So he’s lying on his belly. Lying on his belly in an air duct that, let’s face it, was too small for him when he wasn’t in the radiation suit. And he’s lying on his belly in the air duct in a radiation suit and there’s a weight on his back, and there’s a metal arm around his neck and Clint Barton knows that there are times there’s just nothing you can do about the way things go, that there are, well, there are just some times you lose. There are those times when you find yourself with a super-soldier sitting on your back with his arm around your neck and your favourite paring knife poised to cut open your radiation suit and you know you’ve been had and you, well you find yourself thinking, Okay but seriously, seriously this was not how it was supposed to go.
Six Weeks Ago
Clint’d been discharged from the hospital with a pamphlet about ASL, a prescription for painkillers, and a tiny percentage of hearing left in one ear, and nothing at all in the other. Well, it wasn’t like it was the first time he’d had his ass handed to him and lived to (kind of) regret it. And it wasn’t the first time he’d done without hearing. They didn’t call him Owlear, they called him Hawkeye, and his eyes were just fine, thankyouverymuch.
It was right about the time Steve was starting to have a hard time with Bucky. While he’d been out of action, SHIELD, or more likely Nat and a handful of trusted underlings (probably Sam and Steve) had brought Bucky Barnes in from the cold, or in from wherever the hell he’d been (on second thought, Nat had come back tanned and freckled and carrying a large white hat under her arm, so probably not literally in from the cold. Anyway.) and the clearance stuff and the hospital stuff and the PTSD stuff was all looking good. Until it suddenly wasn’t anymore.
Clint, being a sucker, had seen the look of exhausted heartbreak on Steve's face one afternoon when Clint was going in for yet more hearing tests and Steve was stalking like a ghost outside the mental health offices. So Clint, being a little soft in the head, said, "Look man, if there’s anything I can do…" and left it at that, because, Jesus. What could Clint Barton, ex-carnie and world champion pain in the ass, recovering from biting off more Russian Mafia than he could chew, possibly offer Captain America?
But Steve had brightened and said, “Actually, there is something. He's retreating. It was good for a while and it's bad again. I can't reach him. He’s alone and he won't let anybody in. He needs someone who's not a therapist and not me. He needs something that keeps his mind busy. Everybody knows about the Winter Soldier, but Bucky was head of his class most years. This boredom is at least as bad for him as anything else…” and then he turned his head so Clint couldn’t see what he was saying any more but when he looked back his baby blues are approximately as wet as the Pacific and he was saying, “So I thought maybe baking, because it’s precise? If you could.”
Steve flushes red. “Sorry,” he says, mouthing a little excessively. “I forgot. Maybe baking.”
“You want me to bake with Bucky Barnes?”
“Natasha says you’re really good at it. And… and I need to give him something he can do safely, in the tower, with people I can trust.”
Clint frowns. “Is this a bet?”
Steve shakes his head but Clint doesn’t trust it. Oh he knows Cap has a hard time spinning fables, but he also knows that Bucky Barnes pulled his ass out of the fire more often than not before the war, and Tony once told him that Cap had spent a whole month pretending to have no ability to operate his Starkphone just so that he could effectively sabotage Tony’s phone when he left it unattended.
No shit, Barton, Tony'd told him. Changed my passwords to “I<3Dum-E”, changed the background to a picture of a bagel, set my ring tone to “Never Going to Give You Up” when Pepper phoned. He’d sighed and shaken his head, angry and impressed in the way only Tony Stark could ever manage to be and said, Rickrolled by Captain America. Can you imagine the shame? And Clint had had to admit that the whole thing was pretty damn impressive.
So he doesn’t really trust Steve Rogers. Captain America? Sure. But Steve Rogers? Ehh. Probably not. Not as blindly as maybe he did before, anyway. And, frankly, he hadn't meant to really offer. It was supposed to just be a nice gesture. But he had offered, and Steve had asked. So. Well. Sometimes you just had to get on doing what you said you’d do. After all, how hard could it possibly be?
“Sure, yeah, whatever,” Clint says, shrugging even though his shoulders, both of them, still hurt. “Where?”
“Tony’s said there’s a set of test kitchens on the 33rd floor. It’s…” he shrugs, mimicking Clint as he does. “It’s secure there. But there are still going to be knives and things.”
“Yeah, and don't forget the Winter Soldier and his arm.”
Steve smiles and cringes all at the same time, but Clint nods.
“Is this because of what Loki did to me? I mean, if it is, I get it. It makes sense that you'd want him around somebody who’s had somebody in his head before, somebody who still functions.” He tries not to think about what Kate would say to that, how hard she'd laugh at the idea of him teaching anybody anything that would fall under the umbrella of 'life skills'.
"It's not about that, not entirely anyway."
"Yeah, well, I've been sidelined so it's not like I'm too busy to bake some pies with your buddy."
Steve sighs. “Thanks,” he says. “Seriously, that’s great of you. Thanks.”
And then Captain America's giving him a big, relieved smile and that's it. Can't back out now.
Steve is twisting his hands, wringing his hands. This is killing him. In fact, Bucky's pretty sure it’s killing both of them. They’re both dying of boredom. At least Steve has whatever you have to have to have access to the world outside, where things happen, where missions take place, where there are targets and things to focus the mind on. At least he can get away. Bucky, though, Bucky’s stuck in luxury. Desperately, desperately tedious luxury. People with soft voices, and a heavily vetted selection of dishwater-dull movies to watch, and suspiciously violence-free paperback novels to read, boredom as pervasive and painful as a broken bone, and now Steve tells him he's set up some kind of baking-date with a guy he's never met before?
“Something you should know about him is that he’s, uh, he’s deaf, Bucky, so you’ll have to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention.”
This is some kind of cockamamie way of assessing him. Has to be. Bucky tired of being asked to talk and he's tired of being told whatever he feels is alright and he just wants something to break, to pull to pieces, because he is as angry as they say he is, sure, but the thing in him that's so angry is not the kind of thing anybody who wants to live in society should ever let out. He can't unleash on the therapists and on Steve. People'd end up dead, and him too probably. So he's been shutting out the therapists and the counselors and he knows it's getting back to Steve. So he's been shutting out Steve too. But Steve's smart, and he's tenacious and there's no way he's not going to try to keep making Bucky better. Whatever 'better' means.
“Baking?” Bucky asks, going back to the previous point.
Bucky frowns at him. Steve’s done a lot of crazy things in his life, not the least of which was slipping into Bucky’s motel room in Nevada, alone, when Bucky was one notch down from frothing at the mouth and literally splattered with the blood of Hydra agents, to talk him into coming back to New York with him. But this feels almost off the scale. Bucky’s never baked a damn thing in his life. To his knowledge, he’s never expressed any interest in baking, either now or in their previous life in Brooklyn. It's either an assessment of some kind or Steve’s gone off the deep end.
“Baking,” he says again, like the word’s going to change if he says it enough times.
“Yeah. I thought you might like it. I mean… you seem so miserable these days. Maybe a change is what you need. And you’ll like Clint, he’s… he’s… you guys have a lot in common, actually.” Steve works up that “we’re all in this together, boys” kind of smile that Bucky remembers vividly from another lifetime and opens to the door.
“Baking,” Bucky says again, shaking his head, and follows Steve out.
Chapter 2: Anything You Can Do
Chapter song Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)
Five weeks ago
So fast forward to the first day. Clint, head pounding from too many fucking arrows jammed into his ears and Bucky, obviously seriously competing for title of Most Unkempt Supersoldier glaring at him suspiciously from under a veil of greasy hair, and Steve talking soothing and low and steady and not saying anything Clint can make out.
Whatever he’s saying to Bucky it doesn’t seem to be helping, because Bucky is glaring at Clint like he’d like to feed Clint all his own teeth and honestly, Clint’s tasted them and they’re nothing to write home about. There's something seriously unnerving about the way Bucky carries himself. It's not the deadliness, it's the deadness. He hardly moves, hardly blinks, hardly interacts. Then, sometimes, he does emote and those times he looks like a little kid who just wants off the tilt-a-whirl and doesn't know how to make it stop. He probably wouldn't appreciate the comparison, so Clint keeps the thought to himself.
He gets to unpacking the groceries he picked up on the way over. Steve called and gave him a list of things to pick up, and frankly Clint's not really sure how all these things are supposed to fit together into something you eat. But Clint’s made some crazy food in his life. When all you have is a can of budget-brand-Spam, a half a mouldy pineapple, and a dozen mini marshmallows and you’re so hungry your shoes are looking tasty, you find a way to make Spam Exotique and even find a way to tell yourself you like it. But he hasn’t had to make what he privately calls “food art” (food that’s not really for eating, more just for looking at) for a while, what with SHIELD paying steady wages, and then Stark putting together the Avengers initiative and now SHIELD back on the scene. Still, gelatine, prunes, canned milk, lard. He kind of imagines he’s going to spend more time flogging the food off on the others than actually eating it himself.
Steve stops flapping around Bucky and turns to smile a thin, anxious smile at Clint. Clint gives him a flat, unimpressed look right back. “Prunes?” he asks. Then it occurs to him and he grins. “Well, I guess you’re both elderly so it makes sense.”
Out of the corner of his eye he sees Bucky Barnes look up at him, like he’s reevaluating Clint. Clint ignores him. “Get lost, Steve. Leave the baking to the people who taste their food before they swallow it.”
"I'm just outside," Steve promises and ducks his head and leaves.
Clint looks over at Bucky. “You think that was to supposed to reassure you or me?” he asks.
“Him,” Bucky says, and jerks his thumb toward the door.
Clint grins. “Didn’t know you talked.”
Bucky say something that's lost in mumbles. Then he sits silent, looking back at Clint, waiting to be told what's expected of him. Clint's belly twinges. I guess I probably did that too, he thinks. It's not pretty, looking into this mirror of what might have been. He wonders how many of his own friends Bucky Barnes has killed.
"What?" Bucky asks, shrugging, hands palm-up.
Clint shakes his head and stops staring. "Uh. Is that the recipe book?"
Bucky nods. He gets to his feet and comes over to the counter and takes a book out of the bag Steve was holding. The book is old. Really old. Grease stained, the cover, er, covered over in brown paper, also stained, the pages a little bit warped by moisture. Meta Givens' Modern Family Cookbook is scrawled in old-fashioned handwriting on the front.
Bucky sets the book down and opens it to page 626. There’s a black and white photo of a fussy-looking pie on one page, and a couple recipes on the other.
Clint grunts. He flips through the book a bit. “Normally I’d ask if it was a family heirloom or something, but I know it’s not. You just like old recipe books?”
“It was a gift," Barnes says, moving both hands, fingers hooked, and Clint realizes with a jolt that Barnes is signing.
"Wait, you know ASL?"
"Guys went deaf all the time in the war," Barnes says, signing deaf and war. He taps the book. "From someone called Darcy… Darcy Lewis. I don't know her.”
“Huh,” Clint says, nodding at Barnes and then at the book. "Huh," he says again. Both things make sense, he just didn't really expect either of them. Things exploding near your head will break your ears, and an old-fashioned cookbook full of comfort food for time travellers is exactly the kind of thing Darcy Lewis would think of as a great gift. “Okay, well… let’s do this prune-pudding-pie thing.”
They do the prune-pudding-pie and a batch of buttermilk biscuits.
There’s a fair bit of stuff to teach. It turns out concentrated baking powder is a modern thing, so Clint has to modify the biscuit recipe on the fly. The biscuits work out, and the pie looks okay but it is not good. It’s not totally awful either, but it's not what Clint thinks of when he thinks of food. Plus, Clint ate and drank a lot of canned milk as a kid, and there’s something about that taste he’s never going to learn to love. Barnes hesitates half way through his slice, and then looks at Clint. Clint shrugs.
“It’s gross. Don’t eat it.”
Barnes sets down his fork and Clint things he sees him sigh. “Steve’ll eat it," Barnes says, signing eat and indicating the door with his chin.
“Steve’d eat roadkill and ask for seconds.”
Barnes’ mouth turns up so Clint can see a hint of his canines. It’s unnerving. "You're not really a therapist, are you?" he asks suddenly.
"Therapist?" Clint asks, just to be sure.
Barnes nods. "You're not one, are you?"
Clint laughs, then stops and stares at Barnes. "Oh my god. Did someone tell you I was a therapist?"
"No, no, I just…" something something. He's stopped signing, hands twisting together, metal and flesh. "But you are human, right? Not…" something something "…or android, right?"
"Yeah, I don't think they'd make deaf androids. I'm human. Got my eardrums poked out by some mobsters. Never did hear too good and now," he shrugs, "well, let's say I'm a lot harder to distract when I've got a target in my sites."
"But you're an Avenger."
"Yeah," Clint says. He raises his chin as he does. "Best shot in the world."
"Aren't you afraid of me? I could kill you." He signs that.
Clint considers, honestly considers. "You could try. But I don't think you have any idea what a stubborn son of a bitch I am."
Barnes shows more teeth and inclines his head. He leans forward just a little, eyes down, mouth open just a fraction in what Clint realizes with a rush of horror is a confessional kind of posture.
"I told you I'm not a therapist," he says, but Barnes has already started.
“Your pie crust,” he says, slow.
"My, uh, pie crust?" Clint echoes, just to be sure he's got that right.
Barnes is leaning forward in his seat, head half turned, eyes not on Clint’s eyes but on his mouth instead, as if this physically difficult. “Your pie crust… is awful.”
Clint blinks. “Oh yeah?” he asks.
Barnes is gripping the table with both his flesh and metal hands, and the table top is starting to warp. “Like eating dried paint.”
“Oh yeah?" Clint probably shouldn’t be so mad about that, he hates making pie crust. Who cares about pie crust ? Crust is just vessel for the filling. It's like the plate. It's like tupperware. Who insults a man's pie crust anyway? Barnes might be a deadly mind-wiped assassin in recovery, but he’s not getting a free pass on being an asshole. “You think you can do better?”
“A monkey could do better.”
“This coming from the man who tried to put a cup of baking soda in the biscuits. What, you wanted to clean your teeth while you ate?" Barnes glowers. Clint glares back. “You got something to prove?”
“No… don’t gotta prove anything.” Then he grins, grins. “I'm gonna teach you to bake.”
Clint sits back. He folds his arms across his chest. “Alright, let’s make it interesting then. None of this prune-filled nostalgia shit. Real food. Food normal humans can actually eat. No more fucking canned milk. Real recipes.”
“And time limits,” Barnes says, mouth twisting, as if he's snarling, as if he's practically spitting the words. “You bake like…" Clint doesn't hear what he bakes like but he's pretty sure it's not Julia Child. "…two hours. Maximum.”
Clint leans forward too, jabbing a finger at Barnes. He's furious, Barnes is furious. It takes effort to gauge the volume of the voice he can't hear but he's pretty sure he's started yelling. “You’re on, asshole. Bring your best recipe. You’re going to fucking lose.”
Thanks to Abbeyjewel for pointing out that lipreading isn't nearly as good as I imagined. Here's hoping this chapter's a little more realistic!
Chapter 3: Black-strap Molasses and the Wheat Germ Bread
Four weeks ago
Clint probably should have known that anybody who spent any amount of time with Steve Rogers, however long ago that was and however much has changed, couldn’t have lasted in close quarters with Steve unless they were a prankster too. That’s what Clint is thinking when he’s looking at his orange-and-pistachio sponge cake, which is about as thick as his thumb and the texture of an italian roof tile.
He frowns at it, and glances over at Bucky. He’s baking the same thing, some recipe of Jane Foster’s, a kind of middle ground between forties food that nobody makes any more for a damn good reason, and the modern food that Steve and Bucky still face like it’s some kind of weird foreign dish. Well, maybe it is. But Clint’s not feeling really sympathetic just now because Bucky’s version of the same cake looks less like building materials and more like a cake and he’s, well, he’s pissed.
He knows the problem is either the oven (but he checked it and it seemed fine) or the leavening agent. He doesn’t think he forgot to put the baking powder in. He cuts a little sliver of the cake and it’s dry. So dry it sucks all the moisture out of his mouth and leaves him smacking his lips. And then, and then he gets it. And then he fucking gets it. And he reaches for the baking powder and sees the way Bucky stiffens in the shoulders and goes still, and he knows he’s figured it out. He pops open the top of the baking soda and takes a sniff. No smell at all. No fizz in the nose. He licks his finger tip, dips it in, brings it to his mouth. Dry, dry, dry, turning to a kind of goopy putty in his mouth.
“Cornstarch,” he says, turning to Bucky, who’s standing like a sculpture by his own magnificent, towering, fluffy, delicately orange-scented cake. Bucky swallows, his fixed on the wall just past Clint’s head. “You fucking asshole. I’m going to put cyanide in your almond extract.”
“Cyanide vaporizes at high temperatures,” Bucky says and then looks at Clint and after half a heartbeat his mouth turns up just a fraction and his eyes soften and this, Clint guesses, is the nearest shattered Supersoldier and ex-Hydra brainwashee James Buchanan Barnes gets to smiling, ever. And it’s about cyanide. Clint is so, so glad Steve’s not here.
“No poisons. No swapping ingredients. No more recipe sharing,” Clint says. “It’s you versus me.”
Bucky’s smile gets just a little bit bigger. “You’re still going to lose.”
“We’ll just fucking see.”
Clint gets the liquid nitrogen from Tony.
Tony, bless his glowing, atomic heart, doesn’t ask what Clint needs a hundred-and-twenty pounds of compressed liquid nitrogen for, he just delivers the canister to the kitchen, looks at the four cardboard boxes full of grapefruit, and backs slowly away until Clint closes the door. Clint grins and gets to work making liquid nitrogen sorbet. It's just a matter of juicing the fruit, throwing the juice and sugar in a pan and letting it cook a bit. While it's simmering, he settles down at the table with a battered old paperback copy of The Manchurian Candidate and he points the cover at Bucky like a laser beam. He never could resist the opportunity to be an asshole.
Barnes has to come over to where he's sitting to roll out pastry. Clint pretends not to observe that the pastry is so flaky it's falling apart. Barnes pretends the book Clint's reading has absolutely nothing to do with brainwashed assassins. Afterward, when the syrup's done, Clint pulls on the goggles, apron, and gloves, and starts with the liquid nitrogen. When he's done and the steam is clearing, Barnes taps him on the shoulder.
What’s this? he signs.
Clint deploys a smile at him. He uses the smile that is, Natasha once told him, the exact definition of shit-eating grin and Bucky glowers in return.
Clint looks over and has a look at what Bucky’s produced. It's a pie. Raspberries and blueberries in concentric circles. A carefully cut-out star of vanilla ice cream melting in the middle. “You made a Captain America shield pie,” he says. “You planning on winning by sucking up to the judge?”
“I didn’t know we could use anything we wanted,” he says.
“Well you can. Any thing, and any recipe.”
“Fine. You win this time, Barton,” Barnes says.
He can’t hear the tone of his voice, but Clint can see his eyes; steel-grey, ice-cold, almost dead. He should probably be afraid but Captain America shield pie. He starts laughing and can't stop.
Bucky stews the whole way back and in the elevator going up to the floor Steve lives on, he loses it. "That asshole, that smug, smirking asshole," he whispers.
"Huh?" Steve says.
Bucky looks at him. "That Barton guy," he says. Then, before he knows what he’s doing he dissolves into snarling and cursing. “I swear to God, Stevie, I hate him. I hate the way he breathes. I hate the sound of his eyelids blinking.”
Steve stands back, staring, like he’s not sure if that’s supposed to be a joke or not. Good. Bucky’s had enough of the endless caution and the cloying earnestness, and the tear-reddened blue eyes that track his every fucking movement like he thinks Bucky’s some kind of car made of glass and he doesn’t know how to drive himself.
“Maybe we can talk about this inside?” Steve asks after Bucky’s had to pause to catch his breath. His head is full of that blond guy, Clint, and that fucking grin, so sure of himself, so cocky. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that someone should be so sure of themselves even though they're not quick enough to notice someone switching out ingredients. It's not fair he should be human and unenhanced and mortal and not be afraid of him. Bucky’s the fucking Winter Soldier and if he's not that he doesn't know what he is. He's not even sure where he is in time and space sometimes. And when he's with Clint it's like he's nobody.
“I’m gonna do it,” Bucky rasps. “I’m gonna fucking do it.”
“Do what, Buck?” Steve’s voice is soft and low and very, very cautious.
“No more… no more canned milk. No more old recipes. He gets liquid nitrogen, I get good stuff too. I gotta… I'm gonna. I'm gonna kick his ass." He's panting, so angry he's shaking. He's the Winter fucking Soldier and Barton treats him like he's just some guy. "You gotta get me the internet, Stevie.”
Steve stares at him, stares at him as if Bucky’d just called Steve’s sainted ma a nasty name. Then his mouth twists up into a grin.
“Okay, Buck. I can get you the internet.”
Chapter 4: Everybody Eats
Three weeks ago
When Clint comes into the kitchen the next time, Bucky’s threading a plug between the mixer and the juicer to reach the wall socket. He looks a little different. He’s had a shower, for one, and his hair is pulled back from his face in a sloppy, elastic-band-bound pony tail that makes Clint’s fingers itch.
Bucky plugs in the machine and it thumps and whirs and then settles and Clint can feel the way it hums by the vibrations on the counter top. He goes over to have a look.
Clint’s never seen anything like it, not in person anyway. It’s the kind of machine you see on TV, on hospital dramas. He frowns at it.
“What the fuck is that?” he asks.
Bucky looks at him, that faint smile (it’s smugness Clint realizes with a jolt. The fucking bastard is smug) on his face.
“It’s called a centrifuge,” Bucky says. He gives Clint a faint and heavy-lidded smile.
“You should fix your hair,” Clint says, because it’s the only thing he’s got. Bucky’s smile gets a little bigger.
Scared? he signs.
Maybe a little. But Clint’s not going to tell him that.
Steve says polite things about Clint’s carefully constructed mille foille, but the fact is, he moans the whole way through the first dozen of Bucky’s doughnuts. Clint is so fucking glad he can't actually hear the noises. Barnes sits with his arms folded over his chest and smirking at Clint, his hair still tangled up in the stupid red elastic band. The combination of Captain America making sex faces and Bucky Barnes smirking at him is too much for Clint. He lurches to his feet.
"I gotta go."
“Mmfh,” Steve says, grabbing his arm. “You should take some for Coulson.”
Barnes' smirk-size doubles. Clint snatches a couple doughnuts off the table and stalks out. He eats one of them on the way over to the SHIELD office. He has to admit they’re actually incredibly good.
“Taste this,” Clint orders, marching into Coulson’s office without so much as a knock on the door. Coulson looks up from a three-inch stack of paper work, nonplussed. Clint sees Coulson make note of Clint’s expression, posture, and then the doughnut. Clint gestures with one hand and signs with the other, Eat it.
It’s a plain doughnut. Fat, a little shiny with grease.This is how you know I love and trust you, Coulson signs. He takes the doughnut, looks at it, then at Clint, and then bites in.
Clint watches his face. Coulson’s got little tells, little things he does when he’s happy or annoyed, and Clint’s gotten good at them in the year and some they’ve been more than just working together, but he doesn’t need any of that experience. None of it. Coulson’s eyes go wide. He looks down at the doughnut, chewing as he does.
“Wow,” he says after a moment. “Wow. That’s…" something something "fantastic. Caramel and salt and…?" something something "…rosemary?” He looks at Clint again, and Clint sees him get it. “Oh,” he says. "Barnes made this."
“He used a centrifuge to liquify pistachios and rosemary so he could make a smooth filling. A centrifuge.” He grits his teeth. “And my favourite paring knife has disappeared." He puts both hands on Coulson's desk. "Bucky Barnes is a problem.”
“Well, you're the one who agreed to…"
Yeah yeah, he did.
"…strategy, Barton. It’s not like you not to see the big picture.”
Clint slumps into the guest chair. “Throw me a bone, boss," he sighs. "What’s the big picture? And don’t say we're team building, because the way things are going we’re going to kill each other.”
Coulson smiles. You're competitive, Coulson signs, Both of you.
Clint frowns. “I guess?”
Bake the same thing, get an impartial judge, declare a winner.
Ok? Clint signs, a little hesitantly.
“Make… I don't know, make banana bread.”
Banana, Coulson signs, bread.
Why banana bread?
“I love good banana bread."
"You're not an impartial judge."
"No but I'll be the beneficiary of your practice runs."
Clint nods. He smiles a little. Some of the coiled jealousy about the doughnut is starting to slip away. “Banana bread,” he says. A little factoid buried deep in the back of his brain comes bobbing to the surface. Something about Steve and bananas when he was just unfrozen. Something about bananas not being the way the used to be. It's not technically cheating.
Coulson’s looking at him side-eyed. “Barton.” It’s not a question, it’s a warning.
“Banana bread," he says, nodding. "Good idea." He gets to his feet. "Gotta go. I gotta see a doctor."
Coulson frowns like he knows Clint's up to something.
Be careful, he signs.
It warms Clint's heart.
He texts Steve's phone, since Barnes doesn't have one.
-Barnes: You, me, banana bread. Impartial judge. One winner.
-He says you're on. Steve answers. And he says you're toast.
-Tell him talking shit like that's going to make losing suck even more.
-Tell him yourself.
He finds Bruce Banner in the downstairs lab at Stark Tower. Not that downstairs lab, the other, other downstairs lab. The one with all the red lights in cages on the walls. The one that can be sealed in concrete if it has to be. This place always makes him edgy.
“Clint?” Bruce asks, smiling in his earnest way. “What brings you all the way down here?”
Bruce is good with Clint's deafness. He speaks with careful enunciation but doesn't over do it, and he looks Clint in the face when he's talking, rather than looking all over the place and turning his head like most people do. He signs a little bit when he talks. He's not good at reading signs, but he's getting better.
“You're a foodie,” Clint says. "Well, the big guy's a foodie."
Bruce smiles that lopsided, slightly ashamed smile he wears when he gets talking about the Hulk, “He eats a lot. But he's not exactly…” something something about writing.
“What's the best banana bread you guys ever had?”
Bruce blinks at him. He scratches under his hair for a minute. Then he straightens up and laughs a little. “Funny story. It was at a nuclear medicine conference."
Clint's not sure he read that right. "What medicine?"
"Nuclear," he says again. "It was actually Marie Curie's personal recipe. It was remarkable… and the paper was on using localized time disturbances…" something something Clint can't follow. "…cancer… fascinating.” His broad brow scrunches up. “Wait. Why?”
“I need that recipe.”
“Well the recipe is … the Musee Curie…" something something "…her papers are incredibly radioactive.”
Clint feels himself leaning toward Bruce. “Reeeally?”
Bruce looks startled. He signs radio and then active.
"I heard ya."
Bruce turns his head a little and squints at Clint.
Clint shrugs. “Hard to get to recipe? Best ever? That's great. Thanks." He grins at Bruce. "I’ll save you some.”
“You’re not going to make it,” Bruce says.
"Yeah, the bread. You're not going to."
"Uh, yeah I am.”
“It’s not a published recipe. You’d have to…" something something. Bruce is gesturing, not signing, and Clint gets the impression that whatever it is he'd have to do if he wanted to see the recipe and he cared about doing things the normal way, it would take a lot of effort. "…to even see it.”
“Noted,” Clint says, grinning.
Bruce reaches out as if to grab him but stops before he does. “There's no talking you out of this is there?”
Bruce looks at him and sighs. When he speaks he does so loud enough for Clint to hear a buzzing in the one ear, and signs with careful precision. “One: I did not tell you anything about the recipe or the Musee Curie. Two: I did not notice that one of the grey Class-2 hazard suits went missing.”
"Musee Curie. Grey class-2 hazard suit. No. No you did not."
Bruce shakes his head. Clint beams.
And when he tells Natasha he’s got to be away for a bit, and gives her a burner phone and says he’ll be offline for eleven hours and then he’ll check in every hour and if he doesn’t check in he’s probably in jail in France, she rolls her eyes and signs, This is about the baking thing, isn’t it?
It's about my pride.
"Does Coulson know?”
He shrugs. “Coulson basically suggested it.”
“Yeah.” He’s never been able to out-stare her. “Basically.”
She sighs and slips the phone into her pocket.
“I better not have to go to France to bail you. Or,” she adds, narrowing her eyes at him, and says something else. He shakes his head.
"Say again? My what?"
"Your corpse. Retrieve your corpse," she signs. Then she grabs her phone and types out, Polonium is what Litvinenko was killed with.
He grimaces. "I'll be careful.”
She frowns at him. “And your opponent is…" something something. Probably not cute 'n' fluffy.
Clint grins. “Aw, yeah, but he's on a leash that's clipped to Captain America. He can't get to me. And even if he could, I can take him.”
She shakes her head and signs, famous last words.
Tony, bless his glowing atomic heart, doesn’t ask what Clint needs a paraffin-lined concrete case for. He just delivers it to the kitchen and backs away.
Chapter 5: We'll Meet Again
Lovelies, I'll be updating the tags and warnings as we go because we're going to get a little dark here. We'll get back to the baking and the crazy soon, I promise, but there are a couple things the boys need to do first.
He sneaks aboard a SHIELD flight going out and slips away when they touch down to refuel outside Paris. He should probably have noticed he wasn’t the only one who got off the plane, but he didn’t. He was busy thinking about the air ducts in the Musee Curie, and the problem posed by air filters.
So he gets a bunk at a hostel and sleeps till his clock is right again, and then rolls out of bed, pulls on his coat, checks that his wallet, the folded hazard suit and the concrete box are all in his bag, and goes to do a little recon at the museum. He’s hardly five feet through the door when he notices a couple plain clothes security guys pretending to be real keen on the old-fashioned posters on the walls, their kevlar vests making their coats bunch and stretch in unflattering ways.
Turns out Musee Curie is a small museum, two rooms only. He wasn't sure what he was expecting but not something this teeny. The uniformed security guard plus the two plain-clothes guys actually seems a little excessive. He makes nice at the lady at the admissions stand.
“For one please,” Clint says in French, hoping the volume is about right. It is. She smiles and click a button the computer in front of her.
Someone taps him on the shoulder and he turns. Barnes. Barnes.
"No," Clint says.
"Yes," Barnes answers. He turns a charming smile on the clerk. “Excuse my friend, his French is terrible. For two, please,” he says, and then he pays, too, taking crisp new bills out of a leather billfold to do it. Clint scowls while they banter. Like being a kid again, parents chatting friendly with the neighbors while Clint the Disappointment waits for them to stop making nice, for them to go home, and to get it in the ear.
They get their tickets and turn and start walking and Clint gets a chance to have a good look at him. Barnes has cleaned right up. Shaved the mess on his chin, hair washed and pulled back and tidy. Suit trousers and a tucked-in button-up shirt, sleeves rolled up to elbows, top button undone, coat folded casually over his metal arm. The picture of a young businessman getting a little bit of culture in the middle of the week. Not even a whiff of assassin about him. Certainly looking more trustworthy than Clint, in his slept-in-jeans and his rumpled t-shirt with the purple and white target on it. Which, in retrospect might not be the best item of clothing for someone who sometimes gets shot at. He makes a mental note to file that away and review his wardrobe later.
Barnes turns his head a little. He’s not smirking, and that kind of surprises Clint. Then Barnes smiles that slow, slightly predatory smile he sometimes smiles, the one that shows his canine first and then the rest of his teeth. He pulls on his coat and then pulls his phone from his pocket, opens the photo app, and passes it to Clint. Clint looks. Looks at a picture of a book, of spidery handwriting in blue ink that's badly faded.
3/4 c sugar
1/3 c oil
2 hen’s eggs…
"Are you fucking…?" Clint rolls his eyes and shakes his head at Barnes and Barnes looks back at him steadily and a little smugly and raises his eyebrows.
Asshole, Clint signs, only because he doesn't know the sign for you son of a bitch. He makes a mental note to learn it.
“How the hell?” Clint asks.
Barnes shakes his head just a little, looks at one of the plain-clothes security guards. Not in front of these guys.
Clint nods. They pass the guards and head on into the museum and as they do, Barnes signs, Break in, here, last night.
You? Clint asks.
Barnes smiles faintly and shrugs. And someone else.
Clint frowns, well, that explains the excessive security. What for?
Well this teeny museum is attached to a world-class research facility. Bruce was getting a bit misty-eyed when he was talking about the conference he was at with Curie Institute delegates. Something about cancer and time disturbances, and Clint should probably have been paying a little more attention but he wasn't. Still, seems unlikely a supervillain's going to target a tiny two-room museum in downtown Paris.
Someone grabs his shoulder and they both turn. The guy's young, built in the shoulders but it's all bulk, packed on at the gym. Impressive to look at but it doesn't mean anything when it comes to actual scrapping. "Hey," the guy says, "what's this all about?" He flaps his hands.
Clint's so busy thinking what a dickhead that his French fails him. Barnes says, "My friend is deaf. It's sign language."
The man looks at Barnes, then at Clint, then he looks sharply back at Barnes. And Clint realizes it's because Barnes was using his hands to talk, and the coat slipped back, and his metal arm is showing. The guy's eyes go wide and Clint realizes suddenly that this kid knows who and what Barnes is and that means he's not just some low-rent shoplifting-deterrent.
"Aw, dude, no," Clint says.
The guy steps back and pulls a gun out of his jacket and yells, "Shit! HYDRA's here!" and the other plain clothes guy pulls out a his gun, and puts a bullet in the knee of the security guard, and then points the guy at Clint, but by then it's too late, because Clint and Barnes are moving.
What happens next is a bit of a blur. Clint's never worked with Barnes before, so they kinda fall all over each other. A bit. They both go for the first guy, the one who shouted the warning, but Barnes is faster and he gets there first. Which is fine by Clint, since prefers something he can shoot rather than close-quarters work. He retrieves the gun while Barnes is breaking the guy’s arm and shoulder and Clint pops the second guy in the foot so he drops his gun and falls down, mouth open in a howl that Clint can’t hear.
Barnes taps him on the shoulder. He’s looking a little less put together now, a little flushed in the face, and he’s grinning.
Ok? he signs.
Clint nods. You?
He follows. Barnes seems to have got the whole place sussed out. They go across the garden, to the more modern buildings, one of them with the words Hopital Institute Curie above the door, in stone. Lights are flashing inside. He’s pretty sure alarms are going off too, it’s just that he can’t hear them. He taps Barnes on the arm.
And he remembers. Banner said something about advanced nuclear something something what the hell was it? They flank the door. Clint can see people lying on the floor, hands clasped over their heads. People in lab coats and people in suits and people in jeans and people in hospital gowns. Barnes catches his eye. He flashes three fingers. Clint smiles. They go in, both of them fire one shot, and the third one surrenders. Barnes does the talking. They leave the gunman with the people who had been his hostages and get walking.
Where? Clint asks.
Barnes frowns. He mouths something and Clint has no idea what that’s supposed to mean. He shakes his head. Barnes tugs his arm and Clint follows.
Five gunmen, Barnes signs, but just as he does it, Clint sees the shape in the exposed beams of the ceiling and gets the shot off faster than the sniper. The guy lands on the linoleum like a sack of sand.
Four, he corrects.
Barnes inclines his head and they keep going, one after the other, leap-frogging their way through the hospital.
There are two men in army-surplus fatigues stationed by the reception desk in the nuclear medicine wing. One of the nurses is dead, still sitting in her chair. The other three are huddled into a corner and the two gunmen are ready for trouble. Maybe they heard Clint’s shot in the far hall. One of them pulls a nurse to his feet and puts his gun to the trembling guy’s head.
Barnes doesn’t hesitate. Neither does Clint. They’re the only two who get shots off.
Ok? Barnes asks.
He nods. You?
They collect ammunition. Barnes says something to the nurses. Two of them are talking to him, answering questions in frantic, stunned, halting ways. The third looks at Clint. Thank you she signs. Clint nods. She signs, They’re in there, and points at the door across the hall.
It’s dangerous there.
“Radiation?” he asks, suddenly really glad he brought that hazard suit with him.
She nods. “Well, yes, that too,” she says. She grabs a pamphlet from a stand at the desk and stuffs it into his hands. He looks at it, frowning.
Localized Retrograde Time Therapy (LRTT) uses carefully managed time disturbances to return the cells involved in tumor development to their previous non-cancerous state. He stares are the pamphlet and then at her.
"It's a fucking time machine," he says. In English. Either she speaks English or she's reading his expression, because she shrugs.
"Well of course people are going to want to steal it!" he shouts. Barnes touches his shoulder.
“Come on,” he say, he points at the door. “Two in there.”
Clint nods. He shakes his head at the nurse and follows Barnes to the door.
Inside, it's like an MRI room, a main chamber and a booth off to the side. There's a dead person in scrubs in the booth, and two gunmen in the main chamber. And in that main chamber is something large, and nebulous, and glowing with a soft, pulsating light that's beautiful and soothing and Clint hates the sight of it and won't, won't let himself admire the way it softens everything, the way it beats like a heart at rest, won't let himself feel an ache of longing for something like that, but something soft and blue.
Barnes looks at him. He frowns. Clint doesn’t need him to sign. He nods. Let's go.
They push through the door. Maybe the hinges squeak or something, because the gunmen turn to look at them. Barnes takes the first shot, since he gets into the room first, and Clint takes the second. It’s not that he misses, because he doesn’t miss. It’s that the guy was getting his rifle up, and so he twists as he falls. He lands on the platform that’s holding the glowing white light off the ground, and when he does something huge and subsonic begins to shake him, his belly, his eyes, the whole room. And then the guy sort of stretches, like ink getting washed down a drain. His shoulder gets sucked into the light, then the light is expanding, sucking in more of the guy, and filling up the room so that all Clint can see is white, white, white and he has time to think, Oh Clint, you dummy, before he throws himself to the ground beside Barnes and lets the blast wave blow over him.
Barnes is shaking him. So they’re both alive. Hurray.
He opens his eyes. Next to him is the dead guy, his army-surplus fatigues all blackened with blood, rifle just out of arm’s reach. He groans, rolls over, and finds himself looking up at charred rafters. Charred rafters. Charred rafters?
He groans. “What happened?”
Barnes catches his hand and pulls him sitting up right. Clint looks around. Everything is dark. Charred. Everything is charred. And this isn’t a hospital, it’s the burnt-out shell of something else, like maybe a barn. All the light is coming from somewhere on his left, orange, changeable, like a fire.
“What the fuck?” Clint hopes he’s not yelling, but he’s not sure about anything just now.
Barnes shakes his head. “No fucking idea,” he says. His eyes are wide, whites visible all round the iris, like he’s just keeping it together. Just. Somewhere something shakes the ground, and a little ash comes sifting down from the rafters. More light, too. A flash, and then a dull sort of darkness again.
A shadow detaches itself from the darkness behind Barnes. Someone in uniform, holding a rifle, finger just above the trigger. He steps into the light and Clint can see his face.
“Hey fellas. Why don’t you introduce yourselves?”
The guy holding the rifle is Bucky Barnes.
Chapter 6: All that Meat and No Potatoes
Wow, okay, WOW. Thank you guys for the help and feedback on ASL and Deaf culture things that you're leaving in the comments. I'm learning so much, and I'm so grateful. I'll try to improve the realism as I go. Thank you so much!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
This is what they warned him about. The time device. Supposedly to force localized time shifts for cancer, apparently also desirable for people who didn’t like how the second world war ended, or anybody who’s got a beef with the way things are today. He can’t believe they didn’t anticipate this kind of attack. Might as well give the tesseract to a preschool.
He helps Clint sit up and Clint looks dazed and angry for a second, then his eyes go wide. Something narrow and cold presses against Bucky's head and he smells gun oil.
“Hey fellas,” Bucky hears his own voice say. “Why don’t you introduce yourselves?”
And Bucky… Bucky can’t even breathe.
“Holyshitdon'tshoot,” Clint blurts. “I mean, uh, I’m Clint Barton. That’s my, uh, my brother Barney. Don't shoot, okay?”
“Clint, Barney. Nice to meet you. And who’s that fella over there?”
Bucky hears the sound of himself pointing with the gun. Clint looks over at the body that came through first. “That’s, uh, well that's a dead guy,” he says.
Bucky stares at Clint. Bucky has never liked Clint before. He’s tolerated him, loathed him, envied him, and harboured deeply violent thoughts about him, but never liked him. And now, wow, he's changing his opinion on Clint Barton.
“You guys sound American.”
"American?" Clint asks. Then he nods. "Yeah. We're American."
"Where you from?"
“New York,” Bucky says, voice finally working again.
“Didn’t ask you," his younger self says, all surly. "I asked him.”
“Okay, but you should know he's deaf, sometimes he'll get what you're saying and sometimes he won't.”
"Huh?" Clint asks.
"What?" Bucky says.
"I said what side…" He hears his younger self sigh. Then, "I said what side you deaf on?" he shouts.
"Both." Clint says. "Don't bother shouting."
Bucky stifles a laugh. In the jumble of memories in his brain he does, vaguely, remember this. Autumn, maybe winter. Separated from the 107th. The burnt out barn. The hedgerow outside with the sniper in it somewhere. Waiting, pinned down, starving. Spooks appearing out of thin air. He'd thought it was some kind of a dream. He got real sick in the barn and he could never really figure out what parts had been real and what parts had been all in his head.
He pitches his voice soft. He'd been scared, damn scared. “Clint’s deaf but I hear fine. Don’t shoot, okay? I know you’re scared, you…” he was going to say, you don’t have to be scared of us, but he can’t bring himself to say it. If he’d come face to face with his future self and found out what was coming, he might have topped himself before anybody could do what they did to him. “You and me both,” he says instead. "Look, we're armed but we're not gonna hurt you." He holds up both hands to show they're empty.
“What the… what the hell is on your hand?”
The metal. Of course. “It's a falsie. Train accident.”
A pause. “Okay. Okay, who you with?”
Bucky breathes out, not quite relieved, not yet, but considerably less afraid. The memory is coming back to him, he remembers how this goes. Kind of. From the other side. It's a little dizzying. “We're not with anybody you’re going to know, but we’re on the same side.”
“Well you’d better gimme a reason not to shoot you then.”
Surly little jackass. “Sure," Bucky says, already taking against himself. "How 'bout because you can’t."
“The hell I can’t.”
“How? You’re out of ammo.”
Bucky raises an eyebrow at Clint and Clint closes his hanging mouth and smothers a smile. There's a pause, and Bucky hears himself shift the rifle again.
“Look," Bucky says, "there’s a sniper somewhere in the hedge on the north side of the barn.” He shares a look with Clint, a look that says, I’m going for it. Clint closes his eyes shakes his head just a little. “Your file says you’re a good shot. He’d be dead by now and you’d be gone, if you had ammo.”
“My… my file?”
“You’re James Buchanan Barnes, Sergeant, 107th. Thought you’d sit tight till they came back for you, didn’t you? Since they’re…” it was some kind of a raid across lines. Planting bombs on a dam, maybe. He can’t remember. “They’re busy but they’ll be coming back this way.”
He feels the gun come away from the back of his head. He hears his younger self sigh.
“How do you know all this shit?”
Bucky can't remember exactly how he ended up in the barn, only that he did. He goes for vague. "Him and me, we do cloak and dagger stuff. We wanted to get you separated out. For special training." He hears his younger self laugh, weak and shaky. "James, if I was gonna hurt you I'd'a pretended to believe you had bullets and then jumped you when you weren't ready, right? So why don't you just stand down. It's cold and you're hungry." Bucky nods at Clint. "You got anything to eat in that bag?” He signs as he says it and Clint nods.
Bucky waits while Clint digs around in the bag. The bag is full of the weirdest collection of crap. A concrete box, some kind of ventilator… finally Clint fishes out a protein bar. He tosses it over Bucky’s head and Bucky hears his younger self catch it. He hears the wrapper crinkle apart and the sound of frantic and undignified eating. Get used to being hungry, he thinks. Get used to starving. It’s all ahead of him. All of it. Everything. It occurs to him that he could stop it. Stop Zola. Stop the Winter Soldier before he's even created. He could save himself.
But if it wasn’t him, it would have been somebody else. Maybe it’d’ve been Steve they got. Steve who suffered like Bucky suffered. Who became what he became. And maybe there’d be no saving him, and no second chances.
He swallows, pushing down what’s coming up in his stomach. Then he turns, and finally gets a look at himself.
His younger self stops eating and stares, and Bucky, he can’t stop staring back. The man before him isn’t a man. He’s a kid really. Unscarred and unlined face, lean and strong and whole. He looks tired and he looks scared, but he looks arrogant too, jaw forward, lips pressed together, head canted at a cocky angle. So that's how he looked before his eyes got haunted and his skin got scarred. Before everything. Like the guy in the photographs at the Smithsonian.
Suddenly Clint laughs, too loud and too long. “You know, you guys sure look alike.”
His younger self smiles a little. “Yeah, guess we do,” he says and then stuffs the rest of the bar in his mouth. Bucky knows he ought to say something but he can't. He looks at Clint and Clint looks back at him and then he grins a dazzling, showman's grin up at Bucky's younger self.
Barnes looks like he's going to be sick, and when he looks at Clint there's no mistaking the desperate unspoken help me. Clint doesn't like the guy, but you don't have to like somebody to feel kinda sorry for them. Must be a hell of a thing to come face to face with yourself before you were tortured so bad you lost everything about yourself, even your name. He pastes on a grin and looks up.
“So you got a sniper problem, huh James?” he asks. “Well I can fix that.” He reaches for the rifle that fell beside the dead guy and has a look at it. When he turns around, Bucky's metal hand is wrapped around James' upper arm and they're glaring at each other. It's… weird.
“What's going on?" Clint asks.
Barns scowls. "James didn't want you to …" something about the gun.
"Since James has no idea who we are, that seems reasonable,” Clint says.
James looks at Clint, then at the rifle. It's not just the bad light in the barn. James is pale.
“Listen,” James says. “If you’re gonna…” something something something. He moves real slow, pulls an envelope from the interior pocket of his uniform coat and holds it out to Clint. The paper amplifies the slight shaking of his hand. He looks Clint in the eyes. “It's a letter. For somebody back home." His mouth twists just a little and he smothers it, takes a breath through his nose. "Last request.”
Clint looks at the envelope and then shakes his head at him. "We're not going to kill you."
"You're tired," Barnes says, putting a hand on his shoulder and turning James to face him as he talks "… jumping at shadows…" Clint can't hear the rest.
But Barnes talks, looking down just a little, into his own eyes, and his face is as kind and earnest as Clint's ever seen it. Barnes gestures. James puts the envelope back into his pocket. He shrugs, hands flopping as he does. He nods, then shakes his head and starts back across the barn, keeping to the shadows, and behind broken spars and charred-up pieces of old farm machinery. Barnes signals to Clint and they follow.
James has made a kind of little nest with his coat and his rucksack. The empty wrappers from his rations have been carefully twisted into firelighters and set inside an empty ammunition box. James drops down onto his coat and looks up at both of them, still bewildered.
"Go to sleep," Barnes says. "We'll keep an eye out."
James looks from Barnes to Clint and back again. He leans back against the blackened side of the barn and pulls his cap down low, then folds his arms over his chest.
Barnes stares at James, Clint sees the breath coming and going out of him, making his shoulders rise and fall. Clint taps him on the arm.
"What?" Barnes asks.
You ok? Clint signs.
A small shake of the head. No.
We can't save him.
I know. Barnes chews his bottom lip. He sighs. Get some sleep.
Clint nods. He settles down shoulder-to-shoulder with James and feels James tense up at the contact, and then, after a minute, relax. Clint closes his eyes. A half a second later, James nudges him. He opens one eye and looks at the kid. James has pushed back his cap so he can see Clint. "My pal Stevie's got a bad ear," he says, slow and careful. "And guys go deaf all the time, with the shelling and all. You, uh, you wanna teach me some of those hand signs?"
Clint considers this. He looks up at Barnes and then back at James. Something clicks into place. He nods.
James opens and closes his mouth and then says, "You're really not going to kill me?"
Clint grins. "Not anymore."
Barnes scowls at him, but James nods. He pulls his cap back down and leans closer to Clint, shivering a bit, and then goes out like a light.
Around dawn, Barnes shakes Clint awake. He's hungry, Barnes signs. Going to get food. Coming?
Leave him? Clint signs back, pointing at James, who's lying curled in a ball with his back to the wall, shivering. Well, it's cold.
Barnes grins. I survived.
Clint grins back. He gets to his feet and shrugs out of his brightly coloured coat. Barnes does the same, except his coat is sensible black, not red with a white stripe, but it's a suit coat, and they're restrictive. Clint takes them both and settles them over James, and James doesn't even stir, but his shivering ebbs. They look at each other, him and Barnes, and shrug almost at the same time. Together, they head out into the sodden grey dawn.
Clint's pretty sure he knows where he'd be hiding if he was a snipers, so they avoid the sight lines from that position, and he marks the place in his mind and he and Barnes slip off down the pockmarked road, between broken buildings, shelled and burnt and standing like broken teeth along the side of the road. There Barnes pauses, looking around him, then he points and Clint follows him to a building that's still got three walls standing. Inside, shelves. Canned things. Some fresh things, well, fresh-ish.
Barnes grabs his shoulder and points at a fan of badly browned bananas. Stumpy little things that look pretty unappetizing. Clint frowns at Barnes and Barnes, well… Clint's never seen joy on Barnes' face but this might almost be it.
No, says Clint.
Yes! says Barnes.
Clint sighs and opens his bag. They grab three cans of "tinned luncheon meat" and the lone can of pineapple pieces too, before they head back to the barn.
When they get back, James is still lying under their coats, still sleeping. He doesn't wake up till Clint's had a good look at the rifle he's going to be using, and Barnes starts kindling the fire. Then he sits up and scrubs his face with his hands and nods at them. "Thanks, fellas," he says. "I needed that." Clint thinks he actually looks worse than he did before. More pale in the face, more darkness under the eyes.
While Barnes cooks up the meal, Clint gets settled where he can see the sniper nest. After a minute, James crawls up beside him and Clint looks over. Then he shifts over and gestures, and James scoots in behind the rifle. Clint moves James' body like a doll's. He fixes the way his shoulder is already anticipating the recoil of the gun, and his grip. He pushes hard on the small muscles of James' shoulder blades to get them to relax. James settles and Clint taps out a heartbeat time on James' arm so that he can feel the moments when he's truly still, between breath and heart beating. They wait. James doesn't take the first two shots, but near noon he takes the third. It's perfect.
That night, they're sitting around eating the Bucky Barnes version of spam exotique and talking quietly about New York and Barnes is glaring at James like he'd like to punch him. James has noticed, but he hasn't said anything, he just talks more to Clint than Barnes.
"Homesick?" Clint asks at one point.
James shrugs. "Maybe a little. There's somebody there. Somebody I… wanna take care of, you know?" he smiles, lopsided and fond.
And that's when Clint gets it. He gets it and it's awful. It's a private thing, something that's none of his business but now he knows and he can't help looking at Barnes, who's looking away. And now Clint knows who the letter was for, and has a good idea of what it said. And now he knows why Steve couldn't bring himself to give up in spite of all the terrible things the Winter Soldier had done, why he went nuts tearing the world apart to try to find him and bring him in. And now he knows why Hydra sent the Winter Soldier after him in the first place. Not just to kill him, to destroy him.
You, Barnes catches his eye by pointing at him. Shut up.
Clint nods. Ok.
James looks at Clint. “What did he say?”
“He told me to shut up.”
James looks at Bucky and shakes his head. “You’re a real piece of work, Barney,” he says. He looks at Clint. “You were gonna teach me hand signs. How do I sign that one?”
Clint grins and shows him the sign for asshole.
Bucky watches Clint's instruction, and James' halting efforts to learn, and after a while they get tired and give up, and then there's nothing to do but sleep. The rain goes gurgling down the burnt and broken boards, but they’re in a dryish corner and it's not as bad as it could be. Clint lies down and goes to sleep in a heartbeat. James sighs and rubs a hand over his face and Bucky knows he's feeling nauseated now. He'll be sick tomorrow morning.
"You should get some sleep," Bucky tells him.
"Didn't take my turn at watch last night," James says.
"Don't worry about it."
James shrugs. He slides down onto his side and pillows his head with his arm. He closes his eyes and some of the tension softens out of his face. Just a kid, Bucky thinks again. Just a kid, and in a year, less than a year… Zola. And the train. And the end of the world.
He pulls off his coat and folds it over a few times. “Hey,” he whispers, “lift up your head.”
James opens his eyes and frowns at him but does as he’s told. Bucky slips the makeshift pillow under and James settles back down on it. He looks at Bucky a while, eyes half closed.
“What?” Bucky asks at last.
“I can’t tell if you like me or you hate me,” James mumbles. "Dunno if I care. But I can’t shake the feeling that I know you from somewhere. You say you're from Brooklyn too? No way you're really Clint's brother, but maybe we've got relations.”
Bucky thinks about this. And he thinks about his memories. He sighs. He got sick in the barn and had weird, weird dreams. Dreams that kind of stuck with him, even through some of the wipes. Bucky leans forward and looks at what passes for a fire pit. “No," he says. "No, we don't. Fact is I'm you, from the future."
James goes very still. "I'm cracking up now aren't I?" he asks quietly. "This is shell shock, isn't it?"
"No. Listen to me, James. You got a mouth on you, and one day it’s gonna get you into a hell of a lot of trouble. And you got a problem with wanting to protect people, whether or not they’re worth protecting. And you’re loyal. Too damn loyal. And someday somebody’s gonna use that against you.”
“Hey now…” James says, frowning.
“Shut up," Bucky says. "Listen to me. You… you’re James Buchanan Barnes, okay? Don’t you ever forget.”
He laughs softly. “Barney,” he says shaking his head, “You must think I’m a real sucker if you think I’d ever forget my own name.”
Bucky looks down at his hands. “When you threw in with that skinny kid from Brooklyn, the one who never knew when to run? You threw in with the right guy.” He feels sick. There's nothing he can give to James that isn't going to get taken away, except, except maybe this. He gulps a little air and swallows. “Just. Just try and remember that. No matter what. That and your name.”
When he looks over at James, James is looking at him, eyes mostly closed. “How do you know about Stevie?"
"This whole thing?" Bucky says, waving his hand as if to take it all in. "It's a dream. You've been sick. None of this is real."
"This is the weirdest damn dream I ever had,” he whispers. "Must be a hell of a fever."
"Yeah it is. Now get some shut-eye."
James swallows and his eyes drift closed and his breathing comes slow and regular. Bucky keeps watch beside him.
In the middle of the night he hears them, the 107th, moving quiet on the road. He goes to the side of the barn that faces the road and sees the way the shadows move and drift. He wakes Clint. Let’s go, he signs. Clint nods. He sits up and pulls his bag toward him. He looks inside, frowns, and starts unpacking the bananas.
No, he says. Bring them.
Clint rolls his eyes and shrugs.
Bucky goes back over to James and kneels down. "Hey," he whispers, "time to get up." He slips the jacket out from under James' head.
"Huh?" James answers, rising, slow, bleary. "Oh man." He breathes in sharply. "Oh man." Then James is crawling away from the little nest to violently, noisily throw up everything he's eaten in the last little while. Outside the barn, Bucky hears one of the 107th whistle the stop signal.
He turns to Clint, ready to sign hide but something's changed and they're not in the dark any more.
Natasha takes precautions. And when Natasha is talking about precautions, she means taking a small tranquilizer gun loaded with a hulkbusting dose of sedative. She likes Bruce Banner, but she’s not quite as good with the big guy.
She takes the elevator down to the lab and looks around. “Bruce?” she calls. He appears, head poking up from the far side of the open door of some kind of chamber, a pair of magnifying goggles making him look fish-eyed.
“Natasha. Hi, hello. Welcome. Just about done. Probably better if you stay over by the door till I get this closed up.”
She folds her arms across her chest and leans against the elevator frame. “Do you know where Clint is?”
Bruce looks up again, and his surprised expression is made cartoonish by the distortion of the goggles. He reaches up and pulls them off, so they sit perched on his forehead and he can look at her.
“Well, you’d be the only one. He was supposed to check in with me every hour, but he’s late. Going on very late.”
Bruce steps back from his work and closes the door, then spins the dial to lock it. He pulls off the goggles and peels off his lab coat.
“Shouldn’t you have a lead vest on or something?” she asks.
He smiles. “I’m practically a gamma source myself,” he says. She shifts where she’s standing. “Talk to me about Clint?”
“He’s missing. Last I heard he was going to France with one of your radiation suits.”
“Yeah,” Bruce says, eyes straying to the line of grey suits hanging from pegs on the walls. “Yeah.”
“You know where he was going?”
“Musee Curie,” Bruce says. “Uh, you’re going to find this a little hard to believe, but he was going to get a banana bread recipe.”
She looks at him. Bruce looks back at her with that I’m givin’ it to you straight look. “He’s a way overdue for a check in. Barton knows better. The only reason he's not checking in is because he can't.”
"Musee Curie is attached to a research institute that works with some very serious materials. If he did something…"
"Bartonesque?" she suggests. Bruce smiles.
"Yes. He'd be in big trouble. Are you going after him?”
Bruce pulls off his glasses and polishes them on his shirt. He looks through the lenses and winces, goes over to a work bench, unearths a cloth, and cleans them again. “Look, I’m the one who told him about the recipe, and I know one of the directors at the research centre. If Clint's been Bartonesque and gotten arrested, I might be able to talk her out of pressing charges.”
She looks him up and down. “How soon can you be ready?”
“We can go now.”
They're standing on linoleum and Clint feels himself grinning. He looks at Barnes. Barnes looks like he’s going to be sick. He leans on Clint, the metal arm gripping so hard it's almost crushing.
“Ow, Barnes, ow, stop.”
And Barnes looks helpless and wretched, his eyes are wide, the deep creases of his forehead all scrunched up. “I left him there,” he whispers. “I left him.”
“You had to. You can’t fuck around with time.” Barnes is shaking his head and Clint’s aware that he’s losing it. “Barnes, listen to me. You’re made up of what happened to you, you get it? It’s all your stuff. It’s what you get to work with so you just have to make it work.”
“It’s over, that’s the past. It’s already done.”
Barnes blinks a few times, breathing hard, a little moisture appearing at the corner of one of his eyes, then he looks sharply away.
And it occurs to Clint that some of the Winter Soldiers kills are, in some way, kind of his fault. He sighs. He looks around to distract himself because he feels like chasing that tail might make him crazy.
They're in a room a little bigger than the room with the time machine and a lot smaller than the barn. There's fluorescent lights, and a couple tables and chairs, and some big equipment, and some signs on the wall. The signs are the first thing he notices. They're not in French, they're in English. He looks around again, pays more attention this time. There's a couple big reel-to-reel machines with big, studio-style headphones hanging off racks near by.
He stares. He knows this place. He’s been here before.
“Jesus,” he whispers.
Barnes looks at him. Maybe he says something, but Clint’s not paying attention. He pushes by Barnes and goes out into the waiting room that’s beyond. And yeah, there he is.
He stops and stares.
He’s six, or near enough as makes no difference. Sitting on the orange moulded plastic chair in the sunlight spilling through one of the high hospital windows, yellow hair a halo of static. He’s wearing jeans torn up on both knees, a grass-stained t-shirt, and a blue coat over the works. He's bored, Clint remembers how endless the waits always seemed to be. He's got his knees pulled up to his chin and he's playing idly with the worn-out velcro of his shoes, and looking across the waiting room at the gift shop on the other side. Waiting for the nurse to call him.
It’d be sort of Rockwellesque image if Clint didn’t know that six year old boy was waiting to see the audiologist because his dad beat him up too hard. If Clint didn't know that the reason he hadn't taken off his coat was because his arms were still covered in bruises.
Barnes touches his shoulder. Clint looks at him.
You? he signs.
Clint nods. He’s clenching his teeth so hard his jaw hurts. He flexes it. He looks around. His dad is here somewhere. Somewhere.
Be right back.
Hand on his shoulder. He shrugs out of it, glares. Barnes doesn’t care.
Don’t mess with time, he signs.
Clint points at him and then withdraws. I just want to see my dad.
Barnes nods, a little cautiously.
Clint nods back. He knows where his dad will be. He’ll be out in the parking lot sitting half in and half out of the car, drinking. Because that’s what he did. He drank to be steady and he drank to put up with the kids, and he was wasted when he hit Clint too hard too many times on the side of the head and ruined his hearing on the left side. Wasted.
Clint’s shaking by the time he gets to the doors, but when he sees the red car and the door propped open, and the man with his elbows resting on his knees socking back another cheap beer and finishing up a cigarette, he goes very cold and he knows better than to keep walking.
He stops. He sits on the low stone wall by the bus stop. He watches the drunk getting drunker while his kid waits to hear if he's going to be deaf forever on the one side. Both of them already know the answer.
Two more years, give or take, till the accident. By then Harold Barton will have smacked out two of Barney's adult teeth and knocked the hearing out of Clint.
Maybe Clint didn’t notice his little, snotty-nosed doppleganger watching them while they signed, but Bucky did. When Clint takes off, Bucky goes and sits down by the kid.
Little Clint squirms in his orange plastic seat. He looks at his shoes and plays with the velcro a bit. Scriiiitch, scriiitch, scrii…ii…ii…ii…itch. He looks over at Bucky.
“You deaf?” the boy shouts at him. A few heads turn, but most people glance over and then pretend not to have noticed.
“No,” Bucky says.
“Me neither,” Clint says. He’s talking to his shoes.
“Right,” Bucky says quietly.
“If you’re not deaf why’d’ya know sign language?”
“My friend is deaf,” Bucky says.
Little Clint looks over at him and looks him up and down and frowns at him, snub-nosed, pugnacious. “Dunno who’d wanna be friends with a deaf guy,” he says. If his expression is supposed to be fierce it’s not. It’s miserable. Bucky shrugs.
“Dunno why anybody’d be friends with me.”
Clint looks up. "Why? What's wrong with you?"
Bucky shrugs. "I'm mean," he says. "And I get angry."
"Me too," Clint mumbles.
Bucky sighs. It's warm in the waiting area and the sunlight arrowing through the high windows just makes it warmer. He pulls off his coat and wipes his forehead with his shirtsleeve. Clint's eyes go wide.
“Wow. Wow! Hey, what's wrong with your hand?"
"Nothing wrong with it," Bucky says. "It's better than my other hand."
"So you're like… like Colossus in the comics. Half like him.” He grins. “But you’re not a dirty Red, right? You're a good guy.”
It takes Bucky a second to know how to answer that. He settles on one word: “Right.”
“Wow," Clint says again. He looks back at his shoes and squirms in his chair a bit. "I’d trade ya my dud ear for your metal hand.”
“Don’t think it works like that.”
Clint nods and starts fiddling with the velcro again. Bucky runs out of things to say. He looks over at the gift shop, where a selection of toys are hanging in the window. He's wondering if he needs to start worrying about Clint and his dad. Seems weird that he's not sitting here with his kid, and that a guy with a goddamned red star on his arm, who used to really, really be a bad guy is just sitting here talking to his kid. He starts wondering about Barton senior and his parenting skills.
“That’s a genuine real Robin Hood bow,” Clint tells him softly.
Bucky looks back at the kid. "Huh?"
“A genuine real one," Clint says again, nodding at the gift shop window. Bucky looks. It's green plastic, with a picture of a cartoon fox on it. "With arrows. They’re sucker arrows, though, not real Robin Hood arrows like in the movie. But the bow’s real.”
Something occurs to Bucky. He looks over at Clint. “You want that bow?”
He nods, frowning and earnest. “Yeah. I’m gonna ask Santa.”
And considering what little he's seen of Barton senior, Bucky's not about to leave something that important up to Santa. He pushes himself to his feet. The money he’s got in his wallet isn’t going to be right for the era, but if he can change baking soda for cornstarch while Clint is standing talking to him, he can manage this. “Ask Santa to bring you more arrows,” he says, and goes into the gift shop.
When he comes back out, little Clint is gone and big Clint is coming back through the doors. If Bucky put a walnut between his teeth, Clint'd probably break it. See your dad? he signs. Clint nods, looking to the left and down, surly as a kid getting lectured. Bucky taps him on the arm and Clint looks up, blinking, and sees the bow. He looks at Bucky, then the bow, then Bucky again. His mouth drops open.
"No way," he says.
"Where?" Bucky asks.
"In the audio lab," Clint answers. "He came in in the middle of the test. We had to start it over again."
Bucky nods. He turns, and goes back to the audio lab and pushes his way through the swinging door. There’s a technician in a worn white coat, and there’s Clint with too-big headphones on.
"Excuse me," the technician says. "There's a test going on here."
“Yeah,” Bucky says, “But the kid left this in the waiting room.”
The tech scowls and Bucky ignores him. He goes over to Clint, who's seated in a metal-and-fabric chair, dwarfed by the machines and the headset, and staring at him, eyes wide.
“Holy mackerel,” Clint whispers.
“Take care of your stuff, kid.”
“Okay,” Clint says, nodding, nodding so hard the headset slips off. “Okay, yeah, I will.”
When he leaves the lab, Clint's waiting in the hall, hands stuffed into his pockets, shoulders hunched. He looks at Bucky.
Ok? Bucky signs.
Clint shrugs. “It’s the past. It’s already done. Just have to make it work.”
"He's short," Clint says, looking up, past Bucky's head. "I always thought he was so tall."
They stand together in silence for a while, and it's Bucky who notices that things have changed again.
Chapter 9: Pack up your troubles
Hey you wonderful people!
I'm having some weirdness with my comments (maybe because I keep switching between mobile and computer while I'm logging in? I dunno) so my apologies if I've missed a comment or question or you got a screwy answer to a comment that wasn't yours!
By the way, the comments are freakin' killing me. So much education! So much support! You guys are incredible.
Phil gives Clint a day.
He knows this thing that he and Captain Rogers cooked up is driving both Bucky and Clint to the edge, and when things get like that for Clint, sometimes Clint has to go to ground to be able to cope. Clint is a man who likes his space. Clint is a man who likes his space enclosed, small, secret, and protected on three sides. And Phil is a man who likes to know about everything. So Phil knows all about Clint's hiding places. He's fairly sure Clint knows he knows, but he's not sure and he never planned on testing it. Clint is a man who likes his space, and Phil loves Clint and wants him to be happy. Normally he would never ever do this.
But Clint's not answering his messages and it's been fully twenty-four hours since Phil last saw him. No texts, no emails, no sign. Not even a paper airplane from one of the vents. It's making him edgy. Which is why he gets a Robinson screwdriver and a step ladder out of the maintenance closet on the 57th floor and undoes the screws on one of the ventilation grates.
"Clint?" he calls softly. "I'm coming up."
He pokes his head through. This, he happens to know, is Clint's current favourite nest. It's got a good view of the hall, all the doors, and has access to the elevator maintenance hatch. Clint has decked it out quite comfortably. There's an old plaid picnic blanket, a lumpy cushion, a paperback book lying open on top of it, and near by, there's a little pyramid of the protein bars Clint loves. Phil nods as he looks around. On the plus side, Clint is not lying in his nest hurt or dead. On the minus side, Clint is not lying in his nest at all. Phil touches the blanket. It's cold.
Phil spends a sleepless night alone. It's not like Clint to disappear without a word, but Clint, he reminds himself once just after midnight, and then again around three in the morning, is an adult and allowed to go and do things and not tell Phil about them.
Still, Phil tosses and turns in bed, as if shifting positions around a body that's not there will take the anxiety away. He gives up some time around four-thirty and gets up unrested and worried, and goes out to the kitchen. He pulls the coffee brewer over so it's directly under a vent, and brews pot after pot of coffee so the steam goes right up. Nothing.
He showers, dresses, puts on the radio and hears something about a hostage situation at a Paris hospital and turns it off again. He puts on a professional expression, and goes to the office that Tony Stark arranged for him in a forgotten nook of this gigantic tower.
There's an email from Stark to almost everyone tallying the things requested by the bake-off contestants, as well as the current bets on winner, winning foodstuff, and total cost, with optional side betting-pools for things like "total cost of damage to Stark Tower" and "total quantity of un-food eaten by Steve" and "most likely to sit in judgement during the bananapocalypse". Pepper is tipped as a favourite, but Phil's got a hunch it's going to be Sam Wilson's mom.
Phil tries to distract himself with work, but he allows himself to pause once an hour to check his phone. He texts Clint each time. At first the texts are Good morning and there's coffee ready and then they're I'm starting to worry about you.
Nothing nothing nothing. Phil doesn't swear out loud, and he certainly doesn't direct a particularly sulfurous and unspoken curse at Fury, but he figures he knows what's happened. Fury's gone around Coulson to deploy Clint, in spite of doctors' orders. So much for rebuilding trust. Phil logs into the tracker database and checks Clint's tracker number. His number shows him in Paris. Vitals spiked, then offline. Oh God.
He shakes himself. The tracker might just have flaked out. It doesn't mean anything. Fury would never deploy Clint without telling Phil. Surely. He texts Clint anyway, Please tell me you're alive.
After that his phone remains inert. Around three-thirty, he gives in. It's possible, just possible, that Clint and Sergeant Barnes don't hate each other as much as Phil thinks they do. Maybe they've been chumming around. Maybe the tracker really flaked. He knows it's a long shot but he calls Steve Rogers anyway. Rogers picks up on the first ring.
“Captain Rogers? Agent Coulson." He didn't expect to be so formal, but there's something soothingly automatic about the correct salutations. "Sorry to bother you on your personal line.”
“No, don’t worry, it’s fine." Rogers sounds strained. "What can I do for you?”
“Well." Phil breathes in and he breathes out. "Well I was wondering if you or Sergeant Barnes know where Agent Barton is.”
A pause. Phil can hear old music softly playing. Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and …
“Captain?” he asks.
“Bucky’s missing too,” Rogers confesses.
Phil puts his elbows on his desk. Being Clint’s handler gave him a crease between the eyebrows, and being his lover is just making it worse. “Captain, I can’t help feel like our brilliant plan to help these two recover…”
“…has gone spectacularly wrong,” Rogers finishes. “Yeah, looks that way. What does Clint’s tracker say?”
“His tracker gave its last signal in Paris at about 0930 local time yesterday. I don't suppose Sergeant Barnes has-"
“There's one in his arm. It hasn't been working for about fourty-eight hours."
Phil grants himself a moment to let that sink in. It's too much of a coincidence to think that both Clint and Sergeant Barnes have disappeared at about the same time and not gone to the same place. Three possibilities assert themselves.
i. Sergeant Barnes has finally gotten in touch with his anger and murdered Clint Barton. In Paris.
ii. Clint Barton has finally gotten in touch with his anger and murdered Sergeant Barnes. In Paris.
iii. Uncleared, recently injured agent Clint Barton and ex-brainwashed supersoldier Sergeant Barnes have deliberately disabled their trackers and are in Paris doing something together.
He likes none of these options.
"Uh, Coulson, you haven't had a look at the news today, have you?"
“The news?” Phil pauses for a split second. There was something, he didn't pay attention to it. Be calm, he tells himself, and then he opens a new tab on his browser and opens a news webpage. Hostage Drama Continues to Unfold at Paris Hospital. He must make a noise because Rogers sighs.
"Yeah," he says. "That's what I think too."
Chapter 10: Way Back Home
Clint's got his hands in his pockets and he's looking out through the hospital skylight at the pale blue sky of a cloudless autumn day. Okay, the whitish-grey sky of an autumn day of indeterminate weather. Okay a foam ceiling tile. Wait, what?
He looks around, Barnes is looking around too. Signs in French, a room with a main chamber and a booth, two large metal platforms, one on the ceiling and one of the floor, and huge, pale light suspended between them. Clint looks at Barnes. Barnes turns his head and looks at him.
"Back," he says.
Clint grins and nods and looks around him. "Okay, so that was really weird."
Barnes nods. "Yeah."
He looks over to where the device is glowing softly, pulsating like a heart. Then, in his pocket, his phone comes buzzing to life. “Aww, crap,” he whispers, fumbling with it to answer it. He hadn’t expected to need to be super-stealthy once he was off the SHEILD flight. Not till he broke into the museum anyway. Not that it matters now, because Barnes has got the stupid recipe. Clint considers. Well. He’s the one holding the bananas. Maybe negotiation is possible.
"Hey," he says to Barnes while his phone struggles to load. "What are these bananas worth to you?"
Barnes frowns. "You holding my bananas hostage?"
He shrugs. "Maybe."
"Who's gonna be the judge?"
"Judge," Barnes says again. "For the baking competition."
"Judge?" he asks. He makes the sign and Barnes copies it a few times as if memorizing it, then he nods. Clint shrugs. "Darcy Lewis maybe?"
Barnes tilts his head at Clint. "You guys friends?"
"Naw. She's a friend of… a friend." He frowns at his phone. "Come on and load you stupid thing." All he's getting the wait screen and all he wants to know is if Natasha phoned him yet, because he's probably late with a check in. If she hasn't called yet, there's a chance he'll survive. If she has, well, he's probably toast. So of course the phone dies.
"Aww, phone." Then it blips back to life. "Hey!" he says, delighted, until he sees the screen. “Oh no,” he whispers. “Oh no.”
Barnes touches his shoulder. "What?"
Clint shows him the phone face and Barnes’ eyes get a little bigger. He looks at Clint again like he wants to ask what they're supposed to do and how the hell should Clint know? All Clint wants is to go somewhere nobody can get him, where it's quiet and safe and where he can just be still for a minute and fucking think.
“I need to get into a vent,” Clint says.
They go up, and hospital air vents, well, Clint hates hospital air vents. All the worry about spreading contaminants means there’s basically no way through. Too many filter systems, too many sections siloed off, no way to move around.
They crouch in the vent above the room where the device is and sit, both of them, staring in silence for a good half hour. Clint turns his phone off and on a couple times, but there’s no changing the date and time. It’s the right day, but it’s 8 a.m. and he didn’t even get to the museum till 9. He can't even think about it, every time he tries his brain just rebels.
After fourty-five minutes he tucks his legs up and puts his head down on his knees and groans. “I want a coffee so bad.”
Barnes grabs his arm, one finger up to his own mouth to shush Clint. He points down through the vent and signs, Guns.
So the baddies have arrived. Which means the two of them are going to come along at any minute. Which means this vent in particular is not a vent they want to be in because Clint for one is done with the whole time travel thing and there's going to be a boom soon. Plus there’s going to be an exchange of gunfire and if there’s one thing that’s not bulletproof it’s air ducts. About as bulletproof as saran wrap.
He gestures at Barnes and slides through the vent in the direction that is away from the room. In about ten feet he gets to the first filter system. He gives it a hard shove and it gives a little, but not enough. Barnes, behind him, touches his ankle. Clint cranes around to look at him. Barnes is offering him the black plastic handle of something. He takes it. Looks at it. Looks at Barnes.
He can't really sign in here, he's too squashed. He hopes his expression makes it clear enough. My favourite paring knife?
Both Barnes’ eyebrows and shoulders go up in a what are you going to do about it kind of expression and Clint resists the urge to kick him in the face.
He uses his favourite paring knife to unscrew the bolts on the filter and then pushes the filters and the fan to the side of the vent, and hopes he's not making too much noise. He starts forward again. This side is a little roomier; a confluence of a bunch of vents with what looks like maintenance access. One of the four sides isn’t a vent wall, it’s a door. There’s a radiation hazard sticker and a keypad on it, which makes Clint a little bit uneasy, but there’s enough room for both him and Barnes to lie side by side in the space, so he shimmies in.
Barnes crawls up beside him and gestures for the paring knife. Clint glowers. Barnes gestures again.
You owe me a new one, Clint signs.
Barnes shrugs. He points at the door with the radiation warning sign. What’s that?
Clint’s about to shrug right back when he thinks about the device below them. About Bruce Banner, and his work. He pulls out his phone because even if he can sign this he doesn’t think Barnes is going to be able to read it.
I think that’s the power source for the device below us. Bruce said something about research on radioactive materials going on here. Ten bucks says it's what the gunmen want.
Barnes leans over and reads and nods as he does. He takes the phone from Clint and carefully, using only his right hand, types, so are we going in or what
Clint takes the phone back. I only have one suit
i will be ok
Clint frowns at him. He doesn’t know anything about the Winter Soldier except what everybody knows, so 90% of that is crap and myth, and about 10% of it is real, but he doesn’t know which is which. He takes the phone.
Polonium is what they killed Litvinov with
Barnes’ mouth quirks at the corner. litvinenko
Clint rolls his eyes.
they sent me into chernobyl
Clint looks at Barnes, looks him up and down and he knows his face shows his horror and his pity. Barnes shrugs as if it doesn't matter, which means that's probably not the worst of the missions the Winter Soldier did.
i got sick but i repair fast
Clint doesn't even want to think about that.
Under them, the vent reverberates. Both he and Barnes freeze. Barnes looks at him. Let’s go, he signs. He crawls forward, and puts his metal hand on the keypad, no, through the key pad, then into the guts of the door. He tilts his head a little, as if he’s listening, then nods and yanks.
Clint sees a little spark and smells the acrid scent of melted wiring. A little puff of blue smoke lifts away from the wreckage of the lock. The vent reverberates again and Barnes looks at him and frowns.
I'll keep a look out, he signs. Barnes pulls his knees up tight and turns himself around. He only puts his boot in Clint’s face once, which is, all in all, pretty good considering how tight the space is, before he goes sliding back along the vent the direction that they came. Clint shimmies out of the backpack and unzips it.
He pulls out the bananas, the concrete case, and the class-2 hazard suit he definitely didn’t take from Bruce Banner’s lab. He does pause for an instant, looking at the array before him, thinking of the guns below him, and the ex-Soviet assassin going to watch his back armed with nothing but Clint’s favourite paring knife, and he does wonder for a moment about his life choices. Then he shrugs because it’s too late now, and starts pulling on the hazard suit.
Getting into a hazard suit while lying on your belly in an air vent takes some doing, but he gets it sorted out, blows out the ventilator to clear it, grabs the concrete case, tucks the bananas and the bag into a darkish corner, and shimmies through the little busted door.
It is not a vent inside, it’s a chamber. About four feet by four feet by four feet. He slides right in and pulls the door shut after him.
There’s no give of ducting under him, no reverberation when he moves. Steel, maybe. Maybe concrete. And in the middle of it, there’s a small case, like a jeweller’s case. And inside of that, there’s something that looks like a diamond, and a beam of pale light from a tiny LED passes through it, and through a thing that looks kind of like a rifle scope, down, into the room below.
Clint considers his next move. This looks dangerous. Not just long-term-damage-to-DNA dangerous, more like blow-your-lips-right-off-your-face dangerous. And it’s already sent him back in time. Twice. But, he’s already been sent back in time. So it must have kinda blown up. So he probably did do whatever it is he's about to do…
He frowns. He hates this kind of thing. So he stops thinking about it and smashes the glass box with the concrete case and grabs the little gem. The world flares white, and for an instant the whole room is like a small sun. Then the light dims and the room seems to shimmer with a faint blue glow. Then nothing. He puts the stone into the box, flicks the latches and pushes the door open.
Cherenkov radiation is a sign of a totally blow-your-lips-off-your-face AND long-term-damage-to-DNA dangerous kind of incident, but so, so beautiful.
Chapter 11: I Wanna Banana
Oh my god you guys, I did not expect this story to be so long. THERE WILL BE MORE BAKE-OFF STUFF SOON, I PROMISE.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Natasha is standing at the luggage carousel asking herself again why she decided to fly on a commercial airline when her phone rings. Bruce looks over at her. She frowns. "Steve," she tells him, answering the phone. "Rogers. Is this a social or a work communication?"
"Uh. Social. I, uh, I need a friend, Nat."
That warms her a little and she checks that feeling before it can blossom. Steve might act like he's totally guileless but he knows exactly how to get what he wants from everybody, her included.
A big breath, let out slow and shaky. "Bucky's missing. I think he's in Paris. I think Clint's there too. I think Bucky might be hunting Clint. Or maybe it's the other way around. I don't what's going on."
She nods. "Well…" she says and lets the word trail off. Beside her, Bruce grins, and then goes back to pretending he can't hear the conversation. "Steve, I warned you."
Another pause. "You were right. I should have listened to you."
And that she does allow to warm her. He and Clint are going to kill each other, she'd said when Steve had told her the idea he and Coulson had cooked up. Clint's congenitally obnoxious and Barnes' fuse is trimmed so short nobody's even sure how to get it lit. But Clint'll find a way. And I like Clint. I'd like to keep him not-dead as much as possible.
"Coulson and I are going to try to bring them in, but we could use all the help we can get."
"Let me guess. Trackers dead?"
Her bag comes tumbling down the chute, end over end. She points at it and Bruce does this sort of apologetic caper around other waiting passengers to snag it before it drifts by. "How long has Barnes been gone for?"
"About two days."
She shakes her head. As if Steve knows what she's doing, he adds, "I wanted to give him time to come back on his own."
She closes her eyes. Children. She is surrounded by children. She sighs, opens her eyes, and sees a flash on a TV screen high up in the corner of the room. The news is on. A hostage situation at a hospital. There's a shot of the building, taken from a helicopter or a drone, and then image is of a man in his early thirties sliding up to his feet, pulling a rifle up with him as he goes, a shot very clearly just fired, and the target very clearly eliminated. His sleeves are rolled down, and he's wearing a glove on the left hand, but Natasha'd know that face anywhere. The banner under the still image reads: INFIGHTING BETWEEN HOSPITAL GUNMEN?
"Are you watching the BBC right now, Steve?"
Bruce reappears with her bag and she indicates the TV with her chin. Bruce turns. He looks. He takes off his glasses and rubs them on his shirt and puts them on again, like he was sort of hoping that cleaning his glasses would change the image of Bucky Barnes, plus rifle, plus hospital roof, plus, oh dear lord, plus slow, pleased, feral grin. "We should probably get going," he says. She nods and talks into the phone again.
"Bucky Barnes is on the roof of a Parisian hospital with a rifle. I happen to be in Paris. I'll see what I can do."
"I'm on my way." He sounds like somebody's strangling him.
"You'd better hurry up."
She hangs up the phone and sees Bucky Barnes look right at the camera and sign yard clear, children ok before he turns and walks to a doorway and disappears inside. The image cuts over to a pair of talking heads. Bruce looks over at her and she looks over at him.
"No kidding," he says. She smiles.
"I sure hope Steve saw that."
"I sure hope none of the gunmen know ASL. I suppose it's unlikely. Unless one of them is American."
"What about the French police…"
He shrugs. "Possibly? Unlikely?"
She nods. "We should probably get going."
Bucky signs at the camera, slings his rifle over his shoulder, and heads back into the hospital. He's going to have to hurry. If the gendarmerie are reading the signs, they'll be coming into this wing to get the kids that were being held in the courtyard. And Bucky doesn't want to be here when they do. The gendarmes will have a number of questions for him, and he hasn't got time to answer them. He's still got work to do.
Picking off the hostage takers is getting tricky. The ones who've survived so far seem to be professionals, they're certainly wily. They've mostly coalesced around a suite of offices, and though Bucky hasn't been able to get through the vents to suss the place out, he's fairly sure the director of Research and Development is one of the hostages there. He can guess the kind of questions they're asking, and how they're asking those questions.
The gunmen who picked that location were clever. It's pretty secure, and Bucky can't get in there alone. And while the other so-called hostage takers haven't yet been able to make good on threats of killing a hostage, Bucky isn't stupid. The core group of pros with the director of R&D is the real deal, all the rest is distraction.
Distraction or not, it's still dangerous. Keeping hostages safe and keeping his own head down is getting difficult. Worse, he's not sure if the gendarmes understand that he's on their side. When they stormed the westernmost building early Monday morning, Bucky made a point of showing himself fighting on their side, but he's still not sure if they understood. The news anchors declare variously that Bucky is a fifth column, a police specialist sniper, a hostage taker, the leader of the hostage takers, and a random crazy person. That last one might be the nearest to the truth.
When he's halfway down the hall his belly rumbles. He waits till the noise has stopped, listens for a long moment, but he's reasonably sure he's cleared this wing of the hospital now. He detours to the snack machine that was shot to pieces and scoops a handful of brightly coloured packages. The food he's eating gives him a rush and then leaves him crashing. He needs real rations, but Clint's vanished, and with him went the bag with the protein bars and the bananas. Oh the bananas. He salivates just thinking about a real banana.
Behind him, he hears the crack of a flashbang and knows the gendarmes got the message and have breached the courtyard door to get to the kids. Good. But that also means he's got to hurry to get back to his secure position in the vault where the power source for the device was. It's a good spot. The radiation doesn't really bother him, but it makes non-superhumans edgy. So far it's been safe, but he knows it's only a matter of time before the gunmen figure out that's where he's resting, put on a radiation suit, and come looking for him.
He passes a phone at a nurses station and shoves down the urge to call Steve, even though he's been longing just to have the comfort of his voice. His own, burner phone, the one with the recipe on it, the one Steve doesn't know he has, is long since dead. But every station has a phone, and all of the offices too. It'd be an easy thing just to call him. He imagines Steve's disappointed sigh, his questions. He imagines Steve saying, "Oh my god, Buck. How did this happen?"
He knows if he asked Steve would be here so fast there'd be a superhero-shaped hole in the wall. But there's no way he can explain this, nobody's going to believe the story without evidence, and Clint's the one with the evidence. Besides, he and Clint are friends. Bucky's not going anywhere until he finds him.
Thanks for the comments about the various sign languages the world over! For some reason (*cough* pig-ignorance *cough*) I assumed ASL was kind of like Esperanto, but nothing could be further from the truth. Allow wikipedia to tell you more!.
Somebody’s opened the service hatch, and there are, oh, two other people in hazard suits in the ducting now. Great. Clint hears himself think, Thanks for the cover, Barnes before they all start moving.
The scuffle is vicious. The nearest guy moves first, grabs Clint by the suit as if to tear it open, and Clint has just enough time to pray that Stark Industries doesn’t cheap out on safety equipment before he can get both hands up to grab the guy by his ventilators and smash his head into the steel door.
By then Barnes is in the little space too, because Jesus, it wasn’t cramped enough in here. He shoves the second guy back down the service hatch and closes the hatch after him, and then, well, then he’s on top of Clint. Clint yelps, squirms out from under him, slipping into the nearest vent, which is a pretty tight squeeze in the suit. Barnes follows fast, and Clint sees the paring knife coming toward him. He panics a bit, because it might be a short blade but if that goes into his eyes he’s fucked, so he twists around, and Barnes hangs on, one arm clamped around Clint’s throat. The metal arm. Of course. Barnes starts to squeeze and light flashes behind Clint’s eyes. His strength gives out. He flops down.
So he’s lying on his belly. Lying on his belly in an air duct that, let’s face it, was too small for him when he wasn’t in the radiation suit. And he’s lying on his belly in the air duct in a radiation suit and there’s a weight on his back, and there’s a metal arm around his neck and Clint Barton knows that there are times there’s just nothing you can do about the way things go, that there are, well, there are just some times you lose. There are those times when you find yourself with a super-soldier sitting on your back with his arm around your neck and a paring knife poised to cut open your radiation suit and you know you’ve been had and you, well you find yourself thinking, Okay but seriously, seriously this was not how it was supposed to go.
Barnes hauls him over onto his back. He’s snarling, mouth twisted up, eyes cold and grim. He looks down. His eyes widen. "You!" he shouts. Then he signs, Where have you been?
Clint coughs. What?
Barnes gets off him, slithers down to the service area and drags Clint’s exhausted body by the legs behind him. It’s undignified but Clint doesn’t protest. When they’re back in the service area, Clint rolls onto his side and looks at the chamber door. It’s closed. Good. He cracks open the mask of the hazard suit and lets some fresh air pass over his face and fill his mouth. He sighs and looks over at Barnes.
Barnes is staring at him, mouth twisted, almost snarling. His signs are abrupt, short. Give me your phone.
Clint has to unzip the suit and squirm around to get the phone out of his pocket. He passes it to Barnes and Barnes turns it on and show him the face. Clint frowns. He turns his head. He squints.
Barnes glares at him.
Where have you been?
Clint spreads his hands and shakes his head. Here? Now?
Barnes looks like he’d like to punch Clint. And Clint, well, Clint kinda can’t blame him. He takes the phone back and turns it on and, cringing, he checks his messages.
He’s missed not one call, not two, no. He’s missed 68 calls and texts and the last one from Coulson says, Please tell me you’re alive. Oh god.
He opens his bag, moves the stupid god damned bananas, and points at the box and signs, Do not touch that fucking thing.
Barnes nods once, looking at it, then nods again, looking at Clint. The police have surrounded the building. There are still some gunmen.
Still some? Clint asks.
I got most of them. Still two in the research lab. He smiles at Clint. Could probably finish it with two of us.
Clint nods. He pauses. He points at Barnes. You waited.
Barnes nods and shrugs.
He shrugs again.
Clint smiles. That makes him happy. Stupidly happy. Like how he feels when Natasha boobytraps his stuff. Like how he feels when Coulson throws the paper airplanes back into the vents. Coulson. Oh. A text isn't going to do it. By now anybody could have his phone. Coulson will want to hear his voice.
I want to make a phone call, he signs. Bucky frowns.
Call? he asks.
Clint nods. Call.
Wait a second. Bucky presses his ear to the vent floor, then cracks open the hatch and looks down. He sits back up and nods at Clint but puts a finger to his lips. Clint nods. He dials Coulson’s number.
He and Steve are seated facing one another in the aircraft seats. They're staring at the tablet screen on the table before them. The screen is showing image after image of Bucky Barnes on the roof of the hospital with a rifle and a grin. Steve is saying nothing. He's just staring, his forehead as lined as corduroy, and shaking his head. Phil can’t bring himself to say anything because they knew there was a chance Clint and Bucky would take against each other, but there was just as much chance they'd end up friends and would help each other through their rehabilitation. It was supposed to be healthy, god damn it.
He thinks about the book that was lying in Clint’s nest, The Manchurian Candidate, and he can't stop the way his heart rate increases because Clint wanted to win and sometimes Clint only sees the target but surely he wouldn't have deliberately tripped a trigger that was latent in the Winter Soldier. Surely. Surely. Oh God, surely. But there's Bucky Barnes on the rooftop of a Parisian hospital with a gun and a smile that says, You're dead and I'm not and Phil has seen a lot of shit but he's never seen anything quite as chilling as that smile.
I like Pina Coladas
And getting caught in the rain
And for a second Phil’s not exactly sure why he’s suddenly being subjected to Rupert Holmes, but then he realizes it’s his phone, it’s Clint’s ring tone, it’s Clint. He jumps as if electrified, digs around in his suit jacket; gun, stickybomb, wallet, there!, phone. It’s not a text, it’s a call. His heart hammers against his breastbone. His mind gives him options - ransom, terrorist demands, threats, or someone's found Clint's phone and is working their way through the contacts. That last one is unlikely. He answers.
“Coulson,” he says and manages to keep his voice steady and calm. He hears the sound of the phone being moved and then Clint's voice.
“I can’t talk much.”
Clint’s voice is low and soft and steady and Phil thinks the relief might make him faint. There's no point in speaking because Clint won’t hear what he says but he thinks, Tell me. Tell me you're okay.
"I'm safe. We're both safe. It's not how it looks. Long story. We're gonna sort it out. I love you. I will see you tomorrow, I promise.”
And then nothing. But it's enough. Phil can breathe again. He sets the phone down and exhales twice, deeply.
I like Pina Coladas…
He grabs his phone again.
"Uh, and could you ask Darcy if she wants to judge the bake off? On Friday maybe? These bananas aren’t going to last. And Barnes says hi to Steve.”
He hangs up again.
Phil takes the phone slowly from his ear and sets it down on the table top between him and Rogers. Then he presses his hand against his forehead where that crease is getting deeper by the day.
“Coulson?” Steve asks softly. “Everything okay?”
Phil looks up. “Yes. Insofar as possible. That was Clint. Both times. He says it's not how it looks. And Sergeant Barnes says hello.”
Chapter 13: Lookin' Around Corners for You
With both him and Barnes it’s, well it’s not easy, exactly, but it’s easier than it could be. They leapfrog through the halls, signing a mix of military and ASL signs. After they’ve taken down half a dozen paramilitary goons and Clint is running out of surgical tubing to tie them up with, he turns to Barnes and whacks him on the shoulder.
I thought you said two.
Barnes shrugs. Two worth fighting.
Clint glares at him and shakes his head.
Around noon they make it into the R&D labs. By then almost ever maintenance closet has at least one person tied up, sometimes conscious and sometimes not, stuffed into it, and Clint’s getting tired.
How much further?
Around the corner, Barnes says, falling into military hand signs. Three. Automatic weapons.
Barnes pulls a dental mirror out of his back pocket and angles it so Clint can see the three guards. Body armour and helmets. So they’re shooting at knees, then. He nods and Barnes pulls the mirror back.
They drop the first two, but the third one jumps backward, through the swinging doors, and Clint loses sight of him. He goes forward, Barnes covers him, and susses out the two they shot. One of them is screaming and throwing up, and the other one is clenching his teeth so hard he’s probably going to break them. Clint kicks their weapons away down the hall. He should probably make sure they’re properly disarmed too, but there’s really no time. He waits by the door, Barnes flanks on the other side.
Clint glances into the room and ducks back. It’s a lab, all interior walls, no windows. Desks and a row of compressed gas cylinders and the guy they missed and two other guys and some number of hostages Clint didn’t bother to note. Not much cover. Not a lot of space for negotiation. Lots of opportunity for innocent people to get killed. He’d really like the get this over with.
Maybe they should have come up with a plan or something, but Clint’s never been what you’d call a thorough guy. He shrugs at Barnes and then pushes through the doors and dives behind a definitely not bullet-proof lab desk for cover, and then rolls for a row of gas cylinders stacked to one side of the room. They’re probably the nearest thing to bulletproof in the whole room, and if someone’s dumb enough to test that out, well, everybody dies. Mutual assured destruction’s gotta count for something.
Barnes must have taken out that third guard, because Clint can see the hostages are screaming, and there are only two guys now. Two guys, both dressed in military-surplus sort of stuff, one in green and one in black.
Barnes starts into the room and it’s Clint’s turn to cover him. He Clint takes a couple shots at the guy in green and he goes pinwheeling down on to the linoleum, jerking and twisting as he falls.
The guy in black grabs one of the hostages. She’s a white-haired woman, Clint figures she’s in her fifties, and she reacts to being grabbed and hauled to her feet with considerable dignity, standing silent while she gets pulled around by a guy who’s got a gun to her head.
Clint looks at Barnes. Barnes shakes his head. He indicates his gun and signs Out.
Clint nods. Talk to him, he says, and I’ll shoot.
Barnes nods back. “Hey,” Clint sees him shouting, “We can talk about this.”
But the guy’s not stupid. He pulls the hostage in front of him, so his whole body is covered. She’s being held at arm’s length so when he pulls the trigger the flash won’t blind him. He’s serious. Barnes shows his hands. The guy says something Clint can’t see and Barnes nods and gestures to Clint.
Clint puts down his gun. He stands up and shows his hands too.
The guy moves, gesturing with his gun, pointing past the hostage, to the left of Clint, and the hostage turns, fast. She pushes the gun, her other arm comes up and she clocks the guy in the jaw. He goes back, reeling, and in that instant Barnes is vaulting over the lab benches to tackle him from a height and the two of them go down in a tangle of arms and legs. Barnes is the one who stands back up.
Clint grins at the woman. “Nice,” he says.
She looks steadily at him and then at Barnes. She starts a little at the sight of him. “You’re the unknown gunman,” she says.
Barnes smiles faintly, as if he’s pleased with the title.
Barnes nods. He speaks to her quietly, not signing, and Clint can’t read his words. He looks back at the other hostages, looking on with exhausted, staring eyes.
“Anyone hurt?” he asks, but they’re all too stunned to even respond. He crouches down to look them in the eyes. “Anyone hurt?” he asks again. Someone moves. He looks. The woman shakes her head and says something Clint can’t follow. Her eyes are tearing up. “Stay calm,” he says. She nods and jams her hand under her nose, like she make the tears go back in.
Barnes taps him on the shoulder and gestures. Clint gets to his feet again, and goes back to the white-haired woman. She looks from face to face and scowls at them.
“… … but you’re not police?” she asks. She seems almost to be getting taller, breathing in through her nose, rising. She switches to English, thank God, it’s easier for Clint to read it. “You have endangered my staff, you have endangered my-”
"No, it's not like that," Clint blurts. Both the woman and Barnes look at him. He's not… totally sure what he was going to say. So he says the first thing that comes to mind, “Dr Banner sent us.”
Nothing. She shakes her head.
“Bruce Banner? The, uh, the American Gamma specialist?”
All at once the hard lines in her face soften. She looks stunned for a beat. “My god,” she says. Her shoulders sag. “Bruce? So you are with the American military … but I didn’t think …” she looks from Clint to Barnes and must ask a question because when Barnes says yes ma'am his face is the picture of innocence, so he's clearly lying about something. Her eyes go a little wider. She looks back at Clint again and asks something. Barnes looks at him too, eyes a little wild.
Clint shrugs. “Well, you know. It's important to protect your staff and the, uh-” shit, he can’t remember what it’s called “-the device.”
Barnes is staring at him. Clint keeps going, like a bicycle with a flat tire.
“Which is broken, by the way. Sorry. It was… shot. Accidentally.”
She nods, taking this in along with everything else. “Then they didn't get it?”
She sighs. “Very good,” she whispers. She turns to the whiteboard and pulls on it. It moves as if it’s on hidden rollers. Behind there’s a door with a keypad on it. She punches in the key code and presses her thumb to the lock, talking as she does. “The device was unpredictable … … dangerous … clinical trials…” Clint wishes people wouldn't turn around when they're talking. The safe door opens.
Inside there’s a black case. It looks kind of like a photographer’s case. Hard black plastic, thick latches. She heaves it out and gives it to Barnes, who lurches forward under the weight. “Please, take this back to Dr Banner.”
Wait, back? Clint's not sure he heard that right. He raises one finger but nobody notices. Barnes nods at her. “We're not actually authorized to be here by your government. We'll need your help getting out of here with this."
She nods. She looks at the others. They're coming to life now, getting to their feet and hugging one another and looking around. She nods at them. “Yes. We can get you out,” she says.
Chapter 14: Non, je ne regrette rien
I feel like it should be noted that no one in this story is a role model and under no circumstances should anyone emulate anything any of them do.
They walk out as a group, and they take the two wounded guards with them when they go. Marie, as director of Research and Development, not content with punching out a hostage-taker, insists on going first. Then the more senior staff go out, and then the rest, in a bunch, and Bucky and Clint go with them, toward the gawking ranks of gendarmes and the sea of cameras and spectators.
Bucky holds his arm tucked against his side to hide the metal and the gun he’s got, and grips the heavy plastic case with his other hand. Clint sticks close to him, one hand over his shoulder, as if Bucky’s been hurt, or dazed. He pretends to lean on Clint, it’s an excuse to keep his head down. They make it down to the gendarmes, to grasping hands, to relieved, delighted faces, to are you hurt? and you must see a paramedic, when someone shouts There he is! and suddenly it’s absolute fucking pandemonium and he and Clint are rushing the tide of reporters that are rushing them, Clint punching wildly, punching reporters, gendarmes, cameras, rubberneckers, and they’re both away from the crowd, scrambling for cover because-
A bullet embeds itself into the cobbles at his feet. He and Clint go scrambling over parked cars, running as fast as they can for the nearest intersection. He grabs Clint and hauls him hard to the right, a hairpin corner that almost doubles back the way they came, then takes the next left.
“Where are we going?” Clint yells.
“Away,” Bucky shouts back. He pelts down the street, looking for cover, and wonders why there aren’t any god damned alleys in this god damned city.
Sirens are rising behind them and close, getting closer. They run right through the next intersection, because Bucky can see trees and he’s hoping there’s a park and there’s something that could pass for cover, but there’s not much. He and Clint drop behind a low, over-pruned hedge that doesn’t give nearly enough cover and they crouch panting together for a minute. Clint shakes his head.
“They’re gonna think we’re gunmen.”
Bucky laughs. “We are.”
“You know what I mean.”
He nods. He’s getting his breath back, and his wits. He gestures at Clint. “Gimme your coat.”
Clint nods and peels it off. Bucky pulls it on. It’s damp with sweat and it is definitely a few days past needing a wash. He points at Clint.
Get rid of the bag.
Clint nods. He begins unpacking things. Wallet, passport, phone, gun, bananas (looking considerably worse for wear), concrete box.
Too much stuff, Clint signs.Wallet and passport are one thing, but without his coat he can’t hide the gun and hold the box and the bananas. He shakes his head. Sirens rising fast, howling up, and then howling by.
Hurry up, Bucky signs.
Clint looks at the stuff on the grass and shakes his head. Clint looks back up at him.
I’m leaving the damn bananas.
“Like hell you are,” Bucky snaps.
“Barnes, they are bananas.”
“Barton, they are the right kind of bananas.” There’s no point in making an old recipe with new ingredients and he’s damned if he’s going to have let this whole insane mess of a week be for nothing.
So Bucky grabs the bunch. The bananas fan out. The two on either end of the bunch have taken the brunt of the trauma done to them by being in Clint’s bag, but the interior four aren’t so bad. He can carry them and the case if he doesn’t care about access to his gun, and he really, really cares about access to his gun right now.
He shakes his head. He tosses the two pulped and squashed bananas on either end of the bunch, then breaks the bunch in half and tries stuffing the halves his pockets. No chance. They’re too broad, and talk about a way to attract attention.
Clint shakes his head. He closes his eyes and tips up his head, almost like he’s praying.
“I can’t fucking believe this,” he says and holds out his hand. Bucky gives him half of the bananas and Clint unbuckles his belt and stuffs the bananas down the front of his pants. It’s genius. It looks like Clint is dying for a moment alone with a special someone, but it’s not as obvious as the alternative. Bucky grins and does the same. Clint laughs so hard it echoes off the buildings all around them.
Walking is… not comfortable, but possible. The sirens swell in the distance again, getting louder fast. He catches the sound of dogs baying, alarmingly near and closing. Bucky grabs Clint’s arm.
They run. He's not totally clear on where he is in Paris, he's never been in this part of it before, but he can smell the Seine getting stronger and something base and animal in him tells him to get away from predators by getting to the water. He and Clint seem to have the same idea. They make it to the riverside, the stink of the river, the coolness of it washes over them. Sirens everywhere. Dogs baying. A helicopter coming in, he doesn't grant himself the time to search the sky for it. Clint is flagging and he's starting to get winded too. There's a quay, a single boat tied up there, the sort people live on, not the kind that you run from the police in. Another boat is cutting a white swath through the Seine toward them. He looks at Clint and shakes his head.
But Clint's not looking at him, he's looking at the boat. And he's grinning. Now he's the one leading, hauling Bucky down the worn out stone steps, across the uneven quay, to the water's edge where the speedboat's pulling up and…
He stares. Dr Banner and Natasha Romanova.
"Somebody need an extraction?" she calls. Then she pulls down her sunglasses and looks at them both. Banner's looking too. At their pants.
"Happy to see us?" he asks.
They throw the box and case into the back of the boat, and start hauling the bananas out of their pants. Clint makes a mental note never, ever to let Barnes forget this, then tosses the bananas in too. Beside him, Barnes does the same thing, and it’s a, well it’s a thing to watch a super soldier pull a pair of bananas out of the front of his pants without undoing his fly first.
Clint sees the spark on Barnes’ arm, then sees the others duck all at the same time. Gunfire. Barnes lunges forward and shoves him so that he goes back, arms windmilling, and lands hard on the not-leather-upholstered back bench of the boat, then Barnes jumps in and he feels the engine roaring up to life and the wind and the spray are whipping at him. He sits up, glares at Barnes, but Barnes isn’t looking at him. Instead, he’s peeling Clint’s dirty, tattered jacket off. There’s blood on the shirt underneath.
Clint crawls over, smacks Barnes’ hands away from the entry wound, runs his hands along Barnes’s back and the other side of his chest and can’t find the exit. Barnes coughs under Clint’s hands. Blood comes up. The wound on his chest gushes bright red foam. Lungs. The spark must have been the bullet ricocheting off his arm. Not enough force to go through-and-through and now Barnes is bleeding into his chest, not out of it.
Clint grabs Bruce’s shoulder and Bruce turns, sees, says something to Natasha and crawls over the seat and into the back with them. He says something to Barnes and Barnes smiles a thin, wry smile. Bruce does not look impressed. He leans over the seat and speaks to Natasha and she nods, once, and picks the south branch of an oncoming fork in the river. Bruce grabs Clint’s hands and puts them over the wound and starts digging around in the front of the boat for something.
Barnes’ head rolls back a little on his shoulders, like he’s getting tired. His breath is coming in short little bursts, panting to get enough air while his lungs are squashed useless by the blood filling up his chest. Bruce turns back around. He’s got a clear plastic sandwich wrapper with the airplane logo sticker still attached. He moves Clint’s hands and sticks the plastic over the wound, then puts Clint’s hands back over it.
The roar of the boat’s engine drops to a rumble. Clint looks up. They’re coming to a shoddy little dock of weathered grey wood attached to, well, what looks like a ploughed-up field with a quinjet just sort of sitting there in the middle of it. Bruce starts grabbing things. The black plastic case, and the bananas and his own bag, Natasha’s bag, and the concrete case.
Natasha’s already over the side of the boat and running toward the quinjet. Clint pulls Barnes’ arm over his shoulder and helps him get up, helps him step over the edge of the boat and get his feet on the dock. He can see Steve and Phil coming out of the quinjet.
Barnes’ legs give up. Clint reaches down and scoops him up like a bride. He weighs… well Clint can’t guess what he weighs but whatever his poundage is, it is too fucking much. And Clint’s not just a little tired, he’s really tired. He grits his teeth and tells himself it’s only a couple hundred feet, five hundred feet maximum. But Barnes must be something like two hundred and fifty pounds. Clint’s been running away, fighting, not getting a lot of sleep, eating too much SPAM, and carrying around a concrete box for days. This is fucking ridiculous.
But Steve's coming toward them, and Clint's never seen Steve move so fast. One minute he’s trotting down the gangway of the quinjet, the next he’s pelting over the soft dirt to skid to a stop in front of Clint, saying, “I've got him, I've got him,” and taking the weight from Clint, which is good because Clint’s pretty sure he’s basically done. Basically done for the day. Basically, just needs to sit down for a second.
He drops to his knees in the dirt and sits there a bit, just trying to get his breath. Phil comes over to him, impeccable shoes dusted by the ploughed earth. Clint looks at him. Phil looks down, takes his hand, and pulls him up.
Chapter 16: I can't give you anything
Phil leads him into the quinjet and the ramp folds up right away. The aircraft shudders hard for about a minute, then settles as it reaches height. Clint gets a glance at Barnes, propped upright on top of one of the tables, grimacing as Bruce does something to his side. Steve is standing almost exactly an arm's length away from Barnes, stony-faced, watchful, and silent. Clint meets Barnes’ eyes and signs We’re in trouble. Barnes’ mouth twitches, then he winces and looks back at whatever Bruce is doing.
Clint follows Phil into the washroom, and Phil turns on the taps, puts the stopper in the sink, takes the facecloth from the rack and turns to Clint. He looks him over and Clint’s too tired even to feel ashamed of himself.
Take it off, Phil signs.
Clint struggles out of his sweaty, stinking shirt and drops it at his feet. Phil turns off the taps, dips the cloth in the water, wrings it out, and begins slowly, gently, to clean the dirt and grime off Clint’s face, his neck, his shoulders and chest.
Which is how he becomes aware of a dozen little scrapes and scratches that sting and itch. He closes his eyes, lets himself relax while Phil wipes the dirt from him and satisfies himself that Clint isn’t hurt. It’s soothing, and Clint nods a little, aware he’s perilously close to sleeping on his feet. Phil touches both his shoulders and he opens his eyes. The water in the sink is an unpleasant brownish-grey, and Clint's getting a little cold.
What were you thinking? Phil asks.
Clint sighs. He has exactly no idea how he’s going to explain this. Apparently Phil doesn't expect an answer, because he keeps going. You disabled your tracker. Clint starts to protest but Phil carries on. You haven’t got medical clearance. You’re still in rehabilitation. You didn't even tell me you were going. You were AWOL. What were you thinking?
Clint holds up his hand. One: I did not disable my tracker. Two: I’m done rehab. Look at me. I’m ready to work.
Phil settles into his shoes, shoulders back just a little. You haven’t been cleared.
Clint rolls his eyes. So get me cleared.
It doesn’t work like that.
He’s tired, but he’s not so tired he can’t be angry too. I know all you have to do is send in the paperwork. Why haven’t you? It's been six weeks.
Phil puts the face cloth down. "Clint," he starts. "There are regulations."
But Clint shakes his head, not really paying attention to him any more because there are a few things he’s been meaning to say and, yes, now’s probably the worst possible time, so naturally now's the time he's going to say them. He keeps signing. I don’t care about regulations. Look what I just did.
Phil holds up his hand. Wait.
No. Clint's angry, and the anger's got him and it's carrying him along now because six weeks, six weeks he's been playing babysitter with Bucky Barnes and Barnes is a good enough guy but this is not what Clint signed on for, it's not what he is, it's not what he does. And he's starting to worry this is how it's going to be from here on in.
I can work, he signs. Look what we did. No recon. No intel. No back up. I’m an asset. I'm the best at what I do. He didn't realize he was so angry about it. He didn't realize he'd been so worried that they were going to invalid him out. Nothing's changed. Get me cleared. Put me back in. I can do my job. I want to do my job. THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH ME.
He stops, not because he’s out of things to say, but because his hands are shaking. “Put me back in,” he says, not sure if it’s the right volume, not really caring. “Send the paperwork and put me back in.”
Phil's gone pale. He looks right at Clint and Clint’s never been great with that, so Clint looks at Phil’s hands instead.
I can’t put the paperwork through, Phil says. His hands are shaking too. Major head injury means eight weeks off the roster, no matter what. He stops signing, spreads his hands. “I talked with Fury when I saw you starting to climb the walls. He said no exceptions.”
Clint breathes out a shaking breath.
I’m sorry, Phil signs. I didn't know you thought you were going to be sidelined. I thought you understood.
Clint says nothing.
And I know you’re bored. The baking thing was supposed to help pass the time. I’ll put the paperwork through next Monday at nine. And I’ll make a note that I believe you’re fit for service, but it's going to be at least two weeks till you even go in for a medical clearance.
He nods. He sighs. At least there’s the baking thing.
The baking thing.
You set up the baking thing?
Phil shrugs and smiles sheepishly. "You needed a hobby. You were practically living in my office."
Clint laughs. It takes him by surprise and he can’t stop for a good two minutes. Then he sighs and scrubs his face with his hands.
I love you, Clint signs.
I know, Phil answers.
As chest wounds go, Bucky’s had worse. Once Dr Banner’s had a look at him and the serum’s had a chance to start repairing the damage, he feels almost normal again. Weak, tired, but not suffocating any more.
He had to get up so they could turn the two chairs and table into a bed, but it was worth it. The bed is comfortable, and he's comfortable, and Steve has even thrown covers over him, which is nice because he wouldn’t have bothered with them himself. He looks at Steve, who's moving around the little bed, tucking things in.
“Thought you’d be mad,” Bucky says.
Steve shakes his head. “Who says I’m not?” he asks. He settles on the edge of the bed. “You scared the hell out of me, Buck.”
“That makes two of us,” Bucky says.
Steve smiles, faint and lopsided. “I thought you were hunting Clint. I thought you’d gone off the radar to kill him.”
“What makes you say that?”
Steve looks up at the bulkhead and says, “And I quote: “I hate the way he breathes”.”
Bucky laughs softly, careful not to let his chest bounce too much. “I don’t hate him… anymore. I just want to kick his ass.” Steve grins and Bucky pushes himself a little closer to him. “I got a secret weapon, Stevie. I got the right bananas.”
Steve nods. “You went to a Thai market or something?”
Bucky frowns at him. “No, we went back in time.”
Steve turns his head a little and smiles at him, eyes soft and fond. “Bruce took out a lot of blood. You should probably get some sleep.”
“I’m not giddy, Steve.”
“Sure, pal.” He settles down on the bed beside him, propped up on the pillows, hands folded over his belly. “Get some sleep anyway.”
Bucky scowls, but it goes unnoticed.
Bruce settles into the copilot's seat and spends a moment just staring out the window.
"My blood," he says at last.
She glances at him.
"In the black case from the hospital. Marie Charbonneau gave it to them to give back to me."
"What did she have your blood for?"
"Always looking for a cure," Bruce says. He shrugs. "The theory was if it could change my blood back to how it was before, maybe it could turn back the clock on cancer too. It was a nice dream."
"I thought you'd stopped trying to cure yourself."
"Sometimes…" he sighs and smiles at her. "Sometimes I think it would be nice to be the kind of guy that people don't need tranq guns to be around."
"Sorry," she says, even though she's not actually sorry.
"Don't be. It's rational."
"The big guy scares me."
"But he's never hurt me," she adds. "I think it's just that he's huge. I don't like monster trucks either." She thinks about that a bit. "Or elephants. It's not personal, just something I need to spend time around to get used to."
Bruce's forehead scrunches up. He turns back to the window and gazes off into the distance. Natasha leaves him to it. After thirty minutes of companionable silence, she fishes out the bag of chips she stashed away and pulls it open. Bruce turns back to her.
"Do you think everything Clint and Bucky do together is destined to be a disaster?" he asks.
"Destined? No. Likely? Yeah." She shifts her bag of chips from one hand to the other and offers some to him. He takes a few and chews thoughtfully.
"So the bananapocalypse on Friday…" he says, licking salt from his fingers. "We should probably be out of the Tower for that."
She looks at him and grins. "And miss all the action?"
"Might not be a very safe environment."
"I'll wear kevlar. You put on your green suit. We'll call it a date."
Bruce grins and takes another handful of chips.
Chapter 17: You're the Cream in my Coffee
I dunno, I think I just needed some Stucky snuggles. If you don't need snuggles, you can safely skip this chapter. But c'mon. Snuggles.
Steve curls down beside Bucky when Bucky’s breathing settles out and Steve’s pretty sure he’s fast asleep. He goes out too, almost as soon as his head is pillowed by his arm. He wakes some time later, slowly at first, and then realizes Bucky’s still in the same position he was when Steve fell asleep. Only, Bucky doesn’t sleep much and never without nightmares and Steve’s mind says he’s dead and Steve jerks upright on the bed, heart in his throat. Bucky’s eyes snap open, he looks at Steve.
“Trouble?” he whispers.
Relief crashes over him like a wave. “No. Sorry. I just…”
“Nervy,” Bucky supplies. He gestures. “C’mere.”
Steve’s heart aches in his chest. He lies back down and submits while Bucky tugs him up close, so Steve’s head is resting on Bucky’s arm and Bucky’s chin is just above Steve’s head. The quinjet’s engines are a steady hum, a sort of big version of the tiny noise Bucky’s arm makes when it’s still. When they used to talk about going to the future, he never imagined they’d be going this far. And thinking about that… that doesn’t help the ache in his chest.
“Wrote you a letter,” Bucky whispers, voice hardly audible over the low noise of the engines. “Years and years ago. Before everything.”
“Yeah?” Steve asks. He feels small again, lying like this, like they used to.
“Forgot about it. Forgot about a lot of stuff. Forgot…”
Steve looks up at him. Bucky looks down.
“Forgot I was the only one you ever let take care of you. But after… Erskine and all that…"
Steve props himself up on his elbow and looks at Bucky and Bucky shrugs awkwardly where he's lying. "It's not that I want you to be sick," he says, words slow and halting. "I don't. I wouldn't. It's just… I never got a chance to get used to it. It's weird. I know you're you, but you're not really. I mean. Look, so long as the serum works you’re never gonna need anybody again. It's…" he stops and sighs.
Steve frowns. "This is what you wouldn't talk about," he says.
Bucky shrugs again. "Those doctors talk too much."
"Buck…" Steve can't keep the disappointment out of his voice.
"I don't want any more people in my head, Stevie." Bucky's voice is ragged, raw, and Steve realizes with a jolt that Bucky is pleading. "I'm not the Winter Soldier any more. I came clean when I came in. I told them everything I knew. And now they want me to tell them everything else." His voice fades, almost vanishing under the steady hum of the engine. "But it's not theirs." And Steve understands the unspoken things, about Hydra, about his memories, about the things that were taken from him, how they made his mind a place that was not his own.
"Okay," Steve whispers. "You don't… it was never supposed to be something you had to do. It's supposed… I'll talk to Hill."
"She gonna listen?"
"Eventually," Steve says.
They go quiet for a while, and Steve turns something over in his head. "Bucky?" he asks after a few minutes, because it's important, and because it's quiet and now's as good a time as any to get it out.
"It's got nothing to do with need. It never did. I thought you knew that."
Bucky shifts a little where he’s lying and opens his eyes just a little.
"No. I didn't know that."
"Well now you do."
He smiles faintly. “Well okay then.”
Steve's blushing for reasons he could not adequately explain, and it bothers him. He closes his eyes and shrugs himself back into a comfortable position. After a minute, Bucky's head settles against his, and his breathing gets soft and regular again. Steve closes his eyes and gets another couple hours too.
Chapter 18: You Rascal You
It's weird. There's no song called Clint Barton is a Little Shit. I think that's a damn shame.
If anyone were to ask Steve, Steve’d tell them in no uncertain terms that it’s Clint who starts it.
About fourty minutes outside of New York, Clint appears from the tail section of the quinjet. He goes over to the weird pod coffee machine and fumbles around a bit, alternately threatening it and pleading with it, until he gets a cup of coffee. Then he comes over, still scratching under his hair and yawning, and drops down opposite him and Bucky. He’s only partially dressed, the waistband of a pair of tattered underpants showing above the tops of his jeans.
“You guys sleep?” he asks.
Steve nods. Bucky sits up and does the same. When he looks at Clint, Steve sees that Bucky’s grey eyes are kind, the way they get sometimes when he looks at Natasha, and sometimes with him. It’s a nice change from what they were before all this went down; cold, or haunted, or ashamed.
“What day is it?”
What time is… he shakes his head, frowning, What day is it?
Bucky’s gotten good at signing, really good. Steve has just started learning and everything’s too fast for him.
Thursday, Clint signs back.
Bucky nods. When … …
Steve can’t follow that.
Friday, Clint says.That one Steve can read.
Bucky nods and yawns. “Not much time.”
Clint shrugs and starts signing and Bucky responds. It’s way too fast for Steve to catch any of it. Clint signs back, shrugging. Then he says, “Shut up for a second and let me drink my coffee.”
Bucky grins. He sits back. “You want a copy of that recipe?”
Clint looks over the rim of his cup. “What recipe?”
Bucky frowns. “The one from the museum.” He signs something.
“What recipe?” Clint asks again. Then he smiles and gets up and walks away. Steve watches him go, and frowns at Bucky. Bucky swears. He fumbles around for a second, then grabs Steve’s little sketch book, and oblivious to Steve’s quiet hey, tears a page out, balls it up, and chucks it at Clint. It pings off his shoulder and Clint turns back around.
What? Bucky signs. Steve can get that one. That was the first one he learned.
Clint puts down his cup and signs something about a phone, maybe, but Bucky doesn’t have a phone, so maybe Steve read that wrong.
Bucky frowns. He pats his pockets, then looks around. He grabs the coat that ended thrown aside when Bruce was draining the blood from his chest. He reaches into the interior pocket and pulls out a cheap little phone that Steve’s never seen before. There’s a small, neat hole right through the middle of it.
Clint grins. “Your arm and your phone took out a fair bit of the bullet’s energy. Maybe even saved your life. Too bad about the recipe though.”
He picks up his coffee and waves with one hand and disappears into the back of the plane.
Bucky looks at his phone. Then he looks at Steve. Then he looks at the back of the plane. Then he looks at Steve again. He shakes his head.
Almost before the quinjet even settles, Bucky’s down the ramp and across the roof. Clint comes down the ramp a whole lot slower, as if he's stiff. Steve glances at him.
“Where’s he going?” Clint asks.
Steve shakes his head. “I have no idea. But I think you should probably watch your six.”
“Not worried,” Clint says. He smiles a long, slow smile, like he’s done something that only he knows about. Steve’s never seen him quite this smug before. Not without a bow in his hand anyway.
Phil, phone pressed to his ear, mutters an excuse me and squeezes between him and Clint and goes on down the gangway. He's talking as he goes. “Yes sir, I also saw that. Likely a high-end Winter Soldier costume… The, uh, the man who punched the camera…? Ah, no. Agent Barton is still in his regulation mandated eight week recovery period. No. Yes. Lookalikes. Yes. Remarkable. Yes, sir, loud and clear. No, sir, no you will not.”
Clint watches Phil go, and then shivers and rubs his hands up and down his bare arms. “I gotta get a shirt,” he mutters, and follows Phil.
“Hey,” Steve says, catching his arm. “Look, about this competition. Don’t…” Steve’s not totally sure how to approach this, but he really doesn’t want to have been a part of a plan that ended with two friends killing each other. “Bucky’s still not…”
Clint grins. “Oh don't worry, I'm not going to ambush him from a vent or something, he'd rip me limb from limb. I’ll beat him fair and square. And you can tell him I said so.”
Tony is not in the suit so when he hears the voice of Bucky Barnes say, loud, growling, Stark, I need you, he goes, well, he goes completely numb. He turns very slowly because Bucky Barnes does not speak to people who are not Steve, and certainly not to people who are Tony Stark. More importantly Bucky Barnes never, to Tony's knowledge, expresses anything approaching an interest in the mucky basics of human life like wants and needs. So this is weird.
Barnes is coming toward him, fast, but not running, and he’s holding something in both hands, not a weapon. Tony starts breathing again and kind of wishes he hadn't. In the oil-and-metal smelling lab, Barnes smells distinctly animal.
"I need your help," Barnes says.
“What you need is a shower,” Tony replies, and then realizes that, depending on Barnes’ state of mind, which, judging from what’s been in the news feeds lately may not be so good, those could be his last words on God’s green earth, so he adds, “though I can see how picking off hostage takers in a hospital in Paris and avoiding the authorities and make it hard to organize self-care time but it’s something you might want to consider making an effort toward…”
Barnes ignores him and puts what he’s holding down on the work bench, and Tony sort of forgets what he was saying. He looks at it. It’s a cheap phone, with a bullet hole through it. He frowns.
“Now why would you bring a piece of junk like that into my nice lab?” he asks.
“I need you to fix that. There’s a photograph on it. I need it.”
“You know, if you’d had a Hulk-proof Starkphone, which is what I tried to give you in the first place, this would never have… Wait. Does this have something to do with the baking thing?”
Barnes nods. Tony nods back. In his future he sees himself coping with slapdash handiwork, mass-produced chips that look like they were laid out by monkeys on drugs, and big blobs of solder. But Pepper put money on Bucky Barnes to win and Pepper likes winning, winning makes her happy, and Tony likes a happy Pepper. “You’re lucky,” he says. “When’s the big day?”
“Tomorrow. I need the photograph.”
Tony shakes his head at the phone. “Come back this afternoon. If there’s enough of the phone left to be a phone, I’ll have it working again.”
Barnes nods. “Thanks,” he says, and strides away. Near the door, Dum-E whirrs to life. It turns to follow Barnes' movement and Barnes pauses. He looks at Dum-E for an instant and then pats it once on the head, like a dog.
“Don’t encourage it,” Tony snaps. Then looks at the phone. It’s a total piece of crap but the impact of the bullet broke the case open so getting to the guts is going to be easy at least and then it’s just a matter of… something dawns on him. He grins.
“Jarvis, call Pepper for me.”
Tony? she asks.
“Thought you’d like to know I’m still alive and that Winter Soldier came on by and dropped off his cell phone for repairs and, did I mention? Still alive. You have money riding on Barnes' banana thing, right?”
Uh… he hears her smile. Ah. Well that’s not how I’d put it.
"Ms Potts," he chides and makes a mental note never to say that collection of words in that order again unless he’s trying to make Pepper laugh. Or make Steve blush. Any discussion of anything or, hey, anyone riding on Barnes' banana thing would probably turn Cap's face tomato-red. His grin gets bigger. He mentally files that under Revenge for the Rickroll. Best deployed in public and then forgets about it. “So, do you?”
He hears her laugh. Yes I do. Steve says he's got a good palate, and he’s tipped to win.
“Who’s betting on him?”
Well, there's me and… it looks like I’ve got Janet, Steve, Sam, Nick, Bruce, Thor, Jane, Natasha, and Maria betting on him. Clint’s got Coulson and you. Why?
“Put me in too.”
I thought you were backing Clint. Something about “People who’ve gone hungry know how to cook” or something?
“I stand by that statement.”
You can’t bet against yourself, Tony.
“Clint to win, but Barnes to have the best tasting bread.”
That doesn’t make any sense, you know that right?
“I’ve got a hunch, Pep.”
Okay, I’ll put you down for Clint to win, Barnes to have the best tasting bread. She says it in that precise, slow way she uses when she knows he’s on to something so she's reviewing the evidence again. This? This is part of what he loves about her. Other people wait to be told what he’s cooking up, but Pepper just figures him out. Sometimes before he does. Not in this case, but often enough. He grins at the broken phone and counts under his breath, three… two…
Oh. OH, Tony, you don't think… Oh, too bad. I have to go.
Someone’s here. Goodbye Mr. Stark. Hello, Clint. What can I…?
For just an instant, Tony can hear Clint’s voice, low, muttering, then the phone is disconnected. Five minutes later, the email comes in:
- - - - - -
Subject: Requested materials (Thursday morning edition)
Requested by Bucky Barnes:
Cell phone repairs
Requested by Clint Barton:
Erik Selvig’s phone number
- - - - - -
Tony grins and starts reassembling the phone.
Clint makes a point of not reading the text from Erik until he and Barnes are in the same room, because he knows Barnes is good at reading expressions, and Clint might be a showman but there's no substitution for genuine, toe-curling, butt-clenching, stomach-knotting thrill of certain success. So when Barnes sees him the next time, Clint's grin is huge and genuine and probably shows all his teeth.
Barnes goes over the the table and checks the status of his bananas and is visibly relieved.
"I wouldn't," Clint says.
"I trust you," Barnes answer, but his eyes are cold, his expression stony.
"Really. I don't have to."
Barnes says nothing, but his expression reads, You might win, but at what cost? but Clint was never good at the whole 'self-preservation' thing. He starts laughing, which was probably the wrong thing to do.
He winds up crouching in the vent above the Hulk's rooms, hiding like a kid with his knuckles in his mouth to stop from laughing. He stays there till he gets the text he's been waiting for. It's a multi-parter. He reads it twice, to check the details, and then a third time to memorize it. Then he emails himself a copy of it. Then he emails Coulson a copy of it. Then he emails Steve a copy of it. Because if Steve checks his emails more than once a week, it'd be a miracle, and Steve's email inbox is a place Bucky Barnes is ever going to go looking.
Then he texts his list of ingredients to Phil. There's a no-sabotaging-the-shopping rule, to keep the mayhem confined to the Tower, which is sort of too bad. A part of him would really like to see Agent Coulson take down the Winter Soldier with a handful of bananas in a minimart. But you can't have everything.
Chapter 19: The Thing
Many, many thanks to everybody who contributed to this with info, messages, commentary. So much info! So much learnin'! So much fun! Thank you everybody, I hope you had a bit of fun and maybe tried some new tasty things!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
One thing before we start, Clint signs. Barnes frowns at him over the mountain of ingredients on the counter. The others are watching, but none of them can sign as fast as he and Barnes can, and with the ingredients obscuring their hands, it’ll help keep the conversation private.
What? Barnes asks.
I want to go first.
Because Clint’s spent the last week in very close quarters with Barnes, he can see, in a way he suspects nobody else except maybe Steve can see, the agony of indecision on his face. First, advantage sensed. Then, immediate mistrust of advantage. And finally...
“Thanks.” He looks over at the table where Darcy is sitting. She is wearing one of Thor’s capes, a cardboard crown that may have come from a burger joint, and a large, round button that says Nobody kill me, I’m the judge, and she has an hourglass taped to a stick that she’s holding like a sceptre. She grins at both of them and looks around.
“Okay people, are we ready?”
Both he and Barnes nod.
Darcy sits up a little straighter. She is the only one sitting; the room is pretty packed.
“First we go over the rules,” she says. “One: No tampering with ingredients, recipes, tools, utensils, or ovens. Two.” She pauses. “Hey, should somebody be signing this?”
Clint shrugs and nods. It’d be nice to be sure about the rules. Natasha shoulders forward.
“I will,” she says.
Darcy nods. “Perfect. One, blah blah blah, basically no messing around with each other’s stuff. Okay, two: Each contestant makes one loaf of banana bread and then presents it to the judge, c’est moi, on bended knee.”
Clint snorts. Barnes leans forward and maybe makes a noise or something because a few people smile, and Darcy straightens up and gestures to herself. “I don’t make the rules, I’m just the judge.”
Barnes narrows his eyes at Thor and shakes his head. Thor’s head goes back just a bit, as if he finds it unnerving.
“Three: Blood must remain in its original container at all times.”
Clint sees a swift, unpleasant smile cross Barnes’ face.
“And bruising will totally be counted as blood out of its container.”
“Okay I think that’s it. I mean, "that is all". You have one hour.” She raises the hourglass on a stick and turns it over. “Go!”
It’s all very civilized. Clint ignores Barnes and Barnes ignores Clint, and they get on with it. The part of Clint that understands showmanship keeps tugging at him, telling him he ought to be doing something, probably something to do with flames and maybe some kind gunpowder-based banana-unpeeling apparatus, but he pushes that aside. He’s not here to entertain the others, he’s here to win the competition. The loaf comes out not too bad, a little scorched on the one side, but otherwise okay. He sets it out to cool and sees Barnes smirking just a little, his perfectly golden loaf of banana bread steaming gently on the counter beside him. Clint doesn’t care.
He takes the tub of margarine he requested and the brown sugar and a bowl and starts mixing the icing. While he waits for the loaf to cool enough to be iced, he considers. He glances at Barnes, who’s looking critically down at his naked loaf of bread, like he hadn’t anticipated brown sugar icing and is wondering if he should ice his too. Good. Distracted.
Clint tears the corner off one of the brown paper grocery bags and grabs a pencil from a drawer and writes a few words. It won’t take many. He reads it back, smiles, and sets it by the plate upon which he is going to present his masterpiece. It’s just a plate. Just a dinner plate. Nothing special. It's got to look homey and inviting. That's part of it.
He ices the loaf with the lumpy brown sugar icing and then waits. He risks a glance at the audience. He never did like seeing people’s faces when he performed, it was always better to have a blindfold on, or have the lights in his eyes, but he looks up anyway. Natasha is leaning against Bruce, who’s leaning back on her, and they’re both talking to Tony, who’s nodding, slowly but getting faster, grin spreading like he’s having something confirmed. He looks for Phil and finds him squashed up near the back corner of the room, looking over Sam's shoulder to see. He flashes a little smile at Clint and Clint nods back. He knows better than to show certainty in front of a judge, even if he’s pretty damn sure this is going to work.
Darcy calls time, and Clint washes his hands, puts the loaf on the plate, slides the note just a little under it, and carries it over to the table. He bows like a trained horse, on one knee, low, deep, perfectly theatrical. Darcy appears to be delighted.
She says a few words, takes the knife and slices a piece, pops in into her mouth. Her eyes go wide.
“Oh my god," she says, "you made my mom’s banana bread?! How did you even … …" something something. Clint can guess.
“She’s your emergency contact. Selvig gave me her number.”
“Oh my god. It’s exactly how she … … … cheap margarine and everything.” She looks back at the plate and sees the note and gives him a stern look. “Bribes will not avail you.”
“Not a bribe.”
She narrows her eyes a little more.
“Poetry might work.”
“Not a poem.”
She takes the note, chewing as she does, and reads it. She stops chewing. She swallows. She licks the icing off her finger, gets to her feet, points at Clint and shouts, Winner!
Consternation and uproar.
Clint can hear the buzz of jumbled voices raised, and the booming voice of Thor calling for order, and Tony has doubled over he’s laughing so hard, Pepper standing beside him, arms folded, shaking her head. Steve looks dumbfounded, and he’s pushing toward Darcy to, no doubt, speak earnestly and urgently with her, and then Thor is demanding an explanation and when people have sort of started to calm down, Natasha touches his shoulder.
What did you tell her?
The truth, he says and shrugs. His bananas are 72 years old and they were down my pants.
Barnes is looking at him. Looking over, smiling faintly, shaking his head.
You asshole, he signs. Clint grins back.
He sidles on over and takes a look at what Barnes cooked up. "Mind if I…?" he asks. Barnes shakes his head and shrugs.
"Go ahead," he says.
They get into it, both of them. The fact is, it's delicious.
A short history of banana bread in the US.
A tasty-sounding updated version of the first banana bread recipe in a commercially printed recipe book!
I can't actually find a copy of the original 1933 Pillsbury “Balanced Recipes” cookbook recipe for banana bread (which is what I imagined Marie Curie's imaginary banana bread recipe would be like), BUT I'd love to link to it if anyone out there knows where I can find it!