“Smart money’s on Shepard,” he says, grinning like something manic. “Smart money’s always been on Shepard.” Kaidan’s laughing around the words, around the taste of bile in the back of his throat, around the blood in his mouth.
The first time he goes to the circus he’s just a kid. There’s scrapes on his knees and his knuckles and a stubborn trail of snot dripping from his little, red nose. The circus is an adventure, even when he’s flanked by his parents, his mother keeping a firm grip on his sticky hand the whole way through the show.
He’s too young to see much. Too young to see the important stuff. There’s stars in his eyes and a grin on his face and he misses everything that matters.
The ribs that protrude through the lion’s matted fur and the way the performers’ make up is caked on so thick it bleeds under the spotlights. The roustabouts scurrying around in the background, skinny enough that they’d remind him of Steve, but scruffier.
It’s only when he goes back later, half a man and half a fight waiting to happen, that he sees it all. And the big top isn’t a fabric castle any more, the lights are too bright and the smiles are too thin and he can smell the desperation in the air.
He’d leave if he hadn’t paid good money for his ticket in, the small piece of paper tucked deep into one of his pockets.
But the lights are dimming, and this is something new, something that wasn’t there the last time. The spotlights flood the face of a kid, no maybe around his own age, with a light in his eyes that Bucky hasn’t seen in any of the other performers.
Ladies and gentlemen, the world’s greatest marksman, Hawkeye!
And Bucky’s laughing because the kid is laughing while he’s performing, an easy grace to every single movement, and Bucky’s on the edge of his seat craning for a better look and his heart’s in his mouth for a moment when it looks like Hawkeye is going to take a dagger to the throat right in the middle of his act.
And when the crowd stands and claps, he stands along with them, eyes locked on the rise and fall of the archer’s chest and then on his eyes, full of danger and challenge and something untarnished by the rot that’s bone deep in all the other performers.
I have an army.
We have a biotic.
Saving the world didn’t come with a warning label or a set of terms and conditions, but sometimes he wished that it had. Sometimes he wished more than anything that it had.
(You can fight a battle anywhere if the mood strikes you. Waging wars against the monsters you create for yourself, against the monsters the world creates for you.)
He’d never been the fighting type, no matter what Shepard said, smiling for the crowds.
We’re heroes now, Alenko. That means something. Means we have to set an example.
Killing skrulls was easy. Killing enemies had always been easy. Being a hero was hard.
(You’re a weapon, when it comes down to it. The woman who loves you is one too, when she wants to be. She’s hard and soft edges and she handles the fame like she handles everything else. The chip on her shoulder weighs her down. Weighs you down too.)
They shared a horse most days, taking a fresh one from whatever backwards ramshackle town they came across next. Folks didn’t seem to pay much mind to what horses you took after you had shot up half the people in the bank.
They shared a horse most days, her sitting forwards on the saddle, calloused hands clasped around the reins and his hands around her hips, one finger always drumming a pattern on the bone, the fingers of his other hand stroking the handle of her favourite revolver. Sometimes she’s not sure what he loves best about her.
Most days she wakes up with dust in her mouth, dust in her eyes. From dust to dust, ashes to ashes. It was all in good fun, Father. It was all in good fun while it lasted.
He’s her partner in crime and he only smiles for her. She’s only half in love with him, truth be told. She’s in love with his hands and the steady set of his jaw and the way he kisses her like she’ll be the last woman he ever kisses, stolen gold heavy in her pockets.
She reads to him when they sit around a campfire at night, the words hanging hot and heavy in the air between them. Her favourite poems and her favourite bible verses and she catches his laughter with her slender fingers and keeps it somewhere safe in her chest for when the memories of dead men catch her lying down.
They’re the most wanted in the wild west and they’re having the time of their lives.
There’s ice on the windows, frosting up the panes of glass on the inside and out. Clint presses a hand to the glass, flinching at the cold for the briefest second, the blood in his veins still warm enough to melt the layer of frost. When he takes his hand away, there’s a print left on the glass. The snow hasn’t stopped for days, soft flakes brushing against the windowpane, so close Clint could almost reach out, catch them on his tongue. Lay there under the snow for a while and see how long it would take for the white to bury him.
He’s sick of being stuck inside.
Bucky’s watching him. Quietly, for once. Though Bucky’s been quieter since the snow started, like it’s blanketing his thoughts the same way it’s blanketing the landscape just beyond that glass pane. Clint doesn’t have much stock in god, but he sends thanks to whatever’s out there for small mercies. If one thing could have made this situation worse, it would be Bucky crawling up the walls too. Clint’s got the angry pacing situation covered, he doesn’t need someone else muscling in on his territory.
“How many days has it been?” Clint asks, his voice a little hoarse from disuse. He looks at Bucky, though Bucky doesn’t look back, he’s watching the hand print on the window slowly frost over again.
“Five since the snow started, three since we got stuck in here,” he answers, wondering just how much longer Clint could handle being stuck with nothing to do but pace and look angry. He’s more surprised than anything else that they haven’t fought yet, nothing beyond a few punches to the head when Bucky suggested they share one sleeping bag to conserve heat, right after the boiler had given out on them both. There had been elbows to the ribs and kicked shins in the dark too, but neither man blamed the other much for that. They never had been good at chasing the nightmares away.
“If you licked your metal arm would your tongue get stuck to it?” Clint asks, never tearing his eyes away for a second, his mouth curving into something dangerous.
Bucky laughs for the first time since they got here, a booming thing even against the noise of the blizzard outside.
“I don’t know. Wanna give it a try?”
If it’s one thing he wasn’t prepared for, it was the insecurities. He supposed it was his own fault really, put a girl up on a pedestal for long enough and anything they did could surprise you. He’d spent so long looking at her as only a target, scanning for weaknesses in the way she moved; the way she swayed her hips when she was looking for a target in a crowd, the way her lips twitched and her eyebrows came crashing together when she fired a gun, the way her eyes lit up ever so slightly when she slipped whatever guise she was wearing for a mission.
They’re three drinks in and he’s trailing already, hiding a smile behind the rim of his glass, trying not to let them see his grin. He hasn’t stopped smiling since Vladivostok, since the blood on the snow, since he found Natasha bundled up in the cold and James locked away in an underground cellar.
A deep cover mission in Russia that should have taken a few weeks, turned into three months. Clint had spent one and a half of them looking for them. Two of SHEILD’s top field operatives missing in action? It was a top level priority. No one commented on why he was the one assigned to retrieving them, but maybe Fury did have a heart after all.
They’re three drinks in and Natasha’s draining her third glass, ice clinking against her teeth and something like warmth in her eyes. Her cheeks have a flush to them that’s half liquor and half laughter. Bucky’s nursing a broken arm and a metal arm and keeps threatening to hit Clint right in his stupid smile for worrying so goddamn much about the pair of them.
Like Bucky’s threats have ever worked before.