Steve's just finishing his second order of blueberry crumble when a somewhat familiar and beleaguered form slides into the other side of his booth. He places his fork down beside his plate and gives his full attention to the smirking man in the dark glasses and worn tee shirt.
"Agent Barton," Steve says with a prim nod of his head, "fancy meeting you here." He's not sure how S.H.E.I.L.D found him when even Steve is a little unclear about where he actually is - still Pennsylvania, probably - but he's not surprised that Fury changed his mind about just letting him go without any kind of government approved chaperone.
"Hey, Cap," Barton says. His voice is easy, but there's a definite tension to his jaw and shoulders. The approach of Steve's waitress is met with a subtle flinch, then an exaggerated grin. The waitress, to her credit, seems unimpressed with Barton's charm. Or maybe, like Steve, she can sense how brittle it all is.
Hollow pleasantries are exchanged, and Barton asks for a cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie. Steve asks for his bill.
"You gotta love places like this," Barton says, placing his glasses on the table and glancing around the little diner. "From one ocean to the other, you can always find someplace to get coffee and apple pie." He cranes his neck and looks towards the swinging doors that lead to the kitchen. "I wonder if they have patty melts."
"Hmmm." Steve studies him for another few seconds. "Would you like to switch?" he asks.
Barton looks startled for a second before his face smooths out again. "Pardon?"
"Seats," Steve says, motioning across the Formica table. "So you're facing the door?"
There's a subtle relaxing of Barton's form, and the smile that flashes over his face seems genuine. "Nah," he says. "Thanks for the offer though."
The waitress returns and maybe she wasn't so immune to Barton after all - the slice of pie she places in front of him has a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. This time Barton's smile has none of the artifice of before.
"Awesome," he says before picking up a spoon and digging in.
Steve lets out a little huff of amusement. Barton's definitely cute, and Fury might be more of a bastard - and more knowledgeable - than Steve thought. Still, if Steve could be so easily swayed by a handsome face, he never would have accomplished anything during the war.
"I'm not going to change my mind," Steve says. "So you can enjoy your pie and coffee and head back to New York."
Barton doesn't say anything - he's too busy chewing - but he does raise his eyebrows.
"I mean it," Steve says. "I'm available for emergencies, and disasters, and, and alien invasions, but I'm not working for S.H.E.I.L.D full time. And nothing Nick Fury can do, or say, and no one he can send, will make me change my mind."
Barton swallows and nods. "Good for you." He shrugs. "Fury's not such a bad guy really. Relatively speaking, anyway. And he's loads better than the people he's supposed to answer to. But it's good for you to assert your independence. Healthy, or whatever." Barton's eyes flick down to his plate. "Wow, this is really good pie."
"So, wait," Steve says, "you're not here to recruit me?"
"Nope," Barton says. "I'm actually here because I need, uh... heh, I need a favor." He smiles wanly.
Steve can't help but be intrigued. "I'm not helping you hide any bodies," he says.
Barton barks out a sharp, little laugh. "It's good to know you've got a sense of humor under all that patriotic stoicism, Cap." There's the tiniest smile on Barton's face. "And, for the record, I've never needed help hiding a body."
"Good to know," Steve says with a smirk. "So what do you need help with?"
"I, uh..." Barton sighs and scratches at the side of his face. Then he fiddles with his fork, spoon, coffee cup, and a salt shaker.
Steve waits patiently.
"Agent Romanoff is being sent on a new assignment," Barton finally says.
"So soon?" Steve asks. It's only been two weeks since the Battle of Manhattan, and Steve would have thought that helping to stop a demi-god and a bunch of aliens would have warranted at least a month of downtime.
"Nat likes to keep busy," Barton says. "For that matter, so do I. Unfortunately, the esteemed headshrinkers at S.H.E.I.L.D don't think I'm fit for active duty yet, or whatever. Which is ridiculous. And they're not sure I should be left unsupervised. Which is completely ridiculous."
"Is it?" Steve asks.
"Of course," Clint scoffs.
Steve shifts his eyes to the condensation on the side of his water glass. "I knew men during the war..." He shifts a bit and he can feel his face frown. "It was called battle fatigue back then. The docs thought it had something to do with long deployments, but they didn't see what we saw. Sometimes all it would take was one fight going bad, or one person being lost..." Steve let his eyes rest back on Barton's face. "It's easy for trauma to make a person behave recklessly."
Barton gives him a slow, lazy grin. "Aw, Cap, I've always been reckless."
"Yeah," Barton says, his attention momentarily back on his disappearing slice of pie, "I've been that too."
"Clint." Barton rolls his eyes. "C'mon, man. You're not my handler, and if this whole Avengers thing pans out, we're gonna become friends eventually."
Steve tries not to smile. "Is that so?"
"Hell, yeah," Barton says. "I'm adorable, like a kitten or one of those dwarf rabbit things. Resistance is futile, dude, seriously."
Steve shakes his head. "Clint," he says, "as your future friend and current teammate, let me say that if S.H.E.I.L.D's doctors, who are probably very knowledgeable and well-trained, think you need help, it might be because you actually need help. And I may not know all the nuances of life in this-" Steve grimaces as the words 'new century' pop into his head. He clears his throat. "Anyway, these days, isn't there much less stigma attached to, you know, being, um..."
"Off my nut?" Clint supplies.
"Traumatized," Steve says firmly.
"Traumatized." Clint chuckles. "Look, Cap, you don't know my story, but the condensed version is that I've been dealing with shit being thrown at me my whole life. I learned a long time ago how to roll with life's sucker punches and how to get the fuck back up after someone bigger and meaner than me knocks me down. Which, I would think, if the stories are true, would be a trait you would appreciate."
"Yeah, I always got back up," Steve says quietly, "but most of the time there was a hand helping me and brushing me off."
"A friend, right?" Barton asks. "Which is what we're going to be, which is why I'm here." He grins and holds out his hands. "This is like synergy or something."
"I don't know what that means."
"Yeah," Clint says, the grin dropping from his face, "I don't either. But it sounded good, right?"
Steve rubs a hand over his eyes. "Clint-"
"Ha! You called me Clint. Progress."
Steve will not be charmed by this man. He just won't. "Why me?" Steve asks.
"That's usually the best policy."
Clint smirks. "Talk about adorable."
Steve will not blush in front of his man either. "There have to be other people beside Agent Romanoff who are better suited for..." He doesn't want to say 'dealing with you', but he really can't think of any other way to end that sentence.
"Other people," Clint says. He smiles, but it's a rough thing, and his eyes stay so somber. "Besides Fury and Hill, there are only a handful of people at S.H.E.I.L.D who are still willing to look me in the eye, and they're way too busy to waste time babysitting me. There's Tony Stark and, while I'm all for using humor as a defense mechanism, I'm not sure I could deal with him in large doses right now. I think Doctor Banner has enough issues of his own without me piling mine on top of them. Thor's still on Asgard and is, you know, the brother of the guy who mindfucked me in the first place. And, of course, Coulson is still dead, so..." Clint eyes drop to his hands. "I don't want to be here; I don't want to ask this of you, but if you turn me away then I'm going to have to go back to the helicarrier and I really don't know if I can deal with everybody looking at me like I'm... like I'm just gonna... I just don't..."
"I haven't said no," Steve says.
"You haven't said yes either," Clint shoots back.
Steve drums his fingers on the table top. He thinks about what he's been doing since he woke up. He thinks about being needed. He thinks about being lonely. He thinks that Clint Barton could be a temptation, but that he could also be a friend, now and not just in the future.
"Okay," Steve says, breathing out. "Okay."
"Really?" Clint looks hopeful, but still wary. Or maybe that should be weary.
"Yep," Steve says. "But we're not going back to New York. Not yet, anyway. You're going to have to come with me."
"Roadtrip," Clint says. "Nice. I'm driving."
Steve opens his mouth to say how that wasn't going to happen since he's traveling on a motorcycle and to ask if Clint would be riding with him - which wouldn't be awkward at all - or if he knew where they could get a sidecar - which would be hilarious - when an odd sort of expression steals over Clint's face. It looks almost like... almost like guilt.
"Now, don't freak out," Clint says.
Steve whips his head around to the window and rises out of his seat enough to see the parking lot. His motorcycle's gone.
"Nat took your bike," Clint says.
Steve thumps back into his seat. "Wha-"
"She rode down here with me, and she's gonna ride your bike back to New York. It'll be waiting for you in the garage at Stark's tower."
"She was supposed to wait until I gave the go ahead, but I guess she figured I was taking too long convincing you, and she got impatient."
"About a minute after I sat down. Which I'm still not pleased about, Natasha." Clint raises a hand to his left ear. "Oh, that's nice. Very ladylike."
"Is that her?" Steve asks. "You have her on comms? Give me your earbud."
"You don't just ask for another man's earbud, Cap," Clint says with a grimace. "Gross." His eyes go distant for a moment. "She said she's gonna take real good care of and treat it like... Oh, geez, Nat, I'm not telling Captain America that. For fuck's sake."
Steve raises a hand and rubs at the bridge of his nose. He hadn't developed a non-concussion caused headache since he received the serum, but damn if he couldn't feel one forming now right behind his eyes.
"Uh oh," Clint says. "I've seen that look before."
"You don't say," Steve says. He rolls his shoulders back and looks Clint straight in the eye. "I don't appreciate being played Agent Barton."
"Did you just... Did you just use modern slang? Correctly?" Clint looks floored.
Steve had decided weeks ago to stop being offended whenever anyone seemed amazed at evidence of how well he was adapting to this time. He couldn't quite hold in a sigh, though. "Just out of curiosity," he asks, "what would you have done if I had said no?"
"Uh, improvise?" Clint grins. Steve's head throbs.
Their waitress chooses that moment to return. She tops off Clint's coffee and takes the money Steve's left on top of his bill. He tells her to keep the change even as the part of him that remembers what it as like growing up in a depression rails against leaving that much as a tip. He's getting better about not flinching at the location of decimal points, though. Baby steps.
"C'mon, Cap," Clint says once they're along again, "we can either focus on the what-ifs, or we can look towards the future. Speaking of, were you just tooling around the highways and byways, or do you have a specific destination in mind?"
Steve decides to not push and goes along with the subject change. "Both, actually. Before the serum I had never been outside the city. Then, during the USO tour, I went all over the place, but the schedule was so tight I barely got to see anything that wasn't framed by a bus or train window." Steve glances out the window again. "I want to see everything I can, while I can."
Clint's eyes narrow slightly. "You planning on going somewhere?"
"Not planning, no. Then again, I didn't plan on crashing a plane into the ice and staying frozen for 70 years either."
Clint nods once, sharply. "So, have you done anything fun, or has it all been about sampling fine cuisine?"
"I saw the Liberty Bell," Steve says, brightening a bit. "I visited a few museums. Oh, I went to Eastern State Penitentiary and saw Al Capone's cell. That was fun."
Clint looks doubtful. "Fun. Uh huh." He uses his fork to rearrange some crumbs left on his plate. "And the specific destination?"
"There are a couple," Steve says.
Clint blinks. "So, this is a feel good kind of trip then."
"I want to pay my respects," Steve says. "Not everyone is there, of course. Dernier and Falsworth are buried over in Europe, but Arlington seems like a good place to start."
"Fuck," Clint says, the curse coming out easy and effortlessly - Steve doesn't know if he's ever going to adapt to that. "I... It hasn't even been two months for you, hasn't it? Since... I keep forgetting that."
Steve shrugs. He understands.
"And after Arlington?"
"After I pay my respects to the dead, I'm going to concentrate on the living," Steve says. "Jones is in a nursing home in Virginia, and Morita is in out California." Steve swallows back the other name that's been haunting him since he got the gumption to ask one of the agents to run a computer check for him.
Clint chokes on a mouthful of coffee. "Some of your guys are still alive?! I... Uh... Not to be rude, or morbid, or anything, but considering how old they have to be, should you maybe go see the ones who are still kicking before you hit the cemetery?"
"I'm working up to it," Steve says crossly. "How about I'll confront my issues if you confront yours?"
Clint's face shutters. "So, Arlington, huh?"
"Yeah," Steve says. "Arlington."
Chapter 2: A Runaway American Dream
Steve gets uninvited company on his great American roadtrip. But with Clint running from demons of his own, how can Steve leave him behind?
Clint's car is taken from what he appears to be driving in the second issue of Fury's Big Week.
More information about the cyclorama can be found here.
Clint's car is a cherry red 1969 Dodge Charger. After proudly announcing the make and model, Clint runs a loving hand along the car's hood and gives it a look that's so fond, Steve's a bit uncomfortable about touching it himself.
"It looks old," Steve says. He almost takes an involuntary step back when Clint fixes him with a truly impressive glare.
"I would think," Clint says, "that you, of all people, would understand the difference between being a relic and being a classic."
"I didn't..." Steve holds up his hands. "I didn't mean it as an insult, I swear. It was just an observation. I'm all for old things being utilized to their full advantage." Steve smiles weakly.
Clint stares at him for a moment before nodding his head. "All right, then."
Steve waits until Clint opens his door and slides inside before he follows suit. The seat is buttery soft under Steve's fingers, and there's a surprising amount of leg room. Clint puts the key in the ignition, turns it, and the car comes to life with a loud purr. A second later a rectangular electronic device on the dashboard lights up.
"Okay," Clint says, picking up the tiny computer and thumbing something on its screen, "we are... somewhere just outside of Lancaster." Clint's thumbs move like they're possessed and Steve wonders how long it'll be before he's able to work a touchscreen that fast. "And it'll take... about two and a half hours to get to Arlington, which means, depending on how hellish the traffic around DC is, we should make it there in four, five hours tops." Clint only looks like he's half joking.
Steve reaches into the backseat where someone, probably Agent Romanoff, had placed his rucksack. He rifles through one of the outside pockets and pulls out the map he had been occasionally referencing on his travels. He hears Clint huff, and Steve barely stifles a grin as he slowly unfolds the thin paper. It takes him a moment to find Lancaster, but once he does, something very close by - on the map, at least - catches his eye. "How long would it take us to get to Gettysburg?" Steve asks.
Clint blinks at him. "Gettysburg. You mean, like, Gettysburg Gettysburg? Civil War Gettysburg?"
"Is there more than one?" Steve asks.
Clint peers at him. Steve widens his eyes ever so slightly and blinks three times.
"I really can't tell if that's an honest question," Clint says, "or if you're being a smart ass. I do believe you have unknown skills, Captain." His thumbs start moving again. "From here to Gettysburg would take a little over an hour."
"Okay," Steve says, carefully folding up his map. "That sounds good. Let's go there." Clint stares at him, but Steve holds strong. "I'm ready to talk whenever you are." It's a lie because Steve doesn't think he's ever going to be ready to talk, but he's not selfish enough to hope Clint feels the same way.
"Right," Clint says. He sets the computer back on the dashboard and Steve starts a bit as a disembodied voice come out of it and tells him which direction Clint should turn when they leave the parking lot.
"Geez," Steve says, impressed even though he knows he shouldn't be.
Clint snorts and slides his sunglasses on. With his eyes hidden and a grin on his face, it would be very easy to buy into the carefree illusion Clint's trying to cultivate. He puts the car into reverse and backs out of the parking space, "Gettysburg it is, then. Let's learn some history. Yay."
Clint automatically steers them to the highway. Steve's been enjoying traveling the smaller roads - the two lane blacktops that wind and weave throughout the countryside. He doesn't say anything, though. It's Clint's car. Besides, being a passenger gives Steve a better opportunity to look around, and there certainly is a lot to see.
After a few minutes of companionable silence, Clint asks if Steve would mind if he put on the radio. Steve's a bit hesitant, but he'd feel strange telling another man what he could and couldn't do in his own car.
"Go ahead," Steve says. He braces himself for what might come out of the speakers.
"Awesome." Clint turns a knob, and the car's filled with a hissing sound. He frowns. "Why don't you try and find a station," he says.
Steve feels kind of empowered, which is stupid, as he dutifully reaches out and begins fiddling with the tuning knob. After a minute or two Steve finds something that doesn't sound too horrible. He looks to Clint for approval. Clint grins.
Steve doesn't know if that's the name of the band, the name of the song, or maybe just a commentary on the two of them and the trip they're taking. Clint doesn't bother to clarify, either. He does, however, start to sing along. His voice is strong and has an edge of roughness to it. Steve finds himself settling deeper into his seat and relaxing in a way that had become foreign to him.
After a few minutes the hustle and bustle of the outskirts of civilization fade away. They drive through rolling farmland and forest, but it's not long before more buildings pop up - gas stations, and convenience stores, and the occasional free-standing restaurant. There's still a lot more unruly wood than there are structures, even on this bigger road, and the sight of all that green loosens something in Steve's chest, city boy that he is.
Steve would never admit it, but being a passenger inside Clint's car is kind of nice. He's certainly seeing more scenery this way. And Clint's driving skills are much more tame than Steve had expected.
"Dude, I'm not gonna do anything crazy in my baby," Clint says, when Steve voices his observation. "Now, if we were in a S.H.E.I.D. car, or if someone was shooting at us, you would see some real skills. Actually, you might still see some real skills once we hit the Beltway. There are some fucked up people driving around our nation's capitol. Soccer moms and bureaucrats, Steve. Soccer moms and bureaucrats."
"Uh, okay." Steve tries to ignore the little part of him that's saying it might be fun to see some of Clint's skills.
"Now, I'm not really one for planning things down to the letter," Clint says. "That's usually..." Steve watches as Clint's fingers tense on the steering wheel. "Anyway, did you want to go to the Visitor's Center first, or head straight to the battlefield?"
"What's a Visitor's Cen-"
"A center for visitors," Clint says quickly.
Steve has to bite the inside of his cheek to stop from grinning at the almost absurdly proud look on Clint's face. "Yeah," Steve says, "besides that."
"I don't know," Clint says with a shrug. "Like I said, I'm not one for history, but I guess they're places you can pick up information about the site. There's probably a gift shop, if you want to get a souvenir or something."
"Why would anyone want to get a souvenir from a battlefield?" Steve asks, honestly baffled.
"Coffee mugs and key fobs have to come from somewhere, Cap," Clint says.
Steve starts to tell Clint to just take him to the battlefield, but it's been a long time since he'd had a history lesson - or, well, a history lesson that wasn't about something he'd missed during his 'ice nap'.
"Visitor's Center," Steve says.
Clint shakes his head, but there's a certain fondness in the motion. "You're gonna be a giant nerd about things, aren't you?"
Steve grins at the mention of one of the first new words he had learned upon waking up in this century. "That's Captain Nerd to you, Agent Barton."
Steve's getting better at quickly assimilating the riots of information that seem to be everywhere in this day and age. He's sure that, eventually, he'll be like Clint and the other people milling around the center - able to quickly hone in on the information he wants and dismiss anything else with one glance - but for now it's still work to try and find what he wants. Then Steve realizes that he doesn't have to do anything because Clint's doing it for him.
Clint has a firm grip on Steve's elbow, and he steers him through the crowds. "I assume, being the giant nerd that you are, that you're gonna want to go to the museum."
Actually, Steve would like to go to the museum. He steels his spine against the shock of the entry fee. When he catches himself thinking that $12.50 isn't a bad price for a ticket, he has an irrational surge of pride.
Clint releases his elbow only to poke him between his ribs. "I dare you to ask for the senior discount."
"I double dog dare you."
Clint smiles unapologetically. Steve almost involuntarily smiles back before he realizes that that could be seen as a sign of encouragement. Steve's pretty sure that if there's one thing Clint Barton doesn't need, it's encouragement.
Steve wanders through the exhibits, internally ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the various artifacts. At some point he loses Clint. Steve feels a frisson of worry go through him, which is silly because Steve's not dependent on him, and Clint's a grown man who can take care of himself. Besides, how much trouble could a secret agent get up to in a Civil War museum?
Steve immediately abandons the display he was looking at and begins to search for his wayward teammate. He finds him in the Cyclorama room. Clint's quietly gazing at the mural. He's stretching his neck and angling his head this way and that, obviously trying to take in as much as he can before he turns to face another section of the painting.
"Oh, hey," Clint says when he notices Steve. "Check this out."
"It's amazing," Steve says, letting his own eyes drift over the battle scene depicted in the huge, 360 degree work of art. Steve can't imagine the dedication it would take to complete a piece like this. For the first time since waking, his fingers itch for the hard wood of a brush or pencil. It seems like ages since he'd made any kind of art, and even longer since he was truly inspired by something.
They leave the Cyclorama room and drift around through a couple of other exhibits until even Steve feels like he's had enough history for one day.
Clint checks his watch and then one of the brochures he picked up when they first entered the museum. "There are only a couple hours of daylight left," he says, "and the battlefield opens at 6 am. I say we find some place to bunk for the night and explore the park in the morning."
Steve agrees and they make their way back out to the parking lot. The inside of Clint's car is like an oven, and Steve can't help but be pathetically grateful when Clint turns the key and the AC kicks on. Clint picks up his little dashboard computer, and Steve discovers that it's not only good for telling you directions.
"Didn't your bike have a GPS?" Clint asks.
"Uh... maybe." Steve casts his mind back. He does remember the agent who had presenting him with his motorcycle trying to give him some kind of tutorial on something. Steve had been practically itching to get on the road, though, and it had been easy to tune out what he had thought were nothing more than ramblings.
"Oh, man," Clint says. "Word of advice, Steve; in this day and age, always pay attention to the geeks." He flips the GPS in Steve's direction. Steve catches it easily in one hand. "Find us a hotel, will ya?"
It takes a moment for Steve to acclimate himself with the system, but once he does, he finds the whole thing very intuitive.
"Golly! That's a lot of hotels!"
"Did you just unironically use the word 'golly'?"
"Shut up. Which one should I pick?" Steve asks.
"Whichever," Clint says with a shrug. "If it's got a bed and an indoor toilet, it's automatically better than a lot of the places I've laid my head over the years."
"I hear ya," Steve says. He picks a hotel at random. It's not the closest, but it's not the furthest away either. Now there's another question he has to ask, but this one requires a much more delicate touch. "When we get there, do you want to share a room?"
"I don't know what your financial situation is," Clint says, "but I'm still technically on S.H.E.I.L.D.'s payroll. Money's not a problem for me, Steve."
"Me neither," Steve says. "Somebody arranged for me to get back pay from the Army, adjusted for inflation."
Clint lets out a low whistle. "Golly."
Steve rolls his eyes and thumps Clint - lightly - on the shoulder. "The question still stands, though."
An interesting mix of emotions cross Clint's face, but the one that settles on it looks like something close to belligerent defiance.
"I'm not far enough gone that I can't sleep on my own in a big boy room," Clint says, his mouth twisting up into a sneer.
"Maybe I should rephrase the question."
"Yeah, maybe you should."
Steve takes a deep breath. Trying to be delicate didn't work, so he decides to go the opposite route. "When you wake up from the nightmares you're going to have tonight, would you rather be alone, or would you like someone there to tell you it was a dream and that you're safe?"
Clint stares at him for a moment before he wrenches his door open and nearly falls trying to get out of the car. He stalks off, and Steve has a quick internal debate over whether or not he should follow. He decides to stay put.
A few minutes pass before Clint returns. He slides back into the car and grips the steering wheel. His knuckles are white.
"One room's fine with me," he says evenly.
Steve nods. It's probably going be a long night, and he's okay with that.
Chapter 3: A Runaway American Dream
Steve gets uninvited company on his great American roadtrip. But with Clint running from demons of his own, how can Steve leave him behind?
Not betad, grammarians beware.
This chapter deals with the emotional fallout of plot points and the fate of a certain character in The Avengers. There are issues, including possible PTSD, and survivor's guilt.
Steve had chosen a Hilton as their destination for the night because it was a name he recognized from the time before the war and the ice. As soon as he walks through the automatic doors and into the cool, climate controlled lobby, though, he can't help but feel like he's made a horrible mistake.
Everything he can see - from the high ceilings, to the polished marble floors, to the lush furnishings - screams opulence. Steve falters, feeling every bit the tired, dirty traveler that he is. He tightens his grip on his rucksack and thinks about trying to find some other place for the night - like the simple, one-story motor courts he had been staying at. But Clint's already pushing past him and striding up to the reception desk.
There's not one ounce of hesitation as Clint - who actually looks more like a vagrant than Steve with his faded jeans, worn tee shirt, and old duffel bag - gives the lady behind the desk a grin and asks for a double. Steve's so concerned with his uncomfortableness that he doesn't realize Clint's paying for the whole thing until he's signing the credit card slip.
"Hey," Steve says, stepping up, "you should have let me get that."
"Don't worry about it, man," Clint says, easy as all get out. "You'll get the next one, okay?" He takes two key cards from the lady, gives her another smile, and then moves off towards the elevators. All Steve can do is follow.
"I'm serious," Steve says again once the elevator doors close and they begin their assent. "I should have at least paid for part of this. Or we should have found some place cheaper."
"It was under two hundred, chill."
"For one night?!" Steve squeaks. If he didn't know it was impossible, he would swear his asthma was making a comeback.
The elevator dings as they reach their floor. Clint rolls his eyes and gets a grip on Steve's elbow just like he did earlier at the museum.
"Look," he says as he propels Steve down the hallway, "I know we could have found some place cheaper, but we could have found some place more expensive too. There's nothing wrong with wanting to stay at a hotel that doesn't have bullet holes in the wall and lizards in the bathroom, okay, Steve?" He stops in front of a door and quickly uses the card to open it. "Besides, like I said, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s still paying me and-" Clint stops abruptly. He lets out a grunt and staggers a little as Steve runs into his back.
Steve immediately regains his balance and grabs onto Clint's upper arms to steady him. A part of Steve's brain can't help but notice how solid Clint's muscles are. It's promptly and thoroughly chastised by the rest of Steve's brain which is kind of mortified.
"Are you okay?" Steve asks, letting his eager hands drop to his side.
Clint turns to him. "Dude," he says, "I bet I could totally file an expense report for all this. Remind me to start collecting receipts."
"An expense report?"
"I might be able to take all this off next year's taxes," Clint says, walking over to deposit his duffel on the room's bureau. "I might even be able to get my money back. I'm, I don't know, helping Captain America in his quest to discover the 21st century, or something." He waves one hand around. "I could get the S.H.I.E.L.D. accountants to go for that, right?"
"Is that really ethical?"
Clint blinks at him. "You do know I make my living putting various projectiles between people's eyeballs, don't you?"
"Being a sniper doesn't automatically mean you can't have a moral compass, Clint," Steve says with a scowl.
Clint stares for a moment, then walks right up to him so they're standing chest to chest. Steve tenses and wonders if S.H.I.E.L.D. agents consider being told they have a moral compass to be some kind of insult. Clint cocks his head to one side, reaches up, and uses his pointer finger to poke at Steve's cheek.
"Huh," Clint says before heading back to his duffel.
"What the heck was that?"
"Oh, I wanted to make sure that Stark hadn't developed some life-like android or something. But, nope, you're real. Go figure."
Steve thinks he should be insulted. Maybe. He decides to let it go in lieu of taking a proper look at their room.
It's not nearly as fancy as the lobby had been, though the beds are huge. Steve lets out a deep breath and makes himself relax. This is fine, and if Clint isn't worried about it then Steve is determined to not let it worry him either.
"Which bed do you want?" Steve asks.
"Either's fine with me," Clint says, not even bothering to turn around.
"Are you sure?"
Clint does turn now. "Do you have my back, Cap?" he asks.
"Then, like I said, either bed's fine." Clint shrugs. "When I'm bunking with someone I trust, I'm good with the window or the door."
Steve nods. There's a warm and kind of fuzzy feeling in his chest. He ruthlessly tamps it down.
Steve puts his rucksack on the bed closest to the door, then absently rubs at his stomach. He tries to figure out how long it's been since he ate. His belly's not bottomless, but his metabolism does require that he eat - a lot - on a mostly regular basis.
"Hungry?" Clint asks, eying Steve's hand.
Steve curses his pale skin and the pink that he knows is blooming over his cheeks. "Uh, yeah. Kind of."
"Dude, why didn't you say anything? We could have gotten something to eat before we came to the hotel." Clint puts his hands on his hips. "I do not want to be responsible for starving Captain America."
Steve rolls his eyes. "I'm not starving, Clint," he says.
"Okay, fearless leader," Clint says. "What are you in the mood for?"
Steve grimaces as his brain helpfully supplies Louis Armstrong crooning about Love. "Um, I don't know... Stuff. Whatever." He tries to smile, but he's not sure it comes out right.
Clint raises one eyebrow. "Uh huh. Let's get a recommendation from the front desk. And maybe we'll hit up a grocery store while we're out and get some non-perishables that we can keep in the car."
"Oh." Steve had thought about carrying some food with him, but the available space on the back of his motorcycle had been so limited. "That'd be really nice, Clint. Thanks."
Clint waves him off. "It's no big."
Steve wants to dispute that. What Clint's doing is actually kind of big - not the offer about food, but just how patient he's being with Steve - but he knows it would fall on deaf ears. Instead, Steve just smiles and claps a hand on Clint's shoulder. Clint looks startled, then pleased. The smile he gives Steve is a soft, almost shy thing, and Steve can't help but wonder how many people in this world have seen it.
Clint clears his throat and steps away from Steve's touch. "So, dinner?"
"Yeah," Steve says, "dinner."
Irene, the very nice lady at the front desk, gives Clint and Steve the names of a few different restaurants to choose from. They pick one that's in the middle of town, close to the college. The building is old, the decor quaint, and the food plentiful, if a bit on the pricey side.
Clint orders the largest steak the restaurant serves, then raises one eyebrow at Steve in a clearly challenging manner. Steve orders the steak too with a baked potato and some grilled vegetables. Clint's still got that eyebrow cocked, so Steve also orders a full salad and another baked potato.
The water is looking at him doubtfully, but Clint declares Steve to be a growing boy. Steve smiles as he kicks Clint under the table.
While they're waiting for their food, they start talking about this and that. There are some topics they steer clear of, but if one of them hits on a sore subject, the other quickly turns the conversation around to something else. Steve is relaxed and enjoying himself. By the time their food comes out he's in the middle of a passionate diatribe about the state of baseball in this century.
"You know, at some point, you're just going to have to let the whole Dodgers moving to LA thing go, Steve," Clint says.
"No, I don't," Steve says belligerently.
Clint laughs, and Steve laughs, and they eat and keep chatting in between bites.
Steve picks up the bill. He doesn't let Clint have the receipt.
True to his word, Clint finds a grocery store before they go back to the hotel. Steve, who's managed to avoid large markets after one very disastrous outing with an over-eager S.H.I.E.L.D. agent not long after his defrosting, is indescribably happy to simply push the cart.
"Pay attention, Cap," Clint says. "There is nothing, nothing more vital to a road trip than snacks."
Steve somehow doubts that, but he follows along anyway. Clint picks up various brightly colored boxes, extols on their virtue, and pitches them into the cart. They get protein bars, and packages of nuts and dried fruit, but Clint also loads the cart up with silly, salty, sweet things meant to be eaten for nothing other than enjoyment.
They begin to tease each other and act like fools. Clint pouts when Steve starts putting his more outrageous choices back on the shelves. Clint makes a game out of trying to distract Steve so he can slip the items back into the cart.
They get some dirty looks from a few store employees they cross paths with, but Steve's pretty sure he and Clint are the only customers in the place, and he's having fun, dammit. Easy, uncomplicated fun.
It all goes south when they hit the bakery section, though.
There are prepackaged donuts beside the ones made fresh in the store. Clint picks up one of those packages and his face shuts down. Steve has no idea what significance powered donuts could hold, but they obviously mean something to Clint.
He nearly bites his tongue to keep from asking if Clint's okay.
"The men in your unit," Clint says, his eye still on the donuts, "were they your friends?"
"Some more than others," Steve says, "but, yeah, we were all friends."
Clint nods. "Do you ever feel..." Clint tosses the donuts back on the shelf and scrubs a hand through his hair. "Fuck it."
"Do I ever feel what, Clint?" Steve asks. Steve's still not exactly keen on confronting his own issues, but something's stolen any trace of happiness off of Clint's face. Steve can feel the need to help him in his bones.
Clint takes a deep breath. "Do you ever... Jesus, I can't believe I'm doing this in the middle of a fucking super market..." Clint shakes his head. "Do you ever feel bad when you let yourself..." Clint trails off again. He puts both hands in his hair and tugs.
Steve steps up to Clint and grasps his hands. He gently, but firmly, moves them down until they're at Clint's side. He keeps his grip on them, though.
"It's hard," Steve says softly, "when you lose someone and you think it's your fault." Clint's body jerks harshly, but Steve doesn't let go. "And you mourn, but that can't last forever, and eventually you realize that you're smiling at something. And then you feel like shit because it's such a betrayal." Steve can feel his throat closing up and a bitterly cold Alpine wind whipping past his face.
He drops Clint's hands and takes a few steps backwards.
"I'm sorry," Clint says quickly.
"No, no, I'm-"
"Look, I shouldn't have-"
"Clint, it's not your-"
"God." Clint barks out a laugh. "We are a pair, aren't we?"
Steve smiles as best he can.
Clint's eyes grow wide. "Wait a minute. Wait just a... Holy crap, did you curse?"
"What?" Steve frowns. "No, I didn't."
"Uh, yes, you did."
"Dude, you totally did!"
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Agent Barton."
"I'm talking about the fact that Captain America just said the word 'shit'. That's what I'm talking about."
Steve rolls his eyes. "You know your generation didn't invent swear words, right?"
"Whatever, Grandpa Potty-Mouth."
"Bite me, whippersnapper."
By the time they make it back to the hotel, it's still not quite late enough to go to sleep. Clint turns the television on and changes the channel until he finds some kind of show about the possibility of aliens visiting ancient humans.
Clint turns to Steve and raises his eyebrows. Steve shrugs. Clint leaves the television as is, tugs his boots off, and flops onto his bed.
"You know," he says after a few minutes, "I used to think things like this were hooey, but now I can't help wondering who else might have paid Earth a visit way back when."
"I wish we could have had more time to talk with Thor," Steve says, "We could have picked his brain about what else might be out there."
Clint snorts. "I guess I'm biased, but I think getting Loki safely under Asgardian lock and key was a bit more pressing than pumping Thor for intel."
Steve grimaces. "Yes, of course. I didn't mean to-"
"I'm gonna hit the shower," Clint says, raising his voice over Steve's. He grabs some stuff from his duffel and disappears into the bathroom. The door clicks shut, but there's no sound of a lock being turned.
Steve turns his attention back to the television. When Clint exits the bathroom, freshly scrubbed and wearing sleep pants and another old tee shirt, Steve gathers his things and takes his turn. Steve dawdles under the high pressure of the shower, and by the time he comes out, Clint is under the covers. He's still awake, watching the next documentary that had come on.
Steve climbs into his own bed and rests against the headboard. Clint doesn't say anything, but the silence between them is companionable.
From one blink to the next, the program on the television changes, and Steve realizes that he must have dozed off. He yawns and starts to stretch, but a sound from the other bed makes him freeze.
Clint's face is turned in the other direction, but Steve can tell that his body is one long line of tension. There's another soft, broken noise, and Steve's up and out of his bed almost before he knows he's moving. Steve turns the television off. Without the background noise Clint's cries of distress are clearer.
Steve has a moment's hesitation as he considers how one should wake an assassin from a nightmare. Despite his healing factor, Steve decides to keep his distance.
"Hey, wake-" Steve's barely finished the second word before Clint's up and swinging.
Clint catches himself before he can tumble out of bed, but he's still looking around wildly.
"It's okay," Steve says. "You're safe."
Clint blinks bleary eyes at him. "Cap?" he asks, his voice rough.
"Yeah, it's me; I'm here." Steve moves back to his bed. He sits on the edge, facing Clint, and leans forward with his elbows on his knees. "You okay?"
"I, uh..." Clint sits up and swings his legs around so he's mirroring Steve. "I..." He chuckles "No. No, I am definitely not okay."
Steve, who had been expecting denial, is a little thrown. "Oh. Um, do you... Do you want to talk about it?"
Clint stares at him. "You're a genuinely nice guy, aren't you Steve?"
"I can be."
"Is your niceness going to absolve me of my sins?" Clint asks with a bite to his voice.
Steve doesn't know what to say.
Clint rubs at the center of his forehead. "I'm sorry."
"No, it's not. You're Captain America, and I-"
"Do you see a shield anywhere?" Steve asks. "Right now, I'm just Steve. And I'm pretty sure I can take anything you need to dish out."
"That so?" Clint asks with a quirk to his lips.
Clint's silent for a while, and when he does start talking, it's not about what Steve expected. "When I first joined S.H.I.E.L.D. I got tested for the mutant gene. You know about mutants, right?"
"I know the basics," Steve says. "Fury was supposed to arrange for more briefings, but, you know, things happened.
"Yeah. Things." Clint smiles, but there's nothing resembling humor in his expression. "Anyway, when I first joined up, some people thought that because of my aim I couldn't be human. They thought I had to have some kind of special power. See, I never miss. Ever. Unless I want to."
Steve hadn't paid that much attention to Hawkeye during the battle in Manhattan, but what he had seen had impressed him greatly. "Your skill is almost uncanny," Steve says.
"Yeah," Clint says, "that's me. Un-fucking-canny. Anyway, after the invasion, when everything started to get squared away, both Fury and Hill came up to me, separately, and thanked me for not killing them. I thought they were being sarcastic at first, especially Hill. But, no, they were serious."
"You never miss," Steve repeats softly. "Unless you want to."
"I know, up here," Clint says, tapping the side of his head, "that nothing that I did was my fault. I had my brain, my soul, hijacked by a fucking alien with more daddy issues than even I could dream of. I know, that for every betrayal, I managed to keep enough of myself to soften the blow somehow." Clint runs a hand over his face and then up into his hair, making it stick up in tufts. It's completely adorable, and totally incongruous with the sorrow in his voice and the devastation in his eyes.
Steve wants nothing more than to wrap Clint up into the tightest hug he could safely manage. He knows, though, that his touch wouldn't be welcome. So he stays put and watches Clint come apart.
"I could have shot Fury and Hill in the head," Clint says. "I could have led an attack on two, or even three engines instead of just one. I could have found one of my favorite people-watching spots and picked off agent, after agent, after agent until my quiver was empty and bodies fucking littered the floor." Clint's voice breaks. He takes a moment and a few deep breathes before he continues. "I know, logically, that I was fighting Loki's control every step of the way."
"But guilt's immune to logic, isn't it?" Steve says, his lips twisting up into some sad parody of a smile. Steve kind of knows about guilt.
"Ain't it a bitch?" Clint says, his eyes focusing hard on one knee. Then those eyes - red-rimmed, but so blue - dart up to Steve's face. "Did you meet Phil?"
Yeah, Steve knows about guilt. "Briefly," he says. "On the jet to the carrier."
"I'm glad," Clint says. An almost wistful expression comes over his face. "That must have been... Man, Cap, you don't even know what kind of fanboy Coulson was, just... Meeting you was probably-"
"I wasn't that nice to him," Steve blurts out. He tries to still his hands, but they keep twisting in his lap. "It wasn't that I was mean, I think, but I was dismissive. I was rude."
Clint cocks his head and studies Steve for a moment. "Why do I get the feeling Phil would have classified his interactions with you in a very different category than 'rude'?"
"I could have been nicer," Steve says. "He asked me to sign his cards, and I didn't even... I could have been nicer," Steve says again.
"He actually came right out and asked you about the cards?" Clint grins. "Was he flustered? I bet he was flustered." Clint's eyes go soft and fond. "God, Phil Coulson flustered; that must have been a sight."
Steve doesn't know why Clint is letting him off the hook so easily, but he does think that he has one thing he can give the man in regards to his friend. "He said he watched me while I was sleeping."
For a moment, Clint does nothing but stare at Steve. Then his face scrunches up, he throws his head back, and he lets out this loud peal of laughter. He turns red, and tears leak out of his eyes. "Oh, God..." he wheezes. "Oh, God, I can just... I can imagine his face..."
Steve starts to chuckle. He can't help it; it's contagious.
Clint clutches at his stomach and falls over onto his side, his face coming to rest close to one of his pillows. Steve expects him to right himself again and continue on with their conversation, but Clint stays there, his face pressed into the comforter. Steve's heart seizes when he realizes that Clint's sounds of amusement have turned into sobs.
Steve has a horrible few seconds of feeling completely helpless. He wants to do something, but he has no idea about what might be welcome. Steve ends up stretching out his leg and pressing his foot against one of Clint's. It's not nearly enough, in Steve's mind, but at least it's some kind of contact. At least Clint will know he's not alone.
Clint eventually quiets, but his breath keeps coming in soft, little hitches. "Someday," he says, "I'm gonna tell you all about Phil Coulson."
"I look forward to that," Steve says.
"Yeah." Clint lifts his feet from the floor and rolls so he's flat on his back. His eyes - still red but no longer leaking - stare up at the ceiling. "So... That happened."
"Yeah," Steve says. He slips underneath his covers, but he keeps his face turned towards Clint.
"You gonna still respect me in the morning?" Clint asks, the merest hint of bravado in his voice.
"You're my friend," Steve says. "Of course I will."
Clint huffs out a breath. "God, are you sure you're not some new Stark android."
"Go to sleep, Clint," Steve says. He reaches for the light.
"Hey, Cap," Clint says in the darkness.
"Anytime, Clint. Anytime."
Chapter 4: A Runaway American Dream
Steve gets uninvited company on his great American roadtrip. But with Clint running from demons of his own, how can Steve leave him behind?
Not betad, grammarians beware.
This contains spoilers for The Avengers, and non-graphic talk about death and war.
Clint's already up and dressed by the time Steve opens his eyes to greet the morning.
"Sorry I, you know, emotionally vomited on you last night," Clint says from his perch on the bureau, his eyes focusing on some point above and to the right of Steve's head.
Steve grimaces as he rubs sleep out of his eyes. "Ugh," he says as he pulls himself out of bed and lurches towards the bathroom. After emptying his bladder and washing his face, Steve feels slightly more human. The gaping chasm where his stomach should be is a pressing concern, but there's something else he needs to address first.
Steve throws open the bathroom door. Clint jumps just the tiniest bit, but at least he's focusing on Steve and not staring vacantly into space.
"Clint," Steve says, "never be sorry for needing to get something off your chest. If talking to me can help alleviate some of what you're going through, then yak my damn ear off." Steve smiles and he's gratified to see the ghost of an answering smile on Clint's face. "And also, never, ever use the phrase 'emotionally vomited' again. Ever."
Clint's lips quirk up into something decidedly wicked, and Steve knows they're going to be just fine.
Breakfast is spent in the restaurant attached to the hotel. Steve orders a good portion of the menu and tries not to look embarrassed by it.
Clint seems oddly proud.
They make it back to the battlefield by nine. Clint finds the closest parking spot he can. Steve starts to get out of the car, but waits as Clint twists around and digs for something in the back seat. After a minute of searching, he lets out a triumphant noise. When he turns back around, he's holding a long tube of something.
"Sunscreen," Clint says, pouring out a large dollop of viscous white stuff into his hand. "You should probably use some too, with all that fair skin of yours."
"I don't think I can burn anymore," Steve says. "Not from the sun, at least. I mean, I'm sure if someone lit me on fire, that would probably do some damage."
"Yeah, probably," Clint says. "Let's not test that theory."
Steve watches as Clint's strong hands rub the cream onto his bare arms and then up along the collar of his shirt and across the back of his neck. The atmosphere inside of the car turns stifling in a second and Steve can't blame it all on the late spring sun.
"I'm just going to..." Steve reaches for the door handle. "I need to..." He opens it and nearly tumbles out of the car. "I'm gonna go."
"Okay, man, I'll be-"
Steve slams the door and cuts Clint off, then starts walking. It's silly; Steve knows what it's like to live with temptation. He knows how to keep secrets and silently take care of himself when he gets the chance.
It has been months - or decades - though, since Steve's been in such close proximity to someone he's attracted to, so maybe his skill at handling unrequited lust has just gotten rusty. He needs to work it out and figure out some kind of internal balance again. Steve's found that he greatly enjoys Clint's company, 'emotional vomit' and all, and the last thing Clint needs in his life right now is to find out that Captain America has inappropriate feelings for him.
"Hey, Steve, wait up!" Clint calls out.
Steve pauses and steps to one side to let some other tourists pass. Clint jogs towards him. He looks concerned.
"You okay, man?"
"Yeah," Steve says. "Of course."
Clint's put his sunglasses back on. Steve can't see his eyes, but he can feel the weight of them all the same.
"You know," Clint says after a few moments, "I hate to say it, but the whole, jeez, talking about your, you know, problems thing isn't... God... It's not that awful."
"And you sell it so well," Steve says.
Clint snorts. "Whatever. I tried. Be repressed." He puts his hands on his hips. "Now let's go look at history and shit."
They bypass the tour and decide to just wander around the park by themselves. It's vast, but Steve has a few set destinations in mind.
Steve's never really liked cemeteries. With the death of his father, then his mother, and the few close health scares he had had before the serum, part of him figured why tempt fate by venturing too close to a place of the dead. Then, during the war, burials became a luxury that those on the front lines couldn't always afford. At the time, Steve couldn't let himself dwell on the bodies he'd left behind.
Now, Steve stands stock still and looks out over the rows of headstones at the Soldiers' National Cemetery. Most are simple, some are not. All are inscribed with the names of men who passed long before even Steve's time. Even with the heat of the May sun beating down on them, it's still somber.
"God, this is so creepy," Clint says under his breath.
Steve's pretty sure that wasn't meant for his ears, but since he heard it anyway, he can't help but react. "Have some respect," he snaps.
Clint's face tightens. Steve thinks about apologizing. He doesn't.
So, Steve leads, and Clint follows, and a raincloud of tension drags along with them. They look at the memorials, and read plaques, and Steve recites the Gettysburg Address in his head. He wants to tell Clint that memorizing it was one of his favorite assignments in school. But Clint's face stays like granite, and Steve's voice stays silent.
Steve's not sure why he wanted to come here, why seeing Gettysburg on his map spoke to him. Maybe he was hoping to find an epiphany. Maybe he was hoping an epiphany might find him.
He's discovered he still doesn't like cemeteries, so, there's that.
"You're right," Steve says finally, "it is kind of creepy."
Clint turns towards him. Steve wishes he could see his eyes.
Clint clears his throat. "It's supposed to be haunted," he says.
And with that, they're okay again. "Really?" Steve says. "You believe in ghosts?"
"I guess I believe in ghosts about as much as I believe in aliens." Clint smirks.
Steve chuckles. "Okay, good point."
"I have them upon occasion."
"Hmm. You know, I think I'm done," Steve says. "Let's head back to the car?"
"Sure, man," Clint says easily.
"So, thank you, for doing this," Steve says "For humoring me."
"Are you kidding? Compared to some of the stuff I've endured in my life, this was a total cakewalk."
"Endured. That's always a word you want to hear."
"Well, granted, this isn't exactly what I would choose to do on a gorgeous, sunny day," Clint says, "but the company wasn't bad."
"Yeah, the company was pretty good," Steve says with a small smile.
They walk in silence for a bit. A soft breeze comes through the trees and Steve angles his head into it. The day has gotten hot, almost oppressively so. Steve pulls his plaid button up as far from his body as he can, and tries to ignore the way his undershirt is plastered to his skin.
"Dressing in layers might not be the best idea for May," Clint says.
"Uh huh. Well, at least you probably won't have to worry about heat exhaustion," Clint says. "I'm not saying the look doesn't work for you, although, the whole ensemble does have a kind of grandpa-ish vibe to it. Have you ever thought of-"
"I'm fine," Steve says again. "It's fine."
Clint angles his head so his eyes are peering at Steve from over the top of his glasses. "I totally don't think you're lying to me right now."
"I'm Captain America," Steve says. "Captain America doesn't lie."
Clint cocks his head to one side. "I'm gonna have to seriously fine tune my bullshit meter if I'm going to be dealing with you, aren't I?"
Steve sniffs. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You're a total liar," Clint says. "Oh, my God, you are!" He smacks the back of one hand against Steve's shoulder. "That's right; you lied on your enlistment forms - your many enlistment forms - didn't you? Ha! Proof."
"What..." Steve stops abruptly. "How do you know about that?"
"Dude, everybody knows about that." Clint shrugs. "It's part of your story. Steve Rogers, the little engine that eventually could, or whatever."
Steve's known, of course, that he's still famous in this era, but it's seemed like more of a distant thing - a storybook character who fought the good fight and met with a tragic end. Since waking, he had never even thought about checking and seeing what was said about him now. He figured that the caricature would be the thing to stand the test of time, and not the man behind it.
It's jarring to know that his missteps might be as well known as his accomplishments.
"Hey," Clint says, "what's wrong?"
"I committed multiple acts of fraud against the United States government," Steve says. "And everyone knows it."
"Wow, I really need to fine tune the-"
"I'm serious!" Steve says.
Clint opens his mouth and closes it without speaking. He does this a few times. "We all have skeletons, man," he says finally. "Yours are from you wanting to serve your country during a time of war. Most other peoples' deep and darks aren't that noble. Trust me."
"But it's not deep and dark," Steve says. "It's out in the open. Everyone knows," he says again. All the people he had met at S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury. Oh, God, Stark.
"Yeah, and they also know that you sacrificed yourself to stop a bomb from taking out New York. What are a couple of embellishments on a few forms compared to that?"
"It wasn't just a couple of-"
"Steve," Clint says sternly. "Stop. And don't think you've distracted me. Dude, your clothes. Seriously."
Steve scowls, but gratefully accepts the change of topic. "Like I said, I'm fine," he says as he starts to walk again.
Clint snorts. "Whatever, Wilfred."
Steve waits as long as he can, but after a few dozen steps he can't stand it. "Who's Wilfred?"
Steve frowns and tries to search his memory. Nothing's coming to mind, but the intent is pretty clear. "That's an insult, isn't it?"
"Would I insult a national icon?"
"True," Clint says. "But it's only an insult if you're under the age of 80."
"Technically, I'm 94."
"That's right." Clint looks Steve up and down, then shudders. "And so weird."
Steve shrugs. It does seem weird. "Look, clothes don't matter that much, okay? A new wardrobe would be so frivolous. These are nice enough. They're comfortable. They don't even have any holes in them."
Clint doesn't look impressed. "But do you like them? Do they make you happy?"
"What does happiness have to do with anything?"
"Happiness has everything to do with everything," Clint says, clearly exasperated. "Man, lives like ours... I didn't have much growing up. And the job I have, while awesome, also contains potential death around every corner. So, now, if I want to get a new shirt, I'm gonna get a new shirt. Or pair of boots, or watch, or whatever. It's the little things, Steve," Clint says. "If you're gonna be happy, you've got to appreciate the little things."
"I appreciate little things," Steve grumbles. But he does have to concede that Clint has a point. Steve's not exactly in love with his staid wardrobe - except his leather jacket; he really likes the leather jacket - and it might be neat to get some things in bright colors.
In the time before it would have been unheard of for someone of Steve's station to buy a new piece of clothing just for fun, even before the war. And while he's still not a Rockefeller or a Stark, Steve knows that he could treat himself a bit.
There's still one major problem, though.
"I don't... I'm not..." Steve takes a deep breath and swallows anything that resembles pride. "Stores scare me."
"I don't suppose you could give me a little more to go on?" Clint says. Steve doesn't hear any mockery in his voice. That's nice.
"I don't know," Steve says, "they're just so big, and loud, and there are so many choices." Steve realizes he's wringing his hands together. He promptly shoves them in his pockets. "It's confusing. That's all. It's just easier to wear what S.H.I.E.L.D. gave me."
"Whoa," Clint says. He puts a hand on Steve's arm. "S.H.I.E.L.D. is responsible for you looking like you crawled your way out of a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie?"
"I guess? I'm not sure what that reference-"
"It's nothing good, Steve, and never let anyone tell you anything different."
"Well," Clint says, "it's kind of obvious where our next stop is gonna be, right?"
"We need to find a mall."
"Oh, God, no."
"What, is the big, bad super-soldier afraid of a little retail therapy?" Clint asks. Steve definitely hears mockery this time.
"They have psychiatrists at the mall?" Steve asks, his eyes growing wide. "I swear, this century..."
"No," Clint says with a frown, "it means-"
"Yeah," Steve says, "you are going to have to fine tune your bullshit detector."
Clint's silent for a good minute or two. "You can be kind of a jackass. I respect that."
Chapter 5: A Runaway American Dream
Not betad, grammarians beware.
This contains spoilers for The Avengers, and talk about loss, death, and hints at possible depression.
"So, I have an idea," Clint says once they're back in the car. He's fiddling with the GPS again.
"Okay," Steve says. He's wary, but intrigued.
Clint lifts his head and looks Steve in the eye. "Do you trust me?"
"Yeah," Steve says easily. "Of course."
"Cool. Let's head south."
Steve nods and puts on his seat belt. "You mind if I ask where we're going, or is a surprise?"
"No, and maybe." Clint give Steve a sly grin, and he winks.
Steve tries to smile back, but he's a little distracted by the sudden, odd clenching feeling in the pit of his stomach. That grin. That wink. Those biceps. Jesus, does Clint even know what kind of a picture he makes? No, Steve's willing to bet he doesn't.
"We'll head towards Baltimore," Clint says as he starts the car and pulls out of the parking lot.
"What's in Baltimore?" Steve asks. "Besides Fort McHenry, of course."
"Is that where you did basic?"
"What? No, it's... It's... Francis Scott Key?" Steve raises one eyebrow at Clint's blank look. "The Battle for Baltimore Harbor?" Steve raises the other eyebrow. "The Star Spangled Banner? Is any of this ringing a bell?"
"Yeah, I know our national anthem, thanks," Clint says testily.
"But you don't know the history behind it?"
"There's only one nerd in this car, Steve, and it's not me."
Steve huffs. "You don't have to be a nerd to appreciate the... Jeez, what do they teach kids in schools these days?"
Clint doesn't respond, but Steve can clearly see the way his hands tighten on the steering wheel. He realizes that, once again, he's made a misstep.
"I'm sorry," Steve says. "I didn't meant to imply that you're-"
"That wasn't what I was going to say," Steve says. "And that's not what I meant."
"Then what did you mean?" Clint asks.
Steve winces at the tartness in Clint's tone. "I don't think you're stupid, Clint. You've said that you're not much for history, and I just... I'm sorry," he says again.
Clint responds by turning on the radio. He doesn't ask Steve to find a new station, and Steve doesn't offer. The music that comes through isn't bad, though. It's maybe not something that Steve would have picked on his own, but he finds himself liking it all the same.
Steve watches as the muscles in Clint's shoulder relax and the tension leaves his arms. When Clint's fingers start tapping on the steering wheel, keeping up with the rythem of the current song, Steve decides to risk talking again.
"Who's this?" he asks over the music.
Clint startles just a bit. "Oh, uh, Tom Petty."
"I like it," Steve says.
Clint flashes him a grin. "Yeah? Cool." He pulls his lower lip between his teeth for a moment. "Maybe when we stop for the night I'll get my laptop out and you can go through my iTunes library."
Steve feels strangely warmed by the offer. "That would be real nice. Thanks."
"Yeah." Clint's eyes dart to Steve's face then back to the road. "You know what iTunes is, huh?"
Steve's pretty sure Clint's teasing him, and that makes the warm feeling get bigger. "Yes, I know what iTunes is," he says with a little huff. "I can even turn on my computer and hook up my iPod and everything."
"Well, check you out, Mr. Techno," Clint says with a smile.
"Yeah..." Steve shifts a bit in his seat. "I haven't really used it a lot, though," he says, hesitantly. "At first it was kind of fun; I found a bunch of records we used to have. But, it's like I can't listen to any of those now without thinking about..." Steve doesn't finish the sentence. Steve wants to say more, he wants to tell Clint everything that been clamoring to get out of him since he woke up from the ice, but the back of his throat has closed up, and it's hard enough to just breath through the sheer mass of sorrow weighing down on him.
"I get that," Clint says softly, after it's clear Steve is done talking. "Music, man... Sometimes I hear a certain song and I go right back to when I was a kid, or a stupid ass teenager." He glances at Steve. "Just a couple of chords can rip your heart out. There are some things I can't listen to unless I know I'm gonna have a bottle of bourbon and a box of tissues handy." He shrugs. "Then there are the songs that are bittersweet. The songs that make you think about what you've lost and about what you'll never find again. But, not in a bad way, you know. Just in a way that means you've grown up."
"So you think I just need to grow up?" Steve truly doesn't mean for the words to sound as harsh as they do.
"I think," Clint says slowly, "that once the loss is little less sharp, a little less fresh, you'll be able to look back on things differently."
It's on the tip of Steve's tongue to take Clint to task for even trying to understand the loss that Steve's suffered. Luckily, the memory of Clint's breakdown the night before surfaces, and Steve swallows down the hateful words that want to come out.
Clint may not know what it's like to lose everyone, but he knows what it's like to lose someone important. It's not like quantity counts over quality when it comes to heartbreak.
"The pain'll fade, Cap," Clint says, his voice uncharacteristically hushed. "For better or for worse. I guess we both need to remember that."
They drive on. Steve asks about the artist behind each new song he hears, even the ones he doesn't like. Clint tells him about singers, and bands, and concerts he's been to. He sings along sometimes, and Steve finds himself nodding and keeping time with his fingertips against his knee. He doesn't know exactly when the sorrow leaves him, he just knows that by the time Clint pulls into a place for lunch, Steve's feeling good. Not happy, just good.
They chow down on burgers, and onion rings, and milkshakes. Clint makes almost obscene noises over everything, but especially the shake. Between those sounds and the way Clint's tongue keeps coming out to lick at his lips, Steve thinks he might have to take good advantage of his shower time tonight.
They get back on the road and Clint still won't tell Steve exactly where they're going. He shrugs and points at the GPS like the little computer chose the destination for him and Clint is completely innocent in all things. Steve thinks about taking the GPS off of the dashboard and finding answer for himself, but he decides to leave it. He's sure that wherever Clint's taking them, Steve will enjoy it.
Steve is occasionally wrong about things.
"I hate to use the phrase 'man up'," Clint says, "mostly because I'm pretty sure Nat will magically know about it and kick my ass next time she sees me, but c'mon!" He gestures towards the large, low building sitting not more than a few hundred yards away.
Clint brought him to a mall.
He did say he was going to do it, but, nonetheless, Steve still can't help but feel a tiny bit of betrayal at the action.
"I'm working up to it," Steve says.
"You're working..." Clint shakes his head. "Steve, we've been sitting here in my car slash oven for almost five minutes. Approximately how much longer do you think it's going to take you to 'work'? And, please keep in mind that, unlike you, I can die from heat exhaustion."
Steve scowls peevishly. He knows he's being ridiculous and Clint is being incredibly patient with him, but he really, really doesn't want to go in.
"Look, I get it," Clint says. "The idea of doing this freaks you out. But, man, you helped defeat an alien invasion for fuck's sake." Clint's bright and knowing eyes narrow. "Did you or did you not fight Nazis?"
Steve rolls his eyes. "Yeah, of course."
"And did you or did you not fight Hydra?"
"And did you or did you not punch Hitler in the face?"
"No, actually, that I didn't do."
"What?" Clint blinks a few times. "Really? I thought-"
"That was part of my USO tour," Steve says.
"Oh. Huh." Clint shrugs, and a melancholy look steals over his face. "I may not have always listened that closely to Coulson's fanboy ravings."
"I did punch the Red Skull, though," Steve says after a moment. He won't claim that he defeated the Skull, since that was really mostly the Tesseract's doing, but he'll take some credit for where it's due. "I saved a bunch of cities from Hydra bombs."
"You totally did," Clint says, his expression becoming animated again. "And do you know who does shit like that?"
"Um, I just said I-"
"A badass, Cap. Badasses do shit like that." Clint leans over the seat and pokes Steve in the shoulder. "You are a badass."
"Say it," Clint says.
"Say, I'm a badass."
Steve can feel the corners of his lips start to curve upward. "I'm a badass."
"Fuck yeah, you are," Clint says. "And do you know what badasses aren't scared of, Steve?"
"Shopping malls?" Steve asks innocently.
Clint grins and holds up one hand. "I solemnly swear that if you get too freaked by roving bands of teenagers, or over-zealous perfume sprayers, or clingy sales people we'll bug out. But, come on, I even found you a Macy's. Macy's, Steve."
Steve glances towards the building again, but this time he focuses on the sign. That last, lingering trace of enmity dissipates completely when he realizes that Clint purposefully took him to a store he'd remember.
"I've been in a Macy's before," Steve says softly. "Bucky and I even went to the parade a few times. It was at Thanksgiving, and-"
"Yeah, they're still doing it," Clint says.
"Really? Wow." Steve can't help but smile at the thought of something else surviving all these years. "Have you ever been?"
"Nah," Clint says. "I'm usually on duty."
"Every Thanksgiving?" Steve asks with a frown.
"Most holidays." Clint shrugs. He's clearly starting to look uncomfortable. "Hey, look, if you go in now, right now, I'll buy you a pretzel. One of those big, soft ones with stuff on it."
Steve smiles and accepts the deflection, though he doesn't forget the previous focus of the conversation. He takes a deep breath. "Make it a half dozen and you'll have yourself a deal."
"A half..." Clint shakes his head. "Don't let anyone ever call you a cheap date, Rogers," he says as he gets out of the car.
Steve knows that Clint is kidding, but it still makes him start just a bit. Then Clint thumps on the roof, and Steve's entire body jerks in his seat.
"Move it!" Clint calls out.
Steve moves it.
Macy's is large, and well-lit, and deliciously cold after the oppressive afternoon heat. It's also filled to the brim with so much stuff. Steve feels like he wants to crawl out of his skin.
Clint puts one hand on his back and starts to push him down the main walkway. Steve shies away because if he thinks his shirt is damp and disgusting, he can only imagine what it must feel like under Clint's palm. Clint steps to the side like Steve scalded him.
"Sorry," Steve says quickly. because it would be a damn shame if Clint didn't think Steve liked those guiding touches. "It's not that I... Um. I'm just kind of... Gross! That's it. I'm kind of gross right now."
Clint's lips twist into a wry smile. He chuckles. "Yeah, you are, actually," he says as he wipes his hand against his jeans.
"Let's get you some new duds, huh?" Clint says. He takes point and Steve dutifully follows behind.
The whole shopping thing is definitely less scary than Steve had expected, but he knows, without a doubt, that that's only because of Clint's presence. All Steve's had to do so far is give Clint his measurements then trail along with his arms outstretched as Clint piles more and more clothes on top of them.
Steve had tried to protest once - just the once - and Clint had silenced him mid-word with nothing more than an arched eyebrow. Steve wonders if that was something all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were trained to do or if Clint was just special.
Finally Clint stops, puts his hand on his hips, and surveys Steve's burden. "Okay," he says, "I think that's enough for now."
"For now?" Steve squeaks.
"Time to go try them on."
"Try..." Steve blanches. "What, all of them?"
"Yes, all of them," Clint says. "How else will you know what you like?"
"Uh. I could guess?" Steve winces as that eyebrow goes up again. "Okay, okay, I'll try on everything."
Clint smiles, and nods, and Steve gets the distinct impression that he wants to reach up and ruffle his hair. The sad thing is, Steve would not only let him, he'd probably make embarrassingly happy noises to boot.
Inside the dressing room Steve starts to feel overwhelmed again. He foolishly thinks about asking Clint to come in with him, which leads him to think about what else he and Clint could do in the tiny room, which leads him to softly beat his head against one of the walls.
Steve wonders what Bucky would say if he could see him now. He grins, because, honestly, he knows exactly what Bucky would say, and it would probably be enough to make even Stark blush.
The clothes he tries on aren't bad. In fact, most of them are kind of nice. The various materials are soft, and sturdy in the case of the pants. The colors are rich and vibrant. Steve notes that most of the shirts Clint picked out for him are blue, and he decides to pay attention to what other colors might be available.
In the end, he finds three pairs of jeans that he likes and about a dozen new shirts. Steve has been avoiding looking at any price tags, but he still feels a tad lightheaded at how much money he's probably going to spend.
He exits the dressing room, and his gaze immediately land on Clint and the attractive young man Clint's talking to. Steve's eyes narrow and he feels a childish desire to drag Clint away from anyone else who might dare ask for his attention.
Steve doesn't have much of anything in this world, but he's pretty sure he has Clint - even if it's just as a friend - and he's damn sure going to make sure it stays that way. Even if he ends up acting like a bit of a moron.
Steve clears his throat pointedly. Both men turn to him.
"Hey, man," Clint says.
"Oh, wow," the interloper says. "Uh, I mean, hi." He glances to Clint then back to Steve, and the tips of his ears turn pink.
Steve is slightly mollified by the tag on the interloper - or Mark's - chest that shows he works at the store. "Hello," Steve says politely - because at his core, he's a good person - then he ignores Mark to focus completely on Clint. "So, I found some things I like." He holds up the clothes in his hands.
"Awesome," Clint says.
"I'm still not sure about the shorts, though." Steve's really not sure about showing his bare legs in public, regardless of how normal it might be in this day and age.
"Trust me, Steve," Clint says, "when the heat index gets up to 120, you'll appreciate them."
"A hundred and..." Clint might have a point. "Um, all right. And I want to get some shirts in other colors."
Clint blinks. "Why?"
"You don't like blue?"
"No," Steve says, "I like blue."
"Then you should wear blue," Clint says.
"Oh, yeah," Mark pipes up, "you should always wear blue. Definitely."
"Well, I'd like something in red," Steve says, lifting his chin up.
Clint and Mark look at each other. Mark frowns. Clint shrugs. Steve starts to get ticked off.
"The man wants red," Clint says, "what can you do?"
Mark shakes his head sadly. "Such a shame."
Steve's pretty sure something's gone over his head. But he gets his red shirt, and Clint picks up one in a rich, plum color, and Steve offers to buy it for him because, again, he's a good person.
Mark rings up Steve's purchases. When the total comes up, Clint's steadying hand finds it's way to Steve's back again. Steve focuses on Clint's touch, and ignores the black spots in front of his eyes, as he swipes his bank card through the machine beside the cash register. He scrawls his name on the tiny screen, and tries to smile as Mark hands him his bags.
"There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Clint asks.
Steve makes an odd, wordless, wounded sound.
Mark smiles happily at the both of them. Steve wonders how much he makes in commission.
"Come on," Clint says as he leads Steve and his bags away from a still smiling Mark, "I'm going to introduce you to the best part of the mall shopping experience."
"Okay," Steve says before he starts in on his third taco, "I can take or leave the shopping bit, but the food court is pretty neat."
Clint slurps some soda then grins at him. "See," he says, tilting his cup and using his straw to point at Steve, "I may not take you to nice places, but I take you places you'll enjoy." He winks, and Steve chokes a bit.
"You okay?" Clint asks, frowning.
"Hot sauce," Steve manages to croak.
Clint fiddles with his cup for a few minutes. Steve starts in on his egg rolls.
"You know, he thought we were together," Clint says offhandedly.
Steve blinks. "Who?"
"Macy guy. He thought we were together."
"We are together," Steve says, cocking his head to one side.
"No, I mean..." Clint starts picking at the remains of his nachos. "He thought we were together together. Like, together. Like, as in, you and I, you know, together."
Steve chews thoughtfully as he tries to figure out just what the heck Clint is... Oh. He chokes again.
By the time Steve successfully manages to get his food down his esophagus and not his windpipe, Clint is looking at him warily.
"How do you, um..." Steve clears his throat. "How do you figure that?"
Clint shrugs. "I don't know," he says, evasiveness written onto every inch of his face. "You didn't pick up on it, huh?"
"No," Steve says honestly.
"Some people might make that assumption," Clint says. His eyes flit up, and Steve feels like he's pinned to his chair. "Are you okay with that?"
It's on the tip of Steve's tongue to tell the truth - that not only is he okay with it, but he wouldn't mind if it was actually real. He knows, though, that this subject matter, while obviously not as dangerous as it had been in his time, could still be complicated, to say the least. "Are you?"
"I asked you first."
Steve wants to laugh at the quick reply. Instead, Steve thinks over not just his feelings, but also what he seems to have gleaned about Clint so far. He thinks he could be honest with this man, but he also thinks that between what happened last night and their earlier talk in the car, they might have already reached their quota for unvarnished feelings at the moment.
Besides, it just doesn't seem fitting to have that kind of discussion in a food court. Still, he needs to say something because Clint's starting to get a pinched look around his eyes.
"Well," Steve says, "I could certainly do worse." He wonders if the grin curving his mouth looks as wicked as it feels.
Clint barks out a laugh. His eye are warm, his smile fond. "Damn right. Also, that's disgusting."
Steve has a brief moment of pure panic before he realizes that Clint's pointing at his plate. Steve calmly opens up his last taco, stuffs one of his eggrolls inside of it, spreads the leftover jalapeno cheese sauce from his pretzel on top, and takes a huge bite. Clint pretends to gag, and Steve can't can't help but think his life is pretty darn awesome.