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Sticks and Strings and Christmas Things

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The ground was covered in a plush layer of powdery snow, the smell of pine was thick in the air, and it would be feeling a lot like Christmas, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was stuck out in the middle-of-nowhere, this-was-a-terrible-idea-Clint, where-the-hell-even-are-we Canada, playing at being a babysitter to Steve Rogers.

 “It will be a quick little mission” they had said.
In and out; minimal fuss and quick extraction” he had been told.
Virtually no danger; probably just a ghost facility. Rogers will do all the work; we just need someone to watch his back” had been the mission statement.
Codename Falcon currently unavailable; you are the best available operative” was the explanation for the job offer (frankly, that was a little insulting, but whatever).
Consider it a mini Christmas vacation, Hawkeye” was how they sold it. 

No fucking wonder Sam had laughed his ass off when Clint told him that he had taken the assignment.  Sam had been traipsing around being Steve’s wingman for months now; Sam knew what was up.  Sam knew what Clint was getting into. Sam was a damned asshole for not warning him.

The mission plan had seemed so simple, all laid out there on the brief.   

Step 1: Fly to “I promise, it isn’t as cold as you think it will be” Canada.
Step 2: Scout the secret-not-so-secret, suspected Hydra facility that Steve believed had information regarding the Winter Soldier project.
Step 3: Provide cover while the good Captain did what he does best. Maybe shoot a few bad guys. Maybe discover some intel. No matter what though, be back home before it's time to plug in the Christmas lights.
Step 4: Profit. Well, not profit, exactly - more like go home, sit in his underwear, and drink eggnog -  but that is basically the same thing.

What a crock of shit.  As far as Clint was concerned, the briefing should have gone like this:

Step 1: Fly to the endothermic hellscape currently masquerading as the Canadian wilderness.
Step 2: Scout the obviously not-so-secret, completely deserted, utterly ransacked, definitely was, at some point in time,  Hydra base.
Step 3: Look away uncomfortably while the national symbol of freedom reinvents usages for the words “God” and “damn” and “it” and puts his fist through an empty filing cabinet.
Step 4: Wait patiently like an underpaid uber drive while said national symbol does another perimeter check for anything they might have missed the first time around.  Wait for what is now going into six hours.

This is not profit. Definitely. Not. Profit. Not even close.

In hour one Clint did his own survey of the area, leaving Steve to his own devices. He found exactly nothing, just like the first time around. Whoever (or whatever given the extent of some of the damage) had raided the base before them had done a thorough job.  All the computers were smashed. All the documents were reduced to tiny little smoldering piles of ash.  All the bodies, if there ever had been any,  were gone and there was not a single scrap of intel to be found.  Hydra and whomever (or whatever) had come looking for them had split.  

In hour two Clint had run through the flight prep for the quinjet.  He was going to think of this as his “wishful thinking” hour.  Surely Steve would come to the same realization that Clint had - there was nothing left to be done here - and they could be on their way. Conceivably, Clint could be back in Brooklyn in time to watch whatever was the Hallmark holiday special of the evening wrapped in the comfort of his own battered couch.   

In hour three he tracked down Steve.  The flight prep had only taken 20 minutes, daydreaming about eggnog for another 10, and then thirty of nothing at all. In the official paperwork, Clint planned on detailing how he was simply checking in with his partner - the higher ups didn’t need to know that in all actuality, he had just been bored.

In hour four he went back to the jet to let the man brood in peace.  Watching Steve comb the deserted rooms and haunt the hallways was worse than staring at the walls of the plane; Steve looked so sad, which made Clint sad,  and the last thing in the world that Clint needed was another reason to mope.

In hour five he debated with himself over if taking a nap would be against his mission role.

And now, here he was, deep in hour six, standing outside shooting arrows into the base of a large pine tree because he had literally nothing better to do (the con position of the napping issue had, unfortunately, won out).  

The quiver over his back had already been emptied and he was steadily working his way through the stock on his hip trying to form a stylized outline of a Christmas tree in the trunk in lieu of shooting at any particular target.  The first half of the pattern had been easy, but matching it shot for shot down the other side was taking substantially more concentration. Exactly what he had been hoping for. The grin on his face ticked up broader and broader with each twang of the string and thunk of the point. Almost done.  

Without looking away, he cycled the quiver, spinning the internal cylinders until the small reserve of arrows with tracking beacons affixed to their crestings rolled to the font.  Grabbing one at random he flicked the activation node, nocked the arrow, and let it fly.    

Just as all the others, it struck true, vibrating slightly where it was sunk deep into the wood at the apex of his pattern.  With a tiny little beep, the tracker activated and the small led light designed to indicate that the signal was transmitting began to twinkle softly - a tiny little star for the top of his tiny little tree.

He gave a whoop and a fist pump, brandishing the bow joyously before moving closer to the tree to better inspect his work.  He knew he was no doubt grinning like a madman, standing there with hands on his hips feeling entirely too proud of himself, but now in the wake of his display of brilliance, it was not the time to start caring about that sort of thing.  With any luck, Steve would be back shortly so there would be someone else to share in the moment.  

The thought of Steve brought Clint back to reality.  Well, shit. He was, technically, supposed to be keeping an eye on the Captain and it had been a while since he had checked in.  

Pivoting to head back towards the jet, Clint noticed several things in rapid succession.  First, it had grown drastically darker than he had realized, the sun quickly setting behind the sea of mountains and pine - he had been at it longer than he thought. Second, despite the fact that the air was no colder than it had been and still filled only with the sound of birdsong,  something was causing the skin down his spine to prickle with unease - never a good sign. Finally, completing the turn, he hit the one that stopped him still in place; he wasn’t alone any longer and his new companion definitely wasn’t Steve.

The man was about 20 yards away, standing directly in Clint’s path back to the plane.  He was probably about Clint’s height, maybe a little taller, maybe a little broader, but anything else was hard to determine beneath the heavy layers of winter clothing he was sporting and the balaclava shrouding his features.  

He stood like a soldier - stock still and solid as a rock. The snow around the man’s heavy boots was pristine, completely free of any tracks to indicate the direction from which he had come, so either he was a flier or had been there a long damn time watching Clint’s antics.  The first option was unlikely - but possible given the sorts of crazy Clint was starting to grow accustomed to - but was honestly the better of the two options.  If it was the latter,  that would mean that an unknown threat had been at Clint’s back for an undetermined amount of time and Clint hadn’t been the least bit aware.  Not a good way to keep breathing in this profession.  

However, the man had gotten there really didn’t matter at this point.  The more pressing issue was the veritable arsenal strapped across the soldier’s form. A large rifle, assembled and scoped,  was slung ominously across his back; there were two pistols of differing sizes holstered against the guy’s massive right thigh and another of an even larger caliber on his left.  Clint could count at least four knife sheaths in the mix, so if he applied the “Romanoff Rule” to that number it would mean that there were, at least, sixteen more squirreled away out of sight somewhere on his person.

All Clint had was his bow and the dozen or so arrows left in the quiver.  Not the worst odds he had ever run up against, but not really how he wanted to spend his evening either. Alright. He could work with this. What he needed was a -

“You’re not Hydra.”

- plan. The voice surprised him.  He hadn’t really be expecting the man in black to make pleasantries. Fair enough. Who needs a plan when you can talk it out. Talk was a much better alternative to violence.

“Nope. And you’re not Canadian.”

Brilliant, Barton. A plus work right there. Even from this distance, Clint could spot the man’s brows furrow in confusion beneath the mask, gaze cutting away sharply to the left as if he were processing that statement.  

“No?”

That sounded a bit more like a question than a statement, but it was something to build on.

“And I take it that you are also not Hydra?”

There again was the puzzled expression and the darting eyes, like the man was having to think about the answer to what should be a fairly straightforward line of questions; the silence wasn’t a confirmation, necessarily, but it wasn’t exactly a denial either.

Keeping his movements slow and deliberate, Clint raised both hands - the empty one palm out and the one clutching the bow tipped in as least threatening of a way as possible.  Without breaking eye contact, he turned just slightly and placed the bow on the ground.  It was a gamble, but he still had the arrows at his side and he was pretty sure a few of those were the kind that could cause explosions if he was so inclined to use them.

“You wouldn’t, by any chance, happen to be the kind soul who wiped out that Hydra facility for us, would you?”

Rather than reply, the man’s posture eased.  Some of the tension vanished from the line of his shoulders and his weight distributed more evenly over the balls of his feet.  The change was minor, but telling. Up until this moment the soldier had been a cocked weapon and Clint a potential threat - now, for whatever reason he just… wasn’t.  

As the man reached up to pull the mask from his face, Clint let out a low whistle through his teeth.  Well, he didn’t need to see the man’s feature any longer to know who it was he was talking to - the glint of the setting sun off of the uncovered metallic fingertips was calling card enough.

James “Bucky” Barnes, the Winter Soldier, the whole reason that Steve Rogers was systematically traversing the globe laying waste to every single Hydra facility he could march his star-spangled boots through was standing not twenty yards from Clint, trying (in vain) to shove his overly long, sweaty hair from his eyes and frowning at Clint like he had personally done him some disservice.

Barnes looked exhausted. His face was drawn, cheekbones standing out sharply and casting deep shadows over the too pale skin.  His eyes were darker still, smudge beneath with bruises beyond the grease paint and eye black.  His lips were chapped, the crevices traced with lines of dried blood where they had been worried against sharp white teeth.  Clint had seen the images from the file that Natasha had liberated. They had been bad.  This version of the man looked worse.

“You’re here with Steve. I’m used to seeing the other guy. The one with the..” Barnes gesture out to his side with his right hand in a vaguely flapping, rolling motion, “...wings.”

“Ahh. Yup. That would be Sam, and yes, he is normally Steve’s hydra-hunting-husband, but, this time, I drew the short straw. So, here we are.”

Barnes nodded once, sharp and decisive - like anything that just came out of Clint’s mouth made sense - and then looked away.  Clint tried, he really did, to let the silence stretch, to just be patient and see what was going to happen next.

“He is here looking for you, you know.” Well, that wasn’t what Clint had been intending to say, not by a long shot, and definitely not spoken so softly.  Barnes’s eyes pinched shut, the words causing more damage than Clint’s bow ever could.  “I take it you are the one that has been beating him to the hideouts, then.  He thinks that they are just scuttling all of the information on the Winter Soldier Project.  He thinks you are in the wind.”

Barnes didn’t give any indication that he was listening, but he wasn’t leaving either, which counted for something.  Bending down, Clint snatched back up his bow.  Using the motion and noise of breaking it down and tethering it to the quiver to announce his intentions, he moved back towards the jet stopping just inside of arm’s reach- making the deliberate choice to stand to the man’s left.

“Knowing his best friend is alive would make for a hell of a fine Christmas gift.” Still no reaction. “You would be like Santa Claus, bring all the little boys the things they were too afraid to actually ask Santa for.”

That earned him a scoff, but no eye contact. “I’m no one’s idea of a gift.” The final word had a growling, bitten off emphasis that Clint took to mean that it carried some pretty negative connotations.  

“Pfft.” Clint was actually pretty proud of how loud he managed to make the noise of dissent, given the cold and how he was beginning to realize he could no longer feel his face or his fingers. “Nah, man. Steve would love it. Hell, I would love it, and not just because it would mean I wouldn’t get drug out on another one of these wild goose chases again, chasing your ghost ass.”

That earned him a look. “You don’t know me.”

“Nope.” Clint popped the word, drawing it out into two syllables, “But I know of you.  Gotta say, pretty impressive resume.  The way I see it, if you are around that means that there is another long range in Roger’s arsenal, and that means I don’t have to spend all of my spare time shoved up in a tree playing partridge, pretending to find whatever it is they are doing interesting.”

“I can’t be trusted.” Barnes’s voice was small, carrying a bit of a whine, and Clint’s heart broke just a little.

“Pfft.” He tried for the sound again.  “Nah. Sure you can. You didn’t kill him, now did you? Didn’t kill Tasha. Hell, didn’t kill me just now. That counts for something. Steve trusted you before. He’ll trust you now. You’ve just got to-”

“Don’t. Know. Me” The words were barked out, sharp, dripping with venom and laced with self-hatred. Both of Barnes’s hands clenched into fists and Clint can hear the soft whirring of machinery as the arm recalibrates around the sudden motion. A smarter man might move away; Clint just shuffled a little bit closer. “I’m not who I was.”

“No. You’re right. He doesn’t know who you are, now.” Clint put as much emphasis on the word as he dared. “But I think he might like to learn. Maybe even-”

You. don’t. know me.”

Well. That is unexpected.  Maybe this wasn’t as much about Steve as he thought.  “No. No, I don’t. But, hell, did it occur to you that maybe I would like to.  Hard to say for certain.   It’s not every day a man gets to meet the world’s second best marksman. What I do know, is that we could use you.  I’m sick of going on every mission just because they need a pair of eyes.  Besides, Steve is a handful; someone needs to look out for him.  Sam can’t do it all the time, and I’m pretty certain that I don’t have the required temperament.”

Clint had no real idea what caused him to make the job offer - because that is exactly what it was - but somehow it didn’t surprise him in the least.  He wanted to say it felt natural, given his propensity for picking up strays, but this ran deeper than that. Standing next to the Winter Soldier just felt… right.  

Barnes was silent for a long moment, so long that Clint was pretty sure the conversation was over and that he might as well just leave.   Or that he was going to get shot. Could go either way.

“Second best marksman, my ass. None of my briefings mentioned you being a damned comedian.”

Clint couldn’t help it, he choked out a laugh. “Well, the stories never said that you had jokes either, so that road goes both ways, pal. Be that as it may, I think you are missing the important point here. I might not be funny, which I am, thank you very much, but you said it yourself, you were briefed about me, so that right there has to count for something!”

In a move that was either incredibly brave or monumentally stupid, Clint leaned over just enough to bump his elbow against Bucky’s.  Even through the layers of jacket and for as brief as the contact was, Clint could feel the solid, unyielding force of a weapon that was the arm.

Rather than be gutted for the action - which, Clint had been giving that at least a 65% probability of being the outcome - he was rewarded with a tic around the corners of Bucky’s eyes and a subtle shifting of his eyeline that might very well be considered an eye roll. Clint Barton, Master Marksman, the Amazing Hawkeye himself, had just successfully made the Winter Soldier rolls his eyes and lived to tell the tale.  

Grinning like a moron, Clint got lost in the moment of mirth.  It suddenly became incredibly important that he remember this exact moment in its entirety.  The expression had looked so at home on Bucky’s features - more so than the glassy-eyed stare into middle distance ever had - that Clint now considered it  his primary responsibility to put that look back there as often as possible.   

“I’ll think about it. I… I have more work to do first.”  

The soft-spoken confession brought Clint back into the here and now, the moment of levity temporarily lost. Clint knew all about that - the need for the work.  The weight of actions carried out by hands that were somehow both your own and still not.  How the memories of those deeds pressed on the soul.  How the frigid drive to even out the balance kept your skin tight and your blood running cold.  Clint had only lost a handful of days and had almost drowned beneath the weight. Barnes had over seventy years.

“Alright. I won’t press, but seriously man, give it some thought. The work thing and the Christmas thing.  I can just imagine it now.  There it is. Christmas morning.  Little Stevie is all bright eyed, wrapped up in his Avenger’s pajamas - complete with little feetsies - running down the hallway of the Stark tower to see what Santa left him beneath the tree. There he goes, sliding around the corner into the commons area, barely able to contain the excitement, and golly gee, what is that beneath the tree but his long lost best buddy, Bucky Barnes. Angels will sing. Eagles with scream out from their roosts. Steves will cry.  Balance will be restored to the force.  It would be a magical moment.”

He knew he was laying it on a bit thick, but couldn’t help it. Clint was on a role and it was taking every last bit of self-control he had to not glance sideways to watch for Barnes’s reaction.  Clint desperately wanted to see that face free from the shadows haunting it and he had no clue where that desire was coming from.  Didn’t want to think about it, actually.  The only thing keeping him from looking was how powerful the urge was.  To follow that path was trouble, trouble with a capital “T”, way too many “r”s, and a whole string of “u”s.  Despite the common belief held by his friends, Clint did, occasionally, possess a bit of common sense. Occasionally.    

There was a chuff of air, that maybe might have been the start of a laugh. Clint had absolutely no business feeling as proud to have caused it as he did.

“I don’t know about all of that.” There was a pause, “What about you?”

“What about me, what?”

“What do you want to find under your tree Christmas morning, Hawkeye?”

Clint snorted - well, that confirmed that Barnes knew who he was talking to and that the earlier jab might not have been so flippant after all.  It was a sobering thought that he might have ever ranked high enough to find his way into the Winter Soldier’s scope.

“Nah. Nothing for me this year. I don’t even have a tree.”

Barnes “tsked” softly, shaking his head and causing chunks of hair to fall back over his eyes.  “Maybe you should. You obviously have a knack for decorating.”

That prompted another chuckle from Clint as he reached up to rub at the back of his neck, ruefully.

“Yeah, well, not a lot of gift giving going around this season for former assassins.” As soon as the words left his mouth, Clint immediately regretted them, would have given anything in the world to have them back. Way to go, genius, openly insult the other man in the clearing and all in the spirit of Christmas.

“Maybe you have a point, or maybe you are just expecting gifts from the wrong type of people.”  Well, that wasn’t what Clint had been expecting.  “After all,  I have it on good authority that Steve believed in Santa Claus until he was thirteen because someone kept sneaking present in to put under his tree, and it sure as hell wasn’t a fat man dressed in red. ”

No sooner has he finished the thought, Barnes moved past Clint heading towards the tree line.  Clint wasn’t sure what had him more floored - the casual brush of shoulder as Barnes had moved past or the length of the sentence.  Too lost in the unexpected touch, it took a full five seconds for the gist of what was said to sink in.  By that point, Bucky was practically to the treeline.

Clint completely missed him pause and toss a smirk back over his shoulder - the first time that particular face has worn that particular expression in over seventy years.  Clint missed it as he was doubled over, too busy gasping for air, clutching at his sides,  and laughing hard enough to startle a small group of birds into flight.  By the time Clint got himself back together, standing up to wipe at watering eyes,  the clearing was empty again - Barnes was long gone.

Clint wasn’t sure exactly how much longer he stood there, grinning out into the trees.  Long enough for the sky to further darken, pitching the world into an incandescent twilight with the last light of the day shimmering off of the snow.

The moment that Steve shuffled back into his eye line, looking every bit as haggard and lost as Bucky, Clint sprang into action.  Apparently, he needed a Christmas tree.  

Pivoting on the spot he dashed back into the plane, completely ignoring Steve’s confused expression.  Surely there has to be something useful, and if not... well… Steve could bash it down it with his shield or rip it out with his bare hands for all Clint cared. This was happening.

It didn’t take long before he struck success.  There was tiny little hatchet at the bottom of one of the emergency drop kits.  It was small, and in no way, shape, or form designed for this, but it would have to do.

“Come on. I need your help.” Clint jogged back past the still befuddled Steve, to begin hacking at the base of his chosen tree, just beneath the little decoration.  The tiny little arrow tree with its tiny little arrow star was coming home with him, one way or another.  

“What exactly is it that I am helping you with?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m taking this home.”

“And why exactly are are you doing that?”

“Well, Cap, what can I say. I decided I wanted a tree.”

“Tony has trees all over the tower…”

“Those. Are. Tony’s. Trees. This. One. Is. Mine.”

Each word was punctuated with another swing of the little ax. Steve didn’t say anything else after that, just elbowed Clint out of the way and took the hatchet from his hands.  It was probably for the better.  With his luck, Clint would have managed to lose a limb and then Steve would have had to pilot home. Steve did not have a good track record for flying planes. Never one to question a good thing, Clint willingly relinquished the tool. 

Crossing his arms over his chest, Clint scanned the tree line one final time, hoping to catch a deeper shadow than the rest in the gathering dark or maybe even a flash of silver.  Despite the lack of indication, he was pretty sure Barnes was still out there, somewhere. Probably watching.   Clint couldn’t help himself; he smiled, just a little, at the thought.

Maybe there would be profit from this after all.  

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”