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                Bucky Barnes limps his way back into town, which is absolute bullshit, because, as far as Clint can tell, it’s his arm that got blown off, not his damn leg.

                “I mean,” he says, when Barney doesn’t ask. “Have you seen him?”

                “Sure,” Barney says. He’s hungover or maybe just exhausted from all those late-night transport jobs they’re both pretending he’s not doing, running what-the-fuck-ever up to Des Moines or Cedar Rapids. “I’ve seen him, Clint. Probably didn’t look at him as closely as you did.”

                “I’m not—I didn’t— go to hell.” Clint shoves back from the breakfast table. “You’re a real asshole, Barney.”

                “You’re shit-talking a one-armed combat vet,” Barney calls after him, incredulous, “and I’m the asshole?”

                Clint slams the door behind him. He gets halfway to his truck before he realizes he left his phone behind.

                Bucky’s been back for five days. Clint’s phone has been lifeless and silent for every single one of them.

                Fuck the phone, he figures. He doesn’t need it.

 

- - -

 

                The town’s always been shitty and small, but it’s damn near suffocating now that Bucky’s back. There are only two bars in the whole town, and Clint’s been banned from the good one since he threw Steve Rogers through a pool table when they were both eighteen.

                And that’s how everyone says it, of course. You threw Steve Rogers through a pool table!

                Nobody remembers that Steve wasn’t a war hero back then. He was just a scrappy punk fresh off a growth spurt, who took Bucky’s side in the grand Barton vs Barnes showdown, because of course he did. He was always gonna pick Bucky.

                Well, it probably didn’t help that Bucky was right about everything.

                Steve got banned from Maggie’s right along with him, but his ban was rescinded after he got the Medal of Honor and became the first person from their hometown to get his face on national TV for a non-criminal incident. And so now Steve, who hasn’t been home in years, can go into whichever bar he wants, and Clint’s just some asshole who roughed up a war hero and is exiled to Justine’s.  

                Justine’s is dirtier and sadder, patronized mainly by old men who won’t shut up and young men too tired to talk, and there’s really no reason to recommend it to anyone, so Clint doesn’t know why Bucky Barnes can’t seem to leave it alone.

                “Jesus Christ,” Clint says, the day he finally makes his triumphant return, the first night in a week and a half when he drove by the bar and didn’t see Bucky’s truck in the parking lot. “Does he live here now?”

                “Maybe he likes the company,” Justine suggests.

                Justine’s been tending bar here since she was twenty, which was, if Clint’s mathematical calculations are correct, sometime between four decades and two centuries ago. She’s leathery and ageless and can spit at someone with deadly accuracy from clear across the room. Clint asked her once what it was like when the boys came home from the war, and she’d given him a steely, shark-like stare and said, “Which time?”

                “Justine,” Clint says, “I love you. You know I love you. But he’s not here for your company. He doesn’t have the class to appreciate a girl like you.”

                Justine gives him the kind of assessing look Clint’s given fatally injured animals on the side of the road, like she’s trying to decide if she has enough mercy left to put him down. “God love you, kid. You’re one hell of an idiot.”

                “Yeah,” Clint says, because that, at least, is true. Has always been true. “I know.”

                Fifteen minutes later, when he comes out of the bathroom, Bucky Barnes is sitting in his seat.

                Clint does the noble thing and u-turns, heads back into the bathroom, and squirms his way to safety through the bathroom window. It’s not graceful, not easy, and not even productive, because, by the time he makes his escape, Bucky is standing in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette, staring right at him.

                “Wow,” Bucky says, when Clint hits the ground. “You used to be better at that.”

                “Window didn’t use to get stuck,” Clint says, scrubbing gravel out of his palms, running his hands down the front of his jeans.

                “Get stuck on your ass?” Bucky says, eyebrows raised. He takes a drag off his cigarette, gives Clint a considering look. “Fair enough,” he says, after a moment. “You didn’t use to have an ass like that.”

                “Well, I guess you’d know,” Clint says, just to be a dick.

                Bucky’s eyes narrow, and his throat works, and, hell, look at that. So much about him has changed, but he wears anger the exact same way.

                “You been avoiding me, Barton?” Bucky asks, like he has any Goddamn right.

                “Oh, I don’t know, Buck,” Clint says. “Can you think of any reason why I’d be doing that?”

                Bucky’s mouth screws up sideways. He looks away. He’s quiet for a minute, finishing his cigarette. When it’s burned damn near to the filter, he flicks it down and stomps it out.

                Clint feels a weird rush of empathy for the cigarette smeared across the asphalt. He knows exactly what it feels like when Bucky Barnes uses you up and smashes you into the dirt after.

                “Look,” Bucky says, “it’s a small town, Clint. We’re gonna see each other.”

                There was a time, years ago, when Clint couldn’t look at any part of this town without seeing Bucky in it. He saw Bucky at the grocery store, loading produce into the back of his mom’s SUV. He saw Bucky in the empty streets at midnight, racing on his bike like they ever had anywhere to be. He saw Bucky in every empty seat in every booth in all four of the restaurants in this bloodless, sleepy town.

                He saw Bucky in the shower, stripped naked, soaked to the skin, staring wide-eyed and scared. He saw him shaking and pale. He saw him in the blurred reflection of the fogged-up mirror, saw blood on Bucky’s fingers and tears tracking down to his chin.

                He saw him in the dirt outside Clint’s house, spitting with rage, coming up like something possessed.

                He saw Bucky’s face every time he saw the red-blue flash of a patrol car’s lights.

                “Not that small,” Clint says, instead of saying something stupid and pathetic. “You stay out of this bar, and we probably won’t see much of each other.”

                Bucky rocks back on his heels. He’s wearing boots, heavy and worn. They look like leftovers from his military life. Clint wonders if it’s hard to tie them one-handed and feels, for the first time, like an absolute asshole.

                “Is that what you want?” Bucky asks.

                Clint swallows. What I want, he thinks.

                He wants to be sixteen all over again. He wants to go back in time just long enough to punch himself in the face, take a wrench to his own stupid head, drag himself out of Collie Jensen’s party before he drinks enough cheap vodka to finally – finally – stick his tongue in Bucky’s mouth. He wants to undo the whole thing, wants to offer up the best two summers of his life as a sacrifice to buy them both some peace.

                He wants Bucky to have two arms and no idea who the hell Clint Barton is.

                He wants to never, ever have to look at Bucky and think Was it worth it? Was I worth it, Buck? How much of me do you regret?

                “Yeah,” he says. “That’s what I want, Barnes. I don’t wanna see you again.”

                Bucky’s blue eyes flick away from him, and he stares out beyond the parking lot, eyes focused on the horizon line. He fidgets for a second, fingers curling into a fist at his side. After a long moment, he nods. When he looks back at Clint, his eyes are so distant he might as well be a stranger.

                “Sure, Barton,” he says. “Guess I’m not much to look at anymore anyway.”

                “Go fuck yourself,” Clint says, on reflex. He still has a problem with that, no matter how many lessons his dad tried to teach him. Someone says something that hurts, and he bites back. Every flinch is a counterattack.

                It’s not as productive as he would like. It sure as hell doesn’t keep him out of fights.

                Bucky rolls his eyes. “See you around, Barton,” he says, as he turns to leave.

                “Sure as hell hope you don’t, Buck,” Clint says, calling out to his retreating back. And how stupid is he? How predictable and hopeless?

                Here’s Bucky, trying to walk away, and Clint can’t stop trying to reel him back in.

                Bucky doesn’t look back. He raises his hand and flips Clint off without breaking stride.

                So, all in all, not that much different from the last time Bucky walked away from him, although at least neither one of them is crying this time.

 

- - -

 

                Bucky’s right. It’s a small town. But he is also – obnoxiously, insufferably – a man of his word. He doesn’t come back to Clint’s bar, and he about-faces and leaves if he walks into a restaurant or a store and notices Clint’s already there. That kind of behavior doesn’t improve Clint’s reputation much, but, honestly, between his dad, and his brother, and his teenage self, there was never much hope for his reputation anyway.

                The point is, they make their peace, uneasy as it might be. And then, three weeks into Bucky’s stay, Clint gets a phone call at nine o’clock on a Saturday night.

                It’s an unknown number, and he wouldn’t normally answer, but Barney’s been gone since Thursday, so he figures he might be calling for a pickup or a bailout.

                “Yeah?” he says, not bothering to make himself sound particularly welcoming.

                “Clint?”

                For a blissful second, Clint doesn’t even recognize the voice. Not consciously. But he straightens up, mutes the TV, feels what is maybe dread or guilt or both start to kick around in his chest.

                “Who the hell is this?” he asks, in that wary time before he suddenly knows exactly who it is.

                “Steve Ro--”

                “Oh, Goddamn it,” Clint says, and hangs up.

                Steve calls back immediately. Of course he does.

                Clint puts his face in his hands and groans, deep and sincere and imploring, prays to a universe that’s never done him any Goddamn favors for Steve to suddenly look out his window and see a litter of kittens in trouble or some nuns careening into a fiery two-car collision with a school bus full of blind preschoolers.

                The call goes to voicemail, and, thirty seconds later, the phone starts ringing again.

                “The hell do you want, Steve?” Clint says, when he can make himself pick up. “If you’re looking for Bucky, he’s not here, and I haven’t seen him.”

                “Yeah, I know he’s not with you,” Steve says, which makes Clint think he and Bucky have been talking about him. “Listen, I need a favor.”

                Clint cannot imagine what kind of favor Steve Rogers would need from somebody like him. “I’m not helping you hide a body, and you’ll actually need to call Barney if you’re looking for anything harder than weed.”

                “I’m not calling you for drugs,” Steve says, and he doesn’t even sound worked up by the insinuation.

                That’s too bad. Steve used to be more fun than he is now. Hell, they all used to be more fun than they are now.

                Clint runs his hand over his face. “Rogers, it’s too early in the night for a booty call. Call back after midnight, like a real person.”

                “Barton,” Steve says, sliding right into that scandalized disapproval Clint didn’t even realize he’d missed.

                Well. Maybe there’s a bit of fun left in baiting Rogers after all.

                “If you don’t like my guesses,” Clint says, biting back the smallest of smiles, “then tell me why the hell you’re calling.”

                “It’s Bucky,” Steve says, and Clint’s feet hit the floor before he even finishes processing.

                “Is he okay?” He scans the room for his wallet, almost checks his back pocket for his phone before he realizes it’s in his hand. “Is he—what? Car wreck? What--”

                “No,” Steve says, cutting him off. “He’s fine. He needs a ride.”

                Clint pauses. He pulls his phone away from his face long enough to stare at it and then, slowly, he brings it back. “His truck broke down?”

                “No,” Steve says. “He can’t do long trips. No unfamiliar roads. Especially at night. He gets—he won’t do it, Clint, but he has to. And I can’t come get him, so--”

                “Long trips? Steve, what the hell is this?”

                “It’s Tony Stark,” Steve says. He announces the name like it’s some kind of answer.

                “What’s Tony Stark?”

                “Tony Stark is Tony Stark,” Steve says. He’s talking fast now, a little hushed. Clint takes a moment to wonder where the hell he is. “Look, I’ve just—I’ve been talking to Tony, and he’s been working on prototypes, and I think—it’s for Bucky.”

                “What’s for Bucky?” Clint says. “And why the hell have you been talking to Tony Stark?”

                “Because he’s been working on neuroprosthetics,” Steve says. “And I told him about Bucky, and he—listen. The trials start on Monday, and I think I can get Bucky on the list, but he needs to be here by Monday.”

                The microwave helpfully informs Clint that it’s 9:07pm on Saturday night. “Be where?”

                “New York,” Steve says.

                “New Y-- Jesus, Steve, buy him a plane ticket. I can’t--”

                “Clint,” Steve says, and it’s that same no-bullshit, do-or-die, I really, really mean it voice he used to trot out in the last few innings of tight games in high school. “Bucky’s not gonna fly. He’s not going to drive himself. He can’t— I need you to drive him here.”

                “Oh, fuck you,” Clint says, and hangs up.

                He stares at the phone until it rings again and then he angrily jabs at the red button until it shuts up. He mutes it and throws it on the couch, stomps to the kitchen in his socks to get a beer out of the fridge.

                He opens the beer and lifts it up to his mouth. The first mouthful has just made it past his lips when the whole ungodly mess clicks together in his head, and then he sprays beer all over his kitchen, coughs the entire way over to the couch, is still coughing when he presses “Accept” and lifts the phone back to his ear.

                “A prosthetic arm?” he yells, right into the phone. “Tony Stark is gonna give him a new arm?”

                “Yes,” Steve says, all impatient, like he somehow thinks he made this perfectly clear already. “A neuroprosthetic prototype that-”

                “An arm?” Clint repeats, voice high in his throat.

                “Yeah,” Steve says. “What the hell else kind of prosthetic—an arm, Clint.”

                “Shit,” Clint says.

                Shit.

                Nobody in this town thinks much of Bartons. But Clint, at least, does his best to pay back what he owes. And he owes Bucky Barnes a good arm.

                “Okay,” he says. “Fine, sure. Fuck it. Why not? Where is he?”

                When Steve tells him, he starts laughing. He’s still laughing, a minute or so later, when he hangs up on Steve Rogers without saying goodbye.

 

- - -

 

                When Clint walks into Maggie’s, the bartender double-takes and then slams his hand against the bar. “Out!” He points over Clint’s shoulder, empathetically, like Clint’s somehow gonna lose the door he just walked through, and Clint should probably play polite, but he’s flipping him off before he has a chance to remember how manners work.

                “Oh, fuck off, Taylor,” he says. “I’m just here for Barnes.”

                Across the bar, Bucky lifts his head and looks over, eyebrows pulling together.

                “You’re still banned, Clint,” Taylor calls back. “You got money to pay for that pool table?”

                “The pool table I broke seven years ago?” Clint says. Half the bar is staring now. That’s fine. Last time Clint was here, the whole bar ended up staring. And taking bets. “Sure, Taylor, just put it on my tab. We’ll settle up at last call.”

                Taylor narrows his eyes. As far as Clint can remember, Taylor wasn’t even here the night he fought Steve. Taylor would’ve been seventeen by then, old enough to sneak in if he could play it cool, but Taylor had also been the class historian and the most personally dedicated trumpet player the town had ever seen. He’d been, in a few words, an absolute fucking dork, and Clint’s not sure Taylor dared to set foot in a bar until he started working in one.

                “I’m getting Maggie,” Taylor declares.

                “Of course you are, you fucking narc,” Clint fires back. “Hey, while you’re back there, why don’t you call Principal Higgins and tell her I was the one who hung your trumpet from the flag pole junior year, too?”

                Taylor honestly, legitimately gasps. “That was you?”

                It wasn’t. That’s not the point.

                Clint leans his hip against the bar, tilts forward right into Taylor’s space. “Taylor, I’ve got no problem with you. But if you keep running your mouth at me while I am trying to go about my legitimate business, I’m gonna break another pool table with your face.”

                Taylor, who finally grew into those shoulders he’d sprouted around puberty, locks his jaw and scowls. If Clint hadn’t grown up with him, if he didn’t know that Taylor got dizzy at the sight of blood and once honest-to-God passed out on frog dissection day, he might’ve been intimidated. As it is, he just scowls back.

                After a fifteen second stare down, Taylor drops the bar towel like he’s throwing up a white flag. “I’m getting Maggie,” he says and then turns around and heads into the kitchen.

                “You’ve always been a tattletale, Taylor!” Clint calls at his retreating back. Taylor just moves faster, which means Clint probably has about sixty seconds to hustle Barnes out of the bar before Maggie shows up to kick his ass.

                Barnes, who’s five bar stools over and hasn’t even finished his drink yet, eyes Clint with the polite disbelief of a man who just watched someone else’s dog shit on his lawn. “Still campaigning for Miss Congeniality, Barton?”

                Clint rolls his eyes. “We gotta have a whole conversation, Buck? Just get in the truck before Maggie finds her baseball bat.”

                “Oh, no, I want to see this,” Bucky says. He leans back, settles in, takes a showy sip of his beer like he’s waiting for a show to start. “Haven’t seen Maggie kick anyone out since I got back.”

                There is an ominous crash from the kitchen. The noise comes from Clint’s bad side, but it’s loud enough that he can hear it anyway. If he had to identify it, he’d say it sounded like someone just wrenched a baseball bat off a tall shelf, knocking down three or four stewpots in the process.

                “Is there a problem, gentlemen?”

                And that’s Robert Skinner, sidewinding closer, looking wary and serious.

                Clint sighs. He’s had twenty-five years of bad luck, but it still, sometimes, catches him off-guard. “C’mon, Robbie. You’re drunk and off-duty. What’re you gonna do about it?”

                “Oh nice,” Bucky says, sounding thrilled. “You’re gonna get thrown out and arrested.”

                “Nobody needs to get arrested,” Robbie says, soothingly. “Clint, if you’ll just--”

                “You can’t arrest me,” Clint says. “I’m on a mission from Steve Rogers.”

                Bucky’s glass clatters against the bar top. He scowls with genuine ferocity. “Steve called you?” He half-rises from his seat, gestures disbelieving at Clint. “He called you?”      

                “Well, Jesus, Barnes,” Clint says, feeling oddly defensive on Steve’s behalf. “I’m sure he worked his way through the whole phonebook first, and I was just the only idiot still sober enough to work a clutch.”

                Bucky sneers over at him and then turns back toward the bar. “Well, you can tell him to keep calling. I’m not going with you, of all fucking people.”

                “Of all fucking people,” Clint repeats. “Of all fucking--”

                “That was your call, Barton,” Bucky interrupts. “Not mine.”

                “Gentlemen,” Robbie says. “If you’ll take a moment, maybe a couple deep breaths--”

                Clint groans. “Robbie, would you just--”

                “Skinner,” Bucky says, at the exact same moment, “mind your own damn--”

                “Barton.”

                And that dulcet voice belongs to Maggie, who emerges from the kitchen like some eldritch horror, baseball bat over one shoulder and eyes like something too hateful to die. She’s Justine’s older sister. Or younger. Or maybe they aren’t related at all. It’s hard to say, honestly, but the town’s built up a certain mythos around them.

                “Jesus, Mags,” Clint says. His hands rise of their own volition, like some 6’4 state trooper is staring him down instead of a white-haired woman who can’t be over 5’2. “I said I was sorry about the pool table.”

                “And I told you to stay the hell out of my bar.” Maggie gives him a slow, assessing stare, tracks from his muddy boots all the way to his uncombed hair. “Kinda looks like you’re inside.”

                “Maggie,” he says, “I’m just here to pick up Barnes.”

                “Fuck off, Clint,” Bucky says. “I’m not going.”

                “That’s real sweet,” Maggie says, ignoring Bucky entirely. It’s difficult to tell if she gets the irony of the situation, if she thinks it’s funny at all that Clint’s last fight in her bar was about Barnes, too. “And now he can drive you to the emergency room.”

                “Mother of God,” Clint says. It seems called for. “It was one pool table. I was eighteen. I didn’t even start the fight!”

                The baseball bat slithers off her shoulder and makes a meaty, menacing thunk when she smacks it into her palm. “Five seconds,” she tells him, voice clear and sweet.

                “Told you, Barton,” Taylor says, calling out from behind Maggie.

                “You piece of shit,” Clint says. “I can’t believe you. I hope you choke to death sucking off your stupid trumpet, Taylor. I really do.”

                “That’s not even how you play trumpet, Barton,” Taylor says.

                Clint leans to the side so Taylor can get the full effect of his derisive expression, but, before they can really expound on the finer points of musical theory, Robbie Skinner interrupts again. “Now, Clint, you have been asked politely to leave.”

                “Politely?” Clint points at the baseball bat. “I am afraid for my life. That woman is a terrorist.”

                “Be that as it may,” Robbie says, still trying for pacifying, because the department sent him to some seminar a while back, and he’s been preaching the virtues of nonviolent conflict resolution ever since, “this is her establishment, and you are not welcome. It’s time to go.”

                “I am on a mission,” Clint repeats, getting louder, feeling almost breathless with disbelief, “from Steve Rogers, and I am not fucking it all up again.”

                “Christ,” Bucky says. The bar stool shrieks as it drags against the floor. The entire bar goes still and quiet while Bucky shoves his wallet and his phone into his pocket. There’s a flush settling on his cheeks, angry and red against his pale skin.

                Maggie narrows her eyes. Clint takes a step back.

                “Hey, Mags,” Bucky says, hefting his half-empty glass of beer. “You mind if I get this back to you later?”

                “Go on then, sweetheart,” Maggie says, tipping her chin indulgently toward the door.

                “Thanks,” Bucky says. He swipes his hat off the bar, jams it on his head, and stalks away, damn near ramming his shoulder into Clint’s as he stomps past.

                “Don’t take that beer into a moving vehicle, Barnes,” Robbie says, with exactly the kind of exasperated surrender that Clint’s come to consider a virtue in his law enforcement officials.

                “Yeah, thanks, Robbie,” Bucky says, waving him off. He shoulders his way through the door, slamming it open without breaking stride, and Clint stands in the bar staring after him just long enough for Maggie to clear her throat pointedly.

                “Christ’s sake, Barton,” she says, “don’t fuck this up. For once in your life, just try to act right.”

                Clint swallows. He shoves his hands in his pockets, doesn’t look at anyone in particular. “Come on, Maggie,” he says. “You know I always try.”

 

- - -

 

                The start their road trip by damn near having a knockdown drag-out fight in Maggie’s parking lot.

                “We’re taking my truck,” Bucky says, pulling his keys out of his pocket.

                “Bullshit,” Clint says. “Bullshit your truck, Barnes. We’re taking mine.”

                Barnes gives Clint’s truck an offensively skeptical once-over. “Is that thing even gonna make it out of the parking lot?”

                “Okay,” Clint says, “you gotta be such an asshole? I have to get home after this. What the hell do you want me to do? Hitchhike back from New York? Just start blowing truckers until I find one headed west?”

                “No one’s asking you to blow anyone,” Bucky says, voice going a little shrill. “They have airplanes, Barton.”

                “Oh, sure,” Clint says. “That’s the kinda cash I have, Barnes. The kind where I can buy a plane ticket day-of.”

                “If you can’t buy a plane ticket, you sure as hell don’t need to be paying for gas all the way to New York,” Barnes counters. “We’re taking my truck.”

                Clint hears himself getting louder and can’t seem to find a way to stop it. “I am not,” he says, “getting stranded in New York. Go fuck yourself.”

                “I’m not getting stranded in New York either, you stubborn asshole. I’m not leaving my truck here. How am I gonna get back?”

                “Steve,” Clint says. “Steve Rogers is gonna break his spine bending over backwards to baby you, the way the two of you always do for each other. It would make his fucking day to road trip back with you, Bucky.”

                “Baby me,” Barnes says. “No one’s babying—”

                “And if you feel so shitty about my financial situation,” Clint continues, “you can chip in for gas.”

                Bucky glares at him. He should look stupid, standing under the fluorescent glow with his hat pulled over his eyes, pale and furious at damn near 10:00pm at night. But he just looks beautiful, the way he always looks beautiful, and Clint can’t honestly remember a time he was more pissed about that than he is right now.

                “I can’t drive your truck, Barton,” Barnes says, finally. He spits the words out like they leave a bad taste in his mouth. His chin jerks up afterwards, bracing for some kind of hit.

                Clint just blinks at him. “What the hell are you talking about?”

                Bucky heaves out an exasperated breath and gestures at his left side, where his missing arm should be. “I can’t drive a manual, Goddamn it. What do you expect me to do? Hold the steering wheel with my teeth? I’ve got one hand, Barton.”

                “Jesus, Buck,” Clint says. He hadn’t thought about it. He’s thinking about it now though. He’s thinking, also, that this probably explains why Bucky doesn’t drive his bike anymore.

                “Yeah,” Bucky says, still angry. “Yeah,” he says, a second later, not sounding angry anymore. Not sounding anything at all.

                Clint swallows. “Steve said you wouldn’t wanna drive anyway.”

                Bucky closes his eyes. He jerks his face away, and it’s hard to tell, in the weird yellow light, but it looks like maybe his blush gets worse. “I can drive just fine,” he says. “In the daylight. I can drive.”

                “I know you can,” Clint says. Hell, Bucky obviously got home somehow.

                It’s such a strange thing, coming up against something Bucky can’t do. There was a time when Clint thought Bucky could do anything.

                “Look,” Clint says. “I gotta be at work on Tuesday. I can’t lose this job. It’s seventeen hours there, and seventeen hours back. I don’t have time to fuck around with maybe getting a flight, maybe not. We’re taking my truck. I wasn’t gonna ask you to drive anyway.”

                Bucky’s jaw is a tense line. He’s holding his glass so tight that it’s shaking in his hand. Clint can see the tension in him, ratcheting tight.

                “I don’t need you to do this,” he says. “I can do it myself.”

                He could, maybe. But he hadn’t been planning to. He’d been drinking at the bar instead of chasing after a new arm, and Clint doesn’t even know what to do with that. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to read into it.

                “Okay,” Clint says. “Sure. But Steve asked me.”

                Bucky scowls. After a long moment, he sighs. And then he takes a fortifying slug of his beer and starts toward Clint’s truck. “Fucking Steve,” he growls, under his breath, and Clint nods along in agreement.

                Fucking Steve, he thinks.

 

- - -

 

                They make it out of the city limits without comment, hit the county road that’ll take them to the highway in silence. Bucky sips his beer with his eyes closed, breathing slow and steady. Every now and then, his eyes slide open, and he looks Clint’s way, eyebrows arched. He has an expression on his face like he’s waiting for Clint to say something stupid, pick some kind of fight, and so, finally, a little over half an hour in, as he’s sliding onto US-34 headed east, Clint gives him what he’s waiting for.

                “You wanna talk about it?” he asks.

                Bucky sighs. His beer is long empty, but he opens his eyes just to stare morosely at the glass. “Talk about what?”

                Clint tightens his fingers restlessly on the steering wheel. “About how Steve Rogers calls you, says he can get you a new arm, and you decide to go to flirt with Taylor fucking Floyd, instead?”

                “Fucking Floyd,” Bucky repeats, tone all mock-thoughtful. “You give him that nickname? He do anything special to earn it?”

                “No, I didn’t—fuck you, Barnes. We aren’t talking about Taylor. We’re talking about how Tony Stark wants to give you an arm, and you passed on that so you could get another round of Natty Light in at Maggie’s.”

                “I don’t drink Natty Light,” Bucky says. “Jesus. I’m not seventeen anymore.”

                As far as Clint can remember, Bucky didn’t drink much Natty Light back when they were seventeen, either. He always liked the sweeter stuff. Jack and Coke, when he could get it.

                 “Fine,” Clint says. “If you don’t wanna talk about it, you can pick the topic of discussion.”

                The look Bucky gives him is closed-off and mean. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s talk about why the fuck you’re still in Cardwell, doing fuck-all with your life, staying in your dead parents’ house. Let’s talk about that, Clint. Let’s talk about Georgia. What the fuck happened to that baseball scholarship?”

                Clint works his jaw and wishes Bucky had just hit him instead. If he’d hit him, Clint could’ve pulled over and dragged his ass out of the truck, and then they could’ve yelled and shoved at each other until things boiled over one way or the other. If Bucky had hit him, this weird, anxious, unsettled feeling would finally get decided.  

                Even Steve wouldn’t hate him, probably, if Clint called and said, “Sorry, I couldn’t take Bucky to New York, because he broke my fucking nose.”

                It probably wouldn’t go so well if he called and said he left Bucky on the side of the road because he hurt his feelings, though.

                Clint reaches over, turns the radio up. “Yeah,” he says, “changed my mind. Let’s just not talk at all.”

                “Great,” Bucky says, settling into his seat with an I told you so smile.

                Clint turns the music up until he can feel it in his teeth, so loud and wailing that it rattles in his throat, feels almost like he’s the one screaming, letting some of that poison bleed out.

 

- - -

 

                A little after midnight, they hit the interstate, merging onto 280 and then crossing into Illinois. Bucky’s been so quiet that Clint turned the music down to let him sleep, but he stirs when Clint pulls off the road to put some gas in the truck.

                “Hey,” Bucky says, sliding out of the passenger side, rubbing at his face. There’s a red mark down his cheek from resting against the door, and his hair is all flat down the right side. “You want anything?”

                Clint swallows and tries not to think about all the things he wants. “Sure. Maybe see if they’ve got any coffee.”

                Bucky nods and sets off, fumbling in his back pocket for his wallet. Clint, in a fit of half-hearted self-preservation, makes himself stop staring at Bucky’s ass after five seconds.

                “What the fuck am I doing?” he asks his truck. The truck does him the favor of judging him in silence.

                Clint breathes out and closes his eyes, listens to the steady click of the pump and the hushed, irregular hum of late night traffic. Seventeen and a half hours in a truck with Bucky Barnes. Well, probably only about fifteen and a half now.

                Only six and a half hours til halfway, he thinks, with an optimism that sounds hysterical in his own head.

                “I’m fucked,” he says, aloud, to no one.

                “You’re fucked?” Bucky repeats, materializing out of Goddamn nowhere. “You’re not the one who—shit, fuck, sorry.”

                Clint, who’d been in the process of putting the pump back into its cradle when Bucky decided to practice his ninja entrance, badly misses his target and smashes the nozzle into the concrete beam, instead.

                “Shit,” he says, as drops of gasoline splatter out onto the concrete. “Damn it, Barnes.”

                “I’m sorry,” Bucky says. He sounds it, too. Legitimately contrite. When Clint glances his way, his eyes are wide and serious. “I didn’t realize—still can’t hear?”

                “I hear fine,” Clint says, prickly and embarrassed for no reason at all. “Just wasn’t paying attention.”

                Bucky stares at Clint, intent and focused, concerned. And that look, right there, is the look that unlocked every secret Clint ever had, seven years back. That look said tell me, trust me, and I’ll take care of you.

                It’s probably not Bucky’s fault that his eyes keep making promises the rest of him can’t keep, but Clint still wishes like hell he’d find a way to make them stop.

                “Coffee?” he says, holding his hand out.

                Bucky has a travel cup in his hand and a plastic bag hanging around his wrist. He holds the cup out toward Clint. “Here.”

                Clint take a sip, expecting the burned-black bitterness of gas station coffee, and he’s hit, instead, with sugary chocolatey sweetness. He double-takes and then glances up at Bucky, who’s pokerfaced but turning red, just a little, along the blades of his cheekbones.

                “I put some hot chocolate in it,” he says, mumbling it out. He doesn’t sound ashamed, exactly. Embarrassed, maybe.

                “Oh,” Clint says.

                Years ago, when he couldn’t stomach anything bitter, he drank his coffee this way. He drinks it black now, doesn’t have time for anything that dilutes the pure rush of caffeine, but he finds that he is not at all inclined to pour it out and go back for stronger coffee.

                He wonders if there’s anyone else in the world who remembers – or cares – that Clint used to drink his gas station coffee mixed with hot chocolate.

                “It’s partial,” Clint says, without prompting. “The hearing loss. Most of it came back, but I can’t—if it’s too noisy, you know? If it’s loud, or if people are talking over each other. Or, sometimes, with kids or ladies with real high voices. I have trouble with things like that. Drop ‘s’ sounds, too. Sometimes.”

                And there’s no reason to share any of that. It doesn’t matter. It’s not Bucky’s problem. He should’ve just said I’m fine, it’s fine and moved on.

                Bucky blinks at him and then nods, slow. He looks, weirdly enough, relieved. “Okay,” he says. He smiles, and it’s small and stunted, a withered thing, but there’s some kick of light in his eyes that reminds Clint of the grins Bucky used to give him. “I’m glad to hear that. Steve said no one knew how bad it was.”

                Clint tips his head, thinks that over. “Steve asked people about me?”

                Bucky goes still, looks shifty. “Well,” he says, “Steve’s always in everyone’s business.”

                “Uh-huh,” Clint says. He bites back a grin, feels a weird thrill of happiness. “And you asked Steve about me?”

                Bucky scowls at him. “Are we going to New York or what?”

                “Sure,” Clint says, stepping back, gesturing at the door. “Sure, load up. Let’s go.”

 

- - -

 

                The tension that’s been keeping them quiet loosens up just enough for an almost casual back-and-forth. It can happen that way, after midnight. Clint’s had the majority of his most liberated discussions in the early hours of the morning, although he and Bucky didn’t use to need the excuse.

                They talk about mutual acquaintances, old friends. Bucky suckers him into an hour-long talk about baseball, and Clint balances things out by prodding Bucky into an elaborate lecture on the moral, ethical, fiscal, and sartorial failings of every one of his sister’s suitors. And then they spend a little time commiserating about the perils of knowing Steve Rogers, and it’s while they’re doing that, while they’re relaxed and comfortable, staring bleary-eyed into the slow march of dawn, that Bucky has his freakout.

                “There’s something in the road,” he says, softly, and Clint can hear him speaking, but he can’t quite make out what he’s saying. He only knows afterwards because Bucky repeats it immediately, louder, every muscle suddenly tensing up like he’s been electrocuted. “There’s something in the road.”

                And then Bucky, who’d been laughing fifteen seconds ago, is suddenly slamming his feet against the floorboards, stomping on imaginary brakes.

                “It’s trash,” Clint says, so surprised that his tone is all wrong, distant and flat, almost monotone. “Buck, it’s just--”

                And then they roll over it, just a dark trash bag on a dark road, and Bucky makes a noise in his throat and chest that Clint never, ever wants to hear again.

                There’s something infectious about panic, something primal. When Bucky breathes out, ragged and pained, Clint feels something stab deep into his own chest, rip upward toward his heart.

                “Buck?” he says, looking over at him.

                “Pull over,” Bucky says. His throat works; it’s the only part of him that moves, until he’s suddenly slamming his fist against the door, again and again. “Pull over, Barton. Pull the fuck--

                “Yeah,” Clint says, downshifting as quickly as he can, showing a really alarming level of disrespect to his truck in the process. “Yeah, Buck, I got you. Let me just—I’m stopping, Bucky. Take a breath.”

                Bucky bails out before the truck’s fully stopped, yanks free of his seatbelt, shoves the door open, and steps right out onto the asphalt. He stumbles, barely catches himself, and then dodges out into the grass beyond the highway.

                Clint parks the truck. He takes a few deep breaths and glances in the rearview. He can’t even make out the bag of trash anymore.

                Such a little stupid thing, he thinks.

                He gives Bucky sixty seconds before he gets out of the truck to join him. It’s too dark to tell if Bucky threw up, so he keeps himself a fair distance away, just in case. “Hey, Barnes,” he says.

                Bucky doesn’t say anything. He wraps his arm around himself, and Clint watches his chest expand and contract in a carefully controlled rhythm.

                After a long, ugly silence, Bucky talks. “Sorry,” he says.

                “Jesus.” Clint steps toward him. “Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Next time, I’ll just—I’ll drive around that stuff, Buck. I won’t drive over it anymore.”

                Bucky makes another terrible noise in the back of his throat and wipes angrily at his face, runs his hand up through his hair. “It’s fine, Barton. I’m fine.”

                Clint shoves his hands in his pockets to keep himself out of trouble. If he’s not careful, he’s going to get himself punched in the mouth for trying to hug a shocked-out Bucky Barnes.

                “So that’s what it was, huh?” he says, still staring at Bucky’s figure in the dark, lit up by the beginnings of dawn and the soft glow of the truck’s headlights. “That’s how you lost your arm? Drove over a bomb?”

                “I wasn’t driving,” Bucky says, eerily blank. “Driver lost more than his arm.”

                Clint chews on the side of his mouth. He wants to put his hands on Bucky’s shoulders, wants to pull him close, wants to tangle his fingers in Bucky’s hair and press his lips against his forehead. Wants to say, But, Bucky, you hate when people get hurt. Remember that time you found me bleeding? Remember how you cried?

                He can’t imagine. He can’t. Standing there, staring at the back of Bucky’s head, he can’t imagine how deeply it must’ve fucked Bucky up, having to watch someone he cared about die. He hopes like hell that Bucky doesn’t remember it, wasn’t awake for it, didn’t witness it at all.

                “Is that why you don’t want a new arm?” he asks. “Because you think—what? This other guy, he lost more than you did, so you don’t get to get better?”

                Bucky laughs, low and hollow. After a moment, he turns around to stare Clint right in the face. “What the fuck would you know about it, Clint?”

                Clint shakes his head. He wants, so badly, to get his arms around him, but he’s not quite selfish enough to piss Bucky off when he’s already so upset.

                “I wouldn’t know a Goddamn thing, Buck,” he says.

                Something shifts behind Bucky’s eyes, and he’s not angry anymore, but Clint’s never seen him look so tired. “No,” he says. “You wouldn’t.”

                He walks back toward the truck, slams the door shut, and Clint studies the muted orange-yellows of dawn for a while longer before he goes to join him.

 

- - -

 

                They’re cross from Indiana into Ohio, caught in that long stretch of almost nothing between South Bend and Toledo. Clint’s starting to feel like maybe he’s lived his entire life on I-90, headed east. His eyes ache, and his stomach is seasick from all the sugar and caffeine. They make it about forty-five minutes past the place where a trash bag upended Bucky entirely, and then Clint pulls off in some small town perched like a spiderweb over the highway.

                Bucky’s been silent but awake beside him, staring watchfully at the road. Fifteen miles back, Clint had come to a full stop to let a raccoon scamper its way safely across, and Bucky have given him a look like he was a coin flip away from either punching him in the face or kissing him on the mouth. And that, of course, is dangerous, so Clint’s calling it. They both need some sleep.

                “What?” Bucky asks, listless and vague, as they pull into the parking lot of the first motel with a lit vacancy sign.

                “Gotta sleep,” Clint says. Bucky sends him a suspicious look, and he shrugs. “I gotta sleep. Can’t drive anymore. Gonna fall asleep, take out someone on their way to church.”

                Bucky frowns a little, twists his empty beer glass in his hands. “Should’ve taken my truck,” he declares.

                “Sure,” Clint says, shoving the truck door open. “That would’ve solved all our problems.”

                He sets off for the building. After a second or two, he hears the passenger door open and shut and then quiet footsteps as Bucky moves to follow him.

                It’s a weird thing, being so tired this early in the morning. Feels like he’s staring at the world backwards. He hasn’t been up this early in years, unless he’s headed into work. His eyes feel swollen in his head, but his feet itch, like they think he needs to shower, get dressed, head in.

                The man behind the desk is fidgety and over-caffeinated, well-dressed but a little manic around the edges. He smiles at first, perfunctory and polite, but his eyes go thoughtful when they land on Bucky, and, when he looks back at Clint, he seems torn between amusement and pity.

                “Yeah,” Clint says, because a lot of people look at him that way, and he’s learned to take it in stride. “We need a room.”

                The man click-clacks at his computer for a second before saying, wry and a little arch, “You know, we don’t actually charge by the hour here.”

                Clint stares at him for a long moment, legitimately lost as to what his point is supposed to be. He thinks, for a second, that it would be convenient if they did, because he just needs three or four hours in an empty, quiet room to reset his brain.

                And then he glances back over at Bucky, who’s half-turned away from them, hand in his pocket, looking closed-off and uncomfortable, almost embarrassed.

                And he realizes what this might look like from an outside perspective. Two grown men washing up in a hotel lobby at six on a Sunday morning. No luggage, no bags. Trying to get away with something, maybe. Trying to sneak something in while their families are asleep, or at church.

                Clint thinks the proper response is not to be flattered as all hell that this guy thinks Bucky would sneak around with him, but he feels some of that anyway.

                “Wow,” he says, turning back. “It’s really not like that.”

                The man gives Clint another soft, pitying look. “Of course it isn’t,” he says. And then, before Clint can decide whose honor he’s supposed to defend here, he continues. “Checkout is at eleven. All we have available is a single king.”

                There’s a pause where Clint’s probably supposed to say something. He’s busy resigning himself to the trudge of going back to the truck, dragging Bucky with him, finding another hotel. He’s thinking maybe he can just sleep on one of these lobby couches, see how quickly the cops get called. Maybe the hit of adrenaline will be enough to keep him going til Toledo.

                “I assume that’s fine?” the man says, and there’s something about the angle of his eyebrows, the knowing drawl of his tone, that really pisses Clint off. “A single king?”

                And Clint, too tired to monitor his behavior and too much of a dumbass to keep his mouth shut, tips his head back and yells, clear across the lobby, “Hey, babe? Bad news. We only get to fuck in one bed this time.”

                Bucky snaps around like someone slapped his ass. For a second, the look he directs Clint’s way is strained and serious and unreadable. And then his eyes slide to the man behind the desk, and there’s a flash of understanding.

                Clint and the front desk clerk watch, transfixed, as Bucky makes his way over. Struts his way over, really. Clint wants to know who the hell authorized Bucky to move his hips like that. He doesn’t think it’s fair, honestly. Nobody should be allowed to walk across a hotel lobby like that. There needs to be a law. Clint’s going to petition his congressman, as soon as he gets home.

                He knows it’s a game. He knows it isn’t real.

                But there’s something about the way Bucky’s walking that makes it real difficult to call whether he’s going to smash Clint’s head into the desk or fuck him right over the top of it, and, as it turns out, nobody needs to call the cops. Clint could drive all the way to Bangor, Maine off the low, hungry twist of adrenaline Bucky just kicked awake in his belly.

                Bucky crowds Clint up against the desk and smiles thin and sharp at the clerk over Clint’s shoulder. “Can we get a room key?” he asks, polite as anything.

                The clerk just stares at them for a second, mouth a little open, and Clint doesn’t blame him, because Bucky’s hips, but he needs to get out of this situation before he gets himself into trouble. He hooks his thumb over his shoulder, gestures back behind them. “Or we could just take a couch.”

                “Oh, no,” the clerk says, suddenly snapping into action. “Not again.”

                There’s an exchange of plastic, and Clint honestly means to pay for the room, except his wallet is in his back pocket, and Bucky’s pressed against him from shoulder to ankle. To get his debit card, he’d have to full on grope Bucky, and he thinks, at this point, he probably shouldn’t do additional stress tests on his already limited self-control.

                Bucky pays and thanks the guy, and then he’s hauling Clint down the hallway toward the elevator, arm around his waist, low across his hips.

                “You’re such an asshole,” Bucky says, murmuring it out of the side of his mouth.

                “I’m an asshole?” Clint whispers back, as they wait for the elevator. “Jesus, just rip your pants off less time. It’d be less sexual.”

                “I walked across a room, Clint,” Bucky says and then leans forward to double-tap the call button, which they know both isn’t going to make it show up any faster.

                “You walked across a room like you were trying to start an orgy,” Clint counters. “I’ve known strippers too modest to walk like that.”

                Bucky breathes out, rolls his eyes. His arm is still curled tight around Clint. The elevator maybe doesn’t exist. “Well, no one made you look.”

                “Mother Theresa would’ve looked.”

                The elevator takes that moment to cheerfully ding! it’s arrival announcement. The doors open, and Clint steps forward, prepared to finally pull apart, but Bucky glances over his shoulder and must’ve seen something that challenged him, because he puts his hand on Clint’s hip and twists him, sends him stumbling backwards against the back wall.

                Bucky follows, presses close, chest-to-chest, and Clint stares up at him, wide-eyed and stunned. He licks his lips, on instinct, because nobody goes this close without kissing him. Bucky’s eyes drop to his mouth, and there’s a long, stretched-out eternity of tension, and then the doors slide shut behind them.

                “Fuck’s sake,” Bucky says, immediately pulling back. He reaches over to slap the button for the fourth floor, and Clint hastily straightens out his clothes even though they didn’t get all that rumpled in the first place. “You gotta start shit everywhere you go?”

                “He thought we were sneaking off for a pre-church quickie,” Clint says. “I was offended on your wife’s behalf.”

                “I’m not married,” Bucky says. “You know I’m not--”

                “I was offended,” Clint says, “by the suggestion that you’d cheat.”

                “You know, you could be the cheating asshole in this scenario.”

                “I mean,” Clint says, gesturing between the two of them. “I’m clearly the hot mistress on the side, Bucky, c’mon.”

                “We could both be cheating assholes,” Bucky says. “And you didn’t have to play into the whole thing.”

                “What the hell else was I gonna do? Tell him we were here for Bible study?”

                Bucky sighs. He sounds exasperated, but there’s a hint of a smile fighting to curl up one corner of his mouth. “‘We only get to fuck in one bed this time,’” he repeats. “Goddamn it, Clint.”

                Clint laughs, a high, half-muffled giggle he can’t quite manage to swallow back. “His face, though,” he says, not nearly as apologetic as he should be.

                Bucky heaves another louder sigh and rolls his eyes, but that smile’s breaking free, starting to show teeth. The elevator door opens, and he steps out into the hallway, spinning the hotel keycards in his hand as he studies the directional signs for a second before taking a sharp right.

                Clint bobs along in his wake, still giddy from sleep-deprivation and the stunt Bucky pulled, backing him against the wall like that.

                He hears Maggie, in his head, For once in your life, just try to act right.

                And it’s not that he doesn’t try. It’s just that, when it comes to Bucky, he’s never been any damn good at telling himself no.

 

- - -

 

                The hotel room is small. The bed is huge, but it’s not going to be big enough. Clint’s faced with the consequences of his actions as he stands at the foot of the bed, thinking about how badly he needs to sleep and how difficult that’s going to be, with Bucky right here beside him.

                “Well, shit,” he says. “I maybe didn’t think this through.”

                Bucky snorts. “I’m shocked. Stunned. Fucking astonished.”

                “Okay,” Clint says, “you could’ve not plastered yourself all over me. You could’ve not paid for a room. We could’ve just gone to another hotel.”

                “Damn, Barton,” Bucky says. “When’d you get so modest?”

                “I’m not modest,” Clint says, because that’s not what this is about. “You don’t think this is gonna be weird?”

                Bucky gives him a pained look. “Clint, everything with you is weird.”

                Clint hesitates, considers that all the way through. And then he shrugs, because, sure. Sure. He’s on a cross-country road trip with his high school sweetheart who got arrested on his behalf and then left him almost immediately after. He’s driving Bucky Barnes seventeen hours to New York City because Steve Rogers asked him to.

                It’s possible that he’s weird. But he’d challenge anyone to listen to Steve and tell him no, to look at Bucky and leave him in the wind.

                “I’m taking a shower,” Bucky announces.

                “Great,” Clint says, because he feels like he needs to say something.

                Bucky turns and walks into the bathroom without further comment. A few seconds later, the water turns on.

                Clint considers the bed for a while, but it refuses to obligingly split in half. He decides, after some additional reflection, that it’ll probably be less weird to be the person already in bed than it will to be the person who has to climb in second. He ditches his boots and his socks and his shirt, and he dithers around for a bit, trying to decide if he can sleep in his jeans.

                He can’t, though. And he’s so Goddamn tired. He needs to get Bucky to New York later today, and he’s got about nine and a half hours of drive time left, and he’s tired.

                He takes off his jeans, throws them onto the pile of his other clothes, and crawls in bed in his boxers. Bucky can make it weird if he wants. Bucky can stay up for the four and a half hours they have before checkout if he wants. Clint’s going to sleep.

                And he does sleep, almost immediately. It hits like a truck, takes him under. It can’t be more than fifteen minutes before Bucky comes out of the bathroom, but Clint’s dazed, has a difficult time resurfacing. When he rolls over, looking toward the noise, he’s genuinely confused about where he is and why a mostly-naked Bucky Barnes is walking his way.

                “Hey,” Clint says. It comes out muzzy and low.

                Bucky’s mouth quirks up. There’s something cagey in his eyes, in the careful way he’s holding himself. “You already asleep?”

                “Was,” Clint says. He shifts around under the sheets. His eyes slip closed. When he reopens them, Bucky’s maneuvering his way into bed.

                And that’s, yeah. That’s a lot of scar tissue. Ugly and red and raised. That’s a whole Goddamn arm they had to cut off, clear back at the shoulder.

                “Hey,” Clint says, fighting sleep, trying to focus. He can’t make himself sit up; he can’t speak without slurring his words together. He wonders if he’s dreaming. “Hey, Buck, I’m sorry. You know? God, I’m sorry. Sorry every fucking day.”

                Bucky stares at him for a second and then rolls over, turns his back to him. “Go to sleep, Clint,” he says.

                “Sorry,” Clint says, one last time.

                Bucky doesn’t say anything. There’s the soft clatter of his phone hitting the bedside table, and then the sharper click of the lamp turning off.

                Clint stares up at the ceiling and tries to formulate, with the few brain cells he can rally together, the perfect way to express how fucking sorry he is.

                He passes out again instead.

 

- - -

 

                He wakes up, and the universe still hates him. Bucky is curled against him, bare chest pressed to Clint’s back, arm around his waist, face mashed into his shoulder. He’s warm and steady and definitely asleep, breathing soft and even.

                Bucky’s fingers keep twitching in his sleep, dragging slow across Clint’s belly, and it’s not Clint’s fault. It’s biology. Anyone would wake up in this condition if they woke up in this situation.

                Clint summons all he has ever learned about etiquette and tries to puzzle out the polite way to tell his sleeping ex that he needs to stop cuddling him so Clint can go jerk off in the shower. Thirty seconds later, he still has nothing, although he’s getting increasingly uncomfortable. He thinks, maybe, what he’s honor-bound to do is spontaneously combust and rid the world of his presence.

                He tries squirming free, fidgets experimentally, but Bucky huffs in sleepy annoyance and drags Clint in closer.

                Which is how Clint realizes that Bucky’s going to have a similar problem, as soon as he wakes up.

                I don’t deserve this, Clint thinks, desperately. I made one joke. I made a joke.

                The hotel clerk can laugh himself right to hell as far as Clint’s concerned. He’ll probably meet him there.

                Bucky shifts, murmuring something wordless right into the skin of Clint’s shoulder, and then his hips move, small uncoordinated movements that probably don’t technically count as grinding against Clint’s ass.

                His fingers tighten on Clint’s stomach, and Clint makes a quiet, involuntary noise in the back of his throat, and that’s when he realizes he needs to stop this.

                “Jesus Christ, Bucky,” he says, nudging at Bucky with his elbow. “I’m not going commando for the rest of this road trip. Wake the fuck up.”

                Bucky makes a startled sleepy noise. It’s adorable. It’s not adorable enough to forgive the fact that he is still touching Clint.

                “If you make me come in my boxers,” Clint says, “I’m kicking your ass.”

                Bucky’s eye slide open. “Fuck you,” he mumbles.

                “Yeah, I wish. That’s the problem,” Clint says. “Bucky, c’mon.”

                And Bucky’s an asshole when he first wakes up. He’s always been an asshole. He shoves himself up on his elbows, hair pointing every direction, and then he drags his eyes down the whole stretch of Clint, from the flush across his chest to the obvious tent in his boxers. He stares for a second and then he smirks.

                “You were always so easy.”

                And, hell, look at that. Clint wasted all that time trying to patch together the etiquette, when he could’ve just solved his problem by daydreaming all the terrible, shitty things Bucky could say to him.

                “Fuck off,” Clint says, pushing himself up and away, dropping his head, clenching his jaw.

                “Hey,” Bucky says. “That’s not—shit, I didn’t mean it like that.”

                “Oh, sorry,” Clint says. “Guess I’m too stupid and slutty to pick up on fucking nuance at shitfuck o’clock in the morning after driving eight hours to get your ass to New York. Guess I’m too stupid and easy to--”

                Bucky kisses him, full on the mouth, hand scrambling across Clint’s skin to wrap around his hip, and Clint wants to pull away, wants to shove him back, wants to cling to some kind of pride and self-preservation, but he just melts instead, going damn near limp as Bucky guides him back onto the bed.

                “I meant,” Bucky says, “that you were always easy for me.”

                And that’s the truth, obviously, or Clint wouldn’t be in this situation. “Sure,” Clint says. This close, Bucky’s eyes are the same brilliant blue they used to be. This close, Clint can’t even see all the damage that’s been done.

                “I’m not saying it right,” Bucky says. He’s kissing him again, pressing what feels like an apology to the side of Clint’s throat.

                “Okay,” Clint says. Because it doesn’t matter what Bucky says to him. Bucky could’ve spent that eight-hour drive reciting a list of every single one of Clint’s flaws, and Clint still would’ve ended up here, flat on his back with Bucky leaning over him, if Bucky gave the slightest indication that he was interested.

                “Damn it,” Bucky says. It’s almost a growl. “I’m fucking this up.”

                “Maybe,” Clint says. He feels weirdly checked out. He can feel his pulse hammering in his throat, and he’s really hoping Bucky’s going to stick his hand down his boxers, and he also thinks, maybe, his heart is breaking clean in half. “Hey, can I blow you?”

                Because he thinks he wants to. At the very least, it’ll keep him from saying anything stupid for a while.

                Bucky pulls back to stare at him. There’s another terrible look in his eyes, different from the one after the incident on the road. This one’s just as lonely, but it seems achier, less visceral. Like scar tissue, maybe. Closed up, healed over.

                Jesus, Clint can’t keep up with his own mind.

                Bucky’s quiet for too long, so long that Clint’s twisting uneasily beneath him, feeling way more naked than he did fifteen seconds ago, and then he curls his fingers carefully around Clint’s chin and tips his face to the side.

                He leans in, crowding so close that Clint can’t breathe in unless Bucky breathes out, and then he presses a kiss above Clint’s ear, where his hair hides all of the old scars. “I think,” Bucky says, too soft for any kind of tone at all, “that this is a bad idea.”

                Clint shivers. He thinks about how he got those scars. He thinks about Bucky, blood on his hands, tears on his face. He thinks about hearing screams from one side of the world and nothing at all from the other.

                “I can’t,” Clint says, suddenly squirming, thrashing. “I can’t, Bucky. C’mon. Get--”

                Bucky’s gone in a second, clear on the other side of the bed. “Hey,” he says, voice all gentle. “Hey, you’re okay.”

                Clint breathes out. He’s just all mixed up, is the problem. He was asleep, and then he was awake, and then Bucky was all over him, and then he was thinking about--- well. His emotions are all over the place. He’s tired.

                He draws his knees up to his chest, breathes in.

                “It’s okay,” Bucky tells him. “It fucked me up, too.”

                And it did. God knows it did. It cost him his arm.

                “I’m sorry,” Clint says. “I know you don’t wanna hear it. You never did. But I am. Jesus, Buck, I’m so fucking sorry.”

                Bucky makes a sharp, dismissive noise, hisses air in over his teeth. “I don’t wanna hear it from you,” Bucky says, “because you didn’t do anything. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, Clint. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I left. I’m sorry--”

                “You had to,” Clint says. “They made you.”

                “Sure,” Bucky says. “But I could’ve come back. I could’ve done anything other than what I did. I could’ve chosen not to fight your dad like that, in the middle of the day, in broad daylight. I could’ve stayed with you, like you asked me to.”

                Clint blinks. He doesn’t remember asking Bucky to stay. He doesn’t remember most of that afternoon.

                It all went so bad so quickly. His dad hadn’t hit him like that in a long time, not since Barney got big enough to stare him dead in the eyes. And it could’ve been anything that pissed him off, probably, but it happened to be that Jodie Shepherd’s daughter had seen him and Bucky making out at a party and decided to run her mouth about it to her mom and then Jodie had told Clint’s dad, laughing like it was cute or forgivable, probably not knowing that his dad wouldn’t see it as either one, and then Clint hadn’t denied it, hadn’t apologized for it, hadn’t promised to stop.

                He’d been proud, actually. For two years, he’d been incredibly, deliriously proud that Bucky had looked at him and seen something worth keeping.

                And if Clint’s dad had a problem with Bucky, he could go to hell.

                He had, eventually, three years later when he wrapped his truck around a tree, but, that afternoon, what he did instead was wrap his hand around the side of Clint’s head and smash him, temple-first, into the kitchen counter.

                Clint doesn’t remember the hit, or the ones that came after, or the fight that followed, when Barney came out of his room and dragged their dad off him. He remembers waking up on the kitchen floor, and he remembers falling into bed, and he remembers Bucky’s raised, choked-off voice as he found him, blood all over his pillow, dizzy and dazed and deaf in one ear.

                He remembers Bucky hauling him into the shower. He remembers asking him to turn off the lights. He remembers Bucky crying with Clint’s blood on his hands, streaked down his chest, saying, “It won’t stop bleeding, Clint. I don’t know what to do.”

                And then, after the shower, after Bucky got him dry and dressed, when Bucky was trying to get him into the car to take him to the ER, he remembers his dad coming back and finding them together in the driveway.

                Barney told him about the fight, later. “Your boy did well for himself,” he said, half-admiring, half-rueful. “You should be proud.”

                Clint was always proud.

                But what he remembers is Clint’s dad backhanding Bucky across the face, knocking him down, and then Bucky coming up out of the dirt with a face Clint didn’t know. He remembers being confused and weak, remembers ending up on his knees in his own driveway while Mrs. Peterson – who was fresh to the neighborhood, who didn’t know any better – called the cops.

                He remembers the flash of red and blue. He remembers Bucky, busted knuckles, blood on his skin.

                Later, Clint woke up in the hospital with Barney beside him, looking pale and tired and too old for twenty. Later, he heard all kinds of things.

                The truth, even now, is a hard thing to parse. He was concussed and isolated, quarantined away from the trouble in the hopes that it would somehow help him get better faster.

                From what he understands, he could’ve solved everything by testifying against his dad. But he didn’t do that. And Barney didn’t either. And the judge looked at Bucky’s nonexistent record and said, “You know, son, the Army’s a good place to straighten yourself out.”

                And Steve Rogers went with him, of course, because he was Steve Rogers, and nobody in the world was going to stop him from doing what was right.

                Clint doesn’t remember asking Bucky to stay with him that afternoon. He’d like to think some part of him was smart enough to see how things would play out, but, realistically, he was a kid with a fresh concussion, blood and vomit in the back of his throat, clinging to the only anchor he had, and he was probably just scared to be left alone.

                “You ever wish you could go back?” Clint asks, tipping his head back until it rests against the headboard. “Just go back and not talk to me at that party? Go back and make it so that none of it ever happened?”

                Bucky takes a breath. He’s quiet for a moment. When Clint looks over, he’s smiling, but his eyes are all wrong. Sad, and distant, and resigned. “Never,” he says.

                “Fuck off,” Clint says, quiet. “I wish it all the time.”

                Bucky’s smile gets wider, but his lonely eyes don’t change. “By the time you talked to me at that party,” he says, “I was already half in love with you.”

 

- - -

 

                Bucky gets dressed, and Clint takes a shower, and then they check out of their room with thirty minutes to spare. There’s a different person behind the desk, a sweet-faced woman who calls them both honey and wishes them safe travels.

                Clint’s eyes are dry and itchy, and the last thing he wants to do is get back in the truck and start driving. He makes himself do it anyway.

                “Let’s get breakfast,” Bucky says, the minute Clint starts the truck. “And coffee.”

                “God bless and keep you,” Clint breathes out. Because he was ready to get back on the road, but he is endlessly grateful for a temporary reprieve.

                And, anyway, it’s probably safer for the whole damn state of Ohio if he gets some food and coffee in him before he starts trying to navigate their roads.

                They find a diner on the way out of town, and nobody looks twice at them as they settle into a booth. They’re rumpled and sleepy-eyed, but reasonably clean, even if this is technically their second day in the same clothes.

                “So what happened to Georgia?” Bucky ask, ten seconds or so after the waitress takes their orders and leaves mugs of beautiful, fresh, pitch black coffee behind.

                “Shit,” Clint says, rubbing at his eyes. “Do we have to?”

                “Might as well,” Bucky says, pokerfaced, as he pours three separate containers of cream into his coffee.

                And, sure, they might as well. If Clint’s lucky, he’s going to drop Bucky in Steve’s care, and then never have to see or speak to him again.

                “I tried to join up, too,” Clint says. “After I heard you and Steve did. Thought maybe we could all go to basic together.”

                Bucky looks up from his coffee cup. “Bullshit you did,” he says, sounding startled. “You had a brain injury.”

                “Yeah, well.” Clint shrugs. “It didn’t work, obviously. I walked in, and I still had staples in my head. Most of my hearing hadn’t come back yet, and, even when it did, it wasn’t enough. They didn’t want me.”

                Buck stares at Clint with a pinched, dubious expression, the kind people wear when they’re watching kids play on treacherous ground. Finally, he shakes his head. “Jesus. Well, I’m glad that didn’t pan out.”

                Clint snorts. “Wow,” he says. “Thanks.”

                Bucky rolls his eyes and does not appear the slightest bit apologetic. “You could still play baseball, though. Right? Had a whole summer to recover. And the school would’ve waited for you. I mean, shit, Clint. I remember how good you were.”

                Clint drums his fingers on the table, fidgets in his seat. “Sure,” he says. “Could’ve played. Could’ve gone.”

                Bucky just stares at him. For a full minute, and then a second one. Finally, he sighs. “Jesus Christ, Barton. And you act like the thing with my arm is bad.”

                And maybe that’s fair. Maybe they’re both idiots.

                But, at the time, Clint was still making deals with the universe, offering up every beautiful thing he knew, hoping, if he paid enough, it would somehow set things right. And maybe it was stupid and shortsighted to trash his own future. But, even then, he hadn’t wanted a future. Even then, back when everything was fresh, back before the concussion faded, he never had any interest in going forward.

                All he wanted, ever, was to go back.

                “It wasn’t a great time for me,” Clint says, remembering. “I was dizzy for weeks. Couldn’t look at bright lights.”

                “Yeah, because your piece of shit dad cracked your fucking skull.”

                “Hey,” Clint says. “Quieter, okay? Jesus.”

                Bucky glowers at him. “You know, Clint, that’s the part I never understood. Remember Alvarez? Kellan Rollins messed with that kid once, and you were screaming about it for weeks. Fought him twice over it, remember? Once to make him apologize and then again because you said he didn’t ‘do it right’--”

                Clint huffs. “It was a half-assed apology, and you know it.”

                “Sure, fine. Whatever. Point is, someone does something shitty in front of you, and you’re all over it. You can’t let it go. Someone does something shitty to you? And it’s all quiet. It’s silence. You don’t say a damn thing.”

                “You pissed I didn’t say anything afterwards? Didn’t testify? Didn’t tell those cops? That what you’re mad about?”

                “No,” Bucky says. “Yes. A little. But only because you chose that moment, of all moments, to keep your mouth shut, and then I wasn’t around—I mean, did it keep happening? After I left?”

                Clint stares at him. He gets flashes of things he’d rather forget, things he’s spent years carefully cutting out of his mind. “Jesus, Barnes,” he says. “Is this really polite brunch conversation to you? Hey, let’s rehash your little traffic mishap. When your fucking arm came off, how’d it feel? Let’s discuss that over biscuits, you nosy shithead.”

                Behind him, a woman pointedly clears her throat.

                “Sorry, ma’am,” Clint says, on impulse.

                “Forgive us,” Bucky says, a second later. “We’re practicing for community theater.”

                Clint makes a face and doesn’t laugh. The waitress comes by to refill his coffee, and he drains half of it before he can make himself take a few sips of water.

                “Look,” he says. “If you’re worried about what happened after you left, don’t be. Barney and I moved out. And then, after the accident, Mom left us the house, and it was paid off, so. We moved back.”

                Bucky’s blinks, and then slowly nods. “Okay. That’s good.”

                “And before you get all righteous about what I did or didn’t talk about, maybe go back in your memory to freshman year, when Steve was ninety-six pounds, and think about that speech he gave in the locker room.”

                Bucky’s mouth goes flat. “That little shit,” he says. “I still can’t believe he did that.”

                That was the moment that sold Clint on Steve Rogers. That was the moment Steve became one of Clint’s personal saints, an almost holy figure in Clint’s eyes, albeit a complicated, impulsive one with a hell of a mouth.

                Because tiny blonde Steve, pre-growth spurt, had climbed onto one of the benches in the locker room and announced, in front of the whole damn junior varsity team, that he was bi, and he expected their support but would accept their tolerance, and if anyone had any Goddamn problems with it, he himself had no problems relieving them of their teeth.

                And maybe some of the guys believed him, but the rumor they’d all heard by then was that Bucky had been caught making out with a male upperclassmen two days ago, and so, really, it was anyone’s guess whether it was a genuine confession or just Steve being Steve, jumping on any grenade he could find.

                Either way, it led to a whole series of problems, not the least of which was a full-scale riot in the locker room a few days later that landed the entire team in detention for two weeks. And the whole time the team was figuring out whether they could stand to have Steve Rogers around, Bucky never said a damn thing about what he was or wasn’t.

                “That was different,” Bucky says, although he doesn’t seem inclined to elaborate as to how. “And you should’ve gone to Georgia.”

                Clint makes a face. “Sorry to disappoint, Buck.”

                Bucky sighs. He looks persecuted, like Clint’s the one being difficult. “I’m not disappointed in you, Clint. I just wish you’d cut yourself some fucking slack. I wish you’d let yourself go do something with your life.”

                “I do plenty with my life,” Clint says. Although he doesn’t, not really, but that’s his choice to make.

                Bucky’s eyes cut away. Across the room, the waitress is coming back with plates loaded with breakfast food. Clint honestly can’t tell if it’s the sight of all that bacon or the clean, straight line of Bucky’s jaw that makes his mouth water.

                “Well, anyway,” Bucky says, a second later, “it’s Georgia’s loss. You’re still the best pitcher I’ve ever seen.”

                There’s a joke about pitching just waiting to made. It’s dirty and tacky and will probably get Clint shushed by that lady all over again.

                He doesn’t make it. It’s not that he’s matured, and it’s not that he’s finally learned better than to make sexual jokes to people who can break his heart by breathing.

                Mostly it’s just that he likes how Bucky says it. He likes the honesty in it. He likes the memory of a younger version of himself, a version of himself that was good at something, had something he cared enough about to work at.

                He lets memories of senior year settle over him, the long hours staying late to practice because no one but Bucky, Barney, Steve, and his coach ever cared where he was, those two separate no-hitters he pitched early in the season, the late night bus rides where he’d fall asleep with his head on Bucky’s shoulder. The scouts, the recruiters, the phone calls.

                That forward-motion feeling, like he was standing with his feet on the edge of a cliff. Dawn starting to break and a door swinging open and a whole world, just waiting for him to step into it.

                He gave up a lot, he realizes. He lost a lot.

                Well, but Bucky lost an arm, and Clint’s never heard him bitch about it.

                “Eat your damn eggs,” he says. “We gotta get back on the road.”

 

- - -

 

                Bucky pays for breakfast while Clint’s in the bathroom, and there’s no damn reason for him to be annoyed by that, but he manages it anyway. Bucky also sweet-talks the waitress into to-go cups with more coffee, and Clint minds that a little less. He nurses the coffee through the first half hour of driving, sipping slowly as they wind their way eastward, back on I-90.

                They’re a couple hours into their trek across Ohio when Clint’s phone rings.

                “The hell?” Clint says, because nobody actually calls him anymore.

                “It’s your brother,” Bucky says, glancing at the screen before handing it over. “You tell him where you were?”

                “Did you tell your sister where you are?” Clint returns, as he hastily reaches for the phone.

                “Texted Becca,” Bucky says, smirking a little. “Last night, when we left the bar.”

                Clint rolls his eyes and is still grumbling when lifts the phone to his face. “Hey, Barney,” he says, “what’s--”

                “Hey, Clint,” Barney says, with the kind of edged cheer that generally means Clint’s done something to really piss him off. “You out at the grocery store? Do me a favor and grab some more bread, okay?”

                Clint winces. He holds the phone closer to his face, curls his hand around the speaker to direct the sound away from Bucky. “Okay,” he says, “so you’re pissed.”

                Barney laughs. “Why would I be pissed? I’m proud of your initiative. Any asshole can have their life fucked-up by a shitty drunk father. It takes a real fucking go-getter to go seek out the guy who broke your stupid heart and--”

                “He didn’t--” Clint cuts himself off, sends an anxious glance Bucky’s way. To his credit, Bucky is fiddling very industriously with the radio. “Jesus, Barney, it’s fine. I’m just doing the guy a favor. I’ll be back on Tuesday.”

                “Doing the guy a—put Barnes on the phone.”

                “Like hell,” Clint says. “Absolutely not. Go fuck yourself.”

                “You go fuck yourself,” Barney says and then immediately hangs up. Clint drops his phone into the empty cup-holder and forces back the urge to bash his own face into the steering wheel. 

                “How’s Barney?” Bucky asks. “Sounds like he’s feeling energetic this morning.”

                Clint snorts. Energetic.

                He opens his mouth to redirect the conversation, and, at that exact moment, Bucky’s phone starts ringing.

                “Oh shit,” Clint says. “Is that Barney? Don’t answer it.”

                Bucky grabs his phone and studies the screen for a second. “Unknown number.”

                Clint swipes for the phone. “Just give me—fuck off, Barnes, you don’t want to talk to him anyway.”

                Bucky shoves himself back against the passenger door. He props the phone between his face and shoulder and slaps at Clint’s grabbing hand. “Hey,” he says, into the phone, “this is--- oh, shit, sure. We can just launch right into it.”

                Clint groans. “Buck,” he says, “come on.”

                “Watch the road,” Bucky says, a little sharp, and Clint begrudgingly turns to stare out at the entirely uneventful highway while Bucky has a very terse discussion with his brother.

                Bucky’s end of things is mostly contained to a few grumbles of acknowledgement, a whole series of non-committal “uh-huh” and “sure” and “mhm,” but there are a few spicier comments toward the end. Things seem to go downhill around the time Bucky huffs out an irritated breath and says, “You know, Barney, I don’t actually need both arms to kick your ass.”

                “Jesus,” Clint says, “just hang up on him. Fuck’s sake.”

                “Yeah,” Bucky says, straightening in his seat. “I’ll fucking do that, Barney, thanks.”

                When he finally hangs up, he turns to scowl ferociously out the window. “Your brother’s a real sweetheart, Clint.”

                And yeah, Clint knows that. Barney’s an asshole. He was trained into it. He was the bulwark between Clint and his dad, took more hits than Clint ever did, and he took them earlier. Sometimes Clint looks at Barney, and all he sees is his dad’s clenched jaw and angry, narrowed eyes. But they are their mother’s sons, too, and it shows, sometimes, in the fraught, frustrated, usually ineffectual way they try to look after each other.

                “Well,” Clint says, “I told you not to answer the phone.”

                Bucky snorts. His expression is drawn and serious. He doesn’t seem in a rush to tell Clint what the conversation was about.

                Clint drums his fingers on the steering wheel and calculates the odds of being able to send a quick text to Barney for details without Bucky losing his absolute shit about it. He’s been a stickler for undistracted driving so far, and Clint can’t say he blames him, but he still wants to know what the hell he and Barney talked about for five minutes.

                He decides not to, mostly because Barney probably wouldn’t tell him anyway.

 

- - -

 

                Five hours in, just past Clearfield, Pennsylvania, they stop at a truck stop for snacks and fuel. Clint’s tired again, and the sun’s winding down toward the horizon, and it’s strange to think that twenty-four hours ago, he was headed home from work, planning a lazy weekend in. He paces while the truck fills up, legs stiff and achey from all the time spent sitting down. He stretches, arms up, working out the tension in his shoulders, and, when he opens his eyes, Bucky’s leaning back against the side of the truck, staring at him.

                Bucky’s eyes are thoughtful, mouth pulled up in an appreciative smile, and Clint can feel himself blushing, just a little. It feels like being young again.

                A few hours ago, they were all wrapped up together in a hotel bed, skin on skin, mouth on mouth.

                Clint clears his throat. That blush is getting worse.

                “You get any coffee?” he asks.

                Bucky holds up a four pack of Red Bulls. “Thought we’d switch it up.”

                Clint shrugs, winds his way closer. When he gets near, Bucky sets the pack on top of the truck so he can snap one loose from its plastic holder. It’s cold when he passes it over, condensation sweating on the aluminum.

                “Road trips are weird,” Clint announces, still kind of staring at Bucky’s mouth as he uses his thumbnail to pop open the can.

                Bucky laughs. His hair is smashed flat from the hat he keeps taking on and off, pulling low over his eyes so he can pretend to sleep while Clint drives. His shirt is wrinkled up from sitting in one position for too long, and Clint thinks it looks soft, worn-in.

                “I know,” Bucky tells him. He looks like he can commiserate with the strange, rootless feeling Clint’s been fighting for hours. “Interstate highways are liminal spaces, right? Not really places on their own. Just between somewhere and somewhere else.”

                Bucky was always the smart one. It figures he’d know a phrase like liminal space, while Clint’s just standing there, feeling like Cardwell is real and New York is real but this place, right now and right here, doesn’t exist at all.

                Places that don’t exist don’t have rules. It’s a dangerous way to feel, but nice. Liberating, maybe. Hopeful. There’s breathing room out here.

                “Hey,” he says, “are truck stop bathrooms liminal spaces, too?”

                Bucky raises a single eyebrow. He looks like he’s waiting for a joke, which makes sense, because truck stop bathrooms.

                “Wanna go make out?” Clint asks.

                Bucky laughs, throws his head back, and Clint wants to run his tongue up the long stretch of his throat, wants to get his teeth in the soft juncture between neck and shoulder.

                “In the bathroom,” Bucky says, still laughing. “Christ.”

                He reaches out and tugs Clint in, hand catching at Clint’s shirt, and Clint goes obligingly, maybe a bit overeager to get his mouth on Bucky’s.

                They crash together, there in front of God and every trucker in the lot. Bucky tastes like the Coke he must’ve picked up inside, and Clint shivers, caught up in the memories of being young, when Bucky tasted the exact same way. All that’s missing is the bite of cheap whiskey, and then they could be sixteen all over again, hiding in someone’s barn, sweating and shining and laughing.

                Clint gets his hand on Bucky’s ass. He can’t be blamed. Anybody – anybody – would do the exact same thing.

                Someone honks. A second later, someone yells. “Goddamn it! Get a room!”

                 Clint pulls back, snickering, and Bucky slowly tips his head to level a truly menacing glare in the direction of whoever just yelled at them.

                “You boys can stay!” someone else calls out. A woman, grinning over the hood of her truck two spaces over. From the passenger seat, a man holds up a five-dollar bill.

                “Jesus Christ,” Clint says, still laughing.

                “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Bucky says. His lips are wet, a little redder than before. If they don’t get out of here right now, Clint’s going to add an arrest in Pennsylvania to his record.

                “Shit,” he says. “Get in the truck.”

 

- - -

 

                They don’t talk about it. They get back in the truck, and Clint gets back on I-80 eastbound, and they drink their Red Bulls in a friendly, fizzy silence, sharing sideways looks every couple dozen miles.

                Clint has no idea what the hell he’s doing, except breaking his own stupid heart. But it feels nice in the moment, and it’s been so long that he’s felt something like this that he just keeps letting it happen.

                Liminal space, he thinks, holds it up like a shield against all the parts of him that know better.

                They get dinner in a mid-size town in New Jersey, when they can feel the urbanized sprawl starting to press back against them. They sit across from each other in a booth, and Clint nudges his ankle against Bucky’s every time he wants another bright, knowing smile. He pays for dinner with money he doesn’t really have, but God knows it’s not the first time he’s given Bucky something he couldn’t afford to lose.

                When they climb back into the truck with something like sixty minutes left of their trip, Bucky calls Steve to check in. Clint gets back on I-80, lets his phone guide him toward I-95, and doesn’t even bother to pretend like he isn’t listening to Bucky’s end of the conversation.

                They’re headed to Manhattan, apparently. Right up to Stark Tower.

                “Shit,” Clint says, when Bucky hangs up. Stark Tower. He looks at Bucky out the corner of his eyes, tries to gauge his expression. “So how long has Steve been blowing Stark?”

                “Fuck off,” Bucky says, huffing out a short, exasperated sigh. He’s frowning, glaring out his window at some family in a station wagon.

                “Oh wait,” Clint says. “Really? Is he really? Is he--”

                “No,” Bucky says, resolute. And then, “Shit, I don’t know. Steve met him at a party on Friday.”

                Clint blinks. “What the fuck happened at this party? What kinda Steve Rogers bullshit is that? He meets a guy on Friday, and he gets you a new arm by Monday?”

                “Maybe,” Bucky says. “Maybe gets me an arm, Clint. Christ. It’s some kind of prototype trial. Who knows if I’ll even qualify? But Steve thinks—I mean, you know how he is. He’d knock a brick wall down with his face if he thought it was in his way.”

                “Yeah,” Clint says, “I really don’t think that’s what he’s doing with his face right now.”

                Bucky laughs and then shoots him a sour, unimpressed scowl. “You’re such an asshole.”

                Clint shrugs. He chances a glance Bucky’s way, ready to drop it if Bucky looks legitimately annoyed. But he looks worried instead. Tense and uneasy. He’s rubbing at his shoulder under the folded-up sleeve of his shirt, working his thumb into the mass of scar tissue under his collarbone.

                “Hey,” Clint says, into the unhappy silence. “You think Steve could get me a new Stark phone? I mean, if he’s already making trades.”

                “Goddamn it,” Bucky says, startled into another laugh. “Cut it out.”

                “It’s not out of his way!” Clint says, pressing against the driver’s side door when Bucky goes to punch him in the arm. “I mean, if he’s already on his knees, maybe when his mouth’s not full, he could ask--”

                “So help me,” Bucky says, half-yelling, “I will throw you out of this truck.”

                Clint breaks off, grinning. He’s proud of the smile on Bucky’s face, feels a strange surge of relief, like he’s was the one who has anything to worry about. “Pretty short-sighted,” Clint says. “Since you can’t actually drive this truck.”

                 Bucky swivels to stare at him, and he’s trying for menacing, has the furrowed brow and narrowed eyes in place. But he’s fighting back a smile, holding it back with his teeth, and his eyes are bright and laughing, and Clint desperately wants to kiss him.

                He has less than an hour left. He really, really needs to get his shit together.

 

- - -

 

                They drive into the parking garage under Stark Tower, expecting to encounter all sorts of problems, but the guard studies Clint’s truck for half a second before waving them through, and, by the time they’re climbing out of the truck, a beautiful woman with red hair and a perfectly tailored pencil skirt is moving their way, heels clacking on the concrete.

                “Mr. Barnes?” she says, smiling politely at Bucky.

                “Um,” Bucky says, blinking. He looks lost, confused. For the first time, he looks like maybe he’s starting to believe this is going to happen.

                “Yep,” Clint says, when the silence goes a beat too long. “That’s him. And I’m Clint.”

                “Mr. Barton,” she says, with another smile. She holds her hand out to him. “I’m Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s personal assistant.”

                “Hi,” Clint says. She has a hell of a handshake. Well, from what Clint’s seen in the media, she has a hell of a job.

                She shakes Bucky’s hand next, and then she’s leading them toward an elevator. “The rest of the candidates are arriving tomorrow,” she says, “but Steve mentioned you were coming into town tonight, so Tony figured--”

                “Is Steve here?” Bucky blinks when he realizes he’s interrupted her, and he doesn’t blush, but he gets a little pale and closed-off. “Sorry.”

                “That’s alright.” She’s good at being gentle without seeming like it, Clint realizes. Or maybe she’s just nice. “He’s here, yes. He’s with Tony.”

                Clint coughs into his fist and doesn’t say a damn thing, because they are in the presence of a lady. And also because Bucky sends him a look like he might make Clint stay in the elevator if he causes any problems.

                She delivers them right into Tony Stark’s workshop, and Clint is frozen on the threshold, staring around him at the cars, and the gadgets, and what appears to be an honest-to-God robot spinning around with a fire extinguisher in its grip.

                “Holy shit,” he says.

                “Oh, look, it’s the Iowa contingent.” And that is Tony Stark, real and breathing, standing there in a Metallica t-shirt and dark jeans. “Good Lord. Do they have an eye color that isn’t blue steel in Iowa?”

                Clint – because he has a coping mechanism that Bucky used to call panic flirting – winks over at him. “Nice of you to notice.”

                “Couldn’t miss it,” Tony says, grinning back. “Don’t worry, Rogers,” he adds, a second later. “I still think yours are prettiest.”

                “Oh, good,” Steve says. He’s climbing out of a couch on the other side of the workshop, leaving a drawing pad and pencils behind as he takes long, loping steps toward them. He ignores Tony’s flirting with the kind of a casual disregard that means he either thinks Tony’s joking or knows very well that he isn’t, and Clint would elbow Bucky in the side, maybe shoot him a look, but he’s too busy taking in the shape Steve makes, when he’s fully straightened up.

                “Good Christ, Rogers,” Clint says. “Did you get even bigger?”

                Steve shrugs and looks, for a second, the slightest bit shifty. “It’s the Army, Barton. People bulk up.”

                “They got you on steroids?” Clint squints at him. “Do they have you on all the steroids?”

                 Steve rolls his eyes and pulls Bucky into a hug. “Hey, Buck,” he says, soft and serious. “Glad you made it.”

                Bucky claps him on the back once and then shoulders him away. “Thank Barton. He drove.”

                Steve turns his God Bless America blue eyes on Clint and very earnestly offers him his hand. “Clint, really, I can’t thank you enough.”

                “Oh my God,” Clint says. He shoves Steve’s hand away and then hugs him, fierce and close and over before either one of them gets emotional about it. “Shut the hell up, Steve.”

 

 

- - -

 

                Clint ends up sitting next to Steve on the couch while Stark makes Bucky sit in a chair and get fussed over by robots and scanned by cameras. Clint keeps staring, even though he knows he shouldn’t. It’s bizarre, seeing Tony Stark in person. He’s the most famous person Clint’s ever seen, much less spoken to.

                “Kinda weird, right?” Steve says, when he catches Clint staring for what has to be the fifth time in a row. “He’s very…”

                Steve gestures with his hands, makes a weird flappy motion that could mean anything.

                Clint nods, like that makes perfect sense. “You met him at a party?”

                “Gala,” Steve says, mouth twisting. “Army sends me to things like that a lot. Pretty face, I guess.”

                “Pretty face and big--”

                “Hey,” Steve says, brows pulling together.

                “Medals,” Clint says. “Pretty face, big medals. Jesus, Rogers, what did you think I was gonna say?”

                Steve looks at him like maybe he doesn’t believe medals is really where Clint was headed. Clint stares back, meeting his suspicious glare with a carefully innocuous expression, and, eventually, Steve calls a stalemate. He drops his gaze and goes back to sketching.

                “Really,” he says. “Thanks. Bucky wasn’t gonna—he wouldn’t have made it up here without you.”

                Clint shrugs. It’s weird, to think of this as something he could have said no to. This whole time, it had felt like an imperative, like a thing he had to do. He was, after all, on a mission from Steve Rogers.

                It’s only now that he’s looking back that he realizes it was kind of an insane thing to ask from anybody, much less from Bucky’s high school ex.

                “You would’ve done it for me,” he says. “He would’ve done it for me.”

                “Sure,” Steve says. He’s smiling, fond and exasperated, the way he and Bucky always seem to smile at each other. “But Bucky would do anything for you.”

                Clint tenses up. It’s involuntary, unconscious. Even his hands twist into fists in his lap. “Not funny, Rogers.”

                “Not joking, Barton,” Steve returns, casual and calm, hands moving seamlessly across the paper.

                It’s like picking at a scab so fresh that the cut isn’t even done bleeding. Clint gets to his feet, because if he spends another second by Steve’s side, he’s going to throw him through another pool table, and that’s going to be a hell of a lot harder now that Steve is the same size and weight as a midsummer grizzly.

                “I’m gonna go look at the cars,” he says.

                Steve finally looks up. He’s got that Steve Rogers certainty in his eyes, looks like he’s about to call a play that’s going to sound absolutely batshit when it comes out of their mouth and then win them the game anyway.

                Clint waits, frozen in places. Waits for Steve to tell him what to do, to give him some way out of this that doesn’t end with him driving back to Cardwell feeling like he’s dragging his own stupid heart against the asphalt the whole damn way.

                But, after a long beat, Steve just drops his eyes back to his drawing. “Sure,” he says. “Gonna go look at the cars. Because that’s something you wouldn’t have seen much of on a cross-country road trip.”

                And Clint, because he’s an adult, because he’s had seven years of growing, because everything in this room is more expensive than anything Clint owns, turns around and walks off before he and Steve can erupt into a rematch somehow even stupider than their last fight.

 

- - -

 

                After Stark’s done measuring Bucky or scanning him or doing whatever the hell it is he needs to do, they end up going out for drinks together. Clint’s horrified the whole way, keeps trying to dredge up that scene from Pretty Woman where the businessman explains which fork to use, but the bar they walk into is only barely nicer than Maggie’s.

                Clint gets a beer, pays the bartender double to bring Bucky a Natty Light, and then he takes sanctuary at the darts board with Tony Stark. He’s too nervous to realize he should probably lose the game, so he absolutely wipes the floor with him instead, keeps digging his own grave deeper by doing trick-shots and flashy little show-off moves.

                Panic flirting, he thinks. Although it’s not so much flirting as it is just meeting Tony in the middle, because Tony can’t seem to navigate even the most basic interaction without somehow making it sound like a come-on.

                “Pretty impressive hand-eye coordination,” Stark says, when the game’s over. He seems amused instead of annoyed, and he’s smiling at Clint over the lip of what is probably the bar’s best whiskey. “You do anything useful with that?”

                “Not really,” Clint says, with a shrug. “I do construction, you know? Road work, too. Whatever.”

                “Huh.” Stark side-eyes him. There’s something calculating in his eyes, but Clint’s starting to think he just always looks like that. “You never thought about following in your friend’s footsteps?”

                He says friend with a particular emphasis, but, when he glances over at the booth they’d commandeered, it’s impossible to tell whether he’s asking about Steve or Bucky.

                Clint shrugs, because, either way, the answer’s the same. He doesn’t have any claim over either of them. The road is behind them now, and so is whatever liminal space that had room left for him and Bucky.

                 “Army didn’t want me,” he says. He reaches up, taps his left ear. “Can’t hear so well outta this one.”

                “Oh.” Tony tips his head, does more calculations with a twitch of his eyebrows and a glint in his eyes. “Could probably fix that for you.”

                Clint lets that settle in the air between them and then he takes a breath. “Listen, man,” he says, “I don’t know how to tell you this. But there’s a small town in central Iowa that’s gonna fucking riot if you screw Bucky around or don’t treat Steve Rogers with respect. And I’m probably obligated to be on the front lines of that, so—I  mean, it’ll probably be easier to key your car if you haven’t done me any favors.”

                Tony blinks, blinks again, and then laughs out loud. He grins like Clint’s just made the best joke he’s heard all week, and, across the bar, Steve and Bucky frown in unison. They both look different kinds of pissed, but Clint, who has been left alone and unsupervised to play darts in a dive bar with a famous person, doesn’t know what the hell they want from him.

                It’s their own damn fault if Tony walks away from this thinking all of Cardwell is a joke.

                “I need to spend more time in Iowa,” Tony says, decisively.

                Clint snorts, tries to picture it. “Yeah,” he says, after a beat, “there’s this bar. Maggie’s? You’d fit right in.”

                Tony grins, friendly and a little crooked. “You’ll have to show me sometime.”

                Clint rolls his eyes, hefts the darts in a silent offer of a rematch. “Can’t,” he says. “I got banned for throwing Steve through a pool table.”

                Tony snorts into his whiskey, eyes going wide with delighted incredulity. “Yeah,” he says, nodding. “I’m going to need that story immediately.”

 

- - -

 

                A little past midnight, when Clint yawns so hard he honestly thinks he’s going to dislocate his jaw, Bucky decides to break up the party. They’re all crowded together in the booth, because Tony wanted to hear Steve’s side of the pool table story and that snowballed, somehow, into a full recounting of every dumb or dubious thing the three of them ever did in high school.

                “Time to go,” Bucky says. He kicks Clint’s ankle under the table when Clint opens his mouth to argue. “We were in Iowa yesterday. We gotta sleep.”

                “Technically,” Clint says, “since it’s after midnight---”

                “You wanna argue technicalities with me?” Bucky says, and, damn, Clint kinda wants to argue something, if he earns him that squinty, narrow-eyed look.

                But if those are the kind of thoughts he’s having, it’s probably better to call it.

                “Nope,” he says. “You’re right. Time to sleep.”

                “Well,” Tony says, bouncing to his feet. “Guess I’ll see a couple of you in the morning. Barton, it’s been a pleasure. Let me know if you’re ever in New York again.”

                Clint smiles after him, a little dazzled, and he watches as Stark navigates his way through the crowd, people pulling apart to give him room like every single one of them can sense how important he is without even having to look at him.

                “Jesus, Barton,” Bucky says, sounding annoyed. “Got a crush?”

                Clint blinks, genuinely nonplussed. “On who?”

                Steve snorts. “To be fair, Buck, pretty much everyone acts like that around him.”

                “Oh, and you know?” Bucky says, giving Steve a sharp look. “Didn’t you meet him Friday?”

                “That’s what I said,” Steve says, even and measured.

                It occurs to Clint that maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t. Maybe there’s something going that he and Bucky don’t know a damn thing about.

                “Is there some kinda couch I could sleep on?” he asks, instead of pursuing the weird thing between Steve and Tony. “Or am I sleeping in my truck?”

                Bucky makes an aggravated noise in the back of his throat, but, when he pulls Clint to his feet, his grip is surprisingly careful. “C’mon, shithead,” he says. “Let’s get you to bed.”

                And it’s weird. It makes no sense. But, somehow, when Bucky says shithead, it sounds the way it sounds when other people say sweetheart.

 

- - -

 

                Clint is out the second Steve starts driving, and he wakes up just long enough to get hauled up some stairs and then shoved onto a couch. He wakes up eight hours later still wearing his jeans and t-shirt, but his shoes are off and his phone is charging and he’s covered in a soft blanket that smells like Bucky. He rolls over onto his back and groans when the smell of coffee hits him.

                “Yeah, yeah,” Bucky says, grumbling. “Keep your pants on.”

                “I’ll do whatever I gotta do with my pants,” Clint mumbles. “Whatever gets me coffee.”

                There’s a snort from some small distance away, and then some clattering, and then Bucky’s crouched beside him, pressing a mug of coffee into his hand. “Here,” he says, voice morning-soft and kinda scratchy, and Clint’s so dazed from sleep that he almost kisses him.

                He probably would have kissed him, but Bucky’s gone before he gets the chance.

                Clint pushes himself up into something approximating a sitting position, and he’s sitting there, legs sprawled, face buried in his coffee mug, when Steve Rogers comes bustling in through the front door, dressed for jogging, and grabs his own coffee before dropping onto the couch next to him.

                “Bucky in the shower?” he asks.

                Now that Clint’s thinking about it, he can hear the water running. He lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Sure,” he says, “or whoever broke in while I was dead to the world.”

                Steve laughs. “Fair enough.”

                They’re quiet for a little bit and then Steve glances over, gives him a considering once-over. “You wanna take a shower? I could find some clothes that fit you.”

                Clint thinks he’d probably roll his eyes, if he could convince them to open. “Nothing you wear these days is gonna fit me.”

                “No,” Steve says. “But it’d be Bucky’s clothes. Most of them are still here.”

                Clint lets that percolate for a while and then slowly, grudgingly opens his eye so he can stare over at Steve. “Here?”

                Steve shrugs. He’s got a winsome curl in his blonde hair and a blandly innocuous who me? look on his face that even now, all these years later, still immediately sets off alarm bells in Clint’s head. “He lives here.”

                Except he doesn’t. “He moved back to Cardwell.”

                “Temporarily,” Steve says. He takes a sip of his coffee. “He only went back to see you.”

                Clint thinks it’s probably a little early for these kind of emotional knife fights. Anyway, he’s unarmed. He’s got nothing to say to that’s going to hurt Steve the way Steve just hurt him. “Fuck you,” he says, going for the classic fallback of the fundamentally outgunned.

                Steve looks unperturbed. “He did.”

                “He’s been back for almost four months.”

                Steve takes another, longer sip of his coffee. “Yeah, I know. Way I heard it, you were avoiding him.”

                Clint swallows. He stares at the bottom of his empty coffee mug, wishes suddenly and desperately that Bucky would come back, make him another cup of coffee, and chase away his overly earnest and very confused best friend.

                There’s nothing to be gained by arguing with Steve Rogers. Clint knows that. It’s why he never did. Except for that last time, when Steve found him at Maggie’s and told him, over and over until it finally sawed through the very last of Clint’s patience, that he needed to go see Bucky one more time before they left for basic.

                That was the only time he ever argued with Steve. And even then, even at the time, he did it knowing that Steve was the one in the right.

                It’s just hard to imagine that Steve’s right again.

                Steve’s quiet for a long time. Then he sighs and shifts, and he presses his shoulder into Clint’s. “You know,” he says, “Bucky used to say you were the only thing he couldn’t fuck up. That, even when he got everything else wrong, he’d still get you.”

                Put like that, You were always so easy for me sounds very different from how Clint heard it in that Ohio hotel. It sounds sweet, instead of cruel. It sounds almost like a roundabout way to say I love you.

                Or maybe I used to love you.

                Clint opens his mouth. But there’s nothing. There’s nothing to say. Because, sure, they understood each other. Sure, there was a part of him that was always going to be stitched right into Bucky and a part of Bucky that was knitted into the heart of him.  

                But look what it got them. Look what it cost them. Look what happened, at the mess they made out of each other.

                “Maybe you should be here with Bucky gets back from seeing Stark.” Steve’s still leaning into Clint, taking some of his weight. Clint remembers Steve, suddenly. All those moments they had, sharing notes, squaring off against bullies, staying on the practice field until damn near eleven o’clock at night, until Bucky or Steve’s mom would show up to drag them away.

                Steve used to be his best friend, too. And Clint showed up late, didn’t really get to know Steve until freshman year, so Steve was Bucky’s more than he was Clint’s, but he used to be Clint’s, too.  

                “I gotta get back,” Clint says. His voice is rough, but that’s just because he’s tired. “I can’t say here. I have a job. I’ve got—my whole life is back there. Everything is back there.”

                Steve nods. They sit in silence until the shower shuts off, and then Steve stands up, gripping Clint’s shoulder for just a second on the way up. “Look,” he says. “I know it’s complicated. But it just seems like Cardwell wasn’t that hard to leave behind. So maybe everything’s not back there. Maybe there’s something here.”

                Clint cuts his eyes away. He wants to know what the hell right Steve Rogers has to fuck him up like this before he’s even had breakfast. He wants to throw his coffee right in his stupid perfect face, but he already drank it all.

                “You’re a nosy son of a bitch, Steve Rogers,” he says.

                Steve smiles. For just a second, he’s got that same stubborn kick of mischief in his eyes that Clint remembers earning him a record number of detentions senior year. “Maybe,” he says.

                “Bucky’s moved on,” Clint adds. There’s rustling from the bathroom. It feels like a countdown. Like, somehow, as soon as that door opens, all of Clint’s options are going to whittle down to one.

                Steve laughs. He shakes his head, rubs at the back of his neck. When he looks up, he’s grinning, rueful and warm. “I’d believe you,” he says. “I really would. Except, last time I got him drunk before he went out there to get you back, he ended up shitfaced at a karaoke bar. And I had to listen to him sing Whitney Houston.”

                Clint feels his eyes go wide. “Bullshit,” he says. “Bullshit you did.”

                Steve turns away, laughing, and Clint doesn’t get a chance to follow up because Bucky emerges from the bathroom, towel around his waist, and Clint’s too busy swallowing his own tongue to ask any questions.

                Later, though, after Clint’s had his own shower and is wearing clothes that are definitely Bucky’s, when they’re all sitting around the breakfast table eating oatmeal, Steve, with his face hidden behind his tablet, starts humming.

                He gets maybe one verse into I Will Always Love You before Bucky’s coffee cup hits the table with a distinctive thump. Steve clears his throat and goes silent, and Clint watches, transfixed, as Bucky’s whole damn face goes red.

 

- - -

 

                After breakfast, they all load into Steve’s truck and drive from Brooklyn to Stark Tower. It’s a quiet trip. Clint’s in the back, moody and mixed-up, and Bucky and Steve are bickering about Steve’s driving. It’s familiar in a way that makes Clint even more nostalgic, and he’s almost sick with it when they finally get waved through to the parking garage.

                He’s slow to get out of the truck, not in any real rush to climb into his own. He needs to be at work at 7am tomorrow, and he has a seventeen-hour drive between him and home. The first seventeen hours went fast enough, but the next seventeen are going to hurt, and he can feel the ache of them already setting in.

                Steve hugs him without warning, wrapping him up in those offensively muscular arms of his. “Thanks again,” he says. “Thanks so much.”

                “Sure,” Clint says, feeling off-balance. He pats Steve on the back, tries not to get pissed about the wall of muscle he feels under his hand.

                “Whitney Houston,” Steve hisses, right in his ear, and then he’s gone, bee-lining for the elevator, and Clint and Bucky are left standing there alone in a dark parking garage.

                “Liminal space?” Clint asks, because it’s the only way he can think of to ask for a kiss goodbye.

                Bucky looks up. He’s wearing another pair of boots, a whole new set of clothes, and Clint’s reminded what Steve said, about him never really planning to move home.

                He went out there to get you back, Steve said.

                And maybe it was true, maybe it wasn’t, but Bucky hadn’t seemed to fight that hard once he got back home. Maybe he’d taken one look at Clint and realized he wasn’t the kid he used to be, wasn’t worth much of an effort anymore.

                The truth is, Clint’s an idiot. But he learns, over time, with enough negative reinforcement. Barney thinks he took this trip just to break his own heart all over again, and that might be part of it. But maybe he did it so he could finally cut deep enough to dig Bucky out of himself. Maybe he needs this. Maybe he needs to know, finally and for certain, that there’s nothing left of the best thing that ever happened to him.

                “You be careful on the drive back,” Bucky tells him. He’s restless, keeps fidgeting. Can’t quite look Clint in the eyes.

                “Sure,” Clint says. He swallows hard, keeps all his stupid questions down deep where they belong.

                At least, he thinks, this goodbye is easier than their last one.

                Well, they’re older now. They’ve built up a callous.

                He remembers crying, last time. He’s embarrassed about it now, and he was mortified by it then. But he’d been young and tired, still getting over the concussion. He’d stood there on his parent’s porch, leaning against the railing, while Bucky told him he’d joined the Army, was leaving soon.  

                He doesn’t remember exactly what Bucky said, how he told him, but he remembers that match strike of realization, that panicky feeling of a fire growing fast. “You’re leaving? You’re leaving?”

                And he remembers Bucky, all twisted up and restless, shifting uneasily like he was having to fight every second to keep from running off. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m leaving. And it wouldn’t be fair—I mean, you’re staying, and I won’t be here, so I think we should--”

                And that was the exact point. That’s when Clint started crying. And Bucky had reached for him, but Clint had shoved him back, wiped at his face with his hand, jarred the still-healing cuts on his scalp and hissed at the pain.

                “Fuck you, Bucky. You’re leaving and you’re breaking up with me? Fuck you, get the fuck out of here.”

                “Clint. C’mon, don’t. Clint. Will you just--”

                And then Barney, who’d been hovering ever since the fight, who’d told their dad to find somewhere else to sleep until they found a place to live, had stepped out of the house and started shoving Bucky down the driveway, and Bucky had yelled, and Clint had yelled, and everyone was yelling, even Barney, but Clint was the only one stupid enough to cry about it.

                Seven years later, maybe he’s finally too old to cry, but he’s young enough that he still kinda wants to.

                “Take care of yourself, Buck,” Clint says. And his voice is perfectly even. Sounds fond and friendly and not at all like his dumb, self-destructive heart is shattering apart in his chest. “Take care of Steve.”

                Bucky’s staring at him, eyes almost frantic as they move across his face. “Clint,” he says, and then nothing else.

                “It was a fun trip,” Clint says, although it wasn’t. It was a lot of things, but it wasn’t fun. “Maybe I’ll see you at Justine’s some time.”

                Bucky swallows and doesn’t say anything. Clint looks at him for a while, waiting for some kind of goodbye, and then he can’t be there anymore, can’t keep still. He nods, jerkily, and turns, fumbling in his pocket for his keys as he rushes across the garage.

                He gets to his truck, goes to fit the key in the lock, and then he hears Bucky, from behind him, moving fast.

                “Don’t,” Bucky says, loud and sharp, and then he’s crushing Clint back against his truck, kissing him like he’s starving for it, like he’s been starving for it, for years.

                “Don’t go back,” Bucky says, pulling just far enough away to talk. “Don’t go back, Clint. Stay here. Just fucking—just stay with me. There’s nothing for you back there.”

                In that moment, pressed together like that, Clint’s whole world is Bucky. His mouth and his eyes, the heat and weight of him. Maybe his whole world has always been Bucky, and he’s just been spinning, going nowhere, waiting for him to come back.

                “Nothing,” he repeats, dazed, searching Bucky’s face.

                Bucky breathes in, kind of ragged, and then he kisses him again, desperate and hungry and intent. “Stay here, Clint. Come on. Stay with me.”

                Clint’s job is back home. His job, his house, his brother. All his clothes, his friends. Everything.

                But all of that – everything – is nothing, really. Or feels that way, anyway, when Bucky’s on the other side of the scale.

                “Please,” Bucky says, earnest and pleading, eyes just a couple inches from Clint’s, staring right at him.

                “Yeah,” Clint says. He swallows, nods. “Yeah, yes. Jesus Christ, Buck. Of course. Of course I’ll--”

                And then Bucky’s mouth is back on his, and, an unknowable smear of time later, Bucky’s hand is wrapped around his hip, urging him up, and so that’s how Clint ends up sprawled on the hood of his own truck, making out with Bucky, when Steve wanders out of the elevator.

                “What the hell is the hold—oh my God.” Steve sounds genuinely scandalized for a second and then, a beat after that, when they both lift their heads to stare at him, he throws his arms up like they’ve just won the state championship all over again. “Hell yes! Finally!” He grabs Stark, who’s standing beside him looking wide-eyed and startled, and shakes him. “Yes!”

                “Uh.” Stark flounders for half a second. “Champagne!” he says, recovering. “We’ll get the champagne. Gentlemen, we’ll be back in five minutes.” He hooks his hand around the back of Steve’s elbow and tugs him back into the elevator.

                And then they’re gone, disappearing behind the doors, and Bucky rolls off Clint and lays beside him, laughing with his hand over his eyes.

                “Jesus Christ,” he says, low in his throat. “How do you do shit like this to me?”

                Clint chuckles, a little breathless, and tries to think of extremely unsexy things. It’s a damn near impossible task, with Bucky flushed and laughing beside him. He feels beyond stupid. He feels like he’s transcended stupidity. He feels like he’s glowing with how happy he is.

                He reaches down and threads his fingers through Bucky’s. He smiles at nothing, and he hopes that Steve and Stark really do come back with champagne. There’ll be some kind of symmetry, at least, between the bright, bubbly taste of champagne and the way he feels right now.

                “Hey, Buck,” he says.

                Bucky hums and tightens his fingers around Clint’s. After a second, he tips his face toward Clint, and there’s a wide, boyish grin on his face that Clint has missed for years. “Yeah?”

                “We’re gonna have to go back for your truck.”

                Bucky laughs. He looks young when he laughs, loses those lines around his eyes. They lost seven years, or maybe they didn’t lose anything. Maybe they were both just waiting.

                “That’s alright,” he says. The elevator dings, and Bucky leans over to steal one more kiss as the doors start to open. “Road trips are good for us.”