face. It's hot inside the room. They're in one of the more popular venues that host concerts for slightly-less underground bands, and tonight three of those are performing as part of a tour. The larger stage room is next to the bar area, behind two doors currently open, music and the shouts of the crowd drifting through.

A week prior, Clint's been surprised by an old friend's email. Josh is a sound engineer that Clint's met a few years back, hooked up with at a concert and then kept in touch rather infrequently. They've met again a few times since then, fast and hot nights that had somewhat appeased Clint's need for companionship. He huffs at himself. In the last two years, his only nightly adventures had been a couple encounters with Josh.

Solitude must make him stupid. Clint shakes his head at himself, feeling bile rise up his throat again.

"Woo!" Sam bounces over, with a grin so wide, it's blinding.

The bands performing tonight are amongst Sam's favorites, Clint knows. They're Clint's, too, but he can't seem to push himself to enjoy it as much. He does manage a smile back at his friend.

"This is awesome," Sam cackles, "you should come in there," he gestures to the stage room, where the softer music of a break between sets can be heard.

"'m good," Clint mumbles and he can already see Sam's eyebrows raise in concern.

He's saved by the other guy, Steve, when he hands Sam a beer. And then the two go into a winded spiel over the performance they've been witnessing. Next to him, Bucky listens with small nods and laughs.

Clint breathes. They're all here having fun because of Clint, and he shouldn't forget it. But it's hard to, when he knows Josh is close by and Clint will still have to put up with him, at least until tomorrow. Speak of the devil... Clint swallows, trying hard not to let the uncomfortable swirling in his stomach rise through his chest.

"Dude," Josh stops next to them, "come on, they're about to start!" Like all's peachy.

Clint inhales and shakes his head. Sam and Steve join the invitation with rising excitement, but Clint's afraid he's going to throw up all over the coffee table if he even dares exhale. He has no idea how he's going to deal with Josh after the concert.

"We'll be in later," he hears Bucky next to him, followed by a string of are-you-sure and yeah-yeah-go-ahead.

And they're alone again. It takes Clint a few seconds to realize his ass has just been saved. He forces himself to swallow some water.

"Thanks," he says again, afraid to look at this guy he barely knows, but who apparently can read Clint just fine in the dimly lit room.

"Can I get you anything?" comes back and Clint shakes his head. "Wanna step out for some air?" and that would be a great idea if Clint were confident he could stand up.

So he shakes his head again. "You should go ahead," he says, even though he's dreading being left alone.

"Nah, I think I'm gonna stay here a while," Bucky returns and sinks deeper into the sofa.

Clint nods, trying to hide his relief. No point in spilling his troubles over this guy who's just here to have some fun.

Josh's email had surprised Clint. They'd been out of touch for a few months, and Josh had contacted Clint with news of the tour he'd been on for the bands he knew Clint loved. And it had been easy to invite him to spend the two nights Josh was in town over at Clint's. Then, Josh had offered a few free passes for the sold-out show tonight. With Natasha gone for the entire year studying the movements of whales for her master's - and Clint misses his best friend terribly - he's turned to Sam, a friend of Nat's from school. Clint suspects Sam had been coerced by his redhead bestie into checking up on Clint's lonely ass. Well, Clint won't complain, Sam's easy to hang with and he always brings pizza. Always.

And now they're here, at this concert, free passes for Clint and Sam and his two friends. Clint should get over himself. But Josh had been a nice guy, and Clint's had an entirely different take on him, at least until that afternoon. It's funny how one little thing can overturn the precarious balance of human relationships. And Clint can't wrap his mind around the fact that the events of the day have affected him this much. At the moment he's too numb to care, anyway.

Clint sneaks a peek at Bucky sitting next to him, and he's leaning there, eyes closed, listening to the band playing in the other room, his fingers tapping the rhythm of the music on one knee.

~

Breathing heavily, Clint lays back on the bed, Josh following. He has a stupid smile on his face, but he can't help it. It's been over a year since he's had this close contact with another human being, and Clint's enjoying it, watching the patterns the afternoon sun casts on his bedroom ceiling. He's missed being touched.

Josh's phone rings and he shuffles for it. "Hey baby," Clint hears, "yeah I'm at the hotel."

No.

"Yeah, tonight and heading back out tomorrow after lunch."

No.

"Talk later. Love you, too."

NO.

Clint's out of his mellow bliss and he feels like doused in ice water.

"What the hell," he turns to Josh.

"What," comes back with a frown, and when Clint looks pointedly at his phone, he laughs. "Oh, my girlfriend. We're getting married after this tour," he says with a grin.

And... that's just not right. Clint's suddenly disgusted at himself, and at Josh. From all the things in the world that Josh could have done, this is the worst. Clint sometimes still has nightmares about his parents who'd cheated, yelled, and drank themselves to death. The fucking worst.

He jumps out of bed a little too quickly, dislodging Josh and making him lose balance enough to roll over the edge.

"The fuck's wrong with you," Josh raises up from the floor with a scowl.

"How could you do that!" Clint points. "You don't do that to another human being!"

Josh snorts. "Like you care."

"Why shouldn't I care," and Clint can feel himself getting angry at the dismissal. "You're a fucking cheat, asshole. Get the fuck out of my house," he says, suddenly tired.

Another snort. "Can't throw me out, already paid for two nights."

"What are you tal--" Clint starts and Josh interrupts him by grabbing his face, fingers digging in the flesh of his cheeks.

"You thought those passes were actually free?" he huffs with derision. "Of course not," he pushes Clint's head to the side before releasing him, "stupid fucking whore."

Clint can't believe this. He slides on the edge of the bed when Josh throws the passes at him.

"Here. And your ass better be ready tonight, 'cos those aren't cheap."

The slam of the bathroom door makes Clint jump and he stares for a long moment at his shaking hands. He can't even have a shower in his own apartment, he realizes, over the sound of running water. He's filthy. Vile and filthy.

He was wrong. This is much worse.

~

"Not a whore, you animal," Clint mutters into the stifling air of the bar.

The smoke is making his throat feel raw, his sight growing gradually blurry. A wet tickle runs the side of his cheek and Clint hurries to wipe at it with his sleeve. He draws a couple deep breaths, trying to calm himself down. He spares a glance over at Bucky, and thankfully the man's eyes are still closed. Clint's grateful, last thing he needs is an interrogation. Bucky looks serene as he listens to the music, and Clint can't fault him, this band's great. His chest twists inside and Clint has to swallow heavily to stave off more tears.

He's going to deal with Josh later. At least the passes are being enjoyed.

He wonders how long until the concert's over.

~

"You good on your own?" Sam asks Clint as people are already shuffling out. He's got a look on his face that says his night's not over yet and Clint nods. "Great," Sam bounces cheerfully, "see you later guys."

And he's off. Clint doesn't want to raise from the couch. Bucky and Steve are buttoning up their coats on the other side of the coffee table, talking too low for Clint to hear. They interact with ease, comfortable in each other's spaces, and oh. They look good together, both of them tall and packed, pretty much the opposite of Clint's short stature.

Josh is coming over.

Clint doesn't want to go.

"Ready?" Josh asks, leering at Clint.

Clint really, really doesn't want to go.

"Yeah," Steve answers for him, "we're ready. You going to Clint's, too?"

Clint raises his head in confusion. Josh is just as confused, looking between Clint, and Steve, and Bucky.

"We're crashing there," Steve tells Josh, and Clint doesn't hear the rest, because Bucky grabs his arm.

"Come on," Bucky says, "up you go."

Clint doesn't understand what's happening. All he knows is that he won't be alone with Josh and the relief makes his knees weak. He stumbles a few times, but Bucky holds him up, an arm around his shoulder. Clint concentrates on the sidewalk and the night air, steadying his breaths, grateful. But even when his legs stop trembling, Bucky's arm is still there, supporting.

His place is not very far, though at the farther spectrum of acceptable walking distance. The streets are almost empty as they pass by lit storefronts, the neon glows hurting his eyes a little. Steve and Bucky are flanking Clint as they walk, Josh forced a few steps ahead, Steve keeping a steady stream of questions, distracting Josh. They're both big, and Clint feels so small. He swallows hard and shifts to tell Bucky that he's grateful, that he needn't worry.

Bucky just gives Clint a look that says 'not leaving you alone' and it reminds Clint of Natasha. Fuck, what is she going to say... she's going to be disgusted of Clint. Bucky and Steve are going to be disgusted. They're going to be in the next room and--

Bucky's fingers squeeze Clint's shoulder, hard.

Clint wonders what Bucky thinks of all of this. That hand grips harder and Clint decides to let his mind rest for a bit, slipping into numbness.

~

They make their way into Clint's apartment and Bucky kicks his boots and coat off before making his way to the couch. He lies down with a long sigh, giving an air of familiar occurrence. Steve follows suit, dumps his coat onto the back of the sofa, but then veers into the kitchen side, separated from the main room by the breakfast counter. Josh glares at Clint, and Clint tries unsuccessfully to gather himself up. Josh is walking into the bedroom, where his duffel is, and Clint can barely move.

"Whoa, man," Steve calls from where he's poking through the cupboards, "we forgot to bring you that rash cream."

What.

"It's spreading," Steve says, loudly, "you should see a doctor," and he makes a victorious sound when he finds a bag of cookies.

Standing in the bedroom door, Josh is livid. He starts toward Clint, but Steve intercepts, popping a cookie in his mouth. He grins as he chews, leaning on the wall right in Josh's path, towering over the other man.

"Want one?" Steve extends the bag and Josh lets out an annoyed sound.

"Piece of shit," he spits at Clint, and then turns back into the bedroom.

Not ten seconds later, he walks out with his bag and this time Steve shifts to let him pass. Clint has the presence of spirit to jump out of his way from where he's been standing in front of the entrance. And Josh is about to open the door, when he swivels back. Clint's going to get punched, he's sure of it, but then an arm wraps itself around Clint's shoulders, and he's being pulled back.

He hears Bucky growl next to his ear, a genuine growl, sounding almost like a large dog. It makes Josh stumble back.

"Don't contact me again," he grits. "If you gave me anything, I'm suing."

Thankfully, he leaves.

There are goosebumps raising on Clint's skin and he shivers. The feeling remains, even after Bucky lets go, along an incessant pricking behind his eyes. Clint forces himself take deep breaths, lest he makes a bigger fool of himself.

A minute later he's still staring at the door. Josh is gone, and Clint is safe. With two strangers in his apartment that could kick the shit out of him and are apparently good at growling. Two strangers who've just saved Clint's ass. But these guys aren't strangers, they're Sam's friends and Sam is Tasha's friend. And she's never wrong about people. Clint vaguely remembers Tasha mentioning them a few times. They are not strangers, they're friends and Clint can't believe they got Josh out of his own accord. With a rash. A sliver a laughter starts to bubble out of Clint, but... Josh had looked way pissed. Mad, even.

"What if he comes back?" he asks the door.

"We're not leaving," Steve says from behind as he's hanging his coat next to Bucky's and Clint startles. "Give," Steve makes a grabby hand at Clint's jacket.

Clint complies, removes his sneakers, too, and then he's sitting on the sofa between the other two.

"Wanna tell us what happened?" Steve asks, extending the cookie bag in front of Clint.

He shakes his head and stuffs two in his mouth. He can't blabber this way, not when his every single thought is chasing its own tail in his head. Cookies are safer.

"Did he force--"

But Clint covers his ears, shaking the thought out of his head. He doesn't want to talk about this, doesn't want to think about what might have happened if it hadn't been for these two.

"All right," he hears, and there's a glass of water.

'Lilo and Stitch' is playing on the TV, they must have found his DVD. How much time has passed, Clint wonders, but finds it easier to just let the cartoon draw all his attention.

He's exhausted and is feeling it from the roots of his hair and all the way to his toes. He tilts precariously a few times when his eyelids drift closed, then a gentle hand is pulling his head down.

"Sleep, you're safe."

Yeah, he's safe.

~

Awareness comes to Clint in waves. First, it's the blanket that covers him, and the mellow feeling in his bones. Second, it's the fact that his pillow is warm, though a little harder than he remembers. Clint catches himself from beating the pillow into softness when he realizes there's black denim under his cheek. He turns his head slowly, and looks up.

Clint's curled up on the sofa, his head in Bucky's lap, who's sleeping soundly with a hand on Clint's shoulder. Bucky is sitting, his legs outstretched onto the armchair that's been dragged there from the side, a blue pillow supporting his head on the backrest. Clint hopes that he won't wake up stiff. It's clear Bucky's stayed there when Clint's fallen asleep on him. After everything these guys have done for him last night, Clint doesn't want to add a sore neck.

Funny, though, he thinks as he raises quietly to make his way to the bathroom. He remembers his pillowcases being gray, not blue. He passes the open door of his bedroom when a flash of color catches his eye. On his bed, his very blue bed, Steve sleeps. He's on top of the comforter, on his side, hands tucked beneath his arms, a crease between his eyebrows. Clint wonders what disturbs his sleep and what would it take to smooth it out.

The bedsheets, though, Steve must have changed them. And yes, his gray set sits balled up next to his overflowing hamper. Shame swirls around Clint at the recollection of the previous day. He feels dirty again.

"Morning," comes from the bed with a yawn, and Clint nods in reply, unable to look away. "Didn't know if you wanted to keep them or burn them," Steve says softly.

Clint shrugs. They were his favorite sheets. Now, not so much. His attention is drawn to Steve when he shuffles to his feet, and he doesn't even look disheveled for sleeping in his clothes, while Clint's one big wrinkle. He hurries into the bathroom.

Cold water wakes him up somewhat, but not enough. He makes his way back and finds Steve already turning on the coffee maker.

"You wouldn't happen to have a spare toothbrush?" Steve asks, grimace on his face.

This is something that Clint can do, instead of letting the events of the night overwhelm him, and he rifles through the contents of his bathroom cabinet for a long while. In the end, he only finds one toothbrush. Back in the kitchen, Steve's already pulling out mugs, and Clint is surprised to see him slot into the space like he's always belonged there, non-intrusive, but filling some of the void that's been plaguing Clint. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, because this line of thinking won't get him anywhere good.

"I got only one," he says, wiggling the toothbrush at Steve.

"Oh, it's fine," comes back, "Buck and I can share. Thanks."

Speaking of Bucky, Clint turns and sees him still asleep. His mouth is slightly open, the fingers of his hand that's been on Clint's shoulder earlier twitching, as if searching for their previous grip. The same sensation of rightness and inclusion hits Clint, so he turns away, trying to wipe the image from his mind. Instead, be busies himself with filling the mugs.

Steve returns, takes a sit at the breakfast counter across from Clint, and then a sip of coffee when his phone chirps. Clint tries not to listen, but Steve doesn't lower his voice or moves away.

"Yeah. Already noon? Yeah, overslept. Sure thing. In an hour or so. Oh," Steve looks at Clint, "we're bringing a friend." He hangs up then, and graces Clint's questioning look with an answer. "Our neighbor's having a barbecue every Saturday on the roof. You should come."

"I can't--" Clint starts, but Steve shakes his head.

"I meant you're coming," he says and it's so categorical that Clint can't find any plausible excuse to refuse. "Sam's gonna be there," Steve adds, softer, as if suddenly aware of the fact that they barely know each other.

Oh, yeah, it hasn't crossed Clint's mind either, what with the strange feeling of familiarity and domesticity infusing his apartment. "Ok," he relents and Steve smiles at him.

"Buck," Steve says without turning away from his mug.

From where he's sitting, Clint can see both of them, and Bucky's not moved a muscle.

"No," comes from the sofa.

"Coffee's getting cold," Steve adds with an amused huff.

That spurs Bucky into motion. He rolls off the sofa, stumbles a few times before reaching the counter, and grabs the toothbrush Steve's extending at him. All with his eyes closed, or at least barely open. Clint's amazed he hasn't walked into a wall.

As they wait, silence settles and Clint can feel Steve's eyes on him, studying. He doesn't really want to know what conclusions Steve's drawing, so he focuses on the way sunlight reflects off the coffee in front of him. Bucky's back, then, and he slams the toothbrush down on the counter before taking a seat next to Steve.

"Morning," Clint offers, but Bucky just stares somewhere into the space between them, blinking slowly.

Steve laughs, low and soft. "He won't react. Takes him a while to wake up, but he's heard you," he tells Clint.

Bucky lets out an unidentifiable sound and his gaze skitters around before resting on the coffee waiting there for him. He snatches the mug, and almost hugs it to himself, slumping over the counter. Steve chuckles quietly, and Clint finds himself smiling. Must be fun to wake up to that every day.

"Hey, Clint," Steve draws his attention, and judging by how serious he sounds, Clint knows what's coming and he doesn't want to have this conversation. It must be showing on his face, because Steve sighs. "Just tell me one thing," he relents, "are you hurt?"

Clint's never been the target of such genuine concern. Even Tasha, she's always expressed her worries by smacking Clint upside the head. But this, the look Steve gives him as if he's ready to mend Clint... this is new, and it sends a shiver from the pit of his stomach all the way to the back of his eyes. He blinks the wetness back.

"No, no, I'm good," he starts, and doesn't even try to stop the words spilling out of his mouth. "He just, he said he paid for it, and fuck, if you weren't here, I just, might have..." Clint himself doesn't comprehend what he's saying anymore, as Steve grows gradually appalled. Clint stops himself with a shaky breath, starts over. "He claimed he paid for sex with me with the concert passes and was going to collect last night."

Bucky's head snaps up and Clint's inhale halts in his throat, painfully. But when Bucky tries to stand, Steve pushes him back down on his seat.

"Should I have--" Clint starts, suddenly unsure.

"No!" comes from Steve and Clint startles. "Son of a bitch," he spits. "First thing Monday, we're gonna write a check for the passes and send it to him. It ends here."

This is so easy, why hasn't Clint thought of it, an immeasurable weight suddenly lifted. It's unfair to let them pay though. He opens his mouth to say as much, but his eyes drift to Bucky and Clint freezes. Bucky is looking murderous, about to rip somebody a new one, and it's most likely the person right in his sight, which is Clint at the moment.

"Stop it," Steve tells Bucky, "you're not awake and you're scaring Clint."

A long second and Bucky shakes himself, looking in alarm between Steve and Clint. He shifts to stare into his coffee, then, deep frown on his forehead, and Clint's heart rabbits in his chest. He must have looked even more menacing last night. Clint still can't believe these two have saved him.

"A rash?" he asks with the memory and Steve laughs a little while Bucky starts sipping carefully from his mug.

"Nothing sends people running quicker than the threat of venereal diseases," Steve shrugs.

"Yeah, I suppose," Clint nods.

They finish their coffees while Clint takes a shower, and he's a little more refreshed by the time they step into the street.

~

It's late March, and even though the nights are still cold, the days are warm. The air is fresh, or as fresh as it could be in the city, under the bight midday sun, and they end up carrying their coats instead of wearing them. It's also perfect weather for rooftop barbecues, and Clint walks again between a still very sleepy Bucky and an amused Steve. Turns out, the two live in Sam's building, a few blocks away. Clint's never known, but Clint's also only been by Sam's once, with Tasha.

When they reach Steve and Bucky's floor, Steve turns to Clint. "We need a couple of showers, too," he says. "You can go on ahead, or wait for us?"

Clint chooses to wait. He'd feel like an intruder up on the roof with people he doesn't know, even though Sam's been promised to be there.

Steve and Bucky share an apartment, and Clint takes it in after they shuffle inside. The place is neat, but not unlived-in, cozy and comfortable, with large shades over the windows, books everywhere. Clint takes a seat on the soft couch that invites to sleep, and he hears water running before Steve sits down next to him.

"Look," Steve starts, catching Clint's eyes, "Bucky's kinda weird, I know. Sometimes he won't seem to register you're there, but he's not ignoring you. He's just really quiet like that," Steve wiggles his fingers, "so, if he doesn't react when you talk to him, please don't be upset with him, ok?" Steve sounds pleading, the same concern that's been directed at Clint earlier now projected for Bucky.

Clint nods, he can do that. People have their own quirks and peculiarities. "Yeah, sure."

Steve's smile is wide and it warms Clint pleasantly. He wishes he had a partner as protective of him as Steve is of Bucky.

It's not long before Bucky's back, switching places with Steve. He drinks pensively from a water bottle for long minutes before he speaks, voice raspy.

"Look," he says, and Clint has a feeling of deja-vu. "This is gonna sound weird, but you gotta keep away from Steve," and Clint lets out a surprised sound, making Bucky look at him. "Ugh, no, I mean, fuck my brain," he mutters, rubbing a hand on his face. "He doesn't like people touching him announced, so keep a distance," Bucky explains, gesturing with his palms a few inches apart, and Clint finds himself nodding. He gets it now. "A lot of people don't like that, right?" Bucky continues. "But Steve can react badly. And if he accidentally hits you, he's gonna mope for a month and I don't wanna deal with that," he finishes grumpily.

Clint can't help the smile overtaking his entire face and he's a bit overwhelmed by these two, looking after each other as they are. It makes the hollowness around him heavier.

~

The rooftop is packed with people, the smell of barbecue drifting through the air. There are several tables and a lot of chairs, mismatched plates being passed around, juice bottles and water in a corner. A big guy, taller than Steve, long hair caught in a braid on his back is manning the grill, listening attentively to Sam, who waves when he sees them. Clint waves back and follows Bucky and Steve as they expertly skirt around the edges to reach a lonely table tucked safely away, but not too far from the action.

It doesn't take long for the tall blond to bounce over, carrying an overflowing plate of meats. It's mostly stake and grilled chicken, cut smaller than Clint's used to seeing.

"Hey," the guy says as he sets the plate on the table. "You're late."

Steve shrugs at him. "Thanks for saving an extra chair," he says and the man waves his hand. "Clint, this is Thor, Thor meet Clint."

As introductions are made, Bucky snatches a piece of meat from the plate and bites into it.

"No hello for your host, Barnes?" Thor shakes his head, but Bucky just chews, watching him impassibly, while Steve sits up with a laugh. "You know, I cooked all this specifically for your sensitive taste buds," Thor continues, crossing his arms, and Bucky raises an eyebrow while snatching another piece. "Ok, I didn't," Thor rolls his eyes. "What did I do to deserve this?" Thor asks just as Steve returns with a bottle of water and three glasses.

"You know what," Steve laughs.

"Come on, it's been three months!"

"Minimum grudge period's six months," a young woman stops next to the table and sets down a plate of tomato and pepper slices. "You know that, babe."

Steve resumes introductions, she is Jane, Thor's girlfriend, and the two hosts soon make their way back to the grill and the crowd.

"You could just give him a break," Steve shakes his head at Bucky.

"He ate my bagel!" Bucky gestures with a piece of meat.

"Oh for... swallow before talking," comes next from Steve and his eyes flicker toward Clint. He sighs, holding up a tissue that Bucky grabs, covers his mouth with it.

"Sorry," Bucky mumbles from behind his hands looking with big eyes at Clint, as if he'd forgotten Clint wasn't a regular witness to this kind of behavior.

Clint waves him off, but Bucky's still looking between him and Steve, unsuccessfully trying to chew inconspicuously. Well, no reason to let him feel foolish for doing something Clint's known to be prone to, so he grabs a piece of chicken and bites into in until it's all in his mouth, cheeks puffy. Next to him, Bucky laughs with small wheezes around his mouthful, and Steve rubs at his temples, but he's smiling, too.

"Wow," Steve says after a few minutes, and both Clint and Bucky turn to see what he's looking at. On the other side of the roof, Sam is talking animatedly to a brunette. "I think Sam hooked up with Darcy."

"She was there last night," Bucky adds.

"Who's Darcy?" Clint asks.

"Jane's little sister," comes from Steve. "She's in the same grad program with Nat and Sam." And that explains it. He should have let Tasha drag him to her school related outings when she'd tried.

"Well, if he did, he's screwed," Bucky supplies and Clint turns to him.

"Because of Thor?"

Steve and Bucky share a snort. "That puppy? Nah," Steve explains. "Jane's going to skin him if he breaks Darcy's heart. Oh look, Mrs. Rigoletti," Steve nods at an elderly woman who's using her cane to smack Thor's legs. "She's like the building grandma," he adds, "best cookies ever, but stay away from the death stick."

Bucky nods knowingly. He keeps nodding in confirmation as Steve takes it upon himself to acquaint Clint with their present neighbors. The barbecue is running weekly from March until October, everyone contributes to the meat fund (there's a large jar filled with bills over on a table), not everyone shows up every week, but most of them do. Also, Steve and Bucky have a table that's all theirs, it seems, but they're vague in explanations. Clint makes a mental note to ask Sam.

Time passes quickly and evening catches them unawares. Clint helps with cleanup, then, shadowing Bucky to wipe tables and stack them under an awning, while Steve scrubs the grill with Thor. Others are collecting the plates and glasses and sweeping the floor. It's satisfying, and afterwards he sinks into Steve and Bucky's sofa with a sigh.

~

Light falls on Clint's face from the wrong side and, for a moment, he doesn't recognize his surroundings as he blinks awake. He's in Steve and Bucky's living room, he must have fallen asleep here last night. Instead of kicking him out, the two had even brought a pillow and a blanket. He can't thank them enough, it seems.

Steve makes them coffee and Bucky is just the same non-speaking sleepy zombie of the previous day. Clint finds himself sharing their breakfast, then he's persuaded into staying for lunch, and, next thing he knows, he's spent all day talking to these two about everything and nothing.

It's late afternoon when he leaves, and he stops by Sam's a couple of floors below. The first thing Sam does, though, as he sees Clint's confused face, is laugh, heartily and loudly.

"Don't worry," he says as he motions Clint in, "prolonged exposure to those two will do that to you."

Darcy joins them at the kitchen table over a cup of tea.

"So what's the deal with them?" Clint finally asks.

Sam scratches the back of his neck, raises both eyebrows.

"Bluntly put," he huffs, "they're the freakiest people I've ever met."

"Super freaky," Darcy adds.

"But they're also the nicest," Sam adds.

"Super nice," Darcy confirms.

This doesn't tell Clint much and his confusion must still be evident on his face.

"A few years ago Thor was in a shitload of trouble. He was back on his rent for months, almost got evicted. Steve sold his bike and payed for his rent backlog, all of it."

"Oh," Clint offers.

"Yeah. And he refused the money when Thor got back on his feet," Sam adds.

"They helped others, too," Darcy jumps in. "There was a little boy with a water gun yesterday, you remember him?" Clint nods. "That's Rhonda's son and he got sick one winter, almost died. Bucky carried him through a blizzard all the way to the hospital 'cos the ambulances couldn't pass through."

"Wow," Clint breathes.

"There isn't one person they haven't helped one way or another in this building," Sam continues, and taps a finger on the table. "So if they ever try to make you put money on their behalf in the meat jar, don't do it, or Mrs. Rigoletti's gonna come after you."

Clint raises his hands. "All right. What about the freaky part?"

Sam rubs a hand over his mouth, considering, and Darcy bites the inside of her cheek.

"Well, you've been near them," Sam finally says, "don't tell me they didn't freak you out."

Clint laughs. "Nope," he says, popping the word between his lips and Sam shakes his head at him with a grin over Darcy's chuckle.

~

That night, as Clint curls in his bed, between his blue sheets, he takes it all in. Steve and Bucky really are nice guys, but that leaves a bittersweet taste in his mouth. They help everyone, not just Clint, he's not all that special. It's stupid, Clint knows, but he can't help feel ordinary, a bleep on someone nice's day.

He burrows further under the comforter, lets the tears come. Bucky and Steve are amazing, and the loneliness wounds Clint something fierce, after their kindness and company and comfort. He hurts.

~

By mid June Clint has a new routine. He goes running with Steve and Bucky every Tuesday and Thursday evening. Saturday morning he shows up at their door with bagels and only leaves Sunday evening. Sam still pops in at his place from time to time, although more rarely than before, with Darcy and pizza and a movie. It's less lonely, but still doesn't fill the gap palpable around Clint. Natasha's still out of reach on a research vessel in the northern seas, and Clint misses her, writes emails to keep her in the loop, even though she won't be able to read them for months. Fortunately, Sam supplies updates about the ship's route as it pings off the satellite tracking them at their lab, and alleviates Clint's concerns by assuring him that if something were to happen, they'd be the first to know.

So Clint distracts himself with Bucky and Steve, even though sometimes it's painful to watch them interact. He does notice, though, how they don't do all the small touches of other couples, like hand holding or pecks or kisses. Clint supposes it's because of Steve's sensitivity to touch, and he dismisses the thought as soon as it crosses his mind.

Early July meets them with rising temperatures, but not enough to qualify for a heat wave, along a cryptic email from Tasha that says "I approve." Of what, Clint's not sure and he gathers that they must have had a very limited window of time to send messages to families and friends, because his request for explanations is met with silence.

~

In August, the roof is too hot for barbecues, but they water it down and everyone gorges on icecream and watermelons. It's during one of those hot Saturday evenings that Bucky suggests they have a beer and play darts at Donny's, a bar down the street with air conditioning.

The place is not packed, despite its cool atmosphere, and they choose a table near the games in the back. Steve watches from the side, siding with Bucky when Clint throws and with Clint when Bucky throws. It's fun, and Clint's been winning, laughing with Bucky's arm wrapped around his shoulders.

"You're awesome at this," Bucky grins, his fingers curling around Clint's neck, and that's when Clint makes the mistake of looking at him.

Bucky's eyes are so warm, affectionate with the curl of his mouth, that Clint's breath slows to a stop. His heart thuds in his chest at this closeness, fluttery tightness rushing up to swirl behind his ribs. Clint could move, just an inch or so, and he'd touch Bucky's lips.

They're soft. Bucky's lips are soft and the best thing Clint's ever tasted. He's dizzy with it, the slide of Bucky's eyelashes against his cheek making his knees weak. Clint is floating, the emptiness lifted, for once, and he matches Steve's smile against Bucky's mouth.

Steve. Watching.

Clint breaks himself off of Bucky and everything feels like it's shattering around him, a rushing sound invading his ears. Steve's disappointed face is the worst and Clint has to go, now. He's already on the sidewalk when Steve cuts him off, palms raised.

"Stop, please," he says and Clint can't even look him in the eyes. "Please, Clint," Steve tries again and Clint moves to run past him, but Steve shuffles backwards, still speaking. "Come on, please stop, let's talk about this."

The idiot is going to fall and crack his skull. So Clint stops, but he can't take his eyes off the pavement. Everything hurts. He can't believe he did that to them.

"We need to talk about this," Steve says. "Do you mind if we go to your place? That way, you can kick us out if you don't like what we have to say."

Clint can do that. He can offer them the courtesy of an apology and he can take the chastising. But he can't stomach the fact that he's never going to see them again, not after tonight, and he's tempted to refuse, postpone it as much as possible. That wouldn't be right, though, so he sighs with a nod.

Much like that night months ago, he walks between Steve and Bucky, dreading to reach home. Only this time it feels a hundred times worse.

~

Clint sits on his sofa while the other two shuffle with soft whispers for a while. Shortly after, Bucky curls on the armchair to the side, hugging his legs to his chest, nose pushed between his knees. He looks worried. Sitting down on the coffee table in front of Clint, Steve stares at his own clasped hands for a while, before looking up.

"You did nothing wrong," he says. "I know that look," Steve tips his chin at Clint, "and you should stop with the guilt. If anything, Bucky's to blame, he kissed you without permission. I am at fault, too, but we'll come to that in a minute. You did nothing wrong, ok?" Steve presses, and Clint's tempted to believe him.

"'m sorry," Bucky mumbles against his knees, frown on his face.

"No, it's--" Clint starts, but Steve raises a hand, cutting him off.

"Not your fault," Steve repeats, "and that's the end of it. No more discussions."

After what he's done, Clint would do anything Steve asks. So he nods, keeping his mouth shut for a change.

"All right," Steve breathes. Inhales, exhales and then draws air again, like he's psyching up to something. "Bucky and I have been together for five years," he says, "and I can't even begin to explain how much I love him, or how much he loves me."

Clint swallows. This is so bad.

"But there's always this dissonance between us," Steve continues, looking down. "I like talking, a lot, Bucky doesn't. And I can't offer him the full extent of the physical affection he needs. Our relationship is incomplete. We have this empty space between us that we can't fill," he looks at Clint then, "and you're fucking perfect."

Clint's heart wants to beat its way out of his chest and he struggles to draw breath. What is Steve saying?

"From our perspective, ever since that concert in March," Steve gestures between himself and Bucky, "we've been dating you, and only when you ran earlier it occurred to us that you might not see it that way."

Clint can't breathe, and he covers his mouth to stave off an undignified whine that tries to escape his throat. Steve extends his arm, touches his fingertips on Clint's knee, and his hand is trembling. Clint shakes his head, because he can't believe this, can't understand how this yearning he's been under has a chance of becoming real. Steve pulls his hand back as if burned, stands up, and Clint wants to say no, come back, but he can't breathe.

"We want this," Steve says as Bucky joins him, nodding, "the three of us, together. So think about it, ok?"

They look miserable, standing there, and Clint can't move. The sound of the front door closing is too loud. His eyes are burning.

~

When Clint looks up at the clock on his bookshelf, it's not been long, maybe half an hour. He's finally managed to collect himself, getting his breathing under control. He lets out a shaky exhale, hit with the realization that he's somehow screwed this up before it had a chance to begin.

It can't. He can't. He has to do something, now, so he grabs his phone, but it doesn't feel right. No, he has to go over there, tell them in person.

So he washes his face, and moves to change his t-shirt. It's then that he actually sees how many of Bucky's t-shirts he's been borrowing lately, half his shelf not his own. Clint has to laugh at himself. He has a toothbrush at Steve and Bucky's, his own mug, his laptop's there as well, along with his phone charger and his favorite pair of sneakers. He bangs his head a few times on the wall.

Clint doesn't run. He wants to, but he doesn't, because with every step his heart pounds more heavily, his breaths drawing shorter. What if they've changed their minds? No, it's not possible, Clint knows, but the thought keeps niggling in the back of his mind.

It feels like an eternity before Steve opens the door.

"I couldn't believe I'd be this lucky," is the first thing that comes to mind, and of course it's the first thing that leaves his mouth.

But Steve stands there, eyes wide.

"Can I come in?" Clint asks, and shit, maybe he's really fucked this up already.

Steve moves aside then, and follows Clint to the living room. The place is dark, too quiet.

"Where's Bucky?" he asks.

"Bedroom," Steve rasps from behind him, and Clint turns to face him.

"When you touched me," he says, because he knows how important that little gesture must have been to Steve, "I didn't mean to reject you. I just couldn't believe it. It felt like dreaming."

He's met with a long silence, Steve's face shrouded in darkness, but then, "Really?"

"Yes," Clint nods, saying the word as clearly and definitively as he can.

A huff of laughter comes from Steve. He sounds relieved, and Clint's heart skips a beat. It's not too late, not at all. Steve moves to the sofa, collapsing into the cushions. Clint follows. They don't have a coffee table there, so he kneels in front of Steve, who's rubbing both hands over his face. Clint waits, and when he finally looks over, Clint extends a hand, lets it hang in the air.

"I wanna try, the three of us," he offers, quietly, heart pounding.

It's still dark around them, but Steve's smile is clear. "Good," he returns, floating on another half laugh. "Good," he says again, and shifts, tentatively touching Clint's fingers.

It feels like a first kiss.

So Clint gently wraps his hand around Steve's, pulls it slowly to press his lips on his knuckles, and Steve lets him. When Clint looks back up, it's to a smile so wide, that it makes his chest tighten.

"Go to Bucky," Steve whispers, urgently, "now."

Clint's up and moving into the bedroom in no time. It's dark in here as well, but the curtains are drawn apart, letting in some of the light from the street. On the bed, Bucky's curled up, facing away from the door. Clint sits on the edge, and Bucky must have felt the mattress give under the weight, because he mumbles something unintelligible into the pillow. Clint touches his arm and he stills.

"It's me," Clint says, and Bucky turns so fast, it makes Clint dizzy.

"I'm so sorry," Bucky starts, "I won't do it again, I promise," he pleads, "I can do it for Steve, I'll do it for you, I won't kiss you again--"

"Hey, hey, slow down," Clint catches his hands, because this is going the wrong way. "You can kiss me all you want, and touch me, whatever you want," he adds, shifting closer, and places Bucky's hands on his own shoulders.

It's all Bucky needs to wrap himself around Clint, push his face against Clint's neck.

"I should be the one who's sorry," he says, clutching back at Bucky. "I kissed you."

It's met with a head shake and there's wetness against his skin. "No."

"Ok, ok," Clint relents, and rubs at Bucky's back against the tremors.

The minutes trickle slowly, and Clint only moves to lean on the headrest. He doesn't want to let go, and Bucky doesn't seem inclined to, either.

"'m not good at saying things," Bucky whispers after a while, his head on Clint's shoulder, hands still gripping tightly around Clint.

"It's ok," he soothes.

"Not good at sex either," comes next, "but I can do it for you, if you want, I can."

Fuck, these two... Clint understands them now, gets it, everything they didn't say aloud, but communicated clearly. Clint's just been too blind to see.

"I don't want sex," he murmurs, and it's true. He wants this, instead, to hold Bucky tightly, and laugh at Steve's stories. "But I like hugs, and kisses," he cards his fingers through Bucky's hair and receives nods in returns, "and cuddles."

"'m good at those," Bucky looks up then, eyes bright.

And Clint leans down, presses their mouths together. It's even better than the kiss in the bar, exhilarating when Bucky smiles into it.

"Steve," Bucky calls, leaning back down, and he's spoken too softly to be heard from the other room.

The bedroom door opens nonetheless, Steve peeking around the frame, from where he's sitting on the floor.

"Tell him," comes from Bucky.

Steve seems to know what this is about, 'cos he nears to sit on the edge of the bed. "We like you," he tells Clint, and Bucky nods against his neck, "and we're happy you're here."

Oh. Dammit. He's going to cry.

But the emptiness fills, overflowing.

~

That night, Clint falls asleep with Bucky wrapped around him from behind, and Steve facing him, holding his hand in the space between them.

~

Steve's pushing Clint's coffee mug in front of him, where he's sat at the kitchen counter, when Bucky shuffles in. He's his usual unresponsive self, but this time, he drags his chair closer to Clint and slumps on him instead of the wood. Steve smiles widely.

And Clint... he can't believe it, at times, that this is real.

"Can I ask you a few questions?" he looks at Steve after a few sips.

"Go ahead," comes back.

"They're a bit invasive?" Clint adds because yeah.

"I figured," Steve leans with his elbows on the counter from where he's facing Clint, giving him his full attention. "Go ahead."

"Ok," Clint takes his time with another drink. "Have you two ever had sex?"

"We tried once," Steve grimaces, "didn't work."

"Have you ever?" Clint raises his eyebrows, perhaps this is too much, but Steve answers without delay.

"In college, a futile attempt," he gestures, "and Bucky dated for a while. I guess it just didn't stick with us."

Clint nods, takes another sip. "You can ask me stuff, too, or stop me if it's too much."

Steve smiles. "I assume you've had more experience?"

"Eh, nah. Two boyfriends and," he tilts his head, "the guy you threw out."

"You're aware you won't have much more with us," Steve adds and he sounds a little resigned.

"I know," Clint hurries to reassure, "and I don't want that. I was serious last night, if you heard us."

Steve beams at him. "Yeah."

It warms Clint with delight, seeing him smile like that. "One more question," and Steve hums. "Will I ever get a hug from you?"

"We'll work up to it," comes back lightly, with an enthusiastic nod.

Bucky grunts into Clint's shoulder.

"I'm glad you approve," says Steve, pulling laughter out of Clint.

~

With September, the barbecues are back and Clint's a permanent fixture that no one questions. Even though Steve insists he doesn't have to contribute to the meat jar, he does so, anyway. They develop a new routine, and Clint finds himself spending most nights over at their place instead of his own.

It's early October when Clint stumbles out of the shower to see Bucky and Steve in the hallway. Bucky's arms are crossed, and Steve watches over a cup of tea, an eyebrow raised. Clint eyes them warily, but he moves into the bedroom to get dressed. The two follow.

"I saw this ad for a play," Clint says, retrieving a t-shirt and a pair of jeans from the closet.

He turns to see Bucky waving a hand toward Clint with a 'told you so' gesture.

"You're right," Steve says then, "he does live here."

Huh. Clint supposes it's true.

They haul his stuff over a week later, not that it's been much left at his place, anyway.

~

Natasha returns mid-November, and the three of them find themselves standing awkwardly in front of her, as she sits on the couch, legs crossed, studying them with a critical eye.

"I already said I approved," she raises her hands in the air as if to ask what more do they want from her.

Clint slumps.

"Ugh, you knew. You knew when I didn't," and they tell her their mishap, with the promise of secrecy.

Natasha laughs for two weeks, but Clint's happy to have his friend back.

~

A late December night, as they crawl into bed, Clint realizes, how he's always in the middle. Bucky hugs him tightly, and Steve extends his hand for him to wrap his fingers around. He whispers softly of his day, and Steve listens over the steady breaths of a sleeping Bucky until he's also drifting.

Clint wonders just how lonely this bed must have been, before. And he's happy to be there, to bridge that gap between them.

~End~