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Lost Souls and Battered Hearts

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Clint heard—well, felt, really since his aides were currently on the nightstand in the other room—the door open and close, the soft footsteps falling with Nat’s unmistakable pace and pattern. It’s funny, he thought, how even her steps changed when she was undercover.

He didn’t look up when her shadow fell over him from behind the couch.

She took the hint, slipping around the edge and lifting him up enough that she could slide under him as gently as she could for such a petite woman hefting the uncooperative, deadweighted upper body of a man.

Nat shifted under him, adjusting herself until her knees weren’t digging into his upper back and his arms were free.

Apparently she didn’t take the hint, because she only made sure his arms were mobile if she expected him to talk. Or at least, to sign.

Good thing she was patient, because Clint wasn’t really in the mood for sharing yet. Instead, he closed his eyes and relaxed into the feeling of her fingers gently carding through his hair.

For as good and right and normal as they felt, they still felt wrong. There was no temperature difference when she switched from one hand to the other. There was no gentle whirring as the plates adjusted themselves with the movement. His hair never got caught and pulled between them.

Clint missed Bucky.

He doesn’t know how long they sat there before Nat shifted below him, an almost imperceptible move, but he knew it was her signal that it was time. He needed to talk.

Opening his eyes… it hurt to focus them. They felt tender and swollen and too big for their sockets. The sting behind them… he though he was out of tears. He’d been holed up here, in his apartment, away from the Tower, away from the team, away from the memories, for three days.

Ever since…

Clint bit his lip, lifting his trembling chin and his left hand as he turned to meet Natasha’s gaze.

B-U-C-K-Y. He spelled the name before pointing a bit to his left, giving them a reference point for the missing man since Clint wasn’t ready to show her the namesign he’d given the man only days before. I WAKE-UP. Clint took a deep breath, steeling himself despite the overly simplistic version he’s giving his best friend. HE ABSENT.

Clint felt the tears slide from his closed eyes, the trail cold along his cheeks as he signed the last two words he ever thought he’d associate with Bucky Barnes.

GONE. EVERYWHERE.

Natasha’s hands never wavered in their pace, her fingers remaining gentle and methodical through his short strands. He didn’t want to see the anger or the pity he was sure would light her eyes. Clint didn’t open his eyes again until she gave his hair two short tugs, indicating she needed his eyes.

HE NOT AT T-O-W-E-R? Her raised eyebrows said it’s a question, but the sadness in her eyes said she’s just asking out of formality. After Clint shook his head, Natasha’s hand left his head long enough to sign Steve’s name, an “s” hand circling in front of her arm across her body, imitating his shield hold.

Clint shrugged before responding. NOT ASK. HE (Clint indicates the invisible Bucky-spot.) VANISH. FROM ME.

He felt the small sob escape from his throat, despite his best efforts to maintain some level of control, at Nat’s next question.

WHY?

Instead of answering, he just shook his head, turning his whole body towards Nat as he curled his legs up and sobbed into her belly, her strong arms wrapped around him feeling like the only things that were keeping him from falling apart irreparably.

Chapter Text

Natasha scrubbed her hands across her face as she stood in the elevator, back at the Tower. Finding Barnes was going to be a pain in her ass, but a mopey Clint was an even bigger pain in her ass and made her angry at Barnes, so… looks like she’s on a manhunt.

What a woman will do for love.

“Jarvis, see if you can locate Bucky in New York. If you can’t, see if you can find his route out of the city and widen the search out by 5-mile increments to a hundred mile radius from the Tower. Send anything you find to my phone.”

It was only marginally disconcerting, still, when the disembodied voice responded from… all around her. “I will send anything I can find to your phone, Agent. Should I inform Sir, see if he can help?”

“No. Current whereabouts of Steve Rogers, Jarvis.” Natasha had to keep her focus, and trying to explain all of this to Tony-on-a-3-day-science-bender would not help that at all.

“The Captain is currently in his quarters. Alone.” Natasha wasn’t sure if that was Jarvis’s way of surreptitiously telling her that Barnes wasn’t with Steve despite any possible privacy settings that may have been enacted while Barnes was still on site, or if it was just a natural part of his programming. She’d think about it—and maybe ask him about it—later.

After stopping in her room to grab her personal go-bag, which contained a very different clothing selection than her work go-bag, she found herself standing outside Steve’s door. He only looked marginally better than her partner.

Oh good, two mopey boys. Just what Natasha wanted today.

“Bucky?” Hope flashed across his face as he scrambled to turn towards her spot by the door, but fell just as quickly when he realized the man of the hour wasn’t with Natasha.

“He left a note.” was his only response, grabbing it from the coffee table and holding It out to Natasha. “Doesn’t give me anything on where he might go.”

Natasha unfolded the small piece of paper, a finger running lightly over the block print that somehow managed to look messy but be perfectly legible.

                Steve,

        I love you, punk, always will. But I have to go.

        Please, don’t blame anyone but me; I did this to myself. This I have to do this. It’s the only way.

        I don’t know when I’ll write.

        I’m sorry.

 

        JBB

 

Natasha refolded the small piece of paper and passed it back to the man before who, who barely twitched from where he hung his head into his hands over his lap. She ended up walking around the couch, setting the note back on the table and her hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Do you know what he did?”

“Nothing!” Steve’s response was immediate and forceful, his head whipping up to lock gazes with Natasha, who kept her face carefully neutral. Whatever he saw in her face deflated him once again. “At least, nothing that I can figure out. Jarvis said he hadn’t gotten into any altercations, Sam and Tony said he hadn’t do anything to them except snark at them recently. Clint…”

“Knows nothing. Woke up, Bucky was gone.” Natasha supplied. Steve pulled his fingers roughly through his hair; Natasha smirked—tousled was a good look on him—before schooling her features back to something resembling neutral. She squeezed his shoulder once, firm and, hopefully, reassuring.

“I’ll find him.” Her voice is quiet but sure. “I won’t promise to bring him back; I’ll leave that up to him. But I’ll find him.”

Steve didn’t move as Nat made her way, silent and quick, from his suite and to the elevator.

She was gonna kick Barnes’s ass when she found him, just for making her put up with two emotional men in less than 2 hours. That was his job, not hers.

~~*~~*~~*~~*~~

Natasha soundlessly slipped through the front door, careful that the door didn’t knock or click as she eased it back into its frame and released the knob.

Slipping through the foyer, she avoided the creaky board between the doorways that lead to the living room on the right and the hallway on the left. Her target was in the kitchen.

Bucky’s shoulders tensed minutely as she took up residence beside the fridge, lifting herself onto the cabinet with ease of long practice and familiarity before banging her foot against the second drawer down.

The crash made him flinch away from her, which was only half of her point in doing it. The other was to break the tense silence in the room.

“Why?”

Bucky shook his head. Bit his lip. Avoided looking at the redhead spysassin he trained all those years ago. He loved all those years ago, even when he wasn’t sure what love was.

“You left him, alone, in the middle of the night. At least Steve got a note.” Nat’s voice was that careful kind of calm that made him wrap his hand tighter around the knife he was using to cut up the vegetables for his stew. “And then you hide here. Why?”

Dark hair fell, shielding his face as he dropped his chin to his chest. “Because it would be the last place he would look.”

Nat snorted, a derisive sound that, judging by the twitch of his bicep, grated against whatever raw feelings Bucky was experiencing.

“Yeah… I think looking at his own farm, his own safehouse would be the last place he’d expect to find the man who left him in the middle of night without even a by-your-leave.”

The sound of steel meeting wood meeting granite rang through the kitchen as Bucky flipped the knife and slammed it, tip first, into the cutting board. It looked grotesque, the wet drip of vegetable goop sliding down the blade, the slight vibration of the handle as it settled from the force of impact.

“I screwed up.”

“You think?”

The silence grew, awkward and heavy and pregnant with everything neither one was saying.

Nat sighed, shook her head.

“I don’t know what you did, or think you did, but Clint is heartbroken and Steve is a wreck. Neither know why you left, and I… I don’t want to know what you think is so bad that you ran away from the best damn things we could never have hoped for, even in our wildest dreams. So far, the only grievous mistake you’ve made is hurting people I care about. I’m giving you the chance to rectify that. Talk to him—to them—before it’s too late. Because if you don’t, no torture I could devise would touch the pain of knowing you ran away from two people who love us more than we could ever hope to love ourselves.”

With that, Natasha slipped off the counter and from the house, avoiding the creaky board again. The quinjet waited in the field just south of the main house, and she had to shoo an errant couple of cows away before she could safely take off.

It was never the Talk she figured she would be having with her former lover. She only hoped he listened, for the sake of his soul and her sanity.

~*~*~*

Natasha managed to convince Clint to spar with her a few times a week, despite his moping. Today was the closest he’d been to his pre-broken-hearted self. Given that he’d greeted her with actual words instead of grunts when she slipped into the communal kitchen this morning, she figured he was nursing probably his second or third cup of coffee. Definitely not his first. He’d been wearing what passed, for him, as a clean shirt and his hair was wet from a recent shower.

Maybe there was a corner to be turned, after all.

Currently, she harrumphed as he slipped out of his sweat-soaked shirt which had conveniently been grasped in her hand. “Not fair, Hawkeye, you can’t always strip in the field.” Clint flashed her a grin.

“Maybe you can’t,” he teased as he turned into what approximated his fighter’s stance (but looked suspiciously like lazing against the wall), “but there’s rarely indecency laws against me running around shirtless.”

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Nat froze as the voice carried from the door farthest from the sparring mats.

Bucky.

Clint paled, then flushed scarlet so quickly she was afraid he might actually hurt himself. She stepped behind him, careful to give him enough space to move, as he turned himself to face the door behind his right shoulder. “You’re one to talk, Barnes.” The cold edge of Clint’s voice sliced at Nat’s heart, even as she kept her face impassively blank.

Bucky didn’t hide his flinch at the words. He didn’t hide… anything. He had always struggled with broadcasting his feelings, hence their Russian handlers forcing a mask on him for the more brutal and gruesome missions. But since coming out of the freeze and shaking the hold of Hydra, he’d stopped even trying, wearing the mask only as protection and, occasionally, an intimidation tactic.

Today, he wore no protection.

“Learning from my mistakes, I guess.” The prodigal Avenger choked out, the look on his face as desperate as she’d ever seen it. “Can we talk?”

“No.” Clint’s voice was cold but the underlying tremble was unmistakable to her overly familiar ears, and Natasha gently laid her hand against his shoulder blade.

“Please,” Bucky took a step towards them and his voice broke as he looked at the man whose heart he’d shattered, “Clint. Please, just let me explain. If you never want to see me again, then... then I’ll leave.”

“You left.” Clint started, and Natasha watched as the tight coil of his shoulders released as his pain found its target. “You left me. It’s been a month without a word, Bucky. What could make that okay?”

Bucky’s eyes glanced at her before he squared his shoulders. “Nothing can make it okay, Clint. I fucked up. But wanna… I wanna at least explain myself. If you’ll let me.”

Natasha’s gaze pinged between the two men. Clint didn’t move, barely blinking, as Bucky took another step towards him. Bucky’s hand came up, and Natasha reflexively moved into an actual fighter’s stance. Clint’s hand dropped open, palm towards her in a signal for her to stand down.

Bucky’s hand wasn’t moving towards them, but instead circled his chest, alternating between an open hand and clenched fist.

Please. Sorry. Please.

Clint doesn’t make a move towards the obviously broken man in front him, but he doesn’t move away either. Nat watched as a litany of emotions play across his face.

“I’ll leave you two to talk.” Her voice was quiet, wanting to give Clint a chance to keep her here if he needed her but not wanting to break the fragile connection throbbing between the two men. When he didn’t respond, she dug her fingers in briefly where they still rested on his back, then slipped out the back door.

“Jarvis, lockdown the gym. No one in except on emergency override until Clint and Bucky leave.”

Nat hoped that Bucky wasn’t too late, but something told her… he would never be too late. It might take time, but they would make it through. She knew better than anyone… Clint was just that kind of man.

He never gave up on lost souls and battered hearts.