It was a sunny, crisp morning in early autumn, the day they found out about Clint.
Steve was at the kitchen bar, drinking one of Tony's horrifying smoothies and taunting Tony about the smoothie not having enough raw eggs in it; Natasha was peeling an apple with an obscenely large and sharp knife, and Bruce was "just trying to make some oatmeal, leave me out of this", when Clint and Bucky came in from a morning run. Bucky looked invigorated; Clint looked like he might be dying.
"What the hell happened to you?" Sam asked, entering the kitchen just in time to see Clint collapse next to Steve and grope blindly for his smoothie. Steve gently edged the smoothie out of his reach.
"I went jogging with a monster," Clint said.
"I don't know what he's talking about," Bucky said. He reached for Steve's smoothie, and Steve lifted it away just in time, shooting him a dirty look. "It was a nice run."
"You have to be kinder to the normals," Steve told him.
"Normals?" Natasha asked, eyebrow raised.
"Well, it seemed nicer than baselines, which is what Tony calls you guys when he thinks I can't read his notes," Steve remarked. Every head turned to Tony.
"It's a scientific term," Tony said. "It applies to me as well, despite my above-baseline good looks. Clint, you want a smoothie?"
"Yes, please," Clint said into the counter.
"No, I'm not a masochist."
"Jogging with the Terminator indicates otherwise," Tony said, but he set about chopping up fruit and dishing out yogurt into the blender jar.
"I should know better," Clint agreed. "Ohhh, I'm too old for this."
"You're my age," Steve said.
Clint turned his head to one side. "Well, a, no I'm not, and b, I'm not a super soldier."
"Then stop trying to keep up with them," Tony advised. "That's why I have boots with rockets on them."
"Rollerskates," Natasha coughed.
"You act like I have shame about that," Tony said, without looking at her. "Anyway, you can complain when you're my age."
Clint sat up. "I am your age."
Sam, who was angling for some of Bruce's oatmeal, turned to frown at him. "You...are not Tony's age."
"Actually I think I'm a few months older," Clint said.
"Bullshit," Tony said. "But thank you for the compliment."
"I can't help it if I have good genes," Clint said. "I was born in 1974."
Silence settled over the kitchen. Even Natasha stopped slicing apple slivers with her knife.
"No you weren't," Tony said finally.
"How do you know?" Clint asked.
"Because I was born in 1975 and if I, with every advantage at my disposal, look that much older than you, I might actually cry."
"I always thought you looked young for your age, like, on TV and stuff," Sam said. "I assumed a lot of Botox."
"Thank...you?" Tony managed. Natasha was still staring at Clint.
"Look, you can check my birth certificate, you can check with SHIELD. 1974," Clint said. "I mean, yeah, last few years it's started to get a little weird, but..." he shrugged. "It's not my job to explain it."
"Nobody on this Earth thinks you're pushing thirty, let alone forty," Bruce said. Sam gave him a starving-puppy look, and he rolled his eyes and dished out two bowls, spooning brown sugar into one. Sam took the other one and dumped half a jar of jam into it. "You don't think it's....unnatural?"
"Not really," Clint said. "I mean, it could have been something I ate."
Bucky looked thoughtful. "That actually might explain it."
"How does something I ate explain this?" Tony asked, looking increasingly upset.
"He eats...everything," Natasha said.
"What could you have eaten that would explain it?" Bruce asked.
"Floor pizza," Bucky said, face solemn.
"That was one time -- "
"One time that Bucky saw," Natasha said. "I've seen you do it. I've seen you eat floor pizza in Bulgaria."
"I've seen him eat floor pizza in space," Tony said. "Floor pizza doesn't explain Bram Stoker's Hawkeye over there."
"Well, it's not like he stops at pizza," Bruce said. "Remember when we were in that alternate dimension and you ate the purple thing?"
"Oh man," Clint said dreamily. "The purple thing. That was so good."
"Yeah, but that was two months ago," Sam pointed out. "He's been....youthful and loud, for lack of better descriptors, ever since he's been on the team."
"Well, if a man can't be loud at the age of forty, when can he?" Clint asked. "Huh. What did I eat. Floor pizza....floor hamburger...possible cookie from floor..."
"Wait, was the cookie possibly from the floor or was it only possibly a cookie?" Bruce asked.
"It was definitely from the floor, possibly a cookie," Clint said. Sam raised his eyebrows. "It tasted like peanuts!"
"I think we can just assume the rest of the from-the-floors," Sam said.
"Yeah, let's move on to possibly-of-alien-origin," Bruce agreed.
"You're suspiciously interested in this," Tony told him. Bruce gave him a blank look.
"Well, I mean. Pizza, possibly of alien origin," Clint began ticking foods off on his fingers. "Hamburger, definitely of alien origin."
"Oh, you didn't eat one of the Skrull cows, did you?" Steve asked, worried. "The ones Reed Richards..."
"No! No, uh, last time aliens came to visit I might have taken them to a drive-thru," Clint said. "And they offered to cook me something out of pity. The hamburger was given from aliens, not made from aliens. Well, I mean, yes, also made from aliens, but not sentient aliens."
Sam put his hand over his face. Bucky was biting his lip to keep from laughing.
"Let me guess," Natasha said. "You've also had cookies, possibly of alien origin?"
"And possible cookies, possibly of alien origin," Clint agreed.
"Okay I think this is proving an empirical point," Sam said. Tony and Bruce looked at him inquiringly. "You had to have something wrong with you before you ate all that stuff, because no normal person could eat all that and survive in the first place."
"There's nothing wrong with me," Clint said, mocking offense. "I'm not abnormal, I'm just cool."
"And old," Steve said.
"Watch it," Clint said, pointing at him.
"Wow, you really are," Natasha said. "Older than Tony."
"Hey!" Tony frowned.
"Thor's older than me!" Clint protested.
"Thor's older than America," Tony pointed out. "Not as pretty, though," he added, slapping Steve on the butt as he passed. Steve twisted to glare at him, but didn't actually object. "Come on, Barton. We're going to my lab."
"What? No. Why?" Clint asked.
"Bruce has that I wanna take your blood look and I want the secret to your fountain of youth," Tony said. "I'll buy pizza when we're done. Fresh, new pizza, not from the floor."
Clint narrowed his eyes. "I can't be bought that easily, Stark."
"I wasn't talking to you. Bucky?" Tony said. Bucky wrapped an arm around Clint's neck and began gently dragging him away.
"Fine, but I pick the toppings!" Clint yelped, muffled by Bucky's shoulder.
It wasn't so awful, in the end, all the tests that Tony and Bruce ran. Clint was used to SHIELD physicals and checkups, and this wasn't even as strenuous as those. They put him on a treadmill, rolled him through a few "let's look at your insides" machines, and Bruce gave him a neurological exam (Bruce explained why but Clint got distracted by Tony ordering the pizza). At the end of the day, they didn't make him do chin-ups or wrestle people to the ground, so SHIELD was still winning on details.
"I'm not seeing anything especially unusual in his blood or the skin tissue samples," Bruce said, at next morning's informal Why Is Clint So Weird brief.
"You took skin samples?" Bucky asked, sounding alarmed.
"Just epithelials," Bruce said, looking confused.
"He might need his epithelials!"
"It's skin, nor organs. They didn't cut me up," Clint told Bucky, who promptly stopped glowering.
"The next thing we study is how you turn that death ray on and off," Tony told Bucky.
"You have fun trying," Bucky told him calmly.
"Well, I had Stark labs take a look at his DNA," Tony said, hurriedly turning away from Bucky. "I need to pay closer attention to our biologics division, they're doing crazy shit with DNA now and I don't want to grow any in-house supervillains."
"Let's...let's do that," Steve said. "Not grow any supervillains in the building. All in favor."
Natasha and Clint raised their hands; Bucky raised his, then looked at Bruce, who was engrossed in his research documents, and raised one of his arms for him.
"Motion passed," Tony said with a grin. "There's...some anomalies," he said, tapping his StarkPad to bring up the results.
"Okay, uh, was it actually something I ate?" Clint asked.
"No, this is...Bruce, what does this look like to you?" Tony asked, shoving the tablet under Bruce's nose.
"Huh," Bruce said, tilting his head. "It does look familiar. See, the -- the pattern here, that looks like..."
The two of them exchanged a long look.
"Are they gonna kiss?" Sam asked Steve in a whisper.
"I hope not," Steve said.
"This looks like the Super Soldier serum," Tony said, turning back to the table.
"In Clint," Natasha said skeptically.
"Seems that way," Bruce said, still frowning. "Subtle differences, but -- JARVIS, can you throw up some of Steve's DNA?"
"This feels invasive," Steve said.
"You knew we had it," Tony said, as Steve's DNA appeared, a blue and gold spiral in the middle of the table.
"Yeah, but putting it up at the breakfast table..." Steve squirmed. "It's like having a nudie picture on display."
"You get used to that," Tony said absently.
"No, I'd rather not," Steve said, brows drawing together.
"Well, okay, you probably wouldn't, but trust me, round about number five you just stop registering them. Even TMZ stops bothering after number seven." Tony poked Steve's DNA, and Steve twitched. "Yeah, they look similar, but -- "
"Sir," JARVIS said. Everyone looked up, which never stopped being funny, Clint thought. "I have detected a possible explanation for Mr. Barton's...condition."
"It's not like it's the flu," Clint said, starting to be genuinely annoyed.
"Well, lay it on us," Tony said. Two images appeared in place of Steve's DNA -- two flat grey boxes with dark smudges inside them.
"Paternity test?" Bruce's eyebrows raised.
"It appears that Agent Barton has thirteen genetic markers in common with a recipient of the Super Soldier serum," JARVIS said. "Likely a parent."
Clint, who had been sipping his coffee and already bored with whatever biological doodahism was going on, choked on his drink.
"What, no," he said. "Who?"
JARVIS was silent.
"Aw, DNA," Clint groaned. "This isn't good."
"JARVIS?" Tony prompted.
"Privacy laws prevent..." JARVIS started.
"Which means he's sitting at this table," Bruce said.
"JARVIS, I think you'd better tell us," Steve said.
"May I construe that as consent, Captain?" JARVIS asked.
Natasha went still. Bruce and Tony were both staring intently at the DNA results. Sam's mouth was hanging open, a bite of waffle forgotten on his fork.
Bucky was the first to react; he blinked, and turned to Clint inquiringly. Clint, unsure what to do, reached for a napkin to sop up his spilled coffee.
Tony made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a strangled laugh.
"Oh man," he said. "First person to make a Steve, get the shotgun joke wins."
"Why would I..." Steve looked confused. "JARVIS -- "
"It appears that Agent Barton and Captain Rogers have a familial relationship," JARVIS said, voice carefully neutral.
The uproar that followed was probably something Tony enjoyed; he liked throwing bombs and watching them explode in his face. Clint just sat and stared at the DNA results, the little blurry black boxes, while everyone around him started shouting in unison.
"As it turns out," Phil Coulson said, face only slightly grainy over the video screen, "It was Hydra."
"Well, there's a shocker," Bruce said. He'd had to take over as head of this particular investigation because Tony couldn't stop shooting amused looks at Clint and Steve and giggling.
"How exactly does 'It was Hydra' explain this?" Natasha asked.
Steve was sitting at the table, mostly studying his hands, a constant high flush on his cheeks. He'd barely looked at Clint, who was sitting on the other side of the table, just trying to follow the conversation.
"It's my fault," Steve said. Everyone looked at him.
"Your fault," Bruce repeated.
"Well, they asked for a sample..." Steve chewed on his lip.
"Oh, to have been that nurse," Tony blurted, and then started laughing again. Sam looked like he was trying really hard not to join in.
"I did it myself," Steve said, sounding annoyed, and then winced when Tony and Sam both started laughing harder. Even Natasha looked amused.
"Yes, we have, uh, records of that," Coulson said, looking like this was as awkward for him as for anyone. "Samples of blood, hair, tissue, and semen were taken after the experiment and as regularly as could be managed in the field -- "
"Wait, wait, how many times did you do this?" Bruce asked.
"Eight or nine," Steve said. "You uh. You learn not to expect much privacy in the Army."
"Samples," Coulson said, drawing their attention back to the screen, "were preserved in SHIELD vaults. Blood samples were quickly used -- the last recorded sample was disposed of in the late 1940s. Hair and tissue degraded. The uh, other samples were preserved in cold storage until the early 1970s, when a program called Project Candido was instituted. Mostly off the books, but they bought a lot of medical supplies, transferred in some doctors from other divisions, and requisitioned the samples."
"Candido?" Sam asked.
"Possibly after Candido Godoi," Coulson said. Bucky stiffened.
"I've been there," he said.
"It wouldn't surprise me. Rumors circulated for years that it was a major Nazi-Hydra stronghold."
"It was a town in South America. Mengele set up camp there after the war," Bucky said.
"Yes. Lots of experiments on twins, with twins, making twins..." Coulson spread his hands. "It's ugly stuff. Candido was an American operation -- Iowa, actually -- but undoubtedly run by Hydra, so they could have been in contact with Mengele or at least acquired his notes. And if his work was contributing to Project Candido I think we can be fairly certain that Candido was about artificial insemination. Potentially cloning."
"Making Super Soldier babies," Tony said.
"Oh, my God," Steve said. "How many...?"
"No way to tell, but probably not more than...Clint," Coulson said. Clint looked up. "Records indicate the place was liquidated when someone at SHIELD in the seventies got too close."
"Liquidated?" Steve demanded.
"The only viable birth on record even before that was a single child," Coulson said. "I don't think they were murdering babies, though possibly mothers."
"This got dark," Bruce said.
"Nature of the game, I'm afraid," Coulson said. "I'll send all the documents we have. But the upshot is, there was one viable child born, and they vanished during the liquidation." He glanced at Clint, a clear question on his face.
"Mom was a pediatric nurse," Clint said. "When she could get work. She...used to joke that she stole me from the ward." He bowed his head, hands catching in his hair. "She said she stole me because I was the prettiest. Oh, my God, she made stupid jokes about stealing me from the Nazis."
He felt a hand come to rest on the back of his head, and assumed at first that it was Bucky, but then he realized it was the left hand, and flesh. He turned his head and saw Steve, arm outstretched.
"This is a big old can of worms," Clint said.
"Don't care," Steve said, smiling at him. Clint waited for him to say something reassuring, or possibly make some kind of confession, he wasn't even sure what, but instead Steve's grin widened and he said, "Junior. I'm looking forward to being able to ground you when you jump off a building."
Clint moaned and let his head fall to the table, arms flailing forward. Steve's hand stayed on the back of his head.
"Coulson, I think we're gonna need to end the call," he heard Steve say.
"Understandable. Keep me in the loop, when you can. Buy the kid an ice cream, he looks like he's having a tough day."
Clint groaned loudly into the table.
He heard Steve inhale to say something else, but it was interrupted by the scrape of chair legs on the floor. He turned his head to follow the noise and saw Bucky standing abruptly, awkward, arms at his sides like he didn't know what to do with his hands. He looked at Clint, saw him watching, pivoted, and left the room in a hurry.
"Man, you'd think someone told him he was Steve's kid," Tony remarked.
"Now's the time for this? Really?" Steve said.
"You're gonna make People Magazine's hot dads list," Tony continued.
"At least," Bruce interrupted, before Steve and Tony could start bickering, "now we know why Clint's experiencing slowed aging."
"Possibly also slowed maturity," Natasha said.
"Funny," Clint grunted.
"And we have an answer to that question in terms of the serum in general," Bruce continued. "We know it breeds true -- "
"Bruce," Steve said, sounding embarrassed again.
"And we know it does actually slow aging as well as preserving the body in extreme environments," Bruce said. "Which is good news for you and Bucky. And maybe me, I guess," he added.
"This seriously couldn't just have been some alien M&M from under the couch that I ate?" Clint asked.
"Clint, stop eating food you find in non-food-related areas," Steve said firmly.
"He's probably just hungry a lot," Bruce said. "Super Soldier metabolism."
"Then he can eat protein bars like I do!" Steve said.
"Clint, listen to your father," Tony said.
"Okay, that's it, you, Stark, leave," Steve said. "Sam, I see you laughing, you go too. Everyone clear the room."
"We should all go," Clint said, pulling away and standing up.
"Clint, maybe we should -- "
"No," Clint said, and Steve's face fell. "Look, it's not -- I just need to get my head together, okay? I have like. Encyclopedias of daddy issues, and you're half my age. Give me a little time, huh? Don't tell me you don't want some time to sort this out too."
"Well, I -- I hadn't thought about it," Steve said. "Are you sure you're -- "
"Yeah, I'm just gonna...go to the range and shoot some stuff. I won't leave the Tower." Clint shoved his hands in his pockets. "You should go hang out with Sam or Tony, they'll have some perspective on this."
"You mean they'll make dumb jokes," Steve said.
"Maybe you need some dumb jokes," Clint said. "We can talk after dinner tonight or something."
Steve got a strange expression on his face, and Clint smiled a little.
"You can literally hear Tony making the late-for-dinner, out-after-curfew jokes, can't you?" he said. Steve nodded. "Go, let him make the jokes. See you in a few hours."
"Call if you want to talk sooner."
"Have I ever wanted to talk about anything?" Clint asked. Steve gave him a half-smile. "Okay, I'm gone. I'll be on the range!" he called as he left, probably faster than he really should have. When he glanced over his shoulder before getting in the elevator, he could see Steve through the doorway, head in his hands, shoulders slumped.
"JARVIS, if Steve doesn't go hang out with Tony in like, ten minutes -- "
"Fire suppression incident in the meeting room?" JARVIS suggested.
"Does that mean you turn the sprinklers on?"
"Indeed, Agent Barton."
"Sure, that works."
"Is it appropriate to congratulate you and Captain Rogers?" JARVIS asked. "Or would you prefer condolences?"
"I'll let you know in a couple of hours," Clint said.
"Hey, come in," Tony called, when Steve showed up in the doorway of the living room a few minutes later. "We're planning the baby shower. I was thinking we'd go with a bird theme. Eagle and chick. There's a shocking amount of eagle-based clip art on the internet."
"If you buy me a diaper cake this is gonna get into a weird area," Steve said, leaning against the door frame and crossing his arms.
"See? I told you, he can't be too upset by this, he's already making jokes," Tony said to Sam.
"I'm not upset by it at all," Steve said, letting his arms fall and coming to flop on the couch between them. "I mean, I'm upset by the massive violation of having my personal fluids used by Hydra to unsuccessfully attempt to grow super soldier babies, but it's not like everyone and their brother hasn't got their fingers in my genetic code already."
"Talk dirty to me," Tony said with a smirk.
"My point is, I'm not upset to find out I have a child, even if said child is twice my age and a co-worker," Steve said. "I like Clint. I've always liked Clint. Better than I liked you at first," he added to Tony. "Not better than I liked you," he said to Sam, who looked satisfied. "Besides, I always wanted kids, and now we know I can have them if I want. And that if I do they'll be healthy."
"Presumably," Tony agreed. "You should get on Clint to give you some grandkids. For science."
"Nobody's pressuring Clint into anything, he's anxious enough as it is," Steve said. "Speaking of which, do you guys know why Bucky freaked out about it?"
"When did Bucky freak out about it?" Tony asked.
"Well, he left pretty fast," Sam said.
"Yeah, but he's always randomly vanishing, that's his thing," Tony waved a hand.
"No, he was worried about something," Steve said.
"Steve is the Barnes Whisperer," Tony said in a mock-hushed tone to Sam.
"Well, he's friends with both of you, that has to be a little weird for him," Sam said.
"I'm friends with both of them too. So are you," Tony pointed out.
"Not like Bucky is, though. I mean you two went to war together. And he and Clint are always running off to, I don't know, do whatever it is two adolescent-minded men do when they get bored," Sam said to Steve.
"They shoot things a lot," Tony replied, leaning back on the couch.
"How do you know?" Steve asked.
"I check the ammo budget. No other quasi-military organization has a line item on their ammunition budget for "feathers" or "sticks" so it always gives me a laugh. When Bucky's stressed, the fifty-ought expenditures go up and so do the stick expenditures. See? 'Stick expenditures', that's inherently funny."
"Well, I guess it's good they get along so well," Steve said. He fell silent, fidgeting, and then said, "Should I go check on Clint? He asked for a couple of hours alone, but -- "
"Stay, papa bear," Tony replied, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Clint's a big boy, whether he acts like it or not. If he wants space it's for a reason."
"I don't know anything about being a dad," Steve pointed out.
"Oh good, now he's upset," Sam said.
"Probably my fault," Tony said. Both of them looked at him. "I emanate a field of anxiety around me at all times, which affects others who aren't prepared to deal with it. It's a gift. Used to be great for getting laid."
Steve gave him a deeply unimpressed look.
"What? Jesus, I'm too old for all that now. So is your kid, by the way, so you should be grateful for that, you'll never have to scold him for coming home drunk at three in the morning smelling like desperate and poorly-executed sex."
"I'm pretty sure I've done that to Clint at least twice," Steve said to Sam.
"This is the best way to have a child!" Tony insisted. "He fell into your lap as a full-fledged adult. Jesus, imagine Clint Barton teething."
Steve couldn't help but smile a little at the idea.
"There you are," Tony said, peering at him. "Clint'll sort his head out and we'll all go on as we have, and never mention it again, because it's too weird that your son is older than you. Like. What parental advice can you give him?"
"Well, this week alone I've told him to stop eating food off the floor," Steve replied.
"Yeah, but he's forty, he's not going to listen to you," Tony pointed out.
"That's true, you don't either. Do old people just stop caring?" Steve asked, and Tony attacked him with a throw pillow.
Clint came up to dinner that night; Tony and Bruce did not, apparently because they couldn't stop talking about genetics and it was getting on Steve's nerves. Nor did Bucky, which was weird, because even if he was having a bad day and sulkily hid behind his own hair and never said anything, it wasn't like Bucky to miss a meal. Clint could relate. Once they'd swapped stories about growing up poor, and they'd agreed that whether you were in poor-trash rural Iowa or Depression-era Brooklyn, the food (or lack thereof) was what you remembered the most.
Steve was quiet throughout dinner but he kept shooting little looks Clint's way. Clint, tired and a little high on the rush that a few hours in the range always gave him, waited until after dinner, then joined Steve at the sink, picking up a dishtowel.
"You wash, I'll dry?" he offered, and Steve nodded. "Good time to talk."
"We don't have to, if you don't want to," Steve said.
"Well -- do you?" Clint asked. Steve shrugged.
"You're the kid. It's your call."
"Yeah, but you're the actual kid, like, I have literally at least fifteen years more lived experience than you do. And it's not like you deliberately knocked some woman up and then left me on a doorstep. I had a dad. He was a shitty, abusive dad, but that's not your fault either."
"I guess I'd like to make it up to you, but I don't see how that's gonna work," Steve admitted, handing him a plate to dry.
"You don't have a moral obligation. I mean, I thought about whether I blame you, and I decided I would try blaming you, but it fucked up my aim when I did and that's a sure sign it was wrong. My aim only ever fucks up when I'm lying to myself about something," Clint said. "I know you all think I'm a perpetual accident waiting to happen, and I won't disagree -- "
"No, we don't -- "
"Shush! But I am actually really pretty self-aware when things matter. This?" he gestured at his face, which barely looked old enough for him to be in his twenties. "Doesn't matter, so I never bothered about it. This..." he gestured between them, "matters. But honestly, I don't want you to be my dad. What I need is for you to be my Captain, the same as you have been. You're my CO, Steve. And if you really want to go gung ho on this family thing, I think we should try something more...brotherly."
"Sure. I mean. Just because we have genes in common doesn't mean they have to be dad genes. They could be brother genes. And my own brother actually is a walking human trash dumpster, so I could use one of those."
"I don't think that's how genes work, but it could work for us," Steve said thoughtfully. "I like that. We could be like me and Bucky."
"Man, I can only dream of aspiring to the kind of codependence you and Bucky have," Clint said with a grin. "Where'd he run off to, anyway? He never goes on a mission without our lucky high-five first."
"No mission, at least none he told me about. He's probably having a moment about me having a kid. He'll come around by breakfast," Steve said, scrubbing industriously at one of the cook pots. "Now take up the slack, Junior, these dishes aren't going to dry themselves."
Bucky wasn't at breakfast. But he also wasn't at their usual spot to meet before breakfast to go running, and when he showed up for team sparring later in the morning, he appeared to have gone running without Clint.
Which, okay, Clint did whine a lot about how Bucky was trying to make his kneecaps explode or torture him into giving up state secrets when they ran together, but he thought Bucky kind of liked that. It was rare to find a guy you could work out with and bond over being brainwashed by genocidal maniacs with and who could also make you laugh. Clint knew. He'd looked.
"Hey, I thought you'd gone on a mission without telling me," Clint said, as Bucky pulled chin-ups on the bar.
"Nope. Got one later today though," Bucky replied without looking at him.
"Yeah? Anything fun?"
"Dunno. Hill said she'd brief en route."
"Just you? Going solo?"
"You'll make me lose count," Bucky said.
Clint leaned against the brace of the chin-up bar. "Fourteen. Twenty thousand. Ninety-two. Sixty-nine."
Bucky made a frustrated face and dropped to the ground, walking away.
"Hey, come on, that was grade-A schoolyard humor," Clint yelled, following him.
"Man, you're forty years old, grow up," Bucky snapped, finally turning to look at him, but as soon as he did, he dropped his eyes. Clint, stunned, fell silent.
Then he crossed his arms. "No, I won't," he said, in his best twelve-year-old tone, and Bucky growled and stalked off.
"The fuck's gotten into him?" Clint asked Natasha, who was kickboxing with Sam.
Natasha ducked a kick, gave Clint a shrug, and knocked Sam on his ass.
"Just leave him alone, he'll figure it out. Or you will, eventually," she said, as Sam bounded back up and managed to knock her backwards. Clint stepped sideways so she could roll freely.
"Hey, Steve," Clint called. Steve, bench-pressing roughly the weight of a small car, grunted.
"What?" he asked.
"What crawled up Bucky's butt and died there?"
"What?" Steve asked, confused. "Is that the start of a blue joke? You know I don't like dirty humor in the gym."
"No, it was a legitimate question," Clint said.
"He's got a mission, maybe he's got nerves. Go do your weird lucky handshake thing, that'll cheer him up," Steve said, but when Clint went into the shower room to find Bucky, he was already gone.
Bruce made me a poster the first text he sent to Bucky's phone read, once Bucky was gone for the mission. It reads "___ Days Since Last Food Eaten Off Floor."
Steve and I have decided to be bros, he sent a few hours later, because, bros before awkward paternal familial relationships neither of us are prepared for.
You know, instead of bros-before-hos, because that's disrespectful to women and to sex workers, he sent at midnight, in case Bucky hadn't gotten the joke and just thought he was being weirder than usual.
Look, I'm sending you a virtual lucky fistbump high-five elbow-bump in emojis, he sent, on day two.
Why is there no penis emoji? Is it a special hack? I bet Tony would make me one.
Even the specially made for Clint Barton penis emoji didn't get a response, so on day three he just had JARVIS send poop emojis every twenty-three minutes.
I annoyed Hill into admitting that you were still alive and she knows where you are so you have no excuse for not texting back, he sent on day four.
The last text got him an eyeroll emoji, which Clint supposed would have to do.
Bucky arrived home about two hours after the eyeroll emoji, looking filthy and a little beat-up and a lot satisfied. Clint hoped he'd worked out whatever snit he was in, and it was looking promising -- he accepted Steve's welcome-home hug and tolerated his scolding about the black eye someone had given him. But then he saw Clint and --
If he hadn't been so attuned to reading body language, Clint might not have noticed. Bucky didn't look away or flinch or scowl. But the warmth in his eyes shuttered away and he focused on bickering with Steve over dinner. Clint barely got a word in edgewise.
Normally, if someone had been on a solo mission or if only some of the Avengers had gone out instead of the whole team, when they came home the rest of the team would crowd around them after dinner and settle in for a movie or a game night or some other communal activity. Clint knew enough about therapy to know it was a kind of affirmation, a renewing of the communal bond of their unit, and when he was on the receiving end he'd always found it comforting. But instead of hanging around for lots of attention and bond-affirmation like he usually did, Bucky disappeared into his room after dinner.
"What is up with him?" Tony asked. "I thought the mission went well, he said it went well."
"I'll see what's going on," Steve said.
Clint, because spying was pretty much what he did, followed Steve to Bucky's room and lurked. Not obviously or creepily, not that Steve would notice, but --
He hadn't actually heard more than one or two shouted words before the door to Bucky's room slammed open and Steve went flying through it into the hallway.
Clint was so stunned that he forgot to be stealthy. He just stood there in the hallway, staring at Steve, who was sitting on his ass against the (somewhat dented) opposite wall. The door slammed shut.
Steve noticed him gaping and rubbed the back of his head.
"He's working through some things," he said.
"What is he working through?" Clint asked, reaching down to give him a hand up.
"I'm not entirely sure," Steve admitted, as they made their way back towards the kitchen. "I think maybe it has something to do with the whole...dad thing."
"Why would Bucky be upset about that? It's not really anything to do with him," Clint said, frowning. "You think he's jealous or something?"
"Of which one of us?"
"I don't know. I mean you two really only had each other for a while. If he thinks you've got something else now, you know, an anchor..."
"Maybe, if this were a year ago, but it's not like I'm the only thing holding him together anymore. And anyway I never did a very good job of that," Steve added, reaching into the ice-pack drawer in the freezer and taking one out to press to the back of his head. "You were always better at it."
"Well, I had some objectivity you didn't," Clint agreed. "But still. You're the only thing left from that other life."
"Maybe," Steve said dubiously. "Maybe he's just having a bad week. He'll probably get a good night's sleep and be fine at breakfast."
Spoiler: Bucky was not fine at breakfast.
He didn't show up for their run, again, even though Clint had left a message with JARVIS to wake him up for it. He barely showed up for breakfast, slinking into the kitchen in a pair of ratty jeans and a giant threadbare sweater with thumb holes in the sleeves.
He accepted a bowl of scrambled eggs and sausage from Steve, took Tony's coffee when Tony wasn't looking (okay, that was a little funny, since Tony kept reaching for where it had been and then looking confused it wasn't there, until Bruce replaced it), and sat in Natasha's favorite breakfast chair. When she walked in, he gave her a look that dared her to do something about it. She sniffed, leaned over, took his (Tony's) coffee, and hopped up on the counter next to where Steve was starting on a second round of scrambled-egg-hash.
"Sam," she said, sipping her (Bucky's) (Tony's) coffee. "Your niece is fifteen, right?"
"One of 'em, yeah," Sam replied, eating a bowl of oatmeal while he waited for his eggs.
"What does she do when she gets a crush?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. She gets moody with everyone, I guess."
Clint caught Natasha rolling her eyes at Bucky, who was curled around his breakfast, ignoring them. Sam saw it too, and grinned.
"I mean, it's what kids do," he continued. "They're still figuring out how to actually express emotions. And their brains are all messed up with hormones. So she gets mouthy with her mom and acts like the world oughta revolve around her because the spiritual pain of a boy not noticing her is the heaviest weight anyone ever has or ever will bear."
"So you're saying because she's mad at an unfair world, she lashes out at people who aren't responsible?" Natasha asked sweetly.
"Ohh," Steve said, as if he was just realizing something.
"I don't know if it's even lashing out. I think it's just, you know, very localized narcissism," Sam said, ignoring Steve's epiphany, whatever it was.
"That sounds like she's no fun to be around at all," Steve put in.
"Well, it never lasts long. And she's a kid, what're you gonna do? She'll never figure out how to deal with it, otherwise."
Clint was about to add something in, but Bucky got up and stalked across the kitchen, setting the empty bowl in his hand down on the counter so hard that the plastic cracked.
"I'm not a child," he said, more to Steve than to anyone, and then looked at Natasha. "You've made your goddamn point. Don't fucking condescend to me."
"All right, that's it," Clint announced. Everyone looked at him except Tony, who was buried in his replacement coffee. "Bucky and I are gonna have a little heart to heart. Everyone out. No, you stay," he said to Bucky, who was stalking towards the door.
"Get fucked," Bucky suggested.
Steve moved at Super Soldier speed, something he didn't usually do in the kitchen; he was around the island and in the doorway before Bucky could reach it.
"You wanna get thrown through another doorway?" Bucky asked.
"That was your one freebie," Steve said. "You stay here."
"Or you're benched from the team," Steve said. Bucky's eyes widened. "I will call Hill and have you put on suspension for insubordination. Go ahead, try me," he added, when Bucky opened his mouth. Natasha and Sam were already slipping out the doorway behind Steve. Bruce had grabbed Tony by the collar of his shirt and was gently guiding him out as well.
"Fine," Bucky said, throwing himself back into Natasha's favorite chair. He looked away from Clint. Steve gave Clint a nod and mouthed good luck. Clint turned a chair around, set it in front of Bucky, and straddled it, crossing his arms over the top of the back.
"You seem pretty pissed," he said. Bucky looked away, pointedly. "At the world in general, and that bowl's coming out of your pocket money I bet, but mostly at me and Steve."
"Well, I see why they call you Hawkeye," Bucky snarled.
"Look, there are like, a dozen reasons to be pissed at me and Steve or at, you know, the world for the whole me-and-Steve situation. I get it. But I don't know which reason is the reason you're pissed."
"Doesn't matter," Bucky muttered.
"Except I would personally like to fix this and stop you being a dickface, because I miss my non-dickface friend and not a single other person here is willing to put on a pair of rollerblades with me and compete to see who's the better marksman at a very unstable thirty miles an hour," Clint said.
Bucky didn't smile.
"So if you could maybe just like, pick your top three reasons you're behaving like a jerk and name them off, I'm here to workshop this problem with you," Clint said. "I learned about emotional workshopping in mandatory sensitivity training. I'm actually tapping into sensitivity training for you. Work with me here."
Bucky covered his face with his left hand, shaking his head. "You're a piece of work, Barton."
"So I've been told. Come on, Buck. Spit it out. Steve thinks you're just having a bad week. I think you're jealous because Steve was all you had, you know, from before, and now there's this weird parentage thing with me hanging over that. Or is it like, you think now I'm gonna be Steve's BFF and not yours? Because that role is taken by Sam Wilson and he can have it, Steve is exhausting."
"Yeah," Bucky agreed.
"See, progress. We totally decided we're not dad and son by the way, we decided to be bros instead."
"'Cause that's not weird," Bucky said.
"Well, it's less weird. Is that it? Are you weirded out?"
Bucky finally turned to look at him.
"You're Steve's kid," he said.
"Yeah, but like, not really."
"I was gonna deal with the fact that you are very much older than I thought," Bucky continued, looking down at his hands. "Because, whatever, age is just a number, it's not like you've ever said or done anything to indicate you're a responsible adult."
"I cultivate that. Gets me out of a lot of boring shit I don't want to do," Clint said.
"But you're Steve's kid," Bucky said, sounding almost desperate. "That's really weird for me."
"It's weird for us too, but Steve's not acting like he's in some terrible Shakespearean tragedy," Clint said.
"If you can name three Shakespearean tragedies I'll buy you a hamburger," Bucky said.
"Hamlet, A Comedy of Errors, and Guys and Dolls," Clint said promptly.
Bucky looked at him.
"It literally has the word comedy in the title," he said finally.
"Okay, if you can name three times in my life I'll actually need to know anything at all about Shakespeare, I'll buy you a hamburger and a milkshake," Clint challenged.
"Guys and Dolls is a musical..."
"I'm sorry, did they not have music in the middle ages?"
Bucky shook his head, laughing a little. "You're such a mess," he said.
"I like being a mess. It's comfortable," Clint replied. "See? We're okay, right? This isn't weird, I'm still me."
"It is weird," Bucky replied, sobering. "Steve and I grew up together."
"You really don't get it," Bucky said.
"The list of things I don't get would fill a book I'll never write," Clint replied. "Like the stock market. And bronies."
"I was gonna ask you out, you dumbass," Bucky said.
"To?" Clint prompted, and then his brain caught up with his mouth. "Wait, what?"
"I was gonna ask you out! Because I'm sweet on you and I figured I had at least a fifty-fifty chance you'd say yes, and then we could actually be dating instead of doing all the things dating people do without the sex."
Clint just stared at him.
"Probably seventy-thirty," he said, when his mouth got working again. "Depending on how optimistic I'm feeling about my ability to have sane and successful relationships on any given day."
"Well, thanks for that, but now I can't, because you're Steve's kid and that's really weird, so excuse me if I'm taking a few days to get over the fact that I can't be dating my best friend's son!"
"Wow," Clint said, brushing his hair back with his hands and then just leaving his hands there because pulling his hair was keeping him mostly sane. "Wow, um, okay, this was not on the list of possible reasons for you being a giant asshole."
"Fuck you, Clint," Bucky said, standing up. "Steve can bench me, I'm done here."
"Bucky, wait, no, come on -- "
Bucky tried to go around Clint's chair, but Clint stood up, less than gracefully, and then tripped over the chair as he tried to grab Bucky, sending it crashing against Natasha's chair. Both chairs clattered to the ground, but it distracted Bucky for long enough for Clint to grab him by the arm and spin him around and from there it was less natural to yell at him and more natural to just kiss him.
It was awkward and ill-positioned, and Bucky didn't seem into it for about four seconds, but then he raised both his arms and pivoted Clint just enough to fit their bodies together properly, so that Clint could get his arms around his shoulders and Bucky could drop his arms to Clint's waist. That was better, especially now that Bucky was really getting into the kiss.
"Not that weird?" Clint asked, inbetween kisses.
"Less weird than expected," Bucky agreed.
"Jesus, are you two killing each other in h -- " Steve's voice called, and then Steve arrived in the doorway and stopped like he'd hit a forcefield. Clint, eyes opening, peered around Bucky's ear.
"Ah," Steve said. Bucky didn't move. Clint raised his eyebrows. "Well. Carry on."
He turned to go, then turned back and pointed a finger at Clint. "Don't take any sweet talk from him and make him buy you flowers before you let him get to third base," he said sternly. Bucky laughed into Clint's shoulder. "Buck, if he gives you any trouble you come tell me and I'll make sure he behaves."
Bucky lifted a hand to show he'd heard, and Steve gave Clint a thumbs-up and retreated.
"Yeah, okay, that was a little weird," Clint said. Bucky tightened his arms around Clint's waist and kissed the side of his neck. "Are you still freaked out?"
"Yes," Bucky said rebelliously.
"Too freaked out to go get burgers? I'll let you get to third base if you buy me sweet potato fries."
"Well, I mean, put some effort in, wrap them up in a nice waxed paper cone, make them look fancy," Clint said, and Bucky laughed again, stepping back, pushing his hair out of his eyes.
"Okay, fine, I'll buy you a burger and some of your fancy fries," Bucky said. "Should you be eating that much fried food at your age?"
"Sweet potatoes are good for you," Clint argued. "All this vegan paleo low-carb modern bullcrap, it's not healthy, emotionally. Fried food makes your arterial walls stronger."
"Oh my god, you sound so old," Bucky said.
"Just you wait until I treat you to my rant about how Saturday morning cartoons suck nowadays," Clint said.
"No, I'm right with you on that one," Bucky replied, gently aiming him towards the elevator.
"We don't have to get burgers this minute," Clint said. "I don't know anywhere that sells hamburgers at eight in the morning."
"I do, and yes we do, because right now Steve is excitedly telling everyone he knows that we're dating, and probably planning the wedding," Bucky said. "We need to be gone before he comes back."
"You know somewhere to get burgers around here at eight in the morning and you didn't tell me?" Clint asked, managing to at least grab his shoes and Bucky's boots as Bucky herded him into the elevator. "That's it, the wedding's off."
"Do you or do you not want breakfast hamburgers?" Bucky asked.
"I do want breakfast hamburgers," Clint admitted.
"Then shut your hole and put your shoes on," Bucky said.
Clint looked him dead in the eye and replied, "I think the romance has gone out of this affair, James."
"Well," Steve said, watching the surveillance video of the elevator as Clint leaned in and kissed Bucky, with all the softness and kindness Steve could hope for in someone seeing his childhood friend, "I guess that puts the lid on grandkids."
"There's always surrogacy. Or cloning," Tony said. "Can we stop creeping on your kid and his boyfriend now?"
"I just wanted to make sure they're okay," Steve said. He reached out and turned the monitor off, then hovered his hand over it.
"I'll have JARVIS follow them on traffic cams, you don't need to watch," Tony said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Come on, I never got to finish my coffee."
"It's so nice that he's happy," Steve said earnestly, as they headed back towards the kitchen. "He couldn't pick a better guy than Bucky. And Bucky's bound to benefit from it too."
Tony poured himself a mug of coffee and leaned back on the kitchen counter, amused when Steve stepped up and into him, taking Tony's coffee mug out of his hands and sipping it before handing it back.
"So when are you gonna tell Clint about his new stepdad?" Tony asked, grinning.
"Give him a few weeks. He's got a lot to work out as it is."
"I'm going to enjoy that moment," Tony mused, as Steve rested his hands on his hips, looking contented. "I can't wait to start making Bucky do chores I don't want to do because stepdad-in-law says he has to."
"Natasha will make popcorn."
"You're not going to tell me what an awful thing it is to take advantage?" Tony asked. Steve nosed against his neck affectionately.
"Nah. He was being a real punk," Steve laughed. "Anyway, he'd better stay on his toes if he wants to tangle with a Rogers boy."
"Hm, so I've learned," Tony said, ruining Steve's attempt at intimidation by grabbing his butt, which always made Steve blush. "So, happy endings all around, huh?"
"Looks that way. Hey, what do you think about having kids, anyway?" Steve asked. "Baby sister for Clint? You did say surrogacy was an option, I bet there's a nice SHIELD agent or two who'd be willing to help us out -- " He stopped, because he couldn't take it any more; Tony's growing expression of horror was irresistible. As soon as he started to laugh, Tony pinched where he'd been grabbing. "Ow!"
"Unfunny," Tony said. "So, so unfunny..."
"Okay, no more offspring for now," Steve said. "The team's a handful as it is. But you have to be kind to Clint and not make fun of me for being a little crazy when it comes to him."
"Deal," Tony said, and kissed him. "Come on, the kids are out of the house, let's go to your room and make out."