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runaways are running the night

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now: 2018

The last month of the tour is the worst.

Not in terms of the shows – honestly, the shows themselves are the fucking best, they’ve never been better. They record the Netflix special on Clint’s second-to-last night on at Radio City, and he kills, he slaughters, he raids and pillages and salts the earth for every stand-up comic that will ever again play this venue. When he walks backstage, even Scott has tears in his eyes from laughing so hard and Scott’s heard this hour and every variation on it three times a week since May.

But still – Clint misses Natasha. He misses her with this constant pulsing sulky childish missing that he hadn’t known could be part of the package – it’s worse, he thinks, getting married actually made it worse, it’s blown itself up to massive proportions. Plus, she was here with him for the first leg of the tour – backstage every night, straightening his tie and making sure the water bottles onstage were icy because he hates drinking anything at room temp but doesn’t want to come off as some kind of diva. He’s always been afraid to just ask somebody to make the switch, even when he logically knows it’s not a request anybody would blink at – it’s just that he has this crippling anxiety block about being rude, about leaving someone with a “everybody says Clint Barton’s such a good guy but let me tell you about this one time he was an absolute dickbag” story.

Natasha always just takes care of it for him. She doesn’t roll her eyes at the anxiety block. She just does it so he won’t ever have to ask.

And afterwards, too, when the adrenaline from the post-performance rush burns off, he misses the quiet moments in the dressing room when she’d watch him change his clothes with her back to the mirror, framed in a halo of lightbulbs. He’d carefully hang up the suit – sweaty and limp, now, from an hour under the spotlights, but it’d be pressed crisp and clean before the next show – and she’d unbutton his shirt for him. They’d talk through which bits were working, which needed tweaking, which laughs he’d earned from her because she never laughed for him unless he’d really earned it, which is one of the many reasons he’s crazy about her.

And after that, her bare legs stretched out on clean white hotel sheets with her head pillowed on his stomach, noise-canceling headphones over her ears and Macbook open on her knees as she played back some melody Nakia had been tweaking, working her way through it late into the night. Clint would look down at the top of her head – her red, red hair bracketed by those truly ridiculous headphones and wonder every fucking time how he won this cosmic lottery.

But the War Dogs were due in the recording studio by the middle of October and there was no way for Natasha to wiggle around it – which, he does get. Lining up five people’s schedules is a hellish feat, every time, and it’s not like they can rehearse and record without their lead singer.

She would have been here for the last show if she could have been, and Clint’s long past the point of feeling petty about scheduling hell. They make it work. They always have. Their lives now mean they will sometimes miss big things, and making it work means they both have to be okay with that.

Anyway, soon he’ll be home, taking a well-earned vacation while the War Dogs finish their fifth album. It’ll take time to edit and mix and master, it’ll be a long, quiet stretch before the album drops and the PR machine starts chugging and it’s time for another tour. Before that, though: they’ll get to have dinner together, and go to see movies, and have an enormous amount of sex, and maybe Clint will finally learn to garden, or something.

More likely he’ll take some gig work, writing for awards shows or sitting in on roundtable pilot punchups for his friends or whatever, because none of them really know how to pause, but the point is: they’ll be home together, in the same city, in their house, revolving around the same cycle, and he’s very much looking forward to it.

Still: right now it’s after midnight in New York and he’s the only person not drunk at the wrap party, looking at the glittering Manhattan skyline and mostly just wishing Nat was here, tucked up under his arm against the cold. He’s freezing his balls off on the roof of this hotel; a few hours before the show, Bucky texted him a photo of Nat walking into the studio in cutoff shorts and a olive-green crop top, splashed in the sunlight and shining, with her sunglasses pushed on top of her head.

He’d also added, in quick succession:

  • it is 10am and already 93 fuckin degrees in the fuckin valley
  • why are we in the valley
  • why is anyone in the valley
  • why did they pick this studio
  • why does your wife hate me

Plus an angryface emoji.

Bucky hates the heat, but Clint’s been touring the bitter-cold east coast for all of November and it made him want to throw something heavy at Bucky’s head. Which was probably Bucky’s intention.

He misses Los Angeles. He misses home.

He did like that the photo stayed private, though. He’s shit at social media, only on it because, you know, he has to be, but even Clint knew it was the kind of candid that was eminently Instagrammable - #queen, #legend, #rawmemama, etcetera, ad nauseam, he’s pretty sure he could predict the comments before anyone actually typed them. (Bucky once said “raw me, mama?” to her with a goddamn straight face and Natasha’s expression of abject horror while she tried to work out if he meant it had made Clint laugh so fucking hard he was certain he’d ripped an organ in half. He still wants to find a way to work that story into his act, because on the one hand, people love it when he talks about his marriage, but it’s hard to find a way into it that doesn’t sound like he’s making fun of their fans, and that’s a big no-go.)

Still: he likes for some things to be just theirs.

Scott comes up to him and bumps Clint’s shoulder with his, then burps. “Scuse,” he says, in the too-polite tone of a man three beers deeper than drunk. “We’re really done, dude.”

Clint pats his shoulder. “We’re really done.”

“Gonna miss it,” Scott says, but he’s beaming, and he should be: opening for Clint kicked open a door in his career that he’d been certain was locked shut. Now he’s shooting a guest spot on Brooklyn 99 next week and Comedy Central’s sniffing around giving him his own half-hour. Clint’s proud of him, though he doesn’t want to say so and come off condescending. “Wanna do a shot?”

“Raging alcoholic,” Clint reminds him, and Scott nods, wisely.

“You should go home,” Scott says. “You have Nat-face.”

“Nat-face? That’s a thing?”

“That’s a thing we say behind your back,” Scott informs him. “It means you’re being pathetic and lovelorn.”

Clint laughs. “I love Drunk Scott. You can’t keep a secret to save your goddamn life.”

“I know,” he says mournfully. “Remember that time I told you I jerked off to that Rolling Stone cover where she was in the brown leather halter top and looked really mean? I felt so bad.”

“Yes,” Clint says. “Vividly. You can stop reminding me about it, you know. Like, if you want to. That’s a thing you could do.”

Scott nods again, then hiccups. “M’point is – go home, man. Get a red-eye.”

Clint opens his mouth to protest that he can’t just spontaneously take off for LA, but then he considers it: why not? His flight’s scheduled to leave tomorrow at three in the afternoon, but that was mostly so he could sleep in after the wrap party. He’s made his goodbye speech here and profoundly thanked the entire crew. There’s no pressing PR engagement, he already did Late Night last week – Scott’s right. If he leaves right now, he’ll be home just after one AM on the west coast.

He claps Scott on the shoulder, smiling. “Drunk Scott’s a genius,” he informs him. “I’m taking off for the airport. We’ll get brunch when you’re back in town, yeah?”

“God, I fucking hate that we’ve become brunch people,” Scott says. “But also yes.”

Clint’s suitcase is already packed and it’s a little embarrassing, really, but he’s now at the point when ‘checking out of the hotel’ is something Other People take care of for him (which he had to get over the anxiety block about; Wanda, his tour manager, made it clear that there were times his independent streak was making her life Unnecessarily Difficult, and Wanda still scares him a little.) He grabs his bag, gets an Uber, rebooks his flight out of JFK with three taps on his phone from the back of a black Prius.

He blinks, a little bit, at the massive upcharge to change his ticket, but that’s leftover from his broke-as-shit childhood; he knows, logically, they can afford this. He knows he could afford it even if he took the rock star funds out of the equation, but he sort of hopes he never becomes the kind of person who doesn’t at least acknowledge that the ability to do these things is an enormous privilege.

The cross-country flight is smooth and uneventful, and he’s too keyed up at the thought of getting home a full day sooner to sleep, so he watches Devil Wears Prada on the tiny airplane TV and eats six bags of pretzels. By the time they land, LAX is hushed and empty in a creepy, post-apocalyptic sort of way. Everyone on the flight is too worn to talk after de-boarding and there’s no noise but the susurrus of plastic suitcase wheels rolling down gray sterile hallways; some terminal here is always under construction.

His Uber driver recognizes him. It happens more in LA than it does in New York, which Clint guesses isn’t that weird. It does mean that he feels an obligation to make idle conversation with the guy, though – he says a silent prayer of thanks to whatever entity wants to receive it that this particular driver isn’t an aspiring comic/writer/actor, who would be pressing for Clint to come see his five minute set/read his screenplay/check out his showcase. He’s just a nice guy who’s heard enough of Clint’s stuff to let him know he liked it, which, honestly, in a scenario like this, is the dream.

This time of night, it only takes twenty-five minutes to get to the house, which, really, is how the freeway system in this traffic-choked city should always work, but someone clearly fucked up in the planning. The driver’s gone quiet, no noise but the low blues coming from the front speakers, and Clint watches the familiar scenery pass as the car winds up the narrow dark street cut deep into the side of the hills.

Nat had resisted moving to the west side for the longest goddamn time – she’d loved their mid-city apartment on Fountain. She’d loved that whole block, had lusted over it years before they’d ever been able to afford the rent, all the gorgeously-named buildings with their pointy cathedral windows and turrets, black iron balconies and spills of bright pink bougainvillea, and had only agreed to leave it because she knew security and privacy had been upgraded to “very real problems” from “slight concerns”. (And because if they were going to actually buy a house instead of rent, Clint had a deep-seated unshakable hatred of the east side and was not going to permanently live in a neighborhood with nowhere to park a fucking car in a city that literally cannot be navigated without one.)

He tips the driver and slings his bag over his shoulder, punching in the gate code after the car pulls away. On the other side of the solid metal gate, the house is dark, but Bucky’s beat-up four-runner is in the driveway, parked off to the side by the garage, so he knows it hasn’t been a painfully late night of recording.

Clint’s already smiling when he lets himself in – the turn of his key in the lock, the glowing numbers of the alarm system as he punches in the second code, the pleasant anticipation of sleeping in his own bed instead of a hotel. He takes a second to stand in the entrance and just be here. It smells like coffee and floor wax and late-night enchiladas, like nobody’s tossed out the take-out bags for a couple days – like home, in short. It’s still warm outside but cool in the house; he can hear the soft thrum of the central air starting up its cycle, peaceful and quiet.

Then a moan threads its way through the hallways, low and urgent. A sudden clatter from the kitchen backs it up, breaking ceramic and the echoing ring of something – a pot, a pan – hitting the glossy blue tile.

Clint drops his bag and moves quickly, his sneakers squeaking against the dark hardwood of the hallway. “Babe?” he calls out, mildly alarmed as he rounds the corner into the kitchen.

The sight in front of him punches every breath from his body.

Natasha is atop the long kitchen table, wearing one of Clint’s undershirts – it’s so white that she seems like she’s glowing in the dark. Her head is tipped back, eyes closed and chin tilted toward the ceiling, and her legs are spread all the way open, obscenely wide.

And Bucky is kneeling between them.

Bucky’s head is between Natasha’s thighs with his hands tight around her ankles, forcibly holding her legs that wide, that open, her muscles trembling with the effort it takes not to squeeze them shut. He’s eating her out with relentless enthusiasm, sloppy wet noises that Clint can hear like a whole orchestral score now that he’s in the kitchen. Every slide of his tongue and pull of his lips.

Natasha’s perfect mouth drops open in a noise of pure decadent pleasure, and Clint can’t breathe can’t think can’t process can’t –

Her eyes open. She sees him there. He only realizes in that moment that he’s clutching the doorframe with one hand in an attempt to stay upright.

“Hi, honey,” she says, in that throaty purr that can bring an entire stadium full of people to their knees. “Look what you made me do.”




then: end of 2007/early 2008

Natasha spends Christmas Eve at Nakia’s parents’ enormous house in Calabasas, mostly because Nakia wouldn’t take no for an answer. “It’s not for you,” she had said. “This is for me. It will ruin my entire holiday if I picture you sitting alone in our apartment eating a microwaved Lean Cuisine.”

“I bought the turkey one,” Natasha told her, but that just made Nakia look even more appalled.

Steve had begged her to come home to Brooklyn with him – “She’s your mom, too, Nat,” he’d wheedled with sad big puppy eyes, but she’d stayed firm: Sarah Rogers was the best foster parent she’d ever had, hands down, but Natasha hadn’t been a ward of the state for years. Sarah didn’t owe her anything, although it didn’t keep her from treating Natasha as her own daughter, like she always has. In this instance, though: Sarah could afford to help cover exactly one cross-country plane ticket and couldn’t take time off from the hospital to come to California herself this year.

Sarah felt shitty about this. Steve felt shitty about this.

Somebody in the family had to not feel shitty about it so that Steve would actually accept the ticket, and Natasha didn’t have any objection to that person being her. She’d sworn up and down that she couldn’t leave Nick in the lurch at the bar and reminded them both that Steve had an actual month-long break from grad school – he would get more out of the trip than she would.

Natasha also never wants to go back to New York, ever, if it can be avoided. It seems like it probably can. There’s nothing left for her there except Sarah, and one day, Sarah is inevitably going to roll onto her kids’ coast full-time.

She knows not to show up to someone’s parents’ home empty-handed, so she buys a cheap poinsettia from Trader Joe’s and liberates a bottle of forty-dollar wine from the bar, hoping if Nick notices, he’ll cut her a break. She borrows Steve’s car to drive herself, because she’s not entirely sure she can commit to sleeping at someone’s parents’ house on Christmas Eve, so she can’t depend on Nakia for a ride.

Natasha knows Nakia doesn’t quite get it, because Nakia grew up in a close-knit family and has never known anything but love and support, but she understands that sometimes Natasha has stumbling blocks that can trip her up if she doesn’t anticipate places she might run into them. She would never tolerate outright rudeness, but she will always give Nat the space she needs to navigate accordingly.

Nat’s had a couple big pieces of luck in her life. Meeting Nakia, who for some reason wanted to befriend Natasha, become her roommate, and start the War Dogs with her feels like she might have used up the rest of her lifetime allotment. (She could ultimately be okay with this if she didn’t need just one more home run: this band, this band, this band.)

To her own surprise, it’s actually a really nice night – it helps that the house is so warm and bright and overcrowded that there’s no space inside it to feel like a charity case. It’s nice when the more the merrier is a reality and not a platitude. She adores Nakia’s boyfriend T’Challa and his entire family has come for dinner, too, including his “problematic-ass cousin Erik”, which is how Nakia introduces him.

Problematic-Ass Cousin Erik is scorchingly hot.

Merry Christmas to me, Natasha thinks, when he lifts her hand to his mouth to kiss it and lingers there with intention instead of shaking it like a normal person.

She enjoys some filthy eye-fucking with him over the mashed potatoes before Nakia kicks her ankle, hard and in a way that means oh my God, Natasha Romanoff, my grandmother is at this table, behave yourself. A second later, Erik visibly winces, so clearly T’Challa did something painful to his leg, too.

After everyone’s eaten third helpings and put the dishes up to soak, the family gathers around the piano to sing Christmas carols. Nakia sits at the bench with a sense of total confidence; she is a queen in her emerald silk party dress, her hair coiled in tiny Bantu knots like a crown. She plays with her entire body, she plays from her soul, even when it’s just Christmas carols with family and friends. Nakia started private lessons when she was four and there’s nothing she can’t do on a piano – she can run through bars of classical like she’s dancing on water or she can light the keys on fire when she’s slamming out the songs she and Natasha have written together.

What they’re building with the War Dogs is going to change the game. Natasha feels it in the pit of her stomach, and if she can feel it for the chorus of Little Drummer Boy, she knows it’s the real thing.

T’Challa stares at Nakia like he’s utterly sick with love – who couldn’t, when she plays like that – and Natasha nudges his side with her elbow. “If I’m not allowed to look at Problematic-Ass Cousin Erik with lust in my heart…” she whispers, teasing.

He rolls his eyes at her. “I have one annoying sister. No one in the world should be cursed with two,” he whispers back.

“Good, because I have one older brother and he’d hate sharing me,” she says. T’Challa smiles and puts an affectionate arm around her shoulder. She hopes back in Brooklyn somewhere, on some level, Steve knows she called him her brother and is beaming about it.

Now I don’t have to get you a Christmas present, Rogers, she thinks, and smiles to herself.

Later, she helps T’Challa’s mom make the coffee and dole out desserts while fielding questions about the band. Natasha was prepared to be defensive – this is a wealthy neighborhood of wealthy people who don’t suffer foolishness, and she knows full well that I sing lead in an all-women rock band sounds like the sewer that pipe dreams dump into. Ramonda, though, is genuinely interested. Which Natasha probably should have expected – T’Challa brought his mother with him to watch a few of their early two-person gigs, tiny little nightclubs that wanted a singer and a piano player for a ninety-minute set of jazz covers. She’d once loaned Natasha her Louboutins when the heel snapped off her cheap stiletto right before they were about to go onstage. Just taken them from her own feet and handed them to Nat without hesitation, as though it was what anyone would do.

Natasha knows she’s got a defensive chip on her shoulder. She’s not sure it counts as growth if she hasn’t done anything about it other than acknowledge that it exists, but still.

“Nakia says you’re auditioning new drummers after the new year,” Ramonda says. “I think my Shuri is disappointed she’s not quite old enough. And that she doesn’t play drums.”

Natasha laughs. “She might age into it before we actually find someone we like,” she says. “I think we’ve seen every available drummer in a forty mile radius. None of them have what we need.”

“I’d scout San Francisco next, if I were you,” Ramonda advises, and when Natasha blinks, she smiles. “They do grow talent in other cities.”

“It’s on the list,” she says gratefully – because really, if they could find somebody willing to relocate, it’d be a great idea.

She’s halfway through her bowl of pear-and-cranberry crumble, trying to be a little more discreet about eye-fucking Problematic-Ass Cousin Erik from across the living room when her phone starts buzzing in her pocket.

  • quick Q
  • how mchu whsky is too much
  • for crhirstmas i mean
  • not for regular

Nakia catches the change on her face. “Jess?” she says, quietly. It’s not really a question.

“Will you resent it if I leave to pick her up?” Natasha says. “Be honest.”

Nakia shakes her head, a firm no, which is a relief. “Should I come, too, do you think?”

If Natasha said yes, she knows that Nakia would walk out the door right behind her, straight into the passenger seat of Steve’s junk bucket, and she wouldn’t complain for the whole hour it’ll take to drive back to LA. “I don’t think it’s a job for all of us this time,” she says. “Just – I’d feel better if…”

“I would, too,” Nakia agrees, and Natasha quickly shovels two last, giant spoonfuls of crumble into her mouth before bending to hug Nakia goodbye. “I’ll be back at the apartment by the end of the weekend.”

“I might sleep in your bed and throw her in my room,” Natasha warns, and Nakia waves a hand like it’s no problem. “Thank you for having me. For my gift, please give Problematic-Ass Cousin Erik my sincere regrets and also my phone number.”

“I’ll give him one of those things and you don’t get to pick which,” Nakia says severely. “Merry Christmas.”

The car is parked at the end of the block, a short walk that still gives Natasha plenty of time to text Jess back.

  • on my way. where u at?

***

There are surprisingly few bars open this late on Christmas Eve. Jess likes the comfortable little dives in Culver City; she was sober enough tonight to tell Natasha where she was, but if she hadn’t been, well. Wouldn’t have been the first time Natasha drove up and down Sepulveda and Sawtelle and the little side-streets between, patiently poking her head in every bar until she found the right one.

The parking lot in front of the Tattle Tale Room is almost empty; she pulls the car into an open spot by the empty aquarium store and tucks the keys in her pocket. Inside the bar, it’s dark and a little dank, it smells unpleasantly of old beer and piss. Jessica is sitting on a stool at the bar, blending in with her black hair and black motorcycle jacket, leaning her head on one hand. There’s a limp unlit cigarette in her mouth; she looks miserable.

“There are other bass players,” Okoye said a handful of weeks ago, after Jess had showed up to practice late, reeking like a distillery, and excused herself moments later to go throw up behind the rehearsal space they were all killing themselves to afford on top of apartment rents. She’d said it in her straightforward way, and that was the only real time Natasha has ever seen Nakia get angry at Okoye.

She hadn’t meant anything by it. Natasha knows that. It’s not that Okoye’s unkind; she isn’t, at all. It’s that she’s extremely no-nonsense. She’s one of those people who’s so together that she can sometimes have trouble understanding why a mess can’t just clean itself up. She loves Jess as much as they do, she wants Jess to get her shit together as badly as they do – it’s just that she’d also like to see a timeline on when that’s expected to happen.

There are other bass players. But other bass players wouldn’t be Jess, and Jess is a War Dog.

Natasha settles herself on the stool next to Jess. For the life of her, she can’t think of anything to say, so she reaches out to stroke Jess’s hair and silently thanks the cosmic force that delivered her to Sarah Rogers before it was entirely too late for her to learn how to do things like this.

“I’m sorry,” Jess mumbles. “I tried this time, Nat. I tried to not.”

“It’s okay,” Natasha tells her.

“It’s not. You were in the middle of, like, Calabasas is far and – ”

“I am always okay wherever I end up.”

Jessica snorts and picks up the smeary glass in front of her to drain the ice, but she doesn’t shake Natasha’s hand away from her head, so that’s something. “Really hate your fucking zen koans, Romanoff.”

“What is the sound of one hand clapping,” Natasha says drolly, and Jess manages a watery smile. Her eyeliner has bled beneath her eyes, shadowing them with grey. There are little mascara flecks along her cheekbones.

If she hadn’t wanted – needed – someone to be here, she wouldn’t have texted at all. Natasha knows what to read into Jessica’s silences.

“You need to throw up?”

Jess thinks about it for a minute, but shakes her head. “Car might not be such a good idea, though. Not yet.”

“No rush,” Natasha promises.

If she ever sees Kevin Kilgrave, she will murder him with her own hands. The chain reaction he set off in Jessica’s life –

It took Natasha so long to become who she is.

She fought and clawed and scratched and bit to drag herself away from the terrified little foster kid who couldn’t tell the truth about anything, who’d seen too much by the time she was six, who thought trust and love and affection were the same kind of fiction as glass slippers and talking animals. By the time she was placed with the Rogers family at sixteen, she was unadoptable and unfriendly and a whole host of un-other things. The things that made her into a survivor hadn’t made her house-trained. Anyone else would have balked.

But Sarah – and Steve, always Steve – never gave up on her. Dragged her ass to therapy and paid for her to keep going on a nurse’s salary, even on top of Steve’s medical bills, even after two months of Natasha silently stonewalling shrink after shrink until Dr. Hill had been the one to crack through. Caught her up in all the subjects where she’d fallen behind. Bought her notebooks to scribble down all her first song lyrics so they’d be collected in one place. Signed her up for open mic nights after he’d first heard Natasha sing along to the radio. Gave her relentless chances and kindnesses and kept them coming even when Natasha showed them nothing in return but a closed door.

Everything she’s learned that’s worth knowing is something that came from Sarah Rogers and her incredible son. One of them is that she will not give up on someone she loves when she knows - knows - that this is the result of something completely out of their hands, that they are not too far gone and it’s not too late, not yet.

Jess hiccups. “Changed my mind,” she slurs, stumbling off the stool. “Puke o’clock.” Natasha makes a move to get up, too, but Jess waves her off. “I’ll hold my own hair, merry Christmas.”

She disappears behind the cracked bathroom door, which Natasha knows from experience is thick enough to hide the sound of retching, so – there’s that. She sighs and signals the bartender. “Close out her tab,” she says. “I’ve got it.”

“She was not feeling the bottom shelf tonight, but she was very much feeling the refill,” he cautions, and she tries not to flinch before shrugging and handing over her single credit card, which is already so close to maxed out that this is mildly paralyzing to consider. “Stiff me on the tip if you need to, okay?”

“No chance. I tend bar, too. We don’t do that to each other,” Natasha says.

The guy smiles like he means it, which makes her feel mildly cheered. It’s not as good as the pear-cranberry crumble and the growing possibility that she’d be getting laid tonight, but she’ll take it.

“What’s your drink?” he asks. “On the house.”

“Designated driver,” she says. “I mean – I know she’ll be in there awhile, but I had a couple glasses of wine with dinner earlier tonight. Better not.”

“Club soda, then? Ginger ale? Coke?”

She glances toward the bathroom door – what the hell, it’s Christmas. “Ginger ale, sure.” He makes a show of it, pouring it into a champagne flute with a flourish, setting a napkin down on the sticky bartop in front of her. “I didn’t even know you guys had flutes here.”

“Pretty sure this is the only one,” he says. “You seemed like you deserved something nice, I guess.”

He says it sincerely, not as a pick-up line, and Natasha tilts her head to the side, considering. “What’s your name?” she asks.

“Scott.”

“You’re lying.”

Faux-Champagne Boy blinks. “I’m – not?” he says, like he’s not sure of the answer himself.

Natasha smiles, wishing that all her lipstick hadn’t worn off by now. “This, you might be able to tell, is not my first late-night stop at the Tattle Tale,” she says. “I know Scott. So who are you?”

The guy looks around surreptitiously, like there aren’t exactly two other people in this bar; one is playing pool in the corner, ignoring them, and the other is currently voiding her body weight in whiskey. He still lowers his voice. “Okay – you got me. Scott’s a buddy; we go to a UCB class together. And he really wanted to be home with his baby for Christmas but he couldn’t get out of the shift.”

“Scott has a baby?”

“A little girl,” the guy says, proudly as though he had something to do with it. “Three months. So it’s not like she’d remember and hold a permanent grudge or anything, but you know.”

“Not personally, though I get the principle.”

The guy smiles. It is a great smile, it makes his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Anyway. I said I’d cover for him. I’m not what you’d technically call an employee, but it was a slow night and I feel very good about my ability to pour beer and count cash.”

“Well, in my professional opinion, you’re killing it,” she says, and toasts him with the glass before taking a sip. It’s way too syrupy – he needs to swap out the CO2 tank for the soda gun, but that’s probably above the filling-in-for-a-buddy paygrade, and she doesn’t want to point it out when he’s been so kind. “Should I keep calling you Scott?”

“You should not,” he says. “I’m actually Clint.”

“Natasha,” she says. “Thank you for the fancy glass.”

“Loading the dishwasher at the end of the night, that’s another thing I can do,” he says, then glances toward the bathroom door, concern on his face. Concern for Jess, who he’s only known for a couple hours and only as a heavy-drinking customer. “I like her. Will she be okay?”

“We’re trying,” Natasha says. “Slow road.”

Clint hesitates for a second. “If you want,” he says, then pauses again like he knows he might be about to overstep. “The meetings I go to – lot of straight talk and pretty decent coffee. They’re good ones, if you want the details for her. No pressure if you don’t.”

It makes something warm inside Natasha that she’s kept on ice for years. She did not give it permission to defrost, and she clears her throat. “You don’t seem the type.”

“Does anybody seem the type?” Clint says affably. “I’ve got it in hand now, but it was one of those things where – you know, my dad drank, so I never had a metric for what counted as a normal amount. And for a long time, you have the ah, it’s college, that’s just what happens excuse, and then one day you wake up and realize college ended awhile ago. Plus my friends started getting annoyed that I kept blacking out and “ruining parties”.” He puts the last part in finger quotes and it startles a laugh out of her, which makes the crinkles near his eyes deepen with pleasure. “Funny?”

Yes,” she says. He looks delighted and whips a tiny purple Moleskin out of his back pocket, scribbling something in it before tucking it away. “You want a record of this moment?”

“I want a record of the delivery,” he says. “I’m a comic. Stand-up. I’m still better at the writing than the performing – I’m the only one in my sketch troupe that just wants to write the sketches.”

“Are you good?”

“Yes,” Clint says, simply but without hesitation, and she nods approval. “Your friend said she plays in a band. Says they’re really good, too. Are you - ?” Natasha nods. “What do you do in it?”

She considers the impulse that’s taken root and decides she’ll indulge it. It’ll make her happy; more importantly, it’ll bolster Jess a little. “Karaoke machine plugged in?”

“I’m told the answer to that at this place is ‘always’.”

Natasha stands from the stool and walks over to it, flipping through numbers until she programs in her selection. The opening guitar riff doesn’t rip into the air with nearly the ferocity it has when Okoye’s attacking it, it’s tinny and mechanical, but Natasha twirls the mic in her hands, clears her throat and thinks about how it felt the last time they covered this in practice after they decided they wanted a couple decent covers. She thinks about how they were all on, thinks about how this will shoot from ‘good’ to ‘shattering’ when they find that perfect drummer, the one who’s out there waiting for them to find her and turn her loose to crash into this bass line –

She finds her key and tears into here we are now, entertain us, purrs her way through every hello, hello, hello, how low because it doesn’t matter if this is a grimy, deserted dive bar: this is prayer and pulse and passion and she’ll treat it the same way she would the Rose Bowl Stadium.

She’s showing off and she knows it, but when the song crawls to its end, Jess is leaning on the door of the bathroom and the lights are back on in her eyes. “It’s better,” she says, after a second, “when we’re backing you. Fuck a karaoke machine.”

“No argument here,” Natasha says. She clips the mic back into its stand, then turns to look at Clint.

He’s standing behind the bar with a look of absolute astonishment on his face. (She doesn’t know it yet, but she will remember that look forever. She will always be able to recall a perfect snapshot of what Clint’s face looked like on the first night she sang for him.)

“Wow,” he says, faintly. “You just made Kurt Cobain’s ghost so pissed that he can’t pick you up and hug you.”

“Kurt’s ghost hangs out at the Tattle Tale?” she says, trying not to grin.

“Only on Christmas Eve,” Clint says. “It’s a Jacob Marley thing. He’s sensitive about it.”




then: 2016

Entertainment Weekly Special Double Issue – Summer Music Edition, 2016
HOT TAKE: The War Dogs – “Catfight”
written by Michelle Jones

The video for War Dogs’ latest single ‘Catfight’ makes one thing perfectly clear: yes, they know what you’ve been saying about them.

And they aren’t okay with it.

Notice the deliberate word choice – while this video hums with a low frequency of anger, it’s not the backbone of their sound and it never has been. Every time someone has attempted to tar this band with the “angry women” brush, it never ends well. Beyoncé has publicly waded into the fray for the War Dogs; behind her, Taylor Swift, Adele, and Rihanna; Maroon 5 and the Foo Fighters, Jay-Z and John Legend. War Dogs does not have fans – they have avengers. Clap at them and goddamn Beyoncé is the one who claps back at you.

The video, dropped without warning, is a shotgun blast back onto the scene after a yearlong hiatus. Rumors swirled across the internet after the conclusion of their second world tour, the primary one being, of course - catfight.

Because of course that’s what we’d say about this band. Not the rumors that plague the Rolling Stones and the U2s of the world, it’s never arguments over money or creative schisms, drug abuse or lousy orgy etiquette, it is always that one dismissive, devaluing word – catfight, catfight, catfight.

So of course, they turned it into an anthem.

Follow their lives, though, and the real story was never any big secret: they’re humans, and even famous humans sometimes need time to deal with their personal lives. Nakia has spoken publicly about her miscarriage; the grainy paparazzi photos of her weeping in the Cedars-Sinai parking structure won her a six-figure settlement that she and her husband recently donated to the hospital’s children’s wing. Lead guitarist Okoye finalized her divorce; both Jessica and Val have discussed their substance abuse issues and how time off to recharge is an important part of staying in front of them.

Or sometimes they want space to enjoy the good stuff. Val directed indie flick Scrapper and premiered it at ATX last month with the rest of the band watching from the audience; Okoye produced several tracks for The Guardians and helped take Milano platinum. Most surprisingly, Natasha married her long-time paramour, comedian – and currently reigning Tumblr Boyfriend – Clint Barton in a secret ceremony. (He briefly broke Instagram with the shot of their entwined fingers and matching wedding bands, captioned “we did it! but @realromanoff go rewrite some stuff or I’m not chipping in for the honeymoon”, an obvious reference to her lyrics on “Broken Circles” off their last album – I don’t fit / around your finger / don’t claim you thought / I ever could.)

Catfight is a major stylistic departure from previous War Dogs vids; it’s a declaration of what’s to come, the first single off their fourth studio album that’ll drop next month. Their label Iron Man Industries has always given them an unusually large amount of creative freedom, even as emerging artists: the War Dogs have talked openly about how many directors they fired after their first release years ago, all of whom came to them with the same video concept – highlight lead singer Natasha Romanoff with her titian hair and pouty lips, and the rest of you, just play your instruments in the background or whatever. Instinct – and a certain lack of creativity – always dictates letting the frontman do the heavy lifting.

The War Dogs aren’t here for that garbage. (Romanoff herself has said, on multiple occasions, “If this band has a leader, it’s Nakia.”) That’s why every video prior to Catfight tells a story – with raw, astonishing visuals, yes, but always cast with actors bringing the lyrics to life and turning them to narrative. The band stays in the background. Sometimes they’re dancing in the rain; sometimes they’re rocking on a rooftop, but the message is clear – they come as a collective, and they are only ever seen with their instruments in hand.

Catfight is the first video where the band takes narrative control. They are the story. It opens with Nakia driving a wickedly sharp knife into Jessica’s back, twisting it deep while the rest of the women silently watch - the implication being that they have decided not to call out a warning.

It lets us know what’s on their minds right from the beginning.

Shot in black-and-white with occasional color splashes - those blood splatters, Okoye’s iconic jagged gold sunglasses, the ice-blue lipstick that works on Natasha and will never work on another human, ever – the War Dogs eviscerate every rumor, every warped truth ever whispered. If there’s anger there, there’s also a healthy helping of pain and they have always, always let us see the places theirs has come from. An all-women band with three black and two queer members never had the option of being apolitical; they’ve always known that, too.

The brutal beginning, though, comes to a bookend where these women show us what’s kept them together for so long. Nakia’s knife dissolves to a paintbrush. She sweeps it through the blood on the ground, siphoning it up, tenderly painting a line up Jessica’s back until the wound seals itself over. They have not broken up. They will help each other heal, every damn time.

Or, as Okoye put it so succinctly on the red carpet at this year’s Billboard Awards: “Of course sometimes we fight. You don’t ever fight with people you love? Cool – you don’t love them.”

This album is going to ruin my life, and when it does, I will say thank you.




then: 2008

Clint’s not ready to take on the responsibility of being someone’s sponsor and Jess isn’t ready to stop drinking entirely, which means there’s no problem with the comfortable routine they fall into after she starts attending his AA group. They always head to the 101 Coffee Shop for overpriced tuna melts and coffee shakes and shoot the shit for another hour or so after the meetings wrap up.

Jess usually eats the whipped cream off the top of hers first, before she even unwraps her straw. Today she’s just clinking her spoon against the side of the frosty metal canister holding the excess shake. “Getting sober’s going to mean getting fat if I keep this up,” she says.

“Think you’ve got awhile before you have to worry about that,” Clint says, biting into his half of the tuna melt with pleasure. It’s too expensive, but hell if it isn’t delicious.

Her lips twitch. “Which part, fat or sober?”

“You keep coming back,” he tells her. “You should be proud of that.”

She looks away, down at the woodgrain tabletop. Today was the first meeting where she actually stood up to talk, and Clint remembers how hard that takes it out of you: his legs trembled for another six hours when it was him. He’d felt like a raw, exposed nerve, like he’d scraped his own skin off with a butter knife to expose it himself, and his story was about twelve sea levels higher than Jess’s.

“Hi, I’m Jessica, and I’m an alcoholic. I started drinking after I was raped,” she’d opened, blunt and brutal. She’d seemed shocked when Clint had come up afterwards to walk over to the 101, as though she’d expected it would scare him off.

He nudges the plate across the table to her, gently, and he’s glad when she crunches into her half of the sandwich. “My ex used to make these for me,” she tells him.

“Yeah?”

“Luke. He was a good guy. Really kind, and considerate and – Luke is special, everybody who meets him thinks so. God, I loved him. But I met him just, like… it was way too soon after Kilgrave. I couldn’t talk to him about it, I couldn’t tell him what happened, I didn’t know how. I had no idea how to let him just be good to me, and I fucked it up, and I fucked him up because of it, which was worse,” she says. “Couple months later, I started dating this girl Claire who was – you know, that same type, but she had a lower tolerance for me fucking up than Luke did, so that one ended before I wanted it to and last I heard, they started dating.”

Clint winces. “Oh, come on. That’s too much.”

“Don’t I fucking know,” Jess agrees. “The War Dogs, though. I just – I cannot keep fucking up the things that matter. All the shit that makes me happy. I can’t…”

He wants to put his hand on hers, but he’s learned enough about Jess to know it wouldn’t be welcome. The way she had let Natasha stroke her hair the night they met was a rare thing. The gentleness in it, the deep love and sorrow, the empathy and devotion contained in one single gesture, and he understands now what it meant for Jess to allow Natasha to do that.

He’s thought about Natasha a lot the last few weeks.

Jess takes another bite of the melt and changes the subject. “Hey, speaking of the band, I’m going to San Francisco with Okoye next week to scout drummers. You ever been?”

“Once,” Clint tells her. “I bombed hard at Cheaper Than Therapy and haven’t been able to show my face in town since.”

“Worse than the thing in Murfreesboro?” she says, smirking.

“Oh God, so much worse. These people had paid to be there. I know bombing is an important part of the process and everything, but Jesus, it’s so brutal. Theater full of people just staring blankly and you can hear them thinking ‘you want to do this professionally, huh? Goooooood luck’.” He shudders just thinking about it. “I’ve got ten minutes at the Comedy Store next Friday night, though, if you want to come. Had to dance a little bit to book that one.”

“Shit, I can’t,” Jess says, sounding genuinely regretful. “We’re driving up Thursday morning.”

“No big,” Clint tells her – he means it. You live in LA and work in entertainment in any capacity, you get inundated with invitations to stuff like ten minute comedy sets; sometimes people actually are busy, but other times, you gotta protect yourself. If Clint never again sits through another friend’s one-man show with multiple costume changes and homemade sound effects, it’ll be too soon.

Jessica regards him speculatively for a moment. “I think Nat’s free on Friday, though,” she says. “I could tell her about it, if you wanted.”

He can physically feel his face heat up, so he avoids her eyes and pulls the plate back to him to swipe some of the fries. “Sure. Anything to pack the house.”

“Were you ever going to ask me for her number?” Jess says, cutting through the bullshit. “Or, like, anything about her, because I know you have questions. Seriously.”

“Seriously? No. I wasn’t.”

“Come on, man. I was drunk that night, but I wasn’t oblivious.”

Clint puts down his napkin. “I like splitting tuna melts,” he says. “I think it’s cool you’re coming to meetings and I want to be supportive of it and I didn’t want you to assume the reason for any of this was because I was trying to get into your friend’s pants. She was – she was really something, but it mattered to me that this wasn’t about some creepy ulterior motive. So if she wants to see me again, I’d like that, but not at the expense of you coming to AA or feeling like you can’t trust me.”

Jessica regards him for a silent moment. When she seems to realize he actually means it, the corner of her mouth ticks up and stays there.

“Okay,” she says. “You’ll do. You might, anyway.”




to be continued.

Chapter Text




then: 2008

The parking situation at the Comedy Store is so shitty that Clint always feels mildly bad about inviting people, so it means a lot whenever they show up. He knows he’s got fans in the audience, including the same manager that’s come to his last three gigs – if he’s showing up again tonight, it means he’s getting serious about Clint. It means he already thinks Clint’s funny enough, and now he’s monitoring for consistency and sustainability.

It is very important that Clint doesn’t suck tonight.

He’s feeling good, though. It’s a solid ten and he’s tested it broken into fives in the back room at Meltdown and at friends’ open mic nights in coffee places after they’d closed for the night. The headliner tonight is Sam Wilson, so the crowd is already friendly and excited to be here – Sam comes back to the Store solely to work out his new stuff and to pull in an audience for comedians who are still coming up, because Sam’s a great guy.

Clint’s on deck when he sees her. His heart does a weird little stuttering thing inside his chest.

Natasha Romanoff is here. She actually came.

She’s settling into a chair near the back, her red hair swept in a bun with stray little pieces falling out. She takes off her jacket and he can see she’s wearing basic bartender clothes – dark lipstick and dangling arrow earrings, black pants and a low-cut top, she must have rushed over here from work.

When she sits, though, the enormous muscled blonde guy in the seat next to her hands her a drink – he’s clearly been waiting for her. She brightens and kisses his cheek, then makes an apologetic face and reaches out to rub her lip print off with the pad of her thumb. It’s a very familiar gesture.

Cool. Natasha Romanoff came and she brought a date. Cool cool cool cool cool.

Still, Clint remembers that voice that came out of her when she was only backed by an especially shitty karaoke machine, how she took a song he’s heard thousands of times and made it brand new. Even if she’s here with a date, even if she’s not single (she could still be single? Maybe it’s just a first date? Maybe he’s not going to find out for another hour either way so maybe he can chill the fuck out?), he wants to dazzle her the way she dazzled him. He told her he was good and he wants her to know that he meant it.

He jumps up and down in place to psych himself up, and when he’s up, he bounds onto the stage with a big smile, thinking about nothing but the timing, the delivery. “I’m Clint Barton, nice to meet you,” he says, then grabs the mic from the stand to start pacing – he’s a pacer – and launches right to the first punchline.

And maybe it’s because Natasha’s there, or maybe it’s because of the manager, or maybe it’s because sometimes you get lucky and have a magic night, but Clint’s on. At one point, the blonde brick wall next to Natasha is clutching the left side of his chest with his entire head thrown back, laughing louder than anyone else in the room.

When he wraps it up and the lights rise to transition into the comfortable lull between sets, Natasha stands up and waves him over. He prepares himself for the bad news and makes his way between rows of plastic chairs.

“You didn’t lie,” is the first thing she says, and her smile is electric. “You are good.”

“Well, you helped smooth out that one bit,” Clint says, trying not to sound like this was a majorly intimate moment or something. “It was a very genuine laugh, so I threw it back in the act.”

Blonde Brick Wall scoffs. “Good? What the hell are you talking about, good,” he says to Natasha before turning to Clint and beaming. “You’re hilarious! I’ve never been to a stand up show, do they do them all the time? Are they always this good? Seriously, it was so funny. This is the greatest night I’ve had all week. Maybe all month.”

“Steve, calm down before you terrify this very nice comedian,” Natasha says, patting his ham-sized bicep before turning back to Clint. “He’s getting his MBA and decided that to do it in under two years, he needed to put his social life in the toilet and stomp on the flusher. Human contact makes him jittery now.”

“Well – thanks for making an exception and coming out,” Clint says, offering him a hand to shake, even though he very much wishes this guy had just stayed in the library with his business books or whatever. “Clint Barton.”

“Steve Rogers,” the guy says cheerfully. “My sister says you helped make her first Christmas away from us a lot nicer. Thanks for doing that.”

Steve,” Natasha hisses, looking mortified.

“Well, I’m grateful!” he protests. “Am I supposed to just not thank the guy? I’m not gonna be rude to him.”

The grin that is suddenly violently splitting Clint’s face probably makes him look deranged. “Hey, it was my pleasure,” he says. Brother. This very attractive gigantic blonde dude is her brother. If he still drank, he’d buy the whole club a celebratory shot.

Steve checks his watch, looking regretful. “I probably should start heading out, though, I’ve got a group project and we’re meeting early in the morning. Nat, you wanna…?”

“Oh,” she says. Her eyes shift from Steve to Clint and back again. “Well – I caught the bus here, so a ride would be good, I guess. I’m not really on your way to Westwood, so if you’re sure you don’t mind.”

“Uh, I know where you live, Nat. When have I ever minded?” Steve says, looking totally confused.

“I can take you home,” Clint blurts out. “If you didn’t want to head back right this second, I could – I mean. If you wanted.”

Steve gives him skeptical Older Brother face, but Natasha relaxes. “That’d be great, Clint, thanks. I’ll stay awhile.”

“You sure?” Steve presses.

Yes,” Natasha says firmly. “Go study and leave me alone. We’ll get breakfast this week.”

“Okay,” Steve says doubtfully, but he shakes Clint’s hand once more anyway. “Nice to meet you, Clint. Really funny stuff, I hope I get to catch your act again sometime.”

Once Steve departs down the stairs, Clint looks back to Natasha, who’s biting her lower lip and looks as awkwardly nervous as he suddenly feels. It’s incongruous, he thinks – she’s been so confident every time he’s seen her, so sure in her own skin that he’d figured she did stuff like this all the time. He figured she’d be the one doing most of the metaphorical driving.

Realizing they’re both a little uncertain is very calming.

“Um, the guy headlining is really good,” Clint says. “And kind of famous? But if you’re comedied-out…” He nods at the door where her brother just departed. “Do you want to go for a walk?”

“You want to go for a walk down Sunset Boulevard?” she says, sounding somewhere between amused and intrigued.

“Yeah, come on, it’ll be great. Nobody ever walks in LA. Bet you won’t even recognize it if it’s not a blur from the window of a moving vehicle.”

“Good bet,” Natasha says, and then picks up her purse. “Okay, Clint Barton. Show me Sunset sans blur.”

***

The clubs Natasha has always lusted to play in – the Roxy, the Whiskey, the Viper Room – are all west on the Sunset Strip, the stretch she knows best, so they walk east, towards the grimy end.

And they keep going for almost a full three miles, talking the whole time. She doesn’t realize how far they’ve actually come until they end up in front of Amoeba. The familiar neon red letters glow warm overhead, shoppers rotating in and out with yellow paper bags.

“I honest to God haven’t walked this much since I lived in New York,” she says, mildly astonished.

“They’re not gonna make you turn in your official west coast transplant card or anything,” Clint says, grinning. He has a tiny dot of salsa roja on his chin from when they found the Kogi truck two blocks back – silently, she taps her finger to her own chin and he automatically reaches up to swipe his, reading the gesture. “Did I get it?”

“Yeah,” she says, smiling. “It was cute.”

“I’m very cute,” he agrees. “Is this one of your places?”

“What are my places?” she asks, curious.

“I can count on one hand the people I’ve met out here who are actually originally from LA,” he explains. “People who live here seem like they always come from somewhere else, which means – if it’s going to be the home you choose, you have to build it out in pieces. So…”

“So you find your places,” she says, understanding what he means entirely. “Like the first time you realize you know where to go to get a haircut you won’t hate, or decent pizza…”

“Or coffee that’s not Starbucks,” he says. He seems happy that she gets it. “Your touchstones, you know, the place you go when you’re feeling a little homesick, or lonely, or you just need to be cheered up and remind yourself hey, here’s a thing I love and I feel like it loves me back.”

Natasha tilts her head up to look at the neon letters. “Probably not too hard to guess this would be one of mine, right?”

“If you want to show me a surprising one someday, I would love for you to take me,” he says. “I like the tar pits at La Brea. Don’t really know why I fell for that, but once it happens, it happens.”

“I do love Amoeba,” she agrees. “Nakia thinks I spend more cash on vinyl than I do on food and she might have a point. I was reading something about how some rich asshole wants to knock it all down and build condos on this corner, though. And it’s not even because Amoeba doesn’t do enough business – they do, it’s just a stupid fucking lease dispute. The whole thing could disappear soon.”

It depresses her to think about, even right here in the goodness of the moment. She does love Amoeba. She does feel like it loves her back. And she’s going to lose it anyway, there’s nothing she can do to stop it, which makes her think too much about everything else she couldn’t stop.

Her face must reflect the way it hurts, the sudden sharp spike of it, because suddenly, Clint reaches out and takes her hand. It’s warm in hers, his grip firm, and when she looks up at him, he squeezes.

“It’s here tonight, though,” he tells her. “And you never know what’s gonna happen until it happens.”

She swallows around the lump in her throat. “I’m sorry,” she says.

“What for?”

“I don’t do this a lot,” she tells him, because it’s true – she hasn’t done anything like this since James. She has kept things like this away from herself on the point of a knife. She likes the Problematic-Ass Cousin Eriks of the world, where they can both be very upfront that they’re interested in one specific thing and that’s the end of it.

Natasha likes sex. But she hasn’t walked three miles down a bustling strip, eating short rib tacos and talking about her biggest dreams and closest friends while holding a hand that she very badly wants to keep holding, not in years.

It’s always felt like it would be a betrayal.

It still does, a little – whenever she’s asked herself if James would begrudge her someone new, she likes to think the answer is of course not, he loved me, he’d want to know I was happy.

But when she flips the tables around and asks herself if she could say the same, her answer is an immediate nobody better fucking touch what’s mine.

I am going to have to let go of some things if this can go anywhere, and I think I want it to go somewhere. Please be worth it, is what she thinks, but “Please don’t turn out to be an asshole, okay?” is what she says, instead of letting the whole story spill out on a tidal wave. Maybe at some point. Not tonight, but – maybe.

“Okay,” Clint agrees quietly – like he means it. He strokes one finger down the soft skin at the inside of her wrist; it makes her breath hitch in her chest. She likes him. Oh, she likes him. “Hey, do you want to go inside for a little bit?”

She does, and so he keeps hold of her hand as they walk in the wide glass double-doors. Rows and rows of music made tangible spread out before them, CDs and vinyl, cassettes and VHS tapes, sheet music and used books and all of it with that same familiar Amoeba smell, and she tucks her head against Clint’s shoulder, letting it wash over her – one of her places, like he said, and her place is promising her you’re here now and I got you, you’re okay. You’re okay.

They’re flipping through vintage concert posters and showing any cool discoveries to each other when Okoye calls – calls instead of texts, so Natasha answers immediately, though she doesn’t move from where Clint’s hand has migrated to her waist. “Everything okay?” she says cautiously.

“I am going to murder Jessica Jones, and I thought the decent thing to do would be to give you advance notice so you have time to get my bail together,” Okoye says. “Please do not burden my husband with it. This is on you. Start a band, you said. It will be great, you said.”

“Nakia said that,” Natasha says, grinning. “She’s the one with the let’s-burn-a-hole-in-this-industry sales pitch.”

“I called who I called.”

“Come on – seriously, what’s going on?” She covers the receiver with one hand and mouths ‘Jess thing’ at Clint so he’ll understand, and she likes the way he squeezes her hip.

“She’s abandoned me alone in the shitty hotel. Ask me why.”

“Did you deserve it?”

Okoye scoffs. “I deserve nothing but respect, attention, and affection, and we both know that. My fellow bandmate chose go have sex with the drummer we saw tonight instead of hanging out and exploring a new city with me. I will never forgive this.”

There is very literally nothing Natasha can do to swallow the bark of laughter that erupts from her. She sounds like a seal. Clint looks thrilled at this ridiculous noise.

“You just miss W’Kabi,” she says, her eyes are still watering. “You’re jealous and it’s making you bitter.”

“So?” Okoye demands, and it sets Natasha off all over again, she’s helpless.

“I don’t know, I kind of think fucking a drummer is exactly Jess’s speed, it tracks. Was she any good, by the way?” Okoye is silent, a very deliberate silence, which makes Natasha stop laughing. “Oh shit. She was that good?”

“She’s the real thing, Natasha,” Okoye says. “I started taking video for you guys about four minutes into her first set, but I think Jess has her convinced to come back with us at the end of the week and play a real audition. It was incredible. I had chills.”

Natasha closes her eyes. “I swear to God if Jess fucks this up.”

Okoye snorts. “What? What will you do?” she says pointedly and, okay, that’s very fair.

“You know, there’s a chance it says something promising that this drummer decided to potentially ruin a cool opportunity by choosing to fuck the person offering it,” Natasha says. “If she and Jess are the same kind of mess, it could balance some things out.”

“I am exhausted by the idea of trying to follow your math on that one.”

Natasha smiles. “I’m sorry you’re having a lousy time. Go out and do something fun in the city anyway, okay?”

“Are you nudging me off the phone?” Okoye says suspiciously. It’s annoyingly impossible to get anything past her, ever.

Natasha turns her head to the side, where Clint is very studiously pretending to read the text on a Counting Crows: Live In Berkeley 1996 poster instead of listening to her conversation. “I’m kind of on a date.”

“Wait – do you mean an actual date? Finally? A real one? You – really?” Okoye says. She sounds thrilled. “Nat.”

“Yes,” Natasha says, her cheeks warming a little. Next to her, she sees Clint’s smile go wide and perfect and gorgeous. She thinks she might want to kiss him tonight. She thinks she probably will. “Later, okay?”

“It’s not T’Challa’s cousin, is it? Because T’Challa has some things to say about – ”

No. God.”

“I’m calling Nakia,” Okoye declares, and hangs up without a goodbye, probably on the assumption that Nakia will have more details. (Nakia really should have some of the details. She’s going to pout when Natasha gets home. She likes to know these things before they happen.)

“Everything good?” Clint says when Natasha puts the phone away.

“Potentially very,” she says. “Sorry about taking the call, but it’s better you know upfront that I’m a package deal.”

“I’ll take a package deal over a lone wolf every fucking time, believe me,” he tells her, and he looks stunned when it makes Natasha slide her arms around his neck and catch his mouth with hers – spontaneous and firm and hot, gorgeously hot. His hands flail for a second before he gets his bearings and wraps them around her waist to crush her body closer to his, throwing himself into the kiss with shocking enthusiasm.

They are kissing and kissing and kissing in her favorite store because Natasha Romanoff let herself admit years ago that she would rather be part of a package than a lone wolf.

And without realizing it, Clint Barton’s just told her that the hardest thing she has ever worked to become is exactly what he wants.

***

They sleep together two weeks later.

Natasha was full of big plans to take it slow, to let herself ease into things before jumping off a high dive into the first potential relationship she’s had in years.

But.

Two weeks later and after they’ve seen each other several more times, she texts him on a break from covering a double at the bar. She’d somehow spilled half a pitcher of pre-mixed sangria onto herself and has now spent the rest of the night fishing mushy strawberries and chunked apples out of her bra. She hadn’t had time to grab anything to eat but a stale Snickers bar from a gas station. It’s a cold night but an unreasonably busy one and people are tipping like assholes and all she wants - all she wants is to be home on the couch with Nakia hammering out a melody to the lyrics that had been swirling through her brain since –

Well, since her first date with Clint, but that was neither here nor there; the point was, they were still swirling and hadn’t quite solidified themselves into the song she wanted it to be, but she was stuck here because she needs the money, they always need the money, there will never come a day when she can turn down an extra shift in favor of her music, ever, and she reeks of red wine and it’s giving her a headache and the lack of calories is not helping –

Anyway. She texts her vents to Clint, because she needs to vent, and she sometimes doesn’t always want to put her dissatisfaction that this music thing hasn’t gone full time onto her fellow bandmates; they get it, and it’s not like they’re happy at their day jobs, either.

After last call and sensing her sour attitude, Nick turns her loose a little early, saying he can take care of cleanup and close out himself. Really, it’s just going to mean ten minutes of standing in her soaked tank top and shivering at the bus stop instead of sprinting to catch it tonight, but she’ll take the small favor.

Except when she goes outside, Clint’s car is parked right in front of her bar. He’s leaning against it and holding a red and white In N Out bag in each hand. It is one-thirty in the morning and he’s smiling like he means it.

“Hey,” he says happily. “I didn’t know what you liked, so I got one with onions, and one without them, and one with grilled onions just in case you love them but hate them raw. Plus fries. And a grilled cheese, in case you’re not feeling like red meat tonight. I don’t know that I can vouch for the grilled cheese – I’ve never had it, and I mean, I think the secret menu is a fun idea in theory, but in actual practice…”

Natasha stares at him. “You brought me three burgers?”

“I figured I’d eat one of them, but yes. And a ride,” he says. “You said you were cold and crabby, so I left the heater on.”

They go to his apartment instead of hers, because he has no roommate and it’s much closer. Clint fishes out one of his undershirts and a pair of sweatpants and gently points her in the direction of his bathroom to use the shower; the sangria has dried all over her chest in sticky purple streaks, it is not a great look and it’s also very uncomfortable.

He uses some kind of green bar soap. The bathroom steams up almost instantly, and she scrubs herself off while listening to Clint just on the other side of the door – cabinets opening and closing, the clink of ceramic plates and the beeps of the microwave.

He’s heating the food up. He’s heating the fucking food up in case it got too cold on the drive so she can enjoy taking her time and relax in her 2AM shower, and that is when Natasha makes up her mind. She doesn’t even care that she hasn’t shaved her legs for several days.

She checks her skin to make sure all the residual wine is gone, that she won’t taste like anything but soap and water and clean, rinses herself quickly and does not bother with a towel before walking directly out of the bathroom, into his kitchen.

“You all done?” Clint says brightly, and turns around.

When he sees her, the grilled cheese and the plate it was on clatter to the floor. She grins.

It is a filthy grin.

“Not yet,” she says. “Come change that.”

Clint Barton is clearly not a man who needs to receive a second invitation. He trips over his own feet on his haste to get to her, caught up in his shirt as he yanks it over his head, grabs her by the hips, and backs her directly into his bedroom.

Much, much later, they’ve eating the now-cold burgers in his bed, their legs tangled up together. Both his arms are wrapped loosely around Natasha’s waist and she’s draped over his chest, rising and falling with his breathing.

“You know, I never asked,” she says, pressing a kiss to the curve of his jaw. “Why stand-up comedy?”

He drags his fingers in a line along her spine, thinks about it for a minute. “I guess because… I want the way I grew up to be funny instead of sad,” he says. “I want to tell it my way. Does that make sense?”

Natasha burrows into his shoulder sleepily. “I’m familiar with that feeling,” she says. “Songwriting’s not that different for me.”

He kisses her shoulder. “I’m gonna write so many jokes about you,” he tells her, sounding happy about it. “Those aren’t gonna be tragic ones.”

“I can’t wait to hear them,” she says.

***

The drummer is exactly as good as Okoye said she would be. Okoye isn’t prone to exaggeration, but even so. At one point during the audition, Natasha catches Nakia’s eyes and they have identical expressions of oh my fucking Goddddddddd, right?! before they have to slam back to the downbeat.

Jessica looks entirely too smug through the whole thing.

Natasha is a little concerned. It could become a problem – the sexual chemistry between Jess and Val is so palpable that it’s turning her on a little just from being caught in the crossfire. She’s hesitant to kick open a door for something that could blow this whole thing sky-high, and this has swathed itself in bright colors and proudly declared “Hi! My full name is Potential Problem of the Highest Caliber! Just a quick fyi, at some point? If you let me in, I might ruin everything!”

But.

The chemistry between the five of them, though, is also an undeniable thing. In all the drummers they have auditioned, it has never been like this. This is a driving heartbeat, this is the rhythm they have been waiting to follow – this is flint strikes rock, and if any of them tried to pretend their hesitation was about anything other than the fact that she and Jess will clearly be crashing face-first into each other again the second this audition wraps, well, even Natasha is not that good at lying.

By the time they finish, they’re all dripping with sweat. The walls of the rehearsal space are still vibrating, but the five of them are quiet, a respectful hush of acknowledgement at what they just created here.

Nakia is the first to break the silence. “Is Val short for Valkyrie? Because girl. You play like one.”

Val’s grin is liquid. “It is now,” she says. “I love that.”

“Do we even need to vote?” Jess says.

“We don’t need to vote,” Okoye says. “Valkyrie, you want to relocate and you’re in. We will even help you pack up and move. But since I know Nat’s thinking it and Nakia is too diplomatic to say it: you two.” She points to Jess, then Val, in quick jabs with one guitar-callused finger. That finger jab means business. “Do what you want with my absolute blessing, but along the way, you keep your shit together. When you break up, you break up clean. We have all worked too hard for anything less.”

“You know, I think I’m going to like you,” Val says after a second, with enormous admiration.

“Good,” Okoye says. “I want to run through the transition to the bridge on Petty Cash again, it’s a sloppy mess. If there are no objections, everyone back to your instruments.”

Jess salutes. “You heard the General. Places, people. We’ve got a song to shred.”




then: 2012

Jess and Val decided to have their wedding at a private vineyard in Sonoma partly because Tony had offered his to them, and partly because they’re both assholes.

“Everyone’s going to be squirming the whole time,” Val had said gleefully, right after they’d set the date. “Trying so hard not to think uncharitable thoughts about two addicts getting married in a vineyard and then feeling shitty when they can’t help it.”

“Your discomfort is your gift to us,” Jess had agreed.

They’re being good sports, though, neither of them has done any complaining – and the rest of the War Dogs had mutually agreed that if they wanted to complain, they would be entitled. A wedding was never actually part of Jess and Val’s plan; when they’d decided to get married, they’d wanted to do it privately, in a judge’s office, and then maybe spend a week somewhere tropical.

Then they stupidly mentioned they’d gotten engaged in an interview with SPIN, and the entire world freaked the fuck out.

Malcolm was running all of their social media, YouTube and Vevo and Twitter and probably a hundred other things that Natasha doesn’t even know exist, let alone know the passwords for. Which meant Malcolm was the one who had seen the flood of comments and congratulations, the uploaded reaction vids and reblogs and thinkpieces and Buzzfeed collages and he’d pulled out his personal top twenty and emailed the links to the whole band.

It had been a nice thing to do. It really had.

It had also hammered home the point all over again that Val and Jess’s relationship is a thing that is Important to people. If they have all settled more or less comfortably into their fame by now – they did court this, they know not to pretend their goal for the heights they wanted the War Dogs to reach wouldn’t involve fame as a side effect – it’s still one of the weirder aspects.

They weren’t under any obligation to do something that made them uncomfortable, but it had been hard with all that evidence in their face not to think about… well, what it would mean to people to see a big, beautiful, splashy wedding for an interracial queer couple. Vess (or Jalkyrie, which everyone in the band agrees is the worst) given the same amount of fanfare and celebration of love that straight celebrity couples got all the time.

Plus, Tony had been generous with the vineyard loan and had even said he’d hire and pay for the wedding planner. They wouldn’t really have to do anything besides show up and get gorgeous and say the right words and rock out on the dance floor.

“How is that any different from what you guys do over the course of a concert?” he’d asked, because he knew the answer, and because even if he’s generous and they’re lucky to be on his label, he’s still a businessman and he knows the shape of good publicity.

Or, as Jess had put it, “On the one hand, we’re douchebags for being all ‘oh, poor, poor babies, are we really thinking of a fancy wedding as some sort of responsibility that we owe the community’…”

And Val had finished, “On the other, it’s also douchebaggy if we pretend that this shit doesn’t matter. So what the hell, let’s put a dent in Tony’s net worth. I want live circus animals strolling the grounds. And the ghost of Keith Moon to walk me down the aisle. And wine made from grapes that only grew on Atlantis.”

All of which means: now that everyone’s arrived in Sonoma, everything is roughly the same kind of shitshow that was every day on the Cry Havoc tour. Natasha feels right at home.

The master bedroom on the eastern end of the manor house is a tiny little oasis of tranquility, and Natasha slips inside with two glasses of champagne – one for herself and one for Nakia, who’s waiting at the antique writing desk in a strapless gold dress that matches Natasha’s. The door to the ensuite bathroom is closed; Valkyrie’s still getting ready.

“They haven’t started passing appetizer trays yet,” Natasha says, handing over the glass. “Please don’t curse me out. I brought what I could bring.”

Nakia crosses her eyes instead and drains half of it in one go. “How’s Okoye?”

“She’s in the other master suite with Jess. I think they’re having a nice moment, so I didn’t go in.” Okoye is officiating the wedding and she would never say it, but for all she has never been prone to stage fright, she’s clearly nervous for this. It’s incredibly sweet, which Natasha would never say to her face.

Nakia nods, then lowers her voice. “I don’t think W’Kabi is coming.”

“You’re kidding,” Natasha says. She arranges her legs carefully so she can sit on the bed in a position that won’t put wrinkles in her dress; Thor is already closer to melting down today than either of the brides. “I knew it was a little sticky right now but – wow. Are they…”

“Gonna be okay?” Nakia sighs. “I don’t know. I don’t think this helps much.”

“Well, glad there’s one extra headache,” Natasha says. She’d seen the frazzled wedding planner frantically barking orders about the placecards into her headset – this is their first wedding since War Dogs blew up, so it means it’s the first wedding where they’ve had to deal with things like how it’s not just that she can’t sit with him; Taylor’s whole table can’t be near Kanye’s, who isn’t currently speaking to Demi, who refused to sit by Adam, who for some fucking reason started shit with Janelle, who pulled Natasha aside on her way back from the bar to ask why the hell Jess and Val had invited John Mayer, who Natasha is a thousand percent sure that they did not, actually, invite at all.

She has a whole new respect for the production staff at awards shows. She may send them a cheese-and-chocolate basket before the next Grammys.

The door to the bathroom opens and Thor emerges first, rubbing his hands together with glee. “My ladies,” he greets them. “Tell me: have you ever seen a miracle given corporeal form?”

“You mean aside from that time Tony showed up to tell us we’d officially outsold Bieber, or…?” Nakia asks. Thor narrows his eyes at her; she puts up her hands, swallowing a giggle. “Sorry.”

“I present to you the first of my two greatest creations for this most blessed of days,” he begins, but then Val gets sick of the fanfare and just ducks out from behind him, under his arm.

He’s right, though – neither of them are people much prone to cooing, but they exhale twin “ohhhhhhhhhh!”s at the same time. She’s wearing an exquisitely tailored white suit, but every time she turns, it shimmers into a sheen of metallic silver overlay. Her hair is wound into twists that fall to her waist, some with thin blue ribbons woven through them; she looks vibrant and healthy and delighted.

“Yeah?” she says.

“Of course yeah,” Thor says, clearly disgusted that she has even asked. “Look at you. You are a masterpiece. I have honored my ancestors with my unquestioned artistry. And now I must depart to fix Jessica, who has undoubtedly ruined everything I’ve done to her hair.”

He kisses Val’s cheek, brushes off his hands in satisfaction at a job well done, and throws his cape over his shoulder as he sweeps from the room.

“I love that boy,” Val says. “Firm opinions on what colors we’re all allowed to wear included. Seriously – it’s good, right?”

“Good? Baby, I’d marry you myself if it wouldn’t kill T’Challa, and he doesn’t deserve that,” Nakia says. “Are you happy?”

Val nods but cocks an eyebrow. “I’d be happier if you told me there’s at least a handful of people I actually like outside.”

“There’s at least a handful,” Natasha assures her. “Hey, if you want something that’ll really make you happy, my mom’s here and the last time I checked in on her, she was fighting with Kendrick about this season of Parks and Rec.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“I swear,” Natasha says. “They’re arguing about Ann and if she really brings anything to the table besides giving Leslie someone to talk to. I’m legitimately concerned he’s going to write a diss track about her if she won’t let up. Sarah Rogers has opinions about representation of nurses on television and by God, every one of them will be heard.”

“We are not going to write a return diss about him and escalate the situation if it happens,” Nakia warns. “I am not stepping to Kendrick in a rap battle.”

Val shakes her head, laughing. “I love your mom,” she says. “Did I tell you she asked me and Jess where we were registered after she got the invitation?”

“…no,” Natasha says. “You’re lying to my face.”

“I’m not,” Val says, grinning. “We told everybody to just donate to Planned Parenthood in our names. But – like, you know Sarah, she was getting us a present either way, and I didn’t want her to spend a ton of her money on us, so…”

“I created a fake registry at Bed Bath and Beyond and linked her to it, it just seemed easier?” Nakia says. “Anyway, that’s the story of how we’re going to get to watch Jess try to figure out what to do with a fondue set at some point. So in a way, Sarah got a gift for all of us.”

Steve and Natasha went in together and bought Sarah Rogers a two-bedroom oceanfront condo in Santa Monica last year; paid it off entirely and handed her the key on a red ribbon. She can walk on the beach every morning and volunteer all afternoon; she can see the best goddamn doctors in the city every time she gets so much as the sniffles. She can finally relax after a lifetime of working her fingers to the bone and taking in a stray like Natasha on top of every other problem life dealt her.

But she still can’t quite understand the ridiculous wealth that her children, their lovers, and their colleagues have access to. By mutual agreement, Steve and Natasha have given up on trying to make her understand and continued letting her do things like buy them both underwear and socks at Target when there’s a sale.

The idea that people like Jess and Val would have the audacity to register – but Sarah Rogers has manners, and it makes Natasha want to run down to the lawn to hug her and thank her one more time, for all those years.

And also get her away from Kendrick.

There’s a knock on the door of the suite before it opens just a crack, James’s tattooed fingers curling around the frame. “Can we interrupt for a second?”

“Did you bring appetizers?” Nakia asks eagerly. “I’m dying here.”

James opens the door wide enough to step through; his hair is slicked up on the sides with the top of it angled loosely over his forehead, and his suit is a deep blue; Natasha unconsciously licks her lips, which he notices, because of course he does. He winks at her before looking at Nakia. “They still haven’t started passing the trays. Another couple of minutes and Tony’s gonna load the stuffed mushrooms into a tee-shirt gun and start shooting them into the crowd.”

“Get pictures,” Val demands.

“Speaking of – ” James starts, but he’s interrupted by Tony’s son skittering into the room eagerly, looking very serious.

“Miss Valkyrie, Dad says I’m supposed to escort you to the grounds if you’re ready,” Peter says importantly, his chest puffed up with pride at the responsibility. James and Natasha share a smile over his head; everybody loves Peter, Tony’s tiny little shadow whose adoption was only finalized in the last year, right before his eleventh birthday.

But the two of them have a special place in their hearts for the kid. They remember being him.

“Did he say it as politely as you just did?” Val asks, grinning.

Peter’s cheeks color. “Um.”

They all burst into laughter and James squeezes Peter’s shoulder, letting him know it’s okay for him to laugh with them. Val slides her hand through the crook of Peter’s arm. “Okay,” she says. “Let’s go watch me lock down my girl.”

***

Riders on the Storm is a deeply weird thing to hear on a playlist at a wedding reception, but unsurprisingly, the music was the one thing Val and Jess actually cared about influencing. The sun has set over the vineyard and the lanterns have all been lit, glowing soft and golden as the speakers gently pulse the keyboard solo into the warm, starry night.

James spins Natasha out in a lazy circle before reeling her back into his arms, close to his chest. She kicked off her spiky heels under the table twenty minutes ago (after checking to make sure Thor was too boisterously cheerful from compliments on the brides’ suits and Okoye’s stunning scarlet officiant dress to care that she’d defied direct orders) and she’s pleasantly buzzed and very content. She lays her cheek against James’s shoulder, enjoying it when his big hands trail a slow path down the bare skin of her back before coming to rest just above her waist.

After a moment, she feels his mouth against her temple. He lingers, then moves to tuck his face into her hair. She can feel him breathe in.

“There’s so much product in there,” she murmurs against his lapel. “Thor’s a very meticulous stylist, he was insistent that this hairstyle hold up all night.”

“Still smells good,” he says, and when she lifts her head to look at him, she doesn’t bother to conceal the look that she knows is on her face: she wants him. Badly.

And she wants him to know it.

James stifles a groan. “Don’t. God, don’t do that.”

“Why not?” she says, letting her voice lower to the register he likes. “Why not, James, give me a reason.”

“We’re still in public.”

“There are bedrooms in the house. One of them is even reserved for me,” she points out, letting her hands creep beneath his jacket. His shirt is tucked into his pants, it’ll be too obvious to get into, but she can dig the edges of her fingernails into his back through the fabric and he groans again, leans forward to bite her earlobe in a way that sends a shudder through her whole body. “No one will miss us. Cake’s been cut and Jess and Val are getting on the helicopter soon, we can go right now.”

He’s breathing hot against her neck, quick breaths in urgent succession that she knows mean he’s close to saying yes, and she rolls her hips forward in a way she should really not do at an event when there are so many professional photographers, not to mention the constant parade of selfies from the other guests. But she’s had so much champagne and her friends are so happy and The Doors always make her feel so sexy and the light is so perfect and it feels so fucking good when he holds her. She wants to lick the sweat off his chest and bite his neck, wants to ride him in that gorgeous sprawling bed with the sheets pooled around her waist, wants his hands on her tits while he balances her above him and nothing else will matter for the rest of the night –

James moans, an agonized sound, which is the point she realizes that she’s murmured all that to him, low in his ear. “Natasha.”

“Don’t you want me?” she asks.

“You know – oh God, Tasha, do you not know how much?” he says.

“Then come to bed with me. Stay the night.”

He squeezes her hips so tightly it almost hurts and pulls back from her body, just enough that she can feel the space between them open up, the air between their bodies.

“You miss Clint,” he says.

All the goodness from tonight empties itself out of her in a rush, a plug yanked from a drain. She would push him further away if his hands weren’t so tight on her hips, holding her in place. “Don’t – ”

“No. This time you’re gonna let me say it,” he says, firmly. “I don’t want ghosts in my bed and this is not something that’s going away, baby, it’s not. You took the War Dogs halfway around the world to outrun it and it’s still here. And I’m not going to be with you by default.”

Her voice is locked somewhere low in her stomach; it finds its way up her throat in a slow, cold crawl. “You really think I would do that to you?”

“Hey. You love me,” he says, so sure and in any other circumstance, this certainty from him would bloom warm in her chest. “Natasha, I know you love me, that is not in doubt. And that’s not what this is – I’m saying that you do not only love me, and you can’t choose me just because I’m not the one who’s hurt you most recently. Not because I feel like the safe option right now. I’m not planting a landmine in the ground and living the rest of my life hoping we never trip over it.”

Nothing hurts like being slapped with the truth. There is no counter for it; there’s no defense or denial. She can’t argue with someone who knows every move in her playbook.

“I don’t,” she chokes out. “I don’t love Clint.”

His blue eyes burn into hers, unwilling to give an inch. “Would you lie to me?”

“You don’t – do not play that card, that’s – “

“Would you lie to me, Natasha?” he repeats, relentless.

Suddenly, there’s a hand on her elbow – rough with guitar calluses, slim and cool. “Excuse me,” Okoye says, and pulls her from James in one tug, with no resistance on his part. “I’m borrowing her. Band emergency, can’t be helped.”

Mutely, she lets Okoye tow her across the lawn, the grass dewy beneath her bare feet. Up the stone steps of the ostentatious house and down a hallway until they’ve ended up in one of the private bathrooms, reserved for bridal party and Stark personnel only.

Okoye closes the lid to the toilet and sits Natasha down on top of it, tipping her head gently forward. “Breathe,” she advises, and Natasha does what she says, resting her elbows on her knees and pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes until she’s seeing spots of color behind them. She hears the sink running and a moment later, Okoye is pressing a wet washcloth to the back of her neck. “I’ve got you.”

“Okoye – ”

“I know,” she says. “I know, Nat, but I’ve got you. Give it a minute, okay? I got you.”

It takes a few minutes, the pressure on her eyes and the cool cloth on her neck and Okoye’s solid, reassuring presence before Natasha feels like she’s back in her own body. She looks up and blinks a few times until the spots dance away. “Did I look that bad?”

“Well, you didn’t look that good,” Okoye says, and smooths the hair back from Natasha’s face with her sink-damp hands. “Better now?”

“I…” she starts, trying to find her way to some answer, and then realizes that this is Okoye and there’s no point in anything but the truth. “I thought when we hit this level, I’d be safe.”

Okoye looks so deeply sad to hear it.

“I have money now,” Natasha says, her eyes stinging, her throat thickening. “And for so long, that was always – that was what safety meant, if I had my own money and a lot of it, I would always be in control. And the success would be a shield, and the fame would reinforce it, and there wouldn’t be real pain because I would have built my way into a life that didn’t – that could never – ”

“It’s a real bitch, I know,” Okoye agrees. “Reach the promised land and find out we’re still breakable, it’s such bullshit.”

She sucks in a deep breath, trying to feel it flowing through her lungs. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Okoye, I know that things for you aren’t…”

Okoyo shrugs, looking more serene about it than Natasha would have thought possible. “W’Kabi and I are going to find a therapist, a good one, and we’re going to try,” she says. “Maybe the problems can be fixed and maybe they can’t. Maybe one day, we’ll have to call time of death, but it’s not weakness to try and make things work if you want them to work. You don’t think there’s honor in trying to save something beautiful?”

“It’s not the same.”

“Oh yes it is,” Okoye tells her. “You are winning nothing by not forgiving Clint if that’s what you want to do, Nat. Don’t hold onto the pain like it’s worth something if what you want to do with it is let it go. Don’t hold on because you grew up telling yourself it would always be easier to cut and run and hide behind a pile of cash.”

“You were the one who wanted to garrote him with a guitar string,” Natasha points out.

Okoye laughs and cups Natasha’s face in her hands, gently. “Yes,” she agrees. “Because he fucked up. And it was a big one, but none of us will think you’re soft and stupid if you’re ready to let it go, Nat. Not one of us.”

“God, have you actually been discussing it behind my back?” Natasha asks, and Okoye gives her a look that means of course we have, dumbass.

“Talk to him,” she says. “Start there, at least. Talk to him. I know you’re brave enough for it.”

She stands up and holds out a hand to Natasha, expectantly. When Natasha takes it, Okoye pulls her up to her feet, firmly, and she doesn’t let go until they walk back outside into the party.

Much like the Taylor-Kanye-Demi-Adam crisis, Clint was seated far, far away from Natasha. She can see him now, sitting at a mostly-empty table with Tony and T’Challa – and James, James is on Clint’s other side, must have migrated over while she was in the bathroom. He has a hand on the back of Clint’s neck and both their ties are loosened. Tony’s laughing at something Clint’s saying, scotch-blurred and lazily gesticulating with a cigar in one hand, and James’s fingers flex against Clint’s neck.

He’s the one who catches her eyes as she stands there, rooted and digging her toes into the earth. He squeezes Clint’s neck again, an indication that he should turn it, and when Clint looks over curiously, when he sees her standing there –

The naked, undisguised hope on his face makes her want to sink through the ground, makes her want to run back to the bathroom and station security on the door and refuse to leave it until morning.

“You are brave enough for this,” Okoye repeats. She lets go of Natasha’s hand to blend back into the crowd.

Clint stands, hesitantly, like he’s not sure he should, but when he sees that she’s waiting and not running, he straightens up and squares his shoulders. James says something to him that she can’t hear, and then he’s moving toward her with obvious caution writ large in every line of his body.

“Hi,” he says, soft, as though he’s afraid a higher volume will startle her off like some fragile woodland creature.

“Hey,” Natasha says.

She hasn’t seen him for eight months. She blocked him from her personal cell. She hasn’t been this close to him since the night she walked out, the night she screamed at him to back off when he’d tried so frantically to follow after her.

“How are you?” he asks.

“That’s what we’re doing now?” she says. “Small talk, really?”

Clint shoves his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know how to start,” he admits. “But I’d small talk with you all night if it meant you wanted to talk to me at all. I will talk to you about nothing but the weather if that’s all you want to let me say.”

He has always said things like that so easily; Clint was always so honest with her, from the very beginning, that it blew one already-big lie into something that felt insurmountable. She wraps her arms around herself and shivers, even though the night’s not cold.

“Should I go get Bucky to give you his jacket?” he asks, concerned, and God, he would, wouldn’t he. He would run back to his table to get James’s jacket instead, because he’s worried offering her his own would be an overstep and it’s been eight months but this is so completely Clint in front of her right now and James was so right that it makes her sick: she does still love him.

She didn’t stop. She’s not sure she ever knew how.

“No. Let’s go for a walk,” she says.

Security lets them pass away from the designated wedding area; they walk and walk in silence until the wedding is just a quiet blur of white noise in the background. She’s been to this property once before, right after the War Dogs signed with Iron Man Industries and Tony wanted to show them what taking care of his artists looked like; there’s a grape arbor somewhere out this way with a cedar bench swing, and when they reach it, she gestures that it’s okay for him to sit beside her.

He does and she folds a leg beneath her body, leaving one foot flat against the ground.

“I’m sorry about your show,” she tells him. “James told me it was canceled.”

“Believe me, it earned the cancellation,” he says. “It was pretty bad. Reviews were brutal from the beginning.”

Natasha pushes her foot to set the swing rocking, a gentle back-and-forth rhythm. “Yeah,” she agrees. “It was terrible. That sort of surprised me.”

“You watched?” he asks, sounding confused. She nods. “God – why? I would have thought – ”

“That I couldn’t stand to look at you?” she supplies. “That it would have been impossible to download while I was overseas? That nobody’d go to the effort it would take to torrent it?”

“All of the above. Mostly the first one.”

“I told myself it made me happy to see you failing at something,” she says bluntly.

“Did it?”

“No. I just wanted to hear your voice,” she says, and it hurts like handing him an organ, but it’s the truth – his TV show had been terrible, his standup is not the kind that translates itself to a sitcom, and Clint is a beautiful performer who can charm a crowd, but he’s not an actor and he never has been.

The tone was off and the jokes were lazy and the characters were cardboard and he’d looked uncomfortable in all twelve episodes. She had fallen asleep some nights on the tour bus to a tired laugh-track and the sound of his voice delivering flat fizzling punchlines, her laptop brightness turned all the way down and earbuds in so no one could see how pathetic she was being.

Still – Clint is funny, undeniably funny, he’s a hard worker and he can craft a joke like nobody’s business. Barton! was never going to be great, but it did not have to be as awful as it ended up.

Not that she doesn’t know exactly why.

Clint swallows, hard. “I miss you,” he says. “I miss you every fucking day, Natasha, I love you so much it’s killing me, and I told myself I wouldn’t just blurt it out but hey, here I go. I’ll get fluent in ten new languages if you need to hear ten different apologies. I would do anything.”

“I didn’t have to ice you out entirely,” she admits, very quietly.

He shakes his head, fast and urgent. “I lied to you and I told myself for too long that it wasn’t the kind of lie that counted, but it was, it always was and I – I knew better, and I did it anyway. You trusted me and I’m the one that broke us.”

She realizes she’s rocking them too fast on the swing now, pushing down too hard with her leg in a nervous tic, and she forces herself to slow back down and still it.

Clint swallows again, his fingers nervously plucking at his pants, which she knows he’s doing to stop himself from reaching out and taking her hands, touching her shoulders, messing up this careful hairstyle that took Korg over an hour to finish because Thor kept checking in and micromanaging.

And so she reaches out to take his.

It’s all on instinct as she laces their fingers together, and he jerks like it’s an electric shock, his eyes widening.

“James also told me,” she says, “that you…”

“I did,” Clint says, rushing through before she can finish the sentence. “I mean – he helped me push it through, guy’s a lifesaver, but I did, Nat, it’s over, it’s done. Not that – I mean, like I told you back then, it was over with a long time ago, it’s just that now - ”

“I know,” she says. “He told me that, too, that he’s helped. I don’t – understand the way James loves people.”

Clint’s forehead wrinkles. “What do you mean?”

“He makes me feel defective sometimes, the way he just – he’s so generous, with everyone, all the time.” James likes to meet people’s needs; he’s such a goddamned caretaker at his very core. He’s been that way as long as she’s known him, he’d just tried to disguise it under grit and fists and temper. She worries it could be to his own detriment sometimes, but other times – she just envies it.

Clint’s quiet for a minute. Then he says “No one who has spent ten genuine minutes around you and any of your friends would say a single thing differently about you, Natasha Romanoff. You love ferociously and you loved me, once, so I’m an authority on the subject. You never made me feel like I had to work overtime to earn it.”

“How did you two never hate each other?” she says.

She’s always been glad for it, but she’s never understood how they were all lucky enough for it to shake out that way. James is a fiercely protective former foster kid who’s used to fighting tooth and nail to hang onto what’s his. Clint’s a former farm boy from Iowa raised by staunch devout Catholics. Both of them could claim status as the love of her life; both of them would be right. She had been terrified for them to meet when her worlds collided; terrified for the inevitable choice that would fall like a sharpened axe onto all of them.

She hadn’t thought they would get along. Instead – well. They saw something in each other that Natasha is entirely certain they would have found even without her there to bridge the gap.

They are both so generous, and so deeply kind in ways she’s never been sure are echoed in herself – on her worst days, she still feels the tugging of a small young Natasha, scrappy and a little wild, jealous and feral and closed off, and she worries that the lingering existence of those things cancel out any kindness that might have grown in the ensuing decades.

It’s an unfair way to look at herself and she knows it. But she’s harder on herself than she is on the people she loves.

Natasha has such a type.

Clint squeezes her hands. He knows she doesn’t really need an answer.

If she forgives Clint. (And she does, she does, he is in front of her now with his careful hands and failed TV show and looking at her like he still loves her and eight months on tour and Okoye tonight have given her too much perspective on what matters most, in the end. But.)

If she forgives Clint and opens her arms to him, there is a tiny niggling something here that she knows they will still have to deal with. This small seed that she has tried to stop from taking root.

The thing is: it would be easier, to be with Clint.

Or it would be easier to be with James.

It would be easiest to let that axe drop, because she has spent these last few months thinking that it might be a good thing that Clint’s lie made this decision for her – brutal, maybe, but at least there was something she could point to and say and that is why I am with the person I am with, that, there, a concrete reason that would cancel out any possibility of backslide.

This tiny niggling something whispers that all three of them might ache for a much more complicated configuration.

If Natasha wants to strangle it, the moment is now. This peaceful little grape arbor with Clint’s hands in hers – this would not be a bad place for the two of them to say a soft goodbye. They never got a real one; they could kiss one last time and say how beautiful it had been, how much it meant; how there are still feelings here, but the time has come to put them away.

And she could go back to James’s arms tonight with a clear conscience, she would be able to tell him so and mean it – she would only have to answer his would you lie to me: their call, their response. And if she does that, he will allow her the choice; he will let her take the lead. And this thing between himself and Clint fall by the wayside, too; James will choose her in return and he will let it peter out slowly, and they will fall into a split of two and one.

Killer on the road, girl, you gotta love your man, her brain hums. Riders on the storm, riders on the storm.

There is no such thing as a safety net.

All the fame and notoriety and money and awards and success in the world could never weave one that won’t rip. There’s only the fall and the trust that the arms she’s chosen will be enough to hold fast.

“Come home, Clint,” she says.

He inhales. Sharply.

“Loving you was never in past-tense and I want you to come home. Come back to me.”

Fireworks explode off in the distance, back over the house. A shower of white and gold sparks rain down; it must be time for the big exit for the honeymoon.

Clint’s face in front of her is alight in a way that has nothing to do with the dazzling display.




to be continued.

Chapter Text




now: 2018

@go_buck_yourself | Instagram photos and videos

[A one-eyed golden retriever with the dopiest smile you ever saw, being scratched behind the ear.]

Adopted this guy last week. Lobbied for Gnarls BARKley, David Bow-wow-ie, or Paw-l McCartney but got outvoted bc I am unappreciated in my own home. But I guess he does kinda look like a Lucky.




then: 2010

Seattle is cold, silver and green and often rainy; Bucky’s only been here a month but that much, at least, has his approval.

In every other aspect, he’s started to crawl out of his goddamn skin.

M’Baku offered up his couch as long as Bucky wanted it, so Bucky’s been trying to show his appreciation in gesture instead of actual contributed rent. So far, he’s mostly ended up creeping M’Baku out. “Dude, I didn’t say you could crash here so you’d become my stay-at-home-husband,” he said yesterday, when he came home and saw that Bucky had pulled the refrigerator out to scrub down the stained wall behind it. And that he’d repainted the peeling cabinets. And that he’d pried up the age-worn linoleum floor and installed a new, clean sheet. “I am never going to marry you.”

“Your loss,” Bucky told him. “Everyone would call us M’Bucky and I’m an excellent cook.”

“No. You aren’t,” M’Baku said.

“I am if you’re not a goddamn vegetarian. Come on, let me grill you just one steak – ”

“My body is a temple and so is my refrigerator.”

He doesn’t even let Bucky keep cold cuts for sandwiches in the fridge. Which Bucky can’t complain about, because he’s not paying rent.

And to be fair – M’Baku’s also offered to put in a good word for him with his boss. He works as a bouncer at a club in the University District, a fairly chill job where things never get too rowdy. It’s lousy hours, but Bucky’s a night owl; decent pay and it’d be something to do. Plus, it’s not like M’Baku offered this with a thin sheen of get your ass out of my apartment, Barnes annoyance behind it. He suggested it so Bucky could have something to do with himself besides drift aimlessly through another city, testing it out for a little while before ultimately decided to move on.

He’s been rootless ever since he got back from England. It feels like it’s time to make a decision.

So far, the major things Seattle has going for it are the weather and M’Baku. He’s missed the guy, and it’s nice to have a friend around. But he’s starting to get that itch again, the one that reminds him that he’s looking for something specific and he always has been – he just doesn’t know what it is.

Or maybe the problem is that he knows exactly what it is, and if he can’t have it, he’s looking for something in a similar shape and form.

The Mariners are playing a night game on Saturday, so he decides to head over to the Safe and buy a cheap ticket off somebody outside the stadium. Figures he can decide that way if this is a team he could give his allegiance – he’s gotta start somewhere, right? Bucky loves baseball, and shit like this is how you weave a home out of cheap thread. It’s the little stuff.

He’s not sure how he feels about the fact that one of the alcohol options inside the stadium is a craft raspberry-hibiscus pilsner, but on the other hand, that seems extremely Seattle. He buys a chili dog and the cheapest beer on tap and attempts to muster up some antipathy for the Oakland As.

Around the sixth inning, he realizes he will never have any antipathy for the Oakland As. The bus stop is a ten-minute walk from the stadium; he covers it in five, taking long strides with his hands shoved in his pockets. He doesn’t really want to go back to the apartment; he doesn’t really want to go back to Brooklyn either, though, and so he keeps moving, boards the route that’ll take him to the University District instead.

M’Baku is parked outside the club on a stool, a cluster of people on the sidewalk gathered a few feet away and indiscreetly sharing a joint. He’s making his disapproving face at them and Bucky smiles as he walks up. “Slow night?”

“Not slow enough that I can actually sneak in to watch the show,” M’Baku says, then jerks a thumb to the door. “Got it propped open to listen. For once I actually fucking like this band.”

The bassline leaking out onto the sidewalk is crystalline; the music’s throbbing and loud and just a little bit wild, and this, Bucky thinks, this he can lose himself in, this is better than trying to force himself to hate a very vanilla baseball team. This is electric and it’s good. “You wanna let me in and I’ll report back on their stage presence?”

M’Baku looks at him, unimpressed. “You got the cover? Tickets were not cheap tonight. They’ve got fans.”

“Man, come on, you know I don’t,” Bucky pleads. “But I’ve watched every movie you own three times already and I gotta do something tonight.”

“I own two DVDs, Barnes.”

“Exactly! Exactly. Please?”

M’Baku glowers at him.

“I won’t eat any red meat for a week,” he tries.

“No poultry either,” M’Baku says immediately, like this is the exact bargain he’s been waiting to strike. “And no fish. No fucking pescatarian waffling, we are overfishing the ocean and we’re all going to pay for it. Spicy tuna rolls are destroying this planet. One week.”

“Done.”

“One calendar week,” he adds. “None of your Monday to Friday work-week bullshit where you try to wiggle out of it, Barnes.”

“I love quinoa. I love black beans. If God wanted us to eat cows, he wouldn’t have given us several delicious soy substitutes,” Bucky says.

“Christ, you really are desperate. This is so sad,” M’Baku tells him, but he tugs the velvet rope away from the door.

Inside, the music is a slap to the face – in the good way, and Bucky lets it wash over him. The venue’s not enormous but he’s too far back to see the stage very well and there’s a crowd of people dancing, whipped up into fervor, so he throws himself into it without hesitation. He loves to dance; he always has, in a crowd or with someone else.

Natasha had loved to dance, too, which –

He doesn’t want to think about, doesn’t want to remember the feel of her hips moving under his hands, so instead, he focuses on the random guy that’s been grinding closer to him, puts his hands on that guy’s hips instead and concentrates on the difference.

There are bodies all around him, pressed close, sweaty and gyrating and shouting the lyrics back at the stage, it’s an endless blur of sensation and his heart is slamming against his chest at the same rhythm of the drum, he’s shouting the chorus with the rest of them even though he’s just picked it up –

He might love Seattle. He might just love the music, but it feels close enough.

The band transitions into something slower a few songs later, wistful lyrics about long walks and letting go, and he surrenders his grip on the guy in front of him before he has the chance to face Bucky and try to force a meet-cute, then muscles his way up to the bar.

He orders a bottle of water and plunks down a few wrinkled bills, leans his elbows on the bar and lets the lyrics wash over him. All their love and loss and longing, the pleasant ache of a second chance. The keyboard in this is sharp.

An elbow slams into his back, hard, and jolts him, sloshing the water onto his black tee-shirt. “Hey, easy there, pal,” he says affably – because the guy who just slammed into him is honestly almost as big as M’Baku and he doesn’t need to be starting shit in his buddy’s club.

When the guy turns to apologize, his eyes go big as eggs.

Bucky?” he exclaims.

Steve?” Bucky blurts. He feels like he just fell off a cliff. It’s an actual sensation of freefall in the pit of his gut.

“I thought you were gone.”

Bucky eyes him up and down. “I thought you were smaller,” he manages. The last time he saw Steve, he was still a short, skinny asthmatic lugging around textbooks heavier than he was. The last time he saw Steve was at his court date, Steve’s eyes still swollen up eggplant-shiny, leaning on Natasha to stay upright because he probably shoulda still been in the goddamn hospital –

Steve lets out a shout of pure joy and pulls Bucky into the tightest goddamn hug of his life. “Jesus, I can’t believe it’s really you!” he says, and all at once, Bucky is hugging him back just as fiercely, like some dam inside him that’s been walled off spilled over in one rush. He fists his hand in the back of Steve’s suit and holds on until he damn well feels like letting go.

“Fuck, I missed you,” he says, and Steve just about picks him up off the ground. When they pull apart, Steve’s face is warm with happiness.

“God, it’s so good to see you, Buck,” he says. “You come to hear Nat in action?”

Bucky’s head whips around, already on overload that almost pulses into outright panic. This is good, this is – seeing Steve, this is so good, but Natasha. He’s not prepared for Natasha, he’s not ready and now he’s in the same room with her, he’s thought about what he’d say so many times that it doesn’t seem real. “She’s – Nat’s here, too?” he says, too choked up at the thought to be ashamed of the way his voice cracks.

Steve would forgive him for disappearing in a heartbeat, he’s always known that. Steve is the easy sell. Natasha, though – Nat has never been easily sold on anything in her life.

Steve’s face shifts into confusion. “Uhhhhh…..” he says. “You didn’t know this was her band?”

“My buddy’s the bouncer, I was just in the neighborhood, she – wait, this is Natasha?” he says, and whips his head towards the stage.

When he does, he has no idea how he could have missed her.

His entire world spins on its axis, tilts so far that he may have just slid off the planet.

Natasha is under the lights, bright hair loose in layers around her face and damp with sweat. She’s wearing pounds of thick eyeliner, torn jeans and an Aladdin Sane shirt – the lightning bolt through Bowie’s face is bright pink and the sleeves are cut off. She’s back to back with their guitarist, a bald black woman with matching pink lightning bolts painted across her head – she’s harmonizing with their keyboard player and flashing a brilliant smile at her like they’ve just nailed something that’s tripped them up before –

That’s Natasha up there. That’s his Natasha and the crowd is screaming for her, loving her and her band as fiercely as Bucky has ever loved her, and she is soaking it all in, buoyed up on it, they love her and oh, she is giving them a thousand reasons to keep loving.

He reaches out to grip Steve’s arm. He feels like he’s in a trance.

“They’re good, right?” Steve says proudly.

Good doesn’t come close to covering it.

“They’re all over the radio right now – that song Petty Cash?” he adds.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, dazed. He’s heard Petty Cash. Everyone has. It’s been inescapable on the radio for months; it’s catchy as fuck, it ended up in some movie trailer a couple weeks ago.

He just had no idea.

“We’re doing this ten-city tour. Tony – he’s the label guy – he’s got really specific ideas of how he wants to roll them out live on the back of the album dropping, and it’s…unorthodox, I think, but it’s working. He wanted them playing all these smaller venues before the festival circuit, so there’d be raging from the fanbase about how hard it is to get tickets, but when we hit the east coast, he wants them opening for – ”

“Sorry – we’re?” Bucky says, still feeling shell-shocked, like he hasn’t quite crawled back into his body yet.

Steve looks a little bashful. “I’m sort of their manager,” he says. “I finished my MBA and it wasn’t the plan or anything, but when they started blowing up – I’m good at making deals and reading metrics, it turns out. And Natasha said they needed somebody they could trust.”

“No she didn’t,” Bucky says automatically, and the face Steve makes lets him know, immediately, he was right.

“She did,” Steve insists. “She just also might have added that they needed someone who’s genetically incapable of bullshit, because they’d just hit the point where tons of people were about to start lying to them and apparently my relationship with the truth is, quote, ‘borderline sexual, in the sense that Truth is a pillow princess that you, Steven, are pathetically eager to service’.”

“That sounds like Natasha,” Bucky says. He aches with how much that sounds like Natasha.

He still hasn’t taken his eyes off her. He hopes Steve doesn’t find this offensive, because he really is thrilled to see Stevie again, too. It’s just. It’s a lot. It’s a lot.

Steve sets a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. “Stay after the show,” he says. “You can’t leave without seeing her, and we’re not driving out for the Portland til tomorrow – hell, we all have a lot to catch up on, Buck. Promise me you’ll stick around.”

“Yeah. Yeah, of course,” Bucky agrees.

***

He did WHAT?” Sam thunders, his outrage peaking in volume on the last word.

Natasha holds the phone away from her ear and feels a vicious stab of satisfaction. Take that, Rogers, she thinks, glaring at the wall separating their rooms. I tattled.

“Repeat yourself,” Sam says dangerously. “My house is beautiful, Natasha, you know how many movies I made to afford this beautiful house? I know ‘six’ doesn’t sound like a lot, but two of them were not funny. And I used the money from the unfunny ones to buy this beautiful house. It sits on four acres of land. I have a swimming pool. I have a guy who comes over three times a week to keep the swimming pool from getting gunk in it. I’ve got a lemon tree. I love my beautiful house.”

“I’m sure James Barnes will love your beautiful house, too,” Natasha says. “Did you not become a movie star so you and Steve could live in that house indefinitely with a random roommate one day? Was that not your driving motivation?”

Sam spends the next couple minutes cursing. He comes out with a few words that are new even to Natasha.

“How much would you miss him if I killed him?” she asks, when he pauses for air. “You probably have enough money to buy a new boyfriend. A better one.”

“I would not miss him at all,” he says. “I’m a damn catch. Do what you gotta do.”

“Promise?”

“No,” Sam says, and exhales a huge sigh. “That’s how he gets you. Disarms you with all the charming deep sincerity and the blue eyes and the pectorals so you overlook the boneheaded decisions. Motherfucker. I could’ve had Jake Gyllenhaal.”

“Jake Gyllenhaal is gay?”

“Not relevant. Instead, I wanted Steve Rogers. So I got him. And then my mama met him and decided she likes him better than she likes me. And now I’m stuck with him.” He sighs again. “You okay? Because I’m guessing he forgot to ask. Good heart, my man, but thick as a brick when he gets that tunnel vision.”

Natasha presses her face to the cool glass of the window. The view is stunning, overlooking the waterfront – T’Challa’s family’s tech company has corporate housing in a lot of major hubs, and his father let them all crash in their Seattle block for the night. It’s so much nicer than a hotel. In any other circumstance, she would have crawled into the marble tub to soak off the night and enjoyed the experience of watching TV from the bathroom.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I shouldn’t not be. I know Steve didn’t – it wasn’t malicious, he just assumed…”

“That everything would work itself out and there’d be no conflict if he just offered up an open ended invitation for his best friend to move in with us before he asked me how I’d feel about it, yeah,” Sam groans. “You know I’m gonna cave and let the guy crash, right?”

“I figured.”

“But I promise you I’m gonna make Steve feel awful about this. I’m going to hit him with the mother of all guilt trips and at least forty percent of that is going to be because I love you, okay?”

Natasha smiles, a little. “Thanks, Sam.”

“You’re welcome, gorgeous. Breakfast when you get back home, okay? Just the two of us. I’ll cook.”

“Deal. Thanks for listening.”

When they hang up, the room feels especially silent. Everyone else is still out, burning off post-show adrenaline at a late-night diner, and Natasha is – here, because she begged off. She can’t concentrate on post-gaming the show tonight; in Seattle, a city she’s never been to before today, a venue full of people were screaming her lyrics back to her, they knew every song. She should be flying high.

She wants to call Clint, badly, but it’s three hours later in Philadelphia and she’s sure he’s asleep. Their tour schedules lined up very nicely this time around. He’s doing a couple shows at bigger colleges and in two weeks, when the War Dogs are ending their east coast leg, he’s going to come meet her in New York.

It’s a big deal. Clint’s finally going to meet Sarah, and he’s cutely nervous about it. Natasha was planning to take him to her New York places, flip their first date around on him – her favorite pretzel cart in front of the Met and Bethesda Fountain and Shopsin’s for mac and cheese pancakes and maybe the Strand, she wanted to show him those things. She wanted to watch him pretend he doesn’t hate the subway and panic at the price of cocktails even if he’s not going to order one.

The War Dogs are booked on SNL, and Clint has been trying not to freak out with excitement, but he has been freaking out with excitement. And it’s all on her behalf. He’s a big enough deal that he has friends – and fans – at SNL, any of whom could have hooked him up with a visit whenever he wanted. But “My girlfriend’s band is going to be on SNL!” is what he keeps exclaiming to everyone he knows, because that’s what’s making it thrilling for him. He’s not just looking forward to watching the taping or meeting the cast and writers: it’s watching Natasha perform on That Stage, it’s the moment when Anne Hathaway is going to say “Ladies and gentlemen – the War Dogs!”

If she called Clint, he would pick up the phone.

He wouldn’t even be angry – well, he wouldn’t be angry either way, but he especially wouldn’t be angry once she explained why she had called.

But what would she even say? Hi, honey – my old boyfriend, you remember, the one I told you about? The shadow that meant I almost didn’t take a chance on us? He turned up tonight and now he’s sleeping in the house with us and apparently Steve’s invited him to come for the last three weeks of the tour and then he’s going to move in to Sam’s house so surpriiiiiiise looks like he’s suddenly part of our life, how’s Philly, did you get an answer to the butterscotch Krimpets question because I know it’s been haunting you, let’s talk exclusively about the Krimpets for the rest of this conversation.

That’s not information he can process at four o’clock in the morning. She may as well wait until she knows how to say what she wants to say.

Her stomach gurgles, reminding her why they usually make a stop for food after shows. She changes into her pajamas – boxers and Clint’s ratty Steve Martin shirt that she lied about swiping when he couldn’t find it before his tour – and pads down to the kitchen. T’Challa mentioned he’d had some things sent over for the morning, coffee grounds and a fruit basket and a pastry tray, she figures she can break into that.

James, it seems, has beaten her to it.

The fruit basket is on top of the kitchen island, the cellophane peeled apart; he’s standing right there in the goddamn kitchen, carefully rooting around inside the basket like he’s looking for something specific.

Natasha clears her throat.

“Endless mangos in here but nobody thought to throw in a couple of plums?” he says, and when he looks up at her, he grins.

All thousand watts of it, that grin that could get him out of as many scrapes as it got him into. It’s the full Barnes charm offensive and if she had built up a certain immunity to its chemical properties over time, she hasn’t seen it in so many years that her tolerance seems to have withered on the vine.

She pushes back against it, tries to fight it down. “Steve said you were staying with a friend in town.”

“I am.”

“So why aren’t you there?” It comes out unkindly. She intended that.

He looks surprised as he steps back from the fruit basket, plum in hand. Good for him. Finally unearthed what he wanted. “You don’t know?”

She folds her arms over her chest and raises an eyebrow.

“Natasha, you barely spoke six words to me at the venue,” he says. “I wanted to see you. Talk to you. It seemed like maybe in front of your band – and your brother – wasn’t the ideal place. So – when Stevie said they were all going out, I thought – ”

“Oh my God – have you just been waiting around the house this whole time?” she demands. She thought she was alone.

“Yep,” he says, unabashed.

“Do you understand boundaries? At all?”

“Not with you.”

Natasha uncrosses her arms, lets them swing down at her sides. “You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to show up out of the blue after all this time and think we’re just going to pick up in the place we left off.”

He crosses over to the other side of the kitchen island, moving closer to her, and takes a bite from his plum. A slow, deliberate bite, an infuriating one. “Because you’re a big rockstar now?” he asks, still grinning. “God, Nat, you were so amazing up there, I thought my heart was gonna– I was so damn proud – ”

“I’m in love with someone,” she says.

James pauses with the plum halfway back up for another bite. “Okay,” he says, after a second. He says it like it hurt him, like she sideswiped him with a knife and now he’s startled to see all this blood leaking out of him. “I guess I should have figured. It’s been awhile.”

“Do you know how long I waited before I found him?” she says, suddenly.

She didn’t mean to say that.

His eyes cloud over, filling with sorrow. “Tasha.”

“You have no idea. You have no idea how many days I spent thinking this was going to be the day, you’d pick up the phone, or you’d somehow – get my email address, or you’d see our first demo on iTunes or you’d turn up at the bar I used to work in. I thought so many times I’d turn around and you’d be standing there smiling at me, I thought – I waited.”

“Why did you stop?” he asks, very quietly.

“I met Clint. He was worth stopping.”

“Clint. That’s his name?” He sets the plum down and reaches out to touch her shirt; he takes the edge of it between his thumb and forefinger, rubbing it back and forth. “And he’s a big fan of The Jerk?”

“He’s a comedian. A good one, he’s very talented.”

James winds more fabric in his hands, doubling it back over his fingers and reeling her in, closer. His knuckles brush the bare skin of her stomach and goosebumps ripple out over her skin, like a rock skipping across a lake. “How seriously do I have to take this?”

Seriously,” she says. “He’s not going to end up some tiny footnote in the biography one day. I won’t let him.”

Her back is against the refrigerator; he’s crowding her in, moving in slow little increments. “I want a spot in that biography,” he says. “I don’t want to be a chapter at the beginning and then disappear from the whole back half.”

She presses her palms to his chest, holding him at bay. But she doesn’t push him back either, and she knows he’s aware. “Things are different,” she says, quietly. “Not just my boyfriend. My life is getting – bigger.” It’s strange, the way her life has gotten bigger; she’s not entirely sure any of them were prepared for the overnight changes. Now they’re not responsible for loading up their own equipment after the concerts, autograph requests at the gym, booking performances on late night shows –

James laughs – a nice laugh, not a mean one. “Things are bigger,” he says. “Coulda figured that just from looking at Stevie. He’s a goddamn giant. What’d you start feeding him?”

Natasha rolls her lips together, trapping them between her teeth. He seems so lighthearted about it. It’s like she absorbed the bitterness for all three of them.

Steve has not always been this big and broad.

After James went to jail, Steve hit a very late, unexpected growth spurt and shot up nearly a foot; for awhile, he’d looked a little like Gumby, pulled out like a long piece of taffy.

He’d channeled everything into working out. He’d hit the gym with the same ferocity that he hit the dean’s list. He spent hours on the internet and slammed out a plan into an actual goddamn spreadsheet – two-a-days at the cheap Brooklyn gym he’d joined, running one, then three, then six miles a day; bench presses and chest presses and leg presses. He did crunches and took fistfuls of multivitamins. He’d guzzled thousand-calorie protein shakes and built muscle on Ziplocks filled with broiled chicken and raw broccoli, took boxing lessons on the weekend from a trainer who liked him enough to teach him for free and at the end of the year, Steve Rogers was not some scrawny punk anyone could jump because they knew they would win, not anymore.

Steve got big instead of bitter. That was what Steve did so he wouldn’t think about the fact that James wouldn’t allow either of them to visit, that he never called or wrote back to their letters.

Natasha, though.

Natasha had waited out the year inside her lyrics notebook, held her breath through open mic nights and shifts at the coffeehouse and finally exhaled when James’s sentence was up. Certain he was on his way back to her. Certain she understood – better than Steve did – why he hadn’t wanted either of them to see him like that, behind glass in a blue uniform, the exact cliché of where every kid like the two of them could ever end up.

She had waited, because it was only a year and a year was nothing stacked up next to all the time they had spent together in group homes, nothing next to all the shit they’d seen side by side, nothing next to the first time he’d pressed her up against a brick wall when they were fifteen, kissed her like he actually knew what he was doing and swore there was no girl he’d ever want to kiss again.

And when he never showed up – when it became clear he wouldn’t be showing up again at all – what Natasha did was move all the way across the country and lose herself in canyon hikes and ocean swims, in the music scene and slinging drinks in shitty bars until she’d gotten comfortable at Nick’s. She listened to a lot of Hole and Liz Phair and The Kills and until she found Nakia, she had felt like she’d been living underwater. Like she had drowned and was just waiting to wash up on shore with the rest of the driftwood.

James had been the only constant in her life since she had been six. And then he was gone.

She knows Steve only applied to grad school at UCLA because he wanted to keep an eye on her. They’ve never talked about it; what would be the point? And anyway, by then she had at least been getting better, she’d pulled it together – together enough that she’d become the unofficial Jessica Jones whisperer. She’d thrown herself as fiercely into her goals for her band as Steve had thrown himself into the gym.

The smile slowly dissolves from James’s face when he seems to realize the answer to his question is more complicated than he’d expected. “You know why I couldn’t see you like that,” he says.

“Yes,” she tells him. “After, though.”

“It’s not a very good reason.”

“I still want to know. The not-knowing was awful.”

He nods and twirls his fingers in the hem of her shirt again. “You remember Tim Dugan? I was with him for – what, like six months when we were about twelve or thirteen?”

“Eighth grade,” Natasha says. She’d been in a group home with five other kids in that particular stretch, with some witch who’d used them all for free labor. She’d set them up embroidering napkins and tablecloths that she sold online and at craft fairs. The kids didn’t eat unless they hit their quota; James lifted a wallet off a guy waiting for a taxi and used one credit card to buy giant gift cards at Burger King and Subway as soon as she told him, so she’d be able to get breakfast on the way to school and dinner on the way out.

She still has the Burger King card tucked in the back of her wallet, cracked peeling plastic that she couldn’t throw out. There’s probably still a couple bucks left on it.

“He was one of the good ones. He came to see me, when he heard what happened – he did some time, too, years back, so he wanted to check in. Talk me through some stuff, you know – head down and eyes open, don’t trust anybody, try to keep my mouth in check – ”

“There is no way you made it through a full year in prison with your mouth in check,” Natasha interrupts. He hadn’t even made it all the way through his court appearance without interjecting “I can’t help but notice no one’s trying to claim Brock Rumlow is not a human shitbag,” during a lull in the proceedings.

She would have felt bad for his lawyer if his lawyer hadn’t sucked at his job so completely.

James laughs, warm and fond. “I’m not as bad as Steve, you know. I never was.”

“You were not,” she says, because she has said it a million times, “better enough that you should be bragging about it.”

“That’s a different argument, we’ll save that one. Anyway – point is, about a month before I was due to walk, Dugan wrangled me up a job offer with the place he worked. Private security firm, the kind of company that doesn’t care if its people come with a record. It was gonna take me out of the country, but – ”

“What about probation?”

James taps one finger to her nose, affectionate. She doesn’t even want to swat it away. “I’m tellin’ the story, Jesus. Also the kind of company that can pull strings if they want to, and Dugan – Dugan was willing to call in some favors on my account to get them pulled. And he made good points. Not a ton of people were going to be lining up to hire me, but – if I could come out with some cash in my pocket and a recommendation and some experience and training, until I could get the conviction expunged, things would be…”

“Easier down the road. Sure. I know how it works.”

“Yeah.” He sighs, shaking his head; his hair falls into his eyes and without thinking about it too much, she reaches her hands up to push it back, tuck it behind his ears. It’s longer than she’s ever seen it. She thinks she likes it. “I said yes, Nat, and I didn’t – I didn’t tell you because there were a thousand good reasons to take it and I knew if I saw you before I went, I wouldn’t give a damn about one of them.”

“So you decided you’d rather let me go entirely. Not a heads up, not a call to Steve – your best friend, by the way, who was worried sick – ”

“Baby, I told you it was a shitty reason – ”

“Do not call me baby.”

“Sorry. Sorry, Nat.” He seems to genuinely mean it. “And – aside from that. I was also not in a great place after that year. My head was – it’s tough to explain if you haven’t been through prison. I’m not saying it lets me off the hook, but I’m saying… I think I did what I had to do. I wasn’t ready to pick up where we all left off. By the time I felt like myself again, I was somewhere in deep in Morocco and too much time had passed for me to feel like I still had the right to pick up the phone and fill you both in. Like if it was all fucked up, there was no way to fix it so I might as well let it fester.”

Natasha tips her head back, knocking it once against the fridge.

It’s so much to digest, but it – none of it is unfair. Better than anyone, she understands self-preservation, the things she has had to do to anchor herself inside her life that made no sense to anyone on the outside, anyone who hadn’t been through what she had been through. Things that other people called unfair when she’d only been trying to stay afloat.

She understands feeling like it would be impossible to accept the love someone was extending in her direction because she was too raw. She understands feeling empty and not wanting to touch anything that mattered until she found a way to be full again.

“Morocco, huh?” she finally asks.

“And Kazakhstan. Bolivia. Poland. A couple other places. That’s how I met M’Baku. We worked together for a little while. He left before I did. Good guy, bouncer at the place you played tonight. I’d like you to meet him sometime.”

He looks hopeful, his fingers still caught in her shirt, and suddenly she knows what she’s going to say the second before it slips free. Her only real question, about any of this.

“Would you lie to me?”

She isn’t expecting James’s eyes to flood with tears, swift and immediate.

She isn’t expecting her own to follow.

“Never you,” he says hoarsely, this test they have put to each other since they were children; accomplished liars, both of them, to social workers and teachers and foster parents, to other kids and police, and for so long, this was the only real thing they had to offer to each other. If they lied to everyone else, for survival and instinct and sometimes just because, they did not lie to each other.

For any reason. Never you. If one of them asked for the truth, no matter what it was about, no matter when or where, the truth was what they got. Never you. A question only to be asked in times of extreme need.

That’s when she knows she’s forgiven him. Everything.

Natasha puts her arms around his neck and lets him slide his around her waist, pulls him into a hug that feels endless. She can feel his heartbeat, see his pulse jumping in his neck as he holds her tightly, as she holds him in return. James. James.

She wipes her leaking eyes on his shoulder and realizes she still has her concert makeup on; the thick black eyeliner hasn’t shown up on his black shirt, but there are streaks of green glittery eyeshadow, the sixth of ten shades Thor had tested until he’d been satisfied with this one.

“I did miss you,” James murmurs into the crook of her neck. “I do love you, Nat, I – ”

“Don’t,” she says, quietly. “Please. Not that, okay?”

He looks unhappy, but he nods once, a quick, jerky little nod.

“If the girls are okay with you tagging along for the last two weeks – because Steve does not, actually, have the authority to just toss out tour invitations – then I’m okay with it, too. I’ll talk to them when they get back,” she tells him. That’s the best she can do; they will have to tackle the rest of this slowly, in pieces.

And he’s moving to LA. There will, apparently, be plenty of time for that.

***

Jess crawls into bed with her later that night.

“If you need him gone and you don’t want it on you, say the word,” she says quietly, to Natasha’s back. She smells like cigarettes and maple syrup and Natasha’s glad that Jess can’t see the expression on her face, glad that she can’t see how much it means to her that Jess was the one who came. “I will take Rogers aside and I will tell him to get Barnes gone. I will pull rank. I will end this in one sentence if that’s what you want and you feel like you couldn’t say.”

“Can you sleep here tonight?” Natasha asks.

She doesn’t know when she became someone who doesn’t like sleeping alone on the shitty nights.

Probably around the time she fell for Clint. She misses him with a physical ache; she is dreading talking to him about tonight and the ache and the dread are knotting themselves together in the pit of her stomach.

Jess loops an arm around her waist in reply, spooning up behind her.

“Love you, dummy,” she whispers. “Don’t tell Val. I still can’t say it to her.”

Natasha smiles sleepily and burrows into the pillow. She matches her breathing to Jess’s, deep and slow, until she’s relaxed enough to let sleep take her.

***

The next morning, Steve storms into the room without knocking. “I just got off the phone with Sam,” he says sharply. “Did you seriously tell my boyfriend about Bucky moving in with us before I could talk to him myself?”

“I don’t know,” Natasha says, sitting up in bed. “Did you seriously invite my ex onto our tour before you checked how I might feel about that?”

“Fair enough,” Steve says, after a second. “I’ll run out and get you waffles.”

“Do it quickly,” Natasha says.

She’s whipped in the face with a pillow before she can customize her order. “Some of us are still trying to sleep,” Jess bitches, her eyes still closed – really, Natasha has to admire her aim. “Both of you can shut the fuck up.”

***

Two weeks later and tired of the tour bus, they’re all taking the train from Connecticut into Grand Central. Bucky hasn’t been back to New York in years; he’s feeling so apprehensive that he almost begged off and said he’d meet them in California, but Steve’s kept such a close watch on him that it would have been impossible. Unless he’s taking a piss or asleep, he’s never been out of the guy’s sight.

Bucky can’t really blame him. Half the time, he thinks that Steve and Natasha are going to disappear, too. The last fourteen days feel like one long blur since Seattle, soundchecks and shows, getting to know the lingo and the entourage and the other women in the band (Okoye and Val like him, Jessica openly despises him, Nakia appears to be reserving judgment), piecing his way tentatively back into his friends’ new lives – everything shimmers with a vague sense of unreality.

M’Baku had glared at him for the entire seven minutes it had taken him to pack up his shit. “Unbelievable,” he repeated, over and over. “I let you into one club and the band invites you on tour.”

“They’re old friends,” Bucky said, knowing it didn’t matter – he’d repeated it over and over in response, and it made zero difference.

“Charmed fucking Barnes life,” he’d scoffed. “Least you could do is give that guitar player my number.”

“Nat said she’s married.”

“You get so hung up on details,” M’Baku had said, rolling his eyes. “Remember when you’re out on that tour that you still owe me a meatless week. I’ll know if you don’t follow through.”

Bucky kept his word, mostly because he felt too lucky right now to consider breaking a promise. He’d thrown in a second week out of sheer gratitude at the universe.

Today, though, he’s thinking entirely about soup dumplings and wondering how many he can devour in one setting. There’s no show until tomorrow night, so his plans include eating as many as physical biology allows and then going with Steve to buy a massive armful of flowers for Sarah Rogers.

“Are you staying at Sarah’s place?” he asks Natasha as they make their way down the corridor. Grand Central is the same, at least, maybe just a little cleaner than the last time he was here, but still a bright, bustling hub; it’s a nicer welcome-home than pulling into Penn Station.

She shakes her head and shifts the strap of her holey black backpack to her other shoulder. He likes that she still carries that thing. “Midtown. Brooklyn’s not close enough to Rockefeller Center.”

“Christ. I know it’s for rehearsals but it makes you sound like such a fucking tourist,” he says, and he’s rewarded with her smile, her real one. He’s been coaxing more and more of those out of her lately and every one of them feels like ground gained.

Steve’s warned him to be careful multiple times; Steve has also repeated multiple times that the thing with her boyfriend actually is as serious as she said, but it’s hard to imagine ‘Clint’ as a real person when he’s been entirely physically absent. Not that Bucky thinks it’s a group fiction or something, but he’s watched Natasha slowly thawing out, any lingering frost or awkwardness from years apart starting to melt, and…

And it’s like seeing spring for the first time in an endless winter. It’s like the first crocuses cropping up around the rocks in Central Park, the bright yellow bloom of daffodils going sunny all at once.

He can feel Jessica scowling at the back of his head, her instant response whenever she sees him say something to Nat that she can’t overhear and evaluate. It doesn’t bother him. He’ll win her over eventually; he just has to figure out the angle. And he kind of likes her scowling mountain lion vibe when it comes to Natasha.

When they reach the terminal, Bucky takes it all in – the arch of the green ceiling, the rattle of plastic numbers flipping over to announce departures and arrivals, the violinist in one corner. New York filled with all its gorgeous chaos, and when he turns his head to look at Steve, their grins match. Home, it says, and he nudges Steve’s shoulder with his.

“There’s even a weirdo waiting to greet us,” he tells Steve, nodding to a guy standing a couple feet away, holding a giant box of Tastykakes over his head like it’s the boom box in Say Anything. “Welcome home, James Barnes, did you miss this?”

Steve coughs. “Buck – ”

Anything he was going to say next is swallowed up by the shout of joy Natasha lets out – a spontaneous noise, and she looks shocked, for a second, by what just came out of her.

Then she’s running full-tilt at the Tastykake guy, who immediately drops the box to lift her off the ground and twirl her around. Her legs are draped over his hips and she’s kissing him with both hands framing his face.

It is sickeningly cinematic and the hope harboring refuge in Bucky’s chest plummets onto the ground; he half-expects to see it splattered all over the tile like roadkill.

Jessica saunters up to his side. “Aw. Barton came to surprise her,” she says, clearly relishing his reaction. “Two months away from each other but the spark hasn’t died.”

Jess,” Steve says, sounding appalled.

“What?” she says innocently. “Just thought he’d want to know she’s not jumping on a random homeless person or something.”

“No, no, I appreciate it,” Bucky says. If she can be a smartass, so can he. “That was legit my first concern.”

Val comes up to rest her chin on Jessica’s shoulder. “You’re a giant bitch sometimes, Jones,” she says, but she sounds like she’s sort of into that.

“I cultivate it,” Jessica tells her.

Clint has stopped kissing the love of Bucky’s life. He’s dropping her back to the ground, one arm still around her waist as he bends to pick up the box he dropped, and they make their way over to the group wearing stupidly big twin smiles. “Hey, guys,” he says. “Surprise?”

Jessica taps her fist against Clint’s, before anyone else, which – that clears up some stuff. “Last stop was Villanova? How’d it go?”

“Jokes went over great with the students, middling with the faculty, but I think they’re probably going to say a mass for me, so call it a success,” he says, then he turns to Bucky and holds out a hand to shake. “You must be James, right? It’s nice to officially meet you. I’ve heard a lot.”

He’s so startled that he actually shakes the guy’s hand. “Bucky,” he says. “James sort of makes me feel like I’m in deep shit unless it’s coming from Nat. Even Steve doesn’t have James privileges.”

“Noted,” Clint says, and smiles. Easily. Directly. “Bucky it is.”

“What’s with the snack cakes?” Val asks. “I feel like you didn’t bring enough to share.”

Clint’s face brightens. It actually brightens, like he’s incredibly excited. “So my favorite book when I was a kid mentioned these things a thousand times, right, these things called butterscotch krimpets – ”

“Maniac Magee?” Bucky says, unable to hold it back. “That was my favorite book, too. When he’s picking the knot out in the pizza parlor but all he can eat are – ”

“The krimpets! Yes!” Clint exclaims, and before Bucky realizes it, he has just high-fived Natasha’s boyfriend. She’s looking back and forth between them like she has no idea what the hell to think about this. “I didn’t think they existed!”

“You never had one before?” Bucky demands. “Dude, what the fuck!”

“They’re an east coast thing, my man,” he says. “I grew up on a farm in Iowa, we were all about the Little Debbie. And then Nat told me they were actually real and said I could probably find one when I was touring – ”

Bucky looks at Natasha accusatorily. “You never got one for him?” he demands. “God, Nat. You told me you loved him.”

“Where was I going to find a Tastykake factory in southern California?” she says.

“Maniac eats them on every other page of this goddamn book and I spent my whole childhood thinking this had to be the pinnacle cake experience, and it actually turns out they’re not that good, they’re like Twinkies but worse. I still bought a box, though, I felt like Young Clint would want this,” he says, and hands them over to Bucky. “If you want them, though, please enjoy.”

Bucky takes them with undisguised glee. “The four of you,” he tells the rest of the War Dogs, “can split one. The rest of these are mine.”

The matching expressions of disbelief on Jessica and Steve’s faces in this moment are worth, literally, everything.




to be continued.

Chapter Text




then: 2014

Natasha’s used to having Nakia physically close to her. They spent years living on top of each other in a cramped apartment, Natasha squeezed into the smaller of the two bedrooms because Nakia (with a little help from her parents) could comfortably cover two-thirds of the rent instead of half. Their record collections and books, dishware and clothes were as tangled up as any married couple; by the time they moved out, they’d forgotten who had been the original purchaser of an extremely large portion of their stuff. They had settled up with ‘whoever feels most strongly about Lady Sings The Blues/A Wrinkle In Time/the rainbow skirt can keep it’ and tossed a coin for the small handful they both wanted equally.

They’d spent years splitting good pizza and bad Chinese takeout, obsessing over the same TV shows, making extra coffee for each other in Natasha’s shitty little four-cup maker she’d bought at a garage sale in Echo Park. Crying together and laughing together and being each other’s first phone call and first text and emergency contact, jockeying for position in the bathroom for showers and make-up application.

And even after they moved out of the apartment, there was no space to miss Nakia. They traveled together, for one thing, in long stretches. There were still endless tours and festival circuits; back in LA, there were always recording sessions and writing sessions and rehearsals. Even when Nakia wasn’t just on the other side of the bedroom wall, at the most, she has only ever been fifteen minutes away, out of music-related practicality. It was pretty rare for them to go more than a day or two without seeing each other.

Nakia is Natasha’s best friend. It’s not like she sits around ranking the members of the War Dogs in order of how much she loves them – this is her family, plus that would be shitty and weird – but whenever the phrase best friend pops into her head, it has always been Nakia, always.

Nakia is the first person that taught Natasha how to stop keeping score. That if a friend buys you a burrito on her way home from work, take the burrito and don’t immediately count out the repayment. She taught Natasha about generosity and how to let go of debts that aren’t worth tracking. Nakia is the reason that Natasha knows how to collaborate; the songs they write together have been the backbone of the War Dogs’ sound from the very beginning. She taught her how to argue without being cruel, how to disagree without being malicious, how to come to a middle place.

“You don’t always have to take the kill shot, you know. Some arguments can be casual,” Nakia had pointed out in the early days, and it had stung in the way that true things sting. A truth in the way Natasha could have only heard it from someone she respected enough to believe.

On the surface, Natasha and Nakia have come from completely different worlds and have nothing in common. But on some fundamental baseline level, they have always been exactly the same, hardcore pragmatists who took the world’s most unrealistic dream and broke it into pieces that their pragmatism could assemble into reality. Together, they’re a force.

Natasha liked having Nakia close. So she kind of hated it when she and T’Challa decided to move to Santa Barbara.

It’s not like this was a stabbing betrayal or something; this is not early days for the War Dogs. The band is thoroughly established; it’s no longer a tiny newborn baby that needs feeding every three hours. They don’t all need to be tethered to each other anymore. None of them can, say, pick up and move to Greece or something, but Santa Barbara is two hours out of LA and it’s perfectly within the realm of acceptable distance.

Nakia and T’Challa moved because – for one thing – it was more convenient for his work; he’s got a tech company to manage, and while he occasionally travels for the job, he’s still home more often than she is. For another, this is a perfectly reasonable step to take in a marriage, and because – shit, if you bothcan afford a sprawling estate in Santa Barbara, with its views of the ocean and endless canopy of green trees, why wouldn’t you? There’s even a customized recording studio, so if the band wants to tool around with new stuff in private, they’ve got a very nice home base.

It’s just.

It makes Natasha sad, a little, that it puts Nakia just far enough out of reach that she can’t text her on a spur of the moment; there won’t be any more ‘there’s a movie starting in an hour, wanna go?’ or ‘had a shit day, come drink with me at Cat & Fiddle’ spontaneity to their friendship. It has to be planned, now. Choreographed.

Though if she’s perfectly honest, they’re past the point where they can really do those things without thinking about them. They don’t have to bring security with them everywhere; it still has to be a consideration more often than it doesn’t. As does what they’ll wear, and where they can go, and what they can say in public conversation, just in case they’re overheard. (A lesson they all learned the hard way when someone live-tweeted a mild argument Val and Okoye had about playing a charity concert, when they were having dinner together at a sushi place. It had been twisted into something ugly and taken entirely out of context, and they aren’t supposed to let these things get to them, but they all know Val still feels shitty about it.)

This is all part of getting older, and it’s part of settling into the career, but she’s still allowed to feel a little sad about it.

Today’s been nice, though. It’s been a no-band-talk day, for once; Natasha drove up this morning just to hang out. They’ve had lunch and pedicures that technicians came to the house to do, a once-weird thing that now feels normal after years of being prepped in-home by glam teams for award shows and publicity appearances.

“If I’m being honest, I really want to fuck around with some stuff in the studio as long as you’re out here,” Nakia admitted once the nail techs left, which is why they’re now floating on rafts in the ridiculously huge pool and forcing themselves to enjoy the last burst of warmth and sunshine before it creeps back into cold; there’s always one last gasp of summer before LA grumblingly settles into its approximation of winter. If they hadn’t made themselves change into bathing suits, they’d be going full-turtle in the home studio and miss it entirely.

Natasha’s borrowed a pair of oversize sunglasses and liberally sprayed herself with SPF ten kabillion because days like this have a habit of being a bitch to her skin. One last gasp of summer, she thinks, and looks over to where Nakia is idly trailing her fingers in the water.

It wouldn’t look like a nervous tic to anyone else.

“Hey, Nakia?”

She looks over at Natasha, an almost lazy roll of her head. “Hmm?”

“Lunch was really delicious.”

“Oh, I’m so glad you liked it.”

“Lots of personal favorites,” Natasha says, pushing her sunglasses up into her hair and trying not to let her mouth wobble. “You made that feta and watermelon kabob thing that I love. And lobster salad. And guacamole – with a ton of cilantro, which you hate. And your grandmother’s mashed potatoes. Which is not generally a food you see on a table that also includes cilantro-laden guacamole.”

“You drove a long way,” Nakia demurs. “I wanted to make it worth it.”

“It made me feel a little bit like I might be on death row.”

Nakia’s fingers send little ripples across the water. She’s silent.

“Are you leaving the band?” Natasha asks.

It’s the worst thing she can imagine; it’s been hanging over her head the entire drive to Santa Barbara. She couldn’t concentrate on a single song on The Guardians’ demo, and she had promised Tony she’d email him thoughts on their potential by tonight. It is the very worst thing. She has been trying to prepare herself to hear it ever since Nakia invited her up for the day and then suddenly stressed, at the end of the conversation, that she wanted it to be just the two of them, a thinly veiled do not tell the girls you’re coming up.

Nakia almost falls off her raft. “Nat! No. Oh my God, no, I promise. I am a fucking War Dog. I am not even thinking about leaving the band.”

The pressure feels like it’s been airlifted off Natasha’s chest, an instant flood of relief. “Then what’s so bad you felt like you needed to spend a day buttering me up?” she demands. “I mean, look, the food was great and I like the little hourglass decals on my toes and I can’t believe your pool has a waterfall, but – it does kind of worry me that you didn’t feel like you could just talk to me, Nakia. I don’t want to be somebody you think you can’t…”

Nakia hastily paddles closer, her electric-green nails flashing under the water. It’d be funny if the look on her face wasn’t so serious, and she takes Natasha’s hand when she’s close enough. “I’m sorry,” she says. “You’re right. I’ve just been nervous and I overthought it. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Natasha tells her. “You just have to tell me what’s up. Because something’s up.”

“I want to have a baby,” Nakia says.

There’s a beat of silence.

“I don’t know if I can help with that,” Natasha finally says. “Kind of seems like a T’Challa thing.”

Nakia snorts, a warm, familiar sound, and the rest of the tension bleeds out of the day, evaporating into the heat, dissolving without a residue. Natasha sends a little splash of water onto her legs in admonishment.

“Okay. So you want a baby,” Natasha says. “Talk me through this.”

“It affects everyone, not just me and my husband,” Nakia points out. “I highly doubt that Mick Jagger sat Keith Richards down for a talk like this every time he knocked somebody new up, but – this is different. Come on, Nat, you know it’s different for a band like ours.”

She does. She does know.

Nakia’s an anomaly in this department, too, which is probably why she needed the consult. Okoye likes kids, but she doesn’t want any of her own. If Jess and Val decide to start a family, they’ve both already said they don’t really plan to consider it for at least another decade and even then, they’ll adopt. Natasha has never been certain, though she knows she leans more towards probably not - but mostly, they’re still about the farthest thing from her mind.

But Nakia and T’Challa have always wanted kids, and they would make great parents. They’ve been together forever, and they’ve all settled into the age bracket where pregnancies are generally an intentional, wanted thing.

“I don’t think that’s really something any of us get to have an opinion on. We don’t get a vote on whether or not you get pregnant,” Natasha says. “We can find workarounds. Play a few less festivals next year. Whatever keeps you comfortable and healthy.”

Nakia chews her bottom lip. “We could also,” she says, carefully, “take the year off.”

That one takes a minute of consideration.

“That’s what you really want?” Natasha asks, after a minute. “I mean – not just because you and T’Challa want to try for a baby. Obviously that’ll be a big extracurricular, but… that’s the real angle you’re working here, right?”

“We’re going to burn out if we keep rolling like this,” Nakia says. “Name the last time any of us took a break. I don’t even mean a vacation, I mean an actual breather.”

The actual answer to this is that week we all took for Val and Jess’s wedding. Val and Jess have been married for two years and since then, they’ve headlined Voodoo, Coachella, and Bonnaroo; released a third studio album; shot three new videos; wrapped their second world tour; and recorded a snappy cover of an Alan Menken song for the end credits of a Pixar movie.

“We’re running a marathon here but we’ve been taking it at a sprint ever since we broke out,” Nakia adds. “I want us to be selling out stadiums twenty, thirty years from now. I want to hear kids who were just born this week screaming the lyrics to Petty Cash at me in Dublin when I’m sixty.”

They have put large chunks of their personal lives on hold to slam all these things out, and Nakia is right: if they aren’t burned out yet, Natasha would be a liar if she said she hadn’t started to smell smoke. There are other things they all want to get to do – her friends have other dreams that they’re in position to chase. Val and Sam have been talking about making a movie together forever; Okoye wants her drawn-out divorce to wrap up so she can finally jump M’Baku without guilt.

Natasha wiggles her toes in the water and Nakia lets her have the silence as she thinks. It’s not an uncomfortable silence. This is for them right now, this is a decision they have to make without the label and PR team and everyone else.

Does she have dreams besides this? This wild one that came true in ways she could never have predicted? She has no idea. It’s nothing she’s ever asked herself.

Here is what Natasha does know: her partners have, for the past two years, sculpted their lives to fit around hers. They have let her commitments and travel schedule dictate theirs; they have made themselves entirely supportive and available. They’ve put the War Dogs first. They have let her do the same.

For James, that’s been easier. He works security for the band when they travel, and when they don’t, he takes workshops and classes. Whatever he’s interested in at the moment; at last count, it had been French cooking, hot yoga, classical mythology, and he’s currently learning how to design and build birdhouses, which is so painfully adorable that Natasha can barely stand to hear him talking about it without wanting to pinch his face. James likes a certain degree of flexibility in his life and work for his hands; he’s never needed more.

For Clint, it had involved restructuring.

He’d taken a hit with his TV show, and while he hasn’t wanted for work – he’s sold a couple pilot scripts that never got made, wrote jokes for friends with hosting gigs – he hasn’t taken a big swing since it tanked. When he’s returned to standup, he’s played only for safe audiences, the welcoming ones, and he hasn’t gone back on tour, not a real one. Writing is where he’s been concentrating his energy instead of performing; he could write from anywhere and it meant they weren’t apart.

She had needed that, when they’d gotten back together.

They had all needed that, when they were in early stages of figuring out how this thing between the three of them was going to work. Clint might have felt a little bruised after his show flopped, but he hadn’t put their relationship in front of his career as an excuse, either. He had put the three of them in front because otherwise, it couldn’t have worked. Because to him, it was worth hitting pause on everything else, even on a comeback.

Something in her stomach gives a guilty little twist at that.

She still lives in a separate apartment from the guys – they spend a lot of nights at hers, but still: two leases. Every time Clint’s brought up the subject of doing something about it, Natasha has brushed him off like a persistent fly; he’s always let it drop gracefully in the moment, but never permanently, coming back to check the temperature every couple months. She has been the last of them willing to fully commit, still-half fearing it could all go up in flames any minute, and if this is going to stay healthy, she can’t always be the one who comes first.

If the War Dogs take a hiatus, it would be Clint’s turn. Natasha could support him the same way he’s supported her.

It would be her turn to make a gesture. She could give them her faith.

She looks at Nakia – her best friend, brave enough to call for a fallow year when she knew it was needed – and she nods her agreement.

“You’re right,” she says. “And I’ll back you on it when we talk to everyone else. We should take the next year off.”

***

Fountain is still buzzing with late-night traffic by the time Natasha gets back to LA; six cars stack up behind her and honk impatiently while she’s waiting to be able to make the left-hand turn into her building’s garage. There are a throng of people on the skinny strip of sidewalk in front of her building, even at this hour, clustered like they think she’ll walk out the lobby door any second.

That’s another point Clint’s right about: that’s getting to be a problem, and it’s pissing off all her neighbors, even the ones that like her.

Her single is in one of the turrets; when she comes back inside, she takes a minute to admire the view all over again. The leaded diamond windows that always make the light come in watery, the jewel-toned cushions she threw on the floor that she sometimes naps on, like a cat. The tiny kitchen that can’t fit more than one person at a time and the breakfast nook where three birdhouses are currently drying out; the room smells like fresh paint.

She has loved this small apartment. Even when she’s sometimes gone for eight months out of the year, she likes knowing it’s here waiting. She never had anywhere that was just hers, and it had been such an endless thrill the first time she realized that she could afford the exorbitant rent. She could live exactly where she wanted. She did not have to make a single compromise.

But there are other places she could fall in love with.

The light snaps on down the hall, and James walks to meet her in his fraying Dodgers cap, turned around backwards. “Hey,” he says, coming to give her a kiss on the cheek. “We missed you today.”

“How was the game?” she asks, reaching to settle her hands on his hips and pull him in a little closer.

“It’s playoffs and I’m still trying so hard to love the Dodgers. Can’t they be more like the Giants?” he says mournfully, and she laughs, leaning up to catch his mouth this time, for a real kiss, long and slow. “It was a long one. We only made it back about a half-hour before you.”

“Clint’s here too?”

James smiles and tugs her toward the bedroom as a reply. Clint is stretched out on the bed with his laptop balanced on his stomach, stripped down to gray boxer briefs, which – Natasha realizes, after a second – are actually James’s underwear. She wouldn’t have expected that to be a sudden turn-on, but there it is. His nose and cheeks are sunburned from the day at the stadium.

Clint reaches up an arm towards her and she crawls onto the bed, arranging herself comfortably against him as he closes the laptop and sets it aside. She can feel the mattress dip behind her as James lowers himself onto it, his warm weight at her side and his fingertips stroking along her shoulder blade.

“You smell like chlorine,” Clint greets her, bending to kiss the tip of her nose. “Nice day?”

“Mmm,” she says, and settles her head on his chest. “James says he’s still being a little bitch about AT&T Park being a friendlier stadium.”

“James did not phrase it like that,” James says. “Nobody should be talking shit about James for speaking objective truth,” and Clint laughs; she can feel the low vibration against her cheek.

“He’s still a bitch about it,” Clint agrees. “But he’s our bitch, so – you know, Buck, in my head, that sounded different than it came out and I can already see by the look on your face that I’m going to pay for it so I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that I bought you hot dogs and beer and nachos and I drove us through the hellhole that was Dodger Stadium traffic today, and I did all this with pure intentions and love in my heart.”

“Keep talking, Barton, that never makes things worse for you,” James says. “Nat, move so I can slap his head.”

Natasha shifts around, still curled comfortably under Clint’s arm. “I want to buy a house,” she says.

The guys exchange A Look that she can’t quite decipher.

“Nat?” Clint says, cautiously. “You said…”

“It’s time,” Natasha says. “I’m ready. We should buy a house this year.”

“That we’d all live in?” James says, like he wants to be very clear. “Together.”

Natasha nods.

Decisively.




then: 2011

The AV Club – What To Watch This Week
“New In Town”, Clint Barton. Tonight on Comedy Central, 8PM
written by Jane Foster

The highlight of Barton’s hilarious set is his riff on the soul-crushing experience that is flying Delta Airlines. It’s delivered with his trademark musicality; this guy makes stand-up seem so effortless that it’s unfair to the rest of us. The Delta story unfolds like he’s telling it for the first time, even when you know it’s a bit that’s been thoroughly scripted, tweaked, and rehearsed. Clint Barton has the rare gift of making every joke seem as though it’s only just occurred to him on the spot.

It is a nearly perfect bit that blends neatly into his sweet-but-still-hilarious musings on his relationship with his girlfriend. “I never knew relationships were supposed to make you feel better about yourself,” he informs the audience. “Which is not really a joke, that’s just a little sweet thing I like to say.”

Barton’s warm chattiness makes it easy to forget that the girlfriend in question is glamazon rocker Natasha Romanoff, frontman for the War Dogs. (In case this is the first time you’re learning that tidbit, I’ll give you a minute to digest.) Anxiety-riddled everyman Clint Barton is dating the badass who grabbed us all by the throat with every song on Cry Havoc, with the smoky eyes and endless cool and unquestionable fierceness. He never refers to her by name (which seems intentional), but in Barton’s stories, she becomes a regular, normal – if indomitable – human instead of an empress of rock. He very clearly adores her.

We ship it, guys. We ship it so hard.

New In Town will be available on CD, vinyl, and digital download next month, c: Iron Man Industries.




then: 2011

The secret gigs were Valkyrie’s idea. A way to get to play the clubs and venues the War Dogs had outgrown, to connect with smaller audiences of die-hards, to have fun fucking around, playing whatever they feel like and reminding themselves why they love what they do. And – from a marketing perspective – it’s really just a great thing to add to the band’s mythology.

Clint knows how much Natasha loves these gigs, so he makes it a point to clear his calendar entirely for their surprise Halloween night show at the Fonda – a little 1920s jewel box on Hollywood Boulevard where, he remembers fondly, they once had an incredibly good quickie in a bathroom stall, back when it was called the Music Box.

He wouldn’t have thought “quickie in a bathroom stall” was the kind of sex that could ever be prefaced with “incredibly good”, but that night, he’d been swept along in the moment and she’d wanted to live out a rock-and-roll cliché.

Clint really loves the Fonda.

And he’s really missed Natasha. It’s been a frustrating couple months, schedule-wise; promoting the album release of New In Town has been cool, but it’s kept him busy. He’s done interviews on Conan and Fallon, he’s gotten to perform the material on national late night shows – none of this is stuff that happened with his first album. His agent’s started fielding requests for meetings now; he’s having expensive dinners with studio guys, breakfasts with producers four, sometimes five days a week. A couple networks are sniffing around the idea of developing a sitcom as a starring vehicle for him, which gives him a minor headrush every time he thinks about it.

He’s always had a lot of champions, a lot of steady and loyal support, but this is the first time he’s had heat.

It’s just also kept him running on the complete opposite schedule of the War Dogs. He hasn’t gotten to fall asleep in the same bed as Nat in at least three weeks.

These aren’t even growing pains, not after a couple years together, but he knows the long gaps are tough for her, too. It’s one of the reasons he likes the idea of the sitcom. It’ll tether him to LA and keep them from touring at the same time. They could have a home base and he’d have some flexibility around shooting.

Steve texted earlier to promise he left him a ticket at the box office; Clint’s a little late, but by the time he gets to the Fonda, it’s still waiting. It’s been awhile since he’s seen the War Dogs in action and there’s a little bit of a spring in his step as he muscles his way into the general admission area. The fog machine is chugging overtime and the lights flash in bursts; sickly zombie greens and vibrant pumpkin oranges. The club’s filled to capacity, throngs of costumed fans crammed into every inch of space.

Okoye’s guitar shrieks through the speakers. She and Natasha are both in short black dresses and glittering red devil horns. Nakia’s in a Wonder Woman headpiece and Val’s behind the drums, arms a whirling blur in her black-and-white striped corset. She’s streaked her hair with green and circled her eyes in purple kohl – sexy Beetlejuice, Clint thinks, and a sharp contrast to Jess, who has eschewed a costume entirely. They’re playing a hard-rock mashup of The Addams Family and Beetlejuice cartoon themes from the early 90s, la-la-la-las and snapping blending seamlessly into each other.

It makes Clint smile as he hovers back, near the bar covered in plastic spiders and bats. For now, he’s content to watch from a little bit of a distance instead of throwing himself into the throng on the main floor, pushing and pressing and reaching their arms out towards Natasha.

An arm snakes across his waist, hand squeezing his hip familiarly. When he turns, Bucky’s next to him.

“You made it!” he shouts, over the music.

“Your costume sucks!” Clint shouts back, and Bucky grins. He’s wearing a Batman tee-shirt, which is not a costume at all, but Clint can’t talk shit, since all he did was slap on a nametag that says ‘Doug’. “Not working this one?”

“M’Baku and some of the label guys have it covered,” he says. His buddy moved down from Seattle about six months ago to be the full-time security head for the War Dogs after a couple mobbing incidents as the result of poor planning and shit crowd control. His fee was exorbitant, but Bucky convinced Tony that M’Baku and any team he put together would be worth it, and so far he’s been right. “Told me to have fun, so fun is being had.”

His eyes are bright in the smoky dark club and his hand is still on Clint’s hip. Not drunk, but buzzed, a little – he gets handsy after a couple gin and tonics, always has. There are three dark-red stars inked into the tapestry on his forearm, new since the last time Clint saw them, and without thinking about it too much, he reaches out to lightly touch the one in the middle.

“I like these,” he says, and realizes as he says it that it’s been three weeks since he’s seen Bucky, too. It feels like forever, suddenly. “New?”

“Impulse a few weeks back. Jess wanted one, so I took her to Peggy and decided, you know, long as I was there,” Bucky says. “I’m sorry. I should have waited for you.”

“No, it’s okay,” Clint says, though he feels a strange little prick of something – he’s not sure what. Bucky’s been slowly working up a full sleeve down one arm in the last year, a really stunning collection he’s been designing with Peggy, a tattoo artist he met who owns Red Fedora in Echo Park. Clint has a deathly fear of needles and will never be getting one himself, but the process and artistry of it all kind of fascinates him, so – it’s been their thing, going together, keeping Bucky company while Peggy inks each new segment.

They usually stop for slices at Garage Pizza on the way back, or see a movie at the Egyptian or something – whatever’s playing, it’s never mattered much. He hopes it really was impulse and not that Bucky thought Clint wouldn’t make time for him.

His face must show it, because Bucky squeezes his hip again. “I’m not replacing you with Jones,” he promises.

“Good,” Clint says, and then – like he’s suddenly left his body, like it’s a decision made independently for him – he says, “Let’s go dance.”

It comes out forcefully, less a suggestion and more of a demand, and Bucky looks intrigued, surprised, and willing all at once. He sets his near-empty plastic cup on the bar, then steers Clint out into the chaos of the general admission area before Clint has time to ask himself if this was really such a hot idea.

The thing was – he’d decided from the beginning that it’d be better to be friends with Bucky than let his anxious brain chew him into pieces until he ended up bleeding all over Natasha, too, until it would start hurting her. Clint has always known Natasha loves him; that she’s never been looking to change anything between them. She has always been honest and open, and if that’s not enough to build belief on, nothing would be.

And Bucky’s always done his part to make it easy. He has never openly mooned over Natasha – or at least, never in a way that’s made it weird or impossible to be in their lives, around their friends. Most of the time, it seems like for Bucky, it’s enough to be part of everything, and that’s always been easy enough to grant. (Minus Sam, anyway, who has never quite forgiven him for dividing Steve’s attention in his first couple months in LA.)

Bucky also doesn’t date, though.

Anyone. Ever. He made a couple cursory attempts at first, let Steve set him up with a few guys from business school and Clint with a couple girls from the comedy circuit. All of whom fell in love with him after one date and all of whom expressed disappointment that, while he’d been a perfect gentleman, he was only interested in just the one movie, just the one dinner, just the one hike through Runyon Canyon. After a couple of failed first tries, he stopped entirely.

Bucky and Natasha go on hikes. Bucky and Clint go to movies. The three of them have dinners together, and fairly often, especially given Clint and Natasha’s schedules: they all like the back booth at Delancey, and searing their tastebuds off at the Thai place in the strip mall, and Bucky likes to cook in Clint’s kitchen because it’s bigger than his, and he says it’s no fun to cook for just himself.

“You spend a lot of time with your girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend,” Jess said, a couple months ago, like maybe nobody had pointed this out to him yet. “It’s fucking weird, Barton.”

Which it should be, probably? It is fucking weird on the surface, Clint gets that, but it’s not like he can look at a person – a whole person, with his own stories and struggles and problems and possibilities – and reduce him to nothing but Natasha’s ex when the guy is standing right in front of him.

Plus – he’s been a really fucking good friend. He was the one in the audience when Clint recorded New In Town for Comedy Central; he was the one Clint could find in the theater and fix his eyes on when he needed a boost, the one whose laughter he could pick out. Natasha had been in Chicago with the War Dogs that week, playing two shows at Lollapalooza. When Bucky realized the idea of not having her there for the taping was filling Clint with dread (that he was desperately trying to mask), he stepped up and flew to New York alongside Clint. Bucky had anchored him, and he’d suggested it without any prompting from anyone else.

They’d Skyped Natasha together from the hotel after. She’d clearly been full of guilt and apologies, but something about Bucky’s presence, his casual jokes and the way he punched Clint’s shoulder, the way he described the show from the perspective of the audience – it had taken the lines away from her face in a way that Clint knew his own reassurances would never have been able to do. Bucky had been the proof she’d left her boyfriend in good hands.

And it’s not like Clint can fault the guy for still being in love with Natasha. Clint’s sort of not sure how anybody manages to not be in love with Natasha.

If she loves him back – because of course she loves him, too, Clint’s not blind to it – she has never set the boat of their relationship rocking over it. If Clint had ever asked her to see less of Bucky, to reduce his presence in their lives, he’s sure she would have, but what the hell kind of a thing would that have been to ask?

Clint can be anxious about a lot of things, but this, it’s just…it’s never gotten under his skin, because the math on it doesn’t add up. It’s not like anything Natasha feels for Bucky is something she’s subtracting from her feelings for Clint.

Right now, though, they’re in the middle of a sea of sweaty concertgoers, everyone rolling together on the beat like they’re one organism. At first, they’re dancing with a little space between them, moving to the beat self-consciously, but it’s too crowded to maintain the buffer and the energy is too contagious. Bucky is entirely in his space, smelling like soap, like gin, and Clint’s heart is thundering in his chest, rapidfire, pumping to the beat of Val’s drums.

Bucky’s hands fall to Clint’s hips, light and cautious, clearly unsure if it’s okay and waiting to take a cue.

Clint hasn’t had a drink in almost five years, but he remembers being drunk. It felt like this.

He doesn’t move away. He doesn’t break eye contact, and there is something relieved and hungry in Bucky’s eyes at the same time. His fingertips snake just under the edge of Clint’s tee-shirt – just enough, Clint thinks, that he could write it off as accidental – and Clint’s jeans suddenly feel half a size too small.

He swallows, breaths in the foggy, humid air, rides the guitar line with Bucky’s hands setting the rhythm, and looks towards the stage.

Natasha told him once that even with the lights, she can make out individual faces in the crowd a lot of the time. She can see who’s into the music and who’s not feeling it, she can see the selfies and the texts and the little moments people have inside the songs. It’s one of her favorite things, she says. It’s communion, it’s a shared experience.

So it shouldn’t surprise him that she can see him – them, the two people out here who are the most familiar to her, two faces she’d have had her eyes open for anyway.

It’s a cover, he thinks dimly, they’re playing a cover right now of a song he’s heard before but can’t name, and Natasha is looking right at them, riveted and rapt but a total professional, her voice a husky purr of smoke and promises.

Don’t run away, it’s only me. Don’t be afraid of what you can’t see. Don’t run away, it’s only me, it’s only me.

***

He thinks in lyrics later that night when he’s eating Natasha out, when every noise she lets out is immediately swallowed by Bucky slotting his mouth over hers, kissing her like he’s been starving for years.

Because he has. Clint knows he has.

I was struck by lightning walking down the street, he thinks, he hears it the way Natasha sang it earlier tonight. I was hit by something last night in my sleep.

Natasha is squirming under Clint’s fingers and mouth, her pale skin flushed everywhere, and he can’t stop, he can’t, he has never lost his mind like this in his life, he’s wild for it. Her hips twist all the way up off the bed and it’s Bucky’s big hands pushing them back down onto the mattress, sliding between and holding her open to the curl of Clint’s tongue.

“J-J-James,” she babbles senselessly. “Need a break just a second just a – ”

“No,” Bucky says, in an authoritative voice that shoots straight to Clint’s cock, makes him rub himself against the bed. “You’re fine, baby, you’re so good. Look at you, look how good you are.”

Clint would chime in agreement, but he can’t seem to stop licking her, sucking and stroking and tucking two fingers inside her, deep before he slots his hungry mouth over her clit and nurses at it. Natasha whines again and he rotates his fingers slowly, a counterpoint to every drag of his tongue along her clit. He could stay here forever. He could drown here, Bucky’s knuckles stroking along his cheeks on either side, Natasha’s sweet familiar taste in his mouth.

Her cunt is swollen and open and she’s so fucking wet it seems impossible, another shiver running through her as Bucky’s hands slide up her body, a slow path onto her tits and away and onto them again, and it’s the only thing that could convince Clint to lift his mouth up before he can bring her off a third time, leaving her so close, stranded on the edge. It’s fucking beautiful.

Natasha lets out a noise like a sob and Clint kisses her hip, curves his hands around her and helps her sit up. She’s tensed up under his hands, strung out and so close to orgasm, so fucking pretty like this and her hands flutter for a moment, like she’s not sure where to put them.

“Bucky,” he says, his own voice hoarse. “She needs – ”

“I know what she needs,” Bucky says, their eyes locked, this shared knowledge like it’s their private secret and another surge of heat pulses through Clint’s body. “Here, lemme – ”

He reaches for the packet of condoms on the nightstand, tears into one and gestures toward Clint, like he intends to help him roll it on and – oh God, okay, okay, Clint is not going to come from just the idea, he’s not, but his cock is so hard he’s leaking and he rubs it against Natasha’s hip because he can’t not.

And he shakes his head. “Not me.”

Bucky’s eyes flare wide. “You – you’d be okay if – ”

“If she wants it,” Clint says, and pulls Natasha onto his lap, her back to his chest, nuzzles the side of her throat, kisses her rapid pulse. One of her shaky hands curves up behind her to cup his cheek. “Do you want him to fuck you? It’s okay. Nat, Natasha, I love you, do you want – ”

“Yes God please now please James I want you,” she sobs again, her back arching against Clint, wild and lost it in and it’s his turn, now, cradling her and holding her legs while Bucky rolls the condom onto himself and tugs her forward like he can’t stand to wait another second. Clint can feel it, the moment he enters her, the flare of Bucky’s eyes and Nat is trembling and Clint’s rubbing his cock against the small of her back because he can’t help it, all of them riding the rhythm together.

It’s a thoughtless blur of sensation and when Natasha comes on Bucky’s cock, mewling with her head thrown back, Clint isn’t sure if he surges in first or if Bucky does, but he crashes into Bucky’s mouth and they aren’t pretending they haven’t both thought about this, not anymore, they’re kissing and it’s what Clint thought it would be, it’s what he imagined the first time he realized the word for what he felt towards Bucky Barnes was attraction, so long ago now that he’s honestly lost track. Bucky’s coming inside Clint’s girlfriend and Clint is kissing him all the way through his orgasm, sucking at his lower lip as greedily as he sucked on Natasha’s clit.

And when Bucky pulls out, the position they’re in means it’s impossibly easy for Clint to slide into her from this angle. The noise Natasha lets out is spectacular – he’s never heard her make this one before, nothing even close, and from the blown-wide, glazed look in Bucky’s eyes, he never has either.

She’s moving, though, so close to fucked out, Clint knows her body like this so well, but she’s moving, reverse cowgirling her way onto Clint’s cock in slow glides and his stomach clenches when he realizes she’s showing off for Bucky, showing him the way Clint looks sliding into her. He’s panting, babbling nonsense into her skin, and then he feels Bucky’s fingers brushing against the place they’re joined, slow glide if his fingers moving carefully along Natasha’s swollen labia, to the root of Clint’s cock, along the inside of Clint’s thighs now and he can’t even call out a warning before he explodes inside of her, before his entire world short-circuits.

They sprawl together in a pile, afterwards, hot skin and salt and sweat. The sheets are drenched. They may be permanently ruined.

“Trick or treat,” Bucky mumbles. His face is hidden in Natasha’s hair.

“Both,” Natasha moans.

“Both is good,” Clint says, and reaches to hold Bucky’s hand, where it settled on Natasha’s stomach.




then: 2011 (still)

It’s too much. It’s going to blow up, and it’s too much, but Natasha can’t stop.

One time, they all could have written off – adrenaline, a wild night, a tick off the bucket list. But it’s happened nine more times in the last two months, and every time, it’s better than the last as they get more practice. As they learn where hands should go, which positions work in reality and which only work in professional porn. As James and Clint get more adventurous about exploring each other – and more dedicated to all the ways they can simultaneously take her apart instead of trading her back and forth.

Natasha is horny all the goddamn time.

She feels like a teenager all over again, when she had just figured out how her body worked and all she and James wanted to do was make an exhaustive study. She feels like it’s her first few months of dating Clint, when she wanted to live in his bed. She’s lit up.

It’s not like this is something they’re talking about, either, there’s been no discussion of what this changes. As far as it’s understood, she and Clint are still The Couple. She doesn’t want James to feel like he’s some kind of spicy party favor, but she doesn’t have an actual answer to any of it, and –

And the guys both seem so content to just enjoy the ride and the wild sexual abandon.

Probably because they’re guys.

She resents it that she’s the only one who seems to recognize that they’re in the path of an oncoming train, who can see the wreckage from the crash like it’s already happened. She feels like Cassandra screaming about the Trojan horse, which – is a double fucking entendre because of the amount of condoms they’re running through, though maybe that just makes it an especially apt metaphor.

She resents it, but not enough to stop. Not enough to not find herself daydreaming during a wardrobe fitting for the Grammys about whether or not she could take both of them inside her at once, what that would be like, the stretch and burn of it and if it would even be possible before she has to claim she heard her phone pinging. She needs a break to get herself under control before Thor thinks he’s getting her wet and everything gets very professionally awkward.

Natasha has been anticipating the crash from the beginning. When one finally happens, though, it strikes her from a direction she could never have predicted.

They’re at Clint’s apartment – just the two of them, tonight, and they’re cuddled together on his couch watching Netflix, jumping from sitcom to sitcom. He inked the deal for his show last week and he’s trying to come up with a list of directors he likes for the pilot.

He’s also generally sensitive to her moods, though, so Natasha figures he might have known she needed this, given the way he’s paid more attention to rubbing her back and snuggling her than he has the last three multicam pilots they’ve watched.

“I don’t know if I love this style,” she says. “I’m not saying there aren’t any good shows that are shot like this, but – I don’t know. It feels a little…”

“Dated? Yeah,” Clint agrees, his thumb stroking along her shoulder. “Significantly cheaper to do it this way, though, and the network’s really pushing for broad viewer appeal. All their other sitcoms are niche and they want their own Big Bang Theory.” She makes a face and he laughs. “I know. But the money spends the same way, right?”

“Sure, but then you’re still doing something like Big Bang Theory nine years from now. Is that going to make you happy?”

“I’m not going to worry about that before we’ve been written a script for the pilot,” Clint says, which is a very fair point. “I’m gonna get something to drink – you want?”

“Diet Coke,” she says, and he stands up. “Don’t want to get sleepy before we make it through the rest of these, I’m being a very helpful research assistant.”

“Thanks, babe,” he says, and kisses her forehead before he hauls himself up from the couch, walking to the kitchen.

The knocking on the door startles her a little. “Babe?” she calls. “Expecting somebody?”

“Dunno,” Clint calls back from the kitchen. “Maybe Bucky, I guess? Can you let him in?”

Natasha yawns and tugs on the bottom of the wrinkled Steve Martin shirt she’s long since claimed. She’s wearing baggy gray sweatpants and only one sock; her hair’s a little bit of a mess, so this is not the sexiest she’s ever looked, but James has definitely seen her more of a mess and, well. Now that the idea’s been floated, she doesn’t mind the idea of another marathon banging session.

She doesn’t check the peephole before she slides the chain off and opens the door expectantly, but the person on the other side isn’t James.

It’s a woman.

A pretty woman about Natasha’s same height, with long dark hair. She’s wearing a dress printed with red poppies and her eye makeup is all in neutral shades, carefully applied. There’s a small suitcase at her feet. She looks very pulled together, but the tight smile on her face doesn’t match the flinty look in her eyes.

Natasha shifts her weight to her sockless foot. “Can I help you?” she asks politely.

The woman looks her up and down, then folds her arms across her chest.

“Oh, I think you probably can,” she says. “I’m Laura. You must be the woman who’s been sleeping with my husband. Nice to finally meet you.”




to be continued.

Chapter Text




then: 2012

When Bucky’s plane touches down, it’s pouring rain in Los Angeles. He rubs the condensation from the window with the heel of his hand and yawns so widely that his jaw gives an audible crack. It was a ten hour flight from Tokyo and he’s slept through roughly nine hours and fifty minutes of it. Which feels strange; killing time in Haneda International before departing, he’d felt keyed up and over-caffeinated, too alert and thrumming with nervous unspent energy.

That’s how he’s felt for awhile now. He can’t remember the last time he slept for ten hours at a stretch, and even if he can put some of that down to the endless slam of the War Dogs tour schedule, well.

For all Bucky’s not a bad liar, he’s never been great at kidding himself.

The tour itself is not the root cause of his insomnia. It’s almost a relief that his body gave up and powered down somewhere over the Pacific; he’ll take it as a sign that he made the right move. He feels like he’s suddenly thinking clearly for the first time in ages, finally jolted into making a decision instead of living frozen in helpless stasis.

Clarity of purpose hums under his skin and powers him all the way through customs. By the time he exits the airport, the rain’s coming down even harder, one thick sheet, but Peggy’s waiting for him in her little champagne-colored Civic, parked exactly where she said she’d be when he texted her yesterday and asked her to pick him up. She’s ignoring the traffic director frantically waving for her to get moving.

“I tried calling you,” she tells him as he drops into the passenger seat. The inside of the car is warm; Tori Amos is softly crooning on the radio and everything smells like lemons. “Do you have any idea how little fun it was to circle LAX in a rainstorm waiting for you to emerge with no word on when you had come through customs?”

“Probably none at all,” he agrees, shaking some rain from his hair before he leans over to kiss her cheek. “You’re a saint, Peg.”

“As long as you’re aware,” she says serenely, and puts her blinker on to pull out into the barely-moving traffic. “Why didn’t you answer?”

“Didn’t turn my phone back on when we landed.” Peggy arches an eyebrow, so he adds, “As soon as I turn it on, this is gonna erupt into the whole… thing.”

“Ah, yes,” she says. “The thing.”

She’s barely even begun her interrogation and already Bucky’s squirming. He makes a big show out of fastening his seatbelt, adjusting the vents so the heat blows more directly on him, and resettling his backpack on the floor, but the second he turns to look at her –

“In this sort of weather, we are at least a solid ninety minutes from the Universal backlot,” she says conversationally. “If you were hoping we would spend the duration of it in silence, I’m sorry to inform you that you were terribly mistaken.”

So he tells her.

By the time he finishes, they’ve made it all the way up the 405, crawling slowly to merge onto the 101. Peggy’s silent for a full minute before she renders her verdict.

“Well,” she says, then hesitates. “That was a unique response.”

“Is that your extremely British way of telling me I did something crazy?” Bucky demands.

“Yes, exactly,” Peggy says, relieved. “Thank you for putting it that way so it didn’t come from me. This plan is essentially the premise of Snakes On A Plane. Surely there were other options available to you.”

“At the time it was less of a plan and more a series of escalating reactions,” he says. “There’s a reason Steve’s my best friend.”

“You should talk to her, Bucky. I don’t know Natasha, but I have hard time believing she wouldn’t prefer a direct conversation about all of this.”

“You’re right,” he says, a little sharply. “You don’t know Natasha.”

Peggy sighs and turns her head to look at him. “There’s a pub a few blocks from the lot,” she says. “I’ll wait there for awhile, in case this goes… in case you need a ride. Or a drink.”

“Thanks,” he says, after a second. “I didn’t mean to…”

“You didn’t,” she assures him. “I could have been more – if it was Dottie, and I was in your position, I’d be scattered, too. I understand relationships can be complicated.”

I’m not scattered, he wants to tell her. I know exactly what I’m doing. For the first time in a long time, I’m dead certain I did the right thing. I just need a little time to push some pieces around the board.

But he didn’t call Peggy expecting that she’d understand. He called Peggy expecting that she’d do exactly what she’s done, which is pick him up at the airport, give him a lift, be his friend, continue to keep designing his tattoo sleeve even if he seems like a crazy person. He expected her to be dependable. He’s never faulted people for being exactly who they are, which is more or less why he knows that a direct conversation with Natasha was never going to fix shit.

He leans over to give Peggy a kiss on the cheek. “You’re a knockout,” he tells her. “Hope Dottie knows how good she’s got it.”

“Oh, I never let her forget,” Peggy says, and smiles. So that’s okay, then.

***

Clint had to hire an assistant back when Barton! first went into production. He needed somebody who could keep track of his schedule and handle his calls, because between writing, shooting, promoting, and the explosive breakup with Natasha, there was no way Clint could stay on top of that stuff himself.

The network, the studio, the writers, his reps - everybody and their mother had sent over a stack of sixty impressive resumes for Clint to review and he’d ended up hiring the barista at his favorite coffee place. Who idly asked one day if Clint knew about any entry level set jobs because he was trying to break into the industry, and Clint had immediately asked “sure, you wanna come work for me? I really hate doing interviews.”

Bucky had laughed his ass off when Clint told him, but the good feeling evaporated as soon as they hung up the call and he remembered he couldn’t tell Nat.

He could picture her reaction so perfectly that it gave him a near physical ache to just….not. To not relay the story, to not be able to share a conspiratorial this dumbass, can you believe we both sleep with him smile.

After the dust had settled – at least, settled as much as it ever would - it had felt too much like lying to avoid telling Natasha that he and Clint still spoke; he’d been braced for the worst, because he knew Nat when she was angry. Nat didn’t yell. Nat got deathly quiet and then, with razor-sharp precision, chose words designed to slice out every one of her opponent’s internal organs and display them on the ground with artful geometric precision. Natasha was scorched earth and salted ground. The only way to counter was to anticipate her attack pattern and try to refute it with logic.

But Nat had only shrugged.

“It’s your life,” she’d said. “This is the last I want to hear about him, though.” Bucky had been so startled that he’d immediately agreed.

Pietro’s barely twenty. He’s got black painted fingernails, a mop of bleached hair with the roots artfully showing through, and is staggeringly unqualified for the administrative aspects of his job. Still: if he tends to not check his email that often and not understand why that’s a problem, he’s fiercely loyal to Clint and very protective. He meets Bucky at the studio gate and swipes him in with a badge, holding a comically large umbrella open over their heads as they walk towards base camp.

“He’s not drinking,” Pietro says, before Bucky can ask.

“You’re sure?”

“I don’t know if you’ve been watching our shitty show, but believe me when I tell you that the boss man is a terrible actor,” Pietro says. “So when he says he’s not doing it, I believe him. He’s not calling his sponsor, but he’s going to meetings twice a day.”

“Okay. That’s good.”

Pietro gives him a dark look as he loops his employee badge back around his neck. “That’s a loose definition of ‘good’,” he says. “Look – Barnes. The show is tanking. It’s not even, like, secretly amazing and an audience just hasn’t figured it out – the ratings suck because the show does. Everybody knows we’re going to get canned, and he feels like it’s all his fault. His ex is a piece of work – ”

Hey,” Bucky says, sharply.

“I’m not talking about Natasha,” Pietro says, rolling his eyes. “The other one. The wife. She sucks. She suuuuuuuucks, and I’m doing what I can – I got her PNG’d off the lot and when he’s working I don’t let him look at his phone, but I can’t put her off every time and I’m not with him twenty-four hours a day. She won’t get lost. His entire support system is in Australia – ”

“Japan, right now. Australia was last month.”

“Okay, Prince Pedantic, you know what I fucking mean,” he says. “So he’s not drinking. But when I say he’s not drinking, I kinda need you to hear the subtextual yet.”

There’s one bored-looking security guard in a golf cart, but the base camp is quiet – no thrum of energy. The absence of crew could be down to the rain, but Bucky gets the feeling Pietro’s called it: everybody here knows the weeks left on this show are down to single digits.

Bucky scrubs a hand back through his hair. He should’ve gotten it cut before he came – he feels scruffy, suddenly, like he maybe could have stood to shower and change his clothes after the flight.

“Fix it,” Pietro says, abruptly.

“I’m here trying, dude.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t want to hear I’m trying,” Pietro says. “He’s a good guy. Best boss I ever had. So fix it.” He nods toward Clint’s trailer door, then abruptly steps back, yanking the umbrella away from Bucky as he heads towards the parking lot. “He’s done shooting today, so I’m officially off the clock. FIX IT.”

“Fucking kids,” Bucky mutters, left without the option to even hesitate, now that he’s soaked. He hurries up the metal stairs and opens the door to Clint’s trailer without warning.

Inside, though, it’s warm, and dry, and Clint is laying down on the brown leather couch with a script over his face. “Pietro, you come in without knocking again and I swear to God I’m docking your pay,” he says, motionless.

“You couldn’t afford me,” Bucky tells him.

The script crashes to the ground in a flutter of paper and Clint sits up so fast that it’s almost funny. “Bucky?” he says, disbelief all over his face.

There are circles under Clint’s eyes and his jeans are too loose and until right this second, Bucky didn’t realize he had no idea what he would actually say once he got here. Urgency propelled him out of a hotel, all the way to Haneda to LAX to a harrowing trip up three freeways in a rainstorm, but he didn’t really think in specifics.

It’s been months. He had no ideas.

But fortunately if his brain is whiting out, his body knows what to do. He drops Natasha’s old black backpack to the floor of the trailer and then he’s moving before he can convince himself it’s a shitty idea. Moving across the floor and cupping Clint’s face in his hands and kissing the hell out of him, because he’s stopped knowing how to fake like he doesn’t want him.

Clint twists up into him so eagerly that it breaks his heart.

There is zero hesitation in the way his hands settle on Bucky’s hips, the way he pulls him down onto the couch so they can land in an awkward tangle of limbs. He’s got one knee dipping down into the crack between cushions and Clint’s back is up against the armrest and as soon as they stop kissing, they have to talk, so it seems like a better idea to just keep going, as long as possible.

It’s not long enough, not nearly, because after a few hungry seconds, Clint turns his head away, sharply. “Wait, ” he gasps out.

Bucky tries to chase after his mouth again. “No,” he says, but Clint lifts his hands to his chest and pushes him back. Just a little – just enough so that he can see the sudden terror in Clint’s eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“Nat,” Clint says, his voice panicked and anxious. “Jesus - Natasha, Bucky, come on, you can’t do that to her, she’d – that’s not fair, I can’t hurt her again. I can’t do that, I shouldn’t have – ”

“Hey, whoa. Whoa,” Bucky says, smoothing his hands through Clint’s hair, gently, fingers gliding along the back of his neck. Clint’s sucking in great gulps of air, shuddering with it. His eyes are still panicked, like the words are being strangled in his chest before they can make their way out. “Breathe, Clint. Do you need me to guess?”

Clint nods, grateful.

“Okay. Have you been assuming with you out of the picture, Nat and I got back together? Is that what’s upsetting you, that you think I’m cheating on her?”

Hearing Bucky say it out loud makes Clint look a little bit like he’s taken a bullet, but he nods again, and Bucky shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “I wouldn’t fuck her over, okay? I think whatever else, we’ve both hurt Nat enough as it is. She and I are not - you didn’t do anything wrong just now. Believe me?”

It takes a minute, but slowly, the tension starts to drain from Clint’s body. He leans in closer, tucking his face into Bucky’s shoulder. “What the hell are you doing here?” he mumbles. “I thought you guys were in Japan for another week. The War Dogs are huge in Japan.”

You aren’t the only one who’s done something unforgivable and I’ve let you be alone for too long as it is, Bucky wants to tell him. I’m a lot of things, but I’m not a hypocrite. I made a mistake once, too. I wasn’t malicious, but I was scared and stupid and selfish, and my penance finally caught up to me. I’m watching the woman we both love self-destruct from a front row seat, and if I don’t at least try to make it right, I never deserved her in the first place.

Instead, he strokes his fingers through Clint’s hair and kisses him once more, slow.

“Let’s go back to your place,” he says. “There’s a lot of shit to talk about – I’ll cook you something. And we’ll figure this out together.”

“I think it’s too late for that,” Clint says quietly. “I lied to her for years. I don’t know why you aren’t done with me, because she’s done, Buck, and I don’t blame her.”

“Maybe,” Bucky agrees. “But if we’re going down, we’re at least gonna know we went out fighting.”

“We’re?” he says. Clint sounds a little confused, his forehead wrinkled with it.

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “We’ve got ourselves a common enemy.”

***

After sleeping so long on the plane, Bucky’s wide awake, but Clint crashes just before midnight. They don’t fool around again, but Bucky does curl into bed beside him, until he’s sure Clint’s fully under – breathing evened out, wound up in the comforter like it’s a cocoon. He looks younger when he sleeps, in a way that results in some stupid things happening inside Bucky’s chest.

He realized he was attracted to Clint when they were moving Natasha into her apartment on Fountain, which – God, it feels like an eternity ago, it must have been just after they’d met. Worst possible time for the realization to slap him upside the head was when he had hold of one end of a couch and Clint had the other.

“She knows – she can – afford – movers – right?” Clint had grunted.

It had been something about the pacing, the grit between each word, and Bucky had caught himself thinking I wonder if that’s what he sounds like when he’s fucking.

Which is not the kind of stray thought a person generally has about their ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend, but it popped into his head and had decided to get cozy.

A little over a year later, he learned the answer.

It wasn’t anything he’d planned – more than that, it was nothing he had been angling for. He had tried to get over it, tried to put it out of mind, he’d let Steve and Clint and all their other friends set him up with what felt like half of LA. But once he’d come to understand it wasn’t the kind of thing he could just – put down, walk away from, he’d stopped. He hadn’t expected he would ever get to be with Nat again or get to be with Clint at all, but he made his peace with being their platonic third wheel.

It had been an extremely conscious choice on his part. Maybe it’d get to be too much for him one day, but right now, right now, it was enough. It was what made him happy. He’d spent enough of his life doing things he didn’t want to do, prison and private security and fighting to be back on solid ground – he wasn’t going to write it off when he found something that made him happy, no matter, say, Steve’s opinion on the subject.

If he had been hung up on Natasha alone, it would have been one thing. But he wasn’t, and it was impossible to explain I’m hung up on a couple. I’m hung up on who they are with each other.

Natasha was Natasha; the roots of Bucky loving her were deep and unbreakable, but this version of herself that she was with Clint – she smiled more, she laughed harder, she relaxed. She didn’t carry herself threaded with tension and suspicion anymore.

He had never seen Natasha when she felt safe, not like this. Bucky had been obsessed. And then there was Clint – Clint, who was impossible to hate even when Bucky had desperately tried, who was so goddamn funny and generous, who never ran out of conversation, who could blossom into a ball of anxieties and vulnerabilities on a dime.

Last Halloween hadn’t been an accident. It had been the result of too many weird electric moments and unfinished business and a hell of lot of other things, but as soon as they’d woken up in a tangle the next morning, Bucky had known, on some instinctive level, this was not going to be a one-nighter.

This was happening. Whatever this was, it was in motion now.

He also knew – with understanding born out of years of knowing her and loving her – that Natasha would be the last of them to figure it out. They’d have to grow into it on her clock, which was fine. Natasha’s tempo was a pace they both had more than enough practice following.

With that in mind, Bucky sneaks out of Clint’s bed. He pulls his jeans back on and slinks out to the kitchen, where his stuff is still sitting on the table – almost accusingly.

He debates buying himself some more time by doing the dinner dishes, but there’s really no putting it off anymore, so he sits down and finally turns his phone back on.

It starts to ring the actual second it powers up. Bucky winces, even as he forces himself to answer.

“You stole my backpack,” Natasha says, on the other end. Her voice is deceptively mild.

“I did,” he admits.

“I love that backpack.”

“I’m taking good care of it. So – how are you? Good day? Do anything fun for lunch? Remember when we watched Jiro Dreams Of Sushi together?” Even in his own ears, he sounds like Clint instead of himself.

“James.”

He rubs a hand over his face. “Are you pissed?”

“I was,” she says after a second. “Maybe don’t listen to your first ten voicemails. Though now that it’s been, what, half a day? And I did have a show to do – which makes it especially shitty that you disappeared during soundcheck, I want that on the official record of this conversation in case I need to pull it out on you in an argument when we’re eighty – I’ve had a little time to cool down, and now I’m…I honestly don’t know. I’m happy you’re not dead? I’m confused?”

“Have you talked to Bruce at all?”

“No,” she says, slowly. “To be honest, I’ve been more worried about – this doesn’t seem like you, James. Should I talk to Bruce?”

“No. No, uh, don’t do that,” Bucky says, and lets out a deep breath. Unlike barging into Clint’s trailer earlier today, this, at least, is a conversation he’s thought about having. “I stole your backpack.”

“I was hoping it’s more of a borrowed-with-intention-to-return thing.”

“Remember how asked me to go grab your migraine pills out of it?”

“I don’t need a recap, James,” she says – her voice is soft, softer than he expected it’d be. “Please just tell me what’s going on. You scared me today.”

“I’m sorry. I went to the greenroom and the pills were in the bag like you said they’d be, but there was one other thing in it.”

He waits for a minute, lungs aching as he holds his breath, because this has been his only real fear in the last fifteen hours – that she was the one who put it there. That she’s known all along and was only waiting for the right time to break it to him. That he’s called this whole situation wrong and everything’s fallen apart in front of him all over again, like it did the day Laura walked into Clint’s apartment and lobbed a grenade into Bucky’s life.

But Natasha still sounds confused. “What would possibly make you freak out this badly? Was it drugs or something? Because you know Thor’s brother is kind of a cokehead and he’s got sort of the same bag – “

“It was an engagement ring.”

Natasha goes deathly quiet. “A what?” she asks, after a very, very long pause.

Bucky unzips the bag to make sure it’s still there: a little black velvet box sitting on top of Natasha’s lyrics notebook. Her headphone cord was curled around the box when he found it, and now he pops it open again to reexamine. Really, exiting an entire country with something worth this much probably constitutes a repeat offense. “It’s not even your taste,” he says. “Bruce doesn’t know you at all.”

“If this is a joke, I’m not laughing.”

“Me either,” Bucky says. “What a fucking dumbass way to propose.”

Banner, taken all by himself, is a generally inoffensive guy. In the nineties, he was a drummer in some angry screamy grunge band – Bucky always forgets the name, because he doesn’t care – but according to Jess, they were briefly a big deal. Back in the day, he was famous for his rage issues. Cursing out roadies, kicking over equipment, furniture thrown from hotel windows – all the disgusting clichés that the War Dogs have shown zero interest in.

(“Though let’s face it,” Jess said, during Grunge Band History 101, “we never could have gotten away with that stuff.”

“I’m sorry – you want to throw a couch into a hotel pool from six stories up?” Okoye had asked, one eyebrow perfectly arched.

“She deserves to have the option if she wants it,” Val said defensively. She and Jess are Bucky’s very favorite couple.)

When his band eventually flamed out, Banner did whatever his version of Eat Pray Love was for a few years, went to anger management, and came out the other side more interested in improving tech for musicians than making music. He built some kind of fancy guitar pedal, a better bass drum mic, a bunch of other shit – whenever he describes his business, Bucky hears the droning whine that plays when an adult speaks in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Bruce and Tony are friends from way back and these days, he works almost exclusively with Iron Man Industries recording artists, designing custom equipment tailored to every band’s individual needs.

His services are highly in demand. He’s worth a small fortune, he’s an enormous dork, and, after Tony decided he wanted him working with the War Dogs, he became Natasha’s rebound fling. Every day, he walks around looking perpetually amazed at his luck and every day, Bucky’s loathing finds new depths.

The one silver lining of witnessing this ancient nerd slobbering all over her – the tiniest of silver linings – is that it’s at least solidified that Bucky’s feelings for Clint can stand up all on their own. He didn’t just attach himself to the guy as a way to stay pathetically close to his old girlfriend.

Okoye hates Bruce, too, so he feels justified on that front. Well – if she doesn’t hate him, she doesn’t like him, and she certainly thinks Natasha could do better. She does not even pretend to hide her opinion. She’s called him a bumbling fool to his face.

Bucky has always admired this about her. Literally no one ever has to wonder exactly where they stand with Okoye.

“You…” Natasha starts, then stops. “You think Bruce is planning to propose to me?”

“Well, I didn’t steal it because I want it. I don’t like gold jewelry.”

“You thought Bruce was going to propose to me and your instinct was to steal his ring?” she says. Her voice is finally getting louder. “What the actual fuck is the matter with you?”

“I really have no idea,” Bucky tells her honestly. “In the moment, it just seemed efficient.”

Efficient,” she splutters. Natasha at a loss for words is an interesting thing. He’s not sure he’s ever experienced this before.

“It’s not like I texted him for details, but this was not the toughest plan in the world to crack. He’s not a creative thinker. He’d tell you to reach in for something stupid, you’d find the ring, and he’d spring it on you in front of everybody. I needed to stall. And it makes sense. The guy is old as the sun and you’re clearly the best thing that ever happened to him. No wonder he’s in a rush to lock it down.”

“You – James, this is – ”

“I love you,” he says. “I was fine being patient. I get that you’ve been going through something and you needed a break from – but I’ll be goddamned if I sit back and watch you marry somebody else, Natasha. That’s where I draw the fucking line. So yeah, I stole his engagement ring. He can have it back after you break up with him.”

“I am going to murder you. I’m going to use my own hands and murder you until you’re dead,” Natasha informs him. “This is the most ridiculous – I’ve been dating Bruce for barely two months! He’s sweet and all, but you can’t possibly think I would have said yes.”

Bucky stays silent. He figures that’ll get his point across.

“…you thought I would say yes?” Natasha says. Always a quick study, his girl. “You – you really thought this would happen?”

“How honest can I be right now without losing you forever?” he says.

She laughs, sort of – a quick burst that sounds a gun rattle, and he knows there was no way to pull this off without putting some physical distance between them but he wishes like hell he could pull her onto his lap right now. Kiss her neck and hold onto her, put a little of his own certainty back into her. “I don’t know. Medium.”

“Okay. I can do medium.” He snaps the ring box closed again. “You aren’t yourself right now, Nat. And when you’re feeling knocked for a loop – ”

“Clint was fucking married the entire time I was with him,” she snarls. “There was never a single second of our life together when he wasn’t lying to me. Forgive me if I’m not bouncing back as fast as you think I should.”

“When you’re feeling knocked for a loop, you like control,” Bucky continues, like she hasn’t interrupted. “And you’re never going to feel out of control with Bruce. He’s never gonna hurt you the way Clint did because you don’t really give a shit about him.”

“That is not fair.”

“Not to Bruce, maybe, but I don’t give a shit about him either, so it doesn’t actually bother me,” Bucky says. “That’s why you went for him instead of me. I knock you for a loop, too.”

“Jesus. Way to flatter yourself. How did you fit your ego onto the plane? Did you have to use one of Tony’s private jets?”

“Baby, I mean this in the kindest way possible, but go fuck yourself,” he says. A pair of hands descends on his shoulder from behind – he turns his head to see Clint’s woken up, sleep-rumpled and soft-eyed. No telling how much he’s heard, but none of this is new information by now. “I’m not less right about this just because it makes you mad to finally hear somebody say it.”

She’s silent for a long, long time.

And then she lets out a sob. Audible all the way through the phone, one after another. He can feel the edges of Clint’s fingernails pressing into his shoulders, his grip tightening, and he can’t bear to turn around and look at Clint’s face, can’t think about what this is doing to him.

“It’s okay,” Bucky murmurs – to both of them, really, because he knows how Natasha felt when he showed up in Seattle now, he has no idea how he’d ever be able to choose, either, and he doesn’t want to find out. “It’s okay, sweetheart, it’s gonna be fine. It’s not too late – you know that, right? I’m not going anywhere.”

It’s awful, it is, listening to Natasha’s sobs on another continent entirely – the first time she’s let herself cry about this since they broke up. Clint is pressing bruises into his shoulders by now, the misery contained in that one gesture splitting something wide in Bucky’s chest.

But she stops, eventually, draws in a shuddering breath. “I still – can’t believe – you just stole his engagement ring and left the country with it,” she says, and a little of the tension leaks from Bucky’s shoulders.

“I absolutely stand by it,” he says, and when she laughs this time, she sounds like herself. Sad, still, but sad is better than this rigid, brittle pod-Nat he’s known for the last few months. Sad is at least something. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she says softly. “I’m sorry. I am, James.”

“Don’t be sorry,” he says. “Just be you again.”

“Breaking up with this guy is going to be a nightmare,” she says. “I can’t believe he thought I’d marry him.”

“Make Okoye do it for you,” he suggests. “Seriously, she’ll be thrilled.”

“Are you coming back now? M’Baku might actually be angrier than I was. Might not want to listen to the voicemails from him, either. Or check the texts.”

Bucky turns his head to the side so he can brush a kiss to Clint’s knuckles. “Give me about a week. I have some business to take care of and then I’ll be back, okay? Tell Bruce I’ll FedEx his ring to his place in LA or something.”

“Fuck you, I am not telling him this part of the story,” Natasha says. “James…”

“We don’t keep score,” he says. “Just – do me a favor. Go to Nakia’s room, okay? Right now. I don’t want to picture you sitting there alone.”

“I will,” she promises. “Talk soon?”

“Love you,” he says again, because he can, and hangs up. When he turns around, Clint’s face is even more miserable than he imagined it’d be.

“This is all my fault,” he says, stricken.

Bucky rises from the chair to settle his hands on Clint’s hips. “Tomorrow morning,” he says, “I’m telling Pietro to clear your schedule and we’re going to Laura. And she’s signing those fucking divorce papers. The first ones, not the updated bullshit you sent me last week.”

Clint looks at the ground. “I’ve tried,” he says, like he’s ashamed of it – like he’s the one who’s got something to be ashamed of here. “She wants money. More than I’m actually worth.”

“Yeah, well, your boyfriend’s not worth nothing,” Bucky says, and Clint’s head jerks up in surprise. “Oh Jesus Christ, is this when you’re gonna get suburban on me? What was it, boyfriend? I know we’re in a weird situation and can’t exactly go Facebook official, but – ”

“Bucky, I’m not letting you give her your money,” Clint interrupts. “This is my problem.”

“I just left a foreign country with stolen property. I’m technically an international jewel thief. I can do whatever I want,” Bucky tells him. “She’s not entitled to half your earnings and you’re not signing something that says she is. I guarangoddamntee you if I offer to cut her a check for a price she likes, we’re done with this bullshit, because you and I both know it’s not about the money, it’s about the fact that New In Town embarrassed her. If you don’t want my help, I’m still helping, because I am done, Clint. I am so fucking done with all of this.”

Clint’s cheeks color, a flush that’s close to anger. “Nobody appointed you superhero-in-chief, Bucky,” he points out. “I didn’t ask for this. Nat didn’t ask for this.”

“Nobody asked for this!” Bucky erupts. “But this is where we are, Clint, okay? I’m not letting Natasha marry that fucking guy and I’m not letting you roll over and quit just because – ”

“Because what?!” Clint shouts.

Because we had a threesome and it scared the shit out of you both, okay?” Bucky yells.

Which he told himself he wasn’t going to say, but as soon as it’s out of his mouth – well. It’s the truth, and it was too much of the truth to keep it bottled back forever. Frankly, he’s pretty sure he deserves credit for only yelling it at Clint.

“I know – I know that what we were doing was a lot,” Bucky says, trying to get himself under control as Clint just stands there, gaping at him. “I understand it was overwhelming. It was overwhelming for me, too. But you don’t get to pretend like I’m the only one who felt like it was….”

“Right,” Clint supplies, quietly. “Like it was right. Not just the sex.”

“Yeah. There’s three of us,” he says. “Which means I shouldn’t have to feel like I’m alone in it. I know you and Nat were going through some shit when your ex carpet-bombed you, but you don’t get to pretend like you guys breaking up didn’t affect me, too. Okay? That was shitty.”

“I’m sorry,” Clint says. He curves a hand around the back of Bucky’s neck, tipping his forehead down so that it rests against his. “Hey. I’m…oh, Bucky. No, you’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Bucky says, and darts into bite Clint’s lower lip. “Just get divorced. We can figure the rest of it out after that.”

“You promise?”

“No,” Bucky tells him, though he does bite his lip again. This time, Clint chases after his mouth, so that’s good. That’s really good. “But at least it’ll be a start.”




to be continued.

Chapter Text




then: end of 2015

The day of the funeral, it’s below twenty degrees outside, the iron-grey sky threatening snow. There’s a rime of frost coating the ground, leaving the grass crunching underfoot, and a bright yellow excavator is parked just outside the cemetery gates – a respectable amount of feet away from the service, but still, it’s a visible reminder that digging the grave out in the frozen earth took considerable effort.

Clint is standing in the first row with his family, closest to the casket. He and his older brother are on either side of their mother, cradling her between them as if she might fall over, though Natasha hasn’t seen an ounce of fragility in Edith Barton since they arrived in Iowa. She’s tried to remind herself that grief looks different on everyone and whatever her personal feelings about Edith, the woman did just lose her husband.

Still.

Natasha and James stand several rows back from the Bartons, Clint only visible to them from behind. During the service, Natasha tucked chemical warmers into the pockets of James’s overcoat in anticipation of the cold, and now she sneaks her hand into one. The gesture is less about sharing warmth and more about the desire for touch; there’s not really enough room in his pocket to hold hands, but he curls his index finger around hers as though he understands why she reached out.

They spent last night together in the Super 8 Motel just off the highway, a good ten miles from the Barton farmhouse.

It had not been the original plan. The original plan had been the kind that sometimes has to be made when one of them is ridiculously famous, the other is cult-famous, and the world isn’t built for all them to explain their life together. They’re good at working these out by now.

The original plan had been for James to stay at the Super 8 and join them for the service, and Natasha would stay at the farmhouse with Clint and his family because sometimes that was the way it had to shake out. They’ve always publicly left it as Natasha is Clint’s girlfriend and most of the time, that’s been the path of least resistance.

Except that none of them had counted on Edith’s reaction to finally meeting Natasha after all these years. She’d preferred the term “Clint’s little whore” to “girlfriend.”

So. Natasha had ended up staying at the Super 8, too. She had left the farm to keep the peace but was unwilling to skip the funeral entirely – she had come here for Clint, and she would stay for Clint.

And she thought she’d been fine, but then she’d shaken James awake in the middle of the night when her chest felt too tight. She’d been unable to find the right words and he hadn’t pushed her to reach for them. Instead, they’d fucked with a surprising amount of vigor, the cheap bedsprings singing a symphony underneath them as they poured their frustration and sorrow and helplessness into each other. Or took it out on each other, she’s not sure which, but it had been better than it had any right to be and it was the only reason Natasha had managed to get any sleep at all.

It wasn’t Edith that bothered her, not really.

It was the idea of Clint, alone in his childhood bed in the farmhouse that he hated. Clint, who wasn’t even a little sad his father had died, but had still come out of obligation. Clint, who was an adult and still felt forced to abide by their rules even if it meant he couldn’t have at least one of his lovers sleep beside him on a night that he needed them. Clint, who had been visibly trying not to lose his goddamn mind at hearing someone speak to Natasha that way but had also so acutely slipped back into the skin of the frightened child he’d once been, desperate to keep peace in a situation that bordered on explosive.

Natasha had clocked it as soon as he’d walked up those porch steps, the transition almost visible. Edith had taken away her ability to reach for him, to touch him and curl around him and remind him how much he’s loved, that he belongs somewhere else, now.

This place and these people have done so much damage to Clint. Driving away from him in the rental car was the worst she’d felt in years, everything in her body bleating that she should have taken him with her.

And Natasha is keenly aware of how wrong she is, too, a puzzle piece jammed stubbornly into a place it very obviously doesn’t fit. Jess always teases that she and Nakia, more than any of the rest of them, have a knack for blending in anywhere, but in this town, she sticks out horribly.

She’s done her best to mitigate and downplay it. She’s dressed in a black sheath with elbow-length sleeves and a high neckline to show as little skin as possible, one tiny pearl stud in each ear instead of her usual collection of cuffs and crawlers and extra hoops. She’s wearing sensible flats, a long wool overcoat, and no makeup at all. She intentionally booked them a dumpy motel instead of something nicer to avoid stirring any look at Clint’s Hollywood friends flashing their cash whispers. She knew better than to offer to sing at the funeral, the way she did when Sam’s grandmother passed away.

But it hasn’t been enough.

Her clothes are tailored just a little too well, her pearls are a little too expensive – even her hair is wrong, several shades too bright. In Clint’s hometown, she emanates a glow that she can’t seem to dim. She’s more aware of her fame’s blast radius here than she is when she’s onstage looking out a stadium filled with forty thousand screaming fans.

Maybe because there’s no buffer, no group to spread the focus – it’s just her right now, and it’s so rarely just Natasha on her own. The rest of the War Dogs, especially Jess, had wanted to come to Iowa in a show of support. Steve and Sam had gone so far as to book plane tickets, and James had been the one forced to talk everyone out of it.

“His mom really hates what he does for a living,” Natasha had overheard him telling Steve in their kitchen. “It’s not – it’ll go badly if ten of the most famous people in entertainment descend all at once, Stevie, you gotta trust me. She’ll yell at him for turning the funeral into a circus. He can’t take that right now.”

“His mom doesn’t seem to have a problem with it when she’s accepting your money,” Steve had said sharply, and Natasha couldn’t even get mad at him because it was a thought she’d had, too, though she had never let herself say it.

It was Natasha’s money that paid to keep the farm out of foreclosure last year, and it’s Natasha’s money that paid for this funeral.

Which is maybe unfair – it’s their money, all of them, and that’s nothing that’s ever made her uncomfortable. She doesn’t really think of it as hers and when she does, it’s not in a possessive way. It’s a result of growing up with nothing; she developed a tendency to obsessively track it once she had something. But Sarah Rogers didn’t raise a miser; there is nothing Natasha doesn’t feel James and Clint are equally entitled to. They all pay into the same accounts and real estate holdings, this is a partnership and they take care of each other.

Still: they all know who generates the bulk of their household income, which is why for big expenses, the three of them decide together. Natasha had been reluctant to bail out people who have been nothing but abusive to someone she loves for his entire life. It had been a quiet but prolonged conversation between all three of them and ultimately, ultimately James had been the one to convince Natasha that if it was tantamount to letting his parents back in his life, then she could hardline veto, but that wasn’t what Clint was asking. The strings of obligation between a child and parents are not something she or James will ever really be able to understand; Clint was allowed to have his own complicated feelings about helping his parents out financially, even if they were abusive, even if there’s no love lost there. So she’d co-signed the check, and then gone out to buy Clint an absurdly expensive vintage watch because it made her feel better to do it.

And if it’s an ugly thing to think about something like funeral arrangements – unexpected expenses that were very literally nothing to Natasha and would have been everything to the Bartons – well, Natasha’s trying remind herself that she’s not a saint. She didn’t need gratitude and she did these things for Clint, but given the way Edith is treating her, she’s allowed to feel at least a little resentful. She has lived with Clint for years; she’s his goddamn partner, not Edith’s personal emergency ATM.

James nudges her with his shoulder; Clint’s turned his head to sneak a look at them, to make sure they’re still there. We love you, she mouths, and even with rows between them, she can see the instant relief that washes over his face, as though he’s been worried the last few days might have changed something.

She knows him so well.

Once the casket is lowered into the ground and the last “amen” echoed, the procession starts drifting back to the long line of cars. The mourners will be gathering back at the farm, and James bends to kiss the top of Natasha’s head – a friendly gesture to anyone watching, nothing more to be read into it. They’ve hung back to let the Bartons clear out first, such a clear delineation that the two of them belong lumped in with everyone else. Not family. No special designation.

“You ready?” he says.

“How do you stand this?” she asks abruptly, the words bursting from her before she can think. “Don’t you ever hate me for this?”

His eyes go wide with surprise. “Where the hell did that come from?”

“I can’t go to him and it’s killing me,” she chokes out. “I can’t hold his hand, I couldn’t sit with him today or stay with him last night – but you were never going to be able to do any of that, we didn’t even discuss how you’d feel – ”

“This is a hardcore religious household, baby,” James points out. “If you were disqualified for not being married to Clint, I kind of doubt me and my magical cock would have made Edith’s approved guest list for his bedroom.”

Natasha snorts out a laugh. She didn’t want to laugh, but he’s got a way of doing that – they both do, really, and James touches the spot just beneath her chin, lightly. “I just wanted to be here, in whatever way. Of course sometimes it’s hard, but it’s hard for you, too. Isn’t it?”

She nods. “It’s not like I’m the only one who has to remember when to be careful about touch and tone,” James continues. “We all knew what we were signing on for and the things I get in return – the occasional compromise is more than worth it. So no. I don’t hate you. I’m pretty ridiculously in love with you, which helps. And I’m sorry that being here is making you feel like shit.”

“It’s Clint’s father’s funeral,” Natasha says. “It’s not supposed to be about me.”

“Yeah, well, we’re not allowed to take care of him yet, so let me at least feel like I’m taking care of you,” he tells her, and wraps an arm around her as they walk back to their rental car.

Sarah calls Natasha’s cell to check in just as James is parking on the expanse of farmland, alongside the rest of the cars. Natasha waves him to go on inside the house without her – if they don’t show up together, maybe he can get on Edith’s good side so at least one of them can stick close to Clint throughout the wake. As long he doesn’t show off his ink or let her know exactly how much Clint loves to bottom for him, he’s got the best shot.

She tucks her feet up on the dashboard and keeps the heater blasting, trying to swallow the lump in her throat. “Sarah?” she says, and is horrified that her voice wobbles.

“Oh, honey,” Sarah says, and the kindness and gentleness and momness in her makes Natasha squeeze her eyes shut. “My darling girl. What can I do?”

“Nothing. You called, that’s good,” she says, and tries to breathe in through her nose, slowly. “What’s going on at home?”

“Meredith’s here at the condo,” Sarah tells her. “She came over for coffee and brought me another mix.”

“Oh yeah? What’s on it?”

“Deep cuts from the 80s. It’s like she thinks raising your brother means I missed the entire decade. I know who Madonna is, Natasha. I was cool, too.”

“I always tell people,” Natasha assures her, and smiles, just a little. Quill – the Guardians’ guitarist – grew up in a pair of baby-sized noise canceling headphones; his mom never met a tour she didn’t want to follow and she took him with her to every concert, strapped to her chest in a Snugli. His stepdad is a badass former roadie who Meredith met at a Queen show. They got married when Quill was a toddler, but Yondu glowers if he’s introduced with step in front of dad and always describes Quill as “his boy” with fierce paternal pride. Which is really incredibly sweet and something Natasha respects.

But they’re also all pretty sure David Bowie was Quill’s biological father and they are all really fucking dying for Meredith to confirm it.

Meredith’s a music encyclopedia, an in-demand guest on history podcasts and radio shows, and owns the most enormous and eclectic vinyl collection any of them have ever seen outside of a record store. She’s also the actual coolest person Natasha has ever met and both Valkyrie and Jess have crushes on her that they’re extremely bad at hiding. She and Sarah became tight after the Guardians got their big break opening for the War Dogs on their last tour and it’s pretty adorable. They call themselves the Rocker Moms and Meredith is always taking it upon herself to expand Sarah’s musical education.

Some of them, Natasha reminds herself, have awesome parents.

“How’s Clint doing?”

Natasha flicks her eyes toward the farmhouse, the steady trickle of black-clad guests up the porch steps. “I haven’t gotten to see to him a lot, he’s been kept pretty busy.”

“Haven’t gotten to see him?” Sarah says, surprised. “I thought you were staying at his mother’s house.”

“Plans changed. His mom….” Called me a whore because she doesn’t believe in divorce and won’t accept that Clint got one she thinks, but if she says that, there’s a better-than-average chance Sarah will get on a plane for the specific purpose of cold-clocking Edith right in the jaw, funeral or no. She and Steve are exactly alike; something in the Rogers blood just likes to scream fuckin’ fight me. “His mom is very Catholic.”

“I’m very Catholic,” Sarah points out mildly. “I made all my sacraments and say a decade of the rosary every night if you want credentials.”

“Your daughter lives in a triad with two boyfriends and your son married a man,” Natasha says. “You would not be welcomed into this particular home with open arms, either.”

“She’s more of an Old Testament fan, got it.”

“Mom, I don’t know what to do,” she says helplessly. She refers to Sarah as her mom all the time, but she very rarely addresses her as such - it’s always felt strange, a little, maybe because she didn’t come to the Rogers family until she was a teenager, but there are times when it slips out on its own accord. “I hate seeing him like this – his dad was a monster, his mother’s not much better, I hate that I can’t help him. I’m making it worse just by being here.”

“Funerals don’t always bring out the best in people,” Sarah says, and somehow her voice has gone even more gentle. “Does Clint want you there?”

“Yes,” Natasha says. There’s no question about that.

“Then it’s good that you’re there, Nat, you aren’t making it worse,” Sarah soothes. “You haven’t done anything wrong. The wake is at the house, right? If it were me, I’d hide out in the kitchen.”

“You’re sure?”

“Absolutely,” Sarah says. “Someone has to stay back there to make coffee and run the dishwasher. People always bring food to these things and they’ll all want to eat. It’ll keep you out of sight. Besides, your old boss always says he’d hire you back at the bar if this whole music thing goes belly-up, this is good practice.”

Some muscle along Natasha’s spine unclenches; a familiar feeling that comes along with having at least one problem solved, one plan made. She’s a grown woman and it makes her feel like a child to need advice like this, but – this helps, and she reminders herself for the umpteenth time that this is what parents, good parents, are for. It’s okay to be an adult and sometimes still just need her mother. “I – thank you. Thank you for calling.”

“I love you very much, honey,” Sarah says. “You call me again if it gets hard to hold your head up, I’m keeping the phone right next to me. And make sure Bucky minds his mouth – you tell him I haven’t forgotten my great-aunt Emily’s funeral when you kids were seventeen. I’m sure Father Donnelly never recovered.”

***

It turns out that the kitchen is an excellent place to hide. The house isn’t enormous, but it’s on the other side of a wall from the living room – where all the mourners have gathered – and only accessible by a single door, which Natasha keeps closed.

It’s good to feel useful, and even though it’s been years since Natasha has tended bar, the rhythms of service are the same as they always were. For the first hour or so, no one even bothers her and it’s steady repetition: making coffee, like Sarah said, is the biggest responsibility, closely followed by sending out the catered deli platters and plates of cookies and brownies.

The kitchen is gleaming and well-organized. Clearly not a gene that Clint got, Natasha thinks fondly, picturing their bedroom back home with his clothes strewn everywhere and wet towels dropped on the carpet so often that James has threatened to garrote him with them. Natasha’s not sure she likes that she’s comfortable here in its warm brightness, not when she knows what Clint’s childhood was like. It’s a strange juxtaposition; she didn’t expect it to look like a prison, not exactly, but she didn’t expect it to be homey or inviting either.

Still, the silence is a nice reprieve. Almost no one bothers her, save for the mourners dropping off an endless supply of Jello salads and tuna casseroles before disappearing out into the living room. Looking for reasons to stay busy, she decides to wrap some of the meals up and set them in the refrigerator; they’re clearly meant so Edith won’t have to worry about dinner for the next few weeks.

The door creaks open just as Natasha’s tightening the plastic wrap on a bowl of green beans – Clint, carrying a pile of crumb-strewn plates. His body visibly loosens as he sees her, and he heaves the dishes unceremoniously into the sink to come wrap his arms around her.

“God, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” he breathes, pulling her in close as he can, and Natasha feels something deep inside of herself loosen, too.

This is what’s real. This is the thing that matters the most, everything else about the last few days is just – details.

“I thought it might be better if I stayed out of the way,” she murmurs, nuzzling gently at the side of his neck. He doesn’t smell like his usual soap.

“I’m sorry, Nat, I am, this whole thing has been so fucked up,” he tells her. She snakes her hands beneath his suit jacket, closer, closer, like she’s trying to let him burrow into her. “I don’t even know why I came here.”

“I think a therapist would probably tell you in the long run, it’s better that you did. It’ll be over soon, though. And we’re here.”

Clint snorts a little and finally lifts his head to look at her. “Bucky, by the way, has charmed the shit out of my mother. I can’t believe he hasn’t snapped and told her how much I like it when he fucks me.”

“I had that exact thought. Almost word for word,” Natasha says, and is delighted to hear Clint laugh – his real one, nothing forced or strained in it before he bends down to kiss her lightly, on the mouth. “Do you think you want to stay another night? We’ll do anything you want.”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t….I don’t know. I hate thinking of you guys alone in that murder-looking motel.”

“Oh my God, Barton,” Natasha tells him, unable to suppress an eye roll. “You’re worried about us? We’re tough New York street kids beneath these glittering pampered exteriors, you know. We can handle a couple nights at the Super 8 without you, we do it on tour all the time.”

“Yes, but never happily,” he says, and this time she’s the one who leans up to kiss him. He’s finally heading out on his own tour in another two months, his very first actual name tour – not half-hour sets at festivals, sandwiched between other comedians like he did last year over the War Dogs hiatus. He’s headlining a full hour over multiple cities in large-capacity venues, and it’s an enormously big deal. His official comeback, his return to the medium where he’s always done his best work.

And they’re coming up on the end of the War Dogs hiatus, which means that Natasha will be able to come for some of it, but not the whole thing. So he has a point: never happily, but necessary, and with three of them, none of them ever really have to be alone when they need someone.

“I love you,” she tells him, because she wants him to hear it – in this house, in this room, in this circumstance. “I love you and I do want to take you home, but I’ll stay right here as long as you want. There is no rush, okay?”

“Okay,” Clint says, and lets out a deep breath as though he’s been carrying it around inside for awhile. “I can’t believe you’d handle all this kitchen stuff for my mom. After what she said to you – ”

“I’m not doing any of this for her,” Natasha interrupts, gently. “Not one single thing.”

He nods and touches his lips to her forehead, lifting a hand to smooth some of her hair back. “Come out into the living room for a little bit?” he says.

Natasha laces her fingers through his. “Of course,” she says. She’d rather stay exactly where she is until it’s time to leave, but she lets him tug her out through the door and into the fray.

There are not a lot of good things to be said about Harold Barton, but he still commanded an impressive turnout. It’s like that sometimes – she sees it in her own industry over and over again. Doesn’t matter if someone’s a known asshole; no one ever steps in to do anything about it unless it costs them something personally, money or jobs or connections, not as long as it all looked right from the outside.

Her grip tightens on Clint’s hand as he leads her over to where James is standing near the window, working his way through a mountain of brownies with a steely glint of murder in his eyes. You’d have to know him to recognize it for what it was, Natasha thinks. Otherwise, he looks carefully blank and stoic.

“You okay there, tough guy?” she asks.

“I’m warning you both right now that I will absolutely be throwing up later,” he informs them, then shovels another brownie into his mouth, like he’s trying to swallow it whole. Natasha raises an eyebrow at Clint.

“After a few narrow misses, we came to the conclusion that the only way he wasn’t going to shoot his mouth off was if he kept something in it at all times,” Clint explains. “This was a decision we made mutually, wasn’t it, buddy?”

“Mmblorfph,” James agrees angrily.

I sleep with you idiots intentionally, Natasha thinks, but to stop herself from saying it, she reaches for a brownie too. Clint smiles at her, reading the gesture. “I really like you guys,” he says. “A lot.”

And for a minute, she thinks they’ll get through the rest of this trip civilly, with no further incidents. Between the three of them, they can help each other around the sticky parts.

Naturally, that’s when Laura walks in the house.

Right through the open front door, easily as though it’s her own home. She’s carrying a pie – a fucking pie with steam still rising gently from the crust, like she was handed the perfect prop by a scene designer moments before the entrance – and her long dark hair is loose and smooth. She’s wearing makeup, heels, a much nicer dress than Natasha, and still fits in without effort as she walks up to where Edith is holding court in a floral armchair and bends to kiss her on the cheek.

“Laura, dear,” Edith says, sounding absolutely delighted. “I wasn’t sure we’d see you.”

“Barney told me the service would be small,” Laura says. “But I wanted to make sure I paid my respects.”

“Nonsense. You’re family,” Edith tells her, and it is not Natasha’s imagination, even a little, that her voice rises and carries as she turns to the woman sitting next to her. “You’ve met my son’s wife?”

Natasha’s spine goes ramrod straight. Every muscle in her body tightens sharply, so much that she can feel an actual cramp ripple all the way down her right leg.

Mom,” Clint says, aghast.

Edith looks directly at him as though she’s daring him to comment further. Laura’s lips twitch once; it’s impossible to tell if she’s displeased or on some level approving. The ensuing silence in the room is excruciating.

Finally, James sets his plate down and very deliberately wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Okay,” he says. “There aren’t enough brownies in the state.”

“James, it’s fine,” Natasha says quietly.

“It’s really not,” he says, “not even a little, holy shit – hey, Laura, quick question here: you still his wife?”

“Leave it alone, Bucky, would you?” Laura says.

“I would love to, but I’ve got a vested financial interest in the answer,” James tells her. “Because I’m pretty sure I cut you a big check to get your signature on those divorce papers, and it definitely cleared. So what’s up?”

“We’re at a wake,” Laura says, tightly.

“A wake doesn’t mean anyone feeling sad gets free license to shit all over Clint,” James shoots right back. “Even if that was his dad’s favorite pastime – ”

“James, this isn’t Laura’s fault,” Natasha interjects, tugging on his arm. “Come on.”

“No, it’s not her fault, but she’s not helping either, is she? And the way Mrs. Barton’s been talking to you - like, really? We’re all just going to stand around and watch you both be blatantly disrespected, over and over again, and nobody else in this room is gonna say that it’s time to cut the shit? I know I’m not the only one seeing it.”

Everyone in the entire room is staring at them. And there is almost no chance that a giant hole will open up under this farmhouse and swallow them all inside it.

Stop it,” Natasha says sharply, but when she turns to Clint, needing an ally here –

She feels herself do an actual double-take, blinks her eyes, because it shouldn’t be a palpable shift, but it is: that’s Clint again. That’s Clint come home, rooted back in his body and staring at James with so much adoration radiating out of him that Natasha can’t believe everyone in the room can’t see it, and something that feels a little like shame pricks at her.

Is that what he’s needed, this whole time? Natasha has been making a herculean effort to help him keep the peace, such as it was, but James has launched a grenade, stood up, picked a fight, opened his mouth the way he always does and Clint looks blown away and besotted, like he’s been handed a winning lottery ticket.

And Natasha realizes in the entire time he lived in this house, no one has ever stood up for him.

“Yeah,” Clint says, cutting through the silence in the room. “Okay. He’s right. I really am done.”

He takes Natasha’s hand, sets the other on James’s shoulder, and propels them both out of the farmhouse. The door swings shut behind them with a clap of finality, but the weight has rolled off Clint’s back, and when they reach the car, he turns to James, beaming.

“What the fuck, Bucky,” he says, and for the first time since the phone call about his dad came through, Clint’s eyes are shiny with tears. “What the fuck?”

James shrugs, then reaches out to cup Clint’s face in his hands. “Shoulda tried cookies instead of brownies, I guess.”

Clint snorts and tips his forehead against Bucky’s. “You piece a’shit. You fucking wild card. Jesus, look at me, I’m shaking, I’m…”

“I got you,” James says, running a hand gently up and down along the back of Clint’s neck.

Natasha takes the car keys out of his pocket. “I’ll drive,” she says, softly, because she wants to contribute something. She wants to get something right on this trip.




The Atlantic – Clint Barton Knows Titles
“The Comeback Kid”, Clint Barton. Netflix.
written by Jane Foster

I know it was a misstep, you know it was a misstep, and most importantly, he knows it was a misstep: after floundering through twelve episodes of multicam hell, our boy has cannonballed back onto the scene with a splash. If it’s an old adage that the important thing about failure is what you learn from it, Barton’s gotten his doctorate, the diploma framed and mounted on the wall – not only is The Comeback Kid the best hour of standup you’ll see this year, firing on all cylinders, packed with hilarious observations and masterfully woven storytelling, this is a love letter to everyone who knew he had it in him. This is a balls-out demonstration of why we were right to bet on him even after the nonsense that was Barton!

This title is no accident.

This is a comedian who’s learned some lessons and has grown into himself. Barton takes the stage with confidence and charm to spare, but never edges into cockiness. He’s taken the time to live his life and while all the material he’s culled from it dazzles, it is, as always, his relationship with his wife (he recently married Natasha Romanoff – yes, that Natasha Romanoff, there will only ever be one Natasha and we’re all blessed to live on a planet at a time when she exists) that is the highlight of the set.

It marks a refreshing change to hear a male comedian eschew the bullshit patriarchal stereotypes – really, this shouldn’t be something of note, but in the comedy world right now, it is. When Barton talks about his marriage, he’s nothing but enthusiastic, pokes fun at his wife while letting his love and respect for her take the center stage. It’s never her career or her fame that play into Barton’s observations of life with “Nat” – seriously, can you imagine living the kind of life that allows you to call Natasha Romanoff something as mundane as ‘Nat’? – but instead, the sort of soft details […]

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to be continued.

Chapter Text




then: early 2016

The thing is, it was a shitty year all around. Clint wonders sometimes if Nakia had some sort of psychic ability that let her peek into the future and warned her to clear the band’s calendar for that particular year, because no one was going to get through it doing their best work.

Nakia miscarrying at the seven-month mark had been awful and only exacerbated by the vulture that sold the pictures of her in the Cedars parking structure the day she’d been released after her stay. When Val found out the name of the photographer – and when that photographer had been stupid enough to also show up at a charity thing she and Jess were attending together – M’Baku hadn’t been fast enough. In the middle of the afterparty, Val had hit the guy with a flying tackle and landed three solid punches, breaking his nose and fracturing an eye socket before M’Baku managed to drag her her off him.

So M’Baku claims, anyway. “There’s no way you didn’t actively allow her at least two hits,” Bucky had said in the aftermath, which M’Baku had not dignified with a response. Clint’s pretty sure that means ‘good luck proving it, but yes, because nobody fucks with Nakia.’

(Also, Jess had texted Clint the next day:

  • in case u were wondering:
  • we did in fact have the best sex of our entire marriage last night
  • as an encore
  • like Jesus fuck my vagina is decimated
  • my wife is a T O P
  • like the toppiest of tops sorry to your boy Barnes but he can gtfo Val outfucks him
  • can I marry her twice
  • DECIMATED, BARTON
And when he’d texted back I WAS NOT WONDERING. UGH. CEASE THIS IMMEDIATELY, she’d sent a string of obscene and evocative emojis.)

Tony had paid an exorbitant sum, even for Tony, to keep it out of the news and to keep the guy from pressing charges.

But in return, he wanted the War Dogs off hiatus and back on the circuit or in the studio, pronto, enough with this year-off shit, they were too goddamn good to be pumping the brakes only a few years in. Which had led to a knock-down, drag out fight with Steve, an awful, ugly mess of contracts and negotiations and willful misunderstandings from both of them. Tony’s ego and business acumen butting heads with Steve’s idealism and protectiveness – they were always going to come to a head at some point, but no one had anticipated it getting as bad as it became.

Sleeping in the same bed with Natasha through those weeks had been hell; she was grinding her teeth even in her sleep and nothing Clint or Bucky did could help her, not really. It was the worst kind of helplessness. Natasha adores Tony, has a deep respect for his intelligence and what he’s done for her career – but Steve is her brother and someone she trusts, implicitly, to look out for her best interests.

And it was all on her. With Nakia down for the count, Nat’s the one the rest of the War Dogs take their cues from. The rock became keeping Steve as their manager and the hard place was staying on Tony’s label, and neither Steve nor Tony had shown any interest in making it even a little easier on Nat.

Clint was ready to kill them both.

Okoye had been the one to broker the compromise – she’d personally produce the tracks on the Guardians’ album at a cost (Natasha had balked on her behalf, but she’d been talked down when Okoye played the ‘it’s for Nakia; when she’s ready, she can’t come back to find out we lost our label and/or our manager’ card), do all the publicity with them, and they’d agreed that the next summer, they’d come back with a killer surprise video: eye-popping visuals and a dope single. But for awhile there, it had been touch and go.

And then Clint’s shitty father had died, on the heels of everything else.

Even since they’ve returned home to LA, there’s something in Nat that’s…Clint doesn’t know. Quieter? More introspective? There’s nothing wrong on the surface that he can pinpoint, not directly, but it comes back to the Laura thing, and that’s on him. That will always be on him.

It’s always been easier for Bucky to deal with, for a lot of reasons and all of them fair. It’s not like Nat’s still punishing Clint for it, holding it over his head, clubbing him with it whenever they have an argument. But it’s still a thing that happened, and Clint knows better than anyone how the past is a thing that echoes. She doesn’t use it against him; that doesn’t mean it can’t still bite her.

Particularly in a circumstance like the funeral, and when Clint thinks about it, it burns him all over again: Natasha with her face so calm in his mother’s kitchen, her hair coiled in a bun and those stupid earrings that looked so wrong on her. Utterly placid and surface-level unruffled, and seeing her that way had felt awful. It was like looking at what he’d always felt like in that house made manifest: this bright, brilliant, fearless woman who Clint knows damn well has never taken an ounce of shit in her life entire, actively try to make herself pale and small. Trying to make herself less, and he had wanted to beg herself to never make herself less, not on his behalf, not even in this circumstance, but he hadn’t known how.

They had very clearly been holding hands when his mother had called another woman his wife. Nat didn’t voice a single word of complaint (there are times when she and Bucky seem like the exact same person and other times when they seem like they come from different planets) but he can guess how that felt for her.

Bucky’s upstairs sleeping in, so Clint makes breakfast for just the two of them. Natasha’s sitting on the kitchen table, watching him cook in her workout clothes – she’s meeting Val at their boxing gym in a little while, one of their mutually preferred ways to exercise.

He’s sprinkling cheese on the eggs and watching her out of the corner of his eye. Her fingers are drumming along the edge of the table, a pattern that looks deliberate. She’s not wearing any makeup but her nails are painted an inky purple, short and squared off. He’s not sure how long they’ve been that color, but now that he’s noticing, it’s strangely sexy.

“Tasha,” he says. “You home in there?”

“Hmm? Oh – sorry,” Natasha says, but she smiles at him. “I guess I wasn’t.”

“Thinking in songs?”

“I’ll let you know if it turns into something.” He carries their plates over to the table and she stretches out her arms, reeling him in close to her. It makes Clint feel oddly grateful, and he presses a kiss to her forehead. “Thanks for cooking. I could have just grabbed a protein bar.”

“Bucky’s not the only one in this family who knows how pans work,” he says, bringing a hand up to caress the side of her face. “Hey. Are we…”

“Are we?”

“I don’t know. Feels like you’ve been floating for awhile now,” he says. He rubs his thumb along the line of her jaw and steps closer. It’s a substitute for the sudden creeping need in him, the desire to run his hands along her ass, hitch her legs around his waist and fuck right here on the table in slow, rocking movements. Watching every shift and change in her expression, bury himself inside her until the ground beneath them feels firmer. “So I’m checking in.”

It’s been a shitty test of a year, and they still love each other.

If things have been rattling from the outside, the inside – this house and this relationship – never shook along with it. That seems incredible. Important in a way that deserves recognition. If it’s been a shitty year, Clint has never been more certain on the other side of it that he has very real partners.

Natasha leans up to kiss him, gently. She tastes like toothpaste and her skin smells like her facewash, clean and soft and he feels another surge of affection for this Natasha, for the quiet private things that have only ever belonged to them, that he doesn’t have to share with the world, with hashtags and promo shots and speculation. Only with Bucky, and that’s only ever made it better.

“I’m sorry,” she says again, rubbing her hands up and down his sides. “Nothing’s wrong with us. You’re right, I’m too in my head lately. About time I came back, I think.”

“Might be able to help with that,” he says, and breakfast forgotten, Clint gives into his impulse. He peels her leggings down her thighs, around her sneakers and leaves them snagged there. She arches her hips up to help him, moves his own flannel sleep pants out of her way and –

And it’s just that easy.

She huffs out a soft little gasp, a gorgeous noise with her eyes wide open and one hand hooked around the back of his neck, staring right at him on his first spontaneous thrust. And she feels so goddamn good, so yielding and welcoming and wanting him that Clint nearly goes cross-eyed, probably would have if it wasn’t aware of what a cartoon he looks like when that happens.

“That’s it, aren’t you good to me,” he murmurs. “Come on, gorgeous, open those legs up a little more, gimme it,” a spill of soft filth the way he knows she loves and he lets out a low whistle when it causes her to clench up beautifully around him. “Jesus, Nat.”

Her lips are trembling and he doesn’t even want to kiss her, he just wants to watch her, drink it in, read her like she’s the only story that’s ever been worth his attention. One of her hands is braced against the table, pushing herself onto him with the other still at the back of his neck.

He doesn’t know why it’s so intense. He doesn’t care. She’ll be late to meet Val and she’ll have to grab that cereal bar anyway and she’s starting to sweat, to breathe a little faster –

When Nat comes, she doesn’t cry out his name. She whispers it, cracking it out into two syllables, and Clint grits his teeth so he doesn’t go over right behind her. Instead, he knocks the plates to the floor with both hands, giving them the space, then backs her down on top of the table, climbs onto her and pushes himself back inside her. Deeper, harder, faster. Her sneakers are still on. He should have thought that through, maybe.

Natasha’s eyes are blown wide and a low, whining noise breaks out of her. “Babe - babe,” she gasps urgently, in a way that means slow down, give me a second, and he shakes his head, wild pulsing need coursing through him, he lets it stay in the drivers seat.

“You’re coming again,” he informs her, almost an order. “You’re not gonna think. You’re not gonna worry. You’re just gonna feel my cock inside you, just like this, and you’re gonna keep coming on me. Over. And over. You got it?”

He twists his hips to punctuate his point, does it slowly but deeply, and it makes her back bow up like she’s been electrocuted.

“Holy fuck,” Bucky says from the doorway. “Holy fuck, good morning to me.”

“There’s coffee, sweetheart,” Clint tells him, and then goes back to the business of taking Natasha apart. He wants her raw and sore and sure by the time he finishes, he wants it to build so slowly and sweetly she’s not even aware that it’s the kind of sex that’ll leave her raw. He wants her lost in it. His own orgasm hardly seems like the point, even when she’s this wet and constantly thrumming, even when she hasn’t stopped fluttering so sweetly around him.

When he eventually looks back up again, Bucky’s gotten himself coffee and is still leaning against the wall, thoroughly enjoying the show. The front of his boxers is impressively tented, but he’s made no move to touch himself or join in – he looks content as he takes another sip.

“You keep your thumb on her clit, you can wring a fourth one out of her,” he suggests, and Natasha makes a weak little keening noise as Clint does exactly as he says. “Dibs on cleaning her up, by the way.”

Clint doesn’t bend his head to kiss Natasha until she hits that fourth peak, until tears are leaking from the corner of her eyes and she’s brought her shaking hands up to cover them. “Oh God,” she whispers. “OhGodohGod.”

He kisses the corner of her mouth, licks down her neck. “I’m gonna text Val and tell her you’re under the weather,” he whispers back, his voice so gentle. “And then our boyfriend over there has some important business between your legs. You know how he feels about running his mouth.”

“Can’t,” she gasps, and Clint thinks it’s a good thing she can’t see the wicked look on Bucky’s face right now, because it would have pushed her into orgasm for a fifth time.

“C’mon, baby,” Bucky murmurs, coming to stand at the edge of the table where her head is resting, her red hair cascading down the side. He presses his lips to her forehead and she moans softly, like even that touch is too much. “I’m only gonna eat you until you’re actually crying. These are just overstimmed tears and as much as I like them, as pretty as you are, it’s not as good as when you get to sobbing.”

Natasha’s spine arches again, all on its own. She’s beyond words right now.

Go, team Clint thinks, and grins at Bucky.

***

Later – much, much later – Natasha is passed out in their bed, curled between them with her skin still flushed. She’s sleeping with her mouth slightly open, whorls of sweaty hair clumped and stuck to the sides of her neck and forehead. One of her feet is hooked over Clint’s leg and her head is against Bucky’s chest. She’s so heavily under, worn out from exhaustion.

Bucky still has one of her breasts affectionately cupped in his hand, and Clint doesn’t think he could get hard again today if the life of everyone he knows depended on it but hell if he doesn’t love that sight. He’s always loved it, from the first time the three of them made love – if he could, he’d have a thousand photos of exactly this, Natasha’s perfect rosy nipple and Bucky’s strong hand, and it occurs to him all over again how goddamn lucky he is that he doesn’t actually need a photo, because the real tableau is recreated for him whenever he wants it.

When Bucky smiles at him, it’s lazy and sated, the very picture of well-fucked.

“You know you need a cigarette in your hand if you’re gonna look at me like that,” Clint tells him, stretching his back. Every muscle in his body feels pleasantly liquid.

“Yeah, I try to smoke in here and you watch how fast this one kicks me out on my ass,” Bucky says, circling Natasha’s nipple with his thumb. She doesn’t stir.

“Wouldn’t want that.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Bucky agrees. He leans over Natasha’s shoulder to kiss Clint, languid and easy, then falls back onto the pillows with a groan. “You think this very creative marathon helped? You’re not the only one who noticed she’s been a little…”

“Yeah, no. I know,” Clint says, and turns his eyes back to her. Natasha’s open and unguarded, so deeply asleep with her chest rising and falling, soft and pliable and warm, and he aches with how much he loves her. He looks at her and he sees everything. He sees her walking through the door of the Tattle Tale Room almost ten years ago, the steel in her spine and the tender way she’d stroked Jess’s hair. He sees her onstage with her band, in his shower in his shitty old apartment, at the front table in the Laugh Factory. With a pen in her teeth and headphones over her ears, lost in her music, with her forehead wrinkled in thought as he tries a new punchline on her.

He sees her introducing him to Bucky in the train station, the way she would watch him when she didn’t think Clint was paying attention, the longing written across the lines of her shoulders and how she had still never once made Clint feel as though she wanted to be on her way out the door. Sees her watching them dance together at the Halloween show, the time they all went to the movies together on a tentative date a few weeks after Jess and Val’s wedding – something they’d done before, lots of times, but this time calling it what it was. How happy it made her when Clint had nudged her into Bucky, had encouraged her to hold his hand. How none of them ever had to wonder about the road they didn’t travel because they eventually grew brave enough to put a name to what they really wanted.

He sees everything the three of them could have lost. Because of him.

Bucky stretches out an arm to start playing with his hair. It feels great and Clint arches up into it like the overgrown dog he sometimes suspects he actually is. “Don’t you go spiraling on me, too,” he scolds.

“I’m not. Just thinking about how much I love you,” Clint tells him. “Being very gross in my head just now.”

“You were very gross all over Nat’s tits in recent memory and it was fucking outstanding, I have zero problems with you being gross,” Bucky says, grinning. “And I love you, too.”

They lay there in compatible silence for awhile and Clint is halfway to drowsing himself before Bucky speaks again. “You were eighteen,” he says – serious now, less cheerfully flirty. “You wanted out of your parents’ house, you latched onto the first escape route you saw, and your anxiety blew it up after the fact. You ever gonna forgive yourself for it?”

Clint blows out a breath and turns on his side, opening his eyes. “Going to Iowa rattled the hell out of Natasha,” he says. “I hate that.”

“Not exactly what I asked, but I appreciate the deftness of the dodge there.”

“I wasn’t,” Clint promises. Nat murmurs something indistinguishable in her sleep; he glides a hand down her arm, soothing her. Her skin is still so warm.

“Clint…”

“The thing is, I get why Laura – did it the way she did it,” he says. “I deserved it.” Bucky had called it right, all those years ago. New In Town had embarrassed her, he can hear it like it was yesterday, you never knew a relationship was supposed to make you feel good about yourself? You unbelievable selfish prick, leaving him no space to tell her that yeah, it was true, he actually hadn’t known that. When would he have ever seen that?

When he married Laura, it had been the fastest way off the farm. A girl he’d dated all through his senior year who he’d never had that much in common with, but pairing off had made sense, especially when he was looking for a way to not feel so fucking alone all the time. And it wasn’t like they were the only ones marrying right out of high school; three other couples in their class had done the same thing, even if two of those guys had been joining up with the army.

She had been… nice. She’d been – fine, sure, she had been sort of boring, but boring was not the worst thing. And she had put up with a lot. His prodigious, blackout-level drinking, for just one example; Laura had never called it what it was, never asked him to stop or get help. Maybe because Clint wasn’t a mean or violent drunk like his father, but still. She had just suffered it in silence in a way that reminded him so powerfully of his mother that it gradually became almost impossible to have sex with her.

When he’d finally started making an effort to get sober, he’d wanted to move to New York or LA. It didn’t seem possible to recover without an actual clean slate, without a real goal, without something he wanted from his life instead of drifting into one day and fading out another. He’d brought it up to her with increasing urgency, and her reaction had driven home the reality of what they’d actually done: Clint had just wanted a way out of the house, but Laura had expectations of an actual marriage.

Being a good husband was a different thing altogether from being a good boyfriend.

Laura didn’t want him wasting his time with comedy albums and writing classes at the community college, sharpening the thing he had only begun to quietly suspect was inside him once he was out from under his dad’s thumb. What she wanted was what they had – Iowa, a small town, the possibility of taking over his parents’ farm themselves one day. She did not want to build something new; she had roots, and she wanted to tend to them.

She understood that he’d needed a little distance from his parents, but she didn’t understand why he needed the complete severing that another state, another life entirely – a life that he’d actively chosen – could provide. And maybe that was his fault, back then he hadn’t been able to talk about the scars and all the rest of it, hadn’t been able to put words to the way he’d grown up, but with the benefit of hindsight – the benefit of Natasha first and Bucky later – he does think she would have seen what he couldn’t say if she’d been looking a little harder.

Still: Laura hadn’t done anything wrong, not really. But Clint could see it, the magnitude of this mistake they’d made when they chose each other. It was unspooling like a routine he’d already seen a dozen times, knew where each joke would land and what the audience laughter would sound like – days bleeding into weeks into years and he would wake up one day and realize they’d become his parents. It would be dry and affectionless and maybe even cruel, by then. He would have left the tiny spark inside himself somewhere on the side of the road and driven away, knowing it would die there.

He’d grown up in a house with two people who didn’t love each other; he knew what it looked like when the concept of you made a commitment before God outweighed everything else, even the things that mattered. And he’d had to believe that the potential to live a life where they could be glad they were together was a thing that actually existed. It just wouldn’t exist here.

He asked her to come. He pleaded. He said they could find a way to be happy there.

“We’re happy here,” she’d told him. It made him incredibly sad to realize she believed that was true.

So he’d gone alone. He’d gone, because if it was a choice between saving his life and saving his marriage, he wasn’t going to make the same choice his parents had to have made, once.

Clint left her. But they hadn’t discussed further steps or what that really meant, and when he’d met Natasha a little over two years later – when she’d breezed into that bar and keyed up the karaoke machine, picked up Jess’s tab and refused to undercut the tip even when he’d given her permission, every word out of her mouth a challenge and a dare backed up against that incredible kindness, which she didn’t even believe was there herself…

It had unfurled and it had felt so right, always. Sometimes he still feels like he never really understood love until he met Natasha.

She’s such a force of nature, with her own big dreams and staggering talent, who’d pushed him on and encouraged him, how they still never talk about it because it’s weird, but the fact that they were getting famous at the same time had boosted their careers, had given them both buzz. How they got bigger and wealthier and splashier together, and how somewhere in the back of his anxiety-riddled brain, he always knew I mean, I know I never got divorced but we haven’t so much as spoken in actual years, so – good enough, right? might not actually be good enough at all, but the idea of confronting it was somehow worse.

Bucky makes a disagreeable noise, and Clint almost smiles.

“You can understand it, but I didn’t get to have sex for almost a year because of that,” Bucky says, ducking his head to kiss Natasha’s shoulder. “Meanwhile I’m watching fucking Hulk Banner paw at her every day, I heard them through the wall once – ”

“I can’t believe she dated a guy that people nicknamed ‘Hulk’,” Clint says. “It was four years ago, why do you have to remind me of that? That’s the worst part.”

That’s the worst part? Ignore what I said about forgiving yourself. I hope you’re suffering.”

Clint chuckles and stretches out an arm, running his fingers along Bucky’s bare hip. “Sorry.”

He’d been right. There was a way to be happy – more than he’d ever dreamed, when he was a kid. He’s got a house with huge windows that let in the light, a career where he gets to travel, that fulfills him creatively and challenges him and encompasses enough that he’s never bored. But even without those things – if Tony hadn’t known so precisely how to orchestrate the rise of the War Dogs, if Sam had never taken an interest in Clint and mentored him.

If Natasha was still tending bar and Clint was teaching improv and Bucky was selling his birdhouses on Etsy, if they were doing all those things out of an apartment in North Hollywood on a street with shitty parking, it would still be a home. There’d still be cooking and conversation, laughter and affection and music and color.

“I’m just saying – I fucked up a lot of things. I didn’t do any of it the right way,” Clint adds, when he realizes Bucky’s waiting on him. “When I got married, I didn’t realize that marriage actually is a big deal. I was stupid. It matters.”

“It does,” Bucky agrees. “You know Nat, too, she’d never admit it…”

“But she likes labels,” Clint finishes, and they share a grin – the same kind of grin he’s seen Nat and Bucky share when they’re talking about him like he’s not there, this cozy familiarity. “I know the lie was the real problem, but I feel like the fact that somebody else was my wife doesn’t help either, and…I mean – that’s never going to happen, obviously things were very different once we all got together. I didn’t mean it to sound like that’s a regret, Bucky, it’s not.”

He’s surprised when Bucky sits up in bed – and quickly, too, like someone’s tugged a string that jerked him upright. “Excuse me?”

“…what’d I say?” Clint says, curiously.

“The fuck do you mean, that’s never gonna happen?”

“Are you serious right now?” he says, almost laughing, but the way Bucky’s glowering at him means laughter would be a terrible idea. “Last I checked, marrying two people simultaneously isn’t legal, babe.”

“You think I’m that insecure?”

“No?” Clint says, still feeling like this conversation evolved to a place he hasn’t arrived. “Do I think it’d mess with the power dynamic here, though? Uh, I do think that’d be a fair concern.”

Bucky scowls at him.

“We very literally just had a conversation about how marriage matters,” Clint points out. “I’m not marrying Natasha and having you, like, standing there as my best man or some bullshit like it was at the funeral, Bucky, that’s not happening. And weren’t you the one who threw a tantrum when Banner – I mean, I was in the room! Your exact words were I’ll be goddamned if I watch her marry somebody else!”

You don’t count as somebody else!” Bucky says, exasperated. “And it wasn’t a tantrum!”

“It was such a tantrum,” Natasha says sleepily. Her eyes are still closed.

Bucky instantly goes soft and contrite, bending his head to kiss the side of her neck, nuzzling along her throat with his mouth, and Clint decides to get in on this apology, inching down on the bed so he can nuzzle at her breasts in the same pattern. “Sorry,” he hears Bucky murmur. “Sorry, Tasha, we didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“Mmmm, s’okay,” she mumbles. Clint feels her nails trawl lightly along his scalp and he shivers, turns his head so he can pull one of her nipples into his mouth. “Don’t start me up again, Barton, you guys crippled me for the rest of the day. Possibly the week.”

“Nah. You’re tough,” he says, speaking around her nipple as he turns his eyes up to meet Bucky’s, checking to see if he’s forgiven.

He’s not. Bucky’s still glowering at him, even as he’s sucking another bruise softly into the space between Nat’s neck and shoulder.

“So what did I miss here?” she says, her eyes fluttering once, twice before they finally open. “James, were you proposing to me on Clint’s behalf?”

“Yes,” Bucky says, at the same time as Clint says “No.”

Natasha tugs Clint’s hair, indicating he should come back up her body and face them, which he does with only some reluctance. Bucky’s got an arm around her waist, his hand splayed out over her stomach.

“You want to get married,” Bucky tells her bluntly. “You always have. Am I wrong?”

Clint waits for Natasha to deny it. It takes a few beats of silence for him to realize she’s not going to, and when he does –

“Nat?” he says, quiet.

Natasha squirms uncomfortably, which is clearly why Bucky looped an arm around her, because that’s definitely the kind of wriggle she gives when she’s about to extricate herself from a situation on a thin excuse.

“You had better not be about to say it’s stupid,” Bucky says.

“Well, I’m an award-winning songwriter, I can give you some synonyms,” Natasha says. “It’s not a big deal. The three of us could just get rings or something. If you both – if that was something…”

“The three of us are going to get rings,” Bucky says in the declarative, bossy voice he uses when he’s backstage at one of the stadium shows and directing the security staff when he wants them to step up their game. “And we can do something in the backyard with just our friends, and I will be just as fucking married and just as fucking in this as I’ve always been, but I don’t need to be the one with the license and the joint tax return. I don’t need to be legally – ”

“I am not a child, James Buchanan Barnes,” Natasha says viciously. “I don’t need to be coddled.”

“Nobody said you were a child, but a couple years ago, somebody walked into your life and claimed a title you were pretty sure was shaping up to be yours,” Bucky says, then looks at Clint. “Nat told me that herself. So it’s bullshit to pretend like that wasn’t something that made it worse, what your mom said when we were in Iowa.”

Natasha covers her face, either in mortification or exasperation, and Clint stretches his hands out to curl his fingers gently around her wrists, tugging them away.

“Natasha,” he says. His heart’s ticked up speed, suddenly, stupidly, he doesn’t know why, but he can feel it slamming back and forth against his ribs. “Talk to me. Please?”

His fingers are still circling her wrists and he can feel her pulse jump. “This never seemed relevant,” Natasha says. “It wasn’t something I was deliberately…”

“I know,” he says. “I know, but tell me.”

“It was a week before Laura showed up,” Bucky says. “Like almost to the day, the three of us were still – you know, we were all fucking, but we hadn’t really settled anything. I still just kind of figured things would fall into place without us having to talk about it.”

“Yeah, I’d been hoping for that at the time, too,” Clint says.

“Honestly. Men,” Natasha snorts. Clint’s fingers tighten on her wrists, just a little. “Okay. I wasn’t talking, either, but – James and I were at my place one morning, you were doing something for the show, I don’t remember what, but…”

“I kissed her,” Bucky says. “Got up to put on some coffee and I bent down to kiss her, it felt like – you know, like it does now, like a reflex. She was sitting, and I was standing…”

Clint finds himself nodding along, because he can picture it exactly. He’s seen it more mornings than he can count up, he’s been in it, those instinctive hellos and goodbyes and just-because-you’re-here-and-we-cans.

“But, you know, we hadn’t actually…figured out if that was okay yet, then. You know?” Bucky says. “We never laid down ground rules, if it was okay for us to kiss if you weren’t part of it, or – ”

“Would you both stop being so nervous,” Clint interrupts, impatient. “Jesus Christ. We are all currently naked in a bed we share every goddamn night in a house we purchased together, I do not feel like I was cheated on because you kissed during a time period when we were all secretly wondering if double penetration only worked in porn and if not, how to convince the other two to try it.”

Natasha bursts into laughter. It’s sweet and genuine and unexpected, and it feels the way it always does whenever he earns a laugh from Nat: his most honest audience, always, and it makes his heart settle, not all the way, but enough that it’s less frantic.

“Thank God we got the good answer on that,” she forces out between giggles, which sets Bucky off, too, and Clint wants to slug them both for dragging this out, but at the same time, he wants to freeze this second forever.

“I honestly hate both of you,” Clint tells them, but he can’t keep a straight face either, and it’s nice when Natasha leans in to kiss him, fond and familiar.

“I got worried,” she says, smoothing a hand down his arm once the laughter subsides. “I think on some level, I knew I wanted it to be sustainable, but I didn’t see how. You and I were still a couple, and I also didn’t want that to change, so…”

“We kissed, then she pulled back and said ‘I want to marry Clint and I probably want to do it soon, is that a problem?’” Bucky says. The corner of his mouth pulls up. “She sounded like me for a second there, honestly, just blurting stuff out with no warning.”

Something in Clint’s heart banks at that, tumbling over and over on itself, some shocked burst of joy that he wasn’t prepared for, that didn’t occur to him was ever a possibility. “Natasha? You wanted to…”

“Yeah. I had started thinking about it,” she tells him. “And even back then, he said…”

“‘Why the fuck would that be a problem?’” Bucky finishes, and leans over to kiss Clint himself, a punctuation mark, a period at the end of a sentence. “To be honest, Barton, past six months or so I kind of figured you’d bring it up at some point. Took us forever to get her to move in with us, I figured you’d be gagging to lock it down.”

He turns it over in his head, lets the idea settle on him.

Natasha wants to be my wife is the only thought that rises to the top.

Because if his lie affected all three of them, Bucky was not the one who took the immediate punch. Bucky had not been the one that had lost something tangible and certain – not yet, not back then. He’d been caught in the crossfire, but Natasha was the one who had absorbed the direct hit, whose entire world and sense of security had buckled under Clint’s stupid, selfish fucking lie, and now…

Now she’s here in his arms and in spite of everything, Natasha still wants to be his wife.

Bucky appears to be very genuine when he says it won’t make him feel shuttled to the side, and he’s – he’s right, there are all kinds of important reasons it’s probably better if at least two of them are legally bound up, but Natasha wants to be my wife is still the thundering baseline.

“Yes,” he says, dizzily.

Nat’s eyes go wide. “Clint?”

“Let’s get married, let’s get so married,” he says, and bodily flings himself at her, unmindful of the fact that all three of them are still way too sore and worn out and sweaty and disgusting for it, Bucky lets out a yelp when Nat accidentally elbows him in the stomach and Clint can’t tell whose legs are where and whose hands are on what and it’s a giant clusterfuck of limbs and he’s kissing whoever’s there, over and over again.




2017: in media

Rolling Stone: Music News of the Week
N/N talk friendship, grief, and their new EP
by Michelle Jones

MJ: First question – you two aren’t splitting off from the War Dogs?

ROMANOFF: No. Next question.

NAKIA: Nat!

ROMANOFF: What?

NAKIA: [to interviewer] I’m so sorry. She’s the worst. [to Romanoff] You are better than this, you aren’t Jess.

MJ: You know we’re still on the record, right?

NAKIA: When this goes up, if Jess wants to be offended by facts, Jess can be offended by facts.

ROMANOFF: No. We aren’t leaving the War Dogs. We’re fortunate enough to be a very tight-knit group, where we can discuss things like side-projects openly. We’re friends, but we’re also all creative professionals. They understand we aren’t scouting greener pastures.

NAKIA There you go. Now I’m proud of you.

ROMANOFF: Also if we were splitting off to go back to being a duo, we would have come up with a more clever band name than N/N.

MJ: Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of this EP?

NAKIA: I needed to grieve in a way that felt personal to me, after my miscarriage. Music is what I know how to do. I’m blessed with a wonderful, supportive husband, a group of friends, all of whom I knew where there, would have done anything for me, but grief takes up space. Grief is isolating and no one can feel it for you. This was my husband’s loss, too, but I felt alone inside it, and the longest relationship in my life has been with my piano.

There were things inside of me that I needed to say and I couldn’t…I couldn’t find a voice. But the music could translate.

ROMANOFF: A couple months later, she called me and said she wanted to play something for me.

NAKIA: I was ready for someone to hear it. Natasha is always my first call. My husband is a big Guillermo del Toro fan, he always jokes that we’re drift-compatible. We work on a wavelength. And she told me the truth, which was –

ROMANOFF: That there was an EP here, but it wasn’t a War Dogs album. Not our sound, not thematically. The two of us got our start playing covers together in jazz bars, these ninety minute sets where it was just Nakia’s magic keys –

NAKIA: And Nat’s magic voice. [They laugh together.] And that’s what these were. A voice, a piano, and rest of it stripped out. So we decided to play with it a little.

ROMANOFF: When we were done messing around, it was four songs and they were too good to bury and too cohesive to parcel out into anything else. We decided we wanted to release it.

MJ: You’ve titled the EP “Yibambe”.

ROMANOFF: It’s Nakia’s title.

NAKIA: It means “hold strong” in Xhosa. [looks to Romanoff] Oh…

ROMANOFF: I’m fine! I’m fine, I just love you, okay? You’re amazing. You’re my best – don’t print that.

NAKIA: She has to print it, we’re on the record.

ROMANOFF: [muttered indistinguishable cursing]

***

@aliasjones | Instagram photos and videos

[Valkyrie sitting on Okoye’s lap, both of them visibly screaming at the television with a case of crazy eyes.]

if i behaved like this while watching making of a murderer she would divorce me but because they’re watching sport ball this is apparently acceptable?

comments
jalkyriefivever
plz don’t even joke about that, you guys are my only OTP

riotriotriot
hold up, is this a troll? Am I the only one looking in the mirror over the TV?!

Kelly Mac
LOOK AT THE MIRROR

AvoxinSocks
oh my god JESSICA what have you done

1blackcoffee
THAT’S NOT CLINT IM HYPERVENTILATING

tabbybobatty
That dude is hot as fuq, tho, get it @realromanoff

1blackcoffee
@realromanoff EXPLAIN YOURSELF

 

[comments disabled]

***

Us Weekly
YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART – Are Clint and Natasha on the rocks?
by Dorothy Walker

The Instagram post heard round the world had the comments disabled, but it’ll live on in screenshots forever – Natasha Romanoff kissing a man very familiar to anyone deep in the War Dogs fandom: childhood friend and longtime band security wrangler James “Bucky” Barnes. (Photo reprinted to the right.) That’s more than a friendly peck.

Sources say that Barnes is extremely close to the couple. He roomed with funnyman Barton for years before eventually moving into the fourteen million dollar home that Barton and Romanoff purchased in Los Angeles several years ago, and has stayed ever since. (We can’t help but wonder what in the world Barton was thinking.)

Another unnamed source has said this isn’t the first time the Cry Havoc singer has been caught sneaking around with her apparent live-in boy toy: “Whenever Clint’s not on tour with the War Dogs and he’s off doing his own thing, it’s pretty much an open secret that Bucky’s in her hotel room,” says our source. “It’s a little gross, because whenever Clint comes back around, he’s always really excited to see both of them. You can tell he really does think Bucky’s his best friend.”

Former flame Bruce “Hulk” Banner said he wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the end: “Bucky was always the reason Natasha had one foot out the door when we were together,” he said, when asked about the photograph. “I don’t think she’s ever really been finished with him.”

Reps for Barton and Romanoff did not return calls for comment.

***

@okoyeokay | Instagram photos and videos

[M’Baku in a dark-blue tuxedo, hands folded in front of him in a power pose that shows off his intricate watch. Distinguished. Elegant. Sexy. Badass.]

Pre-Grammys. My man is what the youths call “a snack”.

comments

1blackcoffee
THE MIRROR

1blackcoffee
THE FCKIN MIRROR AGAIN AASKAHFJKSDH

mbaku
@go_buck_yourself I fucking hate you.

go_buck_yourself
@mbaku [kissy lips emoji, kissy lips emoji, kissy lips emoji]

JE2495
@realromanoff Seems disrespectful. You approve of your husband kissing men?

realromanoff
@JE2495 yup
95k likes

PennyLaneMiller
THIS IS THE MOST EPIC TROLL AND I AM LIVING FOR IT




now: 2018

“Hi, honey,” Natasha says, in that throaty purr that can bring an entire stadium full of people to their knees. “Look what you made me do.”

“Did you just,” Bucky says, lifting his head, “quote a Taylor song at him while I had my tongue inside you.”

“Yes, and I’d do it again,” Natasha says, and tangles both her hands in his hair, trying to force his mouth back to her cunt. Bucky pinches her thigh, not gently, and she makes a high pitched protesting noise.

The wheeze locked in Clint’s chest finally worms its way up his throat. “Whhhuuuuuuuuuuuhhh,” is the way it comes out.

“Told her this might kill you,” Bucky says. “Other way around and it woulda killed me.”

Clint’s crossing the kitchen in three steps to fist both his hands in Bucky’s black tee shirt – Bucky’s black shirt that is actually Clint’s shirt, they are both wearing his shirts, both of them, they do want to kill him – and yanks him to his mouth so he can lick the taste of Natasha right off his mouth, hot and messy and sudden need coursing through him at full-tilt.

It’s only been two weeks since he’s seen Bucky. As soon as Natasha came back to work on the album, Bucky joined up with the tour in October. He only flew back to LA once they started recording, and it’s a little bit of a surprise how good it feels to touch him again. Like he’s only just realized inside this moment that two weeks is kind of a long time, when you love somebody, and it doesn’t have to be compared to the missing that builds up over months.

“Hey,” Clint says, when he feels like he has words again, when he can tolerate the idea of doing something with his mouth besides licking and kissing and biting.

Bucky smiles; not a dirty smile, just his regular hey-I-love-you-glad-you’re-home smile, and rubs a hand through Clint’s hair affectionately. “Hey back,” he says, softer. “Thought we’d drag ourselves out of bed and give you a little welcome-home show.”

“Scott texted saying you were on your way to surprise me early,” Natasha says. “You know he can’t keep secrets when he’s drunk.”

Clint turns to look at her, she smiles, too, then spreads her legs to flash her still-slick cunt at him, an absolutely unkind and very perfect tease.

“Works for me,” Clint says feverishly, then bends his head to kiss her, now, filling both hands with her hair and bending her back, just a little, as Bucky tucks his chin over Clint’s shoulder, his big hands running up and down along his sides. Clint can feel the metal of his wedding ring skating along his skin.

Let’s get married, Clint said.

They are absolutely, without a doubt, the three most married people he knows.



and if the whole world's singing your songs
and all of your paintings have been hung
just remember, what was yours is everyone's from now on
- what light, wilco