“Okay,” Steve says, holding a hand up. There’s a dude on top of him - looks like the damn Terminator, one arm all exposed metal - with a hand around his throat. Steve barely gets the word out. “This looks bad -”
Clint figures he’s got time to put down the takeout before grabbing a handful of change out of his pocket. Steve and goddamn Robocop or whoever are grappling again. A lamp, knocked over earlier in the conflict, sparks; the rug catches fire.
Clint rolls his eyes, picks a quarter. He may not have his bow on him, but that doesn’t hurt his aim any. It takes him a while to line up the shot, though, because with all the rolling around and yelling going on, Steve keeps getting in the way.
The dude has Steve pinned down again, and Clint gets his shot. He nails the guy in the back of the head with a quarter, aimed just right, and the guy goes down. With a grim sense of pride, Clint notes the metal dug in enough to draw blood.
So Robocop’s got human bits in there still.
“Oh, no,” Steve says. He pushes the guy off him and straddles him, shaking his shoulders. “Bucky -”
“Okay, okay,” Clint says. “Hold up. He was trying to kill you.”
Steve ignores him. “Bucky, wake up. Aw, hell, Buck.” He looks up, finally. “What did you -what did you do. Is he.”
“Check his pulse,” Clint says. He holds up his hands. “I’m an Avenger. I wouldn’t kill anyone.”
“Well, you’re not on Avengers business,” Steve says. He presses his fingers to his pal Robocop’s throat, feeling for a pulse, then nods, satisfied. He slumps forward, keeps his fingers at the guy’s throat, light. His usual sadness seems amplified; Clint’s not been around the guy for non-mission reasons often, but Steve’s sad just about all the time and that’s just the way things are. Fair enough, with all he’s lost. “Okay. He’s -”
Then his friend wakes up and bites his arm. Also, the rug is definitely a lot more on fire than it was a few minutes ago, the downed lamp still sparking.
Clint sighs and goes to get the fire extinguisher from the kitchen, only to find it’s not there. He curses, then wanders back into the hall to get one.
One of his tenants sticks her head out of the door. “Should we evacuate? What’s going on?”
“It’s fine,” Clint says, then he hears a yell and more thudding. “Actually, no, that’s wrong. I leave for twenty minutes and this is what I get. Yeah, you should go.”
“Are you gonna …” She mimes pulling a bowstring.
Clint shrugs. “Yeah, if I can get at my bow.”
“My kid’s got a toy bow. She wants to take archery lessons because of you. Well, and Katniss.”
“Katniss is probably the better role model, between you and me,” Clint tells her, as the fire alarm starts going off. He holds up the fire extinguisher, wincing. “I gotta go deal with that. Can you start knocking on doors? Make sure that lady with the cats -”
“Yeah,” she says, and yells for her kid.
The day started out fine. Clint woke up a little before noon, downed a pot of coffee, and sat on his ass watching Dog Cops. He was almost caught up. For lunch, he poured hot water over some cup noodles and sat around eating those as he watched the next-to-last episode of the season.
His phone rang, and he went and got it. “Hey.”
“Steve! You totally do call me sometimes. Avengers business?”
“Sort of,” Steve had said. He’d gone quiet long enough that Clint wondered if something had gone wrong, then said, “Your building’s in Brooklyn, right? I need somewhere to stay for a few days.”
Clint looked around. He’d checked for surveillance devices last night, paranoid after the SHIELD thing, but maybe someone had set something up while he slept and he was going to end up on Punk’d or something - “Yes?”
“Yes, it’s in Brooklyn, or yes, I can stay?”
“Both?” Clint asked, baffled. He paces as best he’s able with the phone cord tethering him. “Can’t you get - aw, SHIELD, never mind. Sure. I had some tenants move out. There’s an empty place.”
“I won’t be there that long,” Steve told him. “The couch is fine.”
Clint sidesteps the superhuman battle going on in his apartment to put the fire out. It’s spread to his couch, but so far his TV’s safe. He finally got the DVR set up. If his entertainment system burns, Steve’s footing the bill, Clint’s decided. Clint’s got money now, but this is definitely not his fault.
He wishes, not for the first time, and not for the last, that Kate were here, though she probably wouldn’t know what to do about the clash of the titans either. At least she’d sympathize.
Clint goes to get his bow and dig through his arrows. Some of them are labeled; some of them aren’t. He needs something non-fatal. He could just go for a non-fatal shot, or even use something besides arrows, because that’s totally a thing he does sometimes, but -
Glass shatters. He leans out of his bedroom. Steve and the Terminator are gone. So’s half the wall.
“Okay,” Clint says. He throws up his hands. “Sure.”
Steve had asked Clint to meet him at the subway - and the idea of Captain America riding the subway was golden all on its own. Clint threw on some clothes and went to meet him.
Natasha was there, too. She raised her eyebrows. “When I said find somewhere safe -”
“He’s an Avenger,” Steve said, holding up a hand.
She snorted. “I just doubt his place is all that secure. I meant a safehouse.”
“Unless you’ve got a better idea.”
Natasha got a look in her eyes, not quite lit up, not exactly eager, but - determined, maybe a little amused. “I’m sure I can come up with something. I’ll call you.”
“Do you have my -” Clint started, but she shook her head.
“Yes, I’ve got your number, and no, I don’t need it. Even Rogers has a cellphone. You need to step it up.”
“Last time I used a Starkphone, HYDRA used it to track me down and kidnap me. For two weeks.”
“You got out fine.” Natasha brought her hand up to examine her fingernails and started picking at the dirt, utterly disdaining both of the men she was ostensibly talking to.
“Wait, when did this -” Steve started.
“Later,” Clint cut in. “We can talk about that some other time.”
“Anyway, Steve, keep your phone on for once,” Natasha said. “I’ll call you as soon as I get something set up.”
When Steve and Robocop bail out the window, Clint sits down at his living room table and starts taking the takeout from the bag. He has to open a couple different containers before he finds his beef pad Thai. The room reeks of smoke; the fire department’ll probably show up soon, just in case. Someone has to have called them.
Sure enough, just as he’s digging into his dinner, he hears the sound of sirens. He doesn’t bother getting up. It’s his building, and he should be responsible, but having a superhero and inexplicable villain duke it out in his living room has him a bit grumpy, so he stays right where he is and eats his damn food.
Eventually, he has to talk with the firemen, and start cleaning up, and call a guy to fix the window. The pad Thai’s good, though. Plus, Clint’s got leftovers for days, if Steve doesn’t turn back up. He’d ordered enough to feed a super soldier, which, he learned back when the Avengers formed up that first time, is a lot.
The corner store’s out of trash bags, so he wanders further afield, and when he gets back he tapes three cut-open plastic trash bags over the hole in his wall and sweeps up the glass, feeling more accomplished than usual. Mostly he doesn’t want to trip over glass in the middle of the night and accidentally kill himself.
Steve doesn’t turn up again for the rest of the evening.
“So what’s going on, Captain America?” Clint leaned in the refrigerator, grabs a beer, then reconsidered. “You don’t drink, right?”
“Can’t get drunk,” Steve agreed. “And it’s - complicated. You heard about DC.”
“Oh, I heard about DC.” Clint’s expression darkened, but he kept his head buried in the refrigerator, trying to find something else not expired to offer the good captain. He’d lost his job, such as it was, because of DC. At least the Avengers gig is still legit, and probably not secretly masterminded by an arcane offshoot of the Nazi party. Clint prefers fighting bad guys to working for them. As to what actually went down, he doesn’t know much; the news is too depressing. Something about the Winter Soldier turning up, some buildings exploding, and HYDRA. “Good thing I’ve got money. How do you feel about orange juice?”
“It’s good at breakfast. I don’t need any orange juice, it’s fine. Really.”
“Hmm.” Clint closed the refrigerator. “Okay, so you’re in Brooklyn. You’re from here, right?”
“Born and raised,” Steve agreed, leaning back in his chair. “You know, Bucky was from Brooklyn, too.”
“Time for war stories?” Clint asked. “I’m gonna get dinner first, then you can tell me about your buddy. You hungry?”
A cell phone goes off, and Clint startles, because it’s not his. He’d never pick anything as tacky as - well, actually, he had used the national anthem as a ringtone for Steve. Natasha’s was the Internationale. He wouldn’t put it past himself to use Reveille as a ringtone for someone, though who that’d be other than Steve, he has no idea.
It must be Steve’s phone, he realizes with a start, and he dives for it, skidding into the wall in his haste. He lies on the floor, phone in hand, and picks up just before it goes to voicemail. “Hey.”
“Is - where’s Steve?”
“Who knows.” Clint sighs. “Hi, Natasha. You find a place?”
“I sure did.”
“Great. I need somewhere to crash.”
“You own a building.”
“Steve took out a window, and like, half the wall with it,” Clint informs her. He stretches out on the floor, and looks at his arm. He should shower; there’s ash all over him. Lying on the remains of his ruined carpet isn’t helping. Usually he can go months without washing his jeans, but he’s going to have to, this time. “You know who our buddy Robocop is?”
“Robocop?” Natasha asks, incredulous. “You mean Barnes?”
“Sure, if Barnes is the spooky guy - long hair, metal arm, mother Russia vibe. Wait, shit. Metal arm. Who’s got a - was the Winter Soldier just in my apartment? He’s still around?”
“Yup,” Natasha says. “How did you not know that?”
“I’ve been busy,” Clint says, feeling very defensive. He had episodes of Dog Cops to watch, and one of his tenants had flooded their bathroom, so he’d dealt with getting that fixed - there was all sorts of stuff eating up his time.
Having Kate and Lucky gone meant he had a little more time, technically, but them being gone also meant he had to find more shit to keep himself busy, and anyway, he hadn’t wanted to watch the news and be reminded.
He’d spent the whole DC thing in HYDRA captivity, busy trying to stop being kidnapped. He didn’t like thinking about those few weeks.
“Yeah, okay,” she says, dismissive. “Wait, they were fighting? Shit, I thought we were past that part.”
“He’s an evil super assassin,” Clint says. “I’m not sure you get past the fighting part. Hey, does this count as official Avengers business now?”
Natasha groans. “I’m coming over.”
“No, no, you said you had a -”
She hangs up. Clint stays where he is on the floor. He wiggles a foot around in the charred mess that used to be a rug, feeling it flake apart and crumble underfoot.
“Oh,” Clint says, when Natasha shows up. He steps forward. He hadn’t noticed, earlier - “You’ve got -”
He touches the necklace at her throat, gentle, careful. He gets soot on her skin and laughs, says, “Shit, sorry.”
“Your apartment’s a mess.”
“I actually cleaned, before - well, the first time,” Clint says. “I didn’t clean much after your buddy Steve wrecked the place.”
“Oh, he’s my buddy now?” Her voice is cold, but there’s a smile in her eyes. “You’re the one who’s always bragging that Captain America calls you sometimes, but the second something goes wrong -”
Clint’s missed her. He starts laughing; she gives him a hug. She’s warm. He breathes in; her hair smells different, but then, it always does. She’s always using different shampoo. Her bathroom, last time he saw it - near five months ago, it must be, since she’s been off working for SHIELD and then not working for them - had at least four different kinds visible, and probably more hidden away in the medicine cabinet and under the sink.
For once, he hadn’t looked.
“He’s definitely your friend,” Clint says. He can’t tell if the hug’s gone on too long or not, but he doesn’t let go, and neither does Natasha, so probably not. “Wasn’t half of the DC thing because of you two?”
“Not because of us.” She sounds indignant. “Clint. What do you think happened in DC?”
“Okay.” She steps back, puts her hands on his shoulders and stares up at him. “We’re going somewhere that doesn’t have a trashbag for a window, and you’re going to get caught up.”
There’s a lot more going on than Clint knew, as it turns out. This isn’t unusual. It’s not like the Avengers tell him anything, most of the time.
The safehouse Natasha takes them to has two bedrooms, running water, a wired internet connection. The walls are reinforced, the windows thick. It’s in a residential building that seems lively and more well-off than the place Clint owns. The stairwell they take to get to the apartment - skipping the shiny new elevator in the front hall - has a fresh coat of paint on the walls in an atrocious minty green.
The safehouse’s walls are white. There’s a picture of a boat on the wall of the bedroom Clint goes to sleep in.
He wakes up sometime in the middle of the night and groans, rolling over on his side and pulling a sheet over his head. “Nat, go away. Unless you’re gonna ravish me -”
That’s not Nat. That is not at all Nat, which is enough to get Clint fumbling upright, a knife pulled out from under the pillow. He’s on his feet and staring wide-eyed in the dim light that creeps in under the curtains. There’s a gleam of metal.
“Aw, fuck -”
“Quiet,” the Winter Soldier says. “Why did he come to you?”
“The target.” The Winter Soldier -- Bucky Barnes, according to Natasha -- shakes his head. “My - no. The Captain. Steve Rogers, approximately twenty five, blonde haired, blue eyed. Muscular build. Known as Captain America. Heightened reflexes; super strength -”
“I know who Steve is,” Clint says. “He’s Natasha’s friend.”
“But he came to you.”
“He was living in DC, but I guess things didn’t go so great down there. I guess he needed a place to stay.” Clint considers the knife in his hand, careful not to look at it or telegraph his intent. He doesn’t want to kill this guy, but he also doesn’t want to get murdered by Captain America’s brainwashed ex-sidekick. “He’s from Brooklyn. I live in Brooklyn.”
“I came to …” The Winter Soldier’s brow furrows. “He was trying to find me.”
“Okay,” Clint says. By now, he bets Natasha knows about the intrusion. Whoever owns this place probably has the whole apartment bugged; he only did a cursory check and found two little devices that way. Hadn’t gotten rid of them, though. “Most people these days just look for old friends on Facebook, but crosscountry roadtrips work, too, I guess. Steve is sort of old fashioned.”
The Winter Soldier’s quiet. His fists clench and unclench. Clint still can’t decide if he wants to try his luck against a Soviet assassin or not, though he’s definitely leaning toward no. Clint edges toward the door, and the Soldier’s got a gun trained on him before he can even register the movement. Clint freezes.
“Whoa, whoa,” Clint says. “I don’t think killing me is your, uh, your -- mission.”
“I --” The Winter Soldier looks stunned.
“You already know too much.” The Soldier seems puzzled by this. “I should have eliminated you in your sleep.”
“I don’t think Natasha would appreciate that, honestly, she’s really picky -”
“Natasha. Not Natalia.”
“I remember her.”
Clint nods eagerly. That’s either a good sign or a bad one, but it’s a chance to get out of this situation, or at the very least mix said situation up a bit. “Cool, good. You want to talk to her?”
Clint sighs. “Great.”
“Ask him why he came to you.” The Winter Soldier’s eyes are intense, and more than a little terrifying. Clint’s heard his reputation. Natasha’s story of what happened in DC had only cemented the man’s reputation in Clint’s head.
“How about you -” Clint almost suggests the Winter Soldier asks Steve himself, but the last time those two were together, they inflicted a lot of damage on Clint’s hard-earned property, so maybe suggesting they spend some time together isn’t such a great idea. “Uh. Sure. I’ll do that.”
After the Winter Soldier’s left, Clint finally wonders what happened to Steve. He goes out in the living room. Natasha’s got the TV on, some tedious documentary about salt. She looks up, gives him a little wave. “Anybody die?”
“Nobody died,” Clint says. “You knew he was here --”
“Yup,” she says. “I figured you could handle it.”
“Wow, thanks,” he says, and sinks into the sofa beside her. She shifts her leg a little so their knees touch. “Where’s Cap?”
“He should be in the hospital, but I think he’s back to his old neighborhood.” Natasha makes a face. On the TV, the announcer’s voice drones on. Clint wants to go back to sleep but his adrenaline’s going to keep him up for hours, and then the sun’ll come up and Natasha probably won’t let him sleep all day. He’s fucked. “I thought about calling him, but then I thought I didn’t want to freak Barnes out any more than I had to. Steve and Sam have been after him for weeks.”
“Sam - oh,” Clint says, nodding. “Right, you told me about Sam.”
“I did,” Natasha agrees. “He and Steve had this whole roadtrip. Bonding. Chasing the Winter Soldier.”
“At least I’m not going to be the only one getting weird bird jokes now,” Clint says.
“Caw caw.” Natasha’s voice is dry.
At some point, Clint falls asleep. He dreams about his dog coming back to find him; it’s the future, somehow. It doesn’t matter. He wakes up when Natasha gets up from the couch to turn off the TV.
“Ugh. Time is it?”
“Eight thirty,” she says. “I still haven’t heard from Rogers. I’m about to call. You make breakfast.”
She makes a face. “That was a bad idea. Scratch that. Here, go - look up someplace, order something.” She gestures at the computer. He stares dumbly at her, and she stares right back. “Seriously?”
“Do I just go to … the yellow pages site?”
Natasha grabs her phone and sits down in front of the computer. “Never mind.”
“I’ll make coffee,” Clint offers. She shrugs a shoulder, not looking at him. He watches her for a moment, then goes. The coffee maker’s a lot more complicated than the one he has at home, and he prods at it for a good five minutes before realizing it takes those stupid little instant cups. He hits himself on the forehead, fills the pitcher part with water, and sticks a cup in.
Then he fucks around with the buttons for another several minutes. Then he gets it right, and waits for his coffee to brew. Second time around turns out a lot easier.
“This coffee tastes like shit, I’m warning you,” he says, handing Natasha a cup. “It’s like ant piss.”
“I don’t know what ant piss tastes like,” she says, laughing at him.
“Look, just - don’t spend too long with Hank,” Clint tells her. “Don’t ever, ever spend too long with Hank.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t planning on it.” Natasha’s smile is soft, easy.
“You get hold of Steve?”
“He’s fine. He’s on his way.”
“Good, ‘cuz the Winter Soldier told me to ask him a question, and I don’t want to piss that guy off if I don’t have to.”
Natasha eyes him thoughtfully. “What did he ask?”
“Why Steve came to me.” Clint holds up his hands. “I know, I know. I’m the only guy Steve knows in Brooklyn these days. I didn’t know what to tell him. It was like three AM and I nearly pissed myself. Don’t judge.”
“I’m not, don’t worry. I would have judged you if you actually pissed yourself.”
“That’s fair. You have to admit he’s kind of scary, though. I mean, you imagine waking up with him creeping on you in the middle of the night.”
“I don’t have to,” Natasha says.
“He come visit you first?”
“No, no,” she says. “I knew him -- before. He shot me, once.”
“After creeping on you. Wait, did -” Clint freezes.
“God, no.” Natasha stands up. Clint’s been standing close enough to her chair that the movement puts her right in his space. She touches the side of his face. “He trained me. In the Red Room. Or - I think it was him. It was and it wasn’t.”
“Brainwashing.” Clint shakes his head. “I’m over it.”
“We were -- it doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.” She leans up to kiss him on the cheek, then pulls away, sits back down. “I was about to order. What do you want?”
“Parfait?” Clint pauses. “That was just the first thing I could think of, I don’t want a --”
“Too bad,” Natasha says.
Breakfast and the good captain show up at almost the same time. The delivery guy looks shellshocked having Steve Rogers brush past him, even though Steve’s in his civvies. Natasha shuts the door before the delivery guy can say anything.
“What’s the situation?” Steve asks, intense in a way Clint hasn’t seen before, and Clint’s seen Steve get intense a lot. There’s a frightened edge to this, though. Captain America’s not supposed to be scared.
“He came early this morning and left before we could attempt to secure him,” Natasha says. “I don’t think we could have held him anyway. The Winter Soldier --”
“Bucky,” Steve says, talking over her, sounding tired.
“The Winter Soldier,” she repeats, “is not going to be contained by normal people. You know how he fights.”
“Hey, I could have taken him,” Clint says. “If I was outside and about a hundred feet away with my bow and arrows.”
“Not the time, Clint,” Steve says. “Where did he - did you put a tracking device on him?”
“Like he wouldn’t find it instantly.” Natasha snorts. “No. Only Barton interacted with him.”
“How’d he look? I don’t think I hurt him too bad, but -”
“He looked fine,” Clint tells him. “A little homicidal, incredibly creepy, but fine. Don’t worry, he could still murder people if he tried.”
“That’s exactly what we don’t want him doing. He’s supposed to be - how was he acting?”
“I told you. Looming, creepy.” Clint shakes his head. “He asked about you.”
“Did he - do you think he remembers me?”
“Nat, how do you put up with this?” Clint asks her. “I don’t know, Steve. He just asked why you came to my place.”
“Instead of what?” Steve turns away and starts pacing, arms crossed, head down. “We followed him halfway around the country, finally find him in New York, and … what? I don’t get it.”
Clint shrugs, out of his depth.
“I thought - the reason I picked Brooklyn is because we grew up here. I told you that.”
“Yeah,” Clint says.
Steve’s still pacing. Natasha leans against the wall and folds her own arms. “Steve -”
“Maybe you should give him space,” Natasha says. “Let the Winter Soldier figure out who he is. What he’s doing. Instead of chasing him everywhere.”
“I thought we were making progress. When he came by your place -” Steve shoots Clint a guilty look. “Sorry about that, by the way. But we were talking, and then he just …” Steve claps his hands together, and Clint jumps. Natasha stays cool and calm as ever, and, when she catches Clint looking, winks at him.
Natasha watches Steve, wary. Clint watches her, then realizes he should pay attention to Steve, too. Part of him wants to tune this whole thing out, order some cheap pizza, and watch TV. “Did you say anything? Do you know what set him off, or …?”
That’s when Clint remembers they had breakfast delivered, so he gets up and goes to the kitchen, and stands at the kitchen counter while only half-listening to Steve and Natasha. Steve’s passionate and tragic and Natasha’s getting progressively more frustrated.
Clint tunes them out and eats his parfait, jabbing the spoon into the cup angrily every time. He wants pancakes. Someone else ordered pancakes, and he thinks about being nice, then decides to steal one anyway.
“Clint,” Steve says. “We’re going to fan out and - are you okay?”
Clint shoves the rest of the pancake into his mouth the second Steve starts talking, and stares at him, wide-eyed, as he attempts to chew a whole pancake as fast as humanly possible. He nods hurriedly.
“Okay. You know, I’m not going to ask. We’re going to spread out across Brooklyn. I’m headed up toward DUMBO again - I want Natasha near the safehouse, and you head east.”
Clint finally, finally manages to swallow enough of the pancake to attempt speaking, even though his mouth’s still full. “I can’t do it. Gotta get home.”
“What? Why?” Steve sounds incredulous, and borderline offended.
Clint chews more, shrugging when Steve glares at him, then swallows. Finally. “I’ve got repairmen coming. I need to let them in.”
“Can’t someone else -”
“I’ll come help after,” Clint says, and mostly means it, if he remembers, and if nothing else comes up. He likes being an Avenger, it’s great, but tracking down a brainwashed ex-assassin who’s already stalked him twice in as many days - technically less time even than that, but Clint wants to pretend it was longer for his own comfort - is not his idea of fun. “If I see him, I’ll tell him where to find you, though, how’s that?”
Steve looks very, very disappointed in him. Clint winces. Of all the people he’s ever looked up to, Steve’s the most deserving, and it stings that much worse when Clint inevitably lets him down.
“Look, I’m sorry, I just don’t want to reschedule this, or they’re gonna charge me for it -”
“If they try and charge you more than they should, call me,” Steve says, all lit up with justice and the American way. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Just let him go,” Natasha says. Clint smiles gratefully at her, and apparently her and Steve have gotten to know each other well enough that he trusts her judgment. Clint worries about anyone who doesn’t trust her, though he knows it’s on the irrational side to expect everyone to put their immediate faith in a former Soviet spy.
Before he goes, Natasha slips something in his pocket while giving him a hug. She leans up, whispers in his ear - “Text us if he finds you again.”
“Why would he -”
“No idea,” she says, and pats him on the back, stepping away. “See you later.”
Clint’s halfway out the door when Steve calls, “Wait, did you steal one of my pancakes?”
Clint’s still arguing over the cost of repairs - more for the sake of it than anything - when he hears yelling outside. Angry yelling, in Russian.
“Aw, bro. Wait here,” he tells the repair guy. He grabs his bow, grabs his quiver of arrows - mostly labeled - and goes outside with an arrow already knocked. “I thought -”
The yelling’s turned into manly screaming, and for a second Clint is flattered, until he realizes that there is a guy in a business suit kicking the shit out of the tracksuit mafia.
“Seriously?” Clint asks, as he watches business-guy bean one of the tracksuits with a briefcase. Business guy is awfully unkempt, besides the suit. Ratty hair. Metal hand. Dead eyes.
Even after the Winter Soldier’s scared off the tracksuits, Clint keeps his bow drawn, eyeing the Winter Soldier’s left shoulder and wondering just where the metal ends, where he could place a shot.
The Winter Soldier walks up to him, intimidating as ever, and thrusts out one arm, holding the now-bloodstained briefcase in a death grip. “Here.”
“Uh. Is that a bomb? Because I’m not taking it if it’s a bomb.”
“No. For earlier.” Bucky looks down and away. “He trusts you. I didn’t mean to cause problems.”
Clint’s still got an arrow aimed at him but Bucky seems completely unphased. “Okay, open the briefcase. I’m seriously not taking it until I know what it is.”
Bucky nods, crouching down to set the case on the ground and open it up.
Clint stares. “Seriously?” He’s not going to ask where Bucky got that much money. He doesn’t want to know. Probably he should tell Steve, or Natasha, that their boy’s out -- robbing banks? Clint has no idea and, again, doesn’t want to know.
Bucky pushes the briefcase toward Clint, who looks around, and, finally, lowers his bow. He bends down to grab it. No one shoots or murders him in the process of closing the briefcase full of cash and picking it up.
Mostly the neighborhood’s learned to ignore when things happen at his building, but this morning was weird. It pains Clint to admit it wasn’t weirder than usual. He hardly gets any looks. “Okay, you know what? You want to come in?”
Bucky stares at him.
“Inside. To my apartment. The one you wrecked.”
“Is he there?”
“Steve? Nope. I’m supposed to text him if you show up, but --”
Clint holds up his hands, showing they’re empty.
“If you do, I’m leaving.”
“Well, in that case,” Clint starts, as a joke, but at the expression he gets in return he stops and corrects himself. “No, sure, that’s fair. No problem, bro.”
The Winter Soldier looks unsteady on his feet, which is unsettling. Clint keeps checking over his shoulder to make sure Bucky’s following, all the way up the stairs, and Bucky looks unfocused and slightly lost. By the top of the stairs, he has - maybe a limp, Clint’s not sure. It could just be that his purposeful walk isn’t as purposeful as usual.
Clint’s apartment’s noisy with workmen. That wakes Bucky right up, at least. “Who are these -”
“Just some guys,” Clint says. “Repair men.”
Clint sighs. “Okay, c’mon, follow me. We don’t have to stay here. I just need to be nearby in case they need me for something. I don’t know what.”
Bucky hangs his head low, shoulders curved inward, hands shoved in his pants’ pockets.
Clint thinks for a moment. “You want something to eat?”
Bucky eyes him warily.
“I’ve got Thai food. You look hungry.”
They sit up on the roof, and Clint watches Bucky Barnes eating cold Thai food and wonders what his life’s come to. Avengers business. He shakes his head. Working for SHIELD hadn't been any less weird.
“You spoke to him.”
“Did you ask why - why he …” Bucky’s brow furrows in thought. He looks lost, confused. Almost childish. He twirls some noodles around his fork, then lets them slide off again.
“I live in Brooklyn.” Clint shrugs. “He didn’t know anybody else in this part of town, and I guess I live close enough to your old apartment.”
“I don’t - oh.” Bucky closes his eyes. “Yes.”
“Small. Brick building, wooden walls inside, shaky. If you came back late you had to skip the third step, or the noise it made’d wake the old Polish woman on the first floor and she’d yell and wake the whole building. Fire hazard. Stove only worked half the time.” Bucky shrugs. He pauses to eat some noodles, then finishes with, “One bedroom - no, one room. Shared bathroom.”
“Wow,” Clint says. “So my building’s actually a step up.”
Bucky makes an expression that, if Clint were forced to guess, is probably intended as a smile. He looks small and lonesome.
Clint’s feeling sorry for an international assassin. The brainwashing part does tug at his heartstrings a little, at least. He can relate. He’s done things he didn’t want to do because of mind control, which isn’t quite the same, but close enough that it makes him wince when he thinks about it.
“Barely,” Bucky says, and Clint snorts at that.
“So you got to ask why me, not I’m going to ask why me,” Clint says. “Wait, shit. You asked - you know what you asked. What I mean is, why are - what are you doing here?”
Bucky looks up from the white cardboard carton of noodles, expression mostly neutral. “You weren’t trying to find me.”
“No,” Clint agrees. “I really wasn’t. Hey, you’re chatty today.”
Bucky says nothing to that, and Clint mentally gives himself a high five for predicting exactly that reaction. Not talking to the brainwashed assassin was a good choice, a nice change of pace.
Clint was absolutely certain of that, except Clint was also nervous - about the repair men fucking something up and about the man responsible for nearly everything that had gone wrong during the Cold War, so long as those things involved dying - and being nervous made Clint want to talk.
Instead, he found ways to kill time - went downstairs, got some cleaning supplies, polished the railings. Absolutely no one was going to notice the railings were shiny. He’d never cleaned them before in his life. It was New York City, not like anyone was going to care. The whole city smelled like ass, and dirty railings were the least of literally anyone’s concerns.
The Winter Soldier still wasn’t talking, just sitting motionless and staring out at Brooklyn, occasionally emoting in increasingly baffling ways, face contorting with emotions that alternately make him look tragic and sort of ill.
Clint gets in a shouting match with the repair men. They leave. He gets a new repair crew to come by, who want to charge extra because of short notice. They leave. He calls another place, and puts the plastic bag back up over the hole in the wall - now smaller than before where the wall had been repaired - and waits for yet another crew to show up.
They don’t show. He calls back, and it turns out their van crashed into a fire hydrant on the way, but the owner knows a guy, and he’ll send his friend over instead. This gives Clint some pause, but he shrugs and allows it because he doesn’t want to deal with it any longer.
Back up on the roof, Bucky still isn’t talking.
Clint says, “How do you feel about pigeons?”
“I kind of want a pigeon coop up here. Stupid, right?”
“I don’t even like pigeons,” Clint says. “Okay, I’m gonna be back.” He avoids asking if still be there or not. Half the reason Clint keeps leaving is because of a vain hope that maybe Bucky will vanish, which Bucky does not. He could just text Steve or Nat while he’s out of Bucky’s sight, but that feels like cheating, and also he’s pretty sure Bucky would just know, somehow, and he’d end up dead, so he doesn’t do that.
Natasha calls once it’s inching toward evening and Clint’s starting to worry about dinner. “Any luck?”
“Nope. I’ve been having kinda the worst day,” Clint says. “I don’t even like parfait.”
“Sure you do,” Natasha says. “You ate the whole thing.”
“Fuck you,” Clint replies pleasantly. “My wall still isn’t even fixed. Tell Steve that.”
“I’m not telling Steve.”
Steve’s voice, from somewhere in the background, asks, “Not telling me what?”
Natasha raises her voice. “That his wall’s still broken.”
“Thanks,” Clint says. Natasha’s one of his favorite people. He almost asks if she wants to come over, only there’s a hole in his wall and a Bucky on his roof and none of that would end well.
After that, Clint gives up and goes back upstairs and tries to make small talk again. “Hey, you like Thai food, then?”
Bucky stares down at the empty carton still clutched in his hands, mystified by its presence, then at Clint. “What.”
“Thai food. You’ve got - you know. You just ate some a little bit ago. Few hours ago, I guess.”
This news evidently requires a lot of thought. “I like … hot dogs.”
“Sorry, buddy.” Clint hits himself in the forehead. “It’s almost dinner, though.”
Bucky remains pensive and quiet.
Clint almost asks when Bucky’s going to leave. Instead, he asks a worse question: “So, what’re your plans for tonight?”
“You know. What you’re going to do.”
Bucky leans back, wide-eyed with incomprehensible fear.
“There’s no -- in Brooklyn. There’s no HYDRA,” Bucky says. “I don’t know why I came here.”
“Well, you’re from here?”
“I remember,” Bucky agrees. “I remember that.”
“Sure,” Clint says. He eyes a pigeon three rooftops away. He could take it out if he’d brought his bow up with him. He probably should have, given that Bucky’s got a knife out now. Bucky doesn’t seem intent on using it, though, idly tossing it from hand to hand, changing his grip, twirling it around his fingers like a particularly stabby pen.
There’s other things Clint could throw, and he can throw a punch if he needs to. He tells himself he’ll be fine if Bucky freaks out and tries to kill him like he did to Steve yesterday. Probably. He’s an Avenger. It’s fine.
The tenants start trickling up onto the roof. Simone and her kids. Deke, Tito. Aimee sets up shop at the grill.
“Is this Avengers business?” one of Simone’s sons asks, eyes locked firmly on the gleam of metal where Bucky’s hand sticks out of its sleeve. “Mom told me you were probably doing Avengers business.”
“Nah, just eating dinner,” Clint says. “It’s not Avengers business.”
“What’s with the briefcase?”
“Nothing,” Clint says. “Shoo. Don’t you have, like - stuff to do?”
“Nah. I did all my homework.” The kid looks proud. “We did multiplication. I figured it out faster than Ally did, too, and she’s like, usually the smartest in our class. She was super mad.”
Bucky’s staring off at the skyline.
“Nice,” Clint says. He wonders if he should tell Bucky to scram, or his residents to get someplace safe. He stays where he is. Simone’s kid wanders off to bug his brother. To Bucky, Clint says, “I’m gonna get a hot dog. You want one? Still hungry?”
Bucky peers down at himself, like if he checks visually he’ll figure out whether he’s hungry or not.
“I’ll bring you one and you can -”
“I’ll get it,” Bucky says. “It’s fine.”
Clint follows after just in case.
“Nice suit,” Aimee says. Her hair’s neon green today; apparently she finally got tired of the hot pink. Clint almost comments but he’s not actually sure how long ago she dyed it. He probably missed the window of opportunity to comment by a couple weeks, at least. “Turkey dog?”
Bucky stares at her.
“Give him a normal hot dog,” Clint says.
“Turkey,” Bucky mutters under his breath, puzzling over it. “Why?”
“Why would you want a turkey dog, or …?” Aimee hesitates, then gets a proper hot dog to put on to cook. “Why do people make turkey dogs?”
Bucky glares at the grill. If looks could kill - Clint’s just glad Bucky doesn’t have laser eyes or something, though that might be funny. Brainwashing and laser eyes seem like a bad combination.
“Why what?” Aimee’s saying.
“It’s supposed to be a hot dog,” Bucky says, looking genuinely distressed. “You don’t make hot dogs out of turkey.”
“It’s actually pretty good.”
“Aw, no. Don’t lie to the man,” Clint says. “He’s kinda had a bad couple decades.”
Aimee turns the lone actual hot dog over. “No one tell him about veggie dogs.”
“Hey. Don’t go there. There were Russians involved.”
“Oh, jeez,” Aimee says. She spears Bucky’s hot dog, now cooked, on a fork, tosses it in a bun, and hands it over. “There’s ketchup and stuff that way.”
Bucky nods stiffly at her and goes to drown his dinner in a frankly horrifying amount of ketchup.
“Weird guy,” Aimee says to Clint.
“Yeah.” Clint shakes his head. “I meant it when I said he’s had a bad couple decades.”
It is by some miracle that Bucky actually behaves himself. Clint’s neighbors are wary at first, but Bucky’s anger about turkey dogs becomes the highlight of the evening. Deke even manages to commiserate with him, somehow, even though Bucky only says three words during their whole conversation. At least Deke doesn’t seem to mind.
Simone and her kids are the first to leave, and everyone else wanders back down to their apartments and whatever’s on TV gradually, much like how they arrived.
Bucky seems surprised when no one’s left.
“That was.” Bucky pulls his hands out of his pockets. After the first question about his metal hand, he’d shoved both hands in his pockets and refused to remove the left under any circumstances, even to eat a hot dog.
Clint waits for him to finish. Laboriously, after a great deal of effort, he asks, “I liked it?”
“The hot dog was - they taste different. Now.”
“Probably better back in your day. Sorry.” Clint shrugs. There’s not a lot he can do about the tragic decline of the American hot dog.
Bucky doesn’t acknowledge that.
“So are you … going … home?”
“You.” Clint waves a hand toward the city. “Are you going back to wherever you’re staying.”
“Seriously.” Eventually, Clint gives in - “Okay, not going anywhere, that’s fine. Cool. Great. Do you need something to sleep in?”
No answer. Clint takes it as a yes, and heads back down to his apartment, the Winter Soldier following - rather loudly, actually. Clint’s used to him walking silently, but his metal arm drags against the wall and his gait is awkward, favoring his left leg.
“Okay, what.” Clint gets the door unlocked. Bucky’s eyes keep darting around the hall, like he’s worried someone will spot him as if he didn’t just spend the whole evening hanging out with Clint’s neighbors. Clint sighs. “What’s wrong.”
Bucky leans against the wall.
“Are you okay?” Clint tries. He tries again: “Are you feeling okay? You. Are you injured.”
“Yes,” Bucky finally says. He seems surprised by this information. “I need to - no. I can’t.”
“Sure,” Clint says. “Okay. That makes sense.”
“No one recalled me.” Bucky stares down at his own feet. He’s keeping the weight off one leg. “I was told not to waste time on field repairs. It was a short mission.”
Which is how Clint finds out that at some point, the Winter Soldier’s leg is covered with huge, angry bruises and maybe broken, and he’s just been - walking around on it. He gets Bucky inside, sits him down on the couch, and fumbles around with some bandages, which are probably not what the situation calls for.
“Spiral fracture. Stable, I think,” Bucky tells him, absently. “Probably want a splint to keep it steady, just in case.”
“When the hell did this happen?” Clint asks. He can whip up a makeshift splint from shit in his apartment and first aid kit, probably.
“When I was fighting him.” Bucky pauses, and looks contrite. “Or when I was running away, I guess. I might have tripped.”
That startles a laugh out of Clint. Bucky doesn’t look displeased, which he’s grateful for. That probably could have gotten him punched. Or murdered. Clint likes when he doesn’t get punched or murdered. The first has happened a lot, while he’s avoided the latter so far, mostly.
There was the one time.
“Running away’s usually a good strategy,” Clint says. “You just have to pitch it as a strategic retreat.”
“A tactical decision.”
“Just try not to fall over next time,” Clint says. “Not that there’s gonna be a next time.”
“I’m not going to stop fighting.”
“Sure,” Clint says. “You should probably quit fighting Steve, though. Shit’s gotta hurt, for one thing.”
Bucky doesn’t have an answer for that. He says, “I’m only supposed to acknowledge pain if it’s relevant to - to how to repair damage. Or if they’re testing my limits. Again.”
Bucky’s voice is very low and cautious when he says, “It does hurt.”
Bucky wakes up screaming. Clint runs into the living room in his socks and a pair of boxers, bow useless in one hand - why he picked that up when he had any number of other things handy, he can’t say - and stops when he sees Bucky is sitting on the sofa, bent forward, head in his hands.
Bucky lifts his head, glares at him, then drops his head again.
Clint rubs a hand through his hair and goes to the refrigerator to get himself some juice. “Juice?”
“Cool.” Clint opens the carton and tips his head back. If Bucky doesn’t want any, then Clint’s not even going to pretend at manners. He wipes his mouth off with the back of his hand. “Target practice?”
Bucky’s eyes are bright in the dark room. “Yeah.”
Bucky follows him up to the roof, quiet as a dream. Turns out he already knows his way around a bow. He’s good, too; not as good as Kate or Clint, but good. He responds well to advice, but doesn’t make an effort to talk other than that, and Clint doesn’t mind.
An hour goes by before Bucky starts to relax. They stay up there until sunrise, almost, then Clint yawns and goes back to bed for as long as he can manage.
Clint manages to successfully evade Natasha and Steve for the next couple days, while Bucky resolutely refuses to leave his building. He talks Bucky into grabbing groceries at one point, and into getting take-out because Clint doesn’t feel like tipping anyone for delivery, and -
“You need new clothes,” Clint says.
Bucky stares down at his suit. The same one he’s been wearing since he turned up at Clint’s the second time to scare off the tracksuits.
“Maybe a haircut.”
“Oh,” Bucky says, nodding. “Why?”
“Wearing the same clothes for that long is - look, I’ve done it, I’ve been there,” Clint says. “But no.”
“I’m guessing I shouldn’t just retrieve my old outfit.”
“No,” Clint says. Bucky’s chilled out a lot over the course of just a few days, which has been weird, but also a relief.
Nights have been pretty bad. Clint woke up to Bucky looming over him, hand clenching and un-clenching just inches from Clint’s throat, and Bucky had backed off and apologized over and over when Clint’d pulled a knife on him.
Clint’s just glad he’s getting some use out of what Bobbi had called a stupid habit. Bobbi called a lot of things Clint does stupid. Serves her right, sort of. Clint stops thinking about her, very intentionally, and focuses on getting Bucky to stop freaking out. That same night, Bucky has a nightmare, and Clint gets hardly any sleep and needs more coffee than usual the next day.
Clint sets Bucky off on a mission to buy clothes - Bucky seems to like having concrete goals, though he gets a bit flustered when Clint refuses to tell him what kind of clothes to buy - and then Natasha calls.
“Any luck?” he asks her.
“No. You?” Natasha laughs. “Don’t bother lying.”
“What? Aw, Nat. Did you bug the place? Again?”
“No, but thanks for proving me right.” At least there’s still a smile in her voice. Clint misses her, suddenly, even though he’s talking to her, even though he just saw her. “Get your wall fixed?”
“Yeah, finally,” Clint says. “The repairmen freaked him out, too.”
“So you guys used to be a thing?”
“How was that?”
“I’ll talk to you later.” She hangs up.
“What?” Clint says at his phone. At least she called him on the wall phone. He’s been keeping the Starkphone she gave him turned off, even though he bets that she probably did something to it so nobody besides her could ever hope to use it to track him. Then he realizes she probably tried to call him on that, first, and laughs at himself a bit before going back to his newspaper.
He’s got a feeling something bad’s going to happen soon, but he doesn’t know what. It’s just a feeling.
Bucky comes back looking vaguely shellshocked, and also like he lives over in Williamsburg and not Bed-Stuy, and Clint cracks up.
“What?” Bucky slouches down onto the couch, kicks his still sort of injured leg out straight, and picks at his shirt - designer, probably. He frowns at it with his standard look of wounded confusion.
If possible, Bucky’s brow furrows even deeper at that, mouth turning sharply downwards. “I don’t know what that means.”
“You don’t - oh, Robocop,” Clint says. “Okay. I’m gonna see if I can figure out On Demand. You’ve got some education to catch up on.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s a movie,” Clint says. “We did this with Cap, actually. Or I guess we did? I wasn’t around for a lot of that, but it was a whole thing. Show him the world he missed out on and all. He had a list, even.”
“I didn’t miss out on seventy years in the ice,” Bucky says, mulling it over. “But I was in the USSR for a lot of it, so I guess it amounts to about the same.”
“Was that an actual joke?” Clint asks. “Did you just make a joke?”
Bucky shoves his hands in the pockets of his goddamn artfully distressed leather jacket. “Maybe.”
“You need to work on your - your face thing,” Clint says. “Expressions.”
“Sorry.” Bucky bares his teeth, eyes wide.
“What the fuck.”
“Am I smiling?”
Bucky puts a hand over his mouth and starts shaking, and for a second Clint’s really scared until he realizes Bucky is actually, legitimately laughing.
“Sorry,” Bucky says. “I had to. How is he, though?” Bucky’s got a habit of not actually referring to Steve by name, or title, or anything at all recognizable, except it’s always pretty obvious who he’s talking about on the occasions he brings him up.
“Steve?” Clint confirms, though he doesn’t need to. Bucky nods anyway. “I don’t know. I think he’s starting to get frustrated. He’s a good guy, likes having a mission, but when it’s impossible to tell if he’s making any progress - y’know. You know how he gets.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Bucky says. “No, yeah. That’s him. That is. I remember.”
“I hadn’t seen him in a while, though, you know? Only a few times since New York.”
“We’re in New York.”
“I meant the thing with the aliens.”
“Oh,” Bucky says, then, “What?”
Clint says, “You okay for dinner on your own, or do you wanna come up and eat with everybody?”
“I wasn’t sure if - I don’t live here.” Bucky’s been here a week and still only gone up to the roof to eat dinner with everyone the one time. (“He’s not feeling too hot,” Clint explained. “Busted his leg. Avengers business.”) Bucky says, again, “I wasn’t sure.”
“Well, you’re invited. People’ve asked after you.”
“Oh.” Bucky nods. “There aren’t going to be turkey dogs, are there?”
“There probably will be, honestly,” Clint says. “You want something else, you can go get it.”
“Potlucks,” Bucky mumbles under his breath, and leaves without another word.
Clint shrugs and goes up to the roof, where a few neighbors are already gathered. Deke’s on the grill tonight. Aimee’s hair is still bright green. It’s a warm night, the sky clear of clouds, the curve of the moon visible through the perpetual grayish color of light reflecting on smog at night.
It’s pretty nice, until Steve Rogers shows up. Clint’s in the middle of a lengthy conversation about whether or not it’s his responsibility as a landlord to help somebody whose stolen cable got shut off, when he hears one of Simone’s kids say, “Are you Captain America, for real?!”
“Gimme a minute,” Clint says. “Steve! Hey! Hey.”
“Hey, Clint. I didn’t realize you guys were having a potluck.” Steve holds up his hands, which are empty. “I would’ve brought something.”
“We do it every night,” Clint says. “Unless it’s raining, I guess, but every night otherwise. Oh, there was a wind storm one time. That blizzard. Sometimes we don’t. But mostly we do.”
Clint looks toward the door to the rooftop once and then refuses to look that way again, lest he be too obvious. “You can totally come by again if you want. If you wanted to bring something with you tomorrow. It’s kind of a rule -”
“Is not,” Aimee says, pushing down on Clint’s arm. He was gesturing, hands in the air, and hadn’t realized it. Aimee beams at Steve. “Wow. Captain America.”
“That’s me,” Steve says, bashful.
“Is this Avengers business, too?” she asks. “Because I know the -”
Clint elbows her in the side. He’s halfway to thinking up a good reason to send Steve away - hopefully before Bucky turns up - when the worst happens.
“Anybody know a mechanic?” Bucky shouts, holding his arm over his head. “Cuz I got - oh, shit.”
“I gotta go,” Clint declares. He’s jumped off roofs before. Usually with a plan, or else with a trick arrow that’d double as a grappling hook. Either way, he doesn’t want Bucky murdering him. Or Steve murdering him, either, for that matter. Getting killed because you let Captain America down is the worst way Clint can think of to go out.
“Joke,” Bucky says, shoving his arm back in the metal socket with a clang and a grinding of metal, gritting his teeth as he does it. “I thought -”
“Buck, where’ve you been?” Steve asks. “Are you okay?”
“I’m just gonna,” Clint says, and edges toward the door. Bucky’s still standing in front of it. Clint drops his voice, just to insist, “I swear I didn’t -”
“I know,” Bucky says.
“Natasha.” Clint hits his fist against his palm. “It was probably Nat, you know, all -”
“It wasn’t anybody, probably,” Bucky says. He’s staring at Steve, looking lost. “It’s okay. Besides, if you leave, you’ll just trip over the stuff I brought. Left it on the stairs.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
“Bucky,” Steve says.
Clint sits down in a chair next to Aimee. “This is the reunion of the century right here, by the way.”
“I know Captain America, but who’s Robocop supposed to be? Besides your new roommate or whatever.”
“Yes!” Clint pumps a fist in the air. “It’s not just me! I knew it was a good joke!”
“I mean, Robocop had a whole - thing,” she says, gesturing towards herself. “A whole thing. But there’s not a lot of good nicknames for a guy with a metal arm. Ed?”
“Yeah, exactly.” She holds out a bag of grapes. “Want some?”
“Thanks.” Clint pauses. “So you remember all those Captain America comics? His little teen sidekick in the short-shorts?”
“No!” Aimee gasps, covering her mouth. “No way. I thought those were super inaccurate!”
“Yup. I mean, he wasn’t like twelve at the time, but that’s Bucky, and - did you not have history class? C’mon,” Clint says. Steve’s in the middle of an impassioned speech, and Bucky looks like he’s going to make a break for it at any second.
“I swear, Bucky,” Steve’s saying. He steps forward into Bucky’s space. Bucky goes stiff, his face going from fearful to blank in a second. “I woulda, if I’d had any idea you were alive, I would’ve done anything.”
Bucky seems to muster up from courage from everywhere, because he ignores the dramatics, doesn’t try to assuage Steve’s guilt any. “I want dinner.”
Steve stops short, mid-speech. “What? Okay, okay, yeah, we can go get -”
“With the neighbors and everything,” Bucky says. Grudgingly, he adds, “You can stay. I might have to go.”
“I told you,” Clint tells Aimee, secretive, and then wishes he’d actually made a break for it like he initially planned. There’s a fire escape he could’ve gone down, and from there he knows his way around, has any number of paths and hidey-holes he could have taken advantage of. He’s got the layout of his neighborhood memorized down to the last trashcan, as of two nights ago. Periodically he’ll wander around, just to make sure he’s still got it down.
The reason Clint wishes he’d run: Steve starts to walk over. “What the hell, Clint?”
And Steve Rogers is pissed.
“When were you gonna tell me -”
“He didn’t want me to tell you!” Clint holds his hands up. “I would have, I swear, but he wasn’t - he wasn’t in great shape, when he turned up. He needed the time so I let him have it.”
Bucky’s off by the grill asking Deke for a hot dog, which he promptly proceeds to drown in ketchup. Steve says, begrudgingly, “He looks - better, I guess? I was so scared. I thought he mighta left, gone after some more HYDRA goons -”
“Is that what he was doing before?” Clint asks, mildly curious. He hasn’t paid a lot of attention to how long it’s been since DC, nor has he bothered asking anyone about what all went down. He got saddled with an ex-assassin. He’s had things to deal with.
“Yeah. We tracked him halfway across the planet. Then he ends up here.” Steve shakes his head. “At your place. It’s weird.”
“You’re the one who came here first.” Clint holds his hands up, showing they’re empty. “That one is not on me, bro. I think he wanted just. Somebody he could trust who wasn’t busy chasing him across the world.”
“But I -”
“Dude’s got some issues, if you didn’t notice,” Clint says. “How psyched would you be if somebody was stalking you for that long?”
“Well, if it was Bucky -”
“Back up. If you were brainwashed and only half remembered who this guy was, but you knew you’d tried to kill him, and weren’t sure if he was out for revenge or what.”
“I’d never,” Steve says. “Shit.”
Clint shrugs. “I mean, I could be wrong? I could definitely be wrong. I’m not psychic.”
Clint says, “You want a hot dog or something? We got turkey dogs.”
Steve looks intrigued, and also slightly worried. “You know, I’ve never had a turkey dog? When’d they start making those? That doesn’t sound like a good idea.”
“It’s a terrible idea,” Clint agrees. “People love the futzing things, though. Well, certain people. Mostly Aimee.”
“Hey! Turkey dogs are good for you,” Aimee says, offended. She stares up at Captain America from her chair, wide-eyed. “You should try one. They’re very wholesome.”
“Um,” Steve says. “Is there any pizza?”
“No pizza,” Clint says. “Does this look like a pizza party? This isn’t a pizza party. The dog isn’t even here.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know?” Steve pauses. “Sorry about your dog, by the way.”
“Yeah, well,” Clint says.
Bucky, with two hot dogs on a plate, comes over and says, “I don’t even remember the last time I had pizza.”
Clint starts laughing, and Steve glares, like laughing at jokes is a criminal offense punishable by life in prison now.
“Joke,” Bucky tells Steve. He lifts a hand, like he’s about to pat Steve’s shoulder or something, settle him down, but the movement halts and he stares at his own arm like it’s something confusing and foreign. A little quieter, he says, “I was joking.”
“I asked if you wanted pizza the other day,” Clint says. “And you were all, ‘no, no, what’s Ethiopian? I’ve never had Ethiopian.’”
“Well, I hadn’t.” Bucky shifts his weight. Holds the plate out to Steve. “You want a hot dog?”
“There’s a hot dog under all that ketchup?”
“Hmm.” Bucky shifts the plate to his right hand, scraping his metal fingers through the ketchup. He flexes the metal hand, clawlike. “It’s either ketchup or the blood on my hands.”
“You’ve got weird taste in friends,” Clint tells Steve, who is not paying him any attention at all.
Steve laughs, sort of helplessly. “Okay. Okay, fine. Thanks. You don’t mind -”
“Got two for a reason, since you can’t be bothered feeding yourself, apparently,” Bucky says. He looks thoughtful, licking the ketchup off his fingers. “I used to have to do this a lot, huh? Make sure you stayed fed. Hell. It’s weird. I remember - yeah.”
Bucky seems more relaxed than he has in days. He’s also talking more than Clint imagines he ever has, since the whole Winter Soldier thing.
"Captain America," Aimee says, raising her hand. When Clint raises an eyebrow in her general direction Aimee sticks her tongue out at him, then, when she realizes Steve's distracted by eating his hot dog as soulfully as possible, she goes ahead with her question anyway. "Did Bucky ever wear short-shorts?"
"I'm right here, and no," Bucky says, then squints at Steve. "Did I?"
"Oh, good," Bucky says. “I didn’t see any short-shorts at the museum.”
“You went to the -”
“Yeah,” Bucky says.
“That exhibit isn’t great,” Steve says. “But it’s not bad.”
“You’ve got a museum exhibit?” Clint asks. “Since when do you have a museum exhibit?”
Steve shrugs, uncomfortably. “I think they were planning it before I woke up. Then it was kind of late to … not do it, and I didn’t mind, so, yeah. It’s at the Smithsonian. I can comp you tickets --”
“The Smithsonian in DC,” Clint says, just to make sure. “Like, five hours from here or something. Is it five hours?”
“It’s more like four hours,” Aimee says. “Four and a half. I guess it’s five if traffic’s really bad, which it usually is. You just interrupted Captain America, though.”
“I do that all the time,” Bucky says.
No one kills anyone that night, which Clint appreciates. There’s very little property damage involved, too. One of his tenants, who he will not name for the sake of decency, dented the wall of their hallway pretty badly, and wasn’t even drunk at the time. Clint isn’t judging.
“I think,” Bucky says, as Steve’s getting ready to go. “I’m gonna - stay here for a bit.”
Bucky looks at Clint. Clint shrugs. “If you wanna. Don’t try and stab me in my sleep and I’m fine with it.”
“No promises,” Bucky says.
“Are you sure you’re -”
“Steve.” Clint holds a hand up, palm out. “Steve. It’s cool. Nobody’s managed to kill me yet.”
“Okay,” Steve says. He nods, focus turned inward somewhere. “If you ever need someplace to stay, Buck, you know where I’m staying.”
“I honestly don’t,” Bucky says. He finishes off his hot dog, then makes sure, one last time, that he doesn’t have anymore ketchup on his fingers, licking them clean. His manners need some work. So do Steve’s, because Steve keeps staring. Clint clears his throat.
“Oh, right.” Steve searches his pockets, then looks sheepish.
“You forget your sketchbook?” Bucky asks, rolling his eyes. Then he freezes. “Did you - you used to carry one a lot, right? Drawing?”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “I did. Most of the old ones are gone now, but I got a few back from collectors - Peggy had a few of ‘em, actually, I could show you.”
Bucky nods, too-quick. “Thanks.”
“Do you wanna - I could have them all sent up from DC, get them here by tomorrow, the day after maybe.”
“I don’t think anything’s getting here tomorrow,” Clint points out.
“So the day after,” Steve says again, stubborn. “Anyway, you can come over and look at them.”
“Bring them here,” Bucky says. At this point, Clint isn’t going to argue. This is just his life.
“Nat, is being an Avenger always such a - soap opera thing?”
“Yes. Sorry.” There’s no hint of apology in her voice at all.
Clint wraps the phone cord around his finger, then lets it go again. He stretches the coiled plastic out. He bets Simone’s kids would have gone their whole lives without seeing a phone with a cord if they didn’t live here. “Seriously, I signed on to take down shadowy terrorist organizations. Fight bad guys. Not -”
“Shh,” Natasha says.
“Not that I’m complaining.”
“You need help?”
“I don’t know if I’m even helping,” Clint says. “I think I am. I want to. But this isn’t really my thing.”
“So you need help.”
“I’m just saying I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
Natasha sighs. “I’ll be there in ten.”
“You don’t have to -”
Clint shrugs, and hangs up the phone once it goes to a dial tone. He puts on some coffee even though it’s late. Apparently Bucky’s decided the best way of dealing with stress is cleaning the bathtub, and like hell is Clint going to argue with that. Sometimes Clint hears the sound of metal scraping porcelain and winces, never quite managing to tune it out.
The sound of the coffee maker mostly drowns it out. Clint watches it, leaning against the kitchen counter.
Natasha shows up eight minutes later, climbing in the recently fixed window. She turns and looks at it, once she’s inside. “Nice window.”
“Thanks,” Clint says.
“They did a good job. So, where is he?”
“Cleaning the bathroom.” Clint holds up his hands. “I didn’t tell him to! He just kinda - disappeared in there. Today’s honestly a good day. You want a beer?”
“I’m going to go talk to him.”
“Wait, wait,” Clint says. “He doesn’t really like surprises.”
“I’ll knock first,” Natasha says over her shoulder, already walking away.
“If this ends in bloodshed, you’re paying the clean-up bill!”
Natasha and Bucky hole up in the bathroom for hours. Clint sticks around for two of those hours, just in case, then starts feeling weird and antsy in his own apartment. Also a little jealous, because although Natasha could definitely do better than him, Bucky seems like a step down. Mostly because he’s unstable and occasionally creepy, but: brainwashing. Clint has to remind himself of that.
Both he and Bucky have tried to kill or injure Natasha thanks to brainwashing. Maybe Bucky’s just a step sideways. Or maybe Clint’s the step down.
Wallowing that hard means it’s time to leave, so Clint heads out to go get really, really wasted for a while.
The bar’s a dive, but the drinks are cheap and plentiful and no one tries to talk to him. Clint gets a few good hours on his own to mope around without feeling like he’s missing out on much. Naturally, because this is Clint’s life, just as he’s getting ready to leave - sort of wobbly on his feet and way drunker than he realized - some tracksuits come in, and immediately notice him.
“Oh, no,” Clint says. He holds up his hands and sways on his feet. “Not tonight, okay?”
“We still got business, bro,” the biggest of the tracksuit draculas says, squaring his shoulders and stomping over to Clint to grab him by the shirt collar.
“Oof,” Clint says. “Can we do this tomorrow?”
Clint wakes up in a dumpster to a rat climbing across his face. “Aww, rat, no.”
With a groan, he sits up and tries to wipe himself off a little. The lid of the dumpster’s cracked a little bit, so he can just barely see how filthy he is. Not being dead comes as a pleasant surprise. His head pounds with a combination of headache and a brand new head injury, and he’s covered in bruises.
With aching bones, he drags himself out of the dumpster and falls to the ground. After sitting there for a while feeling sorry for himself, he gets up and walks home.
He doesn’t have his keys. The buzzer to his apartment isn’t working. It takes an hour before one of his neighbors leaves the building.
“Wow, rough night?” Deke asks.
“You could say that.”
“Just did,” Deke says.
Clint salutes Deke and heads inside to pound on the door to his own apartment.
Natasha peeks her head out. “Hey, Clint - oh, gross. Take a shower.”
“Let me in.”
“You need a shower first. Did you know your bathtub’s actually white? I thought it was yellow all this time.”
“I - yeah, of course I knew that. This is my apartment, though. You can’t ban me from my own building.”
She shuts the door in his face, then opens it a few seconds later. “C’mon.”
“Was that a joke?” Clint asks.
“I think so,” Bucky volunteers from the couch. He’s watching cartoons today, apparently, and Clint isn’t going to judge. “Seemed pretty funny to me.”
Clint takes a shower.
“Nice shirt,” Natasha says, as Clint reenters the world of the clean and the living.
He looks down at his shirt, which he’d grabbed from a pile that was hopefully clean that had the definite benefit of not being worn in a dumpster. No big stains mar the fabric. There aren’t even any holes, except a little one under his right arm, and he doesn’t think Natasha would make fun of him for that.
The Iron Man shirt isn’t his fault, in the long run. Tony bought it for him as a gag gift on his birthday, and Clint doesn’t do laundry often enough. Sometimes he ends up wearing it. “Ugh.”
“Is that a real guy, or is he more like Batman?” Bucky asks, turning to stare at Clint over the back of the sofa. He’s sprawled out like a jerk, looking far more relaxed than last night, even.
“He’s a real guy. We work with him sometimes. By we I mean the -”
“The Avengers, yeah, congrats,” Bucky says. He frowns, thinking. “Oh. Howard’s kid?”
“Yeah. You know Tony?” Clint asks.
“Of course I don’t know Tony,” Bucky says. He taps the side of his head. “But I remember mission briefings. I know some stuff. Sometimes.”
“Sometimes.” Clint shakes his head.
“That’s the fun part about being programmed,” Natasha says. “You don’t always know what you know until you realize you know it.”
Bucky snorts. “Fun. Okay.”
“Anybody want lunch?” Clint asks, and goes to pour himself a bowl of cereal. “I got Cheerios and Lucky Charms.” The Cheerios are mostly around because a girl he’d had over, several months ago, had yelled at him for not having any real food, and wouldn’t accept his argument that sugary cereal counted. “Oh, and I got the Cappy Shields with the little Bucky bear marshmallows.”
“I can’t believe you actually bought those,” Natasha says.
Clint shrugs. He bought them a day or two ago as a joke then forgot to actually show Bucky, so it hadn’t worked out to great.
“I can’t believe those exist,” Bucky says. “You’re saying Steve has a cereal.”
Clint gets the box out of the cupboard, holding it up. “He sure does. So do you.”
“I can’t believe they still sell that now that he’s back,” Natasha says. “I hope he’s getting a cut.”
“You ask him,” Clint says.
Bucky rubs at his forehead. “People really look up to him. Kids and stuff.”
“He used to - there were these dumbass movies. Punched Hitler two hundred times. They’d show ‘em to us sometimes. Nobody could take it serious, and then he turned up in Europe and I guess. Things got a bit more serious.” Bucky pauses. “Seeing him again was weird.”
Clint can’t think of a reply, so he just says, “You want some cereal or not, Frosty?”
“I’ll have some,” Natasha says. Clint almost forgets himself and keeps staring at her, but he pours out a second bowl of cereal, instead. The little cereal shields turn the milk purple almost instantly. “I can’t believe I’m about to eat cereal past noon, but I’ll have some. James, you should shower.”
Bucky narrows his eyes. “I showered last night.”
Clint sits down next to Natasha on the sofa, passing her a bowl of cereal. She raises her eyebrows at him, the expression lasting a split second before she returns her attention to Bucky. “Really? Your hair still looks gross.”
Bucky tugs at his hair, pulling it down so he can go cross-eyed staring at it. “What’s wrong with it? I washed it. Clint’s got soap.”
“You’re using soap to clean your hair.” Natasha shifts her weight, and her shoulder presses against Clint’s. Their knees bump together. She doesn’t look at him, but he sighs and relaxes next to her, and eats his cereal while the conversation plays out.
“Yes?” Bucky says.
Clint feels the need to step in, however briefly. “Natasha, let the man have his dignity.”
“That’s not dignity, that’s - the exact opposite. That’s a disgrace,” Natasha says, flicking a piece of cereal at Clint. “He’s washing his hair with soap.”
“I don’t get it.” Clint scuffs a hand against his own hair. “I wash my hair with soap and it’s fine. Maybe it’s just like, a popsicle thing. Robocop’s doomed to shitty hair.”
“What’s wrong with my hair?” Bucky asks. “I don’t understand.”
“We’re going shopping,” Natasha tells him. “New priority for the day is getting your hair presentable.”
“I think Steve’s coming over later,” Bucky says. “Or tomorrow. Whenever he gets his sketchbooks in.”
“All the more reason to have you looking nice.”
“Steve’s not gonna care.”
“He’d be happy if it looked like you weren’t, you know, being neglected,” Natasha says.
“Just trust me,” Natasha says.
“I do. Always.”
“Okay,” Natasha says. “So it’s a deal. Maybe a haircut, too.”
Bucky’s mouth thins. He looks down at the floor.
“I thought we were gonna just go to Duane Reade,” Clint says, suddenly very conscious about the hole in the underarm of his shirt. He feels like he should have worn a fucking suit to this place.
“Hi! Have you guys ever been here before?” The clerk that approaches them is exceedingly perky and makes a bee-line for Natasha.
“I have.” Natasha jabs a thumb in Bucky’s direction. “This guy needs to do something about his hair.”
The girl pales slightly on seeing Bucky. “Oh, uh. Wow, yeah! We’ll get you fixed right up! Do you …” She looks to Natasha again. “What’s his hair usually like?”
“Gross?” Natasha offers.
She looks to Bucky. “What kind of shampoo are you using right now?”
“Soap,” Bucky says. “Which apparently isn’t good enough.”
“It’s not doing your hair any favors,” the clerk says, hesitantly. “Okay. So you’ve been using soap. It looks like your hair’s mostly okay, though. It’s not that damaged or anything. Can I -”
Bucky tolerates it, staring blankly at the wall, as she touches his hair.
“Okay,” she says, and shoves a bottle of shampoo at him. “This one’s really nice. Pretty popular with guys and all, so you won’t be smelling super girly.”
“Do you want to smell it? I’ve got some other suggestions if you don’t like that one -”
“It’s fine,” Natasha says, before Bucky can answer. “Sorry about him.”
“Do you … need anything else? Soap? Conditioner? We’ve got a conditioner that goes with it.”
“Yes, yes,” Natasha says, again before either Bucky or Clint can answer. “Clint’s soap is awful. Whatever you recommend.”
“O-kay,” the clerk says. She seems slightly terrified. Clint doesn’t blame her in the slightest. While Clint and Bucky stand awkwardly near the counter, Natasha vanishes, lurking the other side of the store before coming back with a confusing array of products in a basket.
“I’ll pay, don’t worry,” Natasha tells Clint, patting him on the back.
“I’ve got -”
“I know,” Natasha says. “It’s fine. This is for James. Well, and me.”
“I feel like kind of a third wheel here.”
“You’re moral support,” she says. “Do you want new shampoo, too? We can get you something nice. Treat yourself.”
Clint raises a hand, mouth half-open, then shuts it again before he says anything.
“I swear, I’m taking you with me to get a massage some day.”
“You know what? Okay,” Clint says. “Sure.”
They make Bucky carry the shopping bags.
“Is this how I get treated now that I’m free?” Bucky asks. “Like a pack animal?”
“Sure is,” Natasha says, cheerful, before Clint can reply and offer to carry the bags himself. “You want to go clothes shopping?”
Bucky nods. He’s a lot less broody than he has been the past several days, though he still has his moments. Like his personality’s taking a little longer to thaw out than his body did. Clint gets that.
Shopping isn’t exactly Clint’s thing, but apparently Natasha and Bucky are both into it. When Clint buys clothes, it takes ten, twenty minutes, tops. He buys his underwear in plastic multi-packs, and probably doesn’t own a single pair of socks that isn’t made of that weird, fluffy spandex-laced sock fabric found only in the cheapest of cheap brands. Shirts, too, when he can get away with it. His costume’s probably the only thing in his wardrobe he’s really proud of.
That and his suit. His suit’s really nice. Kate helped him buy it.
“Do I need a blazer?” Bucky asks Natasha, holding one up. “I feel like I should have one.”
“Might as well.”
“Where are you planning on keeping all this?” Clint asks.
Bucky shoots him a look, then says, “So, black or blue?”
“Definitely the blue.”
“You’re just gonna fill my apartment with your stuff,” Clint says.
“Yeah, I like the blue.” Bucky slings it over his arm with the rest of the stuff he’s picked out and wanders off, completely ignoring Clint.
Clint throws his hands up. “Okay.”
“You’re an Avenger,” Natasha says. “Suck it up.”
“The fuck is gelato?” Bucky asks, scowling at the freezer in front of him.
“Don’t let Jessica hear you say that.”
“And who the hell it Jessica?”
“Shh, shh,” Natasha says. She smiles at the kid behind the counter. “He’ll have a scoop of caramel gelato.”
They eat their ice cream, Bucky perched with his feet on the seat, compact, wary. He keeps an eye on the door the whole time. Natasha talks to him about movies he needs to see, and Clint jumps in, occasionally, when he thinks he’s actually got something relevant.
It’s difficult because Bucky and Natasha keep dropping into low, quiet Russian. Clint definitely doesn’t get jealous or annoyed, at all.
“I’m gonna go … do a thing,” Clint says.
“Yeah,” Clint says, and gets up, drinking the last of his milkshake. “A, you know, landlord thing, not an Avengers thing.”
“Mm, okay,” Natasha says.
Neither of them asks him to stay.
“Okay,” Clint says to himself, standing in the middle of the street in the fancy-ass part of Brooklyn. “Great.”
Natasha follows him into his room that night after dinner - Vietnamese, after Bucky got sick of pizza and complained about wanting something new.
“I thought,” Clint starts, nodding toward the door as she closes it behind her. “I thought you guys were kinda …”
Natasha gives him a blank stare, then pulls off her shirt, quick and efficient about it. “Clint?”
“Yes.” As she steps into his space, he puts his hands on her hips, almost by instinct. They fit nicely there.
“You’re an idiot,” Natasha says, and pushes him down onto the bed. He goes with it, and doesn’t ask again.
Steve comes by early the next morning, dressed casual in one of his way-too-tight shirts, a backpack slung over his shoulder. “Morning, Clint. Is Bucky up?”
“Sure is,” Clint says, lifting his pot of coffee in something approximating a salute. “Hey, Bucky, you got a visitor.”
“Who even - Steve!” Bucky stops halfway to the door. He lifts a hand in a tiny wave, almost shy. “Hi.”
“You doing okay?”
Steve comes in, gestures at the coffee table then looks at Clint. Clint gives him a thumbs up, and Steve clears some space off before tossing his backpack to the floor and pulling out some ancient-looking sketchbooks.
“I really wish I had more of these,” Steve says.
“You were always filling ‘em, though,” Bucky says, quietly. “Half the time you’d draw on like - the back of classified documents, and they’d end up getting destroyed. Just ‘cuz you couldn’t find anything else. One drawing you did of Peggy, on a futzing napkin. Jim spilled his coffee, used it to wipe up the mess. Threw my fork at him, ended up in trouble over it.”
Clint sits on the back of the sofa. It’s his own damn apartment, and he can put his feet on the cushions if he wants to. Bucky and Steve lean over Steve’s sketchbooks together, flipping through.
“You were so mad about it, too,” Steve says, laughing. “I wasn’t half as bothered as you were. I mean, I drew it on a napkin. It was my own fault.”
“You spent time on it! And it was Peggy!”
Steve smiles down at nothing in particular.
“I - in the museum.” Bucky rubs at his eyes. “He’s dead.”
“And the rest of them,” Bucky says.
“They had good lives,” Steve says. He opens another sketchbook. The drawing’s rough, a group of soldiers sitting around a fire laid out in pencil. “All of ‘em lived through the war, at least. Had kids, mostly.”
Clint looks out toward the window and wonders if he should go. His new window is really nice. He maybe splurged a bit on one that’s supposed to seal better in the winter, keep out drafts. He might splash out and get the same kind for the whole building, just so the one isn’t mismatched, and so his apartment doesn’t stick out quite as bad from the street.
“Can you make us some coffee?” Bucky asks, looking at Clint.
Clint goes and makes another pot of coffee.
Bucky and Steve keep talking, flipping through sketchbooks, Bucky half-mumbling in brief sentences as he remembers things. Steve fills in the blanks, sometimes, when Bucky can’t quite piece together who was there or where they were at a given moment.
Clint had figured Steve’s sketchbooks would be nothing but his friends, but there’s a lot of other things in there: buildings, ruined and otherwise; some landscapes; one whole page filled with sketches of a horse.
At one point, Bucky goes, “Oh, I remember that night!”
“Really?” Steve frowns, with earnest confusion. “When even was this?”
“Right at the end of April. ‘45, I mean, not … some other April.”
“Oh, yeah. I remember that. That was right before -” Steve stops.
Bucky puts his face in his hands and is very, very still. Steve rubs his back and leans over to speak to him, too quiet for Clint to hear, and Clint goes to the kitchen to dig around in the refrigerator. He’s not hungry, he just doesn’t think he should be paying attention.
When Clint decides he’s done wasting electricity and closes the refrigerator again, Bucky’s sitting up again, staring up at the ceiling, with one of Steve’s arms around his shoulders.
“I’m just gonna,” Clint says, and gestures toward the door. “Let Nat know I’m going out?”
“Natasha’s here?” Steve asks, dubious. “Where?”
“Really?” Bucky says. “Really.”
“What?” Steve asks. “Wait, is she - oh. Oh! Right.”
“Right,” Clint says, laughing.
“Take your phone with you for once,” Steve says, not bothering to look up. He keeps rubbing Bucky’s back.
“And bring back some sandwiches.” Bucky has the decency to turn his head. He looks more miserable than he has the past few days, but it’s an emotion, rather than blankness, and Clint’s not going to point it out. He’s not always great at people, but right now, at least, he knows better.
“I’m not going on a sandwich run.” Clint folds his arms across his chest. “I’m trying to give you privacy and you send me out for sandwiches. I could be doing something - really important.”
“Saving the world?” Clint tries.
“Alone,” Steve says, finally turning to look at him. Both Bucky and Steve are staring at him now like he’s gone completely insane.
Bucky says, “Just you. Without your arrows.”
“I don’t have to take this,” Clint says, and leaves. He comes back five minutes later, nearly - but not quite - out of breath after running down and then all the way back up the stairs. “I forgot my wallet.”
Bucky’s sitting with his head on Steve’s shoulder while Steve talks to him about how much nicer Brooklyn is these days. Bucky stares at Clint.
“I swear,” Clint says, and runs to his room, grabs his wallet -
“What are you doing?” Natasha asks, instantly awake.
“I forgot my wallet.”
“You’re going out? Give me time to shower, I’ll come with.”
“I’m never gonna leave, am I.”
“I’ll be fast,” Natasha says. She is not fast.
On their way out, Natasha says, "By the way, Bucky. Your hair looks good."
"Oh, hey, you actually showered," Steve says to Bucky, apparently surprised by this information. "I was worried -"
"Bye," Clint says, and slams the door shut.
When they get down to the street, Clint starts laughing.
“That was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” Clint says. He starts walking, not wholly certain where he’s going.
“So you laugh at them? Great.” Natasha walks close. The backs of their hands bump against each other from time to time, every few steps.
“It’s just - how fucking crazy is this? I feel bad!”
“So you laugh.” Natasha veers a sharp left, jogging down the steps of a subway stop, and Clint’s walked a good five steps alongside the entrance before he realizes what’s going on and loops back around.
He throws his hands up in the air. “Because I feel bad!”
“So you’re a broken human being,” Natasha says. She pulls her wallet out of her jeans - dark, skinny, make her ass look fantastic - and taps her card to get through the gate. “Got it. Do you even have train fare?”
“Of course I have train fare,” Clint says, searching his pockets. “I - there! I even went back for my wallet. There.”
Natasha shakes her head and looks around as she waits, impatience obvious.
“There,” Clint grumbles, as he steps through the gate and follows her down to the train. “Where are we going?”
“We’re going to see a man about a dog.”
“Wait, really?” Clint says. “Is - no, Kate can’t be back. Did someone bring my dog back?”
“I - no. We’re going to talk to Tony,” Natasha says. She leans forward over the edge of the platform and peers down the tunnel, then takes a few steps back, nodding. When Clint looks, he can just see the light of a train coming around the bend and towards the station. “About Bucky.”
“Why does Tony need to know about Bucky? Please, enlighten me.” He has to raise his voice as the sound of the train echoes louder and louder.
“His arm,” Natasha says, once the train’s stopped and they can hear each other again. “It’s not working at peak performance.”
“Seems fine to me,” Clint says, following Natasha onto the mostly-empty train. There’s plenty of seats, so he sits down and leans back, sprawled out. Natasha stays standing.
“Then just trust me.”
“Always,” Clint says, holding out a hand for a fistbump.
Natasha rolls her eyes.
“You don’t think we should consult Bucky first?”
“He’s convinced he can handle it,” Natasha says. “I talked to him the other day. I was going to just call Stark about this, but I thought we could use the field trip.”
“Because my apartment’s been co-opted for, like, frozen soldier con.”
“This feels super condescending and I don’t like it,” Clint says. “Bucky’s going to be pissed.”
“Maybe, but he’ll also be fully functional.”
“We should see if Stark’ll just let him have the run of the lab.”
Natasha stares at him. “You really just said that.”
“You honestly think Stark’s going to let the man who killed his parents -”
Natasha sighs. The train rattles toward its destination.
“No one tells me shit,” Clint says. “This is so futzing weird. These are guys with museum exhibits about them. And they just stole my apartment out from under me. You know how long I’ve been trying to keep that building safe?”
“Months,” Natasha says. “I know.”
“A year! It’s been a year,” Clint says. “Not that they actually stole it, and I’m sure if anything happens, well, Cap’s there, no one’s gonna stand up to Cap. And Bucky … I don’t know.”
“He likes it there,” Natasha says. She sits down in the seat next to him, finally, and Clint shifts so he’s not taking up as much space, so she’s got a little more room. “He’ll leave eventually, don’t worry.”
Clint rubs at his forehead. “Why me, is all?”
Natasha shrugs, and nudges a foot against his. “Normalcy? Distance while he figures himself out?”
“Distance from you and Steve.”
“Mm,” Natasha says.
“Since everyone else he knows is dead.” Clint sighs. “And once again, the guy who ran away to join the circus is the normal one.”
“You have to admit that’s funny.”
Natasha tosses Tony her phone, and the first thing he says is, “And no one told me we found Barnes until just now? JARVIS, did we know about this?”
“I tried to tell you a week ago, sir,” the disembodied voice says.
“Oh, sure, that worked well. Okay, so we’ve got Barnes back. Can I get this picture up on the screen? What’s up? Do we need to take him out? Because Cap’s gonna hate that, but you guys are the - are you still SHIELD agents? - you guys are you, so you’d know best here. Pretty sure Cap’s blind spot is bigger than all fifty states. Get it?”
“His arm’s not working at 100%,” Natasha says. “And you’ll do a better job fixing it than Pym or Banner.”
“I’m flattered, really. Considering I’m the only one who has any experience with robots here? You made a good choice. SHIELD might have been able to help you out if this had happened before they turned out to be evil. So we’re not taking him out, good, great. That means Steve won’t want to kill me, and I like that. I like not pissing off Captain America.”
“I’m warning you that he’s gonna hate this idea,” Clint says. “Bucky is absolutely going to hate it. Steve probably won’t mind, honestly.”
Tony nods, spinning to a workbench and fussing with god-knows-what; something mechanical that Clint’s not going to pretend to understand. “So we sedate him, whatever. Keep him under while I tweak his little robo-arm, maybe do some upgrades -”
“Without asking him?” Clint cuts in.
“What? Like he’s gonna be mad if I make things better? Come on. I can probably make it so his arm slices, dices, makes julienne fries, and makes a mean cup of coffee. He’ll love it.”
“You haven’t met him,” Clint says.
“Sedating him wouldn’t be a good idea,” Natasha says. “It would be a terrible idea, actually.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure you guys will figure something out. As long as he doesn’t wreck the lab. You think he’d wreck the lab? He could be faking the arm malfunction, kind of plotting. This could all be a scheme. You guys know I hate schemes, as long as they’re not mine, that is. My schemes are genius.”
“It’s not a scheme,” Natasha says. “I know him well enough for that.”
Tony raises his eyebrows.
“No,” Bucky says, when Natasha brings it up.
“Might be a good idea,” Steve tells him. “It’s a lot noisier than it was earlier.”
“It’s fine,” Bucky says. “If it’s that annoying, I’ll fix it myself.”
“Sure, sure. But you don’t think having a professional -”
“He’s never repaired it before,” Bucky says. “I don’t think he should start now.”
“Then you can just go in, use his tools. Maybe he’ll have some advice,” Steve tries.
Bucky looks to Clint, who feels sort of trapped. This shouldn’t be his argument. “D’you know a mechanic?”
“Yeah,” Clint says, wincing. “Why?”
“Tell me where. I’ll fix it tonight.”
Clint gives Steve an apologetic shrug and tells Bucky the address. He feels obliged to.
Bucky sneaks in the next morning, and Clint wakes up to find him sitting at the breakfast table eating some gross old-man cereal Clint’s never bought in his life.
“How’s the arm?”
“Fine.” Bucky holds it up, bends it this way and that. It’s silent, dreamlike, until he clenches his fist, and there’s the slight whirr of whatever powers it, and it’s still quieter than it has been the past few days. Clint hadn’t realized it was supposed to be that inaudible, though it makes sense since they were using him as an assassin. “I can take care of myself.”
“You don’t - I think the point’s supposed to be that you don’t have to?” Clint tries. “That’s what I’ve been getting out of all this, anyway. The whole no-man-is-an-island deal.”
Bucky ignores him in favor of breakfast.
Steve’s still asleep on the couch, feet hanging over the end of it. Clint’d tried to offer him the bedroom, because Captain America’s crashing at his place, but of course Steve’s too noble to ever dream of inconveniencing anyone.
Also, and Clint’s sort of grateful for this in hindsight, it meant sleeping near Natasha. Sharing the same bed again, even. He’s missed her.
“You know, you’re not a bad person,” Bucky says, out of nowhere. Clint’s staring at Steve’s shield, and he jerks his head up to look at Bucky.
“Okay? Thanks?” Clint pauses. The star on Bucky’s arm is white, ringed with blue and red. It looks a lot like Cap’s shield. It used to be red, Clint’s pretty sure. He looks at Steve’s shield, then at Bucky again and shakes his head.
“He wouldn’t be friends with you if you were.”
“I didn’t even realize we were friends,” Clint says. Usually he’d play up his friendship with Captain America, of all people, but it’s early, and he hasn’t had his coffee, and he’s really pretty sure they’re just acquaintances. Clint’s the only living person Steve knows that has a place in Brooklyn. He looks over where Steve’s sleeping; even asleep, Steve looks worried. “Like, work buddies, maybe. He’s not really - I’m not the kind of guy he’s actually friends with.”
“I get it,” Bucky says.
Clint puts a pot of coffee on. “You want any of this?”
“I’m okay,” Bucky says. “I’ll just go to Starbucks later.”
“You actually like that place?”
“What? It’s good.” Bucky hardly even sounds defensive, just - matter of fact about it. “I meant it, though. I get it. Thinking you’re not good enough to be Steve’s friend. That was one of the first things I remembered about him. He’s probably - I don’t think I’ve met anybody better’n him.”
“Guy’s kind of a living legend,” Clint agrees, and picks up the pot of coffee.
“Don’t be gross. Use a damn mug,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “But I meant it. You’re a lot - you’re a nicer person than you give yourself credit for. Steve’s an okay judge of character, most times.”
Bucky looks down at the table. “We all make mistakes.”
Clint doesn’t get a mug. He leans against the kitchen counter. “You wanna go to the gym?”
“And do what?” Bucky asks, slightly incredulous.
“Spar. Practice fight.” Clint makes a face. “Never mind.”
“You’re not worried I’ll flip out and kill you?”
“You literally just said we all make mistakes,” Clint says.
Bucky looks at him, incredulous. “You don’t usually announce them ahead of time, though. If you think it’s such a mistake -”
“No, c’mon,” Clint says. “We’ll beat the shit out of each other, or you’ll beat the shit out of me. It’ll be fun.”
“Your funeral,” Bucky says.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, bro.”
Clint’s just gotten changed into a pair of ratty basketball shorts and a t-shirt, literally just left the locker room to head toward the ill-lit boxing ring in the corner of the gym, when the power goes out.
“Aww, lights,” he says, squinting through the darkness.
“Fuckin’ bummer,” says the one other guy who’s there, over with the free weights. He keeps lifting even in the darkness.
Clint’s eyes adjust. He has the shape of the room mostly memorized already, but the dusty light filtering through the dirty windows way at the far side of the gym begin to outline things again. He closes his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them things are clearer still.
Bucky is nowhere to be seen, which, great, Steve’s going to fucking kill Clint for this.
There’s a crash outside, a sound of metal-on-metal, then metal-on-pavement. Something roars.
“Great,” Clint says. He assesses the situation again. Power’s out. He comes here to shoot. Practice bows off to the left, probably his best chance at a weapon - no trick arrows, but he’ll cope. The weights and boxing gloves aren’t going to do him any good. He does wish he had his costume instead of shitty gym clothes, but again, he’ll cope.
He grabs a trashed-up old bow, picks up some arrows in his hand since there isn’t even a quiver to spare, and goes to scope out the street.
The monster looks like it’s melting. It’s huge and goopy and sort of flesh-colored, and seems torn between fighting Bucky and chasing terrified civilians. Bucky’s using a plate that has to weigh fifty pounds as a shitty stand-in for Cap’s shield. It doesn’t have quite the range the shield would have, but the heft - and the power driving that metal arm - mean it does some damage. Mostly it squelches into the monster’s dripping hide and Bucky has to retrieve it while the thing and its ten thousand teeth try to eat him.
Scratch that - more like eight thousand. Clint’s estimates were a little off, but he’ll forgive himself this once. Clint nocks an arrow. He doesn’t know what’s a weak point, but the thing has big, big eyes, and those seem as good a target as any, if Bucky’ll just get out of the way.
Bucky shoots a glance his way, Clint nods, and Bucky leaps on the monster’s back and goes at it with his knife. Clint takes the shot.
He never misses. The monster screams and rolls, legs flailing at its injured eye, snapping the arrow off, half the shaft still embedded in the cornea. Bucky gets flung off, the monster’s semisolid hide not offering much purchase.
Clint’s got his shitty practice arrows and shitty practice bow, and he aims for the other eye. Aims for the throat when the monster roars. Bucky keeps bashing at the thing with whatever he can grab, after he loses his knife in its hide.
None of it’s doing a lot of good. It’s maybe three minutes later that Captain Marvel shows up, and she’s way more impressive in person - Clint’s never met her before, but he’s heard stories, and she swoops in from above and knocks the thing around like a child’s toy, its hide going wrinkly and desiccated from the heat of her energy blasts.
Clint shoots his last arrow at its eye again, just for good measure, and the thing falls over dead. A few broken windows and smashed-up cars, a ruined storefront or two, and a big corpse to clean up are the only aftermath. No civilians died; no buildings destroyed wholesale. Clint counts it as a win.
Bucky’s gone, though, he realizes.
He calls Natasha first. “Natasha,” he says. “Tasha, I fucked up.”
“You brought your phone with you for once. It can’t be that bad.”
“I lost Bucky.”
“You - lost him.”
“There was a monster,” Clint says. “And then he vanished. Captain Marvel showed up? She’s really nice, she’s out looking for him.”
Natasha sighs. “I’ll be right there.”
“I’m at -” She hangs up before Clint can give her the address. Probably the monster thing is all over the news, though; she’ll find him easy enough. He climbs up a fire escape, shitty bow and shitty arrows in hand, retrieved from the monster’s body, and watches the street.
Every flash of metal has him hoping, but it’s just a guy getting out his keys, a phone going off, a car door opening. Never a brainwashed assassin with a metal arm.
“You look like shit,” Natasha tells him, coming to sit next to where he’s perched on the edge of the roof.
“We were gonna work out. What can I say?”
“I can say the paper tomorrow is going to be hilarious, and I’m going to frame a copy for my wall.”
“Thanks, Nat.” Clint watches the street. She touches his shoulder, the back of his neck, leaves her hand there. He relaxes, slightly. “One minute we were trying to take this down - he’s good, by the way - and the next, Captain Marvel turns on the light show and he’s gone. I didn’t see which way he even went.”
“Hm,” Natasha says. “It’s a big city. We should tell the others.”
“Can we not? Cap’s going to kill me.”
“He’ll kill you worse if you don’t tell him.”
“Not if I find Bucky before he finds out,” Clint says, feeling clever.
Natasha gives him a look.
“Fine, we can tell Steve.”
The thing is, sometimes Clint - remembers things. It’s been a few years and it wasn’t for all that long, but he remembers his mind belonging to someone else. He can feel the staff and his mind getting twisted into a new shape.
At the time, everything he’d done had felt right. It had made sense.
Sometimes he remembers that moment. Sometimes he remembers flashes of things he did. He remembers waking up again, and Natasha being there. He hadn’t known as much about the Red Room then as he does now.
If it weren’t for that, he might have argued longer against telling Steve that Bucky was AWOL. There’s no specific proof that Bucky ran off because of his Winter Soldier programming, but there’s no proof he didn’t, either. No reason for him to leave, if not for that.
He’s been trying not to think about it. He’s had bigger issues to worry about, like whether he’s fucking everything up, whether Steve’s going to disapprove of his attempts at helping. Clint always gets involved in shit that’s none of his business, and he’s pretty sure this was never meant to have anything to do with him.
Bucky should’ve stayed with Steve the whole time. Let people infinitely more competent help him out, only nobody had fucking bothered, half the time, and Clint can’t entirely blame himself for this one.
The monster showing up while he was getting ready to try and learn Bucky’s fighting style, that was definitely not his fault. Maybe he could have done something different. Brought an actual weapon with him, aimed better - though every shot had struck true, maybe he should have aimed somewhere else - or whatever.
Every choice Clint’s ever made in his life has led here, is the point, and he feels like shit.
He just lost Captain America’s not-actually-dead best friend. Bucky’s a national icon, and also a crazy murder machine who’s been on and off the ice, working for Russians and Hydra and god knows who else for seventy-some years, and Clint straight up lost the guy, right after he’d been found again, right after it’d seemed like he was mellowing out and adjusting to the world again.
Clint goes to a diner and gets coffee. The Avengers are out in full force looking for Bucky, again, like they didn’t already find him the once.
Nobody blames Clint, is the worst part. Not Steve or Natasha or Sam - who comes up to New York special, just to help out, and who probably could have helped Bucky way better than Clint did - or any of them, not even Fury.
“He was brainwashed, Barton,” Fury tells him. Nick’s meant to be in hiding, but there’s a secure line, and it’s a whole thing. “If we still had the manpower -- he wouldn’t be out there right now.”
“So he’d be dead?”
“Maybe,” Fury says, because he doesn’t mince words, ever. “Maybe not. That’s hard to say. I can tell you that he’d be in SHIELD custody right now.”
“Like you could keep him in.”
“You’re fired, Barton.”
“You can’t fire me anymore.” Clint grins at the phone.
“If only I could.”
“Y’know,” Tony says, his voice a little staticky in Clint’s ear. “I bet you if you’d let me at his arm -”
“Oh, no,” Clint says.
“We’d be in the exact same situation,” Tony finishes, “only he’d be even more dangerous to the public, so really? Good call.”
“He hasn’t done shit to the public,” Clint says.
“Okay, okay, fine.”
Day three of the renewed Bucky hunt and they get a lead at an outlet mall in Jersey, where Bucky shows up on the security cameras for a few moments, waiting in line at a shitty no-name fast food place in the food court.
“Suit up,” Captain America says.
“He means Avengers, assemble,” Tony adds, cheerful, as he calls one of his suits.
Clint hasn’t changed out of his uniform in three days, so all he’s got to do is pick up his bow again. He even has his quiver all set and ready to go, each arrow neatly labeled, their positions memorized on top of that.
None of them wants a fight, but Clint’s seen, finally, the footage from DC; he’s not going in unprepared. Nobody’s letting Cap go alone.
Bruce and Thor are absent, but Sam’s a good addition, and Carol Danvers comes along. Neither of them are, technically, Avengers, though if it came to a vote Clint’d say both of them deserve a slot on the team.
Either of them could replace him when Cap inevitably kicks him off for fucking up so bad. Everyone else here either has powers, or, in Natasha’s case, more training. Or in Sam’s case, a cool winged jetpack thing. Technically the wings aren’t powers, but the guy flies, and Clint doesn’t like getting too technical.
The point is that Clint spends the whole jet ride over - to futzing New Jersey, which is not even that far - worrying over whether or not he should volunteer to go in after Bucky first or not. It’s his mistake to fix, but he doesn’t want to mess things up even worse.
Part of him also wants to point out that, just maybe, going after Bucky all suited up and ready to fight might not be the best plan. To be fair, the first time Bucky had showed up at Clint’s place - when Clint had been out trying to buy dinner - Bucky had freaked out and knocked a hole in the wall.
The guy doesn’t react well when cornered. Being cornered by the Avengers isn’t gonna lighten his spirits any.
Clint doesn’t say anything about it. Either it’s so obvious that everyone else already knows how this is going to end, or he’s exaggerating wildly in his own mind just how bad this could go and pointing it out’ll just annoy everyone.
It goes south quickly, and not because of Bucky’s reaction. Bucky’s bounced by the time they get there, which means they arrive just as an old warehouse out behind the outlet mall explodes in a hail of fiery wreckage.
The Avengers go in to contain the blaze and save civilians, but the place is empty.
“Well, I … might be able to retrieve something off these computers,” Tony says, though he sounds dubious. “Jarvis, what’ve we got? Anything intact enough to take back?”
Tony goes silent after that, in private conversation with his suit. Captain America paces back and forth as they wait for a fire truck to show up.
With the Avengers not needed, and Clint needed least of all, they split up to look for Bucky again.
Clint goes to the mall and waits in line at the cheap burrito place. Service lags, and he looks around, tries to spot Bucky, but to no avail. Nothing seems overly interesting about this place, but that doesn’t mean much. It’s Jersey.
“Hola, can I take your order?” the bored cashier says, half-mumbling the greeting, which is probably mandated by the manager hovering around behind the counter.
“I’ll get a quesadilla and - you guys got chili?”
“We’ve got chili,” the cashier confirms.
“Okay, so cheese quesadilla and some chili. Is this more Tex-Mex, or -”
The cashier points at the sign, which proudly declare the place serves only the finest Tex-Mex cuisine.
“Okay. Look. This is how this is gonna go. You’re going to make my order, then you’re going to tell me what happened when the Winter Soldier came by.”
“Uh,” the cashier says. “You’re gonna have to ask my manager about that.”
“Pat! We don’t talk about -” The manager chokes down her yell, balling her fists at her side and smiling at Clint with her teeth bared. “Pat’s new, doesn’t know anything. I’m afraid I don’t either.”
“Let’s do this the easy way.” Clint pulls out his wallet and flashes his Avengers ID. “You sure about that?”
“Pat, we’re made!” the manager cries, and both of them try to bolt.
Clint hops the counter and grabs the kid, knocking Pat’s head against the wall in an easy knock out, then chases after the manager, who’s vanished into a door behind the kitchen.
The door opens into a long, concrete-floored hallway, lined with chipped yellow paint. The manager’s running, but she isn’t all that fast. Clint chases after her, then remembers he’s got a net arrow with him and draws his bow.
He takes the shot. The manager screams, and flails valiantly against the netting that suddenly envelops her when the arrow hits home, but doesn’t succeed in escaping.
Clint takes his time walking over and crouches down over her. “We could have done this the easy way. You didn’t even let me tell you what the easy way was.”
“When one head -” the manager starts. “Uh. Two … take its place?”
“Are you new? You’re new. Aw, newbie.” Clint shakes his head. “What’d the Winter Soldier want from you?”
“I’ll tell you nothing, Avenger.”
Clint picks her hand up in his. “Hey, hey. You’ve got a nice gig at the burrito place. It’d be a shame if you couldn’t do it.”
“If I broke your fingers and you couldn’t work, is what I meant.”
“You’re an Avenger!”
Clint looks around. “I don’t know, this doesn’t have to be Avengers business. None of the other guys are here. This is just Hawkeye business.”
“Hawkeye?” The manager sounds confused. “I thought you were the other one.”
“What - no, no, I don’t want to know. This isn’t gonna work.” He pulls at her little finger, just to the point it’ll be painful. “Don’t make me do this.”
“He said - he was asking about AIM. Said his handler had gotten taken out before he could … learn the extraction plan? I don’t know, I don’t know anything.”
“You literally just told me something,” Clint points out. “Come on. Do you even like burritos?”
“I hate burritos. I don’t know. He was talking about fixing something.”
“Fixing what? How?”
“He didn’t say! He’s supposed to be a ghost!”
Clint sighs. He considers his options, then goes for it. Breaks the little finger on her left hand. It’s not his proudest moment. “Where’s he going?”
Clint having money means he can book a last-minute flight all by his lonesome. He checks his luggage - costume, bunch of arrows, his bow - and claims he’s headed to train under a master archer when the security people ask him.
No one’s buying it, so when security tries to stop him, he flashes his Avengers ID, then has to wait half an hour while they verify that he’s actually an Avenger. He only barely makes the flight, the rest of the passengers, all already seated, glaring when he has to push through the narrow aisle all the way to the back of coach where he’s seated next to a family with a baby.
No one follows him, though. The Avengers don’t try to contact him, and he figures he has a little while until they even figure out he’s gone. Clint kicks back with a copy of Skymall and tries to enjoy the flight.
Thirty three hours, six band-aids and a black eye later, Clint grabs his luggage and steps out into the muggy heat of a Madripoor summer.
The humidity makes his change of clothes stick to his skin, sweat already forming on his forehead. He licks his lips and looks around, then catches the least-frightening taxi he can find. The tall buildings and cramped streets of Madripoor zip past as the cab driver follows a lax approximation of physics and traffic laws to get him to his destination, a mediocre hotel close to the Lowtown border.
It’s been years since Clint was last in Madripoor, but not much has changed. Some of the signs on storefronts are different, but it’s still crowded, still smells terrible - a lot like New York in summer - and still full of some of the weirdest people on the planet.
He sits down at a stool at a noodle joint, leaning over the counter. The waitress smiles at him, and he gives her a wink.
“Yup,” he says. “So what’s good around here?”
She gets him a bowl of beef noodles, and Clint leaves her alone for a minute. There are other customers to be served.
When it’s slowed down a little, though, he starts in. “So I’m looking to buy something off somebody.”
“There’s a lot of things to buy,” the girl says, amused. “And a lot of people to buy them from. I just sold you noodles, didn’t I? They’ve got ice cream next door.”
“Well, ice is getting close,” Clint says, then shakes his head. “Okay, look. I want to use the Winter Soldier.”
She sucks in air through her teeth, then clicks her tongue disapprovingly. “If he’s real, he won’t come cheap.”
“I had … colleagues,” Clint says, digging into his noodles again. “In a certain organization that’s not doing so hot right now. I’ve got scores to settle.”
“Hm.” She shakes her head. “You should go.”
“You got any clue where I’d go to find someone who actually wanted to talk?”
“Go,” she says again, though she holds out a hand first. “And pay up.”
Clint gets threatened out of three more stores before someone finally says, “So you used to be Hydra, eh?”
Clint shrugs. “Maybe, maybe not.” SHIELD was infiltrated pretty badly. He never wanted to have anything to do with Hydra, but he’s not as close to lying as he’d like to be if he says yes.
“Got a buddy in Hydra. Crazy sumbitch,” the guy says, polishing a gun. “So what you looking for? I hear you’ve been sticking your nose in everybody’s business.”
“Man, all I did was get some noodles and ask some questions, nothing big.”
“If you got a death wish, there’s easier ways to satisfy it,” the guy says. He sets the gun down on the counter. “I got a soft spot for you Hydra crazies. What is it you’re after? You want to restore your organization to its former glory, maybe take it over?”
“Nah,” Clint says. “I’m a free man now, you think I’m going to waste that? I’m just looking for certain assets we used to have.”
“Got my own reasons,” Clint says. “What do you know about the Winter Soldier?”
The guy gets out a knife, and starts to sharpen it against a stone, never once breaking eye contact. “Last I heard, they lost it in DC.”
Clint raises his eyebrows. He eases some cash across the counter.
“Whatever it is? Ain’t under anyone’s control,” the guy says. He keeps sharpening the knife, eyes only flicking toward the cash for a second. The sound grates on Clint’s ears. “Asking about it isn’t gonna do your health any good.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The guy shakes his head. “It’s not my fault if you haven’t heard.”
Clint slides him more cash, and the guy laughs openly, flipping the knife from one hand to the other.
A little more money, and he says, “Seriously, you’re Hydra, right? And you ain’t heard?”
“I ain’t,” Clint agrees, trying not to laugh at the phrasing. “What should I be hearing, exactly?”
“This isn’t a good time to be telling anybody you were Hydra.” The guy smirks, flipping the knife again.
“Man, you’re no good at just saying what you mean, are you?”
With a grating sigh, the guy says, “Just ‘cause Madripoor’s a safe harbor doesn’t mean it’s actually safe. Bunch of kids from Hydra ran here to try and regroup. They found out the hard way they shouldn’t’ve.” He counts the money, slowly, and pointlessly - by now he has to know how much it is. He’s proving a point. “If you got enough money left after this, you probably want to get out of here too.”
“Why’d they come here?”
At a bar that night, Clint runs into a pair of AIM scientists, still decked out in bright-yellow hazmat suits with their stupid beekeeper helmets on. They’re trying to play darts.
He steps in, with the most charming grin he can muster. “What’re we betting?”
“Get out of here,” one of them says, not looking as he readies a dart. It soars wide of its mark, ends up in the wall next to the board. “Ah, hell, you threw me off. Lemme do that again -”
“You’re not fuckin’ going again, Jim, if you can’t calculate trajectory in your head while someone talks to you, you don’t deserve another chance.”
“Man, don’t be a jerk. I was caught off guard -”
“And a scientist is never caught off guard!”
“Whoa, whoa, guys,” Clint says. “I just wanted a friendly game. You guys scientists?”
“What are you, new to town?” The one he distracted, Jim, gives him a glare that’s only half-visible through the visor on his helmet. “We’re the best there is. And we’re free men now, baby!”
“Free from what?”
“Jim, shut up,” the smarter one says, exasperated. “You don’t just go telling people sensitive information like that. Our organization is supposed to be secure. Let's keep it that way.”
“Look, darts. I win, you tell me who you’re free from. You win, I tell you who I’m free from. Deal?”
The two scientists share a bunch of meaningful looks, nodding minutely at each other without speaking.
“Deal,” the smart one says, sounding smug. “But I’m a physicist. This isn’t going to end well for you.”
“And we all know how good physicists are at darts,” Clint says.
The AIM guy puffs up his chest, hands on his hips. “All right. You get to go second. House rules; you’re the newbie. Watch this.”
Clint wins, which means, rather than getting any actual information, he gets dragged out back by a couple tough guys and roughed up. He struggles out of their hold and gets a punch to the face for the trouble.
He curses to himself. He already had a black eye. He drops low, kicks one of the tough’s legs out from under him, and eventually manages to overpower the other one.
Fresh bruises already starting to form, he dusts himself off. That didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. Still, Bucky had been asking about AIM, and he found some AIM guys. AIM guys who were pretty happy about something, when Hydra wasn’t doing so great - Clint starts thinking AIM were working for Hydra, maybe.
That’s his working theory, though it doesn’t get him any closer to finding or helping Bucky.
Instead of skulking back to his hotel to lick his wounds, he lurks around the back alley for a few hours until the duo of AIM mooks stumble out, cheerfully drunk, into the brightly lit street in front of the bar.
Following them requires absolutely no finesse, but Clint takes a route up on the rooftops anyway. He wants to keep himself sharp. Besides, he retrieved his bow from out back where he’d stashed it, and - while weapon laws are lax to the point of not existing - the bow kind of sticks out, especially in Hightown, where the weaponry tends to be a bit more subtle.
The AIM goons disappear into a heavily-guarded building in a nicer part of town, and Clint hangs out on a rooftop a few blocks away, watching with a pair of binoculars.
He’s just getting settled in when he feels cold metal at his neck, the edge of a blade pressing down just enough so he knows what it is.
He draws in a breath.
“Clint,” Natasha says. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Tasha?” Clint turns his head just slightly to look.
“You need to pay better attention to your surroundings.” She takes the knife away. “You could be dead by now.”
“Yeah, but I’m not,” Clint says. “How long have you been here?”
“Not long,” she says. “You didn’t do that badly. It was still terrible, though.”
He sits up, stretching his arms over his head, sparing a glance toward her before looking toward the building again. “How’d you figure out where I was?”
“Seriously? You traveled under your own name.”
“Oh, yeah,” Clint says. “Are the rest of -”
“I cleaned up after you.” Natasha keeps her eyes forward, watching the same door he is. “Who are we dealing with?”
“Doesn’t matter. I can handle this -”
He tips his chin in the tiniest of nods. “Right, okay, no working alone if I don’t have to.”
“Not here, at least.” Natasha sounds amused. Last time they were in Madripoor was - not great, Clint will admit. Definitely not great. This trip’s already going better, since he’s only gotten his ass kicked in one alleyway.
He’s not letting his twelve hour layover in France count toward that number.
“So what does AIM have to do with this?”
Clint tries to explain.
“I can’t believe they wear their little mad scientist cosplays wherever they go,” Natasha says, watching the building with Clint now.
“That’s why they don’t call themselves AIF.”
“Advanced Ideas in … Fashion?” Clint pauses, and hits his palm against his forehead. “That was bad.”
“Really bad,” Natasha confirms. “We should infiltrate the building if we want to learn anything more from them.”
“And here I thought I’d miss this kind of thing, being an Avenger.” Clint keeps an eye on the building still, just in case anything interesting happens. “Third floor?”
“No one’s been in that room for hours. It’s probably our best bet,” Natasha says. “Though we may want to keep watching for a while longer.”
“Guard shifts last six hours,” Clint says. “They get a ten minute break three hours in. Seems like they just get the same guys who were there for the last shift to come back out; they don’t go home or anything.”
“Some of them have left,” she points out. “The two you followed here.”
“They can’t all do mad science all the time, I guess,” Clint says.
“If they did recall the Winter Soldier,” Natasha says, carefully. “If they’ve wiped him again. Do you think you’ll be able to -”
“Yeah.” Clint’s dripping with sweat. At least he doesn’t have to move much while watching. Even Natasha, who almost always manages to look put-together, looks half-drowned, her hair a mess from the humidity.
“Good,” she says.
Clint’s quiet. “That’s why you didn’t tell the others, isn’t it?”
She nods, slightly. Clint looks at her, and thinks that even though love is for children, he’s not very mature. He doesn’t mention it to her, though he’s tempted to reach out and touch her necklace, the little arrow that rests right at her throat. “He’ll understand.”
“Steve? No, he won’t.”
“He will. He trusts me.” Natasha says, “Even if you have to take the shot, I’ll say it was my idea.”
“He won’t forgive you.”
“That’s fine,” Natasha says. “We’ll try everything else first. If we do have to kill him, that’s a last resort.”
“This all hinges on us actually finding him.”
“He’s been making a mess. We’re bound to run into him sooner or later,” Natasha says. “Come on, let’s go see what we can learn from AIM. Then we can go Hydra hunting.”
AIM have achieved a lot since the last time Clint heard about them. It’s been a few years since he’s been on a mission specifically to infiltrate them, and the last one ended with a parallel dimension destroyed and a town wiped from the collective consciousness. The one before that, AIM’s scientists had come up with a freeze gun that malfunctioned and mostly worked as a slightly chilly supersoaker.
He never knows what to expect with AIM, is the point. The things they’re working on here are slightly terrifying: genetically modified creatures prowl back and forth in cages just large enough to allow them to stand; wires crackle and surge with electricity where they’re hooked up to mysterious devices; hordes of hazmat-clad scientists scurry to and fro, checking in on test tubes and beakers and computers, checking instruments, adjusting flames on bunsen burners. It’s a whole incoherent, incomprehensible mess of science and engineering that Clint can barely make heads or tails of, though he does try to memorize names he overhears from their vents.
Their ventilation system is beautiful, at least. The metal is smooth and clean under his hands and knees, and broad enough for him to fit comfortably. He’s almost surprised they’re not tall enough to stand in, but that might be asking too much, even from AIM. The grates are a little annoying to deal with - Clint breaks into a few rooms, saves as much data as he can, and gets out - but other than that, the vents are a dream. The air conditioning’s a gift, too, practically the Cadillac of HVAC units.
He and Natasha split up to case the joint, with an agreement to hurt as few AIM scientists as possible. They’re not here to bust up AIM, just to find out if they’ve got any dirt on the Winter Soldier’s whereabouts in the post-Hydra era.
He’s not overly surprised when he finds an incongruously old chair, fitted with restraints, in a room with a man-sized storage chamber that looks like a hellish cross between a freezer and a coffin.
Natasha told him what to look for, her voice clipped and professional, more distant than usual. There’s no one in the room when he finds it. He undoes the grate and drops in, quiet as he can. Bucky’s clearly not here.
On the ground, he can see that they’re building another chair, much sleeker and shinier, as a likely replacement for the old one. There are marks in the metal of the chair, and scratches clawed into the glass of the cryo chamber.
Clint shudders, and searches the room.
“Tasha,” he whispers, as he does. “Found something.”
“What is it?” her voice sounds in his ear.
“The stuff you told me about, to wipe him. He’s not here. And I don’t think - it doesn’t look like he has been, yet.”
When Clint lost his mind, it was with a single touch and a flood of magic. This chair’s been used over and over again. He touches it, absently, gloves keeping him from leaving fingerprints. Just looking at it makes him nauseous, and he wants to leave, but he doesn’t.
He flips through countless documents, and aside from the dates, all the records are in Russian, from the mid sixties to the late eighties; by the formatting, Clint assumes they’re records of missions and wipes. On one page, in the late sixties, is a string of characters Clint recognizes as a variant on Natasha’s name. He frowns, then shakes his head. The Red Room’s methods are strange. Who knows how many Natashas there have been, how many girls stolen and trained the same way. Clint knows she’s not the only one, just the most successful.
The last few pages offer a variation in the format, and at the end are five signatures, three of which are written in the English alphabet rather than Cyrillic. He recognizes Pierce’s name in there.
Clint takes pictures of each and every page as he flips through them.
Natasha drops in through the still-open grate just as he’s finishing up.
“You find anything?”
She shakes her head. “If he’s not in storage, he’s not here. We should go.”
“You got it, chief.”
She looks at the chair and the cryo chamber, genuine upset on her face. “We should destroy these, first.”
“You think that’s a good idea?”
She gives him a look, and he shrugs, then sets to tearing out the wires and damaging the chair as best he can while she disables the icebox.
“You know what I miss about that base?” Clint asks, as they make their way back toward his hotel. “The AC. That was nice.”
“If only they’d set up shop in Latveria,” Natasha says, dryly. “I hear the weather there’s lovely this time of year.”
“Can you imagine Doom getting his hands on Bucky? I don’t even know what he’d do with him,” Clint says. “Now I kind of wish he had, just to know. Hey, hey, kidding.”
Natasha’s mouth twitches upwards in a crooked smile. “It would probably be more fun than this.”
“This could be worse.”
“Tell me you didn’t,” Natasha starts to say, right as a car crashes not half a block away.
Clint only barely has time to react as the car crash situation somehow devolves into a gunfight raging in the middle of the street. He pushes Natasha out of the way and they both hit the pavement hard. Clint scrapes up his elbow and his shoulder feels fucking miserable, but he gets up again. Natasha’s already on her feet.
With barely enough time to realize what he’s doing, Clint pulls his bow from where it’s slung across his back, draws an arrow, and gets a machine-gun toting goon through the wrist, causing him to drop the gun.
That draws attention to them and away from the crashed car - a black SUV, the sort used almost solely by government agencies and villains who think they’re being secretive. One of the SUV’s tires was blown out by a gunshot. The car it hit sits in flames, and Clint wants to go save its passengers, but now that he’s drawn attention he’s got people shooting at him and Natasha.
Civilians should take precedence, but he can’t help them if he’s dead. Natasha’s already sprung into action, so Clint follows suit.
A well-placed shot with a putty arrow glues one goon’s gun to the wall, and he nails a shot just right so that a single arrow goes through the jackets of two goons - and one of their shoulders - pinning them together in a way that distracts them long enough for Natasha to get over there and subdue them before they realize what’s happened.
There’s no obvious mastermind behind the attack, at least not on site. The last goon runs off, and Clint lets it be - Natasha can handle him, if she thinks it’s important, which she probably will. She can yell at him after.
He pries the car door open, shielding his face from the flames with one arm. The only passenger in the black SUV is the driver, who’s unconscious but still alive, and bleeding profusely. Clint drags him out to safety, leaving him on the sidewalk while he goes to help the civilians from the other car.
His outfit ends up scorched and his fingers blistered - and some of his hair’s kind of charred - but Clint makes it. The car had kids in it; he should have saved them first. Stupid.
He shakes his head, sends them off to one side. He wants to deal with the SUV guy, find out what the hell’s going on.
Another black-clad goon’s trying to drag the guy away, so Clint gets him right in the head with a blunt-tipped arrow, hard enough to render him unconscious, then gets back to the SUV’s driver.
SUV guy is coming to, groaning miserably. He got burned a lot worse than Clint, and his left side’s a mess. Clint gets in under his right arm, helping him up.
“So who are you and why does everyone want you dead?”
“Two will - take my place,” the guy rasps.
“Hail Hydra, sure,” Clint says. “Great, that’s beautiful. If you live through this, nobody has to take your place.”
“Hail Hydra.” The guy relaxes slightly at his side, breathing still rough.
“I only just got here,” Clint says. “Is there a hospital, or -”
“Not far,” the guy says. He looks around, like he’s just now noticing the street around them. He looks right at one of the black-clad goons Clint and Natasha had taken out mere moments ago. “Did he get them too?”
Clint pauses. “No. It was just some randoms. Who even knows.”
The guy doesn’t answer him, but Clint’s gotten pretty used to quiet types. This guy doesn’t seem all that quiet, but for the grievous burn wound down his side, skin blistered and starting to weep.
A block away, the guy says, “It was a mistake, activating him again. Even AIM - well, you know.”
That’s all Clint gets out of him before the hospital, and after that Clint leaves, quick as he can, head down to hopefully keep off the cameras.
It takes him a few hours to get back to the hotel. He wanders the streets, a circling path that takes him further and further afield. Down from the glittering heights and skyscrapers to Lowtown, toward the harbor, where the streets curl around the coast. The buildings are shorter, but the roads are just as narrow.
He wanders through a market, stopping for octopus on a stick, nearly buying a bunch of souvenirs to bring back for his neighbors before deciding better of it. Souvenirs can wait until after they recover Bucky.
When Clint’s finally sure he’s lost any possible tail, he heads back to the hotel.
Natasha’s sitting on the bed reading a book. When she spots him, she looks relieved for a moment. The moment ends quickly. “No one followed you back?”
“I just got back myself,” she allows, and he grins at her. “They think the Winter Soldier’s behind the killings.”
“Wait, Hydra? Hydra think that.”
“This is so futzing weird,” Clint says. He tugs off his still-burnt top, and lies down on the bed next to her, arms behind his head as he stares up at the ceiling.
After putting her book away, Natasha rolls onto her side and looks at him.
“Nothing,” she says. She reaches for his hand. It’s stupid, but they both fall asleep.
For once, nothing bad happens, at least not while they sleep. Things go wrong again shortly after, but both of them get a few solid hours, lying halfway across the bed from each other, fingers tangled together. It’s too hot even with the AC to sleep any closer than that, and Clint finds himself longing for the AIM ventilation system.
Natasha’s awake. Clint squints his eyes open in her direction. “You know, I think of all the bases I’ve snuck into, that AIM one was one of the nicest?”
“I’ve got to find out who their design firm was,” Natasha says, which makes Clint laugh. “You’ve only been to Madripoor the once, right?”
“Yeah. I didn’t get to infiltrate a lot of crazy engineering hideouts last time, either.”
“It’s kind of an industry here,” Natasha says. “Mad science, supervillains. There’s room for everyone.”
“Including circus superstars and Russian spies?”
Natasha makes a noncommittal noise.
It turns out one of the places the AIM scientists go, when they’re not holed up in their incredibly fancy facility, is the nearby Hydra base. It’s a big compound on the northern coast, in the same neighborhood as some unofficial embassies and mansions, a little more spaced out than the rest of the island.
Trees line the street that runs in front of the compound, and the grounds are dotted by palm trees, bamboo stands, and more flowers than Clint could ever hope to identify. Peacocks parade the grounds, strutting around and letting out loud cries at infrequent intervals. Languid reptiles perch in the trees, while birds flutter to and fro.
“That is nice,” Clint says. “Like, really nice. I don’t trust an evil base that nice.”
“It’s like they’re trying to overcompensate for the fascist thing,” Natasha says. “And since when do you trust any evil base?”
“I don’t. But if I did, it wouldn’t be a nice one. Nice ones hide the worst shit. That one last night! Boom, gear for the wiping people’s minds. Awful.”
“Awful,” Natasha agrees. “At least we got rid of it. They probably have the plans for the newer version, if they don’t already have it -”
“The newer what, now.”
“That was the original machine Karpov prepared,” Natasha says. “Not the one Hydra was using, which was - a copy of the original, not really improved, but newer.”
“Okay,” Clint says. “So it’s new literally but not any better.”
“And they can build another whenever anyway.”
Natasha shrugs. “There’s nothing we could have done about that.”
“So if they think Winter Soldier’s after them,” Clint says. “And there’s still brainwashing equipment out there. Who do we think got hold of him?”
“It could honestly be anyone. The Red Room program is - over,” she says, carefully. Clint helped with that. He knows. “But it could be ex-KGB, it could be … I don’t know. Dr Doom wouldn’t bother. It’s not the Chitauri, obviously.”
“Obviously.” Clint lets out a breath. “So what happens if the Winter Soldier’s - active, but without a master?”
“I have no idea.”
“They could just be - getting rid of guys they don’t like. It could be an internal power grab,” Clint tries. “Someone in Hydra wiping out the other guys without their knowledge.”
Natasha stares at him.
“What? It could be -”
“No, that’s a decent theory,” she says. “That could actually be it.”
Clint does a fist pump. “So do we go in, or do we keep watching? Nobody’s gonna trust either of us with the info if that’s what’s going on.”
“We might as well go in.”
“Got it,” Clint says.
Security at the Hydra base is better, starting from the peacocks and escalating to a pack of vicious, genetically-modified guard dogs. Natasha’s got her Widow’s Stings, though, which deal with the dogs. The peacocks are trickier business.
There’s a lot of them, and all of them calling out alarm at the top of their lungs. They’re also loud as hell, the sound carrying for ages in every direction.
They end up hiding in a pine tree for nearly two hours - not Clint’s idea of fun - while the peacocks slowly calm down and the flurry of guards goes back to their usual posts and patrols. This is the most security they’ve seen so far, but it’s still nothing for the Black Widow and Hawkeye.
They just have to be patient. At least the tree smells nice, better than the usual summer stink of the city. The shade keeps it tolerably cool. With his hearing aid off, the noise from the peacocks isn’t even that bad. Clint’s trying to look on the bright side.
He wants to just - hold Natasha’s hand, maybe. She’s alert, watching everything, and barely relaxes the entire time they’re stuck up the tree.
She only relaxes when it’s time to get down again. She says something, and he shrugs. “Just a second. Okay. Say that again?”
“Wait, wait. Did you have your hearing aid off the whole time?”
“I might have,” Clint says.
“Fine,” she says. “Fine, whatever, let’s go.”
After the debacle with the peacocks, they’re a little more careful about the local wildlife, and end up making it into the building undetected and without fanfare. From there, they split up.
It’s all Clint can do not to kill everyone here. This isn’t Avengers business, has nothing to do with them or their ethics. The first time he spots someone, from around a corner, who he remembers working with at SHIELD - he freezes. He doesn’t do anything about it, just ducks down and hides.
He finds a store of weapons, sabotaging what he can in the little time he’s got; he removes parts, loosens screws, and generally futzes with things until they’re less likely to operate properly than they were before.
“Hey, who are -”
Clint’s been trained for this kind of thing. He moves fast, gets an arm around the guy’s throat, covers his mouth with his other hand. His arm presses into the guy’s neck, and he can feel him struggle and jerk and try to breathe, and then, after several long moments, still.
Clint checks his pulse. He isn’t dead, but it’ll be a while before he wakes up. To buy time, Clint drags him to the back of the room and uses his last net arrow just to restrain the guy. There’s a cabinet toward the back of the room with duct tape that he uses to cover the guy’s mouth. The alarms are bound to go off eventually, but he’d like to avoid that for as long as possible.
Down in the basement, things get interesting. There are cages, bounded by glimmering force-fields rather than bars, that hold monsters an awful lot like the one he saw in New York just a few days ago, and little AIM guys skittering around like bees tending to their hive.
Clint resists the urge to let out a low whistle. It’s not a lead on Bucky, but those monsters down there are tough, and dangerous. He wants to call Natasha and tell her they should pull out, buy as much C4 as possible, and blow this place to the sky next chance they get.
The basement’s useless. Terrifying, but useless, as far as the Bucky hunt goes. Back upstairs again, he finally lucks out, stumbling on an unsecured terminal. Computers aren’t exactly his specialty, but the person who used it last didn’t bother locking it, so he doesn’t have to bother with a password.
He starts going through e-mails, sticks a flash drive in to save what he can. Hydra’s scared. There’s memos and messages going back for the past week talking about high-level operatives going missing, about the lack of progress in some collaborative project with AIM, of whispers of something terrible happening in Russia.
Clint pinches the bridge of his nose as he reads another e-mail. “Man,” he starts to complain, right as an explosion goes off in the hall outside. That shuts him up quick.
There’s gunfire - a lot of it - and then a lot of screaming and yelling.
A few Hydra goons run into the very room Clint’s occupying, both of them looking like they’re about to piss their pants if they haven’t already.
“He’s here,” one of them warns him, her eyes huge. “We gotta - wait, who the hell are you?”
“I’d say your worst nightmare, but whoever’s out there’s gotta be worse,” Clint says, with an arrow already trained on her. He eyes the guy, who holds his hands up. “Who’s here?”
“The Winter Soldier.”
“Aww, Bucky.” Clint rolls his eyes. More gunfire from the hall. Footsteps pelting past, a shot, and a thud. “C’mon, hide, hide, under the desk.”
“What? But you’re -”
“An Avenger, yeah, we don’t kill people,” Clint says, which is true, technically, though this isn’t an Avengers thing so he’s not sure it counts. “It’s kind of a thing.”
“Well, that’s dumb,” the woman says.
“Hup, come on, under the desk, go,” he says, gesturing. He keeps his voice low. “He’s gonna …”
The Winter Soldier rips the door off its hinges, right as the Hydra goons take cover. Clint drops, too; all he gets sight of is Bucky’s boots, and the billow of smoke in the hallway behind him. An alarm sounds somewhere nearby.
One of the Hydra goons squeaks, and Clint’s morbidly amused to realize it’s the guy.
The Winter Soldier hears. Of course he does. He grabs the desk both the Hydra agents are under, flinging it aside into a wall. It hits, bounces off, knocks the one Clint’s under in a circle so Clint has to scramble to stay hidden.
He hears, rather than sees, when the Winter Soldier shoots them both in quick succession.
Then he’s gone, silent as he leaves, and Clint has to take a moment to gather himself. He’s seen death before. This is nothing new, and he’s still shaken.
There’s more gunfire in the hallway.
He whispers, “Found him,” so Natasha can hear over the in-ear radios they’ve both got.
He waits for a reply.
“Natasha?” he tries, a little louder. He can hear static. His at least isn’t broken.
The hallway’s full of dead. Clint finds one guy, barely hanging on, and bends down over him. “Where’d he go?”
The guy chokes on his own blood, but lifts his arm, pointing to the right. “Avenge - us. Hail -” and that’s the last thing he says.
“Thanks.” Clint presses his eyelids shut with his fingers, and heads to the right. He hates Hydra, but this feels wrong.
There are any number of reasons for Natasha not to respond. She could be busy, could be somewhere she’d be overheard. Could be dead.
She trusts him to make the right call with Bucky - with the Winter Soldier - and he doesn’t know what call that’s going to be. He thinks, if she’s dead, he might make the wrong one. He doesn’t know what the wrong one is.
He didn’t kill her when he had orders to. He reminds himself of that as he creeps through the hazy, smoke-filled halls. Alarms are blaring everywhere, rendering it hard to hear when there’s more shouts and gunshots. Clint has to pick his way around bodies he hasn’t even tried to count.
The floors are slick with pinkish-red water as the sprinkler system washes away the blood.
Before they left, Natasha looked through the documents Clint photographed at the AIM base.
“All of these are in Russian,” she says, slowly.
“Yeah, I noticed.”
“They’re all dated before he was - sold off. As an asset.” Natasha pauses. “I don’t think they bought this equipment from Hydra. I don’t think they’re working for them at all. They may be pretending they are, but …”
“So AIM’s killing off Hydra’s top brass?”
“Maybe,” Natasha says. She shakes her head fiercely. “I don’t know. And that means I don’t know who’s giving orders to the Winter Soldier right now.”
“It could still be no one.”
“It could,” she says. “Or it could not. I have no idea what’s in there.”
Hydra isn’t completely defenseless. They have tools, and weapons and trained fighters to go along with the bureaucrats and plotters and schemers running the show. There are monsters in the basement; someone’s set those free. Clint knows because two of them, dead, are blocking the hallway.
“Natasha,” he tries again, just in case. Still nothing.
The smell is horrible. He’s seen worse. There’s always worse, but this is bad. This is really bad.
When he finally runs into Bucky again, Bucky’s backed into a corner in the mess that’s been made of a former cafeteria, now a warzone.
A Hydra operative with a huge fuck-off gun aimed steadily at Bucky shouts something at him in Russian. Bucky snarls, ducks, and rolls toward him. With one knife, he takes out two operatives in quick, clinical style, while the one with the gun leaps out of his way.
It sounds like he’s trying to negotiate. He keeps saying something about surrendering, but Clint doesn’t know enough Russian to figure out more.
One of AIM’s monsters looms behind the man with the gun, like it’s at his beck and call. He keeps holding up his hand whenever it makes to lunge forward and it stops.
Standing in the doorway, ignored by both of them as they continue their standoff, Clint readies an arrow.
He wavers, between the man with the gun and the Winter Soldier. For now he can ignore the monster - he’ll run from it when the time comes, he figures.
The Winter Soldier’s voice rises in a question, something about Natalia. The Hydra operatives, in Russian, snaps back something cruel and sarcastic, with Natalia and your Captain and more that Clint can’t catch.
Clint makes his choice and fires.
Seven years ago, relations between Russia and the US seemed, on the outside, pretty good. Things weren’t perfect. There was espionage and petty treason by bored bureaucrats on both sides, but it was a lazier, more friendly sort of battle for dominance at the time.
The Cold War was over. Done. Everything was fine.
Agent Coulson requested that Clint accompany him to Russia, despite Clint not knowing that much Russian; probably that was a tactical choice as much as anything.
There was a whole thing with a train - Clint had to climb along the top of it in the freezing cold and get all the way to the engine - and then there’d been a Russian agent following him, and he’d ended up knocked out on his back in the middle of an icy field, alone, and had to find his own way back to Moscow.
Coulson got kidnapped, of course. Clint rescued him. The Russian agent turned up again.
Clint got the order to kill. One of her handlers, dismissive, said, “Go ahead, we can make more,” and waved a hand at him.
Clint made a choice.
One time, Clint had his mind stolen out from under him. One touch and he was someone other than himself. Words came from his mouth. His hands and his body were used for terrible things.
He had no choice in any of it.
Natasha made a choice when she knocked him out, and when she stayed by him, afterwards.
It wasn’t the same choice, exactly, but it was close enough.
Once upon a time, Steve and Bucky sat in Clint’s apartment, going through Steve’s old drawings; the way Steve looked at Bucky reminded Clint of another night, another couch, another pair of people. Clint wonders what it would have looked like if someone had watched him and Natasha - any number of times, in the safe house, in Budapest, in Genosha, in New York.
He thinks about the Red Room, or what he’s been told about it. Thinks about what Natasha would want.
Clint’s arrow hits home.
He hasn’t killed anyone for a very long time, and it’s a somewhat guilty sense of satisfaction that blooms in his chest when he watches the Hydra operative drop.
Bucky, hands and face covered in blood, stares at him.
“C’mon,” Clint says. “You don’t have to do this alone.”
Bucky nods, the movement short and succinct. Clint grins.
Then the monster goes crazy, and Clint doesn’t pay a lot of attention to what happens in what order in that.
The building’s already evacuating, and on fire, and teeming with monsters, so picking off the stragglers feels like an afterthought. Clint moves like he’s in a dream.
A dream where he trips over shit and almost gets his ass killed a few times, but that’s how most of his dreams go, so it’s not that weird.
Bucky operates with military precision. He’s quick, efficient. Clint really wishes they’d gotten to spar together before whatever sent Bucky on this murder spree - he still doesn’t know if Bucky’s even in there properly, or if Bucky’s following orders from someone.
So far, Bucky has yet to speak a single word.
Clint’s glad he brought both exploding arrows and regular arrows, along with some of his goofier ones. He can retrieve the regular ones easy enough and reuse them when they clear out yet another section of the huge compound. The sprinklers wash them clean of blood.
He still hasn’t heard back from Natasha.
A different alarm sounds, accompanied by a calm female voice announcing that the building is going to self destruct.
It also figures that, while trying to escape from the building, Clint gets knocked on the head and goes sprawling on the floor. There’s a lot of dust and smoke. He can’t see where the Winter Soldier is.
He blacks out.
The building, already on fire, explodes shortly after that.
He has a moment of awareness, jolted awake by a partial cessation of pain as he’s pulled from the wreckage. The pain returns, doubled, almost instantly. He’s moving, not of his own volition. Shapes jolt by. The only things not currently in pain are his right hand and his left ankle, somehow.
With no sense of how much time has passed, he blacks out a second time.
Clint groans, tries to move, and realizes he can’t. Everything feels very fuzzy, and his vision’s blurry.
“Hey, champ,” Natasha says from somewhere either right next to him or about ten miles away. “You’re not dead, don’t worry.”
“Oh, good,” Clint manages to rasp out. “Thanks. Glad you’re alive, too. Did you -”
“Nah, your pal the Winter Soldier’s the one who saved you.”
Clint narrows his eyes, which doesn’t help. Giving up, he closes them entirely.
“Tell him next time he wants to take out a Hydra base? To actually tell somebody first.”
Natasha starts to explain, but Clint can’t quite focus on anything other than the sound of her voice. There are words in there somewhere, probably.
He passes out again.
Next time he comes to, Clint feels a lot more coherent. His vision’s stopped swimming, and he can see the hospital bed pretty clearly. He’s got casts on both arms and one of his legs, and bandages in too many places to count. Taking note of where there aren’t bandages would be more interesting, but he can’t see anyplace worth mentioning.
Everything hurts, but in a distant sort of way that speaks to the power of painkillers.
“You awake there?”
“Steve?” Clint asks, even though he already figured that out. He turns his head slightly; the neck brace he’s apparently got keeps him from looking too far to either side. He can just barely see Steve at the corner of his vision.
“You shouldn’t have gone off alone,” Steve says. “You could have told the Avengers.”
“Yeah, well.” Clint groans. His nose itches and he can’t do anything about it. “How is - he made it out okay?”
“Bucky? Yeah.” Steve’s voice goes a little soft around the edges at that. “He made it out okay. No thanks to you.”
There’s no malice in Steve’s voice, but Clint still frowns at it. “What.”
“He’s the one who got you out of the building. Said he was halfway across the street before he realized you weren’t coming after him, and he went back, got you out of there.” Steve laughs. “I mean, he was a little less charitable in how he phrased it, but I’m trying to be nice since you’re in the hospital.”
“Thanks for going after him,” Steve says. “Natasha told me why you guys - why you went off on your own. You shouldn’t have done it, but I know you meant well.”
“Wasn’t sure what I’d find.” Clint rests his eyes for a moment. He twitches his toes, glad at least those aren’t broken. At some point a doctor will show up and tell him exactly what’s wrong with him, but for now he’s trying to catalogue the damage himself. He collects his thoughts. “We didn’t even know we’d run into him at that Hydra base, I swear. We were still trying to figure out where he was, then people started getting shot.”
“They did work for Hydra.”
“Yeah.” Clint tries not to yawn, and fails. His jaw hurts when he does. Everything hurts, so that’s no surprise. “I get it. So he’s not - I assume Bucky isn’t brainwashed or anything.”
“Nope,” Steve says. “Doesn’t seem like it, anyway. He’s actually been talking to me.”
“Maybe he’s a Skrull.”
“Never mind,” Clint says. Now his eye itches. Lying in a hospital bed unable to move is the worst. “That’s good, though, that he’s talking and everything. He remember you better?”
“Good.” Clint allows himself another moment of rest. “I seriously thought me and Nat might have to kill him. But I kept thinking - if it was you in my place, and Natasha in Bucky’s place, I knew you wouldn’t kill her. Like, for my sake, not just because you’re friends.”
“That’s … okay? Sure, Clint.”
“What? Are you saying you would have?”
“Of course not,” Steve says. “Unless I didn’t have a choice.”
“It’s just a weird comparison, since you and Natasha are - and Bucky and I aren’t -”
“Sure,” Clint says. “Whatever you say. I’m going back to sleep.”
“Rest up,” Steve says. “And don’t be a jerk.”
Clint gets transferred to a hospital in Tokyo for a few weeks, which would be nice if he spoke Japanese, then back to New York where he spends another exceedingly long amount of time in a third hospital.
Kate comes back from LA for a bit and visits with him. Somehow she convinces the hospital to let her bring Lucky, who jumps on his bed and licks his bandaged-up face with the frantic desperation of a dog that hasn’t seen its owner in months and probably thought he was dead.
Kate leaves, comes back, leaves, comes back. After a week she goes back to LA.
Natasha drops by sometimes, with stories of new missions and adventures chasing down AIM and Hydra across the world. The rest of the Avengers stop by occasionally. Even Bruce turns up, once, to bring him some tea and watch while he does his physical therapy.
One person does not turn up. As long as Natasha doesn’t bail on him, Clint’s fine. It still seems a little rude after all Clint did, but that’s fine. Bucky’s not really good at manners all the time.
If the situation were reversed, Clint probably wouldn’t show up either. It’s fine.
Then Clint gets out of the hospital, and as he’s limping his way along - still on crutches that he could probably get rid of if he felt optimistic, which he does not - he gets ambushed and nearly falls on his ass in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Got you coffee,” Bucky says, holding up a Starbucks cup.
“Starbucks is garbage.”
“Sure, but you’ve still got two choices. Caramel macchiato, or the shittiest black coffee they’ve got. No cream or sugar.”
“Fine, fine,” Clint says, and takes the coffee. He looks around, and finds a bench to slump down on, crutches next to him. Bucky sits down near him. “How are you?”
“Good,” Bucky says. “Better. Thanks for - y’know. Madripoor.”
“Eh,” Clint says. “How was Amsterdam?”
“Good.” Bucky grins at him. “Fighting with Natasha is way better than fighting against her, did you know that? I think she misses having you along though. Says I’m not annoying enough.”
Clint laughs. “She’s gonna have to wait a little longer.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Oh, I cleaned out your refrigerator for you. Natasha’s getting groceries.”
“Groceries?” Clint asks. “What the hell am I going to do with groceries?”
“Eat them? Hell if I know,” Bucky says. “I tried telling her you live on nothing but takeout, but she wouldn’t listen.”
“She’s stubborn. Kind of a bitch sometimes,” Clint says. “Don’t tell her I said that, I meant it in a good way.”
“You really like her.”
“Yup,” Clint says. “So wait, when did you clean out my fridge? Have you just been crashing at my place this whole time?”
“No. Sort of.” Bucky gets up, gesturing toward the street. “Kind of, but not really.”
“What does that mean.”
“Your building’s only sort of your place,” Bucky says. “Right? You own it, but your place is your place, and the building just contains your place.”
“I still don’t know what you’re talking about.” Clint puts a hand to his ear. “And I can hear you just fine. This thing’s on. Make sense. Please.”
“Me and Steve may have stolen that empty apartment of yours as a secret base.”
“The hell do you need a secret base for?”
“Okay,” Clint says. “You know what? Fine. Secret base. Great.”
They take a cab from the hospital back home. Clint stares out the window for most of the ride. He’s tired still, somehow.
Bucky helps him get out of the car. “Oh, hey.”
“Thanks,” Bucky says.
Clint realizes suddenly he forgot to thank Bucky for the help, and makes a face. He didn’t figure Bucky would mind. “Oh, shit, sorry. Thanks for the -”
“No, I meant generally. I wasn’t being a dick.” Bucky pats him on the shoulder. “I already said thanks about coming to Madripoor and everything, but just like - in general. Thanks.”
“Any time. Try not to get brainwashed again.”
“Same to you.”