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Got a Heart in Me, I Swear

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The pictures leak on a lazy off-season Sunday, in that muddled bit of midafternoon Clint never knows what to do with when he isn’t training. He curls up with Lucky on the couch and naps through the end of his whole damn life. And that, honestly, is pretty much perfect.

His phone is muted, and his hearing aids are out anyway, so it’s not the phone calls or the texts or the emails that wake him up. It’s Natasha, crouched between the couch and the coffee table, laying a gentle hand on his forehead and murmuring, “Oh, you poor, stupid bastard.”

“What?” he says, blinking sleepily up at her. Lucky squirms free to lick her face, and he knows, with a sudden cold lurch in his belly, that something’s gone terribly wrong. She doesn’t even push Lucky away. She just stares at him, eyes troubled, mouth twisted down into a frown.

“Shit,” he says, pushing himself up, running a hand through his bedhead. He scrambles for his aids. This close, he could hear her on his good side, but it gives him something to do with his hands. “Are you okay? Did something—are you--”

She slides up onto the couch next to him. He realizes she’s wearing tights and a hoodie. Everything’s wrong, he thinks. She came all the way to Bed-Stuy in athletic wear. She must’ve come straight from practice. It looks like maybe she didn’t even stop to shower.

“Clint,” she says. Her tone is sharp and clipped, but her hand is gentle when she threads their fingers together. “Clint, listen to me. I love you. You’re fucked.”

And those are the words that play in his head, point-counterpoint, the two-toned ringing of a bell, when she puts his phone in his hand, and he sees he has thirteen missed calls, six voicemails, and fifty-two texts.

I love you, he thinks. You’re fucked.

 

- -

 

The pictures aren’t anything incendiary. It’s not like he let some guy make a sex tape. It’s from his rookie season, spring training down in Port St. Lucie, with a bright-eyed blonde from Wisconsin who had a way of rambling through his vowels that reminded Clint of home. His name was Michael, but he let Clint call him Mikey, and, in return, Clint let him do more or less whatever he wanted.

Like take pictures, apparently. Just a few, on his phone. The two of them, shirtless on a beach. The two of them, shirtless in bed. The two of them, kissing, Mikey’s face barely in the frame but Clint’s front and center, unmistakable, flushed and young and humiliatingly happy.

Clint had been eighteen years old. Reckless, sure. And lonely. Just a kid, alone for the first time, feeling like he was so far away from rural Iowa that he’d been set free on another planet. Feeling like he finally had enough breathing room to take a few risks.

And now he’s twenty-five, coming off another injured season in a long and storied history of letting his team down. And he’s been gifted the dubious honor of being the only out player on a major league team. In history. Ever.

He stares at the pictures while Natasha pours vodka into a coffee cup. She pushes the hair off his face, presses the cup into his hands, and answers her phone with a snarl that would frighten Navy SEALs.

He thinks he should call Mikey. Last he heard, Mike had married some nice girl he grew up with, moved back to Wisconsin without ever making the majors. God only knows what kind of day he’s having right now.

He would call, expect he doesn’t have the number. And he doesn’t know how the hell he’d hear him, when this ringing in his ears won’t go away.

“I look happy though, right?” Clint’s not even sure who he’s asking. Natasha, maybe, since she’s the only person in his apartment. “Look at me. Jesus. I look so happy.”

He looks in love, is what he looks. God, he’s forgotten what it looks like on him.

He should hate his younger self, probably. He damn sure should be disappointed. But he gets an ache in his chest, deep and inevitable, the way his shoulder feels, sometimes, after hard games or rough practices. Like he’s done something permanent to his body, and he’s gonna know about it forever.

He can’t hate himself. He can’t even hate Mikey. Not for taking the pictures, or keeping them, or losing them, or whatever the hell he did with them.

“Look,” he says, turning his phone toward Natasha. He put it in airplane mode half an hour ago. He deleted every voicemail without listening to a single one. He bulk-deleted every email from the past five hours. Except for the one from his agent. He left that one alone, like a live bomb, waiting, counting down. “Look, Nat. You ever remember me being this happy?”

The look she gives him is so grim and sympathetic that it flays him open, rips away the scab of shock. She says something quiet in Russian, leans forward to lay a gentle kiss on his forehead. “It’ll be all right,” she tells him.

It won’t be. He sets the phone aside, drains the whole coffee cup’s worth of vodka, and puts his head in his hands.

 

- -

 

It’s New York. Fans aren’t going to boycott the games. No one local’s going to send threats to the stadium.

“But away games,” one man says. “It could be a problem. In the South.”

It’s gonna be a problem Goddamn right here, Clint wants to say. It’s a problem for me. The problem is highly localized, and it’s me, and it’s everywhere I go, forever.

“It’s certainly going to be a talking point,” someone else says. A woman, well-dressed. She’s from PR, and she’s been leveling shark smiles at everyone who looks her way. “It’s not the end of the world.”

A talking point, Clint thinks. Jesus.

He’s been removed from the team’s group chat. He’s not sure how it happened. He doesn’t want to know. He didn’t get a chance to check it before he got booted, and it hurts, thinking about what they’re saying. Trying to guess who’s saying what. Wondering if any of the guys are sticking up for him. Hoping, kind of, that they aren’t.

Sinking ship, he thinks. He’s maybe going a little crazy. He’s maybe still a little drunk.

The ringing in his ears keeps fading in and out, but it’s okay, because he knows how to read lips.

“Rumlow’s raised objections.” And that’s Sitwell, the field manager. Soft-spoken as usual, but so fucking ruthless. He’s gutted Clint before, in that exact same tone.

“Brock?” Clint asks, lifting his head. “He’s--”

“Rumlow wants to get paid.” There’s the PR woman again, still smiling. “He can keep his objections to himself. They aren’t relevant to the game.”

“It’ll be a problem,” Sitwell says. “Barton was out most of last season. Again. We’ve built a team without him. Coming back was always going to be a problem.”

Clint wishes he’d brought some of Nat’s vodka with him. It hit like a truck loaded with C-4, probably homebrewed by a Russian grandmother in some spare closet, and the sharp bite of it is the only thing that’s felt real since he woke up. He can still kinda feel the inside of his mouth tingling from it, although the anxious churning in his stomach is probably nerves.

“Look, this isn’t 1920,” one of the suits across the table says. “This isn’t even 2010. Trading him at this point would cause its own backlash. We can’t--”

“Trading,” Clint says. And he doesn’t know why it comes as such a damn shock. Maybe because they’ve kept him through everything else. Through the bad years, and the surgeries, and the bankruptcy, and the lawsuits, and the series of really bad social media decisions.

“He’s still a two-time Cy Young winner,” the suit finishes, decisive but not meeting Clint’s eyes.

“He hasn’t finished a single season in his entire career,” Sitwell counters. “And the last Cy Young was five years and two shoulder surgeries ago.”

People talk about Clint like this all the time. Like he’s not in the room. Usually, he doesn’t mind so much. When they’re talking about him, they’re not talking at him. And when they aren’t talking at him, there’s almost no chance he’s going to lean forward and say something really stupid right into some reporter’s live mic.

“This is a damage control meeting,” the PR woman says. Her smile is getting thinner and meaner. “Let’s stay focused.”

“The reality is,” Sitwell says, with that blandly analytical tone Clint’s grown to hate, “we would’ve been shopping trades before he pulled this stunt.”

“Jesus,” Clint says. “Stunt. I didn’t pull shit.” He swallows; his throat is dry. “Should I be in the room for this?”

Across the room, Pierce clears his throat. Clint hasn’t had much reason to talk to Alexander Pierce for the past couple of seasons. Ever since the shine wore off his golden boy status, he hasn’t earned much social time with the GM.

The whole room goes silent as they all look to Pierce. He’s staring at Clint like he’s something small and offensive, like he’s a roach that just crawled out from under his mahogany desk.

“Maybe you should leave,” Pierce says. And then he lifts a hand, gestures almost lazily toward the door, and that’s how Clint figures out that his days in New York are done.

 

- -

 

It is not, his agent explains, an optimal time in his career to be traded. He’s still recovering from his latest injury, and his performance at the games he actually made last season was decidedly uninspiring. His face has been Goddamn everywhere for the past two news cycles, and there’s not a team in the League enthused about the prospect of an injury-prone pitcher, twenty-five and already past his prime, who comes leashed to an ongoing scandal.

“It’s not all bad press,” his agent says. “It’s just--”

“Nobody would’ve wanted me anyway,” Clint says. “And now they’ve got this shit, too.”

“Well,” his agent says, with a half-assed attempt at sounding encouraging. “People want you. It’s just that most of the teams that could use your skills can’t afford your baggage.”

Clint presses his face into Lucky’s side. Lucky whines deep in his chest and leans into him. “Okay,” Clint says. “So I’m fucked?”

If Pierce and Sitwell want him out, he’s out. But there have to be teams in the League steady enough to weather the PR storm of acquiring him and desperate enough for pitching depth that they’ll gamble on him, even with his recent history.

He’s got a shelf full of awards. He’s been to the All-Star Game three times.

It can’t all be for nothing. He can’t afford for it to be for nothing. Baseball is the only thing he’s good for, the only thing he’s ever been any damn good at.

He was just starting to get his life back together after the shit Barney pulled.

Clint takes a deep breath. “What’s the pay like in the minors these days?”

His agent sighs into the phone. He’s good at his job. He liked Clint a lot better seven years ago, back when people still talked about him like he was some kind of prize, but he could’ve walked away any time since then, and he hasn’t. Considering how his whole damn team has iced him out, Clint’s maybe overinvested in that loyalty.

“Pack your things,” his agents says. “However this goes, you’re gonna be moving.”

 

- -

 

The Dodgers pick him up. Trade him for their latest third round draft pick, a rookie pitcher who’s been lazing around in the California sun, trotting out to play middle relief when Steve “Captain America” Rogers decides maybe he’s done before the seventh inning and Castle can’t be fucked to leave the bench yet.

The Dodgers don’t need a pitcher. The unstoppable one-two punch of Barnes catching and Rogers pitching has already taken them to the World Series twice and won it for them once. With Morita or Jones around to start a game when Rogers needs rest and a couple of competent, hungry backups in the farm team, the last thing the Dodgers need is an unnecessary seven-million-dollar starting pitcher showing up to clutter the bench and push the team into luxury tax threshold.

They don’t need him. But Tony Stark, who bought the team on a bender fifteen years back, does love a good spectacle. And it’s not like he can’t afford to personally front the cash penalty for paying more in player salaries than the League deems fair. 

It’s a PR thing for the Dodgers, or maybe a personal mission for Stark. Clint can Google just as well as anyone else, and, anyway, he was twelve when Stark came out. He remembers it. He remembers the shitshow the followed, the SI stock drop, the way conservative news anchors who’d been metaphorically sucking Stark’s dick for years went suddenly squeamish at the thought of less-metaphorical dick-sucking.

He remembers when SI lost its military contracts.

So he gets it. Stark wants to make a point.

Clint packs his things and drinks Natasha’s vodka and remembers when the point used to be 300 strikeouts and leading the League in WHIP. But it’s been a long damn time since he saw numbers like that. He’s twenty-five and well on his way to used-up, too Goddamn young to be on this kind of downward spiral.

Maybe it’s a good thing those pictures came out. Maybe, if they hadn’t, nobody would’ve wanted him at all.

 

- -

 

Nat’s driving Lucky cross-country in Clint’s car because she’s a saint, and the Dodgers want Clint in California yesterday so they can start spinning this news media spectacle into something that builds preseason buzz. Clint takes a late-night flight, fidgety and uneasy with the eyes he can sense on him, feeling crowded even in first class, brain buzzing with that high ringing he can’t shake, and he empties out into the belly of LAX like a rat ready to chew through steel to get to fresh air.

The Dodgers’ front office has been in touch with him, told him someone would be around to pick him up, but, when Clint comes hustling out into the arrivals area, he finds Steve Rogers waiting in a ball cap and gray hoodie, looking the kind of undercover that only works in movies.

He’s wearing a Dodgers cap, for God’s sake. Every single person in arrivals seems painfully aware of exactly who he is.

“Holy shit,” Clint says, and almost drops his carry on.

“Hey,” Steve says. “I’m Steve.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Clint says and then slaps a hand over his face. It doesn’t make the whole situation go away, but it resettles things a bit in his mind. “Sorry,” he says, after taking a deep breath. “I meant, yeah, hi, I’m Clint.”

He shakes hands with Steve Rogers, and he encounters a set of callouses on Steve’s hand that almost perfectly match his own.

“Good flight?” Steve asks. “You check any bags?”

“No,” Clint says, and then waves his hand. “I mean, yeah. Flight was fine. No bags. Sorry, shit. Nobody said—I mean, I didn’t know you were gonna be here.”

He’s seen Steve Rogers, of course. They’ve played in the same League for seven years. He’s even met him before, in the sense that they’ve nodded at each other at various baseball-related functions. But he’s never encountered him unexpectedly after a six-hour flight immediately following some of the worst days of his life.

God, the hours he’s spent during IR, poring over tape of Steve Rogers, trying to make his body do all the things Steve’s did so effortlessly.

“Didn’t want you coming in alone,” Steve says. He shrugs his big shoulders and smiles that aw-shucks grin that the press loves so much. “Tony wanted to come, but I figured that would just—”

“Be a bloodbath,” Clint says, picturing the frenzy that follows Tony Stark everywhere. “Jesus Christ. Yeah. Thanks for not---”

“So he’s in the car,” Steve finishes, mercifully intervening before Clint can dig himself a grave right here in front of baggage claim and all its inhabitants.

“He’s in,” Clint repeats and then cuts himself off. He stares hard at Steve’s face, hoping for any sign that he’s joking. “The owner is in the car? Tony Stark is in the car?”

Steve shrugs, off-hand like it’s nothing, with a little smile curling up one side of his mouth that suggests he knows very well that it’s not. “Well, Barton,” he says, “we’re excited you’re here.”

 

- -

 

Tony Stark picks them up in an Audi, because it’s probably the only four-door car he owns. Clint drops his bag in the trunk and slides into the backseat, ludicrously grateful to Rogers for not making him ride shotgun next to Tony fucking Stark.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, as Clint’s buckling himself in and trying to make as little actual contact with the leather seats as possible. “Was that Mets-themed luggage you just put in my trunk?”

“Um,” Clint says.

“Tony,” Steve says. “Give the guy a break. He was traded this morning.”

“It was—” Clint cuts himself off before he tells Tony Stark – billionaire, genius, franchise owner – that it was the only thing he had. “I’ll get something else in the morning,” he says, instead, sliding a little lower in the seat.

Stark glances up at him through the rearview mirror. His eyes are different, somehow, in person. Clint’s seen him plenty of times on TV, but he’s never felt like he was being pulled apart, all his components checked for wear and tear.

I’ll get you something else in the morning,” Stark tells him. “We’ll get you all branded up, Barton. Don’t you worry.”

“What Tony means,” Steve says, with a kind of wrote, wry patience that strikes Clint as impossibly brave, “is that his name is Tony Stark, and he’s glad to meet you.”

“Oh,” Tony says, and then waves his hand. “Yeah, hi. Hello. Great to meet you. Goddamn, those pictures though, huh? Gotta say, Barton. Your Instagram could really benefit from more shirtless pics and fewer shots of your dog eating pizza.”

Clint feels his face go red in two seconds flat. Aside from Natasha, nobody’s actually talked with him about the content of the pictures. Not to his face. There’s been plenty said about them online. But everybody back with the Mets just kinda talked in hushed undertones about those images posted online.

The secrecy had made him burn alive with shame. Like, somehow, what he’d been caught doing was so bad that nobody could even address it directly.

But the offhand way Stark says it reminds Clint that other people post pictures like that all the time. They’re dumb, sure. And telling. But they aren’t graphic or crude. It’s not like he got caught sending dick pics to fans. Jesus, he’d been young and stupid, but the only person he’d hurt was himself.

Well, and maybe Mikey. God, he really, really needs to call Mike and find out how he’s doing. Clint can’t even imagine the fallout for him. He hasn’t seen any statements from him in the press. He hopes maybe they’ll have the decency to leave him alone.

“Sorry,” Stark says. He’s looking at Clint in the mirror again. Clint really wishes he’d stop doing that. “Was the shirtless comment a little much?”

“Keep it up, Tony,” Steve says. He sounds exasperated, but not shocked. “See what HR has for you on Monday morning.”

Tony makes a noise like someone just threw up in his lap. “HR,” he says. “I am not—I am just trying to be supportive, Steve. You know, Barton, I’ve had some pretty spicy pictures leaked in my time. And I’ll tell you, yours were nice. Had a touch of class to them, even. Nothing to be ashamed about.”

Clint wishes he’d brought his bag with him into the backseat, so he could hide behind it. The last thing he needs right now is to think about the pictures of Tony Stark that have leaked over the years.

“Thanks,” he says, because there really doesn’t seem to be anything else to say.

“You’re gonna be fine, Barton,” Tony says. And there’s something significant to his tone, suddenly. Something that makes Barton glance up, one last time, to catch Tony’s eyes in the mirror. “Don’t you worry your handsome blonde head about a damn thing. We’re gonna take care of this.”

But this is him, is his whole damn life. And he doesn’t want to be something that people take care of. All he’s wanted, since he was old enough to tie his own cleats, is to play baseball, and play it well.

But none of that is his decision. He ducks his head, tries to play it off as a nod.

“Okay,” he says. “Sounds good.”

 

- -

 

He doesn’t ask where they’re going. He’s so certain he’s going to find himself dropped at some hotel reasonably close to the front office that he doesn’t even think to ask. It occurs to him that they’ve been in the car awhile, and that the buildings are starting to get curiously spaced out, but the idea of questioning Tony Stark doesn’t occur to him until they take a right turn into a private drive.

“Um,” he says.

“You good back there?” Tony asks. “Shit, I should’ve asked if you were hungry. But there’ll be better food at the house anyway.”

“The, um,” Clint says, anxiously spinning his phone in his hands. “The house?”

Steve twists in his seat to take in the expression on Clint’s face. He frowns and then turns back toward Tony. “Didn’t you tell him?”

“Tell him what?” Tony says. “I didn’t talk to him. Pep handled everything, Rogers. C’mon. You know I hate phone calls.”

Steve takes a deep breath. “You are – and I mean this sincerely – an actual nightmare.”

Tony blows him a kiss and then shifts the car into park as they roll to a stop in the garage of what Clint’s going to go ahead and describe, conservatively, as a cliffside chateau. “Thanks, Cap.”

“So, like,” Clint says, “do I need to call a cab, or--”

“No, don’t be weird,” Tony says. “You’re staying here tonight, and then at Castle’s place.”

The ringing in his ears kicks up to a shriek and then fades into a faint rushing sound. He can’t be sure it’s a panic attack. He might just legitimately be hearing the ocean, because you can hear the ocean from Tony Stark’s garage.

Which is where he is. He is in Tony Stark’s garage, at Tony Stark’s house.

“I can’t stay with you,” Clint says. “God. I can’t—I’m sorry. What?”

Tony sighs, heavily. “You’re going to be weird about this.” He looks toward Steve. “He’s going to be weird about this.”

“You’re the one who brought the man home without a heads-up,” Steve counters, unbuckling his seatbelt with a nonchalance that indicates to Clint that he’s not fully appreciating the batshit nature of the situation. “You’re lucky he’s not filing kidnapping charges, Tony. I don’t know why you keep doing this to people.”

“Look,” Tony says, turning toward Clint. “Frank’s out of town on some kinda backwoods family adventure. Wrestling bears, I guess. Not the fun kind. He’ll be back tomorrow, but you can’t just stay at his place without him there. You don’t know him yet. His dogs would eat you.”

“Why am I staying with Frank Castle?” Clint says. “He’s a fucking—um.” He stops himself before he can shit-talk their guy right in front of him.

“Bit of a scrapper?” Steve asks, wide-eye with faux-innocence.

“A hulking bruiser?” Tony suggests, without any innocence at all.

“I mean,” Clint says, helpless, out of his depth, “yeah.”

“You’re staying with him,” Tony says, “because he’s one of the guys who volunteered. And because you’ve got kind of a colorful history, and PR thinks your image will benefit from you paling around with a boring old married guy like Frank Castle. And because nobody who wants to keep their teeth is gonna have anything off-color to say about that living arrangement.”

“I’m gonna live by myself,” Clint says. “I’ve lived by myself since--”

“Yeah, since your brother stole all your money,” Tony says. “We know. Everybody knows.”

Clint has to read the last part, eyes locked on Tony’s mouth. He can’t hear anything but the ringing after your brother stole all your money.

He breathes. In, out, shakes his head to smack his brain back into place.

“----okay?” Steve says, his voice cutting in. “Tony, come on.”

“Everybody knows, Steven!” Tony says, throwing his hands up. “It was a big scandal! Why is it that the only scandals we can talk about are mine?”

Clint runs a hand down his face. He can deal with the Frank Castle situation later. “Mr. Stark,” he says.

“Gross,” Tony says, decisively. “It’s after six, Barton. Call me Tony.”

“Stark,” Clint tries, because that’s less intimidating, “I can’t stay here with you. Overnight. I mean, the two of us, here. Alone. You’re—you know. You’ve got all that…history. And I’m, I mean. Everyone’s saying that I’m...”

Steve and Tony stare at him with matching expressions of patient focus, intently watching as he digs his own grave with his bare hands.

“Everyone’s gonna think you traded for me, and I blew you immediately,” Clint says, in one fell swoop. If the car were still moving, he’d throw himself under the tires.

Steve and Tony slowly turn to look at each other. When they turn back towards him, it’s impossible to read their expressions.

“Well,” Steve says, tone weirdly flat, “you’d better fucking not, Barton.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, a beat later, “have some self-respect. Make me buy you a condo first.”

Clint closes his eyes and gives up.

 

- -

 

Steve grabs his bag before Clint can get to it, so he just skulks behind them, hands in his pockets, trying to pretend he doesn’t exist. Tony bops along through his hyper-clean technological house of wonders, lights flicking on and off at his approach, screens booting up when he looks at them, and an actual goddamn voice in the ceiling greeting all of them by name.

When Tony leads them into a kitchen and Clint sees Pepper Pots and Phil Coulson sitting at the bar, drinking what appears to be champagne, he isn’t bothered at all. He’s decided that the only logical explanation for this whole series of events is that someone made a serious mistake with the mushrooms in his airplane dinner, and he’s passed out, hallucinating and possibly on his way to brain death. So what does it matter if he’s suddenly been cornered by the owner, the star, the GM, and the field manager? What could any of this possibly matter?

“Oh, hey,” he says, greeting the latest manifestations of his psychedelic mental babbling with what he privately considers to be incredible aplomb.

“Clint!” Pepper says. She beams at him and then hops off the barstool, hurrying over with hand extended. “So nice to meet you! How was your flight?”

“I think someone fed me mushrooms, ma’am,” he says, honestly, as he shakes her hand. Her hand feels light and delicate, but her grip is surprisingly strong.

“That’s completely normal,” she tells him. “Everyone feels that way after they meet Tony.”

“Hey,” Tony says, although he doesn’t put much heat behind it.

“No, she’s right,” Steve says.

“I feel that way every time you text me mid-game with a question about the uniforms,” Phil Coulson says. “Hi, Clint,” he adds, “glad you’re here.”

“Thanks,” Clint says. And then, because this is a dream, and he’s maybe dying at ten thousand feet, so why not? “Hey, you’re amazing. One of my heroes growing up, you know? And what you’ve done with the Dodgers. I mean, holy shit.”

Coulson smiles at him. He has kind eyes, which Clint already knows, because he’s spent a lot of time watching interviews of Phil Coulson quietly but viciously defending his players and wishing, just once, that Sitwell would talk about him the same way.

“Thank you,” Coulson says, looking him right in the eyes. “I hope that means you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt about your role on the team.”

It had never previously occurred to Clint that there was another option. He’s seen guys like Rumlow get loud with coaches, but Clint’s always been a little too close to the precipice to risk pissing people off.

But he can see how the team that threw Obadiah Stane out on his face might feel emboldened to square off with the field manager that replaced him.

“Um,” Clint says. “I just wanna play, you know? I don’t—I mean. I think I’m pretty good at it. So.”

Coulson blinks and tips his head a little to the side like he doesn’t fully follow what Clint’s saying.

Clint has a moment of panic where he wonders if that means there’s never really been a plan to play him. If he’s only here to be some kind of figurehead.

“Clint,” Pepper says, treating him to a gently concerned look that provokes the absolutely ludicrous urge to bury his face in her shoulder and cry like a schoolkid with a skinned knee. “You’re one of the most consistently accurate pitchers the League has ever seen.”

Clint ducks his head. “I mean,” he says, “that’s just good aim, though.”

“I had JARVIS run the numbers,” Tony says, casually investigating the open bottle of champagne on the counter. “When you’re at your best, you can maintain the x and z-positions of your spatial release point to damn near within an inch of variance. JARVIS assures me that’s only barely humanely possible. You’re a footnote in our forthcoming study.”

Clint considers his shoes. He probably should’ve worn nicer ones. “Haven’t been at my best for a while,” he says. Just to control the expectations.

“Yes,” Coulson says, with a light, disapproving frown. “We’ve noticed Sitwell had no idea what to do with you.”

Clint blinks and looks up at him. Nobody’s ever talked about the past few seasons like the problem was anything other than him getting older, showing wear, ruining all his potential just like he ruins every damn thing he’s given.

“You’re a sniper, Barton,” Coulson tells him. Quiet and gentle, kind enough that, in that moment, Clint thinks he’d cut his damn arm off and hand it over if Coulson asked. “You’re made for high-precision work. If you treat a scalpel like a jackhammer, you’re just going to break it.”

Clint looks at Pepper and then Tony and then Steve. Nobody’s laughing. Even Steve, who should by rights be pissed that they’re bringing in another pitcher they don’t need who’ll inevitably cut into his time, just looks like maybe he feels a little bad for Clint.

“I’m the jackhammer,” Steve tells him. “In this metaphor. If you’re wondering.”

“Damn right,” Tony mutters under his breath, as he pours himself a glass. “Can confirm.”

“And that’s the end of your speaking time,” Pepper says, stealing the champagne flute right out of Tony’s hands.

“Hey,” Tony says, making grabby hands after her.

“No, she’s right,” Steve says. There’s a weird flush running along the blades of his cheekbones. Clint can’t for the life of him get a read on a single one of these people.

“Here you go,” Pepper says. She hands him the glass she stole from Tony, and Clint takes it on instinct. She tips her own against his, and the crystal rings like something too expensive for Clint to touch. The crystal rings, and Clint’s ears don’t. “Welcome to the Dodgers.”

 

- -

 

Clint spends the night in Tony Stark’s house. It’s not even weird, except for how it’s Tony Stark’s house, and he spends the night. In the morning, he sidewinds his way into the kitchen and finds Frank Castle pouring fresh coffee into a travel mug.

The last time Clint saw Frank Castle, he damn near assassinated him with a line drive aimed straight at his head. Not his favorite way to play the game, but the Mets had been two down at the top of the ninth, and Sitwell had been abundantly clear about how much he wanted the closer taken out of the game. And so Clint had done it, swung hard into the heart of one of Castle’s squirrelly sliders, sent the ball right back at his face.

Castle, being Castle, had caught the damn thing with his off hand and taken himself out of the next twelve games with a broken thumb. But he’d taken Clint out, too, and, when a tired Eddie Brock took the mound, he hadn’t been tired enough.

The Mets lost the game, and Clint hasn’t spoken to Castle since.

“Uh,” he says, strategically locating himself on the other side of the kitchen. “Hey.”

Castle slides his eyes Clint’s direction. His face is vaguely moody in that way it always is. “Morning,” he says, after a beat. “You want coffee?”

He does. But he’s not sure he wants it bad enough to put himself within striking range. “Um.”

Frank sets the coffeepot down and full-on frowns at him. Clint feels inclined to guard his vitals. “You all right, Barton? You didn’t let Stark talk at you all Goddamn night, did you?”

“I’m sorry,” Clint says. “About the—you know. Trying to take your fucking head off. That wasn’t—it was shitty. I know that. Knew it, did it. Sorry.”

Frank’s face doesn’t change for five full seconds. Finally, he blinks. “You fucking kidding me, Barton?”

“No,” Clint says. “I tried to talk to you after the game, but Barnes said, you know. He said you’d probably fucking kill me, so—”

“Of course I would’ve fucking killed you,” Frank says. “It was a bullshit thing to do, and I knew you were gonna do it the second you left the dugout. You had a look on your face like someone told you to shoot your dog.”

Clint swallows. “Sorry,” he says, again, a little smaller this time

Frank rolls his eyes and grabs the coffeepot again, reaches above him to take a mug off the shelf. “Next time a coach tells you to hit the fucking pitcher when you’ve got a homerun in your arm and two runners on base, don’t waste your shot.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, although he’ll more or less do whatever the fuck he’s told to do. Sometimes, it even helps. “Okay. I’ll do that.”

Frank slides the mug down the counter to him. A little bit of coffee slips over the side of the cup, and Clint catches it with the edge of his thumb before it can drip down to the marble countertops. He’d slept on top of the sheets, resettled all the pillows when he woke up. Aside from the water evaporating on the floor on the shower and the wet towel over the rack, there’s no real proof he was ever here at all.

“We’re on the same team now,” Frank says. “I don’t have any grudges. But you hit me again, and I’m damn sure gonna hit you back.”

“Okay,” Clint says. Because that’s so much better than he’d been expecting, far better than deserves. “Great.”

“Good,” Frank says. He takes a drink of coffee, turns to look out the window.

Clint gulps at his own coffee, tries to calculate the odds of this still being some kind of hallucination.

 

- -

 

Frank Castle drives Clint over to his house at a little after ten in the morning. The bed of Frank’s truck is crowded with boxes full of Dodgers-related gear that had been delivered to Tony’s house overnight. Clint’s not going to need a single one of the five t-shirts he brought with him.

“We built the guesthouse for the in-laws,” Frank says. “But they only visit for the holidays, so you’re fine to stay for however long you need.”

“This is fucking insane,” Clint tells him. “I mean, Castle. You’re a reasonable guy. You know this is insane, right? You know what people are gonna say?”

Frank gives him a look like he could not possibly be more bored with this conversation. “No, Barton,” he says, in that grumble-and-gravel voice of his. “Give me a preview. The fuck are people gonna say to me?”

Clint gets a sudden flash of Billy the Beaut and exactly what happened to him. He thinks about the time the Giants charged the mound and Frank Castle held off half the fucking team by himself until the rest of the Dodgers showed up. He thinks about how Frank Castle has been playing in the majors for damn two decades and has been scaring the piss out of guys for longer than that.

What the hell are people gonna say to Frank Castle about this?

“Probably nothing,” Clint says, when he thinks about it.

“Probably nothing,” Frank confirms. “And fuck ‘em if they do.”

 

- -

 

Frank Castle’s guesthouse is twice the size of Clint’s New York apartment. It has its own kitchen, but the fridge isn’t stocked, and Frank promises to take him shopping later, like that’s a thing they do now, visit grocery stores and pick out produce together.

“You’ve gotta go to the front office,” Frank says, when they’re done hauling in Clint’s new Dodgers wardrobe.  “Some meeting with the suits.”

“Great,” Clint says. Because, at this point, he hasn’t been prepared for a damn thing that’s happened to him for something like ten days straight, so at least he’s warmed up.

“Don’t worry about it,” Frank says. “Coulson’ll be there.”

Well, at least he’s met Coulson. Hell, at this point, Phil Coulson is one of his closest friends in a five-hundred-mile radius.

Until Nat makes California, Steve Rogers is his oldest friend on this coast.

Clint keeps calm the same way a sunfish keeps calm: by floating along and remaining completely, insistently oblivious. He maintains that defensive ignorance until he finds himself standing outside of Phil Coulson’s office with Frank shrugging half-apologetically and telling him he’ll be back in a couple of hours to pick him up.

“You don’t have to come back for me,” Clint says. “I can Uber.”

“I’ll pick you up,” Frank repeats. “I’ve got errands to run anyway.”

Clint’s about to brush that aside as ridiculous when he’s slapped across the face by the realization that Frank might have a perfectly good reason not to want some random Uber driver dropping him on his doorstep. “Yeah,” he says, “no. You’re right. Guess we shouldn’t tell the whole internet I’m at your place.”

Frank’s eyes narrow. “We gotta have this conversation twice in one day, Barton?”

Clint refuses to be intimidated by his eyebrows. “I just think you haven’t really thought about--”

“Maybe don’t waste your time trying to guess what I’ve thought about,” Frank says, less like he’s calling him out and more like he’s offering up general life advice.

“Sure, that’s fair. I get it.” Clint waves his hands, a little helpless, kind of wild. That ringing in his ears is back, but it’s faint, fading in and out, just loud enough to splinter his focus. “But this gets kinda uglier than I think you’re accounting for. I mean, last time I walked into a meeting like this, I walked out traded. So.”

Frank stares at him, unreadable and remote, and it’s like Clint’s standing here, telling a cliff face that the trolls online are gonna be real mean.

“Okay,” Frank says and he steps past Clint, pushes the door open. “C’mon, there’s a meeting.”

“What the hell are you---”

“Oh, hey, Frank.” Coulson seems thrown for less than a second, eyes moving from Frank’s face to Clint’s and then back to Frank’s. He smiles, looks legitimately happy to see them. “You staying for the meeting?”

“I’m staying for the meeting,” Frank says, and he settles into one of the chairs across from Phil’s desk.

Clint stares at the back of Frank’s head. “I thought you had errands.”

Frank twists around in his seat and then gestures toward the chair next to him, and he looks so confident when he does it, so clearly expectant, that Clint finds himself taking a seat without really thinking about it. “Yeah, well,” Frank says, “guess you’re helping me with those after.”

So maybe Steve Rogers isn’t his oldest friend on this coast. Maybe Clint nearly knocked Frank’s head off his shoulders half a year ago and, somehow, that won him Frank’s allegiance.

Who the hell is he to judge? Clint’s damn sure made a habit of giving everything he has to people who never once did him any favors.

 

- -

 

Clint tries to keep a low profile. He does the usual post-trade press. It’s the first trade of his career, but he’s watched it happen to plenty of guys, so at least he knows the pattern. Pepper Potts and her PR staff keep a sweetly smiling chokehold on the reporters, so he doesn’t actually have to answer any questions about the incident. Not yet.

He’s historically something of a disaster around live mics, but this time, at least, he knows his lines.

He’s happy to be here. He’s excited for new opportunities. No, he hasn’t met many of the guys yet. No, he doesn’t anticipate any problems. Yes, he’s enjoying the weather. No, he doesn’t have any comment about the Mets at this time.

After Nat drops off Lucky and his car and shares a single, rushed cup of coffee with him before she has to head to the airport, Clint keeps his dog inside the guesthouse or in the backyard as much as possible. He does most of his training in Frank’s basement gym, only goes running when it’s dark enough that he hopes nobody will see him. He cooks his own breakfast and lunch, diligently faithful to his ascribed meal plan, and then he joins the Castles for actual no-shit family dinner every night.

He turns off the Location Services on his phone. He doesn’t tell anybody other than Natasha where he is. Which is easy, actually, because nobody besides Natasha ever asks. 

His careful machinations are thoroughly and irreparably sabotaged five days in, when Frank takes a picture of Clint doing handstands in his backyard, bookended by Lucky rolling in the grass and Frank’s daughter clumsily trying to imitate him, and then posts it on Instagram.

“World knows you’re here, Barton,” Frank calls out from the back porch, where he’s grilling steaks and drinking a beer. “You can stop the weird nocturnal thing you’ve been pulling. You’re messing with my dogs’ sleep schedules. Cut it out.”

Clint flops to the grass and then pushes himself up on his elbows. “You’re gonna ruin your reputation,” he says.

“Yeah,” Frank says. He takes another sip of his beer, pockets his phone. “I’m real worried about that. Come get your steak.”

 

- -

 

The backlash isn’t as wild as Clint expects. Someone puts a line of rainbow flags in the yard, but Frank only gets pissed about the ones they stuck in his wife’s flowerbed. Clint watches through the kitchen window of the main house as Frank carefully arranges them in a circle around his mailbox instead.

“You know,” Maria says, as she wanders up to stand beside him. “He had a whole fight with Steve about who got to host you.”

“Shit.” Clint fumbles a mug so badly he ends up buried elbow-deep in dishwater. “Sorry. He did what?”

Maria stares at her husband through the window. She’s smiling at Frank like he’s something endearing and adorable, and Clint thinks maybe she and Nat should be friends. “He came back early from the camping trip to pick you up. He wouldn’t come back early from that trip if the house burned down.”

“I’m sorry,” Clint says, because he fooled around with a guy at spring training before his rookie season, and, seven years later, it ruined her family vacation.

She shakes her head, pats his arm. It’s maybe a condescending gesture, one adult to another, but she’s a mom, and he lost his early, so he doesn’t mind as much as he should. “I’m glad you’re here,” she says. “I’m glad he got to do this. It means a lot to him, you know?”

Clint doesn’t know. Clint has no idea. All he knows is that, behind those eyes that always kinda look like they’d rather kill you than look at you, Frank Castle is a surprisingly decent, thoughtful guy. And, for evidence to support his theory, Clint offers up the fussy way Frank’s rearranging a dozen rainbow flags in his yard and also the gentle, attentive tones he uses when he talks to children or dogs.

Clint has no idea what to say to her, this nice woman in her nice home. “I’m sorry about your flowers,” he says, because that’s the only complete sentence his brain can piece together. The rest of it is muddled and convoluted, useless. He’s sorry for being here, for being invited here, for letting her husband bring him home and house him in their guesthouse.

He’s sorry there are people on the internet right now saying the worst possible things they can think of about the situation. He’s sorry, also, that some people are so moved by his very existence that they drove all the way out here and put flags that have nothing to do with her in her front yard.

She looks at him, eyes a little sharp, mouth pursed inward. It’s the same way she looks at her kids when they fall on the concrete or mangle a cartwheel. She looks at him like she’s assessing damage. “Clint,” she says, tone gentle and encouraging, “I don’t give a damn about the flowers. I’m glad you’re here.”

He drops his eyes to the plate he’s been cleaning for sixty seconds straight. It’s never been so clean. It wasn’t this clean when it was brand new. He sets it very delicately in the drying rack.

“Okay,” he says, reaching desperately for the next dish, holding the bowl underwater like that’ll keep it out of trouble. “Thanks.”

She rests a hand around his shoulder and stares out the window, and Clint has no idea why Maria seems to like him, but he’s so grateful that he damn near demolishes the bowl, bashing it around against the stainless steel of the sink with clumsy, shaking hands.

 

- -

 

Spring training starts mid-February, the way it does every year, but Clint’s headed to Phoenix this time instead of Port St. Lucie. “Arizona’s better,” Frank tells him, unprompted, when they’re loading bags into the back of Frank’s truck and his wife’s SUV. “No gators.”

Frank’s been with the Dodgers for so long that Clint almost forgot he started his career with the Yankees. But that’s the start of his saga, those rookie days with Russo, when they showed up like a seamless matched set, attached at the hip, a bookend pair of pitchers who broke the hearts and minds and batting averages of every team they faced.

But that was almost twenty years ago, before things with him and Russo got headline-level ugly, and Clint can’t imagine he wants to go digging in old wounds now.

“Yeah, but the gators are how I get all my extra spring cardio.” Clint slings his new Dodgers-branded duffle bag into the SUV. He counts off the steps on his fingers. “Jump into a body of water. Remember there’s gators. Swim for my fucking life. Cardio.”

Frank snorts. His mouth doesn’t move, but Clint’s starting to learn how to read his smiles anyway. “Yeah, well, works the same in Phoenix. Jump into a body of water, remember Wilson or Quill have probably pissed in it, and get out before you catch something.”

“Huh.” Clint has a few days before he has to face Wade Wilson, but Peter Quill’s a pitcher, so he’ll report early, just like them. “They even have bodies of water in Phoenix?”

Frank shrugs. He’s squinting toward the house now, pretending like he’s getting impatient. Inside, Clint can hear the sound of kids laughing and dogs barking. “There’s a lake between our training facilities and the White Sox’s,” Frank says.

“No shit?” Clint had forgotten about the White Sox entirely. In Florida, most teams have their own stadiums, but the Cactus League teams have always played a little nicer. “A lake?”

“It’s a pond with aspirations,” Frank says. “Someone’s probably gonna try to throw you in it, so. Watch out for that.”

Clint rolls his eyes. Maybe people – brave, stupid, sun-drunk, or boozed-up people – try to throw Frank Castle into aspirational ponds, but he can’t imagine his new teammates are going to be in a hurry to manhandle him anywhere. “Yeah,” he says, “I’ll be careful.”

Frank gives him a quick look out of the corners of his eyes, speculative, assessing. “It’s gonna be fine.”

They have a five-hour drive to Phoenix, to a house Frank owns and only lives in for six weeks a year. There’s a spare room for Clint, who’s been assured he won’t be in the way, since some player or another always stays with them. They’ll get to Phoenix sometime in mid-afternoon, and tomorrow they report in. First workout for pitchers and catchers is the day after that. The rest of the players report on Sunday, start workouts on Monday. First spring training game is that Friday.

The season’s coming right for them, just a breath and a flinch away.

Clint still hasn’t addressed the pictures, hasn’t given any interviews about it. His agent keeps sending him emails. He marks them read and never opens a single one.

He doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter. People can say what they want, think what they want. But baseball is all he has. It’s the only thing he’s good at. So no matter what they say, what they think, he’s just going to keep showing up until they don’t let him anymore.

It doesn’t matter what his teammates think, how they look at him, what they say to his face or behind his back. None of it matters. He’s here to play. And, hell, with the way his career’s going, maybe he won’t even be here at all for that much longer.

 

- -

 

The saving grace of spring training is that it’s fast. Well, and also Bucky Barnes is there.

The first thing that happens, when Clint and Frank walk into the locker room together, is that Peter Quill squawks, loud and shrill, and levels an accusing finger at center mass. Clint freezes. “Motherfucker,” Quill says, “you’ve been sleeping in my bed.”

Clint, who thought he was prepared for damn near any mean, unfounded accusation, finds himself staring, open-mouthed. “I---” He flounders, shoots a helpless look Frank’s direction. “The fuck?”

“Petey,” Barnes says, long-suffering, not even looking over his shoulder, “what’d I tell you about getting mad at real life people for what dream people did?”

“Fuck off, Buck.” Quill points again, even harder, and Clint reflexively slaps a protective hand to his chest. “That’s the most comfortable bed in the state of Arizona, Barton. You’d better treasure it.”

“Damn it, Quill,” Frank says. “I told you where we got that mattress. You can order one online.”

“And set it up in the rental house I’ve been banished to?” Quill scoffs, turns to Eddie Brock for some kind of validation. Eddie spits a hoodie string out of his mouth, looks baffled but game anyway, which is more or less how he’s looked every time Clint’s seen him pitch, too. “We’re like Goddamn peasants this year, Eds.”

“I mean,” Eddie says, with an Eeyore-ish shrug, “last year I slept in my car.”

“Jesus,” Clint says. He’s stayed in some shitty places for spring training, especially after he declared bankruptcy, but he hasn’t slept in a car since he got drafted. “Your car?”

“Yeah, for one night.” Barnes finally turns around, tugging his shirt on as he does, and he smiles at Clint like they’re already friends, like they’re sharing some kind of inside joke. Oh no, Clint thinks. “Once Steve found out, he brought him home like a stray puppy.”

Quill laughs, slaps at Bock’s shoulder. “Remember how pissed Stark was?”

“Tony Stark?” Clint’s not even sure why he asks. As far as he knows, Tony Stark is the only Stark left. But it’s not his fault he’s dumbstruck. Bucky Barnes just smiled at him.

With his face, and his jawline, and his preseason stubble. He smiled at him.

“Hey,” Eddie says. “I didn’t know, okay? Nobody told me.”

“Tell you what?” Clint asks, and he’s greeted with a three second wall of silence that’s broken only when Steve Rogers walks in, looking golden and healthy and already flushed with sweat.

“Oh, hey,” he says, waving. “You guys decide to show up?”

“I can’t fucking believe you,” Quill says. “Is nothing sacred? How long have you been here?”

Steve shrugs. “I jogged here.”

“He jogged here,” Quill repeats, incredulous. “And then what, Steve? How long have you been here?”

“Oh, don’t fucking ask,” Eddie says, with a look on his face like he’s being invited to his own funeral. “Don’t ask, because then we’ll have to do it too.”

Quill huffs. “You think we can’t? You getting too old, Eddie? The golden boy gonna finally outdo you?”

Finally?” Eddie gives Quill a skeptical look. “Pete, I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I haven’t been keeping up with Rogers since he learned how to walk.”

Quill throws his hands up. “Jesus, Steve, you’ve given him an inferiority complex.”

“Kinda don’t think he’s the one with the complex,” Barnes says. And then, while Quill’s still pearl-clutching like someone just tongue-kissed the preacher in the middle of the sermon, he reaches over, hand outstretched. “Hey, Barton, glad you’re here.”

Clint stares at the offered hand for a second and then jostles himself forward. He shakes hands with James Barnes and willfully restrains himself from saying something life-endingly embarrassing, like I can’t wait to throw my balls at your face.

“It’s—yeah,” he says, voice a little strangled, staring straight into Barnes’ starburst blue eyes. “Great to be here.”

 

- -

 

They make it through three days of training before anyone says anything to Clint about the pictures. Clint’s not sure who to thank for that, although he’s pretty sure it’s mostly due to Frank tagging along after him like an ill-tempered Doberman or maybe just Quill being so damn loud that nobody can get a question in edgewise. But a group of the older players head out to a bar after they finish up on Friday, and Clint’s too busy trying not to look too much at Barnes to notice when Frank disappears from the chair beside him.

Quill, ever the opportunist, is three drinks in and somehow even louder and less tactful than usual.

“Barton, Clinton Barton, CB Radio,” he says, leaning over Eddie to get right into Clint’s space, “I just want you to know, it’s bullshit what happened to you.”

The atmosphere at the table shifts suddenly, all those casual side-conversations simultaneously shutting down. Clint’s stomach curls up like an armadillo, flees up into his ribs and compresses itself into nothing.

“Oh,” he says. And, for the first time since he finished that first beer, he doesn’t have any trouble at all not looking at Barnes. Hell, he can’t look at anyone.

“I mean,” Quill continues, “I had an ex leak my nudes, and nobody gave a shit.”

Eddie scoffs. “You posted those yourself.”

“Drunk me posted those,” Quill counters. “And afterwards, we broke up for three months.”

“Quill,” Steve says, tone serious, almost warning.

Clint has no idea what to say. He doesn’t want to say anything. He hasn’t said anything. To anyone.

“Um,” he says. His stomach lurches, desperate and hot. “I gotta piss,” he says, because it’s better than I’m gonna puke, and he shoves the chair back and bails like a coward.

There’s some kind of commotion behind him, but there’s no way in hell he’s looking back long enough to figure out what it is.

He throws the bathroom door open, gets one look at Frank’s startled face over by the sinks, and then barrels into a stall and shuts the door behind him. “I’m gonna puke,” he says, loud, maybe a little wavery around the edges.

Frank makes a low, grumbly noise halfway between a sigh and a growl. “I’m gonna kill ‘em,” he says, and Clint hears him doing his no bullshit stomp out the door, which he normally saves for when the neighbor’s poodle is starting shit with Frank’s dogs in the backyard.

He doesn’t puke, but he stays in there long enough for Frank to finish whatever murder he needs to do and come back, walking a bit softer this time. Clint takes that as his signal that he needs to get his life together, so he finger-combs his hair, slaps at his face, and shakes his head a couple times.

“Sorry,” he says, as he shoves the stall door open. “I know you want me to be normal for five fucking minutes, but, Frank, I’ve been making that same wish for twenty-five years, and it’s never--- oh. Hi.”

There’s a Dodger standing at the sinks, idly texting, but it’s not Frank. It’s Bucky Barnes.

“Shit,” Clint says, narrowly avoiding tripping over himself. “I thought you were Frank.”

“No, he’s out there fucking up Quill.” Barnes shrugs, makes a face. “I didn’t wanna get any blood on me. This is a new shirt.”

“It’s fine,” Clint says. “Quill’s fine. I’m fine. Jesus, ignore me.” He goes to the sink, washes his hands, splashes water on his face. He considers attempting to drown himself, but Barnes seems like the kind of guy who’s CPR certified and ready to save lives.

“He means well,” Bucky says. He shoves his phone in his pocket, gestures over his shoulder. “Quill, I mean. He’s not good at speaking to new people, which is why we try not to let him. But he didn’t mean for that to be as shitty as it was.”

Rumlow, when he felt like it, when he was bored or drunk or jealous, would pick a player and eviscerate them, tug and tug at one tiny thread until they unraveled. In private, he was usually a decent guy. But give him an audience, and he was a fucking nightmare.

The point is, maybe Clint’s been conditioned to run the second someone so much as looks at any of his vulnerabilities in public.

“He’s a good guy,” Clint says. Because maybe he is. Maybe he’s exactly as nice as he seems. Maybe.

Bucky studies him, silently watching his face. He does that a lot, Clint’s noticed. He’ll sneak a look over and find Bucky staring right back at him, quiet and direct. Clint has no idea what he’s looking at, what Bucky sees when he looks at him.

“I’m sorry that I---” Clint gestures, flails. He can’t quite patch together a way to finish that sentence.

“Had to piss?” Bucky supplies.

Clint breathes out. “Yeah,” he says. “Sure. That.”

Bucky smiles, and he does the same thing Frank does, where he mostly smiles with his eyes. “You’re gonna be all right here, Barton,” he says.

And it’s more or less what people have been telling him since he landed in California. Tony Stark, and Steve, and Coulson, and Frank have all, in their ways, tried to tell him he was going to be fine. But somehow, when Bucky says it, it seems like a promise. Like he’s going to make sure Clint’s all right here.

“Now, come on,” Bucky says. He straightens up, tips his head back toward the bar. “Let Quill buy you a drink. And hey, pro tip: if you get one for him, he’ll be too busy drinking to run his mouth some more.”

“Oh shit,” Clint says, “you’re a genius.”

Bucky laughs, short and bright, and Clint thinks it’s probably kinda weird, two guys walking out of the bathroom together laughing, but he doesn’t mind as much as he should. Anyway, nobody in the bar is going to remember Clint and Bucky laughing, because, three seconds later, Quill’s half-standing on the table, reaching out for him, yelling clear across the room that he’s going to get Clint bottle service.

 

- -

 

Quill continues to drastically overcompensate for what was, objectively, not even a shitty thing to say when he tries to bareknuckle box Wade Wilson five seconds after Wilson walks into the locker room with the rest of the position players on Monday.

“Holy shit,” Wilson says. “I just asked Barton to look at my dick. Like, as a professional.”

“A professional what?” Quill says, slapping at him from over Steve’s shoulder. “He’s not a prostitute, Wilson.”

“I just meant,” Wade says, sounding genuinely aggrieved, “he knows about dicks! So I wanted him to look at mine.”

“I’m really,” Clint says, blinking owlishly, “just. Not qualified? I don’t—what the hell is happening right now? Do you need to see a doctor?”

“He will in a minute,” Quill says. “Rogers, shift your shapely ass. I’m being an ally.”

“You’re being a nuisance,” Steve says, struggling to restrain Quill as he climbs halfway up his back.

“Wade,” Bucky says, rubbing at his eyes and then pinching the bridge of his nose, “I cannot believe we’re having this conversation this early in the season this year, but please, for the love of God, try to remember that nobody wants to look at your dick.”

“Least of all Clint Barton,” Quill says, and Clint’s legitimately moved by the way Quill says it, like Clint’s some kind of catch, like he’s absolutely and inarguably out of Wade Wilson’s league.

“Why is everyone yelling about Wade’s dick? Why do we do this every year?” Frank walks in from the weight room, eyeing Wade with a bizarre mashup of concern and distaste. “Did you stop in Vegas again before you came here?”

“No,” Wade says, offended. “Well, yeah, obviously I did, but it was fine. Parker was there the whole time.”

There’s a sudden, horrified outcry among the entirety of last year’s Dodgers roster. “You didn’t take the rookie,” Steve says, “to Vegas.”

“Not sweet Peter Parker,” Quill says, falling away from Steve and grasping at his chest like he’s been shot. “Not precious baby Re-Pete.”

“He’s not a rookie anymore!” Wade says. “I needed a designated driver.”

“Oh my God.” Eddie stands up fast, looks almost panicked. “Do we have proof of life? Has anybody seen Peter Parker?”

“Yeah,” Luke Cage says, pointing over his shoulder, “he and Pietro are out there trading Pokemon on their phones. I didn’t do a count, but seems like he still had all his fingers. Definitely had both arms.”

“Thank Jesus,” Quill says. Eddie crosses himself.

“Hey, Frank,” Wade says, turns his direction, “will you look at my---”

“Wade,” Frank says. “It’s always a nice surprise to see you survived another offseason. But if you show me your dick again, I’m gonna rip it off.”

Wade cringes and swivels his hips away. “Jesus,” he says, “fine.”

“Gentlemen,” Phil Coulson says, from where he’s silently manifested just inside the locker room, “if you’re done exchanging pleasantries, I’d like to start training.”

 

- -

 

The guys who’ve been around awhile, the ones who played last year, seem to have almost universally decided they don’t give a shit about how Clint ended up here. Some of the hopeful guys from the farm teams won’t shower when he’s in there, and the Dodgers’ rookie infielder won’t look at Clint above the ankles or below the eyebrows, but, as far as he can tell, Morales is like that with everyone who isn’t Peter Parker.

Clint tries to minimize the amount of time he spends in the locker room, herding himself quickly to the weight room or the lounge or the training room. Coulson’s got some concerns about Clint’s history of injuries, so he has him working with the trainers on a new series of warmup stretches that’ll hopefully prolong the point at which Clint’s shoulder inevitably self-destructs. If Clint goes to see the trainers immediately after practice, almost everyone’s gone by the time he heads back into the locker room.

He doesn’t think it’s weird. He’s just trying to be polite.

“You’re being fucking weird,” Wade Wilson tells him, two days after the position players show up for spring training.

“Yeah, why won’t you change with us?” Quill asks. “It’s kinda rude.”

“Okay,” Steve says, hands on his hips, “this is not how we agreed to approach the situation.”

“Uh.” Clint fidgets, uncomfortable in his sweaty clothes. “I’m just…gonna shower?”

Quill rolls his eyes. “You think we’re scared of following you into the showers, Barton? I spend half my life around naked men.”

“Jesus.” Bucky is sitting next to his stall with his head in his hands. “Sam, tell me when it’s over.”

“I can’t believe you’re missing this,” Sam Wilson says, with a wide, cheerful grin. “Quill spends half his life with naked men.”

“Guys,” Clint says, “come on. Do we really have to do this? I just wanna shower.” He scans the room, searching for any reasonable face among the crowd. He’s met with damn near a 26-man roster of earnest, inexplicable concern.

“I just feel like we’re not bonding,” Wade says. “I’m at my most charming when I’m not wearing pants. Everybody says.”

Thor laughs, just a touch too loud, which seems to be his signature volume. “Nobody says that.”

Wade huffs. “Your mother says--”

“No,” Eddie says, reaching over to slap his hand on Wade’s open mouth. “Stop it. Save yourself.”

“Look,” Steve says. He stands up, and Clint watches it happen, the way the whole room turns toward him. “You’re in a weird, shitty situation, and we know that. We just don’t want to make it any weirder and shittier. So do whatever you want, Barton. Shower and change when you want. Hang out in the lounge all the time. That’s up to you. But there’s nobody in this room who has a problem with you being anywhere you need to be.”

Clint swallows and tugs at the hem of his shirt. The buzzing is back in his ears. He kinda feels like he’s going to throw up on his shoes.

His last couple of seasons with the Mets, Clint had been a ghost in the locker room. He can’t remember the last time he was the center of this much focus. There are faces from the Dodgers roster who aren’t here, but there aren’t very many of them.

“I’m just,” he says and then he clears his throat, tugs his shirt off, throws it into his stall. “I’m gonna shower.” He takes his hearing aids out, drops them next to his shirt, and pretends he can’t hear anything else.

 

- -

 

The next day, Clint follows the rest of the team into the showers after practice. He’s done this probably thousands of times before. He does the math in his head as he goes through the motions. One hundred sixty-two games in a season and seven seasons played breaks a thousand easy, but the injuries drop that number.

But then there are all the games he played in high school. And he hasn’t calculated for spring training.

A single thousand, definitely. Maybe thousands, plural.

So it’s not weird. He’s not being weird.

Nothing weird is happening.

Except right when he’s ducking his head under the spray, scrubbing the sweat out of his hair, Peter Quill and Wade Wilson get into a competition to see who can sing-shout the lyrics of I’ll Make a Man Out of You the loudest. They’re so damn loud that Clint has no trouble hearing them, even without his aids in. That part’s a little weird.

Everything else is fine. It’s all completely normal.

He scrubs at his hair, turns his face directly into the spray of water. He doesn’t look at anyone until he’s back in the locker room, completely dressed.

“Hey,” Frank says, knocking his shoe against Clint’s bare ankle.

“Yeah, hold on.” Clint fusses with his hearing aids. He could hear Frank, probably, if he turned his right ear toward him, but he’s been kinda obfuscating how bad his hearing loss is since spring training started. It’s useful, sometimes, to be underestimated. “Okay, what?”

“Coulson wants to talk to you,” Frank says.

Clint’s breath catches in his throat and then he nods. “Yeah, okay.”

“You want me to go with you?” Frank asks.

“No,” Clint says, ducking his head, scrambling for his shoes. On his other side, Bucky’s turning around, giving him one of those measuring looks of his, and the last thing Clint wants is Bucky thinking Clint needs some kind of chaperone to talk to the manager.

“Don’t wait for me. I’ll walk home,” Clint says, hopping toward the door, still tying his right shoe.

“Fuck’s sake, Barton,” Frank calls after him. “If you trip and break your nose--”

“Nope,” Clint says, dodging out of the locker room, narrowly avoiding the doorframe, “got it. Bye!”

 

- -

 

He figures Coulson wants to talk to him about his place in the pitching rotation, but the topic of the discussion instead appears to be the small mountain of mail that’s arrived for him. Which is allegedly why Pepper Potts, Tony Stark, and suits from two separate departments – Communications and Community Engagement, apparently – are present.

“I’m—what?” Clint stares at the box of mail on the conference table. “That’s mine?”

Pepper nods. “There’s been a bit of an influx.”

“Don’t tell Steve you’re getting more than he is,” Tony advises. “He’s insufferable when he’s jealous.”

“That’s a joke,” Coulson says, cutting in quickly. “He’s joking.”

“Oh, yeah,” Clint says, “I didn’t actually think I was getting more mail than Steve Rogers.”

“No, he was joking about Steve being mean when he’s jealous,” Pepper says.

Clint blinks. “Oh.”

“We wanted your permission to have some of the assistants go through everything before you saw it,” one of the suits says. Her name, Clint thinks, is Marla, but it could’ve been Martha. Or Maria. He wasn’t looking at her when she said it.

Clint grimaces. “I can do it. I’ll read them on the bus rides.”

Everyone in the room exchanges meaningful glances, and Clint’s just sitting there like an idiot, feeling completely out of his depth again. “I can read,” he says, quiet and a little defensive. He didn’t go to college, but, Jesus, the League wouldn’t take him until he had a high school diploma.

“We know you can read, Clint,” Pepper says. She’s giving him a meaningful look of his own now, all empathetic and kind, and Clint sees exactly why she always gets the best trades in the League. People have made all kinds of gross insinuations about the magic she seems to wield, but he thinks the press and the fans really underestimate the pull of being looked at like you’re a real human being.

“It’s just,” Tony says. He waves a hand, sharp and dismissive. “Some of the shit in there, I can guarantee you isn’t worth reading.”

“No reason to let any of that in your head,” Coulson adds.

Clint’s eyes dart toward the mail, and he forces himself to stay relaxed, not tense up in the face of a pile of mute, unassuming paper. “People’ve been writing mean things about me for a long time. I think I can handle it.”

It won’t even be the first time it’s aimed at something he can’t change. He remembers how the scouts disappeared after the wreck his sophomore year. He had to earn them back, prove that he could play the game with bad ears and a shaken brain.

He can do it again. He never gets enough credit for that. Sure, he takes a lot of hits. Sure, he walks right into most of them. But he gets up every time. He never stays down for long. He always gets back on his feet.

“Clint,” Tony says, “just because you can take a hit doesn’t mean you have to let everybody in the world square up and throw a punch.”

Clint cuts his eyes away from Tony’s face. “But they’re coming anyway, you know? What’s the point in putting me in a bubble?”

“It’s not a bubble,” Tony says. “We’re constructing a sieve.”

Clint is only about seventy-five percent sure he knows what a sieve is, but he doesn’t see any reason to acknowledge that out loud. Not after he just told this entire room that he knows how to read.

“Interviews are gonna have to happen at some point,” Coulson says. “And you can’t always beeline for the clubhouse after every practice. It’s a spectator sport, Barton. You’ll have to interact with fans eventually. People are gonna have plenty of chances to say shitty things to you. Let us weed out what we can.”  

Clint shrugs, crosses his arms over his chest. “I just don’t wanna make more work for people.”

“Well, fortunately for you,” Marla says, “we’re actually making this work for ourselves.”

Clint doesn’t like confrontation. He never has. Maybe that’s the reason he does all of his best staredowns from sixty feet away. “Fine,” he says. “Sure.”

Marla smiles at him, which immediately makes him feel guilty about his tone. “We’re just trying to win you over now so you’ll be willing to do us a few favors later.”

He blinks. “Like what?”

“Oh.” And that’s the Community Engagement guy, leaning forward and grinning. “We’ve had a lot of requests for your time.”

Clint sinks lower in his chair, feels like someone just told him he has a date with Jeffrey Dahmer. “Oh God,” he says.

“Well, not quite the response we were hoping for,” the Community Engagement guy says. “But we get Eddie Brock to do two events a year. I’m pretty confident we’ll win you over, too.”

Clint doesn’t think the slaughterhouse necessarily wins over many of the cattle. It’s just that there’s only one way out, and everybody knows it.

Events, fans, interviews. Shit.

“Can I talk to you?” he says, directly to Tony, surprising himself and every other person in the room.

Tony doesn’t even blink before he’s turning expectant looks on the others. “Well? You heard him. Clear out, second stringers. Our new recruit’s chosen a favorite.”

Pepper narrows her eyes at him as she stands, gathering her things as she goes. “Behave,” she says.

Tony huffs and trots out what he seems to think is an innocent expression. It’s not Clint’s place to point out that the pout and fluttering lashes complicate the narrative, so he ducks his head and pretends to notice his untied shoe for the first time.

He keeps himself busy working on an increasingly complicated knot until the room clears out. “You’re gonna have to cut yourself out of that shoe if you keep that up,” Tony observes.

“Sorry,” Clint says. He forces himself to straighten up, look in Tony’s direction.

“Hey, who am I to judge? I’ve had to cut myself out of a few traps of my own making over the years.” He smiles when he says it, a sideways, self-aware kind of rueful. And Clint knows it’s true, because he remembers when some of those traps made the news.

And that’s more or less what he wants to talk to Tony about, so he doesn’t know why suddenly he can’t speak at all.

“You want to charades our way into things, Barton?” Tony asks. “Wanna write it down? Oh, hey, you can text me.” He holds up his phone. “Wait. Did I give you my number?”

“I can’t go to events,” Clint says, sudden and declarative. It bursts out of him. He’s Thor, suddenly, voice too damn loud for the dimensions of the room.

Tony tips his head to the side. “Okay. Are you gonna expand on that? You have some kind of phobia we need to address? Do you have a curfew? Oh, are you religious?”

“Religious,” Clint says. “Why the hell would that—no. I just, I can’t—look. I know what this is about, okay? I know nobody is requesting me, specifically, because they really want a pitcher who hasn’t finished a season for four years straight.”

Tony nods, slowly, and then again, a bit more decisively. “Sure, yeah. You’re a point of interest for reasons not entirely related to the mechanics of the game and your role within it. That’s fair.”

Clint breathes out, tries to get his thoughts in anything approaching order. This is Tony Stark. He’s a genius. He’s a billionaire. He’s one of the most famous men in America. He came out on purpose, and he counted everything it cost him, and then he made it back twice over. Three times, maybe.

The point is, Tony Stark is a good story. Tony Stark, for all the ridiculous media stunts and the sloppy stories from his early twenties, is a role model.

“I can’t go to these events,” Clint says. “I can’t, like. I can’t be the player that all the kids write to because they think I’m like them. I’m not—it shouldn’t be me. It should’ve been somebody else. Jesus Christ, it should’ve been anybody else.”

Tony’s expression settles into complicated lines. “And you think this because---”

“Because I’m not--” He cuts himself off before he tells the team owner that he’s not good enough. Unfortunately, that leaves him floundering. “I’m not gay enough,” he says, finally.

It doesn’t feel like a good option when he says it. The complex choreography of Tony’s eyebrows suggests he might feel the same.

“Okay.” Tony sets his hands on the table, palms up. “Two quick clarifying questions. One: are you attracted to men?”

Clint feels his face flame abruptly red. It’s not a thing he has much practice verbalizing. He told Natasha, five years ago. And a handful of guys in bars have figured it out along the way, and Mikey clearly clued himself in, but it’s not a thing he usually has to say.

He clears his throat. He imagines he’s going to have to get used to this. “Yeah.”

Tony nods. “And two: are you a man?”

Clint glances down at himself. When he notices no significant changes, he looks back up. “Um,” he says. “Yeah? I mean. Is this a trick question? Are you bullying me for some reason? What’s--”

“Just gathering data,” Tony says. “Because I’m not a social scientist, but I’m reasonably certain that an individual who both identifies as a man and is also attracted to men is sufficiently gay enough to qualify. Although, of course, if it’s not exclusively men--”

“It is,” Clint says. He clears his throat again, rubs at chest. His heart is skipping like he’s trying to steal home. “I don’t even know all the words, Stark. How am I supposed to do this? I’m gonna fuck everything up.”

He misses what Tony says next. It’s just a burble of vowels underneath the buzzing in his head. He barely suppresses the urge to fall face down on the table.

He feels it, though, when Tony taps on the back of his hand. And when he looks up, his eyes track kind of aimlessly over Tony’s face until they settle on his mouth, and then the buzzing retreats, and he can make out what’s being said.

“---not how it works, Barton,” he’s saying. “Trust me, there are a lot of ways to fuck up being someone you’re not. But you can’t really fuck up being who you are.”

But what he is, at his heart, is a fuckup.

Except he isn’t. He knows he isn’t.

After his parents, after the wreck, after Barney, after bankruptcy, after two shoulder surgeries. After all of it, he got back up.

So he’s not a fuckup, and Natasha would dead leg him with a vengeance if she knew he thought he was, even for a second. But he is deeply unprepared to be the only out player in MLB history.

Hell, he’s never even officially dated another man before. It was always too much of a risk. So now, after his inglorious history of bar hookups and one young spring fling, he’s somehow supposed to be some kind of representative? For what?

He’s not a good story. He’s not a role model. He’s a guy in the middle of the ocean, bailing out a boat that won’t stop taking on water. He doesn’t have the time or the wherewithal to be anything anyone should look up to.

“I am,” he says, as seriously as he can, “fundamentally unprepared for this.”

“Hell yeah, you are,” Tony says, and he gives him, for no fathomable reason, dual fingerguns. “I’m glad you’re taking this seriously.”

Clint doesn’t see how taking this seriously is going to help. As far as he can tell, if he took this less seriously, it would make his life much easier.

“Hey,” Tony says, “don’t worry about it too much. Just do that thing you do where you’re all earnest and blonde and charming.”

Clint stares at him. “I don’t know how to do that.”

“You’re doing it right now.” Tony holds up his phone. “Tell you what, I’ll give you my number in case you need any advice along the way, but then you’ve really gotta let Coulson talk to you about pitching lineups or whatever. I can feel him shaking a spiral notebook at me from the hallway.”

 

- -

 

Clint calls Nat before the first spring training game. “Hey,” he says, when she picks up, “don’t worry about me.”

“Do I need to come down there?” she asks.

“No. What? I just said---”

“Yeah, I heard you,” she says. “Remember that time you were staying at my place, and you opened a conversation with, ‘Hey, don’t worry, I’m gonna buy you a new fire extinguisher?’ This sounds a lot like that, Clint.”

Clint breathes out. He’s lying on the floor of Frank’s guestroom, curled up with Lucky, who’s being very supportive. “I’m not starting,” he says.

Natasha makes a quiet, thoughtful noise. “What, tonight? It’s the first game, Clint. You can’t expect---”

“No.” He closes his eyes. It’s not a big deal. He knows it isn’t. Hell, he could’ve been kicked down to the Triple-A or worse. “At all. Ever. Coulson wants me as relief.”

There’s a brief pause. “Like a closer?”

“Nah,” he says. “Middle relief, maybe setup for Castle.”

There’s another, longer pause. “I’m coming down there.”

“Nat, it’s fine. I just told you not to worry about me. It’s fine.”

“It’s bullshit,” Natasha says, and it’s comforting, how she sounds angry, furiously aggrieved on his behalf. She’s always believed in him, even when he couldn’t give her a reason. “You’re too good for that, Clint. If they can’t see--”

“Then I’ll make them see it,” he says. “It’s okay, Nat. It’s a new team, and I haven’t been very reliable these past few seasons. But I’ll get it. I just gotta work harder.”

“That’s what you say every time,” she says. “Every time something bad happens to you, you just say you need to work harder.”

Clint stares up at the ceiling. Lucky whines in the back of his throat and puts his chin on Clint’s chest, a warm, solid weight. “It’s the only part of any of this I can control, Nat.”

She sighs. “I hate that you’re so far away.”

He runs a hand through Lucky’s fur, pats his ears. Even when things got bad in New York, he always had Nat. “Yeah,” he says. “I hate it too.”

“I’m coming to the opening day of regular season,” she says. “I’ll be there.”

“Nat, that’s bullshit. It’s clear across the country, and I probably won’t even play. Why the hell would you--”

“Because you’re my best friend.” She sounds so sure, so determined. She sounds like she’d fly across the world to watch him sit on the bench through a rec league game. She sounds like she’s with him, wherever he is, whatever he’s doing. “I’ll be there.”

“Okay,” he says. He takes a breath, lets it settle in his chest. If she’s coming all the way to California to see him, he’d better convince Coulson he’s worth putting in the game. “Okay.”

 

- -

 

There’s a weird moment, when he’s all suited up in the wrong team’s uniform, and he can feel the buzz of a game building up in the locker room. He’s familiar with the energy, the jittery, bouncing bit of forward momentum as professional athletes, lifelong competitors, wake up from the offseason hibernation, finally find themselves facing some kind of real challenge. He knows what he’s feeling; he’s just used to feeling it with other people.

“C’mon, Barton,” Frank says, steady, calm.

“Fucking White Sox,” Wade says. He’s on Thor’s shoulders, for no reason anyone in the room can fathom. “Let’s fuck ‘em up.”

And they’ve been eyeing the White Sox from across that lake all week. They’ve seen them around the city. They all work in the same place. Most of them are staying close by. Clint doesn’t have any problems with anyone on that team, and it’s just a spring training game anyway.

But Clint’s maybe been bottling a few things up lately, and he thinks, if he had the chance, he’d feed every single one of them three strikes they couldn’t touch. Just throw and throw and throw and watch them walk away.

At eighteen, his body could do things that like. But he’s twenty-five, and his shoulder hurts before bad storms, and he’ll have, at best, two innings where all he needs to do is get the baton from Rogers to Castle without sinking the whole ship on the way. So he won’t be fucking anybody up. His objective, at this point, is not to fuck up the game.

 

- -

 

Bucky jogs up to the mound toward the end of the seventh, after what Clint had previously considered a perfectly respectable curveball. “Hey,” Barnes says, shoving his mask back. “You doing okay out here?”

“Yeah,” he says. The chanting’s mostly died off. Anyway, he only notices it during breaks in play. Like now. “Why? Am I fucking something up?”

“No.” Bucky kinda squints at him. There’s sweat along his hairline.

“Did I forget a signal?” Clint’s pretty sure he didn’t. He’s been going over them with Castle after practice all week.

“Well,” Bucky says, “do you remember the one for ‘no?’”

Clint shakes his head on reflex and then grimaces. “Wait, fuck. Not ‘no’ as in I don’t remember. That was ‘no’ as in this is ‘no.’”

“Yeah, I figured.” Bucky taps him on the shoulder with his glove, a friendly little jostle. “You don’t have to throw every pitch I call. It’s a conversation, you know?”

“I know.” And he’s seen Steve and Bucky get into full-on arguments in the middle of games before. He once watched Peter Quill respond to one of Bucky’s signals with a single middle finger. He knows people disagree with Bucky’s calls sometimes, but he hasn’t called a wrong one yet.

And anyway, maybe Clint’s looking for a little bit of guidance. Maybe it’s nice to lean on someone else’s critical thinking skills right now.

“You know these hitters better than I do,” Clint says.

“Sure,” Bucky says, like that’s not the point at all. “You’re doing great, you know?”

Clint clears his throat, adjusts his hat. “I’m— yeah, I’ve been doing this awhile. I think I’m kinda getting good at it.”

Bucky laughs, flashes a small, pleased grin. He slaps Clint’s shoulder again and then steps back. “C’mon, Barton, let’s shut this down. Castle’s looking too comfortable over there.”

The next signal Bucky gives is for a high inside fastball. Clint stares at him, doublechecks who’s at bat, and then looks back at Bucky. From sixty feet away, he can just barely make out that the side of Bucky’s mouth is pulling up in a crooked smile.

Very deliberately, Clint shakes his head.

Bucky grins so wide Clint has no trouble seeing it and signals for a sinker instead. One pitch later, the batter’s walking back to the dugout. Four more after that, the inning is over.

 

- -

 

Spring training follows the kind of straightforward, predictable schedule that makes it easy for people to find them. Fans congregate around the clubhouse before and after games and practices. That’s never previously been a problem.

But, recently, Clint has developed the acutely embarrassing habit of taking his hearing aids out and fussing with them on the walk from the field to the clubhouse, primarily because it gives him the increasingly implausible excuse of neither hearing nor seeing anything along the way. Nobody’s said anything about it, but Frank’s started pointedly describing signs he’s seen with Clint’s name on them, and Peter Quill keeps acquiring rainbow stickers on his face after practice.

For a week and a half, Clint hasn’t signed a damn thing. He has to be the only player in the history of the game who nosedived into a major scandal and then opted to rebuild by silently inviting whatever loyal fans he had to go fuck themselves.

The morning after the first game, he slows his pace on the way back from practice. He’s already sweaty, and it’s definitely gonna get worse now, and he’s walking so close to Castle that he’s gonna step on his damn shoes if he doesn’t get himself together.

He doesn’t have a pen. Well, maybe nobody’ll even want anything.

He skims his eyes over the small crowd as they approach. This is another situation he should’ve studied for, but he can’t even begin to fathom the words he’s supposed to type into Google.

Who does he approach? In the past, he always prioritized the kids with the cheapest shoes, but now he’s not sure that’s a good idea.

“Those girls,” Frank says, quiet, with a subtle nod to a cluster of teenagers in matching softball shirts, “were here yesterday before the game.”

Before, Clint wouldn’t have considered teenage girls to be the safest demographic to approach, but they seem pretty benign now. He shifts his trajectory their direction, angles his feet toward them, just kinda testing the waters, and they break into bright, excited grins. He can’t quite articulate why their excitement is such an immense relief, but it feels like this group of kids just cut a rope he didn’t realize was around his neck.

“Hey,” he says, as he gets close. “Um. I don’t have a pen, so do you--”

There’s a whole mess of Sharpies offered to him, so he grabs the closest one and starts signing things: his cards, a ticket stub from yesterday’s game, a baseball crowded with signatures, a baseball fresh from the store. Someone hands him a softball, and he blinks down at it, always a little thrown by how they don’t quite fit right in his hand.

“That’s from last season,” a girl says, a bit breathless, squeezed closed to her friends. “When I struck out the last batter at the championship.”

Clint writes To the champ and signs it, hands it back. She holds it like it’s some kind of holy relic.

What the hell would it have been like, he wonders, if someone else had walked this road first? What if he got to meet that guy back when he was just a kid, still hoping he’d grow into something else, trying to espalier himself, violently pruning and reshaping his thoughts, working desperately to force a change that never took.

He’s the first. He can’t change that. Maybe, by being the first, he can change things for other people.

 

- -

 

The world is full of drama, and most of it’s flashier and louder and more interesting than Clint. But half the League’s in Arizona, scattered in a cluster around Phoenix, which means the media that does care about Clint is also in the area, and they have easy access to him.

He’s stuck, poorly balanced on the fulcrum between believing that nobody in the world cares who he’s trying to sleep with and knowing that there are multiple people in a five-mile radius who are writing stories about it right now.

Someone takes a picture of him and Bucky. They’re playing pool, and Clint’s been careful not to get too close to people in public, but the problem is that Bucky Barnes is a Goddamn pool shark, and Clint had been desperately trying to school him anyway.

It’s the flash that gives it away. When Clint looks up, blinking, he realizes two things simultaneously: some middle-aged guy who should definitely know better just took a picture in a dive bar, and Clint’s standing entirely too close to Bucky’s ass.

“Fuck,” Clint says. He makes a conscious effort to loosen his grip around the pool cue.

Frank, across the bar, stands up like he’s about to drop that camera in somebody’s beer pitcher, but Bucky just throws his arm around Clint’s shoulders, pulls him flush against his side. “You want a picture where we’re smiling?”

His tone is polite, almost friendly. The guy with the camera looks immediately ashamed. “Yeah,” he says, “thanks, sorry. I’m from---”

“Take the picture,” Bucky says. “You wanna interview us, you’ve gotta go through our agents or the team’s PR. You know that.”

The guy takes his picture and ducks away, and Clint just stands there, hands awkward and dead, still wrapped around the pool cue. He’s not sure what the hell he’s supposed to do. “Hey,” he says, “is it okay if we don’t finish the game?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. He’s already cleaning up. “Whatever you want, Barton.”

“Sorry,” Clint says. “I just wasn’t thinking, you know? Sorry for however that picture comes out.”

Bucky doesn’t look up. His hair is hanging forward, shading half his face, and they were laughing, just sixty seconds ago, still keyed up from trouncing the Diamondbacks, 7-2. “Barton,” he says, when he straightens up, “don’t ever apologize to me for the shitty things other people do to you.”

Clint can’t think of a single thing to say, so he follows in Bucky’s wake as he heads back to the team’s table.

“What the hell was that?” Frank asks, all offended, like he’s never once had a reporter follow him into a bar or restaurant to take an unflattering picture. Which, given his size and temperament, maybe he hasn’t.

“You, uh.” Eddie leans in, looks sketchy and a little bug-eyed. “You want me to go slash his tires?”

“I’ll Carrie Underwood that motherfucker,” Wade says. “Blink once for yes, twice for hell yes.”

Steve, Clint realizes, is already over at a press table, hands on his hips, scolding the whole group like he’d scolded Peter and Pietro two days ago for getting distracted doing TikTok bullshit and nearly missing the team bus.

“Christ,” Clint says. He scrubs his face, tugs at his hair. “Look, you guys—you’re great. You’re all great. Really. I appreciate it. But you’ve gotta—this is what it’s gonna be like for a while, okay? So just. Maybe just don’t.”

Quill blinks at him. “Maybe don’t what?”

Clint shrugs. “Just be, like. Aware of how things look. And being around me, alone.”

There’s a grumbling swell of discontent. Thor brings his glass down on the table hard enough to nearly upend the damn thing.

“That,” Sam Wilson says, “sounds like a real healthy plan there, Clint.”

“Oh, you want this kinda shit said about you, Sam? You want people on the internet--”

Eddie makes a soft, strangled noise. “If you think people on the internet aren’t already talking about Sam Wilson’s sex life--”

I have been talking on the internet about Sam Wilson’s sex life,” Wade says. “And how, consistently, I am not invited to participate. We already have the same last name. We’re practically married, Sam, c’mon.”

Sam takes a slow sip of his beer. “I told you, Wade. My rule for threesomes is nobody cries afterwards.”

“I just think you’d be a very tender lover,” Wade says, with really alarming volume, “and I won’t be shamed for having feelings.”

“Barton,” Quill says, leaning half over the table. “I don’t give a shit what people say online.”

Clint shakes his head. “Yeah, but sometimes they also say it to your face.”

“Who’s been saying things to your face?” Thor turns to glare in the direction of the media, who are still being shamed by Steve Rogers. They look woefully unfit to fight a battle on two fronts. “That man, he said something to you?”

“No,” Clint says. “I’m just saying: I don’t need you guys to walk in front of any hits for me, okay? I appreciate it, but I’ve got it.”

“You don’t got shit, Barton,” Quill says. “What the hell kinda friend do you think I am? There will be no space between us in public. I can’t stress enough how prepared I am to lick your tonsils right now.”

Clint blinks. Blinks again.

Wade stands up. “Two blinks!” he says. “That’s a ‘hell yes.’ I’m about to take a bat to some headlights. Someone watch my drink.”

Frank grabs Wade’s shirt and drags him back into his chair. “Sit down,” he says. “Everybody, think of a grownup you know, and try to act like them.”

“You’re my grownup,” Wade says, immediately.

“Yeah,” Frank says, begrudging, with his hand still wrapped in Wade’s shirt, “I know I am.”

Under the table, someone kicks Clint. He scans faces, finds Bucky staring back at him, a small half-smile pulling up one corner of his mouth. “You’re not getting rid of us, Barton.”

And, God, he never fucking learns, does he? But he hopes it’s true. This time, he really, really does.

 

- -

 

When there are less than three games left in spring training, Clint starts looking for places to rent in L.A. He should’ve started looking earlier, but signing any kind of lease felt like daring the universe to give the Dodgers a reason not to keep him.

“Hey,” he says, while he and Frank are taking the dogs on the first walk of the day, “what do you think about Pasadena?”

Frank hrumphs quietly into his coffee and makes a face, but Clint knows for a fact that the man appreciates a good Whole Foods, so he’s not sure where that attitude is coming from. “’s fine,” Frank says finally.

It’s not quite a glowing endorsement. “Glendale?” Clint tries, scrolling through his phone. “Sam Wilson says he likes it.”

“Why are you talking to me about Glendale?” Frank’s tone suggests he has a longstanding grudge against the city of Glendale, which is too bad, because that rounds out Clint’s top two picks. He’s been looking for a place that Frank and the family might visit sometimes, for dinner or whatever, and those are the friendliest locations he’s found.

“I just thought it looked nice,” he says. “I mean, I don’t know the area. I’ve been kinda busy since the trade, and we weren’t in L.A. very long. Haven’t really looked around.”

“What’re you---” Frank cranes his neck over, gets a good look at Clint’s phone. “Are you house hunting over there, Barton?”

Clint shoves his phone into his pocket. Jesus, he thinks, baffled by Frank’s tone. It’s not like he’s been over here looking at porn. “I’m not buying. I know it’s still early. I just figured I’d rent a place for six months, you know?”

Frank glares at him, and Clint had honestly forgotten how unnerving it is when he does that. “It’s a hell of a time to move.”

“Well, yeah, but it’s just gonna get worse. If I don’t find a place now, then we’re in the regular season. It’s only gonna get busier, Frank. I don’t wanna spend the season in a hotel.”

“So just stay in the guesthouse til the season’s over,” Frank says. He shrugs. He seems indifferent to the fact that what just came out of his mouth is absolutely absurd. “I told you, we don’t need that place til the holidays anyway. And the in-laws can stay in a fucking hotel if they have to.”

“Frank, it’s your house. I can’t just---”

“Can,” Frank says. “It’s my house.”

“Yeah, for your family. What about Maria?”

Frank shoots him a dubious look. “What about Maria? She wanted to talk to you about this weeks ago.”

Clint chews on the inside of his cheek, tries to think it over. The truth is, he doesn’t want to leave. He likes Frank’s place. He likes Frank’s family. He likes family dinners and teaching the kids gymnastics and watching the dogs wrestle in the backyard. He likes coming home to a place with people in it. He likes the idea that, if he didn’t make it home, people would notice before practice the next morning.

“You gonna do this to the dogs, Barton?” Frank looks pointedly at where the dogs are trotting along happily side-by-side. “You gonna break their hearts like that, after everything they’ve done for you?”

“Okay,” Clint says, holding his hands up for mercy. “Okay. But. If I stay, I’m paying rent.”

Frank makes a noise like Clint just spat directly in his face. “Rent.”

“Six months! I’m not a guest. I’m a fucking tenant at that point, Frank. That’s what people do.”

“Uh-huh,” Frank says. “You make your friends pay rent when they stay with you?”

Clint ducks his head in a desperate attempt to hide his smile. It’s just that it’s nice, always, to have friends, but especially nice when he feels like he lost so many of them back on the other coast.

“Nobody stays with me,” he says. “I mean, Barney used to. But he didn’t pay rent.”

Frank scoffs. “No. He spent all your money and fucked off out of the country when the bills came due.”

Clint swallows. Very abruptly, he doesn’t feel like smiling.

“Sorry,” Frank says, a beat later. “I know that’s not any of my business. It’s just—it’s bullshit, what he did. It was a fucking crime.”

Sometimes, Clint forgets how much of his life is public knowledge. And so little of the good parts break through. There are very few public records of him at his best. Just a handful of compilation videos online of his highlights and some pictures of him and Natasha together at events, arms around each other and smiling.  Most of it is just sob stories that reporters wrote after his parent’s crash, and all the ugly bullshit with Barney, the bankruptcy, the season-ending injuries. And, now, obviously, it’s him and Mikey.

“Barney’s not a bad guy,” Clint says. “He just—I mean, neither of us knew what the hell do with that kind of money.”

Frank scowls. “Well, he sure fucking figured out how to spend it.”

And what the hell else was Barney going to do? Of course he spent the money. Clint watched it happen. He saw the cars, the houses. He went on some of the vacations. He knew. But Barney told him he was making money from investments, and Clint didn’t even know what the hell monetization meant. He didn’t know people let you do things like that, borrow against future earnings.

He sure as hell didn’t know you could borrow $17 million across 20 different loans. He probably could’ve figured out that interest rates in the 20s should’ve been walked away from, but Barney never thought that far ahead. They’re both like that, really. Never ready to commit to the idea that the future’s gonna be any better than the present, that it’s going to exist at all. But the difference is that it makes Barney enjoy the moment and it makes Clint brace for impact.

He shouldn’t have given Barney power of attorney. But he was eighteen, and it was more money than he could believe was real, and Barney was the only adult he had.

“You know,” Clint says, “when our parents died, we were broke. There wasn’t any money. And Barney was nineteen. Could’ve walked away, but he didn’t.”

Frank walks in silence for a while, seems to make himself weigh that out. And maybe, to a guy like Castle, there’s not much weight to it at all, because that’s the sort of thing he’d do without thinking. Clint knows damn well how loyal Frank is. But the Barton boys were raised to keep one eye on the door at all times, and Clint knows Barney thought about leaving.

“You ever think,” Frank says, “that maybe that was less about him stepping up and more about you being his meal ticket?”

Clint’s not an idiot, and Frank’s not the first person to say that to him, but it hurts anyway. He looks at Lucky, who’s snuffling enthusiastically at a pile of leaves. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. And he even says it with conviction, because he’s had a lot of time to work to this conclusion. “It doesn’t. Because he still did it, and if he hadn’t, who the hell knows what would’ve happened to me? Who knows if I would’ve gone somewhere without a team? What if I got sent somewhere and they wouldn’t let me play anymore?”

He waves his hands a little, and he doesn’t tug on the leash, but Lucky doubles back anyway to knock his shoulder companionably against Clint’s knee. He doesn’t know how to explain that time to Frank, how scared he’d been, the chaos of losing every reliable thing, even the horrible things.

Barney was all he had. Barney took him in. Barney drove him to practice, kept him fed, talked to scouts, helped him pick an agent. Barney went to his graduation, to the draft, to his first major league game.

And Barney also spent all the money Clint had and all the money he was supposed to make, and he defaulted on loans Clint didn’t know about, and he left the country instead of dealing with any of it, and he’s still probably living down in that tropical paradise Clint paid for. Clint could’ve sued him, apparently, or pursued criminal charges or sold the house Barney lived in. But he didn’t. He didn’t do any of that. He just let him go.

“Everything worked out okay in the end,” Clint says. Frank makes a noise like he doesn’t quite believe him, but Clint just shrugs. “It did. It’s just money, Frank. I hired some money guys and some lawyers, and they yelled at the other money guys and the other lawyers, and we sold a lot of shit, and I didn’t make any money for a couple of seasons. I don’t know. I feel okay about it.”

“It was a shitty thing to do,” Frank says.

And Clint can see how a guy like Frank would have difficulty with the middle ground. To someone like Frank, disloyalty of that magnitude has to seem unforgiveable. But Clint can trace the fault lines in Barney, witnessed the impacts that caused the fractures. Some of those hits landed because Barney stepped between them and Clint.

He knows Barney wanted to run when the dirt from the cemetery was still caked in the treads of their shoes. But he didn’t. He held himself in place long enough to get Clint standing on his own feet, and maybe that hollowed Barney out more than Clint knew.

If Barney was always going to run, then this is still the best way things could’ve played out.

“You ever talk to him?” Frank asks.

Clint shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Not since he left.” He called a few times, but Barney never answered. That phone bill is still on autopay from Clint’s account.

“What a piece of shit,” Frank says, certain and decisive, and Clint doesn’t say anything. He spent a lot of time defending his brother to the media, who were always looking for a story to sell. It’s nice, in its way, to have someone who’s just pissed on his behalf.

 

- -

 

After the last practice of spring training, Bucky maneuvers his way through the crowd of players walking back to the clubhouse. “Hey,” he says, as he falls in step beside Clint, “can I see your hat?”

Clint immediately swipes his cap off his head. “It’s kinda,” he says, grimacing. “I mean, there’s been some sweat.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, and takes it easily out of his hands. “I was actually at the same workout.”

Sure, but Bucky Barnes doesn’t sweat like a husky in the Arizona sun. Bucky is standing there, bright-eyed and fresh faced, and Clint’s a freckled, sweaty animal.

“What about your hearing aids?” Bucky asks, and he holds the hat by the brim and shakes it at Clint, like he expects Clint to drop his BTEs in the dome of the cap.

Clint missteps a bit, gets himself back on track. “You—what? You want my hearing aids?”

“Yep,” Bucky says. “In the hat, c’mon.”

Clint has no idea what the hell this is about, but Bucky’s smiling at him, all sideways and small, like he’s trying his best to keep a straight face, and so, God help him, there’s really no hope for Clint at all. His hearing aids drop right into his own sweaty hat three seconds later.

“Okay, now do I—holy shit!”

If Clint had to guess, he probably would’ve guessed that Thor could physically lift him off his feet. Sure, Clint’s a professional athlete, but so is Thor, so it kinda stands to reason that, under duress, Thor could make it happen. But he probably would not have anticipated how easily Thor does it, or how he manages to scoop Clint up while in a full-out sprint and proceeds to carry him away without breaking stride.

“Jesus Christ!” Clint kicks out on instinct, not really trying to get free, just kind of flailing, and then somehow Peter Quill has his legs, and it’s impressive, really, how fast these two can move with him swinging between them.

“Woah,” Steve says, appearing suddenly in front of them, hands held out like he’s trying to stop a charging bull. He’s very empathetic with his gestures, clear with his articulation, which Clint guesses is probably for him. “Barton, can you swim?”

Clint fails to understand why that could possibly be relevant to the matter at hand, which is his ongoing kidnapping. “Can I---of course I can--”

Steve steps out of the way, hands still up. Clint can’t read what he says next, because he’s oriented away, not facing him anymore.

“We know,” Quill says, loud and offended.

“What the fuck,” Clint says, “is going---”

He realizes, when he finds himself abruptly airborne, that he’s being thrown into the lake. The aspirational pond. The decorative water feature at Camelback Ranch.

“Hell,” he says, and then he’s breaking the surface, and, honestly, it’s not so bad. The water actually feels kinda nice, for the first couple of seconds. And then the cold hits, like a bracing slap across the face.

He breaks through the surface and spits out some fishy water. “I hate every single one of you,” he says. “Except Bucky,” he adds, a moment later.

There’s some commotion on the shoreline, too convoluted for him to make out, and then Wade suddenly breaks from the pack at a run and hurls himself into the water. Clint scrambles out of his way, narrowly escaping taking a wave of water directly to the face.

Quill jumps in after him, followed by Thor, and Clint opts to vacate the lake before he gets dragged into some kind of splash fight.

He clambers awkwardly out onto the grass. March is a hell of a time to get tossed into a body of water, even if it is Phoenix. He’d been sweating fifteen minutes ago, but now he’s soaked through, and seventy degrees doesn’t feel like quite enough.

Bucky drops a small towel into his hands, and Clint scrubs at his hair, his face, his ears. When he leaves the towel hanging around his shoulders, Bucky hands him his hat and hearing aids, and Clint gets them resituated just in time to hear Wade, screaming from the water for a wet t-shirt contest.

“We’re not doing that again this year,” Quill yells back.

“You’re just sick of losing to Steve,” Wade accuses.

“I’m not going in this time,” Steve says, which is exactly the moment Dugan hip-checks him into the water. “Damn it, guys,” he says, when he surfaces.

“And we have a winner!” Wade says, triumphantly, gesturing at the compelling image that is a completely drenched Steve Rogers.

“Warned you about the lake,” Frank says. He’s standing several yards away from the water, hands on his hips. He looks ready to maim anyone who tries to put him in the lake.

“Yeah,” Clint says. He remembers, at the time, that he hadn’t really believed any of his teammates would be in a hurry to throw him anywhere except out of their lives and locker room.

Eddie, Quill, Wade, and Thor are splashing wildly in the lake. While Clint’s watching, Pietro tackles a yelping Peter Parker into the water.

“You guys do this every year?” he asks.

“Oh, someone always goes in,” Frank confirms.

“We used to throw Wade in every time he needed to cool down,” Bucky says and then shrugs, grins slow and a little rueful. “Didn’t really work, since he liked it so much.”

In the water, Wade and Quill are slapping at each other from Thor and Eddie’s shoulders. Steve’s standing on dry land, yelling at them about no fatalities at spring training.

Clint shivers, body still a little shocked from the sudden change in temperature.

“C’mon,” Bucky says. He throws his arm around Clint’s shoulders and tucks him against his side, and Clint thinks maybe it should be some kind of alarming, the way he’d let Bucky Barnes lead him pretty much anywhere if he led him like this. “Let’s get showered, go get lunch.”

“Yeah,” Clint says. “Sounds good.”

They meander back to the clubhouse, followed by the racket of half the team embroiled in a breathtakingly ambitious attempt to catch a fish with their bare hands. And Clint’s dripping wet, definitely not going to stay to sign anything, so he doesn’t really think about the small crowd of fans and their front row seats to the ludicrous display.

He doesn’t think about it until later, when he and Frank and Bucky and Steve are all sitting together at a little café Frank likes, and Nat sends him a picture of him and Bucky walking back, Bucky’s arm still around his shoulders, Clint clearly completely drenched, both of them smiling and happy.

Clint clears the screen before anyone sees. But later, when he’s back at Frank’s, getting ready for the last spring training game, he saves the picture.

It’s a nice picture, and it’s a good memory that he might need later. Anyway, it’s nobody’s business what he saves on his phone.

 

- -

 

“Hey, Barton,” Wade says, in the leadup to opening day, “you filled up your seats yet? I need four tickets for my hot yoga group.”

Clint doesn’t look up from his shoes. “No, I’m only using one. But, like. If this is some weird sex thing--”

“I wish,” Wade says, with unnecessary fervor, “Goddamn.”

“Okay.” Clint’s learned to just move right along whenever Wade hits a certain threshold of overshare. “Because my best friend is coming, and if your Sunday orgy group is gonna get weird in the seats right next to her--”

“No shit, the ballerina?” Eddie whips around. “Natasha Romanoff?”

“Yeah,” Clint says, narrowing his eyes.

“She’s really good,” Eddie says.

“I know that.” Clint eyes him a little more aggressively. “Look, if I bring her around and you creep on her---”

Eddie holds his hands up like Clint just pulled a Glock out of his duffle bag. “Woah,” he says.

“Aw, don’t be like that to Eds.” Quill leans over, fluffs up Eddie’s hair. “He just really likes ballet. We see the Nutcracker together every year.”

“Shut up,” Eddie says, smacking his hands away. “I take my mom, and you won’t stop crashing. I don’t know how you keep finding out where our seats are.”

“He’s a fan,” Quill continues, “not a creep.”

“Oh.” Mostly, the Mets thought Clint and Natasha were dating. It hadn’t stopped every weird comment, but it had discouraged them. Clint’s been vaguely concerned about the long-term effects of losing that shield. “Sorry, Eddie.”

Eddie shrugs. “I saw her in Firebird,” he says, mumbling it around the hoodie string he’s chewing on. “She’s a generational talent, you know?”

Natasha has been called a lot of things in various clubhouses and practice fields, but this is the first time Clint’s heard generational talent. It’s the only phrase that’s ever made him feel like maybe he should introduce the guy to Nat.

“You want her to sign a program or something,” Clint says, “let me know.”

“Does she do hot yoga?” Wade asks, draping himself over Clint’s shoulder. “Does she want to meet five excellent, very toned, middle-aged moms who do? Because, CB, I have an opportunity for you.”

“Cut it out,” Clint says, elbowing Wade back. “You can have my tickets.”

 

- -

 

Clint pitches setup in the opening game, taking over from Steve in the seventh and handing the ninth off to Frank. He’s trying to embrace it as an opportunity to prove his merit without compromising his shoulder. It helps if he thinks of it as setup instead of middle relief.

“Yeah,” Frank says, when he mentions it, “cuz it is.”

“Go get ‘em, tiger,” Quill says, and plants a loud, messy kiss on Clint’s shoulder. “For luck!” he calls, when Clint squirms away.

When he trots out to the mound, he can sense the change in the crowd. There’s a lot of yelling. He doesn’t let himself track which direction that bends, toward cheering or jeering. It doesn’t matter. Natasha’s in the crowd, and she wants him to win, and, out of everyone sitting in those seats, she’s the only one whose opinion will matter in a day, a week, a year, a decade.

The hitter doesn’t look happy to see him, but he doesn’t matter. Behind him, Bucky’s grinning.

Bucky signals for a fastball, and Clint doesn’t know the guy at bat, but he doesn’t like him. Usually doesn’t like anybody when they step up to swing at his pitches. He’s got something to prove, maybe something he wants to show people.

When he was younger, back in high school, he threw a perfect game with nothing but fastballs. Straight and high, no surprises. Irresistible bait for everyone who stepped up to the plate.  Back then, he could throw so fast nobody could touch him. The ball was in the catcher’s mitt before the bat finished swinging.

He winds up, coiling his body, shifting his weight, and then he throws, and, in that series of seconds, it’s like his body forgets all the ways he’s worn it down. Four-seamer, one hundred miles per hour, spinning away from him, right into Bucky’s glove.

The bat swings too late, and it doesn’t matter that Clint should be in a Mets jersey. It doesn’t matter that he’s only here because he fooled around with a guy seven years ago. A strike is a strike whichever coast he’s on, whatever colors he’s wearing.

The batter resets. Clint breathes in. His shoulder feels fine, loose, warmed up, strong. Bucky signals for another fastball, and Clint only gets a couple of innings, but he thinks maybe he could do this all day.

 

- -

 

He knows what to say at interviews. The Mets used to limit how much time he spent with the media, but, if Sitwell felt particularly uncharitable, he’d trot Clint out while he was on IR to explain his thoughts on the current losing streak or have him sit for interviews following a loss after a return to play.

Coulson and Pepper and the team PR crew schedule him for just as many interviews as they give Sam and Frank, set him up around mid-level as far as media commitments go. Clint figures, when you’ve got absolute gambles like Quill and Wade on the team, Clint’s history of accidental over-honesty is probably the low-stakes choice.

He knows what to say, though. He’s learned. Meaningless bits of nothing that build a wall between the world and all the raw, unfinished parts of him.

One batter at a time, and good pitching beats good hitting, and pound the strike zone. He clears his throat, leans toward the mic, says: Play our game, put us on the board, stay in the moment, our goal is to win.

And, always: no comment, no comment. I’ve got no comment on that right now.

A great baseball town.

I’m just happy to be here.

 

- -

 

The Dodgers fans like him. He becomes aware of that slowly. Mostly, he’s been trying not to pay attention. His years with the Mets taught him that he usually doesn’t want to know what people are saying, but what he’s finding with the Dodger is that, taken out of context and viewed with a little bit of mercy, the weird, hapless way he fumbles through life can be framed in a way that is almost charming.

He becomes a meme somehow. He’s not entirely sure Pietro isn’t behind it.

After he hits his first homerun three games into the season by knocking a squirrelly cutter into the stands, someone posts a picture on Twitter with the sloping sideways angle of the pitch and the words 95+ mph, saw that coming. They follow it with an entire series of pictures of Clint tripping over Lucky, dropping coffee on himself, walking into doorframes, and being physically tackled by various teammates. They write didn’t see that coming on every single picture.

Somehow it becomes a trend to post a picture of his face, screwed up into a grimace, and the words didn’t see that coming in response to all kinds of things, most of which Clint privately believes are perfectly predictable phenomena.

It helps, probably, that he’s having a good season. He’s not disappointing anybody, which makes him easier to like.

People keep telling him his jerseys are selling out. Clint sees them around the stadiums, armies of Barton’s wandering through the stands.

His teammates seem to like him too. He and Eddie are working through a list of the top twenty pizza places in L.A., and Quill and Wade keep showing up at Frank’s house to kidnap him for their adventures, and Bucky’s been sitting with him on flights and bus rides ever since Quill instigated a very controversial round of Fuck, Marry, Kill involving the Golden Girls that got so heated Bucky bailed out of Steve’s row and hasn’t gone back since.

Morales still can’t quite look him in the face, but he had a very animated discussion with Clint’s hairline the other day about the process of adopting a dog, so he thinks he’s making progress there, too.

Clint keeps waiting for everything to go wrong. Frank keeps asking him why the hell he thinks it has to go wrong in the first place.

“Because,” Clint says, “it does. Right? It always does. And I can’t—I mean, I fucked up. That doesn’t mean my life gets to get better. That’s not how this works.”

Frank glances over at him. They’re out in Frank’s backyard, setting up tables for his daughter’s birthday party. Apparently, at least two ponies will be attending. “How’d you fuck up?” he asks.

Clint gestures, mimes taking a picture with his phone, but Frank just stares at him like he’s not making sense. “The pictures?”

“You think because you let a guy take pictures with you, you owe some kind of karmic debt? Fuck’s sake, Barton, you think you haven’t already paid it?”

“No,” Clint says. “Maybe. Listen. My shoulder’s gonna give out. I’m gonna say something dumb just, like. Directly into a mic.”

“So you rehab the shoulder,” Frank says. “You apologize. Barton, this shit is not career-ending. You’ve fixed all of this before. You know how to do it. Why’re you letting it eat at you like this?”

“Because,” Clint says. He gestures at Frank, back toward the house, at the whole of the city. “Everybody’s been really great to me, and I did fuck all to deserve it, and I don’t want to ruin it.”

Frank sighs. “‘Fuck all to deserve it,’” he repeats, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing.

“I didn’t!” Clint says. “The first day – the first day – after I landed in L.A., you came out to pick me up. You let me live in your house. You did all this shit for me, and, the last time I played against you, I nearly fucking brained you. I didn’t do anything.”

Frank chews on the inside of his cheek, glares into the distance. After a long moment, he nods, decisively. “I did all that shit for you, Barton, because, if pictures like that had come out of me when I was twenty-five, I would’ve left the fucking sport.”

Clint huffs out a breath. “Bullshit,” he says. “First of all, you’d’ve just found the first reporter to post them and eaten his liver. Second of all, there never would’ve been any pictures.”

“There could’ve been,” Frank says. And now, weirdly, he’s not looking at Clint at all. He’s getting very fussy about the pink tablecloths. Hyper-fixated, almost.

“Could’ve been what?” Clint asks.

“Pictures,” Frank says. “That’s what I’m fucking saying, Barton. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. There could’ve been pictures, me and Russo.”

Clint misjudges the next step so badly that he almost takes out a folding table. “You—what?”

Frank’s glaring down at nothing. Clint’s thinking about the way things went, before Russo retired four years ago. The rivalry, the fights. The brawl between the Giants and the Dodgers that got him and Russo suspended for eight games each.

“Jesus, Frank,” Clint says.

Frank shakes his head. He looks old, just for a second. “There was nowhere for it to go,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. There was no room for it, so it just got ugly. I got traded. You saw what happened after that.”

Clint thinks every baseball fan in the country saw what happened after that.

“Anyway,” Frank says. “That’s why, Barton. Because I would’ve left the game, and you just ate the punch.”

The way Frank says it makes Clint seem almost brave, but the reality is Clint was just desperate.

But maybe that’s not fair. Maybe there is some kind of courage in refusing to be chased out quietly.

Maybe the difference between him and Castle is thirteen years of incremental, inadequate progress that bought just enough breathing room and a lifetime of learning to eat punches on an empty stomach.

“Now, come on,” Frank says, as he tugs the last tablecloth into place. “Maria bought a unicorn costume, and we’re gonna put it on your dog for the party.”

 

- -

 

“Barton,” Coulson says, a little over a month into regular season, “why do you always look at me like you’re in a hostage situation?”

Clint hesitates. He tries to school his expression into something a little less openly apprehensive. “That’s, uh.” He shrugs. “That’s just my face, I think.”

Coulson’s eyebrows indicate a fair amount of skepticism. “You’re fitting in well,” he says.

Clint thinks about two nights ago, in Denver, when half the team somehow ended up at a late night blacklight arcade-and-mini golf place, and they lost Wade and Eddie for two hours only to find them in the staff area, absolutely obliterated on edibles and surrounded by arcade tickets, eating their way through a trough of nachos and explaining to a rapt audience of teenagers and Miles Morales exactly how to game the pinball machines.

“Um,” Clint says. “Yeah, I think so.”

At the very least, he’s discovered that Steve Rogers sucks at mini-golf and is hilariously sensitive about it. He also knows what Bucky looks like when he’s right on the verge of laughing himself sick, which is exactly the kind of heartbreaking knowledge he’s not sure will be beneficial to his overall wellbeing in the long-term.

“I know you were a starting pitcher before you came here,” Coulson says. “I want to make sure you understand why that’s not what you’re doing now.”

There’s one of those strange, tricky pauses. In the past, this would’ve been Sitwell underlining a point, letting Clint sit in silence so he could be sure Clint understood the depth of his disappointment. But that doesn’t seem to be Coulson’s style, and the way he’s looking at him now – patient, but politely expectant – indicates maybe he actually wants a response.

“I—yeah? Think so.” Clint forces himself not to shrug again. “I mean, my record these past couple season’s been pretty spotty, so I figure…setup? Seems like a way to minimize risk, maybe.”

Coulson tips his head to the side. “You’ve been closing over half the games you’ve been in for the past two weeks, Clint.”

Which is true. It’s not like Clint hasn’t been aware. “Thought maybe you were trying something.”

“What I’m trying,” Coulson says, “is to find someone who can close consistently. Your accuracy, when you’re healthy, is at the top of the league. Historically, Clint. And, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, we tend to find ourselves in tight games.”

Which, sure. Yeah. The Dodgers have a reputation to maintain, close wins and comeback kids and all. Clint’s had more than a few wins stolen by the Dodgers in the last couple of innings. He knows exactly what happens when this team is backed into a corner.

“Don’t think of this as a demotion,” Coulson says. “That’s not what this is. The truth is, we don’t need another starter. We need someone who can protect a lead against every pinch hitter a team has. And that’s you.”

And it should feel like a demotion, whatever Coulson says. But the truth is, Clint’s been doing well. He likes the structure of it, the sense of being woven into place, stepping up to the ground Steve or Jones just left and holding the line. He doesn’t set the tone of the game; he maintains it, or pushes it somewhere better.

The last innings of the game fit him better. He’s never really had the knack of getting himself oriented without the press of the wall against his back.

“You’re doing well,” Coulson says. “You know that, right?”

He does. He doesn’t read his own press, but he hears it. The TVs are always on in the clubhouse, and some of the other players like to do dramatic readings of news articles written about them, and so Clint’s heard his own virtues being loudly extolled in Thor’s booming voice.

The phrase reporters keep using is a return to form.

“Yeah,” Clint says, ducking his head, trying to bite back his smile. “Like you said. I think I’m fitting in here.”

 

- -

 

The thing is, he can’t stop thinking about Mikey. It’s not constant. Sometimes he goes full days without thinking about Mike even one time. But it’s a well-worn road in his mind, and his brain keeps circling back.

He can’t even remember much about him. Just his smile, mostly, and his accent, and how heartbreaking it had been when Mikey didn’t make the Mets, got sent down to the farm team.

Clint knows he got married, though. And, God, he hopes he’s still married. He hopes this whole mess didn’t ruin that for Mikey.

“You’re doing that thing again,” Bucky says. They’re at a hotel in Chicago, hunched over a perfectly acceptable breakfast.

“What thing?” Clint asks, blinking blearily at him over his coffee.

“That thing where you look like your pancakes just told you they were gonna pack their bags and go stay with their mother for a while,” Bucky says.

Clint checks in on his face, realizes he’s probably been making one hell of a maudlin expression. “Shit, sorry. I was just thinking.”

“About what?” Bucky takes a bite out of his toast, gestures toward Clint’s face. “You check out like that kind of a lot.”

“Do I?” He probably does. It’s getting worse and worse. The better things go for him, the more he worries about Mike. He can’t shake the idea that misery is some kind of seesaw, where if he’s up, someone’s gotta be down.

Bucky nods. “Yeah. So, spill. What’s going on in your head?”

Clint hesitates. He glances around him, which is, in retrospect, a wild thing to do since nothing he’s about to say is a secret to anyone with an internet connection, and the hotel has free WiFi. “You know that guy in the pictures? Um. The pictures with me? That leaked and then--”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, with a mercifully neutral expression, “I’m familiar.”

“I can’t get ahold of him. I mean, I guess his number is different now, and it’s not like I have his email. I tried asking my agent if he could call Mikey’s old agent, but that got nowhere, and I don’t know what else to do. He deleted his Facebook, never had an Instagram or anything.”

Bucky hesitates and then puts his silverware down, which makes the whole conversation feel a lot more serious than Clint’s entirely prepared for. “Why do you wanna talk to this guy?”

“Because I just…” Clint gestures, accidentally flings a bit of eggs over his shoulder. “I’m worried about him, you know? This has been kinda wild for me, but I’ve had help. He’s all alone, and he hasn’t given any statements, and he has a wife, a couple kids.”

Bucky contemplates that for a second. “Have you asked Stark to find him?”

“Have I—what?”

“Stark,” Bucky repeats. “Tony Stark? He can find anyone in about half an hour if he’s properly motivated. He just gets his robot butler to do it.”

“JARVIS is an A.I. assistant,” Steve says, when he plops his breakfast down next to them.

“He’s a creepy robot butler,” Bucky insists. “And he’s tracking all of us all the time.”

“He is not.” Steve rolls his eyes. “He’s just tracking the systems that are.”

“That’s the same,” Bucky says.

“It’s not,” Steve argues.

“Okay,” Clint says, before this can get out of hand like the Golden Girls Incident, “and he’ll find Mikey for me?”

“Sure,” Bucky says. “Just ask him. Or get Steve to ask him. That’ll be faster.”

Clint looks toward Steve. “Is that—can you---”

“Yeah, yeah.” Steve pulls his phone out of his pocket. “Who am I asking about?”

Clint lists off the relevant details: first name, last name, home state, former team affiliations. Steve nods and texts one-handed while he shovels eggs into his mouth with the other. And then he sends the text, and Clint thanks him, and Bucky gives him a quick encouraging smile, knocks their feet together under the table.

 

- -

 

Tony calls Clint after practice. He calls him. Tony Stark.

Sometimes, Clint imagines trying to explain his life to the Clint from six months ago. He never can quite puzzle out a way to make the whole thing sound plausible.

“Um,” Clint says, when he accepts this call.

“Eloquent,” Tony says, decisively. “Very charming. Look, are you asking me to be complicit in you eventually drunk dialing your ex who is now a married man? Because, Clint, I have both made and abetted a lot of bad decisions, so let me assure you, permanently tousled blonde bedhead and baby blues aside, the homewrecker crown never looks good on anybody.”

“Oh my God,” Clint says. Homewrecker.

“So I’m not sure I can in good conscience complete this mission, which is a real tragedy, honestly, because I have.”

Clint waits for the rest of the sentence. It doesn’t arrive. “You have what?”

“Completed it,” Tony says. “Keep up.”

Clint’s not sure that’s entirely fair. “Jesus, sorry. I’m still back on my tousled blonde bedhead.”

Tony scoffs, audibly. And then he seems to think maybe the speakers didn’t pick it up, because he does it again, louder and closer to the mic. “You know what you look like.”

“Sure,” Clint says, “but I think we see different things.”

“Wouldn’t doubt it.” There’s a series of strange clangs, some mechanic whirring. “But, c’mon, let’s workshop this. What are you trying to accomplish?”

“I’m not trying to accomplish anything. I’m just worried about him, I guess. I mean, this happened to him, too. And I’ve been really lucky, but I have no idea how he’s doing.”

There’s a long silence, and then Tony sighs, heavy and long. “Clint,” he says, “you bipedal sunflower, you absolute golden retriever of a person. You’re too good for this world, you know that?”

Clint rubs at his face. He can feel his cheeks turning red. “Stop it.”

“I’m gonna help you,” Tony says, “but you’d better not make me an accessory to drunk dialing your ex.”

“I won’t,” Clint says. “He’s married.”

“And she looks like a scrapper,” Tony confirms. “So just keep that in mind.”

Clint doesn’t ask how Tony knows what Mikey’s wife looks like. But he figures, while he has him on the phone, he might as well ask for one more favor. “Hey, do you think the front office could recommend a realtor? Is that a thing they do?”

Tony gasps. “Clint Barton, do we get to keep you?”

“I mean, my contract’s for another three years, so---”

“You like us, you like us,” Tony says, almost singsong. “You really like us.”

Tony Stark is singing to him about how much Clint likes him and his team. Tony Stark is doing this. “You guys have been great,” Clint says.

“Aw, sunflower,” Tony says, “you aren’t so bad yourself. I’ll send you a couple names. We’ll get you settled.”

“Thanks,” Clint says. Somehow, every time he talks to Tony, he feels like he spends the whole conversation trying to keep his feet under him.

“Don’t drunk dial your ex,” Tony says, very loudly, and then immediately hangs ups.

Clint stares at the phone for a long moment before he carefully tucks it back into his pocket.

 

- -

 

Tony texts Clint before the game with the names and contact information for two realtors and also Mike’s cell number, his home number, and his address. It’s a little creepy, honestly, but Clint’s thankful anyway. He calls the cell and leaves a short, awkward voicemail with his number and a brief message clumsily conveying his hope that he didn’t accidentally ruin Mike’s life.

After that, he checks out the two realtors Tony suggested and picks the one who has a picture of her dog on her website. He leaves a message for her, too.

After the game, he has a very chipper message from the realtor, which he dutifully returns, but it’s absolute radio silence from Mike.

Over the next few weeks, he leaves two more voicemails, one on the cell and one at the home number, and he gets no answer. That’s fair, he tells himself. That’s Mikey’s right.

But things keep going well for him. The season goes well, his shoulder stays strong, and the team is a steady push of support at his back. He hears nothing from Mike. As far as he can tell, nobody hears anything from him at all.

 

- -

 

He and Frank are loading the groceries in the back of the truck when Frank’s cellphone starts ringing. “It’s your turn to go back if she forgot to put something on the list,” Clint says, shuffling around the leafy greens to make room for the paper towels. 

“Yeah, yeah,” Frank says, “I know it is.” He steps back, fishes his phone out of his pocket, and everything stays normal for about three seconds.

And then Frank breathes in, not loud but kind of sudden, and his head tips to the side, and his eyes change in a way that Clint couldn’t explain if he had to. Which is kind of alarming, honestly, because there’s a look on Frank’s face like maybe something’s about to happen that’s going to get Clint subpoenaed.

“Did he say what he wants?” Frank says, and, Jesus, that’s his we’re having a crisis; everyone remain calm voice. That’s the voice he used when Pietro fell in practice and stayed down and everyone thought he’d had some kind of attack, but it turned out, in the end, that he’d just slipped on wet grass and was too embarrassed to get up.

Clint hauls the rest of the groceries out of the cart with an expediency and carelessness that would normally annoy the hell out of Frank.

“Okay,” Frank says. “Are the kids inside?”

Clint grabs the cart and sprints across the parking lot, shoves it toward the corral when he’s still several yards out. It crashes into place, nesting into the other carts, and, by the time Clint makes it back to the truck, Frank’s inside with the engine running. He throws it in reverse before Clint’s finished shutting the door.

“Here,” Frank says, handing Clint the phone. “Let me know if anything happens.”

“What’s going on?” Clint asks and then repeats it into the phone. “What’s going on? This is Clint.”

“Hi, Clint,” Maria says. Her voice is a little higher than normal. She doesn’t sound scared, exactly, but nervous wouldn’t be inaccurate. “There’s a guy here.”

Clint feels his whole chest tighten up. “In the house?”

“No,” she says. “He’s outside, on the porch. He’s looking for you.”

Clint can’t think of anyone he knows who’d decide to show up on Frank Castle’s doorstep instead of calling him. Which indicates that maybe this isn’t somebody who knows Clint. Maybe it’s just somebody who knows where to find him. “You talked to him?”

She hums a confirmation. “He says he’s your brother.”

Barney?” Not that Clint has any other brothers. It’s just the one. But Barney hasn’t been stateside since all those debts came due years ago.

“That’s what he said.” There’s a bark in the background, a low, unfriendly sound. Frank’s dogs are in the house, then. Well, that might be for the best.

“Does he look like me?” Clint tries. “I mean, like me if I drank too much and had red hair and a chin like a snowplow?”

She laughs, just a little. “He does kind of look like that, yes.”

And that’s good. That’s fine, then. Because Barney randomly manifesting back in Clint’s life probably doesn’t bode well for Clint, but Barney’s not actively dangerous to anyone in that house. Sure, he mismanaged some finances, and God knew there were bars and casinos and pool halls all over the world that had issued lifetime bans, but Barney wasn’t the kind of asshole who’d bother a woman and her two kids.

“Frank,” Clint says, “she thinks it’s Barney.”

“Yeah,” Frank says, like that’s barely reassuring at all.

“We’re only a couple minutes out,” Clint says, speaking back into the phone. “He’s not, like. Trying to break into the guesthouse or anything, is he?”

“Oh, no. I told him he’d have to wait until you two got home, so he’s just sitting on the front porch.” She pauses, seems to think something over. “If he is your brother, I’d hate to leave him out there. Should I let him--”

“No,” Clint says, and it comes out louder than he means. “Sorry. Wow, sorry. That was rude. Just—he can wait, whoever he is. If it’s Barney, he can definitely wait. Trust me, you bring him in that house, and we’re gonna have to do pocket checks for valuables on his way out.”

“Okay,” she says, “then he can wait.”

“He can wait,” Clint confirms. God, if it is Barney, then Clint’s waited three years. Barney can sure as hell wait three minutes. It’s not even hot outside. It’s perfectly temperate.

“Lucky didn’t know him,” Maria says. “But I wasn’t sure if he should have.”

“Oh, no,” Clint says. “I got Lucky after Barney moved out.”

Because Barney had never wanted to put up with a pet, and a lot of the caretaking would’ve fallen to him while Clint was at away games. So it hadn’t seemed fair, getting a dog that Barney would have to spend all this time with. And then Barney moved out, and Clint found Lucky in the street, and Natasha said she’d look after him while Clint was away, and she’d stayed at Clint’s place every time he left town. She never complained; she never even acted like it was an inconvenience. 

The longer he has to reconcile with the idea that he might be about to see his brother, the more that initial burst of hope wears off and there’s just unease and exhaustion and confusion left in its place.

He doesn’t want to do this at Frank’s place, in front of Frank’s sweet and endlessly competent wife and those two kids who think Clint’s maybe a functional grownup.

But what the hell else is he going to do?

By the time they pull into the driveway, Clint’s not sure what he feels when he sees his brother. If it were some random creep here to cause trouble, Clint could call the cops while Frank explained his feelings on the situation. But that’s Barney, and that means this is his problem.

“Want me to make him leave?” Frank asks.

“No.” Clint runs a hand through his hair. “I’ll take care of this. Sorry he scared the hell out of your wife.”

“She wasn’t scared,” Frank says. “She was loading the gun when she called.”

“God bless her,” Clint says, and pitches himself out of the truck before he finds another excuse to put this off.

 

- -

 

It’s awkward. The whole thing is awkward. They end up out on the back porch, drinking beer that Barney finishes too quickly, and Clint has to sit there and pretend he doesn’t realize they’re in the backyard because Frank and Maria – rightfully – don’t trust Barney in their home.

Clint doesn’t know what Barney’s been doing, how he’s been paying his bills. He doesn’t pay for his house or his phone, but Clint assumes he’s been doing something so he can afford to feed himself.

He doesn’t ask. He doesn’t make himself ask. Because asking about money would give Barney an opening, and Clint, selfishly and pettily, wants to make Barney knock down that door himself.

It doesn’t take long. Barney finishes his first beer, and Frank, stonily silent for the entire conversation, goes into the house to get him another one. And that’s when Barney makes his play.

“So,” he says, “you’ve been doing well, huh? Looks like you settled in okay.”

Clint shrugs. “Yeah. Move was kind of tough, but the team’s been great. Good guys.”

“I keep hearing about your season,” Barney says. “You’re doing well here. Think you’ll be a Dodger for a while?”

Clint picks at the label on his beer bottle. “Coulson says I’m doing what they need me to do.”

“Weird that you’re not starting.” Barney tips his head to the side, grins. “But I guess you always did better with delicate handling. Plus, you’re getting old.”

“Fuck you,” Clint says, off-hand, no real heat behind it. The joking is somehow worse. It’s the brief glimmers that remind him of better times that hurt the most.

Used to be, Barney was the most important person his life, his only anchor point. But Barney took a hacksaw to the line, and Clint’s starting to learn that when somebody rips your heart out of your chest, you don’t have to go chasing after them, hoping they’ll help you put it back.

“Look,” Barney says. He leans forward, eyes narrowing. Clint’s seen him run small cons on strangers, used to watch Barney hustle pool for grocery money, so he doesn’t know what to make of the fact that he can see right through him now. He doesn’t know if Barney’s not even bothering to try or if Clint’s just seen the play to many times to be tricked by it. “I know you probably don’t want to hear this from me, but you’re in a good spot right now. Things aren’t so great for me. I need to borrow some money.”

Clint stares at him until that last sentence stops replaying in his head. It takes ten full seconds, maybe twelve. And then he shoves back from the table, goes to stand at the porch railing. “Jesus Christ, Barney.”

“Not a lot,” Barney says. “I just owe a couple people, okay?”

“Yeah?” Clint takes a quick, angry sip of his beer, but it doesn’t drown the words waiting in his throat. “And what about the seventeen million you owe me, huh, Barney? What about that?”

Behind him, he can hear Barney getting to his feet. “I said I was sorry for that, Clint, but--”

“Bullshit,” Clint says. He can’t even look at him. He tightens his hand around the porch railing, tries to keep his voice down so the kids won’t hear. “When? When did you say you were sorry, Barney? Because I tried calling you, and you never answered. Three years, and you never answered.”

“What was I gonna say?” Barney doesn’t bother to keep quiet. “We both know I fucked up. What’s there to say about it? I thought I knew what I was doing, and I didn’t. I’m sorry it came back on you.”

“Who else was it gonna come back on? Whose fucking name did you sign, Barney?”

“Barton,” Barney snaps back. “I signed Barton, because that’s who we are. We’re all that’s left. I’m the only family you’ve got, Clint.”

The next sound is unexpected, but not unfamiliar. It’s the sharp, meaty crack of someone getting punched in the face.

When Clint turns around, Frank’s shaking out his hand, and Barney is holding his nose. The second after that, there’s blood, welling up between Barney’s fingers and then dripping down his hands, to his wrists, his sleeves.

“C’mon,” Frank says, and he grabs Barney by the shirt. “You get to pick: ambulance or cab.”

“Jesus,” Clint says, staring, open-mouthed.

“You broke my fucking nose,” Barney says.

“You wanna lose some teeth too?” Frank hauls him around by the shirt like Lucky waving around his stuffed platypus. “Let’s go.”

And Clint knows he should follow. He should intervene. He should take Barney to the hospital and talk about this.

But he’s done Barney enough favors. He loves him, sure, but maybe he gets to define what that means, how much of himself he has to give up.

He goes inside, smiles reassuringly at Maria, and then he wets a washcloth in the sink, takes it out to Frank so he can clean up his hands after the taxi takes Barney away.

 

- -

 

Clint puts the groceries away, and Frank and Maria make dinner, and they all eat together, speaking in calm tones and acting like nothing happened. Afterwards, the kids squabble through clearing the table and march into the kitchen to begin their daily post-dinner dishwashing/splashfight, and Frank follows Clint all the way back to the guesthouse, where Clint fishes out the whiskey Tony gave him after his first homerun and pours generous measures into a pair of coffee cups.

“I’m sorry I hit your brother,” Frank says, sounding exactly like a man who isn’t sorry at all, even a little bit. “He deserved it, but he’s still your brother.”

Clint shrugs, stares at the whiskey in his Disneyland coffee mug. “Yeah, that’s him. My brother Barney, an absolute bastard and all the family I’ve got.”

“Bullshit,” Frank says, kinda sharp. He cuts his eyes away, glowers at the fridge magnets.

“Okay,” Clint says, “but he is.”

“Bullshit,” Frank repeats, with a bit more bite this time. “You’ve got Natasha, you’ve got me. You don’t need that shithead.”

Clint blinks at him. He doesn’t know what the hell to say to that. He’s stuck at You’ve got Natasha, you’ve got me and family.

Frank sighs and then takes a quick swallow of whiskey, stares hard at nothing. “I’m retiring,” he says, “at the end of the season.”

Clint damn near drops his Disney mug. “You’re what?”

He shrugs. “That’s why the Dodgers picked you up so fast. I think you’ve been on Pepper’s shortlist for a while. As a replacement for me.”

“I can’t replace you,” Clint says. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You sure as hell can,” Frank counters. “You have been. You’re a damn good closer, Clint. How many saves do you have this year?”

Clint tries to pretend that’s not a statistic his agent has been crowing about for months now. “Yeah, but it’s all gonna get fucked at some point. That’s what happens. I do okay for a while, and then my shoulder gives out, and it’s over. I’m out. And if you’re gone--”

“Then Dernier can close, or Brock, maybe. But I think you’re gonna be fine. Coulson was right about you, Clint. You’re a sniper rifle, not a machine gun. Fewer pitches, less strain. I think your shoulder’s gonna hold up just fine.”

Clint’s holding the mug too tight. He puts it down before he snaps the little handle right off. “But I don’t--- shit, Frank. I don’t want you to go.”

Frank glances over at him. Whatever he sees softens the look on his face. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Barton. I’m not going anywhere. I don’t think you get how family’s supposed to work.”

And why the hell would he? His family’s done nothing but leave him his entire life.

“I’ve been house hunting,” Clint says. Sometimes things just come out of his mouth, and he’s as surprised by them as everybody else. “Tony set me up with a realtor. There’s a place nearby, like half a mile? So. If you wanna come look at it sometime, that’d be—I’ve never bought a house before, but I wanted—I mean, I told her somewhere close, so.”

Frank looks at him, and he smiles, one of those quiet, hidden smiles you have to learn to watch for. “Yeah,” he says, “I’ll come look at your house.”

 

- -

 

Weirdly – and maybe ominously – enough, it’s Barney’s visit that puts the idea in his head. And he knows it’s a bullshit thing to do, because it was just done to him, but he’s left voicemails and sent emails and mailed an actual letter without getting any kind of response. He needs to know Mike’s all right. He’s bothered damn near constantly by the idea that everything is going well for him while Mike’s life is just silently falling apart.

It feels like his life his going well because Mike’s isn’t. Like this is a debt Mikey’s paying for him. And even though he knows that’s a dumb, insane thing to think, he can’t make himself stop.

They play Milwaukee in June, a four-game series, and Clint knows there’s no way in hell he’s going to be able to keep his mind on the games when Mike’s a half hour away from the stadium. Like a trapped rat, he prepares to take desperate action.

“Hey,” he says, leaning over into Bucky’s seat on the plane ride up, “if I was gonna do something real stupid, would you want me to tell you about it before I did or, like. While I was doing it?”

Bucky ruminates on that for a moment. “You gonna tell Castle about it?”

“No.” Clint’s pretty sure Frank wouldn’t stop him, but there’s a good chance he’d insist on coming along.

“Huh.” Bucky scrawls something in his crossword, blocky letters filling out another space. “Then probably before.”

“Okay.” Clint pops his head up like a prairie dog, scans the area. Frank’s three rows back, headphones in and eyes closed, probably forcefully disassociating so he doesn’t have to acknowledge that Quill and Wade are playing another increasingly obscenity-laden round of Go Fish. “I’m gonna try to go see Mike.”

Bucky’s eyebrows tick upwards. The point of his pencil hovers, unmoving, over another square on the crossword. “That guy from the pictures?”

Clint tries to get a read on his tone. The fact that it’s completely neutral is probably not a good sign. “Yeah. He’s not answering my calls.”

Bucky sets his pencil down. A moment later, he raises his eyes to look at Clint’s face. “And so your solution is to track him down in person?”

“I mean.” He knows how crazy it sounds. “I just gotta know, okay? That he’s not—that’s he okay.”

Bucky considers him. “I’ll go.”

“What?” Clint blinks at him. “That’s insane.”

“The whole plan’s insane,” Bucky counters. “I’m a neutral party. I’ll go, and I’ll talk to him, and I’ll let you know how he is.”

Clint pictures it in his head: Bucky Barnes, future Hall of Famer, complete stranger, showing up on Mike’s doorstep to do a welfare check. “He doesn’t know you.”

Bucky scoffs. “Yeah, that’s kind of the point, Clint. You guys have all kinds of weird baggage, and maybe he doesn’t want to see you right now.”

Which is, of course, completely fair. It’s fair for Mike to feel that way. It’s just that Clint’s been worried. “Then he can tell me to go. I just gotta—Bucky, this whole thing happened to him because of me. I just gotta make sure I didn’t ruin his whole life.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, long and drawn out, “this is exactly why you can’t go. You’re all mixed up over this.”

“I’m mixed up because I haven’t heard from him,” Clint says. “So I’ll go, and it’ll be fine.”

“Like hell,” Bucky says. “Clint, I’ve watched you take shit from people just because they paid money to watch a game you played in. You think you owe this guy something? You’re going nowhere near him. Fuck that.”

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

“I’m talking about you,” Bucky says, tapping a finger against Clint’s chest, “and that giant fucking heart of yours and how willing you are to just hand it over to people, and let them chew it up.”

Clint swipes his finger away, but he’s a little distracted when he does it, doesn’t put much momentum behind it, so he kind of ends up accidentally holding Bucky’s hand for a second. The weirdest part, really, is that Bucky just lets him do it.

“Mikey’s a good guy,” Clint says, dropping Bucky’s hand before he makes things any weirder than they already are. “It’s gonna be fine, but I need to see him. I haven’t talked to him since this happened. He’s a family guy, you know? What if I fucked that up for him?”

Bucky takes the hand Clint was just holding and puts it on Clint’s shoulder, and, really, this is a lot of touching in quick succession. Clint can’t help clocking it. “Clint, listen to me. You didn’t fuck up shit. You didn’t take those pictures. You didn’t leak those pictures. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Clint stares at him, peers right into the depths of those sky-blue eyes. There’s something in Bucky’s eyes that almost hurts to look at, but he can’t look away. “Sometimes I don’t do anything wrong, and I still fuck everything up.”

Bucky winces, just around the eyes. Clint probably wouldn’t even notice if he weren’t staring so hard. “Jesus, Barton.”

Clint looks away. “I’m going to see him. Tomorrow morning.”

Bucky sighs, pulls his hand away, and rubs at his face. “Okay. I’m going with you.”

“You aren’t--”

“I’m going with you,” Bucky says, “or I’m telling Castle.”

Clint’s mouth falls open. Steve warned him, of course. So did Peter Quill. They’d said Bucky was slippery, that he’d play earnest and amiable and forthright and then sidewind like a snake to swivel around and stab you in the back. Of course, they’d been talking about dominos at the time, but Clint knows you show a bit of yourself in every game you play.

It’ll be worse, he thinks, if he takes Frank. Bucky’s got a nice, handsome face. He smiles reflexively when people smile at him. Frank’s default response to a smile is a slightly suspiciously angling of his eyebrows. So he can’t bring Frank, because Frank will scare the hell out of everybody.

And if Mikey is mad, if things have gone shitty for him and he wants to be shitty about it, Frank’s likely to object. Bucky’s loyal, but he’s not quite as proactive as Frank.

“Fine,” Clint says. “But you’re staying in the car.”

“Sure.” Bucky picks his pencil back up, redirects his eyes to his crossword. “If that’s where I need to be.”

 

- -

 

Mike lives in a nice suburb outside Milwaukee. Two-story house on a cul-de-sac with a minivan in the driveway and kids’ toys on the porch. Clint feels like an alien species, sitting parked in the street in his rented sedan. Bucky’s been silently studying the house from the passenger seat for the past seven and a half minutes.

“You know,” Bucky says, “you don’t have to do this.”

“I gotta,” Clint says. “It’s been driving me fucking crazy.”

Bucky nods, slowly. Clint can see him in his peripheral vision. “I still think you should just let me do it.”

Clint grimaces, doesn’t even bother to hide it. “Stop it, Buck. I barely let you come along in the first place.”

“You tried to ditch me after breakfast,” Bucky reminds him.

And he had, sure, but who could blame him? He’d tried to sneak out of the hotel like he was ditching a bad morning after, and he hadn’t even apologized when he found Bucky already leaning against the car.

It’s such a strange, jarring thing. How did he get to the point where he had to make a conscious effort to be left alone? How did he get to the point where he was unsuccessful when he tried? Back in New York, he was alone so often it used to make him sick.

“Okay,” Clint says. “Okay.” And then he shoves the door open and bails out, throwing himself to his feet with enough momentum that he either has to keep moving or faceplate into the sidewalk.

There are pictures drawn on the driveway, scrawled out in shakey lines of sidewalk chalk. He has no business being here, but he couldn’t stay away. He had to know, and now he’s here, and he’s going to have to find out.

He knocks on the door. He can hear the TV through the walls, something high-pitched and cheery, presumably a kids’ program. He feels like his skin is going to shiver and shrink until it dislodges itself, and then it’s going to walk off and leave him here.

When the door swings open, a tired-looking brunette woman is standing there, with a polite half-smile that dies on her face like a star burning out.

“Ma’am,” he says, “sorry, but I’m Clint---”

“I know who you are,” she says. She steps forward, and he instinctively shuffles back, which gives her the space to slam the door shut behind her. She keeps her hand on the doorknob, like she’s trying to keep whatever’s inside from getting out.

She’s making a barricade out of her own body. He feels poisonous, infectious.

“I’m not--” But Clint has no idea what he’s not. “I just had a game in the area. Four games. We’ll be here through Sunday. Wow, none of that’s important. The point is, I was in town. And I just came by to check on Mikey.”

He should’ve called him Mike, he thinks. This is probably Mike’s wife. And here he is, some curious blip from her husband’s past, manifesting on her doorstep like the meteor showing up on a farewell tour after the impact’s already wiped out the entire ecosystem.

He can’t get a read on what that look on her face means. It looks like fear, but he hopes to God it isn’t. He didn’t mean to scare anybody. He just wants to make things right.

“You need to stop calling him,” she says.

“I will,” Clint promises. Because, after this, he never, ever wants to see any part of this family again. “I just wanted to make sure he’s okay.”

And now she looks hurt, like he’s slapped her across the face.

“It’s been hell,” Clint says. “I know. And I’m sorry. But if people have been bothering you, I can help. I’ve got lawyers, you know? Plural. Like, there’s multiple. And if you guys wanna move, I can pay for movers. If anything’s happened, if you need anything---”

“We sold the pictures,” she says, sudden and sharp.

And, damn. Look at that. Clint thought he was braced for every horrible outcome. “You—what?”

“I’m sorry,” she says. “He’s sorry. We needed the money. Medical bills. We can’t—we can’t ever seem to—it just got so bad, you know? We didn’t know what else to do. And then Rumlow--”

“Rumlow?” Clint’s brain seizes on the name, like a camera suddenly focusing. “Brock Rumlow?”

She nods. “He offered a few thousand for them. I know that’s not a lot of money, but. It was enough, right then.”

Brock Rumlow paid Mike and his wife a few thousand dollars to get Clint pulled from the Mets.

Clint lets that information just sit at the front of his mind for a bit.

“Holy shit,” he says, soft and so quiet he almost can’t hear it.

“I’m so sorry,” she says. She’s tearing up. He showed up at Mike’s door, and he made his wife cry. “I talked Mike into it. I didn’t know— I don’t regret it. We had to. But you’ve gotta stop calling, because it’s killing him.”

Clint wheezes out a small little breath. His ears are doing that thing again, a low tide of buzzing, rising higher and higher, preparing to sweep him away.

“Hey.” That’s Bucky, calling from the car. He’s on his feet, door open. Clint can’t hear anything, and then he hears Bucky, and then the world comes back. “Everything okay?”

“Fine, Buck,” he says.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, again. God, she looks miserable.

“It’s okay,” he tells her. He doesn’t want her to cry. “Really, it’s maybe been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

She doesn’t look like she believes him.

“No,” he says, “hey, I mean it. It was kinda shitty at first, but I wouldn’t have come out until maybe after I retired, but now I can—you know, there’s hope for a date before I’m unemployed, which seems like maybe the best way to do things. And, actually, fuck the Mets anyway. Excuse me. Screw the Mets. I’m doing way better with the Dodgers.”

She nods, chin still kinda wobbly. She’s searching his face like there’s something she needs from him. “You’ve had a hell of a season,” she offers.

“I have,” he says. “So, it’s okay. Really. I’m doing okay. I mean it. I was just worried about Mike.”

Something occurs to him, and he swallows, hard. “Medical bills,” he says. “You said medical--- is he okay? Shit, is Mikey--”

“He’s fine,” she says. And then, eyes cutting away, “It’s our daughter.”

Jesus Christ. Clint can’t imagine. He can’t imagine what he’d do, the things he’d sell, the people he’d hurt. He gets just a glimpse of it, the hunted animal fear, the sheer sucking chest wound of terror that is a sick kid and someone building a wall between that kid and getting better, a cover charge you can’t pay and some tiny little girl getting sicker every day.

“If there’s anything I can do,” Clint says, “just--”

“Don’t,” she says, voice thin and jagged and delicate like broken porcelain. “Please don’t.”

It’s bullshit, he thinks. It’s terrible. If Mike had just come to him, if Mike had just asked, he’d have given him whatever Rumlow paid. He’d have given him more. None of this had to happen.

But that’s how these things go. Clint knows what it’s like. You get desperate, you get scared, and you stop believing in good things. Misery gets to be a self-fulfilling prophecy once you have enough practice.

They must’ve heard no so many times that they jumped for the first yes they found.

Or maybe Mikey just couldn’t look him in the eyes and ask for money. It’s not like Clint’s ever excelled at asking for help, either.

“Hey,” Clint says, “tell Mikey it’s okay. Tell him I’m better now anyway. I’m—really. I’m happier now, okay?”

She wipes at her eyes. “God,” she says. “He wasn’t kidding about how nice you are.”

And that, somehow, makes him smile. Just the idea that Mike, seven years later, still has good things to say about him. It feels nice. Validating, maybe. Feels like his memories of those few weeks have instantaneously regained some of their sweet, youthful shine.

“You guys wanna come to a game?” he asks.

She laughs, like she’s surprised. “Get out of here,” she says, pointing over his shoulder. “You’re gonna make me cry in front of the neighbors. Don’t you have practice?”

“I mean it,” he says, “I can get you tickets. How many kids do you have?”

She hugs him, sudden and with almost no warning. She makes a quiet, teary noise into his shirt, and he pats her back. “I’m so sorry,” she says, like this is the single worst thing she’s ever done.

“Hey,” he says, “hey. It’s okay.”

It’s kind of beautiful, actually. Clint, when he was young and stupid and believed good things were coming, took some pictures with a boy with a gorgeous smile, and, seven years later, those pictures sent Clint to California and made Mike enough money to cover some bills. Most people just have pictures of their ex’s that break their hearts.

“Mike’s okay?” Clint asks, just to be sure.

“He’s okay,” she confirms.

“Your daughter’s okay?” he asks.

She pulls back, wipes her face clean with the back of her hand. It’s an easy, practiced gesture. She doesn’t even smear her eyeliner. Clint wonders if everyone in the world has something that’s eating them alive. “She’s getting treatment,” she says. “The doctors say she’s doing well.”

“Okay,” Clint says. And then, because he really can’t help himself, because there are so few chances any of them have, “If you need anything, really, just--”

Go.” She puts her hands on his shoulders and pushes him gently back toward the rental car. “I mean it. You’ve done enough. Just go win your game. Mike’s been watching all season. We’re a Dodgers family now. It’s terrible.”

He laughs, and then she laughs, and it’s messy and gnarled and terrible and sweet, and he gets out there before they both end up crying in front of her neighbors.

 

- -

 

“So,” Bucky says, when they’re out of the neighborhood, “looks like it went okay.”

“Yeah,” Clint says. He feels like he’s shrugged his way out from underneath a weight that was slowly crushing his lungs. Mikey’s fine. Mike doesn’t hate him. He didn’t get hurt. “They’re doing okay. They don’t hate me.”

Bucky stares at him. “Well,” he says. “Good. Because it was gonna be a real bitch to sneak back here after the game and vandalize their house.”

Clint nearly takes out a mailbox. “You—what?”

“I was over here Googling on my phone how to TP a house, but then I figured I’d just ask Quill and Wade. I’m pretty sure Wade was recruited to baseball at an afterschool program for juvenile delinquents, so---”

“Definitely don’t do that,” Clint says. “They’re nice people with a sick kid.”

“Well, we’re not gonna do it now,” Bucky says. “Wait, sick kid? Their kid is sick?”

“Yeah,” Clint says. “Oh, and I guess Brock Rumlow leaked the pictures.”

Bucky makes a noise that is not a word. A second later, his jaw works. “Brock Rumlow did what?”

Clint glances over at him. Bucky looks like he’s about to punch through the windshield. “Well, once I came back, I was gonna be the first starter again, right? So I guess he didn’t wanna deal with that.”

Bucky makes that wordless noise again. “Brock Rumlow? Brock fucking Rumlow?”

“I--- yeah. That’s what I said.” Clint shrugs. It’s probably gonna hurt, later. Right now, he doesn’t care.

“Okay,” Bucky says. He breathes in. He still looks like he’s going to break something. Clint’s a little worried he’s doing to roll down the window and rip the sideview mirror clear off the car, just for something to do with all that anger. “Okay.”

“Hey,” Clint says, floundering, capsized a little by the depth of Bucky’s rage on his behalf, “thanks for coming out here with me.”

Bucky looks over at him, just a quick glance that ends up sticking. He studies Clint’s face, and some of that anger seems to bleed right out of him. “I’m glad it went well,” he says. And he sounds like he means it, like he’s happy that Clint’s happy.

Clint grins back at him and then focuses on the road.

He didn’t lie to Mike’s wife. Fuck the Mets anyway. He’s doing way better with the Dodgers.

 

- -

 

He texts Tony after the game, while he’s brushing his teeth. Hey, he types, didn’t drunk dial my ex. Kinda want to anonymously pay his kids’ medical bills though?

Fifteen minutes later, there’s a knock on his door. When he opens it, Tony Stark is standing outside his hotel room with a bottle of champagne in his hands and a forlorn, put-upon expression on his face. Steve Rogers is hovering over his shoulder, looking simultaneously concerned and apologetic.

“Holy shit,” Clint says.

“Exactly.” Tony shoves the bottle of champagne into Clint’s chest and then sidles past him into the room while Clint desperately struggles to catch it.

“No, please, come on in,” Clint says.

“Sorry, Barton,” Steve says, which doesn’t stop him from following Tony.

Feeling distinctly outmaneuvered, Clint lets the door shut behind them. “Did you guys want any of this champagne, or is this, like. A gift?”

“No, I need some of that right now.” Tony flops over backwards onto Clint’s still-made bed. His arm falls across his eyes. “I feel like I’m gonna need it for whatever comes out of your mouth next.”

“What are you even doing in Milwaukee?” Clint asks.

“Something not even remotely relevant to the task at hand,” Tony says.

Steve rolls his eyes and leans casually against the dresser near the bed, which leaves Clint to perch uneasily on the too-firm hotel room chair. He feels like the principal is about to give him detention.

“This really could’ve waited,” Clint says. “I was just wondering if you knew how to pay someone’s medical bills in secret. You know, so they don’t ever find out it was you.”

Tony drops his arm away from his face and gives Clint a narrow, evaluating look. “Snooping out some contact information is one thing, Barton, but, if you want me to violate HIPAA, we’re gonna need at least one lawyer.”

“Oh.” Clint hadn’t thought about that. “I just want to help.”

“And it’s gotta be anonymous?” Steve asks. “This guy doesn’t want your help?”

“Well, I didn’t actually talk to him? But his wife didn’t seem into the idea.”

Steve furrows his brow and tips his head like he’s going to ask a follow-up question. That question is forestalled when Tony throws a pillow that wallops him directly in the face.

“We don’t have time to unpack that, Steve,” he says. “Let’s stay focused. The easiest way to handle this would be to contact a relevant charity and funnel the funds through them. Tell me more about this sick kid. What kinda illness are we dealing with?”

Clint hesitates. “Um. I’m not really—I don’t know much about her.”

There’s a brief pause. “Barton,” Tony says, “have you even met this kid?”

“No. I mean, I assume she was at the house this morning, but it’s not like Mike’s wife introduced us, so--”

“Oh my God,” Tony says. He slaps at Steve without looking, absolutely nails him in the thigh. “It gets worse.”

“What’s worse?” Clint looks back and forth between them.

Steve angles his hips away from Tony, sending him a dark look as he moves. To be fair, if Tony’s aim had been a few inches off, he could’ve done some legitimate damage. “Watch your hands,” he says.

You watch my hands,” Tony shoots back. “Is that where you and Barnes went this morning? You took him to your ex’s house?”

“Mike and I never actually dated,” Clint says. “You keep calling him my ex, but it was never like that.”

Steve gives him the same look he gives Quill every time Quill tries to reintroduce the idea of a trick play that involves him somehow losing his pants, like he wants to encourage the collaboration but really cannot fathom how it’s manifested in this form. “So you want to anonymously pay for the medical bills of the child of a man you never actually dated?”

Clint blinks at him. “I mean, the kid’s sick. I’d pay for Brock Rumlow’s kid’s medical bills, you know?”

Tony elbows his way into something approximately a sitting position. He sighs, tragically. “Barton, you’re the sparkly sunshiney unicorn I could never bring myself to believe in as a child, and I hope the rest of the world is half as kind to you as you are to it.”

Clint chances a glance Steve’s direction, tries to get a read from Steve’s expression as to whether Tony’s being serious. “Um,” he says. “Thanks?”

“You’re welcome.” Tony manages, in defiance of plausibility and physics, to finagle his phone out of his exceedingly tight pants without standing up. He immediately starts tapping away. “Now, I’m gonna commit some light social media scrapping to gather intel on this sick kid, and JARVIS will identify an appropriate charity, and I’ll route the funds in the morning.”

“I’ll route the funds,” Clint says.

“Yeah, sure,” Tony says, waving that aside. “And,” he continues, “if there are no plausible local organizations, I can always buy the hospital.”

“Wait,” Clint says. “What?”

“But that’s for tomorrow. Champagne is for now. Let’s go, Barton.”

Clint realizes he has, this whole time, been cuddling a bottle of champagne against his chest. He immediately starts working to break into the bottle. “Why do you even have this? Were you celebrating something?”

Tony smirks. “Well, Clint, today is the anniversary of the day I convinced Steve Rogers to move to the Dodgers.”

“No shit?” Clint asks, looking between them. “How’d you do that?”

Steve coughs, accidentally jostling Tony. “Kind of a long story, Barton.”

“So,” Tony says, with a sparkling showman’s grin, “you and Barnes, huh? What’s up with that?”

Clint loses his grip on the champagne cork right as he tugs it free, and the cork shoots across the room and damn near assassinates a lamp. Tony and Steve turn their heads in unison to assess the almost-damage and then look back his way.

“Wow,” Tony says. “I hope that was a reenactment.”

“Oh my God,” Steve says.

“What’s that mean?” Clint asks. He pours champagne into the little plastic cups over by the coffeemaker.

“Oh, just wondering if you two took time out of driving to your ex’s house to—I don’t know. Have a picnic by the lake? Go jogging in the park? Maybe take a quick trip in the Original Cheesehead Factory?”

“With Bucky?” Clint hands two cups to Steve, who dutifully passes one to Tony. “Why? You think he wants more cardio?”

“Oh, I bet he’d just love some,” Tony says, half under his breath.

“Tony,” Steve says. He’s hiding his face with his hand. “Please stop.”

“I just want to know,” Tony says, “what your friend’s intentions are toward my friend, Steve. That’s what I want to know.”

“His—what?” Clint blinks once, and then again, and then the whole thing comes together like someone finally found the light switch. “Woah. Wait. Shit, hold on. It’s not like it was a date. We weren’t—Bucky’s not--”

“Clint,” Steve says, tone very mild, “have you asked Bucky what he is or isn’t?”

Clint hasn’t, but of course he hasn’t. Why would he? Why would he need to? Because he’s been mooning after Bucky all damn season like a stray puppy trying to follow him home, so all Bucky had to do to get him was indicate for a single second that he wanted to. And he’s been radio silent.

“I mean,” Clint says, “no. But he’s Bucky Barnes.”

“And you’re Clint Barton,” Tony points out. Clint has no idea how he can’t see how fundamentally different those two things are.

“But.” And he hasn’t thought about it. Not really. Just, sometimes. When he can’t help it. When Bucky’s face rises in his mind, his smile, the way he kinda squints his eyes when he’s trying not to laugh. Those shoulders, those arms, those thighs. He’s been trying not to think about all the parts of Bucky that break him apart, but he wouldn’t say, on the whole, that it’s been a successful endeavor. “He hasn’t said anything.”

Steve shrugs, takes a sip of his champagne. “You’ve had a hell of a year. Maybe he’s trying not to be another problem you have to deal with right now.”

And Clint can see, if he thinks about it, how Bucky might hear I’m driving to my ex’s house and decide maybe now wasn’t the optimal time to make a move. It’s possible that sort of behavior would indicate to an outside observer that Clint was not fully prepared to begin any kind of new relationship.

“You’re such a know-it-all, Steve,” Tony says. He’s staring over at Steve, a fond half-smile on his face. “Look at you, dispensing platitudes and life advice. You’re like a sage from a videogame. Is it dangerous to go alone?” He hefts his mostly-empty glass of champagne. “Should I take this?”

Steve snorts, crosses his arms over his chest. “If you’re looking for something to take,” he says, “I’ve got suggestions.”

Tony stares up at him, and, if he weren’t Tony Stark, Clint would think he’d been rendered temporarily speechless. And then Tony’s on his feet, tossing back the rest of his champagne and dropping the empty cup into the recycling bin. “Okay, Barton, I think our work here is done. Try to keep the life crises to a minimum, and, if you get into any trouble between now and dawn, please do not hesitate to call Phil Coulson.”

“Oh,” Clint says. “You guys are leaving? Did you want the champagne? All this late-night sugar’s not really on my meal plan.”

Tony takes the bottle out of his hand, tops up Clint’s cup, and then sets off toward the door. “Well, I plan to be up for a while, so I’ll bear this burden.”

“Very brave,” Steve says, as he moves to follow.

“It’s been said.” Tony waves at Clint as he tugs the door open. “Get some rest, Barton. Keep me updated.”

“I—yeah.” Although, honestly, Clint has no idea what he’s supposed to keep Tony updated about. As far as he can track, Tony’s supposed to keep him updated about the medical bills. “Goodnight.”

“Night!” Tony calls back, stepping through the door.

Steve hesitates at the threshold, turns back like he’s going to say something, but then Tony’s hand reaches back through the gap between the door and the frame and gets a surprisingly good grip on Steve’s shirt. “Bye,” Steve says, as he’s hauled bodily out of Clint’s hotel room.

“Cheers,” Clint says, to no one, and takes a small sip of the champagne.

It’s good. Not too sweet. Tastes expensive, mostly. He’d tried to figure out the brand, but the whole label had been in French. It seems kind of classy for a hotel room in Milwaukee, but maybe Tony doesn’t know any better.

Well, when you’re Tony Stark, you probably just keep this kind of thing on hand at all times.

 

- -

 

They play the Mets right after the Brewers, a three-game series to round out the road trip, and Clint hadn’t realized how disorienting it would be to walk into Citi Field and go to the visitors’ clubhouse. It’s a strange sort of homecoming, reminds him of the last time he went back to his hometown in Iowa. There’s not really anything here for him anymore, and the further from the memories he gets, the more he realizes he doesn’t want to relive them.

“You okay, Barton?” Eddie shoulder-checks him when they’re getting suited up. “It’s always weird to be back in this city.”

Eddie was a Yankee once. He’d had a disastrous set of seasons early on, but he’s evened out since he came to the Dodgers. That’s a pattern Clint’s hoping to replicate. “Yeah,” he says, “I guess I didn’t really miss it.”

Eddie nods. His eyes are distant for a moment and then he slips into a dreamy half-smile. “I miss the food,” he offers.

“Oh, yeah,” Clint says, “the pizza, sure. California pizza is---”

“A gift,” Peter Quill says. “All pizza is a gift. Watch your mouth.”

Vegan,” Eddie says. “I had somebody give me vegan pizza last week. And I’m not against vegan food. Eat whatever. But, like. Commit to it, you know? Don’t be a vegan eating fake non-vegan food. Be a vegan eating real vegan food.”

“Vegan pizza is real vegan food,” Peter Parker says, and Clint can tell, just by looking, that he’s trotting out his Bambi-eyed over-earnest Gen Z routine just to wind Eddie up further.

A beat later, Frank leans in with that set mouth, furrowed brow look that indicates he’s absolutely going to help Peter Parker start some shit right here in the clubhouse in front of God and Phil Coulson. “He’s got a point. It’s vegan, right? And it’s food. So it’s---”

“Just eat vegan food!” Eddie says. “I’m not over here eating dyed green bacon and calling it Romaine. What’s the point of this farce we’re being subjected to? Just eat your vegan flatbread. God knows what’s in that fake cheese bullshit. It can’t be good for you.”

“It’s usually nuts, I think,” Peter says, helpfully. “Like cashew nut milk?”

“Sweet suffering mother of God,” Wade says, visibly cringing. “Please never say ‘nut milk’ again, Petey, Jesus Christ.”

“What’s wrong with nut milk?” Miles asks, wide-eyed. “Wait, is flatbread even vegan?”

“Mmm,” Peter Quill says, entirely too throaty for such a public venue, “nut milk. Sweet, creamy nut milk”

“See,” Eddie says, “this is exactly why I don’t want it on my pizza.”

 

- -

 

The game is fine. The game is weird. There’s a whole contingent of fans who show up wearing his old Mets jersey, and he signs for them until Thor literally hauls him away. Jones is the starter, which means Dernier will probably close, so Clint settles in to wait out the game in the bullpen.

He’s not even involved, is the thing. He’s not even out there. So it’s just weird that the whole game seems to simmer with a tension he doesn’t understand.

“Oh, yeah,” Frank says, when Clint mentions it. “That’s a mystery.”

“We’ll crack it, Scooby Doo,” Quill says.

“We’ll crack them,” Eddie grumbles.

That’s the first indication that maybe the rest of the Dodgers have forgotten they’re supposed to hate the Giants and the Yankees the most. The second indication is the way Bucky starts running off at the mouth the second Rumlow comes up to bat.

The third sign is when Rumlow nails Bucky in the side midway through the fourth, and Sitwell pulls him while Bucky lopes over to first base, mouth still running the whole damn way.

“So he’s not,” Clint says, staring open-mouthed. “He’s not being super chill about this.”

“Nah,” Quill says. “I wouldn’t use that terminology.”

“Are we gonna fight?” Eddie asks. “Should I start stretching?”

Frank tips forward so he can get a full view of Eddie. “What the fuck kinda acrobatic brawling are you gonna do that you need to stretch first?”

“There’s not gonna be a fight,” Clint says. “Jesus, everybody calm down.”

 

- -

 

The fight happens during game two. It’s a strange day for Clint. He does some PR beforehand, a little mini-interview with Rumlow and a nice blonde lady who has very white teeth. It’s supposed to be fun, Clint thinks. Like this is some kind of happy reunion.

But all Clint can think, when he looks at Rumlow, is that Rumlow paid money to ruin Clint’s life. And Clint’s life wasn’t even the point. He just wanted him out of the way. Rumlow, who’s a millionaire, knew Mikey had a sick kid, and he paid him a few thousand dollars to get Clint traded. A millionaire, and he paid him a few thousand.

“You know,” Clint says, when the PR lady steps away to check angles or lighting or something, “you’re a real son of a bitch.”

Rumlow looks surprised and then amused, grins at him like he’s a dog who did something cute. “You go to California and get mouthy, Clint? Good for you.”

“I talked to Mike,” Clint says.

Rumlow gives him a look like he couldn’t possibly be more bored. “And?”

“You had to do that? You couldn’t just outplay me?” And Clint’s nature doesn’t incline toward twisting the knife, but he’s learned, from Rumlow, what to do when he has one in his hands. “Does it bother you that you couldn’t earn this? You couldn’t do it, so you had to cheat?”

Rumlow’s whole face clouds over, sudden and hateful. Clint remembers that look. It used to scare him. “I’ve been outplaying you,” he says, low, mean. “I’ve been outplaying you, and I’ve known what you are for years. And I just kept waiting for everybody to figure it out. But nobody could see it, and nobody wanted to talk about it, and then one of your fuckups got desperate.”

Clint feels his hands curl into fists. “Watch your fucking mouth. Don’t talk about him like that.”

“Um, gentlemen,” the PR lady says, with a sticky, deer-in-headlights sort of smile, “I think we’re ready to get back to it?”

“Great,” Rumlow says, with an equally plastic smile. “Let’s get this over with. I think I’m about done catching up.”

But they aren’t, apparently, because Rumlow damn near brains Peter Parker in the third, right in front of his hometown crowd, in front of his aunt and old classmates. And the whole stadium howls, the dugout damn near clears, but Sitwell keeps Rumlow in anyway.

And then Coulson pulls Falsworth early and sends out Frank, who stomps to the mound in that exact no more bullshit stomp that Clint’s learned to respect, and Clint watches him and Bucky bulldoze their way through the Mets’ batting lineup until Rumlow steps up to bat.

Sitwell should’ve pulled him. Clint knows that. Damn near the whole stadium knows that.

Sitwell should’ve pulled him, but Sitwell likes to think these sorts of things teach lessons.

Frank drills Rumlow with a fastball right to the fucking ribs, and Rumlow charges the mound with his bat still in his hands, and Frank goes for him anyway, like he’s doesn’t give a damn about Rumlow and his bat. Bucky, mask off, glove tossed, tackles Rumlow around the waist and drags him to the ground.

The bench clears. Every player on both teams crowds the field.

It’s a fucking madhouse. Clint can see old teammates and new teammates crashing into each other, shouting, wrestling. Phil Coulson and Jasper Sitwell are yelling at each other. The umpires, outnumbered and unprepared, are trying to enforce order.

The crowd, for their part, appear to be having the best night of their lives.

It takes several long minutes to get the teams pulled apart. In the end, Rumlow and Frank are both ejected from the game.

The Dodgers win, 5-4, and tie the series.

 

- -

 

Clint meets Natasha for dinner, and Frank comes along because he’s more or less family at this point, and Bucky comes along because she wants to meet him, and Eddie comes along because he wants to meet her, and Steve comes along because he says he’s going to feel left out otherwise.

“Interesting game,” she says, when they troop in to the restaurant. “Always nice to see the Mets lose these days.”

“Hey, Nat,” Clint says. “You know Frank. That’s Bucky, Eddie, and Steve.”

“Hi,” Bucky says, as he settles into a chair next to Clint. He has a bruise on the side of his face and suspiciously scabbed-up knuckles for a man who allegedly didn’t throw any punches.

“Ma’am,” Steve says. He’s bruise-free, fresh-faced. You’d never guess that, a couple of hours ago, he physically lifted a Mets infielder off his feet and shook him like an Etch-a-Sketch.

“Hey, um.” Eddie blinks twice in rapid succession, seems to viscerally yearn for a hoodie string to chew on. “Hi.”

“Hello, Natasha,” Frank says. He has a busted lip. There’s not even an ounce of apology in him.

“You boys planning to start any other brawls while you’re in town?” she asks. “I brought my brass knuckles.”

“Maybe,” Frank says, with the careless shrug of a man who’s looking at a four to six game suspension and choosing to consider it a midseason vacation.

“Well,” Natasha says, with a snake-like smile that makes Eddie audibly choke, “it’s a good thing that little outfielder dodged Rumlow’s bullshit. I was sitting next to his aunt. She was about to storm the field.”

“Oh, May?” Eddie grimaces. “God, that would’ve been a bloodbath.”

“I know,” Nat says. “I was looking forward to it.”

The waitress comes by to hand out menus and then again to take their orders, and they have a perfectly nice meal together, all six of them. The conversation meanders from baseball to ballet to stretches to nutrition plans to how much of an asshole Brock Rumlow really is. Nat and Bucky put their heads together on that last point, really work into a fervor that makes Clint vaguely nervous about the prospect of future subpoenas.

Eddie asks a single question – very polite, clearly carefully worded to indicate he possesses only a totally normal, completely pedestrian amount of knowledge on the subject – about the American Ballet Theatre’s spring season, and Nat’s eyes zero in on him like a lioness detecting movement in the tall grass. Eddie looks simultaneously flattered and terrified by the attention, but he seems to calm down after about three minutes of rapid fire back-and-forth.

Clint uses their conversation as cover to open negotiations with Bucky about which dessert they’re ordering. They have, over the past couple of months, developed a habit of splitting dessert, because then, somehow, neither one of them is culpable for breaking their nutrition plan.

They picked up the habit from Quill and Wade, so he doesn’t think it’s weird. Not any weirder than what passes for normal on this admittedly very bizarre team.

When the strawberry cheesecake arrives with two forks, Nat gives Clint a look like she’s going to be texting him about this later.

But Clint doesn’t care, not really. Because he’s in New York, and he’s with the wrong team, sure, but it’s the better team. And his new friends are getting along with his best friend like they make sense together, like everybody fits, like no part of him has to be reformed or broken apart.

They beat the Mets today. Tomorrow, they have to do it again. And then there’s the rest of the season, probably the postseason, and Clint can look at that future without flinching, isn’t scared about any of it.

 

- -

 

Clint’s one strikeout away from ending game three. Citi Field is screaming, and his shoulder is starting to tighten up, tendons feeling brittle and muscles over-stretched. He’s been pitching since Coulson pulled Steve midway through the sixth, and the Mets are mad, scrappy and shifty and playing like this is the World Series instead of a midseason game.

The Dodgers are up by one, and the Mets have been throwing pinch hitters at him the whole damn inning. There’s two of them, right now, on third and first.

Frank’s not here. Dernier closed two nights in a row, and he’s resting.

Coulson could put Eddie in. Falsworth, maybe. Jones. But they’re stamina guys. They don’t have Clint’s precision. He’s learned to value that precision at moments like this, when they need to hold the line until it’s over.

Clint throws, and the batter swings, and the bat connects.

Foul, though. Damn near assassinates a lady in the stands.

Clint reaches up to run his hand through his hair, wipes sweat off his forehead. Bucky jogs up to the mound, and there’s no reason for it to feel like a betrayal, but it does anyway.

“I can do this,” he says. Because he can. Because it’s the last inning, maybe the last two pitches, and Clint’s shoulder is tired but it doesn’t hurt yet.

It’s the Mets. And they didn’t keep him. They chose not to keep him, and he wants that to cost them something.

“Hell yeah, you can,” Bucky says. “I know you can. Just making sure you do.”

Clint swallows, sits a little easier in his skin. “I can do it in three,” he says.

Bucky grins, kinda sharp. Clint can see that bruise on the side of his face. Bucky knocks his glove against Clint’s shoulder and then jogs toward the plate. “You can do it in two,” he calls back.

Two pitches later, the game’s over. The Dodgers win.

He runs to Bucky, and he’s not sure what he’s going to do, not even sure why he’s running in the first place, but Bucky grabs him and swings him full off his feet, spins him around and laughs like they’ve just won something that matters.

He’s beautiful, and he’s perfect, and, when the whole of Citi Field is just a blur of lights in Clint’s peripheral vision, Clint looks down at Bucky, and he damn near kisses him.

 

- -

 

On the plane ride home, Clint walks right past his normal aisle seat next to Bucky and takes sanctuary in the empty window seat beside Frank, who immediately slouches into place, forming a barrier of surliness between Clint and the world. Clint slumps low in his seat, knees up against the seatback in front of him. He slides so low that he almost can’t see Bucky twisting around to look for him.

Frank glances between the two of them, but he doesn’t say anything. He just puts on his headphones and takes out his book, and Clint stays curled up until they reach cruising altitude.

He’d been so close – so unbelievably, recklessly close – to just full-on kissing Bucky on the mouth in front of the entire world. And he can’t even really blame himself, because it’s Bucky Barnes.

Bucky, who has four Golden Gloves and two Silver Sluggers, who makes framing pitches and sniping base stealers look absolutely effortless. Bucky, who reads batters like they’ve got all their weaknesses tattooed on the back of their necks.

The problem is that he’s beautiful, and he’s consistently a hell of a lot kinder than he needs to be, and he’s just really, really fucking good at baseball.

Clint makes a low, miserable noise and headbutts the side of the plane. It doesn’t help, but it gives him something else to think about for a couple seconds.

Beside him, Frank tugs his headphones down to his neck and leans toward him. “What the hell is going on in your head?”

Clint thinks about himself, and he thinks about Bucky, and he thinks about how, the last time he tried fooling around with a teammate, it eventually got him thrown off the team. “A goddamn disaster,” he says.

Frank searches his face. “If you wanna talk about it---”

“No,” Clint says. He hunches in tighter, tries to flatten himself into the plane.

“If it was something one of those fucking Mets said--”

“No,” Clint says. “It’s nothing, Frank. It’s just me.”

Frank doesn’t seem to like that answer very much, but he doesn’t argue about it. “Okay,” he says. He puts his headphones back on and then knocks his shoulder against Clint’s. “It’s gonna be fine, Barton. Whatever the hell it is.”

Clint breathes out, watches his breath fog up the window. He’ll find some way to make it fine. He will. He always does.

 

- -

 

The team lands late, and Clint uses every single ounce of misdirection and subterfuge he ever learned from Natasha to make it to Frank’s truck without ever once being within ten feet of Bucky Barnes. Frank doesn’t say anything, but he keeps shooting Clint looks the whole ride home. When they pull into the driveway, he takes a breath. “Are you sure you don’t--”

“Fine, thanks,” Clint says, bailing out of the truck with unusual haste. “Hey, tell Maria I said hi, but it’s kinda late, and I think I’m just gonna head to bed now. Thanks for the ride. See you tomorrow.”

“Jesus Christ,” Frank calls after him, “you don’t have to literally run away from me.”

“Jogging’s good for you,” Clint says, really scraping the barrel on his improv skills, and so then he has to jog all the way to the guesthouse, just to keep up appearances.

He drops his bag on the floor, throws himself on the couch, and weathers the inevitable outpouring of cheerful affection from Lucky. All he has to do, he thinks, is stay calm, come up with a plan, and not let a single person know how much trouble he’s in.

He unceremoniously trashes all three points of the plan when, after pacing the guesthouse for two hours, he texts Tony: How long do I have to keep the crises to a minimum?

There’s several minutes of radio silence, which is the longest it’s ever taken Tony to text him back. Well, it’s been almost a week. I guess you’re due.

“Great,” Clint says, out loud, to no one, and then he gets into his car and drives to Tony’s house.

It doesn’t occur to him that this is weird until he’s trying to negotiate with Tony’s robot butler to get past the gate. “No, I’m not expected or anything,” he says, to the speaker. “I’m just, like. I’m just trying not to break the Dodgers? Or me. I’m also trying not to break me, which I actually think is a pretty big step for me, over all, because I don’t always prioritize---”

“Oh my God.” Through the speakers, Tony’s sounds flummoxed but very alert for almost two in the morning. “Just get to the house before you try to confess your sins to a topiary.”

“Okay, yeah, thanks,” Clint says, and he drives up.

He leaves his car tucked neatly to one side of Tony’s sprawling driveway, and he hustles up the stairs to Tony’s doorstep, terrified that, if he loses his momentum, he’s going to get right back into the car and drive until he runs out of gas somewhere in an especially desolate part of Arizona.

“Hey,” he says, when the door swings open. Tony’s wearing what appears to be a robe of some kind. That’s not weird, though, because it’s Tony Stark. Of course he’s wearing a robe. It’s after midnight. “So the thing is this is kind of your fault, because you put that thing about Bucky in my head, and now I’m worried I’m gonna tongue-kiss him on national TV and ruin everything. And I just got this team, and I really like it, and I want to keep it, but also I’m not, like, world famous for my self-control, so we’re kind of running on a clock that only ticks down at this point.”

Tony blinks at him. After a long moment, he nods. “Sure, okay. You wanna talk about this? We can talk about this.” He steps back to let Clint into his house. “Let me put some pants on. Steve, where did I leave my pants?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Steve says. Steve Rogers. Steve Rogers, who is currently standing bare-chested in the foyer. “The piano?”

Tony snaps his fingers and then points at Steve. “The piano,” he says. “Definitely. I’ll be back.”

“I need to stop eating plane food,” Clint announces. “People keep giving me the wrong mushrooms.”

Steve kind of frowns at him. Those sweatpants of his are awfully tight. Clint desperately redirects his eyes to the ceiling. “You doing okay there, Barton? You’re looking a little shakey.”

“Oh, no, I’m just hallucinating that you’re here,” Clint tells him. “You’re here, half-naked, at Tony Stark’s house.”

Steve clears his throat. “That’s what it looks like, yeah.”

“And so,” Clint continues, because Steve really doesn’t seem to be following, “that can’t be real, because then you’d—and you two—oh, son of a bitch, you’ve been fucking this whole time.” He drops his eyes back to Steve’s face, so he can properly direct his accusatory glare.

Steve’s apologetic smile doesn’t seem nearly apologetic enough, given the circumstances. “We, uh. Little bit,” he says. “Yeah.”

“Your anniversary?” Clint says, flashing back to Milwaukee. “With the champagne? I ruined your--”

“Hey,” Steve says, “you didn’t ruin anything.”

“Oh my God, and I said that thing about blowing him. I said a thing about blowing Steve Rogers’ boyfriend.” Clint runs a hand down his face, feels distinctly like a possum who’s just bumbled his peaceful way out of a dumpster and into the direct path of a Panzer. “Wait, are you boyfriends? Is this casual? Are you hooking up with Tony Stark?”

“Out of curiosity,” Tony says, as he wanders into view, “do you think I bring champagne to celebrate all of my hookup anniversaries, or do you think Steve earned that treatment based on merit? By the way, darling, those are actually my pants.”

Which would explain why the pants Tony’s wearing have been rolled up at least twice at the ankle and are clinging to his hips through the remarkable, stalwart courage of a single drawstring.

“Oh, no wonder I’m losing feeling in my toes,” Steve says, looking down at the sweats he’s in. “I think I could shred these by taking a deep breath.”

“Not right now,” Tony says. “We’ll try that later.”

“But how,” Clint says, “and why and who even---”

“Is ‘why’ a real question you want to ask?” Tony gestures at Steve, who still hasn’t bothered to find a shirt. “Not a visual learner, Barton? I’m surprised.”

Clint feels like his brain is going to explode out of his eyes. “I, um. I think I need to sit down.”

“Please,” Tony gestures him deeper into the house. “Come on in. Do you want something to drink? Whiskey, tea? Whiskey in tea?”

Clint runs a hand through his hair. “Maybe, like. A hammer to the temple?”

“Jesus, Barton.” Steve puts his hands on his hips. “What’s this about?”

Clint shakes his head and doesn’t say anything until he’s sitting on Tony’s very fashionable couch, with a tumbler of whiskey in his hand. “So, like.” He gestures with the glass, points at Tony and then at Steve. “How long has this been a thing?”

“That’s a point of contention,” Tony says.

Clint frowns. “It’s—what?”

“Yeah, we don’t need to go into all of that,” Steve says. “We’ll go with somewhere between four years and eighteen months.”

Clint’s longest almost-relationship lasted for four weeks. He has no idea what the hell he’s doing. He has no idea how to even ask for what he wants. Which is probably because he has no idea what the hell he wants.

Mostly he’s just not used to thinking of what he wants in terms of it actually being something he might be able to have.

“And so, you.” Clint fidgets, takes a drink to cover the silence. “Never wanted to go public? I mean. It’s none of my business, but.”

Steve makes a face that looks a lot like guilt.

“No, shit,” Clint says. “I wasn’t saying you should. Fuck’s sake, if anyone knows why you shouldn’t, it’s me. But I just--”

“I’ve thought about it,” Steve says. “I’m going to. I thought about it, right after what happened to you. But by that time---”

“By that time,” Tony says, and he points at himself. “Bit of an ethical quandary, I’m told.”

Clint kicks that around in his head, tries to figure it out. He doesn’t get it, and he can’t see it, and then he thinks about Alexander Pierce, all those months ago, telling him to leave the room. And he thinks about what it would’ve been like, if he’d told everyone else to leave instead, if Clint had been alone in that conference room, desperate and panicked, with Alexander Pierce as the heavy, indifferent sun anchoring his entire galaxy.

“Oh, God,” he says, and nearly spits his whiskey on the floor.

“Okay,” Tony says. “Hurtful. But fair. I guess?”

“No, I just.” Clint waves that off, nearly spills more whiskey in the process. “Sorry, I was thinking about Pierce. Like, if he---”

Did he?” Tony asks, and he’s a guy in a robe, wearing sweatpants that’ve been rolled up at the ankles, but there’s something about how he says it, something about the sudden intensity of his focus, that makes Clint remember this is Tony Stark, billionaire, genius, industrialist, who has reformed the world once already and seems prepared, always, to do it again.

“What? No. I was just—it was a hypothetical, in my head.” Clint waves toward his forehead, just in case anyone in the room is still unclear as to what hypothetical means.

“Good.” Tony looks over at Steve, and they share a strange, indecipherable look. “So you understand, then? Why we’re in a bit of a holding pattern?”

Clint nods. He gets it, maybe. He gets why it would be sticky. He knows what people would say about Tony, about Steve.

“I keep telling him,” Steve says, “to just have Pepper trade me to the Angels, but--”

No,” Clint says.

“Absolutely not,” Tony says, at the same time.

“The Angels,” Clint repeats. “Why would you ever—don’t say that.”

“Exactly. Exactly. Thank you, Barton.”

Clint breathes out, takes a drink to steady his nerves. “God. And I thought I was going to break the Dodgers.”

Tony makes a sharp, inquisitive noise. “Excuse me? Break the Dodgers?”

“Not, like. Permanently. I think.” Clint sighs. It would probably be a lot easier to say this if Steve Rogers wasn’t standing in the room. But, then again, if anyone’s going to understand the complexities at hand, it’s probably these two. “I just, uh. Do you really think Bucky’s interested? In me?”

Steve and Tony exchange another one of those unreadable looks. After a moment, Tony scoffs. “Well, I wasn’t sworn to secrecy by some kind of ridiculous bro code.” He turns back toward Clint. “Barton, I cannot stress enough how interested Bucky is. Trust me, you are clear for approach. I would consider it a great personal favor if you would make some kind of move, so I don’t have to deal with Bucky Barnes pining on my porch four nights a week.”

“Tony,” Steve says. “I really don’t think--”

“Pining is great,” Tony says. “Very romantic, very Victorian. I’ve been thinking about installing some windy moors so he can traipse, heart-stung, across them. But I would really appreciate it if the two of you could orchestrate some alone time so we can have our own alone time, you know?”

“Just, like.” Steve waves his hands. “A bit of tact, maybe. I dunno. Just maybe--”

“Your pants were on the piano,” Tony says. “These are dire fucking straits, Rogers.”

“Doesn’t sound super straight to me,” Clint mumbles, because he actually cannot contain himself.

Tony raises his glass to him from across the room “Yeah, well, unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of fucking, either.”

“Cheers,” Clint says, on reflex.

“Okay,” Steve says, and he claps his hands together, exactly like they’re at practice and he wants Quill and Wade to stop goofing around. “Clint, I swore an oath, so I can neither confirm nor deny that Bucky’s been talking about you since day one of spring training, and I certainly can’t comment on whether or not he spends his free time starting fights with internet trolls to defend your honor, but I can say, just in general, that maybe you won’t have to work too hard to seal the deal here.”

Clint blinks and then blinks again. “Does he really go on the internet and--”

“I already said,” Steve says, “that I can’t comment on that.”

“Okay, but.” Clint knocks his whole drink back, lets the bite of the whiskey dislodge the fears that’ve been crowding in the back of his throat all night. “What if I don’t know how to date anyone? What if I’ve never actually—what if I’m real shitty at it?”

Steve’s face softens. “Barton, I’ve seen how hard you work when you want something to go right. I’m really not worried about it.”

“And if you need a little coaching,” Tony says, gesturing between him and Steve, “we’re doing really great, so. Could probably help you out.”

Steve looks over at Tony, and, this time, Clint can read exactly what they’re saying to each other.

“Jesus,” he says, rocketing to his feet. “I’m going, I’m going. Give me five seconds to clear the building, oh my God.”

“Sure,” Tony says. He sets his tumbler down on the mantel behind him. “Five,” he says. “Four.”

“Fuck’s sake,” Clint says, and he leaves his tumbler on the coffee table, doesn’t even offer to take it to the sink. “Thanks!” he calls, over his shoulder, as he vaults over the couch. “Goodnight!”

“Goodnight,” they chorus back. And Clint doesn’t look, knows better, but they sure as hell sound like they’ve gotten a lot closer than they were two seconds ago.

 

- -

 

Clint doesn’t go directly to Bucky’s place. It’s the middle of the night, and he thinks the urgency of the gesture might get lost in the bleary half-light of not-even-dawn. So he goes home, sleeps for three hours, and then sneaks out exactly two minutes after Frank leaves on his early morning jog. He waves as he passes him, and Frank waves back and makes a sort of what the fuck are you doing? gesture that Clint really hopes isn’t prophetic.

He’s not a lunatic. He gets coffee. For him and for Bucky, and he dutifully carries both up to Bucky’s doorstep.

It’s not until after he knocks that he realizes maybe 6:00am is kind of a weird time to be knocking on anyone’s door.

He stands on the doorstep for long enough that he starts to mentally debate if it’s weirder to leave the coffee by Bucky’s welcome mat or take it home and try to pass it off like it’s for Frank. Except Frank’s not going to drink anything with this much sugar in it, and so then how’s he going to explain why he even has it?

At the exact moment that he decides he’s just going to have to shotgun all forty ounces of coffee on the ride home and pray to God he doesn’t levitate off the mortal plane, Bucky pulls his door open.

He’s wearing basketball shorts and a Dodgers hoodie. His hair is an absolute, irredeemable mess. He is, right now, while Clint’s watching, finger-combing the long strands back out of his face. He’s so fucking gorgeous that Clint cannot remember who he is or what he’s doing here.

“Clint?” Bucky asks. Sunrise really does wonderful things for him. God, Clint wants to see this every day.

“I brought you coffee,” Clint says. He holds it out, catastrophically misjudges the distance, ends up with his knuckles pressed right into Bucky’s chest.

“Oh.” Bucky takes the cup out of his hand. “Thanks.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, “and, also, I think I’m in love with you.”

Bucky, who had the coffee cup halfway to his mouth, slowly lowers it. He stares owl-eyed at Clint.

“I’m sorry,” Clint says. “I tried not to. It’s just you’re really—you make it really difficult. You know? Not to be in love with you. I don’t know how the whole team hasn’t tried to date you yet. I don’t understand how you have neighbors. I mean, you go to the grocery store, right? And people don’t try to pick you up? I don’t get it. You’re so—Bucky, you’re just—you gotta be so perfect all the time? I’m trying to fucking live. Could you just---”

Bucky kisses him. Right on the mouth. Just kisses him, like it’s the easiest thing in the world.

Clint tosses his coffee into Bucky’s hydrangeas and backs him up into his house. “Sorry,” he says, after he’s kicked the door shut and pressed him up against the wall, chest to chest, mouth hovering over Bucky’s, “I wasn’t ready. Can I try that again?”

Bucky’s staring at his mouth. “Yeah,” he says. “Go ahead.”

Clint kisses him.

Bucky tastes overwhelmingly of toothpaste, but he kisses him like he read the manual – like he wrote the manual – on how to melt Clint Barton’s brain before noon. He’s all soft, teasing pressure and a big, warm hand wrapping around Clint’s hip, tugging him closer. He makes a quiet, eager noise when Clint licks into his mouth, and, when Clint reaches up to push Bucky’s hair back out of the way, every square centimeter of his skin shivers awake at the slow scrape of stubble against the palm of his hand.

When he pulls back, he’s out of breath. Bucky blinks his eyes open, looks flatteringly dazed. “Hey,” Clint says, “can I take you out sometime?”

“Sure, yeah, definitely,” Bucky says. “But maybe we stay in this morning.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, grinning, eyes stuck on the shape of Bucky’s mouth, that sleepy, pleased smile. “Maybe we do.”