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When Bucky storms into the Admin office, he finds Steve sitting in one of the three chairs just outside the principal’s office, as he expected. He’s got a bloody nose, a rapidly swelling left eye, and a scowl that is only matched by the sullen look the guy next to him’s got, with a bloody mouth to match.

“Are you fucking serious, Stevie?” Bucky snaps, ignoring the admin ladies hissing at him for the curse word. “You know your ma’ll kill me if you get suspended for fighting again.”

“I wasn’t,” Steve says, which is so clearly a lie. Bucky turns his glare on the other guy, who is at least a foot taller than Steve, wider in the shoulders too, and it’s no fucking wonder Steve clearly got the rough end of this particular fight. He always ends up looking worse than the other guy, which is why he’s gotta stop throwing himself into other people’s fights.

“You like picking on smaller guys?” Bucky sneers at the guy, who shoots him a quick glare before going back to staring at his hands.

“Buck,” Steve says, but before he can finish whatever he’s gonna say, the principal’s door flies open and there’s another guy there -- shorter than the first blonde but still, of course, taller than Steve, and broad and angry. The two look similar enough to be brothers.

“Two?” Bucky says, shaking his head. “Jesus, Steve, you never know when to walk away from a fight.”

Thug #2 jerks his head at Thug #1, who scrambles up and grabs a brand new backpack from where he’d left it on the floor, practically tripping over himself as he hurries after his brother.

“Rogers,” Principal Cartmell snaps. “Your turn.”

Steve shoots Bucky a quick, apologetic grin and says, “You don’t have to wait for me, Buck.”

But if Bucky doesn’t wait, who’s gonna drive Steve home?

So Bucky makes himself comfortable, same as he does every week or so when Steve finds himself in trouble, and wonders how the hell he’s gonna explain this to Mrs. Rogers.

*

“His brother called him a piece of shit and punched him in the face, Buck, what would you have done?” Steve argues, as they park at the curb outside Steve’s house, a modest little bungalow with a lopsided garage door and a porch that’s seen better days. Bucky doesn’t care, it looks almost as much like home as his own place does, and doesn’t have any irritating younger siblings to fuck with his stuff.

“Maybe he was being a piece of shit,” Bucky says with a shrug, slamming his door shut and pocketing his keys. “He looked like a little shit.”

“No one deserves a punch in the face,” Steve says, sullen, following Bucky up to the porch. He pauses. “‘Cept guys punching other guys in the face, I guess.”

“The point is,” Bucky tells him, unlocking the front door with the key he’s had since he was about eight, “There were two of them and only one of you and you ought to have stayed out of it. Your ma’ll be pissed and blame me, you know she always does.”

“What’ll I be pissed about?” Steve’s mom calls from across the little house. She appears in the doorway to the kitchen, drying her hands on a threadbare towel, instantly spotting Steve’s black eye. Her scowl is nearly as ferocious as Steve’s. “Steve. You better not’ve been fighting. Were they bullying you?” She transfers her glare to Bucky. “You’re not supposed to let them bully him.”

Steve’s been ranting for a while, and his cheeks are pink, his breathing a little labored, and Bucky’s automatically pulling his spare inhaler out of his backpack and handing it over. “Someone else was getting bullied,” he says. “Apparently. So Steve stuck his big nose in and got in a fight with them both.”

Steve makes an argumentative sound, but he’s got his inhaler in his mouth and he can’t actually speak up until after he’s taken two deep puffs. “I keep trying to tell you, Buck. I didn’t fight ‘em both, I just fought the one who was being an asshole!”

“Language,” Mrs. Rogers snaps, ushering them to the little kitchen table, already set with cheese and crackers and cans of soda for an after school snack. “And it’s none of your business if a kid’s being an asshole to someone else. You know you can’t get suspended again or they’ll call me in, and I can’t take the time off work.”

Steve slumps in his chair, shoves a cracker in his mouth, and says through it, “What, I’m just supposed to let him get beaten up? And I didn’t get suspended this time! Just warned!”

“Who were these assholes?” she asks Bucky, who’s rolling his eyes so hard, it kinda hurts.

“Don’t know. New kids. And the one whose honour you were defending, Stevie, is even bigger than I am. Probably could have handled himself.”

Steve glowers at the plate of crackers and cheese and says sullenly, “Size doesn’t matter. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care who they are.”

“Yes, well,” Sarah says, tucking her tea towel onto the stove handle and dusting off her hands. “I’d prefer you’d only take on bullies your own size. I’ve gotta go.” She kisses the top of Steve’s head and then the top of Bucky’s. “Do your homework before you turn on the TV.”

“There are no bullies my size,” Steve mumbles.

“There’s a few,” Bucky tells him, kicking his shin under the table and meeting his gaze with a winning grin. “In the third grade.”

“Fuck you,” Steve says.

“Language!” his mother shouts, already on her way out the door.

*

It’s a small incident in the grand scheme of things, and Bucky’s nearly forgotten it the next time it comes up again.

He’s camped out on the bleachers by the football field at lunch time, trying to convince Steve that his mom really didn’t pack the extra pudding cup in his lunch for Steve, but that Steve should take it anyway, because sharing isn’t charity, for fuck’s sake.

They both know that eventually, Steve’s gonna give in and take it, but it’s always a struggle to get there.

Steve’s trying to clean up some details on his newest art project, Bucky’s edging the pudding cup closer and closer to his sketchbook, and Becca drops down beside him and says, “She only buys caramel because she knows it’s your favourite, so just eat the fucking thing.”

Bucky glares at her because it’s going to take him even longer to convince Steve that their mom doesn’t see him as a charity case now, but Steve’s jaw just tightens a bit as he hunches even closer to his sketchbook and ignores them both, and the offending pudding cup.

“What do you want?” Bucky asks her, irritated, and Becca just grins at him and takes a giant, snappy bite out of her apple.

“Nothing,” she says. “Kate’s not talking to me, America’s busy with drama, saw you guys over here, thought anything was better than hanging out alone.”

Kate and Becca fight at least once a month.

“What is it this time?” Steve asks, pencil hanging out of his mouth as he smudges something in his book.

“She wanted me to hang out with the new kid who moved in next door and I told her he was a dick and I didn’t want anything to do with him and she said I was being a bitch and I said he punched you in the face and gave you a black eye and that meant he was officially an asshole and I was allowed to be a bitch to him and she said I couldn’t be a bitch to a guy who’d just become an orphan so I gotta get over it and I told her to fuck off.” She shrugs, still viciously chewing her apple, and Steve stares at her, his artwork forgotten.

“She wanted you to hang out with Barney?” he asks. “I don’t know if that’s the best idea, he seems kinda shady.”

“Who the fuck is Barney?” Bucky asks. They ignore him.

Becca rolls her eyes at Steve and says, “Not him, no. The younger one, Clint. Apparently he’s cool. But mom would kill me if I hung out with anyone who hurt you, so.”

Steve points his pencil at her and says, “First off, I don’t need you to fight my battles for me.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, a little put out that he doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. “That’s why he’s got me.”

They ignore him. Again.

“Secondly,” Steve says. “I’ve said it a million times. Clint never punched me. It was Barney. Barney was being a dick to Clint, I told him to stop, he punched me in the face, Clint got pissed at him, I punched Barney in the face, we got hauled to the office.”

“Still,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m not gonna hang out with him. They’re trash. They’ve caused nothing but trouble since they got here. I heard Barney got kicked out of shop class and nearly expelled after he threatened to shove someone into the table saw if they didn’t give him their lunch money.”

“Definitely avoid them,” Bucky growls and Steve shoots him a troubled look.

“Again,” he says. “Barney. Avoid him all you want. But if Kate wants to hang out with Clint, I dunno. Kinda sounds to me like Clint could use all the friends he can get.”

“Nuh uh,” Bucky says. “Don’t care if he needs friends, he’s bad news, he and his brother both. They don’t need to hang out with my little sister, or you, Stevie.”

“Buck,” Steve says, and his eyes are shining and wide in that stupid way that makes Bucky follow him into situations with guaranteed terrible outcomes. “They’re orphans.”

“Katie says that her neighbours are just fostering them,” Becca adds. “They’re not even family. Also, apparently last week, Barney set their shed on fire.”

“Yeah, no,” Bucky decides. “Orphans or not, we are not going near them. Don’t care if they haven’t got any friends.”

But Steve never fucking listens.

He does, however, eventually eat the caramel pudding cup. He always does.

*

Thursday is rainy, gray and cold, which means no spreading out over the school grounds at lunch. Instead, the entire student body is cooped up, overrun with energy and hormones, and tensions are running high.

Bucky and Steve like to hang out in the band room on days like this, though neither of them can play an instrument to save their lives. Bucky had long ago realized that band kids are more likely to steer away from physical altercations rather than risk damaging their precious instruments, so the chance of Steve getting into a fight there was low. Plus, they’d already gotten banned from the library after Steve got into a (thankfully verbal) fight with a group of students who didn’t seem to understand that “white nationals” and “nazis” were the same thing.

Apparently it had caused a disruption.

Bucky had apologized til he was blue in the face and explained that Steve was just like that -- a lot of rage in a tiny package, causing disruptions wherever he went, and he shouldn’t be punished because some assholes didn’t know their damned history, but no luck.

Bucky arrives first on this particular rainy thursday, has time to grab a prime spot on the band risers in the back corner, setting out his lunch and automatically setting half aside for Steve, because he knows it’s coming up on his mom’s payday, so he probably won’t have much of his own.

And then Steve comes swanning in with Clint, whose lip is healed now but who looks just as belligerent as he did while sitting with Steve in the office.

“Don’t worry,” Steve’s saying, ushering Clint along. “Bucky looks mean, but he’s not. Not really. I mean, as long as he likes you, you’re fine, and he’s gonna love you, I promise.”

“I should probably go find my brother,” Clint says, clearly reluctant, but lesser men than Clint have given in when faced with the power of Steve’s determination.

“I told you, he skipped art, took off with Rumlow and a few other guys, they’re probably not gonna be back til fourth period, at least, and I can’t leave you lurking around the cafeteria all alone. Here!” Steve looks up, finally sees Bucky glaring at him, and beams. “This is Bucky! Bucky, look, Clint’s joining us for lunch because his brother’s busy.”

Clint shifts awkwardly on his feet when Bucky glares at him, and jerks a thumb over one shoulder. “I should really --”

“Sit.” Steve can sound really commanding when he wants to, and Clint reacts like he’s used to taking orders, just collapses there on the band risers, a few feet away from Bucky and looking like he’s not sure what just happened.

Bucky and Steve are gonna have words after this.

But then Steve pulls out his beat up paper bag lunch and starts laying out what his mom packed him -- half a jam sandwich, a bruised apple, a beat up bottle of tap water.

And Clint… he doesn’t pull out a lunch at all.

Bucky takes a deep, calming breath and starts re-dividing his own lunch without a word. When he shoves over his orange, half his ham sandwich, a cookie, and a yogurt, Clint’s eyes narrow and his bottom lip sticks out and he crosses his arms over his chest and glares ferociously.

His glare ain’t got nothin’ on Steve’s, though, and Bucky ignores him, raising an eyebrow pointedly at Steve until he rolls his eyes and graciously accepts his own half a sandwich, cookie, and juice, making a big show of not making a big show of it.

He’s halfway through Bucky’s sandwich when Clint gives in and takes what Bucky shoved at him.

Satisfied, Bucky wonders if this is gonna be a regular thing, Clint joining them, because if it is, he’s gonna have to mention it to his mom, who’s been packing him a double lunch since the first time he mentioned Steve hadn’t had anything in his lunch, back in elementary school.

“So!” Steve says, mouth full, clearly unable to handle the prickly silence. “You play any instruments, Clint?”

“No.”

“... Do any art?”

“No.”

“Sports?” Steve asks hopefully.

“...No.”

“Any hobbies of any sort, whatsoever?”

Clint picks at the crust of his sandwich and shrugs and Bucky says, “School spirit’s for dicks anyway and so are extracurriculars.”

Clint glances at him sideways, looking relieved, and Bucky can’t help a small, apologetic smile and half a shrug as Steve launches into a impassioned defense of school spirit and art club because sometimes Stevie doesn’t read between the lines and doesn’t realize that it’s possible that a newly-orphaned foster kid with no lunch and a dick of a brother hasn’t had much of a chance to join an afterschool club.

Bucky’s gone pretty far out of his way to ensure that optimistic nature of Steve’s survives all the shit life throws his way. And from the look of things, no one’s done the same for Clint.

Lucky for them both, Bucky’s gotten pretty good at looking out for people, what with Steve’s tendency to get himself involved in shenanigans, and Bucky’s three younger sisters.

Looking out for one more person won’t hurt.

Bucky steadfastly ignores the triumphant, smug grin Steve shoots his way.

*

Clint isn’t around very often. He’s usually trailing off after his dipshit brother somewhere, and Bucky gets it.

He knows about family -- he knows how complicated it can be. He knows about natural families and found families and that families are made up of people who love you no matter how big of a pain in the ass you are.

And Barney is definitely, in Bucky’s opinion, a pain in the ass.

But Clint isn’t so bad. Quiet, at first, and prone to scowling. He seems to try to make himself as small and unobtrusive as possible, and Bucky’s content to let him be invisible -- he’s even a little impressed by it, because Clint is just about the tallest dude Bucky knows, and he still manages to somehow seem small.

He makes sure Clint’s fed and watered and that he gets enough sun -- like a houseplant. And that’s enough.

Other than that, school continues as it had before.

*

“Hey, Bucky!”

Bucky scowls preemptively before he turns around. He doesn’t mind Becca’s best friend Kate so much, but it’s the principle of the thing. Big brothers are never pleased to be accosted by little sister’s friends. It’s a whole thing he’s been working on ever since he found himself at 12 years old, trapped in Becca’s room while she and her friends coo’d over his pretty hair and tried to braid it.

She’s beaming at him, hitching her backpack up higher on her shoulders, trailed by a sheepish and uncertain looking Clint.

“Waiting for Steve?” she asks, like there’s any other reason Bucky would be loitering on the school parking lot an hour after school let out.

“Art class,” Bucky tells her. “What do you want?”

“Well, I had drama club, and Clint offered to wait around to walk me home because it’s far and my mom hates it when I take the city bus alone, and then I saw you and I thought you probably wouldn’t mind driving us home since the alternative is probably being abducted and you’d miss me.”

“But you don’t have to drive us,” Clint says quickly. It’s pretty much the only thing Clint’s ever said to Bucky, now that he thinks about it, without Steve there as a buffer.

Bucky makes a show of huffing and rolling his eyes and saying, “It’s kinda out of the way.”

Kate is undeterred. “Well,” she says brightly. “You could always just bring us to your place. Becca and I have an English project to work on together.”

Bucky jerks his chin at Clint and says, “Does he have an English project to work on?”

“No,” Clint says, biting his lip. “But I can walk. I mean, I probably won’t get abducted and if I do, I have this.”

He pulls out a fucking switchblade, holding it like he’s not sure how to use it.

“Holy fuck,” Bucky says, snatching it out of his hands before he can cut himself. “Jesus, no, that’s not -- get in the fucking car before you hurt yourself, both of you.”

His heart is still palpitating when Steve comes out of the school, smeared in paint and looking frustrated.

“Still life is bullshit,” he says, climbing into the passenger seat and bitching about shadows and white space and the proper shading for a bowl of pears.

Bucky would take a bowl of pears over an idiot with a switchblade any day.

*

So, they’re hanging out. Clint and Bucky. In Bucky’s house.

It’s awkward as fuck.

First of all, when they get there, Clint pulls out an iPhone and says uncertainly, “I probably should call the house. They might worry?” He doesn’t sound too sure about that.

It’s a brand new iPhone and Bucky’s got to show him how to find his contacts and call the one marked ‘Home’. The conversation goes something like this. “Hi. No, I’m at Bucky’s house. He’s, uhm, a friend? No, Kate’s here. I don’t know about Barney. Sorry. Did he? Sorry. No, I -- sorry, I know. Sorry. Uhm. Okay. I will. Okay. Bye.”

He sounds like he’s talking to strangers and Bucky has to remind himself that he kinda is. He’s only been living there -- with perfect strangers -- for a few weeks.

After Bucky shows him how to hang up, Clint ducks his head to hide his pink cheeks and mumbles, “Sorry, I never had a phone before, and they worry when I just… don’t go home.”

“S’fine,” Bucky says, opening the fridge, staring mindlessly at all the food there and trying to shake off the urge to -- he doesn’t even know. He can’t fix this -- he should be used to not being able to fix everything. He hasn’t been able to fix Steve, and he’s been trying for years.

He ends up piling just about every snack he can find in front of Clint and glaring at him until he eats most of them.

After, they watch TV. Becca and Kate are barricaded upstairs, ostensibly working on their English project, Bucky’s got dinner in the oven for when their mom gets home and he flips through the channels while Clint tells him over and over again that he doesn’t care what they watch. His eyes light up when they flip past Dog Cops so Bucky leaves it there.

They eat chips in silence for a little while and then Clint says, “So. Uhm.”

Bucky looks at him.

“You and Steve, are you. You know.”

Bucky doesn’t know. He cocks his head, eats a chip, and says, “Use your words, Barton.”

Clint’s face is steadily turning pink and there’s a belligerent tilt to his jaw when he says, “Are you guys fucking?”

Bucky chokes on his chip. “What the fuck do you mean?”

“Well,” Clint says with a shrug, looking everywhere but at Bucky’s face. “You guys are like. Always together.”

“Me ‘n Steve are like… like brothers,” Bucky tells him, and when Clint looks skeptical, he adds, a little harshly, “More like brothers than you and your brother will ever be.”

Clint finally looks at him, stunned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Steve says Barney punched you in the face and called you a piece of shit,” Bucky says with a shrug. “I’d never punch Steve in the face, ever, and I’ve called him a lot of things, but never that.”

“Family’s like that,” Clint says dismissively. “Sometimes they get angry and they hurt you and they always feel badly for it after.”

Bucky can’t help but stare. “Barton,” he says finally. “I don’t know if you understand what family’s supposed to actually be like, cos that ain’t it.”

“Barney’s not even that bad,” Clint adds, sounding a little desperate. “I mean, if you knew what my dad was like --” He snaps his mouth shut.

Bucky knows about shitty dads. He doesn’t know so much about dead ones, though. His just left.

Bucky shoves the bag of chips closer to Clint’s hip and stares at the TV and doesn’t see it. He’s run out of words.

*

Gym is not Bucky’s favourite, and it’s generally because all of the things that he used to take for granted in gym class became a hell of a lot harder after he lost his left arm in an accident in Grade 7. He’s got a prosthetic now, a pretty cool one, even, which is made of metal and is kinda cybernetic and capable of doing most things, but it’s never gonna be as good as his real arm had been.

Volleyball is a bitch with only one decent hand, and basketball is worse. Badminton is next to impossible and swimming fucks up the insides of his arm. The only thing he’s reasonably good at is track and field.

He’s made it a habit of skipping gym and no one wants to be the dick who writes up the one armed kid for skipping gym, so he generally gets away with it.

He has to show up sometimes, however, or they’ll call his mom again, and she doesn’t need the stress.

When he finally does show up, that’s when he realizes that Clint is in his class.

They’re doing archery, which Bucky ought to have skipped, because it’s hard to judge how hard he’s pulling on the bowstring, but it’s too late now, so he jerks his chin at Clint when the teacher tells them to partner up and takes a moment to marvel at how nice it is to actually have someone who wants to be his partner.

Bucky’s not sure why they do archery in gym class. He’s just waiting for someone to get shot with an arrow, and then they’ll never have to do it again -- kind of like social dance. It’s just asking for trouble.

They take their place across from a target and they’re right next to Rumlow and Sitwell, which sucks. Rumlow is a bully and Sitwell is a rat and both of them took a whole lot of pleasure out of making fun of Bucky after his accident, when he’d finally been able to come back to school, until Bucky had punched them in the face with his new metal arm.

Sometimes, he doesn’t have Steve to blame for the scraps he gets into.

“Aw, we’re fucked,” Rumlow says, once he sees Bucky and Clint take up their positions beside him. “The cripple and the loser, they’re probably gonna shoot us.”

Sitwell snickers and Clint just glares down at the bow in his hands.

“Fuck off,” Bucky says mildly, not willing to rise too far to the bait. He’s been dealing with Rumlow and Sitwell since kindergarten.

“Seriously, Barnes, you gotta watch your back. This kid nearly took Banner out with a shotput last week. He’s a menace,” Sitwell says.

Clint’s jaw flexes and the teacher shouts out instructions on how to nock an arrow.

“Do not,” the teacher shouts, arms up. “I repeat. Do not shoot your bows until I check your stance and your grip.” He starts making his way down the row of would-be archers, stopping at the first one to scold him about his grip.

“His own brother thinks he’s a piece of shit,” Rumlow adds, and Bucky sighs, because it looks like he’s gonna have to rise to the bait.

Before he can, though, there’s a soft sound, like an exhale, followed half a second later by a muffled thump.

“Who did that?” the teacher shouts, loud and shrill. “Who shot that? I told you not to shoot!”

Clint just mechanically picks up another arrow, draws, and shoots, all in one smooth movement. His second arrow slams into the target right beside the first, in the centre.

Beside them, Sitwell and Rumlow fall silent, stunned, and everyone just stares as Clint slams one arrow after the other into the bullseye, sometimes knocking other arrows to the floor as he does.

He empties his little stack before the teacher manages to make it down the row to grab him by the arm, shake him a little, and scream, “Get to the office, Barton! Now!”

Rumlow and Sitwell keep their mouths shut long after Clint is gone.

*

“We lived on a farm before,” Clint says, sitting on the retaining wall outside the school, angrily swinging his feet, bouncing the backs of his heels against the concrete. “In Iowa. My dad and Barney liked to go bow hunting sometimes. It was never my thing, but I made some targets.” He shrugs. “Barney says it’s my only marketable skill. I’ve been trying to teach him but he’s not that good at it.” He looks up, shooting Bucky a quick, wide-eyed look. “Don’t tell him I said that.”

Bucky hops up to sit beside him, watching as all the other kids make their way out of the school and head towards the buses or the parking lot. It always takes Steve a while to navigate the hallways after school ends, and Bucky’s used to waiting for him.

“I ain’t gonna be talking to your brother any time soon,” Bucky says, dropping his backpack beside him. “And if I do, I reckon we’ll have other things to discuss.”

Clint doesn’t ask what other things Bucky would want to say and Bucky’s glad, because he doesn’t feel like lying and he also doesn’t want to piss him off.

After it’s quiet for a while, Bucky asks, “Sitwell and Rumlow say shit like that to you often?”

Clint shrugs. “Gym’s the only time I see them without Barney around, and when he is around, he tells them to knock it off, but they don’t listen.”

“They’re dicks,” Bucky agrees. He sees Steve pop out of the front doors of the school, waving at them both and barely visible over everyone else’s head. “Guess I can make more of an effort to make it to class in case they try anything again.”

Clint looks at him sideways, a small, pleased grin on his face, and says, “Didn’t need your help today, did I?”

Bucky knocks into him, shoving him a little, and says, “Don’t get cocky. I heard about you and that shotput last week, remember. Besides, I’m pretty sure Coach’ll get extra pissed if you shoot them with an arrow, especially if you do it before he checks your stance and grip.”

Clint laughs; Bucky stares a little.

Shit.

*

The next day, as Bucky leaves bullshit physics, Kate appears out of the crowd and falls into step beside him.

“Heeeey, Bucky,” she says, slow, with a sweet smile. She fucking bats her eyelashes, Becca’s friends are the worst.

Bucky scowls at her and says, “What do you want?”

“I was thinking, that’s all.”

She keeps walking beside him and doesn’t clarify exactly what she was thinking about until Bucky growls at her.

“Well, you drive Steve home from art club every Thursday, right?”

Bucky’s instantly suspicious. “Yes,” he says. “Why?”

“I was just thinking. You know my mom’s crazy sure I’m going to be abducted and I’m not allowed to stay late after school for anything because she can’t pick me up, right? And drama club’s the same night as art club. So maybe…” She beams at him. “Maybe you can drive me home too.”

“Why would I do that?” he asks, honestly perplexed. “What’s in it for me?”

“I was just thinking,” she says, all sweet and innocent. “That I could probably get Clint to join with me if I could guarantee us both a ride home. And it might be nice for Clint to have somewhere to be for an hour once a week where his brother can’t fuck with him.”

Bucky doesn’t shoot her down out of hand, though he wants to, because she looks so damned smug. “Does he even like drama?”

She shrugs. “Don’t know. Doubt he’s ever tried it. We could try to get him on the lacrosse team, or into art, but have you seen him try to navigate the hallways? He keeps running into lockers and doorways.”

Bucky sighs, shoulders slumping. It’s true -- Clint’s basically a puppy still growing into his paws, one who’s all growl and no bite. It’s useless to even pretend he’s not gonna do it. Clint needs a hobby and probably some friends who aren’t friends with his dipshit brother.

“Fine,” he says. “But you owe me. You and Becca gotta babysit the little ones, whenever I say. For a month.”

“A month?” she echoes, eyes wide. “Brutal. But fine. Whatever. It’s not like I’m not at your house all the time anyway. Your baby sisters are adorable, Bucky, you’re practically doing me a favour.”

“Yeah, wait til Becca finds out,” he says, and Kate ducks down into the English wing, laughing.

*

Fucking sick. Get my homework?

Steve’s sick at least once a month, and it’s routine by now to agree to make the rounds to his teachers, to send a quick text to his mom to ask her to throw some chicken soup in the slow cooker for Bucky to drop off with the books.

It’s still bullshit. Bucky hates it. He hates that Steve’s lungs are so fucking bad, with the asthma and the tendency to catch whatever bug’s going around. He hates the way Steve’s breath rattles sometimes, how pale he gets and out of breath just from making it to math on time. He hates days when Steve doesn’t come to school because Bucky would rather be at Steve’s place, watching Die Hard and feeding him soup than here alone with no one to sit with at lunch.

Except now, there’s Clint, if he’s not busy with his fucking brother.

Clint’s not on the bleachers where they usually meet up on nice days, and Bucky scowls and checks the band room. Not there either. He checks the cafeteria, which is a last resort, because only sadistic fucks eat lunch in the cafeteria.

Barney’s there, holding court with Rumlow and Sitwell and a bunch of other assholes, but Clint isn’t, which is frankly a little weird.

Frowning, Bucky makes another round of the school, growing a little more concerned when he finds Becca, Kate and America camped out on the quad, who say they haven’t seem Clint all day. He’d even skipped English, Kate tells him, which is weird because Clint’s a junior, like Bucky. Why’s he in Sophmore English?

When Bucky finally finds him, it’s a bit of a miracle, because Clint is crammed into the smallest study booth in the library’s back corner, curled up with his head on the desk, his arms clasped over his head, covering his ears.

What the fuck.

“Hey,” Bucky says, and Clint doesn’t move.

Frowning and coming closer, Bucky wonders if maybe he’s sleeping, if he’s sick, if he’s got whatever Steve’s got -- that would be just Bucky’s luck, picking up another sickly guy who needs more fucking chicken soup.

He touches Clint’s shoulder, intending to shake him awake, to check him for a fever, but as soon as his hand lands there, Clint jumps, flinching violently and jerking away with a panicked gasp. He’d have knocked himself and his chair right over if Bucky hadn’t managed to grab his wrist before he fell.

Clint is pale, eyes wide and dark, looking around frantically.

“Fuck,” he says, too loudly. The librarian hisses at them from her desk but Clint doesn’t react to her. “Shit, fuck, sorry, Bucky, sorry, I thought --”

“Shh,” Bucky says, a quick glance over his shoulder at the librarian, who looks like she can’t decide what’s worse -- the volume or all the cussing. “It’s fine, sorry, I shouldn’t have scared you, I thought you were sleeping.” He looks back at Clint, whose jaw is tight, his eyes narrowed and a dull flush in his cheeks. He’s staring at Bucky’s mouth with a furious sort of intensity. “Are you feeling okay?”

Clint furrows his eyebrows and glances quickly up at Bucky’s eyes and then away, pulling his wrist out of Bucky’s grasp. “I can’t --” He huffs, a frustrated breath, and then looks back at Bucky. “Sorry.”

Each syllable sounds a little off, a little soft around the edges, and now Clint’s talking incredibly softly -- barely audible.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Bucky says, turning away to grab a chair. “Steve’s sick and Kate hadn’t seen you, so I just --” Bucky swings the chair around, moves to straddle it, and when he looks back at Clint, Clint is looking furious and frustrated and miserable.

“I can’t,” he says again, rubbing at his jaw, just below his ear. He fixes a glare over Bucky’s left shoulder.

“Can’t what?” Bucky asks, and Clint’s eyes snap to his mouth again. It would be distracting, if Bucky wasn’t so worried. “Kate said you skipped class today, I thought you were sick.”

Clint licks his lips, looking awkward. “I’m okay,” he says, grimacing. “You didn’t have to worry. I just. Wanted to be by myself.”

Bucky rocks back on his chair, considering for a moment, and Clint is still very carefully not looking away from his face. “You don’t seem okay,” he says finally.

Clint closes his eyes, exhaling through his nose, and a bit of his old belligerence comes back. “It’s fine, okay? Yesterday, Rumlow noticed my hearing aids and made a giant fucking deal about it and he and Sitwell think it’s fucking hilarious that I’m basically deaf, and when we got home, Barney threw a big fit about it and he doesn’t want me to wear them anymore, and I told him to fuck off, so he. Broke them.”

Bucky lets his chair fall back onto all four legs and stands up, sending it screeching across the floor. He makes it two steps away before Clint grabs his arm -- his metal arm, like he doesn’t even care -- and says, “Wait, where are you going?”

He sounds panicked, which is the only reason Bucky hesitates and looks back at him. “Do you not -- did you not know?” Clint asks, eyes wide and shining. He’s pale and his mouth is tight and miserable. “Sorry, I thought you knew -- I mean, it’s not a big deal, I had really small hearing aids, most people don’t notice, but if you don’t want to--”

Bucky growls, stepping closer, forcing Clint to stumble until he lands back into his chair. “I am going,” Bucky says, enunciating carefully, because Clint’s been reading his fucking lips, “To find your brother and punch him in the face.”

Clint swallows hard and blinks up at him before slowly, carefully reaching up and curling one hand around Bucky’s shoulder, holding him there. “He’s not that bad,” he says, voice faint and still soft around the edges. “He’s trying to protect me. He doesn’t want them to bully me, and I--”

Bucky presses the tips of his fingers to Clint’s mouth to shut him up, because if he keeps talking, Bucky’s gonna lose it and it will take them weeks to find whatever pieces are left of Barney when he’s done.

He breathes in and out carefully, musters whatever he can of his control, and then straddles his chair again, studying Clint and waiting until he’s calm enough to unclench his teeth.

“No,” he says finally. “He’s a piece of shit.”

Clint looks like he’s going to argue but Bucky doesn’t let him.

“You need to tell your foster parents. They’ll get you new ones.”

Clint looks confused, so Bucky repeats himself more carefully, and then Clint says, horrified, “I can’t, they’ll be so mad. They’ll -- aids cost so much, and I can’t ask them to -- and they’ll find out what happened and Barney’ll be in so much trouble!”

Jesus. Bucky takes a deep, calming breath, and says, “Tell them it was an accident. Tell them it happened in gym. I don’t care. Just tell them.”

Clint looks away, still that angry, dull red, and he says, “But they’ll be mad.”

“Clint.” Clint stares determinedly at his hands, spread on the desk, and doesn’t look up. Little shit. Bucky touches his jaw, forces him to look, and then says, “You need to hear. It’s their job to take care of you. Even if they get angry, they’re not going to hurt you.”

Clint’s eyes widen and he jerks away, shaking his head like that wasn’t what he was thinking.

Bucky wants to go find Barney again, and after he’s done with Barney, he wants to go find Clint’s dad. Too bad the fucker’s dead, because Bucky’s got some things he’d like to tell him.

Bucky just hopes Clint’s foster family is better than his actual family’s turning out to be.

Clint glances at him, chewing his bottom lip for a second, and then says, “You really didn’t notice my aids before?” Bucky shakes his head and Clint looks shifty before asking, “And you don’t mind?”

“Decent people aren’t gonna mind,” Bucky tells him, flexing his metal fingers. “And I’m certainly not.”

Clint’s smile is small and sad and he says, “Maybe my -- maybe the Sullivans won’t mind either.”

Clint’s foster family better not fucking mind.

*

Bucky storms into Steve’s room in a rage, throwing his backpack to the floor, kicking it under Steve’s little desk, and dropping into Steve’s rickety old computer chair. He’s scowling, but careful as he holds out a thermos of his mom’s very best chicken noodle soup.

Steve’s just a tuft of blonde hair and fever-red cheeks, poking out of a blanket burrito, but he wiggles out of it a little to reach for the soup.

“Bad day?” he asks. His voice sounds hoarse and nasally.

“Did you know Clint’s deaf?”

Steve blinks at him, unscrewing the thermos and taking a sip. “Yeah?” he asks. “You didn’t?”

“No.” His voice is terse and clipped.

“And you… care?” Steve frowns around a mouthful of soup.

“I care because his fucking brother decided he doesn’t want a brother who wears hearing aids that other people can see so the motherfucker fucking broke them and Clint doesn’t want to tell anyone because Barney’ll get in trouble.”

“Ah,” Steve says with a wry smile. “You need me to help you hide the body.”

Bucky kicks the chair back, risking life and limb as he balances on two wheels, his feet up on the desk, and says, “Yes. Something like that.”

Steve’s phone, charging on the bedside table, lights up, and Bucky is instantly suspicious by the way Steve scrambles over to snatch it up. Who the fuck could be texting Steve when Bucky’s right here, Becca’s too busy pretending not to have a massive and frankly embarrassing crush on him, and Clint can still barely unlock his phone, let alone figure out how to send a text.

Not to mention the fact that Steve, who’d already been flushed with fever, is an even brighter shade of pink now as he furtively checks his text message, fumbles out a response, and shoves his phone under his pillow.

“Steve,” Bucky says, eyes narrow.

“What?” He tries to look innocent and Bucky just keeps staring at him. It takes him four and a half seconds to crack and then he says, words tripping over each other, “Okay, whatever, I’ve been texting Sam all day, it’s not a big deal.”

Sam Wilson?” Bucky says, horrified. He hates that guy -- okay, whatever, Sam is decently attractive and somewhat charming and whenever they run into him, he seems like a nice guy. Fine. And he’s nice to Steve, which is Bucky’s baseline for a decent human being. But he’s also a private school kid from across town who hangs out with Tony Stark, which means he’s probably rich and most likely an asshole.

“He wants to go bowling,” Steve says, managing to sound dreamy despite his stuffed up nose and raw throat.

With you?” Bucky asks, even more disturbed.

Steve glares at him. “Hey,” he says. “What’s wrong with bowling with me?”

“They do disco bowling and they’ve got a fog machine and it fucks up your asthma!” Bucky cries. “Do you not remember my 12th birthday party?”

“Oh, that,” Steve says with a shrug. “I thought you thought that Sam wouldn’t want to bowl with me because… well. Because of me.”

“Oh fuck you,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “You know you’re pretty much the best guy I know and anybody would be lucky to date you.” They’ve talked about it plenty of times before, whenever Steve had gotten down about himself. “But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna be happy with just any prep school asshole waltzing in off the streets thinking he’s good enough to risk your health by taking you to the fucking bowling alley.”

“Okay, Mom.”

And Bucky gets it, he does. He’s being an overprotective dick. But honestly, sometimes he doesn’t know how Sarah Rogers lets Steve out of the house without having an anxiety attack about it. If it’s not his lungs, it’s his allergies, and if it’s not that, it’s his entire lack of self preservation and his willingness to fight battles he’s got no chance of winning.

He supposes it helps her, knowing that Bucky’s always got Steve’s back.

He sighs, long-suffering. “It’s gonna have to be a double date,” he says grimly.

“Oh, yeah?” Steve asks, sly. “Who’re you gonna bring? Tony?”

“You’re such a fucking punk,” Bucky grumbles, but it’s a good question.

Who’s he gonna bring on his double date with Steve and Sam so that Sam thinks it’s a double date and Bucky’s not just there to keep an eye on him?

His options are, admittedly, limited.

*

On Thursday, even though Steve is still sick, Bucky’s gotta stick around after school because he promised Kate, who’d somehow convinced Clint to join the drama club.

At times like this, when he’s waiting around and suffering from anxiety he can’t figure out the root of, Bucky wishes he smoked. He doesn’t, because he’s not an idiot, and no one who's watched Steve struggling to breathe through an asthma attack would take breathing for granted, but it would be nice to have something to do with his hands and his panicky, pointless thoughts.

He doesn’t know what he’s afraid of.

Steve being sick always makes him anxious, sure, but Steve had texted that he was on the mend and there was no fucking way he was going to miss bowling this weekend, and that, if Bucky didn’t find himself a date, Sam was threatening to fix him up with someone, and that sounded like a special kind of hell.

It’s a hell he’ll suffer through for Steve, but a hell just the same.

This anxiety, though, is different. He’s worried about Clint and he doesn’t know why. Clint had missed the first half of the day, shown up at lunch time a little subdued, wearing a heavy knitted hat with ear flaps to hang down and cover the large, tan hearing aids tucked behind his ears -- much bigger and more obvious than the ones Barney had crushed the day before. He’d been reserved and quiet and Bucky had gotten used to him being a bit more animated than that.

Maybe that’s the source of the anxiety. He’s not sure sending Clint off to drama club when he’s feeling like that is the best idea.

The hour passes painfully slowly, and when the front doors of the school finally fly open, letting a stampede of drama kids out, Bucky is so fucking ready to be home playing Call of Duty and forgetting this day ever happened.

His anxiety disappears entirely, however, when he sees Clint hop down the front steps to the school with a blinding grin, chatting happily with a crowd of drama geeks who don’t seem to care about his hearing aids at all.

Bucky isn’t sure he’s ever seen Clint look so uncomplicatedly happy before, taking up as much room as he’s supposed to with his long legs and his wide shoulders, talking with his hands and not trying to be small at all. His smile is bright and crooked and his hair is a mess and he trips over his own feet at the bottom of the stairs but catches himself before he falls and he’s fucking beautiful and Bucky doesn’t get a grip on this before it gets outta hand, he’s gonna be in so much trouble.

Clint is also babbling away blissfully to Natasha Romanov, which is, Bucky decides, problematic.

She’s probably the only person in this school who’s scarier than Bucky is.

But she’s not looking scary now -- she’s smiling fondly at Clint and doesn’t seem irritated by his exuberance at all.

“Hey,” Kate says, sidling up beside him, unbearably smug. “You’re staring.”

Bucky jerks his gaze away and rubs at the back of his neck and ignores his pink cheeks and says, “Fuck you.”

She laughs, leaning back against the side of his car. “I won’t tell. Well, I might tell Becca.”

“You tell anybody and you’re walking home, I don’t care if your mom’ll kill me,” he threatens.

She grins. “Sure, Bucky. I believe you. You’ll totally let me and Clint walk home and put our lives at risk. Maybe you should give him back his switchblade, just in case.”

Bucky scowls and jerks the back door open and says, “Get in. And shut up. And not a word about the music or you’re walking.”

“Sure, sure, Bucky,” she says, singsong and irritating as fuck. She climbs in though, thankfully.

Clint comes bouncing over, beaming, and says, “Bucky! Hey! Guess what! Natasha says I’m not too late to audition for the class play, all I gotta do is learn a few lines by Monday! I mean, I’d probably be awful at it and I probably shouldn’t do it anyway but isn’t that cool?”

“Why shouldn’t you do it?” Bucky asks, more gruffly than he intends to, because he’s focusing so hard on not staring or blushing or making an ass of himself.

Clint climbs into the passenger seat, backpack on his lap, and hums happily. “Barney says not to get too attached.”

“To… to anything?” Behind the wheel, Bucky finally looks at him, frowning. “Why? Is this temporary? Are you moving to another family?”

Clint shrugs and fiddles with the radio, still looking blissfully happy. “I dunno. The Sullivans seem okay and our caseworker says that if it works out, we should be here ‘til we graduate, but Barney graduates this year.”

“But you don’t,” Bucky says, feeling out of sorts and ignoring Kate’s snickering in the backseat.

“I know.” Clint rolls his eyes. “I’m fucking terrible at reading, too, I might never graduate at this rate. But Barney says he has a plan, and I shouldn’t get attached, because it probably won’t last too long, but wouldn’t it be cool to be in a play?”

It sounds like hell to Bucky, but Clint’s eyes are shining and his smile looks wide enough to hurt his cheeks, so Bucky just says helplessly, “Yeah.”

Clint’s entire face lights up and he says, “Would you come and watch?”

Kate cracks up in the back and Bucky shoots her a glare and says gruffly, “‘Course I would. And Steve too.”

“Barney would hate it,” Clint says, sounding pleased. He settles on a bubblegum pop station that makes Bucky itch, but he doesn’t say a word, just throws the car into reverse and hits the gas.

*

“Okay, so here’s the thing,” Kate says, once Bucky pulls up outside her house, conveniently right beside Clint’s as well. “When I talked to Mrs. Sullivan about Clint joining the drama club with me and how you’d drive us home, Bucky, she got all, well.” She wrinkles her nose, undoing the seatbelt and snatching up her backpack. “Squirrelly.”

“Squirrelly?” Clint echoes dully, looking like he’s already anticipating the worst.

“Yeah.” She grimaces. “She just said it would be super nice if you’d come up to the house this first time so she can meet you and make sure you’re not a terrible influence or whatever and I said you’d love to, see you tomorrow, bye!”

She throws herself out of the car and dashes into her own house and after she slams the door, Clint says faintly, “Oh god. I’m so sorry. You don’t have to. She can go fuck herself, seriously, she doesn’t get to tell me what I do or who I hang out with or --”

“Your brother’s palling around with Sitwell and Rumlow and she’s worried about me?” Bucky asks, already grimly shutting off the car.

“I told you,” Clint says, with growing desperation. “I don’t care what she thinks, she doesn’t get to tell me or my brother who we can hang out with, and--”

“Let’s get this over with.”

Judging by Clint’s reaction, and by the way he’d been so scared to tell his foster family that he needed new hearing aids, Bucky is preparing himself for the worst -- receiving the third degree from some stern, controlling woman he’s ready to hate on sight.

The woman who opens the door is not what he’s expecting. She is soft and sweet and her entire face lights up when she sees Clint.

“Clint!” she says, and Clint hunches his shoulders and shoves his hands in his pockets and scowls down at his feet. “You’re not wearing that ridiculous hat anymore, I’m so proud of you, I told you no one would care about your aids, and Dr. Harvey called this afternoon, he says the purple prototypes we ordered will be ready on Monday.”

“Whatever,” Clint says, clearly reluctant.

His foster mom’s smile goes a tiny bit tighter at the edges but doesn’t dim and she turns to Bucky and says, “Hi! You must be Bucky! Thanks so much for offering to drive him home, I’m so glad he’s joining the drama club!”

She holds out her hand to shake and Bucky takes it, still squinting at Clint and trying to figure out what his deal is because she seems perfectly nice and is clearly trying to make something of an effort here and Clint’s being a bit of a dick.

“Hi,” he says, belatedly. “It’s no problem. Kate’s been best friends with my little sister since birth, her mom would be incredibly disappointed in me if I let her get abducted.”

“Kate’s a sweetheart. Listen, Gerald will be home for dinner in about 20 minutes and I’ve made a huge lasagna. I know he’d love to meet you and to thank you himself, would you like to stay for dinner?”

Staying for dinner with Clint’s foster family -- and fuck, Barney, what if Barney was there? -- is the very last thing Bucky wants, but Clint says quickly, sharply, “He doesn’t want to stay for a fucking fake family dinner.”

Bucky’s mouth falls open and Mrs. Sullivan’s smile falters a little, so he says quickly, “That sounds… really nice. I’ll just. Call my mom and see if it’s okay.” And then he adds, because he wasn’t raised in a goddamn barn and Steve’s mom would kill him if she ever heard his manners had lapsed, “It smells real good.”

And then he ducks out to jog back to the car to grab his phone.

Despite all his broad hints to his mother about how very much he wants her to order him to come home at once, he can hear one of the twins screaming in the background and she’s distracted, so all he gets is an offhanded, “Sounds nice, see you later.”

Fuck.

Clint has already disappeared upstairs when he trudges back to the house, cursing Kate with every step, and Mrs. Sullivan beams at him when he tells her he’s staying and then directs him to the third door on the left at the top of the stairs.

When he finds Clint, Clint is sitting on his bed glaring at the wall. It’s such an abrupt change from how he’d been in the car, that Bucky feels off balance.

“She seems nice?” he tries.

Clint rolls his eyes and flops back on his bed and glares up at the ceiling and oh, that’s right, now they’re hanging out in Clint’s bedroom. What the fuck.

“You don’t have to stay,” Clint grumbles. “Just tell her to fuck off.”

“That would be… incredibly rude.” There’s nowhere else to sit, so he perches uncomfortably on the edge of the bed. “But I guess it kinda helps with the whole not getting attached thing you’ve got going on.”

“They keep… trying,” Clint says, voice strangled with fury, like it’s the worst thing. “They keep buying me things, like new shoes. I don’t fucking need new shoes, my dad bought me these ones, and Barney’s got the same pair.”

Bucky is so, so far out of his depth here. He looks around the room, with its double bed carefully made with what looks like a brand new purple bedspread, the purple curtains on the windows that still have creases from being taken out of the packages, the closet, door half opened, with a rack full of new clothes he’s never seen Clint wear. Then he looks at Clint, scowling up at the ceiling with an embarrassed flush on his cheeks and eyes burning with angry tears, and he says, unsure, “What happened to your dad?”

Clint sucks in a trembling breath and says, “He got drunk and wrapped his car around a tree.”

“And your mom?”

“Got sick. I was just a baby, so I didn’t know her.”

“My dad left when I was younger. And Steve never had one, fucked off before he was born.”

Clint looks at him, sniffling noisily, and says, “Dads are the fucking worst when they do that.”

Bucky reaches over and rests his hand over Clint’s ankle and says, “I don’t think getting attached is the worst thing, Barton.”

“It is,” Clint says, sullen. “If you don’t get attached, you don’t get hurt.”

Bucky wants to ask if Clint’s hurting now, unattached, but he doesn’t have the words for it, so he just squeezes Clint’s ankle and stays quiet.

*

Dinner is awkward as fuck but at least Barney doesn’t show up. Mrs. Sullivan asks after him but Clint just shrugs and says, “Don’t know, sorry.”

Then they ask him about drama club and he stays sullen and withdrawn, so they turn to Bucky, quizzing him on everything from his family life to his grades, and he answers each question gratefully, because it’s better than Clint’s angry silence.

He curses Kate all the way home.

*

 

Bucky helps his mom with the twins’ bath time and, once they’re tucked into bed and he’s read them a story, he trudges to his room, feeling exhausted, knowing he’s still got homework to do.

Instead, he lays flat on his bed, closes his eyes, and folds his arms over his face. He just needs to rest.

Twenty minutes later, Becca pounds on the door and says loudly, “If you’re jerking off, stop, ‘cos I’m coming in!”

She shoves the door open with a dramatic flourish, as if truly expecting to catch Bucky doing something more scandalous than laying there in the dark. Her eyes narrow when she sees him, and she flicks on the light.

“Did you want something?” Bucky asks her dryly.

She comes in, closing the door behind her. “I was gonna ask for math help, but I’ve changed my mind,” she says, wandering past his desk, poking at piles of Steve’s sketchbooks. “You don’t look like you’d be much help.”

She sits down on his desk chair, swinging back and forth, and Bucky goes back to hiding his face in his arms. Becca waits for a few moments, like she thinks he’s just gonna spill his guts all over the place, but Bucky’s a whole lot more stubborn than she gives him credit for.

Finally, she says, “So, you had dinner with Clint and his foster parents, huh?”

“Uh huh.”

“And how was that?”

Bucky huffs and says, “Fine.”

“Yeah? Then what’s with all this teenaged angst?”

“I just… it was awkward as fuck?”

“Because of Barney? He’s kind of the worst.”

“He wasn’t there,” Bucky says. “Thankfully.”

“Then what’s up?” Her grin turns teasing and sharp. “Kate says you’re pining.”

Shooting her a dirty look, Bucky says, “That’s not even -- look. It’s not that. I just… When Steve gets sick, I bring him soup and Gatorade and make sure he stays hydrated and get his homework. And when his asthma acts up, I always got a spare inhaler for him. And when he gets into fights, I’m always there to finish them for him and then drag him to the nurse. It -- it sucks, but I know what to do. But I don’t know what to do for Clint.”

She folds her arms on the back of the chair, straddling it now, swinging back and forth, her smile fading to something softer. “You know, Buck, it’s not actually your job to save everyone.”

Bucky sits up, swinging his legs around, throwing his hands out and saying, “I don’t want to save everyone! I only want to save a few people -- Steve, obviously. His mom. Our mom. The twins, though they drive me nuts. You, I guess, most days, when you’re not being a brat. Maybe your friends, though Kate’s pushing it these days and America’s kind of terrifying. And. And Clint. Everyone else can go fuck themselves.”

Becca looks at him with a fond smile and says, “Clint sure got on the list pretty fast.”

“He’s got to be on someone’s list,” Bucky says, exasperated. “Someone’s gotta look out for him. All he’s got is his brother, and Barney…” he trails off before adding helplessly, “Sometimes I think he’d be better off without him.”

“Well, he’s got you, too, doesn’t he? And Steve? And Kate says the Sullivans are super nice. Probably too nice, Barney’s probably terrorizing them, but they’re trying.”

“Clint’s being a little shit to them too,” Bucky confesses. “It was so fucking awkward.”

“I think Clint’s pretty lucky, actually, ‘cos he’s got you, even if he doesn’t realize it.” She gets up, patting him on the head in a way she knows he hates. “Just give him time. And in the meantime -- I really do need help with my math and I’m pretty sure you haven’t done your physics homework yet.”

Bucky groans, because physics is the fucking worst, but he’s feeling a little better, even if he won’t ever admit it to Becca, who can be a decent sister when she wants to be.

*

Bucky doesn’t find a date in time for Steve’s Saturday bowling date, which is so fucking unfortunate, because he and Steve arrive at the bowling alley together to find Sam waiting with a guy Bucky vaguely knows and instantly hates.

“Hi!” the guy says, all crooked smile and dark, wavy hair. “I’m Scott! You must be Bucky Barnes, Sam told me you were hot but socially incompetent and he was totally right, you’re super hot!”

He holds out a hand for Bucky to shake and Bucky just stares at him, appalled.

Scott’s grin just widens. “Damn, he was right about the socially incompetent thing too, huh? That’s cool, double dates are the worst. Don’t worry, I totally don’t expect you to put out or anything, even if I buy you a soda-- do you want a soda? I do, I’ll be back, don’t start without me.”

He leaves and Bucky turns to Sam, horrified. “Seriously?”

Sam laughs. “He’s a bit much but once you get used to it, he’s fun, I swear. I thought his… exuberance and chattiness might balance out your whole broody thing.”

“He seems nice,” Steve says, earnest, his cheeks flushed as he smiles shyly at Sam.

Motherfucker. Bucky can’t even duck out early.

*

The bowling alley is always incredibly busy on Saturday nights because there just aren’t all that many other things to do when you’re not old enough to drink. The owners of the place have capitalized on the youth market by introducing disco bowling -- turning the lights down low, having horrible pop music blaring over the speakers, investing in a few racks of laser lights, a disco ball, and selling terrible food.

It beats hanging out at the local McDonalds, but Bucky still hates it. Bowling is a pointless game and he’d much rather spend his time playing video games at home with Steve.

Two games in, he’s bored out of his fucking mind, getting slaughtered by Sam and Steve, who are both apparently quite competitive, and if Scott doesn’t stop his happy babbling, Bucky’s gonna kill him.

And then the doors swing open, letting in a bright beam of light from the parking lot, and Clint stumbles in laughing, followed by his dipshit brother.

Clint’s entire face is glowing as he looks around, cheeks flushed and eyes bright, and he beams when he sees Steve and Bucky, heading over while Barney goes up to the counter to get their shoes.

“Steve!” he says. “Bucky! What are you doing here, I didn’t know you guys bowled, I’ve never really done it too much but Barney’s gonna teach me.”

Bucky’s still trying to figure out what to say, wanting to appear cool and calm and collected but also unable to help feeling a little too excited at Clint’s sudden and unexpected appearance.

Steve doesn’t seem troubled by it and offers a wide grin. “Hey! Clint! This is Sam and that’s Scott. They go to school across town.” Scott is throwing a ball down the alley, he hits the gutter, and then trips over his untied shoelace.

Everyone makes polite small talk and by the time Clint turns to Bucky, Bucky feels like he’s got enough control over his damned emotions to offer a normal, pleased-but-not-too-pleased smile and a, “Hey.” He jerks his chin too, a proper greeting, all casual and not suspicious at all.

Clint is still smiling so widely, his cheeks must hurt. “Maybe we can hang out later,” he says. “I mean, if you want.”

“Of course -- I mean, sure, yeah, sounds good, maybe we can get a drink after, or, if you need a ride home, or--”

Barney shows up, thank fuck, because Bucky’s pretty sure he would have just kept babbling if someone hadn’t interrupted. It’s Barney, though, which sucks.

“C’mon,” Barney says, shoving a pair of shoes at Clint. “We’re in the eighth lane, go set up, I’ll buy you a milkshake.” He offers Bucky and Steve a tight smile and then walks away, Clint following after with a happy wave.

They return to their disastrous double date, and Bucky can’t help but watch Clint and Barney every now and again, when he feels he can get away with it with no one looking. Barney does seem to be doing a decent big brotherly job of teaching Clint to bowl, offering tips on holding the ball and stance, where to aim and how to spin the ball, and Clint hangs off every word. Barney keeps buying snacks, filling their table with milkshakes, nachos, chili cheese dogs, and fries.

Clint’s a terrible bowler, usually hitting the gutters and Barney laughs at him, but it doesn’t seem overly cruel. Maybe he’s not the worst brother, when Rumlow and Sitwell aren’t around.

Bucky continues to suck but he’s still easily beating Scott, who is trying his best but is an all around disaster. At least watching Clint helps Bucky tune out Scott’s babbling, and Scott doesn’t seem to mind that no one’s listening -- Steve and Sam are too busy talking quietly across the table, flirting and being generally disgusting.

And then Barney gets up and slips outside and Bucky just happens to glance over -- no big deal, he’s not staring like a creep or anything, and sees Clint look around, bite his bottom lip, take his turn -- and bowl a perfect, beautiful, graceful strike.

He doesn’t celebrate or anything, just wanders back to the table to idly eat a nacho, and it reminds Bucky a little bit of how he was in archery and gym -- a clumsy mess until he focuses, and then he hits the target easily, every time.

And then Barney comes back and Clint goes back to gutterballs and earnestly asking for advice from his brother.

“Hey,” Scott says suddenly, and Bucky turns back to his own table, blinking. Scott’s smirking. “I’m actually beating you now, and I’m pretty much the worst bowler who’s ever lived, so you might wanna pay attention.”

“I am paying attention,” Bucky lies, and Scott just laughs.

*

Bucky sees Clint making his way to the concession stand a little while later and is suddenly overwhelmed with a craving for a blue raspberry slurpee, so he grabs his wallet and hops up, ignoring Scott’s donkey laugh behind him.

“Hey,” he says after placing his order, casually leaning against the counter. Clint jumps a little, startled, and then grins around the slurpee straw in his mouth. His lips are already stained red from it.

“Hi!” Clint says, and Bucky is so uncomfortably aware of how bright he looks, how fucking happy.

“You’re a good bowler,” Bucky tells him, accepting his slurpee from the cashier with a quick thanks.

“What, are you kidding me?” Clint laughs. “I suck. Barney’s destroying me.”

“I mean when your brother’s not watching.”

Clint’s smile fades a little bit, turning shy, and he shrugs one shoulder. “Barney gets a little mad when I beat him at stuff,” he says.

Bucky wants to tell him about what a dipshit Barney is but he swallows the urge and instead says easily, “I guess. Younger siblings can be tough.”

“Becca’s awesome, though. You’re pretty lucky.” He hesitates for a moment and then says, “I should let you get back to your table, though.”

“Oh fuck, no,” Bucky says, eyes widening. “Do not send me back there, for the love of god, it is basically the worst double date I’ve ever been on, you have to save me.”

Clint blinks at him, cocking his head, and then looking back at Bucky’s table. “Double date?” he echoes. “But you said you and Steve weren’t--”

“Oh god, no. Steve is on a date with Sam. Sam is an idiot who decided taking Steve disco bowling despite his asthma and the smoke machines was a good idea. I’m the idiot who decided that going on a double date would give me plausible deniability to follow Stevie around and make sure he didn’t fuckin’ die. Scott is the absolute idiot who Sam decided to bring along after I failed to find my own fucking date. It’s a disaster. Do not send me back there.”

Clint just keeps blinking, face looking oddly blank, as he stares back at the table, like he just can’t comprehend it. Finally, he looks back at Bucky, frowning and looking strangely uncomfortable. “Steve’s on a date with -- and you’re on a date with -- but. Couldn’t you’ve found a girl? I mean, surely you could’ve, girls have to see what you look like, it the worst date ever because it’s with a dude?”

“Uh, no?” Bucky’s a little thrown off here, on one hand, wanting to follow up on the idea that apparently Clint had been looking and had an opinion on Bucky’s appearance, and on the other hand, he seemed so confused by the fact that Bucky wasn’t on a date with a girl. He takes a sip of his slurpee to hide his confusion before saying, “Scott’s dick isn’t the problem, it’s his personality that’s the problem. And, I mean, I’m bi, so… Is that -- that’s not a problem, is it?”

And now Clint looks like he’s going to panic. He glances desperately back towards Barney and says, “Oh, crap, Barney’s looking for me, I gotta--”

“Clint,” Bucky says, because something in his chest is suddenly feeling broken and a bit sharp around the edges. He’d known it wasn’t all that likely that Clint was into guys -- there’s a reason why Bucky has been trying his best to compartmentalize his own stupid attraction for him -- but Clint not being okay with Bucky being into guys was a whole different thing.

“That’s not a problem,” he asks again, and Clint freezes, staring at him. “Is it?”

“I -- no. Of course it’s not, why would that be a problem, it’s cool, everything’s cool, I promise, I just, I gotta go, Barney’s looking for me, and I --” He stumbles back a few steps, glancing over his shoulder at his brother again, and then back at Bucky, chewing his bottom lip and hesitating for a moment before reaching out and squeezing Bucky’s wrist. “It’s not a problem,” he says, earnest. “Okay?”

And then he’s gone and Bucky just stands there, breathing carefully and watching him dart through the crowd, back to his brother.

It sure seems like a problem, and Bucky doesn’t know how to react to that, but he knows it makes him feel like shit, and he doesn’t like it.

*

Bucky broods about it after he gets back to his table, and even Scott seems to sense that the change in his mood isn’t something he ought to joke about.

He’s still super aware of Clint, but now he does his best not to look over at all, and eventually, even Steve notices that something isn’t quite right.

He waits until it’s Sam’s turn and then tugs Bucky aside, asking him, “Did something happen? What’s wrong? You were grumpy before and now you’re doing that death glare thing you do, and Scott’s not gonna want to see you again if you keep it up. He looks like a kicked puppy.”

“Clint freaked out when he realized we were on a double date with two guys,” Bucky says bluntly.

Steve blinks and wrinkles his nose and says, “Oh. That… sucks. I mean. It happens though, right? Do you want -- should we -- did he say something to you? Was he a dick to you?” Bucky can see it, can see the indignation turning to anger which will turn to fury and he knows if he doesn’t stop this, Steve’s gonna march right over there and punch Clint in the face and that’s the very last thing Bucky wants right now.

“No! No, he just. Got weird. But he said it was fine -- he just wasn’t acting like it’s fine, but who the fuck knows what’s going on in his head half the time, right?”

“It’s probably Barney,” Steve hisses, clenching his hands into fists.

Bucky glances over at Clint and Barney, and he’s startled to see that it looks like they’re arguing now. Clint’s holding his phone, gesturing angrily, and Barney just rolls his eyes.

“Maybe,” Bucky says, distracted. “Maybe I should--” He takes a step towards Clint and Steve grabs his arm.

“Buck,” he says, quiet, barely audible over the music. “I know you have this need to save everybody, but it’s not actually your job.”

“I don’t need to save everybody,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “Why do people keep saying that?”

“I just mean, if he’s gonna think there’s something wrong with you, then maybe he’s not worth saving.”

Bucky looks back at Steve. “I still gotta try,” he says with a simple shrug.

Steve’s eyes narrow, his mouth falling open a little, and he suddenly looks far too suspicious -- and the last thing Bucky needs is for Steve to realize that Bucky’s currently compartmentalizing the shit out of a growing attraction for the emotionally compromised new kid who just lost his dad, has no one left to rely on except his dipshit brother, is possibly homophobic, and is in no place emotionally to deal with someone developing an ill-advised infatuation with him.

Clint’s storming away from Barney and towards the door, and Bucky flashes a sunshiny smile at Steve and says, “Be right back.”

“Bucky!” Steve shouts, but Bucky just can’t deal with him right now, so he follows Clint out into the cool evening air.

He finds Clint standing in the shadows nearby, swearing to himself as he jabs at his phone, managing to unlock it but struggling with whatever he was trying to do next.

“Need some help?”

He jumps and then smiles distractedly at Bucky and says, “I just gotta call the house, they called Barney like six times and he’s not answering so they tried me and he says they can fuck off but what if something happened?”

“Ah,” Bucky says. “Hit contacts, there. They’re listed under ‘Home’.”

Clint exhales gratefully, but before he hits the button to call, he glances up at Bucky through his lashes and says all in a rush, “I don’t want you thinking that I’m weirded out by what you told me, okay, I’ve just -- you just -- you just said it, like it’s no big deal, like it’s allowed, like you aren’t even scared, and you guys are just. Here. In front of everyone. And Sam keeps grabbing Steve’s hand like he doesn’t give a fuck and I--”

“Sam’s what?”

Bucky’s clearly been too distracted by Clint if Sam is making moves like that. And then the rest of what Clint said registers, and Bucky frowns. “Why would we be -- it is allowed. Maybe there are some assholes in the world who don’t like it, but they don’t get to make my decisions for me, and if they have a problem with it, then fuck them, and if they try to say anything, or do anything to make Steve afraid to hold hands with the dude who likes him, then I’ll punch them in the goddamn face. I’m not afraid -- I shouldn’t be afraid and I’m not gonna be and neither is he and who the fuck told you it wasn’t allowed.”

He could fucking guess.

Clint just stares at him, wide-eyed, face painted in shadows and golden lights from the streetlamps, and his voice sounds shaken when he says, “I just think it’s real brave, that’s all.”

And he doesn’t sound like he has a problem with it. He sounds sad, like he’s fucking heartbroken, and Bucky steps closer, reaching for him, saying, “Clint --”

Clint steps back into the shadows, hits ‘home’ on his phone, and holds it to his ear as he turns away.

Bucky’s left standing there, feeling helpless and lost all over again, and listening to his onesided conversation.

“Hi,” he says. “Yeah, he’s got his phone. No, he says -- no. He didn’t listen to it. I can try -- I don’t think he -- sorry. What? Oh. No, uhm. That wasn’t -- it wasn’t him, I. I just. Uh huh. I know.” His voice trembles. “No, I know -- you know, you know what, you can just fuck -- no, I can’t -- I just -- Please, please don’t, I just --” The rage is gone from his voice in a heartbeat and he sounds broken when he says, quietly, “Okay. I will. Sorry, I’m so sorry, I… uh huh. Okay. Bye.”

He hangs up and Bucky says, “Clint? Are you okay?”

Clint spins around suddenly, a bright, sharp and shaky smile on his lips. “Oh! Yeah, no, I’m okay. I just gotta go home, I just --”

His expression cracks and his breathing goes wobbly and he says, “Someone took $200 from Molly’s wallet. And. Is that -- you said before that if I told them about my hearing aids, they wouldn’t hurt me, is this -- is this something that they’ll -- do you think they’ll--”

Bucky frowns, reacting instinctively, grabbing Clint by the wrist and holding tight, just to ground him and stop the trembling. “No,” he says. “They’re not gonna -- families don’t hurt each other.”

Clint laughs and it sounds sharp. “They’re not family though.”

“But they wanna be,” Bucky says, and Clint shakes his head wildly. “Did you -- Clint, did you take the money?”

Clint closes his eyes. “I gotta go, they want me back right away, they’re real mad.”

“Did you take it?”

Clint’s eyes are burning with tears when he opens them and he looks so young and scared. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Barney’s gonna be real mad, he told me not to call them, d’you think -- would you mind driving me? I’d walk, but it would take so long, and they want me there as soon as possible, and I--”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “No problem. It’s fine. Wait here, I’ll grab my keys.”

“Thanks,” Clint says, his voice breaking as he kicks off his bowling shoes and hands them to Bucky. A few tears escape and he rubs at them angrily and Bucky hesitates for a moment before swearing and ducking back inside.

“Hey,” he says, dropping down into his chair at their table. “I gotta take Clint home, there’s an emergency.” He points an angry finger at Sam and says, “You can take Steve home, but if you do anything he doesn’t want, I’m gonna kill you.” He pulls out Steve’s extra inhaler, passes it over, and keeps up the threatening glower until Sam rolls his eyes and Steve nails him in the ribs with a very pointy elbow.

“I’ll be fine, Buck,” he says. “I’ll call you if anything happens. Promise.”

“And wear your fucking seatbelt,” Bucky snaps. Then he sees Scott, looking awkward as fuck as usual, and says reluctantly, “Thanks for the date. Sorry it sucked.”

Scott grins, offers a sloppy salute, and says, “Go get your boy, Barnes.”

“Jesus,” Bucky grumbles, grabbing his keys as Steve says, “Your boy? Since when do you have a boy? Bucky, get back here!”

Bucky just walks away even faster, pausing at the desk to exchange his and Clint’s shoes.

*

Outside Clint’s house, Bucky parks his car and they sit in awkward silence for a few seconds. All the lights are on inside and Clint’s breath hitches as he stares out the window.

“Give me your phone,” Bucky says abruptly, and Clint looks at him, startled, before handing it over.

Bucky adds his number to the contacts list and hands it back. “You need anything, call. I’ll leave the ringer on all night.”

Clint smiles weakly and says, “You’re assuming I’ll remember how to work this fucking thing.”

So Bucky rolls his eyes and sends Clint a text from his own phone and says, “Now all you gotta do is reply to that, okay? It’s easy. And Clint -- tell them it wasn’t you.”

“How many times are they gonna let Barney light their fucking shed on fire or steal their fucking money before they send him away?” Clint asks tonelessly. “At least if it’s both of us, they’ll send us both away.”

Bucky growls a little, reaching out and grabbing him by the shoulders, holding tightly. “Listen to me. There’s nothing wrong with getting attached. There’s nothing wrong with letting them try. I don’t care what Barney’s told you, you can get attached. You can let them be nice to you. They’re not gonna hurt you. Tell them the truth. Fuck Barney and whatever his plan is.”

“He -- he’s saving up money in case something goes wrong,” Clint tells him. “He’s taking care of us -- I’ll tell them it was me and that I spent it all and they’ll get mad at me and punish me and he won’t have to give it back and then if something happens, he can take care of us. We take care of each other. That’s what family does.”

“I don’t see him here, taking care of you,” Bucky says harshly, and Clint’s silent for a moment, pale and shaking, his eyes dark.

“I gotta go,” he says, pulling away. “Th-thanks for the ride. See you on Monday.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says faintly, and Clint smiles stiffly before slamming the door and trudging warily up towards the house.

Bucky waits until he’s inside before slamming his hands against the steering wheel and swearing.

It doesn’t make him feel any better.

*

 

Bucky only texts Clint three times the next morning, super casual texts about the weather, asking what he’s up to, asking if he’s done his homework, before he gives up, swears a whole bunch, and hops in his car to go visit Steve.

Steve’s already up, camped out on the sofa with a bowl of cereal and a dazed, daydreamy look on his face, and Bucky, as usual, doesn’t bother to knock before barging in and flopping down beside him.

“Sam says we should hang out again,” Steve says, through a mouthful of cereal. “He said we should go to the lake, or something about a party.”

Bucky moans and covers his face with both arms and says, “This is a nightmare.”

He’s mostly joking. He’s honestly happy that someone has finally seen how amazing Steve is. But the lake is just asking to catch a chill, and a party? A hormone-driven, illegal-drinking party filled with teenagers with no impulse control and Steve, who gets angry at the slightest provocation?

He’s got some concerns, that’s all.

Steve nudges him with his toe and grins, mouth full of Froot Loops. “It’s gonna be fine, you’ll see,” Steve says. “There’s milk left if you want some cereal.”

Bucky just shakes his head and stretches out, watching TV for a few moments, before Steve nudges him again. “Scott doesn’t wanna date you, sorry,” he says. He’s still grinning. “He says you’re hilarious, though, and he’s totally up for hanging out again, and also, apparently, straight. So. Don’t take it personal.”

Bucky finally looks at him, scowling. “Wilson brought me a straight dude for a date?”

“In his defense, it was kinda last minute,” Steve says with a shrug. “So, you gonna tell me what happened with Clint?”

Bucky moans again, throwing his arms up over his face and doesn’t even know where to start. “I’m an idiot,” he says, and it’s muffled.

“We knew that already.”

“He’s probably a worse idiot.”

Steve’s entire face lit up. “Were you guys… idiots together?”

Bucky glares, letting his arms fall back to the sofa, and says halfheartedly, “It’s not really about that, I don’t think. For him. There actually was an emergency, sorta.”

Wrinkling his nose, Steve drinks the milk from his bowl and then sets it aside and says, “Is he okay? Did something happen?”

“Someone stole $200 from his foster mom’s purse and he said it was him.”

“Was it?”

“What do you think?” Bucky scowls and says, “He’s scared that if Barney keeps getting into trouble, they won’t want to keep him. He was also really worried that they were gonna hurt him for it.”

Wide eyed, Steve straightens up and says, “Were they? Did they? Is he okay? Should we go over there?”

“I’m pretty sure they won’t? I mean, foster parents gotta be held to some sort of standard, right? And they seem nice. But he hasn’t texted me, so I don’t know.”

“We should go over there,” Steve decides, already getting up to find his shoes.

“He’d call if he needed anything, I gave him my number,” Bucky says.

“Unless he’s in the hospital!”

Throwing up his hands, Bucky concedes the point and then says, “I just don’t wanna crowd him. I don’t know what to do, he’s got Barney filling his head with so much shit, I don’t know how to help him and I know if I try too hard, he’s gonna run because he doesn’t want to get attached to anything and he’s stupidly, blindly loyal to Barney and gets pissed if I say anything against him and I don’t want to be just another person in his life trying to fuck with his head, you know?”

Steve sighs quietly, flopping back to sit beside him, and says softly, “So we’re back to committing murder and needing to hide the body.” A moment later, he adds, “Buck, I’m a little worried.”

“Me too.”

“About you, this time.” Steve reaches out, squeezing Bucky’s arm, and says, “Usually it’s me with the impossible crushes, not you. And it’s one thing to have an ill-advised crush on a straight guy, it’s another entirely to like a guy who’s maybe, probably homophobic.”

“I don’t know if he is, though,” Bucky says, and Steve looks wholly unconvinced, so his shoulders slump and he says, “If it makes any difference, my stupid crush and my concern about him as a person are sort of compartmentalized? I mean, I don’t expect anything from him, I know it’s not gonna happen. It’s not his fault that I think he’s… super hot.” He wrinkles his nose, horrified with himself and his feelings and having to talk about them. “I’m not trying to convince him to date me, Stevie. I just… don’t want him to be scared anymore.”

Steve slumps down beside him and says softly, “You can’t save everyone, Buck.”

Closing his eyes, Bucky says, “I know. But what’s the point in saving anybody if I can’t save the few people who matter the most?”

Steve doesn’t reply, just squeezes his arm again.

*

Bucky runs into Clint early Monday morning, when he’s still mostly asleep, trying to fight his way through hordes of students to get to his motherfucking locker.

Mornings are the worst.

And then suddenly, Clint is there, taller than everybody else, just about, and having no trouble at all navigating the halls.

He brightens up considerably when he sees Bucky, and makes his way through the crowd. They meet up just beside Bucky’s locker and Clint says, “Hey! Hi! How are you!”

Mornings aren’t Bucky’s strong suit, and Clint’s chipperness aggravates him. And then he sees that Clint’s got a motherfucking black eye, and his heart stops in his chest and then all he sees is red.

He grabs Clint by the arm, tugging him out of the rush of students, turning him, pushing him back against his locker, and then reaching up to cup his jaw, turning his face to see the bruising better.

“What the fuck,” he snarls. “They fucking hit you?” He’d promised Clint they wouldn’t hurt him and they fucking did? They were dead. He was gonna kill them. He was gonna rip them to pieces and he wouldn’t need Steve to help him hide the bodies because there wouldn’t be anything left to find.

“What?” Clint says, sounding stunned, staring down at Bucky and blinking. His cheeks flush and he swallows hard and Bucky’s suddenly aware of how close they’re standing, how being manhandled probably isn’t helpful for someone who isso fucking used to being pushed around by everyone in his life.

“Hey, no,” Clint says, when Bucky stumbles back half a step and lets him go. “They didn’t -- it wasn’t them, don’t worry, okay? And I’m fine, it’s just a bruise, I just --”

“What?” Bucky snaps. “Walked into a door? Fell down the stairs?”

“Both of those things are highly possible for me,” Clint says with a wry grin. “But no. Barney hit me. But in his defense, it was after I punched him in the gut, tackled him to the ground, and called him a motherfucking son of a bitch. Brothers are complicated.”

“Barney,” Bucky hissed, already turning to go find him, because Clint shouldn’t have to shrug off black eyes every fucking week or two.

But Clint catches him by both shoulders and holds him still and says, “It was me this time. I started it. I punched him. I made him cry. Okay? We’re good.”

Squinting up at him suspiciously, Bucky says, “Why’d you punch him if you guys are good?”

Clint shrugs and says, “Because the Sullivans grounded me. They grounded me. For the rest of the weekend - for one fucking day. I told them I took the money and do you know what they said? They said if I needed money, I shoulda asked. And then they told me that I was grounded for the rest of the weekend and I had to earn the money back by mowing the grass. The fucking grass, Bucky.” His eyes were shining, like he was still stunned that his punishment hadn’t been a blow to the face. “And then -- and then they said that if I wanted to earn some money, I could keep mowing the grass every weekend, and help out with dishes and stuff, and -- and they’d give me $75 a month.”

It all sounded relatively reasonable to Bucky, but from the way Clint was talking, like he still couldn’t quite believe it, it was the last thing he’d been expecting. So instead of shrugging it off like he wants to, Bucky says, “And did Barney help you mow the fucking grass? Since, you know, he’s the one who took the money?”

Clint’s smile drops and he scowls instead. “No,” he says. “Barney told me not to do it. He told me to tell them to fuck off, that I’m not their slave, that I don’t have to do anything they say, and that I should go with him to meet up with Rumlow and Sitwell, even though I was grounded.”

“Of course he did.”

“But that wasn’t really fair, was it? The Sullivans were being so nice and I just -- they didn’t even yell about it, they just said they were disappointed and I couldn’t disappoint them more by leaving the grass half cut and leaving. So I said no.” He shrugs. “Barney got mad, said a bunch of shit about me, so. I hit him. Threw him to the ground, tackled him, he hit me, I hit him again, his mouth was all bloody, he called me a stupid motherfucker and tried to drag me out of the yard, so I hit him again.” Clint screws up his mouth and looks away and says, “He finally left without me. And I cut the rest of the grass.”

“That’s… amazing,” Bucky says, and Clint rolls his eyes and looks like he doesn’t quite believe him.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” he says. “But I didn’t have my phone so I couldn’t text you to tell you I wasn’t dead. Sorry.”

“That’s -- no, that’s fine, I knew you weren’t dead,” Bucky lies. “Didn’t worry at all.”

The last bell rings and he abruptly realizes he’s going to be late, which is the worst way to start a Monday, and Clint’s eyes widen as he realizes the same thing.

“Gotta go,” he calls, backing down the hallway. “And I won’t see you at lunch ‘cos I’m auditioning for the play, but maybe after?”

“The play?” Bucky echoes, stunned, because isn’t that getting attached?

Clint just waves and ducks down the hallway, leaving Bucky to scramble to open his locker and make it to class.

*

Bucky doesn’t start fights. He’s never had to, that’s always been Steve’s department.

So at lunch time, when he leaves the school to make his way over to the bleachers to meet up with Steve, and Barney steps out of the shadows smoking a cigarette and nursing an eye that’s much more bruised than Clint’s had been, Bucky’s first thought is not “Ah, yes, here it is, my chance to kick Barney’s ass for being the biggest asshole who ever lived.”

“Did you need something?” he asks coolly instead.

Barney takes a drag of his cigarette and says, as he exhales a cloud of smoke, “Here’s the thing. Clint doesn’t need friends.”

Bucky cocks his head curiously. “Pretty sure that’s not your decision to make, pal,” he says.

“And he definitely doesn’t need friends like you and your queer buddy Rogers fucking up his head.”

Oh.

Bucky slides his backpack off his shoulders, sets it aside, and says, “I’d argue that he’s better off with us than he is with a brother like you, but that would probably be wasting time.” And then he punches Barney in the face. With his metal fist.

Barney goes down hard, probably because of the way his nose cracked when Bucky’s fist hit it. And that’s enough for Bucky -- one broken nose in exchange for a lifetime of fucking Clint over and one homophobic slur against Steve -- but then Sitwell and Rumlow are there, because of course they are, and apparently that’s not enough for them.

Sitwell is a weedy, nerdy guy, so he’s not much good in a fight, but Rumlow is built like a tank, at least a head taller than Bucky and probably just as strong. He tackles Bucky from behind, dragging him to the ground, and Bucky gets a face full of gravel that burns like a bitch even before Sitwell kicks him in the side and Rumlow bashes his face into the ground.

And then Barney’s back on his feet, hands clenched into fists, and Rumlow drags Bucky up and pins his arms behind him and holds him while Barney slams his fists into Bucky’s gut a few times, and then clips him on the jaw.

Bucky is just managing to twist his way free when the door behind him flies open.

“What the fuck,” Steve says, and Bucky hears his backpack hit the ground seconds before Steve launches himself at Rumlow.

Steve has always fought dirty, he has to, being just about half the other guys’ size, and Rumlow doesn’t stand a chance against his furious assault, letting Bucky go a moment later.

Bucky launches himself at Barney, dragging him to the ground and hitting him over and over again, until he’s pretty sure Barney’s not gonna get up, and then he turns to help Steve, who apparently doesn’t need any help at all.

Sitwell just stands there, shouting homophobic insults like an idiot, and when Bucky looks at him, he turns pale and disappears back into the school.

“Steve,” Bucky says, words slurred through his split lip. “Steve, let him up, c’mon, your ma’s gonna kill me…”

And then Sitwell returns, looking triumphant, and leading the gym teacher, who instantly starts shouting for back up.

They’re so fucked.

*

“Never had to finish a fight for you before,” Steve mumbles, unbearably smug and bruised all to hell, as they sit side by side in the chairs outside the principal's office.

“Shuddup,” Bucky says, nasally and muffled under the ice pack he’s got pressed to his cheek.

Steve grins at him and there’s blood in his teeth and his ma is so, so going to kill them both.

“What the fuck did you do?”

Bucky turns his head, wincing when it pulls at his face, and blinks at Clint, standing in the Admin office doorway, looking furious. Right. Bucky had been so concerned about Steve’s mom, he’d forgotten to think about Clint.

“Clint,” he says stupidly. “I thought you were at that audition.”

“I told you to leave it alone,” Clint snaps. “I told you that it was fine, it didn’t matter about the money, and you still attacked him?”

“That’s why we fought them?” Steve asks, not sounding at all like he was angry about it. “Makes sense.”

“Them?” Clint echoes.

“No!” Bucky closes his eyes, drops the ice pack, and says, “That’s not why.”

“It doesn’t matter why! I told you to leave my brother alone and you couldn’t even do that one fucking thing for me, and now the school’s gonna call the Sullivans and they’re gonna be so mad at him for fighting, they’ll probably call our social worker and have him taken away, or have both of us taken away because who’s gonna want to put up with two nearly-adult orphans who can’t stay out of trouble for more than one goddamn day at a time?”

Clint’s breathing hard, eyes burning with furious tears, and Bucky doesn’t know what to do to make him feel better, has a sudden sickening feeling low in his gut because it could be true. This could be the last straw for Clint’s foster family, and if Clint gets sent away, all he’ll have is Barney again. And Bucky won’t get to see him.

“All I know is when I came out the west doors to head to the bleachers, Rumlow and Sitwell were holding Bucky while Barney punched the shit out of him,” Steve says casually, shrugging a shoulder while he pokes at the cut in his lip. “I couldn’t let that happen.”

Clint’s eyes narrow, still fixed on Bucky’s face, and he says, “Sitwell and Rumlow were there? Kate only told me it was Barney.”

“Well, yeah,” Bucky says, rough, looking away. He wants to correct Steve’s account, tell them both that he’d nearly gotten free, and if he had, Barney and his friends wouldn’t have stood a chance. But somehow, he feels like that would just make this whole thing worse, so he grits his teeth and says, “They ambushed me. Barney said he wanted to talk. I didn’t like what he had to say.” He shrugs.

Clint flexes his hands, which have been clenched into fists since he walked in, and says, “What did he say?”

Bucky hesitates, things about not saying anything at all, but Clint’s had enough people fucking him around for their own agenda, so he says, quietly, “That you don’t need friends, especially friends who aren’t heterosexual.”

Clint grits his teeth, hard, and Bucky can see his chest rise and fall slowly as he inhales. His eyes are dark, narrow, and two bright spots of colour are high on his cheeks. He’s never looked that furious before, and he growls, “Where is he?”

“The nurse took him to the medi-centre ‘cos Bucky broke his nose,” Steve says, all casual, before Bucky can try to calm him down.

Clint turns on one heel and slams the doors open on his way out of the office.

“Well,” Steve says, after a moment, leaning over to bump his shoulder into Bucky’s. “That didn’t go so badly, grand scheme of things.”

Bucky’s still staring at the doors as they slowly swing shut. “Should I go after him?” he asks, vaguely panicked. “Should I--”

“No, Buck,” Steve tells him gently. “Gotta let him go. Can’t fight everyone’s battles all the time. Besides --”

The principal’s door swings open and the principal’s there, looking pissed, “Barnes, Rogers,” he snaps. “Get in here.”

Steve squeezes his arm. “Besides,” he says again. “We gotta get this over with.”

*

“You broke a kid’s nose and all you got is a three day suspension?” Mrs. Rogers asks when she gets home from work to find Bucky and Steve camped out in the living room.

“I told Principal Cartmell that it was a hate crime,” Steve says brightly. “On account of how Barney called us queers and was trying to intimidate Bucky into not hanging out with Clint anymore. Really, Barney deserved it.”

His mom looks tired, dropping her bag by the door and toeing off her shoes. She pushes the hair that has fallen out of her ponytail out of her eyes and sighs, studying them both.

“I’ve told you so many times,” she says. “No fighting!”

“Sorry, Mrs. Rogers,” Bucky says miserably. He’s still got an ice pack pressed to his face, because if he even tries to put it down, Steve snaps at him.

“What was he supposed to do?” Steve asks, slumping on the sofa. “Let him say that shit?”

“Tell a teacher?” she suggests, but in the tired way that means she doesn’t quite believe what she’s saying either. She cups his jaw with one hand, tipping his face up to the light and studying the damage. “And watch your language, Steve. Jesus, your mouth is a mess. And school pictures are coming up!” It’s Bucky’s turn next, so she gently tugs the ice pack away and winces. “You’ve stepped in for Steve enough times, Bucky, I can’t begrudge him standing up for you for once. But please, both of you, please don’t get expelled.”

“I threw together some stew for dinner for you,” Bucky says. “It’s on the stove, Just about done.”

She smiles faintly at him and kisses his forehead. “You’re a good kid,” she says. “Don’t know why you pal around with mine.”

“Hey!” Steve yelps, but he’s laughing.

*

Bucky does go home, eventually. His mom isn’t angry with him, but she’s rarely got the energy to be angry, being a single mom to four kids, two of whom are preschool-aged twins. She’s also working a night shift at the hospital, and Bucky thinks she’s probably secretly glad that his suspension means he’ll be home in the morning and she won’t have to drive the twins to daycare after her shift.

Bucky sees her off to work, feeds the twins, promises Becca he’s not gonna rat on her when she calls from Kate’s and says she’s sleeping over to work on a project that’s probably made up.

As he settles in on the couch after the twins are in bed, he realizes that at some point, it’s started to rain, thunder rumbling in the distance.

His face is aching and he ices it again, pulling out his phone and sending Clint a quick I’m sorry, call me? because he can’t help but worry.

Maybe everyone is right -- maybe it’s not his job, maybe he needs to relax, maybe Clint doesn’t need anybody hovering over him, just like Steve doesn’t need anybody chaperoning his dates with Sam.

Maybe Bucky’s part of the problem here.

He closes his eyes, leaning back against the sofa, the TV just a soft hum in the background, wondering if maybe he ought to go to sleep or get a jumpstart on three days worth of homework.

There’s a flash of lightning and the lights flicker and then they die, plunging the house into darkness and silence.

“Shit,” Bucky mumbles, tossing his ice pack aside and dragging himself up off the sofa. Using his phone’s flashlight, he rummages in the kitchen and finds a lighter, gathering up all of his mom’s scented candles and placing them strategically around the living room before he lights them. He’s downstairs, hunting for the camping lantern to put in the upstairs hall in case the twins wake up, when he thinks he hears something -- a soft knock.

Probably just a tree knocking against the window, he tells himself, because Bucky is not afraid of the dark, most of the time.

He’s halfway up the stairs with the lantern when the knock comes again, quiet like whoever’s at the door isn’t sure they want to be heard at all.

Bucky clicks on the lantern and stares at the door for a long moment before swallowing hard and going to open it.

Clint is standing there, soaked straight through, pale and shivering and cradling a wiggling bundle against his chest.

“Clint,” Bucky says, stunned.

Clint smiles but it’s a shaky effort and fades quickly. “Hi,” he says. “Can I -- I hope you don’t mind.”

“Shit, no, come in! I’ll get a towel. And a blanket. And a change of clothes?”

He’s distracted a moment later when the bundle wiggles again, and a golden head pops out of the ragged blanket. It’s a puppy, and it leans up and sloppily licks at Clint’s face, entire body wiggling with happiness.

Another crackle of thunder in the distance, and the puppy yelps and burrows back in the blanket.

“That’s a dog,” Bucky says blankly, and Clint clutches the bundle more tightly.

“I found him,” he says. “He’s only got one eye and I think his paw is hurt and he looks like he’s starving and I had to take him somewhere and Barney says we can’t keep him and I had nowhere else to go, can you help me?”

Bucky’s never going to say no to that, even if he doesn’t know what to do with a puppy, but he just holds the door open wordlessly and lets Clint in.

His mom’s going to kill him if that dog has fleas, but at the moment Bucky doesn’t care.

“You shoulda called,” he says. “Tell me you didn’t walk here in this storm.”

“I was nearby,” Clint tells him, starting to shiver. “I don’t have my phone.”

“Wait right here.”

Bucky leaves him the lantern, running up the stairs. He’s back a few minutes later, wrapping Clint up in the towel and handing him a spare pair of PJs.

“Give me the dog,” he says, pointing the way to the bathroom.

Clint does, hesitating only a moment, and after he closes the bathroom door, Bucky hesitates for a moment, hovering, before forcing himself to carry the wiggly puppy into the living room. He tosses the wet, muddy blanket aside and dries the little pup with a towel. He’s ragged, one eye scarred over, and when Bucky puts him down carefully on the floor, he sees what Clint means -- the puppy is favouring his left front paw and looks pretty skinny.

Ducking into the kitchen, Bucky hesitates. His instinct is to make tea, hot chocolate, or soup, but the power’s still out, so he rummages in the fridge for leftovers that the puppy might like and grabs a soda for Clint.

Back in the living room, he’s coaxing the dog to try a bite of meatball when Clint says from the doorway, “I named him Lucky. D’you think your mom will let you keep him?”

There is no way in hell that Bucky’s mom is going to let him keep this puppy. Steve’s mom would be easier to convince, as long as Steve isn’t allergic.

“Maybe,” he hedges. “Maybe the Sullivans will let you keep him.”

Clint doesn’t respond, just edges into the room and kneels on the floor next to Bucky, beside Lucky, offering him another meatball that he gobbles up. Bucky had picked out a pair of sweats that were too long on him, but they’re still a bit short on Clint, but Bucky’s sweater swallows him up.

Clint sets his bundle of wet clothes aside and Bucky hops up and takes them.

“I can’t put them in the dryer for you,” he says, apologetic. “But I’ll hang them up, it should help.”

“Th-thanks,” Clint says, still shivering, and Bucky pointedly drops the pile of blankets he’d brought down for Clint on top of him and Lucky to keep them warm.

He goes to the laundry room, shaking out Clint’s wet things and draping them over his mom’s hangers.

A soggy piece of paper falls out of Clint’s jeans pocket and he scoops it up, smoothing it out.

His shoulders sink.

When he gets back to the living room, Clint is wrapped up like a burrito on the sofa, only his face visible, Lucky hopping around on three paws, exploring. When Clint sees Bucky, he says, “I’m so sorry I just showed up, I just -- what’s wrong?”

“You’ve got a train ticket to Chicago in your pocket,” Bucky says, holding it out.

Clint bites his bottom lip and reaches out for it, taking it carefully. “Oh,” he says, refusing to make eye contact. “I gotta -- I gotta keep that safe.”

“Clint,” Bucky says. “Your train leaves first thing in the morning.”

“Yeah,” Clint agrees, swallowing hard. “I -- I -- Bucky, can we just. I don’t want to talk about that.” His voice is thin, fragile, and he blinks hard, like he’s going to cry. “Can we just -- I just wanted to apologize, for getting so angry at you at school today. And I needed to find someplace safe for Lucky. He’s a good boy.”

Bucky doesn’t know what to do, so he sits down heavily on the other end of the sofa and says, “What, you’re gonna apologize and then take a train to Chicago? What’s in Chicago?”

Clint’s shoulders slump, making him look much smaller. “Barney’s got a friend there who says he can get us jobs, no questions asked.”

“A job? What kinda job is there for a few runaways who aren’t even legal yet?”

“At the circus,” Clint says, a miserable twist to his lips, like even he knows what a cliche that is.

“The -- what the fuck, Clint. You can’t just -- just up and leave. What happened? Did they -- they called your social worker?”

“No,” Clint says,licking his bottom lip. “No. They, uh. Told Barney he was grounded. And he disagreed? So he left, and when he came back, he told me to pack my things and leave everything they gave me behind and we were leaving.”

“But you can’t,” Bucky says, voice cracking. “Clint --” He reaches out, he doesn’t know what he’s reaching for, Clint’s just a lump of blankets, but Bucky needs to touch him to reassure him, to convince him that Barney’s not worth leaving all this behind for.

He makes contact and Clint flinches with a strangled cry, like he’s in pain.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, reaching out again. “You’re hurt, what happened? Did he hurt you? Clint. You can’t -- what the fuck, Clint, you can’t just leave, you can’t -- your plan makes no sense, he’s not worth leaving everything behind, where are you hurt?”

Clint struggles out of the blanket burrito, pushing himself farther away, into the arm of the sofa, and snaps, “He’s my brother. He -- he’s all I have, we only have each other, we… we’re going to -- everything’s going to be fine.”

There’s angry tears running down his cheeks now, and he’s glaring at the nearest scented candle flame.

“Clint,” Bucky says, much softer now. “If all that’s true, what are you doing here?”

Clint rubs angrily at his tears with his good arm and says miserably, “We got halfway to the train station and … and we were ducking through this alley and I heard Lucky crying, and Barney didn’t want to stop, but I couldn’t just leave him. So I found him, he was tangled up in some garbage, and I untangled him and picked him up and he was so excited, licking me all over, and I couldn’t leave him, but Barney said we couldn’t take him. So I asked if I could bring him back to the Sullivans and he just laughed and started to walk away and I got upset because Lucky’s just a puppy and we couldn’t leave him. So I… I asked if he was sure. I told him that the Sullivans were gonna set up a savings account for college. I told him I got a role in that stupid play, that rehearsals start next week. It’s not a giant role, it’s not the lead, but it’s a speaking part and a good one and Nat says I’m not the worst she’s ever seen. And -- and I told him that Steve invited me out to the lake with him and Sam and a bunch of other people in a few weeks.” He looks over at Bucky, eyelashes thick and spiky with tears, and says helplessly, “And I said you’d probably be there too.”

“Probably not the best idea,” Bucky says, and Clint laughs a little. “He’s not the biggest fan of me. I did break his nose.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Clint says forced casual. “Dad broke his nose half a dozen times growing up.”

Bucky closes his eyes and breathes carefully through his nose and says, “That’s not okay.”

“No, I know.” Clint sounds closer to breaking than ever -- he’s shivering again. “But see, sometimes Dad would get so mad at me, because I fucked up the chores or talked back or poured out his whiskey or whatever, and before he could hurt me, Barney would -- would be such an asshole, so loudly, that Dad would hit him instead of me.” Tears are running down his cheeks again, but he doesn’t bother wiping them away, doesn’t seem to notice they’re there at all. He’s still staring at the candle flame, shaking.

“Clint,” Bucky says, soft, easing closer, careful not to startle him. “Tell me where you’re hurt.”

Clint finally turns to look at him, chest heaving as he sucks in a deep breath. “When I told him that maybe we could stay for a while and leave after the play in a few months, he got real mad. Hit me a few times and then shoved me. I tripped and fell and wrenched my shoulder, that’s all. It was my own fault, my shoelaces were untied.”

Bucky’s right close to him again, and he says gently, “Let me see it, okay?”

Clint doesn’t flinch away again, lets Bucky ease the tangled blankets down around his waist so he can tug the sweater up and off him, careful not to jostle his shoulder.

“It’s bruised, maybe strained, but doesn’t seem dislocated,” Bucky tells him, gently probing at his shoulder the way he’s done for Steve dozens of times after a fight.

“Oh, no, not dislocated,” Clint tells him, like he’s an expert on dislocated shoulders and what they feel like. He still sounds sort of distant, and he adds, “Barney said he didn’t give a fuck what I did with Lucky but I’d better be at the train station in time or he’d never talk to me again, and then he left us there. And I came here.” He blinks at Bucky and says helplessly, “I didn’t want to leave without saying I was sorry for getting mad at you. And I thought … you always take care of Steve, and Kate, and Becca, and me. Maybe you wouldn’t mind taking care of Lucky.”

“You don’t have to be sorry and you don’t have to leave,” Bucky tells him, and then he gets up, goes into the kitchen to get some ice for Clint’s shoulder, mostly because he needs a minute to himself, to calm down, so he doesn’t start shouting and Clint doesn’t go back out into the storm. Lucky hops along after him, tail wagging, and Bucky wants to cry.

“I’m not just sorry I got mad,” Clint admits when Bucky comes back. He doesn’t so much as flinch when Bucky carefully holds the ice pack against his shoulder. “I’m sorry about the stuff Barney said to you. He shouldn’t have done that, but it was my fault. Before -- just before Dad died, there was -- I fucked up.” He shrugs with his good shoulder and looks down at his hands, pulling at Bucky’s sweats on his thighs.

“I’m pretty sure whatever happened wasn’t your fault,” Bucky tells him, glad for the darkness and the candle light, because it makes it easier to hide how shaken he is, how panicky he feels. He doesn’t know how to convince Clint to stay.

Clint grimaces and says, “Barney caught me at school under the bleachers kissing Phil.” He shoots Bucky a look and then stares back down at his hands. “Phil was -- we were friends. It wasn’t like we were dating or whatever, we’d only kissed a few times. But I -- Barney was so mad. He hit Phil a bunch of times and only stopped when I promised to never do it again. He was so worried about what Dad would do if he ever found out, but he never got the chance to find out. So. That’s why Barney’s so… touchy about that. It’s how he tries to protect me.”

Bucky isn’t sure he’s going to get through this without crying. He doesn’t know where to begin explaining to Clint that his brother could have good intentions and still be an abusive asshole who doesn’t deserve Clint’s loyalty. “Clint,” he tries. “I know Barney’s the only one you trust--”

“Oh, no,” Clint says, earnest, turning to face Bucky on the sofa. Candlelight flickers over his face, shining off the tracks of his tears. “I trust you too. That’s why I had to come explain and that’s why I trust you with Lucky. Because -- because you told me the Sullivans wouldn’t hurt me and they didn’t. So I wanted to… to thank you. For that. And for trying to protect me. And for telling me to audition. And -- I just --”

Bucky’s phone lights up, bright and jarring in the darkness, and he sees Becca’s obnoxious selfie on the screen as the phone vibrates across the table.

He can’t not pick it up, so he does, saying quickly, “Becca, not a good time, is everything okay?”

“Have you seen Clint? The power’s out and the Sullivans are going nuts, they can’t find him or Barney and asked me to call you.”

Bucky looks at Clint and hesitates for a long moment, because he could tell her. He could have the Sullivans over here in minutes, taking Clint back home. But how long would that last? And what would that do to Clint’s trust?

 

“No,” he says, after too long of a pause. “I haven’t heard from him.”

Clint sits up straighter, gnawing on his bottom lip, looking panicked.

“Are you sure?” she asks him, suspicious. “He left his phone.”

“Yeah, no, I’m sure,” Bucky tells her. “No idea. Do you need help looking? Did you try Steve?”

“You can’t help look, you’re babysitting the twins,” she reminds him impatiently. “Bucky. Tell me the truth. How worried do I have to be here? Kate’s flipping out. Mrs. Sullivan is in tears. Do you know where he is?”

“Becca,” he says quietly. “You gotta trust me.”

“Fuck.” She’s quiet for a moment and then says, “Just don’t forget, it’s not your job to save everyone. Maybe leave this one for the qualified professionals?”

“I’ll call you,” he promises.

She sighs and hangs up and Clint’s already getting up off the sofa. “I’ve gotta go,” he says. “They’ll find me here, and -- Lucky, c’mere, I gotta go, Lucky.”

“Your train doesn’t come for hours,” Bucky says, scrambling to his feet. “It’s storming out and you’re hurt. Just -- just stay here, and I’ll drive you to the station when it’s time.”

Clint hesitates, clearly torn, and then says, “You promise?”

Bucky closes his eyes. “I’m not gonna make you stay against your will, Clint. I promise.”

“Okay.”

Outside, the rain pours harder.

*

Bucky convinces Clint to let him wrap up his arm to keep him from straining his shoulder any more, relieved that there’s something he can do, even while his mind scrambles to come up with a plan -- any sort of plan.

“You sure you know what you’re doing?” Clint asks, soft in the muted darkness. The storm is still lashing at the windows, but it feels far away, like this room with its candlelight and dancing shadows are the only reality that matters.

Bucky smiles a little, wrapping the sling carefully. “My mom’s a nurse,” he says. “Besides, I’ve done this for Stevie so many times.”

Clint ducks his head as Bucky carefully ties the sling off at the back and asks quietly, “Is Steve real mad at me?” Lucky has wiggled his way onto Clint’s lap, stretched out happily while Clint rubs his belly.

“Steve’s too busy bragging about me starting a fight for once,” Bucky tells him. He doesn’t move away after finishing up the sling, just studies Clint’s face for a moment. “You’ve got a bit of a scrape, here,” he says, brushing his thumb carefully against Clint’s temple.

“You’re one to talk,” Clint says, and then he’s looking up, studying Bucky just as close. “The whole side of your face is scraped up.”

Bucky wrinkles his nose. “My face may have hit the pavement a time or two,” he confesses.

“Was Steve right? Were Rumlow and Sitwell holding you?”

“I was about to pull myself free! It was only for a few seconds, I swear. They jumped me, I thought it was just your brother -- I could totally have taken your brother.”

Clint’s smile is soft and a little shy and he says, “I think you did take him, Buck. You sent him to the hospital, remember?”

Bucky takes a careful breath. “I am sorry,” he says, looking away. “I didn’t mean to cause this.”

Clint reaches up, brushes nervous fingertips against Bucky’s jaw to get him to look up again, and says, “Aw, Bucky, you can’t think any of this is your fault. It’s mine. Barney only went after you because I kept talking about you and it made him nervous.”

“Talking about me?” Bucky echoes, after a heartbeat’s hesitation. He’s not sure he wants to ask, not now, not when he’s so carefully compartmentalized his stupid crush, certainly not when Clint’s catching a train to Chicago in the early morning.

He hears Clint’s breathing catch a little, hears the ragged edge to his exhale, when Clint confesses, “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t even notice until he got so mad, when I was grounded for taking that money and he wanted me to blow it off. I told him I wanted to try, that I thought we could have something good here, that you’d promised me they wouldn’t hurt me.” He licks his lips, eyelashes fluttering, but he doesn’t look away, his voice dropping to a whisper. “He said you weren’t good for me, that you were filling my head with bullshit because -- because he’d seen the way you look at me and you were a bad influence.”

“I swear to god, I’m trying so hard not to be,” Bucky confesses in a rush, and Clint opens his eyes, biting his bottom lip and studying Bucky’s face like he’s not sure if he believes him. On his lap, Lucky is sleeping, snoring softly.

Clint smiles a little, blinking a few times like he’s holding back tears, and he says, “Do you think maybe, for a little while, we could pretend that -- that this could happen? That I could stay, and you could stop worrying about being a bad influence, and I could be in that stupid play, and you could help me catch up in English because I think I’m failing, I’m really bad at reading. And we could go to the lake with Steve and Sam Wilson, and the Sullivans can give me an allowance every month, and help me save for college, and I can bring Lucky home and he can be my dog?”

“Clint,” Bucky says in a rush. “We don’t have to pretend. You can just stay.”

“I can’t,” Clint says, voice ragged. “But -- but if I did --”

“Then Lucky could be your dog,” Bucky tells him, barely a whisper. “We could go to the lake with Sam and Steve. I’ll make you read your English books out loud to be over the phone every night before bed, and I’ll help you learn your lines for that play. You’ll have an allowance and a home with people who won’t ever hurt you and you’ll go to college and you’ll deserve all of it. And me, I’ll -- I’ll keep being a terrible influence.”

“How?” Clint asks, soft, just audible over the rain against the window.

“However you want me to be,” Bucky tells him, because compartmentalizing isn’t working and if Clint wants to pretend -- if this night is the only one Bucky’s gonna get -- then Bucky’s gonna lay all his cards on the table and hope it gives Clint something worth staying for.

Clint’s breath catches and he’s so close, Bucky can hear it. And then Clint’s gaze travels down to Bucky’s mouth and stays there for a moment as he bites his own bottom lip and Bucky’s never been good at compartmentalizing anyway.

He kisses Clint, soft and careful, ready to pull away at the first sign that Clint’s not into it, that Clint doesn’t want it.

“Bucky,” Clint whispers, and then his uninjured hand is slipping up to the back of Bucky’s neck and he’s leaning back in, kissing Bucky this time, and it’s bittersweet and simpler than Bucky ever thought it would be.

They kiss like it’s something fragile, something they’re both not sure they should be doing, and then Clint pulls back with a yelp and Bucky flinches like he’s about to be hit.

“Sorry,” Clint says, and he’s smothering helpless giggles. “Sorry, sorry, Lucky kicked me, sorry!”

The relief is instant and nearly makes Bucky dizzy as he helps Clint carefully build a nest of blankets and ease the sleeping puppy into it, and then Clint’s looking up at Bucky again, shy and smiling and not seeming to know what to do with his hands.

“We can keep pretending,” Bucky tells him, and Clint melts into another kiss.

*

The storm eases and the rain stops eventually, and the power flickers back on just as the front door opens at Bucky’s mom walks in.

For a moment, everything feels topsy turvey and it takes a few heartbeats before Bucky is able to piece together the confusing mess of memories and realize that he and Clint have fallen asleep tangled together in a nest of blankets, Lucky tucked under Bucky’s metal arm and Clint curled up on his other side, head pillowed on Bucky’s shoulder.

The door opening was enough to wake Bucky, but Clint had taken his aids out before he’d fallen asleep, so he doesn’t stir.

“Buck,” his mom says, soft and concerned, from the living room doorway.

Bucky looks up at her and takes a deep, shaky breath and says, “I can explain.”

She comes closer, setting her bag aside and dropping to her knees beside them. Lucky’s up like a shot, frantic wiggles as he hops on his back paws and tries to lick her face and she laughs softly, scooping him up. Bucky knows she’s seen the sling Clint’s got on his arm, the scrapes on his face. She’s probably also seen how kiss-reddened Clint’s lips are, and that Bucky’s are the same.

“I’m gonna assume this is one of the two boys that Kate’s mom phoned the hospital about earlier this evening,” she says, still quiet.

“Mom,” Bucky says, mortified when he realizes that his eyes are burning with tears. “Mom, I just -- I can’t fix it, Mom.”

“Aw, baby,” she murmurs, smoothing his hair back, her fingers cool on his forehead. “Sometimes you can’t, honey. You just have to do your best. I need you to get him to call home, okay? As soon as he’s awake. They’re so worried, Bucky.”

“I know,” Bucky whispers. “I’m trying so hard.”

She leans down, presses a kiss to his forehead and then hands him the dog and says, with a fond smile, “And there’s no way that dog is staying here.”

Bucky laughs, he can’t help it, and then his mom is up and leaving the room. His laughter must have woken Clint, who shifts against his side and mumbles in irritation before opening his eyes.

He sits up quickly, looks around, finds Lucky, and relaxes. “Bucky,” he mumbles.

“Hey,” Bucky says, grabbing his aids and passing them to him. He runs a hand up and down Clint’s back, soothing him as Clint turns to hide his face in Bucky’s shoulder. After his aids are in, Bucky says softly, “You ready? It’s nearly time to catch your train.”

Because he made a motherfucking promise and he’s not gonna break it, even if it breaks his own damned heart.

Clint presses his face more firmly against Bucky’s shoulder, his body trembling as he gulps in a deep breath.

“Clint,” Bucky says, cradling the back of his head, combing his fingers through Clint’s bedhead. “We gotta go, sweetheart.”

Clint lifts his head and his eyes are wide and bright with tears and Lucky sloppily licks at Clint’s face as he says, “We can keep pretending for a little while longer, can’t we?”

Bucky hesitates, because the train is leaving in about twenty minutes, and it’s a ten minute ride to the station, but Clint is shaking, his breathing heavy, so he says, “Yeah, Clint. Of course.”

Clint curls up against him, face pressed to his shoulder, and as the minutes slip by, he shakes harder and harder until he’s crying silently against Bucky’s shoulder, hands twisted in his shirt.

Finally, Bucky says, “We gotta leave now if we’re going to make it, Clint.”

And Clint shakes his head, still not looking up, and holds on even more tightly. He’s crying harder now, his entire body wracked with sobs, and somewhere, Bucky knows, Barney’s waiting at the station. And then, as Clint clings even harder, the train’s leaving without him.

“Bucky,” Clint says, hiccuping around a jagged sob.

Bucky sits up, pulling Clint and Lucky into his lap and holding them tightly, blinking back tears. “Okay,” Bucky says. “Shh, shh, you’re okay. I’ve got you. It’s okay, it’s okay.”

Clint cries like his heart is breaking and outside, the sun starts rising, chasing away the lingering rain clouds.

It takes a long, long time for Clint to calm down, and when he finally does, he just goes limp against Bucky’s chest and breathes shallowly while Bucky strokes his back and holds him.

“He’ll forgive me, right?” he asks, broken.

“He’s your brother,” Bucky tells him, kissing his temple. “That’s what family does.”

*

The Sullivans show up four and a half minutes after Clint finally lets Bucky call Kate, and they’re both pale and showing the effects of the sleepless night on their faces.

Still, neither hesitate before crushing Clint into a hug that Bucky worries is gonna fuck his shoulder up even more, though Clint doesn’t seem to mind.

“Honey, we looked everywhere,” Mrs. Sullivan says, smoothing his hair back and clucking over the scrape on his face as Mr. Sullivan inspects the sling and worries out loud if he might need to to go the hospital.

“Do you know where Barney is?” she asks, cupping Clint’s face in her hands.

Clint closes his eyes and says, “He’s gone, he left, I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, honey, it’s not your fault,” she says, hugging him again.

He buries his face against her shoulder and says, shaking, “Is it okay if I still stay with you, even though he’s gone?”

“Of course it is,” she tells him, holding him more tightly, and Bucky forces himself to slowly, carefully, relax.

And then Lucky, still favouring that one paw, barrels into the entryway and yips excitedly and the Sullivans instantly look wary.

“Who’s this?” Mr. Sullivan asks, and Bucky steps in smoothly.

“That’s Lucky,” he says. “The puppy Clint found that he got attached to that convinced him not to leave with Barney that he’s really hoping he might be able to keep.”

The Sullivans blink at him and then look at the puppy, Mrs. Sullivan reaching down to scoop him up. His entire bottom half wiggles as he leans forward and licks her across the face and she laughs. “Well,” she says, glancing at her husband. “I suppose we can’t say no to that.”

Before they leave, Clint manages to untangle himself from his foster family and his new dog and throw himself at Bucky, hugging him tightly.

“Lucky’s not the only thing I got attached to here,” he says in a quick whisper, lips brushing Bucky’s ear. “You know that, right?”

“Of course I do,” Bucky says, holding him tightly. “There’s also the Sullivans and your new phone and your role in the play and the lake with Steve and Sam and --”

“And you, you idiot,” Clint tells him fiercely. “You’re a terrible influence.”

And he kisses Bucky right there, in front of his foster family and Bucky’s mom like he’s daring them to say anything about it.

They don’t. But as she leaves, Mrs. Sullivan leans up and presses a kiss to Bucky’s forehead and says, “Thank you for taking such good care of him.”

“Didn’t really have much of a choice,” Bucky says, watching as Clint trips over his shoelaces -- again -- on his way down the steps, Lucky tumbling after. “I’ve got a thing for tragic blondes.”

“C’mon, Lucky,” Clint calls, and Lucky bounds after him. “Let’s go home.”

The end.