When Clint finally realized who the shoulders in front of him belonged to, he startled hard enough to slosh some of his coffee onto the floor.
“Barnes?!” Clint hissed, a bit louder than intended given that he had just burnt the fuck out of his hand. The black hoodie-clad shoulders straightened and froze before Clint heard Bucky let out a deep sigh.
“Figures. Fuckin’ Wilson,” Clint heard Bucky say, probably to himself but it made Clint smile anyhow. Clint found himself nodding in agreement.
“You think he did it on purpose?” Clint asked, leaning forward a bit more as to avoid anyone overhearing their hushed conversation. Nobody was paying them any mind, most of the other half dozen or so group members focused on the speaker at the front of the room.
Bucky turned and caught Clint’s eyes over his shoulder. It had been a few days since Clint had seen him if the gruff shadow of a beard outlining Bucky’s jawline was any indication.
“Probably. This would be a pretty shit coincidence otherwise.” Bucky seemed to hear what he said, and they both winced at once. “Sorry. Didn’t mean it that way. It’s fine, just...didn’t expect to see anyone I knew, you know?”
Clint nodded and stood, hopping smoothly over one of the beige folding chairs without preamble. While it caught the attention of some of the others (finally), Clint had to give Bucky credit in that he didn’t flinch in the least. Clint settled in a chair beside him, leaving an empty space between them. Clint waited until everyone else had shifted their eyes back to the speaker before continuing.
“I get it. I guess it would be a bit uncomfy to have a co-worker listen in on a therapy session, and this shit’s practically the same. You plan on talkin’? Because I can scoot out if you want.”
Bucky shook his head immediately. “No. Not today, anyway. I was just trying to get a feel for it, is all. Sam kept hounding me, telling me it’d be a good idea. So far it’s just real damn depressing.”
Clint stifled a bark of laughter. “Yeah, well. I don’t know if you came to a PTSD group for sunshine and rainbows but you sure ain’t gonna find any of that here, bro.” The corner of Bucky’s mouth up-ticked slightly, and Clint felt himself relaxing. “Don’t worry. This is my fourth or fifth time. I’ve only ever just listened.”
Bucky hummed, Clint leaned against the back of his chair, and together they listened. Clint watched Bucky out of the corner of his eye, noticing Bucky’s tension when the speaker said something triggering, recognizing that they shared a decent amount of overlap in that area.
It made sense to Clint, and he internally kicked himself for not having done more to maybe reach out to Bucky a bit more when he had first arrived at the compound. If anyone could understand what it was like to lose their sense of self, to be used as a suit of destruction, it was Clint. He imagined Natasha would have some insight into the feeling as well, but knew enough about the history between the Black Widow and the Winter Soldier to not ponder on that thought too much.
Clint’s eyes roved over Bucky’s face, and he had all but completely given up trying to keep his study of Bucky covert. Barnes looked good with some scruff, his hood pulled up covering his hair. The lights of the church basement caused shadows to overlay across his youthful face, all sharp angles and soft curves living in harmony. He looked like any other guy in his late twenties who was haunted; Clint figured that it was only because he knew better that he could see the layers of years etched in Bucky’s skin, living behind his eyes.
“Thank you all for being such engaged listeners and supporters. I’ve come to expect nothing less,” the group leader (Carly? Charlie? Clint couldn’t recall) said, her chipper voice bringing Clint’s eyes to the front of the room. She stood with a microphone, a stack of bright, multi-colored paper in her hands. “I know that typically we end with a positive recap, but tonight I wanted to do something a little differently. I took some information and suggestions from my therapist this last week and put together a flyer for y’all. I really want to encourage every one of you to take the time you would spend here next week, and attend one of these activities in place.” She started to hand out the papers, and Clint’s pulse hammered beneath the fine skin of his wrist.
Bucky side eyed him. “This something usual? Homework?”
Clint swallowed, shook his head. “Not that I’ve seen yet. Didn’t realize field trips were part of gettin’ my head right.” Clint’s knee bounced up and down, up and down. C/harly/ie handed him a bright orange flier that made him think of Halloween, and without a word Bucky took it from Clint’s hands, swapping it out with his own neon purple paper.
Clint looked up, surprised, and Bucky winked at him. Clint’s chest loosened.
Bucky simply tipped his head and focused his eyes on his paper.
They shared a cab back to the compound together afterward. It was a quiet ride, but comfortable, and neither of them spoke until the compound gate was in sight.
“You gonna do one of these?” Bucky asked quietly. Clint shrugged, question expected.
“Maybe. Think it would be cheating if I went to the ax throwing class? I bet everyone would be impressed.”
Bucky shook his head. “Cheap.”
Clint smiled. “Yeah, well. I suppose you’re right. Who knows? Maybe I’ll run into you next week. That’d be pretty futzing weird, right?”
It was, indeed, pretty futzing weird.
Six days later, when Clint opened the door to the community college classroom, his eyes immediately zeroed in on Bucky, who locked gazes with him immediately. Clint scoffed loudly from where he stood in the doorway, and then Bucky laughed. It was a sound that Clint had barely heard since Bucky had joined the team months ago, and come to think about it, Clint didn’t think he had actually ever seen Bucky laughing before.
It was. Something.
“You asshole,” Clint said jovially, stepping behind Bucky, stopping himself from clapping him on the back in greeting. “Did you follow me?”
“Barton,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes. “I literally beat you here. I don’t know how that would work. Maybe you’re deflecting from the fact that you decided to follow me.”
Bucky had trimmed his beard, and this time he wore a long sleeved gray Henley rather than a hoodie. His hair, cut to just above his shoulders, was tucked behind his ears, and Clint could spot a few freckles on Bucky’s throat that he had never noticed before.
“Maybe I did,” Clint said, not thinking, just needing to get words into the air to throw a cog in the machine that was his hyper-fixated mind. Bucky looked at him curiously, a flush of red creeping up the creamy skin of his throat. Clint wondered if the blood beneath Bucky’s skin would reach the smattering of freckles, but his focus was pulled to the front of the room when their instructor clapped his hands at the front of the class.
“Hello! Welcome to Culinary Arts for Beginners. I’m pleased to see such a full group this evening, and I’m hoping these seats stay full over the next eight weeks. Let’s start by going over safety rules, hmm? Then I’ll have you team up, as you’ll be learning in pairs throughout the term. My name is Chris, you can call me Chris, or you can call me Chef, depending on the atmosphere and experience you would like to have here. Are we ready to jump in?”
Clint looked around the room, surprised to realize that he hadn’t noticed that every seat was full. He was very typically aware of his surroundings, down to every feasible exit in the room and the body count of every space he entered. He couldn’t decide if he was pleased or pissed that Bucky was apparently enough to distract him from his vigilance.
Chef droned on at the front of the room, discussing knife and fire safety, and at one point Bucky’s gloved left hand poked Clint in the ribs.
“D’ya think we could teach ‘em a thing or two about knife wielding?” He asked Clint, a sparkle in his eyes.
Clint had to struggle to bite back his laughter. “You’re a menace, Barnes.”
When it was time to choose partners, the two of them stayed seated without question or discussion.
The weeks went by quickly. Clint was a bit loathe to admit that the group and the cooking classes were helping his confidence and his social anxiety. He was becoming less jumpy and was feeling more prepared to engage with others as it was forced upon him.
Bucky was helping, too. It was undeniable really. Not that Clint wanted to deny it, by any stretch. Bucky was becoming a familiar body in Clint’s hypothetical solar system as they weaved in and out of each other’s time and space throughout the days. They developed their habits; they went to group together and Clint filled two coffee cups with awful coffee while Bucky held their seats. They went to class together and sat at the same table. Bucky minced and chopped as needed (“I can’t cut off the tip of my finger, Clint. One day. I just want one day without you getting maimed, so get outta my way”), and Clint was a natural at baking, much to their joint surprise.
After class, once their culinary masterpieces (okay, maybe that was a bit hyperbolic) were boxed up and ready to travel with them, they would eat dinner in Clint’s suite at the compound as Bucky was still sharing with Steve (“If you could say he still lives there. Most of his shit’s in Sam’s place by now. Honestly, I wish he would just come clean about it, the nerd”). Dinner often turned into a few beers which left Bucky unaffected and Clint warm and pliant. Clint tried to get Bucky hooked on video games, but most of the time they just talked and bullshitted until Clint’s all-human body and mind would give out and slip into sleep.
Cooking Class Nights quickly became Clint’s favorites. He could ignore the disappointment that always accompanied waking alone in his apartment the morning after, usually on the couch with a blanket strewn over him. Waking up with Bucky would be nice, he figured, but they had a good thing going. If Clint knew one thing about himself, it was that he was shit at relationships, but this? This was good, and Clint could be good with the way things were.
For a little while, at least. And then Bucky had to ruin it one rainy night, a group night. They were both damp and looked a little like drowned rats after running inside from the cab, and Clint could feel the coolness of Bucky’s prosthetic where their arms were pressed together. Clint removed his hearing aids and used the driest part of his shirt to dry them off, taking advantage and dropping them in Bucky’s outstretched hand so that he could dry around his ears before replacing them.
Yeah. Bucky was part of his orbit. Natural as breathing, and Clint’s heart twinged.
“Do we have anyone who would like to volunteer to share their story this evening?” The group leader (her name was actually Carol, Bucky had informed Clint a few weeks in. Oops.) asked, wringing her ponytail with her hands. Clint leaned back to get comfortable, only to sit ramrod straight as Bucky stood up beside him and cleared his throat.
“Yeah. Um. If it’s okay?” Bucky stammered, and Clint’s pulse pounded in his ears. His mouth went dry, and in that moment Clint wanted to bolt, wanted to hide himself away rather than listen to Bucky’s trauma. Clint knew what was in his file, they all did; what he didn’t know was the depths of Bucky’s internalization, how far his guilt went, and Clint wasn’t sure that he could handle it without shattering.
Instead, Clint breathed deeply through his nose and planted his feet on the ground, hunkering down to bear witness to Bucky’s horrors, because what were friends for?
“Please, Mr. Barnes. We would be honored.” There was a tinge of surprise in Carol’s voice, and everybody in the room turned and swiveled to look at Bucky. The folks in the group were really good about allowing them their perceived anonymity, however their identities were no secret. Clint thought it was nice, in a way; often the group members would check in on them after a highly public Avengers incident, in a beautifully low key way that Clint adored.
“Okay. Thanks.” Bucky said, and then stood, eyes open and unblinking. His mouth opened and closed a few times as though unsure of where to start, or even if he could, and on instinct Clint reached up and folded his right hand around Bucky’s gloved left. Bucky flinched but not away, and looked down at Clint. He was scared, it was plain as day on his face, and so Clint did the only thing he could think to do.
“You got this, Bucky-Babe,” he said lowly. Bucky responded by removing his hand, stripping off his glove, and seeking out Clint’s hand once more. When their fingers were strung together Bucky squeezed and lifted his head, squaring his shoulders.
“My name is James Buchanan Barnes, and I’m here because I was...my body was...for a long time, I was held captive and forced to commit atrocities against others.” Bucky stopped, all eyes on him, and then he opened his mouth and forged ahead. “I’m here because I can’t sleep at night. There are so many flashbacks, so many memories of the people I hurt, or killed. I know this might sound really scary to anyone who doesn’t know who I am,” Bucky said, rushed, and there was a smattering of chuckles from the other members, “but I’m not who I was. I won’t hurt you. You’re safe with me.”
Clint sucked in a breath, feeling as though if he moved a millimeter he would spiral into tears. Bucky looked at him with the sound, his own eyes glassy, and repeated the phrase, aimed it directly at Clint with his voice and his eyes.
“You’re safe with me.”
“I can’t believe this is the last class. Eight weeks flew by,” Bucky commented, pulling on his apron as he and Clint adjusted their work station, pulling out pots, pans, spatulas and measuring cups from the cupboards beneath.
“It flies when you’re having fun, and time with me is always fun,” Clint cracked, taking a swig of water as their classmates settled in around them.
Bucky groaned. “You and that ego, doll. A match made in hell.”
Clint blushed and waggled his eyebrows, plopping down on his bar stool when Chef walked to the front of the room.
“Alright, cooks! I would like to congratulate you on making it to the end of the term with no major injuries, burns, or breakdowns! I’m impressed with all of you overall, and your progress. Ms. Evans, your chicken cordon bleu was heavenly, and Mr. Barton, I think I speak for us all when I say thank you for your wonderful rhubarb muffins last week.”
Bucky elbowed Clint teasingly, and Clint stuck his tongue out in his general direction, face heating with the recognition.
“For your last task, I’ve chosen something both truly challenging but also fun, something that you can individualize while still taking some technical risks and putting the techniques that you learned from week one into use. Does anyone remember week one?”
“Eggs!” came multiple responses. Chef nodded.
“Eggs! We know they are versatile and can be tricky to perfect. The only guideline that I would like you to follow for your last dish with us is that you must utilize eggs. Otherwise, be adventurous while you try your hand at...breakfast!” Chef’s face broke out into a wide grin when there were both cheers and groans at the task. Clint was pretty happy; he made a mean pancake, and now that he knew how to properly scramble a decent egg and make fruit compotes he was pretty sure that he could whip up something delicious that he may or may not be willing to share.
Next to him, Bucky looked pained. Clint sat beside him for a minute, writing down the ingredients that he needed from the fridge and pantry while others around them hustled and bustled. Bucky’s notepad sat empty.
“What’s up, buttercup? You intimidated by a bit of breakfast?” Clint joked.
“Shut it. Breakfast for us back then was usually plain oatmeal and fruit, or porridge or some shit. I can make toast? And I think I can do the sunny side up eggs, but that’s. It’s not.” Bucky looked up sharply at Clint, accusations in his eyes. “You’re gonna make something all delicious and fancy and I’m gonna make slop that you’re gonna hate.”
Butterflies swarmed Clint’s stomach. “Aw, Buck, no. I can help you out, not that I think you need it. I’m not gonna hate it. I will literally snack on days-old pizza crust, Bucky, what even.”
Bucky’s cheeks turned a brilliant shade of pink as he looked over at Clint. He bit his lower lip, and fuck if Clint could pull his eyes away from that.
“Maybe this isn’t how I imagined making breakfast for you the first time,” Bucky blurted, the words rushed and quiet.
Clint had jumped out of airplanes, off of the sides of buildings, had been sprung into the air by Cap’s shield and had piggy-backed on Hulk a few times and yet the thrilling sensation of his stomach dropping out of his body through his feet had never been so strong.
“Oh?” Clint asked, trying and failing for casual.
“...Yeah,” Bucky breathed, not meeting Clint’s eyes, and that was bullshit and not allowed because Bucky’s eyes? Stunning.
Clint reached out slowly, cupping his hand beneath Bucky’s chin and adjusting his gaze until their eyes met. Bucky didn’t shove him away, and Clint moved his thumb back and forth over the edge of Bucky’s jaw, his scruff pleasantly massaging Clint’s skin.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Clint offered, trying not to grin, trying not to falter. “You help me make breakfast tonight, right here, and tomorrow morning I’ll help you make breakfast at my place.”
Bucky exhaled as though he had been sucker punched. “I. That. Yeah, sweetheart. You got yourself a deal.”
Clint did grin then, and Bucky shifted to plant a kiss on the palm of Clint’s hand.
When Carol turned the lights on in the sad, cold church basement room in order to prepare for the next group meeting, the first thing she adjusted was the podium at the front. Before she budged it an inch, she noticed a baby blue envelope sitting on the podium face. When she picked it up and flipped it over to see her name scrawled in chicken scratch on the front, she was uncertain if she should open it or simply toss it.
She would challenge her group to show bravery, to use cognitive coping to address their heightened levels of anxiety and fear. Therefore, after a few minutes of breathing and thinking herself out of catastrophizing, Carol opened the envelope.
Inside she found a card. It was unsigned, but it was a lovely Thank You card all the same.