“I still can’t believe how expensive this shit is,” Bucky said, directing his irritation at the coffee cup in his right hand. His left arm circled Clint’s waist; Clint’s arm draped around Bucky’s shoulders. It’d been just shy of a year since they’d met, since Bucky started relearning to live, since things had taken on a sort of routine. Bucky hadn’t expected to enjoy Clint’s company as much as he did, and now he couldn’t imagine a world without his friendship. One could argue Bucky was a sap, but his track recorded over the last century proved his tendancy to collect sarcastic, sharp-witted blonds.
“Welcome to the future, Barnes,” Clint answered, raising his own coffee in salute as they made their way down the street, ignoring the bustle of Brooklyn foot traffic.
Crowds still made Bucky anxious, but he could deal with it most days. It was always worth the effort to spend time with Clint.
Bucky sighed, nostalgia creeping up on him. Once, he’d been kinda fond of the future. The idea of it, anyway. “Before I shipped out to London, Stevie and I went on a double-date to the Stark Expo. Howard had this prototype flying car. Best thing I’d seen, even if it didn’t exactly work.” The corner of his mouth twitched up. “I loved that stuff. You know, science stuff. Used to spend hours reading Jules Verne and imagining how the world would look in fifty years.” Bucky’s tone soured. “I expected a lotta things, but not five dollar coffee. And it’s not even a large coffee.”
Clint rolled his eyes. “You sound like my grandfather. ‘Back in my day, you could get ice cream for a nickel a scoop.’”
“One: I was born in 1917. Scraping up enough nickels for a scoop of ice cream for me and Stevie to split took a miracle. Two,” Bucky paused, shuddering. “Two: that’s just creepy. I’m 30. Three: I’m fine as hell for a centenarian.”
“You are,” he agreed, nodding. “Wish I had a nickel right now to bounce off those thighs.”
Bucky chuckled, leaning into Clint’s side. “That mouth of yours is gonna get you in a lotta trouble, Barton.”
Enjoying his over-priced coffee, the sunshine, and the company of his best bro, Bucky felt more like himself than he could remember. His therapist seemed satisfied with their process, and deep down, Buck felt pretty damn thrilled himself. And when he didn’t, Steve always championed him, though any given day could meant eye-roll worthy speeches or just lounging together on the couch. Happiness became a constant, warm, comfortable, and content. Though some of the pieces of who he’d been would never fit back together, for the most part, he’d become someone he mostly liked. Recovery required effort. With luck, maybe some day he wouldn’t have to try at all.
Between heartbeats, Clint tensed, and Bucky’s metal fingers pressed slightly harder between his friend’s ribs. He narrowed his eyes at a street sign as if he had no idea where they were. “You see ‘em, too?”
“Yeah. Two, opposite side of the street. Another two behind.”
“Fucking hell. How long?”
“They’ve been tailing us since the coffee shop.” Clint shrugged, but Bucky knew a practiced gesture when he saw one. “I was kinda hoping for a coincidence. Seriously, do the bad guys not watch action movies? ‘Hey, let’s dress like evil jerks and walk around in broad daylight while we conspicuously follow our target.’” He scoffed. “Amateurs. It’s like people in horror movies who’ve clearly never watched a horror movie.”
“Don’t look at me. I’m still working on Stevie’s ‘incognito’ look. I finally got him to ditch those damn aviators and stop using the hood on the sweatshirt. The baseball cap is next.”
Bucky took a long swallow of his mocha. He probably wouldn’t get to enjoy the rest. They kept walking, and to Bucky’s dismay, the number of obvious evil jerks increased. Great. Nervous tension set the plates in his arm shifting, clicking loudly despite his long-sleeved Henley. So much for controlling his anxiety.
He kept his eye on the two across the street, which meant he missed the person who ran right into him. Fucking New York foot traffic. He hadn’t intended to stop—collisions were normal, people stared at him all the time, it was kinda part of the deal—but when he turned to look at the guy, Bucky noticed instead the taller, black-clad figure beside him, motionless, watching. The coffee cup slipped from his hand.
They wouldn’t make a move on the street. Too many witnesses. A second later, Bucky watched realization dawn across the face of the man who’d knocked into him: eyes wide, mouth agape, the beginnings of a word forming on his lips.
They had to move. Fast.
“Get off the street, Barton,” he hissed, the edge of panic creeping in. “Back alley. Now.”
Clint pulled them out of the crowd with a seamless, artful sidestep, still casually sipping his coffee. “Bad guys. Hurray,” he said. “Must be a Tuesday.”
The guys on the opposite side of the street could wait; ditching the two who’d made them was imperative. The alleys provided limited cover, but sped their way back into the throng.
Clint glanced over at him. “They’re following.”
Of course they were. Damn it. “We have to blend in, get back out there, get lost. If we can-“
Bucky stopped short, stomach knotting as the men stepped into the alley in front of them. The tall one, dark-suited and ax-sharp, wore a grin that made Bucky’s blood go cold. The one who’d run into him still wore his expression of utter shock.
Clint took another sip, giving the goons an underwhelmed once over. “Is part of your evil agenda wrecking our romantic coffee date?” he drawled. “Because rude. Uh, and so is staring,” he added, pointedly fixed on the still gaping man.
The guy’s expression turned more incredulous, his gaze firmly locked on Bucky. “Oh my god, you’re really him. You’re-“
A hand clamped over the guy’s mouth. The two other agents had joined them. Fucking awesome.
Clint shifted slightly, putting himself in front of Bucky. “Look, I’m not really into the whole double dating thing. It’s awkward. Can’t decide on a restaurant, then you argue over the bill-”
“We weren’t looking for you,” one of the men interrupted.
“So you crashed our party for no reason? You guys really are evil.”
Bucky kept his breathing even. They were gonna have to fight their way out.
Clint stretched, resigned. “I was trying to avoid a messy break up, but I guess this date’s ending with my fist in your face.”
The tension snapped. Clint dodged the first strike, pivoting to send his foot into the goon’s side. He blocked the next blow with his arm and flung that guy into the one after him. Then he took a sip of coffee.
Bucky loved him just a little bit more.
He’d braced himself, but despite being the target, no one seemed keen to get close. He kept the tall man in sight, but the thugs kept their focus on Clint. Lashing out, he sent one guy to the ground before the other backed up. If Bucky wanted to fight (and he did), he’d have to go after them. Bucky sure as hell wasn’t gonna leave Clint behind, but thugs wouldn't move on him until Clint was out of the way.
Or until they separated Clint from him.
Bucky smirked. He hated being left out of a fight. They could take the agents down, no problem; Bucky’s apprehension lay in taking on the overseer, still watching. Still waiting.
“You know, I almost miss the Tracksuits,” Clint said, voice easy as it had been earlier as he flipped one of the thugs over his shoulder and into the wall. “At least there was decent bad guy banter, ya know?”
“I could start filling my sentences with ‘seriously’s and ‘bro’s if it makes you feel better,” Bucky offered. One of the agents took a metal fist to the face and didn’t get up again.
“Ugh, please don’t.” Clint caught his target’s leg and upended him but missed the attack that followed, striking his hand. His coffee hit the ground and splattered. Clint narrowed his eyes on the perpetrator, livid. “You son of a bitch.”
“Oh, that was a mistake,” Bucky said. The thug shrank back under his attention, staying out of punching range. Bucky only nodded toward Clint. “Now he has both hands free.”
Clint smirked, his humor replaced with venom. The temptation to watch Clint beat the hell outta the guy press him, but a sharp snap and the crackle of electricity pulled his attention back to the fight. Apparently, it was his turn after all.
One of the guys held a long-handled cattle prod, aimed for Bucky’s neck. Could this day get any goddamn worse? Bucky ducked, kicking out a leg to sweep the guy. The business end of the prod caught his metal shoulder, electricity burning along the scar tissue in bright searing waves. Bucky reached up and grabbed the rod, turning it back on his opponent.
He swung wide, intending the clip the jackass behind him; one of the downed agents shifted, pulled a gun from his coat, and aimed the barrel at Clint. Bucky brought the cattle prod down on the man’s throat and then crushed the gun in his left hand. From the ground, the man he hadn’t beaten into unconsciousness jabbed another, smaller taser into Bucky’s back.
It hurt enough either way, and the metal plates in his arm shifted and clicked erratically, the current shooting along his nerves. He dropped to his knees, jaw clenched so hard his teeth ached. He wondered how many volts raced through him before his vision flickered and went out.
Clint turned toward Bucky, leaving himself open, and a hard punch to the jaw sent him sprawling onto the pavement. One of his hearing aids slipped out from the impact and skid along the cement. Hanging with his bestie meant casual BTEs, but he sure as futz wasn’t gonna get them broken. Head spinning, he snatched it up before a boot or body smashed it. Straightening up, Clint saw Bucky on his knees before the tall man, whose overly-eager kid sidekick was still staring at Bucky. Clint caught a boot to the ribs, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain, but before he could react, the guy lost his footing, flung backward into the wall. Bucky, facing the guy in the coat, offered Clint his metal hand. Clint took it, grateful, and let Bucky help him stand.
Clint replaced his hearing aid, worked his jaw. That was gonna be a nice bruise later, but he wasn’t about to risk more damage. They needed to get out of the alley. Get to safety. Retreat. “Knock ‘em back and let’s get the hell outta here,” he said.
Bucky nodded once and went after the closest thug. Clint took out two more, but when he looked back, the tallest one had vanished. Something about him sat wrong with Clint, but figuring out what would wait. Soon, the rest decorated the ground like garbage. For a split second, Clint lamented the lack of nearby dumpsters.
Grabbing Bucky’s arm, Clint pulled him out of the alleyway. Bucky stayed close as they tore across the city toward Bucky’s apartment. Once they got there, they could regroup. Figure out what the futz happened. Why it happened.
He had his keys in hand before they’d reached the top of the stairs of Bucky’s apartment building. He let Buck through first, scanned the hall, and once satisfied they hadn’t been followed, walked in after.
“Ho-ly shit,” Clint swore. “Oh, man, I was not ready for that today. And I dropped my coffee.” Past-battle nerves didn’t usually get him, but then again, getting the hell outta Dodge wasn’t typically his play. He almost leaned against the door to catch his breath, but reconsidered. Bucky remained silent, still facing away. No sign of post-battle anything from him. Gah, his anxiety must be through the roof; Clint wasn’t feeling all that great himself. First thing first, assess the situation. “You okay, Buck?” Clint slid the locks home and then turned to face his friend. Clint couldn’t hear a thing, not even a slightly-less-than-relaxed breath. “Bucky?”
Bucky stood by the couch, expression blank, staring around the apartment as if he found it lacking. Checking the perimeter, like Clint had done outside. Inside, everything appeared normal. No blinking lights, no visible bugs. Clint’s tricked-out hearing aids didn’t pick up anything unusual.
Except for Bucky’s continued silence, broken only by the whirring from his metal arm.
Clint arched a brow. What hell, man? “Hello? Earth to Sergeant Barnes, do you copy? Or is it read me? I dunno. Whichever. What are you-” Clint stopped, Bucky’s eyes focused on him. The wind rushed out of Clint like he’d been punched in the gut. “Buck?”
Bucky’s empty expression set off a field of bright blue behind Clint’s eyes. His chest tightened and his hands shook as he approached, as he carefully placed them on Bucky’s shoulders. Bucky didn’t move.
“Come on, Barnes. Anyone home? Bueller? Oh, god, have you even seen that movie?” Focus, Barton, he chided himself. Maybe Bucky was panicking. Clint had seen him get lost before. This wasn’t a crisis. Buck would snap out of it any minute.
Clint’s thoughts turned, headed down a path he never wanted to see again. When was the last time Bucky had spoken to him? Before he’d taken that bad punch and landed on his face. But Bucky had helped him up, had taken out the rest of the goons. Had—
He swallowed down the urge to be sick. No. This wasn’t happening. Had he . . .
“Soldier?” he whispered, the word metallic on his tongue.
Bucky focused on Clint. “Ya gotov otvechat.”
Cold sweat broke out on the back of Clint’s neck and he barely made it to the garbage can before his coffee and breakfast made a reappearance. Blindly, he reached for the paper towels, knocking them over in effort to get one. He wiped at his mouth, spit into the trashcan, and wiped again. His hearing aids must be malfunctioning. Yeah. He took a spill, one of them hit the pavement. Must have cracked. Loose wire. Clint raised his head, found Bucky watching him, and immediately wretched again.
Several long minutes passed before the floor stopped tilting under him. “Okay, okay,” he muttered, head still in the trash. “You can fall apart later. Gotta keep it to together for now. You can do this.” He scrambled to fill a glass from the tap and rinsed his mouth, careful not to look at his friend. A tiny voice in the back of Clint’s mind corrected his earlier statement: Bucky didn’t find the apartment lacking; he looked like he’d never seen it. And yeah, the Soldier hadn’t.
Another wave of sickness washed over him, worse than the first. He had to call Steve.
One crisis at a time. He turned to Buck, who thank god no longer looked at him, but at the room. Establish a baseline. Get the information Steve needs. “Do you know where you are?” Clint asked.
“Brooklyn, New York,” Bucky answered, tone flat.
“What's your name?”
A line appeared between his brows. “Inquiry invalid.”
Clint went cold all over. He hoped the Soldier wouldn’t notice his voice shaking. “Your name is Bucky. This is your apartment. You live here with Steve Rogers.” Maybe he imagined it, but Clint swore something changed in Bucky’s expression at the mention of Steve’s name. That was good. He could use that. “Do you remember Steve?”
Bucky nodded. “Captain Rogers, former target. Initial mission: failure. Result: punishment. Electroshock recalibration administered, mission reset. Secondary mission: 97% completion. Mission override: original command terminated.”
Turned out the only thing worse than Bucky’s silence was Bucky speaking. Clint knew Hydra was responsible for all manner of fuckery, but this, this made his skin crawl. Bucky wasn’t an assassin; he was a machine. Clint choked back his nerves. “Well, you remember him. That’s . . . Probably okay? Futzing hell.” He dragged a hand through his hair, tugged a bit. Pain helped him focus.
“You look like him.” Bucky’s voice grew softer, barely there. He flinched when Clint raised his brows.
If he knew Steve, maybe he remembered Clint, too. Clint really didn’t wanna ask, didn’t want the answer he felt sure he’d get, but he had no choice. “Do you know who I am?” Bucky didn’t speak. He’d dropped his gaze to the floor. “Bucky, do you know me?”
That same line appeared between his eyes. Clint tried not to feel too hopeful. “Assessment: handler.”
That tiny spark of hope wasn’t snuffed out so much as stomped to oblivion, hogtied, and buried beneath cement. Clint clapped a hand over his mouth as he gagged, the pain in his chest doubling. He squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head. “I’m not your handler, Bucky. I’m your friend.”
“Incorrect,” Bucky said. “The asset requires one handler, replaced upon death. General description: tall, blond, strong build. Former handler: Alexander Pierce. Job: designate mission protocol.”
Clint’s hands slid up to cover his face. “Oh my god, I would punt something fuzzy to make you stop talking that way.” Bucky’s mouth shut with an audible click of teeth. Clint sucked in a ragged breath. They hadn’t been fighting together after Clint went down; Bucky had been obeying him. Clint struggled to keep from hyperventilating as he turned away. “Okay, okay. I have to call Steve. I have to call Steve right futzing now.” He fumbled for his phone, sparing a glance at Bucky. He’d stayed put, looking around without recognition. Clint couldn’t leave him like that. “Um, handler. Right.” He swallowed, pitched his voice higher. “Uh, at ease, Soldier?” A minuscule amount of tension leached out of Bucky’s stance. “You can sit, you know.”
Bucky cringed, his voice soft again. “The chair?”
“Wherever you want, buddy. Your house.”
Clint finally got his phone out of his pocket. “Okay. Couch?” Bucky sat, back straight, jaw clenched. “There’s no mission, Buck. If you don’t want to sit, you don’t have to. You can, uh, look around, I guess,” Clint said. “Your choice.”
Bucky shifted, uncomfortable. Choice wasn’t something the Solider was given. Clint thumbed to Steve’s number, trying not to remember what it was like to not have a choice. After a minute, Bucky stood back up and wandered to the bookcase. Clint hit call. One crisis at a time.
The call went through on the second ring. “Clint?” Steve asked.
Don’t panic. You can do this. It’s sitrep. “You need to get home, ASAP,” Clint said.
“If we’re out of coffee, just pick some up,” Steve said, something between a laugh and exasperation in his tone. “I know you have my gold card. I’m sure it looks bad-“
“No. It doesn’t look bad. It is bad. Hydra bad. Whatever you’re doing can wait. Get home.” He spared a glance at Bucky, who held an old teal-colored book. “Barnes has been compromised,” he added.
“Where is he?” Steve asked, no longer good humored. Clint heard the edge of Steve’s own panic below his familiar Captain America voice.
“I have him at your apartment. He’s in Soldier mode. Is there a way to get him out of it?”
“No.” Clint’s stomach sank, but Steve continued. “Keep him there. Play along if you have to. Talk to him. The ‘end of the line’ won’t work for you, but try to find something Bucky might remember. I’m already on the way. I’ll get there as fast as I can.”
The line disconnected, and Clint tried to comfort himself knowing backup was coming. Bucky traced over something on the front page of the book, a dedication or inscription.
Clint could hit him. Cognitive recalibration had worked for him, but the idea of striking Bucky made him want to be sick all over again. He shook off the thought. Steve said talking to him might help, but what the hell did you talk to a Russian cyborg assassin about?
“What’s that?” Clint asked. Might as well aim for the obvious. Books were a safe category. God, he hoped books were a safe category.
“Jules Verne, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Bucky answered, matter-of-fact.
“Do you like reading?”
Bucky stared at the book in his hands. “Unknown.”
“Of course,” Clint muttered. “Can you, I dunno, speak freely? If I give you permission?”
Bucky set the book down, a shade of uncertainty passing over his face. “Protocol unknown. Speaking results in punishment. Questioning results in punishment.”
“Punishment?” Clint asked. “So you’ve never spoken to your handlers?”
“Questioning is not within asset protocols. Refurbishment and reprogramming upon mission completion; storage until subsequent mission requires my skill set.”
“Deletion of previous mission and objectives. Present mission directives given.”
Clint sat down hard. “They wiped your memory. Every futzing time. Why?”
Bucky lost some of his battle-ready edge and pointedly avoided looking at Clint. “Maintenance.”
“You’re not a machine, Bucky. You don’t require maintenance.” Maybe he sounded more angry than he’d intended. He’d shot for matter-of-fact, and missed. How futzing novel.
Bucky cringed, shaking his head once as if trying to dislodge the words or a memory. Clint swallowed back the notion that this might be working, that Buck might be coming out of it.
Hope took a bullet when Bucky’s response came: “Statement invalid.”
A thought spun through Clint’s mind. Steve said to play along. Weary of pushing too far, Clint kept his voice even. “You have to listen to me, don’t you? If I tell you the statement is valid, that makes it so, doesn’t it?” Bucky’s eyes blanked out and Clint dropped his head in his hands. Damn it. “I’m sorry. At ease, Soldier. You have permission to speak. I’m not going to punish you.”
Bucky spoke so quietly, Clint blinked at him for a long minute. “What?”
It took an equally long minute for Clint to realize Bu—no, the Soldier—was asking his name. He felt the sting of tears in the back of his eyes. “Oh.” This futzing sucked. “Clint.”
The Soldier nodded but didn’t say anything else, resuming his study of the apartment. There was no way Clint could hit him, not without any promise it would break the mind control. He didn’t want the Soldier to think he was being punished. He wouldn’t risk driving out what fraction of Bucky might still be there trying to fight back. Clint shivered; being on the inside looking out was a goddamn nightmare. He just wanted his friend back.
“End of the line,” he muttered. The Soldier stopped and glanced at Clint before continuing on. “Okay, didn’t think that would work. What else?” Dredging the corners of his mind for any jokes or turns of phrase Bucky might use as a lede provided ample distraction. He barely noticed when the Soldier moved on from the bookcase and took a picture frame off the wall. Clint recognized the photo immediately: Steve, Clint, and Bucky making faces in a photo booth. Clint had dragged them over and shoved them in, making some joke about how many relics of the past were scattered around New York. Clint swallowed. Please let this work. “Do you remember that picture?”
“Identified: Captain Rogers, Clint.”
“And you, Buck. You were with us.” Clint licked his lips. “It was my birthday. You were mad I don’t celebrate, so you and Steve took me out to Coney Island. Spent the whole day doing whatever I wanted. The beach, the arcade. Made Steve ride the Cyclone. Then we split one of those giant kitchen sink sundaes. You had the waitress stick a sparkler in it.” It had been one of the best days of his life.
Judging by the complete lack of reaction, Bucky didn’t remember it.
He tapped one metal finger against the glass. “Permission to speak freely?”
Clint sniffled. Adrenaline had worn off, replaced by the weight of exhaustion. “Yeah.”
“Does it make you feel better?”
“What?” The moment the question left his mouth, he regretted asking.
“Using that name.”
His name. Clint nodded. “Yeah. It does.”
The Soldier set the photo back on its hook. “Did Captain Rogers assign you? You know him. You used the same name he does. Or is he unaware of your affiliation?”
Anger and frustration burned hot once more. “I was not assigned and I am not Hydra. Fuck those bastards.” Clint shot up from the couch and gripped the Solider by the shoulders. “Listen to me.” He felt the muscles in Bucky’s back tense, the full weight of his attention focused on Clint. Clint cursed; Soldier had no choice but to obey. “I know what it’s like to have someone rip you of your body and stuff something else in. I know what it’s like to be unmade. And guess what? The only thing worse than being controlled is finding yourself in control of someone else.”
Where the fuck was Steve? He could really use some goddamn star-spangled assistance right the hell now. Bucky flinched, closing his eyes. The tremors returned to Clint’s hand and he held Bucky tighter. He’d had one job—protecting Bucky—and he’d failed. He couldn’t stop it, and now he couldn’t fix it.
Clint released a shaky breath and let go, turning away as he mumbled to himself. “‘End of the line’ doesn’t work, memories don’t work, don’t make me futzing hit you, I can’t, Buck, I can’t. Please snap out of this. Wait,” Clint gasped. “Wait, wait. Soldier, I’m your handler?”
Bucky’s expression remained blank as ever. “Yes.”
“You have to do what I say?”
“Then snap the hell out of it!” Clint pleaded. “You do not belong to Hydra, you are not their weapon. You’re Bucky Barnes, and my best friend, and Steve’s boyfriend. You don’t take orders from anyone. No one controls you anymore. You . . . You . . . You will no longer be obedient.”
“He’s seen that movie, and sadly I don’t think it works that way. Pretty sure he’s tried,” Steve said as he entered, locking the door behind him.
Clint’s kneecaps dissolved and nearly sent him to the floor. He hadn’t heard Steve come in but he’d never in his life been happier to see another person or hear one speak like a human. Steve had to know what to do. “Please tell me you can fix this.”
Steve offered Clint a sad smile before shifting his attention to Bucky. “Soldier, do you know me?”
Bucky tensed. “Captain Rogers.”
Bucky glanced at Clint. “No mission dictated.”
Slowly, Steve approached him, hands out. “Do you remember your name?”
The Soldier stepped back, his gaze falling to the ground. Steve placed one hand on Bucky’s shoulder, the other cupping his cheek. “Your name is Bucky. You live here with me.”
Clint wrapped his arms around himself, a last ditch effort to stay in one piece. Steve would fix this. He had to fix this. Bucky would be okay. He retreated, placing Steve between him and Bucky, and the couch between him and Steve.
Bucky stayed still, and then ducked his head against Steve’s shoulder.
“Come on, Buck. You can wake up.”
Steve stumbled back; Bucky had shoved him, face twisted in distress, his eyes shut. He struggled to look up, but when he opened his eyes, Bucky was back. Relief washed over Clint, quickly followed by welling panic. He pushed it away again; it pushed back.
“Stevie?” Bucky asked, barely a whisper. Steve nodded. Bucky swayed, his eyes rolling back as he collapsed. Steve caught him, cradling Bucky’s head on his arm.
“Is he okay?” Clint asked, hating the way his voice strained. Too much pressure. Too much.
“Yeah, Clint,” Steve answered, soothing. “Bucky’s gonna be fine.” He picked Bucky up and brought him over to the sofa, his attention devoted to making Bucky comfortable.
The second Steve set him down was the second Clint couldn’t stand anymore. The dam crumbled. The urge to run flooded through him, too strong to suppress.
Like what I do? Feeling generous?
Maybe buy me a coffee?
There's no obligation; you'll still get all the fanfiction your little hearts desire, but as I'm attempting to move, I thought it couldn't hurt. The option's there, should you feel inclined, and if you do, you have my eternal thanks and gratitude. <3
Chapter 2: Two
TW: brief allusion to self-harm
Bucky woke slowly. He didn’t remember falling asleep, didn’t remember getting into bed. Feeling leached back into his limbs; the soft mattress beneath him, the weight of his hands on his chest. Sound returned next. His clothing rustled against the sheets, but the noise was wrong. He knew Steve sat beside him, close enough to feel his warmth, but there was no way Bucky had managed to sleep all day.
And Steve was on his left, not his right.
Pressure at his shoulder kept him from moving as he fully regained consciousness. He groaned, nauseated.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Steve said softly.
Something cool touched his forehead. Bucky realized he wasn’t in bed, but on the couch. His eyelids fluttered, but he couldn’t keep them open.
“Do you know where you are?”
He nodded. “Home. Couch.”
“Good. You know your name?”
What the hell had happened? He wanted to sleep. Turn off all the lights and wrap himself in darkness. Or maybe throw up.
“Bucky,” he answered. No. He had to get up. There was something he needed to remember, something he needed to do.
The tiny shift of relief in Steve’s voice set his brain humming. “Good. Here, suck on this. It’ll help settle your stomach.”
“Is it your dick?”
Steve chuckled and the cloth went away. Ice clinked against a glass and then the edge of a spoon pressed against Bucky’s lips. “Afraid not. We can negotiate once you’re feeling better.”
Bucky opened his mouth and let the ice melt on his tongue while Steve stroked his hair. Waking up didn’t seem so hard anymore, but the lights were still too bright. Suddenly, Steve moved; Bucky heard him cross the room, and then the lights went down.
“Buck,” Steve said, once more kneeling beside the couch. “Do you remember what happened?” Bucky shook his head. “You had a seizure,” Steve continued. “Do you know what happened before that?”
He swallowed another spoonful of ice. “No. Got up. Don’t remember getting back here. You left this morning. I was supposed to meet Barton for coffee, and then-“ A bright spark of panic burned through him, turning every nerve into a livewire. Bucky bolted upright, knocking Steve’s hand away. Clint was no where to be seen. “Stevie, where’s Barton?”
Bucky slid off the couch, heart pounding so hard his ribs ached. Everything rushed back with enough force to unbalance him, from the fight in the alley to the distant conversation Clint had with the Soldier. “Holy shit. Tell me you didn’t let him out of here.”
“I didn’t,” Steve said, shock pinching his eyes. He chewed his lower lip for a moment. “He’s . . . He bolted after you blacked out. I think he’s in the bathroom. Bucky, what happened to you-“
“What happened to me doesn’t matter right now,” Bucky answered, heading toward the bathroom. “I’m fine. He’s not.”
Brushing away the halting sound of Steve’s protest, Bucky crossed through their bedroom toward the closed bathroom door. Light shone from beneath, but everything was quiet beyond. Barging in would be worst choice without knowing what to expect. He could deal with Steve being upset—would handle it, after—but he’d never had to console Clint before. Knowing his friend suffered broke his heart.
Bucky padded up to the door, placing both hands on the wood and leaning against it. “Clint?” he called softly.
He caught a sharp intake of breath and the rattle of the shower curtain, followed by the muffled sound of Clint’s voice. “No, no, no, no, no,” he whispered. “Please, no. Please.”
Unmistakable panic laced Clint’s voice. “Clint?” Bucky called again, trying to figure out how to fix his usually unshakable friend. Hydra was bad, but Clint believing he’d failed Bucky—no, controlled him, forced him to act against his will—was worse. A sick realization twisted his gut: Clint thought the Soldier was looking for his handler. For him. “Barton, it’s me. Bucky.”
A soft creak caught Bucky’s attention. Steve stood in the doorway, expression uncertain, his teeth worrying his bottom lip. Bucky shook his head; Steve wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do. He doubted Steve was better equipped for this situation.
Turning back to the door, Bucky pitched his voice high enough for Clint to hear. “I’m right here, Barton. When you’re ready, I’m here.”
He pressed his back to the door, settling in to wait. At least it gave him time to think of what to say.
Clint pressed his cheek against the cool tiles, slowly pulling himself back together. He had a wall at his back, eyes on the door, and a shower curtain between him and the Soldier. Not that a shower curtain would help much.
But it wasn’t the Soldier. Bucky sat on the other side of the door, waiting for him.
Clint’s teeth chattered. His blood froze and his skin burned, and he wanted to be sick and cry and laugh and sleep until next week or until all the horrible things in his head disappeared like a bad, blue-tinted dream.
“I don’t know what you need, Barton,” Bucky said after a while, voice muffled. Clint heard him shift against the door. “Do you want me to go away? I can send Steve.”
Clint cringed. “No.”
That was good. He’d kept his voice from shaking.
Bucky paused again. “Can I come in?”
“Yes.” It was small, almost a whimper, but Clint managed. He wiped at his face; there was no way in hell he could convince Bucky he wasn’t upset, but that didn’t mean he had to see Clint cry. The lock clicked and a moment later, the door opened. Clint could see Bucky’s shadow on the curtain, but even knowing it was Bucky didn’t lessen the anxiety stabbing through him. He squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in his hands, willing himself to be fine. Breathe.
It wouldn'y take long for Bucky to realize Clint had hidden himself in the bathtub. Bathrooms didn’t provide a lotta options as far as defensible positions went. He sat down, just outside arms reach. “Can I open the curtain?”
“Okay. Do you want to me stop talking?”
Clint shook his head. “No.” Thank futz Buck sounded like himself and not that thing Hydra had made him.
Bucky pressed his back to the wall. Clint knew if Bucky leaned a little, he could see him. With effort, Clint straightened.
“Would it help if I touched you? I know sometimes it helps me stay grounded.”
Clint nodded but didn’t look up.
Bucky’s tone stayed soothing, but Clint didn’t need to see him to know the smirk was there. “Okay, but you either have to get out of the tub or let me in,” he teased.
Clint scooted over.
He gave a tired laughed at Bucky’s exasperation. Buck stood and sat behind him, resting his hands on Clint’s shoulders. “I’m right here, pal. You can lean back if you want or-“
Bucky’s breath huffed out as Clint collapsed back, hiding his face in Bucky’s neck. He squeezed Bucky tight. More than anything, he needed to know Buck was okay.
Bucky held him close. “I’ve got you. It’s gonna be okay.”
It wasn’t okay. Hydra’d gotten him on Clint’s watch. The one thing he’d hoped Bucky would never experience again—the worst thing that had ever happened to Clint, too—had happened, and Clint had been the one to do it. The world in his head lit up in electric blue and he failed to catch his breath.
Bucky’s voice rumbled low in his chest. “C’mere. Listen to the sound of my breathing and match it, okay? Nice and slow. It doesn’t have to be a full breath, just slow.”
Clint tried. Too shallow. Too quick. Bucky kept his hand lightly against Clint’s head. He couldn’t stop shaking, but eventually he felt like he wasn’t going to faint. His chest rose and fell, the panic attack subsiding. “You learn this in yoga?” he asked, trying to tease back and not quite hitting the mark.
Bucky chuckled. “No. I used to do this for Steve. He’d get so riled up he’d work himself into an asthma attack and I had to figure out ways to calm him down. Which was pretty much all the time,” he added. “Turns out it works for panic attacks, too.” His voice softened. “After Azzano, on the really bad days, Steve would do this for me. Kept me ground. Made me feel safe. There were plenty of nights I woke up screaming. Still are.”
Clint shuddered. “Safe. Yeah. When I got scared as a kid, I’d hide in the tub. The cold tiles felt good. It was small and secure. I . . . I guess I haven't been that scared in a long time.” He swallowed, feeling stupid, but Bucky didn’t make any judgements. Clint loosened his hold a little. “Is it all shadow and sharp light for you, too? Like you’re watching it all happen underwater and there’s nothing you can do to stop it?”
“Black and red. And cold. Every time my memory started to return, they’d punish me, wipe me, and shove me back in the ice. For about a year after I came out of it, everything tasted like frostbite.” Clint tensed as the sharp edge of panic sank into his chest. Bucky held on to him. “Clint, this wasn’t your fault.”
“But I did it. It was me.” His throat constricted and he couldn’t get enough air. “I know what it’s like be forced to obey someone else, to be trapped in your head. To watch yourself commit all these fucking horrible things and be powerless to stop it. And then it was me.”
Clint felt Bucky’s fingers thread through his hair. “You did nothing wrong, Clint. This wasn’t your fault.”
Futzing panic. Words jammed in the back of his mouth, coming out in a jumble. “I made . . . I controlled you. You thought . . . And you were just gone and I didn’t know how to fix it and I’m sorry, Bucky. I’m so futzing sorry.”
Bucky waited for him to calm down before speaking again. “Do you think I’m upset?”
Clint shrugged, too afraid to answer. He wouldn't blame Bucky. Clint let Hydra get to him. He’d failed.
The petting stopped. “Listen to me.” Bucky spoke slower, hitting every word. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m okay and what happened was not your fault. You got me home and kept me safe, and now I’m going to take care of you.”
Clint leaned harder into him. He should be comforting Bucky, not the other way around. “Why?” He glanced up enough to see Bucky roll his eyes.
“Because I love you, bird boy. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be crammed into a bathtub with you.”
Comfort was an unfamiliar sensation, and Clint didn’t feel as though he deserved it, but damn if he couldn’t help being grateful. “Guess that’s fair.”
“When you’re feeling better, can we go cuddle on the couch instead?” Bucky asked. “We can take that movie night raincheck. Watch something stupid.”
“Can we order a pizza?” Eating was the last thing Clint wanted to do, but movies and pizza were normal. He wanted normal.
Bucky brushed his thumb across Clint’s cheek. “Yeah, bro, you can have anything you want.”
He flinched at the contact, then silently cursed his inability to control his panic response. He hoped Bucky hadn’t noticed. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m okay. Promise. You did everything right. Nothing bad happened, you got me back home, you called Steve. But you are kinda squishing me.”
Clint shrugged again. Too bad. “So . . . where is Steve?”
“Hovering,” Bucky answered. “He’s pacing in the kitchen. Keeps edging toward the bedroom door and backing away. I don’t think he realized why you bolted until I asked where you were. He’s worried about you.”
“Doesn’t need to be. I’m fine,” Clint answered. The shaking finally stopped, the churn of panic draining from him. He’d managed to mostly stick himself back together, but now he felt exhausted.
“Liar.” There was no accusation in his voice, just a simple statement. Bucky shifted, pushing himself up, and then offering Clint a hand. “C’mon, Barton.”
Clint let Bucky haul him to his feet. He could keep it together. He needed to be okay, so he would be. He was. “I know what we should watch. It’s gonna be great.” Well. That almost sounded normal.
“You name it, I’ll rent it,” Bucky said, slipping one arm around Clint’s waist. He snatched a blanket off his bed with the other as they passed.
The sick, twisty feeling lingered as Clint followed Buck back into the living room. Steve looked up from whatever he was doing in the kitchen, worry etched around his eyes. Bucky squeezed Clint’s side and steered him toward the couch. Clint collapsed onto the cushions and Bucky dropped the blanket around his shoulders.
“Uh, not cold, Buck,” Clint said.
“I am. We ain't cuddling without a blanket, bro. Makes it extra snuggly,” he said, winking. “You know I'm a romantic.” He made his way over to Steve.
Steve glanced over to Clint and back before wrapping his arms around Bucky. Clint settled down, watching them from the corner of his eye.
“How is he?” Steve asked, not quiet enough.
“He’ll be okay. Worn out, but okay. We’re gonna watch a movie. Wanna join us?”
“Buck, is that-”
“A good idea? Yes. He needs time, and to get out of his head. You know how I am when I panic.”
“Right,” Steve said, cupping Bucky’s cheek. “Which is why I’m worried about you, too.”
Bucky pressed a brief kiss to his lips. “I’ll be okay for a while longer. Let me take care of Barton, and I’ll tap out when I need to. Besides,” Bucky added, “it was . . . different this time. I’ll explain later, I promise.”
Steve’s worried expression didn’t change, but he nodded. “Okay. Tell me what you need.”
Bucky’s lips quirked up. “A pizza.”
“I’m being serious, Buck.”
“So am I. Barton asked, I accommodate. Get a couple cheese. If it’s plain, I might get him to pick at it.” Bucky leaned into him, burying his face in Steve’s neck. “Thanks for getting me back, Stevie.”
Steve nuzzled him back. “Every time, sweetheart. I’m with you to the end of the line.”
Bucky held him for another moment, then stepped back and slugged Steve in the arm. “Sap.”
“Guilty,” Steve answered, swiping his phone off the counter.
Bucky grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and dropped onto the couch beside Clint. He poked him in the arm with the cap. “Take it.” Clint did. “Drink it,” Bucky elaborated.
Clint opened the bottle and took a sip before recapping it. Any more and he’d be sick again.
Stretching out on the couch, Bucky motioned him over. Clint snuggled down against his side, resting his head on Bucky’s chest. Bucky didn’t take the blanket, wrapping Clint up instead. He wiggled. Cuddling wasn’t anything unusual, but he still felt like he should be taking care of Bucky. Bucky dragged another blanket from the back of the couch and it took a moment for Clint to realize he’d made Clint a nest. The warm sense of comfort he felt lasted another second before his brain tried to tell him he didn’t deserve it. He might feel awkward, but he had to admit he needed this. Wanted it.
Steve sank into the chair beside them, reaching out to pet Bucky’s hair. “What are we watching?”
Clint focused on breathing, relaxing. “Saved it to your DVR. Third one down.”
Steve looked at the remote, then up at the TV, then back. “Uh, Buck?”
Bucky held out his metal hand. “Get with it, Stevie. You’re almost 100.” He yelped, jumping when Steve pulled his hair. Bucky glowered. Steve batted his lashes and, grumbling, Bucky turn on the movie. Clint chuckled. Normal was good. The 8-bit version of the opening credits started and Buck tossed the remote back at Steve.
“That’s . . . a lot of colors,” Steve said, watching the title sequence flash by. “Remember when movies were in black and white? And silent?”
Bucky looked at Clint. “Okay, after that, you officially can’t make old jokes at me anymore.”
“We can negotiate,” Clint answered.
He focused on flattening his edges down. Most of the time, he didn’t feel the hairline fractures threatening to shatter him. The hyperawareness would take time to fade. His heart beat too loud, the clock ticked too loud, the silence of trying not to think was too loud. And Steve kept glancing at him. Buck had said he was worried, and Clint believed him. Was he imagining the disappointment in Steve’s expression?
“Damn, I wish every time I punched a guy, he exploded into coins,” Bucky muttered.
Steve turned his phone over. “Ah, pizza guy’s lost. I’ll be right back.” He stood, leaning over to kiss Bucky’s cheek. He paused for a second, unsure what to do about Clint, then grabbed his jacket and slipped out the door.
Clint listened the sound of Steve’s footsteps on the stairs, counting them as he passed the second landing. He needed one more thing. He took another careful sip of water. Inhale. Exhale. “Buck?”
Bucky reached backward for the remote and paused the movie. “Yeah?”
“Are you sure you’re okay? I know I keep asking, but I need to know.”
His answer rumbled deep in his chest. “You think I’m lying for Steve’s benefit.” Bucky paused. “I guess we’ve both spent a long time pretending to be okay. Problem is, you pretend so long and so well that when everything eventually shatters—and it does—you don’t aways find all the pieces.” He shifted, sitting up against the arm of the couch. “Tell you what, Barton. Let’s take it out on trade. I’ll tell you the truth, as much of it as you want, and you answer one question for me honestly. Deal?”
Clint was exhausted, not stupid; he knew exactly what Bucky would ask, but he had a couple minutes to think of something convincing. “Deal.”
“It happens, sometimes, my slipping into Soldier mode. It was worse at the beginning, after I woke up and thawed out. After I started therapy. We went through five doctors before we found one that didn’t make my skin crawl. Truth be told, we don’t pay her enough to clear out at the wreckage in my head. Anyway, sometimes I’d just be reading, or watching TV, or taking a nap, and this switch in my brain flicks off and I’d be somewhere else. Doc calls it a fugue state. They started happening when the worst of the memories resurfaced. It scared the hell outta Stevie, but gradually we figured out a way to bring me back. It’s been a while since the last one.”
Clint’s exhale was a little less steady then he’d prefer.
Bucky continued. “I’m okay, Barton. This isn’t anything new for me. I can keep going until the end of the movie, until Steve gets back and you’ve attempted to eat something, and then I have to deal with it, but I’m okay. I’m not going anywhere.”
A fraction of his tension eased. “Good. I don’t really like the other guy.”
Bucky laughed softly. “Yeah, he’s a bit hard to get along with. I know dealing with him wasn’t easy. I’m sorry it happened, but you need to know you didn’t force me to do anything except escape. You did the right thing. I’m sorry it triggered a panic attack.”
Clint braced himself, knowing what was coming next.
“How are you?”
He didn’t want to answer, but he’d agreed. Telling Bucky he was fine wouldn’t work; Bucky knew. Next best thing was half the truth. “I’ll be okay. I’m always okay.”
When Bucky spoke again, Clint heard the sadness in his voice. “You don’t have to be. Not around me. I guess when you spend most of your time faking it, it’s hard to remember how to let go. You know, you and Steve have a lot in common. He’s the same way; fucking determined to press on, even when he was frail and brittle. Hell, there were plenty of days he’d be feverish and sick and he’d insist on working to pay his share of the rent. Kept telling me he was fine. I know that lie. And you know I know.”
Clint hunched his shoulders. Yep, Bucky had his number. Not like he hadn’t expected that.
“I’m not going to press it, Clint. I can’t make you tell me, and I won’t. Just listen, okay?” Bucky waited for him to nod. “It’s fucking awful, not being able to deal with all the shit the monsters leave behind. All of my pieces belong to different puzzles and none of them fit quite right. Steve finds some of them. That book I was looking at? Stevie bought that for me in 1930. He was so damn proud, wrapped it in newsprint and everything. A century later, a month into therapy, he takes me out for a breakfast he knows I won’t eat. He found the same fucking book in an antique shop. Knew it was mine, and sure enough, his inscription was in the front cover.
“I know it kills him every time he trips into another hole in my memory he can’t fill. I know he lives with the guilt of what happened to me and I can’t erase that. But he keeps trying to convince me he’s okay, even though he has nightmares. Used to be every time Steve got sick, I’d think, ‘This is it. Today’s the day I get the call. It’s coming. All I can do is wait.’ For the first six months, I know he spent his hours thinking the same fucking thing. That he was gonna lose me again. I know there’s a point where you just can’t fake it anymore, and you just want everything to stop." Bucky took a breath. "Not all of my scars came from Hydra.”
Clint wanted to look up at him, but he didn’t want Bucky to know how close to home he’d hit. Bucky rarely spoke about what had happened to him, and never with this much detail. Clint, however, didn’t mind Bucky talking—mostly because it meant Clint didn’t have to.
“The nightmares sneak up on me. More than once, I’ve woken up with my hands around Steve’s throat. I’m scared to death I’ll hurt him, but he just says he loves me and sticks another piece back into place. I’m not the guy he fell for, but sometimes I think I’m close enough. That I can fake it until it’s true. Stevie doesn’t seem to mind. I just can’t figure out what I did to deserve him.” Bucky jostled him, his voice taking on a casual tone. “And then this other tall blond asshole shows up, buys me an overpriced coffee, and starts talking about rifle scopes and ammo.
“I guess all that’s to say that I understand, Barton. I know you’re hurting and I wish I could fix it, but I want to make damn sure you know you have me. If anything happened to you, I couldn’t deal. I’ll believe you and let it go, but you don’t have to hide from me. If you can’t carry it alone, or don’t want to, I’m here.”
Clint relaxed against him a bit more. Buck was trying to even the playing field, offer something personal in the hope that Clint would reach back. He couldn’t, but the reassurance was nice.
The lock turned in the door and Steve returned, pizzas in hand. Clint could smell the warm bread and melty cheese, and silently praised whatever merciful god that it didn’t make him sick. He still wouldn’t eat it, but maybe he could pick at it. And he had to say something, had to acknowledge that Bucky had given him a gift, even if he couldn’t return it.
“I know, Buck,” he said instead. "Thank you.”
Bucky nodded, a small dip of his chin.
“Aw, you guys didn’t have to pause the movie for me. I could have caught up,” Steve said, tossing his keys on the table beside the door before heading for the kitchen.
“Stevie, you don’t know what happened in the first thirty minutes,” Bucky teased, pressing play.
“That’s true. I don’t understand most of the references, but I kinda like it.”
Bucky looked at Clint, brow furrowed. “So if we break up,” he started.
Clint sat up, horrified. “What? No!”
“Do I get to be one of your seven evil exes?”
“Oh.” Clint blinked. “Uh, sure. There’s way more than seven, though.”
“Color me impressed.”
He shrugged. “You can lead the league. Boss fight: Bucky Barnes.”
Steve smirked. “Does that make you one of my evil exes, Buck?”
“Evil, eh. Ex, definitely not. We never technically broke up.”
“Except that one time you lied to me about getting drafted, told me you’d enlisted, and that it was better I stay home and stay safe.” Well. Steve didn’t sound bitter at all.
“Which you didn’t fucking do, did you? No, instead you underwent untested medical experimentation, became a supersoldier, and followed me.”
“Sorry, remind me: who saved your ass?” Steve countered.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “You did.”
Clint chuckled. Anyone else would think they were arguing, but Clint heard the love beneath the mockery. Steve and Bucky belonged together, and seeing them both happy and cracking jokes made him feel less jittery. Steve gave Buck a triumphant smile and went to grab some plates.
“Now you listen close, and you listen hard, bucko.”
Bucky sat up, staring at the screen. “No. Futzing. Way.”
“You’re kidding me. That guy looks like Steve.”
Clint narrowed his eyes. “I don’t see it.”
“Baby, c’mere,” Bucky called. Steve looked back at them, brow arched in question. “Get my leather jacket and put it on.”
“Don’t ask, just do it.”
“Steve does not look like Lucas Lee,” Clint said.
“He absolutely does, but with better eyebrows. Just imagine him with a stupid beard and boom. Lucas Lee.”
Steve reemerged from their bedroom wearing Bucky’s jacket and a confused expression. “Okay?”
Bucky looked at Clint; Clint shrugged and shook his head. “Fine. Stevie, say, ‘You really don’t know about the league?’”
“Uh, you really don’t know about the league?”
“No, no,” Bucky groaned. “Say it like you’re a self-centered jackass.”
Steve smirked. “So you want me to be you.”
Rolling his shoulders, Steve imitated one of Bucky’s half-grins and lowered his voice. “You really don’t know about the league?”
Clint blinked. “Well, I’ll be damned. Ten points to you, Barnes.”
Steve shrugged off Bucky’s jacket and tossed it back into their room, returning a minute later with three plates, three boxes of pizza, and a roll of paper towels. Clint sat up, taking the offered slice. Bucky shifted over, letting Steve sit beside him, and Clint settled in on Bucky’s other side. The idea of eating didn’t seem so terrible. He still wasn’t hungry, but he could fake it. All the pieces were staying in place. He could do this.
Clint had picked at a third of his pizza when he noticed Bucky leaning into Steve, dark circles ringing his eyes. Steve pressed a hand to Bucky’s cheek, and Bucky nodded to whatever Steve said, setting his plate on the table before getting up and disappearing into the studio. Bucky hadn’t eaten anything.
Steve pointedly avoided eye contact with Clint, and Clint sensed Steve trying to organize his thoughts. Captain America he could face; dealing with Steve was 100% different, and much, much harder.
Chapter 3: Three
Clint braced himself for another round of Questions He Never Wanted to Answer. Bucky knew Clint wasn’t okay. Bucky accepted that he would be, eventually. Clint admitted to himself that he could live with that amount of honesty, but there was no way in hell he could handle Steve seeing his raw edges. The trick with Steve would be finding the right amount of truth and the best way to lie his way to an answer Steve wouldn’t question. He knew Clint’s deal, knew why he’d panicked. He couldn’t skirt around the fact that Clint had locked himself in the guy’s bathroom, and then sprawled on the couch with his boyfriend.
He was fine. He was; he had to be. There wasn’t another option.
Steve still hadn’t said anything, and to be honest, it kinda freaked Clint out. He hadn’t been expecting a speech about freedom, justice, and doing the right thing in the face of extreme difficulty, but . . . maybe a long-winded speech wouldn’t be so bad. Anything was better than the tired lines around Steve’s eye and the way he continued not looking at Clint. Then again, what do you say to the guy who just accidentally mind-controlled the love of your life?
“I’m not sure how to start,” Steve said at last. Clint ignored the drop in his gut. “I know you and Bucky talked. I think that’s half the reason he sent me out for pizza. Get me out of the way so you two could speak without worrying about me.”
Clint didn’t answer. No way he’d incriminate himself. Instead, he picked up the water bottle and took a gulp. It didn’t help, but at least it occupied him for a minute.
Steve’s posture sagged. “I owe you an apology. For not acting sooner. For not checking on you after you took off. I didn’t realize how awful that must have been, what it must have felt like to think you'd done something horrible to your best friend.”
Clint nodded. He didn’t know which was worse: being controlled or controlling someone else. He didn’t want the answer.
“I’m sorry it happened.” Steve paused, ducking his head and glancing at the studio door. “But if it had to happen, I’m glad you were there, Clint. That he listened to you. You kept him safe and I can never thank you enough for what you’ve done.”
Clint blinked. It would be weird to say ‘you’re welcome.’ Was that even appropriate? Cracking a joke was absolutely the wrong choice. Instead, he settled a hand on Steve’s shoulder. Steve looked up, and Clint maintained eye contact. At least he didn’t have to fake his way through this part. “You don’t owe me anything. You were exactly where you needed to be. And I’ll always have his back, Steve. Promise.”
Steve rewarded him with a small smile and a nod. “I know. I hope you trust me to have yours.”
“No question, Cap.”
Steve nodded again and sat back. “Clint?”
“Do you think you can sleep? You could rest your head in my lap.” Clint’s eyebrows shot up. What was happening? Steve flushed. “I mean, I know I’m not Bucky and we’re not as close as you two are, but I thought maybe you could get some rest. Thought you’d feel more comfortable having one of us here. I could leave you alone, too, of course. I’m sorry, I-” Steve shut his mouth with a click.
Clint shifted away and stretched out, laying his head against Steve’s leg. He had to curl up to fit on the damn sofa, but if Steve offered, Clint would rather not be alone.
After a moment, Steve settled his hand on the back of Clint’s neck, warm and comforting. Clint’s heart ached a little with gratitude. The idea of actually resting didn’t feel so horrifying, even if he’d never been able to sleep. Steve gently pressed the tips of his fingers into the side of Clint’s neck, then along the dip where his shoulder began before settling back in place. If this was life at the Rogers-Barnes residence, Clint never, ever planned on leaving.
“Bucky holds all his tension there, too,” Steve muttered.
Clint pillowed his hands beneath his head, settling in and closing his eyes.
“Is it okay if I take out your hearing aids?”
Oh. Right. “Yeah, thank you.”
Steve removed them both and leaned forward to set them on the coffee table, easily in reach. Steve sat back and Clint found he didn’t mind the silence this time. Maybe he wouldn’t have to fake a nap, either. Exhaustion ran bone deep; if his luck held out, it might be enough to keep out the nightmares stirring in the back of his mind. It was more than knowing he was safe; he felt safe, a luxury he hadn’t known in ages. Steve had him until Bucky got back. Hell, Clint had them both.
Sleep reached for him. He followed, thinking perhaps things were looking up after all.
Bucky stepped out of the studio to find Steve and Clint on the couch, Steve’s hand on Clint’s neck while Clint slept. Steve looked up at the sound of door opening. He still wore his exhaustion and worry, and Bucky hated having put it there. He read in Steve’s eyes how bad he wanted to know what had happened. He just . . . needed more time. To organize his thoughts. To process.
To warm the fuck up.
Even an hour’s workout hadn’t rid the chill from his blood. At this point, he suspected the ice ran bone deep, atrophied muscle memory stretching and stinging as he tried to thaw out. The more he thought about it, the colder he felt. Bucky slipped behind the couch, bending to press a kiss to Steve’s cheek. At least Barton provided a secondary talking point. “You got him to sleep.”
Steve nodded, tilting his head up. Bucky gave him what he wanted, a slow, sweet kiss on the lips. Just one. He’d fall apart otherwise.
Steve sighed when Bucky pulled away. “He’s not out, but he’s under enough to get some real rest.”
“Good. Let him sleep,” Bucky said. “He deserve it.”
Bucky shook his head. “Not yet. Sorry.” He dropped his arms around Steve’s neck, holding him close. “I’m gonna shower. Let Barton sleep as much as he can. I’ll tell you everything, promise. Just let him sleep, Stevie.”
He pulled back, briefly tangling his fingers in Steve’s golden hair, and left his two blonds in the living room. Bucky knew Steve being left alone—being left out—would have consequences. He hoped he could mitigate the damage. He set the timer on his phone for ten minutes.
Bucky left a trail of clothing through their bedroom on his way to the shower. In the bathroom, he pulled a bit too hard on the tap, pointing the arrow to the left. Steam rose, fogging the glass doors, and Bucky stepped through to let the water scald him. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as he wanted it to.
Closing his eyes, he let the scene replay in his mind: walking with Clint, the men on the street, the tall one in the black coat. The tall one who watched, unmoving. No, not watching; observing. He’d wanted to see Bucky fight. It was the first days of his confinement all over again. If he wanted to survive, he had to do everything perfectly, efficiently. Failure was unacceptable.
“No,” Bucky whispered. He was done with that. Finished. They couldn’t force him to fight. No one could.
But they had, hadn’t they? How long had they waited? How long had they known? Bucky wasn’t dumb enough to believe any of it coincidence. He’d been made long before today’s encounter. Hydra could afford to bide their time, watching for his guard to fall. The alley had been another goddamn test, and Hydra nearly won. He’d turned his back on his assailant, Clint had gone down, and the tall man in the black coat—the handler, one he’d never met (not that he’d remember if he had)—the handler had smiled. That’s when the ice filled his veins. The handler spoke and the world went dark.
Command: accepted. A good soldier always does as told. Mission protocol demanded he obey. Target:
The man lay on the ground, fingers scrambling for a small purple object.
I know you, Buck. Good thing I’m not deaf and blind. You’d let me wander into traffic just to see if I’d survive.
The handler issued a secondary directive. The Soldier obeyed.
Bucky shuddered. He found himself on the floor in a corner of the shower, knees drawn up to his chest. After that, there were brief flashes of consciousness, moments he almost felt in control. And then Steve arrived.
On the counter, the alarm on his phone rang. He pushed to his feet and turned off the water. Part of him hoped Barton had woken so he wouldn’t have to talk about the fight. But putting it off was a bad idea; it would only make Steve’s anxiety worse. Bucky pulled on a loose pair of sleeping pants and threw his towel over his left shoulder after drying off his hair.
Barton and Steve were exactly where he’d left them, Steve a bit worse for wear. Clint remained asleep. Bucky stopped in front of them, considered sitting on the coffee table, and then decided to stand. Might as well jump in.
“The how and where don’t matter. What does matter is the handler triggered my programming and issued a kill order for Barton,” he said, straight to the point. “I overrode it.”
Steve paled, his hand twitching where it rested on Clint’s neck. “What?”
Bucky shook his head. “I overrode the command. The whole fight meant to test their control over me, but it felt different. I don’t think the handler used the code words. Maybe something different. Figures they’d leave a sleeper code or two,” he muttered.
Steve looked down at Clint. “How’d you manage to disobey?”
“That’s the thing, Stevie. I don’t know. I was prepared to do it, and I protected him instead.” Bucky picked up one of Clint’s hearing aids. “He lost one of these in the fight. He reached for it when I moved to assess my target.” Bucky swallowed, lowering his voice. “I knew him. I saw the hearing aid, I remembered the sound of his voice, and I followed his command.”
Silence stretched between them for a moment before Steve caught Bucky’s eye again. “Does he know?”
Bucky shook his head. “Wasn’t sure ‘I was ordered to kill you, but declined’ would go over well.”
“Probably not,” Steve agreed. “You gonna tell him?”
“I have to. Which, unfortunately, leads to the question of what we do now.” Bucky licked his lips, suddenly nervous, and cleared himself a space on the coffee table. “Barton’s gonna hate what I have to ask of him.” He reached out and brushed the backs of his metal fingers through Clint’s hair. Their long, terrible day was far from over.
Clint’s eyes snapped open. Door in sight, couch at his back. Steve’s hand on his neck. Bucky staring at him, a little sad and slightly damp. He drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. He was okay. He was safe. Bucky’s hand fell away, as did the towel draped over his shoulder. Clint’s eyes widened.
The arm had to be attached somehow, he thought distantly. It’s not like scars were new to him, either. Clint had plenty. He’d assumed Buck had his share, but the twisting, jagged seam between flesh and metal still struck him like a slap. It wasn’t just Bucky’s shoulder, the metal fitted like a sleeve; it extended down his side below his arm, straining against the remaining muscle and skin. What had they done to him to keep the arm from tearing him apart?
Bucky handed Clint his hearing aids, offered in his right palm. Clint took them, slipped them back on, and the world rushed in. Steve let him sit up.
“I lost my arm in the fall,” Bucky said softly, replacing the towel. “Dunno how. When Hydra found me, the first thing they did was take the rest of it. I was all exposed wires and nerves. They kept me awake while they attached the metal one. Told me they needed to keep me conscious to make sure it worked properly.”
Beside him, Steve cringed. Part of Clint wanted to lean into Steve, close his eyes, and go back to pretending to be asleep.
Bucky shrugged. “I wasn’t much for tank tops anyway.”
Clint looked between Steve and Buck, uncomfortable. Sitting there felt worse than being asked if he was okay. Judging by the silent conversation between the two supersoldiers, Buck had probably filled Steve in on the alley fight and aftermath. Buck nodded, as if he’d read Clint’s mind. Ugh. Now came the talking.
“Barton,” Bucky began. He looked up at Steve, who nodded.
“Yeah?” Tension wound him tight again, pulling at the muscles Steve had relaxed. This was bad.
Bucky ducked his head. “Back in the alley . . . I knew you, I recognized your voice. The hearing aids tripped my memory, but that’s,” and Bucky stopped, closing his eyes. “That’s not the only reason.”
“We put together some of what Hydra did to him while going through their files, and later with Bucky’s therapist,” Steve added.
“The first time, back in Azzano, they used conditioning and torture. Shot me up with the knock-off serum and started twisting me around. The second time, after the train, they found what they wanted. They took all my passion, my loyalty, my desire to protect the people I loved and they made me their perfect soldier. There were others, but they didn’t have my heart.”
Clint shuddered. He really didn’t want to throw up again. “That’s what Loki said to me before . . .”
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “They told me Steve died. Showed me the newspapers and the film reels. When I knew, deep down in my bones, that he wasn’t coming for me, I stopped fighting, but even after all that, they never managed to burn him out. None of the handlers could control me if I was left out of cryofreeze too long. Then they found Pierce.”
Clint nodded. He should know where Buck was headed. Natasha had once told him about the Winter Soldier and the Red Room, and about the time the Soldier had shot her to get to his target. He’d never read the file, but he knew bits and pieces of what Hydra had done to control their greatest weapon.
Bucky picked up Steve’s tablet and flicked to a photograph, holding the imagine out for Clint: Steve in 1940, wearing his military uniform. The imagine changed. Clint’s eyebrows shot up.
“Holy futz, that’s—He looks—oh my god,” Clint said, staring at an equally old photograph of Alexander Pierce, looking just enough like Steve to get by. Bucky moved around the point Clint began defining the shape of. “You said he was your handler.”
Bucky nodded. “One of them. One of the more effective ones. One of the cruelest. Hydra noticed the pattern, though. I was . . . more docile, more compliant when my handler resembled someone I’d wanted to protect.”
“If they looked like me,” Steve said, guilt thick in his voice.
“Why are you telling me this?” Clint asked.
“Because after you went down, the handler gave me an order. Kill the archer,” Bucky said, and Clint wished Bucky’d look anywhere but directly at him. He waited for Clint to put it together.
“I’m not dead,” Clint said, the horror washing over him. He wasn’t gonna catch a break today. “You assumed I was your handler.”
Bucky nodded, one corner of his mouth pulled up in a wry smirk. “What can I say? You’re lucky I got a thing for blonds.”
So much for all that hard-earned rest. Clint handed the tablet back, remembering his earlier almost-conversation with the Soldier. “You said I looked like him.”
“Enough for it to count, but it wasn’t Steve I remembered. It was you.” Bucky tapped at his ear.
Great. “What do we do now?” Clint asked, head reeling. Hydra knew where to find them, of that he had no doubt. At the moment, they had a reprieve, but inaction wouldn’t be an option for long.
Steve shook his head. “We can go back to Wakanda. Hide out. Hell, you were saying we could use a vacation, Buck.” He laughed, his nerves showing.
“Fuck that,” Bucky snapped. Shock set Steve back. “I’m not running.”
“No. I worked damn hard for this life, Steve. It’s mine. They already stole one lifetime from me and they’re sure as shit not doing it again. I’m not going down without a fight. Besides,” Bucky added, “some asshole once said that if you start running, the bullies never let you stop. I’m done running.”
Steve reached out to take Bucky’s hand.
Bucky gave him a squeeze before turning back to Clint again, gaze sharp. “I have an idea. You’re gonna hate it.”
“Cause everything else has been sprinkles and rainbows today,” Clint muttered.
“When Hydra sets off my programming again,” he said, immediately holding up a hand before Steve opened his mouth, focus never leaving Clint. “When, not if. It will happen again. When Hydra sets me off, if you can manage it, I want you to step in as my commander.”
Clint blinked at him. “What?”
“Bucky, no,” Steve started.
“It’s not your choice, Steve. Barton, I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t believe you could do it, if I didn’t trust you.”
Clint swallowed. Where the hell had that water bottle gone? “Why me?” Why me and not Steve?
“Because you’ve already done it once. Because you won’t use me. Because he can’t.” Bucky nodded toward Steve. “Because you already know what it’s like—from both sides, unfortunately—and because I’m pretty sure the worst thing you could make me do is buy you one of those trenta coffees at Starbucks.” Clint didn’t laugh. Bucky sighed. “Because I trust you with my life, Clint, and if I give you permission to act as my handler when I can’t choose otherwise myself, you’re not betraying or violating me. It’s a choice I’ve already made.”
Steve clenched his jaw, conceding. “It’s a smart plan.”
“I know, I’m the one who thought of it,” Bucky countered. “I’m not going to make you do it, Barton, but I’m asking because I know you can.”
“You know I will,” Clint answered. “I’ll step in. Like running point on a mission.” That awful sinking feeling filled him again. Even with Bucky’s permission, the idea of controlling his best friend creeped him out. He’d do it, and hate every futzing minute. But if it meant keeping Bucky safe, he’d find a way to deal.
Bucky hadn’t looked away. His expression changed, weary and resigned, but not relieved. “There’s one more thing.”
Dread skittered up Clint’s spine like a spider, leaving a terrible trail he couldn’t brush away. He didn’t like the way Bucky studied him, didn’t like the way the oxygen seemed to drain from the room.
This was the most serious he’d ever seen his friend. This was Bucky staring into his future. “If things go wrong, irreversibly wrong, and you can’t get me back, I want you to end it.”
Clint choked on air.
The blood rushed out of Steve’s face. “No. Bucky, no. There’s gotta be another way. Hydra’s not going to take you. I can’t-You can’t.”
Bucky leaned forward, cupping Steve’s face in his hands. Steve gripped Bucky’s arms like if he held on tight enough, everything would work itself out.
Although Bucky kept his eyes on Steve, Clint knew he spoke to him. “I can’t do it again. There’s no guarantee I’ll come back if they shove my brain into their blender again and I can’t risk hurting either of you. I won’t. When it comes down to the wire, I’d rather be dead than a weapon.” He rested his forehead against Steve’s. “I’ve already gotten way more than I deserve. I can’t lose you.”
“I can’t lose you, Buck,” Steve whispered. “Not again.”
Bucky shook his head. “I almost killed you once. If they’d put me on ice before sending me out that last time, I would have. There’s no world in which I wake up to realize that you’re dead. That your blood is on my hands. The world will keep turning if I’m not in it, but if it loses you, it’s doomed.” Bucky crooked a finger beneath Steve’s chin, his lips twitching in a sad smile. “They don’t need Captain America; they need Steven Rogers. You’re strong enough to survive without me.”
Steve folded Bucky up in his arms. “But I don’t want to. And you’re wrong, Buck. I didn’t survive the first time. Not after the train, when I tried to drink myself to death. Not after I chose to put that plane in the ice. Not the countless times I put myself in danger because I woke to a future where you were still gone.”
“Things are different now, Steve. You have friends who care about you, who’ll take care of you. I’m still here, sweetheart.”
“Then why are you talking like you’re not?”
“Because I’m terrified. I’ve been with you long enough to know this thing we have is all or nothing. That’s why I’m not asking you to do it. What I’m asking of you is to take care of him.” Bucky kissed Steve’s forehead, his cheek, his mouth. “If this mission goes south, you’ll need each other.”
Clint’s heart hung heavy in his chest. Losing Buck meant losing Steve. He remembered what Steve was like before Bucky came back, and now that he finally got to know the real Steve, he couldn’t stand the thought of losing them both. When he managed to find his voice, he kept it quiet. At least supersoldier hearing meant he wouldn’t have to speak up. “Yes.”
Steve looked pained, tightening his grip on Bucky. Bucky simply nodded. It would gut him, but Clint could do it. If he had to. God, he hoped he never had to.
“So this is what being Nat’s like,” Clint said. “You know she’s the death contingency plan for like, eight people, myself included.” It wasn’t supposed to be funny. None of this was funny, but a small part in the back of his mind wanted to laugh. “I’ll do it. I’ll take care of it, Buck.”
Clint pushed himself off the couch. He needed to get home. Change his clothes. Feed his dog. Grab his bow. Figure out to how to take out his best bro if he couldn’t save him.
He should have known. Of course, Hydra had been tailing them. He should have seen it coming. Should have stopped it. It was his watch, and he’d failed, and now it was SHIELD all over again and . . .
Bucky had his arm around Clint. Steve remained on the couch, wiping at his face with a tissue. “You’re staying here tonight, Barton.”
“I gotta feed Lucky,” Clint said, voice flat.
“I already texted Kate. She’s got him, and no, they’re not in L.A.”
“I can get home by myself. I’m okay.”
“I know you can,” Bucky said, rubbing Clint’s arm. “But I think we’d all sleep a lot better under one roof. I don’t want you to be left alone, and I’d feel better knowing you’re here.”
Clint sat back down. Buck knew exactly which cards to play. “Okay.
Bucky turned back to Steve, smoothing his right hand over Steve’s hair. “It’s been a long day, sweetheart. Why don’t you get cleaned up and ready for bed? I’ll get Clint set up on the couch.”
Steve held on to Bucky a moment longer before getting up and moving into their room. The door closed with a gentle click. Clint didn’t wanna talk. He finished off the water, but that eliminated the last of his distractions.
“I’m sorry I dragged you into this mess,” Bucky said. “I never wanted you to end up in my collateral damage.”
Clint shrugged. There was too much in his head. He wanted quiet. He wanted twenty minutes ago when he was resting and not thinking about a battle. Not thinking about what he might have to do, how to make it quick and painless.
Bucky didn’t say anything else as he made up the couch. He cleared away the pizza and the dishes. Rechecked the locks on the front door. Then he sank down next to Clint, leaning into him.
Clint changed his mind. The quiet was terrible, and they sat in silence for over an hour. What else was there to say? He knew Bucky stuck close to comfort him. Clint finally felt he’d caught his breath again, but tomorrow they’d form a plan to take out Hydra. Clint closed his eyes, shoving away the part himself that wanted someone to tell him what to do.
Rustling sounded from the bedroom, followed by Steve crying out for Bucky.
Bucky was up and gone in a flash. Their bedroom sat dark, but the light of the living room filtered through as Buck knelt by Steve’s side.
“Take my hand,” Steve said, brow furrowed, eyes squeezed shut. Bucky knew what came next. He should have anticipated this. “No!”
Bucky cupped Steve’s cheek. “Sweetheart, wake up. It’s okay. I’m right here.”
Steve twisted the sheets tighter. “Bucky, no.”
“Shhh. C’mon, baby, wake up. You’re dreaming.” Steve whimpered. After a moment, Bucky climbed into bed beside him, pulling Steve’s head against his chest. “It’s a nightmare, Stevie. I’m right here.”
He collapsed in Bucky’s arms. “I’m so sorry, Buck.”
“It’s not your fault,” Bucky crooned, rubbing circles against Steve’s back.
Steve sniffled. “I miss you. I miss you so goddamn much.”
A sick feeling washed through him when Bucky realized Steve hadn’t woken up. He shook him gently, trying to rouse him. “Ain’t gotta miss me. I’m here with you. Listen, you can hear my heartbeat.” Bucky worked the fingers of his right hand through Steve’s hair. “Ain’t going nowhere, baby. It’s you and me, to the end of the line.”
Steve seemed to calm down, burying his face in Bucky’s neck, the occasional hitch in his breathing fading out. A shuffle by the bedroom door caught his attention. Clint ducked away.
“He’s all right,” Bucky said. Clint peered around the frame. Bucky flicked back the blankets on his left and patted the mattress. “C’mon, Barton.”
Clint straightened up. “I get to sleep in the bed?”
“Plenty of room for the three of us,” Bucky said. Like Clint would have fit on the couch, the leggy bastard.
Clint toed off his shoes, climbing into bed in his shirt and boxers, and pulled the blankets around them. The hearing aids he left on the nightstand. He hesitated, his gaze dropping to Bucky’s bad shoulder.
“It’s okay,” Bucky signed. “Doesn’t hurt.”
“Love you, Buck,” Steve muttered, tightening his arm around Bucky’s waist.
“Love you, too, baby,” Buck answered. “And you, bird boy.”
Clint curled up against Bucky’s side and did the second to last thing he wanted to. He closed his eyes.
Chapter 4: Four
Pretending to be asleep required effort. Clint kept his eyes closed, but every time Bucky shifted or breathed deep, Clint came back to himself. He spared a moment to mourn the coffee he hadn't gotten to drink; with enough caffeine, maybe he could have crashed. He doubted it, but at least it was better than trying not to think about tomorrow. He tried to limit his nervous breakdowns to one a day. Guy had to set limits, right?
Bucky didn't run as warm as Steve. Clint enjoyed the brief but welcome cool touch of the metal arm, the plating quickly warming against his skin, but the vibrating gears against his cheek made it hard to get comfortable. At least Bucky smelled clean, layered with gunpowder, some kind of spice, and a hint of vanilla.
Clint guessed by the lack of commotion that Steve had calmed down. He’d kept to himself, and Bucky had gone still, so Steve, too, had probably faded back into whatever nightmare he'd been stuck in. It didn’t take a genius to figure out he’d been dreaming about the train. Buck might be willing to talk about Hydra and Azzano, but Steve never mentioned the train. Clint couldn't blame the guy. Watching the love of your life fall to his death was on the list of things to lock away and never, ever relive.
Maybe if he stayed awake long enough, he could drop off and avoid joining Steve in Nightmare Land. He needed to be prepared. He needed his bow and quiver. His in-ear hearing aids. His uniform. Were they wearing uniforms? Steve still had a Cap suit somewhere. Were they doing this as Cap, Hawkeye, and the Winter Soldier, or as Steve, Clint, and Bucky? Okay, maybe not his Hawkeye gear but some kind of armor. He needed to be in mission mode. Futz, he was already in mission mode. Other people counted sheep, or coffees, or arrows, but he was making lists and trying not to think about what else mission mode might entail. The hyperawareness settled in to stay.
His wandering thoughts lit up electric blue again and he pressed his face into Bucky’s arm. He was in control. He didn't need orders. Didn't need anyone telling him what to do, rooting around in his head. He got along fine on his own. He'd survived Loki. He was okay. He had friends (the ones he hadn't killed).
He’d saved the world (after helping destroy it).
I said stop.
He had a building and a dog and a Kate and he was okay. He was okay. He was always okay.
Because after SHIELD, he’d lied his way through therapy. He had to keep going, had to be useful. He’d passed his health evaluations. If he kept working, he'd be okay. Keep doing good, keep the ghosts out. Can't fall apart if you never stop moving.
Then the Avengers were over.
Then he met Bucky.
Then he finally met Steve.
And now he had to sleep so he could help them. Protect them. Be useful to them.
Clint faced the opposite way, arms wrapped around his chest, and tried not to think about what would come next.
The sun bit into his skin, burning through his battle gear. Hydra hadn’t counted on a sniper picking off their soldiers from the rooftops. Stupid mistake: they should have known he’d be waiting. His in-ear hearing aids crackled, Steve’s voice sounding over the comms.
“Hawkeye, move south. We’re trying to bottleneck them into the alley way.”
“You got it, Cap. Where’s Barnes?”
“Headed north,” Bucky answered. “Left you a trail of bread crumbs, bird boy.”
Clint sprinted across the rooftops, sparing a glance at the ground. Downed Hydra agents formed a dotted path leading in Bucky’s direction. “Aw, Buck, you shouldn't have.”
Bucky laughed into the comms. “Just a little something to whet the appetite. We’ll go out for breakfast after.”
“Buck,” Steve said, “it’s the middle of the afternoon.”
“There's no bad time for breakfast, Steve.”
Clint fired down into the alley, herding the remaining thugs into the narrow lane. There weren’t as many as he’d thought, but it didn’t matter. There wouldn’t be any they finished. Clint grinned, but the smile slipped from his face the next time he looked down.
Bucky stood below, facing off with the tall man in the dark suit. Cap appeared at the other end of the alley, keeping the Hydra squad contained. Clint set up his nest. The second he had an opening, he intended to put an arrow through the handler’s neck. Can’t fuck up his best friend if the asshole can’t speak.
Everyone stood still for a moment, and then the comms went staticky. The fight unfolded, Steve’s shield pinging off the sides of the buildings and knocking Hydra goons down like bowling pins. Clint caught the light glinting off Bucky’s arm, but there were still too many soldiers standing between Clint and his target. He lifted his bow, arrow ready. Any second now, there’d be a break and he’d take his shot.
Without warning, Bucky fell to his knees, hands pressed to his head. A chill travel down Clint’s spine. Even from his perch, he could hear the whirring and shifting of Bucky's arm, the erratic clicking of plates. Clint loosed the arrow at the same moment Steve’s shield caught the handler in the back. He hit the ground, the arrow lodged in his shoulder instead of his throat, and Steve rushed to Bucky's side.
Bucky lashed out, striking Steve in the jaw, a solid backhand that sent him crashing into the wall. Clint's heart stopped. The comms still didn't work and Clint couldn't hear what was happening below.
“Cap, do you read me?” he asked.
Steve’s voice crackled through the static, low and urgent. “Bucky, c’mon, sweetheart. You know me.”
Clint held his breath. He didn’t hear Bucky didn't answer.
“Barnes, it’s Barton. Can you hear me?”
No response. Damn it.
Clint waited, watching from his perch. Steve struggled against Bucky, his voice filtering to Clint through the white noise. Bucky showed no sign of backing down, no sign of coming out of Soldier mode.
“Bucky, snap out of it,” Clint said. “You know Steve, you know me. We’re best friends. We beat up a bunch of Tracksuits once, and there was that time some asshat broke your nose when Steve got into a bar fight. I patched you up.”
Bucky knocked Steve’s head against the wall and Steve crumpled to the ground.
“Bucky, c’mon. Listen to me. This isn’t you.”
Steve had his arms up, blocking Bucky’s strikes. He wouldn’t fight back, even if the Soldier granted him enough space to do so. Closing his eyes, Clint raised his bow again.
Bucky unsheathed a knife from his belt.
Clint slipped into that quiet place in his head, the one he needed to complete his mission, the one that split time into heartbeats.
The one he hated, the one that lit his brain in blue around the edges the moment he’d lifted his bow.
“You know me,” Steve pleaded. “You can wake up, sweetheart.”
Bucky locked his metal hand around Steve's throat, hauling him up and pinning him against the wall.
Bucky raised the knife.
Clint knocked the arrow. Please, no. Please.
Steve’s voice strained, echoing Clint’s thoughts. “Please, Buck.” He reached out a hand to touch Bucky’s face, and knife sank into his shoulder before Bucky pulled it free and pressed it below Steve’s jaw.
For the first time in his life, Clint wished he could miss.
He exhaled. The arrow flew, piercing its target, feathers lodging between the shoulders, the arrowhead breaking through the chest.
Bucky released Steve. Clint didn't so much as hear him hit the ground as feel it, a deep thud behind his ribs. Steve followed him a second later. He pulled Bucky into his arms, brushing the hair away from his face. If there'd been another choice—any other choice—Clint would have stayed away. At least he'd made it quick and painless.
There was something to be said for efficiently.
The non-assassin part of his brain would say, “fuck you.”
Climbing down from his nest, Clint held himself in the void, but the closer he came to Steve and Bucky, the more he hurt. He'd taken his orders. Executed them (him.)
No. There hadn't a choice. And he’d promised.
Sobs replaced the static on the comms. Clint’s fingers itched to rip them out, throw them to the ground, and crush them beneath his heel. Instead, he forced himself to press forward. He promised he'd take care of Steve. Cap needed him. He-
Steve sat with his back against the wall, Bucky resting across his lap, his head supported by Steve's arm. Blood stained both of Steve's hands. It ran down the front of Bucky's uniform, a dark river against the black. Clint couldn't look at the arrow. He paused, unsure what to do. This wasn't what he'd wanted, and he still hadn't come down from that deadly place in his head, but he had to do something.
Clint reached a hand toward Steve's shoulder. Steve knocked Clint's arm aside with nearly enough force to break it. The glare he turned on Clint felt like a bullet. There was no hiding.
Heartbroken and angry, his eyes red and face streaked with tears, Steve shifted away as if he were shielding Bucky. “Go away, Clint. You've done enough damage,” he snapped, pulling Bucky closer.
Clint stepped back. “I'm sorry, Steve,” he whispered.
“Apologies won't bring him back. I had, until you put an arrow through his heart.”
Clint went cold. No. They couldn't undo the handler’s command. Bucky hadn't responded. He’d hurt Steve, pulled a knife on him, stabbed him, strangled him . . .
If it wasn't the Soldier he'd taken down . . .
The scene played in reverse. Bucky’s hand at Steve's throat, and slowly, the deadened look in his eyes faded. He let Steve go. Bucky studied him, brow knit in confusion.
“Bucky?” Steve whispered.
Bucky looked up at Steve, inclining his head.
The arrow stuck home a second time.
Clint bolted out of bed with a choking sob, immediately pressed his back to the wall, and checked his lines of sight. He couldn’t catch his breath, couldn’t remember where he was. Nothing but darkness stared back at him, a faint blue glow around the edges.
Well, nothing except Steve.
Clint could make out his stance, the set jaw, the clenched fists. Clint shook his head, screwing his eyes shut. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He gathered up his jeans and shoes. At least the darkness kept Steve’s expression hidden. He deserved Steve’s hatred, but that look had already burned itself into Clint’s head. He couldn’t take it again. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I’ll go away. I’ll stay away. I’m so sorry.”
He felt his jagged edges splintering further. It was Loki all over again, only this time, no one had forced him to act. He’d made the call. He’d made the wrong call. It wasn’t just Bucky he’d lost, but Steve, too. Steve would never forgive him and Clint couldn’t blame him. That arrow stole more than Clint’s family; it ended Steve’s world. Hell, he wouldn’t even get the chance to make good on Bucky’s wish that he help Steve because Steve despised him. In no reality would Steve comfort him after he’d murdered the love of his life.
Even Nat would abandon him. She’d understand that it’d been an accident, wouldn’t she? He should have known better. He shouldn’t have made the call. He should have waited. No, not even Natasha would look at him the same. Steve was right; he’d done enough. Disaster was his only gift.
Steve reached out. Clint braced himself, but the blow never landed. Instead, a soft light illuminated the room. Steve had turned on the desk lamp. Clint focused on Steve’s hand when a second figure moved between them, every muscle his body locking.
Bucky turned to Steve, mouth moving. Clint stared, his throat tightening. If he made a sound, he couldn’t hear it.
Great, because being haunted by his dead best friend was exactly what Clint needed right now.
Slowly, Bucky reached out for him, placing his hands on either side of Clint’s face, one cold, the other warm. They moved down his neck and over his shoulders. Bucky glanced back at Steve. Steve moved, and Clint tried not to flinch.
You don’t have your ears in. You can’t hear us, Steve signed. He paused. Do you know you’re awake?
Clint looked back at Bucky. No blood. No scars. No arrow. He felt Bucky’s hands on his shoulders, real warmth and pressure. Steve’s expression was concerned, not angry.
And Steve stood in his pajamas, navy blue shorts with white stars and a blue tank. So did Buck, in his usual black. Clint stood in their bedroom, confused and upset and still struggling to calm down.
You’ve had a panic attack, Steve signed. Nightmares.
Clint nodded. “Yeah, I think I noticed.” He sat down hard on the edge of the bed, his heart hammering against his ribs. Bucky sat down beside him, face drawn, dark circles beneath his eyes. “I’m okay,” Clint muttered.
Bucky drew him closer. His spectacularly bad day had become an even worse night and Clint wasn’t sure he’d ever feel calm again. He hadn’t noticed Steve’s exit until the other blond returned, glass in hand. He sat on Clint’s other side and offered him the glass.
Clint held it but didn’t drink. No, he’d definitely never be calm again.
Bucky leaned forward, an eyebrow arched at Steve. “Milk? Really?”
He flushed. “I thought it might help! I find it soothing.”
“You find punching people soothing.”
“Well, I don’t have anyone for him to punch, Buck.” Gently, Steve rested his hand against Clint’s back. Clint tensed, then slowly relaxed. “Uh, sweetheart. Why was Clint in our bed?”
It was Bucky’s turn to blush. “I felt bad letting him crash on the couch alone. Plus, let’s be honest, Stevie: it’s been a bitch of a day. The nightmares were bound to happen. I thought it might help if we were all together.”
Steve bowed his head, his voice soft. “Yeah. Guess they were.”
Bucky tilted the glass slightly. All three of them were a wreck and it was his fault. At least he hadn’t left Barton alone. Who the hell knew what kinda mess that might have led to. Barton still shook, vibrating with adrenaline. Bucky couldn’t shake the look on Clint’s face; he guessed the size and shape of the nightmare that caused it. That was his fault, too. He nudged the glass again, and this time Clint sighed and drank it.
“Even warmed it up,” he muttered. Steve gave him a small smile Clint didn’t see.
Bucky waited until Clint drained the glass and set it on the nightstand before moving. He crouched down in front of him. Sleep?
Clint shook his head and then shrugged. He probably didn’t know what he wanted. Bucky recognized the same demeanor from earlier: Clint refused to let them see him upset and no doubt he wanted to shake off the nightmare and forget the whole thing.
“Ask if he wants to lie down,” Steve said. Bucky signed.
Clint shrugged again. Might as well. What else was he gonna do?
Bucky patted his knee and crossed the room to turn out the light. Clint tensed again. Not for the first time, Bucky wished he knew what was happening in his friend’s head.
“Uh, thanks,” Clint muttered. “For the milk.”
Steve gave Clint’s shoulder a squeeze before climbing back into his side of the bed. Bucky followed, pulling Clint after. Bucky settled back against Steve’s chest. Clint stuck close to the edge of the bed.
“Buck, maybe we should put him in the middle?” Steve said.
Buck snorted. “Can’t enjoy being in a supersoldier sandwich when he’s all worked up. I got him. I doubt he’ll sleep anyway.” Bucky reached out for him, but Clint wriggled out of Bucky’s hold.
“That didn’t help last time. Face Steve. Don’t want him getting all jealous over all this attention,” he added.
Bucky let go, wondering if Clint had secretly slipped his hearing aids back in, and turned over. Clint pressed his forehead between Bucky’s shoulder blades. “Keep talking. I like it,” he said, much softer.
Bucky let Steve sweep him up and leaned forward for a kiss. He didn’t press any further, contenting himself with brushing his nose along Steve’s jaw. His heart sat heavy in his chest, filled with guilt. What a fucking mess. “I’m sorry, Steve,” he muttered. “I’m so sorry.”
Steve stroked his hair, keeping him close. “You have nothing to be sorry for. We’ll figure this out.”
Bucky shook his head. “I’m sorry for what it’s doing to the two of you. You haven’t had the train nightmare in a year.”
Steve threaded his fingers through Bucky’s hair, tugging gently. “It’s just a dream, Buck. I know that. You’re here, with me, in this life we built together. That’s the only thing I care about.”
Bucky closed his eyes, breathing in the familiar scent of charcoal and paper. Steve had started drawing regularly, something he hadn’t done in ages. Bucky didn’t want him to lose that part of himself again. Steve scarified everything for Bucky; Bucky tried to feel like he deserved it. Tried to return the favor.
The rest of the night passed in half-heard murmurs and vague answers. Clint kept himself pressed to Bucky’s back, reassuring himself—Bucky thought—with the knowledge that he was really there.
Pale sunlight trickled through the curtains. Bucky nuzzled into Steve’s neck, pressing a kiss below his jaw. Steve turned his head, cupping one hand against Bucky’s jaw as he tilted his face up for a real kiss. Bucky smiled. He’d never tire of waking up like this, his limbs tangled with Steve’s, their skin soft and warm from sleep, the quiet, lazy kisses and dream-hazed touches. Steve deepened the kiss and Bucky was content to let Steve have his way with him.
A half-muffled voice interrupted their moment. “Aw, where’s my good morning kiss?”
Bucky pushed himself up and looked down at Clint. Oh. Yeah. Clint lay on his stomach, face half-buried in the pillow. He’d put in one of his hearing aids. Bucky smirked, nudging him with an elbow. “Depends, darlin’. Which one of us do you want?”
“You, Buck. S’always been you.”
Bucky smirked, shoved Clint over, and kissed him full on the lips. Even half asleep, Clint didn’t back down. Bucky pulled away, darting his tongue against Clint's mouth before settling beside Steve again.
Clint chuckled, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “That was nice, kitten. G’morning, to you too.”
“Kitten?” Bucky asked. Beside him, Steve chuckled. “Is that a thing now?”
“Sure is,” Clint mumbled, sleepy. “No one makes you purr like I can.”
Steve snorted. Bucky leaned down and kissed Clint again, softer this time. Clint blinked up at him, more fully awake. “What was that one for?”
“You know I love you best when you’re a filthy, flirty smartass,” Bucky answered, relieved to hear Clint sounding more like himself. He hoped he’d gotten some rest. He seemed less panic stricken.
Steve reached his arms around Bucky and held him tight. “Guess you can tell everyone you’ve slept with us, Clint.”
“Already do,” Clint answered.
“You feeling up for breakfast, pal?” Bucky asked. “Maybe you wanna go another round with us?”
“Mmmm, coffee first. Need to keep my strength up for continued hardcore flirting.”
Steve kissed Bucky’s cheek before rolling out of bed, pulling him along. “C’mon, Buck.”
Bucky groaned, clinging to the pillows. “Five more minutes.”
“But Stevie,” he whined, “can’t we snuggle bit longer?”
“You two are lucky I’m not making you go running this morning.”
Clint took his hearing aid out. “No good, Cap. Can’t hear you. You go on. I’ll keep Buck company in this giant comfy bed.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “If Clint’s in here, Buck, we can makeout in the kitchen.”
“Sold.” Bucky allowed Steve to haul him, waiting until Steve turned his back before dropping his arms around Steve's neck. Bucky yelped when Steve picked him up, but he wrapped his legs around Steve’s waist and let him carry him into the kitchen. As promised, the second Bucky’s toes touched the ground, Steve backed him onto the counter, slotting their mouths together and refusing to give ground. They broke apart several minutes later, breathless and grinning.
“I thought you were gonna make breakfast,” Bucky said.
“I can multitask,” Steve answered, setting the coffee pot in its holder with one hand and using the other to pull Bucky back into the kiss. Steve moved into the space between Bucky’s thighs, kisses no longer lazy and languid. He rolled his hips forward and Bucky groaned into his mouth.
As much as he enjoyed where this could go, Bucky sighed and pushed Steve back. “Clint is still here, and you put the coffee on, which means we have about more twenty seconds before the smell of it lures him out. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about that blowjob, though.” He pecked Steve on the lips before moving around him and opening the fridge. “Aw, I was supposed to go grocery shopping yesterday, wasn't I?”
“I guess an empty fridge is the least of our worries. I think we still have some eggs,” Steve said.
Bucky passed him the carton, and then tossed a pack of bacon on the counter. Three mugs for coffee. Handed Steve the skillet. No sense in not having a nice breakfast before dealing with massive amounts of Hydra bullshit. Bucky sat across from Steve at the bar and pillowed his head on his arms. Maybe he could fit in a nap, too. He’d like to blame his sleeplessness on worry over Steve and Clint, but fear had done its share keeping him awake while the other men dozed.
Exactly nineteen seconds later, Clint stumbled out of the bedroom and flopped down beside Bucky, outstretched hand snagging one of the coffee mugs. Steve chuckled and filled his cup, and only then did Clint sit up. He downed half of it in a single swallow and held it out for more.
“Someone’s feeling better,” Bucky mumbled. Clint’s health could always be measured by his coffee intake. Clint drank another mugful and wiggled his cup for more. Bucky peeked up. “Stevie, it might be better to give him the pot.”
Steve poured mugs for Bucky and himself, topped off Clint’s, and set the machine to brew another pot. Bucky refused to sit up, even as a plate of eggs appeared beside him. His stomach growled (damn supersoldier metabolism), but eating require movement and he was not feeling it. He heard the scrape of Clint’s fork as he pushed around his breakfast. A second later, fingers slid through his hair to gently scritch at his scalp. Bless Steve.
“Not feeling well, sweetheart?” Steve asked.
Bucky made a noncommittal noise. “Tired.” Tingles spread over his head in a delicious shiver. If Steve kept going, he’d be out in a no time. Fuck breakfast. Fuck Hydra.
But Steve pulled his hand away and Bucky sat up, hoping to persuade him to continue. He’d barely opened his mouth when Steve’s expression changed from concern to shock. Huh, must be worse than he thought.
“Buck, you look exhausted! I didn’t hear you at all last night. Was it the nightmares?”
Clint set his coffee down, eyes narrowed. He knew something had been weird last night. Well, weirder than bedding down with this bestie and his bestie’s boyfriend. “You’re good.”
Bucky arched a brow, plucking a slice of bacon off his plate. Gah, he was starving.
“Moderating your breath. You faked being sleep, but you can only modify your breathing, not your heart rate.”
“How the fuck, Barton?”
“I had my face pressed against your back, bro. I asked you to talk because I liked the vibration of your voice. I could feel it,” Clint explained. Bucky had to admit he was impressed. “Even knowing you were there, though, it didn’t feel like you were asleep. We’ve napped together before; last night felt like you trying to calm me.”
“Guilty.” Bucky shrugged. “Needed to make sure you and Steve were okay. I’ve functioned on less.”
“You’re not a machine,” Steve said, taking Bucky’s hands.
“No.” Steve’s voice remained soft, but left no room for debate. “You need to sleep, Buck, especially if we’ve got a battle on our hands.” He dragged Bucky’s plate over. “Eat your breakfast. Then you’re going to take a nap.”
Bucky whined. “But Steve.”
“Nope.” Steve leaned over the counter and kissed Bucky’s forehead.
“Fine, but only if you come with me.”
“Deal. Now eat.”
The three of them picked at their breakfast. Well, Clint and Bucky picked. Steve had seconds. So far, neither of them had asked Clint about his night terror. He hoped it stayed that way. If he were honest, they both probably knew without him needing to elaborate. Clint wished he could forget.
Swallowing down another cup of coffee, Clint sat back. He wasn't ready to talk and if they were gonna make any vaguely useful plans, Buck needed to rest. Which he wouldn’t do if Clint stayed in his sights. “Can I, uh, borrow your shower?”
Steve nodded. “Of course. Towels are in the closet.” He took Clint’s plate and empty mug. “Want me to toss your clothes in the laundry? I’m sure Buck’s got a shirt you can borrow.”
“Sure, thanks,” Clint said. He scooted his chair back, ruffled Bucky’s hair (oh, hey, that’s an intimidating glare), and headed back into the bedroom. Anxiety tried to creep up along his spine. He shook his head. He was fine.
Of course, Steve and Buck hadn’t left him alone for more than a couple minutes and the blue-tinged hellscape that had been his nightmare lingered in his brain. Clint turned on the shower, stripped down, tossed his clothes on the bedroom floor (he felt a little bad about it, really), set his hearing aids on the counter, and stepped beneath the water.
Holy hell, this they had a nice futzing shower. He needed to come over more often. Bowing his head, Clint let the jet hit his back, focusing on regulating his breathing. He could handle the nightmares. He could handle dealing with Hydra. He could handle the Soldier if he absolutely had to and be sick about it later.
He couldn’t handle making the wrong call.
Even if it was just a dream. Even if nothing terrible had actually happened. No one called the shots but him. He snorted; futzing poor turn of phrase there, Barton. He listed to the side and pressed his face to the tile, cool against his skin. The one thing—the one impossible solution—was to not put any of them in the position where Clint would have to make that call.
As he watched the steam curl, he wondered how many Hail Marys he had left.
Chapter 5: Five
TW: brief allusion to sexual assault. Nothing explicit/detailed.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Of course Steve picked an "I Love Hawkeye" shirt. Of course Bucky owned an I Love Hawkeye shirt. It had to be Buck’s—it was black. Clint shrugged it on before stuffing his legs into what he assumed were Steve’s pants. The wet towel he left on the rail in the bathroom. He paused, mentally evaluating himself. He was okay. Not great, but good enough to fake it. A little post-shower coffee should help. Clint twisted his mouth. How mad would Steve be if he drank it straight from the pot? Bucky had suggested it.
In the living room, he found Buck and Steve on the couch, Bucky wrapped in a blanket, his face buried in Steve’s neck, sound asleep. Steve stroked Bucky’s hair, his eyes closed as well. Clint knew Steve wasn’t asleep, but he still tried to keep quiet as he headed for the coffee machine. He stayed quiet; the coffee machine was another story. He flinched as it clicked over, louder than he expected.
“Your clothes should be finished in an hour,” Steve said from the couch. “Did you leave the towel in the bathroom?”
“Yeah, on the bar. And thanks again,” Clint answered. He gestured to Bucky with his coffee mug. “He’s out?”
Steve nodded. “Finally.”
Clint waited until the pot finished brewing and made himself a fresh cup before leaning against the counter. “So . . .”
Steve kept his eyes on Bucky, and Clint wished he could ignore the fear and worry in Steve’s expression. Clint had never seen him so raw. A sleepless night had them all on edge.
After a minute, he traded out his coffee mug for the pot. Might as well dive in. He’d have to tread carefully. Keeping Steve’s panic level low was crucial. “So, what are we gonna do about the squid Nazis after our boyfriend?”
Steve huffed a laugh. Score. “Honestly? I have no idea. Buck won’t run, and I can’t really blame him for that. Captain America wants to do the right thing, if he can figure out what the fuck that is.” Steve scoffed. “But I’m not exactly Captain America anymore, now, am I? Steve Rogers wants to charge in and fucking annihilate the bastards. I want beat them all bloody and broken and make them pay for everything they’ve done. If anyone deserves to suffer, it’s Hydra. I should have made sure I’d weeded them out back in the ’40s.”
He shook his head, holding Bucky tighter. His anger dissolved into regret. “Here I was, thinking I gave my life to destroy the people who stole my world, when instead they slipped through the cracks and followed me into the future.”
Clint stared into his coffee. “I know that guilt. I worked for SHIELD for years and never noticed my friends were Hydra. I should have seen it. I’m a futzing master assassin and spy. I should have known.”
“They’re good at hiding. Good at lying. You don’t wanna see the worst in the people you trust, people you love, so you ignore it. I wanted to believe the world was better, even if I didn’t want to live in it alone.” Steve sighed and Clint could see the weight bearing down on him. “He’s always telling me it’s not my fault. That I couldn’t have stopped it. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for not going after him, for not jumping, too.” He dropped his head back, like the answer scrawled across the ceiling. “I threatened to walk across Austria on the slim chance he was alive but I didn’t let go of the train car, I didn’t demand we look for him, even if it was just to bring back his body. Maybe I could have stopped it.”
Clint dropped his shoulders. “You couldn’t have known this would happen, Steve, and you had no control over what did. Bucky’s just as worried about you as you are him.”
“I know he is.” Steve lowered his voice, keeping his focus on Bucky. “I read the files, you know. Natasha gave them to me. I read through them all and was so sick, I thought I’d never stop, and then I read through them again. I thought I had an idea, but when Bucky started therapy, everything somehow got worse. Sometime,s I wonder how long he held out before they broke him.” He got even quieter; Clint wondered if Steve had ever spoken about this before. “Do you know they made him hate me? Told him I’d abandoned him. That if I’d really loved him, I’d have saved him. And then they told him I’d died. I guess technically they weren’t lying at that point. Hydra took his memories and twisted them around. He can’t remember and I can’t forget.”
“Steve,” Clint said firmly, setting the coffee on the counter. “It’s still not your fault.”
“He wrote me letters while he slept. They were on the glass of his cryotube. I stood there for hours, just reading through it all. Broke my heart.” Steve looked up at him. Despite the crack in his voice, Clint saw the fire burning in his gaze, the determination. “We fought hard to get here, Clint. I’m not giving him up. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t memorized every one his nightmares, that I don’t notice every time he flinches or gets lost or forgets. That I don’t see how badly he wants to remember our life and how much it hurts when he can’t, or how much it hurts when he does.”
Clint was at a loss for words. It was one thing for Buck to talk to him; it was common ground, and part of the reason Clint felt comfortable with him was that actually speaking wasn’t required for understanding. But Steve? He was just getting to know Steve.
He shouldn’t be surprised. He trusted Steve, but this was an unexpected level of intimacy. Everyone knew Steve felt guilty over what had happened to Bucky; that what his thing, more so than the red, white, and blue getup. Clint suspected the only person who knew more than Buck was Sam, and now Clint found himself on that roster, too. It struck him as a weird, slightly uncomfortable honor.
Clint finished rising out the coffee pot (the dishes were the least he could do) when Bucky made a muffled noise, tensing against Steve. Steve moved his hand back to Bucky’s hair, attempting to soothe him with murmurs and touches. The muffled cries faded out, but Bucky didn’t relax. Instead, he gasped, unable to breathe.
“Shh. It’s just a nightmare, sweetheart. You’re okay,” Steve said. “You’re home safe with me. I’ve got you.”
“Which nightmare is that?” Clint asked. The question was out before he could stop himself.
“Metal arm. He dreams about the procedure when he’s overtaxed. He’ll-“
But Steve stopped at the first choked out cry in Russian. Bucky’s voice was strangled, half-muffled by the blanket and Steve’s body, but there was no mistaking the pleading, the begging. And there was no masking the look of wide-eyed horror on Steve’s face. Steve moved, desperate to wake him, but Bucky kept muttering, his breath coming in gasps.
Clint froze, gripping the mug harder. He heard the metal plates in Bucky’s arm click, the machinery whirring, and knew what would happen a second before it did.
Bucky, still half asleep, lashed out and locked his metal hand around Steve’s throat.
Steve choked, gripping Bucky’s left arm and pressing the palm of his other hand to Bucky’s cheek.
A second after that, Bucky, fully conscious, released him. “Oh, god, Steve. I’m so sorry. Are you . . . Oh, no.”
Steve wrapped his arms around him, one hand cradling the back of Bucky’s head. “I’m okay. You didn’t hurt me. God, Buck, I tried to stop it, I tried to wake you. I thought it was the doctors, not . . .” Steve paused, shaking his head at whatever Bucky said. “Don’t say it’s okay. It’s not okay.”
The mug in Clint’s hand shattered.
The pain in Steve’s eyes shifted to realization when he looked up at Clint. Clint glared. The first Hydra fuckhead he found was getting an arrow through the eye. Hell, he had more than enough arrows, and he would make it hurt before he slaughtered them.
Bucky stilled at the sound of broken porcelain clattering into the sink. “Please tell me Clint’s still in the shower. Please tell me he didn’t hear any of that.” When Steve didn’t answer, Bucky kept his forehead pressed to Steve’s shoulder, the air leaving his lungs in a shuddering exhale. “Stevie, he speaks Russian.”
Steve’s hands shook. The guilt returned, tearing its way through him. “I should have gone after you, Buck. I’m sorry,” he whispered, and if seeing Steve’s heart break was bad, hearing it was worse. “I shouldn’t have left you. I should have followed, should have searched.”
Bucky pushed himself up, taking Steve's face in his hands. “This is not your fault. You won’t want to hear it, but I’m glad you didn’t go after me,” Bucky said. “If you had, they’d have two brainwashed supersoldiers, and every shock, every burn, every punishment, and every assault against me would have been executed by you. They would have laughed, knowing I loved you. Knowing you loved me.”
A dull pain throbbed in his palm, and Clint vaguely realized his hand was bleeding. The blood thunked into the sink in droplets.
Bucky continued, and though he didn’t look up, Clint knew Bucky spoke to him, resigned. “The vest is a straight jacket. They muzzled me. I wasn’t allowed to scream or move. They chained me down and made sure I knew I was owned. The asset is a weapon: contained, carefully aimed, fired, and controlled. It has one purpose. If I didn’t obey, they dismantled me. Most of the time, it was routine—the water, the electricity—but there were always worse ways to break me. I was a loaded gun whenever they wanted, and their bitch when they were bored.”
Quiet overtook him as Clint narrowed his focus to the mission. He gathered the pieces of the mug and put them in the trash before rinsing the blood off his hand, cleaning the superficial wounds. The handle had sliced deeper. Curling his fingers into a fist, he tested the gash. It wouldn’t interfere with his grip unless the bleeding didn’t stop. A couple of stitches should hold it.
Bucky pushed himself off the couch, returning with a first aid kit. Steve’s gaze tracked him from the bedroom to the kitchen, misery draw on his face. Clint let Bucky examine the damage, keeping his head down. He still looked exhausted, but his motions were gentle as he cleaned the gashed and then pulled the needle and thread through Clint’s skin, stitching him up. Bucky moved back once he’d finished, and Clint clenched his fist again. It would do.
Their respite reached its end. “I need my bow,” Clint said, voice smooth as silk and deadly calm. Hydra was going to suffer for what they’d done. Clint would make damn sure of that.
“We’ll get it. We’ll get ready. Guess there’s no sense in delaying,” Bucky muttered. He painted over the stitches with a liquid bandage to kept them from popping. Clint would bet Bucky hadn’t missed that achingly familiar shift into mission mode. They’d traded sniper stories, sure, and fangirled over each other’s technique and prowess, but Bucky had never seen it in Clint.
The first stage came easiest, like slipping on a well-tailored suit, one Clint hadn’t worn in years, but one that still fit perfectly.
Bucky packed the medical supplies into their case, and then spoke over his shoulder. “Steve?” He tilted his head and Steve followed Bucky in their room. A moment later, the shower started.
Clint finished cleaning up the mess in the sink before returning to the living room. He stretched, working the crick out of his neck and the tension out of his shoulders. His limbs felt looser, his mind turning to which arrows he’d need. Electro arrow, explosive. Oh, acid arrow would be fun. It’d been a while since he’d had cause to play with those. Of course, a couple of razor sharp non-trick arrows wouldn’t be a bad choice—he wasn’t planning to let any of those bastards live. He should probably take the sidearm, too. Clint wasn’t as fond of bullets, but a backup plan was necessary.
As for finding his prey, Hydra wouldn’t have gone far. If Clint were a betting man, he’d say they went to ground. A fight in an alleyway wasn’t very bright, but a whole legion of Hydra asshats were kinda noticeable. If they wanted their asset back, they’d need a base, one large enough to contain their equipment (and their captive), and isolated to keep their activities quiet.
He smirked. Rats were always predictable.
Clint took up Steve’s tablet and dug up information about the abandoned subway lines. It’s where he’d hide if one, he were a coward and a personified garbage fire, and two, if he could stand enclosed spaces. He’d narrowed their options to three by the time Steve and Bucky returned, both dressed in black tactical gear. Bucky wore his vest and BDUs, slipping his knives into his belt.
“Lookin’ sharp there, Buck,” Clint said, his gaze sliding over to Steve. It was odd to see him without the trademark red, white, and blue, but they both wore determination in tandem with their armor. Clint happily provided their next move. “I think I know where our friends are hiding, which means we can form a plan of attack.”
Steve glanced over the subway maps on the tablet. “What are you thinking?”
“If their endgame is reclaiming their missing asset, they’ll need space to house all those evil science things. There are still parts of the city under construction from the alien invasion, but sudden activity in a condemned building draws too much attention.” Clint turned the map, spreading his fingers to enlarge it. “Rather than hide out on the surface-”
“They’re using the abandoned subway stations,” Bucky concluded. “Nothing appears on the radar, no pedestrian interference, no witnesses.”
“No noise,” Steve added.
“Room enough for them, their equipment, and me.”
“Exactly.” They hadn’t been spotted by accident. “They had a base.”
“Like the bank vault in D.C.”
Clint nodded. “I was looking at three potential platforms in the area: one is elevated, so that’s out; the Myrtle Street line has an art installation now, so people are actively looking for it. That leaves the mysterious and inaccessible 76th Street station. If it exists.” Clint glanced between Steve and Bucky, a grin spreading across his face. “Who’s up for little game of search and destroy?”
“You know I am,” Bucky answered, reaching under the coffee table to remove his gun.
Steve stared at him. “Has that been there all along?”
“How many weapons do you have hidden in here?”
“Not nearly enough.” Bucky continued adding things to his arsenal, letting himself slip into that same calm space Clint had reached. He holstered another gun before straightening up, the shift subtle. There was a comfort in being armed, and without his bow, Clint felt exposed.
“Grab your shield, sweetheart,” Bucky said. “We got a train to catch.”
Clint made short work collecting his gear, grounded by the familiarity of his own black attire. Whatever anxiety he felt remained a distant hum in the back of his mind. The moment was the only thing that mattered now. Being present counted above all things. There was only the mission—and dealing a whole hell of a lot of damage.
He snatched up a knife to add to his collection; toys made hand-to-hand more enjoyable. Bucky had shown him a few tricks, and he bounced the blade on the back of his hand, rolling it over his knuckles as he rejoined the guys in the living room. Steve moved away from his position by the window. If Clint had blinked, he’d have missed the way Steve’s eyes widened at the sight of him, matched by the dark flash in Bucky’s gaze.
“Lookin’ sharp, Barton,” Buck drawled.
Clint smirked. He felt sharp, cut-glass edges and razor wit. Steve kept staring at him, a peculiar expression on his face. Clint tapped his in-ear hearing aids, syncing them to Steve and Bucky’s comms.
Bucky sidled over, slipping his arm around Clint’s shoulders. “We all set?”
“That we are, battle bro.” Clint’s voice had gone softer, deeper. Deliberate. He locked his gaze on Steve. “Cap?”
“Yeah. Uh, yes,” Steve answered, straightening his perfectly straight suit.
How unexpected. A low laugh sounded at Clint’s ear, barely a sound at all. Bucky motioned for Clint to lead the way, and then hooked a finger into Cap’s belt. Clint thought he caught Steve mutter something about too many snipers. Wrong. Never enough snipers.
Well, he and Buck were the only two anyone needed. Together, they were overkill. Clint snorted. Anyone requiring more than Clint and Bucky’s skill sets would already be dead.
“I’ll take the to rooftops, provide cover in case things go south, and meet you on the ground outside the A Line,” Clint said.
Bucky tugged on Steve’s belt, playful this time. “You’re not going out like that.”
“Buck, the suit was too noticeable.”
“So is the shield, which is why Clint will carry it. Put on a jacket to cover the riot gear. You can’t walk out in the middle of Brooklyn looking like you’re gonna start shit.”
Steve dropped his arms around Bucky’s neck, leaning into him. “Aren’t we?”
“Yeah, but hopefully not in front of civilians. I gotta hide the arm. You gotta hide the . . .” Bucky traced a finger along Steve’s jaw. “You. You ain’t great with undercover, pal.”
“Got a ball cap, trench coat, and some aviators,” Clint offered, pressing his shoulder against the doorframe. Steve gave him another once over, his gaze definitely lingering on Clint’s shoulders, his waist, and his legs. Clint angled his head. “Or do you wanna try me on for size?”
Bucky shifted, running that same finger down Steve’s spine before roughly grasping his jaw. “You better be looking at me that way, baby doll,” he growled. Steve shivered.
Ah, payback. Clint stretched, shoulders rolled back as he pressed up, loose limbed and relaxed. “Never said you couldn’t touch, Rogers.”
For a moment, Steve’s jaw worked but no sound came out. Clint registered the whirr of Bucky’s arm before Buck grabbed Steve’s collar and pulled him in for a kiss, all teeth and bruising pressure, fingers curling along the back of Steve's neck.
Bucky’s tongue darted out against Steve’s bottom lip; Steve rewarded him with a whimper. Bucky released him, half-teasingly shoving him back. “Couldn’t help myself.”
“We should get moving,” Steve said, brushing past the two of them and out the door. If he’d been trying to hide his flush, he’d failed.
Clint raised one shoulder and let it fall, tracking Steve’s exist.
“Well, Barton, you had quite the effect on him.”
“Happens.” Clint stowed his knife in his belt, pleased with himself. He couldn’t fathom why Steve suddenly found him attractive, but who was he to resist a good flirt? Besides, Bucky’d done his fair share of damage.
Bucky donned his leather jacket, and then pulled a glove over his left hand. “Wanna go murder some Hydra bros?”
He pressed his hand over his heart. The thrill of setting out had always been his favorite part, eager anticipation and adrenaline. “Aw, Buck, you plan the most romantic dates.”
They parted in the stairwell, Clint headed for the roof while Bucky joined Steve on the street. Bucky’s blood hummed in anticipation, thick with aggression. Anger burned deep in his bones, a flame he’d tried to smother, a flame he failed to suppress half way between who he’d become and who he’d been. He knocked into Steve’s shoulder, an almost apology as he dredged up a grin. Steve’s flush deepened. “We need to talk about it, baby?”
He shook his head, eyes a little too wide, before giving in. “I just don’t understand,” Steve burst, color high on his cheeks.
“It’s okay if you’re attracted to him. I sure as hell am.”
“Yeah, but it’s Clint. I’ve known him a couple years, but I’ve never . . . I mean, you know I’m not, and . . . What the hell just happened, Buck?”
“You of all people should have realized Clint’s more than a pretty face,” Bucky said, taking Steve’s hand and pulling him onto the sidewalk. People were everywhere; oh, the joys of city living. Buck knew there was more to Clint than the ridiculous disaster he adored. Nonetheless, Bucky admitted surprise. “He’s smarter than he lets on, though I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting that. It isn’t a secret I think he’s hot, but that guy? He’s basically sex personified.”
Steve made a noncommittal noise, edging closer. “That must be it.”
“Competency kink. It’s why you love me so much.”
Steve snorted. Bucky sent his elbow into Steve’s ribs. “You took all the stupid with you, Buck.”
“Says the guy who’s notoriously bad at planes. You know it’s my smarts and the outfit.”
Steve hooked his arm around Bucky’s waist and Buck let him, keeping him close for several blocks, enjoying the warmth of the body beside his, before finally stepping away. They weren’t far from the A Line.
The crackle of static buzzed in Bucky’s ear, filtering out into Clint’s voice. “Incoming. I’m five blocks ahead and there’s a gang of Hydra goons three north of your position.”
Steve pressed his hand to his comm. “How many?”
“About ten. I’ll pick them off from behind until you arrive.”
Bucky rolled his metal shoulder back, the servos whirring as the plates shifted down and clicked into place. The rest of Bucky Barnes slipped away, feeding into that dark fire beneath his skin, focused on the breath in his lungs and the beat of his heart. They stepped into the fray with enough time to watch one of Clint’s arrows pierce through a Hydra agent’s hands. He dropped his gun. The second arrow caught him in the throat.
“You’re up, Cap,” Clint said.
Steve stepped forward, arm raised, and caught his shield, wrapping his hand around the strap. Bucky reached behind him and unclipped his automatic, the smile spreading across his face sharper than his knives. The nearest agent balked, stumbling backward. In that moment of hesitation, Buck sent a bullet into his skull, and then fired at the next. Steve’s shield struck the brick and shot back, clearing the first line of thugs.
Bucky’d be willing to bet this fight would go down the same as the alley: subdue and capture. Begrudgingly, Bucky might admit he was out of practice, but the first round had begun waking muscle memory. Across the alley, Steve relished the rare treat of an honest-to-god alley fight, his grin undeniable and wicked as men dropped. Bucky let pride wash over him a moment, pride and delight and absolute adoration. Fighting alongside Steve had been second nature from the moment they’d met. His body knew this dance as well as it knew Steve’s, and he felt Steve’s presence behind his ribs like a second heartbeat.
There was a nice pile of bodies riddled with bullets, bruises, and pincushioned with arrows by the time Hydra noticed Clint on the roof. Bucky caught the assault from the corner of his eye, as Clint’s focus turned and he shot the man creeping up behind him. Two more appeared from the stairwell.
“Sorry, boys. I have company,” he said into his comms.
“Can you handle it?” Steve answered.
He plucked an arrow from his quiver and nocked it in one fluid motion. “Absolutely.”
Bucky smirked up at him before returning to the fight. Fuck the gun. He holstered it, palming his knives instead. It’d been a real long time since he enjoyed a good, old fashioned bloodbath.
A sudden burst of gunfire and the crumbling of brick called his attention back to Clint. A shadow leapt between buildings, turning mid-air to fire another series of arrows. The Hydra agents followed.
Steve’s shield shot past Bucky’s head. For as many thugs as they’d put on the ground, more were up and moving. A bullet ricocheted off his vest, but the second graze his right arm. Bucky clenched his jaw. Fucking Hydra. “How’s it going up there, Barton?” he asked.
“Bullets still hurt, in case you were wondering,” Clint answered.
“Yeah, I noticed.”
“They’re forcing me to higher ground. Something’s going down, Barnes, and I don’t like it. Damn it, ow!”
Weight and heat pressed into Bucky’s back, and he’d flipped his knife to stab before realizing Steve leaned into him, mouth bloodied, a bruise forming on his cheek, clothes torn in places to reveal healing wounds. The bastard fucking grinned and the air went out of Bucky’s lungs. “This is fun. I could do this all day.”
Bucky growled. “Let’s not. I wanna wrap this up, get you home, and take you apart.” Instead of blushing, Steve’s eyes darkened with promise. Bucky continued. “I prefer to make a statement. A trail of bodies should do the trick.”
They moved apart, trading weapons and blows with a century-old precision. “Barton thinks something’s up. They keep forcing him higher and he can’t knock ‘em down fast enough for a stable hold.”
Steve nodded once. “Keep the sniper from building a nest, keep most of your men upright.” He glanced up, and then back at the building, agents flowing through the doorway like an oil spill. “This isn’t the real fight. This is a distraction.”
Catching the shield, Bucky turned and used it for cover as Steve fired. “So what we are missing?”
The tall man step into the alley, his dark suit perfectly pressed. He grinned, and fear shivered down Bucky’s spine in a cold ache. He had to fucking ask. The dull ache in his chest, the knowledge of Steve’s position, echoed hollow between his bones. Steve had moved on to the opposite side of the fight, the space between them growing. He hadn’t seen. He didn’t know.
Time slowed. The hilt of his knives jutted from prone bodies, no chance for recovery. Bucky reached for his guns. Bullets were better. And once the man hit the ground, Bucky would make damn sure no one would ever be able to snap their fingers and own him again.
The handler parted thin lips, his voice quiet in too-loud alley, but the single word he uttered carried the weight of the world.
What? A two-chapter day?! Yes, because I'm fucking impatient and ten weeks is a long time. I'd claim it's because I'm nice, but after that ending, I think we all know it's a lie. ;)
Chapter 6: Six
The wind rushed out of Bucky’s lungs faster than if he’d taken a hit. Time slowed. Clenching his teeth, he bit down on his tongue, tasting blood. Focus on the pain. A handful of words couldn’t hurt him. Not anymore. Not ever again.
A familiar twist in his gut, a knife in his belly. Breathe. Inhale, hold, exhale. He’d suffered worse and survived. Focus. Steve locked eyes with him across the alley. He’d heard. They were nonsense words. Meaningless. But still, Steve ran, and Bucky felt the pull from the other half of his heart, magnets snapping together.
Pillow forts and first kisses and the boy who left him for dead.
No. Steve came for him. He’d stayed. After the draft, after the labor camp. He was always there, would always be there. Steve was his sun, his constant. He’d rescued Bucky from Zola’s lab, from Hydra’s chair. From the Avengers, and the memories, and the things in the dark. From himself.
Even running, Steve remained halfway down the alley and a world away.
Bucky’s bones shook, a deep soul wrenching rattle. He could do this. Breathe. Therapy had helped. He’d unpacked a lot of bad shit, worked incredibly hard, seen his own progress. Bucky laughed now, freely; he loved, he had more good days than bad days. When he smiled, it wasn’t quite the blinding thing it had once been, but that made it no less genuine. He could resist. He could fight. Bucky covered his ears, desperate to shout out the handler’s voice.
Hands came to rest on his shoulders, strong and warm. Bucky lost sight of the handler. A body stood between them, clothed in black, painfully, blessedly familiar, the sunlight catching blond hair. He let himself be turned away, moved back. Out of range.
“Bucky, don’t listen to him. You can fight this. Stay with me.”
Steve. As long as Steve stayed close, the words couldn’t hurt him. Around them, the rest of squadron closed ranks. The click of hammers drawn on guns echoed against the brick. Steve raised his shield, covering Bucky’s right side. Dread locked itself around his bones, pulling his ribs tight. Bucky’s jaw ached from the effort of keeping himself together. Half way through. He pressed into Steve’s space, into his warmth.
The voice grew harsher, infuriated. “Nine.”
Bucky couldn’t tell if he heard it spoken out loud or if it resonated deep within his body, muscle memory taking over. No. He leaned hard into Steve, demanding his mind to stay. His voice locked up in his throat.
His knees gave out and Steve’s arm wrapped around him, holding him up. Another voice buzzed in his ear, but he couldn’t make out the words. The dark, viscous thing inside him clawed toward the surface.
Everything he wasn’t. Everything he’d never be. Steve’s grip tightened, but if he spoke, Bucky failed to hear him. Steve needed to get away. Bucky needed him to run. To understand.
A note of victory. Home was an icy coffin, the endless dark. For seventy years, those little slices of death had been precious, cherished. The only sliver of time belonging to him.
He ached for it.
No. No more ice, no more freezing to death over and over.
“Clint, a little help here,” Steve called, and Bucky felt the vibration of Steve’s voice warming his blood. The thugs hadn’t gotten Clint off the roof. Clint could take out the handler, and he and Steve could deal with the guys on the ground. Bucky guarded that flickering spark of hope.
Above, Clint dodged a punch, lashing out to sweep his opponent’s legs out from under him. “I’m trying. Hang on.”
“Buck, listen to me. I’m right here. I’ve got you. You can do this.” Steve held him closer. “These words mean nothing. Stay with me.”
Bucky shifted his weight into Steve, pressing his face into his neck, shaking his head. Somewhere along the line, his lungs had stopped working. He managed shallow gasps, the collar tightening around his throat. Steve’s hand cradled the back of his neck. “The last one,” he choked. “Steve, I can’t- I- The last one hurts too much. I’m sorry, Stevie, I’m sorry. You have to go.”
“They’re just words, Buck. They can’t hurt you.”
“I can hurt you.” He dug his fingers into Steve’s back. He could hold on. He could try. Steve wouldn’t run, even if Bucky begged. “I’m a goddamn nightmare.”
“I’m not afraid of you, Buck. Stay here. Stay with me.”
Cold crept in, snuffing that tiny spark of hope between Bucky’s ribs.
The metal fist struck the ground as Bucky slipped away from Steve. Steve followed, hands hovering to touch. No sound penetrated the awful stillness of the alley, the air heavy, oppressive.
“Soldat,” the handler said at last, voice hard. “You’ve been away from home too long. I’ll be generous with you this once. Redeem yourself. Complete your mission. Do it now.”
Bucky didn’t move.
“Now, Soldier. You remember your mission, don’t you? Remember what you are. Eliminate the captain and you can come home.”
The plates shifted, rapid, winding.
“Bucky,” Steve whispered, a prayer.
Home. The ice and silence, the weight of a gun. The darkness after.
The metal arm stilled. Silence stretched between them until the air itself felt ready to snap.
Bucky raised his head and blinked up at Steve.
He’d already come home. To his golden haired hero, his best friend, the love of his life.
Bucky’s voice felt rough, unused. “It didn’t work?” he asked. The nausea subsided as the static in his brain dropped off. He was still there, whole and intact. Bewildered. Wary. “It didn’t work.”
Steve cupped Bucky’s face and kissed him, relief pouring off him as he shook his head. “It didn’t work.”
“Soldier, do as you’re told,” the handler snapped.
Bucky pushed himself to standing, eyes narrowed. “Sure thing, comrade.”
Steve stepped neatly out of the way as Bucky hurled a knife at the handler, the blade clipping him in shoulder instead of the throat. Bucky snarled. Gunfire erupted, forcing him to move back, and Steve charged forward, deflecting bullets. Hydra goons stepped between Bucky and the handler.
With a casual motion, the handler pulled the knife from his shoulder. “Not an entirely unexpected reaction, unlike your friend up there.” He glanced toward Clint. “He’s held his own rather well. I’m impressed.”
“Bet you’ve figured out the next reaction.” Bucky raised his gun, finger twitching against the trigger.
The handler smiled again. “Of course, I have, Soldier. You think me out of options?” He bounced Bucky’s knife on his palm. “Sputnik.”
The bullet went wide as Bucky’s eyes rolled back. He collapsed with a thud and clatter, the gun skittering from his hand.
Clint threw the last Hydra asshat off the roof in the time to see his friend go down. “Bucky?” he called into the comms. No answer. “Shit.”
Below, the thugs surrounded Steve, holding him back. Well, trying. Clint lined up his shot in attempt to clear Steve’s way. The handler shoved his boot into Bucky’s chest and pushed him onto his back before motioning to one of his lackeys. An agent came forward, mask in hand, and muzzled Bucky.
Oh, fuck that. Clint’s next arrow struck the guy in the chest, and the second was gonna take the handler in the face.
He felt the roof collapsing beneath him a moment before the explosion registered, pitching him forward. He dropped his arrow, reaching for the grappling tip and sent it over to the building at his right. It caught, jerking his arm violently, but the wire held his weight as he swung. He caught a brief look at the action below; Buck, bound to a stretcher. Steve had also been subdued, head lulling as three guys hauled him to his feet.
If Clint dropped from this height, he’d break his leg, but he could redirect his momentum. He turned and took the impact on his feet, knees bent, and realized he hadn’t slowed down enough. The force jarred his hands from the rope and the ground rushed up to meet him, unforgiving. The last thing he heard was his bow landing beside him.
Everything futzing hurt, from his toes to the roots of his hair. Sleeping on rubble was hell on the back, and rolling off to hit the cement wasn’t much better. Gravel bit into Clint’s palms as he pushed himself up. The bullet grazes stung, rubbing raw against his clothes: two in his leg, one on his arm, one along his ribs. He didn’t mind the collection of cuts and scrapes, but his head throbbed, the light too bright. Clint stepped forward and immediately lost his balance, the mouth of the alley splitting in two. Futzing hell.
He fell to his hands and knees, struggling to concentrate. He didn’t need a medical degree to know he had a concussion. Super. Buck and Steve would—
Buck and Steve.
“Goddamn it,” Clint swore. The empty alleyway showed no sign of Steve, Buck, or Hydra. And if Hydra had both of them . . .
Clint strung together a creative list of curses to put most sailors, army men, and the French to shame. Climbing back to his feet, he braced himself against the wall. Breathe. Regroup. Pick up the bow when he won’t pitch over. They’d futzing walked into a trap, and now the clock ticked down every second his friends remained captive. Clint would die before he let them recondition Bucky. Hell, what would they do to Steve?
Snatching his bow from the ground, Clint made his way to the mouth of the alley. The A Line wasn’t far, but once he reached the subway, he’d have to bypass the trains in order to find the blocked-off station, and that left an unfortunately small window.
If Hydra could manage, so could he.
Though walking down the street, visibly armed, might be an issue.
Clint slung his bow across his back, popped his hands into his pockets, and headed into the underground. Bystanders kept their distance. He stopped at the turnstile and patted his vest. He’d tucked his Metro card somewhere. Ah-ha! Thigh pocket. He swiped it and pushed through, taking the stairs down to the platform. If Clint were the kinda guy who’d wear a watch, he’d be checking it. The train had to pass before he took to the tracks, and there wouldn’t be a lot of time to find the hidden platform before the next came thundering in his direction.
He crossed his arms and waited, leaning against one of the metal beams. How the futz had Hydra even gotten down here? Probably a back exit somewhere on street level or some bullshit. A squadron of black-clad, squid-worshiping bastards couldn’t just show up carting around a guy with a metal arm and someone who looked suspiciously like Captain America.
Then again, this was New York, and Clint was waiting for a train, bloodied, bruised, and carrying a bow and quiver.
He caught motion from the corner of his eye. Some guy stared at him behind black-framed glasses, his scraggly beard blending with his scraggly hair. Hipsters.
Clint smiled with one half of his mouth and raised a shoulder. “Commuting, bro. It’s murder, am I right?”
The guy’s jaw dropped; the train careened into the station and Clint turned his attention back to it, the wind mussing his hair. Hipster got on the second the doors opened and kept staring. Clint lifted his eyebrows. The guy paled and turned around. Good. Now leave the station all ready, train.
Clint made his way to the edge of the platform, and when the train began pulling away, he slipped onto the tracks, careful to avoid the sides. A handful of minutes lay between that train and the next one’s arrival. He took off at a run.
He wasn’t expecting spray paint tags or a sign pointing out the Evil Lab of Evil, but he wouldn’t deny it’d be really futzing helpful. The tunnels were about as well lit as any New York subway—barely—but the lights grew brighter the further he went. As long as they weren’t accompanied by a howling train, he was probably good. Worst case scenario, there was a shelf up ahead. He could squeeze in and avoid getting splattered on the windshield.
A creeping, staticky feeling skittered across his arms as he ran. The lights weren’t getting brighter; they were pulsing with increasing electrical current. Beneath the brightest light, Clint spied a crack in the wall. He jammed a knife into the lowest part, just above the track, and pried. The wall opened.
Clint caught the ledge and hauled himself up, his injures straining. He’d wrenched his shoulder with the fall, not enough to prevent him from fighting, but enough to make things difficult. Wedging his fingers into the space, he pried the wall open further, the stone grinding against the ledge. He rolled into darkness, plucking his knife away and letting the wall close behind him. Keeping low, he waited, listening. No footsteps. No movement. He nocked an arrow and followed the tunnel deeper, his suspicion growing the further he went without encountering anyone.
Weak light from a small room off the corridor reassured him that this must be the right place. Banks of rolling monitors flicked through still images of the station beyond. So where the futz had everyone gone? One screen flickered over and Clint saw himself walking through the tunnel. Another monitor changed scenes, the grainy image revealing Steve, hands bound above his head and metal binding his chests and legs. He shook his head, causing a line of blood to trickle down his face.
Clint barely made out what he assumed was a guard in the room with Steve. The other screens showed empty spaces or nothing at all. He edged back into the hallway, trading his bow for a knife. The silence weighed on him, but as the power surged again, a scream echoed its way through the station.
Clint turned back to the monitors and placed his fingers at the control board, trying to change the cameras. Finding Bucky hit the top of his priorities list. The image of Steve remained. Clint struck a key, bringing up the audio.
“Captain, how nice of you to join us.” Clint couldn’t see the handler, but he’d know that voice anywhere. He’d like it better choking around an arrow.
Steve spat blood. “Let him go. You can take me instead.”
“Tsk, tsk. What good is bargaining when we already have you both?” The handler stepped into view, that thin smile still pinned to his narrow face. “You aren’t enjoying the show?”
Steve strained against his bonds. “Go to hell.”
He moved his fingers, and Steve gasped in pain. Electrified shackles. Of course. “Manners, Captain.”
“Go to hell, you sick son of a bitch.”
Another jolt tore through him. Clint clenched his teeth in sympathy.
“I think you’ll find this next part particularly interesting,” the handler continued. He waved his other hand. “For your viewing pleasure.”
Clint couldn’t see a secondary display or window, but another scream cut through the silence. On the monitor, Steve’s expression changed from rage to horror.
“No,” Steve whispered, the color draining from his face.
Clint needed to find Bucky. Now.
The station sat empty as he raced through, Bucky’s screams growing louder. He slowed when the hall branched, peering around the corner. Armed men in black and red uniforms stood guard, weapons ready. Clint reached back for a smoke-bomb arrow. The last thing he needed was another fight to either delay him or cause more injury. He launched the arrow into the hall, waiting for the tell-tale coughing and sputtering. Smoke screens were great. He slid into the next hall, but Bucky had gone silent. Shit.
Heavy footfalls sounded from the next section over and Clint pressed himself back against the wall as the squad moved past to aid their comrades. Wherever they held Buck, they’d need space for him and whatever machinery they’d strapped him to. Not to mention room to hold Steve and prevent him from reaching Bucky while giving him an unobstructed view of whatever twisted shit they’d done.
After, Clint planned to murder every goddamn one of them and enjoy every minute.
Bracers and support beams crowded the passage, the floor splatted with blood, dark and drying. Hydra hadn’t had a lot of time to set up base. How long had they’d known Buck was in New York? They didn’t strike Clint as the pre-planning type, not for the long game anyway. Hydra futzed up the first job in the alley, and maybe they’d stopped Steve for now, but the moment Cap broke free, they were in a lot of trouble. Usually being around Captain America made Clint want to be a better person, do the right thing, blah blah blah. But Cap wasn’t here; Steve said as much himself. And Clint? Well.
They hadn’t anticipated Clint. After all, they’d left him in the alley, alive.
An arrow sliced through the soldier guarding the next hall. The endless tunnels finally opened up to a couple of rooms, each sealed with a steel door. Buck had to be behind one of them. Two more arrows took out the next goons, and a third pinned a guy to the wall.
Clint huffed a laugh. They should have killed him when they had the chance.
Each door required an entry code. Reaching for an electro-arrow, Clint studied the scanner above the keypad. A shudder overtook him, a blue-tinged memory overlapping his current view. No eyes, no projections, no gods. Not that kind of scanner. Clint released his breath slowly and jammed the tip of the arrow behind the keys. If he overrode the circuit, the door would open and he wouldn’t need to beat the code outta someone.
With a click, the door retracted. Clint nocked another arrow, checking the room before stepping through. The door locked behind him, leaving the dim glow of computer monitors and medical equipment casting the room in sickly grays and blues. Shards of glass fell from a shattered bulb, and the flickering light of the screens cast shadows over the corpses of four Hydra techs, beaten and broken. A padded table occupied the center floor, the restraints hanging loose. Clint spied the outline of someone standing just beyond the screens, utterly still save the rapid rise and fall of their chest.
Clint skirted one of the bodies and caught a glint of metal on the figure’s left. “Bucky?”
A speaker crackled overhead, spitting out the voice he hated most. “Mr. Barton, welcome.” Cold shocked down Clint’s spine. “Or should I call you Hawkeye?”
“Call me whatever the futz you want. You don’t have a lot of words left.”
“Our encounter the other day had some unexpected revelations. I’m curious to see if you can summon a miracle a second time.” The handler laughed, low in his chest. “Soldat.”
Clint backed up. Bucky no longer stood in front of him. Fuck. Clint’s hyperawareness kicked in, but the room remained silent. He moved toward the nearest wall. Keeping his back to it covered one of his sides. Clint couldn’t see anyone else in the room. He tightened his grip on his bow.
“Bucky?” he called again.
“Soldier,” the handler commanded, voice casual, “Finish your mission. Kill the archer.”
Clint barely moved out of the way before Bucky’s metal fist crashed through the wall beside his head.
Chapter 7: Seven
Aside from their first encounter on the street (which had been an extraction mission as opposed to combat) and a few clips of grainy video footage, Clint had never seen the Soldier fight. Hell, he’d never really seen Bucky fight. The rounds they’d sparred were nothing compared to the assault he faced now. Bucky, he knew; in fact, Clint could see the same technique, the same calculated movements, but the Soldier moved faster, more precisely. For reasons Clint couldn’t fault him for, Bucky always held back.
The Soldier exhibited no such restraint. He had nothing to lose.
Clint threw his arm up to block another shot, the strike rattling his bones. He wouldn’t have the chance to regroup as long as Bucky remained at close range. He needed distance. If he could put the table between them—
He ducked another blow only to catch Bucky’s foot in his ribs. Clint gripped Bucky’s ankle, trying to unbalance him, but Bucky pulled back and kicked him in the chest. He felt something crack before throwing himself to the side to avoid another punch. He wasn’t getting to the table, he couldn’t stop the onslaught, and if he had any hope of not being viciously murdered, he needed to remember—immediately—that he wasn’t up against Bucky.
Acrobatics were easier without busted ribs. Clint stayed low, his mind racing. Evading wouldn’t work forever; sustained injuries wore him down, but the Soldier wouldn’t stop until one of them died. The thought caught Clint off-guard. He’d promised if things went bad . . .
No. Disable at earliest opportunity. Non-lethal measures only. With enough space, he could fire an electro-arrow and disrupt the metal arm, taking out the Soldier’s greatest advantage. Metal limbs didn't fatigue.
Said metal limb caught him by the arm and hauled him to his feet before throwing him into the wall. Clint struck shoulder first, joint scraping in the socket. He expected a punch to follow and braced himself, but the blow didn’t land. Instead, the Soldier remained in position, head cocked, evaluating. Clint took the opportunity to bring up his bow and nock an arrow. The Soldier tilted the other way, eyes scanning over Clint. Hydra had muzzled Buck, and despite the black mask over the lower half of his face, Clint made out the shape and shade of cuts and bruising.
Clint put his fury to use, focusing on rage instead of the pain to keep himself upright. There had to be a way through, even if he only reached the part of the Soldier who believed Clint his handler. “Soldier, you know me. We don’t have to do this.”
Whatever spell held the Soldier back broke, and he launched himself at Clint again. Clint fired; the Soldier caught the arrow and snapped it in half, dropping the pieces to the floor. Clint got in a strike, knuckles skidding over the mask. He sank his fingers behind it and pulled, tossing it down to join his broken arrow. A split lip left Bucky’s mouth bloodied, the bruises above and below his left eye still turning colors.
The Soldier threw another punch. Clint dodged, rolled, and reached for the arrowhead. “Sorry, bro,” he said, quickly turning to jam it between the plates of the metal arm.
Mechanics locking, the Soldier froze, arm momentarily disabled. Clint stole a second to breathe, waiting for the shock that would take down the arm completely. With harsh whirring, the Soldier jerked his arm forward, dislodged the arrow, and backhanded Clint with enough force to send him into the wall. His head cracked against the cement and Clint crumpled, blood metallic and warm in his mouth. He pushed himself up; the Soldier drove his boot into Clint’s shoulder, dislocating it. Another shove had Clint on his back, staring up at his friend through the haze in his vision.
Clint struggled to his feet. Blood trickled down his face and the room rocked as he fumbled at his belt with his good hand, drawing a knife. That cold, quiet place in his mind welled up, prepared to swallow him whole. Clint felt his throat tighten. “C’mon, man.”
Why the hell had Bucky made him promise?
Clint couldn’t win against the Soldier—not like this—and he couldn’t get Bucky back. Bucky had asked for his help.
And Clint had promised.
Because as much as he hated it, Clint understood. Being forced to obey someone else’s will wasn’t living, and Clint refused to leave Buck to that fate. Steve would never be able to let him go.
Steve. Steve had gotten Bucky back, back in the apartment. As long as the Soldier didn’t advance, Clint had to try. Eye stinging, Clint assumed the role of handler, imitating Steve’s command. “Soldier, mission report.”
The Soldier’s left hand curled into a fist, but he remained where he stood.
If he moved in for killing blow, Clint had three options: femoral artery in the thigh, jugular in the throat, spinal cord at the base of the skull. He cringed. This wasn’t a mission; this was his best friend. This was Bucky.
He’d do what he’d promised and fall apart later.
Clint shoved his emotions aside, locked up out of the way, as he allowed the calculating assassin to take complete control. Sinking the blade into the back of the Soldier’s neck would be the fastest way to end the fight. He’d have to get close, but if the Soldier took him down, too, it would still be worth it. Buck deserved a quick, painless death. It was the only gift Clint could offer. He leaned heavily into the wall, his injuries taking their toll. One last shot.
“Your name is Bucky Barnes. You live in Brooklyn. You love coffee and watching stupid movies with me. We got lost once in that science museum because you wanted to look at everything and didn’t pay attention to where you were draggin’ me. Took us an hour to find the exit.”
The Soldier remained motionless, staring him down.
Stasis could last only so long, but any aggressive movement, and the Soldier would strike. “Please don’t make me do this.”
The Soldier clocked Clint’s grip tighten around the blade and lashed out, pinning him to the ground, metal fingers locking around Clint’s throat. Clint managed to bring the knife up to press against the Soldier’s neck, directly across the jugular. Blood lined the blade, the wound superficial. He wouldn’t have to press hard to do real damage. Breath hissed from between his teeth as Clint lined up his strike. With the Soldier crushing his throat, it came down to sooner rather than later.
Clint drew in enough air to choke out, “I’m . . . your friend.” He pressed the blade deeper. It wouldn’t take much.
The Soldier froze, Clint’s blade biting into his neck as wild panic broke over his face. Eyes wide, he recoiled.
The knife drew a long, thin line across the Soldier’s skin before Clint dropped his arm, chest heaving. His body refused to sit up, so he settled for turning his head, dragging as much air as his lungs could hold. The Soldier stared at him, horrified. Clint gasped. “Soldier, do you know me?”
Agonizingly slow, the Soldier nodded. “Clint.”
Part of him wanted to stay down and bask in relief. Actually, relearning to breathe would be great. Swallowing hurt, the bruising deep. He let his eyes drift closed. The Soldier knew him, therefore Clint felt relatively safe. What a joy to look just enough like the man Bucky loved and the man who’d abused him to get by.
He could have done without the asphyxiation. Or the concussion, dislocated arm, and various stab- and bullet wounds.
Part of him wanted to get out of the subway and sleep for a year, but sleeping would be a very bad idea. A distant part of him—the one he’d ignored—wanted to throw his arms around Bucky, but he doubted the Soldier would understand. Clint couldn’t be sure he understood, either. He had a mission to finish, after all.
He sheathed his knife, staying on the ground.
A red flash from the corner near the ceiling caught Clint’s eye. Of course, there was a futzing camera. Clint scrambled for the wall with his good arm and dragged himself up, sparing at glance at the Soldier. He remained still, posture stiff. Waiting.
“Stand down, Soldier,” Clint croaked. The other man didn’t relax. Pooling all his energy into a triumphant, razor-sharp grin, Clint turned a glare up toward the camera before reaching for his sidearm and firing a bullet through the lens. Bits of glass and plastic rained onto the floor as Clint slumped back against the wall.
The Soldier watched, jaw tight.
“Good,” Clint said, then again a bit louder. Futzing hell, his voice was shot to shit. He hoped Hydra’d enjoyed the show. “Good. Mission report.” Finish the mission. Take point. Murder Hydra, find Cap, extraction. Clint mentally added ‘don’t bleed out’ to his list.
“Mission override. Previous objective: terminated. Awaiting disciplinary action, reprogramming, and further orders.”
Clint started to shake his head, realized it was a poor choice, then wrapped his good arm around his ribs. “No. No reprogramming. Do you remember what I told you?”
The Soldier’s brow furrowed. “You are not Hydra.”
“That’s right. No punishment, no reprogramming, no orders. Permission to speak freely.”
His vision fogged, and it took Clint a moment to realize the Soldier was asking his status. “Uh, I’m okay. I’m fine.”
“Invalid. Assessment: broken ribs, dislocated shoulder. Trauma to skull and throat.”
“If you knew the answer, why’d you ask?” he teased, voice sharper than intended. Clint shrugged, regretting the motion a second later. “I’ve had worse.”
The Soldier stepped forward, set his hands on Clint’s damaged arm, and popped his shoulder back into place. Clint swore through gritted teeth, but the pain lessened.
“Thanks,” he panted. “Soldier, do you know how to get out of here?” He nodded, but didn’t move. “Good. Wait.” Clint paused. “Do you know where they held Captain Rogers?” Another nod. “I need you to take me there. Can you do that?”
Again, the Soldier’s brow furrowed. He looked uncertain, apprehensive.
“What is it?”
“Why do I . . .” The Soldier clapped his metal hand on Clint’s good shoulder before turning to slide his right arm behind Clint’s back.
Bucky was still in there. Somewhere. Steve could get him back, and they’d all get out after burning the futzing place to the ground.
Clint leaned into him, letting the Soldier take his weight. “Thank you.”
The Soldier slipped the gun from Clint’s hand, cocked the hammer, and fired it behind them. The wall shattered: a two-way mirror. The tech who’d stood behind it slumped forward, a bullet hole in his forehead. The Soldier frowned.
“You were hoping for the tall shithead in the suit, yeah?” Clint asked. He squeezed the Soldier’s shoulder. “We’ll get him. Promise.” He waved away the Soldier’s attempt to return the gun. “Keep it. Your reflexes are quicker than mine right now. We need to find Captain Rogers.”
The Soldier kept Clint close as he stepped toward the door. A chill settled into Clint’s spine despite the warmth of the body beside his. Careful not to jostle Clint, the Soldier kicked the door open, metal grinding as it snapped from its bolts. Together, they walked into the hallway.
For a second, the floor loomed awfully close, but the Soldier held him firm. Relief coursed through him again. He had the Soldier. They’d get Steve. They’d get out.
Occasionally, the Soldier raised the gun and fired, not pausing long enough to look at the target before pulling the trigger. Every one of the Hydra agents hit the ground dead. He only hesitated once they’d reached the largest chamber in the station, refusing to move beyond the threshold.
Chains, cattle prods, and knives sat on long tables beside a gurney; a large basin of water occupied another corner. In the center crouched a massive black chair, a metal halo overhead. Banks of machinery lined either side, wires and tubes laying thick across the floor. Clint’s chest tightened as he remembered the Soldier’s fear and resignation as they stood in Steve and Buck’s living room, the way the Soldier refused to sit, his reaction to the mention of a chair.
“Is that what they did to you?” Clint asked, the horror of it all dawning on him. “Strapped you into the chair for reprogramming.”
“Yes.” The word fell short but heavy.
Clint glanced up, matching the bruises on his friend’s face to the electrical pads on the metal ring above the chair. Anger burned away the agony in his bones. “And Captain Rogers?”
The Soldier turned to face the opposite way. The door to the next room dangled from broken hinges, the windows smashed. On the wall, the metal shackles Clint had seen on the monitor were bent and pulled free of their bolts. Beyond the doorway lay another dead guard.
“They made him watch as they unmade me,” the Soldier muttered.
One breath at a time, Clint straightened up, reaching back for an arrow. “I say we return the favor.” He held it in his damaged hand and twisted the timer at the end of the shaft. A purple light blinked in the fletching. Clint pushed away from the Soldier and marched toward the chair, less steady than he wished. He jammed the arrow into the largest machine and twisted the timer again.
The Soldier followed, keeping close and hurrying Clint from the room. Distantly, the countdown ticked away the seconds. The first explosion would blow the computer banks, the second would take out the chair. Clint regretted not strapping the handler into it first.
Heat and wind heralded the blast, and the Soldier’s metal arm came up to shield Clint from the falling rubble. Despite the pain and exhaustion, Clint grinned. “Fuck Hydra,” he spat.
When glanced back, the Soldier was gone. “Aw, futzing hell, man. Soldier?”
Clint stumbled back the way they’d come and found him standing in the doorway, motionless. Clint peered around the corner at the burning machinery, the sharp scent of ozone and ruined leather stinging his nose. “Best sight in the world, isn’t it?” he asked. The Soldier didn’t answer. Clint reached out, hesitated, then clapped his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “They don’t own you and you don’t owe them shit. No one should be forced to obey orders against their will. No one should have their choices taken from them.”
Met with more silence, Clint looked down at the Soldier. He stared, unblinking, at the remains of Hydra’s cruelty. As he watched, Clint saw the the shift, an awareness in the Soldier’s expression he hadn’t possessed before. That same furrow appeared between his brows. He tilted his head as the metal ring collapsed around the chair. “Thank you,” he said.
“No problem,” Clint answered. The edges of his visions were starting to go dark. Well, this looked bad.
An arm wrapped around his waist, uncertain. “Barton?”
Clint turned, resting his forehead against Bucky’s shoulder. “You back, Barnes?”
“Yeah, I,” he started, then looked back at the burning room. “You fucking destroyed the chair.”
“You blew it up.”
“You snapped me out of their control.”
Clint gave a weak laugh. “I know, I’m amazing.”
“You really fucking are. You— Oh my god.” Bucky jerked away, the relief in his eyes melting into horror as he looked Clint over. Clint hated that expression, hated it more for having seen it twice now. Bucky’s jaw dropped as he turned his hands over, metal knuckles and flesh alike both stained with blood. “I did this,” he whispered, taking another step back. “This was me. I—“
“No, Buck.” Clint reached for him. “It wasn’t you. It’s not your fault. C’mon, we gotta get out of here.” Bucky let Clint touch him, but he didn’t move. “Bucky, look at me. Hey.” Clint put his hand to Bucky’s cheek. Bucky couldn’t meet his gaze. “I told you before, I’m gonna be okay. I’m always okay. Promise.”
Bucky nodded, but the panic remained. “Yeah. Sure.”
Clint tugged at his arm. “We need to find Steve and get out of here.”
“That’s right,” Bucky muttered, his focus shifting. “They had him, too. You haven’t seen him?”
“No. Not in person. I caught him in one of the monitors; he had company. Then I heard you screaming and took off in your direction. But we’re not gonna find him if we don’t move,” he added.
Gently, Buck put his arm around Clint’s waist, touching only enough to support him if required. “We should get you somewhere safe. I— You’re really hurt, Clint. Are you sure you can walk?”
“Yes,” Clint said, trying to smile. “I’m gonna make it. Couple broken ribs and a bad shoulder can’t keep me down.”
“I’m so sorry, Barton.” He kept his voice soft, but Clint heard the pain in it. He knew Bucky couldn’t bring himself to hug him; he wouldn’t risk doing more damage. “I couldn’t stop it. It’s goddamn Project Insight all over again, waking up to find someone I love bloodied and broken because of me.”
Clint shook his head. Guilt would get them nowhere. “Don’t this to yourself, man. It wasn’t you. I know it wasn’t. Besides, Soldier and I worked it out just fine, I got you back, and I got to blow up some highly expensive evil technology.” His body jerked; Clint had swayed backward, his force of will waning. “Downside: I blew up something pretty important, and I know I haven’t killed everyone in this building yet, so whoever’s left and stupid enough to try and stop us will head this way. We have to move.”
“There’s an entrance at street level further in. The buildings around it are condemned.”
Clint stepped forward. Bucky followed. Good. He could stay upright long enough to make it out. He knew there had to be a ground level exit.
“I’ll get you out, then go find Steve,” Buck said.
Clint grabbed Bucky’s wrist. He was still point on this mission, damn it, and he refused to let Bucky walk back into hell alone. “Absolutely not. We get Cap and the three of us leave together. No other option. Am I clear?”
Silence stretched between them as Clint pulled Bucky along. There was no way he’d let Buck out of his sight unless he was dead. The only answer Clint got was the occasional gunshot followed by the thud of another body hitting the floor. There couldn’t be that many Hydra goons left, not with Steve taking them out, too. Please let Steve be taking them out, too.
The floor loomed up at him again; Bucky’s arm tightened. “S’fine. I’m fine,” he mumbled. Up ahead, Clint made out the sound of metal hitting stone—the distinct hum the shield made when thrown.
His foot slipped. A bloody boot print marred the floor, but a glance around showed no bodies. Adrenaline drained from him. “Oh, hey. That’s my blood.”
Bucky tensed. “I don’t care how much you protest. You’re going to a hospital.”
Clint snorted. “Don’t need a hospital. I’m—“
A bullet pinged off Bucky’s left arm as he stepped in front of Clint. From down the hall, the gun fired again; Bucky deflected the shot. “Can you run?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Didn’t I just say I’m not leaving you alone?”
Bucky clenched his jaw. Of course Clint couldn’t run. And he wouldn’t, even if it were an option. But Bucky’d be damned if he let Clint win the bleeding game on his account. He raised his own gun, keeping Clint safely behind him.
The handler smiled, stepping into the light. Bucky willed himself to pull the trigger. His finger didn’t move.
“Ah, the base personality is back,” the handler said, disgust evident. “The Soldier has done great things for us. Reshaped the world, helped build a new century, but occasionally whoever you were before we made repairs leaked through.”
Bucky swallowed, his voice locked in his throat.
“It’s a shame. Your loyalty, your dedication, your heart—all the traits that made you valuable as the asset—make you no better or less replaceable than a dog. My predecessors had such remarkable things to say about you. How disappointing to discover the reality.”
Bucky shook his head. He owed Hydra nothing. They’d beaten him, abused him, cut into him; Hydra made him a monster. A bullet between the brows would take out one more person with the ability to unravel him. Why wasn’t the handler dead yet?
The man sneered. “But you’re still our bitch, aren’t you? Can’t remember your way around a trigger when firing means disobedience.”
Unable to move, Bucky glared at the tall man, loathing and fear screwing themselves into his bones. He hated Hydra for what they’d done to him; he hated himself for letting them do it.
“Bucky,” Clint said, drawing up the last of his energy. “Give me the gun.”
The handler shifted, the barrel aimed at Bucky’s head. “You should have learned by now, clever one, there is always a failsafe.” His finger squeezed the trigger.
Clint snatched the gun from Bucky’s hand and fired, bullet burying itself into the handler’s wrist. The handler’s shot went wide, over Bucky’s head and into the ceiling. Another series of detonations sounded from deep in the station. Clint aimed again, going for the man’s throat, when the roof above him began collapsing.
Bucky snatched Clint’s hand and pulled Clint’s arm over his shoulder, half carrying him toward the exit. The walls crumbled before them, rubble and brick closing in. Buck shoved Clint through first before throwing his weight forward, momentum pulling him feet-first beneath the falling wall.
They’d almost cleared it.
Shifting onto his knees, Bucky hunched over Clint, metal arm positioned to protect him from the debris and braced for impact. The brick thudded against metal, but Bucky didn’t feel the pressure register on his arm.
Clint made a small noise, every inch of his body lighting up with pain. “Did we make it?”
Bucky glanced up, giving Clint enough space to see. Steve crouched over them, shield raised. Even turned away, Clint saw the cuts and bruises on Steve’s face and neck, the burn marks around his wrists. Bucky nudged him, then patted Clint’s cheek. “This time.”
“Oh good,” Clint mumbled. So tired. He felt Bucky’s voice, a deep rumble at his ear. He was pretty sure Buck told him to stay awake. It wasn’t lack of trying so much as blood loss and agony, but he managed to focus long enough to see the terror in his friend’s face and the grim line of Steve’s mouth. Bucky turned to Steve, who clenched his jaw and looked back toward the collapsing subway station. Clint felt the edge of unconsciousness. At least Buck was safe, back with Steve, and all three of them had made it out.
Clint read “hang on” on Bucky’s lips. He wanted to say something profound, but ultimately mumbled, “Aw, passing out, no,” before the world slipped away.
Chapter 8: Eight
TW: brief suicidal ideation
If you haven't read the first chapter in Chewing On Glass yet, I suggest you do, as it fills in events from Steve's POV.
Chewing on Glass will be updated intermittantly with this story until completion.
Panic lodged itself between Bucky’s ribs, sharp and burning, chipping bone, an agonizing contrast to Steve’s gentle hand at the top of his head. Steve lightly touched his cheek, but Bucky couldn’t turn away from Clint. His friend didn’t move, save for the slow, shallow rise and fall of his chest. Bucky’s focus shifted to his own hands, his right knuckles bruised and busted, dark smears crusted the between the metal plates of the left. Some distant part of his brain knew it wasn’t all Clint’s, but simply knowing some of it was sent another jolt of horror through him.
Steve drew him close, wrapping his arms around Bucky’s shoulders. He longed to melt into the touch, but shrugged off Steve’s attempts to check his injuries. Steve shouldn’t worry about him, not when-
“Buck, we have to go,” Steve said, voice warm and soft.
He shook his head, refusing to let Steve pull him to his feet. Bucky couldn’t be sure his legs worked anyway. “We have to get him to a hospital, Steve.” His vision wavered, voice breaking. “We have to. They have to fix him. He’s bleeding, and it’s my fault, and-“
Steve cupped his hands beneath Bucky’s jaw. “I know. We’ll get him to a hospital. You have to stand up and we have to keep moving.”
“It’s my fault. I did this to him.” Steve’s next attempt to get him to his feet worked, and Bucky wrapped his arms around himself. He couldn’t bring himself to touch his friend. Nausea rolled through him, on the heels of panic. He felt himself unraveling. “I won’t blame him, if he never speaks to me again. I deserve it. Now he knows I’m a goddamn menace, and I can’t fault him for hating me.”
He watched the gears turning in Steve’s head as Steve lifted Clint from the floor. Bucky wondered if Steve was trying to find a way to let him down gently. “I don’t think Clint hates you,” he said at last. “None of this was your fault.” Bucky opened his mouth, but Steve interrupted. “I know. We’ll get him to the hospital. Grab my shield.”
His limbs refused to work, his braid overwhelmed.
Steve spoke again, urgent. “Buck, we’ll get him help, I promise, but then we have to go home. We have to keep moving, sweetheart.”
Bucky nodded, taking up the shield and Clint’s bow. He hugged it to his chest, a poor substitute for his battered companion, following Steve out into the street. At least it was still dark. No one would notice them if they stuck to the back alleys. Anyone who did would know better than to intercept two men with weapons and a body—
The thought derailed him, and Bucky made a high-pitched sound in his throat. If Clint died . . .
Breathing became difficult, his lungs constricting. Steve walked back to him, picked up Bucky’s right hand, and pressed his fingers to the pulse point in Clint’s throat. His heart beat slow but steady.
“He’s still alive, Buck. We’re going to the hospital. He’ll be okay. I know it’s hard, but you have to focus on the mission. Can you do that for me?”
“Yes. Get him to the hospital,” Bucky said, voice flat. He pushed his anxiety aside, knowing it would be worse before the night ended. He could live at baseline for the moment, feeling little, reaching for the precious dark clarity of his sniper brain, making a gift of the damage Hydra had left in him.
Steve remained quiet as they neared the hospital. Bucky managed to control his breathing, but the moment the ambulance entry came into view, the chatter in his head began again.
“Okay, so what,” Bucky said. “We ask the desk nurse to take him in? What the hell do we do?”
“We’re gonna have to leave him here,” Steve answered. “Fewer cameras, less chance of being seen.”
Eyes wide, the blood drained from Buck’s face, his heart hammering at a sickening rate. “We can’t just abandon him, Steve. He’s bleeding out, and his ribs are broken, and he needs to be in the hospital, not outside it.”
Steve drew in a breath, kept his voice calm. “I’m not going to drop him and walk away, Buck. I’ll knock at the door, I’ll say someone’s hurt, and I’ll leave.”
Buck began to spiral. Clint remained unconscious, the cuts and bruises livid against his pale skin. He closed his eyes, nodding once. Steve was at the door when Bucky opened them again. He watched Steve set Clint down and then search him for weapons, stashing them with his own gear. After, he raised a fist and banged on the window before taking a longer path back. Bucky’s memory skipped: Steve stood far from him one moment and set his hands on Bucky’s shoulders the next, but Bucky didn’t budge, lost between points A and B, his focus fixed on Clint.
No one answered the door.
“Why is no one coming?”
Time did strange things when Bucky’s mind failed him, but this he knew for truth. Someone should have answered the door.
Steve pushed a little harder. “I’m sure they’re on the way. We have to go now.”
“No,” Buck snapped. “No. I have to make sure they take him. I can’t leave him here, Steve.” He shoved Steve’s hands from his shoulders but didn’t let go. Steve didn’t move. “They have to admit him.” Bucky pulled him forward, tucking his head below Steve’s chin. Warm and safe and home, but damn his breaking heart. “I can’t leave him.”
Steve smoothed Bucky’s hair. Bucky couldn’t look away from the door. The seconds stretched, and still no one answered. He’d begin hyperventilating if everyone failed to notice his friend bleeding on their doorstep.
At long fucking last, a nurse opened the ambulance entry, started, and motioned back inside. Bucky let out a shaking breath as two more nurses came outside, a gurney between them, and collected Clint.
“They’re going to take care of him, Buck,” Steve whispered. “We’re going to go home now, and I’m going to take care of you.”
“I don’t wanna leave him.” He sounded small and broken, and Bucky hated himself for the need in his voice. He didn’t deserve comfort.
Steve gave it anyway. Always did, always would. “I know, sweetheart, but there’s nothing you can do for him right now. We got him here and that’s what matters. The doctors will do their job.”
Bucky held Steve tighter. Tried be worthy of all that care and that too-big heart. “Don’t let go.”
“I won’t,” Steve answered, gently coaxing Bucky into motion.
The walk home took an eternity, and Bucky couldn’t remember entering their building, let alone climbing the stairs. He stared at their door, not really seeing it. His memory skipped like the needle on a record, from one song to the next.
“I’m gonna get the key, okay?”
Steve’s warmth left Bucky’s side, his absence ice over Bucky’s skin. It didn’t melt when Steve returned, placing a hand on Buck’s shoulder to guide him inside. Everything seemed foreign.
During the war, Bucky’s idea of “home” constantly shifted. He’d missed their little run-down Brooklyn apartment. Remembering it behind enemy lines cast the unreliable pipes and creaking floors in better light. When Steve showed up, when he’d done the impossible to be at Bucky’s side, Bucky realized home wasn’t a place, but a person. As long as he was with Steve, it didn’t matter where he was.
Before this new apartment, before this current life, Bucky’s home was ice and pain, the weight of a gun in his hands. Coming back to himself rivaled coming off ice for agony, the freeze so cold, it burned like fire. Slowly, piece by agonizing piece, he’d built a home for himself, become someone he mostly tolerated. His heart had thawed, the chill in his blood vanished. He’d been the Soldier longer than he’d ever been Bucky Barnes, and sometimes he thought the two of them made a mostly-whole person.
But standing in his living room now, Bucky felt a different absence. He let Steve examine his injuries, felt him unbuckle the belts on the tac vest. When Steve dropped a blanket around his shoulders, Bucky allowed Steve to herd him toward the sofa. Off came his boots, the BDUs, everything joining the vest out of sight.
“This is all my fault,” he said, voice low. Clint should be with them. They should be celebrating. “I should have known better. I should have stopped it.”
Steve knelt before him, placing his hands on either side of Bucky’s face. He winced. “It is not your fault. You are not responsible for what Hydra made you do. You are not responsible for what happened with Clint.”
He shrank back. A different memory slotted into place, the scent of blood the same, the phantom feeling of bones breaking beneath his hands. “How can you say that? How can I believe that, knowing I did the same thing to you?”
“Because you did all the right things afterward, Buck. The therapy helped. You resisted the trigger words, remember?”
Bucky’s breath came faster. He wanted nothing more than to believe Steve, take him at his word and let him make it all better, fix it somehow. Deep down, Bucky knew there was no way to erase what he’d done. What he’d become. He shook his head, stuck halfway between memories. “But who knows how many sleeper codes are in my head, Steve? We’ll never dismantle all of them. I’ll never be normal, or as close to normal as a guy with a fucking metal arm can get. I can’t trust my mind, I can’t trust my body. Reworking my muscle memory didn’t help me. Violence is in my bones, Steve. It’s what I am.”
He wanted to throw up and lie down and sob and sleep for the next seventy years. Bucky pulled the blanket closer, praying for armor but knowing his vulnerability.
“That is not who you are,” Steve said, and his use of nouns wasn’t lost on Buck. “You’ve survived a nightmare.”
“I am the nightmare.”
“No, sweetheart.” Steve sat beside him and pulled Bucky against his chest. “You’re strong. You’re kind, and funny, and if I could take all the pain away, if I could take it for you, I would. You deserve to be happy, Bucky. You deserve to be loved. And if you can’t love yourself, then I’ll love you enough for both of us.” He rubbed his fingers against Bucky’s scalp, working his way toward his neck. “I know you’re upset, but I’m sure . . . I’m sure Clint doesn’t hate you.” Bucky felt Steve tense. “You did everything right, Buck.”
That precious, familiar heartbeat sounded steady against his ear, but Steve’s warmth couldn’t reach him. Resignation settled hard into his bones. “I shouldn’t have come out of the ice. The safest place for everyone I love is away from me. I’m a liability.”
Steve made a strangled noise and held him tighter. “If that’s what you want,” he whispered, “I’ll go with you. I’ll need a couple of day to make arrangements, but that won’t be too hard.”
The fissures and cracks in Bucky’s mind broke open. That dumb punk, taking himself out of the world for what? Bucky wasn’t worth all that, but he loved Steve for believing otherwise. “I can’t ask you do that.”
“You didn’t ask. I can’t lose you again, and living without you is hell. It’s both of us or nothing.”
Closing his eyes, Bucky leaned harder into Steve. He couldn’t let Steve follow, couldn’t drag him down. There was already enough collateral damage. “But there’s a place for you here. The world needs you. You can’t sacrifice everything for me.”
“Bucky, you’re my everything. You’re the reason I took up the shield and the reason I put it down. I’d do anything for you. We’ll go back to Wakanda. I’ll call T’Challa in the morning and ask if he’s willing to put us both up.”
The warmth of Steve’s hands against his neck and shoulder was a small comfort against the bottomless pit of guilt in his gut. He rubbed his nose against Steve’s chest. “You sure?”
“Never been more sure in my life, Buck,” Steve answered. “Can you hold out while I take care of a few things?” Bucky nodded. “Okay. Good. It’s been a very long, very bad day. Do you think you can get some sleep?”
“No, but as long as you don’t go anywhere, I guess I can try.”
Steve changed positions, letting Bucky rest between his legs. “Focus on your breathing. In and out through your nose. Listen to my heartbeat.”
He did as told. Exhaustion hit him hard, weighing his limbs down.
“Do you remember when you used to do this for me? I’d get so worked up, I’d start coughing and you held me and talked me down.”
Bucky nodded, his eyes drifting closed. The rumble of Steve’s voice in his chest was a balm against his frayed nerves. “Told Clint that story,” he mumbled. “Was panicking in the bathtub. Talked ‘im down.” He paused. “I miss him, Stevie.”
“I know you do. I know.”
Maybe Steve tensed a bit more, but sleep wrapped Bucky tight in long, spindly arms and dragged him under, past half-remembered nightmares and into the restless dark.
A soft glow broke sleep’s grip and Bucky shifted, nestling into the pillows. The light faded. He floated on the edge of consciousness, not quite sure where he was, but the familiar presence at his side told him he was home. Steve curled an arm around his shoulders and Bucky folded against him.
“Hey there, sweetheart,” Steve said softly. “How’re you feeling?”
“Tired,” Bucky muttered, burying his face against Steve’s side. “How long have I been out?”
“Almost thirty-six hours. I moved us to the bedroom. Didn’t want to wake you, but thought you’d be more comfortable here.”
“Always said I was good in bed.” Bucky peered up at him, ignoring the sensation that he’d forgotten something. “Did you get any sleep? I didn’t keep you up, did I?”
Steve set his tablet aside, the glow from the screen vanishing. Beneath his cheek, Buck could feel him tensing again. “Yeah, I did. I slept a bit, read a couple things. Put some affairs in order.” Bucky glanced over at the tablet. Steve closed the cover. “I was about to call T’Challa.”
Fuck. Guilt trickled back through his bones, flooding his senses. He’d slept shy of two days, leaving Steve to deal with his mess of emotions. To make arrangements for an eternity in cryosleep he didn’t deserve. Bucky swallowed. History repeated itself, a vicious cycle of action and reaction wherein Bucky left every time. He couldn’t help the first one, waking up to a world he didn’t recognize and a face he’d forgotten for decades. But the second time . . .
The second time he’d taken himself off the board for love, but he hadn’t faced down the monster beneath his skin. He’d let fear get the best of him. And now he ran for a third time. He’d told Steve and Clint that Hydra wouldn’t steal another life from him.
He couldn’t rob it from himself.
Bucky scooted up and nuzzled into Steve’s neck. There was only one choice to make. “Can you call Doc instead? See if she can fit me in for a session?”
Steve’s voice tripped a bit, but Bucky heard him smile, sad and proud and relieve. “Sure. Whatever you want, sweetheart.”
“I wanna stay.”
It took a moment before Steve spoke again. “You sure?”
“Yeah,” Buck said, then stronger. “Yes. I hope I didn’t fuck up your plans, Steve.”
Crooking a finger beneath Bucky’s chin, he tilted Bucky’s face up for a kiss, long, lingering, and sweet. “I didn’t make any plans. I was hoping you’d change your mind.”
Bucky leaned up to kiss him again. “Punk.”
“Jerk.” Steve turned over and wiggled down beside Bucky, pressing close. He brushed his nose against Bucky’s cheek. “I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.”
“For going to therapy?”
“For not giving up.” Steve carded his fingers through Bucky’s hair. “I know it’s hard sometimes, and you can’t always see your progress, but you’ve come so far, Buck. And no matter what happens, I’m on your side. We’ll get through this together.”
Bucky held his gaze. “Would you really have gone with me?”
“You know I would.”
He brushed his thumb over Steve’s bottom lip, the cuts and bruises from the fight reduced to fine lines and memories. They’d both gotten out relatively unscathed, despite the lurking anxiety in the back of Bucky’s mind. He closed his eyes and melted into Steve, but the calm only lasted a moment. He gasped, eyes wide. “Clint.”
“What about him?” Steve asked lightly. There was nothing unusual in the question, but the tone struck wrong against Bucky’s ear.
“We have to call the hospital. I need to know he’s okay,” Bucky said. “Why haven’t you called?”
A line appeared between Steve’s brows. “You were my concern.” He paused. “I thought you’d feel better if I called when you were awake.”
“I’m awake.” Bucky arched a brow. “Well?”
A small sigh slipped from him as Steve turned over to grab his phone. “It’s not like I can call the front desk. We didn’t admit him, so he’ll be a John Doe.” He scrolled through his contacts list. “Luckily, I know someone who might be able to help.”
“Or we can, you know, go to the hospital.”
Steve cringed. “I don’t . . . That’s not a good idea, Buck.” He cleared his throat, pressed the call button, and put the phone to his ear.
Bucky pulled away and climbed out of bed, crossed the room, and closed the bathroom door behind him. He missed the warm blankets, but it’s not like it mattered anyway; he was still cold. He was always cold. Sparing a glance at the tub, the ridiculous notion of taking a bath crossed his mind. Bucky no longer hated the water quiet as much as he used to, but after his less than lovely reintroduction to water torture—however brief—he wasn’t keen on anything involving or potentially requiring submersion.
On the other hand, he could get the water really hot and hold himself under until the ice in his bones thawed. But he knew how that scenario would play out: Steve would eventually come in after him and panic, pull him from the tub like he’d pulled Steve from the river. Would Steve believe him if Bucky said he wasn’t suicidal? He’d already set off all of Steve’s high-priority alarms.
Goddamn, depression sucked. Shower it was.
Their worst-case scenario had come to pass, and to top it all off, Bucky had relapsed. Great. Steve wouldn’t blame him, of course, but that explained Steve’s hesitancy to let Bucky leave the house. Distantly, Bucky knew he shouldn’t blame himself but guilt proved tough to shake. Maybe he could still fix it. First Steve, then Clint.
Even Bucky could admit the thought of leaving the apartment made him physically ill, but he could do it for Clint. He could get to the hospital, apologize, make sure his best friend would be all right, and whatever happened after would be Barton’s choice. He’d accept whatever choice that was, no matter how it might hurt.
He hit the tap and grabbed a towel from the bar, drying himself and his hair. The bedroom was still dark when he opened the door, Steve propped up on the pillows. He was staring at his tablet again, face grim.
Bucky’s heart stopped. “Did you find him? Is it bad?”
“Yeah,” Steve said softly. His gaze flickered up at the high-pitched whine Bucky made. Steve shook his head, setting the tablet aside. “Oh, no. God, no, Buck. Claire found him. He’s in the ICU, but stable.”
The edges of his vision went hazy with panic. “The ICU? I put him in the ICU?”
“Compound injuries are tricky.”
Bucky felt absolutely certain he was going to be sick. “Steve, I bashed his fucking head into a wall.”
“They’ve kept him in observation post-surgery and he’s being taken care of. Claire said he hasn’t regained consciousness but she’d call when he does.”
Bucky’s shoulders slumped with relief. He wasn’t gonna throw up. He was just gonna lie on the floor and be dead from the rollercoaster of anxiety and depression. “But Clint’s gonna be okay?”
“I wouldn't be able to handle it if anything happened to him. I couldn’t deal.” Bucky wrapped his arms around himself. “Stevie? How bad is it that all I wanna do right now is go back to bed?”
Steve turned the blankets over and patted the space beside him. “Not bad at all. You need to rest, too. C’mere.”
Bucky padded back to the bed and curled up next to Steve. Time to fix what he could. He reached up to stroke Steve’s hair. Steve leaned into him. “I’m sorry, baby. I know I scared you.”
“I’ve never been so fucking afraid in my life, Buck,” Steve answered. “Never thought anything would be worse than watching you fall, but seeing them torture you and not being able to stop it . . . And I tried, Bucky. I tried.”
Bucky tilted his head and kissed him. “I know you did.”
Steve squeezed his eyes shut, but it didn’t stop the hitch in voice or the tears that leaked beneath his lashes. “They took you away from me again. They took your memory, and I didn’t know if I could get you back.”
“I’m still here, Stevie. I’m right here.”
Steve nodded, folding closer in Bucky’s arm and pressing his face into the side of Bucky’s neck. “I couldn’t stop it. I thought I was gonna lose you again, and I can’t, Bucky. I can’t. They showed me bits and pieces of you fighting Clint and all I could hear in my head was you asking him to-“ Steve’s words dissolved into sobs.
Bucky held tight. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Steve.”
“Don’t you fucking apologize. It’s not your fault.”
“I’m sorry for what they did to you. No one should be forced to watch someone they love suffer. The doctors told me you were there. I knew. I-“
Steve lifted his head and caught Bucky’s lips, his hands cupping Bucky’s jaw. Bucky slipped his tongue into Steve’s mouth, tasting him overlaid with salt and desperation. Breaking the kiss, Steve drew in a shaky breath. Buck pulled him back. He never wanted to let go. He wanted to soothe all the hurt and anguish Steve felt, make him believe that he wasn’t going anywhere. That he he’d stay. That nothing had been taken from them.
“I love you,” Steve muttered into the tiny spaces between them. “You’re my everything, Bucky. Without you, I’m . . . I’m lost.”
“It ain’t the end of the line, Stevie. You still have me.” Bucky moved, setting Steve’s head against his chest. “See? I’m right here, and I’m not the only one who could use some rest.” He petted Steve’s hair, toying with the short, blond locks.
Steve nuzzled into him. “Don’t leave me.”
“I won’t.” Bucky dropped a kiss to the top of his head. “I love you, Steve.”
Bucky stayed awake until he felt the change in Steve’s breathing before settling in to drift back to sleep.
The smell woke him, the familiar, cold, sterile scent of a hospital room. Clint tried to open his eyes, but they refused. As his brain reconnected to his body, the dull ache in his ribs returned, along with a dozen more tiny stinging cuts and stitches. He turned his head; he’d either lost his ears or the nurses had taken them out. Finally, his eyes opened and he caught a glimpse of red hair before they shut again.
His lips twitched and he winced. Even smiling futzing hurt.
The inside of his mouth tasted like cotton. He’d kill for an ice chip. “Hey, Nat. Fancy meeting you here,” he mumbled. The inside of his throat felt like sandpaper.
Something cold pressed against his mouth. Bless Natasha. She always knew what he needed. She was his constant. Clint’s head lolled against the pillow. “My ears on the table? Can’t hear. Can’t stay awake.”
It was a long moment before she touched his face. He felt the comm slip into his ear and was greeted by the beeping of the heart monitor in the corner. What futzing building had kicked his ass this time?
“Sure thing, little brother.”
Adrenaline surged through him, snapping his eyes open. Clint tried to sit upright, but failed. He stared at Barney, dumbfounded. The edge of anger bit into him, but his body was still too weak. “What are you doing here?”
“Mostly making sure you weren’t dead. Gotta say, I’m pretty impressed with you, Clint. Imagine my surprise seeing you in the footage of my men attempting to recapture the asset.”
“I flew all the way back to the city just to check up on you. Wasn’t that nice of me? Landed an hour or so ago. Wanna know what my in-flight movie was? You facing off with the Fist of Hydra.”
“What do you want?” Clint bit off every word, glowering.
Barney spread his hands. “I already told you. Just checking in. Congrats on surviving.” He smiled, reaching over to the morphine drip and pressing the button a few times.
Clint felt the drug spill into his veins. He couldn’t fight it. Barney wavered.
“Be seeing you around.” He leaned closer and Clint cringed away, Barney’s breath warm at his ear. “Hail Hydra.”
His vision flickered and went out. The last thing he heard was a low chuckle and the door closing across the room.
Chapter 9: Nine
Clint groaned. The beeping and the weird hissing of machinery refused to let him go back to sleep. He cracked open his eyelids and immediately shut them. Fluorescents. Great. Cause waking up in a hospital wasn’t bad enough. Pain was a distant notion in the back of his mind as he let his eyes adjust. Considering Clint wouldn’t willingly check himself into a hospital (and he’d probably remember doing it if he’d gotten that desperate), he must have been brought in. The chair by his bedside sat empty. He turned his head—basically the only part of his body he could move—no one there, either.
Fumbling for the bed remote sent sparks of pain up his arm, but he managed, elevating the bed to prop himself up. He let his head drop in exhaustion. That was enough exertion for the day. And yet he looked up enough to gather intel on his situation. Tubes and needles stuck out of his arms. He counted a saline IV, antibiotics, one he was pretty damn sure contained morphine. The heart monitor clip pinched his finger and the oxygen tube made his nose itch.
Oh, futz. He’d landed himself in intensive care. Bucky would probably—
The heart monitor blipped. Bucky. Clint’s gaze darted around the room. There was no sign anyone had been there. Hazy memories filtered back to him: a subway station, blood, rubble. He’d seen Buck and Steve right before the station collapsed. They’d probably taken him in afterward. That made sense. Yeah.
The doctors stuck him in the ICU; Steve and Buck were probably in the waiting room, or getting coffee (please let them bring him coffee), or food (he’d kill for a sandwich), or still enjoying their victory makeout session.
He breathed easy. No need to panic. Time to assess the rest of his injuries. Clint wriggled his toes. Spine intact. Excellent. His arm refused to cross over his chest when he tried to disconnect the IVs. Okay, less excellent. Laying his arm on top of his chest proved a bad idea. Fine. The IV was on wheels. He could take it with him.
Clint attempted to wriggle to the side and push his legs over; they didn’t budge. He tried again, another tube catching around his thigh. Futzing hell. A catheter, too?!
He flopped back onto the thin pillow. Fine. Steve and Buck were gonna have to come to him. They’d walk in any minute now.
Clint waited, but the door didn’t open. Tilting his head, he spied one of his comm units on the table. He couldn’t lift his arm high enough to reach it, and realized his right ear felt gross but he could hear. One of the nurses must have put it in to talk to him and forgotten about it. He had. Ugh.
Half an hour passed with no sign of anyone. An hour ticked by. He dozed a bit, but the room was just as empty the next time he opened his eyes. Panic hummed in the back of his brain, now too loud to ignore. How long had he been out and where were his friends? Steve and Buck wouldn’t ditch him. They had to have gotten out. How else would Clint have gotten to the hospital?
Unless Hydra intercepted them after.
Clint began winding himself up, making plans to get out of that futzing bed ASAP, when the door finally opened and a nervous-looking Bucky entered, followed by a grim-looking Steve. Steve had his arm around Bucky’s waist, holding him close; Bucky kept his head down, his arms wrapped around himself.
Clint relaxed a little. They were okay. They were here. Steve turned to Bucky, who nodded, and Steve hesitantly let his arm fall away. Bucky glanced up at Clint, the ghost of a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. His face was pale and drawn, thinner than usual.
“Hey, Barton,” Bucky said, voice soft. He pressed himself into the corner by the door.
Clint’s heart sank. His bestie was as far away from him as he could get while still being in the room. “Hey.”
“The nurses said you’re doing better. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Yeah. ‘M okay.” Clint twitched his hand. “How long have I been here?”
Bucky tried to move back further. Clint stopped. “Three days. They were worried about a brain bleed and your concussion and the damage to your ribs.” He drew in a breath and released it slowly. “I’m so sorry, Clint. I didn’t . . . This . . .” Bucky gestured with his right hand; Clint could see the black glove covering his left. “I’m sorry.”
“Aw, Bucky, no.” Clint wanted to get out of bed and hug him, but Bucky stayed where he was, not quite looking at him, and Clint, obviously, couldn’t get out of bed. Buck had no reason to feel guilty. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”
“I know. At least, I’ve been trying to talk myself into believing it. Still sorry.”
Futz it. Clint tried getting out of bed and failed. Bucky beating himself up was not part of the plan. “I’m not mad at you. I don’t blame you at all.” He wiggled up a bit more, trying to catch Bucky’s eye. “You’re still my BFF. I mean, if you wanna be.”
Bucky raised his head, a bit of his fear subsiding. That there had been fear at all turned Clint’s stomach. “You sure?”
Clint nodded. He had zero fear that Buck would hurt him; Buck shouldn’t be terrified of hurting Clint. “Yup. S’gonna take a lot more than a sparring match to break us.” He smiled and wiggled his fingers, silently asking Bucky to hold his hand.
Visibly relaxing, Buck took a step forward. Steve placed his arm across Bucky’s chest to stop him.
Steve fixed his gaze on Clint, jaw clenched, taking a moment before he spoke. “You wanna tell me why Hydra was claiming you as their own, then?”
The heart monitor blipped faster, betraying Clint’s shock. “What?”
Steve didn’t bat an eye. “While he held me captive, the handler eagerly detailed for me several missions, including assassinations, to demonstrate your prowess. I knew you were a sniper, Clint, dispatched as part of STRIKE Team Delta. Of course, most of the STRIKE force, as well as SHIELD were Hydra, as we both know.”
Clint shrank back against the pillow, his pulse getting fast. Futzing heart monitor. Futzing morphine. Steve didn’t believe them, did he? Beside him, Bucky’s expression had blanked out, his eyes wide. Oh, no.
“I know better than to take anything Hydra says at face value, Clint. My first thought was the images and files were altered. Then they showed me how well you fought with the asset.” Steve’s eyes darkened. “Like you were made for each other.”
Clint swallowed. No, no, no . . .
“Of course, this required me to do my own research. Like I said, I knew about your activities with SHIELD and STRIKE. Do you know what else I found?”
Slowly, Bucky turned his head to look at Steve. Clint felt Bucky’s rage across the room; it was kind of a wonder Steve wasn’t smoldering. “This is what you’ve been doing for three days?” he asked, voice low. “This is why you’ve been acting weird?”
Clint heard the metal arm whirring as Bucky clenched his fists. “I spent three days in a blind panic, worried sick that I’d killed my friend, worried I hurt you. Fucking hell, Steve, I asked to go back on ice. And you? You’ve been digging into Clint? You’ve been prying into his history while I tried to stitch myself back together with spit and string?”
“He can control you, Buck,” Steve said, not quite hiding his raw nerves.
“Yeah, he can, and he had a fucking panic attack about it and puked his guts out,” Bucky hissed. “He called you home.”
“He could have been acting as a sleeper agent.”
Bucky scoffed. “Hydra would have taken me the moment they got control if that was the case. What’s better than stealing me out from under your nose and leaving you to wonder what happened? I should know, I was their weapon. Instead, he hid in our bathtub, Steve.”
“He was maintaining his cover.”
“Are you seriously doing this right now? In the middle of the fucking ICU?”
“What do we even know about him, Bucky? He’s a liar. He stays below the radar with his human disaster routine-”
“Says the man who pretends to be naive. You and your ‘aw, shucks I’m just a good ol’ boy from Brooklyn schtick.”
Steve glared. “How do you explain his record, then?”
Buck spread his hands, expression incredulous. “What record? All you’ve got is hearsay. Guess Hydra didn’t stop by FedEx and make you copies, eh?”
Clint’s eyes tracked between Steve and Bucky, stomach churning. Two supersoldier hiss-yelling at each other proved quite a sight.
“Fine,” Steve said. “How about this: Clint asked to meet you. It was his idea.”
“What, cause wanting to reach out to someone who also had their brain fucked with is so awful?”
“Remember that time he bailed on you? Next time he showed up, that government official in Belarus was dead and Clint had a broken arm.”
“I cannot fucking believe you. And since when do you listen to Hydra?”
“Since they waved a bunch of documents in my face signed by C. Barton in a hand I know is Clint’s!” Bucky snapped his mouth shut. Steve carried on. “How do you explain SHIELD and STRIKE, and his work for the Soviets? I have timestamped video proving he was in Europe instead of falling off the roof of his building. He integrated himself in our lives, Buck. He got real close. Why break the asset when they can convince him to come willingly with his best friend?”
Bucky didn’t argue back. Clint’s throat had gone dry, and he desperately wished for some water, or a coffee, or a shot of whiskey. Usually there was a cup of ice by the—
Clint started. A thought itched at the back of his mind.
“I’ve been here before, Buck,” Steve continued, anger and fear warring for dominance. “I trusted people, let them in only to find out they were the enemy. I thought Rumlow was my friend and guess who held you in that vault in D.C.? I am not doing this again, Buck.”
Bucky stared at Steve with mixture of anguish, rage, and disbelief. He took a step back, and Steve winced like he’d been sucker punched. “I’ve felt a lot of things for you, Steven, but never disappointment. Look at you, always surprising me.”
The pieces clicked into place. Papers signed C. Barton. It hadn’t been a fever dream or hallucination. He was never that lucky. Clint looked up, locking his gaze on Steve. “I’m not the only C. Barton.”
“You’re the only one I found.”
He shook his head. “No. There’s Barney.”
Steve glared. “Who the hell is Barney?” he snapped.
“My brother,” Clint answered, matter-of-fact. Because it was: it was fact that Barney fucked up Clint’s life every chance he got. “Charles Bernard Barton. C. Barton.”
Bucky tilted his head. “You have a brother?”
“Convenient,” Steve said. “So explain the resistance leader in Latveria, and both heads of opposing cartels in Marrakech.”
“Goddamn it, that was Barney,” Clint swore. “Look, he’s traded under my name in the past, same as Katie-Kate does now. But, you know, for evil. Or the highest bidder. Though he usually goes by Trickshot these days.”
“And two years ago? The peace keeper in Columbia. Was that Barney, too?”
Clint pushed himself back onto the pillows, sitting as upright as he could manage. He let whatever humor he had left fall away, his good-natured mask shattered. “No, that was me. You’re not the only one who knows how to do research, Steve. Turned out the guy was running little kids through a sex ring. I ran an arrow through his skull.”
“No wonder you broke that mug,” Bucky muttered. He skirted around Steve and sat in the chair by the bed. “What about that, Steve? Was that Clint keeping his cover? Playing the evil spy?”
Steve lost some of his edge. “No, I thought his reaction was genuine.”
“Damn right, it was,” Clint spat. “If I could kill every one of those Hydra shitstains, if I could find one of those fancy time stones and spend the rest of my life turning them into pincushions, I would. There isn’t enough suffering the world to make up for what they did to Bucky, but I’d sure as hell try. No one gets to hurt the people I love. I saw enough of it when my alcoholic asshole of a dad beat the shit out of my mom and me. You know once he beat me so badly, he partially deafened me? Yeah. Then when I got home from the doctor’s, he beat me again for embarrassing him! Made him seem like a bad parent. I know, right? When I was seven, the fucker wrapped his car around a tree and killed himself and ma, and guess what? Barney took up his job.”
Clint flat-out glared at Steve, breathing heavy, straining against his damaged ribs. Bucky took his hand, lacing their fingers together. “Barney and I bounced from orphanage to orphanage, foster home to foster home, and eventually ran off and joined the circus. I’m not shitting you, Steve. You’re smart, hotshot. Maybe you’ll notice the theme here.
“My mentor was a conman and crook, and when I found out about his embezzling scheme—you guessed it—he beat the crap outta me and left me for dead. Nice, right? Bonus: my own brother got so jealous, he actually tried to kill me. More than once. Add that to the brainwashing and accidentally murdering all my friends, and well, maybe the disaster thing isn’t as much of an act as you think it is.
“But you’re right, Steve. My track record is far from spotless. I’m not a nice guy. Sometimes I kill people for money. Sometimes I kill them because they needed putting down. I was bad guy. I’ve done bad things, but I am not Hydra, and I would never hurt Bucky or you, you futzing jackass.”
Clint couldn’t catch his breath. The mix of morphine and anger made him seasick, fear bubbling up alongside the panic he tried to shove aside. He closed his eyes. The door opened, the click of shoes on tile loud in the sudden silence. A cool hand pressed his forehead. The smell of antiseptic drifted to him: nurse. A tug on his lines heralded another surge of pain meds.
“You boys need to let him rest,” the nurse chided. “Overexcitement won’t kill him, but he needs time to heal.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Bucky said. “We’ll behave. Won’t we?”
Steve didn’t answer.
Clint still felt sick, but the morphine took the edge off. The heels retreated and the door clicked shut again. A second later, he felt fingers against his hair and squeezed Bucky’s hand. His exhale was shakier than he would have preferred.
“Look, I get it. I know why you had to go digging into my history. I’da done . . . same thing, but . . . ouchman,” Clint slurred. His head lulled as the drug spilled into his blood.
“Get some rest, Barton,” Bucky said, still petting his hair. That felt nice.
“Mmmhmm.” Buck tugged at his hand and Clint tightened his grip as much as he could. He couldn’t stop the whimper before it escaped.
Bucky squeezed his hand again. “Shh. I’ll be here when you wake up, okay?”
And Clint was out.
The next time Clint woke, Bucky occupied the chair beside the bed, a book in his lap. He glanced up when Clint stirred, a small smile on his face. Clint glanced around; no sign of Steve. Bucky set his book down and reached for the cup of water on the bed stand. Clint drank in little sips, feeling slightly more awake. He blinked up at Bucky.
“Did I really call Captain America a jackass?”
“You did, and he deserved it.”
Clint tried to smile. He’d done nothing but sleep for days, but he felt exhausted.
And now Bucky knew. Not everything, but enough. Clint suspected Bucky had been waiting for him to open up one day, talk about more than brainwashing and Avenging, but Clint just wanted to forget. He always had. Now he couldn’t.
Bucky studied him for a minute. “You okay?”
“I’d be a lot better if I weren’t stuck in this hospital bed. My gown doesn’t even have dinos on it.”
“You know what I mean.”
Clint sighed. He’d never been good at feelings. “Yeah. I—Yeah. I dunno. I guess.” He paused. Considered. “It’s not that I didn’t trust you.”
“Information is dangerous,” Bucky said. “I get that. What Steve did was still wrong.”
“He still pissed?”
Bucky paused, concern etched around his eyes. "We had a long talk about what should have happend.”
Clint's own eyes widened. “You yelled at Captain America?”
“No. I spoke calmly and quietly. Like I told him, I’m pissed because he hid his . . . doubts from me. He didn’t say a word, even when I told him I knew something was up. I know he believes he was protecting me, and I was in a bad place in the aftermath. He thought telling me would make it worse, but Steve doesn’t think when he’s panicked. I told him you rescued me, that you destroyed the chair for me. He knows he did wrong.”
Bucky picked up his book, occupying his hands. Clint wished he had a distraction, too. “Look, man, I know what’s like to want to keep your secrets. To need them. Steve shouldn’t have attacked you, and he shouldn’t have forced you to tell us anything. He should have confided in me. They don’t tell you this in the manual, but Steve Rogers auto-feeds fear into anger. Doesn’t make it right, but . . .” Bucky shrugged. “Truth is, I don’t give a shit about your past. I’m pissed as hell that anyone would lay their hands on you, but I don’t care who you were or what you did.
Setting the book aside, Bucky leaned back. “And I know what it’s like to try to find a version of yourself you can live with. If you wanna be happy-to-go-lucky Clint, do it. I love you no matter who you are.”
Clint huffed a laugh and mumbled, “Thanks.” He’d had enough emotion to fill a lifetime, but reached for Bucky’s hand and squeezed it anyway. He knew Buck loved him; he loved Bucky back. And he wasn’t mad at Steve, but damn, it hurt like hell.
“But you know, man,” Buck continued, voice lighter, “I’m gonna need a warning if Assassin Clint ever makes his glorious return. I damn near bedded you and while I’m absolutely certain you’d be an excellent fuck, things would just get weird after that.”
Clint grinned, the first real smile he’d felt in days. “Knew you thought I was pretty. Even all bruised and bandaged up.”
“I like my guys a bit rough, but I prefer to cause the bruises a different way.”
He choked, his ribs immediately protesting. Taking a minute to collect himself, Clint reached for assassin mode, his smile sharpening and his voice going soft. “Can’t do much at the moment, but give me some time and then we’ll see which of us can make the other forget English first. All this bed rest provides ample time for planning.”
Bucky flushed, the color high on his cheeks. “Steve will actually murder you if you seduce me.” Clint gave him a lazy grin and a half shrug. Bucky’s blush deepened. “That would be unfortunate since they’re transferring you out of the ICU in a few hours.”
Clint chuckled, putting his assassin voice away. “Great. Then I can get the futz outta here.”
“Not so fast, bro,” Buck said. “They gotta ween you off the pain killers first. And remove the catheter.”
“Fine. But as soon as I’m up, I’m out. I hate hospitals.”
Clint’s smile slipped. He needed to grab his go-bag from his apartment and find one of Nat’s safe houses. Barney knowing where he lived only led to trouble. “Futzing Barney,” he mumbled.
“You gotta let the nurses do their job, Barton. I promise I’ll bring you home once you can move on your own power. You can stick it out another day or two.”
Clint twisted his mouth. “Fi—wait. Bring me home, not take me home?”
Bucky prodded his shoulder. “You’re a bigger idiot than I imagined if you think I’m letting you out of my sight until you’re 100%.”
Sure, that made sense, and Clint didn’t mind staying with Bucky, but staying with Bucky meant staying with Steve. Nerves skittered up Clint’s spine. “That’s . . . I mean I get it, but is that a good idea? With Steve?”
“He wants you to stay. It was his idea, and we'll be sleeping on the couch. It’s not forever. I’ll swing by your apartment and grab whatever you need and you can go from there.”
He looked at Bucky, catching a note of sadness in his words. “Hey,” Clint said, tugging Bucky’s hand. “I’ll still be in the city. I can’t tell you where—s’not my secret to give—but I’ll be around. We’re okay, right?”
Bucky nodded and leaned forward to kiss him, one quick peck on the cheek. “We’re okay.”
The door clicked open, admitting one of the nurses. Bucky moved out of her way, collecting his book from the bed stand, and headed for the door. She look from Clint to Bucky and back, a knowing grin curling her lips.
“You’re one lucky guy to have such an attentive boyfriend. I’m sure he’s eager to get you home.”
Bucky snorted. “Yes, ma’am. Things aren’t the same without him. Please be nice to the nurses and I’ll come get you soon. Darling,” he said, winking at Clint.
“I promise nothing, kitten,” Clint countered, but Bucky was gone. He pouted, letting the nurse check his vitals. He had no choice but to stay put.
Like what I do? Feeling generous?
Maybe buy me a coffee?
Chapter 10: Ten
Clint had almost bailed by the time Bucky arrived to collect him. It wasn’t personal; Clint really hated hospitals. Buck swung by the pharmacy, picked up Clint’s meds, and for the first time in his life, Clint checked out properly, medical approval and all. It made him feel weird, but he was out, and so relieved he let Bucky usher him into the car.
“Can’t really take you and your busted ribs on the bike, man,” he’d said. Clint hunched down in the front seat. For an anxiety-ridden supersoldier, Bucky drove like an assassin. Did he even have a license? Clint felt profound gratitude when the car finally stopped outside Bucky’s building. His insides sloshed around, not realizing his body had come to a stop. Clint silently prayed he didn’t throw up.
Bucky helped him up the stairs and into the apartment. A pile of folded blankets sat in the armchair, a stack of pillows on top. Weird. The apartment felt empty, and it took all of a minute for Clint to realize Steve wasn’t in. He couldn’t decide if he was ready to see him or not. Beside him, Bucky’s shoulders dropped. Eyes closed, he’d braced his hand against the wall, drawing in steady breaths.
“You okay?” Clint asked. He wobbled a bit without the support.
“Yeah,” Buck answered, too quickly. “It’s, uh, yeah.” He motioned to the couch before disappearing into the kitchen. Clint heard him rustling around in the cabinets. “Sit, chill out. You can stay as long as you need.”
“So, I’m bunking on the couch, huh?” Clint braced his ribs, lowering himself gingerly to the cushions. Man, sitting down felt good. Of course, there was no way in hell he’d be able to get back up.
“I told you, Barton, you’re taking the bed.” He returned with two bottles of water and Clint hoped Bucky wouldn’t make him drink them both. He still felt all sloshy on the inside. “Doc said you can have coffee tomorrow. Steve got a bag of that kind you like.”
Clint took the water, disappointed but resigned. He missed coffee. “Thanks.” Taking a sip, Clint glanced around. “Uh, where is Steve?”
“Grocery run. He’ll be back soon.” Buck sat next to Clint, unable to hide his nerves. Clint’s brow creased. He’d seen Bucky anxious; this was Bucky scared. No. He’d seen Bucky scared, too. This was worry. “Your go-bag and some extra clothes are in our room. So’s your bow.”
“You saved my bow?” Clint’s eyes went wide. He’d forgotten about it in the morphine haze.
“‘Course I did. I’d be a shit friend otherwise. Quiver’s there, too.”
Clint sniffled, wiping away an imaginary tear. “You’re the best.”
Bucky smirked, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I know.”
“Bucky.” Clint waited until Bucky met his gaze. He rarely used Bucky's first name, but when he did, they both knew it was important. “What’s wrong?”
He looked away, keeping his eyes downcast. “Stevie . . . isn’t well. He’s not okay, and I don’t know how to make the hurting stop. He’s in real bad shape, Clint. I’m worried.”
Keys rattled in the door. Bucky tensed as it swung open, admitting Steve and an armload of paper bags. He kicked the door shut behind him, his gaze immediately landing on Bucky before sliding over to Clint. For a split-second, Clint saw exactly what Bucky did before Steve swallowed it all back down, becoming teammate and leader, Captain Rogers.
“Hey, Clint,” he said. “Glad to see you on your feet. Or, uh, our couch.”
“Thanks for letting me crash, Cap,” Clint said. Man, that felt awkward. So much for progress.
Steve hesitated before heading into the kitchen. Clint pretended he hadn’t seen all the cracks and fissures, the differences between Captain America, Captain Rogers, and Steve.
Clint set his hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “I need you both to know I don’t blame him. Yeah, it hurt, but I’m not angry. I understand. I'd have done the same thing.”
Bucky glanced back toward the kitchen. “I told him, that day at the hospital. He apologized for adding to my stress. He just . . . Stevie can’t go on like this. Not anymore.”
Steve peered back into the living room. “A little help, Buck?” Bucky’s eyes widened. “With dinner? I’m not great at the cooking thing.”
Bucky nodded, swallowing his own fear, and pushed up from the couch. “Gotta taste for something, Barton?”
He blinked at them, Steve’s outright denial and Bucky’s heartache. He said the first thing that came to mind, hoping for a smile. “Cold pizza and coffee."
Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “I bought stuff for soup.”
Horror passed over Bucky’s face and he reached into the first bag and pulled it open. “Oh god. What did you buy?”
“The usual. Potatoes, onions.”
“Baby, it ain’t the Depression anymore. Tell me you bought something else.” Steve blushed. Bucky ran his right hand over his face. “Okay. I can salvage this.”
Clint sank back into the couch. “Potatoes sound great and all, but I don’t think they go in soup.”
“We can do chicken noodle. Jesus Christ, Steve, how did you survive after they shipped me out?”
“Didn’t. We covered that,” Steve answered.
Bucky winced. “At least you weren’t planning on creamed chipped beef.”
It was Clint’s turn to look horrified. “Please, no. No shit on a shingle. You can’t. I know one of the Amendments says cruel and unusual punishment is a crime. Just make chicken noodle, please god.”
“It’s fine. Steve’s not allowed to cook anyway.”
Steve groaned. “I set the oven on fire one time.”
Bucky gave him his flattest stare. “You were making popcorn. On the stovetop.”
Shaking his head, Bucky carried the last bag into the kitchen. Clint heard him knocking about, cabinets opening and pans rattling. It took him a full minute to realize Steve hovered in the doorway. Yup. Awkward.
Clint felt himself lean sideways. Futz it. Everything hurt and it was too weird getting up and stumbling to the bed, so he let himself flop onto the cushions, dragging a pillow beneath his head. He watched Steve wander aimlessly before closing his eyes. All he was gonna do for the next week was sleep because thank you, pain killers. He’d wake up and then immediately take a nap. Never too early for naps. He’d had one hell of a week and he deserved . . .
Darkness thickened with smoke, blood splatter on the ground and on his skin. A thousand tiny cuts and stab wounds, the gash on his cheek. The split-second misses, the inability to recover fast enough to do more than block and evade. The room lit it icy blue, but everything else dull red and rusted, save the gleaming metal fist shattering his ribs.
The dead stare that now belonged to someone he knew. And for one terrifying second, the lifelessness flickered away. Clint paused to catch his breath, but Bucky’s boot caught him in the jaw, sending him flat to the ground. He couldn’t choke back his whimper at the impact. Bucky extended his right hand and Clint took it; his back hit the wall and he slid to the floor. Another shadow stood in the doorway, arms across its chest, the brilliant star in the center blindingly white. Clint felt the rage seeping into the room. Steve blocked the exit, and what used to be Bucky pulled a knife from his belt.
Somewhere he registered gentle pressure on the back of his neck, the familiar cadence of soft-spoken reassurance. Clint scrambled for the surface, eager to leave the nightmare behind. He found Steve sitting on the coffee table when he opened his eyes. He leaned over Clint, his palm warm against Clint’s skin, cupping the back of his neck.
“Shhh, it’s okay. We’ve got you.”
Did he . . . was Steve concerned? Clint held still, mumbling a thanks as he tried to wake up.
“Hey.” Steve paused, equally unsure what to do. “I . . . I wanted to thank you. For having Bucky’s back. Things would have ended a lot differently if you hadn’t gotten to him, gotten him out.”
Clint stared up at him. If he didn’t know better, if Bucky hadn’t said a word, Clint wouldn’t have known anything was wrong. Steve mastered concealment like an illusionist. But Steve didn’t know Clint knew to search for the seams and wires, so he simply inclined his head. “‘Course. Any time, Cap. Thanks for letting me stay a few days.”
“You’re welcome for as long as you want,” Steve said, taking his hand away. Buck stood in the doorway, faintly smiling. Clint desperately wanted normalcy, and if he didn’t look too hard, he could pretend, too.
“Soup’s on. Gimme a hand, Stevie?”
“Are we setting the table?”
“Fuck that, we’re eating on the couch. Besides, I don’t think Barton could actually sit at the table. Also doesn’t strike as a formal family dinner kinda guy.”
Clint pushed himself up, feeling every bruise and stitch on the way. “Aw, ribs, no. Couch is good. Thanks, bro.”
The guys returned with dinner. Steve sat beside Bucky, not bothering to excavate his armchair from the pile of blankets, and Bucky sat between him and Clint. Clint pushed his spoon around the bowl, cautiously bringing the soup to his mouth. Turned out Buck was a damn fine cook and—
“Hey, are there potatoes in here?”
Buck shrugged. “Some habits are hard to break, okay?”
Clint settled into the couch and struggled to stay awake. His head lulled a few times before Bucky carefully collected his bowl and returned to the kitchen. The sound of running water nearly put him out. He felt himself leaning to the side again, drawn to warmth and safety, until his brain caught up two seconds later and registered “warmth and safety” as “Steve.” He bolted up, hissing in pain from protesting muscles, his good arm protectively wrapping around his ribs.
It took him longer to realize Bucky crouched in front of him, his right hand on Clint’s shoulder. “C’mon, bird boy. Gotta get you to bed.”
Clint groaned but tried to push himself up. His groan turned to growl as he failed to get to his feet because of course his futzing body wasn’t gonna listen, and Bucky put a hand behind his back to help him up.
“I’ll crash on the couch, it’s fine,” Clint said, but Bucky ushered him into his bedroom.
“It’s not fine, you’ll sleep in the bed, and you’ll call us if you need anything.” The protesting didn’t stop as Bucky turned down the sheets and put Clint into bed. “We did laundry and changed the bedding for you. Don’t make all that effort go to waste, man.”
It was much nicer than the hospital. Definitely nicer than the couch. All tucked in, Clint lasted a couple seconds before he snuggled down and went out like a light.
Bucky finished the last of the laundry. More often then not, he loved the days where he and Steve could be normal—painfully, boringly domestic even—but the tension remained once Clint had gone. Buck left the blanket fort sheets in the living room (they hadn’t made another, not with Clint staying for a nearly a week, not that either of them minded Clint's presence), and Steve choked all his anxiety and depression back down, putting on his best Captain Rogers impression and working the lie with professional flare. Steve had stepped out about an hour ago for something, leaving Bucky alone with his thoughts.
Hell would freeze over before Steve admitted he needed help, let alone asked for it. Clint left for the safe house yesterday afternoon and Steve bustled about his usual routine, but he didn’t seem better when he came in from his morning run. He’d showered, made himself tea but didn’t touch breakfast. Bucky had Hydra to thank for his own food aversions, but Steve ate twelve times a day (okay, not twelve, but frequently), so for him to skip breakfast, especially after a run, didn’t bode well. Until Steve decided he wanted help, all Bucky could do was listen. To hold him and comfort him and care for him in all the ways he could.
The sound of Steve’s keys hitting the coffee table jarred Bucky back to reality. “Hey, Stevie.”
“Hey. Got the mail,” Steve answered. “Think I’m gonna take a nap. Miss sleeping in my own bed.”
Steve hadn’t been sleeping at all. Lying down made him restless, and yeah, he’d blamed the couch, but Buck rested with his head on Steve’s chest, needing the sound of his working lungs and strong heart to lull him to sleep. Even if Steve managed to keep still, Bucky knew the beat of his blood, now a cacophony where there should be soothing rhythm.
He tossed the mail onto the dining room table as he shuffled toward their bedroom. With a sigh, Bucky sorted through it. They never got anything but junk.
A postcard slipped from the stack. The Manhattan skyline covered the front, the typical touristy I Heart NYC stamped along the bottom. He flipped it over and found Clint’s handwriting on the back.
Be safe. See you soon.
He sighed again, pinning the postcard to the side of the fridge. He’d have to tell Steve and figure out how to keep him from blaming himself for Clint’s absence. It didn’t matter that he’d told him Clint wasn’t angry. Steve’s anger, as always, redirected to himself.
Bucky padded toward their bedroom. Even in the dark, Buck saw Steve had all the blankets pulled up around him. He perched on Steve’s side of the bed, moving the topmost blanket to uncover Steve’s face. Asleep, Steve failed to conceal the weariness, his face drawn, all the hollowness inside clearly on display. Bucky stroked his hair, smoothing down the blond locks he’d ruffled removing the blanket. One day—soon—Steve wouldn’t be able to hide it all away anymore. Bucky remembered what it was like to break: once Hydra convinced him Steve died, when he realized what Hydra made him do, when he struggled with the things he remembered and the things he couldn’t. He’d chosen to run, to deal with the hardest parts alone, until Steve came after him.
Steve needed him now the way Buck had needed Steve. Steve wasn’t alone, not anymore. Bucky pressed a kiss to Steve’s temple and felt him shift, reaching for Bucky’s hand.
“Stay?” It was soft, quiet, fragile, but Bucky heard nonetheless.
Steve needed someone to take care of him when he couldn’t do it himself, and that had always been Bucky’s job. It was whole reason he’d been put on this earth to begin with, the reason he’d found Steve in this unfathomable future. He kept petting Steve’s hair, replying just as gently, “To the end of the line.”
Like what I do? Maybe buy me a coffee?