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what i thought, what i said

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In the middle of the fucking night, Bucky's phone buzzes.

He was asleep, before plastic started buzzing against fucking wood. It's a completely fucking unexpected sound, so it jars him the fuck awake; but it's also all on its own - no sound at windows or doors, no change of the air, nothing to say anyone managed to break in - so he just slits his eyes open in the near-dark of the room and squints across Steve's sleeping shape to the bedside table.

Bucky knows it's his: Steve only puts his on vibrate if there's some reason the noise would be impolite. He also knows it's not anyone important, because he's got the kid's number, her mom's number and Elizabeth's number all set up to ignore that he's got it on vibrate, each one of them gets their own sound, and for his part Steve's right here, fast asleep, half underneath him. And he only bothers to have it react at all to any numbers other than those four because Stark and Wilson and very occasionally Banner might send something once in a blue moon, or theoretically might call if there was something actually important.

None of them would be texting in the middle of the fucking night, because they'd only bother contacting him in the middle of the fucking night if it was an emergency, and if it was an emergency they'd fucking call. Or in Stark's case possibly just remotely take over the fucking phone, which Bucky is absolutely fucking sure he can do (fuck "proprietary tech of his competitors"), and talk at him.

It gives the second buzz that counts as the reminder a text got sent, and Bucky squints at it for another second or two before leaning over Steve (still asleep, thankfully) and grabbing it in his left hand, almost dropping it because of fucking friction being a bitch, and transferring it to his right to unlock it and see what the fuck was going on.

The text is from Barton.

He knows it's from Barton both because he actually has the number for everyone and their cat (or PA) in the damn phone (properly labelled), he just ignores all the ones he doesn't care about, and also because Barton signed it, presumably in case Bucky didn't.

It reads, i'm coming into your place via your balcony eta ~15 - Barton

Bucky reads it again and scowls at the phone, seeing if the thing makes any more sense if he stares at it for a while. He is awake. He knows he's awake, because there's an orange ball of needy fuzz complaining about it and trying to climb up his head.

He reaches back to grab her, rolls over on his back and drops her on his stomach and stares at the text for a little while longer. Eventually he puts it down on the bed and taps out letters for fucking WHY, hits send, and then watches the little dot-dot-dot that says Barton's typing.

The texts come one by one, but in rapid succession:

b/c am borrowing your couch for night.
will avoid bleeding on it
would appr. not being murdered
if murdered at least put corpse somewhere dignified
~5 min now btw

It's one am. And Bucky's definitely awake.

He stares at the texts, considering, or doing something vaguely like considering except sleepier because he fucking refuses to finish waking up for this. Fucking refuses.

The idea of Barton in the place doesn't actually bother him much, when he turns it over: if he ever needed to he could kill Barton in his sleep, though Romanova'll be a bitch to deal with if he ever has to. But the only reason Bucky can think of that Barton'd be doing this shit is, Romanova's not here. Which means he'll have some lead time, and it's one am, and on full consideration he actually does not give a single, solitary fuck right now. He wants to go back to sleep. Barton can crash on the couch if he wants, Bucky'll kill him if he has to, and he'll deal with Romanova when he has to, too.

He sends back whatever, and then rolls back over to lean across Steve and put the phone back; he thinks of something else and pauses, and adds, let the kitten out and die.

He plugs the phone back in, puts it down, settles more or less back where he was and goes the fuck back to sleep.

 

At around three thirty am he surfaces, briefly, because Steve gets up to go to the bathroom.

Bucky's aware, in a vague way, that at some point after he decided he was going the fuck back to sleep, Barton did come in through the balcony door - there's a half-asleep memory of the click of the door, change in the way the air moved until the guy did fall asleep or possibly died on the couch.

But probably not died: right now the air doesn't smell like a dead body. So probably asleep. Definitely not moving around.

There's a long pause between noises of the flush and the bathroom door, and Steve coming back into the bedroom. When Steve does come back, pausing in the doorway, the sleepy, puzzled face he's got guarantees that pause was spent staring at the living-room.

"Why is Clint Barton on the couch and how did he get there?" Steve asks, blinking and clearly not all the way awake, which is good.

"He came in through the balcony," Bucky replies, "and until at least five-thirty I don't give a fuck, come back to bed."

Steve yawns, sort of glances back out the doorway and then seems to decide he doesn't care yet either, which as far as Bucky's concerned is exactly what he should do. "Mmkay," he says, and crawls back under the covers, curling around behind Bucky this time. He falls back to sleep before Bucky does, but only barely.

 

At five-thirty, the alarm goes off and Steve wakes up for real, and - probably more or less on autopilot - gets up to go put coffee on.

Because it's Sunday and while Steve hasn't bothered to go find a church yet he's decided to institute Day of Rest, including from morning runs, which Bucky pretty much translates as Day Steve Can Be Reasonably Certain Bucky Won't Need Stitches And Won't Accidentally/"Accidentally" Forget To Eat. It makes him happy, so Bucky doesn't care.

Bucky mostly uses Sundays to prod, very carefully, at the idea that there used to be a time when he wasn't a fucking morning person, before the fucking draft and the fucking Army and fucking everything else, ever. That once upon a time, one of the fucking joys of Sundays (since he'd been an erratic church-goer at best) was sleeping in. Doing everything slowly. Being lazy.

Without the usual suspects when it comes to both of them losing track of the clock and sleeping until noon, he hasn't managed to sleep past six or to ignore the agitated need to get up (even if it's just to move to the couch and be a useless fucking slug there) past six-fifteen, but it might count as something. Maybe.

So he stays sprawled on his stomach in the bed and watches the kitten get up, stretch herself, jump down off the bed and trot off down the hall in the hopes that the human that's out of bed will give her food. Then he gives a shot at dozing, which doesn't work, but lying here with his eyes closed is fine for now anyway.

This time, when Steve wanders back to the room, the puzzled look is mixed with concern instead of drowsiness.

"So," he says, "why is Clint Barton on the couch? Wrapped up in a bunch of flannel sheets and the blankets? Looking kinda like me circa 1940 after a bad alleyway?"

Bucky more or less gives up on sleep, pushes himself up on his forearms and pulls his phone over. "No fucking clue," he says, pulling the cord's plug out and tossing the phone to Steve with a half-assed throw that Steve catches anyway. Then he sits up and winces. The side of his neck and down around his right shoulder-blade both hurt more than normal and he's not sure why, because he hasn't done anything to them.

He fucking resents that. If he's done something stupid, or even accidental, fine; when shit hurts for no reason, it just pisses him off.

Steve frowns at the texts for a few seconds. Then he grabs his own phone and stares at the (presumable) total lack of texts on it. Then he puts Bucky's phone down and fiddles with his own for a few seconds and says, "Last I heard Natasha was in Santa Monica and landing here this morning, and Clint was in . . . " he touches the screen a few times again and says, "Philadelphia."

Bucky makes a non-committal noise on the basis that his priorities when it comes to knowing where anyone is are not Steve's, so he's got no idea where Romanova is unless she's here, and Romanova is a big girl and gets to look after herself, so he doesn't care he doesn't know where she is, and if she wants something she knows where he is.

Steve rubs his forehead and then puts his phone down, too. "I'm gonna go shower," he announces. "He's still asleep and he looks like he needs it. Actually," Steve amends, "he should probably go to the hospital, but if he was gonna go there I think he'd've gone."

The bed's comfortable, and after Steve hits the bathroom Bucky seriously contemplates trying to go back to sleep or even just lying here for a while, fucked up neck or no. But it only takes a few minutes for the idiot kitten to scamper back in the room and stand on the floor beside the bed, weight back on her haunches like she's about to jump up (but isn't) and mewling open-mouthed until Bucky gets up to prove the thing that changed isn't actually the end of the world. Even if the thing that changed is a New Human.

There's coffee, anyway. He grabs the top long-sleeved shirt off the chair beside the dresser and pulls it on over the tank-top he wore to bed.

*****

Waking up like this is always a series of assessments, from the most basic to the more complex. Sometimes they stay clinical, no sentiment attaching, but Clint doesn't get that lucky this time.

Status: still not dead.(Oh good. Probably.)

Secondary status: nothing life-threatening or mobility-threatening broken or cut open, but everything ow-fuck-ow. (Not great, but livable. By definition.).

Tertiary status: you're hungover, you have a mild concussion, you're bleeding from a bunch of places with some others just barely scabbed over, and you're a total fucking idiot. Also you're filthy, probably starving but if you eat anything you're just going to throw up, exhausted, wrapped up in cheap WalMart flannel sheets which you stole so you wouldn't bleed on Steve's couch, Tasha's going to kill you, and you're a total fucking idiot. And there's a kitten sniffing your head and it's apparently Barnes' so be nice to it.

You fucking idiot.

(Fuck. Fantastic.)

His inner monologue is vicious and disgusted, which is pretty much earned. He runs last night through the mental screening room and thinks fuck again. Tries briefly to remember what the fuck had started him thinking hitting up Echo was a good idea and mostly gets left with a mixed up impression of anger and a different kind of disgust and then the sudden intense need to feel someone else's bone break under his hands or his foot or his fist.

(So basically you lost it and twisted yourself up until you were a mean son of a bitch and then went looking for someone to kill, and then the universe decided to help and threw you Gina fucking Adams and her current pet. Well. Now late pet. Congratulations: you're an idiot and an asshole.)

And then something cool and wet touches his forehead and he twitches and hears a mrrt?

Right. Kitten. He'd been completely baffled by that last night, but last night he'd still been drunk; this morning he actually remembers Tasha saying something about a kitten and Barnes and Barnes having one which sounds a priori about as likely as . . . something that's really unlikely, and he'll probably remember better later when he feels less awful.

He tries to scrape his fucking brain together and put all the pieces of the wakeup check-in together.

Overall: he's not dead, doesn't need a hospital and he's more or less safe as long as he's nice to the cat, so by and large - considering the huge fucking vacation his brain took starting about ten am yesterday - he'll call it a win.

"Vacation." Walk-out. Leap off into the void. What even metaphor is there for it? There should be, but probably isn't. He tries to take a deep breath and winces at the stabbing pain that gets him, but prodding at his side decides it is just bruises, not broken. Stupid fucking luck again. The late pet wasn't that good but he did hit hard.

The assessment, the practical things, the trying to pull himself together: that happens on the top level of his thoughts, tries for ironic detachment, and mostly tries to ignore that right underneath is the sneer, the snarl that's the last leftover bit of whatever fucking got hold of him last night, just turned in where it's supposed to be so other people don't get hurt. It's not exactly easy to ignore.

And under that, there's something that's just tired, and knows that defense mechanisms aside there's nothing fucking funny about any of this, and also that snarling and hissing doesn't matter, and that there are at least nine people dead now who wouldn't be if his head hadn't gone off the rails. Or at least, if they were dead, he wouldn't've killed them. It's not guilt, because he's never going to feel guilty for killing people who started trying to kill him first, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't've been better if he'd avoided the whole fucking thing.

This was shit-fucking stupid when you were twenty-one, Barton, he thinks. In case you haven't noticed, you're not twenty-one anymore. And Nat's gonna fucking kill you if you're lucky and you're going to deserve it, because you fucking know better.

Now get off the fucking couch.

Clint works on very, very slowly opening his eyes and letting them get used to the light. The really irritating part of it is there's still a bit left of whatever fucking lack-of-sense had eaten him alive, like that fucked up party guest who just won't leave, still high on everything known to humankind and suggesting you go have champagne for breakfast, except here it's actually "weird, bad-brain-shit induced not-really-mania-but-sort-of-looks-like-it feeling" - and one that he should've caught when it started yesterday morning, usually does catch, didn't this time, and that lead to . . . everything else.

It's crawling around his head in and around everything else, and he could do without it.

He kind of resents that apparently all that it takes to get started down that hill is being in Philadelphia at all. That seems vastly fucking unfair to him. He likes the city. It's been most of a fucking lifetime. But the prosecution presents exhibit a, to whit, everything about this moment, right now, to let him know it doesn't matter if he thinks it's unfair.

And he should stop fucking testing his luck and just stay away.

Clint finishes blinking his eyes open to frown - because he can't help it - at the little orange tabby leaning a bit precariously down from the back of the couch to sniff at him. When he moves a little bit, she meows. "Yeah," he says, shifting, "that. And I already know I stink, kitty. Thanks."

There's the sound of a glass of something making a faint clunk on the table behind his head and he just barely keeps himself from swearing and hissing Jesus H Fuck you are worse than Natasha, since he knows Steve does not have stealth-feet when he's just walking around, which means it has to be Barnes.

Besides, the kitten makes a bit of a louder meowing sound and runs out of Clint's field of vision back towards the kitchen, and then there's muttering in Russian about irritating cats.

Clint pushes himself up to sitting, blankets and sheets peeling away from his upper body like an truly disgusting flower, and reaches for the glass of water. Says, "Thanks," and makes himself drink it.

Moving gives him a whole second catalogue of whatever the fuck he did to himself, but mostly it confirms the first inventory: he's got a shit-load of superficial bullshit and he's going to regret the whole thing for at least a week if not a couple months, but nothing important's broken, torn, twisted or dislocated.

Proving something out there probably does look after fools and madmen.

Morning light filling up the condo mostly fills in what he'd vaguely and briefly scanned when he came in last night, informed by Natasha's descriptions: kitchen, dining room, living-room, front hall, main hallway down to bathroom (door currently closed, light on), two bedrooms on the other side, some kind of narrow-doored nook at the back, plus the end of hall closet. Steve's renovations are pretty obvious, none more so than the part where he knocked out the top half of one of the kitchen walls and put in a pillar and a counter with bar-stools instead, which Barnes has put back between himself and Clint since bringing the water.

The kitten's sort of flopped over Barnes' left shoulder, face-planted into the side of his neck with legs on each side, and Barnes is doing busy-hands work - probably as a way to avoid obviously ignoring Clint: emptying a dish-washer, putting a pot of water on the stove, that kind of thing. With the sound of water running and the bathroom door closed, Steve's pretty obviously in the shower.

Downing the last of the water, Clint puts the cup down and reaches in his worse-for-wear jacket pocket to pull out his phone, which miraculously survived the night with only a cracked screen. There's one text from Natasha, but it's just a note that she's getting on the plane and she won't be expecting a reply right away. So he puts it on the side-table beside the cup and digs in his other pocket to discover that he's also miraculously retained his wallet through all of that.

Fools and madmen, for sure.

He scrubs a hand over his face and tries to push his thoughts into some kind of line and figure out where to go from here. He fails, so he gives in and asks, "There coffee at all?"

Not that he can't smell it, but he did kind of crash the place, so all things considered he'll stick to the most polite version of anything he can summon up out of the hangover and the pain.

Barnes glances at him - well, no, glances in his general direction - over the counter. "Not that you want to drink," he replies, but then he adds, "yet," and Clint sees him pull out a coffee maker.

Clint feels like shit and he's exhausted, but after over twenty years there're habits so ingrained you couldn't get rid of them with sandpaper. So he can't help that a bit of him's not just watching the guy, but very definitely observing and filing everything away. Frankly, he might not get this kind of chance again.

It's not that Barnes is hard to read, not that he has been, those times Clint's seen him in somebody's place in the Tower at the gatherings and not-quite-parties where they all try to figure out how to be something more connected, more integrated than a handful of people life's gone and inextricably tangled together. And for someone like Clint, anyway, Barnes is really simple to read.

It's just all that's there to read is the obvious: an absolute fucking stubborn (and impressive) dedication to being Fine, completely Fine, we're all Fine here, how are you? Plus about forty percent of his attention focused on every move everyone else makes, forty percent focused on every move he himself makes, and the remaining twenty gripping a kind of thread of attention back to Steve like it - like he - is the only thing making gravity work and definitely the only thing that's making the rest of it possible.

Not everyone would catch all that; Clint's not everyone. It just doesn't leave much else to read, because at least until either Barnes is out the door or everyone else is, that's everything Barnes is willing to be, let alone show. You can see the walls and they're pretty obvious, but not what's actually behind them.

Whereas right now, well, there's a cup that used to be full of water on the table and Clint's watching him turn the normal-looking coffee maker on, and all that's in spite the part where Clint can tell that while Barnes isn't throwing him out, he's not exactly thrilled Clint's here.

And that there's still at least twenty percent attention twisting back along an imaginary line to Steve in the shower.

And Clint considers keeping his mouth shut, but in the end, curiosity wins over: he watches Barnes pour himself what looks a lot like the coffee Clint can smell from a percolator-pot on the stove, so Clint asks, "That stuff poisoned?" and adds, "Just curious," when Barnes glances at him like he didn't expect to hear Clint say anything at all.

Though again, Barnes doesn't exactly look at him.

After a half-heartbeat, Barnes' expression flickers from blank to the faintest shadow of agitation before it turns something approaching sardonic and he pulls down a much smaller mug than the one he's got (which says THE LAST THING I WANT TO DO IS HURT YOU….but it's still on my list and which Clint is willing to bet money is Tony Stark's fault, because nobody told him snarky mugs stop being that entertaining after you're old enough to buy liquor), pours a bit of the percolator-coffee into it and slides it across the counter, indicating pretty clearly Clint can get up and try it or not as he so chooses.

And sitting here feeling like shit is not making anything better, so Clint kicks away the last bit of blankets and sheets to stand up. He pulls the sheets out and balls them up, kicks them in a corner, and folds the blanket, leaving it on the coffee-table; then he goes over to the counter and the mug.

When he drinks it, he doesn't spit the coffee back into the mug. He even takes the second mouthful, just to make sure it wasn't his tongue that got confused or something - but no. No, it's definitely the coffee.

He puts the mug down and says, matter-of-fact, "That is without a single doubt or quibble the worst coffee I have ever tasted in my life. It's awfulness is actually on par with that shit the Brits make in their tanks and still call tea. Might even be worse. Congratulations. I'm impressed."

Then he looks at the fingerprints he's just left on the cup, grimaces and says, "Before I touch anything else, you might want to throw me a cloth. With soap on it. A lot of soap."

Barnes' mouth quirks; he turns back and gets a cloth wet so he can pump some hand soap on it and toss it over before hooking the mug with his left thumb and putting it in the dishwasher. Clint doesn't have a lot for comparison, but he's still pretty sure that Barnes is using the Stark-and-Ross-made replacement a lot more naturally than he ever used the other one.

Clint scrubs at his hands until they're kind of pink and the cloth's kind of grey, and then he folds it up and puts it aside. It definitely needs to be washed and may actually need to be burned.

Barnes glances at him again, and then pulls open a drawer, digs out what actually looks like a gauze pad and which turns out to in fact be a gauze pad, and skims it across the counter. Clint's about to ask what that's for when he feels his shirt stick wetly to his right forearm arm, looks down and sighs. He peels open the sterile packaging and rolls the sleeve back enough that he's not pressing whatever's in the cloth into the laceration and holds the pad against it.

It had been stinging, maybe burning, but everything's stinging, his entire sensory experience is one big goddamn ball of sting and ache and fucking awful; it wasn't like a little extra was going to make that much of a difference. But it is both impolite and inconvenient to bleed on someone's floor.

He realizes he's sliding towards the place where everything's funny, even shit that really isn't, and tries to rein it in a bit and keep an eye on what comes out of his mouth.

"Thanks," he says, and, "and thanks again," when Barnes skims the medical tape over as well, so Clint can wrap it around his arm and not have to hold the pad. He doesn't expect this house to have painkillers, seeing as they'd be useless, so he doesn't ask.

The coffee-maker's starting to actually make coffee, and now that the percolator's off the stove Clint can actually smell the difference.

"The fuck are you covered with, anyway?" Barnes asks, still finding things to do - like getting down a mug or bowls or checking the water that's working its way towards a boil - and not looking at Clint much.

Most of the time Clint'd read that as trying to fake nonchalance, but somehow he doesn't think it is, here. Wonders if looking at people, period, is just uncomfortable for some reason.

He sighs and resists the urge to rub his forehead, given he's pretty sure his hands are now more sanitary than his face. "Sweat, blood, beer, other people's blood, bad tequila, smoke, dirt, puddle water and fucking cheap perfume," he says. He's already decided to stick with honesty: generally speaking, when you unexpectedly crash someone's home, it's a dick move to be cagey or deceptive about why. All the more so when you crash the kind of home that's normally shut tight to visitors.

When he slides Clint an actual full mug of coffee that comes out of the coffee-maker, Barnes still doesn't look at him. It's pretty well done, actually: if Clint weren't Clint he probably wouldn't be noticing, because it's just a hairsbreadth off being completely believable as a kind of off-hand indifference, like he doesn't need to pay that much attention to Clint, like he doesn't care, so he's not bothering. Like he's looking for something else in the fridge (and he does get out eggs) and just coincidentally grabs a one litre of coffee cream and puts it on the counter, focused on the eggs.

But at that point, on at least three for three in terms of avoiding it, Clint nudges 'looking at people' out of uncomfortable into frequently not allowed.

Clint knows what Tasha knows, if only because this shit can't help but hit her cracks and out of the four people she could ever talk about that stuff with, two are off the list (though Maria's edging back on), and May's in Hong Kong. And what Clint knows basically translates to it being a miracle Barnes is alive, can occasionally fake truly functional for at least an hour, and hasn't gone on a killing rampage.

Although Clint's also willing to bet hard money that Barnes and even Steve are probably really tired of having to look at it that way.

Clint also watched Tasha work her way through the not-alloweds not once but twice. Even before that, he'd read a lot of psych stuff, the same way he reads (or watches, or listens to) a lot of everything, because there is honestly no such thing as wasted knowledge - but it's one thing to read about it, about conditioning and behavioural modification and all that shit. Itt's another fucking thing to know that someone you like is handcuffing herself to her bed every night because if she doesn't she gets so agitated she probably ends up breaking something and hurting herself. No matter how much she wants to stop.

(That'd actually been when they started sleeping in the same bed, long before anything else. He'd pointed out she didn't do that when she was with a mark. She'd said it was different, if someone else was there it was different - so he'd spent about two weeks sleeping beside her, on top of the blankets while she was under them. And then on the floor right by the bed, and then on the floor over by the door, and eventually not in the room, and no handcuffs. Then they'd had to fucking do it all again, after Moscow.)

Clint wonders how many of those things Barnes has and does that he doesn't even know about yet. Mostly because it's a good distraction from how awful he feels. And smells.

"Why?" Barnes asks, and Clint drags himself back out of contemplation to remember Barnes had asked what he was covered in, and he'd answered. He huffs a breath out.

"Too long didn't read version," he says, wryly, knowing he's falling back on defenses and giving up and letting himself, "because I'm a fucking moron and I'm lucky a really, really nasty ex of mine only expected what I could do when I was twenty-one."

There's a couple different ways someone could take that, but given the sideways look Barnes finally gives him and the assessment in it, Clint's pretty confident saying that Barnes is taking it the right way, which is I could fucking mince my twenty-one year old self while half dead from the flu. And it's true: the only edge twenty-one year old Clint Barton would have had was he healed faster. That's always struck Clint as fucking unfair: just about the time you start getting really good at anything physical, your body starts making you pay for it. Sports, dance, violence, anything. Further proof that if there is a God, he's got a sick sense of humour.

"The long version is I was a moron," he goes on, "and went to Philly, more of a moron and went to a particular area and establishment because, I dunno, my brain decided to pull up the death-wish it keeps around just to fuck me up, and ran into an ex of mine that I should never run into. Ever." And oh good, now the look Barnes is giving him is amused, and is also a look that is at him, so at least this fucking clusterfuck can benefit somebody. The guy almost certainly needs more amusement in his life.

"On the bright side," Clint adds, "Philadelphia is now down one really nasty criminal outfit. On the amusing side, the cops are going to spend the next . . . I dunno, however long it takes them to give up, being really fucking confused as to what happened in that burnt out building."

"Downside?" Barnes asks, passing Clint toast and a sliced pear and Natasha is seriously right, the guy has a taking-care-of-people Thing, because this isn't even what he's making for himself.

"Well," Clint says, and gestures to himself, as Steve comes out of the bathroom in jeans and a Y-back. "Plus Tasha's gonna fucking kill me, and I'm going to deserve it."

Actually, she might not kill him. He knows that. And that would actually be worse. He honestly hopes she just ends up wanting to strangle him.

"Why is Natasha going to kill you?" Steve asks, ruffling one hand through his own damp hair and looking concerned.

Clint sighs, rearranges the story to fit right in Steve's head. "Because Philly turned my brain off and I ended up not really accidentally crossing paths with an ex. Who was, and I'll put this delicately, not a good person and ran what I'll politely call a illegal transport and conveyance business and you can fill in the blanks depending on what kind of horrible images you want in your brain today. On the upside," Clint continues, rubbing the back of his head, "she's not doing that anymore. On the downside it was a fucking stupid thing to do and I almost got myself killed and Tasha gets annoyed with me when I do that." He adds, "I also get annoyed with me, but she's more expressive about it."

Steve wanders into the kitchen while Clint's talking, and it is actually a kind of a wander, so that it's almost subtle how the end of it puts Steve between Clint and Barnes - whose still got the kitten on his shoulder, although it's turned around now - which is kind of impressive because last time Clint spent any consistent time with him, "Steve" and "subtle" were things that only went together with a negative somewhere in the sentence. Clint's not even sure Steve did it on purpose, but it's definitely not a coincidence.

He does it everywhere, actually, but most of the time it's a lot easier to make it seem natural.

The other thing that's definitely striking, at least to Clint, is how every other time Clint's seen Barnes, he's mostly got a personal bubble big enough for three, even when it comes to Steve: he might cross it to hand stuff to people, or to help with something specific, but as soon as everyone was still and settled again the space was back - and even helping, he avoids touching people as much as possible and sure as hell doesn't touch them by accident.

Now, though, Barnes is standing maybe a couple inches away from Steve, and Clint suspects if he weren't here, personal space would be something that happened to other people. Which is definitely pretty damn big, as far as differences go. Though it makes him wonder idly what it is about people watching that means touching Steve isn't allowed.

Less striking and more hilarious is that after about five minutes of movement that could almost choreographed and isn't, while Clint drinks his coffee and picks at the pear, Steve and Barnes briefly have what's obviously a silent argument - Clint's going to guess about food - before Barnes rolls his eyes a little, reaches up and digs what looks like it might be some kind of cereal bar out of the cupboard and holds it up for a second while his body-language screams there, happy now? before leaving the kitchen for the bathroom.

He's hungover and he hurts and he's working hard to be polite and it's still a huge damn effort not to laugh.

****

Steve doesn't sigh when Bucky takes one of the cereal bars and glares at him before leaving the kitchen.

In fact, Steve takes a second to rearrange his brain, and remind habitual worry that considering there's someone else unexpectedly sitting on one of the barstools at the counter, and there was apparently a conversation going on before Steve got out of the shower, worry should sit down and shut up and not start fixating on caloric intake much for at least another hour.

Yes, even considering the problem it's been lately.

"Sorry," Steve says out loud instead, knowing that they had to have abruptly shut Clint out, given they don't need to have that argument out loud anymore. He turns away from that kitchen door and finds himself a mug for coffee, while Clint finishes his and shakes his head.

"S'fine," he says, "I think if I ever started complaining about silent conversations and arguments Coulson'd probably get up out of his grave to come glare at me. Not yell, or anything," Clint adds, blandly. "Stand there and glare. Dullest zombie movie ever."

He looks rough: unwrapped from the blankets and sheets Steve revises his opinion to "even worse than me circa 1940", which considering a few of the fights he'd picked that year is a bad thing. The only thing he can say for Clint now is that nothing on his face looks like it's swelling, which doesn't surprise Steve: what bits of combat they've shared, plus the constant presence of sunglasses any time there's the least amount of brightness, plus the one time Steve saw Clint snarl at a Stark employee for playing around with a laser pointer all adds up to Clint Barton clearly being very protective of his eyes.

When you can make the shots he can out of pure unenhanced natural gifts, that makes sense.

Clint's also got a clean gauze pad taped to his arm with just the faintest shadow of what'll eventually bleed through, and something that's going to open up like that after however many hours probably should have stitches, but Steve's not going to bug him. If by this point in Clint's career he doesn't have a reasonable sense of when he needs actual medical care, he's not really likely to listen to Steve's opinion on the subject.

He doubts Clint got it for himself, though, and he definitely didn't get the food for himself, so Steve adds that to reasons habitual worry should shut up and wait.

He pours himself coffee and catches the slight look of amusement on Clint's face; Steve says, "I promise, the stuff from the maker - "

"Oh I know," Clint interrupts, "I tried some of that stuff." He gestures at the percolator. "I'll keep drinking the stuff you probably can't use to etch glass if it's all the same to you."

"Gimme your cup, then," Steve says and takes it from him. "I'd say our stuff isn't that bad, but - it really is," he adds, pouring Clint a full mug of the other coffee. He passes it over and scoops the sugar into his own, and checks the water for the eggs, so he can gauge when to make toast.

"Why d'you drink it?" Clint asks, and then amends, "Not the ultimate why, I'm kinda familiar with strong idiosyncratic attachment to a particular kind of food or drink - you should see what Natasha does to tea. I mean, where did you get used to it?"

It's a moment of strangeness for Steve to remember that it actually isn't obvious: that for all Clint knows, it's what he and Bucky used to drink at home, before the War. He gives Clint a small, slightly crooked grin.

"This is what happens," he says, "when you're trying to stretch out your actual coffee from your rations with a slow supply of either burnt or green coffee beans scrounged from wherever you find them. More or less - a lot of effort went into duplicating this," and he points at the pot, "but we left out the occasional extra seasonings of mud, whatever the Hell happened to be in the water and whatever got into what sugar we could also scrounge."

"Your commitment is terrifying," Clint says, deadpan. "How the fuck do you replicate that? They don't even make the instant coffee that was in those rations anymore."

"Two brands of current instant coffee," Steve tells him, "Starbucks espresso roast and blonde roast, a scoop of Maxwell House and then boil it." He grins at the way Clint shakes his head.

"Congratulations," Clint says, "you're worse than the British. That is dedication to awful coffee."

He doesn't ask why, and Steve's not going to enlighten him right now, at least not past what anyone could assume about nostalgia and comfort drinks. He raises the mug in a small salute and then can't help asking, "What does Natasha do to tea?"

Clint makes a face and picks at the second half of the pear on his plate. "You know the Russian way to make tea?" he asks, and then takes a small bite of the pear.

"With the concentrated - " Steve starts and Clint nods and waves the rest away.

"Yeah," he confirms, and swallows. "Like that. So for hers, stew it instead of just steeping it for fifteen minutes, make the cup about twice as much zavarka as sane people use and double the jam. Then add sugar and cream."

"I'd say that sounds awful," Steve replies - and it does, even more sickly-sweet than his coffee, "but I don't have a lot of room to judge. You want any of this, by the way?" he asks, gesturing to the eggs. Clint winces and points to the half-eaten toast and pear.

"I'll stick with the indigestion diet," he says, "thanks."

Nausea, Steve thinks he can see the beginnings of a bruise peeking out on one side of Clint's scalp - Steve's not surprised he's nauseated. "How hungover are you?" he asks, casually.

"Well," Clint says, consideringly, "I haven't thrown up yet and the headache's no worse than all the rest of it, but since I'm pretty sure consciousness fuzzed on me one of the times I hit my head it's hard to use that as a gauge. I'll go with, I've been worse, but not recently."

He's working to maintain the sense of humour, Steve thinks, but not too hard, and at least he knows he's probably concussed.

Steve cracks the eggs into their cups and then slides them into the simmering water, then refills Clint's coffee mug again without saying anything about how coffee is not the greatest for an upset stomach. Or encouraging him to eat the rest of the pear. Because it's not actually his business and he's not going to turn into his mother. If he can help it.

But - "Not to imply it's a problem, because it isn't," he says, giving in and asking the question, "but why did you come here? I mean, the Tower - "

"Has JARVIS," Clint finishes for him, with a sort of half sigh. "And JARVIS has standing instructions about how if either of us - me or Nat - shows up on our floor past a certain level of sick or shows up injured, he should notify the other one. And Nat's phone still works on airplanes. So that would mean," he finishes, ripping off a piece of the toast, "dealing with how pissed off she's going to be before I had a vague handle on the hangover. Or possibly concussion. Or hell possibly before I was actually fully conscious. And by phone." His mouth quirks up, wry. "Not my favourite plan. On the other hand," he goes on, "I was - am - a mess, so I needed somewhere to crash where there is someone else, and I was drunk, and probably concussed, I figured if I texted you," and he uses the piece of toast to point at Steve, "in the middle of the night you'd ask Tasha what was going on, but Barnes'd either tell me to go fuck myself or wouldn't care."

Steve starts to think, or you could tell JARVIS not to but he doesn't get all the way through it before knowing Clint couldn't. That avoiding going to the Tower is one thing, and she's still going to be upset, but that getting JARVIS to break that arrangement would be a step across a line Clint wouldn't be able to back up from.

He's only got a hazy idea of why, but he's still pretty sure that's how it is. So with that being true, Steve has to grant the other points. "That's pretty decent logic for drunk and concussed," he says and Clint responds with a humourless smile.

"Just wait till you see me on morphine." Then he grimaces and says, "Sorry, that was the headache talking."

Not that Steve sees that Clint has anything to apologize for, mention of the headache does remind Steve and he reaches for the thin cupboard beside the microwave. "Right, here," he says, and he pulls out the bottle of extra strength ibuprofen and tosses it to Clint. Clint catches it, face a mixture of relief and surprise.

"I didn't ask," he says, opening the bottle and shaking three into his hand, "because I didn't expect you to have any." He tosses them back with the coffee.

"It's a long story," Steve says. "They're pretty much here for other people to borrow." Other people being Mercedes, mostly, if she's gone and wrenched or bruised something and she's run out of her own, because in the careful dance of not wanting to be a burden on people it's somehow easier to come up, ask to steal a couple and get the bottle tossed to you, and never question why there's always a bottle to get tossed . . . than it is to just have it bought and given.

Because people are complicated like that.

Steve actually gets the feeling, from the brief look Clint gives him, that he's maybe even guessed the shape of that, if not the details. Which is a little disconcerting: Steve's gotten used to Natasha doing that to him, but not really anyone else.

On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time around someone, these things do rub off.

There's the faint skitter of claws and then Abrikoska jumps up on the stool, the counter, and from one counter to the other, sniffing at what Steve's doing and trying to get her whiskers singed again, because she smells eggs.

"You're spoiled," he informs her, but he pulls out one of the mostly-cooked eggs anyway and puts it on a dish and on the floor, cracking another and sliding it into the water as a replacement.

Clint cranes his neck around to look at her and asks, "It have a name?" watching as she starts attacking the egg to bite off little pieces.

"Abrikoska," Steve says, and then looks over at Clint's sudden snort of laughter and raises his eyebrows.

"'Orange cat'?" Clint suggests and now Steve has to laugh a little - partly out of surprise, because it actually took him about a week to figure out Bucky'd got away with that one.

"Yeah," he admits, "more or less. It is a popular cat name, to be fair."

Clint looks amused, but he's also finishing off the pear, so he doesn't say anything.

 

It's six-forty-five when Clint's phone bleats the short sound of a whistle, and Clint winces. He gets up from the counter and goes to pick the phone up off the table. Steve's cutting bread and making toast, as Bucky's out of the bath, and avoids rubbernecking like a jerk by cutting a chunk of butter to leave out so it'll soften and go in the French butter dish.

He has his phone in his pocket out of habit, and he's surprised when it buzzes - though given that it did, not surprised that it turns out to be Natasha.

The text says, send me a photo of how he is right now.

Steve looks at the words and hesitates, considering, not sure how involved that makes him and how involved he should be. But the next text is please, the word all by itself.

Steve sighs and leans over to focus the phone's camera on Clint, standing by the couch and holding his own phone, and sends the snapshot.

It takes a couple seconds to send; then he gets back thank you and i'm going to kill him and right after that, Clint's phone starts ringing.

Clint grimaces in Steve's direction, and then acknowledges Steve's shrug. He wryly holds up one index finger, crosses to the balcony door - opens it, steps outside, and closes it behind him.

Whether Bucky was waiting for something like the door closing or it's just coincidence, now he comes into the kitchen. Absently, Steve notes that while the jeans have three or four holes in them and a lot of fray at the hems, the grey long-sleeve t-shirt is reasonably new. It's not enough to draw any conclusions yet - so many variables - but Steve files it away anyway.

Bucky glances at the door and says, "According to your calendar, she just landed at JFK."

"Sounds about right," Steve says, and doesn't bother saying she's not happy. Instead he passes Bucky a plate of toast and eggs and, at the resentful look Bucky turns on the food, says, "You could just eat it and skip the argument."

Bucky jerks the plate away, muttering in Russian about fuss and fucking food. He leans back against the counter and glares at Steve, but he does eat. Eats both eggs, actually, so Steve just dishes out his own food and isn't pointed about actually sitting down on the other side of the counter on the bar-stools. At all.

They're both just about finished when Clint puts his phone back in his pocket, stands looking at the courtyard for a minute, and then steps back into the condo. And Clint has a pretty good layer of his usual vaguely sardonic amusement at the world, still, the same one he's had probably all morning - but under that Steve suspects he really does feel fucking awful.

The wry smile doesn't quite make it to his eyes.

"So she's at JFK and she's coming here," Clint says, sounding a bit resigned. Steve feels bad for him, especially given all the stupid things he did he kind of got away with before he once again had someone to tell him off, except in retrospect.

"You want a shower before she gets here?" he asks. "And a change of clothes?"

Clint hesitates and then rubs the back of his head. And then winces, probably hitting whatever goose egg he got himself last night. "You may regret the offer," he says, "since I don't think I can clean the shower out for you after I use it, at least for a day or two, but - yeah. That'd be great."

 

Steve digs out an extra towel, a toothbrush, and digs through drawers to find a reasonable t-shirt and jeans, and - on second thought - a belt.

Then he fishes Abrikoska out of the bottom of the shower, shaking his head as she complains. "See, two people through the bathroom means she gets to lick the shower," he explains as Clint gives the kitten a funny look. "And yeah, she gets her bottom half soaking wet while she does it. Don't ask me."

"Cats are weird," Clint says, shrugging, and Steve closes the door behind him when he leaves.

He puts Abrikoska down on the arm of the couch, since Bucky's wedged himself in the corner of it closest to the wall, legs half folded, with the tablet. He squashes the urge to ask Bucky if he's okay: right now, Bucky'll say he is even if he isn't, and might convince himself of it enough that he won't even be lying, just wrong. So there's no point. Instead, Steve picks up his empty coffee cup going past and pours the last of the first pot of the day, puts on the second, and then puts the mug on the table beside Bucky's arm.

The dishwasher's mostly full, so Steve puts in the last few dishes from breakfast and turns it on, wipes the counters and wipes up the scattered bits of egg the kitten left on the floor. It's not quite busywork, since one of them'd do it anyway, but it's definitely something to fill the silence.

And when it comes down to it Steve doesn't actually want to think about the kind of driving Natasha had to do, to get from JFK to their building as fast as she does. Granted: when you're trying to clean around stuff like the cut on Clint's arm, it takes a bit longer, but Clint's still in the bathroom when the land-line rings and Bucky picks it up.

Steve can hear Natasha's voice, faint and phone-rough and in flat, clipped Russian, when she says, Are you going to let me in, or do I have to wait for him down here?

Bucky answers by hitting the code for the door and shoots Steve a look that's half-resigned and half . . . almost defiant, and Steve puts it aside because this really isn't the moment to try and figure that one out.

Steve goes to knock on the bathroom door to tell Clint she's here, while Bucky gets up to unbolt the door.

*****

After all the speeding she did to get here, she takes the elevator once she's in Steve's building, because it's slower than the stairs. Because now she's here, she needs that moment. Not that it's going to help - but she needs it anyway.

The anger isn't real.

It's there. It flared at the second text, the answer to the one of hers demanding why are you *there?* and it's been burning since, but it's fake. It's a diversion, a distraction, and a mask. It's easy, because it's expected; it's easy because it's something normal people understand, something they'll anticipate and comprehend. Because that's what women like her do when someone like Clint pulls a stunt like this. They get angry, they threaten murder, they -

So it's there, in a way. It's just not real. She doesn't actually want to kill Clint, throttle him with her bare hands. That is, fundamentally, a lie. A persona. It's the Natasha that fits in everyone else's head. It's a performance.

So there's the play of anger making her speed recklessly, the show making her hiss and seethe and even toss the right act at him, but the fucking fact is, the problem is -

It's that she's back behind anger. Where there isn't any, anymore. Where there isn't anything, at least not with a name.

She's back in the space where she has no fucking idea what to call anything she feels, no understanding, just building pressure until she picks where it's going to go. Anger's easy, but that's all. It's no more real than it would be if she went through the motions of finding it hysterically funny.

The only time the flare of anger comes anywhere near being true is when she knocks on the unit door and James opens it.

And she can see written all over him that somehow, somehow the bastard knows exactly how she feels right now, even when she doesn't. Somehow, he knows. It's in his face, in his posture, in - she realizes - the very fact that he is letting her come up here instead of sending Clint down to her, down out in public or to the car, down where everything has to wait until they get somewhere else that's private and controlled and safe and who even knows where that is right now. She can read all of that on him like he's holding a damn sign and she has to step on how badly she wants to snarl.

The part where she can also read the dark, sardonic amusement with all of it isn't the problem. It's just that he fucking knows.

It throws her, throws her off balance; she decides it doesn't matter, remembers she decided that a long time ago for reasons that are still important, and gives into the temptation to say, "I hate you," very quietly and in Russian.

"You started it, Naschenka," he counters, the same way, and that's true, so she lets it stand.

But she also says, "Thank you," and knows his shrug is acknowledgement, not denial.

"If I minded you wouldn't be here," is all he says, and now he steps back to let her in, and jerks his head towards the hallway where the bathroom is, before going back to his couch and his kitten and whatever he's using to pretend his hackles aren't up at having anyone else here, at all.

Though they're not as far up as she'd expect. She wonders why.

She remembers to find expressions, to be a person, just in time for Steve to come out of the hallway, just in time to give him a forced smile. "Sorry for crashing - " she starts, but Steve shakes his head.

"Not a problem," he says, immediately. "Want some coffee?" He's not frowning, but the line between his eyebrows is already a shadow: he's worried, but trying not to show it.

Part of her distractedly notes that the demurral is genuine and he's actually managed the right balance of sympathy and nonchalance in his expression, part of her wonders how he manages to do that - but she only nods distantly, and doesn't say anything else in the second before Clint comes out of the bathroom.

Something digs into her sternum and yanks backward, the sharp ache spreading out through her ribs and up to her collarbone; she tries to ignore it and to remember language. Any of them. Or at least a way into speech that doesn't start in the middle of a word, the middle of a sentence, the middle of snarling goddamn it Barton don't do this, don't do this to me you idiot, Clint - which isn't really anger, it's just . . .pressure and all of it going into the words.

They aren't the ones she wants to have come out, so she swallows them.

To her eyes, he doesn't look much better than in the photo Steve sent her. Just cleaner. He's holding a new gauze pad to his arm, there's the edge of a bruise sliding out from his hairline, broad abrasions on his forehead near his temple and on his cheek and chin, shadows that'll probably turn into bruising around his neck, and who knows what under the shirt and jeans that are - because this is Steve and James' condo - too big for him.

And he looks tired. Not sleep-tired, not hungover-tired, not even pain and (probable) concussion tired, but the other one, the one she hates; when he meets her stare, everything about him says, yeah. I know. Believe me, I know.

It'd be nice to just be angry. And she can't tell if she hopes that Steve thinks it's anger she's holding onto, holding back, if it's stupid at this point to want there to be one person in this fucking apartment she can still fool.

If she wants to.

"Sorry," Clint says, quietly, and Natalia nods, slightly. It's important: that word's important. And it's important that he doesn't say any others, doesn't try to explain right now, that he just says, sorry and waits to see what she'll do.

She looks him up and down and then forces her jaw to unlock so she can say, "Steve, I need to borrow your med-kit." And then, because she doesn't actually want to hear anything else Clint has to say just right now, she adds, "Shut up," in his direction, holding up a hand. "Just go sit on the fucking couch, your arm and your face are a mess. Don't even think about arguing with me."

Steve's gone past her and ducked into the bathroom. Clint acknowledges the order with a motion of his hand. He brushes past her, and it's deliberate, his free hand touching the back of hers and pressing once, this apology silent.

Natalia closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and manages another forced smile when Steve hands her what probably amounts to the most substantial kit she's seen outside an ambulance.

"Thanks," she says. "I hope you don't mind if - "

"Please," Steve says, and seems sincere. "Go sew up his arm."

 

Specific tasks help. They always do. You do things, small things, things you know how to do, that have a beginning and an end and a right way. Basic tools against the chaos in your head. Supposedly.

She's petty enough right now to enjoy the schadenfreude that wells up when looking at it proves the laceration really does need stitches: Clint hates them, and his mouth flattens into a tight line when she wordlessly pulls out the sterile suture packet, but he can't really argue, because with the broken clots cleared away and the injury exposed, there's no way the wound edges will meet on their own or even stay glued.

Steve brings her coffee and disconcerts her a little by remembering how she takes it. He also hands her the needle holder and then holds it for her while she ties the knots. It's almost adorable. No, it is adorable, and for a moment her head spins wide into how this must be from his perspective, with his habits and patterns. With his life where he does this enough that by now he's probably better than her at this, probably better at sutures than a lot of doctors who haven't had reason to use the skill in a while. There's a reason the medical kit is as complete and comprehensive as it is. Here, for Steve, this kind of thing is normal.

She doesn't expect that to be as reassuring as it is.

James sits on the couch, as far away from the rest of them as he can get and not be in a bedroom or on the floor. His kitten sleeps curled up on his shoulder, face pressed against his neck, and he's reading something, or pretending to.

She's done three of the six stitches this is going to need when something inside uncurls enough to let her say, "Is the bitch dead, at least?" and also to keep from saying, or do I have to go kill her now?

Because now, right now and forever from now, Natalia can't stand the idea of the woman being on this earth, alive. And if the only way to make that state of affairs change is to fall and fall hard off the straight and narrow she's tried to choose, well -

She'll just have to live with that. She's lived with much worse, for less reason.

But Clint says, "She's very definitely dead. And will probably have to be identified by DNA or dental."

Natalia glances up at his face, runs the words back through her head, and the tone. Decides that probably means he torched wherever they'd been or somewhere near by, nothing else. Feels sure enough of that she doesn't have to ask. And that's good. She'd've happily done things that would make DNA identification necessary, if the woman had still been alive, but he shouldn't.

There's a logic to that, Natalia's confident, that she'll remember in a while. Maybe when her heart-rate finally damn well drops.

She turns back to the last suture and says, "I don't think you should go to Philadelphia alone anymore." And she can hear herself and she sounds strange, her voice pitched just too high and her English oddly precise. Fuck. She holds her hands still for a minute and tries to get a grip. Ignores Steve getting up and going toward the kitchen, suspects he's finding something to pretend to do.

She expects an argument, because they've had . . . versions of this discussion before. Never like this, never after, never this far - but he always comes back messed up somehow, even if only angry and sharp, and she's pointed out that he shouldn't go, and he's argued.

It's never been a problem, just an irritant; arguments before now have been about her frustration with someone she cares about doing something that's bad for them, miserable for them, and doing it for no good reason. Like so many people do. But there's always been an argument and right now she expects one.

"You're right," he says, and she blinks. Blinks again and finishes the knot to free her hands before she looks up, because if he's just agreeing to placate her she's going to break his fucking jaw.

But he's not. She can see that, see a lot of things because he's not even bothering to hide. He opens his hands just a bit from where they are, like he's presenting himself as exhibit A. He's not humouring her. Not right now.

Natalia looks at him levelly for a moment before she pushes, because she has to, and says, "This was fucking stupid. And you could have got yourself killed."

There are points that stand out in her life since SHIELD, bright and cold. Most of them have to do with the possibility that Clint Barton died, or would die soon: the hallway in Moscow; Somalia; New York. The worst had been after Loki, when things had been bad - and then, back then she had been angry. Incredibly angry. Shaken, too, maybe, but angry. Maybe because she knew the reasons why, maybe because she knew the mechanisms at work. She could be angry if she had something to be angry at.

Being angry at how someone's damaged psyche makes them reckless . . . it falls apart.

"I know," Clint says. "Believe me, Natalia, I had the opportunity to seriously reflect on that possibility." And the words are glib but his tone isn't. "So you're right."

She holds his eyes for a minute and then decides she believes him and turns to opening a new gauze pad to go over the sutures as they ooze traces of blood. "Okay."

She says it and something untwists in her chest. Not all the way, but enough that she can ask, "What the fuck were you doing, anyway?" and her voice sounds normal to her own ears, cadences right. Clint winces, as she tapes the gauze down.

"There was a bad couple minutes with a place I used to go. I went out of nostalgia, it was a mistake, and then there was a bar and honestly I don't fucking remember most of the rest of the decision chain that ended up with me at the Echo, and then I literally ran into Gina and the inside of my head turned mean and at that point there was basically no way everything wasn't going to shit."

Natalia looks at him, her lips pressed together. He might be eliding for Steve, or he might just not want to think about it and right now that's probably fair, but turning mean is a pale euphemism for what comes out in moments like that.

She says, "Barton. That was unbelievably fucking stupid."

He sighs, mouth twisting into a half smile that doesn't go near his eyes. "No," unbelievably fucking stupid was when I started the fight with her current fucktoy-slash-lieutenant, Tasha."

Behind her she hears James snort, and for his part over by the dining room table Steve momentarily finds the walls very interesting. She's not sure if James realizes Clint's talking about something a lot uglier than she suspects Steve's back-alley fights could have been if he tried, but that's not important and she's not going to bring it up now.

Instead, Natalia stares at Clint for a moment and then reaches up and smacks him upside the head, because she can't not. Because she doesn't have anything to say to that.

"Ow," he protests, wincing. "Other side, Nat, that's where I hit the concrete."

"Is there any evidence trail?" she demands, leaning back into the bar-stool's back. Clint looks mildly offended, and Natalia glares at him.

"No," he says, not letting go of the offended. "Of course there isn't. I was drunk and fucking moronic, Natasha, not incompetent. Or a pod-person."

This time the noise from James' corner is less a snort than a soft huff. Natalia ignores him and says, "Okay." Then she narrows her eyes and asks, "Is there anything else you've done to yourself that should actually get looked after?"

Clint sighs. "Yeah," he admits, and winces as he goes to pull the shirt off over his head, show whatever it's hiding. "Yeah," he repeats. "Probably."

******

Bucky ignores every single time Steve looks at him while Romanova stitches Barton up.

There turn out to be four lacerations she thinks need sutures - the one on his arm, one on his shoulder, one mid-back and one on his hip. He sits through the suturing looking about how Bucky used to feel in Religion, and then sits through her checking bruises and abrasions with a bit more grace.

Then Steve finds out Romanova didn't have breakfast and starts digging into the fridge and making more of the coffee-maker coffee, because God forbid someone miss a fucking meal.

Halfway through that, the eight am alarm goes off on Bucky's phone and on Steve's and Steve shoots Bucky a questioning look that Bucky tries to ignore. Then Steve chucks a Clif bar at him, so that Bucky has to dislodge the idiot cat to catch it; her claws scratch down his left shoulder until they find the grooves and give her some purchase to crawl back up.

Bucky resists the urge to dig in the side-table's drawer for something he could throw back hard enough to sting and weighs arguing about the fucking energy bar with an audience against just eating it.

Goes with eating it.

He can feel Natalia looking at him, off and on, but doesn't acknowledge it until she says, "Eventually she's going to be too big to sit like that, you know." He looks up and she nods at the cat.

Bucky shrugs. "She's already too big to fit in some of my sweat-shirt pockets," he replies. "She's devastated. Because she's an idiot."

He's starting to suspect the silly thing thinks "idiot" is her name; she makes a half-purr, half-chirp noise and grooms his neck a couple licks before settling back down with her face smushed against it instead.

"Still no vision?" Natalia asks and he glances at her again, briefly. Decides she's digging her grip back into stability. Shakes his head.

"Doesn't seem to matter," he says, and then turns back to the text on the tablet, because he's starting to edge towards agitation and she can use someone else to remember how to be a human being. She's got plenty of options.

 

Eventually, Romanova takes Barton and Barton's destroyed clothes with her, the latter in a paper bag and almost certainly destined for an incinerator somewhere. It won't be hard to find one. There's at least three or four at the Tower, because Potts is smart and believes in in-house destruction of sensitive documents and never, ever trusting someone else's commitment to her company's security.

Steve turns the bolt on the door behind them and tidies up what's left of the med-kit mess. Then he pours two completely new mugs of coffee and puts them on the arm of the futon.

Bucky more or less expects it when Steve finishes by coming over and scooping the kitten off Bucky's shoulder and then tugging at the shoulder of his shirt until Bucky gives in and gets up and lets Steve tow him to the futon. Not that he doesn't want to, at all, it's just -

Just. Always fucking 'just' and always the same fucking bad reasons after it. He shoves the thought away.

Steve puts the kitten on Bucky's leg and then carefully pushes to get Bucky to shift his hips half-sideways, so that when Steve sits down he's half-beside and half behind him. And since at this point Bucky can actually feel the knot with his right hand if he touches his neck and knows he's probably showing it in how he moves, he skips even a half-hearted argument.

Sort of.

"Nag," he can't help saying, not really meaning it, and Steve snorts.

"Well I'd ask you if you're okay," he says, mock-innocently, "but you're gonna lie anyway, so - "

"It's not a lie, it's an adjustment of relative scale," Bucky protests. Like it's going to work.

"Okay, then you're not gonna give me a straight answer," Steve counters, "point stands," and Bucky gives up.

"Yeah, well," he says, and there's part of him that wishes Steve would just come out and say, see, I told you having people here wouldn't be okay, and another one that's glad he doesn't, and a third -

A third that's stuck noticing he wasn't actually having to rein in the uglier parts of his agitation until the last half hour they were here. And he's not sure what the fuck to make of that. Or if it matters, if it makes any real difference.

After a couple minutes of quiet and Steve's hands digging into his shoulders and neck, Steve says, "I'm surprised you let Natasha in."

Bucky's a little bit surprised Steve's actually saying it, and part of him wants to deflect - but for once it's not the part that's fucking driving so he shrugs, a little.

"If I hadn't she'd've had to drive somewhere else before she figured out what the fuck was wrong with him," he says, quietly. "And probably deal with people asking stupid fucking questions. It's not that hard to fucking ignore them both for an hour."

That's a lie, and they both know it. Or maybe, if it kind of isn't this time, he didn't know it wouldn't be, when he let her up. He didn't care, last night, whether or not Barton was in the condo, because last night he was still more than half-asleep and all he weighed was threat and the fastest way to get back to all asleep.

Awake and alert is . . . .different scales.

It'd probably be more honest to say I figured she'd be a fucking mess and nobody deserves to have to stay a fucking mess for longer than they have to and I can sit here and grind my teeth long enough for her to figure out Barton hasn't actually fucking kicked all the legs out from under her life, but right now his head feels abraded again, and he doesn't actually want to know that much about the inside of Natalia's head, let alone admit he does.

He expects Steve to call him on the lie, but he doesn't. He rests his temple against the of Bucky's head, instead, and works an arm around his waist. And Bucky feels like there's a half dozen things he could say, except he'd have to explain them first and he doesn't want to, and maybe Steve's got the same thing because he doesn't say anything, for a while.

Bucky's okay with that.